Sunday, April 27, 2014

The We Need Diverse Books Campaign; Also, Writing Frustration

I want to start by boosting the signal for a series of online events about to take place in support of diversity in children and YA's literature. This is partly in response to the recent BookCon debacle you can read about here, but also stems from a lot of recent and growing online conversation about the appalling lack of diversity in the field. The online events will take place over three days, starting May 1, and more info is at the WeNeedDiverseBooks tumblr. Visit the site, make a sign, get involved, spread the word.


So, I've mentioned I'm starting a new book. Care to know how it's going? I'LL TELL YOU. Starting this book is like someone's walked up to me and said, "Hi there. We've decided it's your job to build a zoo. Here are your materials," then buried me under a mountain of sand, let a few tigers loose, and walked away. Or something. See, this is the type of imagery I'm coming up with. I AM HAVING A TERRIBLE TIME. For example, today I have been "about to start writing" for approximately 8 hours. I haven't managed a single word. And I know it's not over, because yesterday, recognizing what was going on, I made a rule that I have to write at least one page every day. Today isn't over until I write that one page.

What happens if I don't write the one page? Nothing in particular – I don't punish myself, and I don't even generally make progress rules like this unless nothing else is working – but here's the thing. The only way for me to start to feel like I'm writing a book that means anything is to get some words on the page -- enough words that I start to sense what this thing is now that it's on the page. I know what it is when it's off the page. I feel good about my book plan. But when I try to turn the book plan into words on the page, those words don't feel like my book plan, they feel like nothing, like I've stepped into this dimension of nothing. The only way for them to start feeling like something is for me to keep choosing to step into that nothing and add more words.

If I don't write one page today, it means I've added one day to however long I'm going to feel like this. Which would be crummy. Whereas, if I write the one page, even if it's stiff and awkward and not at all what I'm aiming for (which is likely), I will experience the relief of knowing that I'm one day closer to leaving this feeling of nothingness behind.

One trick I like to employ when this happens is to wait until late in the day to start writing. At least that way, I don't waste the entire day imagining that I'm about to start writing. Once the day is getting near its end, I HAVE to write, so I do. Hypothetically. I didn't think to do this today, but it's on the agenda for tomorrow.


A final note, written a couple of hours later: I am relieved to report that I wrote my one page.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Notes from the Writing Room

A friend, knowing my usual one-book-at-a-time writing mode and understanding that at the moment, I'm working on three books, asked me if I've adopted a new way of working. The answer is no. I'm writing books the same way I always have. I start at the beginning of a book and write it through to the end. Then that book moves into the revision stage; over the course of however-long, my editor and I pass it back and forth and I revise it several times. While a book is in the revision stage, there are extended periods of time when either it's with my editor or we are giving it some needed space. During that time, I start the next book and write it through to the end. Rinse and repeat.

The reason I have three books in the works at the moment is that I wrote the first draft of one of them – the first one – really fast, but the revisions are going really really slowly. In the meantime, I've written a second book that's now also in revisions and is probably going to overtake the first book. I just handed a revision of the second book in to my editor and she and I are agreed that it's not yet time for me to take another crack at revising the first book. (Every book needs something different. That book needs a LOT of space.) So I'm starting the next book (#3) and intend to write it through to the end. :o)

For them that like numerical breakdowns: At any given time, I'm really only working on one book. For weeks or even months, one of the books will be my primary focus while I'm merely gathering information for the other two. Things come and go in waves. Back in May, I wrote a post about what my workday looked like and what my work life looked like at the time. Back then, about 85% of my energies were going to revising the first book, 14.5% of my energies were going toward planning the third book, and 0.5% of my energies were going toward the second book, which I'd just completed a draft of and was trying not to think about. Today, this week, and this month, I would say that 97% of my energies are going toward planning and starting the third book, 2.5% of my energies are going toward collecting feedback from readers about the most recent draft of the second book, and 0.5% of my energies, also known as "as little as possible," are going toward the first book, because it needs space. This pattern will probably hold until my editor gives me feedback for the second book, at which point I will need to switch my focus to its next revision. I am usually able to bring a project to a good stopping point before switching from one to the other; I usually have a sense of what's on the horizon.


The new book I'm starting is a book I've been planning for years. Planning is fun and exciting but as I begin to near the actual writing, I am often filled with a sense of dread. This is because I've done this enough times now that I know what's ahead. Beginnings are the hardest part of a book for me. For weeks and weeks and months, I make little progress, my characters don't feel real to me, I can't figure out who they actually are, my plot feels stupid and hopeless, and I'm constantly overwhelmed by the weight of all the pages I haven't written yet. These feelings are not due to low self-esteem or pessimism; I would bet I'm going to be very happy with the book in the end. They're merely due to the realities of writing. You spend a lot of time at the beginning struggling to get out of the primordial muck, or at least, I do. That's just the way it is, and it's helpful to understand that it's just the way it is, but it doesn't make it fun to be stuck there.

I told some friends that now that I have all my ideas together, I wish I could just wave a wand at the ideas and the book would appear; instead, I will dive into this months-long, useless-feeling muddle. One of my friends, also writing a book, responded that she didn't know what I was talking about. According to these people she follows on Twitter, it only takes them three weeks to write a novel and the novel is amazing. Snorts all around. It's true that at this point in the writing, I tend to be hopeful and perhaps a bit over-optimistic (I need to be, or else I would never begin!), but at least I'm not delusional. I know perfectly well that a year from now, I will probably still be writing the first draft, and once I'm done with the first draft, when I look upon it, I will see that while parts of it are, in fact, exactly what I hoped they would be, other parts are a big steaming pile of crap. AS THEY SHOULD BE. First drafts are exactly that: drafty, and meant to be followed by more attempts.


As I begin, I am collecting and consolidating all the little planny-comments I've been jotting down for years in a couple of different notebooks, on random slips of paper, and on my phone. I'm reminded that one should really be quite explicit when jotting down ideas for a book one will probably not be writing for a long time. Today I encountered the helpful note, "Remember the Bolsheviks!!!" Apparently I was very excited when I jotted this down. There were several exclamation points. Regrettably, I have since completely forgotten the Bolsheviks (nor does the book take place in Russia) so I have no idea what I meant by that. Another comment said, "Putting aside what doesn't matter, to push away what doesn't matter. Is this what I'm looking for?" Um. It's kind of hard to tell?


By the end of my workday today, my new book plan was hanging radiantly on the wall (mounted on my usual handmade cloth bulletin board). I took a few pictures and sent them to a few concerned parties. See for yourself: my book plan looks like a badly-played game of Tetris. This is appropriate, as it sort of feels that way, too… fun and exciting, while infused with panic and a sense of doom.

And so it begins.

Godspeed to all writers :o)

Tuesday, April 15, 2014


When I told my sister, codename: Cordelia, how it feels to be here today on the first anniversary of the Boston Marathon bombing, she pointed out that maybe it's better that the anniversary is almost a week before this year's marathon (next Monday). It gives people space to grieve. I hadn't thought of that; I had been thinking only that it feels like two anniversaries rather than one, one day of terrible sadness, then, a few days later, another day of terrible sadness. But I think she's right. It's good to have a day dedicated to looking back and mourning, and another day dedicated to reclaiming our marathon.

It's very sad here today.

Here's a link to the metta meditation I posted last year.

Monday, April 14, 2014

April in Cambridge

Spring, you are a MOST welcome guest.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's TED Talk on the Danger of a Single Story

Have you seen novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's TED Talk yet? Called "The danger of a single story," it's beautifully composed and full of compassion. If you make 19 minutes for it, I think you'll be glad you did so.

Here's the link to the talk on the TED page, where you can access subtitles and also the transcript of the talk in many languages.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Reading and the Cosmos

I'm almost always in the process of reading a book; often I'm reading two. It's not unusual for me to be reading three. (There's also a scattering of a half-dozen books that I read at the pace of a snail across years, but I'm not counting those here – I'm talking about books I'm actively reading now with the intention of finishing them soonish.) That's usually my limit, and when I'm reading three books, two of them will almost certainly be either nonfiction or short stories; I rarely read more than one novel at the same time.

Right now, however, I'm in a few days of taking a break from all writing, which means I have more time to read. I am also preparing, in invisible ways, for the next bunch of writing – which means I'm finding myself drawn to more nonfiction than is usual for me. Putting together the pleasure reading, the reading that is obligated for various reasons, and the reading specifically directed toward informing my writing, I'm currently reading:

The Dispossessed, by Ursula Le Guin. Such a wonderful book to soak up slowly (I'm also alternately listening to the audiobook, which is a delight), and I'm noticing the way Le Guin manages to describe a landscape or a room with one simple, searing sentence which leaves me with a clear vision and does not numb my mind with boredom (as so much descriptive language tends to do). In Urras: "They came into the reading room of the library. Aisles of old books, under delicate double arches of marble, stood in dim serenity; the lamps on the long reading tables were plain spheres of alabaster." Done; no more description of the reading room needed. In Anarres: "The wide streets of Abbenay were quiet in the winter night. At each crossing the dim streetlight made a pool of silver, across which dry snow flurried like shoals of tiny fish, chasing their shadows." Obviously there are grander things to talk about in a book like this, but I'm also loving the little things.

Writing Beyond Race: Living Theory and Practice, by bell hooks. This is a collection of essays, published in 2013 by Routledge, in which hooks talks about systems of domination and how we can challenge them. A dominator culture hurts everyone in that culture; hooks has a way of presenting things clearly, helping me see the bigger picture. A couple of excerpts: "Accountability is a more expansive concept because it opens a field of possibility wherein we are all compelled to move beyond blame to see wherein our responsibility lies. Seeing clearly that we live within a dominator culture of imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy, I am compelled to locate where my responsibility lies. In some circumstances I am more likely to be victimized by an aspect of that system, in other circumstances I am in a position to be a victimizer. If I only lay claim to those aspects of the system where I define myself as the oppressed and someone else as my oppressor, then I continually fail to see the larger picture. After more than thirty years of talking to folks about domination, I can testify that masses of folks in our society – both black and white – resist seeing the larger picture." (30-31) Also: "As we move away from dominator culture towards a liberatory culture where partnership and mutuality are valued we create a culture wherein we can all learn to love. There can be no love where there is domination. And any time we do the work of love we are doing the work of ending domination." (37)

Into Great Silence: A Memoir of Discovery and Loss among Vanishing Orcas, by Eva Saulitis. From the cover copy: "Ever since Eva Saulitis began her whale research in Alaska in the 1980s, she has been drawn deeply into the lives of a single extended family of endangered orcas struggling to survive in Prince William Sound. Over the course of a decades-long career spent observing and studying these whales, and eventually coming to know them as individuals, she has, sadly, witnessed the devastation wrought by the Exxon Valdez oil spill of 1989 – after which not a single calf has been born to the group. With the intellectual rigor of a scientist and the heart of a poet, Saulitis gives voice to these vital yet vanishing survivors and the place they are so loyal to. Both an elegy for one orca family and a celebration of the entire species, Into Great Silence is a moving portrait of the interconnectedness of humans with animals and place – and of the responsibility we have to protect them." Here are a few random but beautiful excerpts: "It felt like a dream, as if I'd asked, before sleep: Show me how to be part of this place." (Page 4 – though I'm reading the e-book, so I'm not certain how the page numbers translate to the paper book.) "Most of all, I agonized over stories of the roundups of the 1960s and '70s, live captures of wild orcas for aquariums, juveniles torn away from mothers. Normally residents stay with their mothers for life. Some of those orcas, having been herded with powerboats and seal bombs, surrounded by seines, culled from their pods, isolated in net pens, and shipped all over the world, still circled tanks, day after day." (7) "I fingered my sweater's hem. My mother had knitted it to keep me warm in a wilderness utterly foreign to her." (22)

The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin's Russia, by Orlando Figes. This book is largely about paranoia, treachery, and heartbreak at the family level during Stalin's regime and I'm honestly not ready to formulate any personal reactions yet, beyond that it's a difficult read for a lot of reasons. Here's a link to the Kirkus (starred) review and an excerpt from the PW review: "One in eight people in the Soviet Union were victims of Stalin's terror—virtually no family was untouched by purges, the gulag, forced collectivization and resettlement, says Figes in this nuanced, highly textured look at personal life under Soviet rule. Relying heavily on oral history, Figes, winner of an L.A. Times Book Prize for A People's Tragedy: The Russian Revolution, 1891–1924, highlights how individuals attempted to maintain a sense of self even in the worst years of the Stalinist purges. More often than not, they learned to stay silent and conform, even after Khrushchev's thaw lifted the veil on some of Stalin's crimes. Figes shows how, beginning with the 1917 Bolshevik revolution, the Soviet experience radically changed personal and family life. People denied their experiences, roots and their condemned relatives in order to survive and, in some cases, thrive. At the same time, Soviet residents achieved great things, including the defeat of the Nazis in WWII, that Russians remember with pride. By seamlessly integrating the political, cultural and social with the stories of particular people and families, Figes retells all of Soviet history and enlarges our understanding of it."

Crime and Punishment, by Fyodor Dostoevsky. I have never read this book, have only just begun, and am already delighted to be adding it to the mix (though I may need to finish The Dispossessed before I can really get into this other big novel).

When I'm reading this many books on so many different topics, you'd think I'd have this sense of great learning and accomplishment. What actually happens is that I become more and more overwhelmed by how little I know about anything. Oh my goodness, I know nothing about science fiction, philosophy, political structures or sociological revolutions, imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy, orcas or Alaska, and I know doubly nothing about Russia. Seriously, I feel like the more I try to understand the political history of Russia, the more confused I get, none of which is creating any insight into that nation's current bizarre behavior. I AM IGNORANT!!!

But then I watched the most recent episode of Cosmos: A Space-Time Odyssey and found that host Neil deGrasse Tyson has a knack for pulling everything together so that suddenly everything fits. Of course, this isn't the first time I've noticed that backing yourself up so you're looking at the entire universe is a great way to get perspective and make everything fit :) – I've even blogged about this, more than once – but this wonderful TV show reminded me, just when I needed it, that there is room for everything and that it's valuable for me to remember, always, how much I don't know. Then Tyson made some remark about how every time a genius astrophysicist makes some new discovery, it comes hand-in-hand with an appreciation of how much he or she doesn't know yet (I am paraphrasing) and I was very happy. I may be confused, but I belong here. :o)

This blog post is kind of dense and all over the place, but I'm going to go ahead and publish it, because I need to clean my bathroom and go buy a pie. These are my important responsibilities to the universe today.