2♦sday Flicktions

If you hadn’t heard about the Tuesday Flicktions challenge some of my writing group is participating in, I hope you’ll pop over to Wonderland to read a basic write-up about it why we’re doing it, and to find links to other people’s poems and stories. If you do know about our writing exercise challenge, well, then, below is this month’s image, and the following is my little scribble about it. Enjoy!

Harryhausen Skeletons

Harryhausen Skeletons, by Flickr user Jürgen Fauth of Berlin.


Caught Up In Wire And Plaster

A heavy steam of golden syrup through our single-pane window, the sunbeam pressed me deeper within my nest of blankets, sweetly contented and relaxed. With my father elsewhere, and chores and other duties finally discharged, I was gleefully blessed with time to myself. I turned on our massive console TV to Channel 20, to find the Sunday Afternoon Movie. Always a double-feature, with no commercials allowed, the Sunday Afternoon Movie was pure gold. One never knew which cinematic clinkers would be unearthed each week; they ran the gamut from the Wizard of Oz to Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, from Cleopatra to Cat Ballou. While my sisters would skive off to watch more modern shows on my parents’ tiny bedroom TV, I was all in favor of the oldies. If it was, as she called it, a “spaghetti Western,” my mother would settle in behind me, and drop off to sleep on the couch, while I watched with glorious abandon, my permission all but guaranteed by my mother’s insensate body. Though sometimes I was bored (I wasn’t as big a fan of Bridge Over the River Kwai or Lawrence of Arabia), and I spent more time with Shirley Temple and Bob Hope than can reasonably be expected of someone with the intent to retain their sanity, this Sunday afternoon tradition was a rare oasis of calm in a contentious household.

This week, there was a pair of adventure films on the bill. In the first, there were interesting costumes and a lot of dialogue – too much for me, so it was mostly ignored. At nine, I was vastly interested only if there would be dancing, animals, or stunts. Robberies, shoot-outs, and kissing scene were where I squinched my eyes closed, and if there was too much talking, I sometimes wandered away entirely. To my mind, this movie had a LOT of talking, but eventually, the bald, eye-glowy guy in fancy robes, the young woman, the other guy in a sort of baggy-ankled pant, eventually got …somewhere. The bald man did things, then disappeared, and then, only the couple were hurrying through a cave made up of improbably sharp stalactites and massive boulders, when suddenly, they come upon a chained dragon, scaly scale flexing mechanically. On cue, the woman gives a sharp, cinematic scream as another monster – a cyclops? – appears. They’re trapped, of course, between greater evil and lesser evils, but baggy-pants has a plan, and he somehow loses the dragon. Entranced, I leaned forward, toppled, and sank into the story without a splash.

It was a glorious afternoon. The acting was stilted, the monsters, completely ridiculous, and the stutter-step of the stop-motion animation of the skeletons as they emerged from underground and attacked the Argonauts – with eerie screams from what vocal chords? – was both hilarious and compelling. I was hooked, moving closer and closer to the television.

And then, from behind me, my father grunted, “Huh.”

I jumped.

I rarely lost track of my father, ever. Knowing his location was important, and as every rabbit watches obsessively for hawks, I watched for him. When he was home, the floor seemed made of glass, being scored by diamond-sharp words and cutting silences. When he drove away, the walls leaned in and exhaled, and chronic tensions which had held the foundations tense shifted, softening the floor and resettling the roof.
I turned my head, trying to watch him from the corner of my eye. Now that I thought about it, I’d vaguely heard a car in the drive, but when the front door hadn’t opened, I’d relaxed my guard. He’d come in through the backyard, I guessed. And now, when I was so deep into the story – and so close to the TV – that now, when I was dying to know how it ended, now he’d returned, and was staring, hands on hips, at the TV. Now was the silent judgment, but next would come the pounce, as his body uncoiled, one hand shooting forward to jab to the OFF button, while the other would come down, a weighty pincher claw on my shoulder. Then would come the tightly gritted lecture, perhaps the one where he told me that he had something for me to do, if I had nothing else to do but “waste the Lord’s time.”

I held my body to unnatural stillness, pushing internal furniture aside to lock down emotional response and resistance; already a rabbit going limp, even as I fumed that now I would never know how the skeletons got out from underground with shields and swords, nor would I know the outcome of the fight. The Sunday Afternoon movie rota would move on, and they might never show it again.

“Huh,” my father said again, then, rasping a hand over his scruffy chin asked, “That Sinbad?”

Warily, I turned my head. “Maybe,” I said. When he only hmphed again, I ventured. “It might be. See, there was this dragon, and then, these giant birds…”

“Naw, don’t remember all of that. That’s the skeletons, though.” He stood, transfixed, and so I turned, too, watching with him as the skeletons leapt in awkward jerky motion, and with voiceless yells, brandished menacing swords. Jason – or Sinbad? – and his men fought valiantly, heroic and dying dramatically, yet emerging at last, triumphant against their deadly wire and plaster foes.

When the scene changed, I heard my father shift behind me, and blow out a breath. I sat back again, waiting.

“Huh. Sinbad,” he said again, shaking his head with a chuckle. I sat, blinking, as he walked off, adding from around the corner, “Sit back from that TV some.”

I scrambled to comply, a rabbit streaking for the bushes, now that the hawk has passed by.

And so, my father went his way, perhaps to do something important and mystifying with a stub of pencil, grout, and a triangle rule. And, as I sank into the story once again, the foundations shifted, and the floor softened. From above my nest of blankets, the roof resettled.

{so, this morning, this exchange happened}

A Tech Boy talked to a Wisher, a Liar, a Magic Bean Buyer, and…

Tech Boy: So, you think you’re going to finish this by your deadline, then?

Writer: Gah. I dunno. I hope so, but — argh. It’s all gone wrong so many times…

Tech Boy: Well, where are you now?

Writer: Well, she’s just run away…

Tech Boy: Wait, what? Does she have to? How important is running away to the plot?

Writer: WAIT a minute. What do you mean, ‘how important is running away’ — dude, you haven’t even read it, Mr. Critic McCriticson. Where do you get off?

Tech Boy: I’m not being critical – no, seriously. I’m not. But, I know you.

Writer: And? That’s supposed to mean what?

Tech Boy: Just that I know you – and I know what kind of books you write. You write character-driven novels. So –

Writer: So, what? People can’t run away in character-drive novels?

Tech Boy: No, it’s not that, but… remember last week when someone got kidnapped?

Writer:*frown* Um…no. Nobody’s kidnapped anymore. That was stupid.

Tech Boy: Um, yeah, but, you do that. When you get stuck. You do that – you put in some random thing that the characters have to go through, and call it Fate?

Writer: WHAT? I do not.

Tech Boy: You’re like, “Hmm, I’m stuck. Wait! Tornado!”

Writer: Don’t you have to go to work?

Tech Boy: …so, I’m just asking, how important that running away thing is really. Because a car accident or whatever? Is not going to fix the whole novel.

Writer: I’m sure you have to go to work. As a matter of fact, look at the time – GOODBYE.


May I just say how UNNERVING – and humbling – it is for someone else to see something so clearly about my writing?

On the up side, readers never SEE the cheap plot devices – when I’m not in OH JEEZ I’M STUCK full-panic mode, even I can see how stupid they are. But, it vexes me that I even throw something like that in, how I expect Plot to emerge like a hail Mary pass in football, bringing the crowd to their feet, and the score to my favor. Sheesh, that never works.

Darn you, thorny plot!

All joking aside, one of the greatest things a writer has is those who take their work seriously. Critical readers are THE BEST. Thanks, Tech Boy, for the close-reading and the critique – even when you’re working my nerves.

{my posse don’t do history: the case for historical fiction}

Cross-posted at Finding Wonderland

Imagine two best friends, united against a common enemy. It is the pitch of midnight, and they are making a desperate flight across country, to deliver a package necessary to the scrappy resistance fighters desperately battling a corrupt government for their freedom. There’s been a car accident, so they’re the emergency fill-ins. Neither of them are supposed to be where they are. And then there’s another, bigger accident. In a foreign country, neither with any business being there, the girls have to split up and vanish — and those who are caught disappear into the night and fog — for good.

It is the pitch of midnight. And the enemies of truth and right are playing for keeps.

~~~~ ~~~~ ~~~~ ~~~~

Wouldn’t you be on the edge of your seat reading this book? I know I was…at times feeling quite hopeless and desolate upwellings of terror and the word, “Nooooooo!” pulled from deep within. I could imagine myself there — and making a horrible mess out of EVERYTHING. If you read it, you’d imagine yourself there — and screwing up badly — too.

It’s exciting. There’s espionage, airplanes, parachutes, firefights, and girls hunched in dark places under umbrellas, waiting for safety in breathless silence. There’s fear — bleak terror — great laughs, and the best friends you could ask for.

So, why’d we want to go and ruin it all by calling it historical fiction???

~~~~ ~~~~ ~~~~ ~~~~

For a long time, the biggest concern of the Gatekeepers in our world o’ books was where to put historical fiction in the canon for young people. Was it “edutainment?” Was it fictionalizing history or historicizing fiction, sliding in a character’s fears and hopes and their thoughts where students perhaps ought to be better employed with learning dates and facts? Was it, and could it ever be, authentic?

These big questions were hashed out in historical journals and literary papers and I think it’s safe to say that though some historians remained uncomfortable, the majority of teachers, especially in the middle grades and junior high, where I served most of my time, felt that historical fiction was an important lamp to illuminate some darker corners. Especially with the rise of multiculturalism, some pieces of history that “we” – as in mainstream, dominant culture America – had not realized were part of “our” story needed to be dug out, rediscovered, and explored. Historical fiction was a great tool to bridge the gap with the unknown pasts of a commingled people with the commonality of the human story. Through the insertion of tiny, literal accuracies, historical fiction maintains a sturdy cover story of “true enough,” and more quickly engages young minds with the history before them. For most students, blending stories into a study of history helps to recreate the past as a dynamic place.

For MOST students.

For other students — and for many of the rest of us — it’s an automatic “No.” Seriously. I read through the comments of the people who have talked about CODE NAME VERITY when it was recommended to them. “I don’t usually read war books…” “I’m not usually a fan of wartime historical fiction…” “I don’t normally do historical fiction…” Is it the war? Or is it just the past?

Author and teacher Ashley Hope Pérez responded to a post a few days ago, “I have a kind of knee-jerk recoil from the term “historical fiction,” probably because I know how it would make my kiddos eyes glaze before they even tasted the prose.” Jen over at Reading Rants agrees: “In my experience, most teens won’t even look at hist. fic. unless they have to read it for a school assignment. You know, stuff like My Brother Sam is SO Dead, or Johnny TREmain (as in TREmendously booorrrriiinnggg!).”

It’s baffling, really — no one characterizes, say, The Great Gatsby as historical fiction — or, a better example, The Key to Rebecca, not really. They’re listed as what they are, first – a novel of manners. An espionage thriller. Nothing to do with their setting and time period and everything to do with their plot content. In part, the sticky label of “historical fiction” is a marketing key for parents and librarians to identify the book: Here is something semi-educational to slap into the unsuspecting hands of innocent youth. Fool them into thinking it’s just a good story! Go to it! *cue maniacal laughter* Bwa-hahahahaha!

That, mainly, explains why it doesn’t work.

Oh, come on: how many of us pick up a book of fiction for the its educational aspects? Not me! When I pick up a book, I want a good story, period. Unfortunate, but the label attached to this genre can sometimes shoot even a very good book in the foot. The only thing we can really do about that is to book talk, book talk, book talk. Word of mouth will win the day! Talk up the other aspects of the story – the plot, the characterizations, the types of planes, the outfits, the guns. You can order the story bits by their importance: CODE NAME VERITY is a.) a thriller, b.) a story of the kind of intense friendships that start in a bomb shelter c.) a fast-paced, dangerous tale full of espionage, spies, and double agents d.) a cracking good read, which just happens to be, e.) set about sixty-some years ago.

Y’know, I think we can just leave off that last one.

As an author, I can say that one of the hardest things about writing historical fiction is the tightrope walk the author has to do — between historical accuracy and humanity. It’s important not to infodump dates and names, but it’s also crucial not to veer the characters – and the details of their daily lives – into obvious anachronisms by using more modern tools, language, and attitudes about social tolerance which make the historical accuracy a lie. Further, I know that writing about a war is tough because historical accuracy is a must – the dates have to match up, including when historical people die, and when troops moved in fact, they must move in fiction, too. But people’s characters — their loves and needs and fears and even their grocery lists — are much the same, no matter what era they’re in. Sure, they might swear a bit less or a bit more, wear their hair down, their pant-legs shorter; they might speak another language, but the human animal remains a constant – an important thing to know.

As a (former) teacher, I know that this is the saving grace of historical fiction, or any fiction, really — the people. The characters make the story, and you just have to close your eyes to the fact that since it’s history, you think you already know how it’s going to end, jump in to knowing the characters, and let go —

— you may find yourself on the edge of your seat, in the pitch of midnight, with two best friends, delivering a necessary package, having an accident, and disappearing into the night and fog…


Call it “historical fiction” or “historical suspense” or anything you’d like, the word is out: CODE NAME VERITY is a sensational novel. The Blog Tour is moving along; don’t forget to check out the stops along the way:

* Chachic’s buzzing about Verity; stop by and read her great review, as well as some discussion on starting an All Spoilers, All the Time discussion group so that people don’t have to keep the spy secrets to themselves.

* The Scottish Bookstrust is a fab organization interesting young people in books. Visit them at BookTrust.org.uk for more from Elizabeth Wein about friendship in CODE NAME VERITY. And stay tuned for Monday’s review of the novel, and links to Elizabeth’s interview on the BBC’s Book Cafe!


FOLLOW UP ARTICLE: Further Musings on Historical Fiction, and finally a review of Elizabeth Wein’s novel, Code Name Verity.

{just call me “Angel of the Morning (Pages).” Or, not.

Sorry for the muzak reference. Bad Seventies Things have taken over my head today. (I guess I should a.) look up what the real song is, b.) who sings it, c.) and thus get it stuck in my head for life? No. Just remembering my mother’s flirtation with Easy Listening when I was a kid is bad enough, thanks.)

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I recently passed along a piece from the blog Write For Your Life to my writing group. The piece on “morning pages” was based on the book The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron, and according to this piece, morning pages are “three pages of stream of consciousness writing that you do every morning. The intention is to clear your mind of all the annoying claptrap that buzzes around, getting in the way of your creativity.”

Right.

So, I asked my writing group — three of whom are published writers, one a journalist, one an award-winning short story writer — what they thought of that. I asked if they used morning pages, or something like that, to clear away their cobwebs before they set in to writing.

The response? A wincing, “every single day?!”, a disbelieving, “why would I do that?!,” a rather polite “sounds like an interesting idea,” and my favorite response, hysterical laughter.

Um, yeah.

I have to say I love it when my writing group is in sync with me.

We bounced the idea around of freewriting and what it does for us, but none of us could face the idea of doing three pages of writing like that, every single regimented day. The idea – even for the promised goal of improving ourselves – felt confining and a lot like the crappy busywork we got assigned in the fourth grade when our teacher had a headache.

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I have a hard time with regimentation of any kind. I force myself to the gym a minimum of three days a week. I have to remind myself to brush my teeth. I sometimes remind myself that at least things like deodorant and putting on something beneath a t-shirt ::cough:: are automatic now, but boy — I really remember fifth grade when my mother despaired of me. I just can’t seem to get into a groove very easily. At least, not doing things that are supposed to be routine; I often can’t even be bothered to eat lunch until 3:30 or so.

Sadly, I tend to run up against this same feeling of put-upon confinement when I encounter …well, any writing advice. When I graduated from college, my favorite professor gave me a copy of a book called, If You Want to Write, by Brenda Ueland. In it, I read that she subscribes to the theory of moodling along, coddling creativity by happily doing nothing in particular. Okay, I can agree with that. Unfortunately, she advocated doing that “moodling” by taking several long walks a day.

Hm.

I like walking all right, but I don’t think it makes me more creative. Walking usually makes me hot, unless it’s nice and windy out, and then I enjoy the sensation of being all sweaty with a cold face. (It’s actually quite nice, and we get 70 mph gales here – that’s actually a lot of fun to walk in, and yes I know I’m weird. Hush up.) If I took several long walks a day, I fear I would never finish anything much – including simple things like laundry and making meals. While I’m find living on toast and wearing wrinkled sweats, I’m not sure how successful a writer that would make me, not really.

The proof should be in the doing, yes? I mean, I manage to write because I enjoy sitting down and writing. And when I don’t enjoy it, I frown a lot and mutter, and do it anyway — because I know I’m just at a spot where things aren’t working, and if I backtrack a half a chapter or so and change a few things, usually things turn out all right.

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Would that kind of insight be easier with a walk? Or morning pages?

I don’t know. The reason I bring this up is that I’m planning on re-reading all the writing books I have. If they don’t actually contain any helpful information — avast — to the library they shall go. Maybe someone else will be able to get something out of them.

(Why is it that people give writers books on writing advice? Besides the Ueland, I have Bird by Bird, a few more text-book-y types, and a bunch of Annie Dillard, too.) It’s time to make some space on my shelves – past time, with another Cybils coming up – and so I am doing An Almighty Weeding.

But, tell me about you: what do you do with your early morning hours? What writing books have you found useful? What daily practices – if any – make sense to you and inform your writing? Where did you donate all of your unwanted writing books??

Take A Quiet Moment for a Snoopy Dance…


Snoopy Dance!

We interrupt this sick day to proclaim that MARE’s WAR has been nominated and is under consideration for the ALA Best Books for Young Adults 2010 list!

This is exciting, and will mean a lot more exposure for the story of the 6888th Postal Battalion, as librarians from all over the country will be able to at least see the title of the book and wonder to themselves, “Hm. Wonder if my readers will like that one?”

I am *so* brainfuddled from five days and nights of bouts of intense high fever (I’m calling them Days of Intermittent Incandescence. Frankly, if you can name catastrophic weather systems, my fevers also deserve a name) that I can barely type straight, but this is the kind of news that at least makes me feel guilty about malingering in bed. I shall get up! I shall write…another novel! I shall…

…when I am more coherent.

Oooh. Pretty.

Shiny stickers make me happy.


Well, last week I saw S.A.M. off to the Bologna Children’s Book Faire, and hope he has a lovely time working hard on my behalf in the sunny climes of Italy – and I wish he and his sweetie a lovely time in Lisbon afterward. And I won’t cry if they don’t send me a little sunshine. Not very hard, anyway.

Fingers crossed that the Book Faire this year will have much buying and selling, and we’ll see some really neat books from other places introduced into the American market. We’ve had nibbles from various countries for both A LA CARTE and MARE’S WAR, so perhaps there will someday be a Swedish, Finnish, Japanese, Egyptian, Chinese, Korean version of either of the above…

High on the list of Things Which Make Me Ridiculously Pleased, right after hairless cats, gouache, and the Junior Library Guild Lapel Pin, (I don’t even wear blazers, but now that’s suddenly a MUST. I mean, everyone knows writers mostly wear sweats, but now I have an EXCUSE to get dressed!) — right after these fine things is poetry, and National Poetry Month is coming up quickly. Next month, you *MUST* check out the hullaballoo at Miss Rumphius’ Place! It’s Poetry Maker, where thirty-six poets for children, will be interviewed, and we’ll find out a little more about who they are and how they create. Meanwhile, over at GottaBook, Greg’s posting Thirty Poets in 30 Days, and each poem is going to be a previously unpublished one. The generosity of the poets involved is really amazing. It’s going to be an all-day, every day poetry celebration, beginning April first.

Good Things to Hear From Your Agent:

“Hi Tanita: I have finished the novel–and I really enjoyed it!”

Oh, thank God. Really. This has seriously been a LONG HAUL, and I should have let go of this novel at least three months ago, but kept rewriting it and doing stupid things like, oh, changing character names. (You know you should STOP FIDDLING ALREADY when no one in your writing group knows the characters names anymore. “Oh, is her name still Donnalyn? Or Ceici? Or is she Alice?”)

It’s amazing how good it feels sometimes to just get a book out of your hands.

And now the real work begins…!

Is it Tuesday Already?


I’m a Violet of the Month! My cover is a pin-up at Shrinking Violets. How cool is that? If you’re good at public speaking, go over and enter the advice contest from The Ghost and Mr. Chicken. No, seriously. I know there’s a Don Knotts fan out there somewhere.

And whoa, check out Varian Johnson’s new cover for his book, SAVING MADDIE. It’s about, and I quote:

  1. A boy named Joshua
  2. A girl named Madeline
  3. Lust
  4. Love
  5. Proverbs Chapter 4 vs The Parable of the Lost Sheep
  6. José Cuervo
  7. Coffee
  8. Blackberries

All that wrapped up in that cover. Intriguing!!!

At Wordlings, Justina is coming up with some really neat ideas for independent bookstores to do to enrich their communities and become a part of the neighborhood that no one can do without. Her first idea is splendid; I expect the others will be, too. I love that she just randomly comes up with these things.

Because my writing sister, Sara continues to excel in awesome, she tossed out this quick tidbit to the world: according to a Texas psychologist, writing about yourself for fifteen minutes a day can heal your whole life. Seriously. And who couldn’t use a better heart rate and a clearer psyche?

Speaking of your psyche, how are ya? I’m …resting. For another day or so. I’m reading-reading-reading, and should soon be posting a few reviews over at FW. I’m deciding what project to start on next — and laughing at myself for feeling so nervy during my enforced rest period.

Most of the time I feel like I’m interrupting myself. I didn’t realize this happened to other people until I read about Laini’s struggles not to give in to the “newts,” which are “new weird things” that sort of pop into her head while she’s midway through a work in progress. Sadly, I have those. I have to stop everything, write them down, get them out of my head, and then get back to business or they will keep nagging me, keep nibbling on the edge of my consciousness. I have so many of those it would be easy to just leap into a new project every ten minutes. Fortunately, once they’re written out, I can set them aside. They lie in wait for such a time as this…

So, should it be angry Justin, on a plane with his sister, being sent to his father’s new townhouse, the father who has humiliated and embarrassed the family, and the church community, and whom he hopes to never, never, NEVER see again? Or should I lay off of family stories for now, and leap off into science fiction? Either way — I’m going to have to interrupt myself again, as soon as my agent is finished with his first pass over my manuscript. And then the revisions will begin. And go on. And probably on.

You see why I’m reading and writing reviews at the moment, right?

…And writing poetry. Three stanzas down, three and an envoi to go…

A 125-Page Mind

Most people don’t have a clear idea where they’re going or how many pages they’ll need when writing a story. Not Betsy Byars. She has the perfect brain for MG fiction, the 125 page mind.

“Asked whether she ever thought about writing books for adults, Byars simply replied: ‘I became aware over the years of writing, that I had a 125 page mind … With 125 pages, I knew what I was doing, what I needed to do, where the climax should be, etc.'”

Not all the rest of us are that fortunate!

Still – I’m on p. 248 of the current work in progress, so I know we’re going to see the end here sometime soon. Meanwhile, I think I will call this website officially finished! Thanks to all of those who assisted.

Advice

Most of us have learned to disagree strenuously with the phrase “write what you know.”

Maybe the new advice is “know something before you write.”

After all, aren’t the best books the ones which have details of other worlds than we know? Worlds where we are percussionists, unwillingly follow the renaissance fair every summer with our parents, live on the outskirts of a reservation in Minnesota, or run away from home to find our fathers in Ireland — those are worlds we don’t inhabit, and stories which catch at our imaginations. Why should we want to linger in worlds as common and as familiar as our last names?
Breathe in the world.
Breathe IN the world.
BREATHE in the world.

“I have been known to tell my writing students: If you are going to stand on the shoulders of giants (as we all do), read what they have read, not just what they have written. Take a course in bird identification, on the proper way to set in a sleeve, how to roast an ox, how to weed a garden. Read a book on shoing horses or stand by someone doing it. Smell the air. Name the clouds. Learn how to read the stars. Taste a clementine with your eyes closed. Go through your house eyes shut and touch as many surfaces as you can. See what grows in the cracks of a city street. Dive into the ocean. Ski down a mountain. Sit on a rock and watch without moving all that moves about you. Breathe in the world.”

Jane Yolen, Journal 12.24.08