Blame the screen?

ScreenTime
We are a family of readers, so when my seven-year old daughter announced, “I just don’t like to read, Mama,” I didn’t know what to do. She’s in a year-round school, so for weeks I’d been struggling to get her interested in her obligatory “thirty minutes” of reading before bedtime. She was fine if I read to her, but had no interest in doing any part of it herself. Any attempt to get her to read so much as a sentence ended in glares and huffs and a battle of wills that I inevitably lost.

Had I failed as a mother?

I looked back on my life, seeking something to blame. Too much coffee during pregnancy? Letting her eat too many cookies? Maybe she was living in the shadow of her older brother, who started decoding words when he was three and read independently by kindergarten. It was entirely possible she was normal—I suppose I realized not everyone had to LOVE reading the way I did—but come on, she didn’t even want to read MY BOOK. The one I wrote for my children. Or any chapter book, for that matter—she kept picking out picture books she’d read since preschool, and which I was getting tired of reading over and over again.

Something was at fault. I had to find it.

I scrutinized the issue with my husband. “She does watch an awful lot of TV,” he pointed out.

Ah ha. I had my culprit.

The next day, we instituted a major change in policy: Cutting screen time in half. The kids’ hour a day on school days was down to 30 minutes. My son offered that, to be consistent, we should really decrease it on weekends too. My daughter did not take it so well.

“But that’s only ONE EPISODE of My Little Pony!” she wailed.

My explanation of childhood before Netflix and cartoons on demand was met with the expected response: “But that only leaves me less than 10 minutes to check my Sims!”

I was strong. I stuck to the new plan. And something amazing happened.

That night, instead of watching TV, she offered to help me make dinner. Nope, it wasn’t reading. But while I was instructing her in the art of combining sauce, noodles, and cheese, I said, “You can never have too much cheese on lasagna. Hey, that would be a good name for a book.”

She said, “I’m going to write it. Right now.”

Half an hour later, she had the draft of an illustrated children’s book. An hour after that, the meal was done, and so was her manuscript. She read it to us at dinner.

There are many paths to literacy in childhood. Not every child is going to love learning to read or be an avid reader. What I was doing with my daughter wasn’t working. But when I created the space for her, she filled it with writing. Writing is available to children long before reading is—all they need is the alphabet and a crayon.

One of the things I did was cut back on screen time. It would be easy to say that was the most important intervention. But the other thing I did was stop pushing my daughter. In too few years, she won’t let me read to her at night. Why am I in such a hurry to see her grow up? She’ll do it all too fast, before I’m ready.

My daughter is finding her own path to reading. I can’t lead her there. But if I pay attention, I can follow.

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Is YA just for girls?

Are Young Adult books just for girls? Should they be?

Well, no.

But how do you explain this:

“Imagine your local independent bookstore’s shelves. They teem with pouting girls and hunky boys and various shades of purple. Few self-respecting teen boys would venture there to find their next great read…So you are taking quite the gamble if you target your YA to a boy audience or use a boy-centric male protagonist.” – Mary Kole, “Writing Irresistible KidLit”

And this, a snapshot of the latest YA titles from GoodReads:

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The landscape is remarkably similar to what Mary predicts. And her advice has never steered me wrong before. You can tell at a glance that most of these books are heavy on the romance and angst, spanning genres from high fantasy (The Shadow Throne by Jennifer Nielsen: “One war. Too many deadly battles. Can a king save his kingdom, when his own survival seems unlikely?”), Science Fiction (Cress by Marissa Meyer: “Rapunzel’s tower is a satellite. She can’t let down her hair—or her guard.”), the infamous dystopian novel, (Landry Park by Bethany Hagen: “Downton Abbey meets The Selection in this dystopian tale of love and betrayal.”), and Romantic Comedy (Better Off Friends by Elizabeth Eulberg: “For Macallan and Levi, it was friends at first sight. Everyone says guys and girls can’t be just friends, but these two are.”) Fourteen of 15 are clearly aimed at the female audience (we’ll come back to the exception, Grasshopper Jungle, at the end).

Young adult, as an audience, existed long before the broody “teen romance” market blossomed. Somewhere between The Outsiders—a 1967 novel about rival gangs, and Twilight—a 2005 novel about vampires who sparkle, publishers apparently got the idea that teenage boys didn’t go to bookstores.

But boys do read (although apparently not as much as girls), and they even read books with female protagonists. GoodReads’ list of “YA for Boys” has The Hunger Games series in its Top Ten. Other YA books I expect boys would like: Scott Westerfield’s similarly dystopian Uglies, Pretties, and Specials series (there’s a classic YA love triangle, but the sci-fi element is superb, and the action is gripping). When I was a teenager, I discovered science fiction, so most of my recommendations fall in that direction. Ask any male science fiction fan over 40 in your life about their favorite Robert Heinlein book, and most will sigh happily at the buxom babe on Friday—a book I loved for apparently entirely different reasons than my husband. In fact, I suspect that when we lose boys from YA, we gain some of them in Sci-Fi–a genre that tends to have more male readers. (I have absolutely no data to back this up, just a strooooong hunch.)

The teenage years are a time of finding your place in the world, and good YA usually reflects this by placing compelling external conflicts against a soul-searching internal conflict. In YA, the internal conflicts are always larger than life—a good YA author can make you feel 16 again, when every slight was the end of the world, every crush was your first love, every failed friendship was the downfall of a dynasty–it was all so breath-taking and terrifying because every experience was new. When you are 16, these books make you feel like you’re not alone. Some of the best books I’ve read lately (Veronica Roth’s Divergence, Andrew Smith’s Grasshopper Jungle) place these conflicts against literally end-of-the-world scenarios, hence the appeal of the Dystopian genre.

Another reason we’re so drawn to books where things go so badly is that fiction is a kind of disaster-preparedness simulation: It helps us navigate potentially scary situations by modeling various horrible outcomes from the safety of our couch. Especially emotional outcomes—cowardice, fear, longing, sexual insecurity, love, rejection, betrayal. Boys need this sanctuary as much as girls, if not more. Our society is more forgiving of girls who show emotion. Boys are told from the time they feel the first rush of cold air in the delivery room to “Man up!”

So while it may be a bad “business” decision as a writer, I reject the premise that YA is just for girls, and that KidLit authors should target their YA that way. (I do, however, recommend Mary Kole’s book–she knows the market, she knows writing, and she is chock-full of excellent advice. She would probably advise me not to use cliches like “chock-full.”)

So if they’re not reading about brooding vampires, self-reliant heroines, and voluptuous fae, what are boys reading? And how do we write for them? Take a lesson from Andrew Smith. Grasshopper Jungle is a YA sci-fi/dystopian/weird tale—and the less you know of before you read it, the more you will be delighted when you do. It is about a 16-year old Polish boy who accidentally unleashes a plague of giant praying mantises on his dying rural town. He is in love with his girlfriend, Shannon, and his best friend, Robby. He is horny and confused. Never have I read anything that more perfectly overlays the outer end of the world with the inner.

How did Andrew Smith do it? In the Acknowledgements, he shares his secret: He gave up writing. This book is not written for girls or boys. He wrote this book for no one but himself.

Not only do boys read, they write, too.

More reading:

What were your favorite books when you were a teenager? What do you recommend for teenage boys today?

Some things are worth waiting for–my experience with a professional editor

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Timber Howligan is a silver and gray Maine Coon…just like this one. He’s formidable, not fluffy!

There are so many good things about being a writer—author Katey Howes captures most of them in this post: http://kateywrites.wordpress.com/2014/01/29/an-almost-objective-look-at-choosing-a-writing-career-illustrated/.  I happen to agree with all of these, especially the part about showing up to work in pajamas, and loving it so much you sometimes forget to pick your kids up from school (although, strictly speaking, that is not a good thing if it happens too often).

Over a year ago, I decided to “be” a writer. I wish I could say I’ve forged ahead, guns blazing, conquering all obstacles in my way like my secret agent cat hero, Timber Howligan. Russian spies? Vicious guard dogs? Wily rabbits? No problem for Timber Howligan.

Oh. You haven’t heard of Timber Howligan yet? Er, that’s because the book isn’t published yet. It’s not, um, actually done.

My path has been more like the novel that gets rewritten seven times.

Not for lack of trying, mind you. More for taking a hard look at the first 65,000 words I ever wrote, and realizing…

Wow. That needs work.

Back in November, I thought the book was done. Almost signed, too—with a local independent publisher, but a publisher nonetheless. Obviously there would be one more round of edits, but according to the publisher, they’d be quick—she promised to have the book out within six months of signing the contract.

Except she didn’t want to sign the contract right away. Okaaaaay….I told myself I wasn’t the one in a hurry. She told me when she would call.

In the meantime, I started having second thoughts. As an independent publisher, she offered little in the way of marketing and not much more in the way of services beyond self-publishing, except she took most of the royalties. I did my homework—I talked to some of the authors who had published with her. I read some of the books she’d published.

I decided that when she called, I had a lot more questions to ask.

However, she never called.

So my “publishing” deal fell through, but to be fair, I kind of let it. I wanted my story not just to be published, but to be good.

In December, I hired a professional editor—Mary Kole, of kidlit.com.

This was by far the best thing I have ever done for my writing.

That book I thought was almost done? Major plot surgery. Serious character work. Right now, it’s on life support. I’ll do my best to stitch it back together—hopefully retaining some of the voice and style and humor that I loved about it to begin with.

They say you have to kill some darlings along the way. This edit may have murdered my baby. But not every first novel is going to see the light of the bookstore shelf.

Then why did I write it? I created a character—Timber Howligan, secret agent cat—who will live forever in the hearts and memories of those who have already read my book. Including my eight-year old son, who stayed up late to finish it and laughed at all the right places. My kids dressed up as Timber Howligan and Lester McMuffin (Timber’s best friend) for Halloween. I WROTE A NOVEL. I know how to do it—and because of the patience and professional help of Mary Kole, I know how to do it better next time.

I’m not giving up on this book—Timber deserves everything I can give him. I love this story. It still makes me laugh out loud. Sometimes I cackle while I’m typing. By the time I’m done with it, it will be a lot better than it would have been before…

And worth waiting for.

Rediscovering A Wonderful Book for Young Readers…and Writers

ENMTitle: Emily of New Moon (first of three in the Emily series)
Author: L.M. Montgomery
First Published: 1923
Opening Line: The house in the hollow was “a mile from anywhere”—so Maywood people said.

Plot Summary:

Emily Byrd Starr is orphaned at the age of 11 when her father dies of tuberculosis (“consumption”). Her mother’s people will take her in, of course—the Murray pride demands it—but none of them want her. Lots are drawn, and Emily ends up at New Moon farm with strict Aunt Elizabeth, loving Aunt Laura, and kind Cousin Jimmy.

Emily is miserable at first. Though school is difficult for her—she accidentally writes poetry when ought to be doing sums, and the teacher, like many adults in her life, finds her maturity frustratingly willful—Emily soon makes friends. Her best is the wild and free Ilse Burnsley, whose father barely notices her (Ilse’s mother disappeared mysteriously under no small amount of scandal, and Dr. Burnsely holds all women responsible).

Emily’s hopes, dreams, and disappointments are all keenly and vividly described as she pours her heart out to the page—in long letters to her father, on scraps of paper, on her chalk board at school. At first, writing is her refuge. As she grows to love New Moon—and it becomes clear her heart is generous and full of love, no matter how she may clash with Aunt Elizabeth—she writes not out of need but out of passion. Because she simply must. Even though, as expected, Aunt Elizabeth forbids it.

Despite Aunt Elizabeth’s rule, Emily thrives. She finds allies and friends, even among her Murray relatives. She develops close friendships with not one but three potential love interests, who all are captivated by her slow smile and long lashes. By the end of the book—which takes us not only on a delightful literary journey of adolescent growth, but solves a suspenseful mystery along the way—we are eagerly looking forward to the sequel in order to see who this captivating young girl will become. (And who will she marry?)

Why I STILL Love This Book

This book has so much to offer young readers—especially the young girls who will most be drawn to it. It is marketed as a “YA novel for ages 11 and up.”

By today’s standards, it is quaint. Probably old-fashioned—at New Moon they refuse to use lamps, and still use the giant cauldron from the old country to boil the pigs’ potatoes. But I found it absolutely magical, even thirty years later. So much fades with time–this grew brighter.

It is a book that celebrates the imagination and the written word. The innocence and joy and power of youth—for much of the book, four children entertain themselves by writing, sketching, orating, or putting on a Shakespeare play in Lofty John’s bush. And there is no doubt about it, Emily is destined to be a woman of power. She is surrounded by strong female role models: her mother who defied her family to marry Douglas Starr, Aunt Elizabeth who works so hard to ensure Emily grows up to never do such a thing, and Aunt Laura who co-exists, in her own way with her own peaceful rebellions, side by side with Elizabeth.

And for writers? Revel in this book. Fall in love with the written word the way Emily does. Share in her amazement each time she has “the flash” of inexpressible delight—whether it be from:

the dark boughs against that far-off sky…with a high, wild note of wind in the night, with a shadow wave over a ripe field, with a greybird lighting on her window-sill in a storm, with the singing of ‘Holy, holy, holy’ in church, with a glimpse of the kitchen fire when she had come home on a dark autumn night, with the spirit-like blue of ice palms on a twilit pane, with a felicitous new word when she was writing down a ‘description’ of something. And always when the flash came to her Emily felt that life was a wonderful, mysterious thing of persistent beauty.

And above all, write. Fill notebooks until your hands cramp. Hide them from prying eyes. Burn them rather than let them fall into the wrong hands. If you run out of paper, write on the backs of envelopes and magazines. Fight for it the way Emily does:

“Oh, I must write, Aunt Elizabeth…You see, it is this way. It is in me. I can’t help it.” …If Aunt Elizabeth had asked her to give up crocheting lace or making molasses taffy or eating Aunt Laura’s delicious drop cookies, Emily would have done so wholly and cheerfully, though she loved these things. But to give up writing stories—why Aunt Elizabeth might as well have asked her to give up breathing.

I didn’t realize until I re-read this book: Emily of New Moon was the first book on writing I ever owned.

Related links:

On Encouragement

Fine Feathers is a blog about “An aspiring writer’s journey.” This writer’s journey began with an unexpected illness—chronic migraines—and the loss of a medical career.

It has included a mostly silent battle with daily headaches, which has engendered great sympathy for the plight of other patients dealing with the frustrations of medical care.

It has included the joy of rediscovering writing, publishing short stories, completing a novel, and working with a professional editor to make her novel the best it can be.

It has included the challenges of raising two young children, who depend on her to be whole and well and undistracted, fully present in the moment, despite the draw of her writing and the pressing needs of her illness.

It could not have happened without the support and encouragement of a lot of people. This WordPress community, her family, her friends, and her writers’ group. Everyone who has offered feedback on her writing, “liked” a post, followed this blog, read her words…you are what has MADE HER A WRITER. You are what has let this writer follow her heart, and live her dream.

Some professional writers say it’s so tough to be a writer, you should do nothing but discourage young writers…if they’re meant to succeed, they will. They have to know how hard it’s going to be.

But this writer is a believer in encouragement. Not praise, which researchers have shown lowers self-esteem if given indiscriminately, but pure, simple encouragement. Which anyone deserves, at any step of their journey:

You can do it.

One more step.

You are not alone.

Every writer’s journey begins with a word. Getting that word out requires a leap of faith. Is it the right word? You have to BELIEVE it is. Will anyone read it? You have to have the confidence to proceed, whether or not that word sees the light of day.

Write shitty first drafts—Anne Lamott

Have the courage to write badly. —Joshua Wolf Shenk

Encouragement carries no judgment, doesn’t have to be earned. It focuses on the effort, the enjoyment of the process.

Tell the stories only you can tell—Neil Gaiman

I believe in encouragement, because I know I thrive on it. I wouldn’t be here without it. Fine Feathers will always be a place to share the things that inspire and encourage me, that help me get through the hard parts in life, in parenting, in my writing journey.

When this writer encounters blocks in her journey, she’ll face them with grit, and carry on.

And make a note.

A Writer’s and Parent’s Guide to Surviving December

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1. Bake cookies. Not too many. Eat them.

2. Clean house. Decorate house. Watch kids (and cats) play with, mess up, and destroy decorations. Decorate a little more.

3. Protect your writing and “me” time at all costs. Throw this out the window in order to buy and wrap presents. Use the month to “dwell” on your revision instead. Sometimes, time away from a piece is time well spent.

4. Jingle Bells. Jingle Bells. Jingle ALL the way. Your daughter has been singing it all year. Finally, you can sing it with her.

5. Cranky salespeople and weirdos at the mall = potential story ideas.

6. Kids yelling at each other? Watching too much TV? Time for hugs, kisses, cocoa, and Frosty the Snowman. It’s Christmas. Relax, have an eggnog.

7. Catnip in the stockings!

8. No time for writing? Reading is an important part of a writer’s job. Especially in front of a nice warm fireplace.

9. Remember, in gift-giving as well as writing, less is more.

10. It’s most important to be kind to yourself. Model good behavior. Thinking of vacuuming all those tree needles? Pull up an armchair, put on those fuzzy slippers, and have another cookie.

Photo © creator by FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Letting Go: The Freedom of Failure

I’m doing National Novel Writing Month, and I’m proud to say, I wrote over two thousand words today. I’m also ten thousand words behind. And it feels great.

It’s taken me a long time to be able to say that.

I started the month with as much enthusiasm, drive, and determination to win as any WriMoer. Winning is good, right? Everyone loves a winner. Except my husband, it turns out. For some people, writing 1,667 words a day comes easily. For me, some days it does and some days it doesn’t. On the days it doesn’t, my family pays the price.

So nine days in, I took a day off. Then my daughter got sick, and I took off some more. I went through what any writer goes through when she isn’t writing. I got grumpy. I watched my fellow WriMoers pull ahead and meet their word counts with ease. One even wrote 75,000 words in two weeks.

Bah. Those aren’t tears of frustration, really. They’re tears of joy.

Then, I did something really drastic. I took a day off to write an outline. And I realized I needed to re-write the first third of my novel. So I broke all the rules, and I did.

Re-writing? During November?

Yeah.

Because I’ve spent a year trying to re-write a NaNo novel before, one that I pushed through without a plan, and I know how painful it is. So learning from my mistakes?

Yeah. The hard way.

There’s no way I’ll win this November. But I have 20,000 words of something that I didn’t have before. Something that’s a lot better than nothing.

It’s not winning. But now that the pressure is off, my family’s happier, I’m happier, and I like where my book is heading. I’m looking forward to December, Keep Writing Your Novel Month. And January, Finish Your Novel Month, and February, Start Another Novel Month.

That doesn’t feel like failure.