Wednesday, July 31, 2013


This, from Anne Morrow Lindbergh's Gift from the Sea, really spoke to me (and speaks for me):

"We are asked today to feel compassionately for everyone in the world; to digest intellectually all the information spread out in public print; and to implement in action every ethical impulse aroused by our hearts and minds. The interrelatedness of the world links us constantly with more people ... It is good, I think, for our hearts, our minds, our imaginations to be stretched, but body, nerve, endurance and life-span are not as elastic. My life cannot implement in action the demands of all the people to whom my heart responds. ... We were brought up in a tradition that has now become impossible, for we have extended our circle throughout space and time."

And she wrote that before the internet brought the world to our fingertips!

I grapple, often guiltily, with the reality that I cannot read every story that matters; cannot give to every worthy charity whose aims I support; cannot feed every hungry person. I cannot learn about every subject that interests me and cannot even inform myself, as a citizen, as deeply as I would like about every single issue I think I should know about. I could work 24/7 and never satisfy the tiniest fraction of the "shoulds," "ought to's," and, "want to's."

I must do what I can for the people and the causes in front of me. I do my best.

Which reminds me of this starfish story. As in: There are so many starfish, but at least I'll reach the ones I can.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

A summer Sunday salad of links

Yesterday was my monthly post at YA Outside the Lines, this time about the best summer of my teen years (hint: It involved writing. Also gamelan, the Beatles, an unfinished film, Shakespeare, and acceptance).

Other recommended blog reading includes:

Becky Levine discussing "A thing to hang my plot on." Sample: "I was constantly struggling to think about what [my main character] might/could/should do next…and why." (Follow the link to see how she tackled this plotting problem.)

This interview of Bennett Madison on The Rejectionist: "There are also all these questions of influence when it comes to YA that I don't think are asked (or asked nearly as much) about books marketed to grown-ups. Do YA writers bear an added responsibility to educate or inspire ... ? ... These questions hinge, to me, on what's an essentially false premise: that adults are going to think critically about a book while teenagers will sort of just receive it unquestioningly. I don't think that's true at all ..."

And Nova Ren Suma on public speaking despite shyness, including tips for how to approach events: "I say I don’t get nervous before events anymore—and I don’t, really—but I’ve noticed there is always one nervous, heart-pounding moment during an event and that’s okay…"

Friday, July 26, 2013

When ideas attack

Dear shiny new story idea:

Yes, I feel you in my brain, pushing against the door. You want to come in and shove my current, half-finished, project off my desk. You are banging at the door, calling my name, bombarding me with phrases and scraps of plot.

But you see, this has happened before. I often find that when I turn to a story idea that has been knocking--when I open that door--the idea turns shy and shrinks away. "Who, me?" it asks. "Umm, yeah, I might possibly have something to say. If you ask very nicely, maybe I will think about sharing it with you." The idea that has been pounding on the door with all the muscle of a pro boxer turns into a fragile, fluttering belle on the verge of a swoon.

You might have copied this from my cat. He will writhe before the door, yowling the feline equivalent of, "I MUST GO OUTSIDE RIGHT NOW RIGHT NOW I HAVE URGENT CAT BUSINESS TO CONDUCT OH YOU STUPID HUMAN DON'T YOU SEE HOW IMPORTANT THIS IS I MUST GO OUT OR I WILL DIE IF YOU REEEALLY LOVED ME YOU WOULD OPEN THIS DOOR RIGHT NOW!!!" Only to face the newly opened door with a surprised blink and ten minutes of tiptoeing toward the threshold, sniffing the door jamb, peering outside, and contemplating the meaning of life, before actually exiting the building.

But don't get me wrong. I'm glad you're there, and I hope you're just as vigorous when it's your turn as you are right now, when I have another story to finish.


Your writer

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Developing characters

Some writers use worksheets to get to know their characters. They want to know everything about the characters' backstories, their height and eye color, their likes and dislikes, what they had for breakfast, and so on.

I've tried such worksheets a couple of times, but could never get into them. What has worked for me is doing little outtakes--scenes or backstory exercises that don't appear in the finished book, but that help me get in touch with the point of view, motives, and history of my secondary characters.

I let the characters ramble on about whatever they care to tell me. For example, here is Austin, the spoiled rich kid from The Secret Year, reminiscing about his relationship with his late girlfriend, Julia:

"She liked to drive fast. She liked writing ... that didn't interest me too much, but I had my sports, and nobody says couples have to like all the same things. She was better in school than me. She liked to go mope off alone by the river or in the park or wherever, I didn't even know all the places. Sometimes she told me she drove through the flats and imagined what it would be like to live there.

"Once we saw an old Mexican woman sitting outside a gas-station rest room, and Julia got all excited about what it would be like to be that woman. She went over and tried to get the woman's life story, but the woman only spoke Spanish and didn't seem to want to tell her bio to a complete stranger.

"After I went back to school, I wouldn't let people talk to me about Julia. I told them I didn't want to discuss it, and they respected that. I missed her like hell but I thought I should move on, you know. Otherwise I was afraid I'd sit in that pit forever. After a couple of weeks I went out with Emily Barrett, and I had a few too many and ended up crying on her shoulder. Thank God she never told anybody. She said she understood."

Almost none of that appears in the book: we do see Austin with his arm around Emily Barrett, but we don't know how badly that date ended. I don't know where the whole scene about Julia and the woman at the gas station came from, but it reinforced my sense of Julia: enthusiastic, curious, inquisitive, even to the point of being slightly pushy. Writing from Austin's point of view also made him more sympathetic to me, which helped because the book is told from the point of view of his archrival, through whose eyes Austin doesn't come off very well. Besides all that, Austin lives in a fair amount of denial, and writing in his voice helped me figure out what he actually knows but doesn't admit, what he admits to himself but not to others, and what he won't even let himself see yet.

If traditional character worksheets don't work for you, it's something to try.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Where words take us

Yesterday, I was invited to participate in a bookstore panel (along with Katherine Marsh and Elizabeth LaBan) at Hooray for Books! in Alexandria, VA. (They now have signed copies of books by all three of us, if you would care to own one!) I decided to spend the morning enjoying Washington before heading over to the store.

During the day, I thought a lot about the places that words take us. Because of a book I wrote, I was invited on this trip in the first place. Because my friend Jama Rattigan blogged about a book written by two sisters who started a chocolate shop in Washington DC, I read the book, and yesterday visited the store. Both book and store are named Chocolate Chocolate. Excellent chocolate, by the way! And because of our shared enjoyment of books and blogging (and chocolate), I got to know Jama in the first place, and to spend time with her and her husband at and after the reading. Those are the fun places words took me.

After fortifying myself with chocolate, I visited the Lincoln and World War II memorials, among other sites. Everywhere I looked were other memorials and monuments and tributes: to Washington, to Jefferson, to veterans of World War I and the Korean War and the Vietnam War, to the signers of the Declaration of Independence.

Washington is a city built on weighty words: words carved into memorials, like Lincoln's second inaugural address. Or preserved in the archives, like the Declaration of Independence, the original Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. Or delivered as speeches in the White House and the Capitol Building and the Supreme Court. Or printed on signs of protest, when citizens march. We don't always live up to our best words, being imperfect human beings--and we don't even all agree on what the words mean and how they should be applied--but there's an idealism underlying those words that is still inspiring.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

How my brain works in mid-July

A few random thoughts:

--This Saturday, July 20, at 3:30 PM, I'll be on a panel called "Life is Messy" with Elizabeth LaBan and Katherine Marsh at Hooray for Books! 1555 King Street, Alexandria, VA. Please join us if you're in the neighborhood!

--I wish one of the train stations around here were named "Nothing." Then I could say, "Today I will stop at Nothing!"
This is the kind of joke someone surely must have made before, but I thought of it myself while waiting for my morning train, and this is exactly the kind of silly thing that amuses me. Perhaps the heat has begun to melt my brain case. The heat index here today was something like 105 F.

--A typical rookie writing mistake (leading sometimes to unintentional humor) is the use of modifiers that don't match the tone of the piece, or that call to mind images exactly the opposite of the desired effect. For example, "Her lips were as red and juicy as a rotting tomato" is not a romantic image, red and juicy though rotting tomatoes may be. Sometimes we get so caught up in trying to find an exact, literal image that we forget to think about how it will work in context.
By the same token, the right modifier can be powerful by setting the right tone. For example, a character could have gray hair whose color could be compared to rat's fur, or steel, or clouds. The choice will be based on what we want to say about that character, the character who is describing her, or both (i.e., the relationship between them).
Of course, if humor is what you're going for, then using descriptive words to produce clashing, instead of cohesive, images is one more tool in that particular toolbox.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Point-of-view filters

What disturbs me sometimes about biographies is that our ideas of a person are ruled very much by who is still around and willing to talk (or whose words are still around) when the bio is being written. You can't always tell who has an ax to grind, or who has an interest in sugar-coating a reputation. This is not to mention the agenda of the biographer.

In fiction, we can play with these ideas, controlling these points of view deliberately. The character who badmouths someone else: is she providing fair warning, or unjustly smearing that person? Is the narrator being honest? And just how rose-colored are the lenses through which we see the love interest?

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Instruments of change

Something that happens more in fiction than in reality is the hero delivering a noble speech that makes everyone else see how wrong they've been. Whether the hero is marshaling facts, charisma, or both, this eye-opening oration turns the tide.

When I studied communication in grad school, one of the more fascinating issues we discussed was the question of whether persuasive texts ever change readers' minds. According to the research at the time, people's pre-existing opinions actually tended to be reinforced after reading something, whether the text's author was arguing for or against that opinion. (If the text was in opposition to their beliefs, they would strengthen their own opinions by searching for loopholes and counter-arguments as they read.)

There only seemed to be a short window during which people had opinions that could be swayed in one direction or the other. After that, attitudes, once formed, tended to harden.

Of course this is a simplification with variations and exceptions. But it mirrors what I've seen out in the world. And it makes sense--if we could just tell people to change, then changing the world would be a lot simpler!

This can be a challenge for fiction writers because story is all about change. But it suggests that perhaps our characters' changes need to come about through outward experiences or inner insights rather than persuasive words by others. Pondering ...

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Finding the way

Recently on his blog, Michael Merriam mused about losing the passion for writing, and finding it again. About questioning the dream. I highly recommended it (note: if you're uncomfortable with cussing, there is just a bit). A sample of the post:

"I had lost my way, become too caught up in the numbers game, worrying about money, about conforming to societal expectation concerning what is really worthwhile work, about my imaginary position in an imaginary hierarchy of writers, about marketing and blogging and being public, and about not ever being able to break through to the big-time despite being fairly well-respected by my peers. ..."

And then I find this line in Margot Peters's biography of May Sarton: "Her attitude toward her own work volleyed between satisfaction and despair." Anyone out there familiar with that volley?  ;-)

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

This is what it's like inside a writer's brain

The other day, I saw a sign that said SPEED ENFORCEMENT ZONE.

Naturally, I had many thoughts. Among them:

I assume they mean Speed Limit Enforcement Zone, because otherwise--they're encouraging speeding?

Why have an enforcement zone? Isn't speeding illegal everywhere? Does this mean they won't bother enforcing the speed limit outside this zone?

Am I thinking too much about this?

To be a writer is to think about words, to play with them, study them, squeeze them, test them. To view even the street signs in your neighborhood as text that is ripe for editing.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Facing fear: High ceilings, by Alissa Grosso

The latest installment in my guest post series on fear is by Alissa Grosso. I have known Alissa for a few years now, and I have never noticed her reacting to the fear she describes below. (I was probably too busy eating chocolate--or reading book jackets, since so many of our meetings occur in bookstores.) Instead, I have noticed that she writes cool YA books. But read and learn about this phobia:

My guess is that most folks participating in this guest blog series on the topic of fear are going to pick something nice and normal like fear of snakes or fear of spiders. Perhaps they will choose something deep and profound like fear of death or fear of the unknown. I've never in my life done things the normal way, and I see no reason to start now. No, my blog post is on the fear of ceilings.

Okay, specifically it's on the fear of high ceilings. In case you were wondering, this is really a thing. There's one of those impossible-to-spell phobia words to go along with it. In this case: altocelarophobia. Why yes, I did just copy and paste that from Google, but my spellcheck still disagrees that it is an actual word.

For as long as I can remember, I've had an irrational fear of high ceilings. Looking at them makes me feel dizzy and lightheaded. Common places that tend to freak me out include gymnasiums, churches, big fancy government buildings and planetariums with the lights on. Since avoiding such places at all costs would put a bit of a crimp in my lifestyle, I've learned to live with this fear and the weird feeling I experience when I am in one of these high-ceilinged buildings.

Of course, living with an irrational phobia and acting completely normal are two different things. The best of course of action seems to be to not look up at high ceilings, to sort of pretend they aren't there. The result is that I tend to cower a bit when I am in a room with an abnormally high ceiling. I spend a lot of time looking at the floor and peoples' shoes.

Every once in a while, though, I get the urge to take a peek at the ceiling. It's my way of challenging myself, or perhaps my attempt to prove how ridiculous my fear is. Invariably this leads to a dizzy sort of feeling and a layer of nervous perspiration suddenly appearing on my hands. I quickly avert my eyes, returning my gaze to something safe and much, much closer to the ground.

As I begin to schedule some book promotion events for 2013, I do not let my altocelarophobia (spellcheck, Google insists this is a word!) determine where I will appear. In fact I'm looking forward to this year's Hudson Children's Book Festival* despite the fact that it's held in a school gym. I'll be there, and if you happen to be there and notice that I spend more time looking at your shoes than your eyes please know it's nothing personal, I'm just trying to avoid catching a glimpse of that big, high, scary ceiling.

*The festival has happened since this was written ... and without visible author panic!

Shallow Pond

Alissa Grosso is the author of the YA novels Popular, Ferocity Summer and Shallow Pond. She can be found online at Her latest, Shallow Pond, is about a teen girl whose quest to leave her small town is derailed when she discovers a shocking family secret.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Living with less, and the pendulum

My friend Kelly Fineman has been downsizing in preparation for moving to a smaller home, and she has been posting regularly about the process. Somehow, so many of us, even if we're not wealthy, have accumulated "stuff" that we would now like to get rid of. Or at least reduce. The McMansion trend, and the storage-rental spaces that have been popping up everywhere, suggest that many of us have more physical baggage than we used to.

Kelly has been posting about the plans, decisions, and emotions that accompany the streamlining process. So I was already thinking about this when I read in Anne Morrow Lindbergh's Gift from the Sea: "To ask how little, not how much, can I get along with. To say--is it necessary?--when I am tempted to add one more accumulation to my life ..."

Lindbergh is talking not only about physical stuff here, but about time-related stuff: the activities and obligations that fill our days. I really like what she says here because it reflects my experience of reality:

"The solution for me, surely, is neither in total renunciation of the world, nor in total acceptance of it. I must find a balance somewhere, or an alternating rhythm between these two extremes, a swinging of the pendulum between solitude and communion, between retreat and return. In my periods of retreat, perhaps I can learn something to carry back into my worldly life."

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Gone readin'

I've been reading a lot lately: fiction and nonfiction; adult, juvenile and YA, juggling five and six books at once. I'm in one of those phases where I have less to say about myself because I am hungry for other people's stories. I'm also working on a book of my own, but when I'm not doing that I'm soaking up the words of other writers.

Are you reading anything good right now?