Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Putting the kick in sidekick

Secondary characters should never be wallpaper.
When Cheree at Justified Lunacy said she was hosting the Sidelines Blogfest for scenes that highlight a secondary character, I had to sign on. I have a character in mind that is a favorite, but I may choose another to challenge myself.
Joss Whedon's "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" created some of the most memorable sidekicks ever. I mean, how can you argue with that if you think about these characters: Willow, Xander, Giles, Cordelia, Faith, Angel, Spike, Tara, Anya. Each of them unique and fascinating as they walk the line between what's right and wrong, what's real and not.
Voice. They had it. If you've never watched this show, please give yourself a treat. Hilarious, heartbreaking, witty and terrifying. And, actually, deep, if you care to muse on it. Here, I'll give you a few snippets from Buffy. These are from various episodes so you won't be following a story line, just hearing their different voices:
Absalom: :"Your day is done, girl. I'll grind you into a sticky paste..."
Buffy: "So, are you gonna kill me? Or are you just making small talk?"
Cordelia: "I am, of course, having my dress specially made. Off-the-rack gives me hives."
Giles: "Buffy, I believe the subtext here is rapidly becoming text."
Xander: "Calm may work for Locutus of Borg here, but I'm freaked and I intend to stay that way."
Buffy: "Vampires are creeps."
Giles: "Yes, that's why one slays them."
Angel: "This isn't some fairy tale. When I kiss you, you don't wake up from a deep sleep and live happily ever after."
Buffy: "When you kiss me, I want to die."
After Angel changes back to evil with a specific agenda aimed at Buffy:
Buffy: "It's so weird...Every time something like that happens, my first instinct is to run and tell Angel. I can't believe it's the same person. He's the complete opposite of what he was."
Willow: "Well...sort of, except..."
Buffy: "Except what?"
Willow: "You're still the only thing he thinks about."
Sign up for this fest. Show your sidekicks some love. Goes live July 8. And if blogfest fun and camaraderie isn't enough, Cheree is offering a $15 gift certificate to a randomly chosen winner among followers who participate in the fest.
Lydia Kang has given me this pretty award. Thank you! But really, her blog is uber-cool. Every Monday she dispenses answers to questions about medical issues that crop up in your stories. And this week's topic is as cool as it gets.
Also a big thank you to Stephanie Thornton for the Beautiful Blogger award and the wonderfully kind words that went with it. Since I've received it before, the button is in the sidebar.
And a heads-up to watch for on an interview with Gayle Brandeis on her latest book, DELTA GIRLS, which I'm going to post soon.
And, hey, if you care to share a favorite Buffy sidekick moment, please do! I never tire of them.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Part II: How I got waylaid

I had plans and then...my path was crossed by this.

Stopped in my tracks? You betcha.


I had considered doing a flash fiction of the monkey-puzzle tree for Part II of my offerings to the Festival of the Trees. I've written most of a story and thought I might let you guys write the final graph.

But when nature bedecks your path with buckets of red and lavender blossoms you gotta go with the flow, be in the moment. Right?

So here is what I offer. The surprise and wonder of trees. I was in a botanic garden's Australian section. I recognized the jacaranda tree but not the other, which took my breath away.

I searched through the leaves and fallen flowers at the base of the tree but no handy identifying sign was there. I've decided this must be a flame tree. What better name could there be?

Whether you are looking up... or down.
Happy tree fest, everyone.
You can see Part I, which has haiku and flash fic or the monkey-puzzle tree, if you please.
And, oh! The huge dry leaf in Part I turns out to be from the Chinese parasol tree. Is that a cool name or what?

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Going crazy for the Festival of the Trees

I confess. I'm a wanton lover of trees. So when Yvonne Osborne asked for participants for the Festival of the Trees I waved my hand madly, but I realized I could never pick a favorite tree. I find something wondrous and fascinating about them all.
I sifted through my pictures of trees--ones that made me stop to capture their images, and I share these with no mention of favorites. I'm tossing in a few haiku and a flash fiction, too.
The desert palo verde does an amazing transformation. While its name springs from the unreal green shade of its bark, the annual profusion of sunny blossoms turn its normally stark, stick-like appearance into a fairy bower. I mean, really. Can't you see the fairies?
Walking in a botanic garden, I picked up a sap-green leaf that was wider than my head. Since the tree, whose name I no longer recall, had released the leaf, I took it home.
It lived with me for years, curling so slightly inward from its edges, turning a rich golden brown. It reminds me of the work leaves do to convert sunlight into nourishment and carry it to the tree.
And in that process, they release oxygen to our world. Leaves carry life itself.
a weathered oak
by the dead stream, standing firm
through the dry season

Trees also provide homes to countless creatures--birds, rodents and mammals.
But I was stopped in my tracks on a foggy walk through a park by this gigantic spiderweb.
While it can freak you out to suddenly be whacked in the face with a web, there is no denying the awesome design, industriousness and fragile strength of this creation.
lichen-bright trunks
light the way through damp woods,
the path is swallowed

Some people love palms and some hate them. I'm not sure why that is. They can be stately like these queen palms or give sustenance like date palms.
in whipping wind
a palm frond squawk-squawks,
new kind of crow
And now for a flash fiction in honor of the festival. The story grew out of my fascination with Montezuma cypress trees, which can live thousands of years. One in Oaxaca, Mexico is almost 38 feet in diameter. And there are creation myths surrounding the trees, but this story is purely my imagination.
Bored with listening to sap flow, Zapo exclaimed, "Is this all there is? Standing still for centuries? Nothing more?"
Zapo was young as Montezuma cypress go, but he'd still lost count of how many fishermen he'd watched cast lines in this lake or how many children tossed crumbs at ducks. His roots had long ago stretched so far around his base they looked like a nest of pythons. His crown was haven to weighty herons and bratty crows. In short, he was cranky with being a monument.

Zapo's fingers levered open a crack in his thick bark, and he gloried in the fresh air. He stared wistfully at a leaf drifting by and the clouds reflected in the lake's surface. He reached out a gnarled foot, his long toes dipping in the cool liquid.
He could be a boy and run free. Why not? But his feet shook the ground like thunder. When he turned his head, wind whirled and birds scattered. He looked down and saw people falling to their knees before him.
"Well, shoots and saplings," he muttered. "So much for blending in."
Sorry if the formatting is weird on this. Blogger kept arguing with me on the placement of photos and text.
There still is time to put up a tree post before June 28 and send the link to Yvonne. On July 1 all the fest links are posted so you can blog hop.
I may even post a Part II with a different flash fiction about the monkey-puzzle tree since my photo of it in the previous post was such a hit. Got trees on my mind, and that's not a bad thing.

(Postscript added after a trip to the botanic garden where the huge dry leaf was found. It's from a Chinese parasol tree, whose leaves are as big and lovely green as I remember.)

Monday, June 21, 2010

For the love of trees and my fellow bloggers

You can stare up into a monkey-puzzle tree forever and never figure out where all the limbs go. It's a lattice-work of complexity and grandeur.
I'm going to get back to trees in this post because there is a tree-licious event coming, but first I want to shout-out a huge thank you to Lydia Kang at The Word is My Oyster, who helped me sort out a puzzle of a different stripe.
Lydia is a writer and a physician who offers the unique Medical Mondays, in which she helps you diagnose your characters' maladies. No free med advice for you, please--just your stories.
Today, she brought out the virtual IV and ultrasound and tackled my questions about broken ribs. Have you ever heard of flail chest? Yikes. There's a term to set your imagination running. I'm so grateful for the informative and useful post.
In former Medical Mondays posts, Lydia has filled us in on memory loss, blood types, heart problems, phantom pain and more. Oh, and an added tree-connection bonus--Lydia posted on the properties of willow bark! Do yourself a favor and go get a checkup.
The Festival of Trees is coming! Well, it does come every month, but this time our blogging buddy Yvonne Osborne is hosting. All you do is notify her that you have posted some arboreal love by June 28. So from today you have a week to put up your post and send your link to Yvonne. The links of all participants are posted July 1 so readers can blog-hop through a carnival of trees. It may be a photo of a favorite tree, a short story, a poem or an artwork. I'm in. Hope you are, too.
A big thank you to Julie Dao who gave me the Pertinent Posts Award, saying what she looks for in blogs are ones with strong voice. I kinda needed that boost, so woo-hoo!
I've decided to pass that award on the two bloggers above who are so wonderfully pertinent to me right now: Lydia Kang and Yvonne Osborne.
Julie also passed along the Fantasy & Sci-fi award from Aubrie at Flutey Words. I had to snag that since that's my world!

Saturday, June 19, 2010

My kingdom for a voice

I seem to have misplaced my voice. You know, it's that unique little POV way of expressing yourself that every writer and that writer's characters need if they don't want to be lost in the crowd.
Moira Hahn's "Heaven and Hell" precisely illustrates my howling need. This series of paintings explore an afterlife that is a mashup of Eastern and Western beliefs and culture. I adore the work for its visual voice. It sure gets your attention in a stunning way, doesn't it?
Voice is on my mind for a variety of reasons. I've been wanting to post a comment Neil Gaiman made in The Guardian's article on writing rules. Among his "rules" were these two:
"Laugh at your own jokes." Really, that's brilliant. You should be chuckling if you're composing a funny scene or witty banter. I do and then wonder if it just my own twisted humor. But when I take my scene to my face-to-face crit group and hear them laugh as I read, relief rushes through me. Okay, I managed to find voice and it was funny.
"Write your story as it needs to be written. Write it honestly, and tell it as best you can. I'm not sure that there are any other rules. Not ones that matter." So says Neil, who has one of the world's great voices.
Now, here I'm going to say I am an avid reader of Neil's blog, which he has been writing for almost a decade. Yes, you read that right. He is one of the original blogging authors. But I can always tell when his stand-in guy writes a post. It's not Neil's voice. It's someone telling us about Neil's life, because Neil can't blog at the moment. That throws me off and drives home the point of how important voice really is.
And that brings me to my voice, which has gone missing in my query drafts. Sigh. I mean, I think I have a voice, but when I try to wrangle the essence of a novel into a few paragraphs, it becomes these overworked, dull-as-dirt sentences. Luckily for me, I won a query critique from Writing Out the Angst and the wonderful Suzy Hayze has lit a torch to help me find my lost voice.
What about you, have you found your voice? Are you searching for it? Do you have any idea what it looks like?

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

A film about writing and an epic online event

How do you tell a friend you think their newly-completed, beloved manuscript sucks? Eep.
"The Blue Tooth Virgin" is the title of the fictional screenplay being critiqued as well as the title of this indie film, which is a must-see for writers of any sort. It's a low-budget movie and has its flaws, but the central question of why we write (for art, for money, for validation?) and how we react to other people's opinions is fascinating. And, often, hilarious.
In the opening, the critiquer, who is a magazine editor played by Bryce Johnson, asks that simple question many writers find daunting: What's it about?
"It's a character-driven thriller. It's about the characters, but it's a thriller. That's what this is, so if you could pay attention to the characters, if you find them interesting and likable--but not too likable..." replies the screenwriter portrayed by Austin Peck.
Okay, then. Vague enough?
So, the magazine editor reads it, hates it and asks advice of a neighbor and film editor played with humorous pragmatism by Tom Gilroy. Here's part of that exchange:
"What's it about?"
"I don't know."
"Are there characters?"
"I'm not sure."
"Well, it sounds like an indie film."
As you might imagine, the moment of critique truth doesn't go over well. In case you decide to rent this one, I don't want to give away what happens, but there is a great scene with Golden Globe winner Karen Black as a New Age script consultant. And wacky as she is, she drives to the heart of the problem.
I'm going to do the segue thing now into other writerly things of interest, because if you don't want your beloved manuscript lost in the slushpile, there's work (with fun stuff!) along the road ahead.
WriteOnCon is coming! This astounding, amazing, stupefying event is brought to you by these fabulous writer/bloggers: Casey McCormick, Elana Johnson, Shannon Messenger, Laura and Lisa Roecker, Jamie Harrington, Jen Stayrook.
This free, online conference for kidlit writers takes place Aug. 10-12 and features literary agents, editors and published authors. Did you hear me? It's free!
Some participants: Suzie Townsend, Mark McVeigh, Steven Malk, Joanna Stampfel-Volpe, Anica Rissi, Mandy Hubbard, Lisa Schroeder. Does that have your attention? And there are many more. When you are quite done with me, go follow the WriteOnCon web site so you can keep up on the news. Registration opens July 1.
Talk about Paying it Forward. Some people are just made of awesome.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

To stay or not to stay is sometimes a question

Gayle Forman's IF I STAY confronts a question many people would rather avoid. How do you go forward after it seems you've lost everything, when despair and grief mute your world?

I just finished reading this slim YA novel about a budding teenage cellist named Mia. I felt as if it ended abruptly. I would have liked a few more moments of what her decision means, because the questions are well drawn. How much can we suffer? When do we step out of "I" into "us" and what role do family and friends play in our choices? Are we truly alone if our lives and memories are filled with others?

I was intrigued with how the book was structured, because it breaks rules. The first line is an odd sort of all-knowing comment that is followed by first-person present tense. Then the book switches between present and past tense. As writers, we're told to avoid backstory, and, yet, in this story it's integral.

Warning: spoilers ahead in this paragraph. Since Mia is in a coma but is lucid, she weaves past events into the present, trying to make sense of what has happened to her life. I was aware that I was reading backstory, but it felt like a natural process of sorting out her life, appreciating people and experiences while she puts that into context with her current condition. And the story got richer with those layers. The reader is on a journey of discovery with her. But we are oddly detached, as though Mia is looking through a lens from a distance and feeling little emotion. I was okay with that since she is in this altered mental state, but the ending would have more impact if Mia switched from telling us to showing us her loss and pain. This was the moment when the floodgates could be opened and the life raft of love and hope was within reach.

Still, I recommend this book for raising important questions and for taking risks by being told from the viewpoint of a girl in a coma. Writing and life are about risks--if you never take any, nothing happens. You may as well be comatose.

I'm going to segue to Abby Sunderland for a moment. I was so worried for the 16-year-old sailor the night it was announced that her emergency signals had been activated. I pictured her alone in her crippled sailboat in 30-foot waves. Obviously, my panic did her no good, but her experience as a sailor and her state-of-the-art equipment did. And then there was her family and the volunteers who set to work to get her rescued. I don't wish to discuss whether she should have been out there or who pays for rescues or any of that. Instead, I'm interested in her battle to survive and the support of her family, friends, volunteers and the many people who filled her blog comments with prayers and well wishes.

Her story is far different than IF I STAY but also alike in how we're all faced with decisions and risks and must reach inside ourselves for the will to survive and how that inner strength is bolstered by the support of others.


So, it seems appropriate as I muse on what helps us make it through the trials and traumas of life that Liza Carens Salerno gave me this Journey Support Award. Thank you, Liza for being one of the people I've met online who make the writing and blogging adventure such a joy.

In fact, I pass this award on to all the bloggers who follow my musings here and/or have left me wonderful comments. I love having you with me on this journey!

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Cheery nonsense, good friends and super contests

Dr. Seuss was such a great motivator, wrapping empowering messages in the most delightfully silly language. The author, whose name was Theodore Seuss Geisel, has been widely quoted as saying, "I like nonsense. It wakes up the brain cells."
Another writer suggested starting every day by writing a limerick as a way to achieve the same thing. I've yet to try. It sure would be a fun addition to my morning coffee, so here goes:
There once was a girl from the sea
whose life was wrapped in ennui
until one day she stepped out
and kicked off her doubt
and now she's content to just be.
I put up HORTON HEARS A WHO! cover because I want to also share this little gem from it:
Don't give up! I believe in you all.
A person's a person, no matter how small!
And you very small persons will not have to die
If you make yourselves heard! So come on, now and, TRY!
I don't know about you, but I want to make myself heard. Each of us has a voice, a story, but it may not be heard if we think we are small.
Now, I want to shout-out two of my favorite bloggers who have contests going on to mark milestones.
Wen Prior at On Words and Upwards is celebrating her almost-anniversary, giving away books and other treats. Wen's humor and storytelling shine through in her posts. She is not only a prolific blogger, she writes fascinating tales, paints and plays music. And she also writes killer pitches and recently was one of five people picked out of 500 in agent Rachelle Gardner's one-sentence summary contest. Visit Wen. Stay awhile. You won't be sorry.
Angela Ackerman at The Bookshelf Muse has created a site that is like the most amazing Thesaurus ever. Do you need help thinking of new ways to describe anticipation or guilt? Maybe you've never been to an abandoned mine or prison cell. She's got descriptions to help you. So many people make their way to her blog, she is celebrating more than 800 followers and more than 200,000 page views! Whew. Her prizes will knock your socks clear off. I was lucky enough to win a critique from her once. Trust me. You want to enter.
Okay, then. If you have anything silly to say, please do!

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Finding the way home

I went to the ocean this weekend. It was Rx, rather than R&R. Sometimes, I need the sea to wash me clean.
Moist, salt wind filled my lungs, infused my blood, my brain. Cold water splashed up my legs, saying: Remember. When you are alive and in love with being alive, doubts and burdens drift away with the breeze.
I became light enough to fly wingtip-to-wingtip with a pelican, to dance on the lip of eternity.
But my feet were grounded, toes digging into wet sand and feeling its shift, constant movement, tide in, tide out, the sea's breath.

So much life is happening right here. On these rocks. In this ebb and flow. These two tidal boulders remind me of mammals, of whale or walrus backs.
Would they take me on a journey?
Carry me below and teach me how to breathe again?

Many creatures live here, plant and animal scrunched on rock that gets pounded, submerged, dried out. It's a harsh environment. But it's home.
This chiton is anchored so tight to this rock, I wasn't sure it was alive, at first.
These tiny mollusks, also called sea cradles, have mouths and teeth to eat algae. They have a nervous system resembling a ladder and use a muscular foot, similar to limpets, to hold on. But here's the thing that blows me away. Chitons, although they seem rooted to the rock, can move, and they can find their way home again.
Another lesson from the sea.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Living with the dead and learning something

Some things keep me up at night. And they aren't pleasant--worries about finances, anxiety over whether I'll ever finish and sell a book, demands of helping a relative who suffers from a touch of the crazies.
But sometimes the late-night culprit is actually a pleasure--a story that captivates me, won't let me close the book covers and turn off the light. THE DEAD-TOSSED WAVES grabbed me by the throat from page one and glued itself to my eyeballs. Yep, the experience was that visceral, and it dragged me long into the wee hours.
I want to know why. So I'm shuffling through the pages looking for clues.
Zombies are not my usual paranormal crush. (Even though I did write zombie haiku here.) I had to nudge myself to read the first book in this series by Carrie Ryan--THE FOREST OF HANDS AND TEETH. And although I enjoyed that one, the protagonist isn't someone you love at first sight. She's a loner, always colliding with other characters and dreaming of getting away. That said, I shed real tears at the end. Water fell from my eyes. Tissues were required. Ms. Ryan twisted the knife. Something she seems quite good at.
But here's what happened when I cracked open THE DEAD-TOSSED WAVES. First of all, there wasn't a lot of backstory telling us what already occurred in this world--that kind of writing bores me senseless when an author essentially gives pages of synopsis of the last book's storyline. Instead, the few paragraphs that set the scene in this book connected directly to the current world, and there was action and tension by the fifth paragraph. We're talking just a bit over 200 words in. That's tight.
Opening line: The story goes that even after the Return they tried to keep the roller coasters going.
I can't speak for anyone else, but that grabbed me and told me I was in a dystopian world where amusement rides are no longer possible. That's eerie and sad. Within the next couple of paragraphs we learn people, despite being hunted by flesh-eating Mudo, wanted the rides kept open so they could feel normal. But eventually it became too dangerous to step outside the walls surrounding safe zones.
Then comes the heart-in-your-throat moment. Our teenage protagonist is being prodded by her friends to sneak into the park. Typical teenage bravado. Do what's forbidden, because nothing can touch you.
Only the sixth paragraph in: Already a few of the older kids have skimmed over the top, their feet a flash against the night sky. I rub my palms against my legs, my heart a thrum in my chest.
Excellent example of showing us her fear. Ms. Ryan doesn't say Gabry's scared or even that her hands are sweating. She shows us Gabry rubbing her hands, and we know. We're right there, heart thrumming, with her.
Then before we're off page two, Ms. Ryan adds another element guaranteed to hook a fair number of readers. She throws in this: There are a thousand reasons why I don't want to go with them into the ruins, not the least of which is that it's forbidden. But there's one reason I do want to take the risk. I glance past Cira to her brother and his eyes catch mine.
Now, I don't want to ruin this book for anyone who hasn't read it, so I'm not going to give away the plot. But I think you can figure out that this little foray into the amusement park is not going to end well.
Gabry's life gets jerked around more than any ride for the rest of the book. Every time I thought we might be pulling back into the safety zone, there was another twist. Gabry's world is not safe. Perhaps, never will be. But she grows from a girl afraid of everything beyond the walls to one who's willing to push back and try to lay claim to a new life.
I learned a thing or two by looking back through this book. I love discovering what makes a story so good you can't turn out the light.
Have you read any such books lately?