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Writing About Apples, or, How to be Creative

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Writing About Apples, or, How to be Creative

Back in March, my mom texted me happy St. Patrick’s Day and asked, “so what percentage Irish is the baby? Only a math major can figure it out!” I took this as a challenge, and after texting my mother-in-law for information, I did some calculations and came up with this:

Phoebe is approximately…

  • 1/4   Italian (25%)
  • 7/32   German (approx. 21.9%)
  • 3/16   Scottish/Irish (approx. 18.8%)
  • 5/32   English (approx. 15.6%)
  • 1/16   French (approx. 6.3%)
  • 1/16   Danish (approx. 6.3%)
  • 1/32   Polish (approx. 3.1%)
  • 1/32   Czech (approx. 3.1%)

 

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My baby is probably less than 15% Irish.  But still very kissable!

 

Now that the baby is three months old I’m slowly getting back to my paying jobs, one of which is writing math curriculum.

And last week I created an assignment called “Melting Pot Math” in which the students have to figure out the “fractional ethnicity” of a person based on the countries his great-grandparents are from.

My bosses are happy to have me back; they continually praise me for my ability to come up with creative math projects. And I’m sort of amazed myself. I’ve been doing this job for over four years now; you’d think I would have run out of ideas for teaching fractions and long division. And yet I always come up with something, often based on whatever is going on in my life: wedding planning, visiting Mexico, getting an ultrasound. I even wrote a math curriculum called “Literary Agent.”

I’m also getting back to my other part-time job – tutoring – but right now I’m only doing it on Skype. I just hired a high school girl who will come to the apartment one afternoon a week to watch Phoebe while I’m on Skype, but up until now my husband has been watching her while I tutor.

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On Sunday I was tutoring, and my student’s camera wasn’t working.  She could see me, but I couldn’t see her. It didn’t matter, though. She was just reading out loud to me from To Kill a Mockingbird, and we were discussing.

Out of the corner of my ear, I heard Phoebe start crying, and it sounded like a hungry cry, so I told my student to hold on a second. I fetched the baby and then said, “okay, keep reading. I’m just going to feed her.”

I guess I had a moment of flamingo syndrome –I couldn’t see my student, so I assumed she couldn’t see me. I pulled down my tank top and started breastfeeding. A few seconds later, I remembered that my student could see me, and I adjusted the camera so that only my face was visible on the screen. Oops! I can only hope she was so engrossed with To Kill a Mockingird that she didn’t notice her tutor flashing her!

Toward the end of the lesson, my student told me that she had to give a speech the next day to the entire middle school. “Our teacher told us we could pick any topic we wanted, so I chose apples,” she said.

“Apples? Like the fruit?” I asked.

“Yeah.”

She practiced her speech, and I gave her a few pointers.

“Why did you decide to write your speech about apples?” I then asked.

She grinned. “I didn’t know what to write about, and I was eating an apple, and my friend said ‘why don’t you write about apples.’” She shrugged. “So I did.”

I’m pretty sure that’s not what her teacher had in mind for the assignment. On the other hand, it’s a good lesson: when you don’t know what to write about, look around and write what you see. Write about your baby. Write about your day. Write about the apple you’re currently eating.

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When I started this blog four and a half years ago, I worried I might run out of things to write about. But, like with math curriculum, I always come up with something. Often I take inspiration from whatever is going on in my life, big or small.  Like accidentally Skype-flashing my student.

I don’t consider myself to be an amazingly creative person, pulling brilliant ideas out of thin air. Often I’m just a girl writing about apples. I look around, shrug, and write about whatever is in front of my face.

 

 

 

How I Chose My MFA Program, or, Doing Your Research

How I Chose My MFA Program, or, Doing Your Research

It’s a funny story how I decided to get my MFA in Fiction Writing.  Spoiler alert:  it does not involve research.

I was twenty-four years old and in my second year as a full-time math teacher when I stopped by a little bookstore near my house in Uptown New Orleans and my eyes fell on a paperback called Pretty Little Dirty by Amanda Boyden.

I didn’t know Amanda Boyden then. I didn’t know that she lived in New Orleans and that one day I would sit with her and her husband at a bar in Spain, or that, a few years later, we would have margaritas together in Mexico. I didn’t know I would go to parties, and even a wedding, at her house in Mid-City New Orleans. All I saw was the skinny girl on the cover of the book, her arm cocked like she might be holding a cigarette, her face scribbled out with fluorescent yellow highlighter, and I knew it was just the sort of thing I liked to read: a literary coming-of-age story.

So I bought the book and devoured it. Then I read the author bio and learned that Amanda Boyden taught a class on fiction writing at the University of New Orleans.

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It was around this time that I started thinking to myself, gosh, do I really want to be a math teacher for the rest of my life? The answer was no. What I really wanted to do was write novels, but I’d always assumed that was something people did in their spare time – it wasn’t  a viable career option. (And, to be honest, I still think that’s somewhat accurate… at least for a lot of people.)

The problem was, teaching left me emotionally, physically, and mentally drained. It was difficult to find the energy to write in the little spare time I had. So I made a bold move: I quit my teaching job and embarked on a series of random jobs (barista, receptionist, orthodontic assistant) that gave me more time and energy for writing.

That summer, I sat down to write what I hoped to be a literary coming-of-age novel. When I finished the last sentence, I was elated. A day later, I reread the whole thing and was completely dismayed. The book wasn’t good – I knew it wasn’t good – but I had no idea how to make it better.

That’s when I decided to contact Amanda Boyden.

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Author Amanda Boyden

 

I’ve since looked to see if I could find the original email I sent to Amanda, along with her reply. Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately), I can’t, but I know I said I’d enjoyed her book, and then I explained that it was the sort of thing I hoped to write, but I was having trouble figuring out how exactly to write a novel in the first place. I was thinking maybe she and I could get together for coffee sometime to talk about writing.

Yes, I realize now how naïve that sounds. So I don’t blame Amanda for how she responded. I don’t remember her exact words, but it was something along the lines of, no, I don’t have time to meet with you, but maybe you should check out the MFA program at The University of New Orleans.

And here’s where I’ll admit that up until then, I didn’t know there was even such a thing as a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing. (It does sound rather absurd, right?  A Masters degree in creative writing?!)  I realize that might make twenty-five-year-old Eva sound a bit dumb, but, to be honest,twenty-five-year-old Eva was a bit dumb.

Twenty-five-year-old Eva was also excited. Going to school was something I’d always exceled at. No wonder I was having trouble writing a good novel: I needed to go back to school and learn how to do it properly!

So I went online and found information about the University of New Orleans “low residency” program, which sounded cool. In the program, students took classes online during the school year and then did intensive summer abroad sessions. That sounded good to me. Online classes meant I could keep my day job at the orthodontist’s office, and I hadn’t studied abroad as an undergraduate, so this would be my chance to do some traveling.

I’m embarrassed to say that I did no other research. None.  I didn’t look to see if there were other MFA programs that were more highly rated, or that perhaps focused specifically on novel-writing. I didn’t look into ways to get my tuition paid for. I didn’t even realize that there was also an in-person MFA program at the University of New Orleans I could have applied to.

I’ve never been a fan of research, and I’ve always been a bit trigger-happy when I’m excited about something. At the time, I honestly didn’t think that anyone would pay for my MFA. I didn’t realize that many schools offer teaching assistantships – something that would have been smart for me to do because not only would my tuition have been covered, but I would have gotten experience teaching at the college level.

Instead, without researching any other programs, I applied for the low-residency MFA at the University of New Orleans, and I was accepted. The following summer, I headed to Madrid, and my Fiction Workshop professors were Amanda Boyden and her husband, Joseph.

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My first year in the MFA program, Amanda Boyden gave a reading while doing THIS.

 

It’s hard to say whether or not I regret making such a quick decision. Yes, I did have to take out a student loan to pay for my degree, but I paid if off pretty quickly. And it’s true I could have gotten a teaching assistantship that led to a college teaching job, but I don’t want to be a teacher (remember?) And I probably could have gone to a more “prestigious” school, but to be honest, I’m not sure I would have liked that any better.

Besides, so many good things have come out of my MFA from UNO. I met some wonderful (and eccentric!) people, and I had some amazing travel experiences. If not for my MFA from UNO, I never would have become involved with Burlesque Press or gotten to spend a month in Mexico on a writing fellowship.

In this case, my utter lack of research didn’t seem to hurt me. In other words, I got lucky.

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Here I am in Madrid with fellow writer Jeni Stewart(now Jennifer Wallace), who has become a very dear friend and resource.

 

I’m thinking about all of this as I prepare to query agents with the novel I recently finished revising. In the past I’ve been trigger-happy about contacting agents, and I’ve learned my lesson. This is one case where I am definitely doing my research. I am spending time on Twitter and agency websites and Manuscript Wishlist. I’m reading agent blogs and interviews. I’m making a spreadsheet of possible agents and revising my query letter over and over again. I know that when it comes to querying agents, it pays to do your homework.

My MFA didn’t teach me anything about querying agents. That’s something I learned on my own after a lot of practice, and probably in part because I did it wrong the first time around.

And, in a way, that’s how I’ve learned to write as well.

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Here I am in Madrid for the running of the bulls.  There’s a story in this picture.  There definitely is.

Shut Up About Your Rocket, or, Why You Need Writer Friends

Shut Up About Your Rocket, or, Why You Need Writer Friends

My husband won’t shut up about rockets. For the past few months he’s been designing and printing model rockets on his 3-D printer (because yes, he has one of those), and he is OBSESSED.

“Can I show you my launch pad?” he says, coming at me with a plastic box spewing red and blue wires out the back.

I sigh because this is the fourth time in past few hours that he’s wanted to show me something rocket-related. I know he’s proud of his handiwork and wants to show it to someone, so I say sure. He then goes into a detailed description about all the buttons and wires while my eyes glaze over.

In fact, a normal conversation these days (if you can call this a conversation) might go something like this:

ME: “So I read an article about how to transition your baby out of swaddling.”

HIM: “I finished fiber-glassing my rocket last night.”

ME: “I think she might be going through a growth spurt. She was cranky and eating a lot today.”

HIM: “Now I just need to sand it and get the wireless in my raspberry pi zero working.”

It’s both funny and sad how I can talk of seemingly nothing but our baby these days, and Paul can talk of nothing but his baby, the rocket. Of course, there is one difference: Paul actually cares about our baby, whereas I care not a whit about his rockets.

 

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Paul with a model rocket he built two summers ago.  He’s working on MUCH larger ones now.

 

That’s why I was excited when he found out about a local model rocket club that meets once a month. “Dear god, please go,” I told him. “Please make friends with people who are interested in rockets.”

We were taking the baby on a walk around the block when I said this, and then I added, “I mean, I don’t talk to you about my writing.  I talk to other writers about my writing. In fact, I’m going to dinner with a friend in a few days, and we plan to discuss the novel I’m working on because she just finished reading it.”

Paul said he felt bad that he hadn’t read my latest novel.

“It’s really okay,” I told him. “I have writer friends for that exact purpose.” I told him about the time I saw Joyce Carol Oates speak. “She said that her husband never read any of her books, and she liked it that way. They had plenty of things they shared, but her writing wasn’t one of them.”

Paul then apologized for talking excessively about rockets. “But I wish I had friends I could talk to about my interests,” he said, looking forlorn.

I feel bad for him. His interests (theoretical physics, model rockets, extremely sophisticated mathematics, 3-D printing) are ones that not many people share. He sometimes feels isolated and alone in his endeavors. And when he makes an exciting breakthrough, no one is able to appreciate it with him.

Again, this is why I’m really excited for him to go to the rocket club.

I’m also super grateful for the friends I have who share my interests.

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Paul does share my interest in the baby, but he has had to tell me to shut up about baby sleep schedules and other such things that I’ve researched to ad nauseam.

 

For example, I’ve recently started hanging out with other new moms. We’ll meet at each other’s houses and let our babies roll around on the floor while we discuss sleep schedules and cloth diapers. They understand when I show up late, with spit up stains on my shirt, and it’s nice to have some low-key adult interaction during the day. I read somewhere once that there can be nothing lonelier than staying at home with your baby.

But you know what else can be lonely? Writing. It’s inherently a solo venture. Which is why I think it’s so important to have people you can talk talk to about your writing (or talk to about writing in general). People with whom you can work through your ideas. People who will read your first draft. People who can sympathize with you about that rejection letter or that scene that just won’t come together.

I’ve found my writer friends in all sorts of places. Some are from my MFA program. Others are from writing groups I’ve been a part of or writing conferences I’ve attended. One is a high school friend. Another is a college friend who happened upon my blog and contacted me.

Because of these wonderful people, I feel supported in my writing life. I write alone, but I don’t feel isolated, and I know that when I have breakthroughs both big and small, these people will celebrate with me.

I’m really hoping the rocket club can provide at least a little bit of this for Paul. Because there are plenty of things that he and I share, but an interest in rockets is definitely not one of them.

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Meagan and I try to get together regularly to discuss our writing.  We also write a monthly blog:  Meagan & Eva’s Middle Grade Bookshelf!

The Nest by Kenneth Oppel (Meagan & Eva’s Middle Grade Bookshelf)

The Nest by Kenneth Oppel (Meagan & Eva’s Middle Grade Bookshelf)

The Nest by Kenneth Oppel

Published by Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, October 2015

Suggested age range: 10 and up

An ALA Notable Children’s Book for Middle Readers

SUMMARY:

For some kids summer is a sun-soaked season of fun. But for Steve, it’s just another season of worries. Worries about his sick newborn baby brother who is fighting to survive, worries about his parents who are struggling to cope, even worries about the wasp’s nest looming ominously from the eaves. So when a mysterious wasp queen invades his dreams, offering to “fix” the baby, Steve thinks his prayers have been answered.

All he has to do is say “Yes.” But “yes” is a powerful word. It is also a dangerous one. And once it is uttered, can it be taken back?

Celebrated author Kenneth Oppel creates an eerie masterpiece in this compelling story that explores disability and diversity, fears and dreams, and what ultimately makes a family. Includes illustrations from celebrated artist Jon Klassen.

-courtesy of Amazon

IMPORTANT TOPICS AND THEMES:  

Perfection vs. Imperfection, Identity (are your flaws part of what makes you who you are?)

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Read more of Meagan & Eva’s Middle Grade Bookshelf here.

So what did we think?  

Eva:  Wow.  Just wow.  This was an INCREDIBLE book that totally blew me away, both as a reader and a writer.  

Meagan:  Me too.  This is the first book I’ve read in awhile that I just LOVED with no reservations.  Partly because it’s well done, and partly because it’s just my kind of book.  Super-imaginative and inexplicably weird.   

Eva:  It’s one of those books that defies categorization.   Is it an eerie fairy tale?  A psychological thriller?  A morality tale?   I suppose it’s best categorized as middle grade (the protagonist is an eleven-year-old boy), but is it really meant for children?  I would definitely recommend this book to teens and adults, as well as to older kids who can handle spooky stuff.          

Meagan:  This book reminded me so strongly of  The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman (one of my favorite books and authors).  Ocean is an adult book, but it is also a category defier.  The protagonist is seven years old for most of that story.  Like The Nest, it is scary and has a lot of eerie, other-worldly stuff going on.  This really got me thinking about what makes The Nest MG, which I do agree it is, while Ocean is usually categorized as adult.  MG categorization is something I obsess about because I sometimes worry that my own work is not easy to categorize.

Here’s what I came up with:  While the other world and antagonist in The Nest are strange, they are also relatively simple and straightforward.  Ocean’s other world (and supernatural characters) are never really explained and a lot of complexity is left up to the reader’s imagination.   Also, in The Nest the protagonist’s parents are basically on his side.  They’re kind of unavailable and not as helpful as they should be, but they’re never actually in opposition to the protagonist.  I don’t want to spoil Ocean for anyone who hasn’t read it, but one of the scariest scenes in it involves a parent siding against a child.  That alone probably makes it too heavy to be MG.  It also has a suicide and some other pretty dark aspects, so just to be clear:  The Ocean at the End of the Lane = Not MG!

Eva:  Speaking of spoilers…It’s hard for me to know what to say about The Nest  because I don’t want to give too much away.    I entered into this book knowing next to nothing about it, and I’m glad.  I was immediately drawn in from the first beautifully-written and hauntingly-engaging paragraph:  

The first time I saw them, I thought they were angels.  What else could they be, with their pale gossamer wings and the music that came off them, and the light that haloed them?  Right away there was this feeling they’d been watching and waiting, that they knew me.  They appeared in my dreams the tenth night after the baby was born.  

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Meagan: So much my enjoyment of this book was rooted in solving the mystery and slowly figuring out how the different parts fit together.  So, I agree, it’s a story that’s especially susceptible to spoilers.

Eva:  What impressed me about this story was… pretty much everything, but for now I’ll say that the pacing and building of tension was fantastic.  The book really plays with emotions and expectations.  Things are not always what they seem, and the spookiness builds slowly until we reach a truly horror-filled climax.  I can see this book giving an adult the heebie-jeebies, and I say that as a compliment.     

Meagan:  I was also impressed by many aspects of this book, but if I had to pick just one favorite quality it would be the simplicity.  I know in the past I’ve complimented other books on their complexity, so maybe that’s kind of ironic.  While a complex story can be super impressive in the way that a chef-created meal is impressive (the perfect blend of complimentary flavors, unexpected yet perfect combinations of textures, a great wine pairing etc.), a simple story like this one feels like a perfectly simple little story unit all on its own.  Less like a multi-course meal and more like the very best clementine from the box.  The one that’s easy to peel, and completely seedless, and juicy but not messy, sweet and tart all at once.  Maybe I’m going too far with this comparison, but instead of an impressive composition of many things, The Nest is like a sweet little package that doesn’t need anything added.

Eva:  I like that comparison!  (Although I wouldn’t necessarily call this story “sweet.”)  Oppel concentrates solely on the story he is telling and everything in the novel serves a purpose in the main storyline.  He sets it in the summertime, I think, so that he doesn’t have to bother with Steve’s life at school.  Unlike many middle grade books, this isn’t a weaving together of various school, family, and friend storylines.  Oppel also doesn’t feel the need to “prove” to us that Steve is a real kid by showing scenes of Steve in real kid situations (eating lunch in the cafeteria, getting into squabbles with friends, etc.).  Instead, Oppel focuses solely on this very strange experience that Steve is having.

The Nest is also written simply on a sentence-level, but that just makes it seem all the more deep — like fable with an underlying message.  The story is also so imaginative.  Without giving too much away, Steve begins having conversations with a wasp queen in his dreams, and the lines between what’s real and what’s a dream become blurred:  

“And where I am now,” I said, looking around, “this is the nest, isn’t it?”  

“Right again.”  

“It’s a real place.  But I thought…”  

“What did you think?”  

“That I just dreamt you.”  

“You are dreaming.  But it’s also real.”

I wasn’t sure this made any sense.  “But how can I fit inside?”  

“Your dream self can fit into any space,” she said as if it were the simplest notion in the world.  “Outside the nest you’re big.  Inside you’re small.”  

The idea of a wasp-fairy being able to “fix” a sickly baby brother is so interesting and creepy-cool.  Since I just had a baby, I can’t help but wonder if Oppel himself is a parent.  When I swaddled my baby for bed the other night, I suddenly saw the similarity to a wasp pupa tightly swaddled inside a silken cocoon.  I wondered if perhaps that was where Oppel got the idea for this story.  

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Meagan:  Not only is the line between dream and reality blurred, but there’s also a blurry line between “crazy” and “sane.”  This dovetails perfectly with the book’s theme re: flaws that make us who we are.   Steve has been to see a psychiatrist already because of obsessive tendencies and anxiety, so he is worried that others view him as “crazy.”  Then the wasp queen uses this fear to manipulate him further (if he tells anyone about the wasps and their plans then he won’t be believed, might be considered schizophrenic etc.).  Then, as the climactic scene plays out and Steve attempts to defend himself and his baby brother, as a reader I kept thinking…Steve looks completely crazy to any outside observer of these actions.  He could end up getting himself and his brother killed by playing out some paranoid delusion.  It is intense to say the least.  

THIS BOOK REMINDS US OF:

Eva:   Others have compared it to Coraline by Neil Gaiman, and that’s what I would say as well.  Every time Steve talks to the wasp queen he enters an “other” world much like the one Coraline enters.  At first, it seems like a dream-come-true, but slowly the truth (and the horror) emerge.  Meagan, I’m curious to know what you think because I know you’re a huge fan of Neil Gaiman.   

Meagan:   Absolutely, Coraline is a good comparison.  And, as I mentioned above, I was reminded of The Ocean at the End of the Lane (also by Gaiman).  

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THIS BOOK IS A GREAT EXAMPLE OF:

  • An eerie fairy tale
  • Pacing
  • Building of suspense
  • Deep themes in a simple story
  • Simple yet effective language
  • Keeping the focus on a single storyline

FINAL TAKE-AWAYS:  

Eva: A masterfully-written tale of suspense and horror that also explores deeply spiritual themes — a must-read.  

Meagan:  Maybe I like “horror” (or at least certain kinds) more than I think I do.  I think of myself as disliking scary books and trying to avoid them…but I wholeheartedly loved this one. Though I did avoid reading it at night.

Has Becoming a Parent Made the Muses Flee?

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Has Becoming a Parent Made the Muses Flee?

Having a baby means I’ve started making up songs about everything. At changing time I sing a song to the tune of “Let’s All Go to the Lobby” that goes,, “Let’s go check your diaper, let’s go check your diaper, let’s go check your diiii-aper….. and see if there’s some poop.”

I sing a song when she’s cranky that goes “it’s time for wrap time nap time, nap time in the wrap. It’s wrap time nap time, when you feel like crap.” I also sing about her current favorite page of her current favorite Dr. Suess book, Circus McGirkus. The page depicts a creature called the “drum-tummied Snumm” so I sing to the tune of “Chim Chim Cher-ee” something like this: “drum-tummy-tum, drum-tummy-tum, drum-tum-ta-roo.  You love drum-tummied Snumm, and he loves you.” That song has a lot of ever-changing verses and usually includes me playing the drums (gently) on my baby’s belly.

 

My husband and my favorite song (or at least the one that gets stuck in our heads the most) is the song I made up for “tummy time.” It goes, predictably, “tummy time, tummy time, tummy time for baby. Tummy time! Tummy time! Tummy time. Tummy time! Tummy time!”

My brother and his fiancé visited over the weekend, and I’m pretty sure the tummy time song got stuck in their heads, too, especially because we were singing about everything to the tune of it: “Picture time, picture time, pictures with Uncle Deven. Look so cute! Look so cute! Look so cute. Look so cute! Look so cute!”   You get the idea.

I’m sorry to say that my husband and I proved to be like every other set of annoying new parents in that we found it hard to talk to Deven and Lauren about anything other than baby stuff. Oh sure, we asked them about their wedding plans, and we had a few non-baby-related conversations. But we also insisted on showing them our stroller and describing the baby’s sleep habits. We talked to them ad nauseum about the baby’s bodily functions. (Literally ad nauseum…when we described using the Nose Frida snot-sucker during breakfast, Lauren started gagging.)

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With the Nose Frida you can suck your child’s snot out of their nose using the power of your own mouth.  I’m kind of obsessed with it.

 

I’ve been worried about this. I love my baby, but I don’t want to be one of those people who only talks about her kid. That’s why I’ve given myself a goal: at least once a week I will leave the baby at home with Daddy and have myself some adult time. I’ve been successful at this for the past three weeks. The first two times I went out for drinks with friends, and last week I went to my first real yoga class since giving birth.

I’m also slowly finding time between the feedings and the diaper changes to work on writing. I sent in an application for a Work in Progress grant from SCBWI, and I’ve been revising my current manuscript. But one thing I haven’t done in a long time is write any new fiction. I feel I don’t have the time, energy, or brainpower for that.  But I also wonder if, as time goes on and I have more time and energy, I’m going to continue to use the baby as an excuse for why I’m not writing anything new.

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The drum-tummied Snumm of Dr. Suess’s Circus McGirkus.

 

There’s this fear that creeps in on me sometimes, that I am losing my ability to be creative. When I look back at stories I wrote in my early twenties, I’m somewhat in awe.  Not of the story structure or writing itself, but of the uninhibited creativity of my ideas. How did I come up with that? Was I more creative back then? I know I’m a better writer now, but I worry that my ideas and inspirations are not as free-flowing.  I worry that the realities and responsibilities of being an adult, and now a parent, have sent the creative muses looking for someone else — someone with more time and energy and brainpower.

That’s why these stupid little songs I’ve been singing are, in a way, comforting. Coming up with silly rhymes and funny phrases isn’t the same as composing a poem or writing a fictional scene, but it’s still being creative with words, isn’t it?

And maybe, as the baby starts to nap more regularly and I have a little time to myself, the muses will hear me singing “Tummy Time” and decide to pay me a visit.

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Baby meets her Uncle Deven!

 

 

 

 

Why I Don’t Feel (Too) Guilty About Watching TV

Why I Don’t Feel (Too) Guilty About Watching TV

Having an infant is a real roller coaster of emotions. I swoop from highs of loving adoration to valleys of exhausted frustration all day (and night) long. There are times in the night, when she won’t sleep, when I look into her big, blue eyes and implore, “why, Baby? Why are you doing this to me?”

Both my husband and I are finding that nine weeks of constant sleep-deprivation is taking its toll. Recently Paul was making himself a sandwich and put the mustard bottle in the dish rack instead of back in the fridge. The other day I found myself stuffing Baby into her footie pajamas without putting a new diaper on her. Oops.

Some days I have what I call a “tired headache,” and I’ve taken to drinking coffee in the morning – I was never much of a coffee drinker before.

As much as I try to heed my own advice of sleeping when the baby sleeps, she often sleeps on me in her wrap, which makes it difficult for me to nap (though I do manage it sometimes.) And, I must admit, I often use her naps as time to do laundry, eat lunch, take a shower, write this blog post, etc. This is all, of course, when she actually naps. On Monday we had a delightful time in which Baby basically refused to sleep from 1:30 in the afternoon until nine o’clock at night.

So is it any wonder that sometimes I just don’t have the energy for anything other than TV?

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Baby sleeping on me in her wrap.

 

Admitting to binging on TV shows is one thing, but here’s the real secret: since coming home with Baby from the hospital, I have watched the entire first season (all twenty-two episodes) of Pretty Little Liars.

PLL (as I like to call it) is a ridiculous teen soap/drama. A girl is murdered and her four gorgeous friends (who always have perfect hair and awesome clothes) are being plagued by text messages from a mysterious person who somehow knows all their secrets. Not a whole lot happens in each episode (although lots of meaningful glances are exchanged between characters), and anyone with half a brain can follow the plot. Which is great, because half a brain is what I feel like I’m working with most days.

Not that I’ve become a total TV-junkie. I’ve read four books since coming home with Baby from the hospital, and I just started another (Little Strangers by Sarah Waters – enjoying it so far!) As long as the book is on Kindle it’s pretty easy to read one-handed while I breastfeed. But sometimes, honestly, I’m too tired to read, so I open up Netflix.

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I’ve watched some legitimately good shows in addition to my guilty pleasure of PLL. I thoroughly enjoyed American Crime Story: The People Vs. O.J. Simpson. I also re-watched Season 1 of the Netflix Original series Love before binging on Season 2. At night, my husband and I watch episodes of Brooklyn 99.

Sometimes I feel guilty about all this TV. Shouldn’t I be reading instead? Reading is better for me, isn’t it? It’s what will help me with my writing. But for one thing, I need to give myself a break. I’m taking care of a two-month old and running on only a few hours of sleep each night. I can and should watch a few TV shows if I darn well want to.

For another thing, aren’t TV shows just a different way to tell stories? And isn’t telling stories what writers do? TV shows can teach me at least a little bit about plotting and character development and dialogue. In fact, I often think that a good novel chapter is much like a good TV show episode: it has conflict and a mini-plot arc that fits into the larger plot arc… and it ends with a cliffhanger, of course.

Even silly PLL may have lessons for me. If I want to write for teens (which I do) then watching a teen show isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Of course, Season One of PLL is from 2010. If I really want to get hip to the teens of today, I’ll need to work my way through all seven seasons. Whew, that’s a lot of episodes… I better lose the guilt and get to watching!

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Is my baby reading more books than I am?

 

Back to Work: 5 Challenges to Writing a Diary-Style Novel

Back to Work:  5 Challenges to Writing a Diary-Style Novel

(For the 5 challenges, scroll down.)

It’s hard to believe that today my daughter is eight weeks old. It’s also hard to believe that many mothers are back to work full time by now. I cannot imagine.

Actually, I CAN imagine, and it seems awful. It’s still rare that I get more than two and a half hours of uninterrupted sleep at a time, and I’m often up for hours in the middle of the night to feed, diaper, and soothe her. If I had to be at work at 8 am with a one-hour commute (that’s what I did when I worked full time), I’d be waking by 5 every morning to get myself and the baby ready for the day. I’d get home at 6, so I don’t know when I’d have time to cook dinner, do the laundry, play with the baby, or hang out with my husband. And don’t get me started on how annoying it would be to pump at work. I feel both great admiration and great sympathy for full-time working mothers of infants.

Although I haven’t gone back to either of my paying jobs yet (except for Skype tutoring once a week), I’m trying to get back to my writing work. There’s a Work in Progress grant I plan to apply for, and the application deadline is March 31. All I need to do is make a few light revisions in my manuscript, write a synopsis, and polish up the first 10 pages for submittal. But you’d be amazed how long these tasks are taking me. I do most of my work with a baby strapped to me, bouncing her as I type to keep her pacified. In fact, that’s how I’m writing this blog right now!

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This is me and the baby right now.  Shh, she’s sleeping to the sound of my keyboard typing!

 

The first six weeks of Baby’s life I didn’t do any writing except this blog, but I did do some manuscript swapping with other writers. I got feedback on my draft from a few people, and I gave feedback to a few writer friends. I managed to read one full manuscript for my friend Bethany, often while breastfeeding. Ironically, hers is a novel written as diary entries, which is the format of my manuscript as well!  (Check out Bethany’s blog here!)

Writing a novel as a series of diary entries is great in a lot of ways. As Bethany pointed out to me, it can help you fully realize your main character’s voice. It’s also a good way to explore the protagonist’s emotions AND to keep the story in the present moment – both of which tend to be important in YA and Middle Grade books, and that is what both Bethany and I are writing.

But, as I read Bethany’s manuscript and began to review my own, I realized that there are some challenges to the diary format as well.

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Hard to get much work done with this little babe!

5 CHALLENGES TO WRITING A NOVEL IN DIARY FORMAT:

  1. Readers must suspend disbelief.

Most people don’t keep diaries. Those that do don’t often write extensive, frequent entries. And chances are, in order to tell a good story, your protagonist is going to do just that. She is going to include full scenes with description and dialogue instead of just telling briefly what happened.

Your job as a writer is to make both the voice and the story so engaging that the reader doesn’t stop to wonder whether the character would really take the time to write all of this in her diary.

 

  1. It’s difficult to include backstory and explanations.

If a character is writing a diary, she is essentially writing something for herself. Therefore, why would she need to tell herself about something that happened in the past? Instead she might write, “my visit to Grandma’s was just as bad as last time,” without going into detail about what happened last time. After all, she already knows. Perhaps she even wrote about it previously in her journal. She also might not take the time to fully describe people or places. Why would she bother to describe to her diary her mother’s appearance, or what her bedroom looks like?

Your job as a writer is to find a way to tell the story vividly while still staying true to the diary-style format. One way to get around this challenge is to write an epistolary novel (a novel in letters) instead of diary entries. If your character is writing to another person, it makes sense that she would do more explaining and describing.

One book that finds a way to overcome this challenge is The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky. It’s essentially a diary-style novel, but the entries are written as letters that the main character sends to an anonymous person. Here’s the very first page:

Dear friend,

I am writing to you because she said you listen and understand and didn’t try to sleep with that person at that party even though you could have. Please don’t try to figure out who she is because then you might figure out who I am, and I really don’t want you to do that. I will call people by different names or generic names because I don’t want you to find me. I didn’t enclose a return address for the same reason. I mean nothing bad by this. Honest.

So that’s one way to do it.

 

  1. Grammar and style gets tricky.

If your protagonist is a teen or preteen, are you going to write the way a kid that age would actually write? Well, yes and no. You don’t want to include all the spelling and grammatical mistakes your protagonist would likely make in real life because that would make for annoying reading. Instead, you’re going to write using the rules of the English language and find other ways (word choice, sentence style, content, etc.) to make the diary seem realistic.

You can make your own decisions, but chances are you’re going to indent your paragraphs and use quotation marks for dialogue. Chances are you’re not going to use ten exclamation points even though that’s what a real teenager writing in a diary might do. In the same way that you shouldn’t write dialogue exactly the way people speak (with all the “ums” and “likes”) you also don’t need the entries to be exactly the way your character would write them.  After all, this is a work of fiction.  You’re not trying to replicate a teenager’s diary; you’re simply using the diary as a device to tell a story.

There are plenty of ways to make the diary feel real without resorting to misspelled words, all-caps, and ovelry-exuberant punctuation.  The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie is scattered throughout with cartoons that have been drawn by the narrator and look like they have been taped into the book.  In Me, Earl, and the Dying Girl by Jesse Andrews, the narrator, teenage movie buff and aspiring director Greg Gaines, writes out scenes of his life as if they are screenplays. In this way, Alexie and Andrews give their books a unique “diary feel” without breaking grammar rules.

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From The Absolutey True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie.  (Illustrations by Ellen Forney)

 

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An excerpt from Me, Earl, and the Dying Girl by Jesse Andrews.  Note that Andrews follows the appropriate style guidelines for screenplays!

 

  1. Tense can get tricky.  

When you’re writing a diary style novel, you have to think about when your character is sitting down to write these entries. Is she writing about what happened that day or yesterday? Is she writing once a week about the whole week? She might be feeling a certain way right now (present tense) about something that happened yesterday (past tense) or something that’s going to happen tomorrow (future tense).

This challenge isn’t too hard to manage, but, what if you want your character to be more reflective about her experiences; what if you want her to be making some realizations that she might not make in the moment? Or, what if it’s unrealistic that your character would have been chronicling things on a day to day basis? Maybe she didn’t have time.  Maybe she didn’t realize until after the fact that something big and important was happening to her. Maybe, instead of writing diary entries, she could instead be looking back from a certain vantage point and writing about an important time in her life.

Of course, if you’re writing YA or Middle Grade, the narrator in this case should still be young and looking back on something that happened fairly recently. The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger and We Were Liars by E. Lockhart both do this. In The Catcher and Rye, for example, Holden is writing an account of the recent past: “I’ll just tell you about this madman stuff that happened to me around last Christmas just before I got pretty run-down and had to come out here and take it easy.”

Anyway, this is a good alternative to the diary-entry style.

 

  1. Diary entries lend themselves to telling instead of showing.

Think about how you might have written a diary entry as an angsty teen. Something like this, perhaps:

Oh my god, I HATE Linda right now. She is being such a BITCHY BITCH!!!!!! She told EVERYBODY at the bus stop I wasn’t wearing deodorant, and they all laughed at me and called me a stinky pig. I’m seriously not talking to her anymore. She SUUUUCKS and is officially no longer my friend!!!!!!!!

You see what I mean? First of all, I don’t think I’d want to read a whole book like that, riddled with excessive explanation points.  Secondly, in most books, this would be a scene, right? We’d be at the bus stop with Linda and the protagonist. We’d get a little description of the other kids. We’d get the dialogue of what exactly was said. We’d be SHOWN the bitchiness of Linda instead of being told about it. Although it’s fine to have some telling in a diary-style novel, you really have to include scenes and dialogue.

In essence, when writing in this style, you have to continually walk the line of making it seem like a diary, yet making it an engaging story.  Not easy to do.

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Should I write my novel as diary entries?  Hmm, let me think about it…

 

In fact, I think Bethany has decided to do away with diary-style for her novel.  She says it helped her find her character’s voice, but now she’s going to tell the story in first-person past tense, no diary entries necessary.

As for me, I’m sticking with diary entries for now.  I got the idea for this novel by reading over some of my own ninth grade diary entries, and I fell in love with how open and vulnerable and emotional and often hilarious (sometimes unintentionally) I was when writing for myself.  I wanted to write a story that had a similar tone.  Will I succeed?  Only time will tell!

Wish me luck getting together my submission for the Work in Progress grant, and wish me luck getting this little baby to sleep at night!

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Baby loves to sleep on Mommy!