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.

Friday, May 28, 2010

A Childhood Lived Thrice...on Being a Kid, A Mother, and a Writer

It's been an interesting couple months. Besides my normal, crazy life, I have labored and given birth to my third child of paper--TIGERSEYE, (in addition to the four children of flesh I already have). As with any newborn, this child of paper has commanded a lot of my attention in revisions, critique groups, and now finally, querying (see previous post if you don't know what querying is). And as with any newborn, my other children (the real ones) have felt the neglect while I have spent extra time nurturing this new manuscript.

I have struggled with this issue of balance--where does my life as a mother end and my life as a writer begin?

As I thought about this, a new idea came to me.

I will never stop being a mother and I will never stop being a writer.

There is no end to either. And here's an even bigger epiphany:

In a lot of ways, they are the same.

Does that make any sense?

Let me try to explain it...

Once I was a child. Once I was a teenager. Now I'm a mother. More recently I have become a writer. Each of those phases of my life are interwoven in who I am and what I write. I chose to write for and about children and teenagers because: a) I LOVED being a child, b) I LOVED (hard to believe sometimes) being a teenager, and c) because I LOVE being a mom.

I get to live childhood three times! Once when I lived it, now as my children, live it, and again as my characters live it. I get to feel all of the joy and sweetness of swinging on a swing, or building a tree fort, or a first kiss, or a first soccer goal, or something as simple as triumphing over a math problem, again and again and again. (It also means I get to relive some of the bad stuff too, but I'm not dwelling on that.)

As I look back over just one crazy week of my life, I see moments that I want to capture forever in my heart and on paper--a pine cone fight, a little boy lying in the grass next to his pet tortoise, a flirty/funny text, laughing and collapsing on the floor in a moment of silly exhaustion, painting flowers on toenails, singing along with the radio at the top of our voices, a backpack loaded with binoculars and fishy crackers for adventuring, and the sweet sound of a six-year-old's voice reading for the first time:

"The sun did not shine. It was too wet to play. So we sat in the house all that cold cold wet day." (We can really relate to this in Washington)--Cat in the Hat.

Isn't that what writing is all about--capturing the moments of life that go by too fast? Isn't that what being a mom is all about?

I already have the best job in the world--Mommyhood--and now I'm working towards the second best job in the world--a recorder of childhood (aka a children's book author). Stepping back, I can see how these two jobs compliment more than conflict with each other.

So yes, my children's voices will be the soundtrack that I write to. There will be days when my flesh children will suffer in favor of my paper children, and there will be days when my writing suffers because I have one more field trip, one more soccer game, one more recital, or even one more book to read with my kids. But it will be okay. If through my writing I capture some of childhood and teenagerhood's precious (and even not so precious) moments, or if I help my children or someone else's child understand how sweet and precious and hopeful life can be, then I have done my job as both a mother and a writer.

And who knows, maybe in ten or fifteen years I'll get the chance to live childhood a fourth time, this time through grandchildren.

Writing and raising children is a big job, what do you think the role/purpose/responsibility of a children's or young adult author is?

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

On Beginings...

For those of you not in the writing/editing/publishing business I'll let you in on a secret...(but maybe you already know) beginnings are everything. You have to have a great ending to back it up, but without a great beginning, you're sunk.

Why are beginnings so important? Two words--first impressions, and when you're querying (the excruciating process every author has to go to get published) a first impression is often all you get. Most agents and editors want a query and a few sample pages. (And no, you don't get to chose your favorite passage or the most compelling part of your book, you have to give them your first pages.)

It makes sense, when you're book browsing you look at the copy on the jacket flap, and then maybe read the first few pages to see if you're interested before you buy the book.

Since I've been at this whole writing thing I have re-written my beginnings over and over. I've tried starting my stories in several different places to get to that one line, or scene, or moment that begins the journey and will suck the reader in. In fact, the file for my current work-in-progress was called "Alternate Beginning" for a long time. Because of my struggles I have become VERY interested in how other people begin their work.

There are the classics:

"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times."--A TALE OF TWO CITIES

"Once there were four children who's names were Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy."--THE LION THE WITCH AND THE WARDROBE.

Both pretty simple, but immediately recognizable.

There are the ones that suck you in:

"I'd never given much thought to how I would die--though I'd had reason enough in the last few months, but even if I had, I would not have imagined it like this. --TWILIGHT. (Okay, so this is kind of a cheat, a preface from a more exciting part of the story, but still...)

The ones that reveal none of the excitement buried within the pages:

When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold.--THE HUNGER GAMES

And the ones that are so off the wall that you just have to keep going:

First the colors.
Then the humans. That's usually how I see things. Or at least how I try. HERE IS A SMALL FACT. You are going to die.--THE BOOK THIEF

Recently I got the chance to read the first two chapters of a book that's coming next month, TELL ME A SECRET by debut author, Holly Cupala. These chapters sucked me in, intrigued me, and in short did all of the things that first pages should.

Here's her opening line:

It's tough living in the shadow of a dead girl.

When I read Holly's first two chapters it hit me that this is what it takes to get published, milling through all the extraneous words and coming up with a great story, told in a great way, with a lot of heart. I'm also waiting (impatiently) for June 22nd when I can read the whole thing. Check out Holly's blog to read more.

So here is the opening two paragraphs of my work-in-progress THE TIGER'S EYE:

The clock says 6:35, even though it’s really 6:25. If everything was normal, the alarm would go off in five minutes. I’d hit the snooze button, pull the covers around my shoulders, and go back to sleep until Mom came in and forced me to get up. I used to stay in bed until the last possible minute and then dash around getting ready for school—looking for my shoes or a clean t-shirt, finally grabbing a granola bar and running out the door to the sound of Trip laying on the horn of his black Chevy pick-up.

Nothing is normal, and no one makes me go to school.

I'm interested in your impressions of my beginning. (I'll post the whole first chapter soon.) And I want to know, what beginnings do you like? Or what beginnings would make you put the book back without reading it?

Friday, May 7, 2010

The Wicked Natural Mother


Everybody has one, so when you write a fictional character, there has to be some kind of fictional mother. Mothers are great literary devices--someone to be smothering or absent, someone who is dead or is dying, someone who nurtures or tortures, in short, someone to blame all of life's problems on.

In fairy tales and nearly every Disney show, the sweet wonderful natural mother is gone, and the evil step-mother steps in to take her place and reeks havoc in the lives of the beautiful and pious heroine. The notion of the "evil" mother is so ingrained in our daughters by fairy tales, that when they became teenagers (IE, beautiful and pious) every mother (at least in their minds) evolves into the evil step-mother. (Or it could just be the natural tendency for a teenager to seek independence by pulling away from their parents.)

As a writer of young adult stories and as a mother, I'm stuck with a problem. How do I write a mother from a teenager's point of view without making her into, well, a witch? And as a mother of teenagers, how do I keep from becoming that witch?

This issue was driven home to me when I read "Someone Like You" by Sara Dessen, (a book I would highly recommend by the way.) In the beginning of the book, the main character, Halley is close to her mother. So close, that her mother uses their relationship as an example in her books about dealing with teenagers. BUT (and you knew it was coming) Halley starts to see her mother as stifling, nosey, and over-protective. Since this was one of the first young adult novels I read as my own children started to enter teenager hood, I looked at Halley and her mother's relationship from a different point of view. I realized, (gasp) I would soon be the wicked natural mother. I found myself rooting for the mom as much as I was rooting for Halley. (I won't tell you how the relationship ended up, you'll have to read the book.)

Now, two years after reading about Halley and her mother, I have arrived, wicked witch of the west, evil natural mother to two teenagers, one boy and one girl.

Lucky for me, the examples of motherhood in my life have been exceptional. I can only hope to be the mom my mom was. I try, really I do, but in the midst of my own mom/teenager arguments I hear the horrible things I said to my mother thrown back at me. (Hi Mom, did I mention I'm sorry?)

So back to writing and fictional moms...How do I write a realistic novel from a teenager's point of view and stay true to my own kind (all the mothers out there)? Because I think teenagers, maybe even more than infants or toddlers, need a mom or at least a mom figure. And because I don't want to be a purveyor of the idea that moms are evil.

I came up with the solution in two words--NOBODY IS PERFECT. Isn't that what makes a great story anyway? If we were all perfect, if we all walked around being nice all the time and not making any mistakes, there would be no good stories to tell. The moms in my stories can be selfless or self-centered, suffocating or absent, sweet or spicy or even just plain embarrassing and it's okay.

Another book I love, RUNNING FOR MY LIFE (written by Ann Gonzales), shows how a girl learns to deal with her mother's mental illness. There is no happily ever after in this book. Just learning to cope, learning to accept, and learning to be happy when life isn't perfect.

Now I'm not saying that there aren't some truly bad mothers out there, or some mothers who have ended up the way they are because bad things happened to them. What I'm saying is there has to be a balance in fiction like there is in life. It's like I told my daughter, "If you look for examples of me being mean or unfair I can guarantee you'll find them." (And I hope if she looks for examples of me being kind and generous and sweet she'll find those too.) Not even I'm perfect. So when I write a mother (or a mother figure), she can't be perfect, understanding, and June Cleaver, Carol Brady, or Clair Huxtable-like all the time. (Okay, way old references, is there a modern "perfect mom" example?) But she can't always be the wicked step-mother either.

So...I will continue to write my mothers with substance and feelings and character flaws. And yes I will use them for my own literary devices. And yes there will be conflicts and fights between them and their teenagers. But I would like to write them (and all of my characters) with hope and with the ability to learn and change and grow and love. That's the biggest lesson of life and I think it should be told over and over and over again.

On the subject of moms...What fictitious moms do you love, or love to hate? What are their good qualities? What are their bad qualities? What makes them believable? How do I craft a well-rounded mother? Is there a modern-day example of the perfect mom?

HAPPY MOTHER'S DAY to my mom and all the mom's out there.