I want to start this review by saying that Sugar by Jewell Parker Rhodes, is just one of the loveliest books I’ve read in a long, long time. I sat there today, after breakfast, just reading and reading. Yes, of course, partly to see what happened, but in a big way just to stay immersed in the beautiful words. Rhodes prose in this book is at once tight and rich, sparse and lush. In structure, Sugar reminded me a little bit of Kathryn Fitzmaurice’s  A Diamond in the Desert. Both books have very short, extremely immediate chapters, and both narrators gave me the sense of being stuck in an isolated place, a place that is their world, but not the world. This makes sense, probably, since Tetsu–the main character of Fitzmaurice’s bookis trapped in a Japanese concentration camp and Sugar, although no longer a slave, has never been off the plantation where she was born. The scene in which she puts her foot on other land for the first time is, to say the least, powerful and painful.

Sugar takes place on River Road Plantation, in Louisiana, starting in 1870, five years after slaves were freed. Rhodes picked a, to me, fascinating period of history to write about, with a lot of information and details with which I was not familiar. First, the crop being worked on the plantation is not cotton or tobacco, but sugar cane. Sugar the character hates sugar the plant and the product, because–for her–sugar isn’t sweet, but hard. Hard to plant, hard to harvest, hard to process. If you’d asked me if I knew that sugar cane was a crop in the south, I’d have said, yes, sure, but still…it was a new world for me to enter. And then Sugar–at ten–is the youngest worker on the plantation, and the next youngest leaves soon after the book starts. Sugar’s father was sold before the slaves were free, and her mother died a few years ago. She is cared for by an older couple, by the black community, and very much by herself, as well. Basically, all the young adults have left the plantation to go north. Another piece of history I wasn’t tuned into. The black workers are elderly and work slowly, at least in the eyes of the plantation owner, Mister Wills, so he brings in a dozen Chinese men to work. A completely new fact for me.  The black workers assume this means trouble, that Mister Wills will keep the Chinese workers and tell the black workers to go. A saying among the older blacks, one that Sugar hates, is “The bad I know is better than the bad I don’t.” They have stayed on the plantation, rather than going north, because this world they know. Now they worry they will be pushed out of the one in which they chose to stay.

As I describe it, River Road sounds like a pretty miserable place. And it is. Rhodes doesn’t soften her descriptions of the hours and difficulty of the work, or of the attitude and treatment the blacks receive from the white owner or the horrible overseer. She draws a sharp contrast between the shack where Sugar sleeps and the room she visits when Billy, the owners’ son, is ill. A whip only appears once in the story, and it’s used to set up a major turning point, but it’s not a surprise to anyone there. Sugar’s mother used to say about the owner that the was “Not a bad master, but not a good one, either.” Which is pretty much the feeling that comes across.

But…and I’m really not sure how big a but this is, things in the book essentially work out okay. Bad things happen, and a lot of bad things don’t. None of this stopped me from turning page after page to stay with the story, and none of it made me feel like Rhodes has done anything but write a fully layered story, with characters that reach out of the pages and draw the reader in–especially Sugar. In no way do I feel like Rhodes was trying to pretty up a non-pretty world; plus, I remind myself, this book is written for middle-graders, not for me. But I had a few moments of wondering whether things work out too okay. And then I’d read another word or sentence and be lost once more in the story.

I’ve had the ebook from the library on my kindle for a few days, and I thought–when I started reading–that I had maybe picked it from the list I built during the #weneeddiversebooks weeks. But I checked those lists, and nope, it’s not on them–so it must have been another lucky find on the library website. And I don’t know if thinking it was from that list, thinking about it as a “diverse” choice impacted my perspective while I read. Honestly, though, how could it not? And I ask myself, what are you asking to be different? Did you want a few more bad guys? Did you want one of the Chinese men to be a yuck like the overseer? Did you want someone in the black community to not accept the Chinese along with everyone else? And I don’t think so, because that would have been predictable and trite and cliche. It would have felt as though Rhodes dropped a character in just to play that role, and I really, really hate when someone does that.

So what am I saying? I am saying, first and foremost, that you need to read this book, because it is a good book, a beautiful book, and it will do what every beautiful book does–it will enrich you. And then I am probably saying that, guess what? There are layers to reading just as there are layers to writing, and that opening our minds and hearts to what comes along when we turn to Page 1 is not always simple, but is always important.

Okay, yes, if you’re going to get picky, right now I’m just plotting fast. The three-day weekend is coming up, and my goal–barring any rising creeks –is to take those three days and finish all my scene cards for the MG novel. I’ve been putting in a little time on this for the past couple of evenings, after I get home from work, and I think this is doable. And when done, I’ll be set up to fast-write the first draft over the summer. I wrote here about why I’ve decided to try this process again.

So, anyway, right now I’m fast-plotting. And I’m remembering all the delights and joys that come with fast-plotting (and, if I remember correctly, also with fast-writing.) There are many of them, and I’ll mention some below, but the underlying awesome feeling of them all is this: It doesn’t matter.

It doesn’t matter if

  • You plot your hero behaving in a way that may, once you write it all out, turn him into a whiny brat in Scene 4, Scene 19, and Scene 23.
  • You forget the best-friend-soon-to-be-former-best-friend’s irritating new girlfriend’s name and “must” refer to her scathingly as whatshername every time you stick her into a scene.
  • You’re building the other best friend toward an act of strength and kindness, possibly setting him up to out-hero your hero.
  • You’ve created multiple siblings but keep forgetting to put various ones into the story.
  • You don’t know what the magic will do in Scene 15.
  • Every action you apply to one character makes him darker and darker, so that he could be awesomely wonderful in a Gary-D.-Schmidt novel (as area all his characters), but you’re probably not writing a Gary-D.-Schmidt novel.

It just doesn’t matter.

You may be thinking, oh, but it kind of does. Maybe you’re focusing on the part where you know (and I know) that eventually, I”ll have to make all this work. Or possibly, you’re thinking about all the time and energy I’ll put (even fast-writing) into a draft that will, when that draft is done, need to be turned into something drastically and dramatically different. Perhaps you’re thinking, but how can you even WRITE a scene when you don’t understand the magic?

Guess what? I’m thinking all those things, too. Every time I come to a question, stare at the screen, make a choice, I hear one of these questions in my head. I push them away, but they do keep popping up. And I try really hard to answer them with “It doesn’t matter.”

There is a trust implicit to this process, a belief that Anne Lamott is right when she says to write that shitty first draft. That vomiting that draft onto paper or into a file is a necessary first step. I have believe that for years, logically, but as I’ve said before–somewhere along the way I had stopped believing it in my gut. Stepping back into actively fast-plotting has brought the trust back. Of course what I’ll have at the end–at the end of the plotting, at the end of the first-drafting–will be a complete and utter mess. But…O.M.G. IT WILL BE THERE.

The contrast between how clear and happy my head feels as I plot this book to how it felt when trying to plot the last book is unbelievable. That one, the plot which I thought about, where I tried to track threads from the start to the end, where I asked myself questions about how something would work and then tried to find the answer–that one made me tangled and confused, tired and irritable. This plot, the one I’m pushing myself to speed through, is making my feel sparkly and creative and in possession of brain cells on fire. Add that to the excitement and anticipation of the fact that, if I can keep to this process, I will have A DRAFT at the end of this summer–a draft to chew up and spit out, to cut apart and glue back together, to kill darling after darling after darling….well, that feels like dancing.

It’s nice to be remembering.

Last week, diversity in books was the hot topic. At least in my world. The thread has faded a bit from the internet, but it hasn’t gone away. A few posts to share, and then a starting list from me.

From the Cybils, my source for so many of the books I love: Diverse Book Recommendations for #WeNeedDiverseBooks

From Jen Robinson at her Book Page: Roundup of Diversity-Themed Links I Shared this Week

From Mother Reader: The Ninth Annual 48 Hour Book Reader Challenge (Note: I have been wanting to do this challenge for years, and it has always been “a bad weekend for reading.” Yes, even I have the occasional one. And this year–my parents come visit on Thursday, my son graduates on Friday, and there will be major sleeping of the son and visiting of the family on Saturday. But you know what? What else am I going to do with Sunday except recover. So I’m thinking I will do my own, little, baby 24-hour challenge along with every one else. I could do it with picture books and read, like a gazillion. Or maybe a half-gazillion. Right? Right.)

And from Jen Robinson and Sarah Stevenson at Finding Wonderland, the 8th Annual Kidlitosphere Conference, FINALLY IN NORTHERN CALIFORNIA and already on my calendar.

And from me, because the only really good intentions are the ones with which you follow through, the list of books I put on hold at the library today, all from the longer list of titles I’ve been building from those #WeNeedDiverseBooks posts.

I’ve been kind of blue all day. It started with me reading all these sharp, short, and clever posts at #WeNeedDiverseBooks and knowing I wanted to jump in, but having this weird feeling that I…shouldn’t. All right, I’m risking showing off a few neuroses here, and I’m going to keep this part of the post short because this is so not about my worries, but I want to share because, well…it’s possible others are having some of these feelings, too. So, basically, my initial self-centered responses were a mix of:

  • I have been very lucky in terms of not having my identity attacked, ignored or dismissed–so lucky that I have no real stories to share.
  • As a  child, I wasn’t looking for other Jews/Jewish atheists in stories; I was looking for other insecure girls who escaped the world by curling up alone with a book. And I found plenty of those. So I basically got to spend my youth recognizing myself over and over and over in books. Again, lucky.
  • When I went to look at my shelves, I was hit with some guilt at the small number of books I had to include in the #WeNeedDiverseBooks photo I did post. Mixed in with recognition that most of the books I save on my shelf are favorites from my childhood and that, while I still believe them to be wonderful books, we are much further along now than we were then in showing the entire, real world in stories. We still have a long way to go, yes, but we’re moving. And mixed in, also, with the happiness that I do have these particular books in my life.

!!Weneed

  • A sense, obviously left over from when I was like FIFTEEN?!, that I am somehow not cool enough to join in this fight. I know…whatever THAT’s about! But I think, again, it’s tied to my feeling of luck, of privilege, of having escaped that isolation of NOT seeing myself in my chosen world. For pete’s sake, there were certainly plenty of times I didn’t see myself in the real world around me, but I did–time and time again–choose books over that world, so, you know…it worked. Because books always told me there were others like me. So how could I step up to the plate and speak “for” others who weren’t given that experience?

And then I started reading a few more of the posts. The signs. Seeing and hearing about the kids. And, honestly, the blueness turned to waves of sorrow. Because, crap, what we’re still doing to children by not representing them in stories. What we did to their parents. Worse, still, what we’re doing to all of them by representing the world as some narrow little definition of peoplehood, of reality, of cool.

So I gave myself a shake and told myself to shake off my stupid, self-centered fretting and shift my attitude. It is my fight, because I care about children and I care about stories, and if you tell me the two are not inextricably connected, I will argue with you even after I lose my voice. So here’s my commitment to myself. I will…

  • Actively look for books that represent the real world, the whole world. I’ll start by building a list of those everyone is mentioning/showing in their WeNeedDiverseBooks posts.
  • Buy more of these books.
  • Check out more of these books from my library.
  • Put in requests for my library buy more of these books.
  • Talk about these books on my blog and via social networking.
  • Talk more.
  • Push myself to include diversity in my own stories. This means getting past the slight laziness about doing research and getting past the bigger fear that I will say something wrong, depict someone stereotypically, offend someone or hurt their feelings. And I will do my best to find Beta readers who can help me avoid/correct all those things.

I don’t know if it’s enough. I don’t know if these are the right steps. But I know I’m doing something.

Join me?

And in case you can’t see the titles in the photo, they are:

This weekend, I’ve started writing out very basic scene cards, in prep for doing my own kind of Nano-Y first draft of a MG novel.

I say kind of, and I say Nano-Y, because I doubt I’m going to get where I want to go in a month of writing, at least not if the temp job I have continues at a mostly full-time pace. I know there are writers out there who manage, and maybe I will be able to some day, but I’m allowing myself some gentle space as this all falls under a big life-transition umbrella for me, too. I also say kind of, because I’ve never DONE NaNo, so I don’t actually  know the process/guidelines. Instead, I’m basing the process on one I did a few years ago when I, yes, wrote a book in a week (150 pages of wonderful dreck in five days). I won’t be doing it in a week again, either. (For more information about the Book in a Week idea, see April Kihlstrom’s BIAW site. For more on NaNoWriMo, check out their main page.) And I’m starting by creating a very basic card in Scrivener for each scene.

Here’s the info I put on each scene card:

  • Protagonist’s Scene Goal: The ACTION they want to accomplish in this scene. The action part of it is important to me, because without reminding myself about it, I can easily end up in some nebulous sloshy place, a lot like when Milo stalls out in the Doldrums in The Phantom TollboothYes, character layers and theme are critical, but I’ve gotten so slogged down in those lately, in early drafts, that I’m trying to push them away for now. They’ll come out as I draft and they’ll deepen as I revise.
  • Obstacles: Some of these are from antagonists. (And I’m noting those specifically this time around. The last time I did this, I was really weak in the main antagonist’s story line and had to kluge it in. Which I think worked (no complaints about this in the rejections), but it was a lot of work. So I just want to keep the antagonist stuff further up front in my mind, even in this early dump. Other obstacles will come from the protagonist himself, some from his allies, and one or a few from the environment around him.
  • Response: The basics of what my hero does in reaction to the obstacles. This helps me make sure he fails, fails, fails for a while, the starts to gain strength and fight back with more power.
  • End Scene: The action/moment on which the scene ends. This was a huge help last time when I was trying to blast through from scene to scene, because it gave me a rolling momentum to keep going, keep going, keep going.

And that’s it. Just dipping back in to this method felt so good. I’ve gotten very bogged down in some mix of plotting and drafting in the last couple of years, at least on my longer projects. (Possibly one of the reasons I’ve fallen so in love with the picture book form.) Somehow this tangled mix of needing to just write and needing to know where I’m going was, I think, partially responsible for the historical YA ending up in a drawer for now. (The other responsible parts being the historical and the YA!) And then I’ve done a few false starts on the MG, which make me feel like the YA tangle is looming over me again.

So I want to do it differently. I want to step back to the process that worked so well for my last MG. While I’m not shooting for a whole first draft in a week this time, I am shooting for that same just keep swimming writing technique. The one where I don’t take a break at the end of a scene, but click on the next scene card and write more. The one where revision ideas about past scenes get scribbled on a sticky note and attached to the print out. The one where questions get tossed into Scrivener’s Notes section. The one where I use a LOT of brackets around phrases like [MAYBE A SAMURAI. MAYBE A MIME]. The one where I recognize and remember that THIS DRAFT IS AND SHOULD BE ABSOLUTE GARBAGE, and all the little changes I might even consider making will be totally irrelevant, because AT LEAST 99.99999999999994% of the words will disappear or change. Seriously, last time I did this, when I sat down to read through the first draft, I didn’t even get halfway through, because I realized almost instantly that I’d written my protagonist as an observer and given all the take-charge stuff to his sidekick. Who needed to stay a sidekick. So I started plotting and writing again, making sure I kept my hero active, active, active, and THAT became the so-much-better “first” draft I took through my critique group. And THAT flowed so much more smoothly and effectively, because the garbage came first.

I want that again.

So what does this all have to do with Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle? Well, mostly, she’s on my mind, because I was talking to a friend whose little girl has fallen in love with Amelia Bedelia, who for some reason makes me think of Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle. Maybe because, in my world, as goofy as Amelia is, she has huge doses more of common sense than do the people for whom she works. Kind of like Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle. And, today, I’m thinking of Mrs. PW because she had all those wonderful cures. Remember? “The Won’t-Pick-Up-Toys Cure.” “The Answer-Backer Cure.” “The Slow-Eater-Tiny-Bite-Taker-Cure.”

I think I need an Unsticker-To-It Cure. Oh, I’ll stick to my story. I’ve proved that to myself, in a good way, on these picture book revisions, as well as in a not-so-good way on the YA. What I need to stick to is this process, the rapid pacing, and the pushing through all the distractions and doubts.

So, you know, if one of you could turn to your partner and say, “What are you going to do with this child?!” and then go off to work and totally abandon the other one, who would then call a friend and says, “What am I going to do with this child,” and could listen when the friend says, “Call Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle. She can fix any child,”  well, this child would be very appreciative. Meanwhile, she’ll keep writing.

Life does keep coming, doesn’t it.

Here’s what’s going on around here:

  • The Picture Book from Hell has regressed back to something gentler and kinder. I backed myself up to an earlier version I had actually kind of liked, and I’m working on a new pass at that. If the creek doesn’t rise, that will go off to the critique group this afternoon.
  • I’ve been looking for work, and a lovely temp job came my way a couple of weeks ago. I’m writing grants again and helping out with a little social media, and I get to work part of the time on-site and part of the time at home, which is a nice balance for now. I have to tell you, the shoot-up fix I’m getting of feeling efficient, productive, and effective is doing wonders for the old morale. I’m also getting back in touch with that feeling that compressed time is often a better place for me than too much leisure. I’m not getting to my writing every day, but the stories are staying in my head, and I am moving forward on stories. And I haven’t noticed any major life pieces falling through the cracks.
  • I’m getting to a stage in the picture-book revisions where I’m thinking there is time to look at the MG novel again. Many years ago, I did April Kihlstrom’s Book in a Week program, and it was an amazing way to get that horrible (yes, horrible) first draft down. That book went through many revisions and came to complete fruition. While it isn’t published (yet!), it has stuck with me as one of the most satisfactory writing experiences I’ve ever had. I don’t have an empty week in the foreseeable future, so I’m thinking about doing my own semi-Nano thing. This weekend, I’m going to take a look at the scene cards I already have in Scrivener and see about setting up a folder just for BIAW/Nano-y scene cars. For me, this means writing out a scene goal for the protagonist and the antagonist, listing obstacles and protagonist reactions, and then dropping in a line or two about how the ending will take us onto the next scene. Last time, this was enough for me to keep flipping through each scene card and just writing. I want to see if I can get there again on this book.
  • Yoga continues. It’s one of the things I promised myself I would not let go of when work came along, and so far I’m managing to keep that promise to myself. As the person who absolutely hated yoga for decades, I am constantly resurprised at how much I love it now. I can feel my body getting stronger and my mind getting calmer, and, heck, yes, I’m an addict. But when I was younger, the idea of heading to exercise after a whole day of work just always seemed more exhausting, and this past week, I find myself getting into the car at the end of the day and looking forward to getting to class. Yeah, and all brain growth and change stops in the twenties or thirties. Not.
  • It’s almost May, which means HS graduation is right around the corner. After that comes summer. And then we’ll be moving our son out to a dorm and watching him start the college life. There’s definitely a sense of mixed anticipation and tension in the air, but I think we’re doing okay. No heads have been bitten off, and everybody’s still talking to each other. And I’m not crying yet. But can I just say….really?

Ian

Happy Friday, everyone!

I give you two definitions:

Persist [per-sist] verb: To continue steadfastly or firmly in some state, purpose, course of action, or the like, especially in spite of opposition, remonstrance, etc.: to persist in working for world peace; to persist in unpopular political activities

          -Dictionary.com

“Insanity: Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

          -Albert Einstein (Supposedly; I wasn’t there.)

And all I’m saying is that sometimes, with revision, it can feel like a pretty darned fine line.

Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.
Read more at http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/a/alberteins133991.html#CrccpM4TWOF60oOb.99D
Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.
Read more at http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/a/alberteins133991.html#CrccpM4TWOF60oOb.99

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