• What I learned from teaching a YA writing class

     Last semester I got to teach the first-ever class on writing YA fiction at my western Massachusetts university, and I learned a lot from it. It wasn’t technically a “creative writing” class but a “special topics in English” class, which made it sort of a weird hybrid lit/writing class more than the traditional fiction workshop(…)

  • I’ll be back

     after surgery. My doctor says that I did not develop a detached retina and lose 75% of the vision in my left eye from a lifetime of eye rolling.   But as a believer in karma and someone with only the barest knowledge of optical anatomy, I am not so sure myself. I have to(…)

  • Blogfest Beach Bucket Giveaway!

    I’m on My Crazy Corner’s Annual Romance Blogfest today, talking beaches, Snark, and romance, and I’ll be giving away a big beach bucket of fun.  Check me  out at Apryl Baker’s superfab blog all of this month: My Crazy Corner’s Blogfest and see who else is dropping by here! So think of your favorite beach(…)

  • The books you will live in

    I got my love of reading from my mom and dad, and my mom got hers from my grandfather. who could read the same Zane Grey novel 57 times and enjoy each round of rereading as much as the first one until his eyesight began to fail him. Now 96 and virtually blind, he cannot(…)

  • Writing with both sides of your brain

      Twenty years ago, as a grad student in literature and composition, I felt like I was fighting my right brain all the time. Now, as a writer, I feel like I’m fighting to get it back. Lots of times the two hemispheres just butt heads until they wind up in an angry hissy ball, like(…)

What I learned from teaching a YA writing class 0

tumblr_mvao3seKTa1qh59n0o2_500 Last semester I got to teach the first-ever class on writing YA fiction at my western Massachusetts university, and I learned a lot from it. It wasn’t technically a “creative writing” class but a “special topics in English” class, which made it sort of a weird hybrid lit/writing class more than the traditional fiction workshop class. It also meant that most of the students were not writers or dreaming of becoming writers. But by the end of the semester, some of them decided they just might be writers after all and promised to keep at it, promised that I couldn’t stop them from writing even if I wanted to. And I don’t. So

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One of the things I like most about teaching is that I’m always learning new things, and this class was no exception. In fact, I learned more from this course, probably, than any other I’ve taught in the past few years and here is

 THE CURMUDGEONLY VERSION OF WHAT I LEARNED:

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I said above that most of the students were not “writers” in the sense that they would not identify themselves as such. Most of them were not readers, either, even the creative writing majors. I knew that since the class was specialized by “genre” (YA), not everyone would be well read in that genre, but I was a little disheartened to learn how many of them did not read anything at all. I had them read excerpts from a variety of YA texts, focusing on different aspects to examine within them, such as narration, dialogue, establishing time and place, etc. and most of them really got into what I had them read. At the end of the course, though, someone’s evaluation still indicated that I had only assigned these excerpts “just to make [them] read.”  I’m just mean like that, I guess.

I don’t really understand why anyone who doesn’t love to read would want to become a writer, and I’ve noticed this before among some of my school’s undergraduate creative writing majors. I’ll just say here and now that I think that reading is at least 85% of a writer’s job. At least. And I’ll stop there because I’ve talked about that elsewhere on this blog.

I will say, however, that one benefit of reading things other people have written is that you can see how text is supposed to be formatted. It goes in chunks called “paragraphs” and dialogue is marked usually by quotation marks. These rules were not just set by some creativity-hating overlord to mess with budding young geniuses. These rules help your ideas to be understood by other people. And if you want to be understood by other readers, you’ll have to learn the basic rules. Editors won’t do it for you.

And now, the SHINY HAPPY AFFIRMING STUFF I LEARNED:

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It was absolutely inspiring and invigorating to see people who never thought they could do a thing – let alone like doing a thing – find themselves freed by it. I can say without hesitation that everyone in that room had at least one very, very good idea for a scene or a story that could turn into something great.  The self-identified creative writers were forced to write in a different way or on a different topic than what they usually wrote and though some of them balked at it, they came up with some stuff that they admitted they didn’t know they had in them. And the “science” people discovered a whole new dimension to themselves and a whole new outlet of expression. At least twice this semester I considered learning how to become an agent to take on some of these kids as my clients. One student even got a short story published in an upcoming anthology that I suggested she submit to. The punctuation, the paragraphs, the formatting – anyone can learn all of that (and they’ll have to if they ever want anyone outside of a classroom to read their work). As long as the passion and the ideas are there, there’s hope. And there’s nothing wrong with feeling like Kanye every now and then

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Sometimes you don’t know what you have until you say it. And having these students share with me what they’re discovering they have to say – that was a gift.

What I’m reading 

imgres (I still have only one working eye, so I have to comb the large print section of the library. And please excuse the typos! I can’t tell a semi-colon from a colon onscreen).

What I’m listening to

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I’ll be back 0

images-1 after surgery. My doctor says that I did not develop a detached retina and lose 75% of the vision in my left eye from a lifetime of eye rolling.blrg

 

But as a believer in karma and someone with only the barest knowledge of optical anatomy, I am not so sure myself. I have to sit upright 24/7 for at least a week and I can’t watch tv or read for more than half an hour. So I raced to finish Nova Ren Suma’s The Walls Around Us with my one good eye before surgery tomorrow morning and I recommend that you read it, too. Under better circumstances.

imgres-1   See you soon! (did you catch what I did there?)

Blogfest Beach Bucket Giveaway! 0

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I’m on My Crazy Corner’s Annual Romance Blogfest today, talking beaches, Snark, and romance, and I’ll be giving away a big beach bucket of fun.  Check me  out at Apryl Baker’s superfab blog all of this month:

My Crazy Corner’s Blogfest

and see who else is dropping by here! So think of your favorite beach or beach read and enter to win.  Good luck!

The books you will live in 0

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I got my love of reading from my mom and dad, and my mom got hers from my grandfather. who could read the same Zane Grey novel 57 times and enjoy each round of rereading as much as the first one until his eyesight began to fail him. Now 96 and virtually blind, he cannot read a book even if it were printed on a series of billboards, and of all the things he has lost to the ravages of time, I think the loss of books runs a close sending to the loss of my grandmother.

A few weeks ago, my aunt went to visit him in his eldercare home because he had suddenly seemed to lose touch with reality – he wasn’t able to recognize his own daughter. While he’s ostensibly better, for now, he still insists he hears horses being whipped in the basement and gunplay outside his room. The nurses are baffled by this, but it makes sense to my mom and me: he’s now living part-time in the Westerns he loved, and that’s a bittersweet thing. My other grandfather had such Alzheimer’s-induced confusion by the end of his life he was living in his own world. And I had never, in my whole life, seen him happier.

But on another level, as a writer and lover of fiction, I understand this. Who among us hasn’t wanted, at times, to ditch the real world for a fictional one? Living in a pleasant fictive world for the last years of my life, when I’ve lost the ability to live anywhere else very well, might be a pleasant and gentle transition into whatever happens next.

This got me to wondering where today’s YA readers will “reside” when they reach the point where they cannot distinguish between fantasy and reality any more.  Where will their reading take them? Will a generation of oldsters leap – or to attempt to – from their rockers, convinced that vampires and werewolves are lurking in the halls of the old folks’ home? Will they scream in their sleep like Peeta and Katniss, haunted by the memories of the Hunger Games, images so real to them they feel like their own memories? Will someone who fell in love with the classics hear the tinkling of glass in a smart gin and tonic or the strains of a Scott Joplin rag from the party downstairs as they gaze seemingly mindlessly into their closet looking for all of Jay Gatsby’s beautiful shirts? Maybe. There are worse places to be. I hope, if this is my fate, too, that I’ve done enough varied reading to end up “living” somewhere good. I would hate to think some short circuit in my brain sends me to some crap novel I read too many times and not a Regency country home in Austenland. Maybe the fact that I can’t even remember the names of these crap novels will keep me safe – they must not have taken a very deep root in my unconscious.

 

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If you had some control over which book you would live in in your twilight years, what would it be? Who would be your companions? What fictive world would you choose to inhabit? 

Drop me a line and let me know wear you would (mentally) spent your last days, part-time, if you could (in addition to the bosom of your loving and healthy family and friends, of course).

What I’m listening to

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What I’m reading

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Writing with both sides of your brain 0

image from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/john-m-eger/right-brain-left-brain-thinking_b_2631704.html

image from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/john-m-eger/right-brain-left-brain-thinking_b_2631704.html

 

Twenty years ago, as a grad student in literature and composition, I felt like I was fighting my right brain all the time. Now, as a writer, I feel like I’m fighting to get it back. Lots of times the two hemispheres just butt heads until they wind up in an angry hissy ball, like these guys.

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It’s not productive at all.

I’ve always wanted to be a writer,  but some time toward the end of my college years, it occurred to me that I would have to earn a living doing something. Since I didn’t really have any idea what one did while one wrote the Great American Novel – I didn’t know how to find a garret in Paris or how to pay for one – I took the advice of some professors and went to grad school. There I had to sharpen my analytic skills, to use the left side of my brain more, to cite sources, to penetrate to the core of things and be able to explain the insights that had always just struck me intuitively. But after many years of teaching and writing academic stuff, I decided to try writing fiction again, and I was rustier than the paint cans in my basement. But it feel good to do it – that is, it felt good when I could turn off the left side of my brain and let myself just write without analyzing what I was doing as I was doing it. But too often I’d start writing about a world of magic and end up Googling string theory or the history of alchemy or I’d just beat myself up over the implausibility of what I was writing so much I’d have to stop.

For someone who has been accused most of her life of living entirely in her imagination, giphy-1

it was embarrassing and frustrating.

“GRAD SCHOOL KILLED MY CREATIVITY!” I would wail inside my own head and go back to reading student papers and circling important symbols in the texts I’d be teaching the next day.

But as I am slowly learning, it turns out that a writer needs both sides of her brain – just not at the same time.

I have to believe that any writer writes because they like the feeling of unbridled creativity, those wonderful hours (or, more likely, minutes) when the words just flow and you’re in your own world and you’re actually rendering your world on paper in a way that might might sense to someone else someday.

stimpy writer There are few feelings better than that. Enjoy them. Just write. Let your left brain go. You can always edit later.

Because that’s when your left brain gets to storm the castle: Editing/revision time. Sure, this half of your brain will look at what you’ve written a few days before and react like this

professor giphy but then it will get to figuring out what you can do to make it better. Think of your WIP as a puzzle. Right brain likes puzzles. What’s missing or what’s gone south? Lack of focus? Is a character’s motivation unclear? What detail can you add to make it more clear to someone else? As long as your right brain doesn’t get too unmerciful in its judgements, this can actually be a fun- and absolutely necessary – process. Stephen King famously said that one should write with the door closed and revised with the door open, so I guess I open the door to the left brain at revision time.

Maybe I’ll end up a more balanced human being if I figure out how all of this works, which would be a  giphy-2

pretty sweet bonus, right? But I’d settle for just being able to get a manuscript done without getting a migraine.

How do you deal with balancing the nitpick-y, judge-y part of you as you write? Please share any advice in the comments below. I love to hear from you!

what I’m reading

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what I’m listening to

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Character growth 2

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I just read a few new reviews of both Snark and Stage Fright and the original four Snark and Circumstance novellas. I am always so flattered that someone would take not just the time to read the books but to think about them and then actually write and post a review of them. And if the review is positive, well, that’s like a birthday surprise party and Christmas morning rolled into one big ball of awesome.

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And a super extra sprinkles-on-top bonus for me is if they say they like the way the characters have developed. Because I worry about that. A lot.

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My books are not exactly plot-driven. If you are looking for thrills and spills and twists and turns, then you would give the Snark series a bad review. As a writer, I start each book with a character that I hear talking me – and then I have to figure out who they are and what they are going to do. Because that’s what interests me about people: what they do. And why they do it.

On a bad day, I could be accused of being a little misanthropic.

.images But really, I like people. Mostly. And the single most awesome thing about people – and I mean “awesome” in the literal sensing of inspiring awe – is that they grow and change. Especially young adults.

Ally Sheedy is wrong here:

breakfastgiphy  Your heart (and your brain) die if you don’t grow. Can you imagine what your life would be like now if you still made the same kind of decisions you made when you were ten? Fifteen? Even twenty? I don’t even want to think about it. Because I would look like this Allie Sheedy character all the time. For the rest of my life.

Even so, I was afraid that the new vulnerable sad sack George in Snark and Stage Fright would turn people off, but fortunately most readers so far seem to have found her more “real” and likable. I knew at the end of Snark and Circumstance that Georgia had grown a lot, and in Snark and Stage Fright we see that she is more trusting of people, more able to see them as individuals instead of stereotypes (preppies, jocks, Jesus Freaks). She’s made good friends and has a pretty great boyfriend in Michael because of this new perspective, but she still can’t quite trust that she really belongs with Michael because she still sees him as so different from her. And while Michael has gotten less stuck-up and prideful, he still tends to clam up rather than communicate, so I wanted the sequel to have them continue to grow and figure this stuff out.

Because trust me: there is always stuff to work out. I don’t claim to know the meaning of life but I suspect that part of why we’re here is to learn things, and what we need to learn evolves as we do.  Just ask this kid

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Leave a comment below about your philosophy of life or, if that’s too daunting :) share your favorite characters who grow over the course of a novel or series of novels. What do they learn and what do you like about them?

What I’m reading 

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what I’m listening to 

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The Snarknado Heartbreak Playlist 0

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Shakespeare famously said “The course of true love never did run smooth”, and even though Snark and Circumstance ended happily, I knew it would be rough going for Georgia and Michael even so. Their love hits some snags in Snark and Stage Fright, and as I await the release date of this sequel – March 10th! SQUEEEEEEE! – that got me thinking about my ALL-TIME FAVORITE HEARTACHE SONGS, those songs that just hit where you live if you’ve ever been hurt.

We’ve all been there.

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And these songs can really help when you just want to wallow in loss.

So here are my TOP FIVE “YOU HAVE BROKEN MY HEART’ SONGS, in ascending order of awesomeness:

5. Amy Winehouse’s “Back to Black” amy-winehouse-back-to-black

 

I’ve never had an affair (and neither has Georgia, my MC!) but we both know what it’s like to have someone we love go back to the girl they were with before, or to a girl who just seems “easier.”

When Amy sings

You went back to what you knew
So far removed from all that we went through
And I tread a troubled track
My odds are stacked
I’ll go back to black

We only said goodbye with words
I died a hundred times
You go back to her
And I go back to…

I feel it in my gut every time. I miss Amy Winehouse.

4.  The Buzzcocks “Ever Fallen in Love”

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Georgia’s friends have a punk band (the Cryptic Pigs from Hell) and when they play this song at a show, she’s sure they played it for her, because she’s feeling like she never should have let herself fall for Michael. But if she paid attention to these lines

I can’t see much of a future
Unless we find out what’s to blame
What a shame
And we won’t be together much longer
Unless we realize that we are the same

she’d see that the situation is far from hopeless. But when you’re wallowing, you can’t see your way out of it.

3.  No Doubt “Ex Girlfriend”

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Deep down, Georgia kinda always knew she’d end up as Michael’s ex-girlfriend. Now she has to figure out how much of that was a self-fulfilling prophecy and whether things can work differently without the insecurity that made things go south in the first place. It worked out all right for Gwen Stefani and Gavin Rossdale, after all. And Gwen got a kickass song out of the heartache.

Though I’m not sure how Georgia would feel about them,these next two are my personal favorites. Each represents a different stage of the heartache process for me.

2. Fleetwood Mac, “Silver Springs”

I have to admit that in the 70s, I was pretty anti-Mac. I was just so sick of their omnipresence, plus I had an adolescent knee-jerk reaction to anything that I felt was being shoved in my face, especially through the radiowaves that provided the soundtrack to everything I did.  But for whatever reason, when I was pregnant with my daughter years ago, I became pretty Stevie Nicks obsessed.

220px-Silverspringsmac This song represents to me the best of the Stevie/Lindsey soap opera, and while I would kill to play the guitar like Lindsey Buckingham, I am Team Stevie all the way.

This song represents to me the less generous side of pure heartache, the part of you that just feels hurt and can’t think of anything or anyone else, the part of you that has just a little bit of rage and disbelief underneath all of that hurt and pain (“How could you possibly not love me??!!”). It’s got that lovely Nicks-ian hippie dippie imagism and it is at once abject (“I know I could have loved you but you would not let me/Give me one more chance”)  and a promise of revenge (“I’ll follow you down til my voice will haunt you.”)  It’s a great song. It should have been on the Rumours album but it was worth waiting til the mid-90s for it.

And finally, number one:

1. Pearl Jam, “Black”

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This song gets me every time.

Unlike “Silver Spring,” it represents the better angel of the heartbroken, the part of you that feels hurt but can still want happiness for the person who hurt you. You just can’t see why that happiness can’t be with you.

I love Pearl Jam’s lyrics and this song is a great example of them. In fact, if I had unlimited funds (and no qualms about consigning others to lives of indentured servitude), I would have Pearl Jam follow me around all day like the wandering minstrels in Monty Python and the Holy Grail.2e3a1a74f70dcbd2c955895d0922428a_view Except they would be so bored narrating my life I would have to let them goCould “Middle Aged Woman Cleaning the Cat Box” be the next “Elderly Woman Behind the Counter”? I doubt it.

And there you have a little taste of the sad parts of Snark and Stage Fright (but fear not! It’s no bummer, I assure you) and a great playlist for next heartache. May it be short-lived.