Monday, August 31, 2009

MENTOR MONDAY: Back to School, Back to WORK!

The summer’s winding down and families are beginning to get back into the school year routine. Even those of us who don’t have children, or no longer have children at home, can find the fall comforting in its predictability. We can say goodbye to the distractions “de l’été.” No more summer vacations, summer chores, or summer weddings taking us away from our writing time. Now, all we need is…inspiration! I have a suggestion that might help in more than one way.

Writers for children are constantly told is: read what you want to write. If you want to produce good stories for children, read good stories written for children. Look at the way the author has created characters, movement, tension, and resolution. Cut unnecessary words. Revise, revise, revise.

We all know this stuff. Still, it’s nice to have a reminder of what constitutes a good story. I’ve got a fun way to both read and study craft. Two-time Newbery Medal winner, Lois Lowry has written a series of short books staring Gooney Bird Greene. The little red-haired girl shows up at Watertower Elementary Schools in October. The second graders in Mrs. Pidgeon’s class have never met anyone quite like her.

Lowry uses Gooney Bird to illustrate the techniques of good writing. Gooney Bird Greene is a story-teller. She claims to only tell “absolutely true” stories but it’s hard to believe that she drove to Watertower from China, flew on a magic carpet, and got her huge diamond earrings from a palace.

As Gooney Bird tells the other children her stories, she explains about creating interesting characters, adding excitement to stories, when to add just enough detail, and how to use interesting vocabulary.

Gooney Bird may be the one explaining, but Lois Lowry is showing all of us the skills good writers need. So my suggestion is, if you want a great fall warm-up for getting back into your writing schedule, grab some of the Gooney Bird stories. If you really want a treat, listen to Lee Adams bring Gooney Bird and the other children to life in the recorded book version. When you’re finished, you’ll want to work on your own “absolutely true” stories.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Poetry Friday: The Centaur

The Centaur

The summer that I was ten—
Can it be there was only one
summer that I was ten? It must

have been a long one then—
each day I’d go out to choose
a fresh horse from my stable

which was a willow grove
down by the old canal.
I’d go on my two bare feet.

But when, with my brother’s jack-knife,
I had cut me a long limber horse
with a good thick knob for a head,

and peeled him slick and clean
except a few leaves for the tail,
and cinched my brother’s belt

around his head for a rein,
I’d straddle and canter him fast
up the grass bank to the path,

trot along in the lovely dust
that talcumed over his hoofs,
hiding my toes, and turning

his feet to swift half-moons.
The willow knob with the strap
jouncing between my thighs

was the pommel and yet the poll
of my nickering pony’s head.
My head and my neck were mine,

yet they were shaped like a horse.
My hair flopped to the side
like the mane of a horse in the wind.

My forelock swung in my eyes,
my neck arched and I snorted.
I shied and skittered and reared,

stopped and raised my knees,
pawed at the ground and quivered.
My teeth bared as we wheeled

and swished through the dust again.
I was the horse and the rider,
and the leather I slapped to his rump

spanked my own behind.
Doubled, my two hoofs beat
a gallop along the bank,

the wind twanged my mane,
my mouth squared to the bit.
And yet I sat on my steed

quiet, negligent riding,
my toes standing the stirrups,
my thighs hugging his ribs.

At a walk we drew up at the porch.
I tethered him to a paling.

Dismounting, I smoothed my skirt

and entered the dusky hall.
My feet on the clean linoleum
left ghostly toes in the hall.

Where have you been? said my mother.
Been riding, I said from the sink,
and filled me a glass of water.

What’s that in your pocket? she said.
Just my knife. It weighed my pocket
and stretched my dress awry.

Go tie back your hair, said my mother
and Why is your mouth all green?
Rob Roy, he pulled some clover
as we crossed the field,
I told her.

-- May Swenson

The poet May Swenson is pictured below. Today's Poetry Friday is being graciously hosted by Book Aunt.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Women of Wednesday: What they Said

Susan B. Anthony, Suffragist
  • Men their rights and nothing more; women their rights and nothing less.

  • How can you not be all on fire? ... I really believe I shall explode if some of you young women don't wake up --and raise your voice in protest against the impending crime of this nation upon the new islands it has clutched from other folks. Do come into the living present and work to save us from any more barbaric male governments.

Diane Ackerman, poet, essayist, naturalist:

  • If a mind is just a few pounds of blood, urea, and electricity, how does it manage to contemplate itself, worry about its soul, do time-and-motion studies, admire the shy hooves of a goat, know that it will die, enjoy all the grand and lesser mayhems of the heart?

  • There are well-dressed foolish ideas just as there are well-dressed fools.

  • I don't want to get to the end of my life and find that I lived just the length of it. I want to have lived the width of it as well.

Helen Keller, author & political activist

  • Keep your face to the sunshine and you cannot see the shadow.

  • No pessimist ever discovered the secret of the stars, or sailed to an uncharted land, or opened a new doorway for the human spirit.

Diane Arbus, photographer

  • It's important to take bad pictures. It's the bad ones that have to do with what you've never done before. They can make you recognize something you hadn't seen in a way that will make you recognize it when you see it again.
  • A photograph is a secret about a secret. The more it tells you the less you know.
  • Love involves a peculiar unfathomable combination of understanding and misunderstanding.

If you're a fan of quotes, check out Write Sister Diane Mayr's blog Kurious K's Kuotes.

Monday, August 24, 2009

What To Do When You're Stumped

Occasionally you may find yourself in despair over your writing. Every writer eventually suffers from that internal critic who's there reading over his or her shoulder. The voice is so loud it can make you forget the piece you're working on right now is a draft -- just an early stage in the process.

A great piece of advice on silencing that critic comes from New Hampshire writers Becky Rule and Sue Wheeler in their book Creating the Story: Guides for Writers. I bought this book years ago after taking summer writing course Becky offered through the University of New Hampshire.

I still dip into this book now an again when I need inspiration or the wise advice of seasoned writers. Creating the Story is filled with short guides on writing, and includes some excellent exercises. While it was designed mostly for fiction writers, the exercises work well for writers of any genre.

In their guide called Control the nagging critic in your head (page 49), Becky and Sue offer this innovative take on sending away the critic:

"If your critic won't go away when you tell her to, put your writing aside for fifteen minutes, and let the critic dictate a letter to you. She will use your name, "Dear Danielle" or Dear Sol." Let the critic say every rotten thing about you she's ever thought or said. Don't worry about
logic or fairness. Just turn the critic loose on the page. Then, when you read the letter out loud, you'll be astonished at how vindictive, illogical and downright absurd she is. Hopefully you'll laugh. Finally, as if you were your own best, most supportive friend, write that critic a letter pointing out where she's unreasonable and wrong. Tell her you're trying to write and that takes courage. You're exploring on the page, groping, feeling your way along. This draft, and probably the next three to six drafts are for you, not her. You need to discover things about your main character and to see what she will do, think, say, and feel. Remind your critic that critics only criticize finished products. They come in after your hard work is done."

I'd love to hear from any of our readers who try this technique.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Poetry Friday: On Belonging

Eunice Kennedy Shriver has been inspiring me my whole life. I have an aunt with intellectual disabilities, and I have seen firsthand the results of her good work. I wanted to find something for Poetry Friday that connected with Eunice and everything she has done for people with intellectual disabilities. In my search, I came upon Ideal-Way, founded by Robert Pio Hajjar.

Rob is a person with intellectual disabilities who had a vision. Rob dreamed of a "world where persons with intellectual disability are valued, included, and appreciated for who they are." Rob's efforts include The National Ideal Way Poetry Competition for intellectually disabled Canadian citizens.

I would like to offer the following National Ideal Way 2008 Poetry Competition second place winner for today's Poetry Friday.

“Where Do I Belong?”


Where do I belong?

Is a question we ask ourselves.

From time to time

When we’re kids, teens or adults.

Asking ourselves “Where do I belong?”

Helps us fit in with friends.

Helps us fit in with family.

Helps us fit in at our workplace.

Asking ourselves “Where do I belong?”

Helps us fit in society.

Or even at home with our parents.

Ask yourself “Where do I belong?”

Everybody fits in somewhere.

Everybody belongs somewhere.

We all have a place in the world.

Where do I belong.

This week's Poetry Friday is being hosted by Kyle at The Boy Reader.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Women of Wednesday: Eunice Kennedy Shriver Takes the Gold at the Finish Line

I know I wrote about Eunice Kennedy Shriver in June, but I think in light of the fact that she passed away just last week, a tribute post is in order.

Much has been written and said about Eunice these last few days. One thing repeated again and again is that had she been a man, she could very well have been president. I don't doubt it for an instant. As a private citizen, she brought an entire group of forgotten people out of the shadows and into the mainstream of society, and she did it on a global level. The importance of her work for the intellectually disabled cannot be overstated, and the results of that work cannot be overvalued.

Rather than add more words to what has already been stated, I think it fitting to end this tribute post with a clip from NPR's All Things Considered. Here, Special Olympian David Egan reflects on the impact Eunice Kennedy Shriver had on his life.

Eunice Kennedy Shriver at the 2006 Special Olympics USA National Games.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Mentor Monday: Lights! Camera! Action!

There are times when opportunities present themselves at inopportune times. Recently I was contacted at 9:30 on a Saturday morning by a local TV news reporter and asked if I would comment on Eunice Kennedy Shriver's life and work. Mrs. Shriver was gravely ill at the time and her family was anticipating her passing at any moment. Somehow this reporter knew I had written Mrs. Shriver's biography for Women of the Bay State: 25 Massachusetts Women You Should Know, and he wanted to come by and interview me on camera. Those of you who saw my June 24th Women of Wednesday post know that I am an unabashed fan of Mrs. Shriver and the work she did on behalf of people with intellectual disabilities. I didn't hesitate to say I'd do it. He said he'd like to come by at 11 o'clock.

I was stunned into silence. He couldn't possibly mean 11 o'clock as in an hour and a half from that moment, because at that moment I was neither showered nor dressed. Most of my clothing options were crumpled in a laundry basket. My frock du jour was a pink striped bathrobe. Granted, the stripes were going the right way, but still. This wasn't good, but it was what it was and I was going to pull it together somehow.

I told the reporter 11 o'clock wasn't going to work, and we agreed to meet at noon. I hung up the phone and looked around. Not only was I not camera-ready, neither was my house. Now what was I going to do? As I looked around the house, the old admonition to always wear clean underwear because you never know when you're going to be in an accident sprang to mind. Always keep a clean house because you never know when a news crew is going to film it.

Now, let me assure you I don't live in the town dump. Given a half hour I could have had the place ready for anything, but I didn't have a half hour. If I was going to get myself ready on time, I didn't have a half minute. I could feel the panic rising. I tamped it down, and took control of the situation. Regardless of what they wanted, I would have them film me outside. It was a beautiful day, and I have a lovely yard. One problem was solved, but another arose to take its place.

If they filmed me outside I'd be in big hair trouble. At even the thought of a breeze, I'd end up with Professor Irwin E. Corey hair. I crossed my fingers and hoped I had enough hair spray to turn my wispy little 'do into a wind-proof helmet.

I raced to my closet and found a tailored, v-neck, button front black shirt I'd completely forgotten I had. Perfect! I'd throw it on over good pants and slip on a pair of black flats.

Before I jumped into the shower, I sent a quick email to all of my sisters, Write as well as birth. If anybody had any advice, I said, send it quick.

I showered and dressed and started rifling through my makeup. Because I have chronic dry eye, I rarely wear makeup anymore. It makes my eyes hurt like the dickens. But dry eye be damned. I've watched enough episodes of America's Next Top Model to know I needed artfully applied makeup before I faced the camera. (My secret's out. I'm addicted to America's Next Top Model. While it's true confessions time, I'll cop to the fact that I'm also counting the days until Project Runway returns on August 22nd. Can you believe it? Not that there are only a few days until Project Runway, but that I'm a fan.)

Anyway, I finished applying my makeup, blew my hair dry and power sprayed it. I had 35 minutes to spare when the phone rang. It was my sister Natty wanting to know what I was wearing. I ran it by her, and she gave my outfit a thumbs up. Hurray!

She asked about jewelry. I told her I was wearing a set of silver bangle bracelets, and, as a little nod to the Irish in both Eunice and me, my Claddagh ring. Natty insisted I throw on a simple strand of pearls. She said Eunice was probably a pearl-wearing kind of a girl back in the day, and that she would approve.

The minute I hung up the phone it rang again. It was the reporter. He was there a half hour early and wanted to know if that was okay. I told him of course, and that I'd join him outside at once. I grabbed the pearls, and fastened them around my throat as I walked to the door.

It went great. Actually, it went something like this:

When it was all over, even though my eyes looked like a commercial for Visine, I was so glad that I did it. Eunice Kennedy Shriver passed away a few days later, and it was an honor to play a small part in the public remembrances.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Sunday Sharing--Research Tips

If you're doing research, you must know that Google is not the be-all and end-all. As a matter of fact, Google, according to Alisa Miller at theOnline College Blog,
Experts say that typical search engines like Yahoo! and Google only pick up about 1% of the information available on the Internet. The rest of that information is considered to be hidden in the deep web, also referred to as the invisible web.

Enjoy exploring the 100 tips and tools Ms. Miller writes about. I'm sure your research, and as a result, your readers, will benefit.


Friday, August 14, 2009

Poetry Friday - The Tanka of Ono no Komachi

Ono no Komachi is a legendary Japanese poet who became famous around 850 CE. She was supposed to have been a stunningly beautiful woman with many admirers, but she was also supposed to have been a bit of a snob and very cruel. She broke the hearts of many men and, as punishment, the gods gave her a long life. She grew old and ugly, and died all alone, a shriveled up hag of a woman.

Her poetry, however, has not withered with time. It is just as beautiful today as it was when she wrote it over 1,000 years ago. Here are a few of my favorites.


On such a night as this
When no moon lights your way to me,
I wake, my passion blazing,
My breast a fire raging, exploding flame
While within me my heart chars.


Now that I am entering
The winter of life,
Your ardor has faded
Like foliage ravaged
By late autumn rains.


I thought to pick
The flower of forgetting
For myself,
But I found it
Already growing in his heart.


This body
Grown fragile, floating,
A reed cut from its roots...
If a stream would ask me
To follow, I'd go, I think.

Tanka 1 - translated by Earl Miner
Tanka 2 - translated by Helen Craig McCullough
Tanka 3 & 4 translated by Hirshfield & Aratami

More about tanka
More about American tanka
More tanka by Ono no Komachi

Andromeda Jazmon at a wrung sponge is hosting this week's Poetry Friday.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Women of . . . Wednesday - Edith Wharton

Edith Wharton was born Edith Newbold Jones in 1862, and if you’ve ever heard of ‘keeping up with the Joneses’ it is supposedly her grandparents that people were talking about. She grew up one of the idle rich in New York towards the end of the Gilded Age, a time when ‘old money’ looked down their noses at ‘new money’ - people who made their millions by (shudder) working for it.

Edith was a born writer. She was creating stories, which she called ‘making up,’ before she could even read. By the time she was 15, she had written her first novella, Fast and Loose, about a young woman who was - fast and loose. Her family did not appreciate the content, nor the fact that she was writing. It was not something people of her class ‘did.’

Edith didn’t care. She continued to write, selling poems to the Atlantic Monthly and the New York World. But her mother did care. People were talking about Edith, saying how strange she was, and how she always had her head in a book. Mrs. Jones decided to do something about it. She insisted Edith get out more and attend parties. She introduced Edith to ‘the right people,’ and it seemed to work. Edith was soon engaged.

But when one lived in ‘society,’ one had to put up with being mentioned in the gossip columns, and Edith was mentioned. It was said that her intellectualism was hardly a good trait in a woman, and her ambition to be a writer was a ‘grievous fault.’ Her fiancé’s mother insisted the engagement be broken.

Edith went on to marry her older brother’s best friend Teddy Wharton. They had nothing in common and spent little time together. Even when they traveled together, each went their own way. Teddy went off hunting or played sports, and Edith spent time with other writers, philosophers and artists.

Teddy soon began to show signs of mental illness. Edith stuck with him, nursing him and taking him for ‘cures’ in Europe. She even overlooked his theft of $50,000 from her trust fund, which he used to set up a mistress in Boston, and which he eventually paid back. But when he sold their family home in Lenox, Massachusetts without her knowledge, she divorced him.

By then, Edith was a well-known and well respected writer. She moved to France and spent her days writing or driving around the countryside looking at architecture. She hobnobbed with people like Ernest Hemingway, Sinclair Lewis and F. Scott Fitzgerald, and two of her closest friends were Henry James and Teddy Roosevelt.

When World War I broke out, she put her time, effort and money into the war. She found homes for Belgian children and the elderly. She set up a dispensary for the sick and war wounded, she opened a tuberculosis clinic, and she set up workrooms for French women to make bandages as a way for them to earn money to feed themselves and their children. But it wasn’t enough for Edith.

Edith knew the war could not be won without America’s help, and she thought if Americans knew how bad things really were in Europe, they might pressure the US government to get involved. She used her connections to get herself to the front lines where she observed the war first hand. She then wrote about what she saw and sent her work off to Scribner’s Magazine. Although there is no way to know if Edith’s articles played any part in getting America into the war, we did get involved and the conflict was won.

Edith wrote over forty books in her lifetime, mostly about what she knew - the rich and idle. She was not only the first woman to receive the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction (The Age of Innocence) but she was also made a Chevalier of the French Legion of Honor, and she received the Belgian Medaille Reine Elisabeth (Queen Elizabeth’s Medal) for her aid to Belgian refugees during the war. She died of a heart attack in 1937.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Mentor Monday - Worldbuilding 101

Middle Earth, Narnia and Hogwarts are three of the most well-known worlds in the realm of fantasy today. People can tell you not only the exact locations of specific places, but they can also give you a history of those places. They stand out among other fantasy worlds because Tolkien, Lewis and Rowling took the time to create a real world, rather than plopping their characters into a generic world with weird place names.

To create a fantasy world as rich and alive as theirs, you should consider four things - geography, history, technology and culture.

Geography is what your world looks like. Is it made up of continents or subterranean cities? Are there mountain ranges, oceans, forests, deserts, or dark caverns and undersea grottos? What are its largest countries, kingdoms, city-states, metropolises? What are its smallest? What plants and animals exist there?

You should also consider climate, which can be used to create mood. Does your world experience spring, summer, fall and winter? Is there a hot season and a cold one? A rainy season and a dry? How do tides affect an underwater city? How do earth tremors affect a subterranean one? How do night and day operate in your world?

If you read fantasy, you’ve probably noticed most novels come with a world map. Use these as examples to help create your own. Even if the map doesn’t appear in your book, it will give you a better understanding of the world you’re creating.

After creating your larger world, zoom in on your main character’s. What is the layout of the city or town your story takes place in? Place taverns, shops, temples, homes, castles. Are the streets wide or narrow? Are there sidewalks? Is the town isolated or close to others? Is there a seaport or airstrip? If the story takes place on a ship, what is the ship’s layout? If your characters are nomads, what trails do they take? And again, consider climate.

Inventing a history for your world and its people comes in handy for those ever important legends that lie behind every good quest. Who came before, and what did they do? What major events changed your world from what it was to what it is? Think about wars and natural disasters, as well as religion and inventions.

Magic should also be considered. What effect has it had upon your world? Consider the physical effects (changes to landscape, instigation of wars) as well as the psychological aspects (how magicians are seen and treated now because of what their predecessors did.) Then consider your character’s past. Who are her people? Where did she come from and how did she get to where she is now?

Technology is what the people in your world have. Are they hunter/gatherers with stone tools? Are they on a par with medieval people? Do they use swords, guns or lasers? How do they travel? What do they write with and on? What foods do they eat and how do they prepare them? How do they make a living? Do they barter or use money?

Magic is also technology. If there is magic in your world, what are the rules of your magic? What can magic do? What can it not do? Is it a learned ability or are people born with it? Does it come from the gods, or are special items needed in order for a wizard to perform? How powerful is your magic? Can it raise the dead, or is it limited to healing wounds? Are potions or incantations used? Are your magicians’ powers unlimited or must they rest or replenish themselves between spells?

Culture is how your society lives. Does your world consist of kingdoms or city states? What religions are practiced? What are the beliefs of those religions? What kind of governments exist? Is the world a level playing field, or are their ‘backward’ countries? What are the rungs of society? Who are the outcasts and who are at the top? Why? What are the roles of men, women and children? What holidays are celebrated and why? What are the rituals for birth, death, and marriage? What are considered crimes? How are people punished?

And again, look at your character’s smaller world. Who lives in her immediate world? Farmers, merchants, warriors? Are they a diverse group or are they all from the same tribe, religion, caste? How is the town/city run? Who’s in charge? Is it a happy, open city? Or are the people under the thumbs of a despotic leader or fanatical priest? And what about your character, herself? What religions does she practice? What is her place in society? What does she believe? What are her morals and ethics?

Even after you’ve figured all this out, it’s not unusual to find yourself adding to, or subtracting from it. Your world will probably change here and there as your story progresses. But having this information before you write, generally makes the writing easier since you have a good understanding of how your world works. And taking the time to build your world from the ground up could very well produce a world as real as Middle Earth or Hogwarts. It will definitely produce a much richer story.

For more tips on world building, check out Stephanie Cottrell Bryant’s Magical World Builder site. She also has a free 30 day, 15 minute a day, world building tutorial to get you started.

Spiral Galaxy M51, Hubble Heritage, Flickr
World Map, Library of Congress
Medieval Weapons, clip art
Pu Yi, Last Emperor of China, 1908

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Sunday Sharing--King Arthur

Have you been through a King Arthur phase? Is it something a writer goes through--like a 5 year old boy goes through a dinosaur phase, or a 10 year old girl goes through a horse stage?

I went through my Arthur phase many, many years ago. I read the Arthur retellings by modern writers and I fell in love with Steinbeck's The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights. I wonder how much more he could written if he hadn't passed away? I truly mourned the fact that there wasn't more from Steinbeck.

In the grip of Arthuritis, I seriously considered naming my first child Sir Gareth of Orkney. Sir Gareth was my favorite knight.

Merrily Gareth asked,
"Have I not earned my cake in baking of it?
Let be my name until I make my name!
My deeds will speak: it is but for a day."
Fortunately for my son, I was beyond my Arthur stage by time he was born!

If you'd like to revisit the world of Arthur, or discover it for the first time, check out King Arthur & the Knights of the Round Table. It's a quick tour of all things Arthur. A less visually appealing site, but a bit more in-depth is The Camelot Project at the University of Rochester.


Sunday, August 2, 2009

Sunday Sharing - Off The Beaten Path

For those of you interested in the odd, weird, and Wow! things in life, check out Atlas Obscura, A Compendium of the World’s Wonders, Curiosities, and Esoterica.

Are you interested in medieval torture? The photo is the Heretic's Chair, found at a Torture Museum in Amsterdam.

Perhaps you’re an animal lover. Well, a weird animal lover. Try the Venice Beach Freak Show.

How about an Australian vacation to Coober Pedy, where it’s so hot, everyone has moved underground to the old opal mining caves. There are hotels and art galleries, and night time golf played with glow-in-the-dark golf balls

Everything you’ve ever imagined can be found in the atlas, as well as things you’ve never imagined. (A gopher museum with dead, stuffed ground squirrels dressed up as the local people.)

It doesn't matter how weird or strange you are. There’s something there for everyone.