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February 2016



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Feb. 13th, 2016



It's extremely cold here right now, and it affects our lives. We've had people change weekend plans on us, and my daily walk was very different.

Weather affects us. I'm sometimes mystified by books in which it never rains or sleets or snows, although the story is set in a place and time where this weather should occur regularly. The characters are never panting from a heat wave or shaking rain off their umbrellas; they never trudge through snow or snuggle in front of a fire. There doesn't seem to be any weather at all.

I'm not recommending a weather report in every story. I'm just suggesting that writers think about whether this part of the setting can be useful in influencing the characters, flavoring a scene, or even setting up critical obstacles. We live with heat, cold, lightning, tornadoes, drought, floods. Does your character have a leaky roof? A temperamental furnace? Does he know the sound of tornado sirens? Has she seen the aurora borealis? Does she lie awake on hot sheets, wishing her family could afford air conditioning? Does he live on the street? Does weather bring them closer to, or push them farther from, the other characters?

Feb. 10th, 2016


Unexpected magic

It snowed all day yesterday, one of those storms that sends lots of whirling flakes into the air to look all important and impressive, except that they never add up to anything. We had perhaps two inches on the ground when we went to bed, and it was supposed to stop around one in the morning.

It's still dark when I leave for work. When I peeked out the window this morning, what I could see in the dimness didn't look much different from the way it had last night. It wasn't until I opened the door and stepped out into it that I realized: Hey, it's still snowing!

The world was fresh and crisp and quiet. It's the compensation for having to get up so freaking early.

It snowed most of the morning, but still didn't amount to anything. A most strange storm, but a welcome surprise. Sometimes when you open the door and walk out, you walk into a little bit of magic.

Feb. 7th, 2016


Making sense

When building a fictional world, it's difficult to ensure that everything makes sense. We envision things a certain way; we have plot-related reasons for things to happen a certain way. But our pursuit of plot can make us overlook more obvious alternatives. I was recently working on a story in which I had to keep asking myself, "Why don't the characters just do so-and-so; it would be so much easier?" It's like the scene in Indiana Jones where the swordfighter attacks, and your first expectation is, Oh, there's going to be a swordfight here, because we've all seen swordfights on screen a million times. But Indiana Jones has a gun. And then you think, Oh, of course! There's no earthly reason for him to use a sword.

Characters should not walk when they could fly. A trapped character will look for ways out of his situation; we have to make sure readers don't think of options that we ignore. Characters need a food source and a water source, and these should make sense for their environment. Characters living in the desert should not be eating seafood, unless they're rich enough to import it. A civilization needs ways to enforce rules, dispose of waste, treat sickness, educate children. Not all of these need to be explicit. But the story should allow room for them. I remember being driven crazy by stories that implied that characters never needed to eat, sleep, or take a bathroom break. We don't need to see all those breaks, but we should get the sense that there is room for them to happen.
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Feb. 4th, 2016


Finding our people

The latest issue of the SCBWI Bulletin is out, containing an article by yours truly. My article is about the New Jersey Authors Network (founded by Jon Gibbs), which you may join if you live in or near New Jersey, or may use as a model for your own state network if you live elsewhere.

The power of author groups and networks has been incredibly valuable to me. From my initial critique group, to my debut author groups, to the Kidlt Authors Club and NJ Authors Network, most of my promotional opportunities, professional tips, and emotional support have come from such networks.

I'm going to sign off now, before I burst into a rousing rendition of "People (Who Need People)." Because what people don't need is to hear me sing. But I do cherish my writer groups.

Jan. 31st, 2016


To whom it may concern

Nova Ren Suma has a lot to say about the long hard journey to finding your place, and it's inspirational in its own right; I recommend reading the whole thing. But I wanted to riff here on one particular line, which isn't the main focus of her post: "I was much better at blogging (and had more readers!) when I was angsty and unpublished and wanting to drown a box of rejection letters in the sea."

I think a lot of factors have contributed to decreases in blog readership generally over the past few years, most of it involving the wearing-off of novelty and the proliferation of new social media platforms. Yet I have noticed that, as Nova Ren Suma said, there are bloggers who blog more when they're having difficulties, just as I tended to keep a diary during the worst times in my life, the times when I most needed to vent.

I also notice, and I think many of us do, that some blog posts that draw the biggest response are those in which we openly discuss our problems. This is probably because people respond to honesty, are relieved not to be alone in their own pain, and/or want to reach out in comfort when they see someone suffering.

All this is making me think about online presence, what it is and what it's for. It can be promotion and marketing; it can be a performance. It can be the simple desire for communication, the establishment or continuation of a community. It can serve as a vent. It can be a mixture.

I started this blog because I wanted to talk about writing, and I didn't know many writers IRL. I loved the idea of having my own little platform out here in the world, for whoever cares to stop by. I suppose I've continued it for the same reason, which is also the same reason I write in general. It's even better when there is an exchange, when someone comments, but I keep on writing regardless.

I'm doing a lot of writing for myself lately, which is why I've been blogging a bit less than formerly, but I'm still here. Still reading blogs, too.

Jan. 27th, 2016


The redo loop

I posted at YA Outside the Lines about redoing, and when to stop redoing. (The theme for the month is "do-overs.") I reminisced about the olden days, when editing a manuscript--and especially retyping it--was technically more difficult than it is now, and discussed where the comparative ease of revision can take us. I'm grateful that computers make multiple revisions and major rewrites easier, but it's also possible to have too many options.

Jan. 24th, 2016


Making room

I continued some decluttering this weekend by reviewing my TBR list. This is distinct from my TBR pile, which is a stack (OK, technically it's multiple stacks) of books I already own and do want to read, but--later. Either I'm not in the mood for them right now, or I'm already reading something else.

The TBR list is a list of books I want to read, but that I will have to buy or borrow. I have a notation for each book: available in my library's system, or not? If it's not in the library system, I'll have to buy it. When I'm ready to get new library books, or to make a trip to the bookstore, I consult this list.

The list has more than 250 books on it. At the rate I've been reading, that's almost three years' worth, and I keep adding to it. And, of course, there is the TBR pile here at home, and the books I receive as gifts, and my rereading habit.

So I've started weeding that list. I'm letting go of books that I added impulsively, those that are not in my library's system and for which I can't even find a sample online to tell me whether they're worth buying, and those that I want to want to read more than I actually want to read them (if you can follow that).

The books on this list may not have been taking up any physical space, but they were taking up some mental energy, even if just a small amount. I continue my quest to free up space, and time, and energy.

Jan. 21st, 2016


Library appreciation

Today I had to get a piece of information--an equation, to be specific--from a document.
Someone had sent me an html version of the document, but all graphics were stripped out of it, and that included the very equation I needed.
Once upon a time, I could have gone to the shelf, pulled down a paper copy of this document, and looked it up in two seconds. But we don't keep paper copies anymore.
I decided to look it up online; I knew the host site generally has both pdf and html versions.
The website was down. For ten minutes I waited for the blasted thing to load, and it never did.
I tried to find the document on other sites. My searches were fruitless, even though I had very specific information to narrow them.
I then checked the microfilm in the library, since I knew that this publication had been stored that way up to a certain date.
The microfilm versions ended just three months before the date of the document I needed.
The librarian checked another source that she thought might have the document, but it didn't.
Finally, the librarian was able to find a PDF version somewhere. I don't know where. Librarians are always performing that kind of magic.
I love the internet, but it is a very big place. It's a graveyard of broken links. You don't always know where to look. Sites go down, sites disappear.
I think of school administrators who have cut librarians (and even libraries) because "we have the internet now."
Yeah, good luck with that.

Jan. 17th, 2016



A couple of useful quotes:

"We fear disturbance, change, fear to bring to light and to talk about what is painful. Suffering often feels like failure, but it is actually the door into growth. And growth does not cease to be painful at any age."
--May Sarton, Journal of a Solitude

"... if you spent most of the morning reading Twitter and then scribbling weird, indecipherable notes to yourself on your arm then you are probably on the right track to becoming a successful artist. Or to being homeless. Those things aren't mutually exclusive."
--Jenny Lawson, Furiously Happy

And Becky Ramsey has a great blog on the perils of perfectionism.

Jan. 14th, 2016


The missing ingredient

I was thinking about movies that should be better than they are. You probably know the ones I'm talking about: they have a great cast, a good director, a solid premise. And they're terrible. Sometimes you catch them on late-night or weekend TV. Seeing the big names in the credits, you think, "Wow, why haven't I heard of this movie before?" And ten minutes in, you think: "Oh. This is why."

It reminds me that creative work isn't just a matter of formulas and recipes. There certainly are formulas if you want them. Often, they even work. And yet, these should-have-worked-but-didn't movies show that you can have all the right ingredients, and the product still doesn't work. You can follow the formula and find there's still something missing.

Years ago, I heard a radio story about some people who attempted to find a formula for hit songs. In the process, they also discovered what elements people hated in songs. They used this information to create two songs: one that sounded like a generic pop hit, the other a crazy mishmash of unpopular elements. And yet, the second song was more interesting.

There is some spark we look for in creative work, something difficult to define. Maybe it's passion, or belief, or honesty, or freshness. Maybe it's inexpressible.

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