To Blog or to Revise?

Sorry that I haven’t posted a second blog this week until now. First there were grades to turn in for the end of term, manuscripts to read for fellow writers, then the flu knocked me onto the couch for 24 hours, and when I pulled free of that all I wanted to do was revise my novel and finish the baby’s room in the two weeks (just two weeks!) I’ve got before fall semester starts.

Oh, and I had an ultrasound Tuesday that estimated my baby’s current weight at 7 pounds, 9 ounces. Um, I’m only 36 weeks along. This means the baby’s either coming early or he’ll be 9 pounds by the time he gets here. Yikes!

So yeah, I’ve been feeling like it’s time to concentrate on finishing my novel before it gets shoved down to a much lower priority. A writer friend of mine sent me fantastic chapter notes that I’m working from right now, and it’s exciting to see how close I am to being done, finally doing much smaller revisions than I have on previous drafts.

But in the mean time, I’ve obviously put off blogging.

It’s sort of a tricky question as a writer. To blog or not to blog until you’ve published is a debate all by itself, some people telling you that agents and editors will want to see your web presence while others say it’s completely unnecessary. But then what about once you’ve established a blog and you’re trying to maintain followers and consistency? Should the blog come before your work on your writing? Which is more important?

The writing is, and yet  . . . the blog’s important, too. I admire writers who find ways to balance both, consistently posting interesting blogs without sacrificing too much time on their manuscripts.

So what do you think? Where are the lines? How do you find that balance?

Leave a comment!

Help! My Ambitions Have Been Hijacked!

The third trimester is officially here and I officially don’t recognize myself. It’s like natural instincts become more powerful than my own ambitions; in fact, it’s like nature replaces my regular ambitions with baby-related ones.

Like nesting.

I mean, check out this photo. It’s a sand nest large enough to hold both my five- and two-year-old! Sure, we were really going for a volcano, but I couldn’t help noticing its nest-like structure once we finished. And I wish I could say it was my kids’ idea and they talked me into helping. But no. I instigated the whole project.

And then there’s the nursery. Granted, it’s my first time having one (since we lived in a one-bedroom apartment with our first baby and the second one shared a room with the first), but still this is nuts. Hours cleaning, hours setting up the crib (two-and-a-half months in advance), hours clearing out the closet of all office-related boxes that will be moving to the basement, and hours looking at new crib bedding online.

Worse, despite my normal, rational self insisting that buying bedding is way easier than making it, this new, crazy, nesting Nikki has gotten it into her head that she wants to make the crib bedding and all the decor for the room, starting with these 12″x12″ wall hangings I put together last Saturday:

Yikes! If I could put that much energy into writing right now, I swear my novel would be finished and sent off to agents already. But somehow the nesting instinct has hijacked my priorities.

Here’s one more example: cloth diapers. Why is it that I can read and read and read all the options and features and reviews, etc, for every brand of cloth diapers available, spending an entire day at a time doing so, but I start to fall asleep after working on my manuscript for half an hour?

Maybe it’s because cloth diapers are much more fun and colorful than my black-and-white, 300-page novel at the moment. I mean, check out these names: FuzziBunz, Happy Heiny, Bum Genius. And all the choices: velcro, snaps, all-in-ones, pocket, one-size. Who wouldn’t be entranced? Okay, probably anybody whose biology hasn’t been taken over by nurture hormones.

But yesterday I recaptured some of my focus and managed to salvage some of the wasted hours by putting my new-found cloth-diaper expertise to practical, non-nesting use.

I needed a lesson plan that would help my students really understand about tactful rhetoric as opposed to demonizing the opposite viewpoint. I talked to them about how we aren’t “preaching to the choir” — or in other words, we aren’t trying to convince people who already agree with us; we’re trying to win over the other side, and a good first step is to try not to offend them!

So I wrote a role play. I’d never actually done that before and I had no idea if they would actually find it funny or helpful or what, but it turned out to be hilarious, maybe just because the two students who volunteered did such a great job with it.

Since my intermediate students create websites about an issue of their choice, I told them to imagine that these two students represent a website and a visitor and to notice everything the website does wrong in the first scenario and how it revises and mends its way in the second.

Scenario 1

Cloth Diapering Website: What? You use DISPOSABLE diapers?? Do you realize that those things take 500 YEARS to decompose in a landfill? Do you have no CONSCIENCE?

Visitor: (covering ears through entire conversation) There is no way you are talking me into using safety pins and plastic pants and all that. Plus it’s not like I have time to do extra laundry or money to hire a diaper service. Stop telling me how to parent!

Website: I’m telling you how to parent because you are obviously incapable of making informed decisions. Haven’t you even considered your baby’s HEALTH? Do you have any idea what kinds of CHEMICALS they use to make disposable diapers? What kind of parent are you??

Visitor: You are a totally insensitive human being! Haven’t YOU ever considered other people’s hectic lives? I’m a single parent! I’m just trying to make ends meet and do the best I can. Not all of us have the luxury of time to contemplate environmental impact or every ingredient on every baby product.

Website: You have to MAKE time! This is IMPORTANT! What kind of legacy are you leaving for your children? You want them to grow up in a world where landfills spill into the cities and poopy disposable diapers roll down the streets?

Visitor: I don’t have to listen to this. I don’t know why I even clicked on this website, but I’ll be sure not to come back.


Scenario 2

Website: Did you know that cloth diapering is becoming a big trend? More and more parents are switching to it every year.

Visitor: Are you serious? Why would they do that? Disposables are so much EASIER.

Website: That’s definitely the common perception. Lots of parents are afraid to even consider cloth because they have that image of safety pins and complex folds and white plastic covers, but there’s been lots of innovation going on in the last few years to make cloth diapers just as easy as disposables.

Visitor: Okay, but easy for one person isn’t necessarily easy for another. I’m a single parent. I don’t have a lot of time.

Website: Actually, there are far more options with cloth diapers than there are with disposables. You can choose cheaper ones that make sense for your budget (and, by the way, save you HUNDREDS OF DOLLARS A YEAR versus disposables) or you can go all out and buy fancy ones that have every convenient feature imaginable. Look at the chart I’ve got here on the left to see five totally different cloth diapers along with picture, price, and features.

Visitor: Okay, that’s actually pretty helpful. And I like how you’ve got links I can check out, like this one about the company offering 30-day free trials. I’ll bookmark this site and keep reading more when I get the chance. 

Anyhow, trying to conquer the nesting instinct is an uphill battle, but I’m determined to win . . . somehow. Somehow I will get my novel sent off before this baby is born, even if I have to do it by writing cloth-diaper scenes. Or not.

Anybody else suffering from hijacked ambitions, like maybe because of summer weather or some other enticing trap? 

Leave a comment! 

Gender Skepticism: How Well Can Authors Manage the Voice of an Opposite Gendered Character?

I’m eighteen weeks pregnant. It’s the point at which I can occasionally feel tiny little kicks, the point at which I’m finally starting to believe that the bulge of my belly might actually be a baby, and the point at which, in just another week, I’ll (hopefully!) get to find out if it’s a girl ninja or a boy ninja.

I have my guess. With my first, I knew it was a boy and wasn’t surprised when the ultrasound confirmed it. With my second, I had no clue. With this one, I’ve been thinking “girl” the whole time. I just don’t know if that’s only wishful thinking because I have two boys.

In an extra effort to make the baby feel more “real,” I started crocheting baby booties this week, and because I couldn’t bring myself to buy four skeins of yarn at once (I have a thriftiness complex) I bought pink and yellow — going with my gut.

But then, after I’d finished them, I started to have doubts. What if the poor little baby in there is a boy? How would he feel knowing I’d been so sure he was a girl that I made him pink booties?

So I went back and bought green and blue yarn and crocheted those, too.

Yeah, gender’s been on my mind just a little. However, not just because of this unknown baby. I’ve also been thinking about it in terms of narrators in novels.

I’ve got seven viewpoint characters in my WIP (go ahead and be shocked), and five of them are guys. So I’ve got the challenge not only of making them sound different from each other, but making five of them sound believably like what goes on in the head of a gender I will never be.

The reason this terrifies me more than a little is that I often read reviews where the reader’s biggest complaint is that the guy narrator, in the case of a female author, didn’t sound like a guy.

Most recently I heard this about Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl’s Beautiful Creatures and Maggie Stiefvater’s Shiver. Readers have said that Stiefvater’s Sam is too emotional for a guy and that Garcia and Stohl’s Ethan notices too many details only girls would notice, like Lena’s jewelry and nail polish.

I don’t know about you, but I had lots of guy friends in high school, and when you hang out with guys, you find out things about how their minds work. (I also have a husband, so I know a lot about his particular personality, but I’m drawing from high school because that’s where YA books are set.) I still remember one of the guys saying, “Girls with toe rings: total turn-on,” and another adding, “Or when they play the piano with long fingernails that click on the keys. Drives me crazy.” (And he meant “crazy” the same way the other guy meant “turn-on.”)

Guys might not notice every detail, but (a) they are each attuned to certain details and (b) when they think a girl is hot, they’re going to notice more about her.

And as for Sam’s emoness, well, who hasn’t met an emo kind of guy? I mean, they have their own music genre even. Plus, Stiefvater wrote a great blog post this week about “Sams in the wild” — questioning whether or not there are guys like Sam in real life. I read the responses she got on Twitter leading up to the post: Loads of people agreed that Sam is plenty believable as a guy because they are, know, or married someone just like him.

So what’s the real trouble? If some readers find these guy characters definitely believable while others can’t buy into them at all, what’s an author to do about making a character of the other gender sound natural? Adhere to the stereotypes and make all guys macho and all girls feminine?

That seems awfully ridiculous, but then on the flip side maybe it’s ridiculous that I don’t think my baby would want to wear pink booties if it’s a boy. Guys wear pink dress shirts these days. My hubby has a pink tie that doesn’t harm his masculinity.

Maybe it comes down to signals. The color of baby booties is a signal to other people that the tiny, mostly bald, misproportioned creature wearing them is one gender or the other. The fact that my husband’s tie is a tie already signals he’s a guy, regardless of its color (though I realize woman occasionally do wear ties these days, they tend to wear them slightly differently). With a narrator, we somehow have to signal to the reader about gender based on nothing but word choice. Stereotypes are the easy way to do that, but I think that being truer to the character, like Sam’s emoness, is more important.

Here’s another thought. I’ve read books from first person POV where it took several pages before I was sure whether I was in the head of a guy or a girl, but that didn’t mean I didn’t find the gender believable once I learned it, even though it could have gone either way. Also, when I read books written by male authors, they don’t necessarily sound that different from books written by female authors.

This says to me that ultimately we’re not as different on the inside as we think we are.

Ultimately, we’re all humans, all of us with individual personalities and past experiences determining what sloshes around in our heads. If your experiences have reinforced the stereotypes of your gender, then maybe you’ll think more stereotypically, but I think there’s plenty of room for all kinds of combinations.

My husband makes a great shopping partner because he inherited great taste from his mom, but he also learned to mow the lawn and other “manly” things from his dad, though his younger sister mows the lawn, too. I learned to crochet from my mom and learned to use power tools from my dad, so now I’m a mix as well. Really, we’re all a composite of both genders, aren’t we? And I think that one of the best things about our modern age is that freedom to pursue what interests us without as much worry about prescribed gender roles.

So why can’t characters have that same freedom to be themselves without readers being skeptical?

What do you think? And while you’re commenting, leave a guess on whether I’m having a boy or a girl! I’ll post the answer next Friday. 🙂

Leave a comment!

Young Feminists in Historical Fiction

This is one of those posts that has the potential to get me into trouble with people who know more about this topic than I do. But that’s okay. Maybe it’ll turn out to be another interesting discussion in the comments!

I’m currently 200 pages into Jacqueline Kelly’s The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate, one of the Newbery Honor books for this year. It’s historical fiction set in Texas in 1899, and the main character is the eleven-year-old only daughter of a wealthy family (“her daddy’s in cotton”). And partly because she’s the only girl among six brothers, Calpurnia spends a good chunk of the book questioning gender roles.

I’ve heard many times the argument that too often historical fiction places a heroine with a modern feminist perspective back in a time period when people didn’t have the modern ideals that we do now, thus invalidating such historical fiction by making it anachronistic.

For me, I just wonder where the line is. How do we know when a character is too modern in her sensibilities? Weren’t plenty of women in history far beyond their time in picturing rights for women that would take many more lifetimes to come about?

I use a speech from 1851 every semester with my beginning comp class as we learn about rhetoric, and it’s a speech that was given at a women’s rights convention by an emancipated slave self-named Sojourner Truth. She says at one part,

That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain’t I a woman? Look at me! Look at my arm. I have plowed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain’t I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man — when I could get it — and bear the lash as well! And ain’t I a woman? I have borne thirteen children, and seen most all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard me. And ain’t I a woman?

I do wonder: If women were talking about suffrage in these ways, what’s so wrong with having a feminist main character in a historical setting? When does the character cross the line into being too modern?

I’ve been thinking about it as I’ve read about Calpurnia, and I think for me the line is that the questions the character raises about gender roles have to make sense for her situation. Calpurnia hangs out with her grandfather, who is a naturalist, and learns to love it so much that girly things like knitting (for example) become a nuisance because they get in the way. The more time she’s forced to spend on traditional women’s work, the fewer daylight hours are left for exploring their 600 acres with her grandfather. It makes sense that she would wonder why she should have to do certain things simply because of her gender.

The way she questions the world seems natural to me, and maybe that’s the difference.

What do you think? Have you read historical fiction on both sides, both where the feminism felt too modern and where it felt right for the time? What makes the distinction for you?

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Whose Story IS It, Anyway?

Feel free to laugh at me about this, but it wasn’t until last June that I had this particular epiphany, and I can tell you exactly which book sparked it.

It was Shannon Hale’s Forest Born, the fourth book in her YA fantasy series. Each of the four novels stars a different main character, and the fun part about Forest Born for me was having the three earlier heroines there alongside the new MC and seeing how they’d grown and matured through the series and become such wonderfully strong women.

Okay, so here’s the epiphany. The main character Rin doesn’t think she’s as strong as they are and spends most of the book in awe of them. But when it got down to it, when the climax and the crises hit, it was Rin who had to save the day, not because the others weren’t strong enough, but because it was her story, her moment to grow and prove to herself and the reader that she was strong, too. If the other three had saved the day, it wouldn’t have been Rin’s story.

Yeah, pretty basic, I know.

The main character doesn’t have to start out strong and active, but by the end of the book, he or she needs to be the one “saving the day.” That’s how you know whose story it is.

At the WIFYR conference last June, the author I worked with read my first twenty pages and told me I really needed to think about whose story I was telling and think about whether I’d chosen the right viewpoint character. At the time, the conflicts and character motivations weren’t clear enough, and while I didn’t end up changing viewpoints, I have put a lot of thought into this subject since then. I want to be sure that, by the time I write the final draft, it will be obvious to my readers why I chose these viewpoints and why the story belongs to them.

In the fall I read Laini Taylor’s Silksinger with its multiple viewpoints, and the climax blew me away. I was so impressed by how well each viewpoint character fit into the solution. If any one of them hadn’t done their part, the world would not have been saved. It was awesome. It was team work. It showed me why I often love multiple POVs so much.

My goal now is to incorporate my seven viewpoint characters into the climax as flawlessly as Laini Taylor did, giving each of them a saving-the-day role that perfectly fits that character. The story belongs to all of them, and every draft I get closer to discovering how much so.

This draft I’ve done a lot of scene switching where I’ll take a scene from the previous draft and try writing it from a different character’s POV — not just to mix things up but to hone in on which character is most vital for each scene and which character’s story develops the most from those particular events. It’s resulted in some awesome changes. I’m so excited to show the completed draft to my writer’s group at the end of this month.

(I should give Laini Taylor the credit for the strategy, too, since it was something on her Not for Robots website that mentioned doing that: finding the best POV for each piece of the story.)

Writers out there, how do you go about choosing your viewpoint character(s)? Have you ever had to change the viewpoint? Do you tend to stick to one viewpoint or prefer multiple?

Readers, do you have a preference for single viewpoint characters or multiple? What have been your favorite books of either type?

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Change the World

Yesterday was the first day of spring semester for Salt Lake Community College, and while I’ve never considered myself to be one of those movie-type teachers that inspires and changes lives, last night I decided to give it a shot — because the more I thought about it, the more it fit with the curriculum for my intermediate class.

When they came in, I had them answer three questions. The first two were just “warm-up” questions to get them primed for the third, but I didn’t tell them that:

  1. something nerdy about you
  2. your claim to fame
  3. one issue you’d tackle/change

(Originally, question three read “one thing you’d change about the world,” but I tested it on my intro class, and half of them said “war” or “world peace.” Oops. A little too broad.)

My answers were (1) I have my library card number memorized but not my bank account number, (2) I have students who like me enough to take both the intro and intermediate courses from me (about a third of the class last night), and (3) I’d change how English teachers teach grammar.

And my students had awesome answers. They’d change CEO overcompensation or disability awareness or put more reform in the healthcare reform or more initiative and inventiveness in education reform or stop the ways we put third-world countries into debt. I wish I could remember all the ideas.

Then I showed this clip from Pay It Forward:

Best of all, it’s not only possible to have one idea change the world, it happens all the time. In the newspaper over New Year’s I read about “People to Watch” in the next decade, and they were all working on different things: studying stem cells, mapping Down Syndrome genes, saving the Jordan River here in Salt Lake County, using saliva as disease diagnosis, running cities, serving in the senate, drawing alternative energy from waste lagoons, writing plays.

That’s how the world changes. You decide on the thing within your reach you want to tackle, and you tackle it.

My dad is part of the 29th Street Weed & Seed Coalition in Tucson — a neighborhood group that unites residents, schools, and businesses in working to reduce crime and build community. They’ve had some amazing success, including a 43% drop in crime compared to 15% in Tucson in the same period.

Also, my dad gets grants of all kinds to help improve the education of his middle school students and the lives of their parents. Last year he started teaching a weekend/evening workshop for parents that focuses on how to have stronger families. The course is free for those who are selected because of the grants my dad applied for. And it helps end cycles of domestic abuse, neglect, poverty, etc.

That’s how the world changes.

For my students this semester, they’ll be changing the world with a website. I showed them some of the ones from last semester, how one student’s site worked to educate people about the connection between drug abuse and gang violence, how another helped families of people diagnosed with a particular form of sclerosis learn how to cope, how one student used his experience working at a credit union to set up a site teaching people about avoiding debt, how another focused on finding happiness by avoiding consumer mentalities. (There are links on my English 2010 page for anyone who wants to see the sites.)

Now that I’ve taught one semester of this class, I realize that it is exactly like that Pay It Forward clip. It really is about changing the world and teaching students how, through writing, they can make things happen — the way my dad writes proposals and gets grant money.

Writing can change the world, and I like that thought a lot.

What about you? What’s something nerdy about you? What’s your claim to fame? And what would you tackle? How would you change the world?

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