The State of an Author-Composer’s World


Do you ever have that feeling that there’s just too much going on? No, of course not, she says (wink-wink). This summer hit me like a Mack truck, and the grace in it was that I was so focused on two weeks in July–my week at NPM in Cincinnati and our trip to Colorado last week–that I didn’t have any time to spend calculating how much other work was getting shoved off to the side. If I had really processed how much there was, the stress level would have skyrocketed.

As I was taking these pictures I was feeling bad for the poor mama moose, who was having to raise her babies with 50 people taking pictures…but now I think I sort of missed the part where she was living in ROCKY MOUNTAIN NATIONAL PARK, with no responsibilities except existing. There’s some beauty in that.

My poor kids have two weeks of summer break left and it’s the first real unstructured time we have. We needed one day for recovering from twelve hours on the road–day 1 we saw moose at Sprague Lake, I battled Nicholas and Michael on the aerial course, we had lunch and souvenir shopping, and THEN drove 6 hours in 7 hours. Day 2 we got up, ate breakfast, and drove 6 hours in 7 hours. And then did eight loads of laundry and went to a birthday party for the baby of a choir member. So yeah, we needed Sunday to recover. And Monday.

By Tuesday, they were “all war zone, all the time.”

And me, in the meantime?

I knocked out my first two deadlines on Monday and Tuesday–the shortest two. Some of the other tasks on my to-do list are gargantuan. It’s easy to say, “Query Trust Falls.” What that line item doesn’t tell you is I have to write a synopsis. And take the list of upwards of a hundred agents I’ve been collecting for the last two years and organize it and figure out which ones are the best match. Then agonize over the query letter and make sure it’s as compelling as it can possibly be, with the right balance of, well, everything. And only then comes the querying itself.

It’s also easy to write on that list, “Trio.” But writing a piece of music is not a short process. I will likely spend three or four months working on that.

So I view the upcoming school year with a mixture of emotions. On the one hand, all the kids will be in school all day for the first time. (Hurrah! Uninterrupted days to work!) On the other, homework season is starting. The reading assessments that ended 3rd grade underscored to us that we’ve really underserved Miss Julianna, and we can’t do it anymore. We’ve GOT to figure out where to scrape together 15-20 minutes a day for reading comprehension, and when the speech therapist sends home that 12-page packet that says “do this list of words 3x a day for a week, then do this list 3x a day for a week…”…well, we really need to do it.

Such things make me feel like whimpering. It makes me miss this even more:

I could totally stand to spend every day climbing enormous piles of boulders at the Alluvial Fan and cuddle up by a fire in the evening to write. Wait. If I write, that presupposes all the deadlines and the other stuff…roses and thorns.

When this round of deadlines clears out I have to take a clear-eyed stock of what I commit to and be more realistic.

That’s the state of my world right now, and I know no one’s all that interested, but I debated not blogging at all today because I just remembered (I’ve been working on agent lists this morning!), and I have a flute duet rehearsal any minute, so I decided it was the type of day that calls for a stream-of-consciousness post that only takes 12 minutes to write.


The Big News


Friday morning when I came home from Jazzercise, speech therapy, and a Wal Mart run, this is what greeted me:

Rising Star announcement 10-10-14

Today I’m focusing on a final whirlwind run through my manuscript to make sure it’s clean so I can send it out. See you Wednesday!


Time to Hit Send?

Writer's Block

Image by thorinside via Flickr

When I was a kid, and I first got contacts, I was absolutely paranoid about losing them. I would take them out and clean them, put them in their cases, and screw the tops on…and then it began. Maybe they weren’t actually in there. I’d open them up and check, screw them back shut. But what if I’d jostled the case while I was checking? What if the contact fell out in the process of putting lids back on?

And so it would go. Sometimes I’d check them five times, with trembling fingers, terrified that I’d lost one. (Lest you think I was completely nuts, money was very tight in our farm household in the 80s, and we knew it. Losing a contact was a big deal.) Eventually, I had to refuse myself permission to check, no matter how much my heart pounded.

When I started submitting work to publishers, the old OC tendency reared its head again. I would prepare a submission. Print it out, sign it, address the envelope, stick it in. Pull it back out, double check it, find something I wanted to change, reprint it, resign it, stick it in. Pull it out, reference the submission guidelines, make sure everything was in the same order that the publisher listed them. Stick it in the envelope again, grit my teeth, seal it.

It was every bit as painful as it sounds. I would say, “Oh, everything’s done, I can get this submission out in twenty minutes.” Three hours later, I’d finaly be ready to go to the post office, and the kids would need a nap.

Email submissions helped. Still, I’ve been known to un-attach and re-attach, just to make sure I sent the right version of the right piece. But over time, it’s gotten easier. Too much so. These days, I’m so irritable about wasted time that when that urge to check, doublecheck and triple check comes over me, I give in once and then skip to the grit-my-teeth-and-hit-send step. The trouble is, the last two or three times, I’ve discovered after the fact that I missed something that would have made the package more professional. Once, I even neglected to attach the file.


Such things never, ever happen to Christian. Because he is a quadruple checker. It occurs to me that maybe I need to stop worrying about being OC about submissions. At least that way I’m not kicking myself for the rest of the night!

7 Quick Takes, vol. 89


1. I’ve been having one of those weeks again. One of those weeks where I found myself out of balance, focused myopically on writing, unable to sleep at night for being wound up about it, and spending far too little time being wife and mom. Any time this happens to me, it calls into question the whole vocation, makes me doubt whether I’m really supposed to be writing, or whether I need to stop trying to live in both worlds.

2. And then, out of nowhere, a week like this. A royalty check, payment for an article, completion of a really good query class, two queries and a personal essay sent out into the great beyond, a not-quite-rejection from a literary agent, and to top it off, forward motion on my new flute collection with GIA. Talk about a celestial message that the struggle for balance is worthwhile! If every week was this good on the writing front, I’d be making a living at it. Then again, I probably would never sleep.

3. Okay, enough about writing. I’m curious, folks—who out there still has movie rental stores nearby? Because all of ours closed. All but the one locally-owned one that has no parking b/c it’s downtown. Anyway, being movie lovers with three small children (which means that we hardly ever get to the theater), we have been driven to something we always thought we’d never do. We joined Netflix.

4. We always thought Netflix would be one of those things that we never deemed worthwhile—like cable TV. We keep basic cable—the kind of cable that they don’t even advertise because their standard package is “family cable.” But after we gave up TV for Lent for a couple of years, and saw our life shift for the better, we called the cable company and said, “Hey, whatever happened to that basic package? You know, the $15 one?” Yes, we miss out on a lot. But the more TV you have, the more you feel compelled to watch, and TV is really not a very good use of time. And it shields the kids from a lot of commercialism, too.

5. I always looked at Netflix that way. I mean, how many movies do you need to watch in a month? If you’re going to be socked with a monthly fee, you feel compelled to watch a bunch. But I have to say, I’m sold on it. We’ve more than used our money’s worth this first month, finally getting to watch the last season of Alias (we watched them all on videos, borrowed from friends, but never got to the last one…life intervened) and playing 1940s Superman videos for Alex on the computer.

6. Julianna’s summer school ended yesterday, so now summer begins in earnest. No more cute schoolbus moments till fall, and then Alex will be going to school, too. Six weeks. Wow! They say in parenthood, the days drag and the years fly. I think that about sums it up.

7. I have a babysitter this morning, so I get to go out to the nature area and sit this morning. I definitely need to find some stillness. And then, I will come home and work on adding 4000 words to my novel. Sounds like a good day. Let’s get on with it! Have a great weekend, everyone!

The Determination of Dandelions


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I am at war with dandelions.

I know, go ahead and laugh. Project your shaken heads over the e-waves, passing me subliminal messages about futility. I know it’s futile. At noon, I pick off every yellow head within a three-house radius of my yard, and by nine the next morning, each plant has sprouted three more. I clear the neighborhood at three and by seven, yellow spots are popping up all over the grass again.

My theory is exhaustion of resources, till the weed & feed arrives on the premises—at a bare minimum, no white fluffy seed heads multiplying the madness by exponents. But never have I seen such a determined plant. As I chase my kids up and down the sidewalk, the wreckage of my battle confronts me on every side: shriveled, dried-up buds and flowerets littering the concrete while right beside them, bright, perky baby florets smile up at me. And I think, if I had half the stamina and perseverance of these nasty little weeds, what couldn’t I accomplish?

And in some ways, I empathize with the poor unwanted dandelions. The remains of my assault on the mighty curtain wall around the literary world lie banished to a folder in my email account. Shriveled little florets that read “Thank you for considering us for your submission. Unfortunately…” Now, so far in this folder there are only two of them. The first I handled with a philosophical shrug; at the appearance of the second, I went all Don Music and shrieked, “I’ll never get it! Never!”

Unfortunately, this bad habit does not limit itself to the submission of music and novels. Nope, I’m pretty much like that in everything I do. If I can’t figure out how to fix something in the first five minutes, I call for backup. That goes for computers, broken objects, and any toy that needs assembly. Not to mention exercise. And spiritual pursuits. Like finding mental quiet when kids are around. There’s got to be a way to do it, but I’ve never figured it out—mostly because at the first hurdle, I give up.

I need to learn a lesson from the dandelions. A lesson in determination and stamina. Because I’m well aware that the dandelions are going to outlast me. After all, they have nothing else to do, and everything to lose.



(Warning: If you’re not interested in reading about the writing process, skip to the end!)

“Art is never finished—only abandoned.”
Leonardo da Vinci

It’s a big deal to finish a novel. At least, if you listen to the collective wisdom of the writing world. And maybe they’re right. But despite the long lapse in years between starting (cursive on notebook paper, 2005) and finishing (five versions later, four major rewrites, 2010), I never doubted that I would finish the thing. It’s the next step that intimidates me.

 How do you go about obtaining representation—i.e., an agent?

Well. I’ve been reading on this subject for as long as I’ve been writing with an eye to publication, and let me tell you, it’s quite a process. According to other writers, it’s almost as difficult to get an agent as it is to land a book deal. The query letter and synopsis are going to KICK YOUR BUTT. And you MUST DO MARKET RESEARCH and READ THE BOOKS THAT THE AGENTS HAVE REPRESENTED, to make sure they’re REALLY A GOOD FIT FOR YOU and help you WOW THEM WITH A PERSONALIZED query letter.

So three weeks ago, when I finished my novel, I began the process, aiming for two weeks to put together a submission package and have the queries sent—but knowing how things go in the world of a SAHM-writing mom. And I began searching out agents.

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The first thing that happened was that I found the Guide to Literary Agents blog…which went on my Google Reader. Then I started reading articles on their site (which is terrific), and decided I had to learn how to write a synopsis. That led me to several dozen other articles, which pointed me to such sites as QueryTracker and AgentQuery, who recommend that you double check with Preditors and Editors to make sure that there aren’t complaints against the people you’re considering.

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And oh, yes, there’s this all-important question: Is it, or is it not, okay to send queries to several agents at the same time? That detour lasted another three hours. And very soon I reached…

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 What exactly was I supposed to be doing? Oh, yes, searching for agents. Preparing a submission package.

 The trouble is that all those pieces of research are necessary. But not all of them are necessary at the same time. I looked at QueryTracker and had absolutely no idea what to do with it. But ten days later, after I had a list of agents and a rough synopsis, I happened back across it and said, “Oh, that’s what this is for!”

 And this leads me to my primary point, which despite the long intro will not be a long-winded one. Writers—many writers, anyway, myself included—are obsessive about feedback and advice. We have perfected the taking of criticism to an art, until sometimes we want others to do our thinking for us. My breakthrough moment came when I realized that sooner or later I had to stop culling other people’s wisdom and just start writing. That doesn’t mean I stopped researching—but my reading became more focused, and no longer involved a tangled http://www.eb of tangents. It’s vital to start writing before paralysis becomes permanent.

I triumph! Yesterday, I sent out my first three queries.

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 My poor readers. I’ve been jawing about writing all week. Cross my heart, I promise that tomorrow I will return to family matters. And I have a job for you. Beginning with tomorrow’s Thursday Motherhood Moment, I want to hear YOUR stories. Think back through the last week or two and come up with some little moment you can share!

An NPM Convention Journal


This will be considerably longer and less polished than my usual but I’m not taking the time to do exhaustive revisions. I spent this week in Chicago at the NPM (pastoral music) convention, which was in Rosemont, out by O’Hare airport. Here are the scattered reflections of a week…

Day One: Sunday, July 5

12:38 p.m. I put Alex and Julianna in the car with hugs and kisses, drank in the feel of Christian’s arms around me, and swallowed my weepiness as I walked away from ¾ of my family. An hour later, I was preparing to leave with Justin and Laura when I realized that I didn’t have the diaper bag. After all the (rushed) careful planning, I still managed to leave something important behind.

But I have my flute and my NEO and Nicholas, and I am Chicago bound.

Day Two: Monday July 6th

Discovered more things I forgot/lost in transit from So. Illinois to Chicago.

Nicholas is the hit of the convention. And he’s showing new skills: grabbing hair, name tag, shirt…squealing at everyone who adores him—which is everyone…including a med student named Sung, Joe Mattingly, and Marty Haugen.

The main topic on everyone’s lips is the lack of economical food choices. I can’t help thinking that people who go to conventions tend to spend too much money because somebody else generally has to pay for it, and that’s why convention centers/hotels/restaurants without nearby competition get away with charging so much. I must shake my head, while I make do with a $5 muffin for breakfast.

Thought for the day: “Here in this life, all symphonies must remain unfinished.” Karl Rahner

10:00p.m., totally shot. Played from Times & Seasons (and three other works) at the GIA booth tonight with Kate Cuddy. Lots of fun. Diane Hennessy ran Nicholas around the exhibit hall on her scooter. He was crabby. This is my first convention attending as a composer; it’s refreshing to spend the whole day focused on that, rather than feeling obliged to attend things more directly applicable to being a liturgy director.

Day Three: Tuesday, July 7th

The air traffic pattern switched overnight, and when Nicholas woke me up at 6a.m., I heard the roar of jet liners taking off over the hotel. I had to call Alex to tell him about it. And I got a “walking in the woods” story about Thomas taking a dangerous curve, in the bargain.

Still finding things I’ve lost since Southern Illinois. I swear there’s a black hole somewhere in my suitcase.

8:00a.m. Today is T shirt day. I’m relieved to discover that I am not the only person who didn’t want to spend $15 for another T shirt I wouldn’t wear. I was afraid I’d be lime green flotsam in a sea of fire orange.

7:37p.m. I changed one dirty diaper during the plenum address (which was really good today), three during the GIA showcase, and another during the composers’ forum; fended off three major phlegm-y spitups before he finally nailed my shirt. But Nicholas was so happy and smiley all day (he is really hamming it up for everyone) that it wasn’t until dirty diapers number six and seven that I realized the kid is sick. Now I have to send my brother-in-law to Walgreen’s for more diapers, because it doesn’t look like I have enough to get me home on Friday. Ah, the adventure.

Ate lunch with WLP today. I sat at a table with editors, singers, composers and the owner. (I didn’t know there was one.) Ed Bolduc reminds me of my cousin Chris. I was the newbie in the room so I got introduced all around. It was a good lunch…the best meal I’ve had so far…and all the more enjoyable because I didn’t have to pay for it. Considering the $8 I spent on fruit and a danish this morning (no drink) and the $19 I spent for dinner (which was extremely ordinary), that’s no small perk.

This evening I’ve retreated to my room for some down time. Of course, I’m spending it working on a hymn text that’s been the bane of my existence since mid-January, when I woke up in the middle of the night with a tune and the first two words. Fleshing out that inspiration is a pain in the ***. Two years ago, I sent a text to WLP and got a great rejection, saying “We can’t use this, but send us more!” I groaned, b/c I knew how many months and sheets of paper I spent to get that text put together. Well, this one is even harder. The last one I finished. This one I think I’m going to have to abandon.

But coming to NPM is firing the composing neurons. I have three things in process now, one of them brand new today.

Sometime past midnight: I was supposed to go to a party given by GIA tonight. I was really looking forward to it. But when I found the place, I began seeing people walking toward it…dressed up. Now, NPM is a very casual convention. So it never occurred to me that this event might be anything other than casual. I have nothing remotely resembling dress clothes in my suitcase. Heck, I spend most of my life in my old slobby T shirts and too-big shorts, because I know I’m going to get spit up on. So for me, wearing nice casual shirts and only partially-stained shorts, with white socks and tennis shoes, is dressing up!

Needless to say, I didn’t go to the party. This convention is turning into quite an educational experience for me.  🙂

Day Four: Wednesday, July 8th

Attended rehearsal for the WLP showcase this morning. It was a choir full of composers, and I found myself tongue-tied. Can you believe that? Me? Speechless? What’s up with that?

What’s up with it, I’m sorry to admit, is that I’m still starstruck. Over time I’ve progressed from making a complete idiot of myself any time I encounter a liturgical composer, to simply having nothing to say. Maybe now that the ice is broken, I can start to act like a normal human being and actually get to know these people, who are after all colleagues, not rock stars.

I guess I just have a horror of looking like the self-centered unpublished composer who’s trying to weasel her way in, and spends every moment ingratiating myself, trying to sink claws into someone and use them as a scratching post on the way up the ladder of publication. In other words, I want to talk about OTHER THINGS. Make friends. But all appearances to the contrary, I am essentially an introvert.

1:45 p.m., mid-OCP showcase. Nicholas sleeping peacefully through the joyful noise of contemporary song, until the first organ piece starts, and then his face twists up and he begins to whimper in his sleep. He-hehee. Do I have another drummer on my hands?

7p.m. Went outside my comfort zone today. I had the opportunity to mention another flute collection in progress to my editor, and I took it, and he told me to send it. Yessss! On the down side…plugged duct. Yech!

Thought for the day: “What you do daily, you can do dully, unless you do it deeply.” Abbot Gregory Polan, OSB.

Day Five: July 9

2:20p.m. What is it with my children and exploding diapers in downtown Chicago?

7:50 p.m., Orchestra Hall, downtown Chicago. I left Nicholas asleep on the shoulder of my new friend Monica and went downstairs to the bathroom. On the way, three people said, “I didn’t recognize you without your baby!”

This hall is spectacular, by the way. Can’t wait till next spring, when we come back to Chicago to celebrate our 10th anniversary.

9:45 p.m. Last week I had bad headaches several days in a row, so when I packed vitamins and beadryl (my emergency sleep aid) into a Gerber bowl for my trip, I dumped a bunch of Tylenol and ibuprofin in, too. I’m a walking pharmacy. 😉 Fortunately I haven’t had to use most of it, but going downtown for nine hours, amid traffic and pollution, I decided to be cautious. Good thing, because I got a headache almost right away. But I had my trusty Tylenol gel caps. But after walking around downtown for two hours I was overcome by irresistible sleepiness. On the bus I conked out while we transitioned to Orchestra hall. I couldn’t figure it out… till I got back to the hotel and was taking my Lecithin, and I processed what I had actually picked up out of my bowl. Not acetamenophen, but Benadryl. Two of them. No wonder I couldn’t stay awake!

Day Six: Friday, July 10th

8:57a.m. I’m getting very good at spotting nooks and crannies where I can nurse without having to use the nursing cover, which we both detest. Today I found a cubby behind a wall labeled “phones,” but of course, there are no phones anymore.

Nicholas and I are both quite ready to be home.

 9:45a.m. Since I reflected on texts the other night, I’ve been thinking that maybe I’m putting *too many* restrictions on myself. There are hymn text writers out there who are spectacular at what they do; I am not one of them. I often brainstorm something and immediately say, “No,not that…no, not good enough…” Perhaps by trying to hold out for that kind of polish, I’m actually telling God “no.” Yesterday morning I had a flash of a new song. It was far too busy a day to take any time to sit in a quiet place and work, but it’s playing around in the back of my mind, and I’m trying not to impose such a stern filter. We’ll see how it goes.

This convention has been great for opening the creative floodgates. I have a ton of music to work on now. Yay God!

Thought for the day: “We are kin under the skin.” Msgr. Ray East.

5:05 p.m. I am not a good solo traveler.Christian is our caretaker in getting from point A to point B. I am OK getting around Lambert St. Louis because I’ve been there dozens of times. But I was very skittery about O’Hare today, from getting on the hotel shuttle, all the way through check-in and security (security is really intimidating!) and up till I arrived at the gate.

The line was really long, so I did self check, and then I went to the X ray machine for bags. I was very polite: “Is this the place where I drop off my bag?”

And the guy got snooty with me! “Do I LOOK like an agent?” he said. “You have to go over there!”

Well, fine, be that way. I guess most people who go through airports know what they’re doing, but still it seems to me that someone who is clueless, but polite, ought to be treated with courtesy.

Sitting in the back of the Mo-X bus…and it is very, very bouncy. Ugh, not looking forward to traversing I 70 here! But at least then we’ll be home.

The young guy in front of me just asked me, “How old is your baby, ma’am?”


How nice, for him to be so respectful, but apparently I look older than I think I do! Have I ever mentioned that HS and college kids think I’m old, and adults think I’m a pup? This week people kept asking me if Nicholas was my only one: he must be, they said, because you’re far too young to have more.

Ummm…Okay. Thanks….I think?