Monday, October 13, 2014

Moving Right Along

This blog has moved!

Like Kermit and Fozzy in the old Studebaker, I'm moving right along (doog-a-doon doog-a-doon).

To keep up with all the fun, point your browser to!

Footloose and fancy-free.
Getting there is half the fun; come share it with me!

Monday, February 10, 2014

Radical Approaches to Writing Pt. 3

New research has started to debunk the idea that the two hemispheres of our brains do separate or independent tasks.

Image from
Neuroscientists like Kara D. Federmeier has found that the brain is much more dynamically linked than we ever suspected. Federmeier asserts that the two sides of the brain actually work in tandem, through unified partnerships, to get things done.

Take language processing, for example. We used to think that the right brain handled that (along with other various "creative" tasks), while the left brain handled math (or other more "logical" tasks). Federmeier's research through the Neurosciences Program and The Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology shows that BOTH the left and right side of the brain are involved with language. So when someone is talking you, your left brain is anticipating what's coming next and actively trying to predict meanings. The right brain is also actively engaged, only its neurons are working on retention tasks. It's like your brain's little secretary jotting down the important stuff you'll want to recall from the conversation.

Essentially, neuroscience is finding that the brain breaks up big tasks into bite-size pieces and both hemispheres share the many tasks involved. Like a couple sharing the household chores! One washes the dishes, the other one dries. One sweeps the floor, the other one mops.

"A Distraction from Chores" by Auguste Serrure. Image PD. 
And this new research is huge for me because one of the tenets of my writing methodology encourages writers to a.) break up the task of writing into smaller pieces, and b.) get their brains to work as a more unified and harmonized system (rather than a left-logical/editor brain at war with a right-creative/writer brain).

Evidently, this is what naturally works best for our brains. It's what the brain is already doing! In Part 1, I talked about how imagination impacts neurology. Imagining yourself playing the piano or practicing a sport stimulates and develops the neurons almost as if you were actually physically practicing. Thus, to be more effective and productive, writers need to stop imagining their two brains (the editor brain and the creator brain) at war. In Pt. 2, I explored how writers can break up the monumental task of writing a novel into more manageable pieces. Not only that, but how to break it up into tasks that allow both hemispheres of the brain to participate as a unified team: how to revise while writing, how to edit while creating!

This time, I want to cover the next bite-sized bit in my radical approach to the writing process: Gathering Sources.

Yes, this is a tower of books! Beautiful, eh? Photo by Aleksander Razumny. Image CC. 

An inside view of the tower. Photo by Mar.tin. Image CC.
When researchers gather sources, they go about gathering books, articles, or interviews. They talk to librarians and consult experts. They draw pictures, diagrams, charts, or maps. I recommend those steps if you are writing nonfiction, or need some fact to back up your fiction. But the kind of gathering sources I’m talking about is a little different.

Gathering sources is the time to journal wildly. Make character diagrams. Interview those characters and creatures. Find out what they want most and what they most fear. What they treasure and what they can’t stand. Explore your world. Draw maps of your settings. Be your own best expert. Do any of the millions of writing exercises suggested in all those craft books you read.

You might be tempted to think of this as the drafting stage of writing, but really, it’s what my VCFA faculty mentor Julie Larios would call “playtime.”

"Depths of Imagination" by JennaleeAuclair
AND, there’s a plethora of research already out there underscoring the importance of play! (Curious? Check out Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul by Brown and Vaughn. Also, there's a great video from the Aspen Ideas Festival 2010, and a podcast worth your while!)

So if this is not drafting, then what is it? Well, to me, it’s the kind of writing you should do throughout the whole of NaNoWriMo. It’s the kind of hot and fast writing Stephen King refers to as “telling yourself the story” (On Writing). Here’s a snippet of my “gathering sources” writing which I blazed through in the 2013 NaNo challenge.

WARNING: What you are about to read is in its roughest, toughest, most nascent forms. It came from a beat on a beat sheet and then from a summarized scene on a scene card – two other methods in the revise-before-you-write approach that I’ll talk about further on. Yes, this scene will undergo future revision, but for now, this is how the writing comes out when I forget all about being a writer and just focus on telling myself the story.

WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW: This scene falls in the middle of book two in my Silk and Venom series, a YA hard boiled urban fantasy that chronicles one teen’s encounter with seretans. Seretans are the half-human, half-spider creatures descended from Arachné – ya’ know, the woman tortured and transformed by Greek gods. Humans are a seretan staple. They crave our bodily juices. In my saga, seretans are poisoning smartphones with their venom in an effort to make the surface of the earth their new kingdom and cafeteria. In this scene, the protagonist computer-hacker Harker, is prepping for a journey. He and a few rebel seretans (Brash and others) have had to team up in order to defeat "the big bad," but at this point, the team is not exactly getting along.

Okay, here we go:

In the next scenes, I think it would be fun to have Harker and Brash clash a little over what all Harker is packing. He’s got a huge duffle bag full of crap. Brash points out that he won’t be able to carry and it’s full of stuff he won’t need.

I do need all this! And it’s not that much, says Harker.

That duffle bag is bigger than you are, Brash retorts. Then he sifts through it noting the multiple pairs of pants, undergarments, feet coverings—

Those are called socks, Harker corrects.

And you can’t go a few days wearing the same…socks?! Brash snorts. What happens to human feet if they do not wear clean socks every day?

Well, for one, they don’t grow weird hooky-things on their toes.

Brash squeezes his feet self-consciously.

Yeah, Harker goads. That’s right. I saw those bad-boys when you were bleeding to death on my dining room table.

My toe-claws are at least useful. Unlike your four sweaters—

Hey, I don’t know what the weather is gonna be like where we’re going—

And your…comic books.

Brash spreads out the full series of Destin Espoir and he is immediately reduced to gleeful mush when he sees there are so many to be read. “There is more than one?”

Harker snorts. Chuh! There are 262, not counting the spin-off series.

I had no idea, Brash says. I had this one (he indicates the series opener).

Brash thumbs through the second in the series. He remarks that he thought the first one ended on an unreasonable cliffhanger. Stopping mid-action like that. Ridiculous! But now he sees why.

Harker nabs the comic book and makes a remark about maybe Brash can check them out when they get back—since none of these can come along now.

Brash relents that maybe they should bring a few, considering the long drive and back. They seem on even ground for a just a moment. Brash picks through Harker’s packing supplies and says he should put those in something he can carry on his back.

Brash even goes so far as to twist it all in Harker’s bed sheet and tie it around Harker’s body. He displays how all of his possessions are on him in the same way.

That is how a Warrior packs, he says. Harker admires the compact approach.

Harker looks in the mirror and realizes he looks like an idiot. Madda even cruises by the room to ask about more sleeping bags (should they send someone out to go buy some?) and she laughs pretty good when she sees the twisted sheet tied around Harker's torso.

Harker thanks Brash, but then dumps out his backpack and says he’ll stick with how humans pack.

As Harker struggles with the knot, Brash goes to the window and checks their surroundings. He glimpses Sophie in her room, spying on them, but she’s gone so fast he’s not entirely sure.

He mentions it to Harker who says, “Oh that’s my good friend, Sophie. She’s not spying, she’s just really shy. You can wave at her if you want. But you gotta’ do it human-style.”

How’s that, Brash wonders.

With this finger up, Harker demonstrates. He makes a fist and lifts only the middle finger.

That’s weird, Brash says.

Yeah well, that’s humanity for ya.

Brash waits until he sees Sophie again, and then he smiles big and waves. The look on her face is not what he expected but she stops peeking through the window.

That’s it. No quotation marks and really not a whole lot of proper punctuation in general. But who cares? The scene flowed fast and furious. It made me laugh out loud because all of the sudden Harker tricked this bad-ass Warrior who inadvertently flips the birdie to a nosy next door neighbor. THAT detail was NOT on the beat sheet and it certainly was not on the scene card! It just happened. It was an act of autonomy, a declaration of independence! An imaginary character that I created basically asserted himself as unique, self-motivated, and independent of my puppet strings.

And all because I took the time to gather the source material on him. I let the two spheres of my brain work together, each one taking on a different aspect of the writing process. And all that miraculous neuroscience took place while I was basically playing around!

Playing helps you better understand the people you will write about and the world they live in. It also sparks your best critical thinking and problem solving (The Craft of Research, Booth et al, 30). In other words, what seems like purely creative playtime is also an analytical heyday for the brain. And if revision boils down to reconsidering ideas in light of new evidence, then gathering sources is the time when you encounter a lot of new evidence and will likely revise your story a lot.

But never fear. All you risk changing at this point is a one-sentence logline (refer back to Pt. 2).

Unfortunately, you can’t gather sources indefinitely. You have to complete your novel some day. So, set a deadline for your playtime and really focus and funnel your creative and analytical efforts. 

Now, even though you may be tempted, do not jump in and start drafting—YET. I know the pull back to your old two-brains-at-war habit will be strong. But trust me, postpone drafting for later. Your Jekyll and Hyde have only just begun to get along and work together through aiki. And besides, we have a lot more revision to do. So, before you run off and write your story, go play and gather sources.

In the next installment of radical writing approaches, I’ll show you how to make a beat sheet (AKA an outline) and then some scene cards!

Monday, January 20, 2014

Radical Approaches to Writing, Pt. 2

Today’s post is dedicated to the Magic Ifs who just graduated from the Writing for Children and Young Adults program and VermontCollege of Fine Arts. These magicians are my colleagues and my friends. Their amazing creativity is a part of what inspires me to clear the authorial roadblocks and explore the writerly conundrums and cruxes.

Congratulations Magic Ifs!

So, to pick up where I left off in the last post, part of what makes writing so daunting is the overwhelming mob of decisions banging on the walls of your brain. Making decisions fatigues your brain. Fatiguing the brain leads to reckless behavior (AKA cleaning-under-the-fridge-instead-of-writing) or indolence (AKA writer’s block).  

Add to the fatigue the natural (but inhibiting and festering) tendency to imagine the writing process split in two, separate and opposing spheres. Writing vs Editing. Some see it as a creative phase followed by an analytical phase. Or an amorphous brain in tune with creative muses fending off the nit picky rule-flogging logical brain.

I am not saying the brain isn’t divided into two spheres equipped with different skills; however, conceptualizing those spheres in a never-ending dual only kinks the brain in endless neurological knots.

But what’s a poor writer to do?

To start, I say try aiki, or harmony. Why not re-envision the writing process as a unified, collaborative effort – a partnership that bridges creative brain with analytical brain? A time when the logical and the amorphous can co-exist, and in doing so, construct the most stunning feats of written expression.

Playground at the Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park. Photo CC. Courtesy of Stephen Oung and David Case.
Because the imagination has a powerful effect on your neurons, go ahead and re-imagine the battlefield in your brain is really a lovely playground. Replace the carcasses with carousels. Swap the bloodstains for a swing set and slide. Fill the trenches in with sandboxes. And for the sake of vanishing bees everywhere, plant a few flowerbeds. Ideas need pollination, too.

Photo PD. Courtesy of John Sullivan.
Ahhh, that feels better already!

Now that the carnage is removed, it’s time to experiment with your writing process by incorporating some techniques that get the two halves of your brain to cooperate. Interestingly, these techniques are found in the usual process of screenwriting and research writing. Perhaps even more interestingly, these techniques cause the writer to do lots of revision before the actual drafting begins.

Let’s jump in with…

Loglines & Pitches

What’s your story about?

That’s got to be one of the hardest questions you will ever answer about your writing. But having an answer is essential because you’ll never escape the question. Think about when you’re at writers’ conferences – it’s the question everyone asks you. It’s the question you must answer when you query an agent.

Answering this question before you tackle the first draft gives you a North Star to follow through the writing. The answer is your compass, a shorthand Sherpa to guide you to THE END.

Photo CC. Courtesy of Uwe Gille.
Screenwriters answer “what’s it about” by writing down a logline or a one-line. They have to be able to sum up their entire 120-page screenplay in one sentence. And they do it BEFORE they write it. Researchers also try to narrow down their topic by stating the thesis, or one sentence that declares “what” or “who” is going to be researched. It narrows down the topic BEFORE the writing begins.

Screenwriters have a very rigid definition of what a logline is and what it should contain, which works well for their industry, but for creative writers, I’d say you’re well on your way to a killer logline if you can summarize your story in one sentence! Two at the max. It’ll be even better if, in that one sentence, you can also establish the story’s protagonist, the central conflict, the antagonist, and the story’s significance. (For more on loglines, see Blake Snyder's Save the Cat: The Last Book on Screenwriting You'll Ever Need.)

Here are a couple of examples that can help you formulate your own logline: 
  • In order to avoid the autumn slaughter, an ordinary pig must become extraordinary to all people and to himself. (Charlotte’s Web, E.B. White)
  • Through the power of love, a magical boy defeats an evil wizard who would otherwise destroy him and terrorize the world. (The Harry Potter series, J. K. Rowling)

Photo CC. Courtesy of Bjørn Christian Tørrissen
Both examples boil each story down to one sentence. But let’s break those down further so we can see their essential components.

As you can see, each example connotes:
  1. a protagonist (the pig, Wilber or the boy, Harry),
  2. a central conflict (stay alive or protect the world),
  3. an antagonist (Mr. Zuckerman’s ax or Lord Voldermort), and
  4. the story’s significance

The significance is the “so what” of your story, or why this story must be told, or why you think anyone else should read it. Charlotte’s Web should be read because it deals with the dignity and exceptionality of life. Harry Potter is a worthwhile read because in it love overpowers hate.

Once you have a logline, try pitching it, which is another excellent revise-before-writing exercise. To pitch your story, deliver your logline to a stranger or a friend. Watch their eyes, because if they look away or glaze over, you’ve lost them. Your story is not quite there yet.

I know pitching puts you under tremendous pressure to say “what is it” and why it’s awesome. But if you can figure out what in your story gets and keeps someone’s attention in one or two sentences, then you’ve got something worth months of effort.

And, as you might have guessed, nailing the logline and pitch is going to take several attempts, which means, you’re revising BEFORE you write the full first draft! It also means your reducing the monumental task of writing a novel down into one utterable sentence. Rather than make 60,000-80,000 words worth of decisions, you decide on roughly 20 words. Definitely doable without fatiguing the brain!

So, go ahead, give it try.

Write up a logline for your story – whether it’s the one you’ve had in progress for a while or the one you’re about to dive into. See if you can riddle out who you’re protagonist is. What’s his/her/its central conflict? Who or what is the antagonist of your story? And, finally, why must this story be told? What’s the significance?

For additional fun and experimentation, try boiling your story down into a haiku and submit it to Zach Hively’s newly inaugurated low-ku contest (which is free of many “hai” expectations.)

Next time, I’ll cover how gathering sources and researching prevents brain fatigue and epic sphere battles between the creator and editor sides of your mind! I’ll also reveal how playing while gathering results in the kind of daily writing with word counts more than sufficient to complete challenges like NaNoWriMo sans tears, stress, hair-pulling, and insomnia! 

Friday, January 10, 2014

Radical Approaches to Writing Pt. 1

Waaaaayyyy back in November, I promised to write about the kind(s) of writing that can lure the writer down the path of self-defeat. I have returned from the black hole hiatus of holidays to fulfill that vow, like your own knight in shining armor!

Edmund Leighton, The Accolade, 1901. {{PD-US}}
Actually, like a true knight, I have returned from a quest out in the hinterlands. December was a mostly internetless existence (due to bad routers and damaged towers) wherein I was delightfully plagued with many a late night squandered on writing new material. My beloved, Zach, discovered a neat little contest that I just had to enter. Yes, there's good money at stake and, yes, my chances of winning are slim, but who cares? I was provoked to write. Invited to explore a new world with new characters. And I had such fun!

But, now that my entry is submitted and my e-powers of communication are restored, I am back to look at writing from a radical angle. I want to share with you a dastardly approach to writing that helps eliminate writer's block and plows a traversable path all the way to THE END of your novel!

I call it writing in reverse...or revise before you write!

Jeeeezzz -- now you tell me, you grumble, post-NaNoWriMo.

Well, if I'd told you to try this before you tried writing a novel in a month, you wouldn't have believed me. But now, you've made the attempt and had time to recover. Now you're in a prime position to reflect back on your writing performance and pinpoint where things went off track, tapered off, or tuckered out.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Now's the perfect time to ponder why the galloping novel challenge may have bucked you off its thick bully back.

Typically, we writers tend to think that first comes writing a draft and then comes revision. Or, we align the two steps like binary stars and revise while writing the manuscript. Instructions, recommendations, and advocacy for either approach appear in dozens of craft sources.

But is either approach truly effective?

Whether you write-then-revise or revise-while-writing, here are the most common craft elements you should alter or reconsider: plot, theme, symbolism, structure, stakes, motivation, obstacles, character arcs, character authenticity or 3-dimensionality, antagonist arcs , antagonist authenticity or 3-dimensionality, point of view, opening scenes, closing actions, back story, endings or resolutions, climaxes, page turns, concrete vs. abstract desires, objective correlative, metaphor, narrative proportions, motifs, repetition, simile, rhythm, pacing, conflict, dialogue, setting, typos and errors, etc, etc, etc.

Staring down that long list can feel overwhelming. We have no idea where to start. Or we feel the onset of writer’s block. I know that’s how I felt for a long time.

You might find parallels in your New Year’s fitness resolutions. Like I said in my last post, you can suddenly take up jogging, buy bushels of fruits and veggies, upend your normal way of life and evict all the junk food inhabiting in your pantry, but the path to the newer-trimmer-you peters out as quickly as it appeared.


Because the new options in food and activity -- like the list of craft elements you must tackle – overwhelm your brain with decisions. Recent studies show that decision-making fatigues the brain (Tierney). The more choices we make, the harder each one gets. After too many decisions, the brain suffers from “decision fatigue.” Writers are no doubt regular victims of decision fatigue. Every single word on the page is a decision the writer must make. Tackling that long list of tasks after the first draft or juggling it alongside the writing is a sure way to fatigue the brain.

So if traditional methods fatigue our brains, why do we use them? I suspect these approaches came about because of common observations -- sort of like how Earth started off in the center of the solar system. It seemed right based on what everyone noticed.

We writers all notice how our brains seem divided between a creative sphere and an analytical sphere. Drafting demands the free-wheeling, creative side of the brain, while revising requires the more analytical, logistical, editorial side of the brain. As a result, the storycrafting process can feel like an adversarial tug-of-war between the two. To combat the tug-of-war, author Natalie Goldberg instructs the writer to defeat or else ignore the editor-brain (28). Stephen King cranks out his fast first draft so that he can outrun the editor-brain (209). In short, most writers shush the editor-brain because it keeps the creative-brain from creating. Conversely, they will chain up the creative-brain so that it won't muck up everything the editor-brain is trying to fix.

Sounds a lot like the iconic struggle of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde: two warring personalities trapped inside one body. But things don’t exactly turn out well for Jekyll or Hyde, and the same is true for our brains.

Artwork courtesy of injurdninja on
When we defeat, ignore, shush, and suppress a part of the brain, we are actually causing neurological damage.

The brain is made of many neural pathways, or neurons that are connected to one another and working together. The more you do something, the stronger these pathways get. When you write-then-revise, your creative, amorphous neural pathways get big and strong. But shushing the logistical neurons for many months of drafting results in neural atrophy. It’s like turning one side of the brain into a couch potato. Your logistical neurons get flabby. They get weak. They diminish. And, after months of banishment, suddenly you spring upon them the monumental task of revision. Likewise, if you spend many months juxtaposing short bursts of writing with mini-bouts of revision, you literally develop short-circuits, or amorphous neurons good for only a short while and logistical neurons good for a short while.
Lucky for us all, the damage inflicted during either approach is not permanent.
Newer studies have found that the brain is malleable or plastic. Unlike a laptop from the factory, the brain constantly rewires itself. This ability to rewire is called neuroplasticity. In his book The Brain that Changes Itself, psychologist Norman Doidge explains how neuroplasticity has enabled stroke victims to overcome paralysis, the deaf have learned to hear through their tongues, and the blind have been taught to see through their skin.

And surprisingly, your imagination can cause the brain to rewire itself. “Each time you imagine…you alter the tendrils in your living brain,” says Doidge (213).

Artwork courtesy of  archanN on Wikimedia Commons. Image CC.
This is a staggering fact for writers, but not just because our jobs demand lots of imagination. It’s a big deal because if we imagine the writing process as one sphere of the brain battling the other, then our neurons will physiologically respond. In other words, to imagine conflict is to produce the carnage of the battlefield.

Interestingly, Morihei Ueshiba articulated this principle long before modern neuroscience. At the turn of the last century in Japan, Ueshiba founded Aikido, a new martial art dedicated to eliminating conflict. Continual conflict—imagined or actual—ruins the mind and spirit (8). As an alternative, Ueshiba proposed aiki training. Aiki means harmony, thus aikido is a way to practice harmony.

Photo courtesy of Zach Hively.
That's me, demonstrating for my Nikyu test in 2013!
My aiki training started in 2007, and it’s the reason why I can’t lock my brain in a Jekyll-and-Hyde struggle while writing! Richard Moon, an internationally renowned sensei, notes that a harmonized “aiki” brain functions with more creativity. For writers, this means that when we put the brain in a state of harmonious cooperation rather than in battle, we can accomplish more on the page. We can be better storycrafters.

Over the next few blog posts, I’m going to invite each of you to indulge in some aiki writing training so that you can unify and harmonize the Jekyll and Hyde spheres of your brain. Let’s rewire those plastic neurons and elevate our writing abilities!

Don’t banish your editor-brain to the dungeon only to resurrect it months later, when it is a dust-covered, half-rotten thing. And please don’t handcuff your creativity while revising each word and sentence as you go, which is like super gluing each grain of sand in a sandcastle—pretty soon you’re working with a lump of granite.

Rather than write-then-revise or revise-while-writing, I would like to show you how to revise-BEFORE-you-write. I’d like to suggest that you have opportunities to revise BEFORE the first draft of your novel is even written. Seems impossible, I know. How can you possibly be creative and logical at the same time? And how can you revise what you have not written?

Tune in next time to learn about writers who revise before they write: screen writers and research writers. Pros like Joss Whedon, Quentin Tarantino, E. O. Wilson, and Stephen Hawking use similar techniques to revise before they write. And I’m going to show you how they do it—how they mix preliminary creation with logistical revision in order to tell good stories, which is the goal, whether you are writing an EPA research report, a blockbuster script, or a middle grade novel, whether you want to be the next Dr. Seuss or the next Junot Díaz. 

Friday, November 15, 2013

Fighting Writer's Plaque

23,000+ words into National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) and I have to say I'm feeling pretty good. True, I am about 2,000 words behind today's target of 25,000 words, but I know I'll catch up.

After all, I had one very busy weekend and a few very strenuous days at work which put me 3,000 words behind by Sunday, but I caught up.

Little by little. Being persistent. And...I think that's the most common thing writers lose perspective on while tackling this month-long challenge. In many ways, NaNo is like a writer's diet. You put your novel on the scales at the end of every day and see if target numbers match up.

The first week feels great. Most writers hit well over the daily targets. They fist-pump until they contract a mild case of carpal tunnel.

But then the fateful day arrives when they inevitably slip up. Like a dieter indulging in a velvety bowl of chocolate pudding, the writer indulges in a blank page. It feels good. Boy, was that little break needed! But then the next day, the guilt is an ax hacking at you! The numbers are off. You're behind. You suck. What were you thinking? Now whatever words you cobble together on the page feel worthless. What's the point? This is too overwhelming! Too big to tackle. What the hell were you thinking a few days ago -- bragging on Facebook like some kind moron!?

But to all that, I say: Whoa! Breathe! Calm down!

Despite all the daily word targets, all the numbers, stats, and pep-talks, NaNo is neither a diet nor a race. Sure, it can be, but I don't think that's the true intention behind the concept.

Because I suspect many writer's lose perspective, I want to try to take a few steps back and look at this whole thing from another angle. Climb up on the monkey bars with me, will you? Hook your legs to the bars and hang down from your knees. Remember how? I know its been a while for most of us.

Okay, now that we're looking at NaNo from a whole new perspective, what do we see? Well, I see that rooted in its name is the word "nano." Think of that not as a contraction of National and Novel, but as just nano. Something small, minute.

I don't mean to suggest that NaNo is a some small, insignificant event and thus you can totally give up on it and not even care, because you've been told before not to sweat the small stuff. I DO mean to suggest that what NaNo is asking you to do is attempt something small in order to lead to a huge payoff.

In effect, all this month is asking you to do is write. Consistently. Persistently. It encourages and seduces you to make writing part of your daily cycle. Rather than treating writing like the divine miracle that only comes about when the ether of muses oozes at its strongest, NaNo purports that writing can be as routine and simple an act as brushing your teeth. (Yes, I am assuming you brush your teeth daily.)

Remember how when you were little, your mom or dad always had to remind (read: nag) you to brush your teeth? It just wasn't incorporated into the fabric of your lifestyle. But eventually, with persistence and practice, it was. Eventually, you needed no reminders. And to this day, you do not skip it because when you do, you go around with bad breath. You go the whole day feeling icky and yuck.

And the same is true for writing.

So you missed a day. So you're behind on the daily targets. So what? When you do forget to brush your teeth or plum run out of time, do you kick yourself  and condemn your whole future to the dungeons of acrid plaque, rotting gums, and tooth-blackening cavities? No.

Why? Because dental hygiene is a life-long activity. It's small in the grand scale of all that you do with your day, and its payoff is huge. Take good daily care of your teeth, and you won't wind up in dentures when your forty. You can crack into as many apples as you want. You can crunch-anunch all the crunch-anunchy things the world has to offer. In short, you can indulge in all the splendifous flavors of life!

And the same is true for writing when you do it every day. So, if you are at this point in NaNo, kicking/hating/bagging on yourself: STOP IT. The more you do that, the more discouraged you'll feel and the less likely you'll be to take up writing again. Then your plaque just builds and builds around your imagination. And then it calcifies! And then, you've got this big smelly crust around your once beautiful mind!

"A Beautiful Mind" by TheLionofOz on
Pick up that pen and perform a small, seemingly innocuous act. Remember that it is a life-long activity requiring very little effort for a very big payoff. Working it into the fabric of your lifestyle means that you will continue doing it in January, then February, and so on.

Now I can see that all the blood as run to your head. Ease yourself off the monkey bars. Look at NaNo now that you're upright once more. Can you see now that it is not a race? Rather, it is a path we all travel at our own pace. It is a path you chose as much as it chose you.

Remember, too, that it is not a diet -- a quick-fix with temporary results. It is a way for you to indulge in all the marvelous flavors of storycrafting everyday of your writing life!

And speaking of storycrafting flavors, be sure to tune in again soon when I take a look at the kinds of writing that may not be ideal for completing NaNo. It's like when you decide to turn over a whole new leaf and get yourself in better shape. You take up jogging, buy bushels of fruits and veggies, and evict all the junk food inhabiting in your pantry. How long does that last? Yeah, not long at all. In my next post, I'll look at similar patterns in writing that lead to ultimate self-defeat.

Join me then, but for now, go write! Go remove some plaque! And smile more (knowing you stink a whole lot less than you thought you did a few minutes ago)!    

Monday, October 28, 2013

Chrysalis and Entropy: A Celebration of Adolescence

I have a monthly Google calendar reminder to check on several interesting children's/YA publishing industry related blogs. Actually, I have many calendar reminders set to pretty much boss me around day-to-day and month-to-month. Many of the tasks I set up on a revolving basis are treats. Like writing 2,000 words each day. I love that one and it pops up first thing every morning at 8 a.m.

Others pop up and I scoff and send my eyes in search of the top-most textures of my head. Checking those blogs, I admit, can sometimes be a scoff-task. But this time around, I came across the following video on the Carolrhoda Lab, and it made me clap and cheer!

The footage reveals a large group of very young musicians totally rocking out. And the short blog post accompanying the video on the Carolrhoda site praises young folks for doing intricate, complicated, and spectacular things!

And the post+video made me cheer out loud not only because it is true, but also because it encapsulated my philosophy and methodology in writing for adolescent audiences.

Manymanymany novels out on the retail shelves depict teens coping with, causing, and sometimes solving drastic, catastrophic, world-bending events. And in the midst of all that hubbub, they intermingle elements of the adolescent experience. Puberty. Relationships. Dermatological disasters. Family drama. Love.

Books that exhibit this approach include Those That Wake, The Hunger Games trilogy, or the Divergent trilogy. 

And on its own, that approach sounds perfectly respectable. It certainly hasn't cost any of those authors any profits. There is, after all, a world with teenagers in it.

But the-world-with-teens paradigm does a disservice to the adolescent experience. From the vantage of a teen, there is, first, exhilarating chaos within the body, then exquisite madness beyond the body. It's more like there are teens with a world around them. 

Sounds neurotic? Self-centered? Maybe even a little narcissistic? Well, that's because it is...and what the hell's wrong with that? The neurology of the adolescent brain resembles a rain forest feasting on Miracle-Gro. The heart is simultaneously shredded and nourished by hormones that swell and crash with more force than a thousand tsunamis. 

The lyrics of Tool's song in the video above encapsulate precisely the teens-with-a-world paradigm. "Change is coming through my shadow...." "My shadow's shedding skin...." "Change is coming through...."

The song depicts the itchy, uncomfortable, scabby, bloody process of growing up -- that epic war between entropy and chrysalis. The childlike husk of the self erodes while the new but-not-fully-formed shroud of the teen emerges. 

I maintain that when it comes to writing YA, the metamorphosis a child goes through while "growing up" is substantially more important than evil forces scheming to take over the world, dystopian governments, or even, the apocalypse! Make no mistake: the primacy of the experience receives no short shrift in a novel like Martine Leavitt's The Book of Life by Angel or in any John Green novel (include any novel considered kith and kin to Green and Leavitt). But I suspect that a "genre" or "spec-fic" writer is just as capable as the real world chronicler when it comes to depicting adolescence

When I write, I seek to celebrate the complexity and profundity of teenage ability and creativity. Beyond that, I strive to honor the glory, the pain, the horror, and the beauty of adolescence.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Guest blogging: The Nectar of Success

For writers, success is like nectar. It's oh-so-sweet, but comes in small servings and only after lots and lots of diligent toil. 

Recently, I got to be the guest-blogger on Zach Hively long-running blog of books, thoughts, and other interesting ephemera. In that post, I announced to the world my latest little drops of nectar-success! Check out all the juicy details here:

I am so pleased to announce that my writing is now available for the world to enjoy in two different volumes of Chicken Soup for the Soul! To read more about what I contributed, please visit Zach's blog!