Transported to Remote Canada, and Falling In Love

I said I was going to reread Mrs. Mike, but I think “reread” might have been the wrong word. For me, the experience is more like “re-living”. From the first paragraph I was transported straight into the head of the sixteen-year-old protagonist. This is the first time I’ve read this book since I started seriously writing and I respect and appreciate these authors more than ever before.

“The worst winter in fifty years, the old Scotsman had told me. I’d only been around for sixteen, but it was the worst I’d seen and I was willing to take his word for the other thirty-four.”

Isn’t this wonderful? Two sentences and I already know that the protagonist is sixteen, has been speaking to friendly strangers, and there is a problem with severe winter weather. We also get a glimpse of humor. I wonder how long it took the authors to craft that opening?

Agents and editors on the hunt for book submissions will often say, “Send me a synopsis and your first ten pages.” My youngest son, age 17, on the other hand, will read the blurb on the book cover and the first five pages before he decides whether he will take the book home with him. So I looked at this book through my version of his eyes. (I will never be a teenage boy, but I often learn a thing or two from him.)

In the first five pages of Mrs. Mike, we learn that Katherine Mary o’Fallon, age sixteen, in the year 1907, is being sent by her mother to the remote land of Calgary, Alberta, Canada, to live with her uncle John, from her childhood home in Boston, MA. Her doctors recommended the move to a cold, dry climate on account of Katherine’s pleurisy. Her mother is worried about sending her so far alone, and sees her off with a reminder to always dress warm. A harsh winter storm makes it difficult for the train to travel undisrupted on the snow-covered tracks. In a basket, Kathy is smuggling a boarder collie puppy which her mother gave her. We get a glimpse of her personality by the things she scratches into the ice-glazed windows and her homesick memories after eighteen days of train journey and the realization that it won’t be over anytime soon.

The ability to convey this much (and more) in the first five pages of a book is a hard-earned skill. And really, I didn’t even notice it until after two hours of reading when I heard a clock chime and I looked up from the book. Wait, I thought, I wanted to pay attention to how the writers made this book so wonderful to me. How did I miss that? So I went back and reread parts of it, including the first five pages, forcing myself not to get so pulled along by the story that I couldn’t see the working mechanics of the book’s engine.

For a moment, I’m just going to experience the awe.

Well, that’s done. Back to reading. Kathy is about to attend a barn dance with the handsome Sergeant Michael Flannigan, of the Canadian Mounted Police. I love this part.


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Homework for 2014 Writing and Illustrating for Young Readers (WIFYR)

This June I will be attending the Writing and Illustrating for Young Readers Conference, in Sandy, UT. This will be my fourth year at the conference and part of me worries a little about becoming one of “those people” who are perpetual conference attendees, but who never actually take the next step to revise, revise, revise, and then hunt for an agent, and try really hard to get published. Nevertheless, I push along, knowing that there is a price to pay to learn a skill and this conference is one of my favorite places to pay it.

This June I will be in Cheri Pray Earl’s week-long workshop on “The Murky Middles”, at the Writing and Illustrating for Young Readers Conference. I had considered doing the bootcamp class, but then life happened, and I found myself bogged down in the middle of my novel. It seemed like a cosmic tap on the shoulder, so I signed up to wade through the murk.

A few weeks ago, an email arrived from Amy, our mighty teacher’s assistant, warning us that homework was headed our way. She advised us to pay attention and try to make the time early on so we wouldn’t be too bogged down during the days just before the conference. She also warned us that we would be working like mad on fresh homework during the week of the conference. I guess I’d better put my family on notice for that. Just because you see me, doesn’t mean I’m actually here.

I worked on homework assignment #1 yesterday – “Write your plot in three sentences and then write a strong story opening (no more than 300-500 words).” Maybe I finished it, I don’t know. I’ll look at it again tomorrow. I do know that the beginning of my book is better now than it was before.

We also have some reading homework. I just finished reading Bird by Bird, by Anne Lamott. Reading this book was an interesting experience. I actually read most of it by listening to the unabridged audio book. Sometimes this is the best way to keep myself from getting bogged down in rumination when I read non-fiction. Reading this book was, at alternating times, like having my wrists tied together and being dragged behind a horse across a desert – unrelenting and blistering – and then being lifted and carried through the air to be dropped into a soothing snowbank on the shady side of a high mountain – cooling my despair and watering my dry desperation. Then do it all again. And again. In the end, though, I think the book helped. The primary message of the book is, Yes, the writing life is hard, and wonderful, and aggravating. Don’t quit. Fall down. Cry. Laugh. Mourn. Rejoice. But Don’t Quit.

We’ve been asked to read like mad as part of our preparation for this workshop, and then discuss what we’ve read. I’ve been wanting to reread one of my favorite books for a little while now, so I’m going to submerge myself in Mrs. Mike, by Benedict and Nancy Freedman. Ah, happiness.

Bucket list: One day I want to see the northern lights.



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I don’t post a lot on this blog, and I next-t0-never publicize it. I created it as a place where I could think out loud, blather, do some writing exercises, and then go back to Real Life. Well, Real Life has a way of changing, morphing from one period of mayhem, to lethargy, and on into some new period of mayhem. In my more positive moments, I call these various phases “adventure”. Just now, it’s called “stuck”.

I’m working on a book where a girl lives in a world where everyone has the ability to manipulate one of the five elements. Her problem is she can’t manipulate any of the elements and is considered an unproductive member of society because of it. Her family treats her badly and her greatest wish is to do something that will prove her significance to the world. Something that will prove that she isn’t just a waste of space. Sound somewhat familiar? That’s because it is. A similar concept has has been done before, and recently. Though I haven’t read the book(s) myself, I know they exist because my son has told me. Also, my writing partner has told me. And my writers’ group members have told me. I think that even a fifth-grader has told me (which shouldn’t be a huge surprise, because it’s a middle-grade book series). I’m actually chatty Facebook friends with the author of the series, and I admire him and the way he reaches out to other writers to help them and encourage them along. I’m not going to read his series because I worry about having some of his story sneak its way into my book. On the one hand I feel I’m missing out on an interesting read that I’m sure I could learn a great deal from. On the other hand, I feel like I have my metaphorical fingers in my ears and I’m yelling, “I CAN’T HEAR YOU! I CAN’T HEAR YOU! NANANANANA!” Don’t tell me what I don’t want to hear.

At any rate, my book is Young Adult, not Middle Grade, and though I know it’s different, I’m having a difficult time convincing my muse to help me move it along. I sit down to write and find myself stuck somewhere in the middle just before what is supposed to be the climax scene. But part of me thinks maybe this is not actually the climax. Maybe this climax sucks eggs and doesn’t even belong in my book. Actually part of me knows this. Even as I write these words, I realize that the climax I’d planned and even partially written, does not work in this book. I will have to write something different. I don’t know what, I don’t know how. But it appears that the time has come to set aside the loose outline I had planned and just write and see where these characters end up taking me. At least I must for a while, until somewhere along the lines of text, I recover my writing mojo and enthusiasm for this book. I’ve been reading through some of the parts I’ve already written, and although far from perfect, it’s not as bad as I’d been thinking it was. There are in it seeds for something good.


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Waking Up for an Early Morning Run

When my alarm goes off, the sky glows with a blue hint of the morning sunrise. Turning off my alarm, I moan internally, wishing for just another hour of sleep, but I roll out of bed anyway. The morning run is part of me now. It is important to the person I am and the person I am becoming. I dress in my old blue t-shirt and exercise pants and tell myself that I must buy better running clothes soon, but not yet. I’ll wait a little until I’m thinner, and faster. By the time my teeth are brushed and I’ve had a drink of water, I’m more awake and ready to head out. Stepping out the door, I realize just how cold 40 degrees is and I’m tempted to turn around and go back in.  The air is cold and still smells of last night’s rain. I convince myself that by the time I’ve gone a couple of blocks, I’ll be warm again and that when I get home there will be the triumph of completing one more run. I can do it. I am stronger than my bed and the cold weather and I’ll be back at it again tomorrow.

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Writing Exercise: Imagine A Place…

The Deck Swing at Grandma’s House

Visiting Grandma in the summer, my brother and I would sit on the green-cushioned swing hung from the roof of the covered deck and eat banana, cherry, and root beer popsicles while we watched the hostas grow on the north side of her house. We never sat on the two Adirondack chairs. When you are eight or six years-old, those chairs just make you bend into a “V” shape and soon you lose circulation to your feet. Right about that time is when you suddenly realize that not only are your feet numb, you are in a nearly impossible angle from which to extricate yourself. Only at that age, we just called it “being stuck”. Sometimes we didn’t sit on the swing either. We would kneel on it backwards and peer into the garage window and see what we could see in there. It was full of Grandpa’s old stuff. We never knew Grandpa, but we saw a lot of his stuff. We saw old gloves and tool boxes, fertilizer and old fishing tackle boxes, and old calendars with pictures of girls in short shorts and button shirts tied just below their chests. Interesting as it was to us, somehow we knew that place was off limits to us and we never went in there to explore on our own. The few times we followed Grandma in, it was as though we were entering a dust-laden sanctuary. We could feel old memories hanging on the floating motes in the air around us and we did not want to disrupt them.  So most of the time, we contented ourselves with peering through the dirty window and wondering why Grandpa wanted girlie calendars when he had our beautiful Grandma to look at. After we finished our popsicles and were a little cooled off by the shade, we would put our sticks in the trash cans by the garage door and run back to play in Grandma’s hidden garden.

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Writing Exercise: I Am From…

I Am From…

I am from a sandbox in a desert town

A-B-C-D-E-F-G with Big Bird.

I’m from blackberry brambles,

blackberry pie, blackberry fingers.

I’m from Grape Grandma’s flowery dress, purple, white, green.

I am from rain, rain, rain,

mudball fights and fortress doors

caterpillars in jars, ferns in the forest,

frogs, climbing trees, and pine sap on my sweater.

I’m from a bicycle with daisies on a banana seat,

from a wrinkly, winky grandma holding on behind

and letting go,

playing truck driver at the closed gas station,

going 65.

I’m from doorbell ditching at Buster Brown’s mansion.

I am from salty, sulfur swimming in summer heat and winter fog.

From eating too many sunflower seeds, hulls and all,

getting sick, sick, sick, and cut wide, wide open.

I’m from teachers who spoke Spanish,

books of whangdoodles, cottages, orphans, castles,

and Mrs. Mike.

I am from Swedish fish at Bell’s Market, buying

illicit Sen-Sen to eat in the backyard before

“No Bears Come Out Tonight”.

I’m from friends who tried suicide

and survived. And the ones who didn’t.

I’m from babies, bedtime stories, family camping

never catching a fish.

I am from a solar eclipse, the Pleiades,

wishing on a shooting star.

I’m from puppies, kittens, hamsters,

funerals for old pets.

I’m from China,

tears for my children,

fear of police,

bargaining for scarves,

oranges in January,

shamrocks in February and March,

more rain, rain, rain.

I am from America,

Free to shout,

Free to argue,

Free to play,

Free to worship,

I Am Free to be Who I Am.



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The Earthy Colors of Sunrise

The wall behind my desk is scattered with photos of the rusty, red-orange desert stone formations near where I live. I love those photos. If sunrises melted into hard, tangible earth, they would streak across the landscape just like that. A red watercolor with vertical drips that puddled at the bottom and orange horizontal streaks running below the horizon; the blue of the sky so intense you feel the heat of the sand, taste the grit in the dust stirred up by your feet, and know there could not possibly be any orange or red left for another sunset. Until evening comes, when the formations are cast into blackening shadow and the sky steals back it’s color from the earth to create a fire-show streaking across the western sky. Finally all the colors fade and the world  is plunged into cooling darkness until morning, when the earth steals the sunrise colors and makes them solid again.

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