Speak Up: Democracy is Not a Spectator Sport

I am one of those parents you see at the polls with their kid on election day. I have often taken my daughter with me to vote. I have brought her to visit a Congressman’s office. I have included her in my run for the Board of Education. I have let her read my letters to the editor. I have had her with me at a Freeholder’s meeting as we protested the closure of her pool.

It may seem silly to some people, to involve a 9 year old in events like this. How much, really, can she grasp of what’s going on? Someone said to me, “None of it will probably make a difference, so why bother?”

Why bother?

I bother so my daughter sees me participate in the most valuable of rights in America–the right to vote.

I bother so my daughter sees that our duty as citizens does not end in the voting booth, but requires us to hold those elected accountable, and remind them they serve us, we the people.

I bother so my daughter sees an average, every day woman running for office.

I bother so that my daughter sees how to use the freedom of the press to use her freedom of speech.

I bother so my daughter sees her mother standing up and speaking out in front of those in power.

I bother so that when her turn comes, she will remember. And she will speak out. And she will stand up. And she will teach her children to do the same.

I bother because democracy is not a spectator sport. I cannot ask others to fight for what I value while I sit back in silence.

So, yes, maybe my single voice won’t make a difference. But, sometimes, my voice, and your voice, and that person’s voice, and that one’s…sometimes all of our voices together, can make that difference.

And that is a wonderful lesson in democracy to teach my daughter.

Eating Away at Characters

As I sat in the dentist’s office as my daughter got her cavities filled, I thought about the types of things eating away at people, physically, emotionally, and spiritually.

Physically, disease eats away at people. Think cancer or dementia or autoimmune problems. Those things quietly gnaw away at the person, stealing pieces of them as they progress.

Emotionally, everyone has their demons. Jealousy or anger or fear. Sometimes these emotions run unseen, deep underground, eroding the person from within.

Spiritually, people wrestle with feelings of inadequacy, or frustration, or failure. They may feel stuck, or like their dreams are dead. This daily numbing of the spirit can lead to apathy and just going through the motions.

The hidden problems that eat away at people on a daily basis are interesting to apply to characters. We all try and give our characters at least one major flaw, usually one they have to overcome by the end of the story, but I know I don’t often think too deeply beyond that. A smaller, repressed undercurrent running through the whole book layers the character and makes them more authentic.

For instance, suppose your character has always resented how easily their sibling seems to accomplish anything they set out to do, while they struggle and get nowhere. This resentment explode at some inopportune moment in the plot. It’s an extra layer of tension bubbling away under the surface the entire story.

Examining the unseen elements eating away at our characters will add nuance and depth to the characters and the story. Hopefully the story events will clean out and fill these demons gnawing away at the character—just like with my daughter’s cavities.

Happy 4th of July 2019! Politicians and Patriotism

Leading up to this 4th of July, I have been involved in trying to save the pool where my daughter swims. In the course of that journey, we have spoken with all sorts of politicians–County Freeholders, State Assemblymen, and our federal Congressman.

I think it is amazing that we live in a country where we have access to our government officials. Too many people don’t take advantage of that openness to let officials know what they want, what issues are important to them.

We vote in our representatives, but our duty as citizens doesn’t end there. We should tell them what they are doing we like, and what we don’t like. If they are unapproachable in person in their offices, go to public meetings or call or email the offices. People think of doing this when the official is the opposite party from them, but it is perhaps as important to hold the official you voted for to his or her promises. Letters to the editor can also gain a politician’s attention, as they have people who check the media every day.

Democracy is not a passive form of government. We all must not only vote, but pay attention to what the politicians are doing once they are in office. Because (shocker!) some tell us what we want to hear to get elected, and then do the opposite once in power. If they break their promises, we need to let them know, and vote them out if needed.

The thought of speaking to a county or state or federal representative intimidates a lot of people. It’s understandable. We often have to meet them on their terms in their centers of power. But guess what? They are just people, no better than you and me. And guess what else? They work for us. If they don’t work to make things better for us, we can fire them at the ballot box.

So this 4th of July, I am thankful for living in a country where I can make my voice heard. I hope you all speak up and stand up for what you believe in, and remind our elected officials who their bosses really are.

Have a safe and happy 4th of July!

Just Beachy! 2019

This week I have no writing post ready–although I have managed to get through editing about 7,500 words this week. And the reason I have no writing post is because I am on vacation.

 

 

 

 

Beautiful sunsets. Waves on the beach. Barefoot walks in the sand. Ahh.

So me and my gal and my extended family are having some down time, away from the hustle and bustle of the modern world. I am not a big beach person, but I do love being near the water. I find it relaxing and therapeutic.

 

 

 

 

 

Where do you go to take a break from the crazy world we live in?

Summer Schedule Begins…Now!

Today is the day many parent-writers dread: the last day of school. Now, if you are a writer who works outside the home as well, then your writing schedule might not change much. You are likely already squeezing writing in between day job and ferrying kids to evening activity. But if you work/write from home, like me, the dreaded summer schedule is now upon us.

Calling it a schedule is a bit optimistic, at least in my house. Try as she might, my daughter can only leave me alone for relatively short periods of time. Much of my writing time will be shorter bursts caught when I can. This is not the way my brain works best (I hate multi-tasking), but you work with what you have.

I am a person who likes schedules, so the unpredictability makes me a bit crazy. On the other hand, one of the joys of summer is that free feeling, that lazy pace of not much to do and little pressure. So I am going to have to find a balance between being lazy and being productive.

Library runs are always good, because afterwards my daughter will hole up for a few hours reading. However, my daughter has decided she wants to be a writer, too, so who knows? Maybe we can try writing sessions together.  She may surprise me. Or she may drive me nuts wanting me to read every sentence as soon as she writes it.

Good luck to all the other parent-writers out there as your summer schedule kicks in. Do you have any tips and tricks to share with us?

Philadelphia Writers’ Conference 2019: My Biggest Takeaway

This past weekend was the Philadelphia Writers Conference. I consider it my “home” conference, and I have been going for about 10 years.

Every year I think about what my biggest takeaway is from the conference. I learn so much every year, it’s hard to pick. This year, one thing echoed in almost every workshop: there is no one right way to write.

There are so many ways to write a book. Plotting vs. Pantsing. Linear vs. The Jigsaw Puzzle. Scientific vs. Intuition. Efficient vs. Meandering. And you know what? They are all valid. As long as you end up with a finished, polished product, it’s all good.

The thing I have found about the writing process is that it changes over time. It changes as your skills mature, and according to the needs of your book. For example, my multiple-POV, multiple-subplot YA scifi required more planning than my middle grade single-POV quest story.

Young authors often think there is only one correct way to write a book, and that the professional teaching the workshop is the holder of that Holy Grail. This is certainly not the case, and I was heartened to hear so many of the workshop leaders espouse the uniqueness of each person’s process.

A great thing about a multi-day conference is that we get to concentrate on the writing. We can dim or even turn out the lights of the outside world and immerse ourselves in the writing world. At the beginning of one of my classes, a bird got into the room. It flew around, disoriented, banging into the mirror, until one person got the smart idea to open the doors and turn out the lights in the room. As soon as we turned out the lights, the bird raced to the open doors and flew through to freedom.

Go into the light, my friends—and write your own way.

Filling the Writing Tank

Sometimes a writer’s life ends up with very little writing in it. This past week has been one of those weeks for me.

Saturday my family attended the first annual Color Fun Run. Lots of colored powder, lots of laughs, and no rain! Then I stayed for another couple of hours to help clean up. 10,400 steps by 11:30 AM. Whew!

Sunday I dragged my stiff-muscled self out if bed and the family headed to a local farm for their Strawberry Festival. More sun, a hayride, animals, and, of course, strawberries.

Most of Monday was eaten up catching up on PTA Treasurer work, which leaked into Tuesday. Tuesday also found me frantically reading and assembling my weekly post Top Picks Thursday, which isn’t due until Wednesday night, but…

On Wednesday my daughter’s class trekked to the Academy of Natural Sciences for their field trip. The kids had fun, no one got injured or lost, and only one instance of tears. I rule the day a success!

And so here we are, Thursday, and I have no deep and meaningful insights into writing to share, as I have been doing everything but writing this week. Still, they say you can’t write if you don’t live, so I suppose this week was about filling the writing tank.

On Friday I head out to the Philadelphia Writers Conference, so I will get the tank further filled by hanging out with fellow authors. Look for nightly updates on the Conference over on the Author Chronicles blog.

How do you fill your writing tank? However you do it, go and fill it up—and then get writing!

Devon Horse Show 2019: Lessons from the Ring

Over the weekend, my family made our annual pilgrimage to the Devon Horse Show. We usually go to the closing weekend, rather than the opening weekend, but our schedules didn’t line up for that this year. So my mom, my 9-year-old daughter, and I had our girls’ day out this weekend instead.

My daughter is not as horse-crazy as my mom and I are, but she loves the rides on the Midway and claims that Devon pizza is the best pizza ever, so she is happy to come out with us. My mom and I enjoy watching the horses do their thing. The beauty and power of the horses leave us breathless.

We got rained on twice, but not too badly. Got a little wet the first time, but happened to be having lunch under a tent the second time, so it was all good. It’s all part of the adventure—I recall having to hide in the bathroom tunnel at other times when thunder and lightning rolled through. The rain kept the heat from becoming too intense, which was a relief.

 

 

 

As is my tradition, I bought a Breyer horse at the Devon Shop, and my daughter found herself a book and a couple of small toy horses. We stowed them in the car, got our also-traditional ice cream, and made our way to our seats for the big evening showcase event.

Usually we time our visit to the Gold Cup show jumping competition on the last Saturday. Because we came a different day this year, we saw a different style of jumping—eventing, also called cross-country. This consisted of 26 obstacles spread between two rings, testing for both jumping ability and endurance. Eventing had different jumps than we were used to—a few of the “normal” barred jumps, but also hedges and wooden objects, which tested the versatility of horse and rider.

The class was large, and the final jump-off didn’t end until about 9:30 PM, but there were no falls or injuries and it was exciting. My daughter was happy because the horse she rooted for came in 4th and so still got a ribbon. As the eventing went on, my daughter asked why the riders kept going once they knew they couldn’t win. And so a metaphor dropped into my lap.

They don’t give up, I said, because in life it’s not always about winning. Every one of these horses and riders are learning something new about their job and about themselves, and that is more valuable than winning. They are getting better at what they do, even if they are making mistakes now. It’s how you improve yourself. Life is about keeping going even when it’s hard, even when the obstacles seem insurmountable—and even if you knock one down.

There is nothing more vivid when trying to explain the value of persistence than watching a horse refuse a jump (sometimes violently so) and then the rider bring him around and go at that same jump again and clear it beautifully.

That obstacle that seemed too hard the first time might be overcome the next time.

Don’t give up.

Comparing Yourself to Others…and Your Past Self

This week Jami Gold had a blog post that reminded all of us that we cannot judge our own progress by that of other writers. I am terrible about doing this. One writer I know has 4 young children and another on the way, yet she writes about 100,000 words a months.

Talk about demoralizing. I’m here with my one kid who is getting old enough to take more care of herself, and I’m struggling to get 100,000 words a year.

I can’t help but wonder what’s wrong with me.

So Jami’s advice is good for me to hear. But it’s not just me comparing myself to other people that’s the problem. It’s also me comparing myself to a younger me—and in some ways that’s worse.

I used to be a writing machine. Words would pour out of me and my word count was astronomical. Now it’s…not. I’ve improved a bit over the past couple of months, but I really miss the writer I used to be.

So I think I have to work on accepting that I am not the writer I used to be, not for lack of talent or desire, but just because life is different. There are things taking up time and energy now that were not there before. More things to navigate and juggle, but also stressors that impede creativity and make it difficult to access creativity when I do have time.

I’m working on fixing some of these things, but mostly I’m working on being kinder to myself and accepting that this is my “now”. In a year or two, I will have a different “now”, and who knows what that will look like, writing-wise?

Are you your own worst critic? How do you deal with accepting the limitations you have on your writing life?

Mirror, Mirror: Valjean & Javert in Les Misérables

**Spoilers if you have not yet seen Les Misérables or know the story.**

Les Misérables has been one of my favorite musicals since I first saw it in Philadelphia while in college. One of the main drivers of this play is the conflict between escaped but reformed criminal Valjean and pursuing police officer Javert. These two characters aren’t just antagonists, but mirror each other.

We see this clearly in the song “The Confrontation“, where their different trajectories are laid out. Valjean, a decent man trying to live right but driven to break the law by desperate circumstances, and Javert, born in a prison and rising to become a true believer in the law he upholds. Their views of the world are opposite but related: Javert’s is unquestioning black and white, while Valjean sees shades of gray. They both feel people should do the right thing, but they differ on the role of mercy in dispensing justice.

A brilliant mirror effect in Les Misérables is the mirroring of “Valjean’s Soliloquy” and “Javert’s Suicide” (see here for lyrics and comparison). These songs are the same melody,  but different words–belying the very words Javert sings “there is nothing on Earth that we share: it is either Valjean or Javert.”

Each character experiences the same event: an act of mercy that saves his life and gives him freedom. The same act, but with two very different reactions.

In Valjean’s case, a man of God breaks the law to give Valjean a chance at redemption. In Javert’s case, Valjean refuses to kill Javert when he is outed as a spy. Instead, he frees Javert and forgives him for his relentless pursuit over the years.

For Valjean, the priest’s act of mercy is life-changing. “What spirit comes to move my life? Is there another way to go?” For Javert, Valjean’s mercy is life-shattering. “And must I now begin to doubt, who never doubted all these years?”

Valjean sees the act as a gift: “Yet why did I allow this man to touch my soul and teach me love?”. Javert sees the freely-given mercy as a power play: “How can I now allow this man to hold dominion over me?”

Ultimately, their different world views lead to opposite outcomes when this same act of mercy challenges their current belief system. Valjean accepts the mercy as a chance for redemption: “Jean Valjean is nothing now; another story must begin.” Javert, however,  cannot let go of his unyielding belief that the law must not be questioned. “There is nowhere I can turn; there is no way to go on.”

This intricate play of similarities in protagonist and antagonist should be a lesson for all writers. When the characters have certain beliefs in common, it makes both accessible to the reader. The mirror differences in the characters explores an issue confronting the human condition. When characters have similar base beliefs, it creates tension by opening the door for EITHER the villain’s redemption OR the hero’s fall. This dual possibility will help keep your readers engaged to the very end.

What other stories have great mirrored characters? Do you use mirroring in your work?

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