Caroline Carlson

The Story of the Penguin Hat

I am still revising the pirate book. I think it gets longer every day: No matter how much I write, I never seem to get much closer to the end. Leave it to me to have a magically expanding novel. That’s the sort of thing that’s lots of fun to read about, but less fun to deal with when it pops up in your actual life.

In case you’d like to read something new from me while I’m locked away in my office, though, my agency has just posted an interview with me on their website. You can read the whole thing here, but to thank you for being so patient while I utterly neglect my blog, here’s a small excerpt, along with an extremely embarrassing photo just for you:

When the most exciting moment of my writing career arrived, I was dressed as a penguin.

It was Halloween, and because I’m a fan of penguins, I’d decided to dress as one. I have a crocheted penguin hat, complete with eyes and a beak, and I was feeling very sophisticated and professional in my costume as I sat in my living room in front of a giant bowl of candy, waiting for trick-or-treaters to arrive.

Then the phone rang. It was Sarah, calling to tell me that HarperCollins wanted to buy my first book. At least, I think that’s what she said—it was a little hard to hear through the penguin hat’s earflaps. I clasped my hands to my beak, said a few incomprehensible things (like, ‘I’m dressed as a penguin!’), hung up, and danced around a little in the living room. Then I ate several fun-sized Butterfingers from the trick-or-treat bowl to celebrate.

Are you ready for the extremely embarrassing photo? Are you ready to see the first picture taken of me as a Serious, Professional Author? Here I am, moments after I sold my first book:

I have to say, this is not exactly how I imagined life as a Serious, Professional Author. It is, however, a fairly accurate representation of my life, so I have no one to blame but myself. (I also blame my lovely and talented agents, Sarah and Julia, for allegedly circulating this photo among the UK editors who read my manuscript. Now everyone in London thinks I am a penguin. Oh, misery.)

All right. Now that I’ve thoroughly embarrassed myself in front of the entire internet for no good reason, I will lock myself back in my office and return–hopefully in a couple of weeks–when I’ve wrangled this book into shape. Please don’t make too much fun of me while I’m away; I would hate to miss that.

Inside the Revision Cave

About a month ago, I got one of the nicest (and simultaneously most terrifying) gifts a writer can receive: my editorial letter.

An editorial letter is usually the first thorough response a writer gets from her editor about her book-in-progress. In my case, my editor at HarperCollins and I had chatted a few months ago about some of the changes she’d like to see, so I had a good general idea of what my tasks would be during the revision process. The editorial letter, though, is more than a casual chat. It’s the 7-page-single-spaced email your editor has been working on for weeks, full of suggestions and questions about your book.

My editorial letter arrived a few days before the winter holidays. I read it many, many times. I thought fondly about my editor: how smart she is, how much she must care about my book. I wondered, in a vague sort of way, what sort of superhero would swoop onto the scene to transform my editor’s ideas into reality. I ate several tons of Christmas cookies and waited for the superhero to arrive.

Apparently, with the economy the way it is, you’ve got to be your own superhero these days.

So now I’m deep inside the revision cave, a cozy and only slightly scary place where I spend lots of time with my new best friends: my manuscript and my red pen. (While I usually write and revise on my computer, I like to have a printed-out copy of the manuscript to scribble notes on, too.) Here’s what a couple pages of my manuscript looked like after they’d hung out with the red pen for a bit:

These are a couple of pages from Chapter 2, which I’ll be revising toward the end of this week. If your eyes are good enough, you’ll see that on the left-hand page, I’m adding a character to this scene. On the right-hand page… well… I’ll let the giant red X speak for itself. The entire second half of this chapter will be replaced by something newer and better, something more functional and more exciting. I can’t wait to see what the superhero comes up with.

When you spend a lot of time in the revision cave, you might find yourself asking all sorts of unusual questions, like, “What pirate-related word would make a good street name?” or, “Did people have fishing rods in the 1800s?” (If you are a writer, you’ll find that half your life is spent searching for answers to questions like these, and the other half is spent being inspired by weird bits of trivia that you can stack on top of each other to create a story.) Luckily, the revision cave often has handy reference materials to help you answer these questions:

The most important thing about the revision cave, though–and the reason why I don’t have many pictures of it–is that it’s a private place. It’s a place for you, your words, and your imagination. It often doesn’t have internet (unless you have a really pesky question about pirates or fishing rods that your reference books can’t answer). It’s not available to rent out for parties. It does occasionally have food, as long as you promise not to get cookie crumbs lodged in your computer keyboard. And whether you enjoy being in the revision cave or not, you’re not going to be able to leave until you finish your revisions–particularly if you’re on deadline.

So if you don’t see a lot of me here on the blog between now and April 1, you’ll know exactly where I am: here in the revision cave, brushing away the cookie crumbs, and revising the heck out of this manuscript. At least until a real superhero shows up.

…and Three Cheers for the UK!

So far, it’s been an excellent week for books. I’m expecting a package of new reads on my doorstep any minute now, and I polished off an entire stack of library books this weekend. (I’m trying to reach my Goodreads goal of reading 100 books in 2011; I’m up to 96 read with 18 more days to go.) And of course there was that really good news from Brazil.

Today, though, I can finally share some more really good news that’s been in the works for a few weeks now: MAGIC MARKS THE SPOT and its sequels will be published in the UK by Simon & Schuster! The books will be published simultaneously in the US and the UK, but the UK editions will have a different design and a different illustrator. Which is ridiculously cool if you ask me.

I grew up reading children’s books by British authors and expats like Diana Wynne Jones, Philip Pullman, Susan Cooper, and (later) Neil Gaiman. When I was older and able to travel to the places I’d read about in stories, my love of British children’s books led to other loves: for rolling landscapes, for ancient history, for mint Aero bars. I spent a summer in Oxford, which became the setting for my first (very unpublished) novel; Oxford and London were also the inspirations for a couple of the imaginary cities in MAGIC MARKS THE SPOT. So I think it’s particularly fitting–and particularly thrilling–that my books have found a home in a country that’s given me so many great stories, great real-life adventures, and great chocolate.

Hurrah for Brazil

I’ve been running around a lot this holiday season in a mad quest to bake as much food as possible. This weekend I baked the Betty Crocker Cookbook sugar cookies I grew up with every Christmas, and today I’m making a new recipe for saffron buns. If they’re good enough, maybe they’ll get to be a full-fledged Christmas tradition in our house someday. (I’ve already, um, sampled the batter, and I’m giving it two sticky thumbs up so far.)

Anyway, I’m taking a quick break from all that to sit down at my flour-coated keyboard and let you know that the wonderful people at Brazilian publisher Companhia das Letras will be publishing my pirate books in Brazil! I hope Brazilian kids will like spending time with Hilary and her gargoyle as much as I do.

(If you’re wondering, like I was, the Portuguese word for gargoyle is gárgula. And I’m not sure what the Portuguese translation of arr! is, but as soon as I find out, I’ll be sure to let you know.)


How I Wrote My Pirate Book

When I’m trying to keep things short and sweet, I tell people that I started writing the first draft of MAGIC MARKS THE SPOT in February 2011. I finished the first draft in June, right before I graduated from my MFA program, and that draft became my graduate thesis. After that came a couple rounds of revision, feedback from my trusty writing friends, and a whirlwind of sending the manuscript out in a wobbly, excited sort of way to agents and then to editors. It’s a nice, straightforward short story–and it’s pretty much true.

The whole truth, however, is a little more complicated and a little more scary. But I think it’s an even better story in the end.

In the not-as-short, not-as-sweet version of this story, I wrote the first 15 pages of MAGIC MARKS THE SPOT in the waiting room of the Greater Chesapeake Hand Clinic in May 2010. My husband had just broken his wrist, and I was assigned the job of driving him to his doctor’s appointments as he got his x-rays taken and his splint adjusted. This meant that I got to spend a good amount of time in the waiting room, which didn’t have Wi-Fi and didn’t have any decent magazines; in other words, it was the perfect place to write. And I needed to write something new. I was actually working on a completely different novel at the time, a YA fantasy that I called The Lighthouse Book. (I usually call MAGIC MARKS THE SPOT “The Pirate Book.” I’m not that great at titles.) I was about 100 pages into The Lighthouse Book and ridiculously excited about it–my advisor loved it! I loved it! It was going to be my first book! But I needed to write 15 pages of something new for an upcoming grad school workshop, and I figured I might as well write something fun and goofy.

This is probably a good place to mention that I have always loved pirates.

I’d had a half-formed idea for a pirate book bouncing around in my head for a few months, and I’d even jotted down a paragraph about it in my Story Ideas file. Here it is, verbatim:

a girl who tries to enroll in Piracy, but the admissions office refuses her application and instead forwards it to Young Ladies’ Finishing School. told partially in letters, postcards, ads, business cards, magazine clippings. imaginary world, very humorous.

If any of you have read MAGIC MARKS THE SPOT in its latest form, you’ll know that this half-formed idea still pretty much describes the current version of the book. It wasn’t a lot to go on for a first draft, but I had a deadline to meet and a whole lot of free time in the waiting room of the Greater Chesapeake Hand Clinic, so I knocked out those first 15 pages and sent them off to my workshop group.

At this point, something great/horrifying happened. My workshop group liked the book! They wanted to know what happened next! They had brilliant ideas for the story, and they made me desperate to work on it immediately. People started asking me how The Pirate Book was coming along.

The horrifying part was that it wasn’t coming along. It was only a workshop exercise, after all, and I’d set those 15 pages aside to work on my one true love, The Lighthouse Book. But no one ever really asked me about The Lighthouse Book. People seemed to like it well enough… but The Pirate Book, well, that was what they wanted to hear about. I started to feel a little defensive about The Lighthouse Book. It was my shy and awkward first child, lurking in the shadows. Surely, once more people read it, they’d all be asking me about it instead.

I ignored the signs. I charged through to the end of The Lighthouse Book. 200-and-some pages later, and a full five years after I’d begun it, I had a first draft I was proud of. My first book! I imagined what the cover might look like. I imagined reading it aloud in bookstores. At the beginning of my final semester of grad school, I presented The Lighthouse Book to my advisor. I figured we’d spend the semester polishing it up, and by the time graduation rolled around, I’d be sending it out into the world.

I’m going to pause here to laugh hysterically.

My advisor, Martine Leavitt, is a brilliant writer and an even more brilliant person. At the end of January, she sent me a letter. She had read The Lighthouse Book. And–she said all this in the kindest and most tactful way possible–she just didn’t think it was going to work. If I wanted to fix its fatal flaws, I would probably have to find a new plot.

Martine said she’d be happy to work with me to completely revamp this story. But I’d also worked with her that winter on prewriting and brainstorming for The Pirate Book–maybe I’d like to work on that story instead?

At this point, I took a (short) break from writing. I called my mom–always a wise strategy in times of crisis. She suggested that I could always go to law school if the writing thing didn’t work out. And at that moment, I knew I’d do whatever it took to be a writer, ’cause there was no way on Earth I was going to law school.

As I was nursing my wounds, I reread one of my favorite books in the world, Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones. And I remembered for the millionth time why I wanted to write. I wanted to write books like that, books that readers could sink into over and over again when the rest of the world got tough. I wanted to write books that made readers laugh, books that kids would adore and dive into again as adults. As painful as it was to hear the truth about The Lighthouse Book, I knew that Martine was right–it just didn’t work. And even worse, I didn’t have the energy for it anymore. I wanted to do something new, something joyful and playful and funny that would remind me why I was writing in the first place. So I wrote back to Martine and said I wanted to get started on that pirate book.

I wrote MAGIC MARKS THE SPOT in 4 months flat. The process wasn’t all joyful or easy–but a lot of times, it was both. It’s a book of my heart, and a book that I couldn’t have written if I hadn’t charged through other drafts of other books first. I don’t know if The Lighthouse Book will ever see the light of day; I still haven’t come up with a strategy for refurbishing it, and as much as I’d like to work on it again, other projects have come along and demanded my creative energy. Still, as hard as it was to abandon that manuscript, I’m so glad I was able to do it. It gave me a chance to write the book I’d needed to write the whole time–and it taught me all sorts of things that ultimately made MAGIC MARKS THE SPOT stronger than it would have been otherwise. No book is a wasted experience; every composted draft is fertilizer for the small green tendrils of plot that come after it.

Anyway, that’s how I wrote my pirate book. It’s not the book I expected to publish first, but it sums up nearly everything I’ve learned so far about writing and about life: Have fun, and pursue your dreams fiercely, with a sword by your side and a gargoyle in your bag.