Elsa Hart’s JADE DRAGON MOUNTAIN

I “picked up” Jade Dragon Mountain on a browse through my libraries’ ebook sections. I thought the setting and premise sounded interesting. In the early 1700s, Li Du–an exiled imperial librarian–is traveling through the city of Dayan on the border of China and Tibet. He only wants to get past the city, but he is required to get permission from the magistrate–a cousin who he hasn’t seen in years, since he shamed the whole family with his exile. A body turns him into a detective, and he must solve the murder before the trouble can distrupt the Emperor’s imminent visit.

The mystery itself is good, with multiple viable suspects and a complex enough plot that is keeping me engaged but never confusing me.

It’s the writing, though, that is putting the author on my always-watch-for-another-of-their-books list. Don’t come to this story if you want fast-paced drama or high-stakes conflict. Come to it, instead, for the lovely prose, the methodical investigation, and the peaceful mood that still manages to support the quiet tension of the story.

As Li Du is leaving Dayan, determined to accept, without question, the death of a kind and curious elderly “foreigner,” he rests on the trail and watches the mist crawl up the mountainside and break apart into small windows for him to peek through. I haven’t seen enough Chinese art to be an expert, but the writing seemed to me to capture perfectly, through words, the feeling in the watercolors and jade sculptures of mountains with tiny trees and rivers and animals and people scattered along trails and beside rivers.

“The quiet deepened into silence. Li Du did not move but rested his eyes on the soft, white expanse. As he watched, the cloud shifted and broke. He saw, as if through a window, a tree on the opposite side of the gorge. It was a dead, hollowed oak, blackened by fire. Only one branch remained, reaching out perpendicular to the trunk. The vapor thickened, the window closed, and the tree was gone.

Another opening appeared. Through this new window Li Du saw movement, and thought he could make out the rounded back of a little bear trundling across a clearing into a copse of evergreens. Again the mist moved, erasing the scene.”

No gunshots, car chases, or explosions. Just beauty and intrigue and questions to be answered.

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What do you do?

Depends who’s asking. On weekdays, at my day job, I work here. So if you bump into me somewhere in downtown San Jose, or we connect at an event where I’m not wearing my comfy clothes, I’d probably tell you that I’m in Development and I work with foundations to support our exhibits and educational programs. And I might hand the very cool, purple-orange-teal-and-yellow (hey, it works!) business card designed by our media & communications team.

If you catch me on the weekend, though, or at a comfy-clothes gathering some evening, I’ll probably tell you I’m a writer. And if you catch me in a few weeks at the SCBWI Spring Spirit conference, that’s definitely what I’ll say.

Seemed like a good time to order myself some new cards that say it, too.

When I Used to Listen to Tom Petty

Warning: navel-gazing ahead.

When I was younger, I made a few choices that got me into life places I didn’t want to be. In part, life just got me into those places. They weren’t horrible; I have no stories that you could build into any kind of salable young adult novel. But I would pick a path, usually because I didn’t see any other paths available, and I would go down it. I would find a destination, and I would build a piece of my world there, and at some point, I would look around at that world, and I would say…No. 

And I would chuck it all, shift gears, and pick a different path.

I was young, and part of what I was doing was what we all do when we’re young, or what we should do: try something on, test it, figure out whether it fits, and–if it doesn’t–put it back on the rack and try something else.

But, along with that rhythm, I added a layer of self-judgment (also something lots of us do when we’re young, but would be happier without). I had made a big mistake. I had no clue what I wanted to do with my life. I didn’t have a dream to follow (not one that would pay the bills, anyway). I couldn’t make myself happy. All the judgment added up, obviously, to a big feeling of defeat.

But somewhere in the defeat was also, thankfully, a thread of anger. Some of it, unfortunately, was directed at myself, but a chunk of it was also, always, directed at The World. The Universe that wasn’t giving me what I wanted (whatever that was). The anger also, on a smaller scale, pointed to specific pieces of that world–the job I had, the place I was living, the people I was surrounded by. No, the anger wasn’t fair, and it probably wasn’t healthy. But maybe it was what I needed to kick away at that much worse feeling of defeat.

And in those times, I would find myself listening to music that fed the anger. Music with a driving percussion beat, some hard guitar chords, and uncomplicated lyrics that spoke to me about not accepting defeat. About taking risks and breaking away. About Melissa Etheridge. Tracy Chapman. Pat Benatar.

And Tom Petty.

Like Free Fallin.

So yesterday, especially on top of the horrible news from Las Vegas, hearing about Tom Petty hit hard. I listened to him all the way home from work, and I listened to him on the way in this morning. And I felt his music stirring that feeling of anger again.
When I was young, there was nothing wrong with getting angry at my life and chucking things. I’m not a wild person; I always had a plan and a process and a safety net. And all the changes I made added up to where I am now, which is–in so many ways–the place I want to be.

But here’s the rub. There are a few things in my life that are not making me happy, that are part of a pathway I’d rather not be on. (I know, whose life doesn’t have these things in it, but, hey, I warned you about the navel close-up.) There are some things I would like to chuck away and leave behind. Some of these things are based in the current political climate. Some are closer to home and pretty much matter only to me. They are all things that have been making me feel defeated.

But chucking is not the same option it used to be. I am very lucky to have a husband and a son (and a cat!) who I love and want to be with. I have a home where I feel happy and where I can be true to myself.  I have friends who are very important to me. I’m not going to pack my bags, pay the last month’s rent, and move on. This is not that kind of midlife story.

My challenge, I think, is to figure out what kind of midlife story it is. And how I can use that music and the anger it stirs in a new way. How I can fight the feeling of defeat while I think about what changes I want to make, in the context of this world I actually want to hold on to.

I don’t know how to do that yet. But I think it will include listening to Melissa and Tracy and Pat. And Tom. 

Because he apparently still has some things to teach me.

RIP, Tom, and thank you. 

A Not-So-Nice Hero in Marie Lu’s THE YOUNG ELITES

As the latest draft of my WIP sits with its editor, it’s also sitting in the back of my brain, sort of simmering. So I seem to be seeing different types of heroes everywhere I read, even when I’m not (consciously) looking for them. I’ve heard people talk about unsympathetic characters/narrators, but I don’t know that I’ve ever run across a hero I really didn’t like, certainly not one I kept reading about.

Until I started Marie Lu’s The Young Elitesthe first book in the trilogy of the same name. (Books 2 and 3 are The Rose Society and The Midnight Star, respectively.) Adelina Amouteru is the main character of all three books. At first, because I am a worrier, I wondered if I was right that she was unsympathetic, or–as I was feeling–actually very unlikable. I wondered if that was Marie Lu’s intent. But the further I read, the more convinced I was that–yes–Lu did this on purpose. (Also, I googled around a bit and found interviews like this one, where it is clear that Lu saw herself as developing and writing a villain–a villain who, in my opinion, is also the hero.) Adelina is definitely the hero of the series. She is active, makes things happen, changes the world around her, and–ultimately–does go through a pretty huge learning arc.

As I realized what Lu was doing, I found myself asking one question over and over as I turned the pages: Why am I still reading? Not in a bad way–Adelina’s story is very well written. It’s action-packed, dramatic, and it does a pretty great job painting the wide range of dynamics between the various characters. But I asked, because–honestly–I really didn’t like Adelina. She is–for much of Book 1, all of Book 2, and a big part of Book 3–self-centered, paranoid, and cruel. But I didn’t want to put down her story and stop reading. I was rooting for her.

I think Lu did several things to get me (okay, us) there.

  • She lets us see Adelina for a series of scenes before she discovers her abilities as a Young Elite. In those scenes, we see glimpses of Adelina’s focus on herself and her anger at those who neglect or abuse her. But we see her primarily as vulnerable and powerless, necessarily fearful and self-protective.
  • Lu gives Adelina some very big, very real reasons for focusing so much on herself, for feeling angry and vengeful. Because Adelina has been “marked” by the blood fever and has no (apparent) useful powers, she is in turn ignored and abused by her father, harrassed and tormented by her society. Lu draws these scenes with strength, starting the first book by getting the reader on her hero’s side.
  • Lu creates a downside for Adelina’s abilities. Adelina’s power is to create illusions, and the strength of that power is fed by anger, fear, and conflict. As she progresses through the story, these powers start to take a toll (trying to avoid spoilers here, bear with me!). Her illusions begin to spiral out of her control, showing her the image of her dead father following her around. They feed her paranoia–she is accompanied by increasingly frequent whispers in her mind, telling her that her friends want to abandon her, or to take her strength for themselves, or simply to kill her. By writing Adeline’s story in first person and giving us direct access to the whispers, we see the forces still acting against Adelina, even as her own actions get more violent, more abusive, and more unlikeable with every page.

As I got deeper into the story, toward the end of Book 2, I started–also–getting curious about whether and how Lu was going to bring Adelina out of her villain state. I kind of thought she had to, because, well, hero’s change. And I was pretty convinced, even in the midst of Adelina being really horrible, that she was the story’s hero. And Lu did it. Not too many spoilers here, but Lu takes Adelina deep into the isolation that cruelty and paranoia build around her, then creates a very strong reason for her to force herself out of that isolation and for the friends she has pushed away to invite her back into their company. And then Lu continues to place them all in situations where support, connection, and even some kind of renewed respect and caring start to be rebuilt, in all of the characters. (I did feel a few times that Adelina pushed away the whispering voices a bit too easily in this stage, considering how quickly she gave into them earlier in the story, but this was just a tiny question as I read, and it didn’t take me out of the story or out of accepting Adelina’s growth at the end.)

So back to that question of why I kept reading. I could say it was because I was being analytic and I wanted to figure out all the things I’ve just talked about. But that wasn’t it. I kept reading, because–while Adelina does get really unlikable, especially deep in the middle of the story–she never becomes unsympathetic. By giving us a believable foundation for all the nastiness Adelina commits, by showing that some of her fear and paranoia is based in reality and reason, by continuing the fine thread of her intentions along with her actions…Lu kept me sympathizing with Adelina from beginning to end.

And that is one way to build a hero.

Moving On: New Plan, New Path

So for the past few months, I’ve been working to get a draft of the WIP done, for the possibility that I would get accepted into a SCBWI mentorship program. Best laid plans and all that, lots of reasons, that plan didn’t work out.

But I still have my finished draft!

My goal for this next pass has been to work with someone over time to strengthen a few building blocks of my story. The biggest challenges, in all my writing, but especially in my novels are

  • To come up with ideas for strong actions for my hero to take
  • To build a character-driven plot, where the things my  hero does are truly based in the person they are
  • To make my scenes part of a plot arc that grows in tension to the crisis/climax.

I don’t know why these are my sticking points, but they are, so I’ve got to deal with them. The rest of the WIP is still quite the mess, with about a gazillion unanswered questions, undeveloped side threads, and characters who kind of drop in and out of their own subplots at random. But those are all revision areas I feel like I can deal with. I have dealt with them on other projects. But these building blocks…

So I’m hiring an editor. I’ve done this before, to get some help on my first picture book, and the woman I worked with them also does middle-grade and is awesome sauce. She also just did a couple of more picture book edits for me, and her feedback was wonderful and brain-spark inciting. Anyway, she was open to my need for her to work on an earlier draft (let’s not go into how many drafts you can have and still call them “early,” okay?), to focus on a few specifics, and–hopefully, for her sake–to put aside the pain and heartburn of ignoring all the other elements that are still beyond rough.

So the manuscript is out there, if not to the place I originally expected it to be. I have the two picture book critiques to be revising from, as I try to bring two more books up to the as-ready-as-possible stage. And I’m keeping a notebook of Things That Occur To Me about the MG WIP, that I will want to tweak, strengthen, improve when I get that critique back and begin the work of re-stacking the blocks. Maybe even re-carving them.

I love revision, so in many ways, I’m really looking forward to the next step. But I know I’m also in this for the learning process, for understanding more than I do now about those elements I struggle with. I have this sense that now is the time to stop spinning in a circle, to climb out of the skill level I’ve been at for years. If not now, then when, right? So, yes, my end goal is still agent/aquisition/publication, but I’m trying hard not to focus on that goal for a bit (because it tends to play mind games with me.) Instead, my focus will stay on skill-building, strengthening myself as a writer, learning how to weave more power into the scenes I write.

“She made herself stronger by fighting with the wind.”
-Frances Hodgson Burnett, The Secret Garden

 

 

Stella Montgomery, Wormwood Mire’s Brave Hero

So I just finished reading Judith Rossell’s Wormwood Mire for the second time in a few weeks. Wormwood Mire is the sequel to Rossell’s Withering-by-Sea, and there is apparently a third book–Wakestone Hall–coming soon, maybe at the end of the year. (Yay!) I really enjoyed Withering-by-Sea, but I absolutely loved Wormwood Mire. It is quiet and lovely and sweet and very much the page-turner (in a non-stressful way!). I love quiet books, but I often wonder how the author manages to keep the pages turning and still keep the book quiet. Plus, I’ve been struggling with a more character-driven plot in my current WIP.

So I decided to re-read Stella’s second book and take notes about what plot actions happen, who does them, why they do them, and how those actions move the plot forward. Now, I didn’t remember Stella being super active, but I thought I’d find out differently when I took a closer look.

Nope.

Stella does things. She explores the strange house she’s found herself living in. She asks questions about the mystery surrounding her mother and her (perhaps) twin sister, neither of whom she can actually remember. She climbs a tall tree, and she ventures near the lake she has been warned to stay away from. She discovers a secret room and enters it. All in a world of gossipy whispers that speak of monsters and witches’ familiars.

But, other than finding the secret room, she does pretty much none of these adventurous things by herself. And she doesn’t instigate them either. Almost all the impetus for exploring and putting herself in dangerous situations comes from her energetic, inquisitive, and absolutely wonderful cousin Strideforth. Strideforth is a scientist and an engineer, and he doesn’t believe in spooky things. The house is filled with heating pipes, some of which are hot to the touch and some of which are cold, and Strideforth’s actions are driven by his curiosity–his absolute need to know–about where the heat is going. The house is freezing cold, except in the kitchen, and that is a problem Strideforth is determined to solve. So he explores and he questions and he draws Stella and his sister, Hortense, along with him.

So why is Stella a hero?

  • Stella is brave. We learn this about her in the first book, and we see it again in this sequel. Stella is a timid girl. She has reason to be–she has led an at-once very sheltered and very neglected/abusted life with her three horrible aunts. (No, you’re not wrong, you do sense a hint of Roald Dahlness!) And, yet, whenever a moment comes–and many of them do–where she has the choice of going forward or going backward, Stella goes forward. She has to take some deep breaths, she has to get encouragement from the sister she is imagining, and she has to push away the frightening story from the nasty going-away book of morals that her aunts gave her when she left. But she goes forward. Every time.
  • Stella is curious. Like Strideforth, she wants to know and  understand, but she is much more open than he is to the unexplained and magical. Things that she agrees, as Strideforth says, not possible, and yet…she sees them happen and accepts them as facts. Stella also reads whenever she can–even the horrible gift from her aunts, but more importantly the travel diary of her ancestor that she discovers in the secret room.
  • Stella’s actions move the story forward. Exploring with Strideforth and Hortense, Stella comes across pieces of her past that bring back memories–frightening and scary memories. She doesn’t push the memories away; instead, she actively stops (ha! Is that the secret to a quiet page-turner?) whatever she is doing and lets the memory come.  Each memory brings with it another piece of the mystery, and Stella is the one who puts those pieces together, along with the information she gleans from the travel diary.  Stella is the one to solve the puzzles of the book–that of the whispered about monster as well as the truth about her mother and sister.

Stella is Mary Lennox without the temper, without the force of action and power that temper gives Mary. She is Matilda without the magic. She is quiet, polite, well-behaved, and withdrawing. Opportunities for decisions and actions present themselves to her, and she has to push herself to take them. But she does take them, with us rooting for her every time.

And I’m pretty sure that is what makes her a hero.

 

 

 

Deadlines

I have a love/hate relationship with deadlines.

If you make me wait to finish something until just before a deadline, then I hate them. Sometimes this plays out at my day job, when I need some final information from someone else before I can submit a grant proposal. I accept that others are busy and that this is my reality, but it Drives. Me. Crazy. Me, a control freak? Whatever do you mean?

If you let me plan and organize and beat my deadline by a couple of days, or a week, then I am happy. And, in that case, I love deadlines. Because they make me get things done, let me check a task off a to-do list, give me a feeling of completion and satisfaction. While I was doing the at-home-mom, working-on-my-own-fiction thing, I essentially had no deadlines. Oh, sure, yes, you have 18 years to get your kid Ready to Move Out, but guess how quickly you realize that is very much out of your control? And you want to publish a book SOMEDAY, but someday is not a deadline.

August 31, 2017 is a deadline.

That’s the date when I find out if I get into the writing program I applied for. It’s a mentorship program, and they decide based on your first 20 pages and a couple of other items. If they reach out on August 31 and tell you that you’re accepted, then on September 1st, you send the whole manuscript.

I’d been working on this book for a while, had a couple of complete drafts, and was in the middle of another, and I pretty much knew the bare bones path to the end. But I had been waffling around that middle, spending way too much time on deciding whether my hero was going to do X or Y and whether I was going to bring in this side plot rf that one or neither, things like that.

With the deadline, I stopped waffling. I spent approximately two minutes thinking about any decision, then I made a choice. Doubts, fears, nasty little voices–I pushed them aside. Questions about what should happen in the next scene got answered by what taking one more look at what happened in the last one, and moving on. Sometimes that meant picking up the next scene five minutes after the last, sometimes it meant skipping forward some days. When the You-Call-that-Pacing? demon raised its head, and, oh, it did, I pushed it back down. I basically played Whack-a-Worry and kept writing.

And I met the deadline. I met it the way I like best, three weeks early.

Is the book good? Oh, h*ll, I have no idea. Is it better than the last versions? In terms of telling a story from beginning to end, coherently and in a comprehensible sequence? Yes. In terms of depth and writing and impact. Probably not. Are there holes and missing layers and characters who showed up too little or not at all? Definitely. Is my hero active enough and driving himself forward with a character-driven plot.  Not yet.

Did I get more work done and make more progress in the past few months than I had in the past two years?

I did.

And that’s the power of a deadline. That is the love part of my love/hate relationship. And the reminder is the first gift (hopefully not the last) that this writing program has given to me.