Reaching for Powerful Words

I’m thinking about the reading I’ve been doing since the election. For a few days, honestly, I couldn’t find anything to read. This has only happened to me a couple of times in my life, and it’s always scary. Because…not being able to pick a book? Not being able to lose myself in a story, in characters, in words? That’s absolutely terrifying.

Then one day I knew I wanted to re-read Kristen Cashore’s Bitterblue. It’s the third of her Graceling books, and–for me–it’s her best. It’s the story of a young woman who has inherited a kingdom, a kingdom full of people whom her father controlled and tortured, manipulated with his mind, forced to do terrible things. Memories are traps for everyone in her world, including herself, places of gaping holes and sudden transports into the past. Bitterblue’s need is to learn and understand as much as she can about the past, to fill in the holes, and find some way for everyone to move forward from the travesty they all lived through. While Bitterblue is active and physical and well able to defend herself, she is a hero of intelligence, of logic and code-breaking and puzzle-solving. I think I needed to seep myself in “smart,” in the power of someone to ease people’s pain through analysis and thinking and direct speaking.

Since then, I’ve stayed in fantasy–reading through several books by Cinda Williams Chima. Chima’s books are tightly written and draw me easily into the heads of characters who look head on at their own problems and at the larger problems of the world around them, who tackle those problems with force and focus, and who–after many losses–win the bigger picture.

I think what I’m craving in my reading these days, is the feeling that we can do this. That we can take on the next four years and, frankly, kick our enemies’ asses. For now, I’m finding this reassurance in fantasy, in words that don’t look a whole lot like ours, that give me some distance and escape from the crap we’re facing, even as–at the same time–they maybe give me strength to believe in the battle.

I think I’m also, though, craving words of power. Both Cashore and Chima are good writers, strong writers. Their books don’t lose me in vagueness or mushy prose–Cashore, in particular, has done an amazing thing in writing a book about mental powers that feels anything but inactive. I’m not sure I could read a literary novel right now if you paid me. I know that, at some point, I’ll step out of the fantasy world and back into reality, but when I do I think I’ll still be craving strength and energy from the story words. I rarely read poetry, never have, but I found myself thinking this morning that maybe I needed to get a collection of Adrienne Rich’s poems and read through one every day or so. For the power and the strength in her words.

What I did do was track down Maya Angelou’s Still I Rise and listen to it again. “Does my sassiness upset you?” No, it doesn’t. It expands my heart.

Has your reading been impacted by the election results? Have you noticed yourself reaching for a certain book, a certain kind of book? What books of power have you turned to? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments!

Leveling Up on Craft (Hopefully)

I wrote this post just before the election. And since then it has felt off and unimportant and irrelevant to be sticking it up on the Internet. It felt all of that to even be prioritizing my writing. But as I talked about here, creativity is still important, even if all it does is let us fall into a good place for a while so we can step back out and do battle. And maybe it’s important for the impact it has on our readers.

Anyway, I wrote a little bit last weekend, and that did help. This week and next are regular-life-busy, and I think still having all this other crud in my head makes the focus and time commitment harder. But regular-life will settle down and I will carve pieces of time and focus out to stick with my WIP and make progress. Because…and here’s what I was thinking about way back when.

I had a realization the other day. Well, kind of a two-fold realization. The first part was that I love this WIP enough and am writing some stuff in it that, I think, means it could be–if not The Book that gets me out there–the book that takes me to the next level of my writing.

The second part of the realization was that it could just as easily NOT be. I feel like I’m at the point where I can make just about any scene work–as a scene. I can create conflict, I can pull the balance of dialogue and action together, I can polish the words until they shine in an actual good way. But…I also feel like I could be doing that into infinity and beyond, over and over and over, without somehow making the story work as a whole. I can make tension build to a turning point in a chapter, but I’m not all that sure I can do it well/right over the story as a whole. I can produce, if need be, a set of perfectly fine, even good, chapters that still don’t make a book that holds together, that engages over all the pages, that keeps people reading to the end.

And I kind of want to do that.

So this next year is about getting off the plateau I’m on and climbing to the next peak.

climbing

The first step in this path, I can identify: Finish this draft, with care. I’m on Draft 3, and it’s the first one that feels like…something. I’m making myself slow down, get to some actual depth in each scene, reach for that truth about my main character and his journey. So steady progress on this, but without rushing, that’s where I’m at.

And then…I don’t know. I know there’s a new/different kind of learning for me here, and I know that recognizing the goal is a good thing. But I still don’t see the steps of the path clearly. I will probably do some more reading/re-reading of craft books–so if you have any new ones to suggest, please stick the titles in the comments! I am looking into more in-depth workshops and learning programs–specifically, I’m waiting to hear about next year’s Nevada SCBWI mentoring program. I may end up hiring a good editor, but that may stretch the old budget a bit too far. And I will ask my critique group and possibly some Beta readers to do a whole-manuscript read, focusing on the connections and the overall story arcs.

So I expect I’ll be exploring all this here at the blog. And I’d love to hear from any of you who have found yourself at a place where you wanted to level up–what you tried, what worked, what didn’t…it’s all helpful and good to hear about!

Writing in the Midst of it All

Okay, my thoughts here are going to be nothing new and certainly nothing profound. But I’ve had a block in my writing all week (Anyone else? Yeah, I thought so.), and I’m hoping processing it here a bit will free me up to get back to my story. Which needs to happen.

My Facebook feed is filled with posts from other writers, because, well, that’s one of my biggest tribes. And I’m hearing so much the past few days about how we need to write, we need to keep putting out words, we need to give stories to children–stories that help keep their hearts and minds and arms open. And I believe this.

Except, I don’t always believe it. Partially, this is probably because for me, reading has always been more of an escape than anything else. Books do inspire me about writing, but I haven’t ever had that connection so many other people talk about–that a book turns their life around. Okay, wait, no–Martha Beck’s Finding Your Own North Star did have a profound influence on me. But that’s nonfiction, and I was in my forties before I read it.

Also, while I am extremely aware that words won the Presidential election (empty, empty, nothing words, from my pov), I also know that there were wonderful, strong words on the other side, my side, and they didn’t win the election. So, I don’t know…I’m a very inactive person who is realizing she had darned well better find some actions to do, soon, and I’m struggling with believing that my words can do enough.

But…oh, you knew there would be a “but.” I have to write. I believe in self-care, and I know that a me without writing is not a me who’s going to be happy or strong enough to do much else. And, like I said, logically (and usually emotionally), I totally know that words have power.

So here’s what I’m telling myself. I am working on a story these days that has a hero I love. He is not diverse, in any of the ways we often use that word. But I think he is part of a personality population that sometimes, maybe often, does get overlooked, ignored, not understood and not recognized. And if, if, I can tell his story in a way that one day, one child, might actually see themselves in this hero and feel better, then…well, maybe doing that is a part of all this–this active fight that I think we have to take on. So I’m coming back to the commitment I made earlier this year–to write more slowly and write more deeply and paint this true character onto the page. As best I can. Even if, for now, the only one who benefits is me.

MG Lunch Break…Come See What (and How) We’re Reading

blog post or few ago, I said I had various reasons for starting up my blog again. And one of them is very cool–I got invited to join a great team at another blog, the MG Lunch Break writers and readers.

In their non-virtual  lives, these writers meet in the real world, to have lunch and to talk about the middle-grade books they’re reading…from the point of view of the writing craft.

Because of the day job (there’s that work/life balance thing I mentioned a while back), I can’t join them for the actual lunches…

sad

But the blog definitely felt like a way into my feelings about needing to work on my craft, finding a way to move my current WIP and my writing to the next level. What’s one of the best way to learn about writing–read books in your genre and actively examine how the authors do what they do. And share thoughts and ideas with other people doing the same thing.

So this was an invite I was not going to pass up. I’m in. I am pretty sure I know what my first book will be, but no reveal here yet. Check out the blog, though, and the great posts the other contributors have put up. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed!

The Things We Don’t Let Ourselves Feel

This morning, I watched Hillary Clinton’s last ad for her campaign. You can see it here. As is typical for me when everyone is raving about how great something is, I started out cynical. It’s well done, but it uses words advertisers could and probably would us for any candidate, including her opponent.  Yes, it’s more true for her, obviously, but still…unbelievable as it is, there are people who would honestly say that about him.

And then I got to the end. Where you hear Hillary’s voice saying, “I’m Hillary Clinton, and I approve this message.”

And I started tearing up. It took me a second to realize why, and then I got it. Because it was a woman’s voice saying those words. For a campaign for the Presidency. A super smart, capable, practical, get-things-done woman. And, once again, as has happened to me so many times since Hillary won the primary, it came home to me how over-ready I am to have this happen, to have a woman in the White House. How much it really, really means to me.

Logically, I have always known that life is harder for women, as a group. My mother was one of the first women to be accepted, attend, and graduate from UC Davis’ School of Veterinary Medicine. And it’s not just in my personal life, it’s all around us–look at the numbers, look at the imbalance, look at the subtle, “well-meaning” comments. But I’ve also stayed out of that imbalance, in many ways, for myself. I have a father who thought it was a dream come true that he met a woman in the same field of his, a woman who wanted to join him in running their own business. I have two sisters, no brothers, so–if there was going to be even a subtle, unintentional bias in my own family–it didn’t happen. I majored in fields that were heavily populated by women and that were, in all probability, discouraging to the men who wanted to be there. And, overall, I have pursued careers that have a high percentage of women doing the job. But I can see and I can interpret. I know sexism is out there, I know it still governs so very much of the way our world operates. And as I get older, I get angrier.

Still, I have been surprised every time, in the past few months, that the tears have come. Surprised at myself for wanting this so badly, for craving the possibility so deeply. Because why?

Because we so often don’t let ourselves feel the emotions. We have to work in and through this world, we have to deal with the realities of the way things are. And so many of the people we know, who might not get how important this is, are nice…very nice. And funny. And engaging. And we have conversations that don’t include politics, and they like and respect us and we like and respect them. And we push down the need, the craving, and the anger, so that we can function in the society we have.

It’s not just about women’s rights and women’s opportunities, obviously. I grew up knowing a relative who had been in a concentration camp, other relatives who had left Germany to escape them. I know that the world Clinton’s opponents see as “great again” is anything but, and that it is truly, truly possible. Eight years ago and four years ago, I voted for Barak Obama, and I thought–how must it feel, to be Black and to see this finally happen. Is the weight lifted? Is it made heavier by knowing how long this has taken and that the world isn’t going to change overnight, maybe not over a decade or a century? What are all the layers African Americans in our country must have been feeling?

think I may have a taste of that answer today. I  may have tried to push the want away, tried to tuck it into boxes of Well, we’re making some progress or It’s better than it used to be, but the want doesn’t actually go away. Sometimes it’s a feather tickling our brain, sometimes it’s a rock sitting in our stomach, sometimes it’s a dark cloud messing with our mood for days on end. But it’s always there.

It’s what brings the tears.

 

Hey, There.

I’ve got some various reasons to start showing up here again, among those the fact that I do miss it. And some people from way back when on LiveJournal got together and said, “Hi,” online, which made me miss it a little more. But I realized I was tired of the design and feel of the site.

So, of course, rather than spending the time drafting and polishing a post of some profundity, I stayed up late changing the look of the blog.

It’s got colors!

And cute menu buttons!

And, thankfully, most of the old stuff I had here before, although I may be digging through my files this weekend to find a little of it, which seems to have vanished. Poof!

I have some ideas about what I might want to talk about, how I want to spend my blog time. But nothing fully formed or truly thought out.

Surprises!

A little Lewis Carroll for you…

“‘Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?’
‘That depends a good deal on where you want to get to.
‘I don’t much care where–‘
‘Then it doesn’t matter which way you go.'”

I Don’t Know…Ten Whole Dollars?

Death Valley looked like this.

And it looked like this.

DVWriting

My writing station. Yes, that’s a fire extinguisher in the corner. We took a 1987 water-cooled Vanagon to Death Valley; you think we wouldn’t bring a fire extinguisher?

Anyway, for the two mornings we were there, my husband and I split off for Writing time. Or Riding time, depending which one of us you are asking. David would get on his bike at about 7:30 and head out to the gravel road he wanted to explore (and, on Day 2, explore a little further.) And I would get set up at my luxurious writing spa and, as I’m focusing on these days, “do the work.” Day 1 was spent figuring out more about Draft 3 of my MG novel, but Day 2 was for picture books.

Picture books without art notes. I had promised myself I would read each of my PBs out loud, without art notes, to see what…oh, just what came about. And it was good, if you call realizing that what you thought was “done” is so not “done,” but at least the realization comes with ideas and revision possibilities.

Except for on one of the PBs. This one, without the art notes, was kind of a big blank. Not like the other one that needs a strong trip back to the drawing board. At least I don’t think so. This one, I THINK, is asking to be an art-told story, with the pictures carrying the melody and the words bringing in the harmony. (And if that is a TOTALLY failed music metaphor, I really don’t want to know, okay?)

And, of course, I can’t draw.

No, I’m not fantasizing about suddenly becoming a great artist and turning myself into an author-illustrator. Yes, okay, never say never, but that’s about the same odds as never, so it is not the plan. But I started thinking–IF I could at least make myself happy enough with my own drawing ability to at least sketch the art story out on the page, then MAYBE MAYBE MAYBE MAYBE, I could come at what the words need to be doing from a slightly different/new/more productive angle. MAYBE.

So I went to the office supply store to look at sketch books and pencils. Note, I do not say I went to the office supply store to BUY a sketch book and pencil. Because, even as I pulled into the parking lot, even as I stepped through the doors and wove my way through the aisles, I was not ready for that level of commitment.

If I hadn’t just read Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic, I might have stayed in the car, or backed out of the entrance, or decided not to purchase.

(Side note: Elizabeth’s sister, Catherine Gilbert Murdock is one of my favorite YA writers. Have you read her Dairy Queen books? Maybe the two of them don’t even get along, but I can’t help imagining these late night sessions between the two of them, after everyone else has gone to bed, where they’re like: I don’t know, maybe THIS word is better. I think they’d laugh more if you said THIS. Oh, yeah, that’s PERFECT.)

Okay, okay, back to the office supply store. There I am, acting all cool, looking at the art supplies, pretending that nasty little voice isn’t saying ot me, “You can’t draw. What difference does it make if you like the feel of that paper better than the other. You’ll NEVER fill an entire sketchpad. YOU’RE GOING TO SPEND $10.00 ON ART SUPPLIES?!”

Luckily, thanks to Gilbert of the Big Magic ideas, I am very much in anti-nasty-voice mode. Yes, Gilbert says I should be respectful and kind to the voice, greet it as part of myself and ask it to sit quietly in a corner until it can make an actual positive contribution, but maybe I’m not quite there yet. I’m kind of at the F.U. stage with it. Also, I am remembering that I don’t actually have to judge myself if I buy the tools and don’t use them. I don’t have to judge myself for how WELL I use them. I only had to bring them home and see if I DID use them.

Today, I used them. And I enjoyed them. And I drew something. I drew, and I erased, and I drew, and I erased, and I drew. And it was recognizable. Well, not as a character in the story, even though it started out that way, but as a something. Which felt good.

And THAT, my friends, is the Magic.