Monday, December 29, 2014

Letting go, clearing space

My post at YAOTL this month celebrated the beauty of holiday breaks, and the restfulness (for many of us) of this week before New Year's. I am generally not good at letting go of the holidays, returning to the hectic routines of regular life. I am not good at letting go in general.

But 2014 was a year of letting go. Things I had hoped for didn't happen. Things I'd had once could not be kept. I also began seriously decluttering my physical space--a project that will take quite a while, but I can see improvements already. I became willing to let go of some things I've been accumulating and holding onto all my life.

People my age often have grandparents who lived through the Great Depression. And while my own grandparents were not hoarders, I did know of what I call "Depression hoarders." These were people who had survived that era when you had to save everything--every bit of string, every scrap of soap--and even when times improved, they were unable to shed their fear of waste and impoverishment. So they never threw anything away, and their homes filled with stuff. People who cleaned their houses after Depression hoarders had passed on described the stacks of newspapers, the piles of cans, the balls of rubber bands. The glass jars and even the plastic microwave trays and styrofoam packaging.

I am not a Depression-style hoarder, but I don't like waste and I have kept things "just in case" or "because they're too good to get rid of." One thing I've been gaining, though, is the willingness to let things go. I used to think that if something came into my life, I was obligated to hold onto it until it disintegrated. Which explains why my recent cleaning efforts have turned up shoes I haven't worn in 10 years, clothing I haven't worn in 20. A gag gift someone gave me in college that has been gathering dust on the top shelf of my closet. A picture I clipped out of a newspaper back when the Berlin Wall was still standing. Electrical bills from the apartment I lived in before I got married.

I'm clearing things out because it will give me breathing room, but also because I'm hoping to have more room for new things in my life in 2015.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Carpe diem

I had a whole list of things to do today, and I did a few of them, but then the woods beckoned. It was another sunny, blue-skied day after a long stretch of what had felt like (and maybe was) weeks of dreary grayness. And tomorrow the rain returns.

So I left some of my indoor chores undone. I went on a hike with my husband and our local hiking club. Stretched the legs, enjoyed the sun and the scent of earth and the quiet trees biding their time until spring, and the song of a white-throated sparrow (thanks, Cliff, for telling us what that was). Seized the day.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Festive links

Here are some festive links, for a holiday mood, whatever and however you celebrate:

Nathan Bransford's annual fundraiser for Heifer International, where all you have to do is comment on his blog post and/or tweet the hashtag #NBHeifer on Twitter (he pledges $2 per tweet or comment). I will also be donating a flat amount myself.

A white winter's walk in the woods, for those of us missing snow, from LizzieBelle

A post about the joy our furry friends can bring (and ways for us to give back), from Alissa Grosso at YA Outside the Lines

Wishing you peace and joy!

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Two quotes

"What a strange feeling to be done with [writing] The Book. It had weighed so like a stone these many years, you'd think I'd be tripping about in ecstatic jubilation. But I felt rootless. Empty. Lost. I sunk into a slough of discombobulation."

"I sighed. It just might be that The Book was unpublishable.
I wasn't feeling sorry for myself. I had gotten the job done, I was proud of it ... Besides, I had found myself through the arduous writing process. Even if we were never able to publish our book, I had discovered my raison d'etre in life, and would continue my self-training and teaching."

Both of these are from Julia Child's My Life in France, and capture pretty well some of the emotions associated with finishing a manuscript and receiving early rejections.

Been there, done that. Probably most writers have!

(By the way, "The Book" she was referring to is Mastering the Art of French Cooking, which not only did get published, but became a classic in its field.)

Thursday, December 18, 2014

A new story

The excitement of putting a story out into the world never gets old.

My latest arrival is a short-story chapbook, part of The Head & The Hand Press's project to put chapbooks into a school (specifically, the Science Leadership Academy). CBS Philly did a story on the chapbook project.


"In Memory of Lester" is the sometimes humorous, sometimes serious, story of a very unusual memorial.

I'm honored to be part of a series that also features Tara Altebrando, Melissa Sarno, Autumn Konopka, Robert Marx, Eliza Martins, Ruby Jane Anderson, and Lilliam Rivera.

If you're interested, my chapbook and the rest in the series are available here, along with the rest of the offerings from The Head & The Hand Press.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Older books worth another look

These books were all published quite a while ago, but they say that what goes around comes around. Or everything old is new again. Or something.

I think these could serve as interesting springboards to discussions of current events:

1984, by George Orwell. This novel, considered a futuristic dystopian when it was written, is newly relevant. Orwell paints a picture of a society with constant surveillance, political doublespeak, revisionist history, and the end of privacy.

Main Street, by Sinclair Lewis. This story takes place in the World War I era, yet the divide that we would now call red-state/blue-state is exemplified in this story of a marriage in a small town. Are we too polarized to ever get along?

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, by Betty Smith. I've been considering doing a blog read-along of this one. It also takes place in the World War I era, yet the economic struggles of its main characters are part of many families' stories nowadays. This is also a book with the "strong female characters" readers look for today.

David Copperfield, Oliver Twist, or A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens. News reports can go on and on about wealth inequality, the rise of homelessness, and the burden of debt, but I wonder if any of that has the same impact as the classic scene of Oliver Twist begging for more gruel in the orphanage. I could have put almost any Dickens book on this list; he continually brought readers unflinchingly to the workhouses, the debtor's prisons, the factories that used child labor, and the street corners and haystacks where the homeless sleep. Oliver Twist is probably the most muddled of these books; having created sympathy for his gangs of young characters driven to thievery and prostitution, Dickens seemed troubled by the morality of having a thief as a hero. Therefore, Oliver improbably reforms by falling into prayer in the middle of a burglary, and the novel eventually veers away from him altogether, as Dickens became more fascinated by the fatal relationship between Sikes and Nancy. (However, Dickens did give the Artful Dodger some eloquent parting words on the brutality of the criminal justice system.) A Christmas Carol probably hammers home most directly the hazards of trying to live without a living wage, and the need for compassion.

What other classics do you think can speak anew to us today?

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Winter walks

Winter is a turning-inward time; the sun rises late and sets early; the air chills; the sky spits nasty bits of ice. Yet I enjoy a daily walk out there, among the bare trees, through the quiet brown landscape.

The land is only asleep. And who couldn't use a bit of rest?

Thursday, December 11, 2014

The writing space

Jenny Gordon writes of redecorating her writing room to make it more conducive to writing. "Our writing spaces are precious. ... We are invoking magic when we tap into our well of creativity, and we need to create our sacred space in which to do that."

I can write almost anywhere when I have to, but my favorite place to write is in my home office. These are the comforts that make it welcoming:

--Stereo next to me, for music. Or I can click open iTunes on my computer.

--Chocolate supply in desk drawer.

--Bookcases full of books.

--A window right in front of my desk. Some people advise against such a setup, saying that the window is too distracting. I love having the window here. I can see the weather, the change of the seasons, some birds and squirrels. (Once a bat even roosted on my window screen.) When I have to look away from my computer to think for a minute, I have something to look at. Yet it's not overly distracting, since the view is mostly of tree branches.

--A bed. Handy for putting stuff on top of, and for lounging with a book when the day's writing is done.

--Posters. I have several and can change them around. Right now I have a mountain view on one wall and a vase of flowers on the other.

This is the room where I've written all three of my published books. When my husband and I first started house-shopping, I told him that one of my requirements was to have a writing space of my own. This is one of my favorite places.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Mystical grape

I could probably write at length about color names in catalogs, and how they can be little poems in themselves.
For now, I'll just note that Lands' End has a color called "mystical grape." And that I envisioned a children's picture book titled, The Adventures of the Mystical Grape.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Short and sweet

Jenny Gordon has been hosting a weekly writing exercise, 50-word vignettes, on her blog. She posts a topic (usually it's one word), and we write on that. I've enjoyed it because of my passion for very short fiction (and nonfiction). Also because I like the quickness, the doesn't-have-to-be-perfect, aspect of writing exercises. Here are a few of the prompts and the way I responded to them:

Prompt: Toolbox
I made the wooden toolbox for my dad but it sat, unused, on the shelf in his workshop. He kept using this old tackle box instead. Finally I said, "How come you hate the toolbox I made you?" His face wrinkled. He rubbed the side of the box, which I'd sweated over, sanding it to silk. "It's too good to use," he said.

Prompt: Circus
We juggle staplers, mouse pads, pens. We hold paper clips in our mouths. We slide under the desks to jiggle the power cords back to life. Cutbacks, they say; more layoffs are coming. They pile more work on our desks. Don't expect a safety net either, they tell us.

Prompt: Second chance
The next flip of the coin
Erases the first; heads
Turning tails, the do-over,
The rewrite, the mulligan.
Nobody's looking. Flip
Until you get the answer
You want.

Prompt: Safe
You said it would be safe, the branch was sturdy. "Look," you said, your heels planted on the wood, flexing your knees. The branch trembled but held. You extended your hand. I laced my fingers in yours and stepped out. With a crack, the wood splintered.

If you want to read more, check out the vignettes on Jenny's blog. If you want to play along, join in on Fridays.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Keep or let go?

In weeding my (overabundant) possessions, I've had to make decisions about reading material. For most of my life, I held on to almost any book or magazine that came my way. I've always been a big re-reader, so this made sense. It wasn't until I was an adult with means that my ability to acquire books outpaced my ability to store them.

For the past few years, I have been donating or trading books, and discarding magazines. I didn't have many books that were easy to let go of; chances are, if I disliked a book that much, I never brought it into my house to begin with. Most of the books that are here, I deliberately chose to bring in.

At this point, reverting to an electronic library isn't an option for me. I own a few ebooks, but I've discovered that I vastly prefer reading print on paper. Maybe that will change someday, but I must deal with the reality of the moment.

It's getting easier to let go of things in general. And as my friend Kelly Fineman points out, if you pass along something you don't really need, you enable someone who really wants or needs it to find it. Still, I hang on to a lot.

Today, I realized that perhaps I can simplify book weeding with this question: Do I ever want to read this again?

It seems rather self-evident, but I haven't been quite so simple and direct with my weeding criteria before. I would look at a book, thinking how much I liked it, how much I learned from it, who gave it to me or when/where I bought it, etc., and then I would try to summon a gut feeling for "keep or give away." I would try to anticipate how regretful I might be if I let it go. I never identified a specific rule for what would make me keep something.

There are a few books I hold onto for sentimental reasons (special gifts, mostly). But my new goal is for almost every book or magazine in my house to meet this criterion: I want to read it again.

That question has already helped me pack up a donation box today.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Peaceful times

Thanksgiving is a time when I like to be contemplative, to slow down and think.

A few things that aid me in this:

1. The cat. There's something about the pace with which he moves when he is grooming himself that seems to slow down time. He gives full attention to each paw, each ear. He never hurries. He is completely calm.

2. The woods. I've always found trees to be wonderful companions. They are silent, or maybe their leaves rustle a bit; they provide shade. They filter light. The provide carpets of leaves or needles. Some of them flower or fruit. They have a sturdiness, a solidity.

3. The ocean. Immense, salty, with waves as regular as breathing. I never tire of watching it or listening to it.

4. Waking up slowly. It's such a blessing not to have to jump out of bed at the blare of the alarm clock. To come out of sleep gradually, to file away the night's dreams and set my waking thoughts in order.

5. Walking. My general practice is to walk at least a mile a day, farther on weekends and other days when I don't have to work my day job. Walking is meditative. I don't bring cell phones, music, or any gadgets with me, so that I can fully engage with my own thoughts or the world around me.

What helps you slow down, relax, be fully present?

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Out of order

Writing is, among other things, an attempt to make sense of the world. To find meaning, or at least patterns.

Our storytelling may be less about what happened, or when, than about why and how. How did we get here? What does it mean?

On chronology, Beth Kephart says this:

"How many times, in class, to students, to writers, have I said: Don't tell me the story in a straight line. Break the grid. Steer your way toward wisdom by scrambling the sequence of facts."

She goes on to quote Abigail Thomas on the pitfalls of chronology, in a blog post worth reading.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Getting to know characters

Today I wrote more than a thousand words for a work in progress. None of which will appear in the manuscript itself.

I was working on a draft and realized that I was having a hard time getting a grip on an important character. I had trouble writing her end of the dialogue because I wasn't sure what she was thinking and feeling. I also didn't know much about her talents, goals, and fears.

I could keep plunging forward with the point-of-view character, could keep running with the plot, but this secondary character influences the story so strongly that that just seemed like a waste of time. Everything I learn about this character could provide new opportunities to send the story in different directions. Not to mention deepening every scene she's in, and giving my main character more to work with in relating to her.

It was time to break away from the main manuscript and do a side exercise, one I've used before. I did a character sketch of her, in her first-person POV. And as I did, she became more likeable. Her feelings about the main character became clearer. She now has more of a personality.

I still have more work to do on her, but it was a good start. And a reminder that not every word I need to write ends up going directly into the book.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Whatever works

This post from Kimberly Sabatini was a good reminder not to let the process get in the way of the product. Or, as she puts it, "the tool I’m using to write should never have more power than the actual writing."

Tuesday, November 18, 2014


I was intrigued by this piece by Susan Lanigan on restraint in writing. She focuses especially on Irish literature, but I think her ideas apply more widely--about not pulling punches, about not shying away from the emotional. I especially love what she says about scenes of physical intimacy, because it has long made me uncomfortable when people assume that the cut-away or fade-to-black is always the right choice for such a scene. Intimate scenes can be extremely important for both character and plot. It's when characters are especially vulnerable, and when they can't help but interact and react, and when emotional stakes are high.

I like Susan Lanigan's definition of restraint, and why it can work when it does work: "Writerly restraint is no more or less than affording the reader the courtesy of space to experience the impact of the scene for herself. It’s about pulling back and allowing the reader to infer, rather than constantly poking at her with countless authorial interjections." Yes. And what it isn't, as she notes, is unnecessary distance, the draining of juice and life from a scene, the distrust of emotion.

This is also what I think Walter Kerr was on about in his book How Not to Write a Play, when he lamented, "We are now embarrassed by the dramatic gesture. We do not wish to be thought capable of so gross and unliterary a lapse." And, "In general, we distrust scale nowadays. Certainly we distrust spectacle. We know that the audience yearns for extravagant event; but we are inclined to think of the yearning as one of the least attractive of the audience's characteristics. It is a superficial desire for thrill ... a fairly shoddy form of escape ... [but] I'm not sure that we understand this passion for excitement correctly. It may be a passion for reality, especially that reality which cannot be grasped in any other way."

Sometimes, when we think we are exhibiting proper restraint, we are really just holding back.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Imaginary worlds

Reading this interview with Martin Wilson at One Teen Story, I was struck by this part of his answers: "I had binders full of these [imaginary] movies—plot descriptions, casting choices ... But it didn’t stop at movies. I played (and still play) tennis, so back then I created an entirely fake professional tennis circuit, with hundreds of tennis players, complete with tournaments, rankings, matches, all of which I kept meticulous track of. I know that might sound crazy, but these things kept me sane and happy, I guess, and sowed the seeds for my future creative endeavors."

And I thought: Oh, no, Martin Wilson, it doesn't sound crazy at all. I know whereof you speak.

I've seen this sort of thing described in fiction: the game called "Town" that Harriet the Spy plays, in which she invents a town and lists all its imaginary residents and then gives them stories to play out. There are also the imaginary baseball games played by Jack Kerouac's characters (and, I have heard, by Kerouac himself).

I wonder how many other writers have done this: create worlds that are not quite stories, not in the traditional narrative sense, but which may be seen either as play, or as exercises along the way to becoming a storyteller.

Like Martin Wilson, I created an imaginary tennis tournament with fictional players and results. I also had imaginary schools full of fictional students (for which I even created yearbooks), imaginary towns (for which I drew maps and created directories), and my own imaginary soap opera for which I outlined ten years' worth of episodes. I created my own Scholastic-style book catalog with book covers drawn by me, and wrote my own synopses for these non-existent books. Similarly, I wrote my own version of TV Guide with shows I invented myself. I created magazines complete with ads for fictional products, drew album covers for imaginary musicians, and created an employee roster and bulletin board for a fictional company. I invented summer camps and competitions. (And once again, I must thank my grandfather for supplying a vast quantity of discount notebooks to feed all this imaginative output!)

Not only were these endeavors highly enjoyable, but I think they also served as a springboard for my writing. They taught me about world-building and character development; they were creative outlets and sparked further creativity. I thought of them as "games," and much later as "writing exercises."

And now I'm curious as to how many other writers out there have ever done something similar.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

What we try to do

I'm still poring over the words Jeannine Atkins blogged the other day. She was writing about poetry, but her thoughts could apply as easily to other forms of writing. For example: "We want readers or onlookers to feel a bit off-balanced, because that means they’re awake." Also: "The end of a poem may be found in its beginning, with its inspiration and uncertainty." Well, I recommend just reading the whole thing.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Lessons? Stories?

Lessons are often a part of the discussion about children's and YA literature. What lessons are we teaching? Which characters are role models? What's the moral of the story?

Not everyone agrees that this literature must be lesson-driven. Sarah Ockler writes: "... the purpose of young adult fiction is singular: to tell a story. Period. Learning lessons and adjusting moral compasses might be an outcome of the reading, but that’s entirely up to the reader." Also, "We create to share stories and make real human connections to universal truths and experiences, not to teach finger-wagging lessons."

I've been getting more and more uncomfortable with the "role-model" school of thought. My characters are not paragons of virtue; nor are they villains who are duly punished. They are not always likable or admirable. They make mistakes, they suffer, they learn things. Not every character receives a reward or punishment for every action. The "good" guys have flaws and the "bad" guys have saving graces. In these respects, I try to create fictional worlds that resemble the real one.

So what am I doing, if not trying to teach lessons? I think I am just trying to express something that rings true to me, that I hope will ring true for many readers. I'm highlighting some part of human experience, trying to bring it into sharper focus, to show it from certain angles. To encourage people to think about it. I've long said that I'm more of a descriptive writer ("this is the way things often are") than a prescriptive writer ("this is the way things should be").

This is a crazy world we live in. I'm just trying to make some sense of it, in my own small way.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Just you and the book

Sometimes, it's just you and the book. Nobody else has seen it. Nobody has weighed in on it. Nobody has pointed out what it lacks, what else it could be, what else it could have been. Nobody has asked you to change it; nobody has told you what they wish you had written instead.

Nobody else has stepped into this world yet. You long for visitors, for others to discover this world. And yet you also savor it, this precious time when it is all yours, unspoiled. When everything is possible, when the magic is undiluted and intact.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Fear, overwriting, and cuteness

A few treats from 'round the internet, for your edification, amusement, etc.:

I interviewed Delilah S. Dawson over at YA Outside the Lines, where we talked about the future, fear, and the dark side of amusement parks, among other topics. Feel free to check it out. A sample: "If I sought fear on purpose, then it made me feel stronger, more in control. Better the nightmares that you've chosen than the ones you can't avoid."

Laurel Garver gives tips on critiquing an overwriter. A sample: "Especially encourage her to trust the reader more, and to strive for clarity and simplicity."

And in the land of unbridled cuteness, Carrie Jones describes what happens when your dog falls in love with part of your Halloween costume. Complete with pictures!

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Something to do this week

I'll be doing two author events this week, my last events for a while. If you're in the Philadelphia area, why not drop by one or both? Details are below.

Wednesday, November 5, 7-8:30 PM: Author discussion and Q&A in Warminster, PA. Appearing with I.W. Gregorio as part of Pennsylvania "Speak Up for Libraries." Warminster Twp Free Library, large meeting room. 1076 Emma Lane, Warminster, PA 18974.

Friday, November 7, 8-9 PM: Author/illustrator night at Children's Book World, Haverford, PA. Dozens of authors and illustrators; books; refreshments. 17 Haverford Station Rd., Haverford, PA 19041.

Also, on Tuesday, don't forget to VOTE!

Friday, October 31, 2014

Letting go of stuff

Some time ago, I began cleaning out my house, weeding out things I no longer need to keep.

I had done a little targeted weeding a few times in my life, but I had never done a serious, top-to-bottom assessment of everything I own. I had accumulated far more than I'd thrown out or given away in my life. The only thing that had limited me in any way was the fact that I lived in one-room spaces until I was in my mid-20s, and then I lived in a one-bedroom apartment for a decade after that. One's possessions tend to expand to fill the available space, which is why I encourage people who have just moved into a larger space not to be in a hurry to get more stuff. Hang onto those empty spaces as long as possible; they will fill naturally soon enough.

There is a lot of advice out there in the world on simplifying your life and downsizing your possessions. Some of it is drastic, accomplishing major deaccessioning in a very short period of time. I've discovered that I need to go slowly, doing a little at a time.

I have seen progress. The walk-in closet in my writing office is finally neat, organized, and uncluttered. I finally have the things I use the most within the easiest reach. I've thrown away bagfuls of junk, recycled bagfuls of paper, donated and freecycled boxes full of usable clothes and furniture and books. But I still have a long way to go.

If I try to tackle it more aggressively, I quickly get exhausted and discouraged. So I keep plugging away a little at a time. If I keep getting rid of more than I bring in, I will make progress.

One other thing I had to come to terms with was that the person with whom I share a house does not currently share my desire to simplify, at least not to the same degree. There are times when I would like to tackle the clutter in his spaces. But I had to reach my readiness to downsize in my own time. Nobody else dictated that for me, and I cannot control the timing of others' readiness. Also, I can't know what is really "clutter" among someone else's possessions. So I focus on my own spaces (mainly my writing office, where most of my clutter is concentrated, and parts of our bedroom). After all, I certainly have plenty to keep me busy for months to come.

Letting go has been an eye-opening process for me. There is so much I've been holding onto for sentimental reasons or "in case I ever need it." I've really been questioning my attachments to every object, every piece of paper. It has also made me more mindful of everything I bring into my house, to avoid future accumulations of clutter. I ask myself: Do I really need or want this? If so, where should I put it? How long should I keep it? What will I do with it when I no longer need or want it?

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Healthy jealousy?

The book I just finished reading introduced me to an intriguing concept, "healthy jealousy:"

"I think there's a difference. Mean jealousy pulls people down so they'll be on the same level with us, or pushes them down on our way up. But a healthy jealousy is sometimes just the push we need to jump for ourselves. Sometimes we need to look at someone who is doing something difficult, or dangerous, so that we know we can do it too. It's that sense of 'I want what you have,' that makes the risk seem worth it." --Allison Vesterfelt, Packing Light: Thoughts on Living Life with Less Baggage

I think she means that if jealousy inspires us to take action, to move toward a goal, and not to do it at anyone else's expense, it can actually be a positive motivator. I'd never thought of it that way before. Can jealousy or envy be a good thing sometimes?

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Side doors

Some books have what I think of as side doors, entry points to parts of the story that are suggested rather than shown explicitly. They're not part of the main plot flow of the story, but they hint at an intriguing backstory or side journey. Sometimes they point to another book in the author's oeuvre; sometimes they foreshadow upcoming events in a series; and sometimes they let the reader connect certain dots and wonder at the rest. I imagine they could be great jumping-off places for fanfiction.

One example is in Gone with the Wind. If you read between the lines, putting together certain information, it is strongly suggested that Rhett Butler had a son with Belle Watling, and the son was living in New Orleans. I've always thought that hidden subplot had a lot of potential--what if the son came to Atlanta when he grew up?

Another example, from children's literature, is in Zilpha Keatley Snyder's The Headless Cupid. For fun one day, the kids in the book are testing their psychic abilities with playing cards. None of the kids displays any such ability, until the last child--but just when he shows a glimmer of psychic aptitude, there is an interruption and the scene goes in another direction. This child's ability never really becomes a major plot element, but remains a subtle thread, making us wonder about its influence on the story.

Then there are the characters from books who make appearances in other books. S.E. Hinton's Tex is best understood after reading her earlier That Was Then, This is Now, in order to make the connections between Cathy and Miss Carlson, between Mark and the hitchhiker. The implication is also that Tex is Mark's half-brother, and I've always wondered if Tex was written partly to provide the redemption that Mark never achieved.

In Marilyn Sachs's The Truth About Mary Rose, a young girl wonders about the deceased aunt she was named after, Mary Rose. The plot revolves around the difficulty of interpreting history, and how differently people see and remember the same person. The book's narrator concludes that she can never know the whole truth about Mary Rose. But readers have access to some materials that the younger Mary Rose doesn't: Sachs's earlier books, in which the original Mary Rose actually appears (albeit as a secondary character), especially Veronica Ganz.

I use "side doors" in my fiction all the time. An example is in Try Not to Breathe, when the main character, Ryan, and one of his best friends, Val, visit their other friend, Jake, at a time when Jake is in serious distress. There are these two lines, from Ryan's POV: "When I came back into the dayroom, Jake was bent over Val's lap, hanging on her, while she stroked his hair. I hung back, watching, and the way he clawed at her made me wonder if maybe I hadn't been the only one in love with Val all this time."

It made me wonder, too. In the book, it becomes clear how Val and Ryan feel about each other, but Jake's feelings are left murkier. Does he love Val? Does he maybe love Ryan? I would have loved to explore those questions--and I did, but not on the published page. They would have dragged the story off course. In essence, they were more part of Jake's story than Ryan's, or maybe they were part of what would be a sequel if I ever wrote a sequel for that book. As it stands, these lines are just a side door for readers who want to speculate and carry that story further in their own heads.

Do you ever notice side doors in the books you read? Do you follow where they lead?

Friday, October 24, 2014

The heart of the matter

"With every encounter, we might be changing who we are forever, and when it is over, we might never see each other again."
--Rahna Reiko Rizzuto, Hiroshima in the Morning

This, maybe, is at the core of stories; it is why they are worth telling.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

The MFA question, and live and let live

Writers sometimes wonder if they should get a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) in Creative Writing: is it worth it? Will it make them better writers? Lead to jobs in the industry? Give them valuable insider connections?

Over at Three Guys One Book, Joseph Rakowski interviews Jennifer duBois on the subject. It's a good interview if you've been considering an MFA. But I also love this statement of duBois's at the very end, which can apply to so many more issues and questions beyond the scope of the MFA topic:

"... other people’s choices or lives are not necessarily a rebuke to our own—-they may, in fact, have nothing to do with us at all."

Saturday, October 18, 2014

OCD Love Story

One of the most memorable YA books I've read recently is Corey Ann Haydu's OCD Love Story.

The title is its own synopsis, I think.

It was refreshing to meet characters and situations that haven't been overdone in YA. The character Beck was a treat--a nice guy with big problems, a love interest who is not arrogant, a big muscular guy who is not an overconfident jock straight out of Revenge of the Nerds. The ways in which he and main character Bea struggle to support each other in the face of their respective compulsions are by turns endearing, wonderful, and sad. Sometimes it seems they're perfect for each other; other times you wonder if they'll just make each other worse. Also rounding out the book is a complicated best-friend character with her own problems and her own blind spots, and a therapist who is saved from seeming unrealistically wise and perfect by a few moments when Bea (and we) see her hit a wall of frustration and fatigue.

Haydu got so much right about anxiety, obsession and compulsion: Not everyone with obsessions and compulsions washes their hands constantly or adheres to a military-style neatness. You can't just reason your way out of it, even when you see that you're behaving illogically. Fears often grow from a seed of truth and reasonableness--for example, driving really is dangerous statistically, and merging onto a highway is one of the trickier driving moments--into a situation that makes no sense, as when the protagonist drives 35 MPH on the highway, or repeatedly circles a block to make sure she hasn't run over a child playing in a yard near the street.

In novels that reach into the land of psychology and psychiatry, there can be temptations to patness both in describing the source of an illness (connecting mental illness directly to an early-life trauma) and in its treatment or cure. OCD Love Story veers close to this at some points, particularly in the case of Beck, but in the end opts for realistic changes and improvements rather than magical cures, and Bea acknowledges that many of her behaviors cannot be neatly explained or traced back to an identifiable root.

The one note of caution I will include here is the possibility that some readers with OCD may find this book triggering. From browsing online reviews, I see that this was so for some readers, while other readers with OCD find the story more of a relief.

source of recommended read: library

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Special Today

"There was always a sign proclaiming Special Today with nothing else written on it, which I interpreted as [the restaurant's] announcement that these Sundays were important, that this today was a Special Today."
--Floyd Skloot, In the Shadow of Memory

Friends, are you having a Special Today? If not, I hope it's a Special Tomorrow.

Monday, October 13, 2014

On letting go of perfectionism

"... I feel now so far beyond that perfectionist streak which would be flawless or nothing--now I go on in my happy-go-lucky way and make my little imperfect worlds in pen and on typewriter and share them with those I love."
--Sylvia Plath, Letters Home: Correspondence 1950-1963, ed. by Aurelia Schober Plath

Thursday, October 9, 2014

A few bookish thoughts

--October is National Bullying Prevention Month, and I'm honored that my third novel, Until It Hurts to Stop, was on the NY Public Library's list of revelant YA books about bullying, along with books by Meg Medina, Barry Lyga, Susane Colasanti, and others. In Until It Hurts to Stop, I chose to deal with the aftermath of bullying: how it can affect people and their relationships years later, and how the process of healing can start.

--Also on that topic: YALitChat, the Wednesday-at-9-PM-Eastern Twitter chat, featured a great discussion about bullying, YA books, the role of teachers and parents and other adults, etc. You can still read the discussion by checking out the #YALitChat hashtag. I understand that next week's chat will continue the discussion.

--Finally and sadly: Zilpha Keatley Snyder passed away. I grew up reading and loving so many of her books: The Egypt Game, The Witches of Worm, The Velvet Room, and especially The Headless Cupid and Below the Root. I'm glad that her books are still in print, and her most recent book, William's Midsummer Dream, came out in 2011. May we all have such long and fruitful careers! I hope she knew how many of us readers loved and were inspired by her work.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Before it's a story, it's a real pain in the neck

Some stories whisper, nag, suggest. They don't come pouring out. They haunt the back rooms of the mind. They are ideas that can almost be grasped, words that almost take form.

They're the unreachable itch, the tip-of-the-tongue memory, the surprise behind the locked door.

Friday, October 3, 2014

When to go one-on-one

At a writers' conference, while waiting for a panel on memoir writing to start, I chatted with the woman sitting next to me. What she really wanted to know, she said, was, "How do you get published?"

This question is so general, and its answer so long and complicated, that I assumed she was in the same place as most of the people who ask it: they've just finished writing a book and are wondering what's next. They know books get published, but they don't know how the process works, nor where to start. Usually, they need the name of a good basic text or a writer's organization that can help them start their education.

Since the woman said she wrote children's books, I gave her the name of SCBWI, which is an excellent place for new children's writers to learn about publishing (since the organization provides new members with a bundle of resource material including how to query agents and editors, sends out a regular news magazine in the field, and hosts conferences that are also an excellent place to learn). But when I gave her the name, her face fell. I could tell she'd been expecting something more, or something else, but I couldn't follow up with her just then as the panel was starting.

During the Q&A she asked the panelists the same question she'd asked me. Upon hearing that she writes for children, they also recommended SCBWI. And then she said that she knew about querying, that she had been doing it for five years and getting nowhere.

She received several suggestions then. One of them--the one I would recommend in this situation--was to get a professional critique. At SCBWI and many other writers' conferences, you can pay a little extra to get a one-on-one session with an agent, editor or published author who goes over your work and gives you personalized feedback. I believe she said she had not had such a critique before, that only friends and family had seen her work. And it's possible that her work is marvelous and it's just a matter of time; a good writer can easily spend five years or more trying to break into this extremely competitive field. On the other hand, after querying for five years without a nibble, I think it's worth consulting with someone in the field just to see if one is on the right track. Is the work of professional caliber? If not, what does the writer need to work on to bring it to that level? Is the work of good caliber but just in a genre or topic that is tough to sell?

A single critique is not necessarily definitive, but it can provide clues, and after two or three a writer will usually see a pattern emerge. If certain suggestions are offered over and over, they're worth paying attention to.

It's very difficult to navigate this field without feedback. The rejection rate is so high, even for high-quality work, that one can rarely tell if rejected work missed by an inch, a foot, or a mile. (Well, if it missed by an inch, the agent or editor will often provide some complimentary feedback; but if it missed by only a foot, the resulting form rejection makes it indistinguishable from a no-way-nohow-go-back-to-school rejection.) I took night classes, workshops, went to writing conferences. I entered contests, attended pitch sessions, joined critique groups, paid for professional critiques. Occasionally I got feedback that was wildly off. But most of what I got was useful in some way. And overall, I could gauge, in a general way, the progress of my work. It was when I started attending SCBWI conferences and hearing working editors talk about what they needed in a manuscript and how deep a revision should go that I finally produced a publishable book.

A one-on-one critique isn't magic. But it provides an opportunity that so many writers wish for: the chance to read beyond the lines of a polite rejection letter, the chance to find out specifically what needs work and what's already working. The chance to ask questions and get personalized answers.

Monday, September 29, 2014

The Big Tiny

I just finished reading THE BIG TINY, by Dee Williams, the story of a woman who built herself a house that's smaller than a typical parking space.

I have been sloooowly downsizing (by reducing my possessions, not my living space), but sometimes I fantasize about going even more drastically into simplicity. Interestingly, Williams's chief joy in her tiny-house experience would not be mine. She revels in the physical experience of building the house herself. I admire that capability, but to me the building part would be a chore, not fun.

For most of the book, her tiny house is settled behind her friends' larger houses, and she helps them with chores while they let her use their indoor plumbing and internet connection. Therefore, the tiny house is not a hermit's refuge. Instead, it facilitates community, a little neighborhood where the inhabitants of the three houses are in and out of one another's space all day long. It reminds me of stories from mid-20th-Century urban environments, where a couple might live in one apartment with their grown children downstairs, their siblings in the next building, their parents across the street, etc.

Student debt is increasing, the job market has been shrinking, and wages are stagnating. With the empty nest therefore growing less common, perhaps the extended-family living situation will make a comeback, with "family" sometimes including friends.

I'm hearing more and more about tiny houses lately--an interesting follow-up to the McMansion era. What's next?

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Winging it

I'm a planner, a scheduler, a listmaker. I like to know what I'm going to be doing and when. I rarely like to just wing it.

(Which makes it all the more interesting that when I write fiction, I don't really outline, but write my first draft by rambling, wandering impulse. Curious.)

However, on my recent trip to Hawaii, we didn't have every day planned out. We knew a few things that we wanted to do, and we had certain flights to make, but other than that we were free to make up an itinerary as we went along.

And we kept having to change direction. It was too hot to do a hike we'd planned; some trails were closed; one trailhead parking lot was too full; a restaurant wanted us to wait too long for a table; we didn't know how we'd react to the altitude of Haleakala; we didn't know what we would find at the end of a certain road; we weren't sure we could find the trail we were trying to find; we didn't know if the tide would be high or low when we got to a certain beach.

We kept having to adjust on the fly, which is ordinarily something I hate, but this time it was all right. This time I even enjoyed it. I had coconut pie on impulse, at the moment when I saw one in a display case that looked good, and it was just what I wanted. We sought out a green sand beach on impulse. We had a beautiful desert walk that wasn't even on our radar the day before. We found little beaches and gardens hidden away from crowds, giving us the sense that these places might have materialized just for us.

Once when we were wandering the streets of Honolulu in search of a good place to have brunch (and despairing a little that there seemed to be so many more places to shop than to eat), I decided to sit down on a bench or a planter or something because I was tired. I was tired at the moment, so I sat at the moment. And then I looked up, and right in front of me was a whole rack of free magazines listing places to eat in Honolulu. We grabbed one, looked up a place, and found a great restaurant where we ended up eating twice.

The reason I'm a planner is that I often find the searching and flailing that goes with spontaneity to be annoying, a waste of time, an energy suck. But this whole trip was a case of accepting and living with what presented itself whenever our preconceived ideas didn't work out. It was a case of enjoying what was in front of us at the moment. We changed our flight from Oahu to Maui at the last minute because we got to the airport early and thought hey, why not try to hop on the earlier flight as stand-bys? And we caught a beautiful sunset because of it. We showed up at the Hilo airport and there was live music playing in the lobby. We ran into a park volunteer who told us how to find a certain place we'd been looking for. We wandered into a park ranger talk and ended up hearing a nose-flute solo.

Taking what comes was such a persistent theme on this trip that I began to suspect it might be a Life Lesson for me. Goodness knows I have been needing such a lesson when it comes to writing, because none of my writing plans in the past year have panned out. I have started asking myself: What happens if I work with what's in front of me, instead of what I wish I had, or what I thought I should have by now?

Tuesday, September 23, 2014


I've been trying to carry some of my vacation mindset over into my regular life.

When going slowly, paying attention, giving people time, and prioritizing quality over quantity, I find that I have to give up the ticking clock, the compulsion to check everything off a list, the race to "keep up." Some things really can wait.

I can't do all the things all the time, nor do I have to. I have to keep reminding myself of that.

Sunday, September 21, 2014


I have just returned from two weeks away from the electronic life. I watched a few TV weather reports and checked my phone messages once a day, but other than that, I didn't touch a digital device and didn't miss them at all. I kept a travel diary which I wrote longhand; I read paper books.

This is something of a first for me. While I do enjoy interacting with people online, and missed those personal connections, I really didn't miss the total internet experience the way I have during previous offline vacations.

So I'm thinking about that, and what it means for me, and how and where I want to spend my time going forward. Unplugging has always been valuable for me, and this time, I suspect, even more so.

In the meantime, it's good to "see" you again. :-)

Thursday, September 4, 2014


A few times a year, I like to unplug from the various online networks to which I belong. I like the people with whom I interact online, and I do miss my online communities when I step back. But there's something refreshing about it, too, about taking time away from mouse and cursor and screen.

It's that time again, so I'll see you later this month. In the meantime, if you have major news, please leave it in the comments, since I probably won't be able to catch up with the posts I'll miss!

Monday, September 1, 2014

New roads

One of the hardest things for me to believe is that endings are followed by new beginnings. All my life, I have been an opponent of change, a nostalgic, a person who clings to things. I never assume that newer will be better.

There is some basis for this, of course. Plenty of change in this world is for the worse, and much of it seems to be pointless: change for the sake of change. But there are changes for the better. And some of the things I value most in my life right now are things I would not have if I had not let go (sometimes voluntarily, sometimes not) of what I used to have.

Over time, I've become a little more accepting of change. I've gotten a lot more willing to part with material objects, and have been doing an ongoing downsizing/decluttering project at home. But I still have a hard time trusting that a situation that has stopped working for me can be replaced by something better.

In hindsight, it's easy to see the turns I should have taken sooner, or with less trepidation. But when the turn is in front of you and you can't see around the bend, it's impossible to know whether a dead end or a beautiful new scene lies ahead.

Eventually, the choice is whether to sit staring at the washed-out bridge on the old route, or whether to try a new road. I keep reminding myself there are new roads, for all that I get focused on the most familiar one.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Beach reading

I think that when most people talk about "beach reads," they mean light reading, books that are heavy on action and thrills.

For me, vacation reading trends in the opposite direction. Vacation is when I have the time and leisure to approach a quiet and thoughtful book, or to dig into a slow, meaty tome. When I've worked all day, I often want a book that doesn't require intense concentration or considering philosophical nuances. On vacation, I'm rested enough to read slowly and deeply.

But I'm glad there are all kinds of books, for all kinds of moods and seasons.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Where to begin

Time for my monthly slot at YA Outside the Lines, where this month we're blogging about beginnings of all sorts. My post starts with "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" and proceeds to discussing opening lines of recent books. A sample: "When I get lost in the writing of a story, I try to remember what compelled me to start it in the first place ..."

Monday, August 25, 2014

Saturday, August 23, 2014


If you read about real-life paradigm shifts, disasters, and other large-scale changes, one thing that is strongly evident is the presence of denial. Human beings often resist accepting a new situation, especially a negative one. Usually there is a time when most of the population is in denial, and then acceptance creeps in, a tipping point occurs, and those in denial become the minority. The phase of major denial can be short or long; its presence can have consequences ranging from minor to tragic.

I think denial is built on a few foundations: People don't want to change (or don't want the world to change); it's too much trouble and they're afraid of what they might lose. (Often, people with the most to lose from the change are the most resistant to it.) Or they can't wrap their minds around change and don't know what to do about it anyway, so they choose not to deal with it. Or they don't trust the source that is warning of the change. Or they are suspicious because of false alarms in the past; after all, some predictions turn out to be wrong. But in any story we write where a major change is overtaking the characters, denial is likely to be part of the process.

This can be tricky for writers to manage. Usually, readers are quick to heed the omens and prophecies and predictions and warning signs in stories, because they know those signs wouldn't be there unless they were important. Readers know that something big is going to happen, or there wouldn't be a story at all. The characters don't have this advantage--and can't, unless you are writing meta-fiction and breaking the fourth wall. Realistically, the characters can't jump right into accepting a new normal without some questioning, resistance, nostalgia, if-only thinking, etc. Meanwhile, readers are likely to be shouting at the characters: "Of course the plague is coming!" or "Get out of the way of the tornado!" or "The ghost IS real, you fool!" or "Yes, there WILL be a war!"

A little of this can provide tension and urgency. Too little of it seems false and can break the reader's spell, but too much of it makes readers impatient and cranky. It helps if readers can thoroughly feel the old reality the characters are clinging to, and to embrace it themselves so that they won't want to let go of it either. It helps if the characters' tipping point is logical--an undeniable fact, a trusted source. It helps if the characters test out the idea of acceptance before finally embracing it. And it helps if this phase doesn't go on so long that it just feels like a pointless delay or a stagnation.

Thursday, August 21, 2014


The resurgence of the Ebola virus in Africa and the recent discovery of smallpox vials where they should not have been made me want to reread Randy Shilts's book, And the Band Played On. It's an in-depth account of the early years of AIDS in North America and Europe: the early cases, the discovery of the virus, the tragic losses, the mobilization of entire communities, the political battles for recognition and resources. Some of the medical researchers mentioned in And the Band Played On were involved in quashing an outbreak of Ebola, and in officially eradicating the smallpox virus. And strangely enough, this very year, stray vials of smallpox were discovered in an old government storeroom, and Ebola fever is raging again in Africa.

With all the technological progress we've made, we can still be undone by microorganisms.

And the Band Played On chronicles the beginning of the AIDS horror in the US, its exponential spread, and the extent to which it decimated communities. For me, one statistic illustrates the scale of this horror. As reported in The AIDS Generation: Stories of Survival and Resilience (Perry N. Halkitis), only 20% of those diagnosed before January 1, 1985, were still alive in 1990. 20% survival over five years: staggering.

Shilts's book was published in 1987, before the watershed year of 1996, when the protease inhibitors that have done so much to curb the deadliness of HIV became available. Sean Strub's book Body Counts: A Memoir of Politics, Sex, AIDS, and Survival is a personal account of the AIDS pandemic, but his account extends to the present. Protease inhibitors arrived in the nick of time for Strub, who was in the very late stages of AIDS (internal Kaposi's sarcoma) when the new medication brought him back from the brink. "I started to see events in my life as 'last times' ... When a postcard arrived to remind me of an upcoming dental checkup, I threw it away," Strub writes. And then he found himself not only alive but improving, reclaiming a future. Strub's book therefore covers a broader sweep of the American part of the pandemic. Sadly, Shilts could not write such an account himself: he died in 1994, of complications from AIDS.

I lived through these years myself, but I did not live inside this pandemic. I knew two people who died of AIDS in the early 1990s, but they were friendly acquaintances, not close friends. I was not going to funerals every week nor monitoring my own T-cell count. My view of AIDS was an outsider's view; the disease cast a long shadow, and for a while, everyone was afraid. And I well remember the panic caused by unhelpfully euphemistic terms like "body fluids."

AIDS is still a problem, although because of improvements in understanding and treating it, in the US, AIDS is now often seen through a sort of historical, rear-view mirror. David Levithan's novel, Two Boys Kissing, includes narration from the souls of gay men from the era most affected by AIDS, addressing the young gay men of today: "We were once like you, only our world wasn't like yours. You have no idea how close to death you came. A generation or two earlier, you might be here with us." Also: "If you are a teenager now, it is unlikely that you knew us well. ... We are characters in a Tony Kushner play, or names on a quilt that rarely gets taken out anymore."

Our literature contains the records of this plague. Plagues have always been part of human experience, and right now a particularly devastating one is unfolding in West Africa. This story unfolds again and again; each time we hope for a better ending, a swifter resolution.

Monday, August 18, 2014

In obscurity, butterflies

"Not even the splendor of the Nobel Prize made a lasting difference. My royalty checks fattened surprisingly for one payment period following the prize and then returned to the under-$10 payments they had always been. In Stockholm, I had asked Karl Otto Bonnier about the next Oe book he was planning to publish and was surprised when he told me his company had no further plans for Oe. 'This Nobel excitement is just a blip, it won't last long,' he explained, and he was right."

That is John Nathan, a translator of Kenzaburo Oe's work, writing in Living Carelessly in Tokyo and Elsewhere about the effect of Oe's Nobel Prize on book sales. Or rather, the lack of effect. This passage came to mind again recently because I've requested one of Oe's books from the library. Not only is it proving scarce and difficult to find, but the librarian who helped me with my request didn't seem to be familiar with Oe.

Writers know how hard it is to find and keep a readership, let alone any sort of longevity, but one would think that at least a Nobel Prize for literature ought to ensure some measure of fame, at least within literary communities. It has only been twenty years since Oe's moment in the Stockholm sun. I suppose this brings home the reality that the audience for literary fiction is small, and in the US, the audience for translated fiction appears to be even smaller.

One could find this disheartening, in a we're-all-destined-for-obscurity sort of way, or strangely heartening, in a well-if-greater-writers-can't-stay-in-th
e-limelight-that-sure-takes-the-pressure-off-me way. On Twitter, Anne Lamott often comments that we and our works will be quickly forgotten. A glance at the bestseller lists of yesteryear shows us that--how few books from even five years ago are still widely read and discussed, let alone twenty years, or fifty.

Most of us will have an indirect effect on the wider world of literature. We will not be read by everyone at once. We will be read by, and perhaps influence in some small way, a few people who will in turn influence other people, and these multiple influences will ripple through the community. We flap our butterfly wings and never know exactly how far the resulting breezes reach.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Not to change the subject

Two final quotes from Two Worlds of Andrew Wyeth: Kuerners and Olsons (once again, quotations that I find relevant to writing):

On doing many works centered on the same subject:
"A change of subject is really very unimportant to me, because there are always new revelations coming out of that one subject."

On legacies:
"People say sometimes, 'Will your [paintings] last?' I tell them I don't [care]. I'm painting for myself. If my paintings are worth anything--if they have quality--that quality will find a way to preserve itself."

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Potato salad and time

When you're getting ready to publish a book, you get involved in all sorts of promotional activities. Some of them are obvious: bookstore appearances, school visits, interviews about the book or the writing process. Then there are the less obvious. I've known writers who were able to tie in specialty nail polishes, craft activities, or charitable events with their books.

One thing I didn't expect, as a debut author, was the demand for recipes. At least five or six times during that first year, I was asked to provide a recipe as part of some promotional activity. And my main reaction was: Huh? I didn't write a cookbook. I wrote a book about adolescent love and loss. What does that have to do with recipes? Who says I can even cook?

I can cook, but I mainly use other people's recipes. I do not, as a matter of course, invent my own. I'm still mystified why anyone would think I would. (But maybe this is just one of those things that "everyone else" does, and the world is full of people whipping up their own recipes!)

I was thinking about recipes this weekend because I made the family-recipe potato salad, which takes two days and is more fun to eat than to prepare. Nevertheless, even as I complain about the work (mainly the peeling and chopping of all those potatoes and eggs), as I make it, I feel connected to my mother, and her mother, and my sister, all of whom have made this same recipe. I enjoy that aspect of it, and I enjoy putting my time and attention into something that will feed and nourish other people.

Every time I make it, I find little ways to do it more efficiently, but it is never going to be a fast process. Kind of like writing, which I was also thinking about today. We may be in the era of fast drafting, of NaNoWriMo and ebook serials and publishing multiple books a year. But I don't seem to be able to write well under those conditions. My books require a certain amount of time that has nothing to do with how fast I can type (and I type very fast). There is some sort of digestion or marination or slow-cooking that goes on as my stories develop, and you don't even want to know how many drafts I have to do to get a story looking like it was written by a sentient human instead of a feral raccoon.

But if I'm out of step, it won't be the first time. I've had a pretty good time in this world doing things my own quirky way, so I guess I'll just keep on. If my books turn out to be half as good as the potato salad, I can't complain.

Friday, August 8, 2014


"You never know how influences come in. ... I'm certainly never conscious of them ... Knowledge of the works of certain others is, of course, important. But that doesn't mean that you should think about it. These things should go into your bloodstream and disappear."

--Andrew Wyeth, in Two Worlds of Andrew Wyeth: Kuerners and Olsons, Metropolitan Museum of Art

We are influenced by so much. We start out imitating, with the undigested influences sticking out in our early work. And then, somehow, we absorb them. They blend so well that they flavor our work, but the work itself is something new.

I like to read widely, to keep my "influences" diverse. Right now, I'm partway through a memoir and an essay collection; I just finished a collection of editor Ursula Nordstrom's letters; and I've been looking at two art books, one of photography and the other the Wyeth book that I've been quoting.

Libraries are a great source of art and photography books, which can be expensive to purchase new. Now that we can find thousands (millions?) of photos online for free, maybe such books are less necessary. But I still like seeing an organized and themed collection, with some unifying narration, which I find more often in books. The Wyeth book is a favorite of mine because the artist was interviewed at length, and answered at length, about how he developed certain paintings, what the drafts and studies of those paintings looked like, what factors in art and in his own daily life affected the painting, and the stories behind many of the pictures and the people in them. I'm finding that much of what he says about the visual arts applies to writing as well.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

The closet

"I took a workshop with Christine Schutt once and she compared writing a short story to giving someone a tour of your house. You lead your reader into the house, but you don’t let her go in the sun-drenched kitchen, you don’t let her peek into the sprawling living room, you don’t let her linger in the foyer. You take her directly to the closet and show her the inside. That’s what a short story is. The inside of the closet and nothing else. I think about that all the time."

--Erin Somers, interviewed at One Teen Story

I think some of this is about the directness of a short story: You don't have much space. You don't have much time to get to the point, so you get to the point. You can't do a lot of introduction or exposition. You take people right to the hidden heart of the story.

But this is also about any story, even a thousand-page novel. Maybe with a long novel you can take people on a tour of the house before you reach the closet, but the story is really about the moment when you open the closet door. Whatever has been hidden, whatever has been held onto, whatever hasn't been prettied up for others, wherever "backstage" is, wherever things collect, that is where the story is.

Monday, August 4, 2014

On (not) sharing works in progress

"That's why I make a point of never showing pictures I'm working on to anybody because if a person likes it too much, I'm disturbed and if a person doesn't like it, I am also disturbed, because somehow that will freeze it and I wouldn't dare go on with it. Either I want to destroy it or else I think it's so good that I don't want to touch it. And that's the beginning of the end."
--Andrew Wyeth, in Two Worlds of Andrew Wyeth: Kuerners and Olsons, Metropolitan Museum of Art

He was a painter. But this can apply to many kinds of artists.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Nature in the city

I spent some time today at the John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge, one of Philadelphia's surprising treasures. (If you've ever taken the train from the Philadelphia airport to the center of town, you've seen some of the refuge's marshes from the train window.)

The place changes over the years, and changes with the seasons, and changes with the weather, but there's always something to see.

Today we saw a deer, a rabbit, several frogs, a cormorant, and swallows. The egrets and herons were out fishing (slinking along on their stilt legs with necks craned; resembling pterodactyls when they fly). The violet pickerelweed was blooming, as was the swamp rose mallow. August to me is always the mallow blooming in its shades of white, deep pink, and pale pink.

We also saw a bittern. I remember seeing this bird in a picture in a book when I was little, thinking that it was interesting, and wanting to see one in the wild. Apparently bitterns like to spend most of their time lurking in marsh foliage, camouflaged, and can be difficult to find. So it was a special gift to see one today.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Should auld red herrings be forgot and never brought to mind

According to the cognitive psychology class I took in grad school, there was a study that indicated the biggest obstacle to problem solving was getting stuck in a dead end / wrong solution and not being able to think in another direction.

Often, when the study participants took a break--a break long enough to forget the wrong answer--they would see the solution soon after resuming work on the problem.

I share this here for whatever it's worth.

Monday, July 28, 2014

What to write next

"Please know that I am not trying to avoid my editorial responsibility, but I think it is always unfortunate that an editor decides what an author should do next. ... I do think you should do the one you really want to do. I never want to forget that if Lewis Carroll had asked me whether or not he should bother writing about a little girl named Alice who fell asleep and dreamed that she had a lot of adventures down a rabbit hole, it would not have sounded awfully tempting to any editor."

--Ursula Nordstrom, from Dear Genius: The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom, Collected and Edited by Leonard S. Marcus

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Taking a walk

My monthly post at YA Outside the Lines is about walking and hiking: how they enrich my writing life, and my life in general. A sample: "When I visited Paris, I never took a metro or a cab. I walked everywhere, figuring that everything I would see along the way was part of the experience: every flowerbed and statue and fountain and bridge, every patisserie and storefront and sidewalk café."

Thursday, July 24, 2014

If Carville and Matalin can get along ...

I just finished reading a nonfiction book by an author who's at the opposite end of the political spectrum from me. Actually, over the course of his career, he moved from one end of the spectrum to the other, and I was curious about what precipitated the journey. I admit I was also hesitant, not sure whether I would encounter the sort of shallow, venomous rhetoric that one often finds in anonymous comments on news blogs.

I was relieved to find the book perfectly readable, even fun at times. There were large parts of this person's life I could identify with or admire, and several points I even agreed with. There were weaknesses, certainly: sometimes a major shift in philosophical position was explained only by a single anecdote, and anecdotes were used more often than facts to support some generalizations. There were some straw-man arguments, some examples held up as irrefutable where I could easily think of counter-examples, and a few snide remarks to which I took offense. But I kept reading, and largely understanding and enjoying the author's story, even when I didn't always agree with his conclusions.

I mentioned the anecdotal nature of his rationalizations as a weakness in some of his arguments, and yet I think people often do base their general politics on their specific, individual experiences. A good or bad encounter with police, being the victim of a crime, having difficulty getting medical care or health insurance, having a child, starting a business, encountering racism, being laid off from a job, etc., are all examples of personal life experiences that can affect people's politics one way or another. One thing that made me laugh was whenever he characterized people from my end of the political spectrum with traits that I think of as more associated with his end of the spectrum: smugness, a tendency to be unrealistic, and bitterness being three examples. It reminded me of just how much is in the eye of the beholder, just how many labels and assumptions we use about one another, and how easy it can be to see an opponent's flaws while overlooking our own.

I often read books by and about people who are very different from me, but it's rare that I deliberately choose to read books that make cases for politics 180 degrees from my own. One of the book-jacket blurbs (from a person who agrees with the author politically) said something about the book being likely to persuade people to migrate to his end of the spectrum. I thought that quote actually showed a misunderstanding of what such books are for. By and large, they're not really to convert people who disagree with the author; they are to reassure those who already agree with the author that they are making smart choices, that they have good arguments on their side. And certainly I didn't read the book to be converted.

But near the end of my reading, I finally grasped the main reason I challenged myself with this book: I want to humanize my opponent. I am really tired of polarization, knee-jerk insults, and the situations where everyone shouts and nobody listens. The other day, on a very thoughtful blog whose comment stream seems to be populated by similarly thoughtful people, I saw commenters disagreeing on an extremely inflammatory, controversial subject, but they were arguing with logic and respect for one another's positions, and I nearly wept to see it. Those are the kinds of discussions I wish I could see more of.

I have strong political opinions based on deep convictions. If you know me, you know what they are, but I'm deliberately not identifying them on this blog post because I think it would undermine the whole point; my hope is that this post would be equally true if the other author and I were to switch political poles. I don't discuss politics on this blog, which I like to keep for writing and such. I advocate for my political views elsewhere, and I do so because I sincerely believe in what I'm advocating for. But I don't need to demonize the people who disagree with me, and I don't want them to demonize me.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Double Negative

You may know that I have a special interest in contemporary realistic YA novels with male main characters (having written two of them myself). My friend C. Lee McKenzie has one coming out on Friday, July 25:

Double Negative, by C. Lee McKenzie.

Hutchison McQueen is a sixteen-year-old smart kid who screws up regularly. He’s a member of Larkston High’s loser clique, the boy who’s on his way to nowhere—unless juvenile hall counts as a destination. He squeaks through classes with his talent for eavesdropping and memorizing what he hears. When that doesn’t work, he goes to Fat Nyla, the one some mean girls are out to get and a person who’s in on his secret—he can barely read.

And then Maggie happens. For twenty-five years she’s saved boys from their own bad choices. But she may not have time to save Hutch. Alzheimer’s disease is steadily stealing her keen mind.

You can find out more at C. Lee McKenzie's website, blog, or Facebook Fan Page. There's also a giveaway for Double Negative and for Amazon gift cards here.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Secrets in plain sight

Riffing today on a blog post by Beth Kephart in which she says, "It is possible to write nearly an entire novel and not know precisely who that mysterious character is until the last late night before the novel is due."

Those of us who write intuitively will find all sorts of themes, symbols, subplots, and characters creeping into our work. Sometimes they go nowhere and get cut out. (Sometimes they wander off the page by themselves. I'll realize I haven't mentioned the brother in 100 pages and don't miss him.) Other times, we find beautiful uses for them. They tie up loose ends, solve problems that we didn't even realize they could.

In The Secret Year, I gave my character an older brother during the first draft. I had no specific purpose in mind for the brother and thought he might get cut out later. Instead, he showed up for Thanksgiving dinner with a subplot that was relevant to the theme of secrecy, and he hung around to guide the main character through the book's main crisis. (Nice work, fictional brother! Glad I didn't whack you after all.) I had no idea he was going to do any of that until I was actually writing the scenes in question.

The draft of Try Not to Breathe ended much earlier than the finished book does now. But I had a nagging feeling that the ending wasn't big enough. I looked back to the book's beginning for a clue. That waterfall, I thought. There must be a reason the book starts at the waterfall. There must be a reason the characters keep going back there. It was only when I focused on the waterfall that I uncovered a secret about it and understood its true role in the story. The interesting thing was that when I went back into the story to seed a few clues about this secret, I found I didn't have to add much. Most of the clues were already there, unconsciously planted.

Everything in a story should have a purpose. If we can't identify the purpose, there are two options. One is to delete the thing. But the other is to look harder at what its purpose might be, to see if there are invisible connections that can be brought to the surface.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Articulating it

"A writer doesn't often tell a reader anything the reader doesn't already know or suspect. The best the writer can do is put the idea in words and by doing that make the reader aware that he or she isn't the only one who knows it. ... The fact is, there really isn't anything new in the world and what I've always hoped to do with my writing is to say, in so many words, some of the ideas that lurk, wordlessly, in the minds of a great many people."
--Andrew A. Rooney, Not That You Asked

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Believable characters

There's a radio commercial that's been out lately. I don't even know what it's a commercial for--some hospital or insurance plan, maybe? In any case, one of the characters in the commercial is supposed to be a hypochondriac worried about the illnesses he might have. And he's just randomly spewing out the names of various conditions that don't even have similar symptoms.

But there is logic even to hypochondria. In my experience, exaggerated anxiety over illness tends to evolve in one of two ways. In the first way, a symptom--say, a headache or stomach-ache or leg pain--will lead the person to research the various illnesses associated with that symptom. Therefore, the person with the stomach-ache might worry about an ulcer or appendicitis, but he would not imagine that he had a skull fracture or a detached retina. In the other manifestation, a hypochondriac might hear about a particular dangerous illness, especially one with very vague or common symptoms, and might start asking herself whether she has those symptoms ("Is my vision a little blurry? Haven't I been feeling tired lately?")

However, I have never met a person who displayed hypochondria by just flinging the names of unrelated diseases into a conversation, willy-nilly. This fictional character rings false, a victim of insufficient research or insufficient imagination. In a commercial, that may not matter as much, because I think the suspension-of-disbelief goals of a commercial are different from those of a novel. But most novels do require that suspension of disbelief. Characters should always make sense to themselves, even if they seem strange or extreme to the other characters.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Out of fashion

At some point, I looked at the pants being worn by women around me and realized that they were wearing narrow-legged pants when mine were wide-legged. Or maybe it was the reverse. (I think pants have gone through a couple of cycles since I stopped paying attention.)

And I realized I had completely lost track of what was in fashion.

And then I realized I didn't care.

I never had what you would call a knack with putting together outfits, but when I was younger, I at least tried to keep up with what was in. I looked at older people and wondered why they didn't try harder to dress in style. Had they given up, or what?

Now I know, and boy can it be freeing not to care.

It really makes no sense, when you stop and think about it, that for a certain period of time we are all supposed to wear shoulder pads or miniskirts or leg warmers or cropped pants or whatever, and a year or so later, it is supposed to be the height of embarrassment to wear the exact same thing. I wish we were freer and more accepting in this arena, that our stores had more variety.

But, whatever. Somewhere along the line I started paying more attention to other things in life. I'm now old enough that I have seen many, many phases pass (tech fads, food fads, clothing fads), and I have lost interest in all this let's-rush-to-embrace-this-new-thing-now-q
uick-let's-drop-it-and-on-to-the-next. So I will wear my wide-legged pants one day and my narrow-legged pants the next, and I will never wear cropped pants because they don't interest me personally, and I will not judge you for wearing whatever kind of pants you want to wear, because that's your business and frankly I probably won't even notice.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Losing and finding the center

"For many of us, sooner or later there comes a point where work gets hard and there’s no support at all from the outside world. That’s when you feel besieged. The fear of getting it wrong stops you."

The above quote comes from a post by Tricia Sullivan on the inner turmoil that can result from too much second-guessing and self-criticism.

And then there's this post by Michelle Davidson Argyle about being paralyzed by too much feedback.

And this one by Dawn Metcalf on not writing when life gets in the way, and the self-perpetuating negative cycle that can result: "I felt like I'd failed across the board, which didn't improve my mood or my ability to write. And that is the flipside of having a public voice and a private life--there is so much of our stories that cannot be told because while being a writer is public, being a human being is private."

Sometimes, a writer's mind is her own worst enemy. We need to be listeners, sensitive, attuned to our environments. We need critique. We need professionalism. Yet those are the very elements that can turn poisonous on us. And on top of any inner struggle comes a pressure not to admit it, not to reveal weakness. To be honest and vulnerable and creative while also having review-proof hides and boundless optimism ... Got all that? And can you juggle on a high wire, too?

I have always loved the way Anne Lamott approaches the writing life in Bird by Bird. She talks craft and practical matters, but she admits that the writing life is filled with inner battles, filled with apprehension, mind games, self-doubt, despair. Not only with those things--of course, there is joy, too, or why else even do this?--but she shows that you can feel all those things and admit it and still write, still publish, still live.

I hear tell that not every writer experiences this, and to those who don't, all I can say is: I'm happy for you, bless your heart. But the writers who do go through this don't do it to be precious. It's not because they've bought into some myth of the tortured artist. The more writers discuss this, the more we realize how common it is, and the more we learn to recognize where some of the pitfalls lie. When we find ourselves lost, we make finding the center again a priority. We know it's around here somewhere.

Monday, July 7, 2014


If inner critics or little worrying voices are too harsh, if the internal doomsayer won't shut up about catastrophic what-ifs, here are a few countering questions:

What if everything turns out OK?
What if I can accept that I'm doing the best I can?
What if the worst doesn't happen?
What if it doesn't have to be perfect?
What if I trust that there will be a solution?

Still having computer issues, so my online presence is spotty, but I am able to post this today.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

I'll be away for a bit

Last week, a severe electrical storm caused damage to our electronics that we are still dealing with. Therefore, I'll continue to be unavailable for a little while longer. Hope you all are well!

Saturday, June 28, 2014

If I knew then

It's my turn to blog at YA Outside the Lines, where we're writing letters to our younger, aspiring selves. An excerpt from mine:

"... I need to tell you this part, too: after you publish again, you will still doubt yourself. Publishing doesn’t “fix” anything. It brings you much joy, interesting opportunities, and a little money. But it’s not a magic ticket ..."

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Memory prompts

Just for fun and warming up, some possible writing prompts:

What was it like when you stayed home sick from school?

How did you celebrate Independence Day while growing up? (If you're not in the US, pick a different holiday.)

How was alcohol handled in your house? What were the rules and customs around it?

Did you know your grandparents well, or not? What did you know about them?

What were your favorite games when you were little? With whom did you play them?

We never know what little details may catch, what incident or memory may be connected to a larger story. These are exercises in memory, in observation, in description. In standing outside what was once ordinary and familiar, and capturing it from a different perspective.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Active characters

There's a certain story pattern that I'm becoming more disenchanted with: the character who fights all sources of help and has to be dragged out of trouble or isolation by the repeated efforts of other characters. We all need a helping hand from time to time; we all benefit from those who reach out to us. Occasionally we will push away those who could help us. But at some point, a character who is going to grow will have to grab the helping hand, or seek it out. And secondary characters should not wait around forever for that moment, with endless patience and persistence, as if they have no lives of their own.

A character who is actively trying to help him/herself is also easier to root for. (Or a character who at least wants help, even if s/he doesn't know how get it, or has to fight off inner voices counseling a more self-destructive route.)

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Green beans now

Today we attended the launch party for this book:


Bow Wow Wow! Green Beans Now?, a picture book by Jessica Dimuzio. It's the true story of two dogs who love green beans, and it discusses the organic gardening that produces those beans (among other vegetables). Appropriately enough, the launch party was held at Really Cooking with Robin, a caterer, cooking school, and food and kitchenware store focusing on healthy foods. (Their healthy chocolate mousse was divine.)

The author is a friend and critique partner of mine, and I've gotten to see her grow from an unpublished writer to the owner of her own business, Nature Tales and Trails, which includes two picture books, school visits, and nature education programs.

Making healthy food fun is important, and this book delivers with dog pictures, jokes, and sense-rich descriptions of the food woven in among practical information about gardening.

Thursday, June 19, 2014


Here are two interesting quotations from the book I'm reading (Fairyland, by Alysia Abbott):

1. "'What kind of writer are you if no one's heard of you, and you make no money?'"

(My answer to that would be: the usual kind.)

2. "'Be brave. If you're not, pretend to be. Nobody knows the difference.'"

(I've done an internet search to see if I can find the original source of this one. A few sites attribute it to H. Jackson Brown, Jr.)

Monday, June 16, 2014

Hawk story

Cornell Lab hosts a couple of cameras that have been keeping watch on a red-tailed hawk nest. Three young hawks hatched back in April, and--this being the fifth observed brood from this pair, were christened E1, E2, and E3, in order of hatching. This past weekend there was much excitement, as E2, the first young hawk to leave the nest (or "fledge") returned, while E1 and E3 were strutting and flapping their wings, making like they were going to fledge at any moment. The cameras are accompanied by a chat room, where chatters anxiously anticipated the first flights of these birds. Any time I looked in on the proceedings, there were about 2000 other people viewing the camera feed at the same time.

Think about that for a minute. 2000 people, all focused on one hawk's nest in Ithaca, NY--many of those people hundreds or thousands of miles from Ithaca. At Cornell, there are also volunteers who observe and help ensure the safety of the nest, and there are volunteers who moderate the chats and educate people about hawks.

On Saturday morning, E2 flew off the nest again, followed shortly by E1's maiden flight. After a few hours of having the nest all to himself for the first time in his life, during which he mostly stared pensively off the edge of the nest ledge, E3 fledged also.

The hawks spend their early fledgling time figuring out how to fly--their mistakes and clumsiness, their earnest flapping before they can become airborne, a reminder of what a miracle flight is. Birds learn quickly, so most of the birds we've seen in our lives are accomplished fliers who make it look easy. The fledglings remind us that, like much else in life, it takes practice.

Sadly, after only a day off the nest, E3 had a mishap when he perched under an automated greenhouse window vent. It closed on his right wing, breaking the bone. The hawk-watching community agonized over the fate of the injured bird, which was ultimately rescued by a wildlife rehabber and taken to an animal hospital. (E3 is now undergoing treatment; the vets are hopeful they can repair the wing and ultimately return him to the wild.)

I have been marveling at the resources, the care, the energy, that have gone into tending this one family of hawks. And here's my point: this is the power of story, the power of specific characters. Biologists could lecture all day long about the importance of hawks or any other animal, their magnificence, their role in the ecosystem--and most people's eyes would glaze over. But when you can show people a specific nest with individual animals, when people can watch and get to know one family, when they can follow a few birds' lives and root for an egg to hatch, a bird to take its first flight, a wing to heal--then they care in a way that grows into a more general understanding and caring about a much larger population.

That's what story does. We zoom in on a few characters and tell a specific story, encouraging readers to bond, hoping that the story's meaning will be extrapolated and generalized deeper and farther.