Tuesday, June 28, 2011

YA Saves--Especially when it shows evil

Okay, I resisted last time. So many cool YA authors were on the front lines of defense that I figured my own voice would be superfluous.  Perhaps it still is. I like to talk regardless, so here goes.

On June 4, 2011, Meghan Cox Gurdon published an essay called Darkness Too Visible in the Wall Street Journal in which she made a perfectly valid observation that there was a lot of darkness, drug use, sexual misconduct, violence, and general ugliness in YA fiction these days. If she'd just pointed it out, we'd all have just nodded our heads and commented on how observant she was. She didn't stop there, though. Instead, she vilified the practice, accusing those who write dark-themed YA books of poisoning the minds of the rising generation. She argued that exposing them to such awful themes made those themes more commonplace, and made the readers correspondingly more likely to mimic the actions of the deeply flawed protagonists.

Twitter exploded (see the #YASaves hashtag). YA blogs screamed (see Nathan Bransford's list of responding blogs). Almost everyone was firmly in support of dark YA and lashed out at Ms. Gurdon for saying such awful things about it.

The June 28, 2011 WSJ contains another essay by Ms. Gurdon entitled My 'Reprehensible' Take on Teen Literature. Because when thousands are calling you an idiot, you should always stick to your guns.

Her new essay is shorter than her first, but again makes the point that dark YA serves to normalize themes we'd do better to shelter our young ones from:
It is true that so-called problem novels may be helpful to children in anguished circumstances. The larger question is whether books about rape, incest, eating disorders and "cutting" (self-mutilation) help to normalize such behaviors for the vast majority of children who are merely living through the routine ordeals of adolescence.

There are real-world reasons for caution. For years, federal researchers could not understand why drug- and tobacco-prevention programs seemed to be associated with greater drug and tobacco use. It turned out that children, while grasping the idea that drugs were bad, also absorbed the meta-message that adults expected teens to take drugs. Well-intentioned messages, in other words, can have the unintended consequence of opening the door to expectations and behaviors that might otherwise remain closed.
Now Ms. Gurdon has a valid concern. We may not agree with her conclusions, but I'm sure none of us wants to unintentionally encourage our young readers to mirror the bad behaviors of our characters.

I think, though, that Ms. Gurdon is missing the key difference between drug education programs and stories. Drug education programs give warning information. In much the same way sex education has been criticized for encouraging teenage sexual activity, drug education can't help but convey the idea that "we expect many of you-who-are-sitting-in-this-room to try this."

Stories are different.

Stories. Are. Different.

I attended college at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah. That's that Mormon school, run by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, and proud to be listed as the most "Stone Cold Sober" school in the United States. Our honor code couldn't eradicate the foibles of youth, but it sure did a lot to discourage most of them.

My "home" building was the Harris Fine Arts Center, which would occasionally place barricades at all entrances warning conservative students and faculty that a "possibly offensive" fine art exhibit was currently on display in the main gallery. They did that not because they believed that the exhibits were worthy of censor, but because conservatives would complain otherwise.

Conservatives liked to complain about the theatre productions, too. When Brecht's The Chalk Circle was produced there, the department head received letters criticizing everything from the man taking a bath, fully clothed in the upside-down-table-tub to the man-removed-his-belt-and-threatened-to-rape-the-girl scene to the fourth-wall violations. *Gasp!* Such letter-writers thought that such plays ought not to be produced at a church university. Such letter-writers didn't know their church history.

Joseph Smith, the first LDS prophet, formed theatre troupes. Brigham Young, the second prophet, acted in them. When the saints relocated to the desert that was the Salt Lake valley, the crops were barely in the ground when the first theater was built. Brigham Young insisted that his 10 oldest daughters act in the productions so that the productions would be well-attended.

These productions were not full of sweetness and light. The plays weren't all about Jane finding the gospel and how much better her life was, now that she never cursed. The plays were about evil.

Brigham Young said:
Upon the stage of a theater can be represented in character, evil and its consequences, good and its happy results and rewards, the weakness and the follies of man, the magnanimity of virtue and the greatness of truth. The stage can be made to aid the pulpit in impressing upon the minds of a community an enlightened sense of a virtuous life, also a proper horror of the enormity of sin and a just dread of its consequences. The path of sin with its thorns and pitfalls … can be revealed, and how to shun it” (Discourses of Brigham Young, sel. John A. Widtsoe, Salt Lake City: Desert Book, 1941, p. 243).
Did you catch the catch? You can't teach the consequences of sin without showing it. That's the original purpose of the theater: to teach the audience through story what they can expect if their behavior should mirror the behavior of the characters. That effect is called catharsis--we get to purge negative emotions without screwing up our own lives in the process.

No matter your religion, the principle holds true: people (including children) learn better through experience. We don't want them to experience rape, violence, drug use, cutting, bullying, damaging sexual relationships, or petty ugliness in their real lives. What to do? Catharsis. Vicarious purging. Expose them to a character they can relate to who will crawl through the muck for them, and take them along. Show them how--and WHY--bad decisions are made. Let your young readers scream at the pages and curse the character for being an idiot. Let them understand what might lead someone to be that stupid. Let them feel within themselves their own tendencies for error so they can take steps to fix them before they manifest.

Toward the end of her essay, Ms. Gurdon quotes from the back cover of a recently-received YA ARC:
It so happened that, as the Twitterverse was roiling over "Darkness Too Visible," I received an advanced reader's copy of an "edgy paranormal" teen novel coming out in August. Have a look at the excerpt on the back cover, where publishers try to hook potential buyers: "I used to squirm when I heard people talking about cutting—taking a razor to your own flesh never seemed logical to me. But in reality, it's wonderful. You can cut into yourself all the frustrations people take out on you." Now ask yourself: Is a book the only thing being sold here?
Which, of course, demonstrates the folly of rhetorical questions. The excerpt on its face calls the practice of cutting illogical--but then provides a character who can explain why a teen might succumb to such an illogical practice. A character who will take the reader through that experience, in all its horror and folly and--I trust and hope--ultimately explain how to overcome the addiction of self-mutilation. For those who might be drawn to the practice, this book could serve as a life-saving reality check. For those who have never heard of it and would never do it, this book could still teach them about the damaging effects of addiction in any form and the value of staying far away from it.

No one--not even Ms. Gurdon--can know what the ultimate message of the book is without READING IT.

Now, I support Ms. Gurdon's right to express her opinion. I just wish she'd be more responsible about it. Rather than spotting scary themes, scenes, and habits in YA books and bemoaning the possible effects of exposing children to such horrors, I wish she'd take the time to read the books she's attacking. I wish she'd focus her attack on a book-by-book basis, pointing out what is TAUGHT, rather than what is SHOWN. I wish she'd criticize the moral of the story, rather than the means of delivery.

She might find that some lessons are most effectively learned in a crucible of terrible, horrible, no good, very bad things.

Especially if those terrible, horrible, no good, very bad things happen to a fictional character, instead of a real-live teen who was discouraged from reading about them for fear she'd learn too much about the horrible things in life.

What terrible things did you read about as a youth? Did you go right out and try them yourself?

UPDATE: Don't miss my YA Saves -- Counterpoint post. It was also published on International Business Times - Business & Books, which also linked to this post. *Waves to IBT readers*

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Poetry Summer Week 5: De Stove Pipe Hole

Made my husband listen to me pass of Success is Counted Sweetest. Only missed two words. Fixed em. Moving on. :)

Last night at my husband’s family reunion, we had a talent show. My son and two of his cousins (a time or two removed) sang the song at the end of Monsters, Inc and I’ve Been Watching You by Rodney Atkins. My in-laws roped me and my sister-in-law into singing a primary song (Where is Heaven), which we sang about 5 minutes after scanning the words, struggling to remember the tune, and singing a verse or two quietly to ourselves. One of Jerry’s adult cousins did a “skit” which consisted of a game of 20 questions preceded by the hint “two sisters both died in unique ways. Name the movie.” After a few unhelpful questions, a 10-year-old cousin chimed in with “The Wizard of Oz!” And thus ended the talent show.

So what does this have to do with poetry?

Me, Grandpa LeRoy's portrait,
my son, whose middle name is LeRoy,
and my mother, who passed
the theatre bug to me
Talent shows at my own family reunions (not that we really ever have them anymore, dang it) ALWAYS included my mother’s father in a rendition of De Stove Pipe Hole. My grandpa met my grandma when he directed a play she was in, and grandpa had a life-long love of the theatre that culminated in several years of annual community theatre performances of Scrooge in A Christmas Carol. Which I mention only to emphasize how dang entertaining his Da Stove Pipe Hole was. There were no indulgent smiles. No courtesy laughter or perfunctory applause. Grandpa was a hit, every time. At his funeral a few years ago, one of my cousins ably recited it in his honor, proving that I wasn’t the only grandchild to memorize it.

I, of course, memorized it years before he passed. He’d leant me a copy of the book it was in (this is pre-internet) and, though I ultimately lost the book, I memorized the poem first. My first (sophomore) year of high school, I used it to audition for the fall play. The piece was a lot longer than your average audition piece, but the drama teacher let me do the whole thing so she could see if it was long enough to enter into the upcoming drama competition. I’d never heard of such a thing, but I was happy to enter, and did very, very well. An obsession was born. Or, well, kept alive anyway.

So last night after Jerry’s family talent show, I was feeling a bit guilty. (Or was it limelight-deprived?) I considered offering to recite one of the poems I’d memorized for this challenge, but the most entertaining one, The Bells, really isn’t always a crowd pleaser. I could see people’s eyes glazing over. I could hear the perfunctory applause. I didn’t want it. So I started thinking about Da Stove Pipe Hole. I decided to see how much of it I could remember, in case I wanted to offer to perform around the campfire. I ran into some memory snags. I jumped on the super-slow internet (yay internet!) to refresh my memory and discovered there was more I hadn’t even remembered was IN there!

So that’s what I’m [re-]memorizing this week. I want Da Stove Pipe Hole firmly in my memory. I want to be able to whip it out for whatever talent show might happen along my way. I want to be able to entertain at the drop of a hat. I wonder if it would be appropriate for future book-signings. Yanno, in case I actually get published someday and no one wants to hear me talk about my book. :)

With that long introduction, here’s the long poem, which, if done properly, includes the explanation that a stove pipe is a long wide pipe that extends from the top of a wood-burning stove and carries the smoke out of the house. These pipes would often have to be cleaned, and would be removed for the purpose. This would leave a hole through several levels of the house:

De Stove Pipe Hole
by William Henry Drummond

Dat's very cole an' stormy night on Village St. Mathieu,
W'en ev'ry wan he's go couché, an' dog was quiet, too--
Young Dominique is start heem out see Emmeline Gourdon,
Was leevin' on her fader's place, Maxime de Forgeron.

Poor Dominique he's lak dat girl, an' love her mos' de tam,
An' she was mak' de promise--sure--some day she be his famme,
But she have worse ole fader dat's never on de worl',
Was swear onless he's riche lak diable, no feller's get hees girl.

He's mak' it plaintee fuss about hees daughter Emmeline,
Dat's mebbe nice girl, too, but den, Mon Dieu, she's not de queen!
An' w'en de young man's come aroun' for spark it on de door,
An' hear de ole man swear 'Bapteme!' he's never come no more.

Young Dominique he's sam' de res',--was scare for ole Maxime,
He don't lak risk hese'f too moche for chances seein' heem,
Dat's only stormy night he come, so dark you cannot see,
An dat's de reason w'y also, he's climb de gallerie.

De girl she's waitin' dere for heem--don't care about de rain,
So glad for see young Dominique he's comin' back again,
Dey bote forget de ole Maxime, an' mak de embrasser
An affer dey was finish dat, poor Dominique is say--

'Good-bye, dear Emmeline, good-bye; I'm goin' very soon,
For you I got no better chance, dan feller on de moon--
It's all de fault your fader, too, dat I be go away,
He's got no use for me at all--I see dat ev'ry day.

'He's never meet me on de road but he is say 'Sapré!'
An' if he ketch me on de house I'm scare he's killin' me,
So I mus' lef' ole St. Mathieu, for work on 'noder place,
An' till I mak de beeg for-tune, you never see ma face.'

Den Emmeline say 'Dominique, ma love you'll alway be
An' if you kiss me two, t'ree tam I'll not tole noboddy--
But prenez garde ma fader, please, I know he's gettin ole--
All sam' he offen walk de house upon de stockin' sole.

'Good-bye, good-bye, cher Dominique! I know you will be true,
I don't want no riche feller me, ma heart she go wit' you.'
Dat's very quick he's kiss her den, before de fader come,
But don't get too moche pleasurement--so 'fraid de ole Bonhomme.

Wall! jus' about dey're half way t'roo wit all dat love beez-nesse
Emmeline say, 'Dominique, w'at for you're scare lak all de res?
Don't see mese'f moche danger now de ole man come aroun','
W'en minute affer dat, dere's noise, lak' house she's fallin' down.

Den Emmeline she holler 'Fire! will no wan come for me?'
An Dominique is jomp so high, near bus' de gallerie,--
'Help! help! right off,' somebody shout, 'I'm killin' on ma place,
It's all de fault ma daughter, too, dat girl she's ma disgrace.'

He's kip it up long tam lak dat, but not hard tellin' now,
W'at's all de noise upon de house--who's kick heem up de row?
It seem Bonhomme was sneak aroun' upon de stockin' sole,
An' firs' t'ing den de ole man walk right t'roo de stove pipe hole.

W'en Dominique is see heem dere, wit' wan leg hang below,
An' 'noder leg straight out above, he's glad for ketch heem so--
De ole man can't do not'ing, den, but swear and ax for w'y
Noboddy tak' heem out dat hole before he's comin' die.

Den Dominique he spik lak dis, 'Mon cher M'sieur Gourdon
I'm not riche city feller, me, I'm only habitant,
But I was love more I can tole your daughter Emmeline,
An' if I marry on dat girl, Bagosh! she's lak de Queen.

'I want you mak de promise now, before it's come too late,
An' I mus' tole you dis also, dere's not moche tam for wait.
Your foot she's hangin' down so low, I'm 'fraid she ketch de cole,
Wall! if you give me Emmeline, I pull you out de hole.'

Dat mak' de ole man swear more hard he never swear before,
An' wit' de foot he's got above, he's kick it on de floor,
'Non, non,' he say 'Sapré tonnerre! she never marry you,
An' if you don't look out you get de jail on St. Mathieu.'

'Correc',' young Dominique is say, 'mebbe de jail's tight place,
But you got wan small corner, too, I see it on de face,
So if you don't lak geev de girl on wan poor habitant,
Dat's be mese'f, I say, Bonsoir, mon cher M'sieur Gourdon.'

'Come back, come back,' Maxime is shout--I promise you de girl,
I never see no wan lak you--no never on de worl'!
It's not de nice trick you was play on man dat's gettin' ole,
But do jus' w'at you lak, so long you pull me out de hole.'

'Hooraw! Hooraw!' Den Dominique is pull heem out tout suite
An' Emmeline she's helpin' too for place heem on de feet,
An' affer dat de ole man's tak' de young peep down de stair,
W'ere he is go couchè right off, an' dey go on parloir.

Nex' Sunday morning dey was call by M'sieur le Curé
Get marry soon, an' ole Maxime geev Emmeline away;
Den affer dat dey settle down lak habitant is do,
An' have de mos' fine familee on Village St. Mathieu.

Pretty cool, huh?

I'd like to challenge all the #PoetryChallenge participants to memorize at least one poem that would serve them well in a talent show. Something with an exciting story, humor, and that requires a bit of flair. Yes, I'd be happy to coach your delivery when you're ready. (If we're ever in the same city.) So who's with me? 

Anyone else have good family reunion talent show memories?

Saturday, June 25, 2011

At a Family Reunion with Non-Readers....

Everyone's mostly fishin' today. What would YOU be doing?
This is totally what I look like while I'm reading

Friday, June 24, 2011

I'm Sara Eden's Friend!

I'm traveling today, but I wanted to direct your attention to Sara Eden's blog, where I have been interviewed for her I Need Friends Friday feature! Learn all about me, why I relate to Evil Girls, and how much I don't know about dumb criminals.

Hope you like it! :)

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Get Yer Queries Ready!

I've posted about queries before but, let's face it, I'm no expert. Let's look at the stats:

Books written: 1
Books ready for querying: .8
Query Drafts so far: 8
Queries sent to agents: 0
Successful queries: 0

See? I've read some stuff, but I really don't have the experience to back up my ramblings.

Which is why I'm joining Deanna Barnhart's Gearin' Up To Get An Agent Blogfest. It's lasting the whole month of July, with a different exercise each week to make sure I'm ready to send the query out. Since I REALLY want to be querying by the end of July (we'll see how fast this next edit goes), this is perfect timing for me.

Even more perfect? Elana Johnson's Authors' Advisory call is coming up this Thursday!! [Go to the Author's Advisory site Thursday at 8:45 EDT (or now) for complete call-in details.] Many of you sent in your queries, those queries have been forwarded to Elana, and she's going to break them down for us while talking about how to write a query that will make the agents drool! Since we didn't get the maximum number of queries, I submitted mine, too, and I'm excited to watch Elana tear it apart!

It's gonna be great! Make sure you call in! Come 15 minutes early to ask Elana all about her debut novel, POSSESSION.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Poetry Summer Week 4: Success is Counted Sweetest

IF was the perfect poem to pass off on Father's Day, and it was fun to recite it for my sons (even if I'm not the daddy).

This week's poem comes from a comment on my last poem: Meredith Mansfield suggested this one as a great one for writers. I agreed, so I had to memorize it. :) It's also a great poem for anyone who has failed at something when it was essential to succeed. Failure happens. We can't appreciate victory without it.

Success is Counted Sweetest
Emily Dickinson

Success is counted sweetest
By those who ne'er succeed.
To comprehend a nectar
Requires sorest need.

Not one of all the purple host
Who took the flag to-day
Can tell the definition,
So clear, of victory!

As he, defeated, dying,
On whose forbidden ear
The distant strains of triumph
Burst agonized and clear!

This concept, of course, also applies to our fictional characters. Their victory will be meaningless if they haven't tried and failed to reach it several times before they succeed.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Writing About Fathers

It's Father's Day tomorrow! Time to turn all gushy about how much we love the fathers in our lives. Well, unless we're busy writing top ten lists about the worst fathers in the world.

There are a lot of fathers in fiction. I haven't made an exhaustive study, but it seems that quite a lot of them are bad fathers. Why? Because that makes for greater tension. Better conflict. If a character has had to forge their own way in the world, or to overcome a really bad parent, that character has a lot of depth that can be explored as the writer tortures them some more.

'Cause we writers are sadistic like that.

One of my favorite musicals is Into the Woods by Stephen Sondheim. Act II, of course, is the best one. Happily Ever After is over, everything the fairy tale characters achieved in the first act is revealed to be rather empty / problematic / messy / fake. Oh, and a giant comes to avenge her husband's death.

Has anyone noticed that the parents in that play are almost universally deficient? All the mothers die, with the sole exception of Cinderella's evil step-mother. All the fathers are absent at some point, either emotionally or physically. Usually chronically absent.

There's a turning point in the play, after the baker's wife is killed, leaving the baker a single parent. The baker, true to the form of the play's fathers, hands his baby to Cinderella and walks away, determined to find someplace to live without so much dang trouble. Along the way, he runs into his own father, long suspected dead (after stealing greens and consequently losing his daughter, Rapunzel, to the witch, and his wife to death-by-grief). This absent father passes on some much-needed fatherly advice to the baker: running away doesn't help. Have a listen:

After this song, the baker returns to the remaining group, they carve out a plan to kill the giant's wife, sing a poignant song about how no one is alone, and end triumphant, though still grief-stricken. The baker goes on to actually parent his child.

One of my college roommates played Cinderella in her high school production of Into the Woods. She told me that the boy who played the baker had a real-life absent father, and he was thrilled when his father decided to attend the play. I'm sure he imagined that the song No More could spark a similar turnaround. At the halftime intermission, his father came backstage to congratulate him... and to say he was leaving early.

In my own WIP, I have a variety of parents. Absent, involved, theoretically-fine-but-never-mentioned, overbearing, loving, etc. I'm working on helping my parents be more "real," which is hard when I'm already over-budget on word count. Still, little by little, I'm slipping in moments with parents.

In honor of Father's Day, I thought I'd post a snippet of my WIP, showing my MC's relationship with her father. Hope you like it:

Dad pulled back and lifted Brina's chin in time to see the first tears spill down her cheeks. “Hey, now, none of that.” He gently brushed them away and pulled her close, hugging her tightly. Brina wrapped her arms around his chest, between his upper and lower wings, and squeezed.

“They hate me, Dad.” Brina’s voice was almost carried away by the soft morning breeze.

“They don’t know you, Brina. They’re scared of you because you’re different. They hate your skin and your wings, but they don’t hate you. That’s impossible. If you let them get to know you . . . .”

“They don’t want to know me.”

Dad pulled back again and held her shoulders. His face was intent as he stared into her eyes. “That’s what makes this such a great opportunity for you. They’ll be forced to spend time with you outside the classroom. To see you as a person, as a fellow actor. You’ll see. It’s really hard to hate someone you work with—especially when that someone is as cool as you are.”

Brina looked away. “Dad, I’ve been going to school with them for ten years. One play won’t change things.”

Dad smoothed back her hair from her face. “Try it out, and I won’t make you do it again, okay?”

From Brina’s window below them, she heard her mom call up. “Brina! Rand! Breakfast is ready!”

Neither of them bothered to yell back, since she’d never hear them. They were too small. Instead, Dad climbed to his feet and held out his hand to help her up.

Brina put her hand in his, but looked away toward the rising sun as she stood.

Dad squeezed her hand. “This too shall pass, darlin’.”

Brina nodded, then drew a deep shuddering breath, wiped away her tears, and flew down to get ready for school.

So what kind of parents do you have in your WIP?

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

It's Just Like Riding a Bike (and that's not good)

I remember when I learned how to ride a bike without training wheels. My sister and I went to the church parking lot, where there was a slope we could roll our bikes down. When I didn't have to worry about the back-and-forth of pedaling, I learned the art of balancing on two wheels a lot faster. Then, eventually, I could pedal, too. The world was mine! I could fly! It was awesome.

Fast-forward 25 years. (And when did I get old enough to use that phrase?)

My bike-riding days weren't really all that long, for all I loved it. I can't remember getting on a bike in high school, though I might have. (I had a car and a driver's license!) I certainly didn't ride a bike in college (even though I didn't have a  car). Or since I got married. Not at all in probably 20 years, in fact.

Until last night.

There's good news and bad news.

Good news: you actually never do forget how to ride a bike. Good to know. I didn't fall, I didn't embarrass myself in front of my young-uns, and after a while, I was even able to make sharpish turns without slowing to an almost standstill.

Bad news: my 5-year-old can kick my butt at bike-riding. (Not that the seat of the bike needed any help, if you know what I mean.) While I could outpace him on a straight, flat surface, he was pulling wheelies, hopping over speed bumps, and zipping around corners with his dad and his two older brothers. He taught himself to ride without training wheels earlier this year by commandeering his brothers' bikes. Without a slope. Without major injury. Now the three of them are a sight to behold.

I would have taken pictures of their prowess if I could have let go of the handlebars long enough to fish my cell phone out of my pocket.

In church on Sunday, we had a lesson on talents. One of the topics was to the tune of "use it or lose it." Now, as I mentioned, I haven't lost the basic knowledge of how to ride a bike. But I sure have lost a lot of the finer points of the sport.

Wouldn't it be tragic if this happened to my writing talent? What if I went 20 years without writing? Or two? I could probably put a sentence together, and I might even be able to power through a few paragraphs, but I doubt I'd remember not to dangle my participles (whatever that is). I'd probably find that ever bad habit I've pounded out of myself was back in force--and I probably wouldn't even notice.

Today, I have a physical manifestation of the pain that can come from trying to resume an old hobby. I can only imagine how it would hurt to try to resume writing.

If I keep bike riding (and get a more comfy-er seat), I'll probably get better and better at it. Same goes for every talent.

Another take-away from church on Sunday:
"That which we persist in doing becomes easier for us to do; not that the nature of the thing is changed, but that our power to do is increased." Heber J. Grant
So which talents have you let slide? Have you ever tried to get one back that you used to have? Did your backside hurt the next day?

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Poetry Summer Week 3: IF by Rudyard Kipling

I love The Bells. It is an awesome poem and fun, fun, fun, fun, fun, fun, fun, fun to say. My husband thinks it's much too long, but, really, once you have it memorized, it goes pretty fast. Lovely rhythm. Passed it off and I'm moving on (though I'll probably be back, just to make sure it's all still in there).

This week, I'm going with Rudyard Kipling's If. I know this is a poem about a father's advice to his son, but I've always thought that it was wonderful advice for anyone--especially writers. And, besides, I have three sons, and I want to have the excuse to recite it for them. :)

So here it is:

by Rudyard Kipling

If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you;
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or, being lied about, don't deal in lies,
Or, being hated, don't give way to hating,
And yet don't look too good, nor talk too wise;

If you can dream - and not make dreams your master;
If you can think - and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with triumph and disaster
And treat those two imposters just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you've spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to broken,
And stoop and build 'em up with wornout tools;

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breath a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: "Hold on";

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with kings - nor lose the common touch;
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you;
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds' worth of distance run -
Yours is the Earth and everything that's in it,
And - which is more - you'll be a Man my son!

If you're interested in who's playing, check out the Twitter hashtag #PoetrySummer. Though, really, it seems like I'm tweeting about it a lot more than everyone else.... :P If you're playing (and, really, everyone should), come tweet with us! :)

Saturday, June 11, 2011

I have 100 followers!! Prizes for everyone!

I started my blog on October 28, 2010.

166 days later, on April 12, 2011, I hit 50 followers.

Today, June 11, 2011, 60 days after my 50 follower mark, I have 100 followers!

I love you guys!

I want to do something to celebrate. Would anyone be interested in a first page crit? I'm willing to critique the first 250 words of the WIP of any blog follower (current or future). Mostly to give you an idea of what your average reader would think about your first page, and possibly some ideas to improve it.

Also, since I've been thinking about beginnings lately, I'd love to have your permission to share (anonymous) portions of my favorites in a future blog post about what works in a first page.

If you're interested:

  1. Between today and June 18, 2011
  2. Click my Email Me link in the sidebar, under my picture --->
  3. Use the subject "First Page Crit: [Title of Your Book]"
  4. Tell me the genre and put a quick 2-sentence pitch at the top of the email so I have a feel for what the book is about.
  5. Put your first 250 words in the body of the email. (Not as an attachment.) Please add space between paragraphs, and stop at the first full sentence before you hit 250 words (mainly to get you in the habit of not cutting sentences short for when you send partials to agents).
  6. Indicate if you'd be willing to let me use my favorite parts in a future post about first pages.
  7. Indicate if you'd like to be named if I use portions of your work on my blog. (I'm only planning to quote the good parts.)
Thanks again, everyone! Triple digits are awesome! :)

Tagged (or, about me and my homies)

I got tagged twice this week. Twice! Such awesome friends I have.

Deana Barnhart tagged me first. She's one of the newer members of my writing group and has an awesome blog. She's doing a "Gearing Up to Get an Agent" Blogfest going on right now that is such perfect timing for me, it's like she planned it with me in mind. Thanks, Deana!

Donna Weaver tagged me next. Donna is a kindred spirit. She let me drag her around at LTUE, let me stay at her house, let me read her copy of Anna and the French Kiss, and is an awesome crit group member. Her blog is chock full of writing advice and tales of her world travels. Go check it out!

The tag rules are mostly the same, so I'm only responding once.

1. Do you think you're hot?

HA! Who cares? My husband thinks I'm hot, and that's all that matters, yes?

2. Upload a picture or wallpaper you are using at the moment.

I use Webshots, which rotates a bunch of different pictures, but this is the one I intentionally downloaded to help me with my WIP:

3. When was the last time you ate chicken?

After my 12-hour day at work Friday, my husband took me to dinner, where I ate one piece of his hot-not-wings chicken and about three bites of my fiesta lime chicken. (Both came home with us and are waiting in the fridge for lunch.)

4. The song(s) you listened to recently.

Um...??? I'm sure there was some sort of song on the radio on my date with my hubby, but I actually turned it off so I could practice The Bells. The radio almost exclusively plays country music. If I'm cleaning my house, I'll often turn on Broadway show tunes. On the rare occasion I listen to music while I write, it's lyric-less instrumental, like the Twilight soundtrack.

I'm jealous of Donna's music video on her tag blog, so this is one of my favorite songs at the moment. I love the words and the Anne of Green Gables allusions in the video. As much as I like Anne, though, if I was at all good at that sort of thing, I'd make a book trailer for Hunger Games with it:

5. What were you thinking as you were doing this?

Is there any way to tie random facts about me into a writing tip? No? Dang.

6. Do you have nicknames? What are they?

In high school, one of my friends would call me random boy names like Fred. Yanno, 'cause my real first name is a boy's name. I'd just answer anytime she talked. :) I also get called Amber a lot--not as a nickname, but as an I-forgot-your-real-name-and-you-obviously-look-like-an-Amber name. This even from people who have never heard my maiden name (which is Ambrose).

7. Tag 8 Blogger Friends:

Shelly Brown--who auditioned for my college theatre of the absurd directing project and ended up as the perfect Elle. (She's still a bit absurd.) I ran into her at LDStorymakers in May and I've been following her brand-new blog ever since.

Chantele Sedgwick--who interviews aspiring authors on her blog (including me, coming up on July 7th!) and is such a cool writer and blogger. She's awesome.

Jenn Johansson--who recently got an agent and who will soon have a publishing contract. Because her book is THAT good. You're gonna love it.

Susan Jensen--who had the dubious pleasure of the room by the kitchen and so was the designated "Robin-your-boss-is-calling-wondering-why-you're-not-at-your-early-morning-custodial-job-again" girl, freshman year of college. Also the one who went with me to my very first writer's conference, who wrote a book in, like a month, and who will have a more appropriate acknowledgement if when my book is published. But only if she promises to give it an A on her book blog.

Anita Howard--who has the scariest avatar I've ever seen, is represented by Jenny Bent, writes about a twisted Alice in Wonderland, and who blogs about awesome writing topics, like how Labyrinth is like the modern YA novel. :)

Julia King--who is beta-switching with me right now, and will soon be my query-buddy. Also has an awesome writing blog.

Heidi Tighe--who is also a newer member of my writing group, is beta-reading my book in all her spare time, and, I hope, is bringing her awesome college English instructor powers to bear to rip, tear, and shred it.

Ashley Graham--who is brave and good and talented and wise and inspirational and who exemplifies determination.

In Poetry Summer news, I have The Bells memorized, but am still reciting it at every opportunity so I can keep it forever. Also, because I keep forgetting the odd word. :P

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Hopping happy, 'cause POSSESSION is here!!

POSSESSION by Elana Johnson is finally in stores!!! To honor the day, Elana is hosting a blog hop, so I'm adding to my recent flood of blog posts to participate. How can I resist?

Since the heroine in POSSESSION is a bit of a rule-breaker, blog-hoppers must confess to a time when they broke the rules. Boringly, I haven't broken many rules in my life. (Hi, mom!) I mean, yeah, I did my share of toilet-papering (SOO much fun!), sneaking candy out of my parent's room, and those pesky traffic rules are sort of bendable, but all in all I was not a hellion.

So instead, I'll relate the story of when I stole POSSESSION. Sort of.

Elana and I were on the same panel at Life, the Universe, and Everything. Afterward, I snuck over to her side of the table and, while she was distracted talking to her fans, swiped her display copy of POSSESSION off the table, whipped it open, and commenced reading. Only, it was really INCARCERON.

Elana didn't have one of her own ARCs to show around, so she'd slapped her paper cover on INCARCERON so she'd have something to display. I thought that was so hilarious, I was almost able to overcome my disappointment. I had another chance at a sneak peek during LDStorymakers, this time of the real book, but I'd already read the excerpt online and figured I'd never get enough time with it to find my spot. :(

However, the wait is over, and I made a super-special trip to the bookstore just now, where I found this:

See how smart my book store is?
 And now I have this:
Look how pretty it is! And it's mine! MINE!!
So now I'm going to get off the computer and start reading. Yay!!!

If you want to participate in the blog hop, there are a few hours left--or you can at least visit the lovely blogs of POSSESSION fans across the internet.

Objection! Narrative!

Lawyers always like to know what comes next. They like to know what the answer is to every question before it is asked, and they like to know the exact order of the information that has yet to be delivered. Before the witness opens her mouth. Before the jury hears what she has to say. Before the "bell has been rung." Why? So they can object to anything they don't want the jury to hear. So they can stop the information from being delivered. So they can muffle the darn bell.

For this reason, lawyers will object to any question that elicits a narrative response. Like so:
Plaintiff's Counsel: "Mrs. Smith. Please tell us, in your own words, exactly what happened that day, starting from the moment you woke up, and ending when you found the letters."
Defense Counsel: "Objection. Narrative."
Judge: "Sustained."
(Defense Counsel objected, here, because he knows that, sometime around noon, Mrs. Smith had a conversation with her husband that is protected under marital privilege, in which he confessed to her that he was engaged in criminal activities with the letter writer. Mrs. Smith isn't allowed to testify about that conversation, the judge has already told her she can't testify about it, but defense counsel doesn't trust her to keep her yap shut about it.)
This is how proper testimony should go:
Plaintiff's Counsel: "Mrs. Smith, what time did you get up that morning?"
Mrs. Smith: "Round about 6:00."
PC: "And was your husband in the bed when you woke up?"
MS: "No, he weren't."
PC: "When did you see him next?"
MS: "At lunchtime."
PC: "And did he tell you anything of interest when you saw him?"
Defense Counsel: "Objection, your honor, may we approach?"
(Defense Counsel wants to approach the bench so he doesn't have to tell the jury that the witness is about to say something they aren't allowed to hear. A completely confused jury is better than a semi-confused jury with food for their imaginations.)
You see the difference? So much easier to object when you know what information is going to come next, right?

And what does that have to do with writing? Readers don't want to know what comes next, do we? We like to be surprised, right?

Well, to a point. What readers do like is to have narrative dialogue flow logically. We want to be able to predict the next subject that will be addressed in the character's speech. We don't like the following:
"Why'd you fall for Mother if you liked dark-haired women?" [Hero] asked.
"Man can love lots of women but only one gets to lay claim to his heart. Your mother was a beauty. Still is and so smart it ain't funny. Don't know why in the hell I'm tellin' you this tonight. Guess it's because you brought up the [name of bar redacted]. Think I'll go on in to bed. We got hay to put in the barn tomorrow. You going to help or go out and wreck another one of my vehicles tomorrow?"
No, I didn't skip anything. Yes, this is from an actual published book, the most recent in a series. (I didn't read the first books before I picked this one up.) Yes, Dad's answer could also draw an objection for being non-responsive. Anyone get why Dad fell for Mom? Just 'cause she was beautiful and smart? Aren't there lots of smart beauties around? What made Mom special? More to the point, anyone a bit thrown when we're suddenly talking about hay? Anyone have a clue how we got there from women without even a pause for breath?

Now, I'm not an expert, but here's how it could have gone:
"Why'd you fall for Mother if you liked dark-haired women?" [Hero] asked.
"Man can love lots of women but only one gets to lay claim to his heart." Dad smiled and stared up at the stars. "Your mother was a beauty. Still is and so smart it ain't funny." He shook his head as if he were clearing cobwebs from his hat and rubbed his beard stubble. "Don't know why in the hell I'm tellin' you this tonight. Guess it's because you brought up the [name of bar redacted]."
Dad stood, looking suddenly old and bone-tired. Hero knew better than to ask any more questions tonight. "Think I'll go on in to bed," Dad said. "We got hay to put in the barn tomorrow. You going to help or go out and wreck another one of my vehicles tomorrow?"
Not perfect, but better, yes? So what's the difference? In theatre, it's called stage business. In writing, it's called beats. In reading, it's called the-stuff-that-signals-a-possible-change-in-subject. Like the logical progression of questions in a trial, doing without it completely is objectionable.

I should mention that the set-up for this book seems really fun. I'm intrigued by the characters and the premise, but turned off by the objectionable narrative dialogue. I skipped ahead to see if this sort of thing continued after all the series exposition was out of the way. It did. Let's do another, shall we? This is from about two-thirds of the way into the book:
"Want to expound on [what you want] while we wait on our drinks?" [Hero asked.]
"Nothing to discuss. If you are [Hero], you know what I want. If you are [Hero's alter ego] you know how important it is to me. This is a neat place. I wonder if the ladies at home would learn to cook crawdads. If they would, I'd put one just like this in [the town where our alter egos met]. Any one of those old empty buildings would do to start. I'd finance it and we could give the [alter-ego-town restaurant] some competition. I'd best stop thinking about [Heroine's alter ego] and [Hero's alter ego]. [Heroine] bought you so I'd better get into character."
Oh, yeah. You know what I want: crawdads. Or not. How's this:
"Want to expound on [what you want] while we wait on our drinks?" [Hero asked.]
"Nothing to discuss. If you are [Hero], you know what I want. If you are [Hero's alter ego] you know how important it is to me." Heroine looked away from him, almost desperate to change the subject. She caught sight of the fishnets hanging behind the bar counter. Mother would hate them. 
She smiled. "This is a neat place. I wonder if the ladies at home would learn to cook crawdads. If they would, I'd put one just like this in [the town where our alter egos met]. Any one of those old empty buildings would do to start. I'd finance it and we could give the [alter-ego-town restaurant] some competition."
She turned back to Hero, but he was looking at her with a familiar gleam in his eye. She sighed. Nothing but trouble that direction. "I'd best stop thinking about [Heroine's alter ego] and [Hero's alter ego]," she said with a scowl. "[Heroine] bought you so I'd better get into character."
As you might have noticed, I hate ragging on published books, which is why I've tried to remove all identifying information above. Still, this author isn't new. She has several published books to her name (whatever it is) and the very fact that her publisher is still buying books in this series is a sign that there are readers out there who enjoy them. For myself, I'm actually a bit torn on whether I want to finish this. Yes, the dialogue is driving me crazy, but I like the story (what I've read of it). *Sigh*

Anyway, please don't do this in your book. And, if you're beta-reading my book, please make sure I'M not doing it. We're not writing plays or screenplays. We can't rely on the actors to fill in the stage business for us later. We have to do it ourselves. Everything our characters say not only has to be motivated, but that motivation must be understood by our readers.

What do you think? What drives you crazy about not-quite-perfect dialogue?

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Poetry Challenge Week 2: The Bells, by Edgar Allen Poe

I'm all flushed with victory after passing off THE QUESTION to my son just now, so I'm going to take a stab at a rather longer poem this week. I can't find it, but I read somewhere recently that this poem is good for teaching us how to create a driving rhythm in our own writing--the kind that just won't let the reader put it down.

Deep breath....  

The Bells
Edgar Allen Poe

Hear the sledges with the bells-
Silver bells!
What a world of merriment their melody foretells!
How they tinkle, tinkle, tinkle,
In the icy air of night!
While the stars that oversprinkle
All the heavens, seem to twinkle
With a crystalline delight;
Keeping time, time, time,
In a sort of Runic rhyme,
To the tintinnabulation that so musically wells
From the bells, bells, bells, bells,
Bells, bells, bells-
From the jingling and the tinkling of the bells.

Hear the mellow wedding bells,
Golden bells!
What a world of happiness their harmony foretells!
Through the balmy air of night
How they ring out their delight!
From the molten-golden notes,
And all in tune,
What a liquid ditty floats
To the turtle-dove that listens, while she gloats
On the moon!
Oh, from out the sounding cells,
What a gush of euphony voluminously wells!
How it swells!
How it dwells
On the Future! how it tells
Of the rapture that impels
To the swinging and the ringing
Of the bells, bells, bells,
Of the bells, bells, bells,bells,
Bells, bells, bells-
To the rhyming and the chiming of the bells!

Hear the loud alarum bells-
Brazen bells!
What a tale of terror, now, their turbulency tells!
In the startled ear of night
How they scream out their affright!
Too much horrified to speak,
They can only shriek, shriek,
Out of tune,
In a clamorous appealing to the mercy of the fire,
In a mad expostulation with the deaf and frantic fire,
Leaping higher, higher, higher,
With a desperate desire,
And a resolute endeavor,
Now- now to sit or never,
By the side of the pale-faced moon.
Oh, the bells, bells, bells!
What a tale their terror tells
Of Despair!
How they clang, and clash, and roar!
What a horror they outpour
On the bosom of the palpitating air!
Yet the ear it fully knows,
By the twanging,
And the clanging,
How the danger ebbs and flows:
Yet the ear distinctly tells,
In the jangling,
And the wrangling,
How the danger sinks and swells,
By the sinking or the swelling in the anger of the bells-
Of the bells-
Of the bells, bells, bells,bells,
Bells, bells, bells-
In the clamor and the clangor of the bells!

Hear the tolling of the bells-
Iron Bells!
What a world of solemn thought their monody compels!
In the silence of the night,
How we shiver with affright
At the melancholy menace of their tone!
For every sound that floats
From the rust within their throats
Is a groan.
And the people- ah, the people-
They that dwell up in the steeple,
All Alone
And who, tolling, tolling, tolling,
In that muffled monotone,
Feel a glory in so rolling
On the human heart a stone-
They are neither man nor woman-
They are neither brute nor human-
They are Ghouls:
And their king it is who tolls;
And he rolls, rolls, rolls,
A paean from the bells!
And his merry bosom swells
With the paean of the bells!
And he dances, and he yells;
Keeping time, time, time,
In a sort of Runic rhyme,
To the paean of the bells-
Of the bells:
Keeping time, time, time,
In a sort of Runic rhyme,
To the throbbing of the bells-
Of the bells, bells, bells-
To the sobbing of the bells;
Keeping time, time, time,
As he knells, knells, knells,
In a happy Runic rhyme,
To the rolling of the bells-
Of the bells, bells, bells:
To the tolling of the bells,
Of the bells, bells, bells, bells-
Bells, bells, bells-
To the moaning and the groaning of the bells.

Wish me luck!