Keep moving, keep moving. No big writing discussion or process theories here today. Just a quick little post about, yes…Alice.

As a kid, I remember that we couldn’t leave food out on the counters, or one of the cats would get to it. But, since I’ve “grown up,” my cats have been amazingly non-food-grabby. I’m not saying that the roast chicken smell wouldn’t bring them running, or that their tails didn’t quiver if I opened a can of tuna. In general, though, baked goods were safe, and it was no big deal if the dishes didn’t get moved into the dishwasher before we went to bed.

And then came Alice. Overall, she is a smart little cat. (How do I know that? Well, sure, it’s based on the fact that she loves us and wants to spend time with us and hasn’t yet run (hard) into too many walls chasing the laser pointer. But still…) There are just a couple of things…Like she walks across the front of the stove top. A propane stove. With open pilot flames. She did this once when the kettle was on, with a full flame burning under it. Call it bravery, if you will, but I thought all cats came from the factory with more sense.

And then there’s the food.

  • She jumps on the counter to get her face into her cat food before you’re ready to put it down, either in the bowl, the can, or the spoon.
  • She licks at plates we leave on the counter.
  • She puts her face and whole body into the sink to investigate what’s there.

So far, I  know, pretty cat-normal, if slightly aggravating. The kind of thing you could say to yourself, okay, sure, these would be good cat edibles in the wild.

The other day, though, I caught her licking the beaters from the electric mixer. Which I had been using for…

GLUTEN-FREE BREAD MIX.

Oh, yeah. Because every wild cat LOVES flour and water and butter and egg.

My new kitty and all her charms! I feel like I could start a blog, a la Jo Knowles’ THINGS WE PUT ON FRED. Only we’d call ours, THINGS ALICE STICKS HER NOSE INTO.

Probably a lot of you have already seen and listened to this “illustrated interview” clip from Terry Gross’ Fresh Air interview with Maurice Sendak. If not, go watch it now. Bring tissues.

And probably as many of you have also read Jo Knowles’ lovely post about Sendak’s “Live your life” quote from the interview. If not,,,you got it. Go read it now. More tissues.

Jo says so many things in this post that struck me when I listened to Sendak talking. I, too, thought how different he sounded in this interview than when I’d listened to him years ago. I felt immense happiness for him, for the love and happiness he seemed to have finally settled into, and I felt huge sadness for it, seemingly, having come so late. Overall, the happiness seemed to take the fore, but still I wept at the loss I was hearing–all the people who had gone from his life.  He told Terri, “Live your life. Live your life. Live your life.”

In her post, Jo talks thoughtfully and beautifully about what this means and how we are supposed to do it. She says, with all the honesty & truth she always shares with us, “And yet…What about the days when you aren’t sure you can do it anymore? The days when everything you read or hear feels like it is shoving you deeper into the darkness.”

What about those days?

Or what about the days that aren’t so bad, but we’re just that littlest bit tired of carpeing each diem? The days when what we really want is to retreat from the world, to curl deep into a fleece sleeping bag, with only our nose out to breathe and our eyes out to scan the pages of the book we’ve brought into our retreat? The days when life is right out there, but getting to it means yet another day climbing in and out of a car, driving down yet another series of streets, meeting people’s eyes and nodding as you pass? What about the days when your goals are standing in front of you, waving penants, shouting, “You said you wanted to achieve us! You said we were important to you! You said you were making us a priority.”?

What about those days?

Obviously, it’s a balance. We can only output so much before we have to take some deep, restful breaths to recharge. Push, push, push, and you’ll push yourself right over the edge and crash at the bottom of the cliff. We know this logically. And, yet…when we do stop for the recharge, isn’t there often that little voice whispering at us to…live our life?

I think part of what Mr. Sendak was talking about that day was love. Love. Making sure you do seize the parts of the day that you can share with those you love, making sure you don’t waste them in bickering or sniping or silent anger. Making sure you look at the light in the sky that particular morning as you make your way to work; making sure you, as Jo says, “Pick up your cat and blow a raspberry on his belly.”

And, I’m guessing, this means extending the same love to ourselves on “those days.” Knowing that they are part of living life, even if most of us would pick a different gift from the Lucky Dip if we had our choice.  Spending time in that bickering or sniping or silent anger with ourselves about it…well, yeah, that just doesn’t help.

Here’s to all the wisdom Mr. Sendak left us with–his beautiful books; his words to Terri; and, yes, his intelligent, incisive, sarcastic crankiness. And here’s to Jo, for once again opening her heart to us, letting us all in, and giving us a way to talk about it.

This week, I’m hoping to get through some chapters of Save the Cat. I just barely started on the structure section, where he shows the basic outline he uses and starts explaining both sections. So far, the things he says are making little bells chime in my plot brain, which is good. I managed to work up a thematic premise for my WIP, and–as he does in his examples–I found a way to show that in an early piece of dialogue.

Which of course, will almost certainly change. But still…

The other thing I’m doing is going back to my shelves and rereading some of the YA books that have really hit me, in the tightness of their prose, in the way they move seamlessly through time without feeling in all those details of time-actually-passing. In some of these, the story takes place over a longer period of time than just a few days, and yet the pacing moves quickly and effectively. The best way I can describe it is a lack of any unnecessary clutter.

So far, the books on my to-read-again/take-apart list are:

I’d love to hear any suggestions from you. (Despite the apparent slant of my starting list, the books don’t have to have the word “girl” in the title!) Remember, I’m looking for YA, in which the author keeps their focus really tight, with almost no padding between scenes, and yet manages to convey the passage of time without confusion. I want books in which the story thread is almost always at the forefront, not shadowed or taken over by transitions or background material. (I’m not at all saying that I haven’t read wonderful books that do use a slower lead-in to scene action or take more space for those transitions. It’s just that I’m trying to push myself to a new place, structurally, and I need to be looking at some good examples of stories in which that kind of structure is used.)

Thanks ahead of time for any recommendations you want to leave in the comments!

If you read Jo Knowles blog (and you should), you’ll know the importance that truth holds in her writing–not just in what appears on the page, but in the truths she explores and pushes herself to look at, as she writes. Her commitment to these truths is so clear in all her books. And I’ve been thinking a lot about this kind of truth as I work on my WIP, and the fact that, if I find my truth in the story, it’s probably (hopefully) going to resonate as some truth to my readers. Even if those truths aren’t the same.

I’m not going to go into a deep review of John Green’s latest book, The Fault in our Stars, because, honestly, I don’t want to take apart what, for me, was just a pretty pure emotional reaction of absolutely loving the story, the characters, and the writing. I do want to say, though, that if you’re looking for a wonderful example of what I think Jo is talking about, go read this book. Are all the facts real? Who knows, although, in Green’s acknowledgements, he does say “I cheerfully ignored [expertise on medical matters] when it suited my whims.”

And, really, it doesn’t matter. What does matter is this story Green tells, a story of cancer in so many layers and ramifications it could easily have become heavy and overwhelming, and yet it is light and warm and funny and…true. True to the characters, so, so true to the narrator, and true to me. I have to admit, I had one of those reactions I seem to be having lately, along the lines of, how in the world did this man get so wise, so young? And so talented, so able to magically write that wisdom into an absolutely non-lecturing, non-preaching book?

However he did it, he did. And I’m holding this book up, along with Jo’s, as something to keep pushing myself toward.

Yes, I know it’s January 3th. Yes, I know that’s a little late for resolution-type posts. But, hey, I’ve been busy writing and working, which–since those are a big part of my goals for 2012–I believe is a satisfactory excuse.

Every year, Laura Purdie Salas picks a theme. I like this idea so much better than resolutions, which–in my head–seem to take the metaphorical tone of that anvil in the coyote-road runner cartoons. You know, the one that hovers over the right spot just until the coyote stops under it, then drops…WHAMMO!

Themes are softer.

My themes are usually a word. This year, after two months of upper-respiratory plague running through the family, my word came easily.

RECOMMIT

Now, I do have to say that, with Son over his pneumonia and me over my bronchitis and Husband over HIS pneumonia, I am starting to realize that I didn’t just spend November and December bailing out on my writing. I know, I know–it should have been obvious that they AND I were tired and drained, and not a whole lot of writing gets done at times like that. Yes, I know I was too hard on myself.

There is, however, a silver lining. Because struggling so hard (and pretty much failing) to get any writing, revising, or thinking done during those weeks was a big wake-up call about how much I dislike not making progress. It was also a big wake-up call about what I’ve been focusing on for the past year or so–the WHEN of publication.

It’s a dream. It’s a wonderful dream, and it’s one we all have. But it comes with churning and stress and panic-modes that do NOTHING to help us write. I’m stating the obvious here, but it just really came home to me at a gut level toward the end of 2011.

I want to write. I want to work on my stories. I want to push myself to dedicate some time, as many days as I can, to making my books and my craft better. THAT is what I missed these past few weeks, not the idea of seeing my book on a bookstore shelf or someone’s e-reader. Of course I want that. But the timeline needs to return to “someday,” and back off from drumming insistently at “how soon?!”

I’ve been there. I’ve concentrated on the the actual project–the characters, the plotline, the prose. I’ve done it. And it’s time to do it again. That’s why my word for 2012 is “recommit,” not just “commit.” Because, for me, it’s a return to doing this writing thing the way I really need to.

I seem not to be alone in this feeling. Susan Taylor Brown talked about it on Facebook.  Check out Kelly R. Fineman’s series of posts on commitment, starting here and moving forward chronologically, and do not miss Jo Knowles’ post, Defining “Work” and Another Invitation.

Do you have a theme or a word for 2012? Did you make some writing resolutions. I’d love to hear about yours, and I wish us all the best of luck in keeping them in mind during the next twelve months!

Happy New Year!

Okay, Tiffany Aching isn’t Steven Tyler. But if we’re learning anything from Jo Knowles’ “unintentional blog series” about Tyler, it’s that writing advice comes where you find it. And, probably, most people would agree that Terry Pratchett would be right up there with authors we could all learn from.

BTW, if you didn’t know who Tiffany Aching is without that Wikipedia link, stop reading this post , go out to the bookstore or get online, and buy yourself a copy of The Wee Free Men. If you’re smart, you’ll just buy the whole series now and save yourself the extra gas and shipping charges. And then be prepared to spend the next few days laughing hysterically, having moments of philosophical clarity, and pretty much bowing down to the genius that is Pratchett.

Anyhoo…

Tiffany Aching is a witch. Not your typical witch, unless you’re talking typical to Discworld. She’s a witch for many reasons–the first and foremost probably being that she chooses to be one. Another reason, though, is that Tiffany has First and Second Thoughts. Occasionally, she has Third Thoughts, but when that happens her Second Thoughts step in and say, “Let’s all calm down, please, because this is quite a small head.”  (She’s only nine years old.) Tiffany’s thoughts let her see things more clearly than other people; they let her stand outside herself and observe what’s really going on, separated from her own feelings at the moment. It’s a powerful ability, better, in my opinion, than all the magic the wizards at Unseen University can do.

So where does the writing lesson come in? Here: To really use these thoughts, to really see past all the illusion and even all the things she’d like to believe, Tiffany has to be still. She has to, as another witch tells her early in the book, “open your eyes…and then open your eyes again.” She has to look.

I’m a bit stuck on my picture book revision. I’m at the point where I really have to get closer to the dynamic/relationship/conflict between my young hero and the other character. Which means–yes, here we go again–really figuring out what each of them wants and what that want makes them do. Once again: goal+action. You’d think I’d have it down by now.

All weekend, I was busy with weekend stuff, but I thought maybe I could let the problem bubble away in the back of my mind and see what that back-of-my-mind came up with. The internet is full of writing articles and blogs about people getting brainstorms in the shower or while they’re cooking dinner or just before they go to sleep. Well, I occasionally get this happening to me, but not all that often. For whatever reason, when my brain is showering or cooking or drifting into unconsciousness, it is pretty busy doing just that. The membrane between front and back seems to be relatively non-porous.

Apparently, when I want to figure out a story problem, I have to–yes, you’re getting it–I have to be still. Like Tiffany.

So this week, I’m scheduling time for stillness. I will take myself away from the computer. I will stretch out and close my eyes. I will open them to look at my characters. And then I will open them again.

I’m betting I actually get somewhere.

There are times when it’s easy to get overwhelmed by all the information on the Internet, especially when we tell ourselves we’re supposed to be keeping track of it all and applying it to our writing lives.

Um…impossible.

I have a long list of blogs in my blog reader, and on any given day, I can look there & find something to update or instruct me about the latest technology or publishing changes, to motivate and inspire me about the writing life, to reassure me that I’m not the only one wondering what it’s all about.

So just to mention a few of my favorites today and to say thanks…

Obviously, these are just a few of the blogs I check in at every week, but they are definitely some of my staples.

Have any thank-yous to bloggers you’d like to share? Feel free to drop them in the comments.

I’m a scene and a half into the second draft of my historical WIP. The last few days, with writing time, have been wonderful–just letting myself relax back into the happiness of putting words on the page. And, yes, with all my words about research, I’m still leaving placeholders for specifics. I hunt for a while and, if I really can’t find the details I need, I add them to a list I’m calling RESEARCH I NEED HELP WITH. And when the list has a few important items on it, I’ll take myself down to San Jose Library and prostrate myself at the feet of the research librarians there. But the pull to write is there, and I am listening.

The words are flowing, my fingers are doing slow jigs on the keyboard. And, yet, as I write, I marvel at the way I can feel so good and still be telling myself that maybe it’s not fast enough, maybe the tension isn’t high enough, maybe I’m not getting enough conflict in, am I seeding enough of the problems early…

Bottom line, I am wondering whether it’s going to be anywhere good enough to catch an agent or an editor and make them say, “Want!”

I’ve been nudging the questions away, because–for pete’s sake–it’s only the second draft. It took a blog post from Jo Knowles this morning, though, to really wake me up and remind me to write. Just write. As if, Jo says by way of Steven Tyler, “there’s no one in the room.”

That’s what I’ll be doing this morning.

Thanks, Jo.

The Writing Path. That’s part of my blog title, but I haven’t mused out loud about it here for a while. There’s a thought, or a few semi-connected thoughts, that have been simmering in my mind for a while. I’ve put off blogging, because I don’t want it to sound like whining, but what the heck. I’ll just try and edit out the whine!

For many years, I thought my dream was to have nothing to do with my life but write fiction. Note, this was probably because what I was doing full-time was writing computer manuals! :) I thought that, if we never needed me to work for another penny for the rest of my life, I’d be just fine with working on my fiction–and, of course, getting published–but that whatever they paid me would be enough.

Part of me still feels that way, but it’s tinged with some more realism. Fiction-writing doesn’t pay enough and never will. I’m ready to deal with that, as long as I don’t spend too much time figuring out what that means for my hourly rate! And, yes, if we won the lottery, it would make those numbers a lot easier to face. And, obviously, the day that someone comes to me and says, yes, we love, love, and want your stories…sign here, I’ll be whipping out my pen and coming back to this same topic, from a very different angle.

Today, though, the bottom line is that I want to write fiction, and I want to earn some money. Right now, our family is still at the point where it makes sense for me to be writing and editing from home, and sort of seeing where I can grow skills and connections to bring in more than I did the year before. In four years, my son will be going to college, and my goal for that time is that I can feel like I’m contributing enough from this desk that I don’t have to move my stuff into some other desk in a cubicle somewhere. I don’t know, right now, if that will be possible. And, if not, I’ll take the other step and keep the juggling going.

This goal, however, sometimes makes me feel like pulling out the magic telescope to look into my future, and see if I’m doing that juggling “correctly” right now.  (I know, not a question that can be answered.) Between my fiction, some nonfiction articles I’ve got going, prepping for conferences and workshops, and keeping on top of a bit of marketing, I feel as though I’m working full-time for the first time in years. (Hugs and kisses to my husband who made sure to tell me that I am.) I have to tell you, overall, it feels fantastic. Yes, stressful; yes, scary; yes, tiring, but…wow. I love being a mom, and I love my son, but short-term-goal-responses and rewards? Not a lot of that in parenting. Taking on a proposal, getting it accepted, and carrying it through to it’s end product? I always loved that feeling, even with those computer manuals, and it’s great to be getting back to experiencing it again.

And then you flip the coin and look at the money. Last year, I reached a point where the numbers got bigger than zero, and it seems like I may be on that stage of the writing path where I can see this continuing…even if, from day to day, I can’t see how or in what direction. Enough to feel like, in four years, this would be enough to really help with college and life? Um…no…Enough to feel like maybe, maybe, I’m taking the steps to get there? A bit.

Basically, I like ths part of the path. I’m busy and happy, and I have a family who’s totally working with me on going through the changes. The trade-off? Well, you can probably guess. I’m not writing fiction full-time. In fact, some weeks, I’m finding it hard put to do the juggling that will get me that first hour-a-day-for-fiction I’m trying to commit to. I’m learning that I can get through pieces of a couple of projects in a day–with some time for checking off phone calls and appointments, runs to the grocery store, TIME WITH MY FAMILY, and maybe even some exercise. And when I look at it like that, I think I’m doing pretty well and it’s a sane way to be living. Last week and today, those two projects for the day were getting out some conference proposals and an outline for a magazine article (one they ARE paying me for!). For the rest of the week, I’m going to try and slide back in that hour-of-fiction first and do some more work on my WIP. And I think that’s good and okay and, again…sane.

I have a few role models out there, from people I meet on blogs and other social-networking sites. People who are juggling all this and more (usually with full-time jobs or part-time-out-of-the-house jobs or younger children). People who still manage to make forward progress on their ficton and do it beautifully. People like Jo Knowles whose books, if you haven’t read them, are testimonials to the idea of staying true and focused with your fiction in the midst of many, many other commitments. And Beth Revis who has written a book I haven’t read, but which I am impatiently waiting for, all while she was a full-time (and I’m guessing brilliant) high-school teacher. If I could even manage to teach high school, you can bet I wouldn’t have much time, energy, or imagination left.

And the lesson I take from these people, and many others like them, is that you just have to keep stepping forward. In some sense, it doesn’t matter how big or small those steps are, or if you know which way they’re taking you, as long as they’re heading out from where you are at the moment. As long as you aren’t standing still. I picture my writing path a lot like the picture at the top of this blog–a gentle path through soft green and brown woods. Except that along that path are doors–maybe instead of forks. I can’t see what doors are coming, or which ones will feel like the right ones–at any given time–to open and walk through. But I know they’re there, and I’ll get to them and be able to make some kind of choice…as long as I keep traveling.

There. Not too much whining, I hope. I’d love to hear from all of you how you feel about your path right now and the steps you’re taking.

As I said back here, I grew up on folk music, including The Weavers–Pete Seeger, Ronnie Gilbert, Fred Hellerman, & Lee Hays. Not quite so many years back, but enough, I watched the 1982 documentary “Wasn’t That a Time,” about their 1980 reunion. What’s the one thing I remember the most strongly?

Lee Hays saying this about their experiences during the McCarthy era:

“If it wasn’t for the honor, I’d just as soon not have been blacklisted.”

This week is Banned Books Week. You can read about it at the ALA website.

I think it’s an important week. My world is highly made up of writing blogs, like yours, and I’m pretty sure we all hear a lot about censorship, about parents deciding a book can’t be taught in a school, carried in a library, offered to students. That a writer can’t come and talk to their kids. And, yes, thank goodness, we hear a lot about the other parents and the teachers and the librarians and the school administrators who fight on the other side.

We also, I think, hear a lot of joking. Like Lee Hays, we know–writers know–that humor is a way of coping with pain, that it can diffuse a battle and, sometimes, get a few more people to listen. We talk about how censorship will get an author more readers; that if a book is banned, its numbers will probably go up on Amazon.

Except, really, it’s just not all that funny.

Here are a few posts & articles that I think are important to read:

Guess what, guys? It hurts. It hurts the writers & it hurts the kids. How many decades later, Lee Hays was still angry and bitter and sad. Rightly so.

When I was in high school, a teacher got reprimanded for having us read a book, and told he couldn’t teach the book in class. I think it was Robert Cormier’s The Chocolate War. I was furious. At least I thought I was. I didn’t realize how much angrier I could get until the School Board president (at our request? Another teacher’s request?) came to “explain” their choice. That was probably the first time I truly realized how absolutely head-against-brick infuriating it can be for a kid to come up against an adult who just refuses to see or say the truth, to admit what they have done, to accept responsiblity–in full–for the choice they have made.

It was “not censorship.”

Yeah, right.

What changed in my life that day? Did I narrow my choices of books? Duh. No. Did I decide that I was going to take every chance I got to read a book an adult told me I shouldn’t? Sure. Did I decide that no authority figure would ever get automatic respect from me? Of course.

So, all in all, not a bad thing.

Except for the anger. The brick-wall fury. The helplessness.

Those feelings should not line the path that a kid takes to a book.

Read banned books. Read unbanned books. Give them to your kids. Give them to your friends’ kids. Give them to your schools.

And how’s about we do it 52 weeks a year!

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