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Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Help Me Build My Brand

The people have spoken! I offer you a poll to help me choose my brand name. 

What made the list are ideas from girls and women ages 15 through 50. Two boys also contributed, ages 11 and 15. Thanks to everyone for great submissions. 

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If you’re going to self-publish, it helps to have a brand. Genre authors (mystery, romance, sci fi, etc.) have the luxury of a recognizable type--a guarantee regarding content and style--but as an author of hybrid works (literary and commercial), I’ve got to find ways to communicate the personality, essence, and passion behind my books.

I want the audience to know what it might get from my next book. I want my work to stand out from the crowd and be discoverable. I want to have a say over the perceptions of my work. Most importantly, I want readers to feel my words connect with their life experiences, concerns, and joys—that through my writing, I know them, and they know me. I want girls and women ages 15 and up to feel their voices heard when they read my books. Empowered, positive, inspired: a brand they can trust. I want the brand name to communicate strength, positivity, and intelligence. I don’t want to deter or alienate boys and men; that said, when I look at my books, I realize I have a niche and it will help readers to know what it is.

Before you vote, here are some points to consider:

I like to write about teen girls who are scary smart and pretty weird. I like to tell tales of their social misadventures with popular beauty queens who don’t take kindly to quirky, nerdy, and wise. I like to break all these stereotypes in the course of the story and leave the audience believing that each character is very, very human. I have one book finished about wise Wendy and two in the hopper about MENSA Minerva and academic Alastrine. Look below to learn about each of them.

Below the synopses, you will find comments from various respondents who contributed to the poll names. They might sway your final vote.


At 16, Wendy Redbird Dancing flies her freak flag high; she’s a precociously smart white girl with a hippie mom, a missing father, and a rabid Michael Jackson obsession. And it doesn’t help that Sunny, her mother, just uprooted them yet again, this time from California to North Carolina. It’s May 2009, and now Wendy has to survive a new school’s exams, track Sunny as she hunts men, and fight off bullies like Deanna Faire, a mean Taylor Swift who rules this Southern roost. But one girl reaches out—Tanay, the only black girl in AP class—and she and Wendy forge a friendship to help Wendy defy Deanna. And Sunny’s new boyfriend turns out not to be the usual sleaze but instead, a charming and attractive guy. Shaye Tann brings peace to the household by taking Wendy under his wing. As he gains her trust, a crush ignites, and her confidence soars. When Shaye makes sexual advances, Wendy is flattered and confused. When Shaye rapes her, Wendy goes underground. Michael Jackson—St. Michael when he dies on June 25, 2009—is now the only one she can trust.

Minerva, a nerd girl ready to become an ace investigative reporter, uses the power of her pen and its propaganda to get ninth grade girls thinking boys want chaste girls. Girls start choosing celibacy as a way of life when they realize they are happier, healthier, and safer without the threat of sex too early. In the process of manipulating others, Minerva discovers her own sexuality and how much she has tricked herself.

Alastrine: (note, this is a genre novel with dystopian themes)

It’s 2077 and America has loosened up. Sex is fine, whether you’re a teen or an adult, as long as you don’t get pregnant; do it with whomever, whenever, and however many times. Just make sure you have the Freedom Ring implanted, girls. The seven dirty words are allowed on every TV station, all hours, and everyone can drink anytime when alcoholism can be deterred by a pill. In other words, the Kardashians have won. As wildly free as it sounds, life is managed by high-security cameras, body scans, and government intervention—led by a fascist Founder Party that keeps citizens well fed and compliant. Girls with naturally good genes, no assembly required—the Naturals—are fodder for this dominant political party that keeps the trains running, the rich richer, and teenage girls groomed to become First Ladies, part of a Presidential harem. 16 year-old Alastrine Bantam may be a leggy blonde Natural who doesn’t need modifications like almost every girl she knows, but she hates her celebrity status. She prefers staying home studying history to standing dumbly on a pedestal of beauty. She has not had sex like most girls, and it’s a terrible, embarrassing secret she hides quite well. She still harbors a hope she can somehow hide and avoid the inevitable future of political stardom due a Natural. But that pipe dream is exposed the day she learns a terrible secret from her best friend, Seagramme…

Knowing what you know about my stories, what should the name of the series be?

Other Ideas:

A writing colleague suggested that the titles be specific to the storyline: that each begin with a HOW (insert character title) DID SOMETHING... A series that has a formula for its titles might aid in the recognition and discoverability factor. She said, "focus less on the series and more on the book at hand. You could have a title that could be used for later books with a subtitle then.  I was thinking of 'Diary of a Wimpy Kid,' which was the first book in the series. The rest of the books have that title along with another title."

Former students suggested the following: "Since your target audience is probably pretty intelligent, I don't think they'll be drawn in by creative spellings of 'girls.' 'Nerd'...might be past its prime, or it never really got there. 'Geek' is the cool thing to be now.  On the other hand, 'nerd' is broader in its connotations than 'geek.' Geeks, I think, tend to be more game/fantasy/electronics focused. Nerds just have a thing they really, really like. Just a thought.  I'd also try and avoid anything that sounds like it was written by a well-intended adult; loving your inner nerd sounds kind of preachy.  Could you focus more on a specific character trait of these girls?  When I think of Wendy, I think of resilience."

A friend and fellow writer wrote, "Grrlz is cool. Feminist connotations. Gorilla Grrlz."

Other ideas that didn’t make it into the poll:
  • The Girls Outside
  • Precocious and Proud
  • Smarty Skirts
  • Overachievers
If you don’t like any of the poll choices, please do leave a comment. Bring on the ideas!

Thank you for your time. Crowd sourcing makes me a wiser woman!

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Say My Name

In the last season of "Breaking Bad," the character of Walter White, a genius chemist gone rogue to the meth business, tells a fellow dealer, "You know who I am. Say my name."

"Say my name," represents the ultimate victory of Walter's runaway ego. It represents his id gone wild, where Walter's demons have fully conquered his love of family and any prior moral compass. He wants to rule the world as "Heisenberg," the man who cooks the purest meth on the planet. Demanding his name be said celebrates the evil he has fully embraced.

The Iagos, the Hitlers, and the shooters get a lot of press. Anderson Cooper tells us so from his outpost in Connecticut right now. He explained why CNN would not give the shooter's name tonight.

I read the names of the children and adult victims of this most recent mass murder and I want us to say their names with reverence, with silence on either side, with prayer. I want to take these names in and not forget them.

I see many classic names on this list, names that have crossed centuries. I see a name I've never seen before. I see names from many cultures. I see names from the Bible.

I sought comfort and looked for quotations by Dr. King. In my search I found a blog by California Congresswoman Maxine Waters, who remembered Dr. King less than a year ago in the wake of Congresswoman Gabby Giffords and her constituents being shot. Ms. Waters also held up the names of those in her community who had recently suffered another outbreak of gang violence.

Aaron Shannon Jr., 5
Kashmier James
Taburi Watson, 14
Lewis Smith

When there are no words, only silent prayer where the soul cracks open, speaking a name can be something sacred and selfless, not at all about ego. There must be something higher, the Soul says, when tragedy tries to turn us hopeless or believe the world is only full of demons. We return to the departed and their names and say, We won't go there. 

As Fred Rogers told us, Look for the helpers. Here are more words to help us talk to our children right now.

I will look, and I will listen. There are so many beautiful names to say. Let them ring. 

Charlotte Bacon, 6
Daniel Barden, 7
Rachel Davino, 29
Olivia Engel, 6
Josephine Gay, 7
Ana M Marquez-Greene, 6
Dylan Hockley, 6
Dawn Hocksprung, 47
Madeline F. Hsu, 6
Catherine V. Hubbard, 6
Chase Kowalski, 7
Jesse Lewis, 6
James Mattioli, 6
Grace McDonnell, 7
Anne Marie Murphy, 52
Emilie Parker, 6
Jack Pinto, 6
Noah Pozner, 6
Caroline Previdi, 6
Jessica Rekos, 6
Avielle Richman, 6
Lauren Russeau, 30*
Mary Sherlach, 56
Victoria Soto, 27
Benjamin Wheeler, 6
Allison N Wyatt, 6
*Some news organizations are spelling the victim's last name differently.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Handling the Fear Factor

To self-publish or not to self-publish: that is a question that haunts many nervous authors nowadays who are steeped in queries with no response. While we wonder if agents have read our sincere and severely-crafted missives, we also wonder whether we should persist in writing more of them or hunker down with a plan to go it alone.

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A funny thing happened on my way to self-publishing: just as I began to refine a serious plan, I get a request for my full manuscript from an agent. I want to get excited, I do, but then the fears come creeping in.

It's easy to let them rule you. You've been around this block. Why try again? Are your instincts worth anything?

Questions about my self-publishing ideas pound me, too: will readers think self-pub is for hacks--and all my friends who've been following my journey think I've given up? Can I learn to market my wares? When will I find the time? 

But you do try--both the queries and the self-pub plan--because that's what real writers do; they don't stop. They also get information. Like Hope Clark's primer of wisdom about the facts, just the facts, ma'am, on self-publishing versus traditional. The self-pub plan I'm building is full of strategies to tackle the fearful unknown. These strategies are gleaned from a wealth of great information on the Internet. We live in a world-wide library, folks--there ain't nothing we can't learn! Check out this helpful list of tips from Meghan Ward, too. I'll elaborate on this plan in another post.

Expect that as you conduct your research, the fearful questions will pile up, and that's a natural part of the process of change. Write the questions down, and approach each like a research paper in high school. Make notes. If you go the agent querying route again, as I am, you'll start thinking:

How many is too many simultaneous queries? How much research should I do on each agent--should I put ten hours into an agent search, write a query, only to never hear? (And not write in the meantime--there's the rub!) Did the fact I started with a synopsis of the novel instead of "why I want you as an agent" deter the agent reading this--is that why I never heard? Should I have gone into more detail about why I want this agent or does it sound like flattery? Do I sound too formal, stilted, not at all like my novel's voice--when many model queries out there are playful and "cool"? 

When you've written as many queries as I have, these questions have the whiff of the rhetorical, unanswerable. From what I've researched, there are different opinions about how many queries to put out simultaneously; some say five to ten, then hunker down and wait. But if only 10% respond to you, why not double or triple that amount?

Research can tell you some things but talking to a person tells you much more; so I choose to limit my research per agent to an hour. I have a personal rubric that vets an agent based on preferred genres, client list, and statements made in interviews. An agent who has a web presence whether interviews or a personal or agency blog is someone I can get to know fairly quickly. The last criterion is that the agent accepts e-queries. It's also a psychological strategy to limit my research: why get too invested? If the agent meets my criteria, then it's worth sending out an email. He or she doesn't have to be my perfect match on paper, whatever that is, and again, I can't tell that from online research. I will be able to tell from a phone call where I ask good questions (see below).

Then there is the fact that agents who receive 50+ queries a day have an inbox beyond full, and that may be the one good reason no one cares if your synopsis comes first or last in your query; the point is, the agent may just not have time to read yours. And if you've done your research well, the agent will tell you exactly how he or she wants the query on the agency page.

In other words, there aren't great answers; what you have above are "Lyn's Answers." There isn't a sure path or an Obi Wan to mentor us through this. You have to pose the questions--to query or not to query, to self-publish or not to self-publish--to the universe and then let the answers rise as they simmer in your brain. When you know, you know, as a friend used to say.

I know that I would love to hear from a particular agent, but that's not in my hands. What is in my hands is the best query I can write, the best research I can do in the short time I have, and the best self-pub launch plan I can craft. And this time, I'm really not scared.

If you pay attention to the blogosphere, it appears many other writers are feeling what I'm feeling, and even agents: go forth, bold writer, and try thy way in the wilderness. Agent Jenny Bent has an interesting perspective regarding books that fall between genres (Wendy Redbird Dancing, anyone?). Ones like mine, that are YA + women's fiction, are often ones publishers don't understand because they aren't sure how to market them. So if you are an intrepid soul with energy to get your work out to the masses, have at it: you might find the market is there for you.

I also have a great list of questions should an agent call. Based on my last experience, I will now tackle fears head on by asking the questions below.

When in doubt, and when fears rise like fog around me, I start to write. Write down potential ideas, write down potential plans. I may discard 99% of them or never get the opportunity to make them happen, but at least I've talked myself off the ledge.

  • What do you like about my manuscript? What would you change?
  • Does it have potential as a hybrid work--women's and YA? Is this more women's fiction or YA?
  • How close is the manuscript to submission? What revisions would you suggest?
  • Do you see film potential?
  • Do you see foreign rights potential?
  • How many publishers would you submit to, and which ones?
  • Will you share the submission list and responses from editors?
  • What YA or women's fiction have you represented that you are particularly fond of, and what do you think is the secret to their success?
  • Who would the primary contact be--you or your assistant?
  • What is your response time to emails and phone calls?
  • How often would we be in touch?
  • What's your expectation for a next book?
  • What advice do you typically give authors as they build their careers?

The possibility of talking with a successful agent once again is a nerve-wracking premise. But armed with some questions, I know I'll be okay.

In the meantime, the self-pub ideas simmer, and I'll be sharing those soon. Vote at the next post on my brand ideas; I'll need this whether I self or traditionally publish.

Will you self-publish? Have you already? Or are you waiting to hear from an agent? How do you handle your fears in the process?

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

That's a First-World Problem for Ya

"So the last will be first, and the first will be last."

-- Matthew 20:16

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Tonight I couldn't get more than $40 cash back from the super-healthy organic co-op store. Then I went to an ATM and my card wouldn't read. As I exited the building where the ATM was, several children rushed through the door and the parents behind them let it happen. After everyone charged through, adults included, I stepped forward, thinking the guy in front of me who'd held the door would keep doing so. No. He let it shut just as I walked through with both hands carrying groceries, and so it slammed on me.

Then I sat in my car to await the end of a teen-ager's piano lesson--the reason I needed the $60 in cash, because the teacher won't take checks. I'm hacking and snorting the whole time because the older I get, the more gluten and lactose intolerant I get. Every meal presents a question mark of how my body might not like this or that for dinner. And like I have the time to craft a healthy, organic diet that ferrets out all the mystery allergens or keeps every meal pure.

I won't even explore the fact that lately, I no longer have time to write.

I did lift out of my irritable fog to delight in this--community wireless. Thanks, Town of Carrboro. Without it and my laptop, I would have a way to tap these rants to life.

And I am not stuck in a hospital bed right now. A forced sitting in a carseat isn't that terrible. In fact, a blog emerges from it.

And most importantly: everyone I know and love is safe at home, none of us facing chemical weapons, rocket launchers, or genocide in our neighborhoods.

As Friar Laurence once told Romeo: "There art thou happy." That was in a scene where Romeo was whining, big time.

First-world Folks, take a note: just because we've chosen to lead lives that are jam-packed and so technologically rife with instant gratification doesn't mean we have it bad. And writers who have the most time to write and reflect are probably in one of two situations--a sane location with enough food and safety--or prison.

Tonight I'm going to take this moment to stop whining and remember what matters most: I've got a lot of reasons to be thankful, and if my first-world life has become too much for me, I most likely have means to change it. Starting with my attitude.

Shakespeare's words that thrilled my soul at 14 remind me that there are words to be written in every spare moment and only one crack at this life. If I also take a moment to remember who's last in this life's race, am I really going to moan about faulty machines and going second or third through a door?

As a Holocaust survivor told my stepson recently while interning on a documentary shoot: You make a decision to choose life everyday. You've got this chance; stay positive; make the most of it.

What pack of blessings lights upon my back? The first thing this first-world gal must do is ask that. The last thing she should do is live an entitled life of demands on the world around her where she wonders why she isn't first in everydamnthing.

I'm going to mull on that and read the good Friar's words to the self-pitying Romeo just one more time.
What, rouse thee, man! thy Juliet is alive,
For whose dear sake thou wast but lately dead;
There art thou happy: Tybalt would kill thee,
But thou slew'st Tybalt; there are thou happy too:
The law that threaten'd death becomes thy friend
And turns it to exile; there art thou happy:
A pack of blessings lights up upon thy back;
Happiness courts thee in her best array;
But, like a misbehaved and sullen wench,
Thou pout'st upon thy fortune and thy love...
Act III, scene iii

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Might You Know a Sunny Revere? The Art of Writing for Revenge.

Ever met a parent who thinks he or she is one but misses the boat by a fathom, and then some? Have you, by chance, ever met a Sunny Revere?
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  • She's a woman who rescues cats but can't seem to see that her daughter needs rescue.
  • She's a grass-roots organizer who can't get organized enough to keep the cupboards full.
  • She calls her daughter drama queen while throwing tantrums herself--because she, Sunny, is "exhausted" and "overwhelmed."
  • She puts the new boyfriend first, because after, she deserves love and has hunted all her life for it.
And in this home that Sunny has created, Wendy is vulnerable to abuse by the latest boyfriend. And he is not the first to try.

I wish I could tell you that Sunny is all in my head. But she is modeled after a particular profile of parent that regrettably, inflicts a lot of damage on children.

In my years of teaching, I would bid certain students goodbye each day as they returned to their multimillion-dollar homes, tenements, or trailers, and wondering if they would be okay. It wasn't because there was a police report or a restraining order; it wasn't because I had any concrete evidence of abuse. It would be the little things the kid would say to you in class or after school that tipped you to the neglect or the harm, things you would run to the counselor or social worker with, but not know if the school had any recourse.
  • My parents are gone for three weeks in Europe. Yeah, it's fine; I can look after myself. Though this one time, I burned myself cooking dinner, when I was seven...
  • My dad's on disability and he doesn't ever leave the house...I don't feel so good myself today...Yeah, I know I'm sick a lot. Sorry I missed that test. Yeah, I know my grade's a D...
  • My mom can't come to my awards ceremony. She's got a date with her boyfriend...
  • My mom makes me do daily weigh-ins. But I understand; yeah, I know I'm not "fat," but she's really trying to help me...
  • The Domino's guy don't come to our house. Why? Oh, because he's too afraid. Our neighborhood's crazy...(with a shrug).
Sometimes we write from frustration, anger, and even revenge. We write from the frustration that our hands are tied, the anger at the sins of the world, and revenge upon those who would neglect or harm children.

My novel began as an act of revenge against neglectful parents and predators who easily cross the porous borders of certain homes. I began ST. MICHAEL, PRAY FOR US in 2009 as a story dedicated to youth who seek a trustworthy adult and find that trust abused and to youth who can't speak for all the fears that choke them silent. Sunny Revere is the mother who lets her daughter alone, who is too busy seeking a better life for Sunny, to notice that Wendy has been robbed of her innocence. 

Revenge is a dish best served cold. I think this applies to the writing process. My first draft was a rant, admittedly, where Wendy as a 16 year-old survivor grapples with sexual abuse that happened when she was 10. Now in 2012, after years of feedback from beta readers and professionals and multiple revision, HOW WENDY REDBIRD DANCING SURVIVED THE DARK AGES OF NOUGHT is a complete story with a beginning, middle, and end and characters who live the trauma in real time. The story is hot, but the process to get it there was frigid. I had to clinically carve it up, with a steely surgeon's eye, the room set to freezing as I sliced, diced, and sewed things back up. 

The only thing that stays the same is the flatness of Sunny Revere. A narcissist is a narcissist is a narcissist--at least in my book she is. No matter how many times life has prompted her to peer at her daughter's pain, and closely, Sunny keeps turning away. No matter how many times Sunny has been called to account or action, she has made her excuses. By the close of the book, when Sunny finally accepts the revelation, it is too late. 

Writing about Sunny Revere is my challenge, one to concretize emotion such that readers care and are even perhaps spurred to action. My call is to create people, places, and choices that move beyond manifesto into relationship: readers relating to, hating on, cheering on my characters. We can't be talked at--we must be invited into someone's world. If writing is an ugly spew of hate, I'll get nothing back but echo.

In this draft, my screams fade and Wendy's life shouts, a revenge all its own. This hard-won story carries you to the last page where hotlines can take a silenced survivor to the next step if she is ready.

Now, let's see if I can get this message heard. 

Writing Prompts:
  • Do you know a Sunny Revere? 
  • Respond to Cynthia Ozick's quotation: "Life hurts; certain ideas and experiences hurt; one wants to clarify, to set out illuminations, to replay the old bad scenes and get the Treppenworte said--the words one didn't have the strength of ripeness to say when those words were necessary for one's dignity or survival."
  • Sometimes, as Hannah Arendt once wrote, good people do nothing. Sometimes when I write, I am trying to be a good person who may have witnessed a wrong and did not act--or was not sure what to do. I can write from righteous indignation because I am too flummoxed or too much coward in the moment--or perhaps because I am too removed and powerless in the face of certain wrongs. Do you ever write from such feelings?

Sunday, November 11, 2012

NaNoWriMo: Stands For...?

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N is for Not Doing the Laundry and Writing Instead
A is for All the Decaying Food in the Fridge Looks More Tempting Than Writing
N is for Never-ending Licks from a Grooming Cat Who Insists on Shoving Your Laptop Off Your Lap
O is for Obnoxious Cat Who Scratches Your Chair While You Write
W is for Why Am I Doing This to Myself?
R is for Resentment of All Those Who Are Making the 2500-Words-a-Day Goal
I is for I'm Not Up for This
M is for Mentioning Your Pitiful Word Count Too Many Times on Facebook
O is for Opportunities, Dreams, and Hopes That This Month Fosters

If you're a writer, what's the best part of NaNoWriMo? The worst? If you're a teacher of writing, what can a day of NaNoWriMo teach you--and remind you of what we ask our students to do weekly?

I've begun a new novel, THE CHASTITY CLUB, part of a NERD GIRLS series of books with Wendy's story as the inaugural tale. I'm 6,500-some words in, with a good 3,000 written prior to NaNoWriMo, but who's counting?

Meanwhile, I'm still querying agents for HOW WENDY REDBIRD DANCING SURVIVED THE DARK AGES OF NOUGHT and weighing my self-publishing options.

If NaNoWriMo stands for anything, it's the belief that fuel my writing mission: Fall 8 times, stand up 9. Just keep writing, seeking, trying.

For more prompts on NaNoWriMo, visit my 2011 post.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Makers and Takers

Now it came to pass, as they went, that he entered into a certain village: and a certain woman named Martha received him into her house.

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And she had a sister called Mary, which also sat at Jesus' feet, and heard his word.

But Martha was cumbered about much serving, and came to him, and said, Lord, dost thou not care that my sister hath left me to serve alone? bid her therefore that she help me.

And Jesus answered and said unto her, Martha, Martha, thou art careful and troubled about many things:

But one thing is needful: and Mary hath chosen that good part, which shall not be taken away from her.

-- Luke 10: 38 - 42, King James version

Martha was a maker. She was preparing the evening meal when her sister Mary disappeared to go hang with Jesus.

And Martha got mad. The fish needed broiling; the fire sent sweat pouring down her face. Thank goodness she'd made fig cakes this morning, but would he mind bread a few days old? Well, it would have to do--but Jesus was no ordinary guest. While she slaved, Mary kept glancing over her shoulder, but no Martha, no Martha, no Martha. Finally she stormed into the room where Mary sat at Jesus' feet, listening avidly.

"Make her help me!" Martha snapped, sure Jesus would see what was the Christian thing to do.

Jesus told Martha she only needed one thing--spiritual time, AKA reflective and quiet time--which is exactly what Mary had already figured out. Jesus told Martha that what Mary had would never disappear.

In other words, the "slacker" had it all figured out.

This parable always irks me because I'm a doer. In this story the doers lose. 100% Virgo, I waste no time getting about my business. Down time seems gratuitous; let's just say I don't give myself much time for daydreaming unless it's permitted by schedule--a mind wandering during the commute, though I'd do better to listen to NPR; waiting in a doctor's office, but I could be working on a short story. Every hour could be better used to get something done. Obsessed, workaholic, intense, I expect a lot out of me, every day.

I have spent many moons making this novel, and today, I have nought but another draft to show for it. (Nought is my character Wendy's favorite word, so that's a nod to her.) Do I have inner peace, though? That's the real question. Do I have Mary energy or Martha energy as I move to the next phase of relationship with this work? The Martha energy--"careful and troubled about many things"--and in some translations "upset," "fussing," and "anxious." The Mary energy? All we know is she's chosen "the good part."

At ease. At peace. Thoughtful. Dreaming.

I recently parted ways with my agent, amicably, because despite all my best efforts at doing, I could not create a novel that met the market's formula. A certain profile of 16 year-old girl was my agent's aim, and understandably so: many publishers need a story that sells easily, the "easy on the eyes" formula. And ironically, to get to that easy sale some of us must slave.

More irony: I actually think this draft is the best yet, but I haven't taken time away to make a better judgment.

So, despite all my hard work, I can't yet tell you what I have to show today. I wonder if the people I know who have less of an agenda and more of a dream are truly the winners in this life. I mean those who laugh and love and don't stress about whether the goals are checked off on the checklist. If they show up fully present to each moment, they may gain more wisdom in an hour than I might get in a lifetime.

But the nagging Martha voice does whisper in my ear: what would Jesus eat if it weren't for her? Who keeps those trains running.

I love this blog because it forces me, Martha, to sit still and reflect.

Questions for the Makers in This World: 

  • How can you get the job done without work dominating your days? 
  • How do you find joy in the moment and put your list aside for enough seconds so you can experience what's dancing right in front of your nose? 
  • How do you not care so much about things that could be easily taken from you?

And for all the Marys out there, Takers taking in the best of the Jesus moments:

  • How do you live in the present without forgetting your obligations to others? 
  • How do you give in to the energy of now without becoming the kind of person who lives off others' hard work? 
  • How do you know what is "the good part" to invest your time in rather than something that is illusory?

Right now I hear a lot of political rhetoric about the "doers" and the Makers--the "job creators"--pitted against the victims, the lazy, AKA the Takers, which is a false dichotomy last time I checked in with humanity. What strikes me most in this debate is that the sound and fury of busy-ness is a particularly American obsession and that some of the busiest people on the planet can be the ones doing the least important things. (Take a look at the shouting folks on the NY Stock Exchange floor and realize that they are moving intangible financial stuff at great risk to their heart health, and you have to wonder who's really making or taking in that scenario.)

And beyond any assessments of American character and way of life, the fact is we can judge till the cows come home, whether we're the cow chaperones or not, but you can't live your life in harsh judgment of others. You can't stay angry and bitter over who's doing or not doing their fair share or whether you just did yourself wrong with all this flurry of activity for nought.

All I know right now is this: there can be no bitterness as I walk away from a long period of making art--perhaps unsuccessfully by market standards. Today there should only be sitting at the feet of Wisdom to figure out what the heck just happened.

What about you: are you consumed with Making something or Taking it all in today?

Monday, September 3, 2012

The Perils of Revision: Telling a Tale of Abuse

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I believe there is truth, black-and-white, good vs. evil truth. There's wrong and there's right. But the telling of it is often gray. That telling and its perilous navigation would be the purview of us writers.

Once upon a time, my YA novel, HOW WENDY REDBIRD DANCING SURVIVED THE DARK AGES OF NOUGHT, dealt with sexual abuse in the protagonist's past. A 16 year-old girl, Wendy, is a survivor fighting to make sense of this horrible wrong, four years later.

In this current draft, the abuse happens in real time. My agent and I have discussed reasons for this rewrite--that YA readers if not many adult ones need current, suspenseful events to care about a character. Watching a character fighting to survive now is more compelling than hearing about the aftermath. The Hunger Games wouldn't pack the same punch if Katniss told us how it all went down there in the woods when she's sitting here in the present quite safe. A narrative frame such as that can lift you out of the action and remind you too much that you're reading a story.

Author C. Hope Clark explores the plusses of making your reader uncomfortable--leaving your reader with a feeling of exhaustion. Conventional wisdom says in crafting your character's plot, make something bad happen to your character, and just when you think, It can't get worse--make it worse.

I'm following this advice. But these scenes of abuse, as you can imagine, are not easy to write. "Don't go there" comes to mind. There is no joy writing scenes of murder, torture, or rape. And in this political climate where politicians use phrases like "legitimate rape," it feels especially dangerous to turn the camera on a young girl being abused, a girl who is not sure she can call it that.

We live in a world where people across cultures ask if she was asking for it. Where questions of power seem to place a hot lamp on women's unstoppable powers of seduction and apparently well-fortified reproductive organs. I don't want to write scenes where young girls wonder if I'm asking if she was asking for it. I also don't want to write scenes that predators would endorse.

But that's the challenge of my job. Writers have to stand in limbo of shadowy, questionable gray. This horror happens and many people survive it. It's an important story to tell and being afraid to tell it is part of the trauma people experience.

It's not just politicians that motivate me to write this tale. I also feel sure I must do it when I see women snapping up the wildly popular Fifty Shades of Grey. What a strange light that shadowy work shines on our gender roles, desires, and the rules of power as they still play out. This wonderful rant by Britt Hayes makes me sure I am writing something that will challenge the crazy that's made Grey's author a multimillionaire. But I can't say I'm enjoying the ride.

This revision is not fun, but it must be done. Now the veil is lifted on my worry that this writing is not going to do anyone any good, but yet something in me says, Go on, show how it goes, and maybe in the telling something pure and clear will emerge and maybe I and someone else could be able to see for miles.

As our students go back to school and search the hallways for friendly faces, and as they meet their teachers for the first time, there are some who will be hiding massive secrets. They will have horror to survive each week that no one knows. They could return home daily to Jerry Sanduskys and Mary Kay LeTourneaus and other tortured souls who call themselves parents, mentors, authorities in a child's life. I write this book for all the youth who seek a trustworthy adult and find that trust abused; who didn't know where the adult was headed with that first touch; who can't speak for all the fears that choke them silent. I hope my book tells some to find a trustworthy soul they can tell and others--unknowing spectators--that survivors walk among them.

Back to the page. The way is foggy and often the page looks dim. But the purpose is sure like an arrow and somehow, I'll emerge with something on the other side. Whether this is a YA novel remains to be seen, but I will file its genre under "GRAY" right now: adult themes, lived by youth. I'll let librarians and booksellers work that one out.

Writing Prompts

  • Which books did you read in school or have you taught that deal with complex, traumatic events such as rape, incest, or abuse? How do you approach these works as a reader, a writer, or as a teacher? Do you call out these events as what they are, and speak of them? 
  • What works do you think are wrong for a high school classroom? Why?
  • What is gray about the telling of these things? How do authors make these issues gray, and in so doing, do both wrong and right to the subject and survivors?
  • How do you use journals and storytelling to help people explore issues that are highly sensitive? (Consult The Why and How of Writing Prompts for some assistance.)

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Yes, Virginia, It is Rocket Science

Doris makes teaching look so easy, doesn't she?
Those of you who follow my blog know I write YA fiction, but you may not also know that I'm a former high school and middle school teacher (15 years), an online instructor, and a teacher trainer. That my other consuming passion is writing lessons for teachers and talking shop with them. I've authored, co-authored, or contributed to four different works on the art of lesson design.
That's right, I said "art." And let me mix metaphors, in a major way, right now: The art of lesson design is rocket science. An excellent unit of instruction is hard to launch, you have a million variables to consider, and everyone is watching you fail.

Yet there are people who talk about teaching as if they could step in and take a teacher's job tomorrow. These are the same people who would never dare presume to talk about their lawyer, doctor, or plumber's skill with any type of knowledge or dare say, "Excuse me, I could do that!"

But let me reel myself in here: this post is not a rant against those who have done seat time in a classroom, apparently suffered, and then look down their noses the rest of their lives at the teaching profession.

Though I do believe it would be a lot of fun to see those folks take on a full day of teaching and see where they are by 3:00 PM. I'd like to be there to tell them to, "Peel yourself off the floor; keep going. Your day has just begun. You have parent phone calls to make; practice/club/rehearsal to run; papers to grade; meetings to attend. Nope, you're not going home yet, or if you are, please take this bag of stuff, or these gigs of digital work, and please get cracking. And just when you're most exhausted, you need to be designing cutting-edge, differentiated, 21st-century, Common Core State Standards-aligned, engaging, student-centered, blended, and flipped lessons."

If you are not a teacher, I imagine at least a few of the adjectives I used sailed over your head. Ed jargon, some call it. And that's how it should be. A profession worth respecting has a vocabulary--not unlike nanotechnology and neuroscience--cultivated from years of research, experience, and experimentation.

As I work with teachers headed into a new school year, I consider the vast array of knowledge, processes, and new mandates our educators have to juggle when designing lessons, and something in me craves a formula, a distillation of all the complexity in order for our teacher-soldiers to march onward.

So for those of you surrounded by notes, texts, computer, and other resources to plan those units of instruction, I've created a formula for lesson planning. It is not perfectly comprehensive or suited to every teacher's learning style. For example, some of the sequence may not follow the way your brain thinks, but try to take each step as a crucial task and determine how you can approach each one thoroughly.
  1. Select a complex text with colleagues.
  2. Identify concepts, or Big Ideas.
  3. Create Essential Questions, global and local, to be used in every assignment.
  4. Select 10 scenes or chapters of the complex text.
  5. Identify CCSS goals and subskills, finding at least three readiness levels (ELL or novice, on-target/grade level, and advanced/gifted).
  6. Identify "how to read" skills, strategies for independent reading.
  7. Develop assessments, formative and summative, with rubrics. 
  8. Develop lesson activities.
This may seem like a quick and simple formula to outsiders, but there's lots of knowledge and expectations and standards buried in these. I could do a full-day workshop on each step--and we could spend a whole year perfecting the art of each step in our classrooms.

For those of you who don't teach, please take a moment to take in these steps and appreciate the hard work teachers do to prep one three-week unit of study. For those of you who do teach, you do so much with so little time and resources, and I applaud you. Enjoy this adventure of launching great ideas, thinking, and explorations with our students this year. 

Stay tuned for future blogs with writing prompts for you and your students at the end of each post. And check out the last 4 years of posts; there's probably a concept, a whole set of journal prompts, that might suit a unit you're teaching now. 

Monday, July 30, 2012

Permission to Go Off the Grid, Sir!

 What I Did on My Summer Vacation:

Image found here
 What I Did Not Do on My Summer Vacation:

  • answer email
  • worry about writing goals 
  • worry about whether I will ever "make it" with my YA fiction (whatever that means)
  • worry about the CCSS or whether I am a decent educator or not
  • judge my worthiness by word count
  • care what others think
Note to fellow authors: I allowed myself 8 days of summer vacation. How about you?

Some wisdom to chew on from two authors, confirming thoughts in my own head lately:
I get asked this question a lot: What can I do to be a better writer?

I often answer:  Write more. Read more. 

If I have enough time, I add: And make sure you get out and do stuff. That's how you'll get new material, even if it's riding a bus to your favorite bakery and eating too many eclairs. 

It's true. You'll hear people talking about things. You'll see birds and trees and stuff. You might watch a garbage truck making its rounds, a businesswoman walking to lunch in a pair of sneakers, a man running his daily ten miles, a little kid flying a kite.

You will, I hope, gain respect for everyone you see because they're out there doing what they do because that's what they are doing. And if you're holed up writing all the time, you will forget that there are people out there doing what they do. Living.

A few weeks ago, my good friend Drew wrote me a letter. He told me to have fun. He told me that I was allowed to go swimming and do back dives and shit. The minute I read the letter, I went to the pool and did back dives.

Sometimes we have to do back dives.
--A.S. King, "Chop Wood, Carry Water"

I rarely hear anyone talk about mulling, thinking, musing, ideating. I remember reading how Tony Hillerman will often lay on his couch for hours with his eyes closed. That was the bulk of his work. I am much the same way, but instead of lying on the couch I take long walks, talk out my plots and ideas and characters, sometimes in prayer with God, other times just talking out loud to myself somewhere secluded where no one but my dog hears me (and he doesn’t mind). Toni Morrison has written about doing much the same, saying by the time she sits down to write, she’s done the hard work of writing in her head.  
--C.S. Lakin, "Why Counting Words May Be Hazardous to Your Health"

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Make That a Year

"I read a quote somewhere that said the first twelve years of a writing career are the hardest. This made me laugh, but it has the sharp jab of truth. It took about ten years of writing seriously before I was published (and that period was laden with rejection). Tenacity and persistence are the key to a writing career. Keep writing (regularly and seriously), and you will be published. You will get better. You will go deeper. That’s it."

-- Ann Napolitano

Image found here
I have no idea what "career year" I'm in--as like most fiction writers, I keep this career afloat alongside another--but I do believe I'm almost at 10 years of writing seriously. And today is the one-year anniversary of signing my contract with Sarah.

What a difference a year makes. The story has changed, a lot. Characters have come and gone. Past events have become present events. The story is better.

But a year! Wow. Have I really spent a year revising? Meanwhile, the books roll out from other authors (I know one YA author who cranks out one a year) and I feel, well, behind. Old. Stuck.

The wise part of me says we'll sell no book before it's time. Agent Rachelle Gardner had a similar message this year when she observed there's a glut of self-published books on our market, pushed out too soon. The need for speed, that American zeitgeist, does make me wonder if I'm so stupid to wait, so ridiculous to allow these months to pass, so behind the times.

But I know better. You don't get to your fourth decade of writing and still believe that art works on a timeline or that I crank things out like a machine.

There will always be this tension between the human and the machine. As we surround ourselves with more and more machines to do the past work of our memories (my iTouch pinging me with calendar dates, Wikipedia holding all the bits and bytes of data I once had to memorize) and as we raise the expectations on human output (you've got a computer, you can type faster, generate content faster, post faster), it's also tempting to think we can robot our way through a complex task. But it's an illusion. Art will remain stubbornly human--true art, that is, not cheap entertainment--and because of that, the impatient souls out there like me must accept that.

Some would argue that agents and publishers slow down the process, by at least 1-4 years, if not more, and they're right. But there's the other human part, the dialogue between two people who want to figure out how we can sell this thing, and then the committee of folks at a publishing house who will actually put it on the market.

I could also let go of the goal of selling. Some would argue that art is not for sale and artists ought to give it away for free. And if I'm not stuck on selling, then I could skip this whole process.

But I won't. I aim to sell this thing, someday.

If time is my obsession, and I'm flagellating myself for being "too slow," I need to take the long view.
I've written almost all my life, since I was seven, but the practice and craft (rather than the fun and play part) inform my daily life now. Sure, I've seen some success--the short pieces that gained publication, the novel excerpts and short stories that have won awards, they flicker like tiny dancing beams of light in a long dark night of rejection--but the novel, the thing that takes so much focus and patience and faith, it's "the thing" I can't let go till it sees publication. This is THE THING I MUST DO--the true sign of success. Therefore I'm in this for the long haul.

While the fourth draft sits in Sarah's hands, I'm building a detailed revision plan that looks like this--4 columns across--where I find out what the heck I've done.


Ahead of me are several more days of revision, no matter what feedback I get. Because while I find the manuscript close, it's still got a few unresolved aspects that I want to improve.

I will get better. I will go deeper. That's it.

Friday, June 29, 2012

Grant Me This: Some Moolah

Boldly ask for what you wonder if you truly deserve. That must be the writer's mantra in requesting funding and submitting work.

Image found here
Just sent off an application to the Elizabeth George Foundation asking for a grant to fund writing time. I have better credentials this time--more awards, more milestones reached--but you always wonder, How dare I ask for money? Just sweat it out, honey. Work a 15-20 hour day and get 'er done. 

But artists have to get over their fears and guilt and self-hatred. If we want time to write, it must be either found at some expense to ourselves or funded by external sources--those are our options. While we all love the stories of those authors who lose sleep and friendships and sanity to write beyond the workday and commute and cleaning and cooking and supposed exercising, it's no way to live.

I recently saw Robert Olen Butler post on Facebook about his 14-hour marathon writing days and felt inadequate. (Well, in the face of his writing I will always feel inadequate, but that's another post.) Then I thought, I can't do that long and survive. Even if writing was my day job, I couldn't persist longer than eight hours of writing without developing some helpful addiction.

I have found that the first and early drafts of my novel were do-able with a stolen hour a day and many hours stolen on the weekends. But there comes a time when deep reading and focus is needed beyond an hour a day, and it's very hard to unravel a novel and re-knit it with your brain unable to dive into it deep on a regular basis.

So I need time, which means money. I don't care what the free culture says, what those who hate their day jobs say, those who resent artists for asking to do what they love all day--I say fund the arts and the artists.

Lately there's been a massive outcry and debate over Emily White's confession that she's never bought music--"I Never Owned Any Music to Begin With," and it's raised a whole host of responses, the best of which, I hear, is David Lowery's. His argument of why we ought to pay for the arts, specifically songs, but I'll extrapolate that to movies, books, plays, paintings, sculpture, dance--strikes right at what I see as American myth: that artists ought to sweat it out beyond the regular work day and somehow make beautiful things to entertain everyone else. If you (and by you I mean all of us) want to spend any time with entertainment, then don't just nod to the artist, thank an artist, but pay the artist. We need tips, we need patrons, we need grants. We need moolah as much as anyone else.

I have no more wisdom than this tonight except to keep applying for several more grants and see what happens. For women, check out A Room of Her Own Foundation's Gift of Freedom--a pretty amazing opportunity. A great storehouse of information is housed at Hope Clark's Funds for Writers website and in her weekly e-newsletters, so start surfing there to see what options are available.

And don't feel guilty about it. If you're not planning on wasting that money, if you've paid dues and plan to pay more, if you work damn hard and you're serious about your craft, that's enough to ask for some of the money that's out there.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Clean Enough to Kneel at the Shrine

Clean. The office is clean.

Office is such the wrong word. I prefer space, study, or retreat. But whatever you call it, it's relieved of its dust, cat hair, and Lyn hair. The floor is swept, the desk is de-cluttered, and the shrines have been dusted.

St. Catherine of Siena by Michael
That's right, shrines. A writer's space is a spiritual one and so it must be filled with good energy. Over the years, talismans of love and beauty collect around my writing space--gifts from others and gifts to myself, forming a tiny Stonehenge of power. They're what I see daily as I write.

There is the

  • elephants shrine
  • and the saints shrine
  • and the cats shrine
  • and the stones shrine
  • and The Wizard of Oz shrine.
Five corners of good energy. They're cheering me on now, though I'm making more notes than pages--notes for when I pick up the manuscript again for more revision. As I wait for my agent's review of my latest pass at my novel, I've got Zen felines giving me patient looks; Ganesh proffering his tusk, that great sacrifice for art; Pope John Paul holding up a hand in blessing; and the Emerald City glimmering with hope. A huge gray rock perches against my desk top with one word carved in its surface: BALANCE. 

Is it any wonder that I with all my sacred relics wrote one novel called ST. MICHAEL, PRAY FOR US or another called OUR WHITE LADY OF THE GENTLE SINS? I'm all about the blessed tokens--holy wafers, smoking censers, purple vestments--that make a sacred story come to life. 

We don't write to make a buck or make a name for ourselves. We think we do, but at the end of the day we seek the eternal. Ask any writer who wants elusive fame: all she really wants is life after death, the hope that others read her words and do this in memory of her. 

So if my office is more full of meditation these days than productivity, good for me. At the very least, the way is clear for the next part of the pilgrimage; I'll know soon what I'm about. I may not like the next fork in the road, the next twist with unforeseen consequence, but you can't call yourself pilgrim if you hate taking the steps. For a moment there's rest. I can see and I can breathe. 

Writing Prompts
  • Find a shrine in your house and spend some moments there. Write what comes to mind during and after your stay.
  • If you don't have a shrine, begin one. Write a poem about something holy, and lay it there as one of your offerings.
  • How do you define spiritual when it comes to writing? How is writing a spiritual act?
  • What have you created lately? How is it a divine act?
  • How is writing spiritual and not religious? What makes writing religious?
  • Who are your favorite spiritual writers (remember, your definition of "spiritual") and what do they teach you?
  • Write something with your eyes on the sky, on the trees, seeking wind, thinking about forever. Seek truth, not perfection. Write honest and open and see what emerges. 
  • Write something looking at a shrine. 

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Dodging the Enemy of Creativity: the Destructor

What depletes you? Besides your own fears and procrastination, what else tries to prevent your manuscript from coming into being?

I'd like to argue that it's miserable people.

Children in the rubble of East London, 1940 - 1941
I sometimes encounter those who hate others being happy. These people who feel inadequate or insecure look for ways to destroy those who are creative producers. Let's call them destructors.

Graham Greene's short story, "The Destructors," stars an unhappy boy named Trevor whose family has fallen on hard times in post-war London, a city blasted by German bombs. He's a boy with intellect and leadership skill that he twists to a dark purpose: the destruction of architecture. He corrals a bunch of boys to follow him and for a while, he's successful in his mission.

Greene wrote about a boy mangled by traumas never shown us directly, but most likely add up to some form of abuse and neglect. A boy like Trevor, gifted with precocious verbal skills and the ability to inspire others, may well spend his life blasting his PTSD on a crowd. He cannot contain his thoughts or actions to a narrow convent room and Wordsworth-like, make angry art simmering on the page. He is more Byron--but with a death wish for others--who must be seen and heard while he drags everyone down.

People like Trevor who take joy in the wreckage left in their wake have destruction as their norm. They watched a mother, father, brother, or sister lay waste to others before they learned to speak. So hatefulness and spite, withheld love and stingy living, a hard fist or a smacked mouth, that is the everyday and not the exception. We must remember this when we write about them. 

People like Trevor cannot create because their soul is stained by lack. Bitterness stops their creativity and fear stays their hand. The same hammer you or I would use to build is only good in theirs for ruin. We must remember this when we write about them. 

People like Trevor with deeply low self-esteem hate themselves. What they project on you is that self-hatred. We must remember this when we write about them. 

The house the boys attack belongs to a man they call Old Misery. Graham Greene's genius--so creatively simple, so directly brilliant--sets up a tableaux of our daily human drama. People seek to hammer you down, rip out your wiring, knock down your load-bearing walls. The child of this might well be your misery and theirs--though theirs is mixed with a dark pleasure. 

But unlike Old Misery, I won't get locked up while boys jeer outside. I won't cry out with pleading or moaning. My house will not be mangled. Anyone who keeps writing knows this. The act of putting words to paper is rebellion--procreative, gestational, resurrecting. It's a raging against the dying others would perpetrate. 

No, I didn't receive a cry-tique from anyone lately. I am blessed to work with fellow writers whose eyes see clearly to my page, who make comments from a place of caring. They want my work to get better. Nope: I was simply going about my daily business apart from this writing life when let's just say, my car got clipped. 

Now there's a long rake in the paint on the passenger side. The sideview mirror, nicked and dented,  needs to be righted. But no matter: the rogue car is in the rearview, and I don't put stock in stuff anyway. A car's just a shell to get me somewhere, much like my ego, status and all other outer trappings. The spirit that rides within, she is what matters. She's got somewhere to go, and she won't be stopped. 

Writing Prompts:
  • Who is trying to stop you? Will you let them?
  • Write in spite of hate and blockage. Write 50 words of rebellion.
  • Write a letter to your would-be destructor. 
  • What part of your car can you leave behind?
  • Read Graham Greene's "The Destructors." Construct a story, poem, or essay about a ruined place or a rebirth. 

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

But I Haven't Been to Graceland

"It wasn’t until I figured this out – that I didn’t have to be an expert about something to write it into a story – that I finally really understood why my teachers insisted you had to ‘write what you know.’ Write what you know – not necessarily what you yourself have experienced. What a relief to know I didn’t have to commit a murder to write about one!"
-- Jan Dunlap

Elvis at Graceland, 1957
"Write what you know" can be a paralyzing rule for authors. It's a piece of advice that to some implies you must live what you write, or, be very close to events as they happen.

Then, there are those historical fiction folks--you know those researching types? They love being locked in a musty library or enslaved online. They're special because they have to find out what they--and we--want to know about a certain period in time.

But today with easy-to-use sites like Wikipedia, Google Books, and just about any search engine, the remotest author can be in the thick of things unknown. I, for example, can tour Graceland and write about it as if I were there. "Write what you know" is really "Write what you research."

As I revised HOW WENDY REDBIRD DANCING SURVIVED THE DARK AGES OF NOUGHT, I had my doubts about "traveling" where I had not been, but I knew I wanted Wendy and her new best friend, Tanay, to walk the rooms of The King. And while I spent time at the Wikipedia entry and on the Graceland website, I found TripAdvisor particularly helpful for my mission.

The scene needed Wendy and Tanay to take the audio tour and see interesting specifics the way these characters would. The notes from travelers did just that--raise to the fore the most intriguing and unique elements of Graceland.

Of course, as a writer or traveler you always reel with the stark contrast of reviews ("It was the best of times!" vs. "It was the worst of times!") But overall, you get little gems of setting--the temperature, the size of crowds, the colors that leapt out, and all the details that stayed with the traveler. My favorite was one traveler's quoting of another disappointed visitor: "Long live Elvis and his gift shops," as apparently every display points the tourist to buy, buy, buy. I grabbed line after line from various reviews, dumped them in my manuscript, and then began to rewrite and weave a tapestry of my own visit.

What's fun is seeing how voice informs the shortest travel review. I also had the girls stop at Earnestine and Hazel's for a Soul Burger, so check out the variety of personalities and attitudes that characterize these Yelp.com reviews.

So for those of us who aren't historical fiction writers or nonfiction gurus and who don't make heavy research the first step of a writing process, I've found some rules to keep the process from overwhelming.
  1. Keep in mind your scene goals. There are many things that could catch the eye of a Graceland visitor, but I decided just the mansion and gravesites were needed for my scene goals. What does your character want in this scene? What are the obstacles to that want? After taking a first pass at research and integrating the details into the story, go back and revise for that scene goal. (Which is why I don't over-research something; I fear I'll get lost in the details on the first draft and never get back to my characters.) Like Elmore Leonard says in his ten rules for writing, "Don't go into great detail describing places and things, unless you're ­Margaret Atwood and can paint scenes with language. You don't want descriptions that bring the action, the flow of the story, to a standstill."
  2. Not everything relates, so don't over-research for the first draft. This is a restatement of rule #1. But for authors, it must be said. We see connections everywhere. Everything has thematic possibilities. So the slightest detail about Elvis insisting that Graceland be stocked with banana pudding, Sucrets (antibiotic version), and coconut at all times may not be relevant. (Though I did keep the banana pudding.) So this is why I spent a limited amount of time taking my "tour," and then I backed off and wrote the scene as best I could. It's possible the scene could get cut in this process of working with an agent. 
  3. Paraphrase. If you are going to borrow lines from even TripAdvisor, a site where no random tourist will ever hunt you down for copyright lawsuits, follow the rule of no plagiarism. I always taught my high school students: a) change 50% of the words to synonyms and b) rearrange the order. So if you grab a 10-word sentence, replace 5 of those words and reorder them. Then the details become your own.
  4. Stay calm: the research and writing don't have to be perfect at the first pass. We want to be authentic, we want to be honest, we don't want to make sweeping generalizations about things we don't know. But when one can't afford a trip to Memphis right now, take heart: there's a lot online to peruse, there's a lot of wisdom floating out there, and if you take your time to read, select, copy and paste, and paraphrase you'll find that suddenly your manuscript will fill up with options. 
I still want to go to Graceland. I did, after all, obsess on Elvis for several months when he died. I claim early-in-my-life if somewhat late fanhood.

On August 16, 1977, my family and I were traveling through France. The radio chatter--"vraiment, incroyable, bah si si! The King, Elvis, est mort..." kept coming at my parents who were new to learning French. Finally my mom said, "Something must have happened to Elvis."

At 8, almost 9, I had no idea who the man was, but once she showed me her Elvis records, I became an obsessive fan. I fell in love with his face and swore the eyes on the album cover followed me wherever I went in the room. The record player spun daily with his voice; I could sing every line to "Don't Be Cruel," "Wooden Heart," and "All Shook Up." (Check out the "Don't Be Cruel" video for some shots of Memphis.)

Keep writing, researching, seeking. Don't let fear of the unknown paralyze you. There's a way through the writer's traveling maze with our personal versions of GPS and travel guides.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

That's Disgusting

"So phobic was her reaction to domesticity that she would rather have starved before boiling herself an egg."

Biographer Marion Meade on Dorothy Parker, Dorothy Parker: What Fresh Hell is This?

Around me as I write are dusty piles of books and furry layers of dust; on my floor, hair and pollen, plus old boxes that need to be put out in recycling. In my purse are broken sunglasses; on the table is a pair of winter pants I've intended to bring to the dry cleaners for three months; and in my shower is black-orange mold that laughs daily at my can of Comet and idle threats. 

But I'm over 130 pages in to what looks, feels, sounds, smells, and tastes like a new story. I couldn't tell you for sure; I'm somewhat addled by dust that fills my senses like smog. 

I'm no Dorothy Parker; not only do I lack caustic wit but I actually enjoy scrubbing things down and making things beautiful. I believe environment, energy, and feng shui matter. My office is blessed with soothing colors--sage green, soft orange--and I enjoy inspirational posters, artwork, and a soft chair when writing at a desk no longer works. But the cobwebs, and that mysterious bug that's hung from the ceiling, and those tumbleweeds of cat hair? They somewhat dim the shine of this well-arranged room.

But my head is down and my senses are deep in the alternate universe I build. 

Occasionally I go on a cleaning spree. When a book is done, when a goal is met, things get scrubbed. Till then, I trust my nose has great filters and the body, a strong immune system. 

Just don't tell my mother.