Imagination doesn't just mean making things up. It means thinking things through, solving [problems] or hoping to do so, and being just distant enough to be able to laugh at things that are normally painful. [Some people] would call this escapism, but they would be be entirely wrong. I would call fantasy the most serious, and the most useful branch of writing there is.
--Diana Wynne Jones

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Book Review: Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen, by Christopher McDougall

I love to run...er, I would love it, except that I always seem to get injured when I do it. Which is why I read this book. Because I'd had plantar fasciitis for six months and done absolutely everything doctors and everybody else recommended, including never going barefoot and buying orthotics and special shoes with extra arch support, and my heel pain kept getting worse. And then I heard something about a book called Born to Run and how some tribe in Mexico runs like 80 miles a day for fun with barely any shoes on at all.

So I bought the book, but my daughter snatched it, and then she lost it. Meanwhile, a guy at the shoe store was telling me that going barefoot might actually make a person's arches stronger, and my brother was telling me how he and my nephew had been running barefoot and how much more fun it is to run without shoes. So I walked my dog to the park one day on my miserable, screaming heels, took off my running shoes, and ran two miles barefoot in the grass.

It felt great. I did it again. And again. I was addicted. And my plantar fasciitis was gone in a month. I ran a triathlon, trying to mimic the barefoot technique as I ran in my shoes, and never had any heel pain at all. So weird.

And it dawned on me that when I used to love to run in elementary school, I did it in my little archless canvas Keds shoes, and I never had an injury of any kind until I convinced my mom to buy my first pair of Nikes and I read in a runner's magazine that proper running technique was to land heel first, something only possible in a highly-cushioned pair of shoes.

I finally found the book the other day, and had to read it almost in one sitting. After hearing and believing for so long that a person's body isn't made for running, I loved reading about an entire community of people, old and young, who run ultramarathons on a regular basis in nothing but strappy sandals, and they're all amazingly fast, which makes you think that maybe the human body was meant to run after all, and we moderns are just doing it wrong with our fancy cushioned shoes and lazy lifestyles and ultra-processed food.

Born to Run talks about technique, and shoes, and diet, and how running and caring about other people might sometimes have something to do with eachother, and it tells the story of a secret, amazing race between some of the most elite runners in America and members of this astonishing running tribe. It's also about finding joy in running and life and everything you do, and about a couple of scientists who discovered that the human body is actually designed to run, long and far. We aren't made to be walkers, we're made to be runners--long distance runners. If we can only remember how we used to do it. And remember to find the joy.

Although occasionally I got impatient with the sometimes too-long digressions about each participant in the race, and I didn't quite see what some of those details had to do with anything, overall I loved this book. I needed it. And reading had the interesting side-effect of making me want to run really far in the cold and eat a lot of chia seeds.

Well, and I stayed up reading until 3:00 am because I couldn't put it down.

I definitely recommend it (unless you're troubled by reading strong language, because it has some) if you're a runner, or want to be, or suffer from a million orthopedic injuries.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Deck Your Shelves...More Christmas Book Suggestions

It's book-buying time of year (we hope!) and at least a couple of other bloggers have great Christmas book suggestions:

check out Shannon Hale's (Goose Girl) recommendations and writer Matthew Kirby's.

And then, more book suggestions by me:

How could I have left Calvin and Hobbes off my list of boy books? The collected volumes of the comic strips by Bill Watterson (Something Under the Bed is Drooling, Sunday Pages 1985-1995, etc.) have been my ten-year-old's (and almost every one of his friends') standby for the last two years. Great vocabulary builder. You'll find kids will start asking you about things like Cubist art and sex-discrimination, so be prepared. Reluctant readers will happily wade through difficult words because they want to understand the joke, even if it seems too sophistacated for a kid that age. My 10 and 12-year-old quote from Calvin as much as from movies.

For the grown-ups (or serious teen-readers), how about a classic? Books I could re-read more times than I can squeeze in:

Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Bronte. Got me through the dark days of Junior High, along with Tolkien.

Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen. I know you've seen the movie(s), but have you read the book--lately? Not just romance, it's hilarious, even makes fun of the traditional romantic novel. Sparkling prose, dialogue any writer could learn from. It's brilliant.

Far From the Madding Crowd, Thomas Hardy. If you gave up on Hardy after Jude the Obscure, try again. Nobody tells a story like Hardy and this is my favorite of his.

Angle of Repose, Wallace Stegner. For the serious reader. I loved the allegory of modern humanity as a crippled, searching old man.

Till We Have Faces, C.S. Lewis. Stuns me every time.

Middlemarch, George Elliot. One of my all-time favorites. Love the BBC movie, as well.

The Woman in White, Wilkie Collins. Gothic romance by a peer of Dickens, I read this as a spoof and can't help laughing out loud at random moments, more evidence that I'm more than a little crazy. It's also terrifying and I love the villain, Count Fosco. If you've seen the movie, don't toss out the baby with the bath. The book (as usual) is much better.


If you have your own recommendations for fabulous books, please feel free to add to my reading list with a comment. I love to hear what you think.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Let me take care of your Christmas shopping...

It's easy: buy books--for everyone.

Nothing better than curling up with a great new book during down-time on Christmas Day. Besides, books are cheap. They go well with chocolate. And cozy Christmas fires in the fireplace. They don't even rot your brain.

If you're stumped about which book to buy for the kids in your life, let me take care of that problem for you right now.

Here's my list of this-year's book recommendations after twenty years of reading aloud and talking about books to kids, as well as watching how kids respond to the read-aloud experience of individual books. All the books on my list have passed the story-under-fire test: they've grabbed and kept real-life kids' attention, whether the kids are reading-addicts, or not so easy to please. Besides, they're all great, high-quality books I've read and happen to love myself, or I wouldn't put them on my list:)

Eat-the-book phase (babies):

*   Pat the Bunny, by Dorothy Kunhardt. It's an oldie, but goodie. Babies love this. I know my kids went through at least three of them, and I don't have a copy now because the last copy must have gotten eaten, too. But it set all five of my kids firmly on the love-books track from the time they were old enough to sit up on a lap and see that far (before that, you might as well read them Shakespeare, since they only care about the sounds anyway).

*   Goodnight Moon, Margaret Wise Brown. Another classic that still works. Babies love the sounds, and they really can't hurt this one unless they bring it into the tub. Perfect for settling down to bed.

*   Barnyard Dance, or The Going to Bed Book by Sandra Boynton. Kids love the silly pictures and fun sounds.

Less-inclined-to-eat, more-inclined-to-snuggle-and-look-at-pictures phase:

*   Mother Goose--almost any. I like the "Real Mother Goose," because of its old-fashioned charm, but Rosemary Wells has a fabulous MG and kids especially love her pictures. So do I. Young children can't seem to get enough of the sounds in nursery rhymes; they're just so fun to say aloud.

A-little-bit-older-kids-who-can-read-to-themselves, but-don't-want-to phase:

* Anything by Bill Peet. My kids absolutely can't get enough of his books. Our favorites: Jethro and Joel were a troll, How Droofus the Dragon Lost His Head, Kermit the Hermit. You really can't go wrong with Bill.

Pinkerton, Behave! by Stephen Kellogg. Still one of my 10-year-old's favorites.


Independant-readers-who-still-might-like-to-be-read-aloud-to, whether-they admit-it-or-not phase. (Read aloud to the youngest where everyone can hear, and watch the whole family start hanging out close by, pretending they aren't listening). Also, great books for everyone ages 10 and up.

*   Black Hearts in Battersea, and Nightbirds on Nantucket, by Joan Aiken.

*   Fantastic Mr. Fox, by Roald Dahl. I was thrilled when I heard they made this into a movie, so now it will be more accessible again. It's been one of my kids' favorites for years. I never get tired of reading it aloud.

*   Savvy, by Ingrid Law. Everyone at my house--boys and girls--from ages 10 to 16 loved this. They loved the story, I loved the language. It won a Newbery and deserved it.

* I'm not sure where to put this exactly, because everyone seems to love this book, even the ones who don't understand it: Rapunzel's Revenge, a graphic novel by Shannon Hale. Funny and exciting, and grabs the ones who are intimidated by lots of words and no pictures, as well as everybody else.

*   Howl's Moving Castle, by Diana Wynne Jones. It's got everything: action, magic, humor, and a little romance, but subtle enough not enough to scare the boys away. Don't tell them it's romantic and they might not realize. It's just a great story.

Great boy books (just because people are always asking). A lot of girls like these, too:

*   Percy Jackson and the Olympians series, beginning with The Lightning Thief, but I guarantee your boys won't want to stop there, by Rick Riordan. Hands down, my favorite books right now for boys 9-15, maybe even older, depending on their tastes. I've never met a boy who read these and didn't love them.

*   The Dark is Rising  series, by Susan Cooper. Ages Middle school and up will like these best, unless you have an avid younger reader who can handle a bit of scary, or you read it to them. Read these aloud to my 12-year-old son who had stopped wanting to read at alland it got him reading again.

*   The Hobbit, by J.R.R Tolkien, read-aloud to ages 10 and up, read to self ages 12 and up.

*   Lord of the Rings, for determined 12-year-olds, or 14 and up. A little hard for my reluctant 14-year-old reader at first, so I started reading Fellowship of the Ring to him, but he soon took it away and it became his favorite series.

Maze-Runner, by James Dashner. For 14 and up. Just came out this fall. Everything a boy could want, except having to wait for the sequel.


For Twilight-loving teenage girls:

*   The Dark Divine by Bree Despain. I liked it better than Twilight, especially the cool prodigal-son/paranomal twist to the story. It comes out two days before Christmas, but you can pre-order it now at Borders like I did, and I assume other book stores, too. Bree happens to be a friend, and I was lucky enough to read her pre-published version over a year ago, so this one is especially exciting for me. You can even get purple Dark Divine nail-polish to go with it (check out her blog here) and you can read the first three chapters in Romantic Times if you want to preview the book before its debut.


Other great girly reads:

Forest Born, by Shannon Hale. Next in her Books of Bayern series., just came out this Fall. If you haven't read them, or your daughters haven't, start with Goose Girl, then Enna Burning, and River Secrets. I also recommend Princess Academy and Book of a Thousand Days, also by Shannon.


The Loser's Guide to Life and Love, by A.E. Cannon. For slightly older teen girls, maybe 14 and up. Teenage boys might like this, too, since the main character is a boy and it's a funny book, but I haven't tested it on any real-life boys and it isn't action. You know your kid. You'll have to judge.

**********

I hate to stop here. I don't have any more room--just a tiny sampling of my personal kid-favorites for this year, and some classics that never die. Feel free to email me at owhither.gmail.com if you want more suggestions.

So many great books, so little space to tell you about them all...

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

What's in a name, Romeo? More than you thought, maybe...

I've noticed  a trend in my writing: I think I might be slightly obsessed with names.

For instance, my princess story has a main character who loses her name--and has to find another; my witch story centers around a girl who's stuck with probably the worst name on earth; and my current work-in-progress has a main character who's a slave boy with no real name at all.

One of the things my princess, slave boy, and witch each discover, I think, is that a name is often not some floating thing you toss or take up like a bit of seaweed, even if you manage to change it (which I'd do in a heartbeat if my last name were Bloodvessel, for instance, like a particularly-nasty character in one of Joan Aiken's books); it's often attached to something else--to family and origin, history and genetic traits, even culture, place, and heritage; it defines, at least a little bit, our sense of who we are.

Unfortunately, in Romeo's case. And Juliet's.

"A rose by any other name would smell as sweet," Romeo tries to convince Juliet (just hours after being hopelessly in love with another girl, but we'll leave that alone). Somehow everyone ends up dead in that story. Maybe because the main characters decided to pretend names didn't matter. They did matter--a lot, actually.

Your name isn't you. We hope. But it has some effect on you. And who are you, really, aside from your name? Do you know? Do I? I wonder.

I'm going to psychoanalyze myself here. Which should be interesting, since I've no actual psychology background.

I think I'm obsessed with names because mine is weird. It was, and continues to be, a little bit of an issue for me.

Here's a story: I grew up in a mid-sized town settled mostly by Scandanavian and English immigrants (top five most common surnames in my city: Anderson, Jensen, Christensen, Larsen, and Smith). Girls in my elementary school were named Sara, Amy, Mary or Becky.

Nobody was named Elena.

Nobody knew what to do with that.
They couldn't say it or spell it.
It was just weird.

Even I wasn't quite sure how I should pronounce it. The crossing guard said it the Spanish way (he sang Marie-Elena to me every day); my dad was a Russian professor and said it the Russian way, with a nice, fat Russian accent--more like Eliena than the Spanish "Alaina" version, and the rest of my family called me a Finnish nickname (my dad spent three years in Finland). Well, I figured I was just a weird, multi-cultural conglomeration of something. I always thought of myself as different from everybody else. And I always was. I was nerd-girl. Even my last name (Jarvis) was kind of a prissy-sounding English name (sorry, Jarvii). It evoked butlers somehow, or happy little wizards on cereal boxes. It got me teased, too.

So then I married one of maybe 8 Jubes in the entire U.S. I don't even hope for correct pronunciation of my names at this point, though people are getting better at the Spanish version of Elena these days. I answer to anything that sounds like an attempt: Elna, Alona, Alana, Alaina, Ee-lain-a, Elenna, Ellen-a, Jubb, Juke, Jule, Judd, Joobee, Hoobay, Jhoubay, whatever, and it's all ok. It's one piece of who I feel I am, however you say it.

Each time someone creatively pronounces me, I think, hmm, what if my last name really were said the French way and I were actually French? Or French-Canadian? What if my first name was pronounced the Manx way and I grew up on the Isle of Mann instead of in the Wasatch Mountains ? What then?

So, I write about names. Because I think it's fascinating how a name can define you--or not. I hope I'm more than just a weird name. And I wonder what I'd be like if I'd grown up named something else entirely.

Maybe I'd be exactly the same. I kind of like to think so.

Honestly, I doubt it.

And I wonder what would happen if a person suddenly discovered they weren't the person they thought they were all along.

What if Romeo discovered he wasn't a Montague after meeting Juliet? What if he were the illegitimate son of Juliet's nurse? Or Paris's long-lost brother? What then?

An entirely different story, at least...

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Just in time for the holidays...

Hubby put the Christmas lights up

and

I mailed off Hepzibah to my agent at last.

I expect to do some more revisions before we send her out into the publishing world, but I feel a little bit like I've just sent my baby to her first day of Kindergarten. Except I couldn't cry. I did laugh aloud.

There's a little story behind all this. It begins
Once upon a time, H was my first novel ever, and I worked on it non-stop for about a year, all the while attending conferences and reading like a mad-woman, but I never found a beginning I liked,

so,

after about 35 *&%$#! beginnings,

I got sick of it and set it aside for a couple of years. Meanwhile, I wrote a second novel--the novel which got me an agent--and began three others.

I learned a lot in those three years of writing and reading every day and studying novel-writing. When I picked H up again, I realized she needed a complete overhaul, poor girl. I kept getting her out and tinkering, and then I'd get distracted and pick up one of my other projects, and she got a little lost in the shuffle. Because it's so much easier to do something new and get it basically right the first time, than to fix what seems like a big, fat mess.

I finally got down to business when my friend, Jamie, started a One-Page-a-Day blog where we commit to write at least one page every day and then report on the blog if we've done it or not and make our sorry excuses if we fail. I decided then to force myself to work on H every single day, whether I felt like it or not and set aside my other projects for awhile. Thanks, Jamie. What a great idea. If you're a writer (or would like to be) and want to join us, feel free to check out the rules (for example, you have to prove you're not an axe-murderer, and it really helps if you know one of us) on the blog at http://onepageadaygroup.blogspot.com/.

Once I got my head in the story again, it took off, and I decided to finish her up for National Novel-Writing Month. Which I did last Saturday, and sent her off to the agency that night (er, Sunday morning, I guess) at 1:30 am.

The end.

And we lived happily ever after. For a few days, anyway.

So,

for Thanksgiving, one of the things I'm thankful for is that Hepzibah is out of my hands for the moment, after nagging at me for three years to finish her up. I really like her. I do. I'm just glad to get her out the door for a bit.

My family is thankful, as well.
I cooked dinner yesterday for the first time in I-can't-remember how long.
I have time to think about Christmas presents and such things.
No more witch girl hovering over my head and haunting me: finish me up, finish me up.

A couple of other random thankfulnesses:

I'm thankful for my sisters.
And my poor, neglected children and husband. I'll be seeing more of you now.
And the amazing mountains by my house.
And the smell of cinnamon.
For fresh thyme still growing in the garden.
For happy moments
And music.

Happy Thanksgiving, all! I'm baking rolls--real, homemade, five-hour butter rolls. Mmm.

Monday, November 23, 2009

We (Writers) Are Transmitters

I cringe whenever I hear an author say, "I don't write for an audience; I write for myself."

Well, of course she writes for herself. So does probably every other writer, including me. Writing keeps us sane.  But I have three teenage girls, and when they pick up a book, that story isn't just the author's anymore, it belongs to my daughter; it's in her head and how she responds to it could change a lot about the way she thinks.

If you're published, you're writing for an audience.
If other people read your stuff, you're writing for an audience.
Anyone who takes their manuscript out of its drawer and hands it off to someone else has written for an audience.

And there's a certain amount of responsibility that comes with that, like it or not.

Words have power to change lives, and that's something you've got to take into account when your work goes out into the world. As John Gardner points out in The Art of Fiction, somebody who reads your book may be desperate, or suicidal, or otherwise in trouble, and your book may be the tipper, one way or the other. Especially when you write for young people that's true, because kids actually listen, unlike adults.

Your words are power; what are you going to do with that?

There's this poem by D.H. Lawrence that's been in my head for about twenty years. I've removed one politically incorrect line, so nobody rises up in outrage and threatens to beat me with a stick, but when read it, I can't help thinking about writing, since that's what I spend my hours doing.



We Are Transmitters

As we live, we are transmitters of life.
And when we fail to transmit life, life fails to flow through us.

That is part of the mystery of sex, it is a flow onwards...

And if, as we work, we can transmit life into our work,
life, still more life, rushes into us to compensate, to be ready
and we ripple with life through the days.

Even if it is a woman making an apple dumpling, or a man a stool,
if life goes into the pudding, good is the pudding,
good is the stool,
content is the woman, with fresh life rippling in to her,
content is the man.

Give, and it shall be given unto you
is still the truth about life.
But giving life is not so easy.
It doesn't mean handing it out to some mean fool, or letting the living dead eat you up.
It means kindling the life-quality where it was not,
even if it's only in the whiteness of a washed pocket-handkerchief.

****************************
Even it's only a book I wrote.

Writing is a happy thing for me. It's fun. I do it for myself, because I like it, and some of my work will never see the light of day, because it really is just mine. But once I consider letting it leave my hands, D.H. Lawrence and John Gardner start talking in my head, and that changes everything.

I hope they talk to you, too.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Excuses, excuses

I know I've been pretty silent on the blog lately. I have excuses. I do. I've been...busy. Well, I've been writing. That's my job, after all. It's also November, which means


*Birthdays: three within 10 days of each other in my family. Fun, but exhausting. And expensive. Who decided that all the birthdays should be the month before Christmas? Was that my fault? Somebody needs to do some explaining. Sidenote: I got a camera for my birthday. When I figure out how to work it, maybe I'll start posting photos once in awhile.

*A race: my first trialthon. Yes, I lived through it. Didn't quite freeze to death (the weather decided to be unseasonably beautiful). Didn't win. Ha, ha. Ha. Ha. I even had fun. My sister-in-law actually did win. Congrats, Sara! (She wins so often it's not even exciting for her anymore. I, on the other hand, was excited just to finish). I might even do another. I have yet to attempt an open-water swim, which gives me panic attacks to imagine. Here's me (#244) at the Telos Turkey Tri, pretending I'm not cold:

Who do you think has bigger muscles? Me or that guy in red just behind my shoulder? Hmmm.


*Reading: not that this is a uniquely November thing for me to do. But it's cold outside. It snowed this week. And I love to read, almost as much as I love to write. Maybe more. I can never decide. I can think of nothing better to do when it's cold than read. Just read three great books in a row and started three more (yes, I'm ADD, always reading several things at once). Thanks, Jamie, for loaning me Diana Wynne Jones's Howl's Moving Castle. How could I not have read anything by this author before? The book isn't much like the movie, if you've seen that, which is bizarre and creative steam punk (thanks for teaching me that vocabulary word Laura), but pretty much a different story altogether. The book is not steam punk, in case you wondered. It's just delightful.

*Writing: In honor of NaNoWriMo (National Novel-Writing Month), I've set a goal to finish my current work-in-progress (WIP) revisions by the end of November. Which means the story's on my mind a lot. I fall asleep every night to scenes from my book. I don't have much brain space left for blog posts.

I'll get back to regular blogging soon. I think.

Until then, I bid you all to curl up with a book while the snow comes down. Except Adri in Brazil, where there is none. You should bring a book to the beach. Read like the wind! Write like the wind! Especially all you die-hard NaNoWriMos. Woo hoo! Write that novel!

Hmm. I think I just used my monthly quota of exclamation points.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Slacking, But Not

Slacking on the blog means lots of novel-writing, so I'm sorry, but not.

Updates:

Holy cow--I'm on page 64 of my teen poetry novel. It's taken me up and run away with my brain. I wasn't going to work on this yet. And I thought I only liked fantasy, but I find I'm dealing with stuff like depression and rejection and physical abuse and it feels like a perfectly natural seque from fantasy-writing. Who knew? The worst part: sending this one out will be like walking onto a swimming pool deck in nothing but my flip-flops. We'll see if I can do it.

Hepzibah revisions--up to page 157. Going quickly, but I keep getting distracted by the novel in verse. Luckily, I'm not sure where I'm going next with that, so I'm back into revisions full time again.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Secret Hot Fudge Recipe Revealed

I'm on a fiction-writing roll--haven't left my house for three days--but I haven't posted for two weeks, so today you get...my own awesome recipe for hot fudge sauce, invented by me. Perfect on Breyers vanilla icecream.

Chocolate makes everything better. Makes you write better. Makes you well when you're sick. Maybe. That's not a scientifically-proven statement. But I stand by it anyway.


Homemade Hot Fudge Sauce

1/2 C. real butter (no margarine)
1/2 C. slavery-free fair-trade cocoa powder (Dean's Beans is my favorite--you can buy online at http://globalexchange.org/)

1/2 C. milk
1 1/2 C. sugar

Melt butter in covered glass bowl in microwave. Whisk in cocoa until combined. Then whisk in milk thoroughly. Then whisk in sugar. (Don't try to dump them all in at once or it won't work). Microwave on high 2 minutes. Take out and stir. Mike another minute; stir. One more minute, then stir again. Continue until mixture is thick and begins to foam up. Cool a little and serve over icecream. Or, if you're my daughter, over bananas.

You can do this over the stove, as well, just follow the directions above, only do your cooking over Med-Hi heat and stir constantly with a wire whisk until thick.

So yummy. Don't make it if you're on a diet.

*note: oops, apparently Global Exchange doesn't sell Dean's Beans anymore, but it's still a great fair trade site you should check out. You can buy Dean's Beans baking cocoa at http://www.deansbeans.com/ instead.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

The Art of Reading Slowly, Or, Read Like You Eat

America believes in fast: fast cars, fast food, fast writing. Look at Stephanie Meyer. She wrote Twilight in, what, two months? Wow, that blows my mind. We love speed.

I know a lot of people who read fast. I've heard rumors that JFK read some ridiculous number of words a minute--7,000, or something, though I have no legitimate source on that. I took a speed-reading course in college, even taught speed-reading mini-classes as part of my job at the reading/writing center where I worked. I know HOW to read fast. But I don't do it. Not that I didn't understand all that speed-reading stuff. I just didn't like it. I never could make myself practice.

I like reading slowly.

Not that there's anything wrong with reading fast. I admire those people who can read 2 or 3,000 words a minute. Or even 700. How nice to be so efficient. It has to be good for school.

But I read slowly. I mean, really slowly, as in read-aloud-slow, like Charlie Brown's Snoopy from the old Peanuts comic strips, who moved his lips when he read, to Lucy's disgust. Only you might not want to cut me as much slack as Snoopy, since I'm not a dog (I also hope my novels are slightly better than his; they all began, "It was a dark and stormy night..."). I'm not going to apologize for the slow reading, though.The better the book, the better the language, the more likely you are to catch my lips moving. And I felt vindicated when I read that Stephen King, who reads voluminously, considers himself a slow reader, too. Yeah, me and Snoopy and Steve.

I like to read the way I eat, savoring the textures and flavors and details. I love the way some authors rub words together. I like to hear those sounds, feel them in my mouth. Kate DiCamillo's new book The Magician's Elephant is great for lip-moving reading. Words delight her--you can tell. Her words delight me. And poetry, how can I do it justice inside my head? Language is all about sounds. That's one of the great things about reading aloud to kids: you get to experience the whole book aloud.  You get all the roundness and play of the language in your mouth. It's delicious.

I don't always read slowly. Sometimes I don't have time; sometimes I don't care, or it's not worth it. You won't ever notice my lips moving when I scan the morning paper for headlines. If I'm really in a hurry, I might even make myself dust off the old speed-reading techniques and go for pure speed; for example, if my book group is meeting tonight and I just got my copy of the book today.

But I don't do fast with the really good books, if I can help it. They deserve slow.

Or the really bad ones, come to think of it, like my old university Physical Science textbook, which I spent all my time copy-editing instead of studying, because the terrible grammar drove me crazy. I got a C in that class. Oops. But the book was all fixed and ready to go to press for a second round by the end of the term.

You might try Snoopy-style reading sometime (do NOT copy-edit your science book!). Slow down, taste the words. It's an art, really. More people ought to dabble in it.

And you can think of me, reading to myself, lips moving as I go.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Banned Books Week

In honor of intellectual freedom and ALA Banned Books Week (Sept. 26-Oct 3), I'm making a plug for reading a banned book this week. You'd be astounded at some of the books on the ALA's banned list: Where the Wild Things Are, Speak, Harry Potter, Golden Compass, To Kill a Mockingbird, Bridge to Terabithia, Farenheit 451, Lord of the Flies, A Separate Peace, and the Gutenberg Bible, to name a few. Some of my favorite books have landed their authors in jail, including the wonderful Nigerian playwright Wole Soyinka. Call of the Wild was burned in Nazi bonfires.

I'm admittedly conservative about the books I'd personally hand to a young child; I believe, like Corrie Ten Boom's father (the Hiding Place), that some subjects are too heavy to ask young children to carry, just as a large suitcase might be. But that's a decision for individual caretakers to make for their own children, not for other people's. And I get angry when others try to make that choice for me. Often when people push for a book to be banned, they do it out of ignorance: they don't even know what's in it (Golden Compass, for instance), or don't understand it (Lord of the Rings, burned by a religious group for being satanic). Let me choose for my kid; you choose for yours. Once a child reaches his teens and is not so emotionally delicate, some books are simply too important to protect a child from, and when we ban books by authors like Huxley, Steinbeck, Hemingway and Faulkner, what we end up protecting most is supreme ignorance.

Growing up with a Russian professor father during the 1970s, I heard a lot about book banning issues and the fear of getting caught reading the wrong books in Soviet Russia. I knew my dad's Russian Bible was lovingly (and furtively) passed around the congregation when he brought it to an Orthodox church in Moscow, which only old people with little to lose dared attend. I always felt grateful American intellectuals didn't have to hide (except ironically during the insane anti-communist McCarthy era--funny how similar methods were used by both Communist governments and communist-fearing groups) or risk getting shipped off to Siberia, and I admired the Russian Intelligencia who wrote anyway, because they believed in speaking the truth, regardless of consequences.

So read a banned book this week and join librarians, writers and book people everywhere in speaking out for freedom to speak and write truth as we see it, and to make our own judgements and let others make theirs. Gotta love that first Amendment.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Happy Thoughts and Updates

I collect happy thoughts in a file folder.

Really.

I stick things in there like the Mothers' Day card my daughter once made with a picture of an oversized version of me in my glasses and ugliest green sweats with a creepy grin on my face, and I'm standing on a mini version of earth like some sort of balancing super-sweat woman; the caption underneath my huge self says, "to Mom, the best person in the WORLD."

Wow. And you guys thought YOU were hot stuff. Think again--I'm better. The best. Arguably, according to this picture, the largest, as well.

Though she's the daughter who liked to balance my ego by shouting when she was mad at me that I was the WORST person in the whole world.

But I digress from happy.

Anything that makes me smile goes into that file in the drawer. And I like to take out my happy thoughts and read them sometimes. So here are just a few of mine this week, and not from the drawer:


*the Wasatch Mountains in the fall

*yellow cherry tomatoes from the garden

*blueberry-grapes every morning from the vines over the front porch

*falling asleep to scenes from my book

*letters from my son in Korea

*reading Over Sea Under Stone every night with my 10-year-old

*three teenage girls in the house as of this week (thanks to my daughter's 13th b-day): well, yeah--it can be a mixed bag, but kind of delightful, too. And ideal for perfecting my YA voice.

What are your happies?

Since I can write myself out of a depression, writing is a happy thought, too. Here's an update on my writing, and on a couple of other things, too.

On my fairytale-fantasy: Not allowed to talk about that here. Yet. Sorry.

On my work in progress (WIP): Revisions going well, mostly what I call up-writing--pages and pages of notes to myself on stuff like world-building and character details that have changed or needed clarification in my mind. I do up-writing until my brain is so full the story just dumps itself out. Kind of like doing imaginary research--when you get enough info packed into your head, it's hard NOT to write.

Started a YA poetry novel, kind of dark and edgy, because it's hard for me to write poetry that isn't a little dark, at least most of the time. For older teens, and it's prosier than the poems I usually write: 11 pages into it. Passed a test-reading by my picky almost-16-year-old. My question: should I bother continuing or should I stick with regular fiction? Her verdict: "Yes. I wanted to read more. Really liked it. And I hope there's a romance. There has to be romance." There will be--duh, it's YA. I always feel vaguely surprised that teens like poetry, until I think about myself as a teen. I loved poetry, the darker the better. Still do. It reaches into the crevices of the soul like no other writing.

On my Boy Story: Fantasy about a 12-year-old desert-dwelling slave boy. That's all I'm giving you now. Hard not to dump WIP and just go for it with this story, which teases me a lot, and so does my son, who feels gyped that all my books have female protagonists. But I think WIP deserves attention after a lot of time in the drawer.

On School Absence Excuse Notes: wrote one this week.

On triathlon training: attempting my first (possibly last) triathlon the beginning of November. My plantar fasciitis is clearing up, but I'm still not running, so I'll be able to for the race. So I'm doing mucho power-walking, and hitting the biking really hard, and plenty of yoga, which boosts my swimming somehow, which I always seem to put off. In other words, I'm going to choke in the swim and the run, and the bike will be only part where I don't die. Wish me luck. The best thing about it is that I'm getting lots of high-oxygen thinking time for my books.

On having a nice day: I can't tell anyone to have a good day without hearing, at least in some back corner of my mind, Harrison Ford as he stands on the deck of a boat in the movie Mosquito Coast and shouts, "Good-bye, America, and have a nice day!" his voice oozing with sarcasm. That does not mean I don't mean it when I say it. The sound just pops into my head, like a cynical brain-wave radio announcer. I can't help it. And I swear I'm not being sarcastic now when I say I wish you a happy day. Really.

I plan on having one :)

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Book Review: Going Out Green: One Man's Adventure Planning His Own Burial, by Bob Butz

Ever since I was six I knew I hated open-casket funerals. My friend, Chrissy, died of leukemia that year, and though I was not really disturbed by the idea of her death (I knew she'd been terribly sick and she wouldn't be anymore; besides, she was going to live with Heavenly Father and be happy forever--why was everyone crying?), I was pretty creeped out by the sight of her waxy-faced body. I didn't think it looked like a person in there, let alone the living, breathing girl who'd come to my last birthday party.

The viewing didn't bring me any sense of closure; it just brought a sense of mild horror. It felt like voyeurism. Except that I was six, and didn't know what voyeurism meant.

The same sense of vague creepiness always comes back whenever I see another embalmed version of the shell of someone I once knew, pumped all full of formaldehyde and smeared with a ridiculous amount of make-up, especially when I think about the outragous cost of creeping people out and poisoning the ground.

Dying shouldn't cost that much money.

Besides, the best part of funerals is taking time to remember what a person was like while alive, not trying to pretend a person's body won't really decay if you use enough toxic chemicals.

Several years ago my mother-in-law died, and when my brother-in-law tried to force my little son to get a good look at the formaldehyde version of his Grandma Jube--he had him by the arm, ready to drag him over; my kid wasn't budging--well, that was the last straw.

I was going to be cremated. No kid was EVER going to be forced to check out MY dead poison-filled body.

Needless to say, when I first heard Bob Butz talk about "green" burials on NPR, I was intrigued: cemetaries as nature preserves, no poisons, no giant granite monuments, just a place of beauty, where a body could give back a little something in death by helping new things grow, and a family could have a peaceful place to wander and reminisce. I liked the idea of death truly being a returning of the body to the earth.

So I preordered this book. And I'd forgotten all about it when it came in the mail this month. The reading inspired several gruesome conversations with my husband about what actually goes on during the embalming process--much worse than what you learned in sixth grade when you studied Egyptian mummies. It also got me thinking about death.

And I learned some interesting things:

1. Cement vaults, satin-lined, sealed coffins and formaldehyed are not required for public health and sanitation, contrary to what many people believe. They're required by most cemetaries for their own convenience, but not by law, in most states.

2. You can get buried in an eco-pod if you want--a paper mache, Star-Trek-looking thing, which costs almost as much as the cement vault, partly because it has to be shipped from Great Britain. Or you can use a good old pine box. Or just a shroud. Or a blue sleeping bag, if you're Edward Abbey. Though you probably shouldn't try an Abbey-style burial, unless you want to get arrested. The law frowns on burying your buddy on public lands.

3. Cremation still pollutes, because of all the mercury in people's fillings, and because some people like to be a mummy for the open-casket deal, and STILL get cremated, which sends both mercury and formaldehyde into the air during incineration.

I'm still opting for cremation, because of 4.

4. There's such a thing as a "death midwife," who assists with preparing the body for burial. The key word here is "assist." You can't just say, "Here, take it away and do what you do, then let me know when you're finished." No. YOU are the one washing and dressing your dead loved one, putting coins or rocks on the eyes, tying up the jaw, getting the dry ice to keep the thing cold until you can gather your family around. Not to mention massaging to encourage the last "purge." I'm not going into more detail on that here. You'll just have to read the book if you're intrigued. Let's just say my husband was thoroughly grossed-out. And he's not a guy to gross-out easily. And there's NO WAY I'm doing that for him when he dies. Forget it, buster. Incineration's sounding really good for you, too.

5. Utah actually has a natural burial cemetary in Bountiful. I was floored. There aren't many, and Utah isn't usually cutting edge on anything but software.

6. Utah also tried to pass a law requiring a funeral director's signature on a death certificate, but citizens rose up in outrage and lawmakers backed down. Wow. Utah and eco-friendly; they don't usually go together. But I guess we like our individual rights.

7. Embalming used to be considered dessecration of the body in America, until the Civil War, when so many decaying corpses had to be shipped back home. Embalming has become standard practice ever since.

This book isn't an instruction manual on how to have a green funeral, as one review called it. But if you really want step-by-step instructions, it will point you in the right direction. It was a funny book and interesting, very informal. I like the idea of a natural burial, but personally, I don't want to have to deal with the gross stuff in the middle of grieving. And I don't think I can ask anyone else to deal with that for me, either.

The romantics like Mary Shelley (of Frankenstein fame) had a better idea, I think: burn your husband's remains and sprinkle them over a river in Italy. At least the family gets a trip to Europe out of it, instead of having nothing to show for the cost of death besides undrinkable ground-water.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Loving the Semi

I think it’s time to come out of the closet and admit I’m in love—with punctuation.

I keep hearing people say punctuation is dying. And who cares? Who needs it, anyway? Super-casual writing like texting and chatting is here to stay. Using punctuation at all in a text-message is a pain in the rear-end. A semi-colon in a text? Forget it.
The trouble is, ideas have to be pretty simple to get away with killing off all your punctuation. That’s ok for a quick chat—if you don’t care if anybody really understands you—but what about books and essays, which require more complicated thinking than lol and jk?

My favorite punctuation mark, the poor semi-colon, has suffered the worst punctuation slaughter; nobody seems to know how to use it at all. I’ve seen at least one girl stare at it like it’s a spider crawling across the page.

Girl, pointing to a semi-colon: “What the (bleep) is that?”
Me: “It’s a semi-colon.”
Girl: “Unh. What’s it do? I don’t like it. Get it away!”

“It’s intimidating,” a friend once told me. “Kids are scared of it—I’m scared of it; if you use it too much, they won’t want to read your book.”

Just to see what would happen, I took out every semi in one of my stories and replaced them—and then I had to put them back in. Things got too confusing. I didn’t know how long to make each pause in my mind when I read over it, or which sentence connected with which. Long sentences were impossible, so I felt like I was talking too slowly and too loudly in ultra-simple, toddler-style talk. It lost any lyrical feel it might have had.

I needed my semi-colons.

I needed them as a sort of super-comma, to separate a series of connected ideas; or to force a bigger pause than a comma can, when a sentence might otherwise get pretty hairy. Here’s an example of how that works, from John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction: “To write with taste, in the highest sense, is to write with the assumption that one out of a hundred people who read one’s work may be dying, or have some loved one dying; to write so that no one commits suicide, no one despairs; to write, as Shakespeare wrote, so that people understand, sympathize, see the universality of pain, and feel strengthened, if not directly encouraged to live on.” (I love this quote; I could write a whole blog post on it.)

I also needed the semi to keep things efficient; it let me stick two sentences together without having to throw in a conjunction. Efficient writing is not just shorter; it packs more punch. Open up any work by a really fine writer, and on any given page you’re bound to run across at least one semi-colon. Jane Austen can hardly get through a paragraph without one.

Here’s an example from To Kill a Mockingbird of how the semi helps show linking ideas: “A few graves in the cemetery were marked with crumbling tombstones; newer ones were outlined with brightly colored glass and broken Coca-Cola bottles.”

And one from Ray Bradbury, Farenheit 451: “It was a look, almost, of pale surprise; the dark eyes were so fixed to the world that no move escaped them.”

The connections are subtle, but they make a difference in meaning. (If you’re dying for more examples, look throughout this post. I’m pretty sure I’m setting a record for the most semi-colons in one blog-post. I may have gone a little crazy; I may even have undermined my own point with semi-colon abuse)

Maybe people are right that the art of semi-colon use—and punctuation in general—is dying. Maybe. But if the semi dies altogether, I wonder if the art of genuine communication might die with it.

Personally, I’m in denial. I know I’d miss my semis too much. They’re such cute little guys, with that tiny tail hanging down…and so fun to play around with.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Back in the Saddle Again

It's Friday and I should be posting again, but I'm actually not. I'm writing. REAL writing. The kind I never got around to at SCBWI. Not blog posts. Except for this short excuse. I didn't even shower today. How's that for dedication?

And I realized that I've been postponing novel-writing all summer because rewriting an old draft hurts. Ouch. You've got to wrench out all the beautiful sentences that you really loved and stick them in a file to maybe use later, even though you know you won't, to make place for less beautiful ones that work better for the story. It's sad. And I don't like to do it. But it's necessary. And I've been doing it all week. I feel like I'm bleeding, you know?

But at least I have the right to call myself a writer today.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

SCBWI Episode, part B

If you're a math person (which I'm OBVIOUSLY not), you may have noticed that the math on that last post didn't quite add up: 7 people x 20 minutes for credit-card processing plus 40 minutes for the girl's fight with the driver, plus time to get lost over and over and get from point A (LAX) to point B (Central City), doesn't exactly = 2 hours.

Ok. I admit I exaggerated. For the sake of the story. Or maybe I didn't stretch things all that much. Because I wasn't the seventh passenger, I was the sixth, and I paid in cash (it took no more than 30 seconds, tops) which means it was only 5x20. Which adds up pretty well. Except for getting lost and driving time.

And the swearing. That might have sped things up. The driver was pretty mad and driving REALLY fast by then. Then, if the wind speed was 30 mph and the driver was heading into the wind 40% of the time, how long did it take?

You'll be tested on this later. But not by me. By my brother, who thinks math is fun. But he doesn't read blogs, so I think we're all safe.

So...

I'm in L.A. And I have big plans for my alone time:

#1 Get up every morning at 6:00 and do triathlon training. That's 7:00 Utah time. Piece of cake.

#2 Do yoga every night. Brought my yoga videos with me, and there's a conference yoga class two of the four days. No problem

#3 Read books. Lots and lots of books.

#4 Write! I'll finally have time to write!

The reality:

#1: Happened once. I was too beat after my late night travel excitement to get up the first morning, Sunday's my rest day, and Monday the pool was closed because they were filming for some show. Would it be so wrong for me to be swimming in the background? Maybe they could work it into the story. They didn't buy that, so I didn't swim.

#2: Happened once. Went to an awesome yoga class Friday night. Don't know what happened the rest of the time.

#3: Check. I did read about half of Nancy Farmer's House of the Scorpion. In fact, I think I left it in L.A., because I couldn't find it when I went to pull it out for the return flight, which was frustrating, because I was at a really intense part. I had to go make an emergency trip to Borders as soon as I got home.

#4: Didn't happen. How? Why? I'm still asking myself. I think it was the dratted toothache. Sucked all the creative energy out of me and made me want to read and sleep instead.

9:00 am Friday morning, I grab a muffin, banana and a smoothie at Starbucks and head into the conference. I'm psyched. I keep my eyes peeled for my agent, Steve, (one of the main reasons I'm here), Sid Fleischman--one of my all-time childhood favorite authors--Karen Cushman, and Richard Peck, whose writing I love. Don't see them, and I don't spot my friends Bree Despain and Matt Kirby right away, but that's ok--there's 1,000 people in one room, it could take some time. I'm bound to run into them soon. I settle in, eating my muffin. I become aware that my tooth feels like a bomb ready to explode, so I down some Advil. Just before the meeting starts, in walks the blonde Swedish-looking dude with the long ponytail from the airport. He sits in the section reserved for the important people, like the editors and agents and Linda Sue Park and Ingrid Law, not twenty feet away from me. Weird.

The conference presenters all get up and introduce themselves with one well-chosen word each. The pony-tail dude stays in his seat. At least I'll see Steve the agent now, though he doesn't seem to be in line. I recognize one editor and the Utah chapter head, Sydney Salter, but Steve, strangely, isn't there.

Sherman Alexie speaks and is amazing. I laugh. I cry. I decide to buy his book. My tooth is reminding me that it doesn't want to be in my mouth anymore. I down more Advil.

More classes. We break for lunch. I see Ponytail Dude out in the hall. He sees me notice him and looks away. Did my husband hire him to spy on me? I'm beginning to wonder. I meet a picture book author from New York in line for a sandwich and we eat lunch together. Tooth again. Tylenol this time. Some editors speak and then I head to Richard Peck's class on setting. He greets me at the door, shakes my hand and thanks me for coming. Richard Peck! And I can't think of one thing to say. The class is awesome, his handout is fabulous, and he makes us write something on the spot--the only writing I do all conference long.

More classes, dinner time. Ugh. My tooth. More Advil and Tylenol. Still haven't seen Bree or Matt or Steve, but I'm seeing Ponytail Dude everywhere. Walk to the store and buy food to eat in my room.

Alone time! I'm going to write!

If I don't die from toothache. But by the time I down my last bite, it's time for yoga class. Be a tree! Be a happy baby! Inhale! Exhale! Relax! Send out good feelings to everyone in the room, to everyone at the conference! Aaahhh. I forget my tooth.

Alone time! I'm going to write!

All the Tylenol and Advil in my system say no, time to sleep.

Saturday I get up at 6:30 and swim and it feels awesome after an almost-completely sedentary day before. Even more awesome is Karen Cushman (Catherine Called Birdy, Midwife's Apprentice, etc.), who talks about what writing methods work for her (none of the traditional wisdom), how she got started, and a writer's responsibilities to her audience. I could almost go home now and feel great about having been here.

My tooth agrees. It wants to see my dentist NOW. Advil. Tylenol. I'm getting bounce-back headaches from all the medication now, but that's ok. Sid Fleishman's still to come.

And I'm bound to see Steve today, because he's on the schedule twice. I still haven't seen anybody from Utah, unless you count Ponytail, who's appeared in almost every large session, and in the lobby, and by the elevator. I'm half-way convinced he's a spy. Bree's editor gives her a huge shout-out in one of the 1000-person sessions, and I'm thinking, "Yeah, I know that girl. I just can't find her." And I wish I could congratulate her.

Steve is so good on the agent panel. I'm thinking, "Yeah. That's why I wanted him for my agent." He's good in the workshop, too, and talks up Matt's book big-time. Matt misses it. Probably because I'm there and I'm the anti-Matt/Bree magnet on this trip. I'm beginning to think Matthew Kirby and Bree Despain are only at this conference in spirit and their bodies have flown Otherwhere. But in the last five minutes, Matt Kirby actually walks in the door. Matt and Steve and I go out to dinner and have a great talk. This is why I'm here. To have a face-to-face conversation with Steve, so he knows me, and I know him, and I can get a better sense of what he actually thinks about my writing, etc. It's fun getting to know Matt better, too (his book, The Clockwork Three, debuts fall 2010), and besides that he kindly talks up my other book and my poetry to Steve, who gets excited and suggests I write a book of poetry for teens. Hmmm. Still thinking about that one.

I'm not even waiting for my tooth to throw tantrums at this point. I've taken piles of preventive Advil and Tylenol, and it suddenly dawns on me why I'm never hungry on this trip. I'm not sure I'm getting enough calories, but tell that to my tooth. Does it care? No. I'll make up for it after I see the dentist.

I'm feeling a little over-dosed, and I skip the Blue Moon Ball and go to bed, though my room is directly over the outside bar and a massive movie-screen size TV, and Blue Moon music is really, really loud, and it's still going when I drop off to sleep around midnight. At 3:00 am I wake to the sound of...I can't figure out what the heck it is. Somebody rolling an office chair from one end of the ceiling to the other is what it sounds like. Only magnify that sound by 10. Whee! There it is right over my head. Whee! Now it's moving over the other bed. And whee! it gets to the balcony door and stops. Now it comes back: whee! whee! whee! I'm picturing a giant three-year-old upstairs coasting back and forth with a roller chair. Or a writer with some SERIOUS writer's block. It goes on for over an hour. I weren't so tired I might throw something at the ceiling. Go to bed! Quit trying to write at 3 am!

Sunday I dodge out to spend the day with my aunt and uncle. That's a story I won't tell here, involving serious motion-sickness, reckless driving, great food, and blue toe-nail polish. I get back around 5:00 in time for the official meeting of all the Utah/Idaho people and FINALLY see Bree. And her friends Emily Wing Smith and Brodi Ashton. Who are delightful people.

Brodi: "Where have you been? You're the invisible woman. I've been all by myself while everyone else went to the Pro-track workshops!"

Someone else comes up to me, smiles, and says, "Elena? Hi, I'm Pat." Both of us laugh. Turns out, Pat only lives about 10 minutes away from me. We could have driven to the airport together.

Matt shows up and Sydney Salter, but Susan--my other supposed fellow-traveler--alas, never does. Perhaps she was kidnapped by a crazy taxi-driver, or the spy with the long ponytail. We may never know. We have quite a good-sized group, not the full 16 supposedly here, but enough to need a bigger spot. They give us a piece of floor in part of a room for our meeting, not expecting the sparse Utah/Idaho region would produce so many writers. They're all such nice people, too. After a good visit and dinner with Matt, Bree, Brodi, and Emily, I head back up to bed, talk for a long time on the phone to my family, and crash early.

Monday I have no trouble finding people. I run into Pat, Bree, Brodi, Emily, and/or Matt almost everywhere I go, so my curse must be broken. Except I think I see Ponytail Dude at least once. Ingrid Law speaks in the morning, and for her speech has written a lovely story as an allegory for the writing/publishing process. Her language is beautiful and poetic and I know I need to read her book. My tooth still wants to scream at me, but I'm gagging it with medication every hour. All it can eke out is a once-in-awhile "Mmmnf." I'm not missing this stuff for a toothache.

Later, I'm trying to find Sid Fleishman's class. I run up and down, get the wrong floor, finally find the room and he's NOT THERE. He's been replaced. Replaced?! By an editor or somebody. You don't REPLACE Sid Fleischman! I paid good money for Sid. Rats. I go to a boring class, and then go hear Karen Cushman again. She's got great stuff again, and I'm glad I got to hear it, but I'm still muttering about Sid.

Things are winding down. Steve is long gone. I've bought so many good books my suitcase doesn't want to close. I've got Karen Cushman's signature, but didn't feel like waiting in line for more.

Bree, Brodi, Emily, and I discover we've got the same flight home. And I find that travel is a different beast when you go with friends. Much more fun. And then, things just work out this time.

We do NOT take a shuttle. We share a taxi, the driver is pleasant, and it takes 30 minutes instead of two hours to get to the airport. We find our gate right away. Waiting is actually enjoyable. The plane leaves on time. And the ponytail dude is nowhere in sight. I almost lose my baggage, but with some helpful info from Bree, a couple of coincidences and mere minutes later, I'm in the car with my husband, Matt (not to be confused with the other Matt), and heading home.

I'm tempted to ask if he knows a Swedish-looking guy with a long, blonde ponytail, but decide to let that remain a mystery.

I sigh and lean back in my seat. NOW maybe I'll have time to write. (Especially if I stop writing such long blog posts.)

Mostly, I'm glad I can get to the dentist. I feel my tooth with my tongue. Hunh. I haven't taken any Advil lately, but my tooth pain is completely gone.

Strange. I shrug.

I'm just happy to be back.

Friday, August 21, 2009

An SCBWI Episode (part A)

Yeah. Another one.

What? Don't you have ANYTHING else to write a blog post about?

No. You got a problem with that? Nothing happens in my life. Ever. I sit in front of my computer all day and type. I take care of my sweet and nearly-perfect children (Shut up and quit fighting, you guys! I'm trying to write!) who are old enough to pretty much take care of themselves.

And I haven't been alone once all summer long.

Being alone recharges me mentally. Too much socializing shuts down my brain. I NEED alone time.

So when I go somewhere (alone!) I get really excited. Kind of like when you have a new baby and you finally make it Outside! The Door! To the...Grocery Store! And you really want to tell someone, only NO ONE cares. And neither should you. Because what's so exciting about getting in the car and driving to and from the store?

So SCBWI is the kind of thing only writers get excited about, and for me it was kind of an alone marathon. With a thousand other people. Whom I didn't know. There were supposedly fifteen other people from Utah, three of whom I knew, and one of whom I had at least met, and I didn't see any of them for TWO DAYS. Which is good, right? I'm the girl who NEEDS to be alone.

But here's me, thinking about it before the trip: "Don't panic. Just don't panic. Take deep yoga breaths. Relax your jaw. Relax your kneecaps. Let joyfulness infuse your being. Okay, never mind. Yoga can get a little weird. Just don't freak. Forget that you have no sense of direction whatsoever, that numbers and time and your brain act like opposite magnetic poles."

One panic attack in the middle of Costco and another day later, I'm at the airport, an hour and a half early. Just in case.

And I'm feeling slightly more relaxed because I've just learned that two SCBWI Utah women are traveling on my same flight--Pat and Susan. I've never met them, but we've emailed and decided to take a shuttle together to the hotel. Just before I say good-bye to my hubby, he says, "Wow, it's really windy. But I guess planes are too big for that to matter."

Going through security, I remove my shoes, jacket, laptop, and every possible removable from my person and send it through. Except that the security person notices my pockets are bulgy. She says in this scary LOUD security officer voice: "Ma'am, do you have something in your pockets?"

Rats. I feel like I'm stripped practically down to my underwear, but I forgot my chapstick and wallet.

I fish them out.

She pats me down in uncomfortable places. Scowling. Grrrrrrr. Decides my chapstick is not a bomb and lets me through.

"Asleep already, and you're not even on the plane," a male security guard jokes.

Yeah. Just wait 'til I take Dramamine so I don't throw up all over.

I check my flight on the monitor. It's there! I got the right date and time. It's late. 15 minutes. Not too bad. I buy myself a water, find my gate and sit across from a big Swedish-looking guy with a long, blonde ponytail.

I'm pretty early. That's probably why there's almost nobody here except the blonde guy and me. And why nobody is at the check-in desk. I start reading my book, Nancy Farmer's House of the Scorpion. A voice announces that my flight has been further delayed, and the airline apologizes. I'm where I need to be, so I disappear into Scorpion-land for awhile. I look up after awhile and check my watch. Wow. It's fifteen minutes until my flight was supposed to leave. I know it's late, but shouldn't somebody be at the desk by now? Pat and Susan should be here, at the very least. There's not even a plane outside. I check my ticket again. It says I'm in the right place.

Obviously I'm not. The blonde Swede is pretty fidgetty, too. He keeps looking around. Everywhere but at me. Is there something creepy about the way he never looks in my direction, even though we're the only people left? His face somehow doesn't look like it's ever bent itself into anything so friendly as a smile, and I can't bring myself to ask him what he thinks. I walk over to a desk at another gate.

The airline person looks at me like I'm an idiot. "Oh, that flight's at gate 2, not gate 6." Huh. I didn't plan on needing magical far-knowing skills at the airport. I grab my luggage and race a half-mile down to gate 2, where there's a mob of people and half of them are lining up to board. I go to the desk, just to make sure. Yep. It's my flight, and they're boarding in 2 minutes.

I almost missed it.

So, apparently, did the blonde pony-tail dude, who apparently followed me over. He doesn't look at me. He just walks to the front of the line.

A couple of dramamine later, I'm sitting in my seat and ready for take off. Where I stay for the next hour, while the captain waits for the wind to die down. Guess a little wind mattered after all.

We finally arrive in L.A.--yay--and I race down to get my checked bag and don't even get lost. But the luggage doesn't come. For like twenty-five minutes. Grrr. But the shuttle will wait for me, right? Because I reserved it for this flight, and Pat and Susan have to catch it, too, and they should be just as late. I look around, trying to figure out which face looks like a Pat or a Susan. When my suitcase comes at last, I grab it and follow signs to the shuttle. It just left. Sigh. But the shuttle guy will get me another, he promises. An hour later he does. And it's a fetching good thing I'm full of dramamine, because it's the taxi ride from hell. In spite of the way the driver is driving at freakishly high speeds and turning corners like he wants to tip us over, it takes over 2 hours to make a 30-minute drive, because he keeps ripping down roads, stopping, making u-turns, and then driving freakishly fast in the opposite direction, checking his GPS, pulling over, getting out and talking on his cell phone, then doing the whole thing over again. And apparently Pat and Susan aren't passengers, because I'm the only one going to my hotel. All seven of us shuttle-riders are going seven different places, and everyone is paying with credit card, which takes the shuttle 20 minutes each to process, and one of the passengers gets into a forty-minute fight with the driver because she wants to report him to his supervisor and he won't tell her his name. So he swears loudly all the rest of the trip.

He finally gets me to my hotel. And it's not the right one. I explain patiently again the name of my hotel and even show him my reservation papers with the big picture of the thing and the address.

It's one in the morning California time when I walk in the doors at last. And I've gained an hour. But I made it, whew! All by myself. Barely. The weird thing is, I was completely calm. I made friends with a woman on the shuttle. Who was not even Pat. Dramamine is a beautiful thing. Or maybe it was those sea bands I wore, in case the pills didn't work. Or something else altogether.

But this post is way, way too long, so part B will have to follow. Because there's more about Pat and the Swedish dude, and you don't want me to just drop those story threads, do you? Every detail matters, right? Just ask Richard Peck.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

More on SCBWI

For more details on SCBWI in L.A., visit writer Matt Kirby's blog. It's a great sum-up, except I didn't meet as many famous people as he did, and of course I forgot to bring a camera. You'll have to look at his pictures to see any photos of me in L.A. Let's see if this link will work this time: http://matthewkirby.com/kirbside/?p=614

Technology doesn't like me.

Walk out the door and don't get shot

My kid thinks I'm going to get shot.

Whenever I get in the car to go anywhere, he says, "Bye, Mom, don't get shot!" It's a little disturbing. I don't know where he gets this. It's not like we watch lot of violent TV. Actually, we don't really watch TV at all.

Last week I flew to Los Angeles for a national Society for Children's Book Writers and Illustrators conference. Saying good-bye was traumatic: "Bye, Mom," my son said mournfully, "Don't get shot in L.A."

I wasn't much worried about getting shot. My room and the conference were in the same Century City hotel, which I hardly had a chance to leave, so a gunman would've had to have been pretty determined to get me if he'd wanted me.

I was more worried about getting lost. Or missing my plane. Given my track record, neither of those things were unlikely at all. I have phobias about going places by myself, probably because the last time I traveled entirely solo I ended up stuck in a huge, empty bus station alone over night in Montreal. I was 18. I'd rather not discuss the details. Let's just say the experience left a few psychological scars.

So, from the time I bought my plane tickets to the SCBWI conference in L.A., Radio station FM USuck played stuff like this in my head: "You are not a capable person, lah-dee-dah! You will fail at whatever you do, dah-dah! You will end up stranded in a ghetto full of people who hate writers! Everyone will discover you are an idiot, la-dee-dah! Whatever made you think you could be a writer and run off to conferences? Lah-dee-dah!"

I hate that station.

"You never know what will happen when you step out the door," Bilbo Baggins says. But he took that first step, in spite of unknowns, and was glad he did.

Well, I survived stepping out the door. I didn't get lost. I made my plane. And I did not get shot, much to my son's relief.

The worst part of the trip was a killer toothache brought on by the change in altitude. If not for pain-killers, I'd have spent the conference in bed, moaning.

The best parts were these:
*Finally meeting and talking to my agent
*Hearing Sherman Alexie, Karen Cushman, and Richard Peck speak, in person. Amazing.
*Meeting new friends
*Seeing old ones
*One day of hanging out with relatives I never see
*Shutting up Radio station USuck on the subject of travel. It's good to know I'm capable of going places alone. It really wasn't that bad.

Facing that fear turned out to be healing.

Turns out, this is becoming the summer of facing my fears. I hiked to the summit of Mount Timpanogos yesterday--a 10-hour round-trip hike. You have to understand I'm a girl with serious height issues, as in, looking over the rail of a third-floor balconey makes me dizzy. This mental picture always pops into my head: me flying over the edge--whee! There I go.

The climb to the Mt. Timp summit takes you to an elevation of 12,200 feet, and that last hour of climbing makes me think of Frodo and Sam's accent up the staircase into Mordor in Lord of the Rings.

I pictured myself flying off. Whee!
I pictured my son flying off, and my daughter who ran up with her cross-country team flying off. Whee, whee, whee!
I pictured my hiking friend and her son plummeting to their deaths. Whee, whee!

When I was a kid, I used to dream of sledding down Mt. Timp. Looking from the top down, I knew a sled-ride down that mountain would be the last ride I ever took.

One girl on the cross-country team had a panic attack on the Mordor-staircase part of the trail.

Girl 1: I'm not ok. I'm really not ok.
Girl 2: It will be all right. It's not as bad as it looks.
Girl 1: You don't understand. This is death! One bad step and you die!

Exactly my feeling.

Both girls eventually got up and down the mountain. My son and daughter and I got up and down. My friend and her son didn't fall to their deaths, either.

The worst part--my killer toothache came back with a vengeance at 12,000 feet up. I thought I would die of toothache at the tip top of a mountain. My hiking friend wasn't bothered by any of the height stuff. She laughed at the rest of us hyperventilating. I think her moment of greatest fear was watching all the advil and tylenol I was popping.

Her: "Hey, should you be taking that much?"
Me: "Do you want to carry me off this mountain?"
Guy nearby: "Can I buy some from you? My legs are killing me."

Still, 12,200 feet up makes for a killer view, even with the pulse throbbing in my tooth. Mountains were a nice change, after five days of city.

I was able to tell USuck to shut up for a second time in a week. Kapow! Get lost! I climbed really high and I survived!

I'm staying home for awhile. My kid needs a break from worrying about mom. And I need some hard-core writing time.

But if I hadn't faced up to USuck this summer, I'd have missed out on a great conference. I'd never have seen that stunning view at the top of a huge mountain.

In spite of anxiety disorders, I'm almost at the verge of thinking safety is overrated.

Yes, Bilbo. Walking out the door can be a good thing.

Even at the risk of getting shot.

Friday, July 31, 2009

Unraveling (or raveling up) Dramatica

I've been meaning to write this post for a month, now, and finally, today, I have no trip to pack for, nothing to plan, nowhere to rush, so here it is at last.

I mentioned Dramatica in an earlier post, and I need to explain what the heck that is. Dramatica is both a theory and a software program that walks you through the theory using your own novel-in-progress. I'm just using a free version of the software, which I find frustrating, since I can't save anything, so I can't say whether the software is worth the money.

Here's my little sum-up of the theory, as I understand it.

Or, if you're interested in the details, check out the Dramatica website at www.dramatica.com, or click on one of the links in the website the Hickmans created for our conference workshop in June: www.storymind.net (sorry, my links refuse to work today for some odd reason. Maybe because I have no clue how to use them).

Dramatica uses the human mind and its problem-solving process as a model to talk about the structure of traditional story.

*Note: If I were more computer-savvy I would insert a picture of a brain right here for a visual aid. Oh well.

Plowing along.

Story is the author's attempt to present his argument that his way is the best way to tackle the story's main problem. If any of the parts and pieces that make up what Dramatica calls a "Grand Argument" story is missing, the story will feel incomplete. Some of those essential pieces: character, which examines the Story Mind's motivations; plot, which looks at Story Mind's methods for solving the problem; theme tells us why it all matters; and genre, the general attitude that colors everything else.

The perspective of the argument matters, too, because point of view creates meaning. Every Grand Argument story considers four different Throughlines, or perspectives, through which the story could be told: if, for example, we tell the story of a battle from the point of view of a soldier in a battle, we also need to think about the overall perspective of the battle as it would seem if you saw it from a hill overlooking the battlefield; we need to imagine it from the perspective of the impact character, or the character who most powerfully affects the main character's decisions and actions, and consider the arc and dynamics of how those two characters change and interact.

*Note: insert snore right here.

Don't worry--I don't get it either. And I'm pretty sure I don't use the program the way the authors meant it to be used. I just putter around here and there in the book and play with the free software. I don't like the idea of squeezing parts of my story into some prefab mold. I'm too rebellious, and I really hate boxes.

But Dramatica and the Story Mind model do get me thinking about what motivates my characters, and about finding balance and looking at opposing motivations; it gets me imagining how the story must seem from the antagonist's point of view, and wondering which guy in my list of characters impacts my main character the most. Maybe it will help me see some of the things missing from my story and help me fill in the gaps. Maybe.

Maybe it will help some of you other author-people out there. The Hickmans swear by it. If you figure out what it all means, please feel free to enlighten me, too.

Dramatica did get me thinking in a new way about a story I've been trying to fix for a couple of years now.

Fresh eyes for an old story? That can only be a good thing.

Now if only I can find time to write...

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Someday I'll have time to write again...

This month has been crazy, beginning with a family vacation to Bear Lake, which turned into a family reunion there, then a week of girls' camp, and now the family's off to Yellowstone for a few days. In a couple of weeks I'll be flying to L.A. for a national SCBWI conference. I'm itching to write; it's driving me crazy. Got to finish up my rewrite of Hepzibah and then think about sending her out into the publishing world, but when do I squeeze it in?

Friday, June 19, 2009

In a poetry mood...

Hadn't seen the sun in awhile. When it turned up today, poetry happened.

Mountain Glory-Song

For two weeks I thought the sun
Was playing hide-and-find
And tag-and-dash
And blind-man-bluff—
A fortnight of teasing games
Of almost and not quite,
And maybe tomorrow—

But today the sun came up and stayed,
And I realized—
Sun never left, clouds just tricked
My view—my eyes were the
Trouble, my vision
Too weak to poke
Through to outer-space.

Today the sun breaks out—
The mountain sings its glory
And I stand witness
To the whole, great organ
Of mountainous joy—

The birds begin it—

An ecstasy of towhee pipe song
And warbler trills
And camp-robber scree! scree! scrah!
And the thrushes, of course—
Running melodies over
The rocks like streams of
Snow-melt—nobody ever could beat a
Thrush for song

And then the crickets take it up
With the grass-fiddlers.
And the mountain opens up its stops—
Every one—
And lets loose sforzando

Dragonflies dance with swallows—
Escaping mosquitoes
Swoop and spin—
Butterflies, too, fly in a crazy
Dance of joy


And every puff of breeze
Sends summer-snow from the cotton-woods,
Weaving into the song and dance—
Twisting around my face
And arms, pulling me in—

The scent of sweet wild wheat
And sweeter sage
Assault my nose,
And every nook and crevice
In the rock throbs and thrums
In the glory-worship,
Begs me join in—

And I can’t help myself—

I sing

And

I dance.

Urgh...

It's midnight and I'm writing a blog post. Does that tell you something about how much writing time I have when my kids are home in the summer? I miss 6-hour writing blocks. And not waiting up late on weekdays for teenagers to come home. Built-in writing time--too bad I'm too tired to appreciate it.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Plugging in

I always believed I was one of those people whose emotional/mental energy recharges in solitude. It's true: quiet time alone with mountains and nature will always leave me feeling better, more ready to face whatever hard thing life decides to dump on me today.

Anne Morrow Lindburgh said once that being around other people is draining because there's nothing more exhausting than being insincere. Yeah. Most of the time social settings require at least some insincerity, especially for someone like me, lest I alarm anyone with the real Elena.

I've changed my mind, just a little, about that, though. After spending a delightful week with hundreds of other writers at the BYU Writing and Illustrating for Young Readers (WIFYR) Conference, and my mornings with a small and talented group of fantasy writers in my workshop there, I've decided that being around other people isn't what's draining; it's being around people who don't "get" you.

It's about connection.

Funny how most of my stories tend to be about connection and isolation. About physical islands and emotional ones. Apparently it's a hang-up of mine.

We all need to feel connected to other people. I think it's a fundamental human requirement. We need to feel there are people out there like us, who understand the way we think and feel, who won't stare when we open our mouths and say something that shows our minds don't tick quite the same way as the rest of the world.

Fantasy-writers are amazing people. I was stunned at the imagination and creativity in the room every morning. How refreshing to be around people who never look at you like you're from outer space, just because you say something bizarre. And who'd like you better if you did turn out to be from outer space after all, anyway. Everybody's sensitive and neurotic. Everyone's minds are constantly spinning. Every person has the same addiction: we can't not write, no matter how hard we try to stop. And we wouldn't want to.

I'm still on a high.

Some of my favorite things at WIFYR this year:

*The people; the connections.

*Tracy and Laura Hickman, who taught my class. The amount of work they put into this workshop still blows my mind.

*Dramatica theory, which is helping me figure out how to fix the story I put in a drawer for a year because I was stuck on my rewrites.

*A list of new books to look forward to reading someday, by members of my class. I'd be surprised if I didn't see every one of these books in print before too long.

*Lots of homework and deadlines, which pulled me out of a writing slog.

*World-building exercises, which filled up a big hole in what I knew about writing craft.

*Learning about publishing contracts and understanding the business end of books.

*Dandi Mackall's presentation on voice. Only you can write the story you need to tell, in the way you would tell it, to touch the person who needs your book.

*Tracy Hickman's banquet presentation on story as meaning. The part of reading that matters is what happens in the white spaces, the reaction of a reader to a book, the way it changes them for life. One soldier tried to present Tracy with his purple heart and brass star for bravery in battle after being inspired by a character in one of Tracy's books.

My brain is still making connections with ideas I met at the conference, and I'm still smiling to think of the people connections--with both old friends and new.

My son said to me one day last week: "Mom, you seem happier."

I guess I just needed to recharge. Who'd have guessed that would happen in a place swarming with people?

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Out for a bit...

I'm taking a break from blogging for a bit while I madly write and prepare for the BYU Writing and Illustrating for Young Readers Conference (WIFYR) which starts next week. I'm excited to be doing morning fantasy-writing workshops with Tracy and Laura Hickman, who have a ridiculous number of books in print and are fabulous teachers. I loved the one-day conference I attended with them last July and I've already learned a lot just working through the pre-conference reading.

I'll be back after the conference is over, unless I get too busy with rewrites.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Cars and Bikes and a Weird Day

Here's my weird Saturday:

My sister borrowed my bike for a triathalon this weekend. Before she picked it up we had this conversation:

Sis: So, I'm not used to bikes with skinny tires. How likely do you think I am to get a flat?

Me: I hardly ever get a flat.

Sis: I'll buy a spare anyway.

Me: You won't get a flat.

Sis: I'll buy one anyway.

After spending the morning watching Sis swim, bike, run, I'm driving my son to a birthday party, when I feel my power steering is gone. I think my car has stalled, which isn't good, since I'm on a busy street, coming up on an even busier intersection, with nowhere to pull over, but when I check my dashboard, everything looks normal.

After a minute I smell something I could swear is rotten fish.

Me: "Do you smell that fishy smell?"
E: "Yeah. Gross. Are we there yet?"

The battery light goes on. The car starts dinging at me: bing! bing! bing! I turn the corner, which takes both arms and all their muscles. I turn into the driveway of the birthday house, which takes both arms and all my muscles again. That's when I hear a loud hissing sound, and it's getting louder by the second, like something is about to explode. I also notice a whole lot of steam pouring from under the hood.

Me: "Quick! Out of the car before it blows up!"
E: "Yeah, I need to hurry. I'm really late. Bye Mom!"

The steam is subsiding. Good. Nothing's going to explode. I tilt my head and see some orangey stuff pouring onto the driveway and a belt dragging on the ground. Well. Guess I'm not driving home.

Luckily, my car happens to be a minivan, which is why I just happen to have my bicycle in the back of it, where I loaded it up after Sis's race. I haven't had my exercise yet, so I pull out the bike and get ready for a ride home.

The tire is flat.

Luckily, Sis bought that extra tube.

I change the tire and my daughter (C) sends me a text. She's on the way to Salt Lake and just watched a car in the lane ahead of her swerve to miss something on the road, lose control and flip over. C's friend's dad had to swerve to miss the overturned car, which is really smashed up, and C is really shaken up. We learn that night that two people died in the crash.

About a half-hour later, the tow-truck arrives at Birthday Party house and just gets my poor, dead van up on the truck, when the driver gets a call from Highway Patrol. There's been an accident on the freeway--a roll-over--and that takes precedence over in-town towing, so Dead Van gets unloaded and tow-truck drives off to pick up the over-turned car my daughter just saw.

And it all feels just a little bizarre.

Eventually the car gets to the shop, the rest of us get safely home, and I'm tired enough to go to bed early, but I stay up reading the latest Percy Jackson book instead, and I don't even feel sleepy. Too many titans and greek gods and undead warriors, and maybe the end of the world...How could I sleep? At 3:00 am I close the book and sigh. What a satisfying ending. And as I drift off into ZZZZ-land at last, my half-conscious brain can't help thinking the weirdness and coincidences of my day just might have something to do with three Weird Sisters and their strange, fateful knitting.

You never know.

(Get the book anyway. It's really good: The Last Olympian, by Rick Riordan. Only you have to read the other four first)

Monday, April 27, 2009

Bree's New Site

Check out my friend Bree's new website www.breedespain.com and find out more about her upcoming Young Adult book, The Dark Divine. It's a great read for teens, and I feel like it belongs just a little bit to me, too, since Bree's one of my fabulous writing group sisters and we've all watched each other's novels evolve. Don't miss it next spring 2010. Also, she's having another blog contest with free stuff, so go to her blog at http://www.readbree.blogspot.com/ for more info, follow the instructions, and don't forget to mention that you saw this promotion here. Go, Bree!

Okay, stupid. Bree's blog contest was over before I posted this. I forgot to check the deadline. Go see her website anyway, because it's cool.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Why "Storyfires" ?

Because...

I like the Native American tradition of telling stories around a story-fire.

And because...

It's in one of my novels. In that little world, every full moon is a Telling Night, where villagers sit beside seven fires and listen to the village storymaker weave their world into sense. Hopefully. Unless that storymaker happens to be the village outcast. Who happens to be a witch in self-denial. Then maybe the villagers just chuck rocks at her head.

And also because...

Storytelling in the blogosphere feels oh so public sometimes, and the fire sets a friendly mood. Even if it's a fake fire. Imaginary can be good. We can pretend we're all sitting around a massive fire on a bunch of logs. Unless you plan on chucking rocks at my head. 

And last, most of all, because...

Story is its own kind of fire. The best stories light up something inside a person, burn away the old, make room for something new, and the whole world suddenly looks like a different place.


Happy reading!

Fantasy and Faith

Here's a real-life story for a Friday afternoon.

Once upon an actual Sunday morning, not too many months ago, a couple of lovely, polite, and very earnest people knocked on my door, Bible in hand.

Earnest Woman: "We're worried about the disturbing trend of children's books about witches and wizards and magic."

Me: (blink)

Earnest Woman: "I see you have children, I'm sure you're concerned about their well-being?"

Me: "Mmmm."

Earnest Man: "We'd like to read you a verse from the Bible about the dangers of witchcraft, if you don't mind."

Me: "Mmmm."

Whereupon they proceeded to read a verse where Paul warns against seeking out witches and wizards who "peep and mutter."

These people were so earnest, and really nice, I didn't have the heart to tell them that I, myself, had written two books about witches and magic. I didn't want to horrify them.

I also didn't have time--I would have been late for church--to explain how I (and a large number of fantasy-writers out there) can claim to be Christian and justify writing witch books: George MacDonald, C.S. Lewis, and J.R.R. Tolkien among them, not to mention J.K. Rowling and Stephanie Meyer. These books we're talking about ARE imaginary, after all, not how-to books, or tracts.

Fantasy is not supposed to be literal, I wanted to say. No witch is ever really a witch, no monster is ever just a monster, as author Brandon Mull (Fablehaven) likes to point out, and magic isn't exactly magic, either. Symbolism allows a story to take on as many different meanings as it has readers, each person bringing his own real-life experiences with him. Story is inherently interactive that way, even read alone under the covers at night.

I could go on: fantasy lets a child lay out her fears and look at them in a way that doesn't have to hurt so much it cripples her. It lets little people go away for awhile and do the impossible, and then they can come back to regular life and see new possibilities. Ideally, it leaves them with hope, and that's not imaginary at all. Not incompatible with Christianity, either, as far as I can see.

Well, I didn't say all that to the people on my porch. I didn't want to burst anybody's earnest bubble. I also didn't feel like apologizing for what I do all day. So I just said, "Thank you," not even a little bit sincerely, and let them go on saving the neighborhood from witchcraft. I shut the door, got dressed, and tried not to giggle hysterically all through church.

You can bet if you peek in my window on any given day, you'll see me typing away at my latest witch book. I didn't hear anything in that Bible verse to make me think that's such a terrible thing.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Ten-second Vision

Mountain and morning collided again today,
The usual explosion
Of sun over cliffs--
Never common, though quotidian--
That eruption of airy light-magma
Flowing down the face of ragged rock,
Of warped and stunted scrub oak
And sorry straggles of spring growth;
Burning, bursting
The dry and the dead,
Dredging out the dark corners
Of the world, and of my head
With fire and light
Too hot in the soul for ordinary
Bland plain or dull feeling.

Another moment of light-fire
And I might be transformed altogether

But no, the collision is only
Instantaneous
Gone before I have time to take
More than a few awed, desperate breaths
And I'm crawling again,
Back in dimmer air,
With scraped hands and knees,
Trying to remember, to resurrect
Out of the droppings and dustpiles of my mind
That one flash of fire burning
Away the darkness--
Just a few small seconds of relief.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

"I thought of that while riding my bike"

Some thoughts on how I write:

I'm inspired by early morning and sundown--those times when the air changes color--also rain, snow, and fog. It must be the mystical mist. Or maybe it's just that when the world takes on a different look, it's easy to imagine that it's not its own usual self. And that flips on the story-making switch somewhere inside my head.

A lot of my ideas come when I'm doing something else--hiking, walking the dog, sweeping the floor. My favorite Albert Einstein quote, on his Theory of Relativity: "I thought of that while riding my bike." Some of my best brainstorms, too, (nothing so huge as Relativity) strike while I'm peddling up the canyon on my bicycle. Right on. Me and Al.

Still, I don't get a lot of ideas away from the computer without putting in the hours in front of the screen. Here's another quote I like, by Hemingway, I think: "I never write unless I am inspired. Luckily, I am inspired every morning at eight." I need big blocks of time to get my mind into my work, and I need to write often, daily, or I lose momentum. I'd put in fourteen-hour days when I'm in the middle of a project if I could get away with it. Interruptions drive me crazy.

Outline vs. organic? I've sort of tried to write from outlines (not very hard. I don't believe in it), and it doesn't work. I often have an idea of where I want the story to go, but the story usually ends up telling me, sometimes against my will. If you take characters you know well and plop them in a certain setting with a particular set of circumstances, they will behave a certain way, and the story goes where it must, given the parameters. When I get stuck, I try to remember to ask myself, "what would this character do in this situation?" And then I have to write the truth. Sometimes that gets me into trouble. I'll go around for days without any clue how I'm going to rescue my characters. And then I'll get on my bike and halfway up a hill the answer will come. And then sometimes I really don't know what the truth is and I have to zone out for awhile trying to listen to what Ann Lamott calls my inner "broccoli." Hopefully, the broccoli speaks.

My essential tool is the laptop, which I use mostly at home, and bring along with me to those doctor appointments where you sit around waiting for hours.

Receptionist: (fake sympathetic smile)I'm so sorry, but the doctor is running behind today.
Me: (genuine smile) No problem. Type, type, type, type.

My second-most-essential tool is a little notebook with a pen stuck in the spiral top. I carry it everywhere I go. In the summer when kids are out of school, I sit in a deck-chair at the public pool and write scenes while I watch my kids swim. They're happy; I'm happy.

How do I write and still take care of five kids? I go to the pool a lot. My kids are pretty big, most of them. One is out of the house. I write when they're at school. I write at midnight waiting for teenagers to come home. I write at three am during vacations. I let go everything that's less than essential. My house is a disaster. I could really use a maid and a cook. We struggle along somehow. I think it's good for my family to realize I don't have any more time than they do to take care of the house. But my family's real needs always trump writing. When kids come home from school, I try to make myself put away the computer and focus on them, talk to them, help with homework, steer them toward the healthier snacks, and sometimes, like tonight, I even cook them dinner.

Blog Archive