Friday, April 29, 2011

A Child's view of Royalty

In case you hadn't heard, there was a wedding today. A royal one. Which brought to mind a discussion between two of my kids this week I thought I'd share, just for the fun of it.

My youngest was sorting through our Disney princess movies, which shockingly she's not seen in her memorable lifetime due to the fact that she has an older brother that can always talk her into watching something else. But as we're soon heading to DisneyWorld, I wanted her to have that exposure - every little girl should at least know about Cinderella and Snow White and Sleeping Beauty.

So we are going through the movies, and my youngest comments, "All the princes look the same. The princesses look different, but it looks like they just used the same prince in every movie."

To which my son, in all his wisdom, tells her, "That's because its never about the prince."

How early boys learn! :)

I have my own celebration this weekend: the 17th anniversary of my own wedding, one which was much less grand, but just as joyous.

Have a very happy weekend!

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Books Make A Difference

Three weeks ago I read Mortenson's bestselling non-fiction book (co-authored – although most likely fully-authored – by David Oliver Relin) Three Cups of Tea. I'd put the book on my semester reading list because I'd bought the book some time ago with the idea that it was a book I should read, but had never gotten around to actually cracking open.

Two weeks ago I sent to my advisor my final reading commentary, a paper I'd written about this book, and specifically about the real-life character of Mortenson. While so many criticisms of the book online focused on how Mortenson came off in the book as some idealized hero with superhuman abilities, a person who was too good to be true, I wrote my paper on Mortenson's flaws, which, if you read the book closely enough, are glaring. The fact is that these flaws – his lack of ability to manage finances, his somewhat haphazard planning skills, his scant understanding of the way the Middle East culture works, his tendency towards depression and withdrawal – all serve to make his accomplishments even greater. Who among the best of us could take off for a land where we don't know the language and customs and determine to build schools for children there? A deeply flawed hero is the kind we truly root for, because we want to believe we ourselves have the capacity for heroism, despite our shortcomings.

(If you are interested in more of what I wrote about flawed characters, you can read about it here on the 4Corners blog.)

But even as I wrote the paper, I wondered how Mortenson could continue to be successful. Although some of the stories in the book raised my eyebrows in a James-Frey-has-struck-again way, my biggest question was how Mortenson has managed to keep this operation going, and how he will continue to do so. It's clear in the book that he doesn't keep good track of the money he spends, a huge problem if he wants to keep his company non-profit. He seems to build often with only sketchy plans, adapting as he goes, even if that means gathering all the supplies to build and then realizing there is no road to get those supplies to the intended town.

The fact is, the warning signs are in his own book.

So it didn't surprise me that a week ago – only two weeks after my own reading – Jon Krakauer countered Mortenson's book with one of his own. In it, he lays out the very clear and convincing evidence that some of Mortenson's book is flat out lies, and much of the rest of it is half-truths. The most damning part of his expose, though, is in the chapters where he questions how Mortenson's charity is run, and where the money is going.

If you are interested in reading Krakauer's book, I highly recommend it. It's short - only about 77 pages - and I read the entirety of it during my daughter's swim team practice. It's well-written, well-organized, and easy to follow. You can download a copy here.

Some people have come out against Krakauer for writing this, calling it everything from sour grapes to worse. But the fact is, Krakauer had a moral and ethical obligation to bring to light what he'd discovered. Why? Because the book was not just a book; it's a money making machine.

The world cried foul when James Frey admitted making up parts of his memoir, and that was really no skin off anyone's nose other than a hurt ego for believing him. Mortenson's book, on the other hand, has spawned a money-eliciting empire. He is pulling in millions of dollars for his charity, money that donators are told will be going to build schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan, when in reality, much of it is not. My children have contributed from their own piggy banks in his "Pennies for Peace" campaign in the schools, and that money is abused and misused. There is little accountability for the dollars that come in to the Central Asia Institute.

There is both good and bad news here. The good is that books really do make a difference. They can make someone see the world in a new light. Feel hope. Feel called to action. Believe they can play a part in changing the world for the better.

But there is an accountability that comes with that, too. One that can't be taken too lightly.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Life... Crazy Life

Monday afternoon my internet went out. I know there are many worse fates, but I have to admit I panicked a little. By Tuesday, I was panicking a lot. It was three days before it came back on. One might ask, what in the world does a person like me do without internet????


  • washed, dried, and folded five loads of laundry
  • revised 25 more pages of my novel
  • hard-boiled and dyed three dozen eggs
  • went to an actual bowling alley and bowled with the kids 
  • drove kids into D.C. for a few hours in the Air and Space Museum
  • read a book (Three Cups of Deceit by Jon Kraukauer)
  • worked my way through about 50 more pages of my writing text book
  • made about 25 shrinky-dinks with my youngest
  • watched about six Disney movies with the kids
  • watched the entire Kennedy Miniseries
  • went shopping and bought my daughters Easter dresses and the rest of their summer wardrobe
  • walked the puppy about 2 miles every day
  • baked a cheesecake
  • baked chocolate chip cookies
  • put together a 1,000 piece puzzle with my son
  • beat my son's Wii record in wakeboarding
  • deadheaded my hydrangeas

What I did not do:

  • read emails
  • read blogs
  • upload pictures
  • update any facebook or twitter statuses
  • reply to any emails comment on any blogs
  • read any news articles

Weighing one against the other, maybe I should get Verizon to cut off my internet more often. I'm certainly not going to voluntarily go cold-turkey! I'm not that disciplined. :)

Still - if I'm behind on blogs and emails, I apologize. I'm trying to catch up now, but it may take awhile.

As for the rest of the weekend - it is Easter weekend, so the family and I will be off celebrating. He is Risen!!

Have a great weekend and I'll catch you next week.

Monday, April 18, 2011

This Isn't Moral High Ground

My kids are huge fans of fruit. Just about any kind, any time. But given all the choices of the farmer's market, my son would always pick watermelon first. My youngest would pick strawberries. My oldest girl would choose kiwi. I go for the peaches - those great, fresh, sweet ones that only show up for about a month during the year.

None of those choices are wrong; they're just different.

I've been thinking about the whole publishing industry a lot lately. It seems I can't click on a blog without reading someone's particular take on whether or not ebooks are destroying publishing as we know it, whether or not traditional is better than self-publishing, or whether or not entrepeneurial authors who sell their ebooks at 99 cents a copy and become millionaires are of lesser value, as if there is a moral or ethical shortcut that's been taken. Seriously, are we shaming them for not having an agent?

I get really angry when I read authors slamming other authors for being successful, but not doing it the "right" way, as if there is only one valid way to publish. Heck, if someone can write a book, put it on Amazon themselves and market it and make a million bucks, that's not a short cut - that's a lot of hard work.  Ebooks - especially those written by unknown authors - don't just sell themselves.

My own book was published by a traditional publisher, but without an agent. Was that a risk? Absolutely. Is that the right route for everyone? Absolutely not. But it was right for me. I know, because it was my book, my queries, my interactions with agents, my interaction with the publisher, my prayers, my list of pros and cons and long discussions with people I love and trust. It might not be the best route for you. It might not even be the best route for my next book. But it was right for this one.

I wanted to write a long rant, because I am completely in the camp that says there is no one way to get your book published. There might be a right way for you, but that doesn't mean it's the only right way for everyone else. Like fruit at a farmer's market, it's a good thing that there are choices.

I understand that agents and editors want to land on the side that traditional publishing might not be the only way but is the BEST way to get published. And so I was pleasantly surprised to read this blog post by agent Jenny Bent. I had the privilege of hearing Jenny speak at the AWP conference here in D.C. this winter, but it is this post that won me, especially the last paragraph. If you have time to read it, you should. But if you don't, this is what I loved so much:

Here's the whole point of it: to say, hooray for you writers out there who believe in yourselves enough to get your work out there by whatever means necessary. Hooray for your successes, hooray for your bravery, and hooray for the fact that every book you sell means you may be touching that reader's life in a powerful way. For isn't that why we're all in it?

Why write a rant of my own, when I couldn't have said it more beautifully than this? 

Friday, April 15, 2011

What Really TICKS Me Off...

I finished my fourth packet for school this week and sent it off, and decided that the fact that I am now ahead in both writing and reading for the semester, as well as the gorgeous 70+ degree spring weather, deserved some celebrating. And what better way to celebrate than to grab a great friend and go on a photo shoot to a brand new and much talked about wildlife park?

Oh yeah! Photo therapy!!

You'd think.

See, when I take chances and go places I've never been, my odds of things turning out well are pretty much 50/50. And, as my friend pointed out once we got there... you can't believe everything on the internet.

So this park - called Merrimac Farms - is not that far from my house, and this week is hosting a Virginia Bluebell Festival. I didn't even know Virginia had bluebells, and the pictures were so reminiscent of Texas Bluebonnets, which I get homesick for every spring, I decided I HAD to go get pictures. The website says the park looks like this every April:

The quality of the photo leaves something to be desired, but you get the idea, right? Fields of gorgeous flowers amid a nationally protected forest. They also have posters that show tons of pretty and unique birds, and they advertise a big pond where you can fish all kinds of fish.

So we trek off and this is what we find.

The trees are so old and bare and scraggly, despite the fact that just outside the park, all the VA trees are blooming and full of spring-green leaves. And do you see any flowers? Any at all?? Nope. Me either.

We drove to where the "parking lot" was, which was basically the end of the road, where there was enough room for one vehicle to park. I was thankful (although I should have been suspicious) that we were the only ones needing a parking spot.

At the "parking lot" there was this sign:

Apparently the path to the pond is very steep. And people have to walk sideways.

That is... if there were a path. Which there wasn't. There was just ugly scraggly trees. We'd landed in the middle of nowhere.

Debating and trekking for a few feet through the bare woods, we decided to try the other parking lot.

Which had exactly the same space and no discernible path, but did have a very small orange sign showing us the way to the pond. So off we hiked.

We did find a very old, old barn, which was cool to take pics of:

See the path that leads right up to it? Yeah, me neither.

Eventually a path opened up, and we followed it alongside a person's private horse farm. 

Isn't that pretty? Yeah - well, I had to climb through scraggly tree branches and barbed wire to get this shot - to even see it actually. Heaven forbid we should see something pretty ON the wildlife trail.

Then the path diverged in a wood and I... was confused. 

Because - you probably can't see this - in the tree in the very center of these two paths is the orange "sign" showing the way to the pond. Seriously?? 

So, being all poetic, we chose the path less traveled. Which, as it turns out is less traveled for a reason. It ends right past the view of this picture in a field that looks like elephants have come through and trampled it (that's what my friend said, anyway, and it was an apt description).

So we backtracked and went down the path more traveled, and finally found the pond.

I do have to say this is one of the best pictures I took all day, and makes this pond look much bigger and prettier than it was. It's a swamp. Shallow, mostly muddy water swarming with algae and mosquitoes.

And also, no flowers.

We finally gave up and turned to go back. What a bust the picture taking had been. But the day was beautiful, the friendship great, so it was worth it, right?

We drive back down the road home and suddenly I stop! LOOK!! It's a bluebell!!

I drew a black arrow to show you in case you can't see it. There, in the mud. A single flower. It's much prettier close up:

Well, sort of. It's no bluebonnet, and it lacks something all on it's own, but it was the only color we got, so we took it.

You'd think this is the end of the story, right? Except I have gotten to the title of this post.

On the way home, I looked over and saw a TICK on my shoulder!! I freaked a little, tossed him out the window, and ran my fingers through my hair, thinking, "I should have worn a baseball cap." Two seconds later, there was a tick crawling on my finger. 

I screamed. And tossed him out the window.

I felt a tickle at the base of my ponytail and reached up and pulled another off.

Can you say meltdown in the car?

I was barely home and out of the car before I was stripping off my books and socks and running upstairs to shower. Under my long sleeved shirt I found three more. On my legs I found two more. There was one crawling on the inside of my jeans. 

Totally. Freaking. Out.

I feel like I'm in an episode of Infested. I pull my hair out of the ponytail and start scratching at my scalp, yanking my hands through my hair, head tossed over the sink waiting for them to rain down. 

I turn on the shower as hot as it will go and hop in, and scrub my hair so hard I think my scalp is going to peel off. I shampooed three times. I find two more ticks, which result in hilarious jumping, screaming, water spewing all over the bathroom antics. I shampoo again, and have to condition twice to get all the tangles I've caused out of my hair.

In all, there were 11 ticks. ELEVEN!!

I've lived in a house in the middle of the woods for eight years and haven't gotten a single tick.

So the verdict? Ugly trees, no paths, no flowers, no color, and a welcome gift of tick infestation.

Yeah - I won't be going back there again!

Monday, April 11, 2011

MFA Monday: When the Scene Is Too Long

One of the great things about being back in a writing program is the one-on-one I get with my advisor - a fabulous writer and teacher. Every three weeks I send him work and he writes all over it and sends it back with a letter about everything he thinks I did really well, and what I still should tweak in the chapters to make them more powerful.

Although I have a tremendous critique group, fresh eyes from a professional in the business of both writing and teaching writing has had a huge impact on my writing.

In the last packet I sent, he pointed out I have a tendency towards long scenes. It's absolutely true that I do: my scenes tend to run 10-12 pages, sometimes even longer. I've looked at how other authors combat scenes in which much must happen, and I've found this: if you write in third person and can follow several story lines, you can flip between them back and forth, even cutting scenes off in the middle to shift focus for a page or two, and then return to the other scene - much like TV does.

The problem for me has been that, in my first book, I wrote in first person present tense so that the story followed just one person's point of view. The story unfolded as she experienced it. There was no option to switch scenes in the middle of another.

The novel I'm revising now is in third person POV, but it still follows just one person closely, and so the problem is the same as before.

When my advisor read through my latest submission - a lengthy but critical scene in which an entire past and relationship unfold - he advised me to find a way to chop it up.

This is how:

1. You can cut. Brutally. Anything that isn't absolutely necessary for the scene, any stray words or superfluous actions - cut. Anything you can put somewhere else in the story, cut.

This didn't work well for me, because everything in this scene was critical. It is really the foundation for the conflict and resolution in the rest of the book. I was able to cut some, but not enough.

2. You can sum up parts of the dialog in narrative. 

I did a lot of this, although it took a while to figure out how to do that, because the point of the dialog was to reveal things from one character to another. I had to look at each line and ask myself: "Is this said because the other character needed to hear it, or because the reader did?" If it was mainly for the reader, I either summed it up in narrative, or cut it to put elsewhere in the book.

3. You can break the scene by moving the characters somewhere else, or interrupting it.

This is what I ended up doing that helped the most. In this scene, the mother and daughter are in a conversation in which secrets about their past come out. It's important for this scene to all take place now, because in a few hours, the mother is dead and that opportunity is gone.

So in the middle of the conversation, I had the daughter receive a phone call that takes her out of the scene. That phone call created a whole new conflict that I was trying to figure out how to work in anyway, and then the fact that the daughter left allowed more tension between her and her mother. Instead of rejoining the mom, the daughter walks away. She ends up in another place altogether where the narrative is able to divert the scene for a few paragraphs. The mother has to then find her, and the discussion can then continue.

Interestingly, the scene is still 12 pages, but it's broken into smaller segments - places at which I can make section or chapter breaks to keep the reader engaged.

I think my inability to write short scenes is something I need to work on. I like reading books in which the scenes are short - it keeps me reading, turning pages. I always have too much to say, though, which is pretty indicative of me as a person, too. I don't have short conversations, I'm unable to figure out anything worthwhile to tweet in 140 characters or less. I can't write short blog posts, although I desperately want to. Even my comments on other people's blog posts run long. I wonder how anyone manages to write such short, pithy comments when mine practically run novel-length.

Anyhow, so this is what I'm working on now. Are long scenes ever a problem for you, or am I the only one?

Thursday, April 7, 2011

A Book and a Memory, and Another Word About Authenticity

I've been thinking lately (and blogging) about authenticity in writing fiction and just how much of ourselves should go into a book of fiction. The answer is, I think, as much or as little as you want.

I just read a book review about Francisco Goldman's novel, Say Her Name. The book is essentially a memoir - the story of his wife Aura, her childhood and their marriage and her way-too-early death – and yet it is categorized as fiction. This is what the critic said:

Why call it fiction then? At several point Goldman writes about competing narratives, the ways memories conflict and different stories can grow out of the same fact. Maybe Goldman, a former journalist, just could bear the pressure of "the truth," of worrying about anyone's take on Aura but his own. 

It's an interesting gesture, to take something that is nearly all truth and instead of calling it memoir, or creative non-fiction, to label it fiction, as if saying The truth is relative.

This week we celebrated my youngest's birthday, and I took the time to hold her on my lap and tell her one of my favorite stories of my life with her. So much my favorite, that it made its way into my debut novel.

When Some Kind of Normal first came out, I had family and friends rushing through it, seeing if they could find me somewhere in it. They guessed a lot. "Is this scene real?" "Is this the way you think?" "Are you really Babs?"

If you know anything about me, you know I am nothing like Babs. She came as a gift, a person walking through my head fully formed and opinionated and somewhat offensive to me at first.

And yet, there is some of me in there. It's inevitable, because no matter how out there our subject may be - sci-fi, dystopian, historic romance even - we write what we know. How can we not? We write about music that we know, or the kind of potato chips that we see in the store, or the emotions we have felt. We can't write about what we don't know - food we've never even heard of or culture we have never read or experienced.

And as a mom, it was inevitable pieces of my experiences as a mom would make it in the book. Tiny, incremental pieces, but pieces nonetheless.

So here is my admission: this paragraph from Some Kind of Normal is true. The names have been changed, but otherwise... it's me. It's my daughter. It's one of my most precious memories.

Ashley was born screaming.  I think she came out with her mouth open, her eyes scrunched into tearless cries which no amount of bundling could soften until the nurses put her on my chest and I said, “Hi there, baby girl.”  And just like that, she stopped crying.  She looked up at me with wide blue eyes, not even blinking, like she knew my voice from all those months inside me.  The moment they took her away she cried again, until they brought her back.

So happy birthday to my little girl. You give me plenty of material! :)

Now that the birthday celebrations are over, it's time to get myself back to work!

Friday, April 1, 2011

April Fools: The Proposal Story

 (I've posted this exact post twice before. If you've read it, accept my apologies and indulge me once more. It's just, well, it's April Fools and I can't go without sharing one of my favorite memories again.)

Today is April Fool's Day. I love this day. Not because of the fool part of it (I am way too gullible to enjoy that part of the day). I love it because eighteen years ago today, my then boyfriend proposed.

Yes. I got engaged on April Fool's Day.

My husband likes to say that he asked on April's Fools so that if I said no, he could say, "I was just kidding anyway."

So every April first I get to revisit one of my favorite stories: the engagement story.

He'd been asking me to marry him almost as long as I'd known him. It was a joke between us, every time he asked, that I would say, "How am I going to know when you are serious?" He'd always answer, "You'll know because I'll come riding up on a white horse." He was in the army when we met, just back from the gulf war, and the visual image stuck.

So eighteen years ago today, we both arranged to take the day off work and spend the afternoon together. He'd been working in New York as a broker for a few months after leaving the military and had been back in Austin for a few weeks, feet to the grindstone, so to speak, and we'd barely seen each other since before Christmas.

He didn't tell me where we were going, but packed a picnic for us and picked me up midmorning. We drove out into the hill country to a horse ranch where he had arranged a day of riding for us.

The hilarious thing is he'd spent a month combing the Texas countryside for white horses, and couldn't find any. Not one. Seriously. There are no white horses in central Texas. (My friend Heidi says it's because Texas is quarter horse country, and quarter horses aren't usually white.)

Anyhoo - finally he finds this place and goes to visit ahead of time to pick out the horses, the picnic spot, and ask the owners to spray for ants (how thoughtful can a guy get???). So he sees this white horse way out in the field. He's not being ridden by anyone, or in the stables with the rest of the horses, but the owner's assure him that "Wild Thing" is good for at least a few more rides.

Let me set the scene here. I am five-three. At the time, I weighed about as much as a few feathers. My husband is six foot four. And he has really broad shoulders.

When we arrive, they bring out my horse: a huge brown stallion that I literally use a step-ladder to get on. My feet are a good three feet off the ground.

Then they bring out Wild Thing.

Wild Thing is two days away from a glue factory. He is no bigger than a mule. He is sway backed, severely. My husband can throw his leg over his back without his other foot even leaving the ground. He looks like a thirteen year old on a toddler's bike. His knees are in his chin. When we go up the rocky trail, he almost has to get off and carry Wild Thing up the hills.

I turned around and pointed at Wild Thing, totally clueless about this set up, and say, "Hey, look! A white horse!" I think my husband laughed, although it might have been a choking sound. I wonder the entire ride why I get the huge horse and my boyfriend is on the one that clearly should be retired.

The rest is simply romantic. A picnic by a babbling brook, bluebonnets in the fields, not an ant in sight; a gorgeous ring in a Cracker Jack box; a poem he read on one knee. The usual.

But now, everytime we pass a white horse, I make sure to point it out. Especially the big, strong ones. Look at all these white horses! And you're telling me you hunted and hunted and the best you could come up with was Wild Thing? And he always rolls his eyes and says, "Yeah. Wild Thing looked like that from a distance too."

Maybe. Or maybe he just wanted to make sure I knew he'd keep his promises, even if he had to ride a 100 year old horse to do it.

And who could say no to that?