Thursday, January 29, 2015

Snippets from the Undone Fear Workshop

I was cleaning out a drawer yesterday. If I had to name my favorite household task, I'd say, "Rearranging closets and drawers." You get to throw out or donate stuff (I'm not the pack rat type), you see what you've got, and you can make new arrangements. Oh, and if you can't fit everything into your fridge, give me a call. I'll make it fit! Even my mother has surrendered her skepticism.

Well, a year or so ago, I was asked to lead an online discussion on the topic of writing fears. For one reason or another the workshop didn't happen, and in the aforementioned drawer I found my notes. They contain this quote from Art and Fear by David Bayles and Ted Orland:

"The function of the overwhelming majority of your artwork is simply to teach you how to make the small fraction of your artwork that soars."

Wow. Impactful way to break the news that your first novel, and very likely your second, third, or even more, won't sell. And shouldn't. This is always a hard point to raise with students, and I do so with relatively few. It would be unnecessarily discouraging to those who are still having struggles with basic craft and are not ready to think about marketing.

Yet, this quote helps put several writing fears into perspective. "It's not working!" Maybe it isn't, but producing quantity will teach you. "The story is better in my head than on the page!" Vision is always ahead of execution. This is normal. You're producing quantity. You'll begin to close this gap somewhat, but it can't be completely closed. "It's too revealing!" But now you're getting somewhere. You're getting close to taking flight. Maybe you'll even soar.

There are lots of other fears. One of the more fascinating to me is the fear of putting your potential at risk. It's easier to have potential than it is to risk acting on that potential and finding out you can't live up to it. Of course, if you're defining "can't live up to it" as "I produce a lot of work that stinks," see the Art and Fear quote. Another fascinating fear is the fear of making the final push to make a book all it can be. You're so "almost there," but you drag your feet on a final revision. I've seen this in action. Perhaps it's related to the fear of risking potential. Or the fear that this, too, will not be a piece that soars.

Your thoughts? Your fear? If you dare, share it here! :)

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Beyond the Laughing Sky, by Michelle Cuevas

The first thing I noticed about this lovely middle-grade book was its trend. Along with Nest, by Esther Ehrlich, Nightingale's Nest by Nikki Loftin, Under the Egg, by Laura Marx Fitzgerald, and others (but the foregoing three are ones I've read), this is about a child who either has a striking affinity for birds, might actually be part bird, or more than likely is a bird. This novel does a wonderful job of letting you know right from the start that you can expect fantasy. The first line reads: "Nashville and his family lived in a house perched in the branches of the largest pecan tree in the village of Goosepimple."

We learn early on that Nashville wasn't exactly born to his parents. He was hatched from the egg of a Nashville warbler that spilled from a nest outside his parents' window, and from the start he looked like a boy with a beak and feathers on his head in place of hair. Despite a sweet, supportive home with his parents and his younger sister, who came long in the usual way, Nashville wants most of all to have wings. He knows he belongs in the sky, he wants to fly, and the plot has to do with how he finds the way.

There are a lot of heartwarming moments. For example, though Nashville is teased at school sometimes, and tries to blend in (in one scene, he goes to the barber and has his feathers buzzed off), he also receives some touching acceptance and the beginnings of friendship from the boy he's afraid will be his nemesis. And there are humorous moments. Nashville volunteers at the local pet shop, and when he hatches a scheme to let the birds sample flying by tying them all to strings and holding them like a bunch of balloons, he causes a public sensation and is told by the store owner, "Nashville, you are absolutely, irrefutably, indubitably FIRED." There are more lovely lines, and here's a favorite: "At some point during the night, summer had left town, had packed a suitcase full of fireflies and swimming holes, and whistled on down the road."

The omniscient point of view is just right for this fantasy with a classic feel, and may remind more than one reader of Kate DiCamillo. While the message of being who you were born to be is a bit obvious, and I thought the POV faltered in a spot or two, overall this is a winner. Definitely recommended.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Quoth the Writer

Normally, I've quoted writers I agree with often, even virtually always. Let's change that up a bit today. Mark Twain is a guy I often find entertaining, and I think one of his strengths is the good job he does of communicating that human nature stays the same, even across a couple of centuries. Here are some goodies:

  • To succeed in life you need two things: ignorance and confidence.
  • The best way to cheer yourself up is to try to cheer somebody else up.
  • Do the right thing. It will gratify some people and astonish the rest.
  • You can't depend on your eyes when your imagination is out of focus.
  • If you tell the truth, you don't have to remember anything.
  • Apparently there is nothing that cannot happen today.
  • My mother had a great deal of trouble with me, but I think she enjoyed it.
Some quotes from Mr. Twain, though, leave me going, "Hmmm." My commentary in parentheses:
  • Good friends, good books, and a sleepy conscience: this is the ideal life. (How I love the first two, but best wake that conscience up.)
  • Go to Heaven for the climate, Hell for the company. (Nah -- you wouldn't like the company. I don't care how many of them were your friends on Earth.)
  • If it's your job to eat a frog, it's best to do it first thing in the morning. And if it's your job to eat two frogs, it's best to eat the biggest one first. (I know "do the biggest job first" is common advice, but I do the piddly stuff first and then tackle the big one. I like knowing there's not a bunch more to do when I get done with it.)
  • Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it's time to pause and reflect. (Okay, granted. Don't follow the majority blindly. But I've had too much experience with two, five, or ten heads being better than one to swallow this idea whole.)
At one time or another, you've probably part of discussions of what makes humor humorous. (My top answer is surprise.) Mark Twain's quotes remind me of another quality that makes something funny -- for me, anyway: I have to buy into the underlying point or message of the humor. I know "The lack of money is the root of all evil" is supposed to be funny, and on a very surface level it is. I would laugh if someone said it. But since I don't believe that's true (and since I suspect MT might have the original quote wrong, too), the statement loses some of its intended humorous impact. 

What do you think of these? Are there any you'd switch to the opposite list?

Thursday, January 1, 2015

New Year's Words opposed to resolutions. I'm sure I must have been a teenager when I figured out that most New Year's resolutions were little more than whims of a moment. Wishful thinking. Statements that began with "This year, I'd really like to..." and ended right there, with little more thought to them, let alone any action taken, or a few weeks of success at best before old habits kicked in again. Although I love the sense of starting over that accompanies January 1, the day after Labor Day, and sometimes birthdays, I find that most resolutions -- real resolves to do something, or change something -- are not primarily motivated by the calendar.

Recently, I've seen people settle on *words* to keep in mind for the coming year. Single words like Focus, Patience, Joy, Simplify, Begin, Finish, Persevere, Faith, and even No (for those who need to practice pursuing their own calling instead of constantly letting themselves be talked into staffing someone else's) have been chosen as watchwords for a year. Although I've been just as remiss in choosing a word for an entire year as I have been in making resolutions (and neither neglect bothers me a whit), I am interested in the idea of words for seasons of life, words that sum up where we are right now and where we need to go.

Have you chosen watchwords or bywords for yourself in recent years (or felt chosen by a word, almost the way a writer is sometimes chosen by the story)? Do you have a word for 2015?

Happy New Year!