Downtime and the Back Burner

Every writer has moments when the flow of words stutters, stalls, comes to a sudden screeching halt. Call it writer’s block, call it what you want. In my case it’s usually a panicked ‘where do I go from here’ feeling which is almost always due to a misstep I’ve taken somewhere along the line. It’s that nagging sense of ‘something’s wrong’, and until I figure out what and how to fix it, I can’t move forward.

That’s where the ‘back burner’ comes in. That place at the back of your brain where you stick an idea to simmer while life goes on; never forgotten, but comfortably out of sight where part of your mind can worry away at it while you do other things.

While you have a little downtime from writing.

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Taking some time out at the White Memorial Conservation Center, CT

For me, downtime can be as simple as shutting off the laptop for the day, and going out to do errands and walk the dog. A couple of hours is sometimes enough to work out a plot tangle. Other times, if I’m really stuck, it can mean a week or two of doing nothing but reading other people’s words voraciously or binge-watching an entire season of Supernatural in the company of my daughter.

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A little break to enjoy the autumn colors

Eventually, after an hour, or a day, or a week, the pot finally stops simmering. The solution to my plot or character development problem is suddenly crystal clear. I can dive in again with new energy, and after taking a break things are stronger and better.

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Energized, renewed, ready for the next round

Everyone has their own approach to writing. Every writer has that rhythm that just works, and that is all their own. I love living in my made-up worlds, and can write happily for hours on end. But I get stuck, too. And for me, taking a break from time to time is essential to keep things moving.

All photos taken at the White Memorial Conservation Center, Litchfield, CT.

 

Worlds Apart

I recently read a great blog piece by SF/F author Jo Zebedee on how every character is a protagonist in their own story. Her post stuck with me, and I began thinking about how – in real life – we create stories to live in which color and enrich our world. Children do this all the time: they walk around in superhero outfits or princess dresses, or use sticks as swords in the park. We say, “Oh, so-and-so has such a wonderful imagination!” But it’s not just ‘imagination’, is it? It’s an ability to rewrite the world around you, however temporarily, and make yourself the star at the center of your exclusively crafted solar system.

(And, shh! Adults do it too! Daydreaming, they call it, but when you’re lost in an alternate world where you’re treading the red carpet, or being awarded the CEO-of-the-year award, or sunning yourself on a tropical beach somewhere, you’re not just playing imaginary games. For a brief instant, you’re the key player in a story of your own making, and not only are you the main protagonist but the script writer, the costume designer, and the director all in one.)

I have a clear fairytale memory of being four, and arriving in Brazil to spend a year with my mother’s family while my parents made work contacts and began setting things up for our permanent move to Brazil a few years later. Of course, I didn’t understand about the work contacts and all that stuff. What I do remember is that we drove up to a palace, and when I was shown my vast bedroom I opened a huge wardrobe to find it spilling with beautiful silken dresses while my grandmother went ta-da! in the best fairy godmother style.

Fast forward many years later and now, when I look back at the scene, I smile at my small self. Yes, my grandparents’ house was big and sprawling compared to our tiny London semi, but far from being a palace it was actually a former farmhouse. The wardrobe still exists: it’s a teensy thing built for a child’s room. And while I’m sure there were probably a good handful of dresses inside, they were all nice, serviceable hand-me-downs from my older cousin. But who cares? Because for that brief moment, that was my narrative. The fairytale, the princess dream. It was a real thing, as was my part in it, and though the narrative twisted and changed over time, that perfect dream moment will always be a part of my personal story.

As Jo points out in her blog piece, when she compares two books written by different survivors of the same horrific event, each character in a story will focus on different aspects of the same event – the aspects that touch them most, that become a part of their own particular story. They are the main characters in that tale, but the stories are different, too, not just the protagonists’ place in them. If we, as non-fictional and real, living people, can create our own worlds around us, beautifully distinct and personal to each of us, then our written characters should, too.

One child’s wardrobe is another one’s key to a magical princess world. Which world do your characters live in? What story does each of them tell? Personally, I can’t wait to find out.

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In each person’s eyes, a different world.

Write Yourself

Yesterday I went to a ‘decades’ costume party. I dressed as an eighties rock girl. I danced until my legs ached. For some reason, this got me thinking about my wedding, almost fifteen years ago.

I loved every bit of our wedding party. We didn’t have the latest trends in absolutely anything. I let my youngest flower girl decide the color scheme. Needless to say, there was a lot of pink!

We danced until 5am, and only stopped because the venue politely told us they needed to close. There was something for everyone: seventies, nineties, and plenty of eighties music. A lot of it was fabulously cheesy and fantastically fun. I danced my first dance to Bryan Adams, and threw my bouquet to Roy Orbison’s Pretty Woman.

I’m an eighties girl, through and through. I spent my teenage years watching Back to the Future, Desperately Seeking Susan, and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. My romantic ideal was Rutger Hauer riding into a church on a big old horse in Ladyhawke. I wore neon, and legwarmers, and shirts with mahoosive shoulder pads. Lipstick came in red or hot pink. Subtlety, thy name is not 1980’s.

This definitely affects me as a writer. It would be nice to write beautifully elegant prose, as sharp and balanced as a knife’s edge. But you can’t take the eighties out of the girl. I’ll always be a Die Hard kind of person. I like fireballs, and fight scenes, and people crawling through air ducts. I like a touch of John Hughes to my first kisses. It’s just who I am.

They tell you to write what you know. Well, what I know comes with an extra-large tub of movie popcorn on the side. It’s lighthearted and fun, and probably a little silly at times. But it’s me, and I can’t help that. I don’t do ‘dark’, though I love to read it. ‘Write what you know’, in my case, is definitely ‘write who you are’.

And you know what? I’m fine with that. In fact, I’m more than fine with it. I didn’t begin writing ‘for real’ until I realized that the only person I had to please at that point was myself. I was allowed to have fun.

I’m not entirely sure of the purpose of this blog post. Perhaps there is none, except to make an impassioned plea to write what makes you happy. Be it epic battles, or tangled quests, or stolen kisses in the moonlight. Have fun with it; write that thing that makes your heart beat faster.

And maybe toss in a fireball, for me.

 

Spotlight on SFF Forums with Brian Turner and Damaris Browne

 

Online communities serve an important role for fans of genre fiction. It’s not always easy to find like-minded souls in our daily lives, willing to spend hours debating the best and worst of science fiction novel cover art, or the latest Game of Thrones theories. Forums and other discussion groups on platforms like Facebook bridge the gap, bringing together readers and writers from all over the world.

There are many discussion spaces all over the internet, and often people try several before finding one they feel more at home in. I got lucky on my first try: I found the UK-based SFF Chronicles while looking for book recommendations, and once I realized the forum had an active and friendly writer’s corner I was smitten.

With over 30,000 registered members, the Science Fiction and Fantasy Chronicles, known affectionately by its members as the Chrons, has been going strong for fifteen years. The brainchild of fantasy writer Brian Turner, it has everything from book to gaming discussions, with a busy TV and movie section, too. The writing boards are extremely popular, offering space for questions on plot structure, grammar doubts, and even critiques. And the monthly 75-word and quarterly 300-word writing challenges are a lot of fun, and a good learning process too!

I’ve invited Brian to share a little of what it takes to set up and run a forum the size of the Chrons. Also on the witness stand is long-time member, site moderator, and science fiction and fantasy writer Damaris Browne. Check out her website, www.damarisbrowne.com, for more on her work, book reviews, and her thoughts on writing. 

Juliana: Welcome Brian and Damaris. Now, I know Damaris is a long-time member of the forum, and Brian of course has been there since its inception. Could you tell us a bit about the journey from start to current format and size? 

Damaris:  I’d better leave this one to Brian, as the Chrons was up and running long before I joined in 2008. I’m interested in hearing what the full story is, though, since I know there are members whose dates of joining are a year or two before Brian’s – something which confused me a good deal before I became a mod and picked up bits and pieces of the site’s history. 

Brian: Originally I had a website for my writing, with a forum to support it. I was convinced I’d be published soon — only to realise I’d simply completed a first draft, and would need years to learn how to write to commercial standard. As it already covered other SFF books, TV series, and films, it made sense to detach the forums and develop them as a general SFF community. I then did everything I could to grow it — marketing strategies, technical tricks, mentions in the BBC and other media, a stall at Worldcon, etc.

Now it’s the largest dedicated SFF forum out there. Better still, it’s retained the same sense of friendship and community it began with.

FWIW, I posted a longer history here: https://www.sffchronicles.com/threads/549309/ 

Juliana: Forums, by nature, are always in flux, with established members fading away and new members joining. Have you felt the Chrons has changed in ‘personality’ over the years? 

Brian: Forums are a social media platform, so they are only ever as good as the members that make them up. Luckily, the people who are into SFF tend to be wonderful chilled people. Even better is that we have a moderating team to ensure everything remains civil, and that flame wars, trolling, and spamming are quickly dealt with. That allows for a safe environment for the community to grow.

Damaris: It’s always a shame when established members stop visiting for one reason or another, but it’s inevitable when real life intervenes, and a fresh infusion of new blood is important, bringing with it new ideas and energy. I don’t know about a change in personality, but my perception is there has been a change in emphasis since I joined. There was an Aspiring Writers section then, but it seemed to take second place to the discussion of books. Now I’d say the places have been reversed and the writing side is a greater driver of the site. There was also a chat room when I first joined, which vanished some time ago, and I think that was missed by some of the older members. 

Juliana: There are several other SFF sites where forums exist side-by-side with a homepage that showcases articles and reviews. A while back, Brian opted to focus solely on the forum aspect. Why this decision? What are the positives and negatives of this choice? 

Damaris: Again one which I’d best leave to Brian. I have to confess that I rarely visited the homepage, so I’ve not been affected by the change, save that as a winner of the 300 Word Writing Challenges it was a great ego-boost to see my name and a link to my story there. So that’s one disadvantage of its loss as far as I’m concerned! 

Brian: I had grand dreams of setting up a SFF magazine on the front end, supported by the forums. But the big problem is that no good front end software will integrate with any good forum software. The result is that you end up with two websites running in parallel, and little interaction between the two. Which kind of defeats the purpose of having both features, if most people only use one or the other.

To me, the community aspect was always the most important – so I focused on that. Anything that would have ordinarily been posted to a front is now posted to the forums. IMO that makes for a stronger community overall.

Juliana: The SFF Chronicles, like most forums, depends heavily on volunteer moderators. What does a moderator actually do? And how much work does it take to keep a forum friendly and ‘clean’? 

Brian: In their simplest form, moderators are simply long-term members who have been entrusted with an extra set of tools to help protect the community environment. But moderators are also site ambassadors, and service relations. Ultimately, their role is essential – and usually thankless – when it comes to making sure the community runs properly and safely.

Damaris: Most work is general housekeeping, such as opening and closing regular monthly threads like “What are you reading?” and moving threads which have appeared in the wrong sub-forum by mistake (new members asking for recommendations often wrongly post in Book Search, for instance).

The Challenges have their own little section in the Staff Room where we deal with matters arising. As there are strict word limits, we’re called on to decide whether entries have gone over the limit and therefore have to be removed, whether proposed combination word forms are one or two words, whether choices of theme and genre are appropriate for the 75 Worders and, most difficult of all, what images we should use for the 300 Worders. All those decisions are arrived at by consensus. But a job which is solely mine, and by far the best one, is contacting the winner of the 300 Challenge and confirming the prize (Brian generously provides a book worth £10 GBP from an online shop) then helping get his/her choice of book organised and sent out – as it was to you, Juliana!

Then we have the more onerous – not to say upsetting – duties, effectively policing the site. We don’t get as many spammers as we used to (*touch wood*), but they are a nuisance and their posts have to be removed and the spammers banned. Something that has grown over the years since I’ve been a mod is the number of people joining for the purposes of using us as a free billboard for their self-published novel or their kickstarter campaign. We’re always delighted to hear about members’ projects, but newbies aren’t allowed to self-promote. So those posts are also removed, though the members themselves are rarely banned nowadays, but rather are encouraged to join in and become true members of the community, which is guaranteed to bring more interest in their work anyway, so it’s win-win.

And very occasionally we have to intervene when members argue or become abusive. We don’t allow trolling or flame wars on the site, and we stamp down hard on anything approaching such unpleasantness. Incidentally, as you noted in your introduction, one of the things which makes Chrons so popular is that the boards are always friendly, civil and tolerant of difference. That is wholly down to Brian and the example he sets and encourages us to maintain. 

Juliana: The writing challenges are a popular pastime for many members. And Damaris is our resident statistician, keeping track of entries and votes over the years. How did the idea of the challenges emerge? How have they evolved over time? 

Brian: The Writing Challenges is an area I support, but almost never have anything to do with. It’s a great example of the community asking for, and then organising, what has become a major activity. 

Damaris: Ah-ha!  I can answer this one easily, since I was, by chance, one of the original movers of the Challenges. Back in early 2010 one of our members put up a piece in Critiques to commemorate his 1,000th  post. (The start of another Chrons tradition!)  I came along not long after and followed suit, but as I had nothing in my draft WiPs suitable, I quickly wrote a silly piece of 250 words. In the discussions which followed, I half-jokingly suggested we should have a “story in 50 words” thread, so we could practice brevity as the soul of good story-telling. Teresa Edgerton, another long-standing member (and brilliant author), confirmed she’d been part of a writing group that had an exercise to modernise a fairy tale in 75 words, and she was the only one able to complete it. She suggested we try the same exercise in our Workshop section of Aspiring Writers, changing theme or genre monthly. I was very taken with the idea, as were several others, so the Challenges started a few days later, on 5 April 2010.

We thought we might get a handful of people taking part, and like other exercises, it might last a few months before fizzling out. We’ve now just completed our sixth year of the 75 Worder, and in that time we’ve had a total of 448 entrants writing 3,571 stories!

The 75 Worder has stayed much as it started, though the original open genres or plain Science Fiction or Fantasy are rare now, and the genres (which are chosen by the previous month’s winner) can be rather esoteric, not to say wilful – Tudorpunk and In the Style of Rudyard Kipling being notorious. But in 2011 we started the 300 Worders, which have an image, often a photograph, as an inspiration for speculative fiction, and in 2014 a not-quite official 100 Worder was begun, where the entries are posted anonymously and part of the fun is to try and guess which member wrote which story. 

Juliana: Which are your favorite corners of the Chrons? 

Damaris: Aspiring Writers, by a long way, and that’s where I spend most of my time. But I have a soft spot for Book Search, which is where members can put up pleas for help in trying to find the title and author for SFF novels they read many years ago and which are now tantalising memories. I was like a dog with two tails when I was able to pinpoint a book for one person a few years back – my one and only acknowledged success. 

Brian: I love it every time someone starts a discussion, especially about a book or an author. It’s also great when a TV show or film franchise develops enough of a following to receive its own board.

Additionally, I enjoy seeing the various writing projects, and successes, our writers are involved with. 

Juliana: I happen to know that besides being talented writers you are both avid readers. What’s on your to-read pile at the moment?

Brian: I’ve got quite a reading list (https://www.sffchronicles.com/xfa-blog-entry/2700/) already for this year, but I’ve had a few books already added to that. A heady mix of fantasy, science fiction, thrillers, historical fiction, plus general non-fiction research material.

Damaris: My TBR pile overflows from two large baskets, and there isn’t enough room to list everything they contain! I’m a catholic reader (with a particular weakness for medieval murder mysteries), so I’ve books of all kinds waiting, but just looking at a few of the SFFs: Raymond E Feist, King of Foxes; Guy Gavriel Kay, A Song for Arbonne; Harry Harrison, The Stainless Steel Rat Returns; Sabaa Tahir, An Ember in the Ashes. And just this weekend I picked up Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War, Jack Campbell’s JAG in Space, and Angela Carter’s Nights at the Circus. In the non-SFF sphere, the one I’m going to start next is Mary Renault’s The Mask of Apollo as I’ve recently finished The Last of the Wine which was marvelous, and after that Tracy Chevalier’s The Virgin Blue – I was very impressed with her The Lady and the Unicorn, though perhaps less so by Girl with a Pearl Earring. And lastly, as early research for a possible novel I’ve got A Social History of Tea by Jane Pettigrew and Bruce Richardson which is just begging to be opened.

Juliana: Thank you Brian and Damaris for sharing an insider’s view of the SFF Chronicles. It’s always fascinating to peek behind the curtains! Hmm, that gives me an idea for a new thread topic… 😉

 

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Spotlight is a monthly blog feature. Check out March’s Spotlight on Writing Horror with Gwendolyne Kiste and Scarlett R. Algee. Next up in May: Spotlight on Writing YA.

 

 

Neverlanding, One Tale at a Time

I’ve loved Peter Pan since I reread it as an adult and realized what an incredibly versatile tale it is. It’s one story for children, another for teens, and a completely different one for adults. That this apparently simple narrative is actually so nuanced and layered is, quite frankly, amazing.

J.M. Barrie’s classic, published first as a play and eventually as a novel in 1911, has inspired countless other works, from the literary to the cinematographic (and probably everything else between). How can we not be touched by a book that offers us swashbuckling adventure, mermaids, fairytale magic, and a neat sideline on growing up?

It’s no surprise that I love a movie retelling of Peter Pan. Whether a straight-forward interpretation such as Disney’s 1953 classic, or one that twists the theme like Spielberg’s 1991 Hook, starring Robin Williams as a grown-up Peter returning to Neverland, there’s always more magic to be found in the never-ending pixie dust well of Barrie’s words.

I even love the spin-offs, such as Disney’s Tinkerbell movies. Or the ones that only borrow obliquely from the source material, like the fabulous 1987 vampire flick directed by Joel Schumacher, The Lost Boys, where a vampire boss searches for a mother for his tribe of undead ‘children’. And yes, I know, spoilers, but if you haven’t watched this movie by now WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU?

Two of my current favorites, however, stay close to the original story while adding their own particular brand of magic. The first is the gorgeous 2003 version directed by P.J. Hogan. In Hogan’s Peter Pan, Wendy Darling (played beautifully by a young Rachel Hurd-Wood) is a feisty girl who would rather play pirate than do that terrible thing called ‘growing up’. When she’s whisked off to Neverland by Jeremy Sumpter’s Peter, she’s tempted by precisely both these things: a pirate’s life of adventure alongside Captain Hook or the beauty of her first kiss, even if it means taking a step in the dreaded direction of womanhood.

The second is the recent Pan (2015), directed by Joe Wright and starring Levi Miller as perhaps the most charming Peter I’ve ever come across. This one’s a prequel to the original, and yet it fits seamlessly with the tale we all know and gives Peter Pan new dimensions and a great backstory. It’s a truly enchanting take on the book and well worth watching, even if just for the images of a flying pirate ship evading the anti-aircraft guns during the London Blitz of World War II. And Hugh Jackman’s Blackbeard leading his men in a rendering of Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit was a real laugh out loud moment.

Why does Peter Pan endure so well? Maybe it’s the pirates, or the fairies. Maybe it’s the lure of never, ever growing up. Whatever the reason, the story, in all its different forms and versions, still touches us over a hundred years later. So choose your favorite, set your armchair coordinates for “second star to the right and straight on ’til morning”, and forget the world, just for an instant.

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The famous Peter Pan statue in Kensington Gardens, London.

The (Un)Familiar

I’ve just returned from a family trip to England. We had a wonderful time, with a castle, and wizardry, and a giant Ferris wheel, and a gorgeous baby nephew. And daffodils: lots and lots of daffodils.

It was a strange voyage of discovery and rediscovery. I spent the first eight years of my life in England, and have visited countless times, but it had been almost thirteen years since my last visit. Things change, and your vision of the world changes, so things appeared at the same time familiar and unfamiliar. And my children were visiting their mother’s birth country for the first time, so I was also experiencing everything through their eyes.

And then, when we returned, there was that same feeling of known-yet-unknown that I always get when arriving after a while away. When, just for an instant, you see your home through a stranger’s eyes and marvel at how different it all looks, before the ordinary crashes down and takes over again.

But that small moment in which the ordinary becomes the extraordinary, when what should be familiar looks utterly alien for a heartbeat or two, that’s the sense of wonder that my favorite fantasy writers manage to capture. Worlds that are enticingly new, but feel oddly like home. Stories that mesmerize and draw us in, not just for their freshness, but because, deep down, they are also hauntingly mundane.

Wonder, and yet also recognition. Children’s fiction does this very well. Narnia is a new universe for a child reader, but it also reminds us enough of home that it makes sense. It has lampposts and fishing rods among the swords and talking lions. It feels real, open-the-wardrobe-and-check-for-yourself real. The Percy Jackson imaginary world of Greek demigods is laced through our modern-day life, anchoring it, making it feel possible. In Alice in Wonderland, familiar day-to-day objects like rabbits and watches and cups of tea give Lewis Carroll’s surreal tale enough normality to allow us to navigate its pages.

Adult fantasy fiction often achieves this same sense of the known-yet-unknown through more subtle ploys. Often it’s the characters themselves, with very recognizable feelings, goals, and morals, which anchor the story and give it just enough reality that we can take the leap into a new world while knowing, deep down, that we retain some level of comfort. As readers, we crave the new, but if we can’t find something to relate to, the new can quickly become overwhelmingly alien.

Next time you’re immersed in a book, take a moment to identify the strands that harness you to the tale. What makes the story appeal to you? And then sit back, close your eyes, and remember some of your favorite trips. Why was that place so special? Can you find any common threads between stories and real-life journeys?

Give it a try. Because in every unfamiliar moment, there’s a tiny drop of the familiar. And even the most brazen adventurer among us needs a thin tether to that which we already know. What’s yours?

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Mock up of Diagon Alley at the Harry Potter Studio Tour in London. J.K. Rowling does a beautiful job of intertwining the familiar and the unfamiliar.

Just Shoot Me: always an archer’s girl

Here’s a little something about me: I do love a good archer in my fiction. Yes, those dazzling sword fights are very nice and all, and gunfights or laser blasters do the job quite prettily, but my heart sings at the twang of a bowstring and the zip-hiss of an arrow in flight. I’ll even take the ker-thunk of a crossbow if I have to.

I know exactly what began my love of storybook archers. When I was around seven, I was given a couple of Ladybird books about Robin Hood. And I was instantly smitten by Robin and his brave Merry Men, especially by dashing Will Scarlet (but not by Marion, who I considered to be a bit of a let down for the female side). The Ladybird books were followed by other versions of the tale, including one where Robin died at the end and I always ended up in tears.

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The tale that kicked it all off.

 

Afterwards, when I discovered the Narnia series, I was quite cross to see that my favorite (Lucy of course) got stuck with the lame knife and the healer’s cure while silly Susan got the bow. But then Jill – another archer – more than made up for Susan in The Last Battle. I always loved the bit where Tirian says to her, “If you must weep, sweetheart, turn your face aside and wet not your bowstring.” And she grits her teeth and follows his advice, game face all the way!

Feisty Jill would probably have got along well with Katniss – they could both field dress a rabbit and do a decent bit of shooting. Of course, by the time the Hunger Games came along I was a grown woman, but not too old inside to enjoy her post apocalyptic flair for doing all the right things to mess with all the wrong people.

But nice as it is seeing girls with bows (Merida, you rock!), Robin and Will (*sigh*) were my first real crushes. Which is probably why I like CW’s Arrow so much: Archer? Check. Dressed in green? Check. Shades of grey vigilantism? Check.

The Robin Hood stories were exciting for many reasons; the hunted becoming the hunters, the guerilla warfare, the daring feats. But the archery was what ultimately remained long after I’d lost the books to the passing years.

Why bows and arrows? A sword wielder (at least in fiction) is all passion and instinct; he or she trains incessantly so the movements come without thinking in the heat of battle. But ultimately they’re the thugs in stories, the ones who get up close and personal and aren’t afraid to get a little messy, or even a lot. At the end of the day, it’s all about sticking a big old chunk of metal in someone else.

Archers now, they represent cold logic under fire. However skilled they may be, they still have to pause and factor in the distance, the wind, and take aim. That’s a lot of quick thinking, especially in a fast-moving brawl. They may be toting the long-range weapons, and have the luxury of standing back on a battlefield, but try making all those calculations with the pressure of enemies closing in and your friends (the sword folk) getting slaughtered out there.

So, at the end of the day, you can keep your Longclaws, your Andurils, your Excaliburs. I’ll take the unnamed trusty lengths of seasoned yew, the feather-fletched shafts, the quivers and bracers. I’ll go for brains over brawn, for sharp intelligence and a keen eyesight. Robin, sign me up for your Merry Band, and away to the green depths of Sherwood. Because that arrow launched so many years ago?

Straight through the heart.

 

Moving On: the teenage years

Yesterday evening my soon-to-be-13-year-old arranged a last-minute movie outing with a couple of school friends. The kind where you’re supposed to drop them off and pick them up afterwards. The first of this kind for him, ever. That same evening, my 11-year-old was invited to a last minute sleepover. So my husband and I were suddenly, unexpectedly, on our own.

There we were, on the sofa in comfortable sweats, considering getting takeout and watching a movie. Then we pulled ourselves together, got changed, and went out for an impromptu dinner date to a local fish restaurant we’d been meaning to try but somehow never got around to. And it was so much fun.

Later, as we sat in the movie house parking lot with cups of steaming Starbucks to wait for our son, we looked at each other. So this was what life was increasingly going to be like from now on. Hot beverages in parking lots at night as we waited to pick our kids up from movies, and pizza, and parties. It was strange, and new, and different.

We held hands like teenagers as we sipped our drinks, and smiled. Yes, it was new, and different, and a little strange. But it was also rather nice. In fact, it was a whole lot of nice.

I can do nice.

September Dreaming

Summer is hard.

Don’t get me wrong; summertime has its charms… But see here, I have kids. And I live in the USA, which means school vacation is a long, long, beastie. So halfway through summer, I was done with summer. My husband is done with summer. Even the kids are done with summer by now. My son has organized and reorganized his school supplies. My daughter’s freaking school bag has been packed for a week!

Can I officially declare summer over, yet?

Much as I enjoy those first lazy days of reading, hanging out with the family, and doing not much else, by now I’m looking forward to the cooler days of September. It’s too hot for gardening, or housework, or anything requiring half a brain.

It’s certainly too hot for writing, even if I wasn’t sure to be interrupted by completely unreasonable requests for lunch or the ever-present, “I’m booooooored.” And then when I answer, “You had friends over yesterday, and the day before that we went to the bookstore and the pool, so how about a videogame or some nice quiet TV, mmmmm?” they look at me as though I’m speaking French. Which perhaps I am, I don’t know, I think my brain shorted out sometime in the early days of August.

Where was I? Oh yeah, September dreaming. Cooler days. Routine. Quiet. Just me and my laptop and my morning cup of tea. Bliss! So come on in, you winds of autumn; enter summer’s house with impunity and blow away those mental cobwebs.

And oh, summer? Would you mind closing the door on the way out? I appreciate it, thanks. See you next year!

One Step Forward, One Step Back

I’m back in Connecticut after a short break visiting friends and family in Brazil. June marked the two-year anniversary of our move to the USA, and we figured it was about time we visited São Paulo before the kids forgot everyone and everything.

Now, I’m not going to lie; it was one heck of an exhausting two and a half weeks, thanks to our determination to pack in as many social gatherings as we could. It was also, alternately: amazing, emotional, hilarious, stressful, crazy, peaceful, and sometimes downright scary.

I confess I was a little anxious about returning to Brazil, wondering what feelings it would bring out. Would I regret the move? Would my husband, or kids? But as it turns out, I needn’t have worried. It felt good to go back to São Paulo, and revisit old haunts and old friends. But, equally, it felt good to return to the new place we’ve learned to call home, and to love so dearly. Sometimes taking a step back can show us how great it is to move forward.

Yesterday, after suitcases had been emptied and dealt with, the empty fridge had been replenished, and the worst of the laundry maelstrom was over, I dusted off my current writing project and took the first peek at it since the kids’ school vacation began.

The novel I’m working on is a middle grade science fiction tale set on Earth in the near future. The thing is, though, it didn’t start life as a middle grade story. It was originally written as a crossover young adult novel, with both teen and adult characters. There were too many points of view, and things felt a little all over the place. It didn’t work. After half-heartedly subbing it to a handful of agents, I locked it away in a digital drawer.

A year later, and feeling a little stuck after writing yet another crossover YA with too many POV, I got to thinking about that other novel, the one that didn’t quite work. The story itself was a good one, and it had a lot of really cool action sequences I liked. What if…oh! What if I rewrote it? As a middle grade novel? I could pare down the POV, slash everyone’s age, reshape the characters… What if?

So in late May I started playing around with my shiny new-old idea. And it worked. It worked beautifully. Things that were a little off originally suddenly made sense. It was like a blurry image pulled sharply into focus. I was smitten. And it felt good to be writing middle grade fiction again, my first love.

But I had to turn to the past to be able to move forward. I had to reclaim that place I’d been in before, my YA novel, and only then could I find a new happy place in my writing. We are the sum of all our experiences, and our writing is the sum of all the words and worlds that came before.

Sometimes you just need to take a step back.

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Gratuitous beach photo from our vacation.