Feelin' Groovy (or at least in the groove again)

I've been hanging out at WriteOnCon today, which has been a lot of fun...not just for the opportunity to post my own work, but to critique others. But more importantly, it's given me a sense of my writing self again.

From the beginning of May until the beginning of July, I completely lost my ability to write. And not just write, but read. Anything printed, be it a book, a gardening magazine, a blog, a Word doc., sent me reeling for the bathroom. Why? Because of all-day-all-night morning sickness.

Maybe it's because I'm a bit older, or maybe it's because this the fourth time my body has hosted a tiny person all the way through the first trimester, but this time was even harder than the others. The most I could accomplish writing-wise during those months were snippets to myself about an impending revision.

But now I'm on the other side of yuck (YAY!), and for the past 3 weeks, I've been retraining myself. Discipline, discipline, discipline. As in getting up by at least 5 AM six days a week to write. Feeling like I'm wasting my time, but telling myself to do it anyway. Because it's only when I actually write, as in create, instead of just writing about writing, that I remember that I can do it. But man, it is HARD to get back into shape.

This week at least, WriteOnCon is helping me, in a public way, to feel committed to my writing life again. (Thank you to the wonderful organizers, industry professionals, and fellow attendees for the great opportunity!!!) And it's free! Hop on over and check out all the great posts and forums.  Especially this one by editor Molly O'Neill--a fantastic mix of inspiration and plain old fashioned truth. I hope to see you there.

So how about you? Have you ever been waylaid from your writing by something outside your control? What did you do to get back on track? What was your inspiration? Where are you now?

(Oh, yeah, since I know some of you will ask...baby #4 is due Dec. 30! Whoo hoo!)

Random Acts of Kindness Blitz

A smile. An encouraging word. A thoughtful gesture. Each day people interact with us, help, and make our day a bit brighter and full. This is especially true in the Writing Community.

Take a second to think about writers you know, like the critique partner who works with you to improve your manuscript. The writing friend who listens, supports and keeps you strong when times are tough. The author who generously offers council, advice and inspiration when asked.

So many people take the time to make us feel special, don't they? They comment on our blogs, re-tweet our posts, chat with us on forums and wish us Happy Birthday on Facebook.

Kindness ROCKS!

To commemorate the release of their book The Emotion Thesaurus, Becca and Angela at The Bookshelf Muse are hosting a TITANIC Random Act Of Kindness BLITZ. And because I think KINDNESS is contagious, I'm participating too!

Tracy E. Banghart thought nothing of volunteering to read my 95K manuscript last September at a SCBWI schmooze. And boy, what a treat for me! I've haven't had such clear and elegant feedback in years. She's awesome, y'all!

In the spirit of celebrating one of Tracy's favorite things, I'm giving her a gift card to Crumbs.com so she can eat cupcakes all week! Email me your address, Tracy, and the card will be on it's way! bethanydellinger at gmail dot com.

Do you know someone special that you'd like to randomly acknowledge? Don't be shy--come join us and celebrate! Send them an email, give them a shout out, or show your appreciation in another way. Kindness makes the world go round. :)

Becca and Angela have a special RAOK gift waiting for you as well, so hop on over to The Bookshelf Muse to pick it up.

Movie vs. Book

Confession: I haven’t seen HUNGER GAMES yet.

I realize I’m probably the only YA writer out here who hasn’t, and I really have no excuse since one of my husband’s students was in the film as a tribute (a minor one of course…he gets killed like everyone else….but I can’t describe the scene for you since I haven’t…ahem…seen the movie).

The thing is, I’m a big fan of the books, and of Katniss in particular (although her name bothers me….but then again, most of the names in the trilogy didn’t sit quite right with me). In every way, Katniss Everdeen is the ultimate heroine, and one day I hope to explain what I mean by that. Still…I’m reluctant, as in deeply reluctant, to see the film version.

Why, is that, you say?

1.) Harry is Daniel Radcliffe.

2.) Legolas is Orlando Bloom.

I simply can't convince my brain otherwise. 

Won’t the visuals of THE HUNGER GAMES movie hijack, with equal efficiency, the images the book conjured up for me when I read it? Won’t it kill the magic?

"But what about the picture book?" one of my friends recently said.

Okay, I got his point...static pictures are just as concrete as the moving images of a film. In both forms, the artist’s or artistic director’s personal interpretation of a text becomes everyone’s. The flights of a single individual’s imagination become universally recognized and unconsciously adopted. That is the chief pleasure of the picture book form. I mean, one look at FROG AND TOAD, and you’d know Lobel’s creatures anywhere.

And then there’s Beatrix Potter.

(By the way, have you seen some of the newer editions of PETER RABBIT for the very young? Not only have the words been altered and watered down, but the art isn’t even hers! Perhaps if we didn’t have Potter’s original drawings so grafted into the defintition of "Peter Rabbit," I might accept the new illustrations just as fondly. But that isn’t the case. We do have them. And they’ve been excluded on purpose!)

So….I won’t lie. On the one hand, movie versions of books are my absolute favorite kind of film to see. Every Sunday night you'll find me watching the latest Masterpiece Classic on PBS. I remember being tucked into bed as a child and falling asleep to Mouret’s Rondeau from Symphonies and Fanfares for the King's Supper, the opener for Masterpiece Theater, because my parents were indulging in their weekly dose of literary works brought to life on TV. I'm just carrying on the tradition! Masterpiece’s recent showcase of Charles Dickens works, specifically LITTLE DORRIT and GREAT EXPECTATIONS, has been excellent.

But here’s the thing, I’ve never read LITTLE DORRIT, so I had no preconceived images or expectations (ha!) to bring to the series when I watched it. GREAT EXPECTATIONS, on the other hand, I did read in a college survey English class. Of course, it was so long ago I didn’t remember a quarter of the storyline when I watched the movie. But. If I were to re-read the book now, I’m certain I’ll have the same problem as I do with HARRY POTTER.

Maybe I’m just not savvy enough. Maybe I’m just too impressionable.

It does make me wonder though, about the old days, when the ear was the primary sense used to absorb stories. When oral storytelling, not visual or textual, reigned supreme. Did the people around those campfires or in those great halls have it better? In hearing the storyteller—the nuance of voice, the timbre of suspense—were they more actively entertained than we moderns who sit passively in front of a big screen, being spoon-fed the same images as everyone else in the theater? Were their imaginations more acute, as a result? More unique person to person, compared to people of the twenty-first century who find their heads filled with images that are not their own, but instead collective and shared?

In other words, are film adaptations of beloved books worth it? To you? Do you possess some secret power for blocking out movie details when you read the original again? Can I hang out with you so some of that power might, you know, rub off on me?


I still want to see THE HUNGER GAMES.

But the question is, should I?

Win An E-Reader From KT Literary

Fellow SCBWI-Carolinas member Rebecca Petruck shared this news with our regional list-serve, and I'm happy to share it with you too:

Win a Kindle Touch from literary agent Kate Testerman!

Just comment, retweet, or like on Facebook--or do all three for a total of three entries, and celebrate the success of MISS PEREGRINE'S HOME FOR PECULIAR CHILDREN by Ransom Riggs.



On Villains and Bad Guys

This year I was delighted to discover The Enchanted Inkpot, a blogging community “for writers and readers of high, historical, traditional and cross-genre fantasy intended for middle-grade and young adult readers.” Swoon. I think I stumbled across it through the resource page on Elizabeth C. Bunce’s website. As a reader, this is squarely where I fall in terms of preference. (Incidentally, The Enchanted Inkpot used to be located at Livejournal, and there’s a wealth of archived posts there that deserve meandering too. So check it out).

The members regularly interview authors whose books fit into the categories listed above, as well as pose questions about fantasy intended to generate discussion, such as this recent musing by Sybil Nelson, “If Loving You is Wrong….” More often than not, she says, she comes away liking the bad guy in books and movies. “The villain drives the story and makes the entire adventure more interesting,” she says. “The hero would have no purpose and no direction if not for the villain.”
Her post got me thinking about why villains sometimes draw us in. My daughter, age 5, has always been fascinated with the Big Bad Wolf. She even pretends to be him, instead of the smart pig who builds his home from bricks. Perhaps it’s the power such a character exhibits? The seeming limitless ability to get what he wants by the mere breath of his lungs? She is, on the whole, a sweet child. Prone to helping her brother up when he falls down and brushing off his hands and knees. So I don’t think it has anything to do with a particular proclivity on her part to be cruel or scary or mean; every human being has that potential given the right circumstance. Perhaps she’s just more aware of the potential. Children are like that. Able to see the bad when grown-ups have muted the awareness with the “nice” factor.
In his classic work, The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales, Bruno Bettelheim says this:
“There is a widespread refusal to let children know the source of much that goes wrong in life is due to our very own natures—the propensity of all men for acting aggressively, asocially, selfishly, out of anger and anxiety. Instead, we want our children to believe that, inherently, all men are good. But children know that they are not always good; and often, even when they are, they would prefer not to be. This contradicts what they are told by their parents, and therefore makes the child a monster in his own eyes.” (p. 7)
And here:
“The wolf’s badness is something the young child recognizes within himself: his wish to devour, and its consequence—the anxiety about possibly suffering such a fate himself. So the wolf is an externalization, a projection of the child’s badness—and the story tells how this can be dealt with constructively.” (p.44)
So if the wolf represents the desire to be bad, I can’t help but ask why it is that we humans want to be bad, even when we are choosing good. You know what I mean, right? The longing to be beholden to no one, to make one’s own rules, to give free reign to every want regardless of the effect on others. Perhaps it all boils down to an issue of control. The universal attempt to find all the answers to life’s questions—justice, peace, love—within one’s self. Except that when taken to its furthest end and acted upon, we turn into megalomaniacs.
Take, for example, Sgt. Robert Bales, the solider accused of killing 16 Afghan civilians. An op-ed in the NY Times recently, "When the Good Do Bad," generated an interesting array of comments from readers. In summary, the author, David Brooks asserts that Sgt. Bales is “like all of us, a mixture of virtue and depravity.” Some of people who commented on the piece seemed offended that Brooks should attempt something close to empathy for a man who appears to have killed women and children in cold-blood. Others preferred instead to think Sgt. Bales mentally ill and/or a victim of too many tours of duty. Some were willing to accept Brooks’ point that good and evil resides in all of us, but emphasized that Sgt. Bale made a choice, a choice that was fundamentally wrong. Few were willing to say, as one commenter pointed out via Pogo’s quote, “We have met the enemy and he is us.” Or “There, but for the grace of God, go I.” *

Regardless of where you and I fall in the spectrum, our attempt to analyze and understand real-life events like these suggests that fictional struggles between good and evil will continue to be written and read.  So let’s go back to Nelson’s assertion that the villain is what makes the story interesting. Certainly, in all Man vs. Man plot conflicts (as opposed to Man vs. Nature or Man vs. Self plots), I would agree that the bad guy is often what lights the fire under the hero and keeps him moving until the climax and the satisfactory defeat. The villain provides the struggle, and struggle is what make a story compelling.
So perhaps there are two different issues as far as villain appeal goes:
1.)    we like the conflict the villain provides the hero, the give and take, the struggle to win and/or 
2.)   we like the bad guy because of his own unique characteristics.

Personally, I don’t like books with one dimensional villains, or bad guys who are all huff and no puff. I want books where the main character is truly in danger, and where the threat is really present. Bunce’s villain, Lord Daul, in STARCROSSED is slippery and almost continually on the scene, while Kristine Cashore’s Leck, in GRACELING or Susan Cooper’s “The Dark” and its minions in THE DARK IS RISING is mostly an off-stage, rumored or suspected threat.

Arvin Slone from ALIAS is much more my cup of tea—a protagonist and villain all in one. At the shows beginning, he seemed to be such a nice guy, almost a father-figure, and at times even sacrificial in his concern for Sydney’s well-being and safety, when in fact he was manipulating her and her circumstances for his own obsessive ends. And then there was the charmingly unflappable and coolly attractive Julian Sark, a villain of a different stripe.

Evil that looks evil is far easier to categorize than evil that looks good. The wicked step-mother is easy to hate because she seethes so much hatred and greed that her physical appearance is one of ugliness. The sexy bad boy across the street however, is harder to pin down. Subversion mixed with a bit of mischief seems to bring out a darker side we are more willing to embrace. A not-good but not-that-bad mentality.
What I’m really curious about is why real-life villains have so much less appeal than fictional ones. Is the fictional villain easier to admire for his powers of persuasion (or insert your own descriptor) because he or she doesn’t really exist? Does our sense of him or her feel thornless because we know his or her actions don’tt effect the actual past or actual future?
So what’s your opinion? Why do some fictional villains ring true for you? Why do the ones that don’t, fall flat?
*There now appears to be eye-witness testimony suggesting that Sgt. Bales did not act alone. Does that make him any less a villain? When there is more than one villain in a fictional story, do we tend to rate the degree of their evilness or responsibility? Or do we just lump all the bad guys together?

Um, Hello...It's me...Your future 'me'....

Have you ever wished you could remember what you were thinking two years ago? Not just in regards to your personal life, but in your professional one? What exactly did the vision for your current work-in-progress look like the moment it seized you? Where did you think the book was headed? What excited you most about the prospect of chasing it?

If you are anything like me, the actual slog of a first draft eventually kills the sharp triumph of that first glimpse. At first I can hold on to the memory of the fully-formed, glorious book-to-be, but the time it takes to translate the vision into actual words buries my initial drive.

So what's a writer to do?

Visit FutureMe.org.

The purpose of the site is simple. Write a letter to yourself in the text box, schedule it to be sent on such-and-such future date, and FutureMe.org will deliver it to your email inbox as specified.

It sounds a little bit like the premise of a YA novel, doesn't it? GIMME A CALL, by Sarah Mlynowski and THE FUTURE OF US, by Jay Asher and Carolyn Mackler use similar hypotheses, the first involving a cell phone and the second, an AOL disc and Facebook pages. In both books, the main characters are contacted by their future selves in order to change (or attempt to change) what has happened.... or what will happen or....both.

You and I can't perform any switch-a-roo, change-a-roos in regards to the future, but I do think FutureMe.org may offers writers its own bit of creative magic. 

For instance, you could use it to:

1. Be your own muse. As soon as you get an idea for a new book or character or situation, write yourself a letter and schedule it to arrive in six months or twelve month. It will be fun to see if the idea sticks, or if by the time you read the email, you find it laughably bad:

Dear FutureMe,

I dreamed this early morning of a girl who lived in the middle of the ocean! I don't know how she got there, or what she is doing, or even if she lives on a boat or a piece of land, only that she doesn't want to be found. The colors were spectacular! and most of the time she didn't have to wear a stitch of clothing....

*Hmmm....that's, um....interesting....
Let's just see what's next....*

2. Be your own writing coach. Write down the reasons why you write. Encourage yourself to remember your daily goals. Tell yourself the things that have been most helpful to you in the journey so far. Remind yourself to hold on to the "most important things." Record advice other writers have shared. You never know, getting an email like that every now and then might be just the lift you need in the midst of real discouragement. (And the act of writing each one will nuture in the present too!)

Dear FutureMe,

Keep your chin up, drop your shoulders, and take in as much air as you can in one long, breath. What you are doing today matters. If you are feeling lost, go back and read your Writing Guidelines. Don't forget that those little people at your knees don't care what you put on the page today. They only want your smile and your love. So do as much work as you can in the time you've allotted yourself, (because not doing it makes you a cranky mama) and then leave it for the ones who can't wait to have you to themselves. The work will be there for the next session. What filters down through the rocks and sediment as you go about your life is the real source of your creative well. Draw from it, yes, but don't forget to do the things that, over time, will fill it back up again.

3.  Be your own administrative assistant.

Some ideas:

1. Send yourself a quick note about that new MG novel your critique group  was talking about. You know you want to read it, but your stack is already up to the top of your bedside table...maybe in six months...?

2. When you meet a fellow writer at a conference or workshop and you seem to hit it off (but there isn't enough time to really get to know each other), write yourself an email containing the writer's contact information and your initial impressions before you turn off your overloaded brain for the night. Then schedule it to arrive about three weeks after you've returned home and had some time to decompress. You'll have something more to go on when you do contact your potential new buddy, and she will be flattered that you remember that she is from Arizona and owns five poodles and writes about trapeze artists. ***And while you're at it, tack on a reminder to look at all those frenzied notes you took during the conference break-out sessions!

3. Do the same thing (#2) when meeting/researching an agent or editor you know you want to query some time in the future. Flesh out what your gut is telling you so that time can't steal your first impressions and turn them into self-doubt.

4. Remind yourself to get business cards/bookmarks/postcards made before you run out again.

5. Send yourself a copy of your 2012 professional goals and schedule it to arrive in Jan. 2013. See which ones you were able to meet, and which one need to be at the top of the 2013 list.

So far I've used FutureMe to send myself one pep-talk and two adminstrative notes. There are probably more technologically savvy ways of balancing a professional to-do-list and nuturing a creative drive, but I still like email best. It is a simple and efficent gateway for maintaining my writing sanity in the midst of a very busy personal life. And I like surprises. Even though I must pick a certain date for FutureMe.org to release an email, I can't know at at the time of writing it what sort of mental place my future self will be. It just seems like a whole lot more fun than Google or Outlook Calendar.

So what sort of letter would you like to receive from your future self?
And how do you use technology to keep track of your writing life?

Do tell!

The Posture of the Writer - Part II

Last week I asked whether or not you thought the writer’s “posture” effects his or her ability to carry out the work of writing. We looked at Madeline L’Engle’s ideas on this in WALKING ON WATER, and some of you shared your own ways of listening to the work. We all seemed to agree that time set aside is an absolute must, and that deliberately “unplugging” helps too.  

Today let's switch gears just a bit and look at Anne Lamott’s thoughts about the posture of the writer towards the world as found in the well-loved guide BIRD BY BIRD.  

The posture of the writer towards the world

Lamott says that writing is about “learning to pay attention and to communicate what is going on” (97).  The goal of the writer is to “help others have [a] sense of wonder, of seeing things anew, things that can catch us off guard, that break in on our small bordered world” (100).  In order to do this, we must cultivate in ourselves that sense of wonder; we must live in the world with our eyes wide open. Wonder requires reverence which is “awe, a presence in and openness to the world” (99).             

It also requires a conscious effort, doesn’t it? Most of us are just so busy or, dare I say it, self-focused that we look right over the street musician playing Bach’s “Chaconne” in the metro station. You know what I’m talking about, I hope? That day in 2007 when Joshua Bell, the violin prodigy-turned-internationally-acclaimed virtuoso played his $3.5 million Stradivari in the D.C. subway as part of a social experiment to see if people would recognize and stop to appreciate beauty?

Yup, there he is. The famous Joshua Bell.

So, as writers we must take our eyes off our own lives and notice the details in others, right? But then we must take it further. We must ask ‘why?’ Why is that man dressed like that? Why does the usually cheerful postman have bags under his eyes? Why is that child’s smile so sad, so lopsided?            

But lest we take Lamott’s definition of the writer as “a person who is standing apart” (97), as an excuse for elitism, she reminds us that to really see people as they are, “you have to know who you are in the most compassionate possible sense” (97, italics mine).   

How can we do this? How can we get to know ourselves—the real true self that is often buried under tons of cares and responsibilities and images of who we ‘should’ be? Perhaps one very important step is what we touched on last time—to “be” as L’Engle practices, to get quiet within ourselves.  

But another tactic might be to step outside our emotions and examine our motivations in the same way we might examine character motivation for our work-in-progress. Instead of riding the irritation I feel at the slow-as-molasses driver in front of me, I could ask why I find the situation so irritating. What lies beneath the moment? Not just the fact that I’m late and the driver is in my way, but what does my irritation say about me?  

And then, might I turn the situation around? Ask instead why the driver is not paying attention? Engage my imagination? Wonder if she worried about what to make for her dinner party Saturday night? Or if perhaps she was up all night with a sick child and is drowsy at the wheel? Or if she distracted because she just lost her job?   

If I let it, wondering in this way helps me develop a deeper sense of empathy, both for myself and others. And I think it gradually aids me in the struggle to portray characters as complex and intriguing human beings. 

But there’s another side to Lamott’s ideas on the writer's stance towards the world. She points out that the writer's job involves “seeing people suffer and, as Robert Stone once put it, finding some meaning therein” (97). 

Meaning in misery, goodness in anguish... this is a big deal, right? We all suffer hardships and loss, and so do those we love--our friends, our families, our children. But what about those we never see face to face, half-way across the world or shut away in homes for the mentally ill or living in fear of a tyrannical regime. And then there are the very extreme cases, the Holocaust, famine, religious persecution and martyrdom. 

How do we, as writers, find our way through the muck? How do we create hope?

Lamott says, 
To be a good writer, you not only have to write a great deal but you have to care. You do not have to have a complicated moral philosophy. But a writer always tries, I think, to be part of the solution, to understand a little about life and pass this on (107).
So if Lamott is right, and we are first and foremost to care, then we can't be self-protective. We must live in the trenches. We must face reality. We can't escape to our towers and look at the world as through a mirror (see reference to Lady of Shalott from Part I here).

But perhaps our work can be a mirror. Perhaps it can be that object which reflects, not just the shape and color of reality, but the truths underlying it. 

And perhaps the writer's posture towards the world is really, at its best, not a posture at all, but instead an action, a striding forth, a choice and a hope that we, and the things we create, just might be part of the solution.

So I've got two questions for you this week:

1.)    Which authors come to your mind when you think of books that make a difference in the face of suffering? Who, among those who write for children and young people, might serve as our models?

2.)    Anyone, be it a refrigerator repair man or a daycare worker, can interact with people and places, past and present, with compassionate awareness and write about it. But what gives a story power? What makes it work? What allows it to speak to us? Does it have to do with the execution? Is this where mastery of technique and skill make the difference?
What do you think?

Please share. And if you'd like to keep tabs on the responses from others, don't forget to click on the mail icon next to your comment. They will go straight to your mailbox.