Wednesday, December 15, 2010

You might be a writer if...

The end of year nears, and all publishers, fingers crossed, are watching what consumers will do. How will the last quarter of 2010 round itself out? Will sales be up? Down? Even us writers get a little involved. It is, after all, an indication as to how we will all start out 2011 - with a prayer at selling another book, or austerity measures that will drive even the most creative toward writing what sells. Awful state to be in for everybody, but there we have it. Nevertheless, while biting my nails and praying to the gods of book sales, I can't help but wonder, you might be a writer if...

You think the publishing industry needs an OPEC moment.

Whoever thought you'd see publishing and OPEC in the same sentence. One of the most successful industries coupled with one struggling enormously. Bear with me, though. I promise, it will all make sense. Imagine what gasoline prices would be like if there were no OPEC. The countries an producers of oil aren't exactly buddy buddy. They could seriously undercut each other until they would be selling oil at a price well below what it costs to produce, just to get that sale. Sound familiar, publishing execs? The margin of profit on book sales is dangerously close to what it costs just to produce them. Hop back to oil and what do you see? For all the turmoil that abounds amongst Middle Eastern states and oil producers, they are able to agree on one thing, the price of oil. Their allegiance in this one area keeps the consumers locked into a fixed price of gas has made the oil industry very very successful.

So why is it the publishing industry hasn't gotten on that bandwagon? Returns are killing the industry. That is what common opinion has determined. It affects all aspects of publishing, especially writers. How can publishers take a risk on something new unless they are absolutely certain a book will sell? It's an awful predicament to be in. A few low sellers, and an editor's career is in serious jeopardy.

Why?

Because publishers carry all of the risk when it comes to selling books. Returns were started during the 1920s Depression to get wary booksellers to stock shelves when they were fearful they would be unable to sell the stock they purchased and thus go out of business. Publishers offered sellers a novel return policy: if you don't sell it, we'll take it back. It was the opening of Pandora's box. An offer they were unable to ever renig. Today, booksellers carry no risk. All books, regardless of the state they are in, are returnable. Publishers carry the risk. In that sense, there is no difference between big box bookstores and indies. They are consignment shops.

If, however, publishers were to band together, like OPEC, on this one point and abolish the returns policy, making their goods as sold as, say, textile or toy producers products, they would create a little more breathing room for creativity for both their editors and their writers. Maybe. Even I have to admit books, although as important to me as oil, as not as necessary as oil to our everyday lives. Consumers need not buy books.

Still, I can't help thinking that maybe leveling the playing field, sharing the risk amongst booksellers and publishers, might aid the industry overall. If nothing else, it would be an experiment that would get a sluggish industry thinking in novel directions.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Another Semester Completed!

Yippeeeeeeeeeeeee!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! I have finished my third semester at Vermont College of Fine Arts. This one was more challenging than the first two because it was the critical thesis semester. I really got into my topic - the illustrious objective correlative. So much so, I applied higher math to literature. Yes, this is what weeks of researching a topic will do to you, collide the left and right halves of your brain until you're combing math and words. Craziness...it's all part of the graduate school experience.

After I honed an cut, crafted and styled my thesis, I spent the rest of the semester sculpting the beginnings of a new piece. It was all about layering this time around. Coming up with the basic foundation, i.e. character and problem. Layering scene on top of that. Then external plot. Emotional plot. It was like creating a painting very painstakingly from the canvas up, hyperaware of each layer and the role it plays in the final perception of color and composition. 

So, all in all, a successful semester. And only one left!

What this graduate experience has thus far taught me is that even if Socrates was a little glib when he said, "I know that I know nothing"...I know that I know nothing. There is so much to learn about any field--any craft--and writing is no exception. I will spend the rest of my life learning about it, glorying and despairing in the nuances of the written word and my ability to use it (hopefully glorying a little more than despairing!).

The critical work has imparted the same lesson it did during my PhD, structure, analysis, description and interpretation. It helps me to be able to organize the parts to story and know how they work together, what tools are available, which one I want to tinker with, and how other writers have done so in the past. I need that kind of direction in my writing.

Next semester it is all creative, all the time. I am curious to see, what I learn then?

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The Book Review Club - This Book is not Good for You

This Book is not Good for You
by Pseudonymous Bosch
middle grade

I wanted to like this book. Who wouldn't? It's about chocolate. Delicious, tempting chocolate. Any writer whose been stuck in writer's block h*** has likely turned to the sweet temptress for relief now and again, right?

Which made it so hard to find that the bitter aftertaste of the main protagonist, Cass, made it hard to swallow all of this book.

So why review it?

Because it was a hit with my 9 year old. Granted, the age range for this middle grade may be pretty slim because my 11 year old was not so thrilled. She too thought the main protagonist, Cass, was, in her words "sassy" and "thought she was better than everyone." And here's my favorite part. She thought the writer - who had periodic monologues - talked way too much.

I thought the basic plot idea - kid has to save her mom from an evil society that is trying to make a chocolate that lets you live forever - was very clever. But the Cass' sarcasm and the interruptive monologues really made it hard to finish this piece.

So what is a writer to do with criticism like that? Does it matter?

My theory is that we sometimes learn more from what people don't like than what they do. For me, when it's my work, it tells me that something isn't working. It might not be precisely what the reader doesn't like that needs fixing, but I realize that there are holes big enough that they need to be filled.

So, if you're looking to learn something from holes, check out This Book is not Good for You, and see if you can find what you don't like. AND...what you might fix.

For other stimulating reads, hop over to our fearless leader, Barrie Summy's, blog!

Happy reading!

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

You might be a writer if...

Fall is upon us and Winter is just around the corner, which means I am back to layering. It's cold in the mornings, almost freezing now, which means gloves and jacket while running. I even donned my fingerless writing gloves yesterday because it was kind of chilly in my office, as well as a heavy fleece jacket. Granted, I don't usually wear as many layers as the woman in the picture to the right when I'm toiling away in my office. Usually. But even on those exceptionally cold mornings, as the day starts to warm, off come the layers. Sort of like the trees shedding their leaves. First the gloves. Then the jacket. Then the thick socks over my regular socks. Layers. Layers. Layers. They're everywhere.

Even in writing.

You might be a writer if...you're into layering.

This semester at Vermont college coincides well with my "layering" epiphany. Each packet (we're up to 4 now and the last, the fifth, is due December 6) my advisor has given me the same advice, "This is great. Now go back and dig deeper. Make it better." While I've spent a good deal of time these last three months hashing out the linear storyline, I've spent far more going back and layering. First, it was my characters. I needed to deepen their emotional resonance. Then, it was my emotional vs. external storylines. I needed to deepen and merge them.

My normal method of writing thus far has been to hash out that down draft and then go back and layer, but that's hard to do with only 4 weeks per packet. The result has been linear and horizontal development happening simultaneously. Not an easy feat to pull off but well worth the effort.

As I've gone back and sculpted away, tearing out, rewriting, molding, shaping, I've become aware of the layers in my story and how they interact in a super slow mo sort of way. It's much more acute and measured, this seeing and perceiving, almost like applying then watching each layer of paint dry and the slow but inevitable enrichment that layer imbues upon the one below it. How the sum become greater than the individual parts.

Yesterday was the first time I got a glimpse of a very small corner of what this piece will look like when it's done. A snippet of the finished product in all its full, rich, complete and layered color. It was pretty cool. I've never taken my work this slowly before and watched its deliberate and steady development. I am beginning to understand how David Almond could have created Kit's Wilderness, a piece so layered and emotionally resonate on so many levels, it's become my benchmark and goal. Get to that kind of writing. It seldom happens that so many pieces of a work play together like a symphony, like Ravel's Bolero, repeating the same theme but in nuanced variation such that the air pulses with the harmony of melodies. And it's all due to subtle, controlled, labored over layering.

Layers. If you don't got 'em. Get 'em. Cause they can turn great writing into unforgettable stories. 

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Sacramento...or Bust!

Tomorrow I take Steinbeck's sage advice and "Head West, young man!" (okay, in this case, woman). Yes sir, I am leaving Oklahoma for the land of milk and honey...and librarians. I'll be speaking Saturday at the California School Librarians Conference with four other amazing writers - Susan Goldman Rubin, Linda Joy Singleton, Caryn Yacowitz, and Belle Yang.

Up-to-date and embracing all technology has to offer, we'll be talking about how to bring authors into schools on a shoestring budget. Skype visits, author interviews, podcasts, plays, graphic novels, hands on class demonstrations that bring books to life. We've gotten creative. Very creative. And we came up with some neat alternatives.

Which is pretty cool. For children's authors, there isn't much that can top kids reading our books. I mean, that's why we write. To share our stories. For me, visiting schools and talking to kids about my books, that's the Bees Knees. I hope, as the economy recovers, that schools will increasingly be able to afford once again to bring in real live authors to their students, but I'm glad we can offer some alternatives that get kids talking about writing.

Our panel is at 11 a.m. in the Sacrmento Convention Center, Rm 302/303, for anyone who happens to be attending. Afterwards, we'll be signing in the exhibitor hall, then it's kicking back and lunch!

I plan to head up to Apple Hill for the afternoon and try out some California apples.

Then it's back to the convention center in the evening for the Beatty dinner. I will be hosting a table, which means I get to talk books with librarians! Oh joy. Oh rapture. Oh endless bliss.

I love library conferences.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

The Book Review Club - Going Bovine

Going Bovine
Libba Bray
young adult

Bray knows her characters. The medley of sixteen year old underachiever/loser guy to talking garden gnome cast she creates is a fun romp to read through. Which is good because this is a looooooooooooong book. Very long. 480 pages long.

I know. I know. I sound like a griping teenager. The target audience. I wonder if the story has enough to keep them reading. I had a hard time remaining engaged.

While I enjoyed the imagination, the characters, the dialogue, the constantly changing setting, it was, ultimately, the leap of faith I was unable to take. At about the end of the first third of the book, when Cameron has already been hospitalized and is degenerating quickly - he's suffering from Creutzfeldt-Jacob (mad cow) disease, which is incurable and deadly. He sees an angel. Not just any angel. A punker angel. Okay, I'm still with you. The weird angel has appeared before in the distance. This might work. A punker angel named Dulcie.

Lost me.

We, as readers, are ultimately asked to "sign" a contract to take the leap of faith in fiction. To believe in the parameters of the story. Cameron's reality. It seems to incredible to be real. Sure enough, we come to discover in a 100 Years of Solitude sort of way toward the very end (and there are hints throughout that this might indeed be the case) that Cameron's been hallucinating/dreaming the last two weeks of his life. In other words, everything, including Dulcie, is a figment of his imagination. Yet his imagined life is far more alive and real than the 16 years of his life he more or less drifted through.

It's a great ending. Gabriel Garcia Marquez genius type of ending. But will the reader get there? We aren't in Latin American mysticism but modern day Texas. Realistic setting makes the leap hard. Dulcie makes the leap even harder. Granted, we're not supposed to take the leap in the end, we realize. It was a fantastical leap to begin with. One Cameron dreamed up. But because we do not know that right away, and because the fantastical keeps getting further and further out there, it's really hard to stay engaged, leaving the reader wondering, huh? What's the point? And, um, is it coming soon?

I hate not liking a book. I hate finding stuff wrong with the writing. There is no pleasure in it for me, especially with a book so close to greatness. Ultimately, it feels as though this piece lacked a stronger editorial pen. The right external input could have turned unbelievable into fantastical genius marvelous. We authors need editors. We really really do. No matter what stage of writing we are at. And we should never forget that. Because when we do, we are doomed to repeat our own mistakes without correction over and over and over again.

Read Going Bovine for its characters. For its Garcia Marquez crafty twist on reality. But also to notice where the editorial pen would have helped. Could have tightened, condensed and lifted such promise to the next level of greatness.  

For other great reads, hop over to our fearless leader's blog - Barrie Summy Blog.

Happy reading!

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Girl on Girl Crime

This blog goes out to all the girls who've experienced girl on girl crime. I've been seeing more and more of it at younger and younger ages, and I have to ask myself, why? Why are we girls so cruel to one another?

For all of the progress women have made over the last one hundred years, why is it we are still our own worst enemies? Why do we pick on each other so mercilessly? 

It's been getting to me lately because not only family members but also close friends of my daughters have been the object of girl-on-girl crime. I'm not sure what one children's author/mom/ aunt/friend can do about it, but maybe if I share my story, it will help other girls to share theirs. 

When I was in 7th grade, for reasons I still don't understand, a 6th grader started picking on me. Go figure. A kid a year younger than me. She lived in my neighborhood. We went to the same school. Sometimes, we'd play like great friends. And other times, she'd needle me mercilessly. My father, pacifist male that he is, suggested I sock her one. Don't you love old-school parenting? I couldn't quite work myself up to decking her, even though every time she'd start needling me, it felt like she was socking me one.

The whole situation came to a head when my family was moving. Huge change. My parents were out of town looking for a house. Said kid and I were playing together in the snow. When we were both heading back to our houses, she started needling me again. I tried to turn a deaf ear, i.e. my back, and walk away. She pounced from behind, shoving me down in the snow.

I don't know why that day was different. I don't know why my cup finally overflowed. But I sprang to my feet finally ready to deck her. Yep. Not a proud moment. But empowering. I whirled around and the look that was on my face must have been insane seventh grader crazy. She turned and ran like there was no tomorrow. Better still, she never needled me again. And I never had to sock her one after all.

So, is the moral of the story girls should learn to box? Well...I think what happened that day was bigger than boxing. I finally stood up for myself. I established my boundaries. When I did, the bully realized she couldn't bully me anymore and stopped.

How girls establish boundaries without getting into fisticuffs, though? It's a hard thing to do. To be self-confident when hormone-world is like a roller coaster of craziness inside you. When you feel ugly even though your parents tell you you're pretty. When you sure you don't have the right clothes. The right look. The right anything. It's hard.

But it's possible. Because we girls really are strong on the inside. And we all do have boundaries. They're sacred things, those boundaries are. They are worth sticking up for. In sticking up for them, for ourselves, we become even stronger and more self-confident, and the bullies can't touch that.

So here's a shout out to all girls today. You are strong. You are special. You can do it!!!!!!!!!

And if you want to read about great techniques for sticking up for yourself, try, Queen Bees and Wannabes by Rosalind Wiseman. No socking required!

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

You might be a writer if...

I've been knee-deep in world-creation these last weeks. I'm writing a retelling of Frankenstein set in a dystopian future, which means the world is mine to make (and break). It got me to thinking about DesCartes. Cogito ergo sum...I think therefore I am. As an author, I not only think my characters into being. I think their world into being. Kind of leaves an all-powerful aftertaste.

You might be a writer if...you've developed a god complex.

And society thought only surgeons could do that. How little does the world know about the secret lives of writers. Saving limbs and lives is nothing in the daily routine of a writer. We create worlds. Destroy them. Shape alternate universes for our own. Rewrite history. And make it all so real, readers cry, laugh, rejoice and hate as passionately as they do in the real world.

It can leave a writer feeling a bit like god.

I have to admit, though, the godliness I experience is not only that of a god of great joy but one plagued by  doubt, concern, tears, frustration, and hopelessness. It is an ever so fatally human god. Still, to be a writer means to think like a god. To be willing not only to breathe life into characters and worlds but also to destroy them with wrath, vengeance, or worst of all, for the good of the story. We kill our darlings, in the words of Faulkner.

I giggle to myself guiltily now when my husband (he's a doc himself) talks surgeons and god-complexes. If only he knew, he was living with a writer who suffers than very same complex squared.

At least he hasn't found all of those darlings stuffed under the floorboards yet. Or the alternate worlds that are crammed into the closets. Nobody ever said just because we kill or destroy our darlings we have to throw them away. We writers may be dastardly but we are environmentally conscious. We recycle nixed storylines and characters all of the time. That's the great thing about playing god. We can kill them off one day and bring them back to life the next.

Ah, the joys of being a writer!

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Instantaneous

Have you ever made pudding the old-fashioned way? I don't mean ancient here. I mean, still packet but with all that stirring.

When I was a kid, I used to beg beg beg my mom to make pudding. This meant, of course, someone had to be in charge of stirring stirring stirring that milk and pudding until it came to a boil. Guess who got that lucky job? Yep, the kid who asked for it.

My arm used to hurt from all of that stirring. Then there was the heat coming off of the burner. And the standing. My God, the standing.

But oh, when that jello was done, the pleasure. To feel it thickening under the turn of my wooden spoon. To smell its rich, yummy goodness. And then to wait ever so impatiently for the refrigerator to finally make that pudding do what is was supposed to do. I could hardly ever wait to finish dinner so I could get my pudding. My hard won pudding.

And then the instant kind came out. And all of that complaining and moaning about having to stir was replaced with a whisk and a few strokes.

The weird thing is, we stopped making pudding.

I'd forgotten all about this until I got together with a writer friend of mine the other day. He's a script editor for Hollywood. Has worked on some of the biggest films of our generation. I could tell you his name, but then he would probably kill  me. So let's just call him, Hollywood. H for short.

I was moaning about how movies are getting so incredibly predictable and boring, and how that has slowly eeked its way into books. You know if X is writing a book, it's going to be a mystery/thriller/drama. Pick a genre. But pick only one. Because all of us in arts and entertainment are getting typecast. Every. Last. One.

H said it's because we've moved into the instantaneous society. I buried my head in my arms and moaned, where will it all end? (and felt very much like my grandmother as I said this).

H mentioned a movie I'd actually seen a few years ago. An "off-Hollywood" production called Idiocracy. It extrapolates present society 500 years or so into the future where the president of the United States is a professional wrestler, you can buy everything at Costco, including degrees, and the average IQ has gone so low, the average Joe of today who gets frozen and wakes up in the future is actually a genius who tries to save mankind from his own stupidity. It is black humor at its blackest, and yet with a thread one can see developing in our present society. Kids and adults attached to computer devices of all sorts all the time. Monies being poured into science that solves hairloss or increases breast-size most "naturally", rather than finding new sources of energy. The arts getting less and less attention as video of all nature takes over. And those video shows getting dumber and dumber with each season.

Where will it all end? (Again, feeling a lot like my grandmother).

And that's just it, Grandma Julie. Does the aging generation begin to feel like progress is not necessarily good, or have we really begun to overturn the technology screw and underturn individual thought and development? Is the future looming before our eyes Idiocracy? I cannnot be that pessimistic, even if I wanted to. Trouble is, I'm more fatalistic. I see us so individualized that we lose our sense of community. That what Thomas Jefferson said - I do not agree with you but I will fight to the death for you to have your opinion - will no longer apply and democracy will go the way of the dinosaurs, as will society (now there's a ya novel just waiting to be written). That we will all be linked in, facebooked and co-joined cybernetically, but forget how to interact in person. There's actually already a book on that - Feed, by M.T. Anderson.

There is the smallest part of me, however, that optimist of my youth, that believes mankind might actually still have some chutzpah lurking somewhere deep down that's going to explode out when the instantaneousness gets to be too much. It's the part that wants to make jello from scratch. That does not want everything immediately, right away, yesterday. The one that likes delayed gratification. And it's there. Just look at the book we all love to hate, Twilight. Delayed gratification cubed.

I hope so very much that part of me is right.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

The Book Review Club - Speak vs. Wintergirls

Speak
Laurie Halse Anderson
Young Adult

and

Wintergirls
Laurie Halse Anderson
Young Adult

I read both of these books back to back and did not give up on life entirely, which speaks highly to Anderson's talent as a writer. These are not easy reads. Speak, celebrating its 10th anniversary in print, is about rape. Think that's edgy? Wintergirls is about bulimia and anorexia. This is tough stuff. Anderson does a fabulous job with protraying real, troubled teens. For any girl who has been through rape or is battling an eating disorder, these pieces must feel empowering because they let the individual know, you are not alone.

The reason I review them together is because, despite Anderson's skill at real, gritty portrayal of these issues through a teen character, after finishing the books, I was left feeling much like I had after a spree of John Irving books in my early twenties, i.e. like the main characters were the same person over and over. Lia of Wintergirls, birthed ten years after Melinda of Speak, nonetheless feels like the same teen. Anderson's writing chops are much improved, although the symbolism in Speak is incredible, the writing in Wintergirls will leave you rereading again and again to pick up craft points, turns of phrase, ideas on how to take mental illness and make it real for readers. Still, Melinda and Lia are interchangeable.

Why?

Their voice feels very similar. Their reactions, similar. Lia feels like a more mature Melinda, going further in her personal psychosis, more unstable, more suicidal, more detached. Yet still, Melinda.

Which leads me to ask the following questions: What results in similar characters across novels by the same author? Can we authors only get so far from our own perception? Are we slaves to our own hermeneutics? Or do similar driving motives across different stories nevertheless lead to similar characters?

I am not sure what the answers are, but I would like to know more because I find myself falling into that pattern in a present novel. Certain secondary characters feel similar to ones in an earlier novel I wrote. How do I avoid that? Should I? Or does such similarity define an author much as a defining brushstroke can define a painter?

Food for thought.

For more great reads, hop over to our fearless leader, Barrie Summy's blog.  And for those of you in the Kansas area, if you get a chance, stop by the Kansas School Librarians Conference Thursday and Friday of this week. Barrie Summy, P.J. Hoover, Zu Vincent, Suzanne Morgan Williams, and I are the guest speakers for lunch on Thursday. It's a whole panel of characters just waiting to share!

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

A Cover! A Cover!

A cover! A cover! I actually got a cover for my upcoming picture book, Rope 'Em. This is a red letter day (or, in this case, purple :-)

We writers spend most of our lives waiting. Waiting that centers around the slow but steady movement of an idea to a rough draft to revisions (If I could, I'd put in one of those repeat symbols for music because this is where waiting turns into something like Beckett's Waiting for Godot) to a manuscript to finding an agent to a sale to revisions - or, again, lots of revisions - to corrections, to ARCs, to, dare I say it...an actual, bona fide, hold-in-my-hands book.

The waiting can sometimes get to us writers. We suffer. Despair. Call each other and vent or moan, or both. But when that cover arrives, oh, is all the waiting worth it. So worth it!

So, here it is. The gorgeous cover for my next book. The hope that, yes, Stacy, it will really appear as a book in March. Really!

I am in love with the illustrations. So light-hearted. Fun. Silly. The illustrator, Bret Conover, is from San Diego, which is where the publisher, Kane Miller, sits as well. Barrie, San Diego really is the place to be, isn't it? This is his first picture book, and I think he hit a home run. Yeay!!!!

In other, slightly less exciting news, the new silkworms arrived. They have started to hatch. Two have already died on the artificial formula, but we have at least ten going strong. Oh, let them go all the way. Let there be silk!

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Ode to a Silkworm

Ode to a Silkworm

Small eggs so black and fine
Unbend and crawl and dine
But not on everything
Even if it's green
One treat alone will please
Leaves! Mulberry leaves!
Soft and fine and new
But shake off all the dew
A connoiseur can drown
While chomping through and down
We may die anyway
If leaves are hard as hay
And leave you wondering
Why did I start this thing? 

It's true. The silkworms are no more. We tried everything. I even steamed mulberry leaves - like steaming veggies for older people with wonky digestive systems. No go. They died. The silkworms, that is. Every last one. Fortunately, the company I ordered them from is sending us a fresh batch and artificial silkworm food. Hopefully this will work.

Oh, the things fiction doesn't tell you about real life! But we press on.

Despite our bad luck with silkworms, we adopted a new family member. We had two dogs for about ten years. Then, about two years ago, our beagle died. Just got old. After getting over missing him, we decided a new dog might be good for us and for our surviving, lonely dog. On Saturday, we finally found the perfect match. We tried the SPCA, but the dog we picked out didn't get along with our Mulligan. The one that did, wasn't terribly interested in us. So, we went to the city animal shelter. There, it is less a question of whether a person will find a dog to take home and more, can I limit myself to just one?

It was hard, mostly because they all wanted to come home with us, but we cannot adopt 65 dogs, as much as we would like to. Seriously.

After much deliberation, we decided on one.

She's pretty sweet and chill. The perfect writing partner. Lays on the carpet in front of my desk and keeps me company along the lonely path of writing. If only she could get the potty-training thing down...before the next batch of silkworms arrives.

If this were fiction, I would so make that happen!

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

You might be a writer if...

I've been let out on good behavior for a few days having turned in my revised critical thesis. This basically means that I have time to take care of those fires that have been burning so evenly around my house. One is the Dr. Doolittle room, which goes straight to the heart of this blog: You might be a writer if...you try to make books come to life.

I don't mean the books you write because, of course, you try really hard to make those come to life.

I don't mean the books you read when you were a kid. Raise you hand (mentally) if you're one of those kids who tried to levitate rocks like Luke Skywalker or wondered if you really could tesser if you just thought about it hard enough.

No, I mean that you're still doing that today.

Guilty secret: I am.

Only, it isn't so secret anymore. You see, the summer residency at Vermont College assigned Linda Sue Park's Project Mulberry. Three other books were assigned with hers. We only had to read two. Being the good student I am, I only read two. But then, being the guilt student I am, after residency was over, I got the other two and read them (and I did not just write that in case any faculty members are reading my blog. Really).

Project Mulberry was assigned because of its format. Instead of Park remaining an unseen, unheard, unexperienced author, she steps in and has conversations with her main protagonist. The question posed was whether this got in the way of the actual story, if it pulled us readers out and whether that ultimately worked or was a hindrance.

Granted, all of that was interesting, but what really hooked me was the actual story. Two children raise silkworms, make thread and then embroider a project from the thread they've made to enter at the state fair.

In the words of ten year olds everywhere...Awesome!

So when my kids came home from their Montessori school needing a creative project for the year (they are in 4th and 6th grades in the same classroom), BANG! I had the perfect idea for them.

And they liked it. Yippee! Super Mom gets to secretly do good and make her favorite read come to life. Could life get any better?

It could get a whole lot more real, but I'm skipping ahead.

We ordered the worms. The girls quickly pointed out (after having read Project Mulberry, too) that the worms were more expensive in real life than in Park's story. I tried to explain that a few years had gone by, inflation, that kind of thing. I think they were still upset that reality did not exactly mirror fiction (as was my pocket book).

We pressed on, setting up shop in the garage since it's got the perfect incubating temperature at the moment, a balmy 85. Teh eggs arrive. We carefully placed them in the habitat, sprayed them with water...waited...sprayed...waited. In only six days, they began to hatch (faster than in Park's story, but no one complained this time).

Then the trouble started. We have a mulberry tree on our property, so food shouldn't have been a problem. We picked some leaves.

The worms wouldn't eat them.

Uh-oh. Silkworms eat mulberry leaves and mulberry leaves only. ONLY. What were we going to feed them?

My oldest pipes up, "the brochure the eggs came with said sometimes fall leaves are too tough."

Why didn't she tell me this before? (Let's not get into why didn't I read the pamphlet the eggs came with. I read Project Mulberry!).

So, I called my parents who always have a wild assortment of young trees growing in their yard. It was raining (storming actually), but I pleaded the case of the dying silkworms. My mom, who really must have wondered how old I was at that moment, agreed to trudge out in the deluge and check the leaves. We raced over to collect them.

Silkworms saved!

Until two days later. The temperature in Oklahoma shot up to the mid-90s. My husband, who has this thing about closing the garage door immediately after he pulls in his car, no matter how hot outside it is, did. The garage heated up.

Silkworms started dropping, like, well, like flies.

We ER-ed them into the laundry room. Painstakingly moved them from the dried out leaves to fresh, new, young, clean, delicious leaves.

Silkworms saved!

Then this morning, they started dropping again. Won't eat their leaves. Won't move. Might be in the sleeping stage, but we can't be sure. Frantically, I went online for advice. The only thing I could guestimate is that it could be mold on the leaves. Carefully, I created a new habitat, washed new leaves, and have now transferred all of the worms to their new home. My kids helped until carpool showed up.

Silkworms saved?

I really hope so because if we have to start from scratch, I will never get another word written on my novel. I have become a 24/7 silkworm caregiver. (This is not to mention the 30+ tadpoles we saved from soaring 100 degree temps in July and are now raising right next to the silkworms, of which, currently, 7 have sprouted all four legs and have greeted me mornings in the sink, on the faucet, on the sponge...).

I guess the motto of all of this is: Be careful what you wish for. I have never ever had a book come to life in such an exciting, frantic, uncertain, real way.

Does this mean I am becoming an amazingly great writer...or is my imagination finally getting the best of me?

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Who is Justin Bieber?

The challenge has gone out over at Red Room to try and get a grip on the insane amount of success, or is it fame?, the pop singer, Justin Bieber, a mere 16 year-old, has risen to in just over a year's time.

Those of my generation are shaking their heads. Justin who? How? What?

Me, I'm a children's author, plus, I have two girls. I'm in the throes of experiencing all of this from many angles. Granted, my eleven year-old is not a must-go-to-his-concert-or-I'll-die kind of fan, but her best friend is. And let me tell you, the giggles roll in mouth-covering waves when Bieber's name comes up. She knows all of his songs. She follows him in Seventeen. And she will watch any show, ANY, even if Justin is only a tangential part of it.

Why? Why, why, why bemoan parents? Why is he so special?

If you're a writer, you may, like me in my darker moments, feel a distinct twinge of, dare I say, jealousy? Why does he get all of the spotlight? Why his songs? What about my books? Or, to be somewhat more objective and less me, me, me-oriented, Katherine Paterson's? Yeesh. There's a woman who can write. Why don't kids put a huge poster of Katherine on their walls with a shrine of candles and library receipts from all of the Katherine Paterson books they've checked out, and the stub to the Bridge to Terabithia movie in a sealed glass case with light-sensitive glass, preserved for all times? In all fairness, I'm not sure that would really be up Katherine's alley, but you get my point. Why don't kids worship book writers like they do boy singers?

Tricky question. Very tricky.

T.S. Eliot's objective correlative clearly speaks to the answer, but let's keep it simple, shall we. Let's just let the object work on us:




Did your heart skip a beat? Were you swept back to the late seventies, the Partridge Family, hours of pining away for that perfect boy with the perfect hair and who can sing? (Note: this is a 2006 calendar. There are some of you still pining!)

Not feeling it yet?
Try this one:
Yeah, few can resist the sirene's call of Leif Garrett. That hair. Those eyes. That smile. That open shirt. Sigh. I don't know about you, but man, did I want...want...

Want what?

That's the real clincher, isn't it? What do these boy heart throbs stir in the girly breast (Did you titter because I said breast? Come on, admit it. After those pictures, we're all thirteen right now, aren't we?)

Possibility. The possibility of romance. Of being liked. Of having someone crush on you with that quivering, knee-knocking, heart-stopping intensity that you feel when you look at them.

And, in my great grandmother's words (fake a Hungarian accent when you read this), "They're such nice boys." They'll take care of us. Be good to us. Love us. And yes, even feminist extraordinaires want to be loved. So these figures are working on our deepest emotional desires, even if we do not want to admit it.

Bieber goes a step further. Take his song, "One Time". In the video, Bieber sings about how he is going to open up. He's going to tell the girl. The video shows him finally doing this. And what happens? Cool, ultra popular, singer spills out his heart and...the girl checks her watch and leaves! Rip the teenage girl heart out right there! Why? They know exactly how he feels. They've pined away for a boy who never notices them or worse, disses them. Bieber's video turns the table, making him the vulnerable one, the one needing to be taken care of and loved. 

It's the perfect girl dream.

Now, as an adult, if you're still asking, why him?, I clearly haven't put in the right terms yet. Let's talk as adults for a moment, shall we? 

Huge financial backing. H.U.G.E.

Usher discovered Bieber. He signed the boy wonder-to-be onto his record label, and then promoted the bajeesuz out of him. And wala, Bieber is a success. Usher could have chosen any kid - and there are tons who fit the boy heart throb bill - spiffy-ed him up, taught him how to sing, and given him a cool hair cut and they would have done the job just as well. Not buying it? Just see the David Cassidy and Leif Garrett pictures again. And again. And again. And again. It should sink in.

Justin just happened to be in the right place at the right time. Which only adds to the mystique, by the way. He is the quintessential nice boy from next door.

Getting back to the source of this blog challenge, Red Room, a group of writers, here's my last, all-out effort at putting Bieber success in writer's terminology. Think New York Times bestseller list. You might be a writer if, you've learned that the books that make that list are ones chosen in the quiet of a publisher's office by a group of editors who decide, "this is the title we are going to push". Marketing gets behind with the full force of their sales staff and advertising dollars. Ads are placed. Interviews lined up. An author tour arranged. And low and behold, the book makes the NYT bestseller list.

Does that mean the book isn't worthy? It's just dollars working? Absolutely not. But there are probably ten to fifty other books that, given the right marketing push, could have risen to that intense fame/financial success given the same sort of marketing support.

In the end, fame (and to some extent financial success) are about getting a lucky break. Luck: where preparation and opportunity meet. We writers can control the preparation. Write. Write on the edge of reason, taking all chances, no holds barred. We can even expose ourselves to opportunity by getting out of our writer's caves, speaking at conferences, doing book-signings at book stores, going to ALA and BEA.

In the end, however, whether opportunity and preparation actually meet, well, that's up to fate. Now if somebody could explain that nebulous entity to me, I'd be eternally grateful!

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The Book Review Club - The Accidental Adventures of India McAllister

The Accidental Adventures of India McAllister
By Charlotte Agell
middle grade
(151 pp with some b/w illustration)

I won the advance arc for this book on Sarah Laurence's website and eagerly awaited its arrival. My youngest daughter is a serious Junie B. Jones, Judy Moody, Flat Stanley, Geronimo Stilton, you-name-the-series-she'll-read-it kind of kid. I wondered if India would fit the bill.

She more than lived up to my expectations. One of my pet peeves with series books these days is the flatness to the characters. This is not to say they don't have their own quirks, but rather, that they all seem to come from the same amorphous, fictitious middle America neighborhood. It's a great marketing ploy, but gets a little boring after a while, at least for me.

Which is what drew me into this book immediately. India is a adopted from China. Her parents are divorced. Her dad is gay and in a relationship with another man. Her mom is a self-sufficient artist (that really sealed the deal). India lives in a real place, Wolfgang, Maine. It is not middle America. It is a little town with a forest where you can get lost! There is so much texture to this story and its characters. The adventures India has are regular kid adventures. She has a boy who is her friend but not her boyfriend, Colby. He has a crush on a girl India cannot stand. India and Colby sleep out in a field to watch for UFOs. India spends time with her elderly neighbor next door. And all around these adventures is the enticing flavors of real setting, modern day family, and real life.

Go India!

Add to that the gentle illustrations with which Agell enlivens the pages, and it's a winning combination. I cannot wait to read more.

For more adventurous tales, hop over to our fearless leader, Barrie Summy's blog!

On a tangentially related note, I got to see the inside illustrations for my upcoming picture book, ROPE 'EM, that comes out in March 2011 with Kane Miller. Gorgeous (author swoons).

I'm in love!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Paradise for Sinners

Somewhere between July and August I think I went from venal to mortal sins regarding the regularity with which I have been posting. I have my excuses...but don't all sinners?

So I was kinda surprised when they still let me into paradise. The Hawaiian version. 

I frantically wrote for two weeks straight, literally day and night, to get that d*@# Master's Thesis rough draft finished so that I could take the long-planned family vacation with my family and not face a mutiny when they found me up in the middle of the night working on the d*@# thesis. It was self-preservation. Really.

So it was with a clean writing slate that I boarded American Airlines Flight 7 for the tropical paradise on earth known as Maui. For two weeks, I did not have to think about scene, setting, objective correlative, plotting (except maybe what I was plotting to do that very day with my kids and husband in that particularly gorgeous setting and the emotions it would evoke). It was glorious. Heaven on earth. Granted, there were times when the blackened coals of the underneath emerged to char my toes, but that's why man invented shoes, right?

I did not want to leave. Ever. Which is probably why I keep setting books in Hawaii. I can't help it. I am drawn to the climate and atmosphere of the South Pacific like a homing pigeon. It is just so...other. So...relaxing. My youngest made the wise point that if I moved there, though, it wouldn't be special anymore. Good point. Routine would set in.

Still, I'd be willing risk it to see if I could ever reach a saturation point living full time in paradise. It's a tough job, but somebody's got to do it.

Now if I could just write that sinfully successful novel that will get me there!

Until then, here's to dreaming about sand, sun, and the next big wave. 

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

The Book Review Club - A Step from Heaven

A Step from Heaven
An Na
middle grade - young adult

Bless me Father, for I have sinned. It has been one month since my last posting.

I have a really good excuse! Honest.

I'm bogged down in MFA thesis writing. I have to hand in the rough draft on Friday, which means I've had a whole 2.5 weeks to research and write it out. Stress. Where would I be without you?

Still, I wouldn't miss The Book Review Club for anything so I've surfaced for a few short, glorious moments to commune with the outside world...and remind myself, there is an outside world.

Here we go.

A Step from Heaven is the story of a Korean girl, Yung Ju, and her family as they move from Korea to the United States. The story follows the trials the move presents for all of the family members. The father becomes increasingly abusive, until Yung Ju is faced with either turning him in to save her mother's life (as well as her own), or turning a blind eye yet again.

Gripping stuff.

From a craft angle, I really enjoyed the vignette format An Na used to tell her story. The piece begins with Yung Ju and her father at the ocean. He is teaching her to swim. It is an endearing moment. The father is not just a brute, but he loves his daughter. Also, the scene highlights water, which is an underlying current throughout the book.

By telling the story in vignettes, the effect is very aquatic. The vignettes lap against the reader's mind like small waves. Building. Building. Ever building. Until the climax of the story when Yung Ju saves her mother and with one phone call, sweeps her entire family onto a new, healthier emotional trajectory.

The one issue I had with the piece is that, since it begins when Yung Ju is four, she refers to everyone in her family with their Korean titles, i.e. Mother is Uhmma, Grandmother is Halmoni, and Father is Apa. It might just be me, but it took me a chapter to figure out who each of the titles refers to. In the end, I caught on, but it caused me a great deal of initial confusion, as well as raised the question, if I plan to tell a story in first person, with a non-native English speaker, and want to stay true to character, how do I bring in the names of the people closest to my character without confusing my reader? It's a tough question. This approach did not feel satisfactory for me, but at the same time, I am hard pressed to come up with a better one, other than to abandon the foreign names and use ones in English. Tough call.

Nevertheless, this is a phenomenal read. The writing is tight. The flow even. The climb to the climax excellent. The characters well-rounded. And it is fairly quick. So, if you are looking for a short, craft-packed, well-written piece, look no further. A Step from Heaven is your piece.

For other great reads, check out our fearless leader, Barrie Summy's, blog!

Now back to that nagging thesis. Ugh.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

The Book Review Club - Monster

Monster
Walter Dean Meyers
YA

In the interests of full disclosure, this book has been on my mental to-read pile for at least two years. A writer friend of mine, Linda Joy Singleton, heartily recommended it, but I have to admit, I cringed at the title. I knew it would not be a green meadows, blue skies and sweet little bunnies read (I prefer these, I'll admit). This was serious stuff. So....I put it off.

Then it was assigned for the upcoming residency at Vermont College starting next Monday. So, I bit the bullet and got the book from the library.

Basic plot: African American boy from NYC is charged as an accomplice in a felony murder and this is his trial.

The story is gritty and well told; however its storytelling form is the real nugget in this piece. The story is written in script format interspersed with bits of prose and handwritten journal entries, as well as images. As such, it was an interesting mix of Hollywood meets young adult fiction. The images add to that feeling by offering snapshots one could imagine posted up next to beats/scenes scattered along a chaotic storyboard on some lonely script writer's wall.

It is perhaps the latest version of storytelling for our generation. A book of letters does not work super well in today's society. A book of emails or instant texting, absolutely. Just check out the TTYL series by Lauren Myracle. Script format, however, seems like an underused method for the world of kids' novels. I do not know of any other ya or mg books told in this style (and now hope for a few suggestions from all of you much more plugged in readers out there!) It offers the writer novel methods of honing focus on one character and pulling back out, much like a camera. It is worth playing around with as a writing format. Also, because of the vast amount of white space script format inherently brings with it, such books might lend themselves more readily to reluctant readers.

The one question is, what stories lend themselves to script format? Murder trial, absolutely. Drama queen? One-day-in-the-life types of stories? Are there more?

At the very latest, next week in Vermont, I hope to find out!

For more great reviews, hop over to The Book Review's fearless leader's blog and check out what the summer has to offer (maybe even a few green meadows!).

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Unexpected Side Effects

Since my last year has been filled with intense reading, analyzing and writing, I have wondered what, if any, the effects have been on my world outside of writing. As always, the side effects appear least where I expect them.

The movies.

My husband and I decided to catch up on actual movie-going since the kids are in Germany this month. When we were young and poor graduate students and living in Germany ourselves, every Wednesday night was movie night because the theaters had half-price tickets. There was hardly ever a lack of things to see. Sure, there were lulls, but for the most part, Wednesday night was a night away from reality in someone else's enchanting story. 

This last week has not been as enchanting. We went to see Killers with Katherine Heigl and Ashton Kutscher, Sex and the City 2, and Letters to Juliet. You can guess who was picking the movies. But even if my husband had had more of a say, the only one we'd have added to the mix is Iron Man 2. Without having seen the last one, still, of the other three, the only one that held my attention was Letters to Juliet. I knew Sex and the City 2 would be a walk down memory lane, but I was actually checking my watch during the movie! Me. A diehard Sex and the City fan. During Killers, I checked my watch, too. I have never checked my watch in a movie. What is wrong with me? Have I studied plot so much that now I cannot get lost even a little bit in a mediocre film?

I think maybe. 

The upside is that I've seen Letters to Juliet twice, and would see it a third time. The writing is smart, the acting good, the storyline plausible, with good A and B arc-ing stories. But why is there only one such movie out there at the height of summer? Granted, I'm waiting for the kids to come back before I go see Karate Kid, but that's got to be good. The original was already super and the new actors should spice up the latest version. I do not think there will be any watch checking. 

However, if there is any truth to the adage that there are no new stories, only new ways of telling them, then I am worried about the movies. Of the movies listed above, only 2 are originals. Of those, I only got caught up in one. I know the movie industry is suffering, but there is good writing out there. Remakes are fun, but the real rush (and dollars) comes from fresh, innovative, exciting writing combined with sharp acting.

Now if I can just apply what I've learned to my own writing!

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Another Semester Complete!

I finished my second semester at Vermont College.

Amen! Hallelujah!

Where's the Tylenol?

Seriously. 

It has been an incredibly full semester of writing. I took apart one manuscript for experimentation purposes. Yes, how fun, right? I got to try out varying POVs on the poor little thing. It survived. If I am being honest, it...well, it got better even. But it was a rough five months for that guinea pig of a work in progress.

I also wrote a second manuscript. Finished a rough draft even. Very satisfying. When I forget the sleepless nights and zombie like way I walked around the house some days completely stuck in my story, but I'd be like that with our without the MFA program. This way, I got to finish a draft with someone standing on the sidelines directing me when I got too offsides. Truly satisfying.

And then there were the umpteen critical essays I wrote, books I read, craft pieces I chewed on, and existential angst moments I went through trying to figure out how to make my writing better.

In the end, the big question remains? Was it worth it?

For me, yes. I realize I could do this to myself without the aid of an advisor, but I like the input. And I am not sure I would be so diligent about struggling with issues of craft if I didn't have to write those glorious ten page papers. And finally, I know for a fact, I wouldn't take an MS apart and play with one aspect of it just for the heck of it. It's like taking a car apart and not being sure it will still be the same model when you put it back together but having some vague notion it will run better, just not how. It isn't exactly a comfortable thing to do. Worthwhile? Totally. But better done for me with a little guidance.

But did it make me any better?

In a word, yeah. I am finally learning how to take raw information and transform it into something more than description, into story, and control the process while I am doing it. Granted, I keep creating new problems and sticking points for myself with each work, but I think that may be par for the game. Learning how to self-diagnose has been helping there. I still am a firm believer in a second set of eyes looking over my work before I send it out. I cannot always see the forest for the trees, and it is the blind spots that often need the most work for me. But I am learning. And that is what this whole process is about for me.

Hold on. Wait a minute.

I am learning!

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Growing Pains

Summer has arrived in Oklahoma, which means my two girls left a week and a half ago to attend school in Germany for the month of June. Last year was the first time they went, and there was lots of nervous uncertainty attached with the going. This year, there were less tears...on their side. I have a deep dark confession to make. I don't like being an empty-nester with an 11 year old and an 8 year old.

That is the selfish part of me coming out. I know this is so great for them. They're German gets sooooooooo much better during the month. They have new friends their age in a German school. The family that they stay with is phenomenal. My husband and I have been friends with the parents since graduate school (which is starting to make me feel old!). So they are in good hands, having great experiences, and doing things I, as a kid, would have given just about anything to do. But I miss my babies.

I know you can get used to just about anything. I'm not sure I'll totally get used to this, so I've decided to cope by burying myself in my WIP and rewriting until the cows come home. Literally. Since I don't have to take off to run carpool, gymnastics, swimming, and a million other errands, there is nothing stopping me from obsessing until those tinkling bells start a'ringin' (which actually sounds a lot more like a garage door opening when my husband comes home).

There is something to be said for obsessing now and again. I've learned a lot about my writing just from simply not having to stop mid-thought and fly out of the door. How this will translate into regular life once the girls come back, I have no idea. But, it is a journey, right? I'm on the road to somewhere...it'll be interesting to find out where that is.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

The Book Review Club - When You Reach Me

When You Reach Me
Rebecca Stead

middle grade

I thought twice about reviewing this book. It's always hard when a piece wins an award to write a review about it. The prejudice that goes along with an award as weighty as the Newbery is that the book is phenomenal.


Only, I had some serious issues with it.

Of course, making such a statement requires serious justification, and let me say that I think the premise--time travel--and the writing are phenomenal. They are what kept me reading.

However, I had some serious problems with the fact that Stead rested her story so significantly on L'Engle's, A Wrinkle in Time. A professor of mine in grad school told us--as a way of more or less taking the burden off our shoulders of coming up with new ideas for term papers and later, our own research--that we should build upon the ideas already out there (upon the shoulders of giants), not think we have to come up with brand new ones. So, I'm all for building upon the idea of time travel that L'Engle entertained in A Wrinkle in Time, which also happens to be one of my all time favorite books.

What I had trouble with in Stead's piece was that she built the whole book around L'Engle's when she didn't really have to. She set the book in the 1970s, made the main character obsessed with L'Engle's book, kept referring to it and debating the time travel issue as L'Engle explained it in her piece. I'm not sure why. Stead took L'Engle's idea and reshaped, built onto it, like many many writers do, and made it something clever and new. So why the need to incorporate A Wrinkle in Time into the very thread of When You Reach Me? The end result was distracting and placed Stead's groundbreaking thoughts and concepts in the very long, very gigantic shadow of L'Engle's own work.

In the end, if you are looking for amazingly good stylistic writing with strong characters, this piece has them. A new idea on time travel? The book has that too. If only it didn't have such a long shadow interwoven within its very fabric.

For more amazing reads, see Barrie Summy's blog this week!

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

There's a Low that's Moving Through...

Tulsa is starting to have that permanently dreary, rainy look to it. Forget the tornadoes, which, actually, is sort of a crazy idea, but they are beginning to feel less dangerous than the perma-gloom. Rain is great. LOVE IT, especially in this part of the country where it can come all too seldom in summer.

The perma-gloom that comes with day after day after day of dreary weather because we are getting more than our fair share of rain all at once, however, is starting to wear.

The worst part is that the mood it throws me into makes writing feel like the ultimate challenge. Okay, anything cerebral right now feels like the ultimate challenge, but writing is really hard. Honest. I think I may have to escape to a windowless room and paint bright yellow suns all around to fool my brain into believing the weather is really really gorgeous out there.

Do you think it will work?

If not, I can always crawl into that book I'm reading right now, The Spying Heart, by Katherine Paterson, and hope that by the time I finish, the sun will have found its way back into the Midwest (if not back into my writing mojo).

Here's to hoping! Now where is that book....

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Tornado Alley

I foolishly put off blogging on Wednesday because I was finishing a manuscript and all I could think about was said manuscript. Hopefully, I'll think of something to blog about by tomorrow, I hoped.

I think I hoped too hard. Tomorrow has come and with it, a majorly intense blog theme--high winds and tornadoes!

The sirens went off at 5 a.m. this morning just as we lost power. For the first time in our lives, we grabbed the kids and headed for the storm shelter we had dug under our garage floor about seven years ago. That is an almost unreal feeling, huddling together, listening to the winds howl just outside the garage door (which suddenly seemed very flimsy), feeling the kids shake, hearing the dog pant, and seeing nothing but pitch blackness.

Fortunately, we came out unscathed and the house is still standing, but in a direct line with our house, only a street away, three huge, 150 year old trees were ripped out of the ground and laid crosswise across the road and front lawns of our neighbors. They missed the houses, by inches, but still, they missed.

And these were, theoretically, only high winds. I have a feeling someone at the weather station missed a rotation, but who knows. I'm just glad we're all still standing.

I have experienced a tornado once before in my life--right behind my car as I was driving home. I wouldn't suggest trying this at home. I had just returned from Houston and had spent the better part of an hour in a holding pattern over Tulsa until the storm moved out. The landing was super bumpy, but okay. I hopped in my car to head home. Minutes from my house, the storm, which had abated, revved back up. Hail pummeled down. The sky was pitch black. And behind me I heard the sound of a jet engine. I have never been so scared in all of my life. I was right next to the river, where tornadoes like to strike in this area. I could barely see anything, the rain was falling so hard. By the time I got home, I was shaking. I think I know how Dorothy felt now.  

If you're looking for a little weather excitement, look no further. Oklahoma is the place to be. Me? I'd settle for calm and sunny right now. I've had about all the excitement I'd can handle for a while, but oh the story ideas!

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

The Book Review Club - Leviathan

Leviathan
Scott Westerfield
young adult/steampunk

Steampunk. 

Already skeptical? Or intrigued? 

Westerfield's romp into the on-again off-again genre of steampunk will definitely leave you thinking. Granted, the complicated web of alliances that led to the first World War could be something tagged as, dare I say, dry and boring? However, by bringing in the fantastical, Westerfield makes a complicated but important era of history a little more accessible. How many students will groan, however, when they learn that Darwinist fabricated creatures did not, in fact, exist. Oh well. Whatever it takes to grab their attention and get them interested, right? 

In short, Leviathan is the story of Aleksander, sole heir to the Archduke of Austria who is being hunted by Franz Joseph and Germany to be done away with quietly, and Deryn, young Scottish girl passing as a boy in order to serve in the Royal Air Force. Their paths cross when the airship Leviathan--part whale, part a thousand other creatures--that Deryn is assigned to is shot down by German planes over the Swiss Alps, where Alek is hiding out. The two join forces to battle a common enemy, the Germans.

If you like science fiction, you'll enjoy. If you like history, you'll have fun pulling apart the real from the alternate. If you like finding new tools for writing, well then, you may actually secretly (or not so secretly) whistle for joy. 

Narration is probably one of the hardest aspects to incorporate into writing without killing a story's pace. We demanding readers want action, not a bunch of telling, right? Westerfield has his work cut out for him with this piece. Not only does he have to get in the usual suspects-character appearance, character backstory, historical setting, setting-he has to explain his fabricated creatures, how they work, how they came into being, and all of that alternate history. It's not small feat. 

Westerfield tackles the weighty challenge by combining narration with other story elements, such as action, dialogue, and emotional responses. Much like the Darwinists in his story combine life threads of various animals to create fabricated war animals, Westerfield combines to create wholly new show-tell and tell-show “beasties” that turn a potential pace killer into a pace maker.  

It's marvelous work, if a writer is looking for a few new tricks. How do I work narration into dialogue without it becoming an information dump? It's here. How do I distract with action while getting across narration? In Blake Snyder's words (Save the Cat) pull a Pope in the Pool? Westerfield uses a sword fight. Dissertations could be written on that sword fight alone. It's narration. It's a segway from Act 1 into Act 2. It's a symbolic cutting of the last strings of etiquette so that Alek is free to strive to leave his mark on the developing war. It's just plain good writing. How do I make narration a pace maker? Ah, it's here too. Nothing like using the divulgence of information to spark a romance between two main characters. 

So, if you are looking for a little narration helper, look no further. Westerfield has a few tricks I will definitely use in the future. There is much craft to learn here, and even a few fun facts. It's well worth the two or three nights it takes to get through the book. Well, well worth it. 

And when you're done with that, hop over to Barrie Summy's blog for more interesting reads!

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

There Are No New Stories

I recently sat down to add an oldie but a goodie to my library, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. I don't know how I managed, but I missed this one in high school and college. After finishing it last night, I am in awe.

I always thought Shelley's work was groundbreaking, even if all I'd ever seen of it was the parodied Mel Brooks version, Young Frankenstein. The tragic monster hero shines through, even there.

I'd even read about it some before. That is was and still is touted as the first science fiction piece. New. New. New.

Well...

In all fairness to Shelley, not even she labeled her work as new. She actually entitled it, The Modern Prometheus. Yep, that really really really old Greek guy who had his liver eaten out every day (he also happened to create life from clay). 

There are no new stories.

Shelley did have a new take, though. It's not often that man creates life. Woman, yes. Man? And then he turns on it. Deplores it. And that creation goes out in the world to be despised and hated. And yet it only wishes to be loved and show love. It's external hatred that turns the outwardly monsterly creation into a monster on the inside. 

Clever. Very very clever.

By the time I got to Frankenstein the man's death, I wasn't rooting for him. I was rooting for the misunderstood monster. How could I not? The monster pleads with Frankenstein to understand his plight. To give him someone to love and to share his life. Frankenstein, however, cannot get beyond his own external revulsion at the outward appearance of his creation. He cannot see that ugly on the outside does not necessarily mean ugly on the inside.

In today's world of increasing preoccupation with external appearances, it's a classic idea. A classic tale. It's still cutting edge. That's saying a lot for such an old tome. Wouldn't it be amazing to write something that rings true for such a long time?

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

What Happens After...

I have been thinking long and hard about what happens after I finish grad school in writing. What is the expectation? I'm already published, so it's not getting published per se, although I would like to move out of the minor, small press houses and up to the major, bigger houses. Is grad school a surefire method of doing that?

How I wish.

Still, there is a certain level of expectation that grad school will help me figure out how to make my writing better.

So I was kind of surprised to read a rant on MFA writers the other day by an anonymous editor. God knows, we writers have enough paranoia about the world of publication, but now to read that educating ourselves in writing is a waste of time? Yeesh.

As a university educator in an entirely different field, political science, please let me say that I wish, wish, wish, it were required that politicians have a degree in political science, rather than law--as most do--or maybe even both. Perhaps then, they might have a deeper understanding of the history of interaction among nations and how best not to repeat past failures, rather than repeatedly making them.

Clearly, I'm all for educating yourself, which is probably why I'm in a writing MFA program. What I'm not for, and probably what an anonymous editor has against those with MFAs in writing, is attitude. I've had students who believe that just because they sat in my classroom, they had a right to a passing grade. Maybe that's what the anonymous editor has seen, writers who feel that since they have the MFA they deserve to be published.

If only it were that easy. Like any job, writing takes lots of hard work. In my experience so far, getting an MFA in the field means putting in more hours in a shorter time period and thus shortening the time spent figuring out how to write publishable stuff. Do you need an MFA to write? Absolutely not. A person can teach herself any craft. ANY. Thomas Jefferson was a self-taught architect and his home, Monticello, is still standing. But I wouldn't hire an architect today who went only to the school of hard knocks (unless, maybe, he were Thomas Jefferson).

So what does an MFA get you if it's not a pass-go-and-head-straight-for-publication card? A lot of experience in a condensed period of time. It's another option in the learning-the-craft scenario. In the end, it might-like any degree-get you a little more notice from editors and agents (say, 5 seconds instead of 3), but really, it's for me, the writer, not them, the outside world. Unless I figure out how to improve my craft, and then everybody wins. I'm guessing a lot of writers see it this way. I hope more and more will as we continue to educate ourselves. I hope, too, that the anonymous editor runs across some of them and changes her position on MFAs in writing. Education isn't a bad thing. It's what we do with it that measures what we've learned.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

What I Love About Graduate School

I never thought I'd see myself writing those words. My first go around with graduate school, ending in a PhD, was not exactly something I loved. It was a painful process with a lot of angst. When it was all over, I was convinced someone would show up one morning on my doorstep demanding my diploma back. It took a year to figure out they were actually going to let me keep it. How relieved I was. But I wasn't relieved enough to ever think I'd set foot within the ivory tower again.

Age heals all wounds. Here I am, back in the graduate school saddle again. And this time around, I'm really loving a lot more of it. Honest. 

Don't get me wrong, there is definitely pain involved with all of this learning to write. I mean, I could seriously do without the sick feeling deadlines stir up in the pit of my stomach when there is that "other life" of mine (kids, house, husband, dog, school visits, conferences, etc, etc, etc) jockeying for time and attention or the brain ache I get from trying to come up with new ideas for critical papers.

There's a big difference, though, that makes this whole go at grad school different. Feedback. I got plenty of feedback the first time around, but grades were the be all and end all of the program. I had to keep them up to keep my scholarships. This time, no real grades. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance philosophy to teaching prevails. Add to that, feedback. Writing is such a lonely world. Doing an MFA in writing makes that world infinitely less lonely and less confusing.

I've sent off enough manuscripts to have compiled a select and diverse collection of treasured rejection letters ranging from "it's not right for our list" to "I was confused." There are the acceptance letters in there, too, which is fantabulously awesome, but it's the rejections that get under my skin. It's not only because my work was rejected. That stings, of course. But actually, it's because I don't understand exactly why. Unfortunately, the publishing world is an incredibly busy place and if editors write you anything personal, it's a boon. Deciphering it, however, is an art unto itself. Bottom line, however, it's not working.

In grad school, I get the why behind "it's not working". I really really appreciate that. I'll do anything-probably because of all of the past rejection letters and the burning desire to minimize those and maximize the acceptance ones-to make a piece better. If my advisor says, X isn't working, I'm thrilled. Sure, I have an emotional response to not having gotten it right, but all of those rejection letters have taught me to value the explanation that follows the critique. I spend the entire next packet figuring out how to make X work, or throwing it out and going for something new. I sometimes wonder if there wouldn't be more published authors if the game of writing and publishing allowed for more in-depth comments in rejection letters.

In the end, I guess it's about finding my own path, but I am thrilled I have a guide for this portion of the journey. I feel like I might actually make it.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

The Book Review Club - Where the Mountain Meets the Moon

Where the Mountain Meets the Moon
by Grace Lin
middle grade

Move over brothers Grimm, there is a new fairy tale weaver in town, Grace Lin. And the tales aren't scary! No cut off thumbs. No drown children. No wolves cross-dressing as grandmothers. Instead, the reader is whisked off to the mountains of ancient - but not too ancient - China as Minli travels to the Neverending Mountain to ask the man in the moon how to change her family's fortune. She meets a dragon who cannot fly along the way. He too, wishes to change his fortune, and joins her. They meet many many more interesting characters on their trip - greedy monkeys, a green tiger, a boy with a water buffalo, a prince - to the Neverending Mountain that help Minli and Dragon or vice versa, and sometimes, both.

The tale is full of tales within tales - The Story of Fruitless Mountain, The Story of the Paper of Happinesss, The Story of the Village of Moon Rain. For those looking for a few craft points to walk away with, Lin eloquently moves from third to first person as she moves from Minli's story to these fantastical stories. Interestingly, she doesn't always switch voices. For the last story within a story, The Story of Wu Kang, for instance, Lin stays in third person. There is a paper in there somwhere...Even more importantly, though, the form is ideal for bedtime reading. These short stories within the story  create natural stopping points that make the book ideal for short reading periods. 

In this age of to buy or not to buy a book, this is a book worth purchasing in hard back. It is a work of art. There are color illustrations throughout, and four point color within the stories. It really is like a modern day, unscary fairy tale book rich with fantasy, Chinese fantasy. What a boon for American readers. Asian fantasy is, as yet, an almost untapped source of ideas and stories. There is so much to get lost in and enjoy.

I cannot wait to read this aloud to my daughters. I have a feeling it's going to be one we read over and over and over.

For more great reads, hop over to Barrie Summy's website to see all the writing world has to offer this month!

Friday, April 2, 2010

You Might Be a Writer If...

It has been so long since I had any revelations about being a writer. I think it's the trees blocking out the forest conundrum. I don't ever get out of the insular writer bubble to see how quirky I really am.

But...

While I was in Virginia, I did manage to escape for a little bit. Ironically, it was during one of the school visits I did there that I came across this little insight:

You might be a writer if...you hide extra copies of you WIP like horcruxes.

A child asked me if I keep extra copies of my manuscripts that I'm working on. I had to suppress maniacal laughing. Extra copies would be sane. I keep a gazillion copies stashed all over the place because, you know, what happens if my hard drive crashes? I need a copy not on my computer. So I put one on my husband's computer. But that might crash too. So I also got an Apple Time Machine that backs up his computer, my computer and anything else we connect to it. Okay, but what if the house burns down? Or we get one of those tornadoes Oklahoma is so famous for? Forget the house, the photos, the musical instruments, I need a safe copy of my WIP! Seriously, when we practice tornado drills in our house, my laptop is right after my kids. Nonetheless, I also keep a copy on a little zip drive I carry around with me. Ah, but that's not foolproof either. What if I lose it? Okay, so I need to periodically email myself a copy of it. Yes, safe in cyberspace.

Or not. My email could get lost. Things like that happen in cyberspace, you know.

Okay, so I make a hard copy of it. But this gets back at the "What if the house burns down?" issue. So, I send my WIP to a close friend (name not to be shared because, of course, that would defeat the purpose of keeping it safe, right?).

This friend is a screenwriter who has worked on blockbuster movies and understands the (I will not use the word "paranoid" despite how applicable it may seem) overly cautious first parent attention an author pays to her little, developing WIPs. This person keeps my WIP in a safe. A fireproof safe. Ah, finally, my little baby is safe.

Of course, getting rid of that hard copy is just as hard as getting rid of a horcrux. My friend recently had one destroyed for me. Believe me, this person is a gem. (S)he understands my need for total secrecy (which is not silly or extreme, is it?) with an unfinished piece. (S)he works with a company that does nothing else but destroy such types of writing. The WIP was shredded first one direction. Then the other. Then burned. And I can get the ashes if I really really want proof.

If you think of a WIP as being a little piece of an author's soul, then I think all of the--what may seem--nutty behavior makes sense.

Maybe.

I hope.