Monday, April 20, 2015

Choosing a World to Build

In the past, when I've finished a book, I take a week or two off to clear out the previous book's webs in my brain-attic, then start on a new project.

This time, I took a different approach. I asked Agent B (the incredibly marvelous Barbara Poelle of The Irene Goodman Literary Agency) if she thought I should come up with a few more book ideas and we could chat about them before I started the next book. She said to come up with 20. Not 19, not 21. Exactly 20. She told me a story about another client of hers (who I have MAD respect for) that did this same thing, before she wrote her first best seller. So you can imagine how pumped I was to start.

Twenty is HARD.

Firstly, I always have a couple of ideas rattling around my head. Once I cleared out the dross and glitter globules of my brain, I found I had four.

Four is far away from twenty, you know.

Also, some of these ideas were a sentence. They needed some serious fleshing out.

I spent December's waking hours fleshing out my four initial ideas—giving them character names and ambitions and tweaking the blurb (we decided I'd write a 'blurb' for each of the books, as if I'd already written the damn thing and knew what happened at the end. Which I don't.)

But when I was asleep, or running or shoveling snow my brain was churning. The challenge and glory of having to come up with 20 story ideas is that you need to be less precious. You can't wait for your muse to hit you over the head with the story-stick, you need to grab ideas, turn them upside down and shake them until they say 'uncle' or until they bloom into something good. Every article I read I asked myself, Is there was a story there? Every TV show I asked myself if there was a fresh, me-like angle on the story. Music videos, billboards, other people's conversation. I was like the prince in Cinderella grabbing on to anyone with a lower limb trying to fit a shoe, uh, I mean, story on.

It felt a little feverish, seeing every tiny thread as a story waiting to be told. And exciting, and a little exhausting. Even after I had 23 ideas I could refine, I kept searching. A lot of my ideas came from dreams. A lot came from reading articles. Two came from something my kids said.

That was only part one of the exercise. The heavy lifting came when I spoke to B. She asked a lot of questions. Poking my ideas with her own Yoda-like story-stick to see if they held up, made sense and had legs.

The twenty became seven. Then were down to 2. Now I have narrowed it down to 1.

This story is where I'm world building next. I'm excited.

Monday, April 13, 2015

How to get Your Groove Back after Rejection

I have joked (and been serious) before about what I have done when rejected by agents, publishers or critiques. The strategy is mostly about drinking. But, having just had a somewhat brutal rejection, I find myself in a familiar and utterly ugly place.


It's a hideous country, flat and with nary a comfort food in sight. I hate it here. I hate how squishy I feel, like a snail pulled out of its shell. I hate how my thoughts bounce around looking for something good to hang on to and finding nada.

I hate how corrosive this place is. How it seeps into my bones and amplifies the negative voice in my mind. I need to get the fudge out of Doubtsville. Now.

Directions Out of Doubtsville

Personal Tsunami
A very smart friend said to me that it's okay to feel bad. Don't minimize how crappy you feel just because people have it worse. It's okay to have a Personal Tsunami, something that feels devastating, even though it isn't. Let it feel like loss.

Yes to tsunami, but only for a little while. There's a big difference in accepting feelings and wallowing in a vat o' self pity.

As in getting back on it. This is something I try to do too soon. As soon as the tsunami hits, I mean before the waters recede and I even know where I am, I'm googling things. Books, conferences, crit groups, blogs, answers, answers answers! I want the remedy before I'm ready for it. But there's a time for horses and getting back in saddles.

Nerves and Fear
I have a friend who is a writer and an opera singer. She helped my daughter over come some fears about singing in public. She said that when you have nerves, don't try to stifle them, instead shake hands with your nerves and say hello. Your nerves, if kept in their proper place, can help fuel you, make you better. And if you've said hello to your nerves, you can keep an eye on them. They can't sneak up on you.

Fear is not your friend. Fear is gripping and crippling and all the 'ippings' you can think of. It can stop you from writing or WORSE stop you from writing what you are really capable of.

Get past these twists and turns and I believe you can get out of Doubtsville. I'm stuck somewhere on the corner of Nerves and Fear but I have a plan to get out. A simple plan. It's called "I NEVER GIVE UP."

Monday, April 6, 2015

Diversity with Dragons, Football and Drama

I was brushing my youngest daughter's hair when I found myself talking about trans people. It happened because a mini-fight broke out between eldest and youngest about how to dress their stuffed bunny for Easter (Let me set the scene: This is right before church and the girls are trying to figure out if they can get our Rector to baptize the stuffed bunny. Spoiler alert: They can't.)

Eldest wanted Chubby to wear a bow tie and youngest wanted Chubby to wear a skirt. I said, "Why not both?"
"Because he's a girl," said Eldest
"No he's both," said Youngest
"That's not possible," said Eldest

And this launched me into a somewhat awkward explanation about how some people are born looking one way on the outside, but feeling another way on the inside. It was awkward, because I'd never thought about how to talk to my kids about gender diversity. There are so many kinds of diversity that young kids aren't exposed to (especially in quasi-rural Pennsylvania.) And if the diversity involves sex and gender issues there's a hesitancy to discuss because the topic is deemed inappropriate for the age.

But why? Why is it inappropriate to discuss gay people, trans people or any other people with non-heteronormative orientations, with children?

I can't think of a good reason. My kids see hetero relationships in cartoons all the time. And youngest liked 'marrying' our neighbor Trevor so much, she did it three times.

Driving in the car with eldest and her friends (10 and 11 year olds) we were discussing Raina Telgemeier's fantastic graphic novel DRAMA.

One of eldest's friends said her mother wouldn't let her read this book because it wasn't appropriate for children. I made that unattractive between-brow furrow with my face as I tried to remember what could be inappropriate in that book. After all, it's for their age, no curse words or drug taking or violence (lots of snarkiness and over reaction but duh, middle grade.)

It turned out to be because one of the characters was gay. I might have gone on a tirade about how if there's nothing inappropriate in the Cinderella love story, then there's nothing wrong with a gay person falling in love in a middle grade book.

So without any more tangential stories about my kids or driving through my neighborhood (the daffs are up! and the crocuses!) here are two books that I read recently which I think are good with gender diversity.

Boy In A Dress
David Walliams

Title says it all. This is a wonderful middle grade book illustrated by the excellent Quentin Blake about Dennis, who likes fashion and football. And thinks that dressing up as a girl is fun. He wishes boy's clothes were prettier. His Dad and his brother are typical British lads who do not understand and push hard to contain what they think is alarming and deviant behavior. Despite the heavy subtext, the book is light, funny and open ended enough to make kids think, without shoving a message down their throats.

Shadow Scale
By Rachel Hartman

I can't believe I didn't know how amazing these books were before. I've been burning through them for two weeks now and I'll likely have a seizure of withdrawal when I finish Shadow Scale. In a fictional world where Dragons not only exist, but can turn into human-like shapes to speak and intermingle with humans, there is an uneasy peace between human and dragon kind. Seraphina is a product of a dragon-human union - human seeming with a ring of silver scales around her torso and down her arms. She is ashamed at being a half-breed and for good reason. Everyone around her distrusts the dragons. But a half-breed is fit to be reviled.

The world building in these books is breathtaking, and the plot is intricate without being cumbersome. The message of diversity is not something that comes out at you like a jackhammer, but one that builds in layers as Seraphina learns about herself and about others like her. Seraphina has visions of other 'half-breeds' like herself and each of them is more different than the rest. Some are nearly unrecognizable as human. Each one challenges Seraphina's idea of what is 'normal'. The introduction of the transgender character Camber is wonderful because we see him in her vision when he is a man, then meet her in person when she identifies as a woman.

All this is seamlessly woven throughout a novel that is high stakes adventure and deeply human—even when the humanity is in the dragons.

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