A blog about the amazing things teenagers do, about writing for teens, books for teens, and occasional forays into my world and the world of publishing.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Celebrating the Moment and Being Grateful for What You Have

Three weeks ago my daughter had knee surgery to repair the ACL she tore skiing last January. (We had to wait a year to do the surgery so she would mostly be done growing.) Today was her first day of physical therapy. I watched the physical therapist help my daughter bend and straighten her leg as much as possible. She's doing well, but she's a long way from full range of motion and her usual activities like skiing, soccer, basketball, and volleyball.

After she was finished I dropped her off at school and went to a weight training class at the gym. (I won't tell you how long it's been since I did that.) We did lunges and squats and calf raises, all the things that you would normally do at a weight training class, but for me it was different. Each of those exercises represented something that my daughter can't do right now. It made me think about how grateful I am for basic mobility. It also made me think about how grateful I am that she has a good doctor and good physical therapists, and that she'll regain the full use of her knee within a year.

It reminded me of another lifetime, in another gym, when I was getting three small children ready to go to the swimming pool. While I struggled to get them to hold still long enough to get their swimsuits on and to keep them from running out into the world naked, I was aware of two older ladies. They were slowly getting themselves dressed after a water aerobics class. I remember thinking, "How sad to get old and have to struggle with simple things like bending over to tie your shoes."

Then I overheard their conversation, it went something like this: "Do you see that poor woman over there?" "Do you remember those days?" "Do you remember how hard that was?" Laughter. "Aren't you glad to be past all of that?"

I realized they were feeling sorry for me because I had three small children besides myself to get dressed. They were grateful that they weren't in my position.

This all ties back in to another experience I had a couple of weeks ago as I was finishing up my "first pass pages," one of the last steps before my book is published. At first I was freaked out as I went through the pages. I realized this might be the last opportunity I had to make changes before my story went out into the world. I suddenly wanted to change everything! Fortunately, I'd been warned by my editor that I could only make small changes, like correcting typos. I had to force myself to just read.

As I read the last few pages, something strange happened, I started to cry. Not because the story was that sad, or that good (although it is :)) or because there were so many things I wanted to change. My tears were tears of gratitude. I was overwhelmed with the thought that I had actually reached this point; that somebody (actually a lot of somebodies) believed in my work enough to sell it, buy it, edit it, and ultimately publish it.

It struck me that I've had many opportunities to celebrate during this process; signing with an agent, getting a book deal, getting my edit letters, seeing my cover and my ARC for the first time. As I look back I realize, I never let myself fully enjoy or appreciate any of them. I rationalized with, "Well this is another step, there's still so much to come."

Using that logic you can rationalize the joy out of everything from raising kids; "I'll be happy when my kids can feed, dress, drive, support themselves," to writing a book; "I'll be happy when this book is finished, sells, is made into a movie, makes a million bucks, lands me a spot on Oprah's." (I know, she quit before she got the opportunity to interview me, how sad.) Anyway, my point is you can't base your happiness on the "what ifs" in life, it has to be on the NOW.

Through this whole journey I should have been celebrating every step. The way I celebrated all of my kids' first steps, the way I celebrated my daughter's first steps after her surgery, the way I celebrated the completion of the three novels I wrote that so far no one wants.

There are so many quotes about happiness being a journey and not a destination, but it's not a cliche, it's true. Today, (I know it's a week late for Thanksgiving) I'm grateful for my knees that bend. I'm grateful that all four of my kids can now dress themselves (and that I still don't have to struggle to tie my shoes). I'm grateful that I have a supportive family, that I have a book coming out next year, and that I have the time and ability to write.

I'm even grateful for the little trials and the moments that remind me how blessed I truly am.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Opportunity Knocks

If you aren't a writer (and maybe even if you are) this post is going to sound insane. I'm hoping that since you've overlooked the whole 'voices in my head' thing, you'll chalk this one up to my writerly eccentricities and let it go. If not, you'll probably want to skip this post.

It all started with me setting a thousand word a day goal for this manuscript I have that should have been done by now. I started writing it fast and furiously in early April. Then around June I was derailed with family vacations, my exchange students, then school started, then I got involved in other writing projects. But this one has always been there in the back of my brain.

While I'm waiting on some other things, I decided to finish it. The other manuscripts I've completed have all been finished in about ten weeks, so I didn't think it would take any time at all to throw the last 20 or 30k words on this puppy and get it out of my brain. Somehow I convinced myself (and this is a MYTH) that writing would be easy.

It's not.

I ran up against a HUGE brick wall with this. I couldn't get beyond a certain scene. I knew how I wanted the story to end, and I had other scenes in mind to move on to, but somehow nothing was coming. When people would ask how it was going, I would say, "Great," even though it wasn't great. (Sara if you're reading this, I was lying, I'm sorry.) It got so bad that I actually started cleaning my house instead of writing. It got so bad that I almost decided to shelve this one, unfinished.

But despite my brick wall, I still believed in the story so I made this goal, 1,000 words a day until it was finished. The first day I got around my roadblock by writing a previous scene that I decided needed to be inserted. The second day I tried to move on, but only got about 300 words written before I was stuck again.

After all my kids and my husband went to bed I went back to my computer with my goal in mind. I was tired so I tried to rationalize; I had written that day, just not anything on this story. But I had made a goal and I decided to stick to it.

The first thing I did was delete the scene that I couldn't move beyond. (Okay, delete is such a harsh word. Really I copied it into another document, a sort of writing graveyard I like to keep for my brilliant ideas that don't quite make the cut.) The second thing I did was start to free write.

A note on this particular manuscript. Up to this point I have pansted everything I've written, but I always end up spending a lot of time revising and restructuring the plot, so I outlined this one. After I deleted the brick wall scene I started another one that wasn't in my outline, even so, I thought I knew where it was going.

I was in the middle of an important moment between my main character and her mother when someone started pounding on the door. (In the story, not in real life.) I didn't plan for someone to disrupt the moment, but there it was. I continued to write, thinking I knew who was at the door and what he wanted. (Here comes the crazy part, feel free to stop reading at any time.)

I was wrong. And I was completely blown away by what this character had come to say.

This isn't the first time my characters have done something that surprised me, but usually I'm pretty in control of what they do. I've even (at least in my mind) criticized other authors who say, "But that's what my character wanted to do." Isn't it your story? Aren't you the one in charge?

In this case I wasn't in charge, and I'm glad. The person who showed up at the door removed the block and opened the floodgates. Today I've written 3650 words. The end to this story is so close that I can taste it.

If you've stayed with me, here's your reward; the moral to my story and my advice. There will come a time in every writing project when you want to give up, when another story looks better, and/or this one seems impossible. I like to call it transition, like transition in labor, (the really painful part just before delivery especially it seems if you're delivering a vampire, but that's another story). My two pieces of advice to get beyond your transition point in writing are:

1) Don't be afraid to delete (or cut and paste to another document if you're a wimp like me) a scene that isn't working.

2) Even if you have a 'set in stone' outline, allow yourself some freewriting time to see what your characters have in mind. Their ideas might even be better than yours.

Sometimes opportunity knocks.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Books for Veteran's Day

Today we honor veterans of past wars and those who are currently serving our country. I live about twenty miles from Joint Base Lewis McChord, a combined Army/Air Force Base, so I have a lot of military friends. I've seen a little bit of the sacrifice those in the military and their families have made for this country.

That sacrifice hit me hard nearly seven years ago when my friend Riika lost her husband, Bill in Iraq. Riika and I worked together in the Primary, the children's organization in our church. Before he was deployed Bill had been the Sunday School teacher for the nine-year-olds. Riika and Bill had four children, almost the same age as mine. Before Bill was killed , I thought I understood a little of the sacrifices of war, but I really didn't. Even now I don't. Even now I forget.

I've thought a lot about how I could teach my kids about war and about appreciating the sacrifices that have been made for their freedom. I never want them to have to experience war first hand, but I don't want them to forget that their freedom was purchased at a very high price. I don't think they're going to learn about war and sacrifice by playing games like Call of Duty where there's always a reset button.

When my son was in fifth grade he read "My Brother Sam is Dead," as part his study of the American Revolution. I decided to read it with him. At first I was horrified that my 11-year-old was reading something that was disturbing and violent to me, but as I finished the book I realized that my understanding of the cruelties and sacrifices of war had increased. I didn't live the life of the colonists during the Revolutionary War, but somehow I felt like I understood them better. I appreciated more what our forefathers had to survive so we could have the freedoms we have now.

This is the power of books. More than any other media, books give you the chance to get inside a character's head and experience what they have experienced. Since "My Brother Sam is Dead" my son has read, "Fallen Angels" by Walter Dean Myers, about the Vietnam War, and I have read "Sunrise Over Fallujah." My daughter is currently reading "Riffles for Watie," as part of her study of the Civil War. All of these books paint a real picture of what war is like for the men and women who fight them.

When I Googled children's books about war I found a long list, ranging from "The Butter Battle Book" (Dr. Suess' criticism of the Cold War), to "The Diary of Anne Frank," to "Across Five Aprils" to Eve Bunting's "The Wall." Each of these stories gives the reader a chance for deeper understanding about the sacrifice of war and how it effects the people fighting, the people who are living with war, and those left at home.
As part of your remembrance this Veterans Day. I encourage you to take the time to read books and stories that will help you and understand the sacrifice of our men and women in uniform. Share them with your kids, at whatever level they're ready to receive them. If we or our children forget the sacrifices, the consequences, and even the mistakes of war, then we may have to repeat them.

While you're at it, thank a Veteran for fighting for our Freedom of Speech, so we have the opportunity to read these stories, both the good and the bad.

Thank you to Bill Jacobsen and your wonderful family for your sacrifice. Thank you to my Grandpa Kenneth Clayton Shaw (pictured above) and my father-in-law, Bob Wolf. Thank you to Remi Harrigton, Nathan Tiemeyer, Charles Spieth, their families and all the other men and women who are currently serving our country.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Friday Firsts--THE CAR

Twice this week I put my life in the hands of my fifteen year old son as he learned to drive a stick shift. He's learning so he will be prepared when we turn over borrowship (NOT ownership) of his first vehicle, a Honda Accord that's the same age as he is. We've already started the countdown, T-minus 73 days until he has that all-important piece of plastic that says he's a legal driver.

Besides teaching my son (or just hanging on) I've been working on a car story. Naturally, all of this reminds me of my first car.

First let me give you a little backstory. My Dad was a mail carrier. There was a woman on his route who was blind and she owned two cars that had hardly been driven. One was an ugly bright blue Ford Maverick, and one was a red and white 1970 Cheville Malibu. Since she couldn't drive the cars anymore she sold them to my Dad. He bought the Maverick first, so that car went to my older sister. Then he bought the Malibu. For some reason, that neither my sister or I can explain (at least not in civil terms) I got to drive the Malibu.

It was a nice car and it was in pretty good condition when I got it. Not so much (as my brothers like to point out) when I was finished with it. But it was still a very cool car.

I have some great memories of the Malibu. Like the time I tried to follow a guy who was driving a truck into the sand dunes and I buried it up to the axles (statue of limitations is over on that one, Mom). Or when the heater got stuck on high for an entire summer. Or when there was a short in the horn, so whenever you touched the brakes it would honk. My boyfriend got pulled over for honking at a cop when he had to stop at a stoplight.

My mom still has the Malibu. My brothers won't let her sell it even though it doesn't run anymore. Whenever I go home I have to take a moment to visit my old car and reminisce.

Clunker or souped-up hot rod, I think we all have fond memories of our first car.

Now it's your turn, I know there's a story in there somewhere. Tell me about your first car.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Critique Contest!

As promised, I'm holding a contest to win a critique from me and my fabulous critique partners. To give you some idea of what you'll be getting, let me introduce my critique group members and what role they play in our group.

Val Serdy is the tough one. She's a freelance editor with her own editing company, Egg and Feather, and she KNOWS HER STUFF. A critique with Val may leave you feeling like you've been run over by a truck, but if you survive, you've somehow figured out the meaning of life and you have what you need to move on. If you have any research questions, go to Val. For example, if you need to know what year the phrase "okay" became widely used, Val will find out. If you need a book that's similar to what you're writing, Val knows what that is.

Joan Wittler, with her background in art and theater, is the master of all things visual. If a scene doesn't work on a visual level, she'll tell you, and then act it out for you. Joan is the calm voice of reason when things get crazy (and they do).

Blessy Mathew has an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College. She's very detail-orientated. She's great at sentence structure, fantasy, and multicultural characters. She always provides a clear, calm, and precise critique.

Sarah Showell deserted our group for adventures in Africa, but she stays in touch via e-mail and still exchanges critiques with our group. She'll give it to you straight if something isn't working, and before she left she played opposite Joan in many a scene reconstruction. She's good at reminding you to up the stakes.

And then there's me. I'm the kind of person who likes most of what I read, so I play cheerleader. Thanks to what I've learned from my editor, I know when the pacing of a story is off. I'm always around to tell you when you're letting your characters off too easy, or they aren't solving their own problems.


This is your chance to win a critique of up to 15 pages from these fabulous ladies (and me). Here's how it works. You get an entry for each comment you leave on my blog, Val's blog, Blessy's blog, or Sarah's blog. You also get an entry for each time you become a follower on one of our blogs, on twitter, or if you "like" my facebook page. If you tweet or facebook this contest you also get an entry. (Use @jenniferswolf in your tweet or tag Jennifer Shaw Wolf author.)

The winner will be taken from a random drawing of all the entries, then will be announced on December 6th. The critique will happen in January (or any time after that's convenient to the winner and our group). If you live in the Seattle area you're invited to join us in person for one of our critique sessions, we'll even buy you something to drink from Starbucks. If you don't live close enough, your critique will be on-line.

Enter early, enter often, and good luck. I promise the critique will be worth your time!

***ONE NOTE we all write Middle Grade or Young Adult so those are the genres we're most qualified to critique. We're willing to do chick lit, sci fi or fantasy, but not erotica. ***