I Did It - Despite Myself

Story GeniusI’m working on a new novel, so I spent time this morning freewriting on my main character’s desire and her misbelief. The misbelief is something that Lisa Cron talks about in Story Genius. John Truby might call it the character’s initial error. Other craft writers might call it a wound or a lie or fear. No matter what you call it, it’s important. You want your character to not only have a strong desire toward something, but you also want to give her something that holds her back in some way. After defining the desire and the misbelief, Cron coaches writers to create three poignant moments in the main character’s back story when the misbelief was cemented for her.Anatomy of Story As I was freewriting, it occurred to me that if I were a character in a book my desire and my misbelief would be obvious. What I wanted more than anything in my professional life was to publish a book. But deep inside, I didn’t believe that I was good enough. I didn’t believe it would ever happen.

There were several moments in my writing life that cemented my misbelief. (It should be noted that there were far more moments that encouraged me. For whatever reason, I tended to give the negative messages more weight). In my junior year of high school, I believed that because I was floored by some of my fellow students’ writing, that meant that my writing was no good. I didn’t realize that they simply had a different style than mine and I didn’t believe that I could improve. I thought writing was innate and either I was gifted or I was not. (For more on this error in thought, see this previous post and this talk by Carol Dweck.)

Fast forward to me as an adult. Decades later, I’d finally given myself permission to write and had graduated with an MFA from VCFA. When an editor complimented the second book I wrote but said that it wasn’t strong enough to be a debut, I took her word as fact and stopped querying that book. People told me that the querying process was very subjective, but I didn’t really get it.

More recently, after completing my third novel, I’d queried many agents and received many full requests. And yet, I received no offers of representation. I stopped querying that book. I had been encouraged to query more agents, but I believed that it wasn’t the right time for the book, so I stopped.

Fortunately, I love writing so much that I kept at it even though I didn’t believe a book deal would happen. I love creating stories and characters and figuring out what they will do next and how to make things hard on them. I love the idea of connecting with teens through my stories. Also, I have an incredible writing support system – from my family to my work colleagues to my writing peeps – all of whom remind me to keep at it even when I become discouraged.

Thanks to the fact that my desire was stronger than my misbelief, I did sell my young adult novel. One of my writing friends encouraged me to return to querying and after just and handful of new queries, I was offered representation by an agent who is a great fit for me and my writing. It turns out that I was wrong in the best possible way and that’s what a misbelief is – it’s the thing that tells you can’t, even though you can.

As I get back to freewriting on my character, I’ll keep working on creating a strong desire and a powerful misbelief.  But here’s the thing – we aren’t characters in books. We are real, live human beings trying to achieve our dreams. Find your support system. Don’t buy in to your misbelief. Follow your dreams. They tend not to happen on the schedule you’d like, but they often do come true.

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(Book images from Amazon.com. Dweck quote image from quotefancy.com)

North Country Rejuvenation

  morning on the dock.jpgThis morning is my last at the lake for this trip. The Adirondacks have received more than their fair share of rain over the last month or so and we've experienced some of that weather during our two weeks up here. On the mornings that have allowed it, I pour my coffee and walk down to the dock to take in the quietest part of the day. The gentle lapping of the water against the rocky shore and the ruffling of the leaves in the breeze accompany the slight rocking of the dock.

On the rainy days, I've scribbled out some stories and curled on the couch to read books. But most days, the weather allowed me to paddle out on my beloved red kayak. One day I saw a gaggle of geese. I wondered at the chicks' innate ability to line up neatly between two adults.

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When I walked my dog, I noted again the rock cairns that someone has created. They hold a mysterious benevolence to me.

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One sunny day, when my arms were tired from so much paddling, I hopped on a mountain bike to explore a park that we've driven past many times. What I found enchanted me. Narrow, but well-groomed trails barely held off the lush greens of ferns, firs and birch. Wooden bridges crossed bubbling streams packed with moss-covered rocks. When I learned that the park was conceived and built specifically to accommodate wheelchairs, I loved it even more.

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On July 4, we walked to the town beach to enjoy sausages grilled by the Fire Department and live music. When evening began to fall, we returned to our dock for the fireworks.

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Though this morning broke gray, the clouds are moving fast and the sun is peeking through. I hope for one more paddle before we begin to pack up for our return home. If not, I can take the peace of this place with me, knowing that I will return.

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Amazing Grace

Two weeks ago, on Martin Luther King, Jr Day, I was running errands when the radio announcer stated that "Amazing Grace" would be played at 11:00 a.m. on radios everywhere. As the song began, I pulled over. It was the version by Joan Baez, recorded live. I listened to the first verse and then joined in, singing alone in my car. My voice wavered with emotion over the beauty and power of Dr. King's life and death and my worry that our new reality would not extend the dream that he'd begun. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tRsr6OGH990

On Friday, President Trump was inaugurated and on Saturday I marched in Philadelphia. You've heard all about the marches - how many women turned up with signs and pink hats and children and friends (many of whom were men!). The march was peaceful and positive, joyful and affirming. The march was about women's rights and immigrant rights. It was about respecting our fellow humans - all of them. It was about healthcare and choice and access. It was about standing up against negative rhetoric. It was about demonstrating that this administration does not reflect our hopes and dreams. It does not reflect who we are.

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On Saturday morning, when I read the news about the executive order that President Trump had signed stopping immigration from specific countries, I wept in confusion and anger over an action that could harm men, women and children already traumatized by war. On Sunday in church, in response to the question of what we can do, our priest invoked the last line of the first reading of the day from Micah 6:1-8: "...do justice...love kindness and walk humbly..."

Later that day, while baking (because I tend to bake when I don't know what else to do), I listened to On Being with Krista Tippett. This week, she'd re-broadcasted a 2015 interview with Representative John Lewis. I'm sure you remember Donald Trump's recent tossed off tweet stating that John Lewis is all talk, no action. John Lewis was a leader of the Civil Rights Movement. He literally led the walk across the bridge in Selma and was beaten unconscious. On the Civil Right Movement and nonviolent action he said:

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"The movement created what I like to call a nonviolent revolution. It was love at its best. It’s one of the highest forms of love. That you beat me, you arrest me, you take me to jail, you almost kill me, but in spite of that, I’m gonna still love you."

I have not been beaten, arrested or jailed for my beliefs. I have not almost been killed. I cannot yet feel that love that John Lewis and Martin Luther King, Jr called for.

John Lewis also said, "When you pray, move your feet."

That I can do. I can move my feet.  I can call my representatives. I can state my beliefs. I can stand and be counted.

(video from YouTube, photo of Rep. John Lewis from OnBeing.org, Philadelphia Women's March photo my own)

Work To Be Done

One of my volunteer activities at my son’s Quaker private school is to shelve books in the library. If you know me, you know I love books. And if you know libraries, you know that they can almost always use an extra pair of hands to re-shelve the countless books that are pulled by students doing research or simply browsing. Today was my first time shelving in two weeks, which is to say that it was my first time shelving since the election. Some of the books that needed shelving today were in the 700s. There must be a teacher who annually requests a term paper on famous painters. I remember shelving these same books last year. The majority of the books were in the 200’s and 300’s – the social sciences. As I shelved the books from my cart, I also picked up random books that students had left lying in carrels. There was “We Should All Be Feminists” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, author of “Americanah.” Also, a resource book about being supportive of LGBT students. (It was an older book, there was no Q in the title.) There was “The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to his White Mother” by James McBride. And “Black Man in a White Coat,” by Damon Tweedy about race and the medicine.

Maybe students had used these books for research projects. But I wondered if maybe they had pulled the books during a free period, when they were trying to make sense of the election upset last week. I like the idea that these books may have helped some students navigate a path that they didn’t expect.

I’ve been wondering, too, over this last week if my stories matter, if my words matter. Last week I saw a Humans of New York post featuring Barack Obama. He was asked about a low point in his career and he shared about losing badly the first time he ran for Senate. He was thinking that maybe that work wasn’t what he was meant to do. I can’t imagine Barack Obama doubting that he was intended for public service. And yet, he did.

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The words he shared about how he got through that low point have been replaying in my mind over the last days. It is clear that there is work to be done. I just need to figure out what my role will be.

 

Small Efforts in Response to Big Things

Between the World and MeOne day last week, the day after I finished listening to an audio version of Ta-Nehisi Coates's book "Between the World and Me," I went for a run. Truth be told, parts of the book were a tough listen for me. Coates's language is gorgeous. But he had hard words for our country and when the book was finished, I felt a sense of despair that more hasn't changed in the one hundred fifty-one years since slavery was abolished in this country. Or in the fifty some odd years since the Civil Rights Act was passed. So,  I went for a run. And I decided that on that run, I would smile at every human being that I saw. It was a sweltering morning in Philadelphia with the humidity pushing the temperature to feel closer to 100 then the actual 85 degrees. We were all sweaty out there. We were running; we were walking; we were biking. We were young and old and we were men and women and we were all shades of color. We walked with dogs or strollers or just with friends. Some of us were alone. I smiled at every one of us. Many didn't register me, either engaged in conversation or maybe working through the pain of their workout. Some met my eye and didn't smile back. But others did. They caught my smile and tossed it back to me, doubled. A smile may seem a small thing, but it was a small thing that I had control over.

That night, my younger son had some friends over. Well, he's said it would be a few. It was closer to a dozen. With Coates's words swirling in my head, I watched these teens enter my house, all different shades of the human rainbow. They'd gathered because several of them had pitched in to build a computer for one of the guys so that he could game with them. These are not kids who grew up the dangerous parts of our city, like the area where Coates grew up in Baltimore. But neither are they all suburban kids, protected with fenced-in yards. I marveled, not for the first time, how different my sons' lives are from how I grew up. How much more of the world they've seen, how much they already know about justice and compassion and right living.

I can't repair the scars that divide our country all by myself. But I can do what I can in my corner of the world. And I can share my smiles with all of those traveling this road alongside me.

 

 

YA Dystopia: Where the Chicks Get to do the Cool Stuff

“War is peace.  Freedom is slavery.  Ignorance is strength.” I just finished re-reading George Orwell’s 1984. I say re-read because I read it once in high school (didn’t we all?) but I felt as though I was reading it for the first time because all I remembered was a white male protagonist, an oppressive regime and something about sex. Last spring I read Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 for the first time. I was surprised to realize many similarities between the two books.

Orwell’s book came first, published in 1949 and inspired by anti-Stalinist sentiment as well as the realization of the relationship of society and government to the people. Bradbury’s book was published in 1953 and was inspired by the McCarthy hearings. No matter the initial inspiration, the effect is quite similar between the two. In both books, the protagonist is a fairly unexceptional middle-aged man living in an oppressive system. In fact, in both books, the protagonist’s job is essentially the destruction of words. In the case of 1984, main character Winston “rectifies” past newspaper articles so that they agree with the current sentiments of the government. 451’s Guy Montag is a fireman, he sets fire to books, which are illegal. In both books, the main characters view their wives as vapid, shallow women with whom they are unable to connect. In both books, a young vibrant woman is the spark that sets the main character toward his path of rebellion. And both books feature a somewhat mysterious man who assists the main character in his brave act.

“There must be something in books, something we can’t imagine, to make a woman stay in a burning house; there must be something there. You don’t stay for nothing.”

The worlds of these books are exceedingly well conceived. There is much to respect in each of them. But it’s what I didn’t see that grabbed my attention. I didn’t see myself. Reading these books made me remember why I fell in love with young adult literature. The young adult dystopias that have landed on best-seller lists and subsequently made into movies are like feminist retellings of these old classics.

Even if you don’t feel that the protags of some of the recent big sellers can rightly be called feminist, you’ve got to admit what absolute fun it is to see girls at the helms of these stories. Girls who aren’t vapid or shallow or manic pixie dream girls, but girls who shoot arrows and start revolutions, who leap from trains and save their friends, who defy what society demands in order to do what is right.Katniss

I grant you that we seem to have traded the middle-aged man paired with young nubile female for teen girl chased by two overly handsome brave boys, but still — if I’m going to read something and try to find myself, I’d much rather see Katniss or Tris than Julia or Clarisse.

I grew weary of adult fiction when I couldn’t find myself there anymore. I wasn’t in the middle-aged men having affairs. I wasn’t in the mothers unfulfilled by motherhood. I wasn’t in the working women who loved to shop. I definitely wasn’t in the Red Room of Pain. Young adult literature offered me girls as main characters, girls who worked toward what they wanted, girls who fought and feared and loved and lost. Girls that spoke to me.Tris Climbing the Ferris Wheel

At the end of the day, isn’t this what the #weneeddiversebooks campaign is all about? Every child should be able to open a book and see herself — no matter what color her skin or who she loves or where she came from. It’s up to us to make sure it doesn’t take another sixty years.

(book covers from Amazon.com, Katniss from moviepilot.com, Tris climbing the ferris wheel from pinterest.com)

Permission to Act (or at least think) Like a Child

Many times over the last few years, I’ve lamented that I didn’t start writing when I was younger. But after reading Wally Lamb’s recent interview in the March/April issue of Writer’s Digest, I think I understand why. 1013306_419367881542499_1076806972_nWhen asked about imagination, Lamb credited his wife, saying that she took care of many of the responsible aspects of their lives together, giving him space to create. He spoke of Dorothea Brande’s book Becoming A Writer, saying that Brande “thought that the fiction writer is both the child and the adult, and if you try to be the adult before you allow yourself to be the child, then you’re going to cut yourself off — you’re not going to be able to create.”

That idea made a lot of sense to me as I thought of the many years that I wanted to write but seemed unable to do so. I’d grown up quick and, without realizing it, shut down that childlike side. The more I’ve given myself over to writing in recent years, the more I’ve experienced the playful wonder that I left behind.

Lamb said that Brande went on to say “…you have to give that child — the child that is in you as a writer — the freedom initially before you can become the responsible adult.”

Amen to that! I’ve got the responsible adult part down, but letting go and allowing the childlike part of me take over? Whoa. Not easy. But it must be important because I caught a similar thread when I heard Bobby McFerrin interviewed by Krista Tippet for her show On Being this morning.

mcferrin_leadMcFerrin said that he understands that he is entrusted with a talent and that he must take care of it by doing his best. “By [doing my] best,” McFerrin said, “it means I’m myself. I’m as close to my genuine self as possible.” And the “best way to be genuine is…to be ourselves and be childlike.” McFerrin talked about coaching young people in improvisation and how he tells them not to think that they are performing, but to simply be themselves.

My interpretation is that by being our true selves, by setting aside the expectations we perceive from others or from ourselves, we can tap into our creative side. The paradox is that while we are children, we are in a hurry to become adults. Then we must work our way back toward that open way of accessing creativity that comes so naturally to children. For adults, it takes courage to open that door and see what will walk through.

McFerrin spoke of the importance of improvisation in developing courage. He tells his students to set a timer and sing for ten minutes. He warns them that by two minutes in they will need to fight all tendencies to stop. In fact, he says that every part of your being will scream for you to stop. He says to continue. Do not give up. Do it every day for three weeks.

Julia Cameron’s morning pages in her book The Artist's Way offer a parallel activity for writers. Write three pages each morning upon waking. Don’t think, don’t judge and don’t stop. In fact, Cameron's book is all about working your way back to your creative side and the workbook offers tangible steps toward building a creative life.

Another paradox of the creative life is that you need to keep showing up (be the responsible adult) in order for the creative side (the child) to show up. The good news is that once the font is opened, you won’t run dry. Maya Angelou said: "You can't use up creativity. The more you use, the more you have."

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(Writer's Digest image from wallylamb.net, Bobby McFerrin image from onbeing.org, picasso image from rugusavay.com)

No Such Thing As Silence

images Recently, I had the pleasure of reading L. Marie's wonderful manuscript. There was much to love in her book - medieval setting, plucky heroine, original obstacles, potential love interest and fantastic metaphors. One aspect of L. Marie's writing that struck me was her facility with all of the senses. Back in March, I attended the annual Novel Writing Workshop at Vermont College. One of the speakers, Julie Berry, opened her talk by asking how many people, when they close their eyes to go to sleep, see images behind their closed eyelids. I was surprised by the question because I had always assumed that to be a commonplace occurrence. When I close my eyes, I'm never sure what I'll see. Sometime faces looking large or maybe landscapes I've never seen in real life. Sometimes just shapes merging one into another, a kaleidoscope behind the curtain of my eyelids. Berry's talk was on how to view our writing differently. Through the talk, she urged the writers in the room to be aware of our strengths (mine, apparently is being very visual) but to also mind the gaps.

In my writing, I tend to go for the visual image. After all, reading is a visual exercise, right? Well, not necessarily. I mean, of course we process what we read visually, but as we read, we are also accessing many other parts of our brains. When L. Marie uses smell or hearing, two senses that I often neglect, her setting came alive for me in a way it couldn't have had she relied on the visual alone. In an effort to "mind the gap," I decided to get in touch with my less used senses. I went for a run and left my iPod behind. (gasp!) I am, well, let's say passionate about music and there's nothing I love more than a good playlist as the soundtrack to my run. But on this day, a gorgeous clear day, I left it behind, determined to hear everything.

As I made my way out of my tightly packed suburban neighborhood toward a trail, the first thing I noticed was that there is no such thing as silence. Cars whooshed down the road. Wind roared passed my ears. Birds sang in their many different languages. My shoes were a rhythmic thwat against the pavement and then a crunch as I hit the trail. A hammer pounded. A lawnmower whined. Children giggled. And there was the wind - thwacking through bamboo and rustling through oaks.

I considered the places in my novel where I'd used silence as a beat because I needed the characters to process something or I needed to build the emotional moment. And I realized that using silence was the easy way. Even in a quiet kitchen, there is the low whir of a refrigerator, maybe the drip of a sink, outside sounds drifting in through an open window. By allowing my character to hear those sounds or, even better, sounds that reflect her mood, I can deepen the moment for my reader.

Armed with a new soundtrack, I considered how I experienced the sounds, comparing them to sounds in my memory. Going further, I thought about how a character would hear the same sounds. Depending on who she is and in what time period she exists, how would she hear the wind through the tall oaks? Like the rustling of a lady's rich brocade gown? Like a cheerleader's pom-poms? Or would it be her mother's voice, whispering her name from the deathbed?

I plan to be more aware of all the senses in my writing and of "minding the gap," as Julie Berry says, so that I don't miss the use of half my brain! I confess, though, that after that revelatory run, I returned to my iPod because there's really nothing like Arcade Fire singing "Wake Up" as I'm working my way up that first hill of the day.

Gettin' My Poe On

The Following The creepy new series, "The Following," has achieved something noble for television, at least for me. It inspired me to return to the works of Edgar Allen Poe. Admittedly in the last couple of episodes, good old Poe has taken a back seat to the shenanigans of the cult-type group carrying out the macabre plans of the convicted serial killer, Joe Carroll. Nonetheless, in the earlier episodes, all of the characters made references to Poe's stories, so I thought I'd return to the Tales of Terror and remind myself of what Poe created during his tortured existence.

I was disappointed that the audiobook was not narrated by James Purefoy (who plays the serial killer on "The Following"). I mean, obviously, I knew it wouldn't be him, but wouldn't it have been fantastic if it was? He's pretty cute for a serial killer, right? And that accent...At any rate, you can imagine my surprise to hear a narrator with a decidedly southern gentleman's lilt. Despite the unexpected accent, I was engaged by the very first story, the well-known Tell-Tale Heart. I'd sort of remembered the story, but what I'd forgotten over the years was the manner by which Poe builds toward the inevitable conclusion.

Recently on the interwebs, I saw this quote attributed to Poe: "A short story must have a single mood and every sentence must build towards it.”

Boy oh boy, does our man Poe follow his own advice. By the end of the story, I was practically begging the narrator to just rip up the darn floorboards, confess and maybe even commit hari-kari to stop the infernal beating of the heart.

Another nugget of wisdom I read within the last month was in this post in the New York Times by suspense writer Lee Child. Child says he's often asked how one creates suspense in stories and he notes that the framing of the questions suggests a sort of if-then construction akin to asking "How do you bake a cake?" This construction, he says, directs writers to look at their ingredients: sympathetic characters and proceed to follow directions on how to place them in impossible situations But, Child says this:

"'How do you bake a cake?” has the wrong structure. It’s too indirect. The right structure and the right question is: “How do you make your family hungry?”

And the answer is: You make them wait four hours for dinner."

Don't you love that? You make them wait four hours for dinner. As I work through the final revisions of my current work-in-progress, I'm thinking about the promises I've set forth in the beginning of the novel, what Orson Scott Card would call the need in the reader. I'm looking at the characters, the choices they make and their impact on one another, and I'm looking at how I'm building suspense toward an exciting climax and a satisfying conclusion. Now you might be wondering if I'm writing a suspense thriller like Lee Child. I'm not. I'm writing a realistic young adult novel set in contemporary Baltimore. But the point Child raises pertains to all writers, in my opinion. It's a matter of how we make readers turn pages. We all need suspense in our stories. In The Tell-Tale Heart, Poe forces the reader wait during the long hours that the narrator is just watching the old man. Poe creates a need in the reader to see what not only what will happen but how it will happen. "The Following" encourages us to tune in each week to find out if and when the ever-flawed Ryan Hardy will find the boy, whether or not the mother will get herself in trouble (is she a cliche of a damsel in distress or what?) and whether that 'virgin' acolyte will ever be bring himself to commit murder (his psycho friends won't give up on him, how cute is that?).

Impatient by nature, I have a tendency to throw an obstacle before my main character and then allow her to leap over it fairly quickly. Through this revision, I'm learning to slow down, allow my character to wallow in discomfort for a while and force my readers to wait four hours for dinner. What are your thoughts about suspense in stories? What have you seen or read that creates excellent suspense, in your opinion?

An Irresistible Book on Writing Kidlit

kole kidlit In November, I'd read this post on Through the Tollbooth, a blog by VCFA alums. I'd graduated with my MFA some four months earlier and I assumed (somewhat snidely, I suppose) that I had all the writing books one could need. There wasn't a book out there that could tell me something I hadn't already heard, right? The post slowed down my assumption-creating brain a little when I considered that author of the post was also an alum -- a published one at that -- and she found the book quite helpful. Also, the book was written by agent extraordinaire Mary Kole.

In need of some inspiration or motivation or I don't know what -- I ordered the book, Writing Irresistible Kidlit: The Ultimate Guide to Crafting Fiction for Young Adult and Middle Grade Readers, and it arrived on a doorstep just a few days later. (Oh how love books arriving on my doorstep.) I find the book to be compulsively readable and despite the many books on writing which line my shelves (and spill over onto counters and pile onto side tables), this one does indeed fill a gap that I didn't know I had.

Having Kole's book is like having SCBWI sitting on your shelf, only less crowded. Kole's tone respects the art of writing, but also oh-so-gently reminds the sensitive writer that bookselling is (ahem) a business. She reminds us that it will help us as writers to know the markets, to understand the lingo, to grasp the process of selling a book. Kole provides clear, thought-provoking descriptions of the differences between middle grade and young adult literature. For example, she reminds writers where middle grade kids are in their development and what they will identify with in those stages. Toward the middle of the book, she dives into craft issues, including chapters on story foundation, character and plot. Each chapter includes examples from published novels as well as quotes from contemporary authors and editors of middle grade and young adult novels. All of it is written in an encouraging and straight-forward manner.

A section in Chapter 6 on Plot particularly helped me. Kole provides two plot graphs. The first illustrates the traditional three-act plot graph. You've all seen it, it looks like an inverted check mark. The second was an emotional plot graph, which looks sort of like a sea serpent. It's got more curves and it's upside down, compared to the traditional one. (I'd like to copy it for you here, but I'm not sure about copyright stuff.) At any rate, looking at the two graphs, I realized what was missing in my manuscript. My character hadn't hit her moment of no-hope despair, the moment that will allow her to grow and understand her new normal, the moment that will allow the reader to resonate with her pain and see her ability to move through it. This, of course, was not a lack of teaching on the part of my MFA advisors. On the contrary,  I knew I needed to raise the stakes for my character, but the visual cue of the graph, helped me to see how to do that in a new light.

Kole's book offers a nice entre to concepts of craft and it is an excellent resource for writers who are ready to learn more about the business side of writing for children and young adults. Also, it's just plain fun to read.

Our Stay in Middle-earth

Maybe it was the fact that we watched all three Lord of the Rings movies while we stayed in the condo. Maybe it was the mention in Fodor’s that this area looked like Middle-earth. All I know is that from the moment we arrived at Peace Lodge and Waterfall Gardens, I could think of nothing else.

As we crested a steep incline, unfettered by human or machine, I expected Aragorn to gallop across the green hills. And when we entered our room, I felt sure that Elrond himself would greet us and welcome us to Rivendell.

The landscape was breathtaking in its rugged beauty and the lodge was stunning, down to every detail. The Peace Lodge has only seventeen rooms. There are four or five buildings, which look like houses, each of which has four rooms with separate outside entrances. I’ve never stayed anywhere remotely like this.

Okay, this next one -- this is in our bathroom. Yes, those are live ferns with a waterfall. In my bathroom.

Peace Lodge is also home to a nature preserve and wildlife refuge. It's like having a small zoo just below your hotel room. Eager to make the most of our short time in this enchanted place, we scurried down to the park where we saw monkeys, jaguars and vipers. We also fed hummingbirds.

We were sad to find the frog house closed but John, a young tour guide with just enough English to be funny – or possibly dangerous, convinced us to sign up for a night-time frog tour. It turned out to be amazing – if not for the fantastic pictures then for the animated descriptions given by John. His excitement was infectious. His dedication toward helping our younger son nail the perfect photo endeared me to him, even as he more often than not, misunderstood our questions.

When night fell, clouds swallowed mountains whole and then reached up to our veranda as if offering us passage to the land beyond. That night, with the mountain air coming through the screens, I slept like a princess under silky mosquito netting and woke to the bright sunshine angling through the window and the calls of birds in the aviary below. Next -- our visit to Poas Volcano, a coffee plantation and Rivendell - er, the Waterfall Gardens.

Pay It Back or Pay It Forward

I've seen some great posts on critique partners and critique groups.  Myra McEntire did a great series on writers and their critique groups like this one where she interviewed Maggie Steifvater about her group with Tessa Gratton and Brenna Yovanoff. The three are also the Merry Sisters of Fate and they post most awesome and creepy short stories.  But I digress.  Critique partners. 

I've heard lots of good advice on giving good critiques. In fact AE Rought just posted a bit on YALITCHAT about this very topic.  She posted this from another YAlitchat Moderator:

1) There's always something good in any writing, so I start there.
2) If I find something I think needs to be changed or improved, then I find a way to help the writer with a suggestion, not a condemnation.
3) I always end with something good. There are at least two good things in any created piece. I feel it's my job to find them as well as anything I think could be made better.
4) I remind the writer this is MY opinion. I'm not the publishing god. Others will have opinions that are different. I urge them to seek those.
5) Ultimately, the writer is driving the boat. Remind them . . . subtly.

But what hit me this week is another type of etiquette.  I have met some wonderful and talented writers at the many conferences I've attended over the last two years.  Understanding the importance of peer critiques and craving the deep feedback that comes from another writer, I've asked a few of them to share work with me.  This experience, without doubt, has helped me become a better writer and I have faith that it will continue to do so.  There are few emails I look more forward to than chapters returned to me with thoughtful comments throughout.  (Okay, I admit, the email I really look forward to is the one from an agent but we're talking realistic here, okay?) 

This week, however, I felt a different reaction when I saw an email from my newest crit partner.  My reaction was less, "Oh goody!" and more "Oh crap!" 

See, it's been a busy month around here, what with baseball playoffs, swim practice, end of year recitals, finishing up at work and getting ready for the MFA program.  And I'd neglected to do the critique on my friend's chapters.  I had read (and enjoyed) them but a whole month had passed and I hadn't taken the time to comment and return them.  Needless to say, her email to me lit the fire under my butt and I had the crits back to her within two days.  But I've learned a couple of lessons which I think are singular to critique partners rather than groups. I imagine with groups, the guidelines are laid out and the expectations are clear about when the group meets and how often pages are exchanged. 

And really, these lessons are ones I've been learning and re-learning for years in different areas of my life. First, don't be selfish.  If someone has offered to take significant time to read your work (or help you in any way) do the same for them or, if they don't need help now, offer your help for the future. In a weird way, this is actually selfish because you have to give it away to keep it. In other words, it helps you to look at another's work and it maintains the balance in the relationship. The second is basic - communicate.  If you and your partner have agreed to help one another, be clear on the timeline.  If you share pages once a month, once a week or only during tight deadlines, great.  But you both need to know when you are sending the crits back.  

How about you? What works in your partnerships? 

Apparently, I'm Recommending Things

Jeeper creepers, I've had an eventful week.  I've been to Disney with the family, as well as the Phillies Spring Training but what's grabbing me today, in particular, are two things. Thing Number One: On the plane ride home from Florida, I read an ARC (Advanced Review Copy) of SORTA LIKE A ROCK STAR by Matthew Quick.  I learned about Matthew from Twitter and when his editor, Alvina Ling from Little, Brown, mentioned him in her talk at the New York SCBWI conference, I decided that I wanted to learn more. It turns out that Matthew is a local boy - born and raised in Philadelphia and an alumnus of Lehigh University. Since I love to support authors, and most especially local authors,  I requested an ARC of his book. (Side note: I had some strange impression that published authors are like Hollywood stars, inaccessible and uninterested in the common folk. I couldn't be more wrong and thrilled to be wrong.  I've written several authors recently and each of them has replied quickly and with enthusiasm to my questions). 

Back to SORTA LIKE A ROCK STAR, the main character, Amber Appleton, is living on a bus with her alcoholic mother but despite that, she is a beacon of hope to the many people she spends time with.  The book yanked me in from the start through Amber's unique, quirky voice and though I shed more than a few tears into my scarf on the plane, I could not put the book down.  Simply put, it's a stunning story of a young woman coming to terms with loss and accepting help from the people who care so deeply for her.  

Even at my age, I related to Amber's sense of confusion in terms of how she views herself versus how others see her and her struggle to find faith in the midst of tragedy. And Matthew didn't quit with the development of his amazing main character.  Amber's life is full of well-developed secondary characters who each come his or her own interesting story. The book comes out in May - go buy it.  Your soul will thank you. 

And what was Thing Number Two?  Oh yeah, I had the chance to talk to my wonderful college roommate yesterday on the phone and it gave me a boost.  We haven't seen one another in a long time since she lives on the West Coast and I'm a lousy friend.  When I hung up, I was thinking about that odd feeling of reconnecting with someone who knows me well but from a different time in my life.  It felt reassuring to talk to her, like my history is grounded somewhere, in the memories of the people I've been close to.  

Oh, and all the events of last week?  Fun!  And tiring.  I've got to be honest, though - Disney wasn't quite as magical to me this time around. Crowded and long lines, it just didn't have that certain je ne sais quoi.  The highlights for me were a spontaneous return trip to Magic Kingdom at 10 pm with the kids and hubby to catch the fireworks and Space Mountain.  And, dear old Walt, please forgive me, but we also hit Universal Studios which I LOVED and highly recommend to people with tweens.  

And Thing The Last:  The Phillies!  Another experience I highly recommend: go to a spring training game.  The stadium is tiny so there isn't a bad seat, the parking lot is a breeze and the boys are RIGHT THERE in front of you!  They played the Yankees the day we were there.  We started off strong with a 5-1 lead but then blew it and by the 9th, we were tied 7-7.  Then some new kid from the minors hit a walk-off homeroom bringing in Greg Dobbs for a final score of 9-7 Phillies!  It was a day that made me impatient for the baseball season to start. 

Okay, people, I'm glad I connected and now - I'm out. 

NaNoWriMo

I like me nothing better than an unattainable challenge.  I have been accused, you might say, of always looking for the next thing.  But I'm not convinced that was the motivation for signing up for National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo, for short.  True, last year when I heard about NaNoWriMo, I thought it insane and could not imagine putting myself through such torture. Why would someone choose to try to write a novel in one month?  So what's different this year? I'm glad you asked.  What's different is that I have finished a novel.  There, I put it out on the blogosphere.  For nearly half my life I have dreamed of writing a novel. And I've done it.  I finished a novel, including three rounds of edits and revisions.  So, what's different, in case you need me to spell it out, is that I know I can do it.  I mean, I'm not at all sure that I can accomplish 50,000 words in a month but I do know that I am capable of developing a storyworld, creating characters from dust motes and weaving them through a plot that makes sense.  

Okay, you say, so you have confidence, why do you need to sign up for NaNoWriMo?  Excellent question from the red-headed girl in the back.  The truth is that since I finished my book, I've become overwhelmed with all of the information, most of it discouraging, about publishing.  So distracted have I become, that I've gotten away from the actual act of writing and I think NaNo will help me return to what I love: the tap-tap-tap of fingers on keyboard as a world streams out before my eyes.  

Though I'll have little time to do much of anything besides my job, my family and the writing, I'll try to check in and let you know how things are progressing once NaNo starts on November 1.  Feel free to cheer me on, it will take something short of a miracle to help me achieve 50,000 words in one month. And you know that misery loves company so why don't you skiddadle on over to the NaNoWriMo website and sign yourself up?  I've heard it said that every one has a story to tell, maybe now is the time to tell yours.
www.nanowrimo.org/