Friday Five

Today’s thoughts on the subject:

  1. Balanced in family, work, and creativity.
  2. Still head over heals in love with all three above.
  3. Calm. (Or as calm as it is possible for me to be!)
  4. Striving to keep myself healthy and fit. I wouldn’t say no to a line-in-the-sand on the wrinkles.
  5. Resisting, at least a bit, the label Grown Up.

What about you?

1. I’m typing this as the most chocolatey-ever cake is baking in the oven. Seriously, I’m waiting for the crash that I’m sure is coming, after I convinced myself that all that batter wouldn’t fit in the pan and better just be eaten.

2. I just told son he should probably get up soon (almost 11:00), so he could eat and be functional before going to take the test for his…DRIVING PERMIT!!!!!

Me? Old enough to have a son who drives? When did this happen?!

3. Spring has hit. I’m loving the warmth and the sunshine, the wearing of shorts and sandles, the blue skies. I’m not so happy about the pollen, but I’m telling myself the snorkiness of the last few days was a small cold. Denial is a powerful thing.

Scotch broom is pretty much covering our mountains.

4. I’ve made serious progress this past week in thinking out my WIP, thanks to Donald Maass ‘ worksheets and my resurgence of stick-to-itivity. I’m accepting that all the time I spent on character, which felt like rambling nebulousity, is paying off, now that I’m in the plot section. Honestly, I still couldn’t explain how one leads to the other, but I can’t argue with the fact that it’s happening on the page.

5. Oh, and I ordered a new research book, ignoring the half-dozen still on my shelf that I haven’t yet cracked open. I’ve been trying to stay away from research while I work on story, but of course one of my characters decided his story brings in a piece of 1910’ish Chicago that I really haven’t delved into yet (unbelievable as that may seem). Plus, somehow, now that I’m finding the story, I’m feeling the urge to do more research. The whole writing-research thing really does seem to be symbiotic. Or parasitic. Take your choice.

Tallying up the nice things that happened this week:

1. We had one day of rain. February in Northern California is usually The Month of Rain. And wind. And power outages. And trees falling. This was slightly more than a light drizzle, and then it disappeared. I’m seriously torn between wishing we’d get a good storm–because we need it–and totally enjoying this weather that is so Not Winter.

Okay, not completely torn. I am wearing shorts today.

2. I made it to three yoga classes in a row. No, not all in one day, but on three consecutive days. Last night, I tell you, that didn’t seem like such a good thing. I definitely pushed myself into the Overdone-It category. (Who knew ALL THREE TEACHERS would have us do lunges!) This morning, though, after a great night’s sleep, I feel fantastic. And only partly because I have designated today a well-earned day of rest.

3. I got Son reading Chris Moriarty’s The Inquisitor’s Apprentice, which I knew he’d love, and which he IS loving. Now I just have to find somewhere around here that I can buy a knish for him to try.

4. For this week, anyway, I got the pile of to-do’s under what seems to be some kind of control and got time into work projects AND fiction. On schedule today to finish up my secondary characters. Then…How to Turn Your MC’s Mother into a Truly Awful, Yet Sympathetic, Bad Guy.

5. I signed a contract. A book contract.

It’s for one book in a new series from Capstone Press, and it’s my first step down a path I’ve been wanting to get on for a while–writing NF kids’ books for educational publishers. Almost better than signing the contract (okay, not really) has been getting started on the research and outlining–it’s a totally different kind of thinking and writing from the fiction. The best way I can describe it is that it’s  like pulling your own, personal jigsaw pieces out of a pile that someone randomly tossed onto the table. And making sure the pieces are both true and intriguing. And then, yes, creating the puzzle itself at the same time. This may be the place where right-brain and left-brain thinking come together, at least for me.

All in all, an excellent week. What’s been the star in your past seven-days?

Yesterday was a catch-up day. My to-do list had gotten pretty long while we were out of commission, so I plugged myself in at my desk and slogged through, checking things off and moving on.

Felt good.

I have dipped a toe back into my writing & reading, too. Just a bit. And today felt like clearing the decks on things that were getting in the way of doing more of that.

For this week’s Friday Five, a peek at the baby steps I’m taking back into my word world.

1. Ran through a very rough draft of a kind-of concept picture book. Made a couple of little tweaks, and then sent it out the door to my critique group, with a request that they give me feedback on the overall (if any) viability and any ideas for creating that viability if it doesn’t exist. Yet.

2. Completed PiBoIdMo with more than 30 ideas, took the PiBoIdMo Winner’s Pledge (which means I am officially entered for some awesome prizes!), and ordered my PiBoIdMo 2011 mug, with Bonnie Adamson’s fantastic art, from the CafePress PiBoIdMo shop. The big victory for me here was not just finishing the month with enough ideas, but not letting the last few days of the month slide away without any ideas, after I took a couple of days off for being sick. I wanted to actually, actively complete the challenge, and I did. Yay, me. Yay, anyone who also won or participated. Yay, everyone who spent any time writing speedily for NaNoWriMo, too. November is really about doing more than you would/could have, if you hadn’t tried to take the challenge. So kudos all around!

3. Opened the Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook again. Got started on the next exercise. Picked a scene to view from the other way around. And today I’ll dig in and really start looking at the YA historical. Again.

4. Read something other than an Agatha Christie mystery or a Terry Pratchett novel. All of you know with what high esteem I seriously hold both these authors, but they are also restful for me in a way that goes well with being ill, or tending the ill. So I’ve been reading a LOT of both. Yesterday, I started and finished Ruta Sepetys’ Between Shades of Gray. It felt great to pick up something new, something intense and powerful. Okay, probably not the smartest choice for a cold day when the sun set by 5:00, but definitely a read to recommend. And, again, a historical novel with tight, short chapters–something I want for my own YA and something I am really going to have to push myself to get right.

5. Critiqued pieces from two of my critique partners. Lovely to get back into reading good stuff and digging in for helpful feedback. Have I mentioned that my brain was starting to atrophy?

What little pieces of reading and writing did you keep going in your life the last week or so. Did you push through for NaNo, pass the great number THIRTY in PiBoIdMo, or even just get an hour in here or there to move words from your mind to your computer’s? Whatever you managed, you have my admiration and my congratulations!

A quick glance around the blogs to see what other people are saying:

  1. Jennifer R. Hubbard with a discussion on Little Women: Jo and Laurie or Jo and Professor Bhaer. Fact: I am now and always have been Team Bhaer.
  2. Because I loved the book but am feeling too lazy to write about it, this excellent review of Kenneth Oppel’s This Dark Endeavor, from Thea at The Book Smugglers.
  3. Beth Revis on being afraid. She says it so well.
  4. I don’t know if you remember KidLit4Japan, the children’s and YA auction that raised over $10,000to help Japan after the earthquake and tsunami? Well, the author who organized and ran the WHOLE THING, Greg Fishbone, has a new book out, the first in his Galaxy Games series–Galaxy Games: The Challengers. Check out Debbi Michiko Florence’s interview with Greg.
  5. Go answer Nathan Bransford’s question: When Do You Let Other People See Your Work? Me, I use early critiques as motivation and thinking-fodder, but I know a lot of writers get nervous about sharing those first drafts. You?

Happy Friday and have a great weekend!

As you read this, or shortly after, I’ll be on the road (or many roads) on my way to the SCBWI Spring Spirit conference in Rocklin, California. For us non-geography experts, that’s right up in/near Sacramento. To get there, I head out of my mountains, through the heart of Silicon Valley, up into some lovely green hills (really green, this week!), and over toward the tip of the Central Valley. Not a long drive, but long enough that I’m taking an extra day, rather than rushing up and back the same day.

Road Trip!

Here are a few things I expect to do this weekend:

1. Drink “my” drink: Nonfat, decaf, light caramel macchiato. Just so you know. Yes, I do get that all out at the order station, and, yes, it’s worth the embarrassment. I’m not a big coffee drinker in every day life, but there’s something about sipping hot coffee from behind the wheel of a car that seems to work. And don’t push me to get the “hard” stuff–you don’t want me driving around on a full-caffeine hit!

2. Stop at the California Automobile Museum to do research for my WIP. I’m (hopefully) going to see a 1908 Model T, a 1911 Pierce-Arrow (think back to the car the dad bought in Cheaper by the Dozen), and a lot more. I’m going to figure out how you accelerated a car back in those days, which (if not all) had cranks to get things going, and–most important–what you might possibly bang your head against…hard!

(Note: I’ll be there on April 1st. I’m SO tempted to walk in, say, “Which one do I get to drive?!”, watch their faces fall, and then shout “April Fools!” Honestly, though, no chance I’ll have the courage.)

3. Hang out with kidlit writers and illustrators.

4. Meet Bruce Coville. Wait, let me say that again. MEET BRUCE COVILLE!!!!  He’s the keynote speaker at the conference, and I pretty much think he is brilliant in his ability to understand what makes kids laugh and what gives them the perfect world of fantasy to escape into.

5. Get back a critique from some professional (not sure who yet) on my picture book. Stick the still-sealed envelope in my bag and don’t open it until I’m somewhere quiet and safe? Tear it open upon receipt and block everybody else in the registration line until I’ve read it? Sneak a peak at lunch? What would you do?

Can you tell I’m ready to go? Have a great weekend, everybody!

Five things I occasionally need to remind myself about:

1. Everything on your list is something you want to do, or–at the very least–a piece of something you want.

2. You’re the one saying, “Yes.” And you pretty much had a reason for each and every Yes.

3. President Obama has a much bigger to-do list than you do.

4. Too much to do is better, just about every time, than not enough.

5. And, finally, to paraphrase my husband, “You could have this much to do and a butt rash.”

And how’s the craziness in YOUR life going today?

Write what you know. I’ve talked about that concept before, how I really think part of creating a story that we love writing (and others hopefully love reading) is stretching ourselves beyond what we know. Still, all of us have histories and worlds that we’ve lived in that could, possibly, add a layer of something extra to a WIP, whether that’s one we’re working on now or one we haven’t even got the idea for yet. The thing is, we never know what that is until and if we need it.

I thought it’d be a fun Friday Five to share pieces of my past that might, in some happy time, be the thing that adds that layer–the detail that flows into a setting, adds a quirk to a character, twists a plot, or amps up some dialogue.

And then I want to hear from you. :)

1. I know what happens when you step on a bathroom scale holding a dog that tops out just under 100 pounds. Awake. And moving. And I know just how big the window of time is  before you either drop the dog or, with the dog still in your arms, go over backward in a big, big thud. (Luckily, I also know what it feels like to hold a newborn, and I mean newborn, puppy in your hands and rub its belly to get it circulating and wriggling and happening.)

2. I know what an avocado looks like when a possum has been at it. Think vampire.

3. I know what it feels like to drive through Hollywood on your way to the graveyard shift you’re working, and realize the thin girl walking along the sidewalk is not on her way home from ballet class. At 11:30 at night. In a not-so-great neighborhood. Gut punch.

4. I know what it feels like to get way too much sand and salt water in your face, bodysurfing in Mexico. And then be stung by a jellyfish. In the elbow. The one you might, you know, just possibly want to bend, sometime before the end of the day.

5. I know that peacocks, perched on a fence in the rain, are no more attractive or appealing than a bunch of turkeys in the same position. And that you have to be just as careful where you put your feet, when you walk near them.

There. How about you? Don’t take the easy route. Push yourself to think of things that you can actually imagine in a book or an article, that little tidbit that only you know. Or at least that not everybody on the planet knows.  Go ahead–I want to see what you come up with!

True story: I’m in a yoga class years ago. I’m trying the poses, feeling the stretch, even though–at no point when they’re supposed to–do my fingers get anywhere near the floor; at many points when I’m supposed to be standing with balance, I’m tipping over & bumping into the wall. There is a woman a few mats away from me who can, pretty much without trying, touch her nose to her knees and twist so that–I swear–she’s all the way around facing the mirror at the front of the room again. Most of the rest of us are fighting back jealous; a few perhaps even plotting revenge.

The teacher gets the sense of what’s going on. And she takes time to explain that, even though we think this woman has it easy, in reality it’s harder for her to learn the poses, because–basically–her body flops over so loosely that she has to work harder to actually be in the pose, hold the pose, etc. And then the teacher–who I really do love–says, “On the other hand, Becky has an easier time/better chance of getting the stretch that the pose should give you.” Or something to that effect. I know my name was said, I know everybody turned to check me out, I know the teacher meant well, and I know that it all added up to the fact that I was the least flexible person in the class.

Well, you know, that wasn’t exactly news. :)

Not me.

Of course, there are also some people whom, if you asked, would theorize that I’m not always the most emotionally flexible person either. And I’m okay with that, too.

But…TRANSITION: I believe that being flexible in your critique group is a must. The Writing & Critique Group Survival Guide is full of tips for building a group, for holding meetings, for developing critiques, but the thing is–the bottom line is that we need to run a critique group in a way that works for us. We need to run a critique group in a way that helps us put more writing on the page, helps us support each other with strong, deep feedback and as-needed hugs. We need to run a critique group so that every member wants to be there, wants to submit, and feels like–yes–they can revise this mess they’re making.

So, after that very long wind-up, here are five ways you can keep your group flexible.

1. Be flexible about reading submissions of varying length–from a two-page scene to a full manuscript. And if you’re the author with the full manuscript, be flexible about how fast you expect your critique partners to read that big pile!

2. Be flexible about who gets to submit. I know there are groups that assign specific dates to specific group members. If you miss your window, because you didn’t have a chapter ready, you have to wait till your next turn. If you have chapters ready for three meetings in a row, you might not be allowed to submit for all those meetings, because it’s not your time slot. I really believe that when a writer in our group is being productive, we should support them by basically standing with our arms open ready to catch all the pages they can throw at us. Yes, of course, if it’s more than people can really read–if members’ critiquing time starts cutting too much into their writing time, there might need to be a “discussion” about maximum pages, but I’d rather see the auto-pilot response be “Yes, sure,” instead of “No way.”

3. On the flip side of that coin, be flexible about the times when a group member isn’t submitting. I know writers who need to write a first draft without being critiqued, because feedback at that stage can just open the door to their nasty inner editor and, basically, stall out their writing. Sometimes, life just rears its ugly head and gets in the way of a writer’s progress. That’s not a happy time, but it’s also not a time when a critique group should make things harder for that writer. They’re still coming to the meetings; they’re still critiquing other people’s work; they’re still a big part of the group. Support everybody’s different processes.

4. Be flexible about when you critique. I’m a big advocate of submitting pages for critique before a meeting (for in-person groups), rather than reading and critiquing at the meeting. I actually think it’s a very important part of having time to really read deeply & think about a manuscript, to develop a strong, helpful set of feedback. BUT…if the members of your critique group really don’t have time to set up this kind of schedule, to take those extra hours out of the week, do not let this stop you from setting up your group or from going on with one you’re already in. Do your best to spend that concentrated time at the meeting reading carefully and thoughtfully and share your feedback clearly. Sometimes we can’t manage the ideal, so we manage the next best…as well as we can.

5. Be flexible about life’s changes. When I started with my first group, I wasn’t married & I wasn’t even thinking about motherhood. While I was in the group, all that changed. Those first months of mommyhood were not easy ones for me, and my group made it that much easier by totally supporting me in bringing my son with me to the group for a few sessions, until I worked out a babysitting situation I was happy with. It meant so much to me that I didn’t have to step out of the group or miss those sessions that were one of the huge highlights of my month. I talk a lot about commitment to your critique group, but membership is not a black-and-white, ground-in-stone rulebook. If your group members are worth critiquing with, they’re worth accommodating when that new baby comes, when a job schedule changes, when an elderly parent needs attention and assistance.

Yes, there good ways to run a critique group, and there are not-so-good ways. To grow a group that you trust, that makes you feel safe and motivated, that helps you move forward with your writing, we need to be flexible about those various ways.

It’s an important thing, and it’s one that gets results. Results that are more than worth any aches & pains that the extra stretching brings you.

Here’s the thing about the research bucket. It’s like Mary Poppins carpetbag–never really empty.

I said back here that, in my second draft, I want to be able to weave in a lot of the history I need for the story. So I’ve spent a lot of time the past few months doing the kind of research I need to get closer to the plot–checking out realities and possibilities. I dug far enough into things to be pretty sure that, yes, one of my characters can have an automobile; yes, another can have a job in the beauty industry; yes, my MC can be the daughter of an immigrant; yes, her little brother can play with toy trains. And I’ve been tossing ideas into my plot, based on those green lights.

This week, I’m starting to flesh out the plot and then, hopefully, to put things into a sequence that may, as a starting point, make sense. I’m using Scrivener and filling out scene cards with basic information–which characters are in the scene, where do they go and what do they do, what’s the main conflict and why…that stuff. And I’m also including a list of specific questions I need answers to…for that scene.

This 2nd draft is going to be a lot of stops and starts. (That’s okay…remember my word for 2011? Peace!)

Anyway, during my plotting sessions with Scrivener, I’ve already come up with way more than 5 things I’ll be researching. So for today’s post, just the tip of the iceberg.

1. In 1912, who were the kids that were still in high school? I know that a lot more kids were going to and finishing high school by this time, but there were still plenty having to quit to get jobs, to help out at home, or just because the family didn’t see a reason for them to be going on. I want to have some idea of what the mix was that were still there, in the classrooms, learning for…learning.

2. Did American Flyer sell accessories for their wind-up model trains? Would a “train kid” have little houses and depots and trees and cows? (Don’t laugh: some British train companies modified their models for sale in America by adding cow catchers to the front!) And what would those accessories be?

3. What specific automobile will Caro’s not-yet-maybe-never-boyfriend own? What did it look like, feel like, smell like? And how much trouble is he going to get into when they…Never mind. You’ll have to wait for that one.

4. What kind of injury, in 1912, would put someone at potential risk for death and, if they survived, leave the chance they wouldn’t walk again. I have a doctor friend who will be getting a LOT of questions, and then I’ll have to read up on this stuff in 1912. Oh, yeah, that’ll be fun.

5. What needle craft did German-Jewish immigrant women do–those of the age to come to American in the late 1800s? Knitting? Lace-making? Some kind of embroidery? This is one it would be very nice to have a time machine for–I’d just zip back to Berlin in those  years and talk to some of my great-something-aunts. As it is…more reading!

Whether you’re working on a historical novel or not, what are some of the questions you’re wondering about for your WIP? Drop them in the comments–you never know when someone will have an answer. And if not, it’s fun to see some things we don’t have to hunt down ourselves!

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