Saturday, December 11, 2010

New look!

If you're looking for Wistful Wanderings, you've found it. I initially chose that blog name because it reflected what I was writing at the time: travel adventure stories for kids.

Over the past year, my writing repertoire has broadened and my picture book focus has shifted to animal and ecology-based topics.I decided it was time my blog reflected my work. Thanks to my  husband for the gorgeous photo.

Wishing you all the best this holiday season. See you in January!

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Break time

From the Chop-tensils blog

After much thought, I've decided that I need to take a break from the blog. It's that time of year (holidays + end-of-semester) when there's simply too much to do.

I am also at a crossroads, preparing to leap through the proverbial door that the universe recently opened to me.  Which means... I need some time to figure things out. But I will return in January. I'll have new content (already working on it--very excited!) and a new look. In fact, even the name will go. As I said, it's a transitional time.

I am incredibly grateful to all of you who stop by, read, and comment. Thank you. Good luck finishing NaNoWriMo, PiBoIdMo, or whatever other -Mo you've been participating in. I wish you all the best.


Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Making your writing accessible to the reader

I'm reading Noah Lukeman's The First Five Pages (thank you, Justine!), and I had to laugh when I got to his chapter on style, particularly the standard academic style.  Noah gives fabulous (if exaggerated) examples of each of the issues he discusses in the book. Here's one sentence (yes, just one) from his example of the academic style:
The internal structure of the bureaucracy, as witnessed by Chief Councilor Spiros Andros an documented by Epilos, was not unlike the Cartesian dynasty of the 6th century, under the little-known Habacus of Southern France (ibid, p. 899), not in its want of a political head, that is to say, a leader, but rather in its seeming tolerance and perhaps even inclination towards that one desire man has been struggling to conquer since the earliest days of Scripture.

Makes you want to get out the blue pencil, doesn't it? As an academic, I found this hilarious because... it's true. This is what reading academic papers is like (not all, there are some fabulous writers in academia, but they are rare and their writing should be treasured). I always wondered why I fell asleep when doing research as a grad student—why I couldn't remember what a paper was about for the group discussion just one hour later—but now it's crystal clear: it's because academics write like this.

I've been writing for Nature Education Knowledge, which is an online educational resource geared toward undergraduates (but also applicable to the advanced high school student). I've contributed to the Ecology topics, both as a writer and as a reviewer. All papers are peer-reviewed: reviewed by other members of the academic community for readability and accuracy. 

I've noticed two main problems in the papers I've reviewed. One is a lack of accessible vocabulary; the use of jargon that only other scientists would know. The other is the tendency of academics to write long, convoluted sentences (see above) that are nearly impossible to follow unless you are already intimately familiar with the subject matter.

This doesn't work for an educational publication. More often that not, I find myself suggesting that the author cut long sentences into two, sometimes three separate sentences. If the reader can grasp the concept within one short sentence, then s/he will be prepared to take on the next one. But if the concept is wrapped within another concept, this task becomes nearly impossible. Particularly when the reader must understand the terminology in order to understand the concept (authors can mark terms for inclusion in the glossary, but readers must look up the terms before they can continue reading).

This may sound like it's only applicable to academic writing, but it's not. In writing for children, one of the reasons non-fiction articles are rejected by magazines is because they are written at an inappropriate level for the intended reader. The same goes for writing books for children. New terms must be explained in an understandable way, using short sentences that the readers (or listeners) can understand. Knowledge is built, step by step.

And this all applies to fiction just as much as it does to non-fiction. Know what farandolae are? Or what kything is? Did you know what a pensieve was before you read Harry Potter? These are all fictional objects from fabulous books, terms that may become commonplace, but only because the authors who coined them explained them in an accessible way. So think about the vocabulary you use. Pay careful attention to sentence length. And see if your writing doesn't improve.

What is your favorite object from a work of fiction? What does it do?

Friday, November 12, 2010

Surgery and the rules of Vonnegut

I'm not blogging much these days, largely because I've been playing surgeon, and, like most surgeons, I have found it better to focus my attention on one thing and do it well, rather than do lots of things poorly.

After taking a close look at my MG fantasy, I decided the first half was... how to put this delicately... in need of some first aid. I started bandaging it, but after too many bandages, I realized it needed a full-on operation. So I donned my surgical gloves and rewrote most of the first 20K words over the past 10 days. It's now out of intensive care but will be going in for check-ups (i.e., revisions) over the coming weeks.

Speaking of revisions, Elana Johnson has a great post about how her revision process works. You probably already check her blog on a daily basis, but in case you don't (or missed it), go check it out.

What, you ask, does this have to do with Vonnegut? Nothing really, except that my husband found Kurt Vonnegut's Tips for Writing Fiction. And since I'm mired in that process and found it helpful (#6... gotta work on #6!), I thought you might like it, too.

How is your WIP coming?

Monday, November 8, 2010

Query questions

I am still working on revisions for my MG fantasy, and I've hit a bit of a stumbling block.

The agent I will be querying liked the first 500 words and said she wanted to continue reading, at which point she asked me to query with the first 10 pages. But she also had some comments within those first 500 words about things that would need to be changed.

My question: when I query, do I submit the original 10 pages, so that she is (quite literally) reading on? Or do I submit revised pages, to show that I am a good little author who can work with comments and revise accordingly? I'm leaning toward the latter, but I really don't know.

I need advice, writer friends. What would you do?

Friday, November 5, 2010

Things to know about agents

Since I'm in the process of writing query letters (two, actually, one for my nonfiction PB, another for the MG fantasy), agents are very much on my mind this week.

And what should I discover on Twitter but a marvelous blog post by Nicola Morgan about the misconceptions people have about agents. If you want to get an agent, check it out. Then go and read Rachelle Gardner's post and the series of posts by Wendy Lawton about agentfail.  They are all well worth the read.


Do you have an agent or are you looking for one? What are your expectations?

Monday, November 1, 2010

On your mark! Get set! Wait a minute...

I'm back! Sorry for the two weeks without posts. I was busy enjoying time with family that I hadn't seen in over a year. I have some fun things from my trip to share, but not today. Now I'm home, jet lagged (why is the sun shining at 2:30 in the morning?), and ready to launch into NaNoWriMo.

Or not.

Last week, I got a rather exciting email. A literary agent asked me to query my MG fantasy after reading the first 500 words. Somehow, I don't think it would be in my interest to wait until December to do so.

So now I have to write a query and do some serious revisions on the MS to make it respectable shine. Looks like my first NaNo attempt will have to be postponed. :(

Next year, NaNo, next year. You can't avoid me forever.

What are your plans and goals for this month?

Monday, October 18, 2010

Have you heard?


To pilot the fleet’s finest ship…

Few options remain for Byron. A talented but stubborn young man with a troubled past and rebellious attitude, his cockpit skills are his only hope. Slated to train as a Cosbolt fighter pilot, Byron is determined to prove his worth and begin a new life as he sets off for the moon base of Guaard.

Much to Byron’s chagrin, the toughest instructor in the fleet takes notice of the young pilot. Haunted by a past tragedy, Bassa eventually sees through Byron's tough exterior and insolence. When a secret talent is revealed during training, Bassa feels compelled to help Byron achieve his full potential.

As war brews on the edge of space, time is running short. Byron requires a navigator of exceptional quality to survive, and Bassa must make a decision that could well decide the fate of both men. Will their skills be enough as they embark on a mission that may stretch their abilities to the limit?

Intriguing, isn't it? Alex J. Cavanaugh's debut CassaStar releases today!!! Congratulations, Alex!

“…calls to mind the youthful focus of Robert Heinlein’s early military sf, as well as the excitement of space opera epitomized by the many Star Wars novels. Fast-paced military action and a youthful protagonist make this a good choice for both young adult and adult fans of space wars.” - Library Journal



Alex J. Cavanaugh [of The Great Blogging Experiment fame] has a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree and works in web design and graphics. He’s experienced in technical editing and worked with an adult literacy program for several years. A fan of all things science fiction, his interests range from books and movies to music and games. Currently he lives in the Carolinas with his wife.
http://alexjcavanaugh.blogspot.com/

CassaStar by Alex J. Cavanaugh
October 19, 2010 Science fiction/adventure/space opera
ISBN 9780981621067 Dancing Lemur Press LLC

AMAZON
BARNES & NOBLE
BAM
Also available in eBook format for Kindle, iPad, Nook, and others

Friday, October 15, 2010

Writerly surprises

Remember Justine Dell's amazing contest? I won! I never win stuff like this (but I can't say that anymore, can I?). I got to choose my prize, and I opted for The First Five Pages by Noah Lukeman. I am so excited. Thank you, Justine! And congratulations to the other seven lucky winners!

Big Boots; photo from Cowboys and Indians Magazine
We're currently wrapping up a few days in San Antontio, Texas and head to Austin today. And I just discovered that the Texas Book Festival is in Austin this weekend. I am SO excited!!  We plan to ditch a family barbeque to go. No, not really, but we have found a fabulous set of children's book sessions that we plan to attend, so the kids should be just as happy as I am. :-D

What does life have planned for you this weekend?

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Time savers and security blankets

There are so many terrific writing blogs out there, it makes my head spin. Really. There's just so much to take in, sometimes. But every now and then I come across a tip or trick that has really made my life easier. Here are the three that I use on a daily basis.

Document map. If you are writing something lengthy (like, say, a novel, or an in-depth non-fiction book), and you write using Word, document map is your friend. I learned about this from Casey McCormick's blog, Literary Rambles.

Highlight the item you want to map, right click and select paragraph. In the upper right corner, change Outline Level from Body Text to Level 1. Voila! If you don't see the document map (table of contents to the left of your document), go to View > Document Map. Saves an untold amount of time in not searching for that thing you wrote... you know... back in that scene... the one that was, like... three scenes ago? Yep. I've probably saved hours with this one.

Dropbox. How often do you back up your files? How do you do it? Save to the computer, plus a memory stick or external hard drive? Burn to a CD that you carry with you everywhere you go? I do some of those, but I no longer have to worry about having my backups in the same place because I also use Dropbox.

Dropbox stores your documents (in a secure format) on a cloud (computer cloud, not the fluffy white kind). You can set up Dropbox on any number of computers, so that you can access your work from anywhere. And the kicker? It automatically syncs what's on the cloud with what's on your computer when you boot up. It also saves older versions in case you need to back-track. So you always have the version you need, wherever you might be. If you are interested in Dropbox, send me an email (anpstevens [at] gmail). If I 'refer' you, we both get extra storage space.*

Unison. Unison is free software that synchronizes your files between two drives (e.g., your hard drive and a memory stick, external hard drive, or remote site). It checks the files on both sources and compares them. This is really helpful if you're inconsistent about where you save your work, in which case you don't want to copy everything from one drive to the other and risk losing recent work.

When Unison is ready to sync, you can see exactly which files have changed, and the arrows make it clear which file is the newer version. You have complete control over whether or not Unison changes anything (you can skip a file or revert to the older version during a synchronization event) before you allow it to proceed, and it syncs in both directions. You can download Unison here.

* This is not a paid endorsement for any of these things, nor am I telling you about Dropbox because I want more storage space. I just think it's an incredibly handy way to back things up and have them accessible from anywhere.

What are your favorite writing tricks?

Friday, October 8, 2010

I'm sorry...

I have no idea what time zone I'm in at the moment. I switched seven of them yesterday, and I think I left my brain somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic. My kids? One seems to be on Icelandic time, the other closer to Bermuda.

Which brings me to my apology... I'm not going to be able to post much over the next few weeks. Or comment. :(

As I'm sure you all know, family that one last visited two years ago doesn't really like it when one sneaks off to spend time with blog buddies rather than time with the fam. Even if one tells the world about the last visit.

Oh, I will sneak off now and then, but not at my regularly scheduled Mon-Wed-Fri times. And I will stop by your wonderful blogs, but not as often as I'd like. I hope you'll forgive me and I hope you'll still remember me when I'm back. :)

In the meantime, have a fabulous weekend.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

I sat down to write the other day and...

Rachael Harrie at Rach Writes... started the Writers Platform-Building Crusade, which comes complete with challenges! Woohoo! And the first one is to write something, anything, starting with I sat down to write the other day and...

But first, if you're not part of the crusade, you should check it out. It's fun. I've met lots of interesting people, and the more who participate, the more fun it will be. Now, without further ado...

I sat down to write the other day and was just hitting my groove when the phone rang. I was tempted to ignore it, but since it could have been the school calling, I answered.

"Guten Tag. Mein Name ist..... und ich rufe Ihnen an weil..." My brain, still stuck in the story, heard something more like this, "Καλωσόρισες το όνομά μου είναι... ζητώ σήμερα διότι..."*

"Wie bitte?" I responded, trying to buy time while my brain switched langauges (this usually takes around 2-3 minutes, sometimes as long as five).

The caller repeated his spiel (used here as an English word, rather than German). This time through, I managed to pick out some of the important words, but I still missed the general point of the call.

I asked him to speak more slowly, to which he replied in an exasperated voice. "ICH... RUFE... IHNEN... AN..." Yeah, I'm neither deaf nor stupid, just needed time.

Done with the phone, I sat down at the computer and tried to remember what my characters had been doing. Riding an elephant? No, but something to do with an animal...

Trying to get the story back in my head, I glanced out the window to see the neighbor boys playing. One looks remarkably like ten-year-old Harry Potter**, and I briefly imagined him jumping on a Nimbus Two-Thousand and playing quidditch instead of soccer. That, at least, would explain the ball that kept flying past my window.

Focus, focus, I thought, and I finally got back into my story. The animal was a bird (elephant? what was I thinking?), and the characters took it from there. I enjoyed a good writing session (look! to the right! The WIP is now a first draft!), and then it was time to pick up the kids.

As I walked to the bus stop, I thought about my newest picture book idea. Explorers. Maybe it could be about two kids exploring Mars. Not non-fiction, but the fictional story could be the backdrop to the factual back matter. Or maybe not.

*I do not speak Greek, and if the translation above is not the Greek equivalent of "Hello, my name is... I'm calling you because..." I apologize. Please direct your complaints to freetranslation.com.
** The neighbor really does look like Harry Potter, I did not make this up just because of some silly challenge rules (although it was a great way to meet the challenge). :)

What are your greatest writing distractions?

Monday, October 4, 2010

Fifty Followers and an Award!

Well if this isn't a moment to celebrate... I just hit 50 followers! And I was given my first blog award!!

I am honored, humbled, and grateful that so many of you come here and comment on my posts because, really, that's what makes all of this worthwhile for me.

Many, many thanks to Donna Hole and Quinn for passing the award on to me. (Donna gave it to me the day of my Snarwal creative writing exercise which also lost me a  follower, so thank you Donna!!)  Please stop by their blogs, which are very different but equally terrific to follow.

The rules for this award are simply to acknowledge the giver and to pass it on to 15 blogs that you enjoy reading/have recently discovered.

And now I pass it on to (listed in no particular order)...
  1. Jessica Stanford at Girl, Unpublished
  2. Jen K Blom
  3. Astrid Paramita
  4. Christie Wright Wild at Write Wild
  5. Julie Hedlund at Write Up My Life
  6. Serena at I see you see
  7. Dawn Embers at Its in the Book
  8. Catherine Johnson at Kangaroobee's Blog
  9. Marieke at Marieke's Musings
  10. Madeleine at Scribble and Edit
  11. Lola Sharp at Sharp Pen/Dull Sword
  12. Patricia A. Timms at Simplicity in Volumes
  13. Adina West at Stairways and Landings
  14. Megan K. Bickel at The Write at Home Mom
  15. JEFritz at Still Writing...
This award seems to be making the rounds, so some of you may be getting it for the second time. But it's still well-deserved. :)

Friday, October 1, 2010

Woodsville

Serena at I see you see is hosting the Location, Location, Location blogfest today...

Looking for cool shade in summer, brilliant folliage in fall, pines blanketed with snow in winter, and bubbling brooks in spring? Woodsville provides all of these and more. Lose yourself among the fir trees, gather hazelnuts and chestnuts, and discover clearings blooming with wildflowers of every color. Each season Woodsville bursts with life in its various forms. Come reconnect with nature!



* * *

Autumn weather started really early here this year, back at the start of August. We've had cool temperatures, lots of rain, and very little sunshine (but today is an exception--the glare of sunlight on my computer monitor makes it doubly hard to force myself to stay inside and work).

But there's an upside.

The color of the fall foliage this year is the most intense I have ever seen (or can remember seeing, at any rate). I've been carrying a camera with me everywhere for the past week, wanting to capture the bold reds, oranges, yellows, even pinks (yes, pink leaves!). And since they make me happy, I thought I'd share them with you.




What's your favorite season? Why?

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Commitment

I did it. I just signed up for NaNoWriMo. It's not just talk anymore. I actually have to write a 50,000 page novel in November. What on earth was I thinking?

The moment I clicked the button and made a commitment, all of my plot ideas, character outlines, etc. fled my brain. They're gone. I can only hope they'll come back over the coming weeks. Tentatively at first, I'm sure, but then with greater purpose. I really hope I won't be so distracted by travel and jet lag that I'm not able to bring them back.  Because, really... I'm kind of freaking out right now.

But I did find this great site on How to Win at NaNoWriMo. I've done step 1, now I need to do something else for today until I can work on step 2. I sure hope my muse decides to make an appearance on November 1.

* * *

In WIP Wednesday news, I'm plodding along with Trifocal (73% done at this writing). Still not sure if I'm going to finish in the next week, but I'll try.

Are you doing NaNoWriMo this year? What progress have you made with your current WIP (or WsIP)?

Monday, September 27, 2010

Piecing it all together

I'm single-parenting this week while Beloved Husband attends a conference.

First and foremost, I have to say that I have the utmost respect for single parents. Honestly, I don't know how they do it every day. I love spending time with my kids, but it's hard to give them the attention they want (and need) when I need to feed them, keep them in clean clothes, bathe them, and teach (my day job).

And then there's what I want... to spend quality time with my kids and quality time writing. Trifocal is nearing the end, and I want to get 'er done before I start traveling next month week. Gah!

So how is it possible to do anything writing-related? Well, Trifocal might be on hold for a bit, but... I started doing a bit of research for NaNoWriMo by collecting inspirational photos from magazines.

Jennifer Daiker at unedited does character collages, and Tera Lynn Childs did a vlog about character collages at WriteOnCon last month. And they got me thinking (yep, it happens sometimes)... not only can I do character collages to better understand who my characters are, I can also find great images of locations or events that I might incorporate into a story.

So this weekend, we pulled out the last two years' worth of National Geographics and went to town. I cut out anything that I thought might come in handy at some point in the future: scenery and people for my novels and cool animals that might make good subjects for a non-fiction PB. The kids got to tear out anything I didn't want that interested them (which, for the oldest, was just about everything... I listened to a constant stream of "Oh, wow, look at this!" for over an hour).

The result? I have a little box filled with inspirational bits and pieces to post on my magnetic board, so when I get back from my travels, I'll be ready to jump into NaNoWriMo. And I got to spend quality time with my kids. Win-win situations don't get much better than that.

If you have a family, how do you carve out time for family and writing?

Friday, September 24, 2010

Writer's Platform-Building Crusade

Rachael Harrie over at Rach Writes has started a Writer's Platform-Building Crusade. Those who are interested in building their platforms and paying it forward to help others do the same are encouraged to join.

Why? Because so many of us are in the early stages of building our platforms. Because we could all use a little support from one another. And because it's a great way to get to know new people in the blogosphere. To be honest, my favorite thing about blogging is the connections I have made with other bloggers (not to mention the amazing information they publish every day). So I'm in.

Want to join us? Here's what you need to do:
  1. Follow Rach Writes
  2. Comment on her Inaugural Writer's Platform-Building Crusade post
  3. Write about the crusade on your blog and link back to said post
  4. Spread the word (on Twitter, she's @RachaelHarrie and the hashtag is #WPBC1)
Welcome to my new followers and fellow crusaders! Thanks for participating in my suffering for art poll (which is still going, please vote over there to the right if you haven't yet--it's functional now, or at least was at the time I wrote this post).

* * *

On a separate, yet related pay-it-forward note, don't miss the first monthly followup to WriteOnCon this coming Monday, September 27. The amazing organizers will have a live event with Jessica Sinsheimer (Sarah Jane Freymann Literary Agency), Roseanne Wells (Marianne Strong Literary Agency), and others to be announced.

WriteOnCon, 9:00pm EDT Monday (or 3:00am Tuesday, my time—thank goodness for archives!)

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Suffering for Art

Last week, Mercedes at A Broken Laptop wrote a post about the migraines she experiences, and how they hinder her ability to write. As I read the comments, I was struck by the number of people who mentioned that they also experience migraines, and I got to wondering: just how many of us suffer for our art?

It's entirely possible that headaches (including migraines), arm, hand, shoulder and back pain have nothing to do with our creative efforts. But then again, it's entirely possible that they do. I have trouble with all of the above (except migraines, and for that I am extremely grateful), and since I started writing in earnest, I've found that they've gotten worse. Yoga and trigger point therapy are the only things that keep me functional.

But what everyone else? I'd like to see how common this is. Please vote in the poll to the right (I *think* you can enter more than one response) and we'll see just how many of us suffer for our art/passion/obsessions.

Please spread the word about the poll, so we can get as many people included as possible (please vote if you don't experience pain, too!).

If we can collect enough evidence, we might be able to convince conference organizers to include sessions on yoga and pain management. ;)

Friday, September 17, 2010

The Snarwal

This is my scene for the creativity challenge: snarwal, glass box, cavern.

Bioluminescent waves by Jed, Wikimedia Commons

The Snarwal limped into the yawning cavern beneath the ice. With his one good eye, he squinted into the darkness, searching for a glimmer of light.

"Nothing. One hundred years of searching to break the Mer-witch's spell. No caverns left." He slumped against the cavern wall.

The realization that his long, straight tooth would be forever replaced by the twisted, gnarled, useless thing that held him prisoner hit him hard. He began to weep, great heaving sobs that sloshed the water in undulating waves.

After a time, the Snarwal realized that the roof of the cave—the bottom of the ice shelf—pulsed with faint light. Tiny creatures, riding on the moving water, turned on their bioluminescent glow each time the water moved.

Looking around, the Snarwal noticed that the glow brightened further back in the cavern. He limped along, sloshing the water to keep the luminescence alive.

The back wall of the cave was crusted with barnacles. A lone sea star crept across a shelf of open shells. From behind the shelf came a soft glow, much brighter than the one that illuminated the rest of the cavern.

The Snarwal brushed a fin behind the shelf. He'd found it—the box! He tried to lift it, but his fins weren't made for the job. He bashed the coral with his tail, but the coral held fast.

In a growing frenzy, the Snarwal attacked the coral with his deformed tooth. The sea star—now missing an arm—flew out into the water. The barnacles shattered.

The tooth lodged in a crevice. Enraged by his imprisonment, the Snarwal yanked and pulled. The cavern grew bright as violent waves crashed against the icy ceiling.

Crack! The coral shelf broke free. The Snarwal fell backward, the great hunk of coral skeleton impaled on his gnarled sword.

In the open space lay a glass box. The contents shifted: glowing, swirling, shimmering in the fading light of the cavern. Through an opening in the coral, the Snarwal squinted at it, transfixed. He reached out a fin to touch it, waiting for the spell to break. But nothing happened.

Anger coursed through his body. He lifted the hunk of coral and smashed it down on the box.

Instantly, the tiny glowing things swirled around him. The light was too much for his dark-adjusted eye, and he squeezed it shut.

Tingling. Twitching. The weight on his tooth slid away. The Snarwal dared to open his eye. To his astonishment, both eyes opened—fully. Before him stretched a long, straight narwal tooth. The lump of coral lay before him on the cavern floor.

The spell was broken.

* * *

If you wrote, drew, painted, or otherwise created something for this challenge, please post a link to your work in the comments below. And I welcome comments and criticism on mine.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

WIP Wednesday

Today is the day for the Creativity Challenge offering (see the challenge prompts over there to the right), but since it is also WIP Wednesday, I'll post my scene on Friday (it'll be cold, dark, and wet with just a hint of magic, you'll want to check it out).

WIP. Or WIPs (or should that be WsIP?). Either way, I've got more than one. Here's where they stand.

My middle grade mystery, Trifocal, is over the half-way point. To celebrate (and keep me on task), I've put a counter up to track my progress. Let's hope that blue bar grows on a daily basis. My goal is to finish it by the end of this month. We shall see how that plays out, but I'll be traveling a lot in October and won't get any writing done then. Good motivation, at any rate.

I decided 40,000 words was a reasonable goal for Trifocal, and I was thrilled to discover that it fits well within current publishing word counts. See this great article by Colleen Lindsay on genre and word count. I had been thinking 50,000 words would be better, but that turns out to be a bit long for middle grade.

I sent off a magazine article last week, have another in the envelope waiting to head for the Post Office today, and I'm putting together a query for a third. I've done my research and these all fall under "current needs" at their respective magazines, so let's hope the editors like them.

I wrote a new non-fiction picture book about migrating trees. Yep, they migrate. They're just slow. I'll have that off to my critique group at the start of October.

Revisions for my middle grade fantasy are on hold for the moment, in light of everything else I'm trying to do. Whew! I didn't feel as though I was making any progress, but now I do. =)

How are you projects going?

Monday, September 13, 2010

Stormy Memories

The winds picked up outside, but I only heard the growing howl when the air conditioner cycled off. The change roused me from my shallow sleep and I listened, tense, wondering how bad it would get. Then the AC cycled back on, drowning out the noise. I fell into a fitful sleep once more.

Until the house went silent.

The whine of the air conditioner abruptly stopped, the nightlight in the hallway went out, and the house felt like a silent tomb without the hum of electricity. Outside, the winds gusted stronger, and I could hear rain slashing against the windows. How the others remained asleep was a mystery to me.

Hearing someone in another part of the house, I got out of bed.  No need for a robe on a sultry night like this. Or was it morning? I glanced out the window, but it was impossible to tell.

My father-in-law stood in the kitchen. The emergency radio was on, and a monotonous voice recited the counties getting hit hardest, then a rundown of where the tornadoes were expected to hit next. No sign of them in our area, which was a relief.

We'd spent days preparing: stockpiling food, bottled water, batteries. We had tried four stores before finding batteries for the flashlights. The stores had been overflowing with people; like holiday shoppers, they had dashed for the items most in demand.

All the while, the sun had been shining in a clear blue sky that belied the monstrous storm churning in the Gulf. Now we had to hope that the supplies we had obtained were enough to get us through.

Having gotten little sleep, I desperately wanted coffee, but without electricity, there was none to be had. So I took some candles offered by my father-in-law and wandered into the living room.

In the dim light, the trees danced with a striking grace. As one, they leaned far to the left until some of the longest branches brushed against the ground. Then the wind abruptly shifted, and they twisted wildly in another direction. Limbs tore from the trunk to go flying into the pond. The windmill-styled weather vane spun so fast, I wondered if the axle would wear through.

After a while, the rest of the family woke and came wandering into the dimly lit room. The sun was up, now, but we could see nothing more than a dark gray sky.

The winds continued to strengthen, and the windows bowed under the pressure. Light coming through them bent at odd angles and the reflections of the candles swayed under the power of the storm. I wondered how long it would be before the windows broke. And where we would go when that happened.

The rain came in waves, sometimes as a wind-blown mist, other times in a torrent that masked everything outside. The winds continued to howl.

"Mama, come see!"

I left the safety of the couch to approach the window. At the edge of the yard two deer lay on the ground, waiting for the hurricane to blow itself out. They surprised me. I don't know what I thought the wild creatures would do during a storm like this, but just waiting it out--exposed--sure wasn't it.

Behind the deer, the trees  twisted in unnatural ways, bowing to the strength of the winds. And then, without warning, they straightened.

The rain all but stopped, the trees swayed gently in the breeze, and the glass panes stood still in their frames.

The eye was upon us.

Satellite photo of Ike approaching the Texas coast by NASA

Two years ago today, my family and I were visiting my in-laws in Texas when Hurricane Ike hit. It was the only hurricane I have ever experienced, and the eye passed right over us. We spent about 45 minutes in the eye before the force of the back eyewall hit.

Trees were uprooted, cars and homes were damaged, and we were left without power for nearly a week. But we were lucky. We were just far enough inland to avoid the extreme damage experienced closer to the Gulf. The windows held after the wind direction changed. The damage was relatively minor. And for that, I will always be extremely grateful.

What is the most awe-inspiring event nature has thrown your way?

Friday, September 10, 2010

Schooling In

From http://www.schule-ivenack.de/
What, you ask, is that? An overgrown carrot decorated by someone with too much time on their hands? A giant candy corn for those who can't wait to celebrate Halloween? A prize for the fastest horse, or simply a wish for good luck?

That, dear readers is a Schultüte. It is THE symbol of the start of school for the youngest students here in Germany. The excitement surrounding the Schultüte is comparable to that of finding a stocking filled with goodies on Christmas morning. Children make requests for certain themes (they come in all sizes, colors, and themes, but not different shapes—they are always, always a cone), and at the beginning of their first year of school, the students are given their Schultüte as a symbol of their transition into the world of learning.

Once upon a time (or so I have been told), they held school supplies. My elderly neighbor told me how she and her friends found farm produce in theirs (they were farmers' kids—they clearly didn't get enough fresh fruit and vegetables at home, it had to come wrapped in a pretty little cone, too). And more recently, toys and candy. Sometimes enough to require visits to the dentist.

The contents are up to the parents, but the Einschulungsfeier (schooling in ceremony) is a wonderful celebration that marks a major turning point in a child's life. They are no longer learning only from friends and family at home, but they are now embarking on a journey of discovery that will lead them places they never dreamed existed.

I don't even remember my first day of school. It blends in with all of the others. But to honor the occasion with festivities, friends, and family... that's the way to do it, isn't it? To make the transition exciting, appealing, and oh so very fun. To send children into the world to learn with enthusiasm. That's the way to create joyful learners. Perhaps this is a tradition we should celebrate more widely.

If you're looking for Poetry Friday, Anastasia Suen has the roundup this week.

Do you remember starting school? What traditions can you recall?

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Assigning Blame

It's all Suzanne Collins' fault. Yep, you  read that right. My muse is missing, and I hold Suzanne completely responsible.

My muse was happily coming up with all kinds of wonderful stuff, feeding my brain lots of lovely ideas. Life was good in creativity land.

And then I started reading Catching Fire. It consumed me. Pulled me into another world, where I worried about Katniss, and Peeta, and Gale. Even when I wasn't reading the book.

Cooking dinner: thought about the wild game Katniss caught.
Heard jays squabble: thought of mockingjays.
Tried to think of my own work: couldn't get the plight of the people in the Districts out of my head.

Suzanne Collins, with her extraordinary ability to transport me to another time and place, chased my muse away. So, really, my lack of productivity must be her fault, right?

Do you think my muse will return when I finish reading Mockingjay? I certainly hope so. I'm off to find out.

What books transport you into another world?

Monday, September 6, 2010

Stolen Moments

You know those moments when you get unexpected free time? When you thought you had one thing to do, and suddenly, you don't? The stolen moments that feel so much more valuable than scheduled free time? Yeah, those.

I have one right now.

I got home with the kids, and they immediately skipped next door to play. And here I am with what will probably turn out to be an hour and a half to myself. It feels different from my alone time during the day, when I've planned out what I will work on, and actually stick to the plan (for the most part).

Because right now, I can do anything.

I know what I should do: research magazines looking for nonfiction science/nature/environment articles, revise my MS, work up quiz questions for my students, write a query letter, work on a new PB idea.

But this is my stolen time. The afternoon sunlight filters through the leaves of the trees outside and my plants have long gone untended, due to the excessive rain we received these past few weeks. This afternoon is the perfect stolen moment, so I'm going to enjoy it outside.

What do you do with your stolen moments?

Friday, September 3, 2010

Poetry Friday: Frost's Mending Wall

I have finally gotten around to reading Suzanne Collins' Catching Fire. (Yes, I know, I should be mocked... send your mockingjays my way).

The image of the walls and fences that separate the people in the Districts is vivid in my mind. Last fall we celebrated the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, and while I am not interested in discussing politics here, the images dovetail with  recent political rallies in the U.S. 

I guess you could say that walls, and the purpose of walls, are fresh in my  mind. 
Mending Wall
by Robert Frost

Something there is that doesn't love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun,
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.
The work of hunters is another thing:
I have come after them and made repair
Where they have left not one stone on a stone,
But they would have the rabbit out of hiding,
To please the yelping dogs. The gaps I mean,
No one has seen them made or heard them made,
But at spring mending-time we find them there.
I let my neighbor know beyond the hill;
And on a day we meet to walk the line
And set the wall between us once again.
We keep the wall between us as we go.
To each the boulders that have fallen to each.
And some are loaves and some so nearly balls
We have to use a spell to make them balance:
'Stay where you are until our backs are turned!'
We wear our fingers rough with handling them.
Oh, just another kind of out-door game,
One on a side. It comes to little more:
There where it is we do not need the wall:
He is all pine and I am apple orchard.
My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.
He only says, 'Good fences make good neighbors'.
Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:
'Why do they make good neighbors? Isn't it
Where there are cows?
But here there are no cows.
Before I built a wall I'd ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.
Something there is that doesn't love a wall,
That wants it down.' I could say 'Elves' to him,
But it's not elves exactly, and I'd rather
He said it for himself. I see him there
Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top
In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed.
He moves in darkness as it seems to me~
Not of woods only and the shade of trees.
He will not go behind his father's saying,
And he likes having thought of it so well
He says again, "Good fences make good neighbors." 

(from http://writing.upenn.edu/~afilreis/88/frost-mending.html)
I love the way Frost frames his questions about walls: why have them? what purpose do they serve? But most telling, I think, are the last three lines. "He will not go behind his father's saying/ And he likes having thought of it so well/ He says again, 'Good fences make good neighbors.'"  Do they?

Poetry Friday is hosted by Susan Taylor Brown.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

We have a winner!

Today is the big day. The Pasta Detectives and German chocolate. Five entrants. One winner. And a big thank you to everyone who participated, tweeted, and otherwise helped to spread the word.

I ran randomizer.org twice ('cause I got my numbers screwed up the first time), and both times I got the same person (different number, but this person had three entries; weird).  Clearly Lynda Young is meant to have the book and chocolate. YAY!! Congratulations, Lynda. Email me at anpstevens [at] gmail [dot] com and we can work out the details.

* * *

I finished writing the first draft of my latest non-fiction PB (I did that twice, too, come to think of it), and today I'm off to catch up with the rest of the blogosphere. And do some work for which I will be paid.

Oh, but I sent off the magazine article and have been researching literary agents for the PBs. So I think September is off to a good start!

What are your goals for this month?

Monday, August 30, 2010

Creativity challenge: Thunder mountain

I have two hours until I start working again, and I want to spend that time writing a non-fiction PB that I've been researching.  I also need to get that magazine article in the post... which means that I'm cheating today, because I've already posted this (for the Weather Blogfest), but it's my offering for the current creativity challenge. I wrote the scene for both the blogfest and the challenge, so it is not part of a WIP, although I plan to expand on it and turn it into a short story.

If you wrote something based on the image prompt, please put a link to your blog in the comments (or email it to me at anpstevens [at] gmail [dot] com, and I'll post it for you).


One one-thousand, two one-thousand, three one-thousand. The trees trembled and the ground vibrated.

Sammie cursed. It was getting closer. No storms for two months, and the day she and Tex went hiking, the thunderstorms were right on top of them.

Sammie looked at the hillside, trying to find a good place to shelter. No hope for caves. These mountains were too young for that.

Nothing here would do. She scanned the hill on the other side of the stream and saw what she was looking for.

“Tex.” Sammie turned to look for him, but he’d disappeared. Unbelievable.

“Tex! Where the hell are you?”

Another flash. One one-thousand, two one-thousand, thr—

The thunder rolled across the mountain like a wave. As if on cue, rain began pelting down from the sky.

Sammie tugged her hood over her head and scrambled up the hillside.

“Tex!”

“Here.” Sammie heard the call to her right. She found him lying in a ditch.

“What are you doing? Get up.” She grabbed his arm and tugged. “You’re going to get yourself killed.”

Tex pulled his arm back and shook his head. “Ditches are safe during storms.”

“Dammit, Tex, there won’t be any tornados. Lightning.” Sammie pointed up. “Think lightning.”

Tex half-rolled to see where Sammie was pointing. He scrambled to his feet.

“Don’t hide next to the tallest tree on the mountain,” Sammie said. She turned and headed downhill.

Tex caught up with her. “Where are we going?” She could hear the tremor in his voice.

She pointed. “There. Come o—”

The bolt of lightning was close. The trees threw long shadows before them and the ozone stung Sammie’s nose. One one-thousand, two—

Thunder hit like a sonic boom and made them both jump.

“Hurry!” Sammie said. They slid down the hill toward the stream, the ground slick with rain and mud. The stream was flowing fast, now: miniature rapids tearing around the rocks.

Sammie jumped across, landed on a rock, and slipped. Her knee cracked against the rock. Tex landed next to her and helped her up.

Limping, leaning against him, Sammie guided Tex toward the aspen grove.

She paused at the edge. Tex tried to pull her in. “We’re almost there. Let’s go.”

Sammie shook her head as she pulled off her rings.

“Take off your belt,” she said.

Tex stared at her. “What?”

“Take it off.” Sammie tugged the earrings out of her ears. “Do it, Tex. No metal.”

Tex fumbled with the buckle on his belt. His fingers were slippery from the rain.

“Here,” Sammie said. She undid the belt and yanked it free. She dropped it on the ground next to her mud-splattered jewelry. Then she shrugged out of her pack and left it, too.

Tex followed suit and they scrambled to the center of the aspen grove.

“Don’t sit, just crouch down.” Tex did as Sammie said.

Sammie’s knee wouldn’t bend. She stuck her injured leg to one side and crouched low on the other, head down to keep the rain out of her eyes.

Moments later, the world turned purple-white and Sammie heard sizzling. An instant later, thunder ripped the sky open. Sammie’s teeth chattered with the vibration that ran through everything: the trees, her bones, the mountain itself.

Sammie’s ears rang from the thunder. The scent of ozone was sharp, but as it faded, Sammie noticed a pungent note. Like a campfire. She looked at Tex, confused.

He was looking over her shoulder. “Fire,” he said.

Sammie turned to see flames at the edge of the grove.

* * *

Feedback and criticism are welcome!

And don't forget to enter my contest! Random.org will choose a winner on Wednesday morning.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Prodigies and Late Bloomers

I just finished reading What the Dog Saw by Malcolm Gladwell. Unlike his other books, this one is a compendium of some of his New Yorker pieces.

I was particularly interested in the one about Late Bloomers. Gladwell describes the fascination our culture holds for creative prodigies: the Picassos, Mozarts, and Kieron Williamsons of the world. These are the people who sit down and create a masterpiece in their first attempt. But are we all destined to be creative failures if we don't possess that edge early in life?

Gladwell says no. He discusses Cézanne, whose work improved with time. Cézanne required the steadfast support and encouragement of close friends to reach his creative potential.

The same is true of artists, writers, and creatives of all kinds. Gladwell calls late bloomers "experimental innovators." They are the people who need to experience things, often multiple times, before their ideas become clear. Experimental innovators are the people who spend years rewriting and revising, modifying and altering their work until it shines.

Do you see yourself as an early- or late-bloomer?

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Transitions

I am feeling very out of sorts this week. My world seems to be in flux, and I can't quite catch my balance. I find myself taking deep breaths... apparently I'm forgetting to breathe properly.

Boss Man at his new school, Snuggle Monkey in his new kindergarten group, the end of summer and the start of a new school year (for me) just around the corner. News that one of my closest friends will likely be moving away.

Writing-wise, I have a non-fiction PB manuscript that is finished and ready to submit, and a magazine article that is similarly ready to go. But I feel as though I'm standing on a precipice. I just can't seem to make myself jump from the safety of what was to the unknown of what comes next.

I have every intention of submitting these things before I start teaching next week, but I can't seem to make myself do it. I'm not sure why that is. Perhaps its the security of knowing it can't be rejected if I don't send it. Perhaps it's just too much in a week filled with emotional turmoil.

I know the rejections will come. I know they are a part of the business of writing. And I'm okay with that.

So how do I get through this week of transition? I suppose the best way to start is to take another deep breath, polish up the cover letters, and head over to the post office.

How do you deal with uncertainty? 

* * *

(And did you enter my contest? Ends Sept. 1!)

Monday, August 23, 2010

Celebration!! Contest!! (and did I mention chocolate?)

Last week, my family celebrated the four-year anniversary of our move to Germany. Today, Boss Man went off to school... he was little more than a baby when we moved here. To top it all off, we managed to jump through numerous hurdles and have the official permission of the government to stay a little longer.
Official translations of documents that were never looked at: €110

Offices from which we needed official documents that were on a 6-week summer holiday: 1

Hours of sleep lost worrying about the above: at least 10

Hours of sleep lost due to 5 AM wake-up time to make it to our appointment: 2

Knowing we won't be kicked out of the country: PRICELESS

And how shall we celebrate this momentous occasion? With a contest!!!

A while back, I posted a review about the fabulous MG novel The Pasta Detectives by best-selling German author Andreas Steinhöfel. (Don't worry, you don't have to read German, it's in English, wonderfully translated by Chantal Wright.) The winner will receive the book PLUS some German chocolate. Not the super-sugary "German" chocolate they sell in the U.S., but the REAL THING.

What do you need to do?
  1. Comment below, so I know you want to win.
  2. Spread the word (on your blog, via twitter, whatever... if you tweet, be sure to include @alisonpstevens so I can see it; if you mention on your blog, please include a link in your comment). 
  3. For an extra entry, follow this blog.
  4. For yet another extra entry, follow me on twitter.
  5. On September 1, I will use random.org to choose a winner.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Window of Insight #4: Chris Guillebeau

Time for another window of insight. This month, I interviewed the remarkable founder of The Art of Non-Conformity, Chris Guillebeau.  Chris lives an "unconventional life" and dedicates his life to helping others do the same. So how does the creative process inform his work?  Read on to find out...

1. How do you describe the work that you do?

I’m a writer, traveler, and entrepreneur who helps people live unconventional lives.

2. Did you set out to create guides to living an unconventional life, or did they come about unexpectedly?

It was an organic process. I started writing the AONC blog, and a bunch of people had a bunch of questions. For example, I’m on a quest to visit every country in the world, so naturally I fly a lot. Everyone asked how much I paid for tickets and how I was able to hack the system... so I wrote a guide. The same was true with self-employment and starting a microbusiness.

3. You have given the Unconventional Guides rather extraordinary names (A Brief Guide to World Domination, Build an Empire). What inspired them?

A good name evokes a good story. With World Domination, that is a free manifesto that outlines the way I see the world and how I think people can rise above some common challenges. With Empire Building Kit, the goal is to help people build a business in one year by doing one thing every day.

4. In a broader sense, what are your primary sources of inspiration? (for your work, travels, life)

I lived in West Africa for four years as a volunteer for a medical charity, and think often of the people that are still serving there while I’m traveling the world and drinking coffee. I’m also inspired by my readers — they have helped the project become much more significant than it initially was.

5. Can you describe how the creative process works for you? How does it contribute to your business? To your life?

I try to establish creativity as a guiding value. It’s like healthy eating or exercise — once you establish good lifestyle patterns, you can fall out of them for a day or two and it’s OK. But beyond that, you’re going to feel bad and begin craving the healthy lifestyle again. So the same is true with creativity — every day I think, what am I going to deliver today? What will be different at the end of the day compared to the beginning? And so on — it’s a good kind of addiction, I think.

6. What is the most challenging part of the creative (entrepreneurial) process for you?

Avoiding distractions. Wait, what was that again...?

7. What is the most rewarding part of the creative process?

1) Completing something, even something small — it’s always nice to get something out the door.

2) Hearing from readers about how something I’ve done has affected their lives in a positive way. It’s hard to beat that!

8. At what point do you feel that you have succeeded with a creative endeavor?

Well, I don’t like to rest on success — I think it’s important to always keep looking ahead to the next thing. So when I’m done with an endeavor, I’m already thinking about the next one. But having said that, what I mentioned above about getting good feedback from readers or customers — that definitely has an element of success to it.

9. Anything else you would like to add?

Thanks so much for featuring AONC! I’m grateful and appreciative.

###

My pleasure, Chris.  Thanks for providing so many people with so much inspiration.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Finding your top idea

By Reg Lynch; The Sydney Morning Herald
I haven't had poetry popping into my head of late. I think it's because I've been focusing on writing prose, in the form of a MG novel. My head can only deal with one writing format at a time.

I had noticed that poems almost always popped into my head while I was in the shower or just after getting out of the shower. For a while I thought the poetry muse liked the bathroom, in general (maybe because it's the one place where I get a few minutes to myself?). Then I thought it might be the hair dryer (lots of ideas came then, too).

But the poetry muse has been very quiet of late, and I've had other things popping in my head, like the idea for my entry into the weather blogfest. That scene quite literally appeared in my mind while I was in the shower. One could argue that water raining down on me triggered it, but I don't think that's it. You see, I had been thinking quite a lot about the weather.

(Lamenting it, really... I love a good thunderstorm, and the weather where I live is monotonous. Day in and day out of the same thing. It's either weeks of sun without a cloud in the sky, weeks of gray clouds without a hint of sun, or weeks of rain. Where I grew up, we got a little bit of everything every single day. The monotony makes me crazy.)

Paul Graham (software developer, programmer, investor, and all-around highly successful creative person) argues that whatever you think about in the shower is the top idea in your mind. It's the thing your brain is playing with, turning over, working at from various angles. It's the problem you will solve. The light bulb flash that will come to you out of the blue. The solution may not come then, but whatever you are contemplating in the shower is what consumes the neuronal pathways in your brain.

Rather exciting idea, really. Like being handed the keys to the kingdom. But it comes with warning: "be careful what you let become critical to you. Try to get yourself into situations where the most urgent problems are ones you want to think about." I think we could broaden this to say, try to get yourself into situations where your creative projects (or serious problems that require solving) are the things you think about.

Obsessing over a negative critique you received? You're not alone, it happens to the best of us (see Graham's Top Idea article for more about how it affected Isaac Newton). But perhaps the most selfish thing you can do for yourself is to let it go.

Nothing can be done to change it. All you do is damage yourself by carefully plotting out the various ways you could inflict pain (real or psychological) on the offender. Satisfying in the short-term. Detrimental over the long-term.

Wouldn't it be more satisfying to let it go, free your brain to come up with something that fixes the flaws, and carry out the new idea? To succeed by overcoming the problems so-and-so highlighted for you? I think so.

What was your top idea today? And how do you keep your mind focused on the ideas you want to think about?

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Weatherfest entry

I don't usually blog on weekends, but I happened upon the Weatherfest at A Little Slice of Nothing last night. Given that my current creativity challenge prompt is a storm, I couldn't resist. 


* * *

One one-thousand, two one-thousand, three one-thousand. The trees trembled and the ground vibrated.

Sammie cursed. It was getting closer. No storms for two months, and the day she and Tex went hiking, the thunderstorms were right on top of them.

Sammie looked at the hillside, trying to find a good place to shelter. No hope for caves. These mountains were too young for that.

Nothing here would do. She scanned the hill on the other side of the stream and saw what she was looking for.

“Tex.” Sammie turned to look for him, but he’d disappeared. Unbelievable.

“Tex! Where the hell are you?”

Another flash. One one-thousand, two one-thousand, thr—

The thunder rolled across the mountain like a wave. As if on cue, rain began pelting down from the sky.

Sammie tugged her hood over her head and scrambled up the hillside.

“Tex!”

“Here.” Sammie heard the call to her right. She found him lying in a ditch.

“What are you doing? Get up.” She grabbed his arm and tugged. “You’re going to get yourself killed.”

Tex pulled his arm back and shook his head. “Ditches are safe during storms.”

“Dammit, Tex, there won’t be any tornados. Lightning.” Sammie pointed up. “Think lightning.”

Tex half-rolled to see where Sammie was pointing. He scrambled to his feet.

“Don’t hide next to the tallest tree on the mountain,” Sammie said. She turned and headed downhill.

Tex caught up with her. “Where are we going?” She could hear the tremor in his voice.

She pointed. “There. Come o—”

The bolt of lightning was close. The trees threw long shadows before them and the ozone stung Sammie’s nose. One one-thousand, two—

Thunder hit like a sonic boom and made them both jump.

“Hurry!” Sammie said. They slid down the hill toward the stream, the ground slick with rain and mud. The stream was flowing fast, now: miniature rapids tearing around the rocks.

Sammie jumped across, landed on a rock, and slipped. Her knee cracked against the rock. Tex landed next to her and helped her up.

Limping, leaning against him, Sammie guided Tex toward the aspen grove.

She paused at the edge. Tex tried to pull her in. “We’re almost there. Let’s go.”

Sammie shook her head as she pulled off her rings.

“Take off your belt,” she said.

Tex stared at her. “What?”

“Take it off.” Sammie tugged the earrings out of her ears. “Do it, Tex. No metal.”

Tex fumbled with the buckle on his belt. His fingers were slippery from the rain.

“Here,” Sammie said. She undid the belt and yanked it free. She dropped it on the ground next to her mud-splattered jewelry. Then she shrugged out of her pack and left it, too.

Tex followed suit and they scrambled to the center of the aspen grove.

“Don’t sit, just crouch down.” Tex did as Sammie said.

Sammie’s knee wouldn’t bend. She stuck her injured leg to one side and crouched low on the other, head down to keep the rain out of her eyes.

Moments later, the world turned purple-white and Sammie heard sizzling. An instant later, thunder ripped the sky open. Sammie’s teeth chattered with the vibration that ran through everything: the trees, her bones, the mountain itself.

Sammie’s ears rang from the thunder. The scent of ozone was sharp, but as it faded, Sammie noticed a pungent note. Like a campfire. She looked at Tex, confused.

He was looking over her shoulder. “Fire,” he said.

Sammie turned to see flames at the edge of the grove.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Writing, revising, and a great resource

I have been absorbing a phenomenal amount of information from WriteOnCon. And I couldn't have done it without the support of Beloved Husband, who came home early to watch the boys so that I could "attend" the conference.(Thank you!)

At one point over the last three days, I realized that the last conference I attended was a scientific conference, and everyone was discussing animals. Ha! What a transition!

And that got me thinking about the differences between writing as a scientist and writing for a more general audience. There are the obvious differences in terms of how the subjects are broached, and the appropriate words one should use in the two formats (jargon, anyone?). But what really strikes me is the different attitudes regarding revision.

Every scientist I know approaches writing with the attitude that if you can get something on paper, you can revise it (i.e., the hard part is getting something down). But I get the sense from the creative writing community that writers consider getting something down the easy part, whereas revisions are a dreaded task. (Perhaps this is because revising requires acknowledging that your creative effort didn't measure up? I'm guessing here, I really don't know.)

I like both the creating and the revising. I know that what I wrote can always be better, and it's like a puzzle trying to figure out just how to say it better (fortunately, I love puzzles) . Sometimes, it literally requires re-ordering sentences or words, as happened with an article I recently wrote. Everything was there, but the order was all wrong... but when you get it right, everything clicks.

* * *

On a related note, there are a couple of great resources for anyone interested in science. Nature Publishing Group has put together two online educational journals. Scitable (which has been out for a while) focuses on genetics. Last week, they launched Nature Education Knowledge, which focuses on ecology.

The articles are written and reviewed by scientists, and they are written at the level of the college undergrad (that's right, ladies and gentlemen... you can actually understand what they say).

The fabulous editor, Sara Tenney, is working hard to increase the number of articles available, so keep checking back. If you need to do some genetics or ecology research for your WIP, you can't go wrong with these journals.

* * *

Which do you prefer: writing or revising? Why?

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

WriteOnCon

I am happily immersed in the amazing online writer's conference, WriteOnCon.  Haven't checked it out? It's chock-a-block with great information for those who write KidLit (the conference is rated MC-18: main character under 18).

Elana Johnson,Casey McCormick, Lisa and Laura Roecker, Shannon Messenger, and Jamie Harrington did an amazing job recruiting authors, agents, and editors. If you don't follow them, you should.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Laying the groundwork

We went to the German-American Folksfest last week. It reminded me of the Midway at the Minnesota State Fair. Lots of rides, games, and sweets (but no cheese curds). A mini-amusement park.

The amazing thing is, the Folksfest comes together out of nothing. Most of the year, the "plaza" where it takes place is nothing but an open field. Occasionally, a circus comes to town, but there's nothing but bare ground for a good chunk of the year.

It got me thinking about how, in many ways, the festival is similar to creativity. The first thing we have to do is lay the groundwork. For the Folksfest, this involves quite literally putting down a layer of rocks and setting out the paths along which attendees will walk. People run power cords and water lines. All of this takes place long before a single kiosk or ride arrives on its 18-wheeler.

Writing and other creative processes are, in many ways, similar. Before we can begin to create a new world, we must lay the groundwork. Prepare the stone to be carved, whitewash the canvas, find names for characters and a realistic setting in which to place our stories.

Only after the groundwork is firmly established can we really begin to tackle the fun part--the act of creating something new and different. Something to tantalize the senses and stimulate the mind. And, one hopes, something that the audience will remember with fondness.

How do you begin a new creative project?

Friday, August 6, 2010

Poetry Friday: Four Brown Toes

We are at the end of week one of the staycation, and it's been a lot of fun. Lots of good mom-kid time, and the imaginations have been running wild.

This morning, I looked over to see a storm bird and a flying fire lizard rising from the ground—pretty powerful imagery. Just the kind of thing my mind runs with (so don't be surprised to see something about a storm bird or a flying fire lizard in an upcoming Creativity Challenge).

So my kid-inspired poem for this Poetry Friday is...

Four Brown Toes
by Alison Pearce Stevens

What's that, you say? It's time for bed?
But I don't want to go.
Not past the chair or up the stair
I'd rather stay below.

I'll stay here on the sofa, no
my feet won't touch the floor.
There is no way, simply NO way
that you'll get me through that door.

So come and sit and read with me,
I've got my favorite book,
the one with knights and dragons,
come sit here, let's take a look.

I'd like to sit—
no, wait! Now, STOP!
You CAN'T sit over there!
He'll eat you up! I see him...
there's a MONSTER 'neath the chair!

Look there, a foot with four brown toes.
He waits for you to sit.
What ARE you doing?
DON'T REACH IN!
Oh. There's my baseball mitt.

All right, if you say so,
then I guess it's time for bed.
Just another silly monster
that was living in my head.


My blogging (and blog reading/commenting) time has been limited, since I've spent my precious computer time writing. But I'll make a special point to check out the Poetry Friday posts. You can find this week's round-up at Laura's blog Author Amok.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Staycation writing schedule

We are now three days into our three-week staycation: all the family time of a vacation without actually going anywhere. I'm actually excited about it, but I was making great progress with my WIP last week, and I've been worried that I'll lose my momentum.

So I decided to implement a staycation writing schedule. This involves getting up at 5:30 am, drinking excessive amounts of coffee, and writing as much as I can until the kids wake up.

Sounds like a brilliant idea, right? This is how my mornings have been going so far...

Alarm: beep-beep  beep-beep  beep-beep

Me: *reaches out to find watch that functions as my alarm*

Alarm: beep-beep  beep-beep  beep-beep

Beloved Husband: *shoves head under pillow*

Me: *knocks watch off of nightstand*

Alarm: beep-beep  beep-beep  beep-beep

Me: *curses and fishes around next to bed for the watch*

BH: *from under pillow* Turn it OFF!

Alarm: *silent*

Me: *still searching for the watch* *grateful it stops beeping after one minute*

BH: *mumbles something unintelligible*

Me: I'll just lie here for another minute or two.

Snuggle Monkey: Wake up, Mama!

Me: *notices daylight* *looks at clock* *groans*


Okay, so the idea was good, but the execution needs a bit of work.

How do you find time to write?

Monday, August 2, 2010

Perseverance

This is something I've been thinking about for a while, and since Donna Hole is hosting a Milestones blogfest, it seemed appropriate to post it now.

* * *

One of the things I keep seeing from successful writers is the importance of being persistent. Of not giving up. Writing's not easy, at least not writing well, and it's the ability to keep writing, keep revising that separates the professionals from the amateurs.

To be honest, the idea scared me. How could I be a successful writer if I had to be persistent?

I've always given up on things easily, haven't I? I mean, I cycled through after-school activities like a kid in a theme park, staying with each ride just long enough to see how it felt. If it wasn't just right, I moved on.

Did I have it in me to be persistent? Would I give up if it wasn't easy?

I was afraid of my inability to persevere.

But last Monday, I wrote a post about my husband, and writing that post reminded me of the trials I went through to finish my post-graduate work. I realized that I can persevere when I want to.

After all, when you invest two years researching the hormonal control of reproduction of southern hemisphere birds (sounds dry, I know, but it's actually pretty interesting*), only to have an outbreak of avian malaria kill a number of your research subjects (and the ones that live aren't particularly interested in reproducing), it's pretty devastating.

Two years of my life gone. Nothing to show for it. Not one step closer to finishing my degree. It was like looking down a long tunnel and feeling myself get further and further away from the light at the end. It started to look like a pinprick.

To complicate matters, Beloved (soon-to-be) Husband got an offer for a post-doc. We were planning to get married and move together after finishing our degrees. But he had collected notebooks full of data and published at least two chapters of his dissertation, while I had nothing.

I had a long heart-to-heart with my advisor, and we decided that the only way I could salvage things was to use his 30-year record of behavior. I could sit in a little room, analyzing film and video, and do something completely different from what I wanted to do.

But it would let me finish my degree.

The next morning, I was at our field site, videotaping birds when an unfamiliar car drove up. There was only one access rode to our aviaries (yep, that's where the idea for my challenge offering came from), so they had to be there intentionally.

A good friend hopped out of the passenger side and headed for the observation blind where I was working. I climbed down the steps to see her face pinched with worry.

"Sunshine," she said. "Frank's dead." 

For a moment, the world ceased to spin. My advisor, who I had met with justthe day before, died of a heart attack only three hours after I left his office. He got in his car and his heart gave out.

So there I was, no advisor, only his collection of film and video to get me through a Ph.D. project (something that should take three years to complete), and I had one year in which to grieve, pull myself together, and make something out of nothing.

But I did.

I spent god-knows how many hours sitting in that room analyzing video. It got old, it was tiresome, but something in me drove me to finish it.

At my dissertation defense, I expected to pass--after all, how can you fail the student who's had absolutely everything go wrong? But I also expected my committee to feel that I had scraped by.

Imagine my surprise when they were excited about my findings, when they thought that what I had done contributed valuable information to the field.

It made my success so much more meaningful.

* In case you are interested: In the northern hemisphere, most birds migrate for the winter. To make long-distance flight easier, their gonads (testes and ovaries) shrink to almost nothing. In spring, when the days start getting longer, they increase in size in preparation for breeding.

In the southern hemisphere, animals may be nomadic, but they generally don't migrate. No need to, since it doesn't get cold enough to lock up food and water under a blanket of snow. Birds in the southern hemisphere can breed year-round, and I was interested in the hormonal control of their breeding cycles and parental care (some fathers care for the young, others don't, and I wanted to know if hormones influenced the difference).

What helps you to persevere?

Friday, July 30, 2010

Challenge results - The Aviaries

Okay... no poetry for me this Friday. My adventure muse was in for this Challenge. But see below for the Poetry Friday link and other creative offerings based on this image.

* * *

I crept through the trees, stepping carefully to keep the noise down. Surprise was the only thing working in my favor.

I peered around a tree. He was there: still as a stone, propped against a tree, legs splayed out in front of him. His camouflage hid his features, though it didn’t hide him in the forest.

The Hunter faced the path into the woods. This was his third day of watching the entrance to the Aviaries.

The Aviaries housed the kingdom’s greatest treasures—rare birds found nowhere else. The newest hybrid was the glittering ruby of its mother with its father’s gossamer feathers and a great train of a tail that flashed purple and gold in the sunlight. The crown jewel of any collection.

The King planned to present it at his daughter’s wedding; an auspicious gift with which to begin her new life and a symbol of trust in the peace treaty.

But the Hunter clearly had other plans. He had been watching the path for the last three days. I suspected that he was waiting for an opportunity to steal the bird.

I couldn’t let that happen. My life was at stake—it was my job to keep the birds safe. The King tolerated no mistakes.

I knew today was the day he would make his move. The wedding was tomorrow. Today was the Hunter’s only chance.

I settled down behind the Hunter, ready to track him when he moved.

I didn’t have to wait long. As the sun got low in the sky, I saw the scientists and caretakers leaving for the day. The Hunter twitched.

As the voices faded away and the sky grew pink, the Hunter got to his feet. He stretched and looked around him. I watched. My camouflage was perfect—unless I moved, he couldn’t possibly see me. He glanced in my direction but continued to scan and turned away to retrieve a cage hidden in the brush. I stood and followed.

The Hunter moved quietly through the trees, but I could still hear his footsteps and his labored breath as he carried the cage toward the Aviaries.

At the gate, he set the cage on the ground and looked around again. He pulled a small set of tools from a pocket and began to pick the lock.

I cursed myself for letting the King insist on such a paltry lock, but he had demanded free access to the collection, and he would have nothing to do with high-tech security measures.

Within moments, the gate swung open. The Hunter picked up the cage and stepped inside.

Looming before the Hunter was a large, free-standing structure. Inside, I caught flashes of the gem-colored birds that lived there. They were flitting about in the fiery sunset, light reflecting off of their feathers. The Hunter stopped to stare, and I slipped into the Aviaries behind him.

I was weaponless—one of the King’s rules about working in the Aviaries. He didn’t want someone accidentally killing one of the birds. The Hunter, on the other hand, carried a shotgun, so I had to choose my position with care.

I darted behind an observation post—one from which the researchers watched the birds. The hybrid was kept in its own glass-walled enclosure about fifty feet away. I stood near a path of small stones. Thinking they might be of use, I scooped up a handful and shoved them in my pocket.

The Hunter pulled his eyes away from the birds. With a glance to either side, he headed for the glass cage. He set the cage on the ground and inspected the hybrid’s enclosure before he started to pick the lock.

As he knelt before the cage door, I climbed the ladder into the observation tower. From here a catwalk ran to a second flight cage, on the far side of the glass one. The catwalk ran directly over the top of the smaller enclosure.

I crawled along the catwalk, trying to keep a low profile. The setting sun threw an immense shadow on the wall of the Aviaries. I could see my shadow moving and hoped the Hunter didn’t turn around.

When I reached the glass cage, I swung my feet over the side of the catwalk. I lowered myself until my feet hung mere inches from the metal roof. I couldn’t get any closer without dropping.

I heard the click of the lock and a satisfied grunt from the Hunter. The cage door was open.

I dropped to the roof with a clang.

“What the—?” the Hunter said below me.

I threw some stones onto the path behind him, and he whirled around, pulling his shotgun to his shoulder.

He spotted my shadow on the orange-lit wall. He dropped to one knee and fired. But my shadow disappeared as the shot created clouds of dust in the wall.

I threw myself onto his back and wrestled for the shotgun. I was actually more worried that he would shoot a bird than me. Peace in the kingdoms depended on a successful wedding and gift-giving ceremony tomorrow. Dead birds tonight would derail the King’s peace negotiations.

The Hunter rolled to his side, trapping my left arm. I grunted at the impact and a sharp pain shot through my arm, but I held on. I slammed my right foot against his hand. The gun was now pointing at the distant flight cage. Nervous birds were flying in circles, and I knew one would be hit if the gun fired again.

I kicked a second time and heard the gratifying crunch of bone. The Hunter howled, and the birds erupted in alarm calls. The noise was deafening.

I yanked the gun from his injured hand and swung it out of his reach. Then I shoved the end of the barrel against his side. He arched away from it and stopped moving.

“You’re done,” I growled in his ear. I yanked my bruised arm from under his body and kept the gun trained on him as I backed away. Cradling his broken hand, he shifted to a sitting position and gazed past me.

“No,” he said. A slight smile played on his lips despite his grimace of pain. “You are.”

I turned to see that the door to the glass cage stood open, and I caught a glimpse of red as the hybrid flew away.

* * *
 Post a link to your challenge results in the comments below. And comments on my challenge offering are also welcome.

If you're looking for poetry, check out the Poetry Friday Roundup at Live, Love, Explore!