Friday, November 2, 2007

Life Intrudes...

Just when it seems like the runway is straight and the sky is free of clouds, the demands of 'normal' life bring all planes and projects to a screeching halt. I headed into October grandly thinking 'I'll just wrap up the revisions on the Lucy book and then probably have some time left over for Summer On Lake Tulaby', only to find out that every single day seemed to be crowded with distractions. Not only were there a rather unusual number of work-related responsibilities (including a talk to be given to the residents on Post-Concussion Syndrome and a five-day trip to Colorado Springs for the Association of State and Provicincial Psychology Boards, not to mention a-million- and-one patients on my schedule), but also lots going on in family life (kids busy with sports and music lessons, a major school dance and a Pay-It-Forward trip to Chicago, as well as preparations for our traditional Spooky Halloween dinner). Suffice to say, it was always easier to find something else that needed to be done aside from rewriting books I've already written!

So now it's November and I'm finally working on the revisions on the Lucy book. For the first time, I find myself hoping not to get emails from my editor or agent; lucky for me, 'next week' in the publishing industry seems to translate in reality to 'sometime in the next couple months.'

I did receive notice that my first royalties check for The Other Sister is on the way, so I'm thinking a new laptop is in my future. Life is good.

Monday, October 1, 2007

Notes from the Trenches

Good writing news and bad writing news:
1)The good news is that the 'soft' offer from Flux on my National Write A Novel In A Month manuscript turned into a concrete offer (complete with an advance!), so look for another S.T. Underdahl book next fall! The book has no name yet; we simply refer to it as 'the Lucy book', since two of the main characters are named Lucy (which probably sounds like a bad idea, but read the book and you'll understand.)

2)Perhaps calling it 'bad' news is an overstatement, but the NYC agent (who, BTW, did the negotiations on the Lucy book contract), wants a few more changes on the Tulaby book. Nothing I can't live with, though, so it's back to work on that one. It's a learning curve, folks.

Other breaking news:
In 'real' life, my oldest is off to his first high school dance (the kind where you actually have to go out and buy special clothing!) and our youngest seems determined to be the youngest person ever to require full dentures; how many teeth is it normal to lose at once? All the in-betweeners are busy with cross country, Castaway weekends, drum lessons, skating, friends, iPods, Legos, and on and on and on. The days are endlessly rich and interesting, even in just our own little world.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

That's All She Wrote

Last night I finished rewriting Summer On Lake Tulaby, complete with a spankin' new main character, and sent it off to the NYC agent, accompanied by an implied threat on his life if he asks me to do a third rewrite. I'm completely spent after this major overhaul, and I really don't think I can do it again. I never thought I'd say this, but if this isn't what he's looking for I may have to realize that he and I don't have the same vision for the story. Ugh, I hope it doesn't come to that.

On the positive side, I have real interest from Flux in my National Write A Novel In A Month (another rewrite that is ongoing) so there's some movement in the right direction there. This whole writing thing has turned out to be more complicated than I ever imagined.

We just got back from a 'vacation' with our kids to the western part of North Dakota where we visited Medora and did all the Medora things (the Musical, the Pitchfork Fondue, a trail ride, etc.) We spent the end of the week in Williston where we attended the 11th Annual Krenz Pig Feed at the ranch of my sister and her husband. Over the past 11 years, it's grown from just a pig roast to include a catfish fry, a tiki bar, open mike night, a ring-toss competition, and much, much more. People bring tents and RV's; I think there were about 120 people there this year (75 of which seemed to be children with dirty faces carrying big sticks or pretend guns).
When we got home, I found myself in deep need of a) a shower, and b) another vacation.

Currently reading: Can't Wait to Get to Heaven by Fannie Flagg
Very quaint and enjoyable with some unexpected plot twists!

Monday, July 30, 2007

Be Careful What You Wish For...

Remember my last, dreamy post in mid-June where I was talking about how doing a rewrite made me feel "like a real writer at last"? Well, I'm ruing the day I ever uttered those fateful words.

I finished the rewrite for Summer On Lake Tulaby in a record-setting two weeks, thinking of pretty much nothing else in the time I wasn't at work or in family-related activities. When I finished it, I breathlessly turned it in to the agent, David F. He read it...and said that while I'd made the manusript "a million times better" in the rewrite, he still thought that the story needed to have a focus: one primary female character with whom the audience could 'connect'. Daringly, knowing he was hundreds of miles away in a nice, safe office in NYC, he proposed that I consider another rewrite, reducing the role of one of the existing male characters and writing in an entirely new character .

As I was wondering where I might locate a sword with which to commit hari kari, David managed to hook me by suggesting that the character be a psychologist like me. In the course of our discussion, the character reather quickly began to take shape in my mind and by the time I got off of the phone I'd actually forgotten about the disembowelment thing. It felt like maybe, just maybe, I could find the energy and the motivation to take on another rewrite of my 376 page novel.

As fate would have it, around the same time Andrew Karre from Flux (my publisher for The Other Sister) read my National Write A Novel In A Month manuscript and said that he thought it could make a very nice YA novel. This comment was a little surprising to me since I thought it already WAS a very nice YA novel. But no... Andrew felt it read more like a middle grade novel, or, worse, an "old fashioned YA novel." Unfortunately, this kind of made sense: I admitted to Andrew that the last YA novels I read were published somewhere during the 70's.

Shaking his head, I'm sure, Andrew gave me a reading list of contemporary YA novels, all of which I immediately read, and I have to say that I could immediately see his point. My characters needed to be smarter and edgier, maybe even to swear or make out a little (much more than that went on in the books Andrew suggested I read, but I'm not willing to go THAT far!)

So here I am, working on two complete rewrites simultaneously. It feels very much like unraveling and re-knitting two very complicated sweaters; I feel like I'm tangled in words, reforming a collar into to a sleeve or moving a back to a front, and trying to weave in entirely new elements to boot. Prior to this, the most complicated thing I've ever knitted was a stocking cap shaped like a Christmas tree,... I'm not sure whether either product will be wearable in the end, but I'm hoping so! Stay tuned; in the next installment I may have abandoned writing entirely and taken up bricklaying.

Sunday, June 10, 2007


Up until now I've felt kind of like a psychologist who just stumbled into this writing thing and has somehow gotten one lucky break after another (okay, the rejections don't feel that lucky, but the rest of it does.) I wrote a manuscript that was picked up by a publisher within a few months after its completion, the editing process turned out to be minimal and easy, and it's gotten great response and sold very well for a debut novel (from what I'm told). I've done book signings and events, even traveling to Boston. I've also written three other manuscripts with little difficulty, all of which are in various stages of 'play.' And still I feel like a 'dabbler.'

Now (through another series of fortuitous events), I've suddenly gotten strong interest in my Tulaby manuscript from a very important NYC-based literary agency, and they're even dangling potential buyers (BIG buyers) in front of me. The one thing they've requested is this: they want me to rewrite the Tulaby story to include a female protagonist, the argument being that 'in today's market', most buyers are women and stories are much more appealing to women if they have at least one strong, appealing female character.

It didn't take much thought (did I mention this was an important NYC-based agency?) to decide to go ahead and attempt to rewrite the 350 page manuscript, which I did over the course of one frenzied week. The approach I took was to expand the role of one of the existing female characters, making her as important as the other three main characters, who are all men. In the course of doing so, I rewrote and tightened the rest of the story, and wrapped things up feeling pretty good about the end result.

I finished the rewrite on a Saturday night (I have no life) and on the following Monday, I emailed the (very important NYC-based) agent with whom I'd been communicating and told him what I'd done. His comment was, "Wow...are you sure Twyla is strong and appealing enough to carry the ball as the sole female protagonist?"

Instantly, devastating doubt and anguish set in. Sure I'd made Twyla's character stronger, but was she strong enough? And appealing...well, suffice to say that Twyla is a late-50's thrice-divorced bleached blonde from Boca Raton who's come to Lake Tulaby to try and steal her high school boyfriend from his wife. Although we do see a more human side of her emerge by the end of the story, she's probably not someone particularly admirable. So what to do?

Back to the drawing board, where I reworked and rewrote, reworked and rewrote, progressively feeling worse and worse about the manuscript. Perhaps because I was darting in and out of the story to adjust different elements, it began to seem like there was now too much going on, and it was impossible to imagine that the reader would be able to follow the original storyline.

Depressed, I finally emailed the agent. He calmly advised me to set the manuscript down, chill out over the weekend, and call him on Monday. He reminded me that there was no deadline, and told me that he was certain the manuscript was going to be very appealing to publishers. In short, he's dealt with intense, neurotic, freaking-out writers like me before.

And do you know what? That's what I finally feel like...a writer.

Friday, April 27, 2007

Challenger Elementary

I absolutely must write about an author visit I made to Challenger Elementary in Thief River Falls on Monday. It was my first experience with a school visit, so I didn't know what to expect, and went prepared with material as I always do for any public speaking engagement. After all, I thought, these are fourth and fifth graders; they won't have read the book.

Arriving at the school, however, I was completely surprised to be greeted by a huge sign proclaiming "Welcome, S.T. Underdahl!" In addition and even more remarkably, the walls were literally plastered with 50-60 posters, made by the children, each depicting events and emotions from "The Other Sister." "Did the kids actually read the book?" I asked in wonder. (It's a young adult novel, after all) "No," the world's best librarian, Jamie Bakken, replied. "I read it and told them what it was about." She must have done an amazing job of it, I thought, looking at all the dead-on interpretations the children had produced.

The visit with the children was equally mind-boggling; I never even got to touch the material I'd prepared on "How to Become a Writer," because each group kept me hopping for thirty high-intensity minutes, answer questions that ranged from "How long did it take you to write "The Other Sister?" to "Do you plan a sequel?" to "What other books have you written?" Of course there were a few of the "How many pets do you have and what are their names?" variety, which are equally fun, and a couple kids wanted to impress upon me how mean their siblings are to them. In the end, I came away terribly impressed by the intelligence, poise, and inquiring minds of 'kids these days.' I don't think I would have had the courage to ask a single question when I was ten or eleven years old, but I'm greatly cheered knowing how far we've come.

I feel like these promotional events are teaching me so many unexpected things about people, when as a psychologist I would have thought that I already knew a heck of a lot. Go figure.

So thanks, Challenger kids; you were an absolute treat and a revelation!

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Karma's a Funny, Funny Gal

Well, wouldn't you know it; after my last posting about the unfairness of being asked to list my favorite books, last night I ran across a posting where some wonderful young girl had included "The Other Sister" on a list of her favorite books. It was a lovely surprise, although my initial reaction was similar to the feeling I get when I occasionally and unexpectedly come across my own name in the newspaper obituaries...kind of a 'that couldn't REALLY be me, could it?' (The obituary thing happens a lot less often now that my last name is no longer just 'Thompson," but it never fails to give one pause!)

Friday's Author Panel at Fargo's Barnes & Noble was not exactly well-attended; there were eight authors playing to an audience of two people, one of whom was my aunt Coral. Basically we spent three hours visiting with each other and discussing our writing histories (in my case, it was a short speech!) I was lucky enough to be seated between Steve Grineski, MSUM and Peter Rennebohm, two regional authors I've never before had the opportunity to meet. Grineski is the author of Baby Dragons: The Story of Moorhead Campus School 1888-1972, easily the most popular book with visitors to Barnes & Noble that day. An MSU professor, Grineski also teaches at the Moorhead Area Learning Center, and tells me that the proceeds from Baby Dragons will go to fund a college scholarship for a student at the school. Steve's kind and gentle spirit reminded me very much of my uncle, the late Dr. Fran Ulschak.

Equally interesting was meeting Peter Rennebohm, a writer from Minneapolis who has penned two thrillers in French Creek and Blue Springs: A Suspense Novel, as well as the deeply moving Be Not Afraid: Ben Peyton's Story. Previously a business owner and salesman in the construction and contracting industry, it's clear that Peter is enjoying his 'second life' as a writer.
We talked about our mutual ties to the Minnesota Lake area; I've written a story that takes place on Lake Tulaby, near Waubun, and Peter is part owner of a duck-hunting camp in the same area.

In the end, new friends were made, conversations were enjoyed, and a few books were sold (mostly to each other). Overall, a success of an unexpected kind.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

These Are A Few (Hundred) Of My Favorite Things...

During a recent online interview, I was unexpectedly asked to list my 'Top Ten Books.' Believe me, the interview ground to a screeching halt at that point! Thinking back on it, I can imagine the interviewer tapping fingers impatiently on her keyboard, wanting desperately to wrap up the interview, as I painstakingly weighed and considered the various merits of all eighteen million books I've read during my lifetime. In the end, I was actually cheating; including entire bodies of work by certain authors under some numbers, while inserting subcategories such as "My Favorite Historical Fiction Books" under others. I really wanted to leave #10 open in sort of a 'yet-to-be-determined' fashion, but at the last moment I suddenly thought of a book that absolutely couldn't be left off the list, so I went with that and was left feeling stirred up and uneasy. In the time since, of course, I've been regretting all the books I forgot to mention... (Note to future interviewers: PLEASE DO NOT ASK ME THAT QUESTION!)

Right now I'm enjoying "Death of a Writer" by Michael Collins (2000 Booker Prize finalist); for some reason I can't stop myself from underlining passages that are particularly brilliant, so I guess I won't be lending it out to anyone with a low threshold for distraction. Besides being a talented and accomplished writer, MC is also an extreme athlete (this is actually a category of sportsman, not just my comment on his athleticism.) Good grief.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Musings on a Book Signing

I spent last Saturday afternoon from 12-3 signing "The Other Sister" at B.Dalton in Columbia Mall here in Grand Forks. The book signing was a delight; three hours passed in what felt like less than one! In the course of this, I saw many wonderful friends and also met alot of interesting new people.

It's fascinating to me how the subject matter of "The Other Sister" prompts people to share with me their own stories of the ways in which adoption has touched their family, and I always appreciate that.

One striking aspect of many of these family stories is the discretion (and oftentimes secretism) of earlier generations when it came to the sensitive subject of an illegitimate or surrendered child. In many of the stories I've heard, family members knew of the existence of the child, but no one spoke of it for forty or fifty years. Sometimes the 'child' grew up only a few miles away in a neighboring town, creating the potential for a chance meeting. One adoptee told me, "I saw her in the dimestore and I was certain that she was my mother, but neither of us said a word to each other." I have another friend who just learned from his 87-year-old mother that he has an older sister. While she says, "I never wanted to know what happened to her," she also commented that she thought about the girl 'every single day of my life." One wonders whether the former remark is a reflection of the way she was 'supposed' to think, while the latter reflects the feelings of a mother wondering about her child. If nothing else, there's obviously some ambivalence there.

A far cry from the 'open adoptions' we hear about today!

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Interaction Overload

I just returned from the American Adoption Congress Conference in Boston where I publicized "The Other Sister" and presented a workshop on a topic related to the book. The workshop was packed and the book got a fantastic response, which was exciting and gratifying, of course. Although I'm still waiting for the final count of how many copies were sold in the AAC Book Room, there were only around ten left when I departed, so I know it was lots.

Perhaps it was the nature of the conference, but I don't think I've ever had so many intense conversations over a three-day period in my entire life; even the cabbies seemed to have alot to say! Since I'm one of those "terribly-shy-on-the-inside-but-I-can-fake-it" people, now that I'm home, exhilaration has given way to complete and utter exhaustion. I don't care if I talk to another person for a week!

Wednesday, February 28, 2007

"The Other Sister" (Flux, 2007)

Well, here I am on the eve of the official release date of my first novel, "The Other Sister."

What a fascinating process it's been; turns out that the actual writing of a book ends up seeming like the smallest part of a protracted process of finding a publisher, working out the contract, undergoing editing, developing a cover design (not my area, thankfully), printing, publicizing, and, finally releasing the finished product. (Followed by more publicizing, and, hopefully, more printing!) In the flow of all this, you get to meet alot of smart, talented, and enthusiastic people who make the whole experience more fun.

The term 'release date' has always struck me as funny; as if the book is something we've been holding captive, restrained by its binding (haha). If that is the case, "The Other Sister" will be unleashed tomorrow upon an unsuspecting, but hopefully welcoming, public.