Story Genius’ Misbelief in Paul Acampora’s HOW TO AVOID EXTINCTION

I’m blogging about the writing craft in one of my newest favorite books today over at MG Lunch Break. Check it out. 


Peter Brown’s THE WILD ROBOT: Seeing Yourself in a Book that is Totally Not About You or For You

I just read Peter Brown‘s The Wild Robot. By the time this post is live, I’ll have discussed it in a virtual book club this weekend, but we come at our books as writers looking at the craft and I don’t think that discussion and this post are going to overlap much. Because, as good as it is to learn from the books we read, it’s also good (or at least important to me) to simply have an emotional response, fall in love, and share that love.

Honestly, I am intrigued by The Wild Robot. I said to my husband, explaining why the book is going to land on his nightstand once I’m done with the book club chat, “It’s a different little book.” He is not a big reader of children’s books, although–of course–he reads more of them now than he did before he met me. 🙂 But I think he may like this one–I’m sure in a different way and for different reasons than I do. But I think this book, in its pretty unique little package, might have a broad appeal–it might be intriguing for a lot of people other than me.

It’s a wonderful adventure. It’s great science fiction, it’s a coming of age book, it’s a nicely woven social commentary. Okay, now I feel like whoever wrote the trailer cards for the original Miracle on 34th Street, but I really do think the book is all those things.

For me, it’s a lovely little story about being a parent.

I know, right? Because Peter Brown sat down in his studio one day and said, “You know what? I’m going to do something different from a picture book. I’m going to write my first novel, and you know what else? I’m going to write it for and about a middle-aged woman, her journey from being the inexperienced mother of a newborn baby all the way up to the time that baby reaches young adulthood and departs for his first season of college.” Peter Brown so totally did that.

He so totally did not. The Wild Robot is a middle-grade novel, written for middle-grade kids. In some sense, I think it targets the young end of that spectrum–Roz the robot is super cool, Brightwing the gosling and his friend Chitchat the squirrel are engaging and entertaining, and the other animals act at once true to their animal natures and completely fantasized as a community that would never coalesce in real life. This book is written for kids, and I think many kids would love it. It’s a much more complex story, with many more layers than Ruth Stiles Gannett‘s My Father’s Dragon, and ‘yet something about the voice and the clarity of prose remind me of that book (which is an all-time favorite of mine).


  • When Roz first finds Brightwing the baby gosling: “The robot gently cradled the fragile thing in her hand.”
  • When the other animals start to lecture Roz about how to take care of Brightwing: “Yes, I do want him to survive,” said the robot. “But I do not know how to act like a mother.”
  • When Brightwing can’t go to sleep in his new nest: “Roz held him. The robot’s body may have been hard and mechanical, but it was also strong and soft. The gosling felt loved. His eyes slowly winked closed. And he spent the whole night quietly sleeping in his mother’s arms.”
  • When Brightwing has his first swimming lesson, and Roz can’t go in the water with him: “Roz pointed to the flock. ‘I cannot swim. Go have fun with the other geese. You will be safe with them.’…Roz spent the morning watching her son swim around and around the pond.”
  • When pre-adolescent Brightwing flies away to a place Roz has told him he is too young to go: “Brightwing had never run away–or flown away–and suddenly Roz was computing all the things that could go wrong. A violent storm. A broken wing. A predator. She had to find her son before something bad happened.”
  • When Brightwing leaves to migrate for a season with the other geese and Roz stays behind: “The island was quiet. The migratory birds had all left, the hibernators were asleep, and everyone else had begun their simple winter routines. Everyone but Roz. Now that she was alone, she didn’t know what to do with herself.”
  • And there’s one more at the end, but that would be a spoiler. Plus, it might make you cry.

Now, of course, I had friends before I was a parent, but I made new friends when my son was born, and some of them are still the best friends I had. I never covered myself with leaves and twigs and learned animal sounds to fit in better with the bears and the birds and the badgers, but if you’ve ever carried a relatively new baby into a pre-arranged playdate with other moms you’ve never met–it’s really not all that different. And while Roz’ limits of understanding and abilities come because she is a robot who’s programming wasn’t designed to parent, oh, wait–that’s exactly what being a new parent is like.

I do believe that Roz is the hero and the protagonist of the story. She steps out of the normal world of her crate, and she adapts and learns and grows and makes that world better-for herself and those around her. And, at the end…oops, never mind, spoiler. And I think kids will see her as a hero and love her, and I think that most will connect with the mother/robot-child relationship. But I do think they will connect with the coolness of the robot, too, in a big way.

Me, I connected with the uncoolness of the mother, the mother who had to parent and learn about parenting all at the same time, who–despite making the choice to raise the baby–went into it with no knowledge, no experience, and no preparation. And who stumbles, goofs up, worries, and frets. Brown does a beautiful job of showing the learning possibilities of artificial intelligence. He also does a beautiful job of showing the learning that we parents of “real” intelligence just hope we succeed in doing.

Back to Writing: Working STORY GENIUS into the Middle of a Revision

Yesterday, I finished reading Lisa Cron’s Story Genius: How to Use Brain Science to Go Beyond Outlining and Write a Riveting Novel. Somethings in the book worked better for me than others, but–overall–I am very impressed with Cron’s perspective and the exercises she uses to help us strengthen our stories.

For a while I was doing the exercises as I read through them, but this weekend turned out to be a good time to just curl up with a book, so I finished the last few chapters. And now I’m thinking about how I want to do the last exercises.

If you are just starting a novel or are even just thinking about it, I think I would recommend doing all the exercises, straight through, as Cron advises. She gives you a good base and then helps you build on that, and I find her logic and processes make sense. But that’s not where I’m at. I’m on the third draft of my WIP (although, honestly, it feels like a second draft), and I was struggling to get across the middle with anything that felt like effective scenes, when I heard people talking about the book. I started it, and then I was caught, but…honestly, I don’t want to back up and start this draft all over. And I don’t want to jump ahead and skip to the next draft, because I’m still going to have to deal with that middle that sent me looking for help. So, for Chapters 11 through 15, I’m going to pick and choose a bit.

  1. I’m going to create an Idea List out of all my existing scenes, in the order they currently happen.
  2. I may or may not do one of Cron’s scene cards for each of my existing scenes. On the one hand, I think it would be good to get something set up for each one, so I’m thinking about the her scene card questions–which I think are excellent. On the other hand, I already feel a bit as if I procrastinated myself away from my WIP to work through Cron’s book, and I don’t want to add too much more time onto that procrastination pile. So I may just do a quick card for each scene and give myself persmission to answer all the questions on it later, before the next revision.
  3. I’ll start adding to the Idea List, as I take my first strong look back at that middle where I got lost–looking for new scenes to bridge that chasm.
  4. I’ll test the new ideas against some of Cron’s questions: 1) Why does my plot need this to happen?, 2) Logistically, why can this happen (is it actually possible)?, 3) Why would this happen, given my protagonist’s inner struggle? and 4) Why would this matter to my protagonist’s inner struggle? I actually think 3 and 4 may be the same question, and Cron just phrased it differently in a couple of places, but it doesn’t hurt me to look at this all a little bit more closely?
  5. I’ll do a scene card for each of the new scenes I want to work on to cross that middle. On these, I’ll push myself a little further than on the cards I may do for my existing scenes. I really like how Cron  uses these cards to connect what has happened before to what will happen later, and I think that making those connections will (hopefully) make the middle of the story less of a big, dark hole that I can fill in.
  6. I’ll continue to do a scene card for the scenes past the middle, ones I already have some idea about and have, at some level, worked into my overall plot. I don’t want to back up and do any scenes over, but I want whatever I write new for this draft to be as strong as it can be. And I think Cron’s system can help me get there.

Obviously, I’m not positive this is going to work. There’s a little voice calling to me to back up and start all over, using Cron’s full system, but there’s a louder voice basically shouting at me to keep moving forward. So I’m going to give it a try–I’m going to flex and adapt Cron’s tools to my need, right now, and see what happens.

Fingers crossed!

Cirque du Soleil: Luzia

Last night, my husband and I went to our first Cirque du Soleil performance, Luzia. David has wanted to go for years, decades even, but we just haven’t ever gotten our act together and bought tickets. Until this month.

We’ll be keeping our act together a lot more in the future.

I had some impressions (totally false) of what I thought it would be like. David used to watch performances on TV, when we had cable, and I would sit in for a few minutes and watch, but I could never follow it. I thought I had to understand the storyline (writer, much?), and I was always struggling to do that. Then the camera would either zoom in on one person (who might or might not be doing the most fascinating thing, from my pov), or would pan out and be showing you the whole stage, and–I’m sorry–that is nuts. There is NO way to follow what’s going on across the whole stage and up in the air. David is much more visual than I am (really, if there aren’t written words in front of me, I often just don’t get the point), so I always figured that my non-visual brain wouldn’t really get it. I bought the tickets for my husband, because, yes, I’m that nice.

Last night, when the show was done, I thanked HIM for coming with ME. 🙂

At some levels, the show was simply amazing. The things these people could do–the guy who spun on a strap above a water pool, with one shoulder “in” the strap, flipping (with that shoulder as the pivot point) over and over and around and around. While I wasn’t just staring, I was (I’ll admit it) thinking about all the shoulder surgery waiting for him down the line. The young man who was essentially a contortionist, getting into yoga-like positions where you honestly couldn’t tell which way (for him) was up and which was down, left or right.  The acrobats flipping from swinging platform to swinging platform, doing spins and somersaults in the air. If it was supposed to help my stress levels that the platforms were relatively close to the ground, then they shouldn’t have let their acrobats jump so high before coming back down!

At another level, I loved the parallels to a more traditional circus (although I can’t honestly remember if I’ve even been to one of those). The guy with the shoulder was doing all his flips and twirls over and around a puma, I think, a puma “costume” that had been built for the show, then placed on top of the shoulders of performers, who made it walk and growl and purr and ask to be scratched in a totally cat-like way. This were the big-cat show. The hair was long and straight, and he swung it around in the way a “regular” lion-tamer would crack his whip. This was SO much nicer than seeing that whip and real animals being “tamed.” And there was a clown. Not a scary clown, not a clown with a red nose and big feet, not an irritating clown. But a clever, funny clown who had all the kids and all the adults laughing in sympathy with him whenever he showed up on stage. When the rainfall that was coming from the ceiling kept moving around so he couldn’t catch any water to fill his canteen, the little girl next to me kept saying things like, “Over there! Get it! No, over there!” That’s how engaged she was.

But the best level? The one that I needed so much last night and hadn’t even realized I did need. The utter delight. When I wasn’t gripping my husband’s arm and holding my breath until somebody landed safely, I was grinning and smiling without even realizing it. The rhythm of the dancers as they flipped through rings on the big treadmill, the energy of the two young women who spun themselves in big hoops for minutes on end, the grinning musicians with their tuba and their accordion and their guitar, the people wearing costumes that simulated animals from Mexico (oh, the woman’s cape that spread out to be an iguana!), the movement and the balance and the grace and the joy. My hands kept moving to cover my mouth–my husband thought I was scared the whole time, I think (although that’s just silly, because scared=gripping his arm!), but what I was, was happy.

There has been so much crap lately, we are all so stressed, and we all know it’s going to go on for a while. Stay aware, stay committed, stay active. But, oh, yes, schedule times to bring joy and amazement back into your life. Step out of the anger and worry and find something that will fill your brain with energy and smiles. Maybe it is a Cirque du Soleil performance. Maybe it’s something else. You know best what it will be–just go get some on your calendar!





We Didn’t Sleep at Home The Other Night

If you’ve been watching the news out of California, or just checking in at my Facebook page, you know that we are having quite the winter. No snow, no blizzards–I think I maybe heard hail on the skylights for a couple of minutes back in December. But rain…oh, my goodness. Rain. I live just a little ways up into the Santa Cruz mountains, where the slides have been closing and washing out roads right and left.

And, yes, I know we’ve been complaining about the drought for years.

But this post isn’t a complaint. This post is a story, and this post is a reflection. And I’m not sure that the post would have caused the reflection, so quickly or so clearly, in any other year before this one.

We’ve had a couple of long drives to get home this winter. In the first slide, it took me nine hours to go a distance that, in any normal Bay Area traffic, would have been at most an hour and a half. Long story, inaccurate navigation software, and an inability to believe that they wouldn’t open the highway soon. Since then, if it looked like the roads were going to be trouble, I’ve been meeting my husband at his office, and he’s been taking us home through the back roads–he rides them all the time on his bike and knows them, and he isn’t as prone to the OMG-IS-THAT-A-TREE-DOWN anxiety as I am. So there were nights we took a long time to get home, but we got home.

Until earlier this week. We went out to dinner in town, perhaps foolishly. While we were there, another slide hit, this one between town and our house. And all the back roads we had been taking had been closed for at least a week.

We were fine. We stayed at a family member’s house, and we went out to breakfast the next morning, and when it looked like the highway wasn’t going to be open anytime soon, we took a new, slightly longer route home. It was a bit of a pain and a bit of an adventure. And, even with the night out, we know that–compared to plenty of people in our mountains–we have still been incredibly lucky.

And yet…it was unsettling. We’d actually each been carrying a bag of spare clothes in our cars, in case of this happening, but we’d hadn’t thought about grabbing them when we went for dinner. We didn’t have our computers–for home or for work–and neither one of us had a book (!!!!). And Alice was up at the house, and we’ve left her overnight before, and I knew when we did get home, she’d be happily asleep on the couch (and she was). But of course I worried about her, and I worried about when the highway would open, and I wondered if the new route would turn out to be closed somewhere along the way. And I didn’t  have a change of clothes, and I didn’t have a toothbrush, and I wasn’t sure when I was going to get either.

It was all, very much, nothing more than a small inconvenience. And I knew that. Still, until we actually got on the road–and, okay, yes, even while we were on the road–I was kind of grumpy. I was grumpy, because my equilibrium was shoved a little off balance, and because I didn’t know for sure when I was going to get home and I didn’t know for sure where I was going to sleep that night.

Yeah. I got a tiny, super tiny, taste of what so many people live with every day, for days on end. People who are homeless and who, with these rains, have been flooded out of the places they try to rest and sleep. People who are refugees who have left their old homes forever, and still haven’t got a clue if they will ever have anything they can call a new home. People who don’t know where the next mortgage or rent payment is going to come from. People who have four walls with a roof,  but who don’t feel comfortable or safe inside them.

Lucky, lucky, lucky. That’s what I am.

And those others are really not lucky. Even less so, obviously, now that we have a completely uncaring man in the White House and a whole crap-load of uncaring men and women in the Senate and the House.

No answer, no solution. A story and a reflection. And maybe, just maybe, another reason to stay in the battle.

Recent Reads

It’s been a busy year. And, yes, I know it’s only February. But I haven’t yet got to the place where I actually feel settled into 2017. Part of that is, of course, from the election outcome and after effects. Part of it is that California is having quite the winter, and I’m not quite sure whether I’ll be working at work or at home or how much time I’ll spend in the car getting to either of those places.

Oh, well, calm is boring, right?

One thing I do know is that I’ve been changing up my reading a bit lately. Typically, I read one book at a time. Mostly I go with several novels in a row and then I might drop in a science or history or memoir read. And then back to a bunch of novels.

Right now, I’m reading one novel and one writing craft book. And I’m listening to a memoir in the car. And I just finished reading some graphic novels, and more are coming from the library this week. Huh. Maybe that’s where the busy feeling comes from. Any day now, someone’s going to discover another entire trilogy from Tolkien or JK Rowling’s going to bring out that seven-book series about Ginny Weasley that she hasn’t told us about yet. Right? And then I can just curl up with one world and stay with it into infinity?

Well, until then…some favorites to share with you.

I read Paul Acampora’s How to Avoid Exctinction twice, because I loved it so much, I claimed it for my next review at MG Lunch Break (showing up there sometime in March or April, I think). I believe I’m picking up another of his books, Rachel Spinelli Punched Me in the Face at the library this week. What a fantastic writer he is!

And I’m almost 2/3 through Kelly Barnhill’s The Girl Who Drank the Moonwhich was actually on my nightstand before it won the Newbery award. Can’t talk about it much here, because I’m participating in a virtual book discussion of it this weekend, but lovely, lovely book.

I’m about halfway through Lisa Cron’s Story Geniuswhich is pushing me to step back and think about some things in my WIP that, I believe, I really needed to look at. I’m hoping that, by the time I finish, I will really have learned some things that help me keep moving forward with my WIP, maybe even more strongly and with a more focused direction. I’m hoping it’s not just that I hit a dry spot and went, oh, look! Shiny object! Let’s procrastinate from the actual writing and, you know, read about it. I don’t THINK that’s what’s going on, but I’m having to push back at that REALLY IRRITATING voice that’s making me worry just a little about it.

I’m listening to Trevor Noah’s Born a Crime on the commute to and from work. Brilliant book and a bit surreal to be reading right now, with all the crud that’s happening here. If we ever did get to say, oh, something as bad as apartheid can’t happen here, well…we don’t get to say that anymore. Anyway, I almost never listen to audio books, but I thought I’d give this one a try, and I totally recommend getting this version of the book. Noah has a gorgeous voice, and he shifts it beautifully as he moves from telling  you a story to explaining what that story meant to him, at that place, at that time.

When I was in grad school, I discovered Marvel comics (long story). I dip in every now and again these days, and I recently found a new one that I just love. I checked out Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur, Vol 1: BFF from the library and fell in love. Obviously, I have to return that so other people can read it, but I bought it and Vol 2: Cosmic Cooties and pre-ordered Vol 3. The Smartest There is. Because this is Marvel at its best–fast, funny, and awesome characters. Moon Girl is fantastic–she is the smartest kid on the planet, she knows it, and nobody is getting in the way of her using her brain to save the world. Nobody.

And I even have a book I’m totally exited about waiting for me on my Kindle, for the trip I’m taking to Phoenix next weekend. I don’t only read children’s fiction, it just seems that way. I also read really, really good mystery novels, but I’m super picky in that genre. Deborah Crombie’s Gemma James and Duncan Kincaid mysteries are among the best books being written today–she never lets me down. Her latest in the series, Garden of Lamentations, is going to keep me company at the airport and on the flight. I even bought one of those portable chargers in case my Kindle battery needs a boost.

I may be busy, but obviously I’m never too busy to read. Thank goodness!  Consider each mention in this post a recommendation–grab one or two, and enjoy. 🙂 And tell me a few awesome books that you’ve been reading lately.



The WIP and Some Things I’m Doing Differently 

So I think I’ve mentioned here before that this WIP feels a little different than others I’ve worked on.

Hey, it has magic! 
That’s not really the kind of difference I mean, but it is new for me as a writer, and it is all kinds of fun. 

But the story also seems more connected to a real kid’s world and a real kid’s concerns than the other books I’ve worked on. Maybe for just that reason, I think I care more about this protagonist, too. And, on a personal note, I feel like this book has the potential to lift me and my writing to the next level. Whether that will be enough to get me agented and/or published, I couldn’t tell you. But a step up is a step forward. 

So, I’ve been doing a few things different as I write this draft. (I call it my 3rd draft, but it has tons of new material in it. If I didn’t abhor the word, “should,” I would tell you that I should have been doing this work and writing this material in the second draft, but let’s not go there.) 

So what’s new for me? 

  • I’m slowing myself down as I write each chapter. I could blast through them again and get more words on the page, but I did that for two drafts already, very possibly one too many. 
  • As I write more slowly, I’m thinking more about the truths of each chapter, for my protagonist and for the secondary characters. 
  • I’m letting myself (or maybe making myself) drop those truths onto the page, however and wherever they land. If I don’t think of it until the last page, when I should be doing the wrap-up or cliff-hanger? I write it. I suddenly and thoroughly derail some snappy dialogue by dumping it all into a horrible explanatory narration “disguised”as a spoken response only by the quotation marks? Write it. Insert it as an entire page of boring internal monologue with zero action? Write it. It’s painful and grates on the part of me that prides myself on pretty prose, but it’s the only way I’ve found to get to the this in,”The scene is about this.” 
  • I’m revising. As I go. Not as I first write the scene. But I don’t put it in my binder until I’ve read it through and, almost always, made changes. Sometimes I’m lucky, and those changes are mostly tweaking. Every now and then those changes leave me still feeling like the scene is a mess, like I still don’t know the this. But most often, I find myself looking at those truths I plopped in, getting a new scene focus, and revising around one of them. And feeling much better about what I do put in the binder. 

Where is all this going to get me? I’m hoping that I’ll end up with a version of the story that is ready for a full-read from some Beta readers. (Even if I still don’t quite understand the difference between critique partners and Beta readers.) Maybe something that is ready for an SCBWI mentorship program, if I can find one that looks doable, location- and time-wise. Maybe something ready for a professional editor (manuscript, not copy) to look at. 

At the very least, though, I think I will end this draft still very much in love with my story and my characters I think I’ll feel as though I’m giving them my full commitment and care. And that’s a lot. 

What do you do to shake up your writing process? How do you push yourself to go deeper into your story and the worlds of the people in it? I’d love to hear your thoughts!