The Eight-Hour Author

Today, I sit alone in my house.

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Sunlight plays on the silver streamers left over from Biff and Bash’s fifth birthday. The breeze chills warm ground–Wisconsin, in transition.  Life is still lush and damp with dew that never quite dissipates, yet some of the older trees have already given up their leaves to gold and red.

Today, the school year has truly begun. Today, and now every weekday, all three kids will be in school.

Some of the time, anyway. Biff and Bash have begun attending preschool (aka 4K) in the afternoon at my town’s public school.

Today, and many days beforehand, I’ve been asked with a smile and a laugh, “Well, what are you going to do with yourself without kids in the house?”

For the record, I have not responded with my fist, damn tempting though it may be. No, I just glare, and say: “Work without vehicles flying in my face.”

Awkward pause. “Oh.”

Today, and God-willing for many days to come, I don’t want this time to be sucked up solely by teaching. It’s a fine excuse for people who don’t know I write, but for you, friends and strangers, you know how precious quiet time is. Day care is expensive. Babysitters take their cut. Family members willing to “help” would rather just sit and chat and watch you do all the parenting instead of the job you were supposed to get done. And once every child’s in school all day, you know your partner’s going to give you that look: the “now you can earn more income” look.

I know it. I already got it. And only by breaking down the time frame with the kids’ school schedules did Bo see that me taking on a 2nd part-time job just didn’t make any logistical sense.

So I’ve got one school year to prove that writing can and should be my second job. That I can I teach for a [mostly] steady income, meager as it is, while I strive to create, research, analyze, and reach out with my words to others…and ye gods, maybe get a little monetary compensation.

z8079-writerdayjob11-200x300So many writing manuals intend to guide you in making the most out of spare time: you can be a “night-time novelist”; you can “write your book in a weekend”; you can make more of mornings “without sacrificing the important things”; you only need help to “boost your productivity,” and so on. Let’s be realistic: with little kids, you don’t have a night-time, or a morning-time. Bash will get up as early as 5:30am and will sneak out of his bedroom long after bedtime to use the potty…and to talk. And sing. And wake his brother Biff, who gets equally ornery. Oh yeah, I have a daughter, too, she needs some attention. Plus I’m supposed to actually hang out with Bo at some point because of this whole “married” thing, so there’s my night gone anyway. Weekends are family time and when I teach my classes, so those are gone.

But today, and for every school day after, I have approximately 3 hours.

So, fifteen hours a week isn’t bad, right?

No, not even that.

Because we must, again, be realistic: I have to schedule appointments in those hours. I’ll have projects to grade in those hours. I’ll have to get off my sorry ass and do some walking or other exercise because writing ain’t exactly a move’n’groove activity.

So with the errands, the job, the drives to retrieve children from different cities, and the attempt to be healthy, I’ve got: eight hours a week for writing. At most.

I haven’t had that much time a week to write since before motherhood.

And unlike that time before motherhood, I will not waste the time I’m given.

 

Perhaps you’ve been struggling with this time management thing, too. Well, feel free to let me know how you maintain productivity, because I’m all for ideas and options. In the meantime, I’ve plotted thus far:

1. No social media during writing time. No scrolling, no “just checking quick,” no responding to those little infernal dings my phone makes. Unless it’s the police, Bo, or maybe my mom (maybe), the phone and social media sites stay off.

Woops! My half hour is up. Time to work on a story.

~*~*~

I’m back! Let’s see, where did I leave off…Ah yes, my attack plan.

2. Have project objectives for each day. Nothing depresses like a pile of unfinished work. I’m notoriously good at not finishing things: half-done crocheted blankets, half-organized book shelves, half-completed baby books, and so on. I’ve got some WIPs that have been sitting on my computer for years. Enough already. We’re getting those suckers DONE.

But again, reality here: nothing’s getting done at once. It’s going to take several hours to make decent headway on any old project. This doesn’t even include my current MG fantasy-in-progress Beauty’s Price, or the co-writing project “Eowain and the Boar.” Plus, I like writing here. And here takes time.

So let’s break the time up into wee snippets. I read in Writer’s Digest a while ago that 38 minutes is the ideal time to allot for anything; why that particular number I have no idea, but I’m really not far from that. By giving a project half an hour of the day, I can at least get somewhere on it before I move on to another task. So, I could write a little BP, work on the blog, send Michael some thoughts on E&B, and then edit a WIP for sending out. Nothing may get done in one day (like this post), but nothing’s getting ignored, either.

3. Experiment. Like the squeeze-your-arm-flab autumn sweaters I struggle with in a dressing room, I want to try on other styles of writing. They may also be equally pretty and irritate the bejeezes out of me, but how will I know unless I try? It’s been years since I attempted poetry. I’ve simply ignored flashfic. And outside of fantasy, I haven’t done much toe-tipping into other genres. Now I probably wouldn’t dedicate weeks to a poem, but half an hour? Sure, why not?

4. Be okay not writing sometimes. Aside from exercising, I do like getting out to take pictures when I can. I’m no professional, or even an amateur, but this place, this land where I live means so much to my writing state of mind: its hidden roads among the hills. The forests under siege by farms, and the farms under siege by suburbia. The marshes, the cities, the rock towers, the lakes. Together these elements make a world, rich and complete and all its own on the page. I want to share images of these places as best I can.

~*~*~

Day 3 on this entry. Yay, snippet-writing!

5. Start putting myself out there. In the past three years, I’ve queried all of three agents with an incomplete WIP. Yeah, not my smartest move. Repeatedly.

With these new hours, though, I’d like to both experiment and learn. One can’t be a published writer unless one actually, you know, publishes stuff. Traditional and online journals almost never take 10K-long stories, but essays and stories 1K and under would at least get a once-over before a refusal. During the school year I hope to get at least one short story published of my own creation. More would be awesome, but as I’ve learned the hard way, too many expectations promise derailment. I’m not making that mistake again.

I already have a story in the works to be published online with co-conspirator and fantasy author Michael Dellert. He’s invited my cantankerous Shield Maiden Gwenwledyr to hunt alongside his King Eowain in the holiday short story “Eowain and the Boar.” Can a pantser and a planner co-write successfully? “Eowain and the Boar” will be the experiment to find out.

Just as every moment with my children is precious, so is every moment I have to write. No more wasting. No more moaning. This is the time to create people and places. This is the time to explore and to chronicle. This is the time a Mommy can let her imagination run free. And unless the cops call that Biff and Bash are playing with chainsaws on the school roof, that’s just what what this Mommy’s going to do.

 

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Lessons Learned from Agatha Christie, My Children, & Batman: A Single Quirk Can Go a Looong Way.

When we create characters, we want them to be a person we can reach out, touch, talk with. And they must be more than mere dolls with that scratchy speaker embedded somewhere inside its stuffing that rasps out a limited number of lines. We want to create people who have thoughts and beliefs all their own. We want characters to be.

But how to grow such characters? Sometimes, one quirk is all it takes.

20170829_120446Take my kids, for instance. Bash often lays on his back with his legs crossed in the air. It’s a startling image: my father used to do the same thing all the time. Bash often crosses his legs while sitting, just as my father, grandfather, and uncles all did. It’s a strange habit that, once noticed, reveals a familial connection.

Blondie, my amazing girl: gifted with my memory for words and her father’s humor. A girl of giving heart…and also some of the worst traits of her parents. Like Bo, she does not like to work very hard on something for very long. A task will get a flurry of attention, and then is left to rot into the oblivion. Like me, she is quick in temper and prefers screaming at her brothers rather than talking through the problem. I still struggle with staying calm and not blowing up at them for throwing toys or fighting.

And then, of course, there are the quirks that are unique to each child. Biff, who is no longer constipated, thank the Lord, insists on being Master of Toilet Flushing. The second anyone uses the facilities there comes a frantic, “Can I flush it can I flush it FLUSH IT?!?!?!” He doesn’t throw anything else into the bowl–hell, he doesn’t even stick around to watch the swirling. He just needs to be the one who pulls the handle. My aunt, my husband, and I have all made the grievous mistake of flushing on our own. The tantrum that results is both epic and pathetic, nor will it not stop until someone else uses the toilet so he can FLUSH IT!

Like the food coloring mixed in the water for carnations, singular quirks can influence other traits. Yup, Biff has moments of extreme OCD. He may leave a pile of crashed cars in his wake, but don’t you dare leave any book face down. Blondie will freeze when school work gets hard and gets extremely frustrated when the solutions don’t come via guesswork. Bash loves using found things to tell a story, just as the grandfather he barely knew would do for his sermons. (Though I don’t recall my dad insisting on eating with several forks so every kind of food had its own utensil. That’s just weird, Bash.)

Fictional characters can grow a good deal from a single trait, too. Say what you will about toy-driven movies like The Lego Batman Movie: it took a single character element–in this case, Batman’s ego–to extremes both hilarious and fitting for the story. I wish I could share the entire opening sequence, but this song should give you a fairly rough idea on how Batman views himself:

No one can tell Batman what to do or how to handle the bad guys. He’s the best at everything, and “no one [else] has ever had a good idea. Ever.” It takes getting captured by the Joker and being sent to the Phantom Zone for Batman to see just what kind of jerk he’s been. It’s a change of heart that might seem obvious to adults, but that means kids see the transformation clearly as well.

51688eac587843905538e43286823004--famous-books-crime-booksI recently saw this single-trait strategy work well for Agatha Christie, too.  In Thirteen at Dinner (also known as Lord Edgware Dies, a far more fitting title) we meet Jane Wilkinson, a selfish film actress who wants her husband dead. But since she doesn’t “seem to run to gunmen over here [in England],” she asks Poirot to persuade the Lord Edgware to divorce her so she can marry a duke.

“I think you overrate my persuasive powers, Madame.”

“Oh! but you can surely think of something, M. Poirot.” She leaned forward. Her blue eyes opened wide again. “You’d like me to be happy, wouldn’t you?”

Her voice was soft, low and deliciously seductive.

“I should like everybody to be happy,” said Poirot cautiously.

“Yes, but I wasn’t thinking of everybody. I was thinking of just me.”

“I should say you always do that, Madame.”

He smiled.

“You think I’m selfish?”

“Oh! I did not say so, Madame.”

“I dare say I am. But, you see, I do so hate being unhappy.” (7)

Well of course, someone murders Lord Edgware, and of course, everyone suspects Jane since she’s been talking of nothing else but wanting her husband dead. Of course, clues arise to clear her. Of course, Poirot and Hastings visit the widow:

She looked like an angel about to give vent to thoughts of exquisite holiness. “I’ve been thinking. It all seems so miraculous, if you know what I mean. Here I am–all my troubles over. No tiresome business of divorce…Just my path cleared and all plain sailing…I’ve thought and I’ve thought lately–if Edgware were to die. And there–he’s dead! It’s–it’s almost like an answer to a prayer.”

Poirot cleared his throat.

“I cannot say I look at it quite like that, Madame. Somebody killed your husband.”

She nodded.

“Why, of course.”

“Has it not occurred to you who that someone was?”

She stared at him. “Does it matter? I mean–what’s that to do with it? The Duke and I can be married in about four or five months…”

With difficulty Poirot controlled himself.

“Yes, Madame. I know that. But apart from that has it not occurred to you to ask yourself who killed your husband?”

“No.” She seemed quite surprised by the idea. (49-50)

Selfish to the extreme, I’d say. But this selfishness is both a clue and a red herring because it’s Agatha Christie, and we should all know better by now.

Jane’s obsession with her own life and goals gives readers the impression of someone so self-involved that she doesn’t get how the world works. “Things just go right for me,” she says, and believes it. Other scenes in the story show her lack of knowledge about the law, culture, politics, etc. She comes off as, well, a bit of a bimbo.

Yet by story’s end we learn she’s not dumb at all. Oh, she’s selfish, make no mistake, but she’s not dumb. She found an actress who does impressions and had that actress impersonate her at a dinner party to provide an alibi. In the end, Jane did indeed kill her husband, since the duke did not believe in divorce. Jane wanted that duke; therefore, the present husband had to go. This then means that answering Poirot’s question seems rather silly. Of course she knows who killed her husband: she did.

The book ends with a letter from Jane in prison addressed to Poirot, explaining how she had managed to murder three times and elude detection for so long. Even here, the selfishness shines as brightly as ever:

 “I thought of that all by myself. I think I’m more proud of that than anything else. Everyone always says I haven’t got brains–but I think it needed real brains to think of that…I wonder if you are ever sorry for what you did. After all, I only wanted to be happy in my own way. And if it hadn’t been for me you would never have had anything to do with the case. I never thought you’d be so horribly clever. You didn’t look clever. It’s funny, but I haven’t lost my looks a bit…” (125-6)

It’s so easy to get caught up in the idea of making “complicated” characters, with all sorts of goodness and wickedness and everything in between. And sometimes, complicated works very well, just as several different flowers together make a garden. But a single seed grows, too, in ways both beautiful and unexpected. You’ve but to plant it, care for it, and see.

A #summer of #writing & #motherhood, part 4: Know When to Collaborate.

Time is not my friend this month. Hell, it ain’t even a church acquaintance. It’s more like the medical assistant at the kids’ clinic that I had to call once a week for two months straight due to stitches in and stitches out and sickness and more stitches in and more stitches out: initially helpful, then busily surprised, then downright annoyed I need time made for me yet again.

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Good morning!

So yesterday I woke up, struggling to keep my face above the flood of first week student issues, and wondered: What can I possibly blog about this month? I really want to study Agatha Christie’s use of multiple povs in And Then There Were None and how despite being inside everyone’s heads, we still didn’t know the killer until the epilogue. I want to explore the struggle of following God’s Calling in life when all the certainty of that road is thrown asunder by yet another Calling…also, apparently, from God.

But, as said, time is not my friend, not with a literary conference to prep for, school prep for my own kids, my own school to work for, some birthdays to celebrate, and grieve, too.

My mind remained muddled as the boys launched themselves out of bed and right into their sister’s room. Blondie was having a special sleepover at Grandma’s, which meant all her toys were up for grabs. Eventually I lured them out with breakfast and books, especially Truckery Rhymes, our latest acquisition from the library.

Mornings are slow-going here even on school days, so I didn’t think much of their gabbing instead of eating. But then I listened…

Mind you, this isn’t all of it, and of course I wrecked the moment by opening my big mouth. In those minutes, though, I forgot my stress…well most of it. Collaborative story-telling can quickly digress into fighting when Bash won’t say what Biff tells him to. But this moment of imagination shared reminded me what a difference a partner makes.

Writing can be like that.

I still haven’t told many friends, and hardly any family, about the writing life. That lack of “real life” support means more freedom to write about the raw, festering pieces of my past, but also means I can’t count on others to help me in, well, months like this, when time is too beleaguered by “real life” to give any more for our passions.

That’s why I thank God every day for you, Friends, for being here. For sharing how you struggle to balance writing with everything else. How despite it all you still create because you must. Me, too. And that “me, too” ties all the unseen in me with you.

middlers-pride-7Now sometimes, that sharing goes one step further. Last year Michael Dellert gave me a character and a corner of his fantasy world to make my own. It seems he approves of what I’ve done so far with young Gwen in her story Middler’s Pride, for he’s asked to co-write a short story starring some of his Droma natives and my pompous–but decent (mostly decent)–Shield Maiden. It promises to be quite an adventure for me, since I’ve never written a story with another writer before.

Like Blondie, I usually do my creating solo.

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Blondie & her first epic, “The Wrong Pants.”

Jean LeeCurrently she’s got her heart set on making comic books, starting with a special edition collection of Super Mario Brothers stories. Me? I try to write about Gwen’s fellow Shield Maidens whenever I can, which hasn’t been more than once a week, if I’m lucky. But I’ll be damned if I give that scrap of time up to despair. If I only get one hour a month to write, then that’s what I get. The light is brighter in me when I write, stronger, happier. To give this up will only darken the way I see the world and myself. My family will not be submitted to that darkness, not again.

Bloodshed aside, summer has not been without illumination. Books are explored, toilets are used without a battle, and friendship continues its tenuous wrappings from one child to the next. They drive each other crazy. They make each other laugh. They lock each other out. They smell each other’s feet. They thrive together. They thrive apart.

And I love it.

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Biff of words, Bash of action, Blondie…um, gone at Grandma’s. 🙂

 

 

A #summer of #writing & #motherhood, part 3: Imagination is, Like, Hard.

I turn off the midday movie, a common part of our summer schedule. Biff and Bash run off with helicopters, koalas, Batman, and garbage trucks in a complex story of friendship and adventure on Mystery Island. Blondie remains prostrate on the couch.

“What are we doing now?” she asks like clockwork.

You can do something. I’ve got to finish grading these papers.”

She lets out the sort of long, dramatic sigh only a firstborn daughter can give. “I think I’ll just lay here until the tv is back on.”

“You find yourself something to do, or I’ll find some cleaning for you to do. Got it?”

“Uuuuuuugh. Fine.” Stomp, stomp, glare at Mommy, stomp, stomp to her room.

When Blondie’s alone in her room, she could be doing a variety of things. It used to be staring at toys staring right back at her, but now there’s creativity humming in the air…

…sort of.

I walk by her room: she’s holding a palm-sized concoction of little Lego pieces. “What’s that?”

“It’s an ice cream maker!” She explains the function of every miniscule button.

“Oh neat! Will you put it in the Lego treehouse?” She received a treehouse Lego set for her birthday. After Bo had put it together, it sat as is in her room until her backpack fell upon it.

She looked at the pieces, scattered in her storage box. “But it’s broken.”

“You could rebuild it.”

“I don’t know how.”

“It’s Lego, Kiddo. You can rebuild it however you want.”

Her face scrunched, pulling dimples out of hiding. “But it’ll be hard.”

Breathe, Mommy, don’t roll your eyes–oh hell, roll your eyes. “You can build an ice cream maker, you can build a treehouse.”

This same halt comes at her desk, too. Our big seven-year-old has her own desk, perfect for coloring, writing, drawing, creating…

…sort of.

secrets_lg“Can I play computer games today?” She calls after reading a few chapters from her latest library acquisition, Secrets According to Humphrey. (A series right up your gang’s street, Lady Shey!)

“Not today.”

“Then what am I gonna do?” Her whine mimics the slide of a finger along violin strings. It grates, it stings, it makes me want to just close the door without a word and let her survive on her own until dinner.

“Why don’t you work on another Spoty the Dog story? Or your research on Egyptians and tornadoes? Or do one of those coloring projects Grandma gave you? Or do your word search? Or do SOMEthing?” Insert a dramatic gesture towards the desk surface, the only clean surface in the room.

Blondie continues to bury herself in toys. “I dunno,” she mumbles from under a pile of puppies.

Even when I try to get the imagination rolling, Blondie’s got a knack for burying it. While her brothers easily role-play themselves into stories about cars, or ponies, or planes, or astronauts, or animals, or any number of things, she tends to simply latch onto them rather than starting something herself. One morning she said she wanted to make a puppy school; after helping her make a school and little picture books for her puppies, what do I find? Puppies in a pile, her head in her hands, eyes on a Lego book. Why? “I’m too tired to play.”

Writing’s rather like that.

Story-creation is “fun,” but it’s also work. Bloody hard work. You have to take an entire world filled with people and places and screw-ups and miracles and somehow come up with the right combinations of the right words in the right order to help people you don’t know see what goes on inside your brain. We all know that the first draft is shit, of course it’s going to be shit, and yet we can’t help fighting with ourselves over each and every word we put onto the blank space. It’s just so, so much easier for it to stay inside where we can fine-tune it to our heart’s content, and daydream about our glorious debut on the publishing scene, complete with awards and carpets and active-wear models hanging on our arms. We are each of us filled with worlds, but the act of drawing those worlds up and out of us can seem like an impossible action. You may as well locate the physical point of my soul, or make Biff eat oatmeal. It ain’t happenin’.

Which is why as both a writer and a parent, I have to watch my expectations. Yeah, that first draft is bound to be horrid, and know what? It may take a while to even write that first draft. Maybe some character sketches, setting freewrites, and mini-scenes need to come first. I did this for writing Middler’s Pride, and it seems to be helping with Beauty’s Pricetoo. I’ve yet to start the story itself, but I’ve got over thirty pages of just, stuff. It’s all useful in the end, because in the end it gets me in the groove to do the impossible: create.

I walk by my daughter’s room. She hunches over her desk, pencil dancing about. “Need anything, Kiddo?”

“Mommy, wanna see my inventions?” Blondie stands up. Insert a dramatic gesture towards the desk surface.

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“It’s a Wood-Chopper Movie Starter!” The steps blur together while she talks, for I’m just lost in this image: where did this come from? I see more plans for inventions on her desk: wake-up calls for dads, dog feeders, pool starters. My heart swells, and I remind myself I can’t force this kid to be creative the way know how to be creative. If she’s going to explore her imagination, she should do it on her own terms. I can’t wait to help her tap that mad-scientist vein in that curly head of hers, unlock all its potential–

“So when can we build this? We’ll need some really big logs, and some springs, and the log’s got to come into the house, and…”

–sort of.

Ah, well. I still love it.

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Blondie with her trusty assistant Sledgehammer & top-secret Inventions folder. Shhhhh, don’t tell!

A #summer of #writing & #motherhood, part 2: Experience Does Not Always Inspire Learning.

A lovely summer day, the kind of day that inspires so much hope and happiness in little ones, especially when:

“We go to the carnival today!”

Biff said it the moment I opened the boys’ door that morning. He talked about it all through breakfast, all through the agony of waiting for Grandma to come at lunchtime. He plowed through his food in a few minutes and literally hung by the door. He peed on command in the potty, found his shoes and sat without kicking.

We met my kid brother and his family, up from Arizona to visit relations, for an afternoon of kiddie rides and giggles. Yes, this the same place I wrote about previously that grips a peculiar air during the off-season, when all is metal bones and concrete in the cold.

But in summer’s light, sweet air, the heebie-jeebies are forgotten. Smiles abound.

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Biff and Grandma–yay, carousel!

Until, of course, this:

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It was one of the last rides of the afternoon. Bash had been throwing tantrums, while Biff had been an excellent listener. I felt he deserved a reward, and could pick the next ride. Of course, he picked the ferris wheel. Why not? We had ridden it last year without  trouble. He jumped about in line, beyond stoked, and sat quite still in his seat, enamored with the heights. I, of course, was petrified that he’d make a sudden move at any given moment, and gripped his arm and shoulder the entire ride.

And then, we were back to the ramp, our turn done. I let go.

I let go.

I let go, and he ran from the bench and fell off the ramp and his feet in the air and head down and I heard the screams and saw the blood and thought my boy, I killed my boy, my boy is dying right in front of me because I let go.

I cry even now writing this.

I gripped him and the towels on his head as people swarmed to me, to us. Bo got Bash and Blondie to my relatives and ran over. Ambulance, a policeman, it all…and me crying and pleading for it to be okay and I was so sorry because I knew if I had held on….

Biff calmed down far, far sooner than I, I think because a policeman was talking to him for the first time. Biff asked him his name, what he was doing there, did he want to ride the ferris wheel, too? My little Biff spoke so smoothly without stopping that the EMTs and officer thought the chances of concussion too small to be a concern. After a stupidly long wait at urgent care where even Biff tells me to “Calm down, Mom,” we came home to see the others going on a short walk.

What did Biff do? He launched himself from the car to run down the street after them.

He tried to run alongside the cars as family departed.

He jumped from furniture because he was Superman.

He head-butted Bash because, brothers.

With me, holler-pleading all the while, “Didn’t you learn ANYTHING from those stitches?!?!”

Writing’s rather like that, on two fronts.

We get very set in our ways, we writers. Something works for us once, and superstition swells about it. If people liked the prologue we wrote that one time, let’s always use it. I wrote my best dialogue in that chair; therefore, I’m annexing it to my workspace. I only get good ideas at dinner. I can only write in complete silence. These ruts form, and form quickly.

But life doesn’t “do” ruts. The other prologues kinda suck. The chair breaks. The new work schedule has you on the job right through dinner. Kids dare to age and, like, need stuff.

As writers, we’ve got two choices: despair, or crack on. I’ve done the despairing, and let me tell you, it does you about as much good as a fall off the ferris wheel ramp. What does cracking on mean? It means taking what you’ve learned from your environment’s changes and adapting. It means learning to write with noise, to write in any position, to try new story structures and styles. It means trying, learning, growing, just as our characters do when conflict rises in their worlds.

Sometimes.

It occurred to me while pulling Biff and Bash apart yet again that experience and learning do not always go hand in hand. It seems to, because in books that’s how writers so often have it work out. It makes the plot all nice and tidy, don’t you know. Well, you don’t know, because sometimes, human nature just doesn’t jive that way. Bash, who got stitches in June from running around the house and crashing into a wall’s corner, continues to run around the house. Biff…well I told you about him. Even Blondie, who got stitches last year from jumping on the bed, continues to jump on furniture (sans beds) and trampolines any chance she gets.

That night after urgent care, with me still in tears wondering how, how can we keep these kids from killing themselves, Bo said, “With these guys, the only way they’ll stop moving is if they can’t move. It’s going to take a broken limb. Or two. Or probably three, knowing them.”

And I think we need to remember that our characters’ lives can be like that, too. Job wasn’t tested with only the loss of wealth, or only the loss of a loved one. He lost his entire family and all he possessed, even his health, before God blessed him anew. When a character totally alters over something piddly, we as readers call it out because we know human nature doesn’t switch so suddenly between “nice” and “jerk.” It evolves in time, and time rarely paces problems for our convenience. So why should we make it convenient for our heroes? Rather a boring read, I’d think.

Though I admit, I wouldn’t mind some boring days on the mother-front, such as yesterday, when all three were content with little super-hero cars built from Legos. I watched Biff fly the little Superman around and make friends with Doomsday. I remembered his feet in the air, the blood. I grabbed him, kissed his head.

And found myself chasing him down the hall because he’d grabbed the helicopter Batman from Bash’s side of the table and was now laughing maniacally from the bathroom with Bash ready to inflict fists of vengeance. Biff’s is a spirit that simply cannot be broken.

And yes, despite everything, I love it.

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A #summer of #writing & #motherhood, part 1: Every Pebble Has Potential.

“Mommy, look! It’s a magical stick!”

“That’s nice, Bash.”

“Can I take it home?”

“No.”

“Can I pleeeeease take it home?”

“Look, you can put it on the porch, okay?”

Bash’s speech follows two patterns: wistful questions and squeals of delight. (Flat out screeching is a separate matter.)

“Look, a pinecone! Can I keep it?”

“Look, Mommy, a red rock! I’ve always wanted a red rock!”

“What a pretty flower! Can we take it home?”

“Is this a rock, or is this bird poop?” (He takes special care to ask this before picking up the “rock”…he does now, anyway.)

So it grows, Bash’s collection: flower petals, bits of chalk, wood chips and tire bits from other parks, broken toys, pine cones, walnut shells, feathers, nests, little crab apples, those wee white tables put in the middle of a pizza to keep the delivery box from crushing it, wilted berries, stickers whose adhesive sides are coated by hair, fuzz, and crumbs, fragments of plastic left in the dirt by the previous homeowners, nuts, rocks, dirt clumps that look like rocks: all must be gathered up, for all are precious somehow. He’ll build rock factories, line up the sticks according to size, put his own plush animals into the nests and dirt and make himself a zoo. In Bash’s world, every single itty bitty whatzit has potential. Even torn up bits of boxes can become treats for animals or meteors from space. Every scrap of paper is a map, a note, a ticket to somewhere. My son hoards like a magpie, but with a purpose, too.

Writing’s rather like that.

For all the freewriting we muck through, there is always a find: maybe a name, a sentence, a detail, that has all the potential in the world—or in this case, in a story. Drafts always come out with quite a few holes, slanted walls, plumbing mixed with the wiring. It may as well have been created by the Three Stooges. But it’s in those moments where we dig into our collection of rescued words, a collection we could never live without, and discover just the patch, the nut, the stone that fits in a way we never thought possible.

I can’t imagine my home without Bash’s collection on the front porch. My eyes watch how his little hands reach into the grass of our yard and hold up yet another treasure the rest of the world overlooked. These tangibles feed his imagination in ways I can never predict.

And I love it.

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Authors Should Always Stay Clear of the Top of the Volcano, and Other Tips from Famous Author Blondie

Two years ago, I introduced you to my daughter Blondie. At the time I was befuddled by her refusal to explore her imagination with words or pictures. These days? Well, let’s talk to her and find out what she thinks of writing. In honor of her 7th birthday, I give you: Blondie.

We start talking about her poetry and proceed to her story, but then the boys cause a ruckus in the yard and I have to pause.

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Biff decides to add his own two scents…from the toilet.

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Then Bash just had to get involved, too.

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Am I keen to push Blondie to do more and more with her writing? Two years have shown me Blondie adventures creatively on her own terms. It’s so easy for a parent to hoist those passions onto the kid and expect the little one to love it just as much. A child’s got to find her own way through her own imagination, as well as her own way to express it. Maybe she’ll complete her 12-volume set of mysteries, or maybe she’ll start writing about tornadoes.

The joy buzzing through me when she’s eager to create makes any wait totally worth it.

Constipated

5bf3e97af6decac557b6b499cc6e30a4Our family lives in the toilet.

“That’s not Lightning McQueen. That’s Lightning McPoopie!”

“Can Mater swim in pee-pee water?”

“What happens when someone eats poop?”

“I don’t want toasted cheese, I want toasted poop!”

Ever since Bo and I went on the offense in the Potty Wars, everything’s become poop and pee-pee water. It’s the subject of every car ride: “Do you need to use the potty before we go? Did you make pee-pee water and poop, or just pee-pee water?”

It’s the subject of most text messages between me and Bo: “Did either boy poop yet today?” “How does something this big come out of a butt that small?” (Yes, he includes photos.)

It comes up every breakfast and bedtime routine: “Did you use the big toilet or the little potty?” “DON’T RUN WITH THE POTTY FULL OF PEE-PEE WATER!”

It’s a source of bragging rights for Blondie: “I don’t need the little seat any more, Mom!” “I made two sausage poops after supper!”

It’s a source of pride for Bash: “I used the potty at school today, Mommy!” “I made five big poops! Can I have a new train?” (Trains make for great bribes. Bash has his own steam and diesel fleet…squadron…collective? Murder of trains, I don’t know what their group’s called.)

And then, there’s Biff.

I don’t know whether to admire his will-power or have him checked for an extra colon. He wears underwear without (much) of a fight. Yay! He’ll pee in the potty without a problem. Yay yay! But no poop.

I let him have as many peanut butter and jelly sandwhiches as he wanted. Raisins galore. Pouches of prunes and broccoli and any other fiber-rich produce I can think of (yes, pouches. Eating fresh produce is a whooooooooole ‘nother war I’m not ready to fight yet.) Nothing after two days. Three days. Four days. Five days. And he still goes on stealing food from his brother whenever possible. Where in Hades does he keep it all in that little body?

Patoots aren’t the only places that get backed up. I’ve been feeling it in my head, too. And all the poop talk doesn’t exactly lend itself to inspiring imagination, especially when I’m struggling with one. Bloody. Line.

middlers-pride-7The ending for Middler’s Pride needs another scene so Gwen could stand before her trainer, father, and king’s brother to find out whether or not she passed boot camp. Considering how long Gwen had waited to have her father’s undivided attention, I couldn’t just gloss over this moment.

Chapter 54

The world lost its clarity in all those campfires. Only the stars above had a sharpness to them. Some of those stars told stories, too, of battles and heroes. Some told the way East, North, West. South. South and East lay the Khaibe.

Gwen felt her feet move—they were moving east, to the campfire, rank, and family—and wondered: How many steps east and south would it take to reach the Khaibe?

But first stop:

“And this will be Gwenwledyr, daughter of Lord Aillil,” Captain Vala’s voice sounded bile-free for the first time in weeks. Well, bully for her. She still had the look of someone who’d been kicked by a horse, especially when Cinaedh spoke.

“Would you look, lovey!”

“Don’t. Call me. Lovey.” Terrwyn’s glare almost, almost, brought a laugh out of Gwen. But this was serious business, despite Cinaedh.

“Oh pish, look at our girl, she’s lost it at last!”

Lord Lorcan smoothed away a drawing between he and Terrwyn, something that looked like a large hand. “Gwenwledyr, daughter of Lord Aillil, I’ve been told you of all the recruits followed all orders to the letter.”

“I did my best, Sir.”

“That you bested all with spear, sword, axe, and dagger.”

“Mostly, Sir.”

“That you carried an ox’s burden upon your shoulders.”

“I did? Oh, yeah, I did, Sir.”

“That you discovered a lethal creature of magick in the forest and took measures to destroy it.”

“Not alone, but yes, Sir.”

A pause. Saffir glowed through her own fatigue, hand firmly upon Lord Aillil’s. In that moment, he still looked upon Gwen with such…warmth, kindness, but more than that. He was looking at her as one of his own.

But…

“Well, Captain Vala, if you’re in agreement—“

Those rat-heart eyes beat slowly, be it due to drink or recovery. “I am.”

“Then Gwenlwedyr—“

“My lord, can I say something?” Lord Aillil’s brow furrowed. Uh oh. But it wasn’t right, and Gwen so badly wanted it to be right. “Perhaps Captain Vala and Chief Murchadh haven’t said, but I want it known that I was, well…” Is there even a formal way to say it?

Lord Lorcan stroked his braids with his three-fingered hand. “Yes?”

Hold your hands tight behind your back. Stand straight. Believe in truth. Your truth. “I was a git when I first came here. I was pompous and nasty and rude to all no matter what their rank.” Chief Murchadh allowed a laugh to rumble through him, stirring his granddaughter to sleepily ask if a storm was coming. “It took, well, it took giant rats and those girls over there who are far, far better souls than me and divine intervention to make me see that. Gods know what I’d be like without them. Dead by poisonous snake, for a start.” Terrywn set her pipe upon her knee. Her eyes never left Gwen’s face. “I won’t have my entry into the Shield Maidens based on pretty tales, Sir.”

Another pause, and it was a big one. Well, mostly big. Cinaedh’s earrings jingled as he looked at Lord Lorcan, Captain Vala (who blushed), Terrwyn, everyone. His eyes sparkled like silver. “See? I told you she lost it!”

“Lost what?” asked Lord Lorcan.

Terrwyn tapped her pipe against her iron leg with a thin clang clang. “The chip on her shoulder. Can’t imagine where she got it from.” She slowly looked at Lord Aillil and stuck that pipe firmly between her teeth for a fresh puff.

Lord Aillil looked down. The warmth, it was fading! Wait, no, not fading. Just a bit swamped by something Gwen had never seen on him before, but it was something she was starting to know pretty well: shame.

“Ah.” Lord Lorcan leaned forward and looked upon Gwen with kind eyes. “I do take these things into consideration, recruit. I met you as you were, and I see what you have become. And you, Gwenwledyr, are as true a Shield Maiden as Captain Terrwyn. You do your kith and kin proud.”

Saffir’s grin had a magick all its own—pity it didn’t run in the family. But no matter Nutty and Muirgurgle, this was her moment. Gwenwledyr’s moment.

Saffir nudged Lord Aillil, and his gaze lifted up to Gwen. Eyes bright, sadness gone, Father said: “Yes. She does.”

In that moment’s passing comes the end of Gwen’s story. Anything after is drawing things out. I mean, she does need to get back to her fellow recruits to sit and soak up what she was told. But I can’t afford to let her–well, me–ramble on. So that final scene needs to be lickety-split quick, a sense of completion for Gwen, but not the other Shield Maidens.

Hmmm. Well, I’ve always loved the way Diana Wynne Jones gave her stories a sense of character completion but not world-completion, soooooooo:

To the Diana Wynne Jones Shelf!

I find four stories that stand alone just fine, but also have sequels and pseudo-sequels: Cart and Cwidder is the first of the Dalemark Quartet; Charmed Life begins the Chrestomanci series; Howl’s Moving Castle has two other stories set in the same universe; the multiverse magic-enforcing Magids are introduced in Deep Secret and come back in at least one other story.

-les-mondes-de-chrestomanci,-tome-1---ma-soeur-est-une-sorciere-2928412Charmed Life: Young protagonist Cat Chant has just finished helped Chrestomanci defeat Cat’s wicked elder sister Gwendolen. The boy’s a wreck: he just found out the last blood relative he had had been keen to kill him and steal his magic. He’s left with Chrestomanci, Chrestomanci’s family, and a girl named Janet, stuck in Cat’s world thanks to Gwendolen’s spell.

Janet looked at Cat and laughed. And Cat, though he was still a little lonely and tearful, managed to laugh, too.

Cat’s had it lousy from infancy on. The book begins with him clinging to his sister, whom we later learn not only killed their parents, but has killed Cat himself several times. The reason he’s even called Cat is because Gwendolen said he has nine lives, which, in this magical multiverse, means Cat’s destined to be a sorcerer like Chrestomanci. This little kid’s got to accept that all he knew was not as it was. By his final response, we know he’s having a hard time with that, but we also know he already has a stronger, better “sister” in his life, who is able to act positively with him and bring out the better things in him. Life will be okay.

71sst0-sdELHowl’s Moving Castle: With the Witch of the Waste and her nasty fire demon defeated, Sophie frees Calcifer and Howl from their curse. Calcifer takes off, and Howl proposes to Sophie. He promises lots of hair-raising adventure–only to be interrupted by Calcifer’s return, back in the fireplace where he always burned, ready to help the magic of the castle.

“You didn’t need to do that,” Howl said.

“I don’t mind, as long as I can come and go,” Calcifer said. “Besides, it’s raining out there in Market Chipping.”

I love the sense of home this instills. All Calcifer has wanted is to be free to leave the castle’s hearth, and with the curse broken, he can finally do so. Readers already know Sophie and Howl are happy and geared for a crazy life together; now we know Calcifer has found where he belongs, too.

Deep Secret: Most of this book works with two points of view: Magid Rupert and p51ZHL-Yn+0L._SX328_BO1,204,203,200_otential-Magid Maree. The last chapter, however, is from Maree’s cousin Nick. Why? Well, only Nick could really explain how Maree’s life was recovered from the Deep Secret of Babylon, and the Magid leaders of The Upper Room wanted that information. The book ends with Nick’s determination to cheat The Upper Room and remember all that had happened despite the erasure of his memory.

Blow that about deep secrets! Rupert and Maree say that the basic job of a Magid is to gradually release the special knowledge anyway. And besides, I want to remember. It strikes me as one of the best ways of forcing that Upper Room to make me a Magid too. That was what I’d been going to ask for, until I had to ask for Maree instead. Now I’ll have to get to be one another way round.

This particular last line feels far more open to a sequel than the other books, even though Jones hadn’t been planning a sequel. It took a particular request from a child during signing–“I don’t think Nick’s story is done yet!” that got her started on the pseudo-sequel The Merlin Conspiracy. 

51UbR9v-AwL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Cart and Cwidder: This one’s a bit peculiar. Moril has used the magic cwidder’s song to close a mountain pass. The nasty threat of South Dalemark has been stopped, young Moril’s siblings are safe, and now he’s ready to abandon them and go on more adventures with another singer named Hestafan.

“Please,” Moril said to him, “will you take me with you when you go?”

“Well,” Hestafan said dubiously, “I was thinking of slipping off now, when nobody’s noticing.”

“I know you were,” said Moril. “Take me, too. Please.”

Hestafan looked at him, a vague, dreamy look, which Moril was positive saw twice as much as most people’s. “You’re Clennen’s other son, aren’t you?” he said. “What’s your name?”

“Tanamoril,” said Moril. “I’m called Osfameron, too,” he added, as an inducement.

Hestafan smiled. “Very well then,” he said. “Come along.”

Aaaaand then we hear nothing of these people until the fourth book.

Of the four, this one has the feel of a story that would be picked up immediately in the next volume, but that’s not the case. Jones doesn’t do that anywhere, actually. Oh, she’ll jump back and forth in time–Crown of Dalemark, the fourth book, does exactly that–but there’s never an immediate linear continuance. She merely leaves it open.

Endings are not easy. I find them the hardest part. You don’t know whether to stop with everyone just at the end of the adventure, and not knowing what really happened to Aunt May or Uncle Joe, or to make sure that the right people are going to be happy and the wrong people not, or even whether to go on and tell what happens in the next twenty years….

My feeling is that the best stories leave the reader trying to imagine what happened after the story stopped.

– Diana Wynne Jones, “Some Hints on Writing”

So, what do do?

Well, I want more than linear continuance. Beauty’s Price works with Wynne’s perspective, which will call for a slight rewind into the last few scenes. Now the danger with that is getting repetitive and boring readers before Wynne’s story has a chance to really start. So, at the end of Middler’s Pride, I have Gwen note a few things about Wynne’s strange behavior and leave them unexplained. This will allow me to give the roots of Wynne’s behavior at the start of Beauty’s Price and establish what’s at stake in her life.

First, though, Gwen’s got to bow out.

So again, me, what do do?

  1. Complete Gwen’s transformation. Show Gwen’s no longer the pompous know-it-all.
  2. Act I mirror. I’m a sucker for coming full circle. It probably comes from teaching basic essay structure for over ten years. But what to mirror? Not her pride. The flies are dumb. Not the swimming. Not the suitor. So, what? Well, she does do the “defend our honor!” in both Acts I and II, so that could be useful. But it’s not enough…well, she reminds herself that she is Gwenwledyr, Shield Maiden. In all her daydreaming she was giving herself different names…ooooo….
  3. End it open. The problem established at the beginning of the four Jones stories are all solved, but Jones doesn’t dictate that the universes are ever closed. I dig this–it gives the readers a chance to imagine what happens next. While I do have plans for Gwen after this night, she doesn’t know that. Besides, there’s one thing on her mind that must be done before winter’s tide…

Gwen stood by Tegan and faced those farmlands around the thorp. Beyond them lay the forest, then the river. She imagined she saw tiny floating candles—no, silly, fireflies. Dancing fireflies. And birdsong? Yes, that, too. Even the river’s rush whispered of victory.

Hail, Gasirad.

May your current never weaken.

May your fish be fat and plentiful.

May your plants grow thick in every season.

May your water’s song never end.

I think I see you, Gasirad, listening to our prayers as fresh orchid petals fall as snowflakes upon your hair. I don’t think you’re alone, either—the other trickster is back with you, and I’m guessing she’s got something to tell us when the time’s right. Your torque, maybe, to bring healing to the land. Or revenge against the Cat Man. Or trap a cursed breed of bloodthirsty trout, who knows?

Well here I am, River Goddess, always ready to defend your honor, for you called me a Shield Maiden. And if a goddess calls you something, then you bet your boots your are that something.

So.

I am Gwenwledyr, Shield Maiden of Droma.

Killer of the Magickal Snake.

Slayer of the Cursed Snake of Poisoned Doom.

Eh, too long.

Gwenwledyr, Shield Maiden and Giant Snake-Slayer.

Ooooo!

And Scourge-To-Be of the Khaibe!

Man, I have got some serious legending to do this summer…

However you choose to end your story, don’t let the story’s end be the end of that world. Let the promise of more wet the air like a coming storm. The rain may fall, it may not. But rest assured, readers will feel that promise on their skin. They will look up to wonder…and hope.

 

 

Gratitude in Numbers With a Coda of Writer’s Music

Ever imagine in words?

(My apologies, I’m pretty sure I’ve asked this before, but bear with me.)

Language has become a sort of filter in my life: sensations, reactions, and originations (new word!) must BE words before I can understand what to say, or think. What I want to write. So often I see not only dialogue, but action and setting in words, too. Only after I write them can my brain weave the threads together to wrap around the other senses.

So to receive such words of support and love after I faced The Monster was like a favorite blanket coming round my shoulders after a nightmare. My words back feel so feeble, but please know just how much I glow, I smile, when I say:

Thank you.

Now, not too long ago, the lovely author Shehanne Moore and her hamster crew nominated me for the “3 Days, 3 Quotes” challenge. While I would love to follow the rules to the letter, the War of the Potty means no chance to work from sunrise to sunset lest I miss a new addition of pee-pee water or poop to the carpet. That, and this is my 100th post, so let’s make it special by creating 3 posts in 1!

Oh, and it’s Thanksgiving Day here in the States. With my in-laws, including the battle-ax matriarch.

So.

Gonna bend the rules a bit.

The Rules (without the bending)

1. Thank the blogger who nominated you, and share their website. (Done! Click here to read some wicked humor, smexy stories, and writing tips most practical.)

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2.Post 1-3 quotes a day for three consecutive days.

3. Nominate 3 people every day.

Well, I’m only writing on one day, soooo guess I’ll just nominate three people. YAY!

Michael Dellert

Dyane Harwood

George Blamey-Steeden

Time to bend Rule 2.

~The Day of Bash~

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My youngest and most creative, Bash never tires of story-telling. He’ll gather a group of toys anywhere, and he’s in the groove.

Most plots hinge on emotion. His characters ask each other what he often asks me:

“How are you feeling?”

Something happens to make a character sad–he breaks down, another gets lost. The others team up to save the day. The story often ends “And now I’m happy!”, much like after I cry, or after he fights: we sit down, and hug, and smile. And now I’m happy.

Diana Wynne Jones also emphasizes the importance of emotion between writer and character in Reflections on the Magic of Writing:

“If there is one thing I have learned, it is that you must have at least some emotional connection with every soul who figures in a story. You may like them, love them, find them disgusting or hate them, but you must react to them in some way.”

I do my darndest to remember this as I write Middler’s Pride. I hope you can check it out on Wattpad, where the first scene of the story is now available for viewing. I’ve been sharing my character sketches of her on Wattpad as well. When I posted her last anecdote, a wee epiphany hit me:middlers-pride-7

I love Gwen like I love my daughter.

The maternal fibers in me sing when she hits her high marks; other times I want to shake the stupid out of her when she catapults herself into the lows. I roll my eyes at her snotty behavior, and can’t understand how the fruit of MY person can be such a rude pisser.

Gwen doesn’t see it that way, of course. She’s a downtrodden teenager who has finally, FINALLY been given a chance to prove to the world she’s the legend she believes herself to be. She even imagines her own ballad on her way to accept a sword and entry into the Shield Maidens:

At the peak of it all stood a stout manor home of mortared stone paired with the King’s Tower. No man could possibly scale such a thing, but Gwen thought the stones might allow a woman’s fingers.

Hail Gwenwledyr, Protector of the Tower. It was she alone who scaled its heights to fight the Flying Beasts of Evil sent by The Massively Evil Man.

Hmm.

The Massively Evil Behemoth.

Better.

She feels herself superior. Training–and some evil magic–will teach her otherwise.

~The Day of  Biff~

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“READ!”

Like Bash, I spent my pre-reading years creating stories with toys and pictures. Biff, however, can read already, and demands help in this department. “Read, Mommy? What’s this spell?”  He is not appeased with mere letters or pictures. He wants to know.  Those letters clumped together mean something, and he’s determined to learn it all. At times I think of my father, who began every sermon with:

“The Lord, sanctify us with the truth. Your Word is Truth.”

And I see his relentless pursuit of imagination, of faith, of knowing, all in Biff. Will he follow his grandfather’s Divine Calling?

He’d be so proud. Oh, he’d be proud of him no matter what, but to read with him…I can picture my father’s smile, the one that shows off his laughter lines. His absence is always felt more sharply over the holidays. My favorite hymn brings comfort at such times. Tears, too, but definitely comfort. I found a video that provides the lyrics, so please take that as another quote. 🙂

Biff is also my middler by a whopping two minutes. He scared me during pregnancy, so quiet and tucked away while his brother never stopped somersaulting in my womb. Now he’s the one who taunts and fights his siblings without a break. The only time the house is quiet is when he is stretched out on his top bunk, books and bear and blanket around him.

I wish I could read his eyes when I break up yet another fight. His inner workings will likely be a mystery to me until the End Days. Gwen can’t be a mystery to me, though. I have to understand her, inside and out, because otherwise readers won’t get the whole story. Diana Wynne Jones puts it best, of course:

…You can see what an audience, or a readership, expect from a hero is a very serious form of a game, in which the hero is expected to struggle on two fronts, externally with an actual evil, and internally with his/her own doubts and shortcomings. The hero, out there as a scapegoat, has to do the suffering for everyone.

When I set out to write Middler’s Pride, I did so with this very idea in mind: Gwen’s got to overcome more than just a monster out to poison the countryside. She’s got to overcome her pride, too. One victory cannot come without the other.

~The Day of Blondie~

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This toothless wonder loves to help, so today I asked her to help me pick the music I write about. No, no, she won’t pick a “kiddie” song. She knew the lyrics to Peter Gabriel’s “Sledgehammer” before “Jesus Loves Me.”

No, I’m not writing about “Sledgehammer,” either. 🙂

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One random trip to the library revealed a collection of music created for various DC Comics shows and movies. Some are old-school, like the theme for the 40s Superman, but others are more recent, like this theme from a Green Lantern animated movie made in 2009. Blondie surprised me when she asked for this track on repeat. Considering my daughter’s lack of interest in creative activities, I took this request as a good sign, and dared to find out why she liked this song so much.

ME: Blondie, what do you see when you hear this music?

BLONDIE: See where?

ME: See in your imagination?

BLONDIE: Me saving someone.

ME: Who are you saving?

BLONDIE: One of the guys from Veggie Tales?

ME: Who?

BLONDIE: Larry.

ME: Who are you saving him from?

BLONDIE: Bad guy.

ME: What’s the bad guy?

BLONDIE: A UFO.

ME: What’s the UFO want Larry for?

BLONDIE: I dunno.

ME: So what happens after you save him?

BLONDIE: I dunno.

BO: (looks up from peeling sweet potatoes) You asked.

ME: (laughs)

BLONDIE: I gave you the giggles!

ME: Yes, you did. You have for years and years and you will for years and years and ever after.

BLONDIE: In Heaven, too?

ME: Especially there.

And for that, I am so very, very thankful.

 

Children’s Writer A.J. Cosmo & I Wonder What Can–or Should–be Stuffed into Kid Lit

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franky002AJ Cosmo has written and illustrated many books over the years, his latest being Poop, a Middle Grade tale of a boy learning to handle life at a new school as well as living with his body’s needs. After writing about how dark kid lit can gowe decided to take turns “debating” a few other elements of children’s writing.

What purpose do you think stories have?

JL– For some reason this question takes me back to all those years of Bible class, where if one didn’t know the answer, one could just say “God” and somehow be right, however tangential a manner.

At the most basic level, stories help us grow.

They send us shivering to bed with cautionary tales of witches haunting the yard. They teach us to cope with loss, be it a pet, friend, or family member. They test our understanding of how the world works. They free us of reality’s constraints and let us loose in realms both fantastic and boundless.

Stories provide that which we do not always have in our realities: Camaraderie. Understanding. Hope.

A dream.

AJ- I have to agree with most of this. I see stories as stemming from two things: 1) it’s an outgrowth of human language and 2) it’s a consequence of the uniquely human ability of imagination. Stories aren’t just lessons that we tell each other, they are proposals for life. We tell them not just to warn of what is there but to ponder what could be.

With all the entertainment out there, why do you think reading is important?

JL- No other entertainment involves the kid like a book. I see it with my kids more than anything. My son Biff (age 4) can sit and stare at books for ages. He can read quite a few, but he mainly does it for the pictures: he’ll make the characters talk and go on adventures all his own. He doesn’t need the television to make adventures for him; books give him the tools to create his own. My daughter Blondie (age 6) devolves into a couch potato whenever she plays computer games or watches a show. Yes, we keep it pretty limited to educational stuff, but that’s still not the same as a book, where the senses depend on language to create. When Blondie reads, she’s speaking the words out loud, listening to herself say them, and in that, taking them all in. Her fingers run along every line of the page. She must study each word in order to say it correctly. The more she reads, the more story involves her, and therefore, the more Blondie utilizes her skills and senses.

AJ- I had a conversation with a child once at a school about Minecraft. He asked why I didn’t play it anymore. Don’t get me wrong, I love Minecraft, but no matter what I create in that world I am still playing within the confines of someone else’s creation (plus most people simply won’t care about what you make in the game.) Video games and films present reality, basically saying “here it is, interact with it” while books collaborate with your imagination asking “what do you think this person looks like? What’s the scary thing in the dark doing?” This exercises imagination which in turn prepares us to actually contribute to reality. I like to say to kids that I much prefer to make my own Minecraft rather than live inside of Notch’s (the creator of Minecraft.)

 Should a book be literal in its meaning?

JL- Ah, here’s a dicey question. I suppose I should pick a side, yes?

Then no. No, I don’t think a book needs to be literal. I suppose this comes from childhood and Bible class again—all those parables of “earthly stories with heavenly meanings.” I’m used to the idea that there’s something more going on than what the story tells.

Kids are smart…I mean, yeah, they’ll eat their own boogers, but they pick up on meaning pretty fast. Diana Wynne Jones, my favorite writer of all time, lamented how much a story had to be dumbed down for grownups. Children are used to figuring things out, she said. They don’t have to have everything explained to them—they take what you say as you say it, and figure things out as the story progresses.

If a story insists on being literal in its meaning, then that just sounds like the writer won’t let the readers work out the meaning for themselves.

Take a painting in an art museum. Viewers will look upon it with minds forged by countless different experiences. No perception is the same, which means no interpretation is the same. Yet interpret they will, and from that interpretation forge new ideas (even if that idea is Reason #73 of “Why I Don’t Like Art Museums”).

Now let’s say the artist is right there, explaining what all the meaning is in that painting. Some may agree, but for those who don’t interpret the painting that way, how do you think they feel? They didn’t “get” that meaning, which means something’s wrong with their perception. Something’s wrong with them.

That’s not how I’d want my readers to think.

AJ- LOL, forcing me to pick a side, eh? This was the question that started this debate process in the first place. Since the first proposal, I have had a lot of time to ponder the question and my answer is, well, a non-answer. It’s interesting that you bring up the bible because its use of stories, particularly the parables of Jesus, are a great example of why stories are both literal and figurative at the same time.

 To continue with the Jesus analogy, consider the well known parable of the good Samaritan: taken literally you could interpret it as good people help other people (or super literal, as in news, that at one time a Samaritan helped a man on the road.) The brilliance of parables is that the listener opts in to the depth of meaning that suits their capacity to receive it. Most people will see that they are called to be like the good Samaritan. Others might comprehend that the Samaritans were neighbors to the Jews and should thus be treated accordingly while a select few may realize that none of these labels matter at all and that we are all both Samaritan as well as the traveler in need.

 My favorite children’s book If You Give a Mouse a Cookie by Laura Joffe Numeroff is revealing meaning to this day. I’m still not sure if we should be willing to give mice cookies, knowing that we may be taken advantage of, or that we should be cold and heartless city dwellers that never give money to the homeless because it doesn’t alleviate poverty. If the book has taught me anything, it’s that the answer depends on the mouse who is asking.

On a final note, I’ve found that people will apply meaning to things even if the artist had no intention to have any meaning. Seriously, the human mind is active enough that it only needs a few crumbs in order to formulate a philosophy. In actuality, the fewer the hooks of evidence the more likely the person is to attach their own thoughts to the piece. Perhaps this debate isn’t for the artists at all because no matter how many toasters we paint, there’s still going to be a lot of people who point and say “what a lovely fridge.”

Should a book be primarily a metaphor?

AJ- Going off my previous comment, I believe that most stories are a mixture of metaphor and literal interpretation. Yet, just as a cake can’t just be flower, so too could a story collapse if it is only metaphor. I’ve seen other writers get caught up in a metaphor trap and by that I mean that they so stringently forced the components of the story to represent something else that they forgot that they were telling a story. Often this results in what people call “convoluted” or “overdone” because the writer was trying to apply some grand meaning to a canvas that simply wouldn’t accept paint.

JL- Oh, yes. While I adored the Chronicles of Narnia series as a child, allegory is not meant for everyone. It can also easily get very, well, “preachy.” Kids don’t need to be whacked in the face with a MESSAGE. They’ll learn by reading and discovering for themselves. I think some writers get so caught up in what everything “means” that they forget a story can be precisely that sometimes—a story.

What about allegories and fairy tales, how do they fit into storytelling?

AJ- LOL, I kind of already answered this one but let’s delve a little deeper. I believe that fairy tales are the appendix of religious myths. Once humanity found other ways to explain natural phenomena, a part of our culture started to miss the fun and interesting stories that were now replaced with hard facts. Fairy tales are the one place where imagination is still permitted to go to absurdity (and yes I’m lumping sci-fi into fairytales at this point.) I doubt if anyone ever questioned the motivation for the dragon stealing the princess, it’s simply what dragons do. While allegories are teaching tools best suited for spiritual progress, fairy tales are the literary equivalent of recess. They are necessary for our growth, relaxation, and crucial to our entertainment.

JL- Ha! Yes, we did rather scope this out a little, but I think I’m going to step onto the other side of the fence here. Many fairy tales strike me as cautionary tales: beware of strangers giving treats (Hansel and Gretel). Beware of wanting what you cannot have (Little Mermaid). Beware of not paying what you owe (The Pied Piper). As you point out, humanity didn’t have a whole lot of science going for it back then, and it needed SOMEthing to explain the bumps in the night. Angels and devils work, sure, but they’re not earthly, are they? I’d imagine that few kids thought they’d see an angel in their lifetime, but they were all more than certain that a witch lived  out in the unknown, waiting for them if they were naughty.

Do stories only have one meaning?

AJ- Stories have as many meanings as any member of the audience is willing to place upon them. I think back on many visits to modern museums where I overheard patrons snickering at what was on display saying “I could do better than that” or “this isn’t art, I know art,” never realizing that the craft and look of modern art is a sideshow to the context and meaning of the work. Modern art expects the viewer to interact with it and place meaning upon the object with the aid of clues left by the artist. Literature has the same expectation, though the clues are usually contained within the piece itself.

JL- Oh dear. I was one of those snickerers, I’m sure. Well, when an artist literally puts an empty acrylic display case up, and calls that “art,” I start to question it! Or that long blue plastic plank leaning against the wall—what’s that about? Now the suitcase on the floor that opened up to a hole lower down where a shimmering pond full of life thrived—THAT I dug.

Anyway.

On the one hand, yes. I should think stories have many potential meanings, though I do think readers tend to force meaning on them sometimes. I’ll never forget my first graduate-level lit class: I was scared ****less because I had never taken any form of theory before, and people had been throwing out terms and theories over such’n’such and this’n’that for weeks. Our teacher only wanted OUR thoughts; we weren’t to research. Yet I was so overwhelmed and confused as to where people GOT all these meanings that I started reading critical theory about the story of the time anyway. Well, later that week the class was audibly stumped over a character. No one could think of anything. I slowly raised my hand: “Would you like to hear what the critics say?” The teacher threw up his hands in surrender, and smiled.

Whether or not the writer intends so many meanings is, I think, irrelevant. The writer can’t go around to every reader pointing at various things saying, “See how this means that? See? SEE?” Nor should the reader be banging on the writer’s door demanding, “So what does THIS mean? And THIS?” If we can all accept that many stories have some themes, some things it wants to get across, we’ll either catch them or we won’t. And the writer should, I’d hope, care more about telling a good story than preaching a message. That’s what pulpits are for. 🙂

What happens if a reader misses the point of a story?

AJ- I don’t think either the reader or the writer are penalized in any significant way. Now, if the story was boring and lost the reader’s attention, that’s a whole different issue, but if the reader simply walked away entertained then it was mission accomplished. Not every story is life changing, however, the ones that are resonate with the receivers for their entire lifetime. I have my own collection of impressions from great works that usually boil down to a single sentence or scene. Sometimes it doesn’t even make sense why I kept them, yet they still bubble up at the weirdest times. If I choose to, I may reflect on that impression and place it into the context of my current life. If not then what’s the harm? First and foremost stories are meant to entertain. Instructing and inspiring are secondary.

JL- I’m with you, AJ. I even blogged about this recently, too—I never understood how people pick up all these themes in stories; it was one of my biggest struggles in graduate school. I was either engaged by the story or not. As a writer, though, I’m starting to appreciate the importance of theme in creating the story. Whether people pick up on that theme or not doesn’t matter; I just want them to enjoy the story. But I have to write it first, and I have to write it right. Theme, or having that point, helps guide writers in setting the right stages to get the right reactions out of the characters to keep the story moving forward. How’d I put it… “It is THE definitive in a world our imaginations have not yet defined.” So, I’d say writers MUST have some sort of point, theme, however you want to call it. Readers? Readers might pick up on it. They might create some totally new themes on their own. And why not? A reader is in and of him/herself an element of the story, too. A reader brings all his/her perceptions and ideals into visualizing the world and characters. They’ll see things the writer never considered, and from there, discover new themes and ideas to apply to their own imaginations.

Nothing wrong with that. 🙂

Can you give any examples of a story that has no meaning at all?

JL-Hmm. That’s a tough one. I suppose the short answer would be this: “Nope.”

A slightly longer answer would be this:

Every reader has his/her own tastes. While other girls got into The Little House books, I was reading about the cases of Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot. I wasn’t out to derive any meaning from them, just like I doubt my daughter’s determined to learn about life from The Black Lagoon books. Children aren’t the ones who “look” for meaning, nor do they know it when they see it; that’s on the parent, I think, and as a parent, I’m not restricting my kids to strictly “meaning-full” books. I like how The Black Lagoon series shares Hubie’s various misadventures in various school experiences, because they help my daughter feel more comfortable in her own school, but I’m not going to keep my kids from books whose meaning–if there at all–eludes me.

 Perhaps that is a question to handle for a future debate: how much can an adult ask of a child’s story?

 AJ- How much can adults ask indeed. I often wonder if parents obsess over the meaning or the lesson of a book when none of that actually matters to the child. Not to mention that it’s questionable if the morals even sink in with the child without parental intervention. Again, stories have meanings placed upon them and it’s critical for the parents to discuss the story with their children and communicate what they want the children to learn from it. In that regards, the chief job of the book is to open the conversation, not preach to the reader.

How do you explain pop culture media, or other “non-artistic” entertainment?

JL- Super-short answer: I don’t.

Rambling answer: I’m unable to explain this sort of entertainment, but I can tell you this: I certainly don’t care for the current trends in humor aimed at kids, nor the adult humor thrown into kid’s entertainment for the adult’s sake.

For instance, my family adored the recent The Peanuts Movie. The previews shown before the film, however, are atrocious, as each highlights peeing in the pants and turds rolling out of pant legs as the highlights of their kid-geared comedy. Then you have plenty of Disney films with extremely adult-based humor, such as a plane saying he “kicked ASSton Martin out there!” and cars describing how they wore out their tires on their honeymoon…driving.

Thanks to my controlled exposure of current pop culture, I’ve kept my children out of some markets, such as the “sexy” Bratz/Monsters High. Unfortunately, peer pressure at school can undo a lot of effort, and further propagate the “non-artistic” entertainment kids devour like a plate of brownies. My daughter has shed tears more than once because we won’t give her an I-Pad. Why does she need an I-Pad? So she can play Minecraft like the other kids.

Sadly, books no longer drive the pop culture. I don’t know if books ever did before the Harry Potter series, but they certainly haven’t since. The video game Minecraft has appeared to be the greatest of, well, game-changers, crossing from entertainment medium to medium. Yes, I know there are Minecraft books now, but those books don’t grip my daughter’s classmates for hours on end like the game does.

 AJ- LOL, you are correct that most books never break into pop-culture; however, books do provide a foundation for the rest of pop-culture to build upon. Most movies have some literary foundation, as do television shows and some comics. Video games too have drawn from that well, but the same isn’t true in reverse. Movies and books based upon video games often fall flat or are disappointing because there’s no literary substance to the source material. Successful property adaptations, such as the Angry Birds movie, require so much additional material that they end up only sharing token aspects and a name. For the foreseeable future, I believe books will continue to be the breeding ground for most pop-culture ideas.

Does everything have to be so serious? What’s wrong with entertainment?

JL- GOSH no. How boring if everything had to be serious! It’s not like I learned any life lessons from my favorite 80s cartoon Silverhawks, (You can stop snickering now.) (Seriously, stop snickering.) (Okay I KNOW everyone thinks Thundercats was cooler. Leave my 80s alone!)

Sure, it’s cool when a book about pigs doing the polka also teaches instruments, or when the kids learn how weather works thanks to Curious George. But to say that’s all reading is good for–expanding knowledge–is an injustice to literature. Reading not only expands knowledge, but imagination and creativity. Reading introduces us to characters who know all our fears and hopes and dreams. Reading nudges curiosity out of its safe corner and into the wide world, if only to say goodnight to the moon.

 AJ- Much like candy, stories without a hard edge are good only in moderation. The same goes for serious stories though, as they can make the world seem hollow and unfair. There has to be a mix and the best stories actually have that mix built into them. I strive to achieve that in my own work, even though most people think I do silly monster nonsense. I’m totally ok with building Trojan horses though. 😉