Thursday, October 30, 2014

Short Blog Break

Once again, tomorrow is Thursday, it's late, and I have to admit that life has just plowed me under for now. I'm taking a blog break this week and next week. But please do join me back here on November 13, because there's going to be a guest poster, and you'll want to find out who it is! Until then, be well, my friends.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Tomorrow (Today) is *Thursday*

I usually schedule my posts. I'm scheduling this one, too. Except I'm doing so at 10pm the night before, because I just remembered *tomorrow is Thursday*. Or, as you read this, today is Thursday.

I'm busy writing, editing, teaching, SCBWI-ing, prepping for Election Day (I'm a pollworker), getting ready to host a grandchild this weekend (aack! Groceries needed!), and planning an upcoming short vacay to Indiana. I am not, frankly, reading much right now. But that's another thing I must do: line up some books for the vacay. My daughter-in-law and I always build reading time into the visits. Really, we're all reading something or other at some time or other, and the girls will ask for stories before bed. I can picture those cozy book-and-ice-cream evenings already.

I'm writing this now -- it's kind of like being up late to do homework -- because just a little while ago I finished a big scene in my novel. I feel accomplished! But then I realized there's a problem. I want "tomorrow" in the book to be Sunday, and...you guessed it, "tomorrow" is *Thursday*. I'll have to figure out what to do about that.

But now, I'm going upstairs to make that grocery list. Because I need the food by Friday morning, and *tomorrow is Thursday*.

Happy Thursday, everyone.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Nest, by Esther Ehrlich

Naomi, eleven years old in 1972, loves birds so much that she's called "Chirp" by everyone who knows her. She shares a love of dancing with her mother, while her older sister, Rachel, relates better to their psychiatrist father's penchant for counseling, which he does even within their family, often with gently humorous results. At least, at first.

Early on, Chirp's mom is diagnosed with MS. She can't dance anymore, and with this loss her mental health declines even faster than her bodily health, to the point where she is eventually hospitalized for depression. At this point, I must say that my involvement in the book lay more with the mother than the MC. Because I imagined losing writing the way the mother lost dancing, and even though I know I could not make writing my identity the way the mother made dancing hers, it would still be hard at times not to do exactly that. On top of this, having a therapist husband didn't spare the mother at all, or even really help her any.

As Chirp goes through the absence of her mother, the acting out of her sister, and the misunderstanding of her well-meaning father who doesn't really get her, she becomes friends with Joey, a somewhat sketchy neighbor boy who in the opening scene is throwing rocks at poles. Joey has problems of his own at home, and the personal pain each one carries makes their friendship fragile, in part because Joey understands Chirp's situation from the start whereas she's mainly blind to his. The 1970s details were a pleasant trip back in time for me, but also a jolting reminder that back then issues such as child abuse and mental illness were both swept under the rug and less gently treated. One example of this is the matter-of-fact way that Chirp refers to her mother's place of confinement as the nuthouse.

This is a beautiful book, well written and with affecting emotions. While I don't really want to issue spoilers, I feel some obligation to point out that the book gets a lot harder, sadder, and darker before the story's through, and it could be a bit too much for a very sensitive middle-grader. Other than that, though, this is highly recommended.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Writing Retreat

Last week, I said I'd post next about my writing retreat. That place that's a little more "civilized" than the wi-fi-less getaways some of my friends prefer. Last spring, my friend Anne and I found The Audubon Inn in Mayville, WI, and after our second stay there just this past week, I think it's become our permanent semi-annual retreat spot for several reasons. First, it's about as equidistant between our homes as you can get -- about an hour's drive for each of us. Second, and highly important, we got great discounts for weeknight stays through Living Social. Third, it's lovely, every room has its own whirlpool, the staff members are friendly and accommodating, there are wonderful eateries in the area and in the inn itself, every room has its own whirlpool, there are writing desks with Tiffany lamps, there's wi-fi, and every room has its own whirlpool! Here it is:
Toward the left, by the tree, you can see the sign that says NOLA. This is a New Orleans themed restaurant where we ate once for a meal and twice for dessert, and it was great. (The other two nights of our three-night stay we ate Chinese and Italian.) My windows on the second floor, right side, overlooked the side street, as did Anne's. I did nothing but write, sleep, whirlpool, and throw my clock away except for meeting Anne for dinner at our chosen hour. Anne took a walk, too. Next time, which will probably, hopefully, be in spring, I will do the same, unless the winds of spring are too raw for my indoor-girl sensibilities.

The immersion benefits have carried over. I'm determined to recreate retreat conditions at home whenever I get the chance, and October looks pretty favorable. At this point I should probably pause and sing my husband's praises. This retreating business doesn't work only because we're empty-nesters; it's also that he strikes the most wonderful balance between attentiveness and self-sufficiency, and cheerfully does more than his share of household tasks. He and our sons have an event planned for this weekend, and I'm actually going to have two days and two nights to myself, so I sense another retreat coming on. Still, longing for another return to the Audubon come spring.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Writing Process Blog Tour

I was tagged for this by my friend Vijaya Bodach, who, as she says, has powers of persuasion. And besides, this means getting to talk writing, so why not?

1. What are you working on?

Middle-grade fiction, in general. A MG contemporary literary mystery, in particular.

2. How does your work differ from others of its genre?

Oh boy. Possibly by breaking too many rules. I may come across as basically just a nice girl, but at any given moment I'm probably pushing the envelope, and a rule or two are probably being broken. :)

3. Why do you write what you do?

Good grief, even for someone who likes to ruminate at length, these questions are tough. I can give answer-fragments. Part of it is that my inner 12-year-old is very much alive and well, but she'd like to do a better job of being 12 this time around. Part of it, I'm sure, is that I'm dredging up from my spirit dilemmas and themes that I find important. Part of it is that I love and respect the power and the far reach of truly great MG fiction. And part of it is just mysterious: I do because I do because I do.

4. How does your writing process work? 

When an idea starts, I'm usually scribbling on a legal pad. When there's enough there that it looks like the thing has legs, I get it a three-ring notebook. That's like the commitment stage. I say to it, "You are henceforth a novel." I have sections labeled Characters, Plot, Research, Revision, Setting, Themes, Titles, and any other headings that might apply. This becomes the book's bible. I make notes in each section as the book comes together, in whatever order things come. I spend a lot of time working out the backstory and logic framework: How things got this way and exactly how they hold together. I find a floor plan for any important buildings, sketch maps, make calendars, and at the point where I really feel like I want to start writing, I don't hold back. I start.

I have a sense of the plot when I start, but I never outline fully. That ends up being too much like a pattern I have to follow. I love Larry Brooks's Story Engineering, and I fill out his four-box plot structure on a sheet of 11x17 paper as I write the first draft. So the outline doesn't precede the first draft; it grows alongside it. I loathe index cards.

I do research any and every time a question comes up. Some writers leave holes and come back to those spots later; not me. I find I might learn something that makes or breaks the whole scene, or the whole plot. Better to learn that now. This means that when I go on a writing retreat, I need an internet connection. I have friends whose major purpose for going on a writing retreat is to get offline. For them, a remote cabin with no wi-fi works. I need just a tad more civilization.

Tune in next week, and I'll show you what that "civilization" looks like!

Thursday, September 25, 2014

The 14 Fibs of Gregory K, by Greg Pincus

This is a realistic MG novel about math and writing. How could I not read it?

Gregory is a middle child. Not only that, he's the middle child math-hater in a family of math lovers. Really, math eaters, breathers, and sleepers, if you're looking at Gregory's father and his older brother Owen, who both won the famed "City Math" competition in their day, and who spend almost all of their time in an attic study devoted completely to math. Mom, whose feet are a bit more on terra firma, is an accountant. (Not the same thing, but to anybody who hates math, it probably is.) Kay, Gregory's younger sister, is just wicked smart, period.

Gregory loves to write, which he has not dared breathe a word of to anyone except his best friend, Kelly, who shares that love and who wants him to go to Author Camp with her in the summer. Especially since Kelly and her mom are moving away after the school year ends in a few short weeks and they won't see each other much anymore. Gregory promises they will go. Except he hasn't asked his parents, and he can't do that because they'll say no due to his current failing math score. In fact, his parents are going to make him go to Math is Magic Camp if he can't get his grade up. Continuing to fib to his parents about his love for math, because he can't bear to baldly state that he doesn't fit into his family, he recklessly declares that he's going to enter City Math himself.

In short, the key to Gregory's getting through all this is that he makes up a form of poetry he calls "Fibs." The poems contain 6 lines, a total of 20 syllables, and each line has a number of syllables equal to the first six Fibonacci Numbers: 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8. (In the Fibonacci Sequence, each number is equal to the sum of the previous two.) The Fibs begin each chapter and are sprinkled throughout, besides, and are delightful.

Gregory's math teacher is a really good character, and Gregory does have to work for his grade. However, I have this underlying feeling that, despite the great things that happen in the personal study program they devise, Gregory is really leaving 6th grade not knowing what he needs to know. And I'm not sure his teacher, in real life, wouldn't have to face some backlash. Kay, the younger sister, has some wildly precocious dialogue that I had to take with a grain of salt, and I found it odd that the reason for Kelly's move, when her mom already owns a thriving dessert restaurant right here, isn't explained.

But I loved the emphasis on math that won't bog a non-math reader down, the true kid appeal (these are genuine MG problems and stakes), and I loved this: Studies have shown that boys fall into one of four categories -- they're good at math, writing, both, or neither. Girls, however, fall into three categories -- they're good at writing, both, or neither. What this means is that if a girl is good at math, she's good at language, too. When I first read this research, I thought back through years and years of experience in math classes, and realized my experience fit the statement. Girls who had math talent also had language talent. Gregory is good at language/writing and not math. Kelly is good at both. Kay is good at both. Had the girls been good at math only, I wouldn't have been convinced by them. But for me, all three kids passed the test. :)

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Soapbox Series #9 (or Reading, 'Riting, Ranting) -- Till, Until, and 'Til

Grammar Girl says she regularly gets questions about the differences between till, until, and 'til, and how to use them.

I say: ????? And when exactly did this "'til" thing come about?

'Til is apparently in the process of becoming accepted (shudder), but it is a totally unnecessary word. I think I know what happened: somewhere along the line people began to assume that "till" (as they heard it pronounced, not necessarily as they spelled it) was an abbreviation for "until," and they couldn't figure out why you wouldn't spell that as 'til. But till and until are actually separate words that are synonymous. Yes, till is a noun meaning cash register and a verb meaning to work the ground (lesser known, it's also a noun meaning a glacial drift or a stiff clay), but its #1 function and definition in my dictionary is as a preposition meaning "up to the time of; before; until." Of the two words, till is actually older. Until came later. 'Til came, well, way, way later, and, I believe, under mistaken circumstances. We don't need it. We already have the one-syllable form till, which is not an abbreviation.

The Associated Press Stylebook recommends till or until, but not 'til. Bryan A. Garner, of LawProse calls 'til a "little virus," and his quotes of several other usage guides includes this: "'Til is a variant spelling used by those who think (incorrectly) that till is a clipped form."

I'm pretty open to changes in the English language. I'll go pretty far with verbing nouns, and I think "they" and "them" will become standard singular pronouns for a person of unknown gender within my lifetime. But 'til -- nah. It's going to be a long time till I can go there.