That’s the word that has been coming out of the mouths of my critique partners lately. No, not about me, although I’m sure there are times they’ve been tempted. But it’s Charlie, my hero, about whom they’ve been using it. The hero of my MG novel. Charlie’s “petulant.” He pouts. He kind of makes it all about him.

This is so not what you want to hear about your hero.

Except, you know, it is, because if you don’t hear it, you can’t do anything about it. The writer’s critique mantra, right?

So I heard it, and I listened, and I’ve been thinking. And, mostly, honestly, what I’ve been thinking is, “stupid voice.” As a reader, I love voice. Voice puts the magic into a book for me–you can give me a great plot, you can give me funny dialogue, you can give me characters I care about who have something to lose. And I’ll love you for all of them. But voice…you will woo me and never lose me with a strong, distinct, gorgeous voice.

As a writer, I struggle with it. Over and over and over. Not so much on my picture books, or maybe I just haven’t recognized that struggle yet, but in my novels, oh, yeah. When I get it to work (when other people say, “I love the voice,”), I couldn’t tell you what I’ve done to get there. Which is only the littlest bit frustrating.

But I keep trying. So I heard “petulant.” And I tried to get myself to think beyond “stupid voice.” I thought about the MG books I love that do have great voices, and I thought about how those authors succeed at pulling me into their heroes’ thoughts and feelings without letting those heroes whine. I got close to sitting down again with The Wednesay Wars and Okay for Now (never a chore!) and seeing if I could figure out how Gary D. Schmidt does it.

And then I realized that the plan I was contemplating was actually to sit down and plot a few scenes of Schmidt’s. Plot? But I was struggling with voice. Why was I thinking about plot? I’m still not sure when/why my brain made that leap, and I’m still not sure it was the leap I needed it to make. But I realized I was thinking about all the things Schmidt packs into one scene, all the actions that provoke and evoke his hero’s thoughts and emotions. And I was thinking about how many more things Schmidt put into any one scene than I’ve been doing.

Am I just spending too much time in Charlie’s mind? Am I giving him so much time that his voice is getting taken over by the “me, me, me” of his problems? I wasn’t sure. I’m still not sure. But I was and am sure that I haven’t been making enough happen. I haven’t been getting Charlie to do enough.

So today I sat down to write a scene where Charlie doesn’t think. Or at least not much. I told myself to back way from the voice I’d been trying to get to–what I envision as a quiet voice, the voice of a thinker. I told myself that, if I saw Charlie heading too far down the thinking path (and today’s definition of “too far” was one step), that I had to give him something to do. I told myself to make things happen, to make Charlie act and react, and to see where the voice fell.

I think I got further away from petulant. I don’t think Charlie pouted much. Maybe. I know I got to a moment when I didn’t have enough that was going to happen, and I made something more happen. And I didn’t give Charlie time to do much thinking. I’ll see what my critique group thinks.

Did I hit a better voice? Did I hit any voice at all? If I knew that, I could give you the answer to life, the universe, and everything. (Yes, I know: 42!)

The story in my family goes like this: When my big sister was learning to read, she would come home in the afternoon, and she would play school with me. So at the same time as she was learning to read, she was teaching me. I’m sure that story, like most family stories, has some truth and some myth to it. All I know for sure is that I don’t remember a time when I couldn’t read. Or when I wasn’t reading.

I complained in second grade about not liking school, and I told my mom I didn’t like the reading time. Since that made absolutely no sense, my mom talked to the teacher and found out the class was doing out-loud reading together, and we weren’t supposed to read ahead. The teacher was a good one, and guess what–I got to read ahead. I kept reading. I became an English major in college, because there wasn’t anything I was going to do for four years straight except read novels. I had a bit of a scare in grad school when I hit burn out on Victorian novels, but I switched to mysteries and just kept adding to the piles of books on my shelves and the piles of words and sentences and paragraphs and plots in my brain. And throughout the years, I kept reading my old children’s books and eventually added the stories I found while my son was growing up. My entire family reads gobs, but there’s a reason why, some years ago, my sister gave me a copy of Sarah Stewart and David Small’s The Library, and it’s not just because Elizabeth Brown and I both have frizzy hair and glasses.

Do I have a point? Yes. I’m pretty sure it’s all those years of reading and reading and reading that have helped me be a good editor and critiquer.  I think you could talk to most editors and agents and librarians and booksellers (and, yes, writers, but I’m getting to that part of the connection in a minute), and they would agree. Words have patterns, books have patterns, and all those patterns carve little grooves of understanding and recognition in our brains. So when I am critiquing, and the pattern isn’t there or it’s flawed or off-center, I can see that. Or feel it, maybe. A little alarm goes off. And I make my note in the margin, and I write a deeper, more full explanation in the overall critique, and I keep reading and watching for how the patterns are doing. It’s nice, it’s why I like doing this kind of work, and it’s a happy feeling to be good at something, right?

Cue fingernails-on-the-chalkboard screech as I shift jarringly away from talking about reading skills to talking about writing skills. When just understanding and seeing the patterns aren’t enough. I’ve been working on a picture book for a while now, one that was pretty good to start, but not good enough, and on which I’ve slowly been inching closer and closer to getting it right. I got an agent critique on it at a conference, and my critique group has seen it several times, and I’ve had a couple of other strong readers share their thoughts. And everybody is saying the same thing–the balance between scenes is off, and the stakes aren’t high enough. Okay–that all meshes with my own feelings, the ones that come from those reader grooves in my brain. But I still hadn’t figured what to fix or how.

Because that’s the writing part. Now I’ve also written for a long time–I’ve mentioned before that when I about twelve, I fell in love with Phyllis A Whitney’s teen mysteries, and that’s when I decided I wanted to do what she did. And I’ve been writing since. Now, as I get older, the gap between four years old and twelve years old gets proportionally much smaller. But the hours I’ve put into writing still don’t come close to the hours I’ve put into reading. Thought, yes; learning, yes; I’ve taken it seriously and I’ve worked hard at it, but there is just no way that the writing grooves are as deep as the reading ones. (Cue sci-fi movie idea where we can order the grooves we want from a shopping site and have them instantly implanted in our brains!) So while I can, even with my own stories, get that recognition of the flawed pattern, it’s another, very different thing to know how to fix the flaw. Which is why, yes, it’s called work!

Yesterday, puttering around the house, I barely realized I was thinking about the picture book, and suddenly–there it was, the fix for the flaw. Not an alarm, this time, but a lovely little inner chime. I knew exactly what the stakes were, and I knew they were high enough, and I knew they fit perfectly with the story. I also saw what I needed to do to shift the balance so that it was right and solid. I could have written my own critique and explained it clearly and concisely to myself, and then I could have put my pen down and gone away.

Except it’s my story. Which means I have to do more than point out a solution; I have to write it. In actual words and sentences. I have to create the actions and the tools, and I have to find a way to insert them smoothly into pages that, while not finished, do already have a certain flow and pacing going for them. Am I nervous about whether I can do this? Am I worried that I’ll chop something decent into something worse? Well, sure. But the ideas have been coming–I emailed myself notes at about 3:00 this morning, and I sent some more before I got on the treadmill for some exercise. And, after I put up this blog post, I’m going to stay put at the computer and do just enough research to get a few more ideas. And then I’m going to start placing the pieces. And with every hour I spend on this, I’ll know I’m digging the writing grooves deeper and deeper.

And that can only be a good thing.

So if you’ve been reading any of my Facebook posts, you’ll know that I’ve veered off fiction lately and have been reading Amanda Gefter’s Trespassing on Einstein’s Lawn: A Father, a Daughter, The Meaning of NOTHING and the Beginning of Everything.

!!GefterI was going to start this post with some punny/funny title that tied together fiction & physics, and you’ll see (if this post goes as planned) that I am ultimately connecting modern physics with my writing. But every title I came up with might have been right (physics-wise), or it might have been wrong, leaving me open to much criticism that I don’t understand what I’ve been reading.


Mostly, I’m happy with keeping my reading at  ~98.999873% fiction. Occasionally, though I like to dig into a few types of nonfiction. Good memoir, I love. And I crave really WELL-WRITTEN history that gets at the people and the puzzles of whatever time I’m reading about–rather than just the leaders and politics and wars and whatever else you want to throw in to make me yawn. (Two examples of the kind of history I love to read–Amy Butler Greenfield’s A Perfect Red and Laurence Bergreen’s Over the Edge of the World.) And then I love science. But…and here’s the rub, folks, the science has to be REALLY, REALLY, REALLY WELL-WRITTEN. Because, even then, I’m not going to understand all of it, and when you get into quantum physics, the percentage I’ll comprehend drops even lower.

Amanda Gefter writes REALLY, REALLY, REALLY WELL.

Gefter gets as excited about physics as I do about, well…fiction. She gets as tangled up in a conversation about relativity and event horizons and the nature of reality as I do about plot points and rising tension and character consistency. I give you, as evidence, her description of what happened when she went to pick up her nametag (and her father’s) at the first physics conference she basically snuck/faked her way into.

As I leaned over to grab them [the nametags], I accidentally bumped shoulders with the man next to me. “Sorry,” I said, glancing up. I blushed and sprinted giddily back to my father. “Oh, my God!” I squealed. “I just touched Brian Greene!”

Pretty much exactly my reaction when I met Bruce Coville (okay, yes, “met” meaning I made it to the front of his book-signing line) and got to tell him how much I wished his Sixth Grade Alien books were still in print.

So, yes, the book is clever and funny and will make you laugh many times over. If there’s anyone in your family who will get any of the physics references, you’ll be reading sections out loud to them to share the laugh and/or the awe. But, more important than that, I think Gefter makes this stuff about as understandable (for me, anyway) as anybody could. How do I know? Well, first, because I’m still reading. But also because every now and then I take a break and summarize what I’ve got to my husband, who has read a LOT more about this stuff than I have, and he doesn’t say, “That fits absolutely nowhere into what I know about physics.” He nods and says, “Okay,” and I go back to the book and keep going.

When i started this book, I hoped I was going to get a better understanding of what we (“we” being the mathematical set that includes all these physicists, not the mathematical set that includes me) know about the universe. I was, I’ll admit it, looking for some facts, facts I could use as building blocks to give me a base from which I could grow my own knowledge. And what Gefter has shown me so well is that I don’t actually have to get those facts. In fact (see what I did there?), there aren’t actually that many facts to learn!

Okay, this is where I may be getting in over my head and where, to anybody who actually does understand this stuff, I may be making that obvious. But here are my takeaways.

We don’t know all that much!

We have theories. Oh, man, we have theories out the wazoo. And we do have a decent amount of mathematical proof for some of those theories–if not in their entirety, for some big chunks of each. And while I can’t do the math, I’m willing to accept that if/when the math works out, this means something.

We also have a whole lot of questions. It seems to me that these physicists are using the scientific method to the max. They are asking questions left and right and then they are creating hypotheses (which often sound a lot like science fiction premises), and then they are testing them. They’re testing with both math and evidence, when and if they can get any evidence. And someone comes up with one answer and someone else comes up with another answer and then they argue for a while until someone else does some more math or finds some other evidence and–occassionally–they prove something. But whatever happens, they keep asking. Boy, do they keep asking. And it’s these questions that are actually what Gefter is helping me understand. No, I’m not going to list them–I told you, I’ll get them wrong, and someone will tell me I don’t understand, and we’ll be back at that Duh. But I promise you; I’m getting them while I read them.

It is amazing. I can’t even really imagine the brains behind these ideas, the brains that go back and forth with each other in almost entirely theoretical conversations and that keep track of everything they’ve read and heard, everything they believe, and everything they’re thinking up as a new possibility right in that minute. Okay, yes, I can do that with the Harry Potter world, and I can give you any number of reasons why Mary Lennox does not (no matter what the movie says) grow up to marry her cousin Colin. But these aren’t black holes and universes that are one-sided coins and the place at which Einstein and Newton’s theories no longer conflict. Just saying.

All right, I promised you a connection between physics and writing. You ready? If these guys can throw out these totally bizarre ideas that stretch imagination to the breaking point, and then they can test them and find the pieces that work and the pieces that don’t, and then they can keep going…I can throw any words and sentences on the page I want and then revise them.

Oh, yes, I can.

But really this post is not about me or my writing (another duh!). It’s about a really fantastic book that, if you can push all those novels to the side for a week or two, you should pick up and read. I’m at 57%, and the last sentence I just read is, “Particles, strings–they were just two ways of looking at the same thing.” Oh, yeah, you can bet I’m going to keep reading to the end.

What a week it has been.

The Supreme Court upholds Obamacare subsidies.

Funerals are held for the people who were killed at AME in Charleston.

The Supreme Court makes marriage equality the law.

Governor Haley of South Carolina calls for the confederate flag to come down.

President Obama gives Reverend Pinkney’s eulogy.

Bree Newsome takes down the confederate flag and is arrested.

Arsonists are still burning black churches.

I don’t even know if I have all this in the right chronological order, but it isn’t in any neat order in my mind. I’m feeling like the country is being hit by good and bad, from right and left, and there is no logic pattern to it. Part of me feels like we are making progress.  Yes, it’s taken way, way, way too long for marriage equality to be the law, but it is finally here. At the same time, government officials whose names I won’t give space on my blog are saying they aren’t going to follow that law. And Supreme Court justices are proving to me that you can be narrow and hateful and still sit on that bench. Obama’s eulogy is pretty amazing, but I look at his face as he talks, at the grimness there, and I know how much better it would have been if he had never had the need to say these things. A governor is finally calling for that flag to come down, yet a brave, strong woman is arrested for taking the action to bring it down.

So, yes, I guess progress. And yet…

It’s such a big yet.

Meaning? I guess that we do, very much, still have a long, long way to go. And that, as Obama says, we can’t just slip back into silence or complacency. And that, thank goodness, there are good people out there as well as the bad, and we have to remember that and use their courage and persistence as reminders of what we ourselves need to be doing.

Today, my husband is taking advantage of the long hours of daylight to do some work outside, with rocks. Rolling them slowly, shifting them slowly, placing them slowly. He says, “You can only think about the one rock. If you think about all the rocks, you’ll never get out there and move one.”

And then, Tim Federle, author of the wonderful Better Nate than Ever and Five, Six, Seven, Nate, posted this on his Facebook page: “Kid walking down the street at roughly 1 MPH while reading a Roald Dahl book is giving me the courage to face the blank page again.”

Oh, yeah. Thanks, guys.

I’d already made plans to keep this day clear, to step back into the writing which–for many reasons, no excuses–has been on hold for too long of a bit. But these reminders have helped push aside some of the trepidation, have told me that thing I can never hear too often–to tuck away the vision of the whole thing that has to get done and to just sit down, open things up, and see what you can start with. It does take courage, but it takes less when you remember that other people are in the same spot–whether they’re working on a picture book revision, like I plan to today, or are facing a blank page or are moving big rocks.

Because this is how it goes. And today, thanks to the season and the sunshine, I have plenty of time to see how it goes for me.

I just reached the halfway point in Amber Lough’s The Fire Wish (and, yes, things did get much worse). I’ve got an image in my mind. On one side of a desk is a stack of notebooks, filled with lists and tables and scattered notes. Pages and pages and pages on top of each other, the pile so high that it looks precarious, as if it may topple at any moment. On the other side of the desk is a clean piece of paper. Blank. Waiting. And as we watch, the author’s hand comes into view, holding the finest of paintbrush. She dips the tip of the paint brush into the stack of notes, lightly, barely touching. She moves the paintbrush to the blank page and, with a feathered touch, writes the first words of the story, transformed from the mounds of thoughts into a delicate line of ink that evokes just what the reader needs.

This is how good the worldbuilding is in The Fire Wish. This is how good the best of all worldbuilding is, right? I know we all build worlds. I know all genres require some of this skill. But in fantasy…oh, when it’s done right in fantasy! It’s just (excuse the pun) epic. And the reading experience is one of joy because that delicate line carries all the knowledge and understanding, detailed and layered, of the author’s time with the notebooks.

Or maybe Lough is just so good, she skipped the notebooks and the words flowed perfectly onto the page by themselves. But I’m guessing not.

There’s more to the book than the worldbuilding. It’s a great premise, with two young women–one human and one jinn–having to swap places on and inside the earth. And it’s a great premise, even further, because each of these young women holds responsibility for the actions that caused the swap, and they both have to step up, take responsibility, and figure out a way to correct their situation. Lough does a beautiful job of switching between points of view, and while the young women look pretty much identical, they have distinct differences in their personalities and experiences, so we have no problem following who’s talking when. Plus, they each have strong tensions pulling them in two directions. The humans and jinns have been at war for a while–if either young woman is discovered, she will be imprisoned, possibly killed. Plus Narwa, the jinni, has information her people need to defend themselves in the war, while Zayele, the human, wants to get home to protect her younger brother, who has been recently blinded. And then…each of them kinda sorta wants to stay where they are, because, well…romance. Okay, yes, some extra freedom, but also…romance.

Like I said, I haven’t finished this book, so I can’t really judge whether the ending will be fitting, tight. But I’m also not caring, right now, which–along with that worldbuilding–is another sign of how excellent The Fire Wish is. The pacing is just right, the balance of liking the two main characters and recognizing the flaws that got them to this place–also just right. And did I mention the secretive government departments, the harem dynamics, and the suspicion I have that somebody has been telling lies about why this war is “necessary?”

All around excellence. And now if you’ll excuse me, I have to get back to the second half of the book.

About a book inside the book.

Okay, maybe not a book, but a journal. And the book isn’t really about the journal, but it’s the construct that explains why we, the reader, get to step inside the reader’s story. From close up in his head. Because he has been given an assignment to record his days, his actions, his thoughts in this journal.

I’m going to cheat and not share the book title, because it’s one I’m not enjoying as word-of-mouth would have predicted, and I just don’t feel like getting into all the whys and why nots today. Besides which, I haven’t finished the book, and maybe it’ll surprise me. Maybe one of the surprises will be a true story reason for the journal.

Right. The journal. It bugs me. Traffic alert: Whining ahead. The book is a YA and the journal “allows” us to get in very, very close to the hero’s perception and thoughts. Except…don’t a lot of YA books do that without a journal? Isn’t that…and, yes, I’m making a big generalization here…something that’s relatively common to YA? Could we have foregone the journal in this case and just stepped into the story? First person, third person–couldn’t the author have even slipped in the few instances of second person that he uses–with the “you” being the reader, instead of the person who assigned the journal? Why, yes, I believe we could, he could. It all would have worked.

I get irritated when something is added to a story without a reason.

Of course, the journal/diary construct was something I adored when I was a kid. I’d have to go back and reread most of my childhood books to be sure (not a horrible chore by any means), but maybe we just didn’t get first person as often as today’s young readers. Maybe the diary was, in those days (hand me my cane, will you?), a construct that gave us access to a voice we didn’t get as often, a close up and really personal voice. I suspect, though, that I loved it because the kid hero who kept a diary was a hero I aspired to be. Aspired to and failed. I have never once, not as a kid, a teen, a young woman, or a…less-young woman succeeded in making more than a few entries in any journal. And as a child, I so wanted to. Every time I read a book with the diary-inside-the-story format, I tried again. After I read Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl, I tried to find my own version of “Dear Kitty.” Nope. Nothing. And I kept reading about and loving those heroes who  managed to put their thoughts on paper, day after day, week after week.

I keep reminding myself that there are a whole world of young readers out there to whom the journal format isn’t old hat, kids who may still identify with or aspire to be a diary keeper. I keep telling myself that they haven’t over-eaten in the genre, so that yet one more serving results in a bout of piggy burps. But all the time, as I tell myself these things, I’m still thinking…he didn’t need it!

What do you think? Do you like/still like the diary format? Did you like it as a kid, and has your affection hung around or faded with the years? Do you think the need for a journal device has shifted as story voices have become more immediate, more intimate all on their own? I’d love to hear your thoughts.


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