Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Writing, Yoga, and Winnie-the-Pooh Wannabees

My quest to make peace with my writing process as we face E's on-going health problems has led me to some unexpected places.

In addition to creating Writer's Resolutions for the New Year, I'm practicing yoga three times a week, feeling the ache of hundreds of muscles neglected for far too long, discovering an inner quiet (which my muse appreciates), and finding solace and inspiration from writers willing to share their own creative process.

Author Cynthia Leitich Smith recently spotlighted one such writer, author Uma Krishnaswami. Uma launched a new blog, Writing with a Broken Tusk: A Blog about the Writing Process and the Creation of Books for Children.

Looks promising for this and other Pooh Wannabees.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Reading and other Obsessions

The past week I've been a reading maniac. My current obsession: Eoin Colfer's Artemis Fowl series.

Wow, Colfer can write. I understand now why Artemis Fowl is so popular with middle grade boys, and why our local library shelves three books per title.

So many aspects of the books are working. Snappy dialogue. Memorable characters. Smart, witty omniscient narrator. Richly conceived fantasy world. Laugh-out-loud humor. Great opening chapters. Oh, and last but not least, bigger print and white space. (Something this reader truly appreciated when reading after the girls settled in for the night.)

I am now offically obsessed with analyzing what went right with these books.

Burning Water in The Zone

This past week, with both S and E finally on the upside of their sinus infections (and back at school), I've been taking advantage of my uninterrupted free time to dive back into my work in progress. Feels good to back. Not only have I missed the keyboard and my characters, I've missed The Zone.

If you're a writer, artist, or athlete, you've probably spent time in The Zone. It exists outside of time. So far out, in fact, that you've no idea what's going on around you, and don't care that you don't. You become one with your story, painting, or project. And suddenly you've become lost in a book. Only the task at hand matters. And suddenly you realize you've spent two hours revising, instead of 30 minutes.

I've burned water while in The Zone. I've also forgotten to pick up the girls from school. Though working from the Zone has its downsides, I strive always to enter it when I write.

My best writing happens in The Zone. It's where I can inhabit my characters so deeply, it takes an hour or more after quitting to shake the sensation of straddling two worlds. And it's where I know with such certainty what my characters will do next that I can see the entire quilt of my story taking shape.

Appetite for writing: Hungry for my work in progress. And anxious to burn water.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Writer Mom BIC Report

So far so good on my writer's resolutions. Keeping BIC (butt in chair) from 10-2 most weekdays, unless it's a crit group or SCBWI meeting day, or E is sick (which happened mid last week).

Met with crit group yesterday for our biweekly lunch critique. A and J are such talented readers and writers, I'm thrilled to be a part of their group. We discussed our work over steaming spoonfuls of J's spicy bean soup. Um-good.

The meeting flew by too quickly. Didn't help that I was interrupted twice by calls from E's teacher, concerned about a headache that didn't go away after Tylenol. I ended up racing home early from crit group to pick E up from school. In my panic that E's shunt might be acting up, or, God forbid, that her aneurysm may no longer be stable, I forgot S had Scouts after school. By the time I figured out what day it was, it was too late to go. Sigh.

I tried being Pooh about the whole thing last night, but I'm afraid the Eeyore side won out. Feeling better today. Missed meetings, forgotten to-dos, neglected projects, and a longer writing process than most--par for a writer mom of a special needs kid.

Please Excuse the Mess...

My blog's under construction. Please excuse the mess . I've been experimenting this week with new templates. Didn't like my first attempt; so, I'm back to the old version...for now.

For reasons I may never understand, I'm itchy for a change. Not sure if it's the time of the year, or the weather, or what. Please don't be surprised if I change my look several more times before I settle on something.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Discovery Channel Moment Before BIC Time

While answering e-mails before BIC time this a.m., a swift shape raced past the dining room window.

Since the back of the house faces a heavily wooded hill, it's not unusual for our backyard to attract wildlife. Foxes often bask in the sunny grass beside the fort during the spring, summer, and fall. Squirrels leap from tree to tree. Ground hogs waddle between fallen logs. Chipmunks chitter endlessly. But something about this morning's shape was different. It didn't move in the way our usual visitors do. It soared.

I pushed away from my laptop to get better look out the picture window. Didn't take me long to spy our guest.

It perched on the main crossbeam of our wooden swing set, its head swiveling like an owl's, taking in the entire yard. Our golden, Buffy, watched with me, quivering beneath my hand with the need to seek, find, retrieve.

This morning's Discovery Channel moment: a hawk with a four-foot wing span at least.


Saturday, January 14, 2006

Finally...A New Date

Talked with the lead physician's office after P's Mom called yesterday. Just to nudge them a bit.

Reminded them we'd been waiting since the day before Thanksgiving for the two surgeons to coordinate a new date. Reminded them we'd finished all our prerequisite specialists' visits to appease the anesthesiologists, and that the ball was now in their court.

First thing the nurse says: "I thought we called you. E's scheduled for February 8th. First case."

Okay. Fine. Seems the docs were more coordinated then I gave them credit for.

Surgery's scheduled for the day before E's 14th birthday. Yee-hah. I promised her we'd celebrate early.

Musings from the Inbetween Place

A call from P's folks yesterday reminded me we're not the only ones trapped in the Inbetween Place waiting for a new surgical date.

Like a heavy stone dropped into still water, news that we must wait for E's main physicians to coordinate their schedules yet again has rippled in many directions.

I can relate to their frustration of not knowing yet. No date means P's been reluctant to book out-of-town trips for fear he'll be overseas when news comes that E's scheduled for surgery the next day. No date means I've been reluctant to commit to long-term writing projects, not knowing what E's prognosis will be afterward.

Putting things on hold, not doing because we might have to cancel, feels wrong somehow. In bed at night, I worry that we're giving into the situation by becoming too insular, preferring to spend time at home reading, playing board games, doing the family thing. I can see the dangers of allowing this sort of thinking to take hold.

We're all right for now. As long as the docs don't keep us in this place for too much longer.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Must be wonderful this time of year in Vermont...

Vermont College Winter Residency began yesterday. The first since my graduating the two-year MFA program last July. Feels odd not being there.

Describing the Vermont experience is damn near impossible. The program pared my prose, kick-started my creative, and launched my learning curve into the stratosphere (often an uncomfortable place to be while juggling deadlines, E's frequent illnesses, and family obligations). Keeping my learning curve on an upward slope will continue to be a challenge, because I've yet to find a writer's conference, lecture, or workshop that compares to the rigors of VC.

So, as Winter residency begins, I remember... living, eating and breathing the thing that I loved for 11 glorious, uninterrupted-by-kids days.

In the case of VC, imagine discussions, workshops, lectures, readings, and more, about writing for children and young adults. Not debating the surface stuff. Talking about what works in a piece (or doesn't) and why, so you can train your inner editor and apply what you've learned to your own work.

Imagine 14-plus hour days until your body can't keep the pace any longer, but your muse is so inspired and invigorated that all it wants you to do is pack up early so you can return home, and write non-stop.

While I don't miss the hike across campus to the cafeteria during the winter residencies, especially when the wind blew so cold my thighs burned and my glasses froze up, I do miss the company and the great conversation about all things kid lit.

A big shout out to all my Vermont buds, especially my online crit group friends T and S, who are starting their second semesters. Pace yourselves, give my advisors hugs, save me an MFA Today, and don't eat too much seitan.

Friday, January 06, 2006

The Real Story: When Events, Characters, and Controlling Beliefs Collide

A common thread I heard time and again while pursuing my MFA at Vermont College is the belief that a story isn't truly a story until a main character is poised for change. This is true for fiction and non-fiction, picture books and novels.

Each time I revised my work-in-progress for a new advisor, I mused about the notion. But I didn't fully appreciate it until Kathi Appelt lectured about controlling belief during a Vermont College lecture last summer.

According to Appelt, the most compelling and memorable characters are the ones driven by a controlling belief, a dream or conviction so central to the character it propels the entire story.

Hearing Appelt explain character this way was a light-bulb moment for me. In my goal to understand my MC more deeply, I'd been tripped up by the human condition. We are fantastically complex individuals, often influenced by more than one belief. I assumed my character must be, too. Yet, in her lecture, Appelt made an important distinction. When talking story, especially works for children, the need for one controlling belief is central. Aha. Yes! I finally get it.

Here's how I visualize the concept for my own characters: Imagine controlling belief as an invisible set of eyeglasses worn by your character. Every choice, action, or inaction must be filtered first through those lenses.

In her lecture, Appelt further explained the role controlling belief plays in story. A story is ripe for the telling, she says, when a character's controlling belief is challenged. She shared examples of characters and their controlling beliefs. I developed the following example on my own to help illustrate her point:

Kate is a short, overweight fourth grader whose dream (controlling belief) is to become a famous dancer, and tour all of Europe like her grandmother did during the war. Kate's controlling belief is challenged the day she overhears her friends snickering behind her back in dance class. They call Kate's plans for the future an "impossible dream." Whoever heard of a short, fat ballerina, one asks the other?

A story is born. The spotlight now is on Kate's journey. The narrative will be driven by how Kate responds to the events and characters challenging her controlling belief. Will Kate prove her friends wrong or give up her dream? In the face of the odds, does she achieve her dream or modify it? Does she reject her friends, or win them over? In the end, does Kate change and grow, or refuse to do so?

So how does this apply to my own work in progress? I've pinned down the key belief that should be driving my MC. Thank you, Kathi! I finally have what it takes to quilt the pieces of my story together, and discard the rest. Feels good.

Caveat for next time:
Understanding a character's controlling belief before launching a work in progress will whittle down months of discovery, and save dozens of trees.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

BIC Report, Crit Group, and a New Toy

So far so good on keeping BIC. Hours logged on creative so far this week: 8 1/2.

Not bad, considering my total doesn't include Monday, which P and I spent with the girls doing things like lounging till late morning in our pjs, and heading out early that afternoon to see The Chronicles of Narnia.

Keeping to my 10-2 schedule, breaking only for pit stops and lunch. Made good progress on Keeper the last couple days. Clarified the questions that arose after the opening was read out loud and discussed at the November SCBWI conference.

Current read: Three Fates, adult fiction by Nora Roberts, who also happens to write kick-butt sci-fi/fantasy under the pen name of J.D. Robb.

Today's agenda:

Crit group--We meet later this am. Eager to hear how the revisions are received. If I'm working in the right direction, I'll be that much closer to sending my work to the editors who have requested it.

New toy--Since the drive to crit group is on the longish side, I'm planning to test out a new toy--a digital recorder from P. It's a nifty little device, capable of recording up to eight hours of ideas, lectures, and whatnot. It also allows me to download my notes to the computer via a wave file when I'm done. Very cool. Better than swerving into traffic each time I try to write down ideas the old-fashioned way.

Edited to add:
Back from crit group. Definitely headed in the right direction with my chapter. Yes!

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Countdown to BIC Time

Two of my girls are at school today--my oldest and youngest. E's at home, enjoying one more day of break. She's in the other room finishing up her toast, and singing to Lizzie McGuire in-between bites. I've been surfing the web, and reading blogs and listserves, including updates from my Vermont College classmates.

Dismayed by how quickly the time has flown by. Yet, I have to admit I'm also excited by what might come out of today's BIC time. Chief on the agenda: pounding out something tangible for my face-to-face crit group.

Countdown to BIC time: T minus four minutes.

More later. Happy writing to all.