Guest Blog at Backspace’s STET!

Hello all! Today I’m guest blogging at Backspace’s awesome blog STET! So come on over and visit! Enjoy!

Haven

Last week I returned to Chincoteague. For eight months last year, this little island and its wild companion Assateague fed my soul and sheltered me from the hustle and bustle of the hectic pace of modern life. Going back, even for a couple of days, felt like returning home.

Is it possible to have a soul-place, the way people have a soul-mate? Some people don’t believe in soulmates but I do, having found mine. So is it possible that a soul has a place, or at least a type of place, where it can grow and expand and utterly belong?

If so, Chincoteague and Assateague are mine. The first time I set foot on the island, it felt like home. Not because I felt I knew it, but more like the island knew me. Like it had been waiting for me to find my way to it–to find my way back where I belonged. Sounds weird, perhaps (or eerily like the premise to Lost). All I know is that after several days there I was more at home than after several years in Jersey.

On my recent trip back, I of course had to visit Assateague, the wildlife refuge next door. Assateague in winter is bleak, but hopelessly beautiful nonetheless. Birds, ducks, and geese populate the pools, wild ponies and deer roam the marshes and forests, and squirrels flit through the underbrush. The beach, empty and wind-lashed, stretched to the horizon, and the waves reached for the sky, foam blowing off the crests in horizontal streams.

Some would call the beach desolate. Indeed, my baby girl was frantically signing, “All done! All done!” just a few minutes after we got there. The grey sky, clouds roiling farther than sight, the raging water, seething as it ate away the land… I can see how some people would feel isolated and insignificant.

Not me. Standing there, the chains of our hectic lifestyle fell away and my soul stretched. The untamed wind filled my lungs, the sea roared in my ears, the salt coated my lips, and the sand shifted beneath my feet. But instead of feeling small and isolated, I felt small and connected. The vastness didn’t swallow me, it took me into itself and made me more than I normally am.

So Assateague and Chincoteague are my soul-places, where I can sense the thrum of life itself. And although I cannot be there always, I can retreat there in my mind whenever needed. That wild wind will be my Muse, swirling my writer’s soul and calling forth words I hope will soar as high and as far as the wind itself.

What are your soul-places?

Fallen Heroes

Twenty-five years ago today, the seven Challenger astronauts lost their lives in the pursuit of knowledge. Other people, like Martin Luther King, Jr., have given their lives standing for principles and speaking for the oppressed. Still others give their lives protecting other people—our police, firefighters, and military. These people, and others like them, are undeniably heroes. But in every person’s life, there are personal, private heroes—people who profoundly influenced their lives. My best friend Donna was one such person.

Donna made me laugh. She was just funny. We would laugh until we cried, until we could barely breathe. It wasn’t that she told a good joke—it was never anything I could explain to people and make them laugh, too. It was how she said what she said, and the timing with which she delivered her skewering deadpan sarcasm. I miss the laughter.

Donna could talk with the best of them (I have phone bills to prove it), but she could also listen. One of her gifts was to make you feel like you were the most important person to her at that moment. She could be hosting a party (something she did often), but when she spoke to you, you had her full attention. When it was just us alone, we could talk about anything—she never judged, never made me feel like my opinion or beliefs were irrelevant. She heard what I really meant, even if I couldn’t find the right words, and she always responded from her heart—a heart that was more generous than I can fathom.

Donna was a writer, and we grew as writers together. Would I have been a writer without her in my life? Certainly. I wrote before I ever met her. But I would not have come as far in my craft as fast as I did without her support and her passion. As many writers know, having a community of writing friends can rekindle the flame when you hit a rough patch. The solidarity of having a best friend who understood completely and shared the excitement of finding just the right word, or finishing a chapter, or hitting upon the perfect title was a tremendous boon.

Donna taught me how to be a true friend. Her loyalty was fierce. She never gave up on a friend and she never walked away from a friend in need. If she was your friend, it was for life. She put her friends ahead of herself. She listened. She consoled. She laughed. She accepted you for you, no questions asked, no demands made.

The final two lessons I learned from her came at the end of her life. I watched her face death at age 32 with dignity, with pride, and with a stubborn determination that this would not be her legacy. She once said to me, “I am not just my cancer.” While those around her raged at the unfairness of it all (and I know she did, too, from time to time), she told me “I’m so lucky, to have all these people that love me.” While those around her tried so desperately to hide their tears, she cracked jokes. While those around her worried endlessly for her comfort and prayed for her health, she worried about all of us. About who would take care of her husband when she died. About how he would cope. About how we would all cope. I promised her we would all take care of each other, and we have. We all learned that lesson well.

The last lesson was simply this: life is short; live it every day. Even before she was sick, Donna lived her life fully. After she got sick, she still found the joy in life. That lesson seems so obvious, but it is so hard to remember. I have to be reminded of it often.

Today is a day we remember Challenger’s fallen heroes. Today, also remember the heroes who have touched you in your life. Count your blessings. Find the joy.

Life is short.

Graphic Novel Experiment

As part of a workshop, we took a scene from our novel and wrote it as a graphic novel script. I was quite eager to try it, as I have always felt that my middle grade novel is very visual and would lend itself to a movie or graphic novel.

The scene I chose had action at the beginning and dialogue at the end. The action portion practically wrote itself – I had so much to show! The unexpected stumbling block was the dialogue at the end.

The dialogue worked well in the novel – about a half-page of quick back-and-forth. And it would easily work well in a film, cutting back and forth between the characters as they spoke. But in a graphic novel, all I could envision was an entire page of panels that looked like carbon copies – just these two characters’ faces alternately repeating.

Since this was an experiment and I am not yet well versed in graphic novels, I muddled through as best I could. I inserted several panels that were wide shots of the scene, to break up the sameness. I pared the dialogue down as much as I could without losing the voice of the characters or the necessary information in the dialogue. Is it enough? I will find out when my instructor looks at it.

When I first approached this assignment, I felt my many years in video production would work in my favor. I even found myself wanting to use film jargon in the panel descriptions. For the most part, my ability to see the action framed in my mind did help with the project – until the dialogue, when the static nature of graphic novels made it different from a film, where within each alternating perspective you can have the actor portray a small movement that speaks volumes, or use slow zooms to emphasize emotion.

My struggle with the dialogue also made me wonder if I needed to do more with it in the novel. Did I need to have action? Did I need to spice it up somehow? I decided I did not. Novels and graphic novels are two different media. Their requirements are different. A half-page of staccato dialogue flies by in a novel, but doesn’t work as well in a graphic novel – at least, not the way I did it!

I look forward to learning more about graphic novels, and trying to improve my skills.

Have any of you adapted your work to a graphic novel? Have you considered it?

Internet Down, Productivity Up

My Internet was down for three days. Now, I use the Internet for communicating for work, but also just to stay connected with the outside world. Any of you who have been stay-at-home parents will understand the need to reach outside the house every now and then. The need to communicate with someone who can actually speak in complete sentences! So it has been something of a lifeline in that way.

That said, I had an extremely productive three days. Got lots of projects done, things I’ve not gotten to because I didn’t have the time. And so I started wondering, “Do I really spend THAT much time online?”

Although I do check in with Facebook, and check emails when they come in, and have certain blogs I follow daily, I am pretty good at not getting sucked into the time warp that can happen online. It is so easy to follow an interesting link that leads to another and another…addictive. But I’m fairly adept at avoiding that (unless it’s during genealogy research – which is why I don’t do that during work hours!). So probably my actual amount of time spent READING what I get online is between 1-2 hours a day – not a workday, but a full 15-hour day. That’s not bad.

So why was I so much more productive without the Internet? I think it was a combination of two factors: information and fragmentation.

Everything I read – blogs, status updates, and emails – contains information. And if I could just read the info and walk away, that would be fine. But a certain percentage of that information demands a response. I may want to comment on a blog, or a friend’s Facebook post. And emails, whether for work or pleasure, often demand a reply, if only a short one. All of which eats into my time, but in such small increments that I don’t notice how much it’s taking.

Those increments are insidious because they are fragmented – I don’t notice them in bits here and there, yet at the end of the day they have added up to a larger number than I expected. But the other killer is a different kind of fragmentation – the fragmentation of concentration.

When the Internet is functioning, there is the pressure to deal with things as they come in. Someone responded to my Facebook status? Gotta see what it says, keep the dialogue going. A new email in the Inbox? Hafta see who needs what from me now. The Internet is wonderful in facilitating fast communication – but it also brings the pressure of instant communication. Like I have to respond now, at once. And this constant checking to see what’s going on out there breaks up the large chunks of uninterrupted concentration I often need to get projects, both work and home related, done efficiently.

So what to do about it? Self-discipline. I have to devise a strategy to somehow avoid the pressure to check frequently. It may be as simple as actually closing my browser except at certain times of day, so that I don’t see those updates popping up, demanding my attention. We’ll see how it goes.

How do you avoid the lure of the Internet?

Happy 2011!

Happy New Year, everyone! I hope you and yours had a safe and joyful holiday season. Mine was predictably hectic, but ultimately merry.

I spoke a lot last year about finding balance between motherhood and writing. As you can see from my blog entries (or lack thereof), I have not been as successful at the balancing act as I had hoped!

It’s a new year, and a new start. I am planning to come at 2011 with new content, new plans, and a new resolve to find that balance. So stay tuned!

To start the year off on a fun note, a letter to the editor that I wrote appears in the February 2011 issue of Writer’s Digest. Not really a publishing cred, but it’s nice to see my name in print!

What are your writing resolutions for the New Year?

The Princess Blogs?

Not long ago, I read Meg Cabot’s The Princess Diaries. I enjoyed the use of the diary format—it brought immediacy to the action and intimacy to the character. I couldn’t help but wonder, however, if the diary format could be as successful today as it was then. 

The Princess Diaries was written in 2000—not ancient times, certainly, but before everybody and their mother had a blog/MySpace/Facebook/Twitter/etc. Kids today are highly comfortable posting their lives on the Internet, and their “diaries” are their blogs. In The Princess Diaries, Mia says that she wanted to write everything in the diary because she didn’t want anyone to know that she was a princess. That sort of secrecy would be impossible with an online journal or blog.

So, would a diary format book become a bestseller in today’s market? Possibly—kids still know what a diary is, and some may even still keep a “paper” diary. I suspect, however, that as the kids of today become the writers of tomorrow, the diary format will turn into a blog format. Will this lose some of the intimacy of the form? Kids writing on a public blog (even a fictitious one) are unlikely to be as forthcoming and honest with their thoughts and emotions. Although kids today are more willing to put themselves “out there” than most adults, they are aware that it is a public forum, and I think that will inevitably lead to some self-censorship. This could lead to some constraint of the form, some limitations to how far it can be pushed. 

A cousin to the diary format, the epistolary novel is also looking at a sea change. With letters dying out, replaced by emails, chats, text messages and the like, will epistolary novels go the way of the rotary phone? 

In her blog, Tracy Marchini notes that one of the defining characteristics of an epistolary novels is that time elapses between each letter—and a lot can happen in that time. With emails, the elapsed time between communications dwindles from several days or weeks to several minutes or hours. Granted that it only takes a moment for someone’s life to be irrevocably changed, it still brings a different cadence to the communication. 

Like the diary novel, I think we will see the epistolary novel morph into a new form—a “communication” novel involving email, chat and text. I also think this will be a smoother transition than the diary novel, because so many of the basics will remain the same. An email is, after all, often just a letter in digital clothing. 

Do you think these forms will evolve into something new, or die out altogether? Are there other formats that technology will make obsolete or change substantially?

SPEAK Loudly

Banned Book Week 2010 featured the firestorm over SPEAK, the powerful YA novel by Laurie Halse Anderson. A man in Missouri called it “pornography,” and wanted it (and just about every other book taught in the schools there) banned. Which, of course, has led to every blogger involved with writing to blog about censorship. So, here’s my two cents.

I favor censorship. Wait, wait! Let me explain. I favor personal and private censorship – if a book offends you, don’t read it. If you feel the content in a book is not appropriate for your children, don’t let them read it. Your right to NOT read a book is as inviolable as my right to read it. No one has the right to make those judgment calls for any other person, or any other person’s children. Your beliefs are not mine. Do me the favor of allowing me to make up my own mind.

I do not favor across-the-board, yank-it-from-every-library censorship. If a community were to decide to ban a book completely, there’s only one way that decision would be acceptable to me:  only if the majority of people who have ACTUALLY READ THE BOOK deem it ban-worthy. So often, the people who want to ban books haven’t read them—they just read blurbs on websites and make judgments. They read excerpts taken out of context on like-minded people’s websites and use those “details” to make their point to the school boards. I feel this must be the case with this man in Missouri. He knew some details, but if he had read the book, he certainly could not have interpreted them the way he did.

I read SPEAK a few months back, before the controversy. I had heard wonderful things about it, and wanted to read it to see if it lived up to its billing. At first, I thought I was going to be disappointed. It seemed like it was going to be a “typical” date-rape story, with the predictable plotline. Since there are only so many plotlines in this world, in many ways this turned out to be true. But what Halse Anderson did with this basic plot was brilliant. The way she depicted the complete breakdown of Melinda, the disintegration of who she was and her complete inability to find words to alleviate the pain was gut wrenching. Melinda’s finding her voice and fighting back was inspirational. SPEAK deserves all the praise it has garnered.

What I admired most about SPEAK, from a writer’s point of view, was Halse Anderson’s use of weather/setting and the sculpting of the tree to illustrate Melinda’s emotional state and track her inner journey. Showing my character’s emotions without using the dreaded “felt” is something I have been working on in my own writing of late. In SPEAK, I got to see a master at work.

In my opinion, SPEAK should be taught in schools, both as an example of excellent writing and a way to discuss a difficult topic that is unfortunately very relevant to children these days. Those who seek to ban it have obviously missed the point of the book, if they have bothered to read it at all. SPEAK is certainly not the only book that is on the “threatened” list in Missouri or elsewhere (see Ellen Hopkins’ saga here). We as writers and as readers should fight censorship wherever we find it. We should all Speak Loudly.

My Lost Week

Last week, I spent four long, exhausting days in a small hospital room with my 10-month-old. I didn’t get a word written. And I started to wonder what on Earth I could blog about this week, since I hadn’t done any writing. It was a lost week.

Until I realized that writing about not writing was the blog topic.

My blog’s subtitle is “The journey toward publishing while parenting.” Sometimes the parenting comes first. I can’t tell my 10-month-old to stop babbling so loudly or to stop pulling up on everything she sees or to stop wanting to play with me. I can’t postpone testing until it is convenient for me. I can’t tell my baby not to be sick, or not to cry, or not to need me. I’m her mother. Period.

I have talked before about finding a balance between my writing life and my mommy life. Mostly, I have maintained it, but this last week I fell off the balance beam. Perhaps it’s more accurate to say I was pushed off by events beyond my control.

So I spent 72 hours in a hospital room, playing with my baby girl. She was getting an EEG, so she looked like a cyborg mummy – gauze wrapped around her head, wires trailing wherever she moved. And I played with her, smiled with her, laughed with her, read books to her, and walked her around and around in circles.

I got no writing done. I got no social networking done. I got no blogging done.

But I realize now it was not a lost week. How could it be when I spent it cocooned with my baby girl? Getting to know this amazing little person she is quickly becoming?

Best of all, the EEG showed everything normal—my baby girl is healthy. Which means I can look forward to many more years of occasionally being knocked off the balance beam. I’ve learned my lesson, though:

I may not write a word, but time spent with my daughter is never “lost.”

WriteOnCon 2010

When you’re a writer traveling back and forth between two states every two weeks and constantly having an infant in tow, getting to a writer’s conference is next to impossible. Thanks to WriteOnCon, I got my chance to attend a conference this year.

WriteOnCon was a free online conference focusing on “kidlit” – picture books, middle grade and YA. It took place August 10-12, running from 6 am until after 10 pm. Jam-packed days with classes and chats with agents, publishers, and authors. I did not get to participate in the live chats, as they conflicted with my daughter’s schedule, but since this was an online conference, it didn’t matter. All the chats, as well as all the classes, are posted on the website, like a blog, so we attendees could access them at our convenience. This is quite the boon for time-pressed individuals like me!

Perhaps the best part was the critique forums. You could post query letters, first 250 words, first five pages of completed manuscripts and/or first five pages of current WIP. You could post as many things as you wanted reviewed, with the stipulation that for every post you made, you critiqued five others. We were also instructed to look for posts that had the lowest number of critiques, so that everyone who posted would get a decent number of responses.

I liked this feature because at in-person conferences, you are often limited to how many things you can get critiqued. Also, it was great to get feedback from other “kidlit” writers. Some lucky people also got feedback from the industry professionals, who were browsing the forums as well. I was not lucky enough to get an industry pro to weigh in on my posts, but I did get a lot of insightful feedback that will help me refine my projects. This feedback alone was worth the time I spent critiquing other people.

I think that for people who cannot afford either the time or the money to get to an in-person conference, an online conference like WriteOnCon is a good substitute. However, I think in order to get the best networking experience, a face-to-face conference is essential. And an online conference simply cannot generate the kind of visceral buzz you get from being in the same physical space as other writers sharing their passion and creativity. But I found it a worthwhile endeavor and many of the other attendees felt the same.

One of my goals for next year is to attend at least one “real” conference, since I will not be traveling between states and my infant will be a toddler.

What are your thoughts on writers’ conferences, virtual or otherwise?

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