Saturday, December 29, 2012

Peaceful days

I love these days between Christmas and New Year's. The decorations are still up. Most of us have some days off. We're spending more time resting, more time socializing. There is a lot of looking back: on past holidays, on the year behind us. There are plans and dreams for a new year.

Today, a thin blanket of snow fell on us to enhance that contemplative, holiday feeling.

Happy dreaming.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

The turn of the year

It's my turn to post at YA Outside the Lines. Today's topic is taking stock, here at the end of one year and the beginning of another. A sample: "For the past few years, I’ve made the same New Year’s resolution: To do less. To hurry less and worry less, to stop rushing and overcrowding my schedule."

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

The next generation

Here's a scene from my recent holiday that warmed my book-loving little heart:

The place: A family living room. Two young people, ages almost-14 and 9, sit on the floor surrounded by discarded wrapping paper. Reading books.

(The authors holding them so entranced were Lauren Myracle and Jeff Kinney.)

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Holiday hopes

I did not expect to spend so much time away from my blog, but various germs and side effects conspired against me. But this was really not a bad week for me to be reflecting, healing, and resting.

In the holiday spirit, I encourage you to leave a comment over on the Heifer challenge page of Nathan Bransford's blog by December 24, because each commenter will increase his donation to Heifer International. And then click over to the other participating blogs (linked within his post) and leave comments there as well. In just about a minute, you can make four bloggers donate more than $8! You can also join the challenge yourself via Nathan's blog.

This post by ProfessorNana reminded me that although I loved to read and did so constantly while growing up, I enjoyed the reading that I did for school much less. As she talks about the trend in schools: "For them, reading is taking something apart and then spitting it back on a test." Also, "I once saw a 42 page activity guide to MAKE WAY FOR DUCKLINGS and recoiled in horror." (My copy of the source text itself, MAKE WAY ..., has only 33 pages of text.) I do understand and appreciate the things I learned about outlining, story and essay structure, theme, symbolism, etc., in my English classes. Without school, I'm not sure how long it would have taken me to realize that not every story is meant to be taken only at its most surface, literal level!

But I agree that not every book has to be an assignment. I connected with books emotionally before I connected with them intellectually. And sometimes you just want to have fun. One of the blessings of our adult lives is that we can read what we choose without having to justify it to someone else or take a quiz on it.

And I have to say again how exciting I find the rise of teen book bloggers and sites like Goodreads and Shelfari, or at least this aspect of these sites: they are places where young readers are thinking and writing about what they're reading. They're choosing books, looking forward to them, recommending them. Many of them discuss not only what they did or didn't like, but why. Many of them read widely enough that they can start to spot patterns, including trends and cliches, on their own. While not all readers engage in online discussion, I find the fact that such communities exist to be very heartening indeed.

Happy reading.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Four thoughts

When I was growing up, there was a song I heard on the radio called, "What the World Needs Now is Love," written by Hal David and Burt Bacharach. The line that always sticks in my head, after the title line of course, is this one: "It's the only thing that there's just too little of."

This weekend, I finished reading A. S. King's book Ask the Passengers. The main character, Astrid, practices loving her fellow human beings, including strangers. "I send a steady, visible stream of it--love--from me to them ... It's a game I play. It's a good game because I can't lose. ... This isn't reciprocal. It's an outpouring."

Why she does this, and what comes of it, and what else is going on in her life, fills out the story of Astrid Jones. But that is where it begins, with a girl sending her love to the world.

"Then suddenly the dull light in the [subway] car began to shine with exceptional lucidity until everything around me was glowing ... and I saw in the row of motley passengers opposite the miraculous connection of all living beings. Not felt; saw. What began as a desultory thought grew to a vision, large and unifying, in which all the people in the car hurtling downtown together, including myself, like all the people on the planet ... formed one united family, indissolubly connected ... The vision filled me with overwhelming love for the entire human race ... "
--Alix Kates Shulman, Drinking the Rain

"Maybe this was what Ecclesiastes meant about casting your bread upon the water; it's so little, usually only crumbs, but how nourishing the casting is."
--Anne Lamott, Grace (Eventually): Thoughts on Faith

Thursday, December 13, 2012

The struggle

Stephanie Kuehnert posted at YA Outside the Lines about the ways in which we can get ourselves all twisted up in the search for the right story, the right routine, the right rules. I especially like these points she made:

"Writing is ... a part of the fabric of your being."

"My mentality that I have to work on one project at a time and stick with it til the end (or til interrupted by an obligation) is just one of the many rules that I've made for myself that I had to realize was exactly that--a made-up rule, not a statement of fact."

" ... crises of faith like the one I'm dealing with don't just disappear overnight. There is no magic fix, not even selling a book. Each day I have to find a way to gather up enough strength and faith in myself to continue."

Writing can be very tough, mentally and emotionally. I've often said that I'm grateful it took me so long to sell my first book. If I'd published a novel when I first tried, back around the age of twenty, I would not have been able to handle this roller-coaster ride. I was not emotionally equipped to deal with such unpredictable highs and lows, to separate my well-being from my books' success or failure. Even now, it's not always easy ... but back then, I just didn't have my feet under me yet. (Please note that I'm not saying twenty-year-olds in general can't handle writing success--there are even teens who handle it beautifully--just that I, personally, could not.)

Whether you're celebrating or struggling today, I wish you well!

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Best of

It's the time of year when "Best of" lists start making their appearance. Sometimes I think it's really impossible to compare books this way. How could I decide if a book that makes me cry is "better" than one that makes me laugh? In judging a book, how do I balance cleverness of plot, importance of theme, believability of character, flow of dialogue, aptness of word choice, and strength of voice? Which elements "count" more?

Choosing a "best" book is like trying to decide whether mint chocolate chip is a better ice-cream flavor than coconut fudge. The answer is, it depends on my mood, and I'd hate to live without either of them.

On the other hand, I must admit there are books I not only enjoy but admire, books that tell a compelling story with elegance, wit, and originality. Those books end up on my personal "best of" lists, and often on other people's lists as well.

As usual, I haven't yet read the most-buzzed-about books of this year (The Fault in Our Stars, Code Name Verity). I haven't even read many books published this year--instead rereading old favorites, catching up on books published in previous years (like The Autobiography of Malcolm X and Mary McCarthy's The Group), and even catching a sneak peek of next year's books (snagging an ARC of Nova Ren Suma's 17 & Gone). I read widely and randomly, following my mood of the moment. But I do tend to get to the Morris winners sooner or later (I even read Flash Burnout and The Freak Observer before they won!). And the Printz list has hooked me up with some books that I hadn't heard about before (The White Darkness, American Born Chinese).  I've now read 6 of the 12 Printz winners and 8 of the honor books, and I have a vague plan to maybe read all of them sometime.

That, I think, is the best thing that "best of" lists can accomplish: to shine a spotlight on worthy books that many readers may not have heard of--or to get them to pick up books they may have heard of but haven't yet tried. Maybe we shouldn't call them "best of" lists, but "worth reading" lists? I don't know. I'll get back to you after I finish this book I'm reading ...

Sunday, December 9, 2012


Laurel Garver posted a great piece on "the perfection myth," complete with references to NaNoWriMo and Anne Lamott. A sample: "The myth of perfectionism says I'm not safe if I'm not doing everything 'just right,' therefore, I must cover over all my inadequacies to stay safe." I highly recommend it for anyone who struggles with perfectionism.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Social media wish list

On my rambles through the social networks, I've developed the following wish list. I call it a wish list rather than a list of do's and don't's because I'm no guru, and ultimately, people can run their social media presences any way they want. On this list, I've stayed away from more general suggestions that have already been posted many other places around the internet (such as: Don't spam people; don't use social media to bombard people with hard-sell tactics; etc.) I've stuck to things that have become preferences after years of blog-reading, Twitter-following, and Google+-dabbling.

Remember that not everyone is on Facebook. Many people use Facebook as their primary, or only, way to relate to the online world. That's understandable, because Facebook is so prevalent. But even though it's prevalent, it's not all-inclusive. There are still people who have never joined Facebook, or who have left it. So if Facebook is your main or only online home, make sure that the information you want public is public. More than once, I have clicked on a link to see some promised information about an author appearance, a book, or some exciting news in a person's life, only to be confronted by a Facebook login page. Sometimes I'm allowed to see the page without logging in; many times, I'm not. At which point, I click away. I suppose this tip could be generalized to say that any information you're trying to get out to the whole world shouldn't be posted only on a closed network.

Remember that not everyone is everywhere. If you announce something exciting on Tumblr, the people who are following you on your blog and Pinterest won't realize it. If you post something on Twitter, even the people who are following you there may not see it because the Twitter stream moves so fast. If something big happens, like you have a baby or sell a book or get selected for a Mars mission, you may want to announce it multiple places or include links to the big announcement on all your media. Yes, there will be some redundancy if your social media audiences overlap, but  this is for big news only.

We all hate trolls and spammers, but if at all possible, turn off your word verifications. The "word tests" have become extremely difficult to read, with photos of numbers hidden in shadows, and strings of letters distorted beyond recognition. Many's the time I have been able to identify the number and almost all of the letters, but ... is that a w or two v's smushed together? I click for another combo, only to find the number box is a blob of darkness. Click again, and the letters are overlapping to the point of illegibility. At this point, I start to question how important it is to me to leave this comment ...

There's no need to blog about vows to be a better blogger. Especially after a hiatus or slowdown, people often post grand plans for schedules or topics that they can't keep to, which only leads to their feeling worse, avoiding their blogs more, and posting more apologies. Nobody is acting as the blog police, forcing you to blog on a certain schedule or on certain topics. You're not accountable to your readers in that way (except if you open a contest, you should select the winner(s) and award the prize). Blogging is supposed to be fun, not another guilt-ridden chore. If you want to try out some new features, go ahead, but they don't have to be set in stone.

If you switch platforms, provide your "old" readers a way to follow you. If you can mirror your blog posts, or set up an RSS feed, that will help you stay in touch with the people who've stuck with you on one platform. Plenty of my LiveJournal friends have done this, and it's nice to know I can still find them!

Any items you would add to the wishlist?

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

It's not time to solve the mystery yet

When my husband and I watch medical mystery or detective shows, we quickly pick up on the timing of certain formulaic elements. Usually, the character who is the chief suspect on the detective show 20 minutes in is not the real criminal. The initial diagnosis on the medical show invariably turns out to be wrong, and the patient takes a dramatic turn for the worse about halfway through the episode.

I've noticed that e-reading bothers me in formats where I have no clue how far in I am. Without even realizing it, I have learned to apply certain expectations to the pacing of a story, depending on how many pages there are left to go. I read widely, and my books aren't quite as predictable as some TV series, but it's a general rule that a book's most shattering revelation will not occur 20% of the way through the book. If something big happens at that point, then I know something even bigger must happen later on. And if I'm reading in a format where I don't know how far along I am, I'm not sure whether to invest all my emotional energy in that scene and then relax, or whether I can expect a build to an even bigger discovery.

It's interesting how I've absorbed this sense of pacing without consciously trying. I think that many of the techniques we use as writers are like that: we don't spell them out or even realize we know them.

One more note about the YA for NJ benefit auction: there are still a couple of days left. Arrange the items by price and take a look at how many books are available for less than $20! Such as work by Alissa Grosso, Jordan Sonnenblick, Sarah Mlynowski, Josh Berk, Jon Skovron, Natalie Standiford, Ellen Wittlinger, Jennifer Jabaley, Natasha Friend, Alyssa Sheinmel, Cecil Castellucci, PG Kain, KM Walton, Micol Ostow, Natalie Zaman & Charlotte Bennardo, Laurie Faria Stolarz, Alexa Young, Kimberley Griffiths Little, Michael Northrop, Kate Messner, David Lubar, Megan Kelley Hall, Swati Avasthi, Eric Luper, and yours truly, just to name a few.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

The holiday season

I fail to see why the radio stations are so enamored of the song, "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus." The song is only cute from an adult's perspective; from its own narrator's perspective, the child who sings it has no way out of a traumatic discovery. Either way it goes, he's finding out something about his parents that he'd rather not know.

Or maybe I'm over-thinking it.

That is pretty much my only Grinchlike thought at the moment. I'm enjoying the preparations for this holiday season. I like the lights and the decorations and the music (except for the aforementioned song). I like getting in touch with people I may not hear from at other times of year. Even in the face of whatever sadness inevitably finds its way into our lives, I find the holidays comforting rather than harsh.

Family get-togethers can put pressure on people, which means that they can be fertile settings for writers, who need conflict around which to build stories. (I took full advantage of this in the Thanksgiving scene of The Secret Year.) But I hope you all are finding conflict only on the page, and are finding calm and celebration in the real world!