Wednesday Wonders on a Thursday: Two Books With True Endings

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If you want to find a good read, go to a writing conference. 

Writers, I have learned, are jittery about their own books. As often as not, we struggle to tell you what our books are about or why we fell in love with our own stories enough to spend days, months, and years writing them. But as soon as someone starts talking about books we love written by OTHER people, the conversation around the dinner table wakes up.

I keep a notebook or the Evernote app close by at writing events, so when the book lists start flying, I can write down all the titles and then later find my best reads of the year. Sometimes, these books are old treasures that I missed like Catherine Called Birdy and The Midwife’s Apprentice.

When these came out in the 1990s, I was busy with other life experiences like my time in Germany, so I missed Karen Cushman’s tales of the Middle Ages. I am grateful my writing friends paid attention back then.

Both of these middle grade works of historical fiction pulled me into the time period. I could tell that Catherine Called Birdy was Cushman’s first tale. The plot wandered a little in the weeds of history while The Midwife’s Apprentice felt tighter with a story line that wove through in a way that CCB sometimes did not. I see why it won the Newbery Medal.

But CCB, the Newbery Honor book, spoke to me this last week. In it, a girl struggled against her limiting circumstances and the arranged marriage awaiting her. I wanted her to be able to run away on a crusade, become a script-writing monk like her older brother, or even to be able to marry Perkins the goat herder.

Maybe as a young teen, I believed these as possible happy endings for a young lady like Catherine.

As a grown up, I recognize those as impossible options for a young woman living in the feudal society of the time.

In any case, I loved how Cushman brought Catherine to a realistic but hopeful resolution at the end. The character found peace and a way to stay true to herself by the end in spite of the oppressive rules of her society.

Many thanks once more to my writing friends for the joy of two good books, one after the other.

May you find your own selves in the midst of whatever lifts you up or holds you in place-

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P.S. The biggest trouble with posting late comes when the next week swings around and you’ve already missed it. Getting behind on a weekly post is like waiting until the next night to do the dishes. It gets so much easier to let the pots and plates slide the night after when you’ve done the washing up before cooking and then face more washing up.

All of that is to say that I’ll get my wonders back on Wednesdays next week. Honest.

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Wednesday Wonders: The Garden Gift of Forty

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When I was a teenager, working in the garden numbed my brain with boredom. I could not understand how my mother spent hours and days pulling weeds and clipping dead branches. I loved the beauty of the place and went to the roses to talk to her often, but I could only do the work for a few minutes before running off to bike 30 miles, pace the floor, drive to the beach, or anything else besides working with plants.

Life has changed me. 

My latest read is by Cameron Diaz and Sandra Bark. In The Longevity Book: The Science of Aging, the Biology of Strength, and the Privilege of Time, Diaz talks of how to embrace each age you are in as you live it. I’ve only made it a few chapters through the book but already see the beauty in this approach to growing older.

I think gardens may be one of the gifts of forty.

Soon after I entered this decade, I  began enjoying the time I spend outside with the flora. I worry less about having a perfect looking place and enjoy more the experience of being outside and touching the dirt. Pulling weeds and moving earth heals me when my soul aches, and the work gets me outside when I need to move from too many hours with a book or in a basement level classroom. To make it even better, my six year old dances around me, playing his games and talking to the neighbors as they walk their dogs by our home.

When I was a teen the heaven of my imagination would have been filled with action. Now I think my vision of it would be much more like Eden.

The newfound garden joy also gives me hope for the decades to come. I can no longer run as fast as I did in my twenties. In fact my hip now tells me not to run at all most days. I haven’t given up on running altogether–I still am working to heal.

But who knows what new gift I will find as I grow older?

Gardens may be just the start of the party. 

May you find joy in every age-

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Wednesday Wonders: How to Get Rewards for Reading

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Every summer about this time, I remember the libraries have programs for reading with prizes to encourage reading. My mom tells me I began doing this in the card catalog days of my grade school years, and most summers I’ve remembered to sign my kids up before the end of July. (The libraries are always generous and let me fill in hours I’ve missed recording because I signed up late.)

In my area, I have two library systems offer rewards. Both have reading programs for people of all ages. If I were really greedy, I could also join the Tacoma Public Library program.

I am not that greedy and that would also be too many things for my busy brain to manage.

Quinton and I signed up for the two libraries nearest to us: Pierce County Library and the Puyallup Public Library.

Quinton longs for the Toys R Us gift card, and I am checking off the books I read in hopes of winning the Tacoma Rainiers Summit Club tickets or the Kindle Fire. It could happen!

Even if it doesn’t, I’m sure to get in a few lovely hours reading by myself and with my kiddo. Most recently we discovered how much we adore Lyle the Crocodile books by Bernard Waber and I am digging into Graceling by Kristin Cashore. 

May you sink good books this summer and maybe even win a prize-

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Wednesday Wonders: When to Call the Book Done

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The other day my son said, “You know you’ve got a LOT of books on writing on your bookshelf. Have you read all of those?”

Mostly, I told him. (He wasn’t particularly impressed — just astounded that I could stay focused for that long on reading books about putting words on paper.)

And he doesn’t even know about the courses I’ve taken and the blogs I’ve read.

Writing takes a lot of reading.

And, of course, it takes a lot of writing words.

In my online reading, Randy Ingermanson once explained to me that the average writer puts over a million words down before she or he becomes a published author.

The million words could be several different books or it could be the same book rewritten over and over again.

I don’t know how many words I’ve written. It’s hard to keep track.

My very first novel is at the back of my file drawer where it will stay. I think I drafted 50,000 words or so. My second short historical fiction set on Whidbey Island is now around 30,000 words. Here is where it gets tough to track, though. It was 50,000 then I cut it down to 40,000. Then I added some. Then I cut it to the bone at 20,000. I added again to 32,000.

I have a third historical fiction set in Tacoma with a word count around that size, too, including the cuts and additions and whatnots.

Those are the larger pieces that are easier to keep track of. I’ve written scads of shorter pieces, some published, many more not, and some even on this blog. I’ve grown fond of mathematics but not fond enough to actually add up all the single words I’ve written to see if I’ve gotten to a million words. I know publishing isn’t anything like that straight forward anyway.

(You wrote the millionth word! Now you are published! Not exactly.)

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I declared my my second short novel finished last week. Over the last five years I drafted and revised, took classes with it, had my critique group read and re-read it through and then section by section. I’ve had beta readers take a look at it and acted on all of the feedback I’ve received in one way or another.

I’m ready to stop cutting and adding. I’m ready to turn my attention to other things and let the million words add up on some other project.

At first I decided to consign it to the bottom of a drawer, tucked into a file next to the first one about the fairies and the the other worlds full of trees and magic.

Then I read this by Priscilla Long in The Writer’s Portable Mentor, one of the those books my son saw on the shelf:

“Work never sent out is very likely never completed. The author never has to stand by it, for better or for worse. It is never exposed to a stranger’s eye. It is never received with love, hate, indifference, or with interest. It has no audience, no public. As a result, the writer is never obliged to see it through a reader’s eye.”

Well, then.

I guess I’ll send those several thousand words out, roll with rejections, and get down word counts in revising my third novel.

I suppose I knew that all along from my music and drawing. Unless I share what I am doing, the art wilts in a corner. More often than not, I never make it at all if I know no one will ever see it.

May you know the joy of calling things finished even if that means you have to take a risk to get there-

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Creative Beginnings: Part One

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This month I’d like to start a series on creative beginnings. It’s not very original. January is a time for beginning a new year and resolutions and what not.

But I am taking the excuse of a new calendar on my wall to reimagine my writing and my work by looking at what other creative people are doing. 

To start, I’d like to share an interview I did with Mary Cronk Farrell, a writer I met through a class by Dan Blank. She is a traditionally published children’s author who recently wrote PURE GRIT, a fabulous non-fiction story about the nurses who endured combat and POW camps in the Philippines during WWII.

Here’s what this professional had to say to my beginner questions:

1. I am working on historical novels and do NOT have a background in journalism like you do. How do you keep track of your research? Is there a book or class you could recommend?

I was a TV journalist so I didn’t really do much research except for interviewing people and occasionally reading documents. When I first started researching for my historical fiction I just took notes in a notebook like I did when I was a reporter.

Then I had files full of photocopies of newsclippings and pages from books etc.

Then I had files in Word filled with pages of stuff from the internet. And I usually have quite a number of books on the topic that I keep on hand. I didn’t organize it much at all.

This is what I did for basically my first four books, and it is only now as I begin a new book that I am going to get organized. So I am a horrible person to get advice on this from!

A number of writers I know swear by Scrivener. I haven’t tried it, and I keep asking them what it does that Word can’t do and I don’t get an answer that I can understand, except that you can organize your manuscript by chapter and scene and easily move things around and keep your research all organized, too.

Here’s what I am starting to do now, on the book I am just now starting to research:

1) Notes that I take, say from a book I get from interlibrary loan and have to return, I type in a word doc and use the footnote function to give the exact citation.

If I need lengthy sections from a book, I buy it. If it’s not available to buy, I will then photocopy the parts of the book I need and keep them in a physical file. I have cardboard file boxes, one for each book, or whatever.

2) For information I find on the internet, I am going with OneNote, which is the Word thing that is similar to Evernote.

Maybe you know this…in these programs you can copy text or photos from the internet and paste them onto pages in files you create. When you cut and paste it automatically adds the web address where the info came from, so you always have the link right there and go back to it.

If it’s something I will need to cite, I make sure I have the full information in case the webpage disappears.

3) I end up using a lot of newspaper articles which I often get from the library, or from other people. These I keep physical copies of in my filebox.

So…that’s about all I can tell you on research. You can probably get lots better info from others. 

2. Who helped you to get where you are in the publishing world? Who helped you with your craft? Who helped you to keep going when it would have been easier to quit? Do you have a critique group? Other support? How did you find them?

When I decided I wanted to write for children, I took a one day community college course and the instructor told us all to join SCBWI. There was one SCBWI critique group in Spokane, and after I went to a couple meetings they said they were disbanding.

I joined an online critique group, which was my only connection to the industry and other writers for a couple years. I learned a lot in that group and really got my feet wet critiquing and being critiques.

After a couple years two women from the disbanded SCBWI group decided to start a new group, and I connected up with them.

A year or two after that a published author moved to Spokane from another state and contacted us because we were a SCBWI critique group.

Sorry this is a long story, I’m going into two much detail. But all this to say that once we had this published writer, our group really got going. She shared a lot of information with us, but we started attend SCBWI conferences and we all were progressing in our writing.

We had a few writers come and go through the years, but the four of us remained the core of the group. This group has been my main support for probably the last 10-12 years, although once we all got editors or agents we stopped meeting as regularly. And this past year we have stopped meeting as a group, though we are all still friends in regular touch.

Throughout the years besides this critique group, I have attended several writing retreats and quite a number of conferences. I’ve learned a lot from that.

I have also read a lot of writing books.

I have also written a lot.

noticed over the years that I would learn something from a speaker or a book, but it was take quite a bit of time writing before what I knew in my head showed up in my writing.

3. I’m VERY focused on improving my craft right now. Do you have any recommendations?

You may be already doing these things—my best recommendations for improving craft are

1) join SCBWI and participate on the local level

2) write everyday, even if it’s only ten minutes

3) be in a critique group

I know it’s really hard to find one that is just what you need, but all I can say is keep trying. A good way is to attend a conference, try to meet people and form a group.

Also there are tons of groups on line, which is a great way to test different groups out and see what’s right for you.

4) read tons of new books in the age range and genre that you are writing.

I go to the library and look at all the books in on the “new” shelf. I’ve been doing this for about five years and I would say that after about three years of reading at least a book a week, sometimes two, I have a much better grasp on the kind of book I need to write to get published.

5) If you can afford it, attend a writing conference every year.

4. Do you have any other bits of writing or research wisdom to share?

You probably know this, but writing is REALLY hard. Don’t get down on yourself if you don’t meet your expectations. The best thing you can do is be kind to yourself and be around people who are kind to you.

There is so much rejection involved in this business, you really need a number of people to support you. Some who are writers and some who maybe aren’t writers, but they love you and respect what you’re trying to do.

Reach out.

I think if you can’t reach out when you need help, you will not make it.

With much thanks to Mary Cronk Farrell, that’s it for this first post in 2015. I feel like I’ve been beginning as a writer for more years than I want to admit in public. But I suppose Beginner’s Mind is not always a bad place to be.

Reaching out may be my theme for this year.

Wishing you all your own lovely beginnings.

That new calendar excuse for re-beginning.

That new calendar excuse for re-beginning.

Our Brains May be Shorting out on Skimming

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As I painted my son’s ceilings over spring break, I listened to the the radio streaming from my computer in the next room. A piece came on about our brains and the effects of skimming material while surfing the Internet in our Information Age. Maryanne Wolf, a cognitive neuroscientist at Tufts University, said that we have begun to lose our ability to process complex sentence structures even as we have created this amazing ability to look quickly for the information we need.

I found myself nodding my head as I dripped white paint into my hair and splattered it on my glasses with the roller.

Last week I talked about my bookmares and how I cannot get through tough scenes in audio books. When it gets too heavy in audio, I have to get the print book so I can skim to the safer parts. I’ve also written about how I often prefer reading with my ears because the audio versions make me slow down and drink in the images I might otherwise push through to find out what happens next.

I don’t imagine I can now let go of the actors reading to me in my car, but Maryanne Wolf made me want to try a bit of complex reading or, at the very least, do more print reading to keep my brain in shape. I’m always telling my students how good it is for their brains to learn a language. (I’ve got to say something encouraging about the gargantuan task now and then to keep them going.)

I’d feel insincere if I didn’t take some of my own medicine, so I am now shopping for dense language in well written books. Suggestions, again, are welcome.

Pictures of skimming escaped me today. But I did find a video of this crazy event I never knew of before: pond skimming. Maybe skimming in reading is just as fun as these goofy people who made me smile this morning. I’m hoping for warmer weather and water when I soak in the pool of words in a book.

 

Bookmares

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How I feel about choosing my next read.

How I feel about choosing my next read.

Lately, I’ve felt traumatized by books. Two of the books I was able to stop reading when they upset me. I didn’t care enough about the characters to make myself read any more about teenagers doing drugs and blowing up their lives or risk running into another scene like the botched horse euthanasia that I long to unread.

Two more recent books have had me fully bought into what happens. I care about those characters about as much as I care about my high school or Sunday school students. I need to know what happened to those kids and that they are okay.

I’ve been listening to their stories on audio (iPhones and libraries make great partners for my morning commute – I can’t even get late fines). So I have had to get the printed books to let me skim those scenes about parental abuse of the character kids I want to scoop up and rescue from their writers’ words.

All of these authors are skilled. Very skilled. Even the ones who wrote characters I didn’t connect to have an amazing writerly superpower: they make me see in my head what they experienced or imagined in their own heads.

When I first took a class on fiction writing, I couldn’t get past the idea of conflict in writing. I didn’t want to believe I needed it to make a good story. Even more, I didn’t want to create stories to fill people with more feelings of conflict. I used this excuse for a long time to stop myself from writing.

Recently I scared one of my critique group members with the opening scene to my book with too much conflict. So I try not to hold my readerly stress against authors, and I know I’ve accepted that fiction needs conflict to pull the story forward.

But I am shopping for books with a tad fewer chest tightening scenes for my next reads. I crave great stories that pull me through without ripping my heart out over imaginary people. If you’ve got a minute, I’d love suggestions. Bring on the Pollyanna. My reading heart needs mending. Maybe this makes me a wimp. I’m okay with that.