Thursday, October 30, 2008

What I Learned From Fifth Graders

Today I spoke to five fifth grade classes at an elementary school in town. If there's anything that will make a writer think about why they write, and how they write, it's standing in front of a room of kids. I took a poll as I started each talk. Many of these kids loved reading, and some didn't. A few of them liked to write and a few of them struggled with the writing process. As a writer on deadline who prides herself on being a professional, their questions made me take a moment to take stock of my attitude and my work habits.

As I expected, the classes asked many of the same questions:

1. When did you start to write?

2. What do you do when you get stuck?

3. What was your favorite book to write?

4. Which book was your hardest to write?

5. How do you get started with a story?

6. How do you know when the story is over?

I found myself encouraging them as I realized they're at the age now where it's make it or break it. Will these children toss books aside as troublesome sources of dreary assignments? Will they give themselves the chance to be creative and experience the joy of story?

I told them about the importance of passion. Especially in fiction, write what you love. Writing is difficult enough that it's wrong to complicate the process by trying to force yourself into a niche.

We also talked about remembering the reader. Not only do we write because of passion, but we write because we want to give the reader a great read. It's supposed to be fun, entertaining, and we're sharing something with them that we hope they'll remember.

We talked about rewriting and doing the best we can. I told them I have good friends who read for me and tell me how I can make by books better.

One of the fun parts was talking about story structure, and the importance of problems for our character. We talked about finding the main conflict in the book Holes, and how once that main conflict was solved, the story was over. Causing problems for our character helps move stories out of those tight spots and keeps our readers interested. The kids saw some practical examples from what they'd recently read to help them as they write.

They asked some great questions of me and I left the school exhausted, but also with renewed focus on why I write, and what I need to remember as I write.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Why I Love Book Sales

Twice a year, our town library has a used book sale to benefit the library. They cover all the tables of the alternative school's cafeteria with every kind of book imaginable (except the ones fit to be covered with discreet brown paper wrappers, I was told). And most of the time I try to remember to show up and support them. Now that I'm an author, I realize that all these books were once sold brand-new and the author received royalties on that sale. But what about now? They don't.

I also realized as I look at those rows and rows of books that I don't mind. Of course I'd like to sell a ton of books, but I also realize the value of free (or inexpensive) samples. There's a population of readers who aren't "cheap" people, but for whom buying books at full price is a luxury. Part of me can't begrudge them the experience of getting lost in a story.

And truly, what place did we get most of our reading done as kids--and then try to escape from? The library, where we can read for free.

Those free or cheap sample books can lead to future sales for those authors whose books covered the tables. I've got a stack of books I'll probably still be working on when the next sale comes in April.

The town library had me be their guest speaker in February for their volunteer appreciation dinner. Let me tell you, the library people make authors feel like rock stars. And I owe a lot of my writer's journey to them.

Anyone been to some good book sales lately?

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

My First Rodeo

I've lived in Texas for almost 17 years and I'd never been to a rodeo until Sunday. Well, I fixed that on Sunday when we went to the Heart of Texas Fair. We had a blast. Hannah enjoyed it until the calf roping started.

The calf above is fine. Really. He was roped and his feet tied, and he's lying there waiting until they undo his feet. Then he took off racing for his corral.

One of the cutest things we saw was the sheep riding for little kids. Children as young as 4, 5, and 6 years old would come out of a chute, riding on the back of a woolly little beast. A few fell off, and none got hurt (they all wore helmets).

After that we found some overpriced fair food. Fair as in food you buy at a fair, and fair-tasting from the place I bought food.
No deep thoughts today. I'm just wonderin' why it took me almost 17 years to get myself to a rodeo.
Why has it taken you so long to do something you've never done?

Saturday, October 04, 2008

Flickers of Grief

Grief is a sneaky house guest.

When it first arrives, Grief is either anticipated or uninvited, but in either case, Grief brings a lot of loud friends with it--anger, regret, sorrow. I could go on.

For over a year now, Grief has lurked outside on the front porch. Then it moved in for a while, and seemed to move out as we "went on." This summer, Grief burst into our living room again. Finally, in September, it looked like Grief had packed its bags and decided to leave.

October 11 means one year since Eddie's gone. Everyone we lose leaves a hole that must be filled in. Sometimes we feel guilty for filling the hole. Or other times we ignore it and pretend there isn't a hole, and we stumble into it.

I can tell the change in the atmosphere. CJ's grief has somehow slipped through our back door and seated itself at the table. Even snagged a cup of coffee, of all the nerve. Mine has too, for him, and for what should have been and never was.

Even now, I look back and wish Eddie's story had read differently. But in the end, the liver cancer took him quickly. He and CJ had lost years because of the rift between them because of Eddie's alcoholism. No one wants to lose their little brother at 42.

So what now? Grief has flickered again. The fresh pain has made me wish for Eddie back, to be with CJ and make up for all that lost time. It's made me miss Carla anew and wish for one more chance to hear her laugh and for another chance to reach out to her. And she's only been gone four months. But what a four months.

What do we do when Grief flickers again? Let it have its say, and then allow it to leave. Eddie will never come through our front door and ask to borrow an extension cord (only to not return it). Carla's not going to call us (not that she had called in over a year and a half before her death, but that's a whole other story). We won't have a chance to rebuild relationships, fractured by human fear and frailty.

But God in His wisdom gives us time that heals. And it is our choice if we live in that land called "If Only." I won't let Grief talk me into moving there.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Special Delivery!

A special envelope arrived last Friday, and inside waited a delicious treasure sent from my mom. Maple sugar candy! (Thank you, thank you, Mom!!!) Ohmygoodness, if you've never had maple sugar candy, that means there's more for me. And I probably blew it by singing its praises here. When maple sugar candy arrives at our house, it's usually for Christmas. I ration the candy out and make each piece last. But as it melts in my mouth, I can't help but chew down on it, at least once.

Mom went to The Eastern States Exposition in West Springfield, Massachusetts to pick up the yummy treasure box for me. Better known as "The Big E," this New England fair runs for two weeks every September. Besides the fall foliage, The Big E was one of my favorite things about living in New England. Each New England state has its own permanent brick building--Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island--and they feature the best of their state. For me, the highlight of the Maine building was their ginormous baked potatoes, piled high with all the fixings. Yum. We'd go early when the gates opened, and end up at the Maine Building in time for lunch and get in line for a loaded baked potato. Then of course we'd go to Vermont for a delicious slice of apple pie garnished with a slab of cheddar cheese.
All throughout the two weeks, they'd have horse shows--we loved strolling through the show barns and seeing the gorgeous horses and beautiful ribbons they won. And who can forget the Farm-o-rama, watching the baby chicks hatch and petting the pigs (phew)? And every day, they had a parade down the main drag in front of the state buildings.
Thinking of The Big E makes me miss my sisters, and the fun times we shared when they were younger. I had my license and loved toting them around. My latest proposal involves three sisters, different from us, but sharing the same bond and having struggles of their own. It's set in Massachusetts, so I plan on having The Big E make a cameo in all its New England glory.
Amazing, what sweet memories a little box of sugar can hold.