Community in the Wilderness: Searching for a Writer’s Group in the Wilds of the Web

“Why did you start a blog?”

It’s a question I get asked periodically by people who don’t write blogs. The honest answer is “platform”. It’s one of those buzzwords you can’t escape if you go to conferences, subscribe to newsletters, and generally stay abreast of the latest in writing and publishing. You hear it often enough that you begin to feel inadequate or inauthentic as a writer if you don’t have one. So, kicking and screaming I began a blog that focuses on fairy tales. It made the best sense because the YA series I’m working on is based on nursery rhymes and fairy tales.

At first, it was a chore. I agonized over the About Me section, trying to sounds both informative and pithy enough that other people would want to read it. I tried to look at it as my “trial by fire” because whatever I wrote would immediately be critiqued. At least that’s what I thought until I realized how hard it is to make your lone voice heard in the cacophony that is the blogosphere. But even when I wasn’t read, I felt as though each posting was a courageous effort to put myself out there–proof I was a writer each time I clicked Publish.

My best day was when, out of nowhere, a random person started following by blog. My initial reaction was, “Why are you following me?” But soon that gave way to real happiness and a renewed optimism in this process. Maybe blogging could be rewarding. Maybe I could grow to love it. Well, I was happy that I could at least find times to like it.

I kept writing. I also kept blogging and reveled in every new follower. I would post and click (too often) on the Stats page to see if my post was being viewed. Often I would be disappointed by the turnout. Sometimes I was surprised by what really got people’s attention. Nevertheless, I continued hoping to find the magic recipe of topic and writing that would make readers want another helping. Then I fell into what all bloggers can attest to.

Call it Blogger’s Blahs or Poster’s Paralysis, but I felt discouraged by the lack of interest and my lack of ideas. It came in waves, and then the Blahs ebbed because a new reader joined or a new comment would buoy me. The realization was almost anti-climactic. What I really wanted was not readership, I wanted community.

Deen Village Scotland

My search takes me everywhere

Blogs about how to find a writer’s group or a critique circle are endless. They have stories of writer’s being bestowed with the friendship of like-minded writers like the Commandments. It all sounds so warm and inviting, a stark contrast to the solitary clicking of cold computer keys. You’re encouraged to branch out, make connections, join clubs and all will fall into place. Well, after a few hits and misses and, just like the querying process, you’ll find the perfect match for you. It’s like blind group dating or “Naked and Afraid” writer’s edition.

My attempts to find my tribe have been mixed. I have one writer friend who is very dedicated to helping me with my writing and we’ve forged a friendship of respect and reciprocity that makes me believe in serendipity. But you learn early on that you need lots of eyes on your work.
The rest of my circle (non-writers all) have fallen away, unable to keep up with the back and forth of rewrites. For once I could say without fear of sounding clichéd—It’s a writer thing, you wouldn’t understand. So, my search continues. Blogs exist to create a virtual community, but eventually virtual isn’t enough.

Why did I start a blog? The short answer is to find more readers, but now I know it’s really to find more writers.

Why did you start a blog? Is it the same reason you keep blogging?

The Hidden Minority Part II

I’ve been looking for a topic for some time now. After spending a week at Disney World, something occurred to me. Something I haven’t shared with you.

I have a confession to make.

Like Frieda from Peanuts I have naturally curly hair. We even have the same “birthday” although mine is many years removed. According to my internet research (and we all know how reliable that is!) she made her debut on March 6th, 1961. Twenty years later, this curly girl blogger was born. I always liked Frieda because she, unlike me, was proud of her naturally curly hair and mentioned it at every opportunity. I, on the other had, tend to do everything in my power to make my hair straight, or at least no more than wavy. I know I’m not alone, but this year I decided to take a bold step. I’ve gone curly.

Curly Frieda

Picture of Frieda from Peanuts, courtesy Rankopedia.com

To you straight-haired girls, this is hardly worth mentioning, but to those in the know it’s a revelation. But the revelation also comes with a catch. No curly-haired role models, or very few on hand. The field gets even thinner when you look at the representations of classic fairy tale characters. Our only lighthouse in the sea of hair is Merida from Disney Pixar’s Brave, whose hair was quickly smoothed out when she made her debut as a Disney princess. Even proud Frieda, with her bouncy locks, began to fade into obscurity in favor of helmet-haired Lucy and lanky-haired Marcie and Peppermint Patty.

When did we decided that our fairy-tale heroes and heroines couldn’t have naturally curly hair? After Snow White, it was quite a while before Disney even had a non-blonde princess, let alone a curly one. I watched the parades, princess meet & greets, and noticed a distinct lack of curls. Is it a silly thing to ask for corkscrews and fractals with a penchant for absorbing ambient moisture? I am officially adding curly girls to my hidden minority.

I suppose there are more important issues to soapbox about like honest equality, world peace, an myriad other pressing concerns.

I want world peace, and I think a great way to start is for me to make peace with my hair.

Me as a curly girl

Me trying to make peace with my curly hair

Music For Writers

 In the course of my life I’ve had many music teachers for piano, voice, music theory, and music history. I’ve taken classes in movement and drama, but I always knew that I would never be a professional musician. For me, music was another language in which to communicate. And even though I never had any problems with performance, I felt the conversation was between me and the music. It was almost religious. But let me not get too grandiose because my three B’s are Bach, Biggy and Fall Out Boy. What I really want to explain is what music has done for my writing.

When an idea first hits me, it’s usually a concept.

Setting: a beach with green sand and a solitary palm tree and three coconuts are left. 

Then I think about what that could mean to the people on this random green beach.

Problem: 4 friends and only three coconuts and they’re lost.

After that it’s a game of which sounds more like a story you want to tell a friend over drinks.

Solution 1: One friend shares the coconut.

Solution 2: Two friends fight until one is left standing and gets the coconut.

Solution 3: They play Rochambeau to figure out who should get the coconuts.

Solution 4: They crack them all open and put them in a vessel so they can all share.

Solution 5: They discover that the green sand is really enchanted and can add it to sea water for desalination saving the coconuts for cups and the coconut water for added flavor.

I don’t get around to figuring out what the characters are like until I know all of that first. Sort of like learning a piece of music.

I find a piece I want to play or sing, but it’s only a concept—notes on a page that sound one way in my head, but may change when really examined. I try to understand what the piece is trying to convey to others. Then I play with the different ways to express that idea. It all sounds very technical until you get to my favorite part—the characters.

Characters are the best part of writing a story and the way I make the story real. What kind of people would make any of those solutions worth retelling? I need a martyr for solution one. Solution two needs aggressors. The last three needs clever, outside-of-the-box thinkers and a leader to orchestrate it. But I still need to know about what makes them tick. That’s where music really comes in. My secret, which really isn’t a secret but more of my trick, is to find a song for each of my characters.

Since I love all kinds of music (even crappy pop music that is specifically for booty shaking) I have quite a wide selection. I also use songs for interactions between characters and situations in which characters find themselves. For example, one of my character’s from a novel I wrote is very independent and generally shuns help, but at a certain point she needs to ask for help from the last person she thought she would. While I was writing the scene I could hear Jill Scott’s I Need You playing in the background. Another secondary character had a lot of backstory I needed to keep in mind about why her life turned out as it did and I listened to Cath by Death Cab for Cutie.

I’ve used Broadway show tunes, Hip Hop, classical, Dixieland jazz, opera and anything else that will make me better understand this person I’m trying to invent, but probably already exists in the strains of a melody.

Now I keep in mind all the things my music teachers have told me in the past that can help me finish it.

  1. Always keep your nails trimmed
  2. Practice everyday
  3. Rotational neglect (when you obsessively focus on one thing and then leave it alone for a new obsession that requires your attention)
  4. Remember when it’s hard why you love it anyway

I may have learned to write through years of schooling, but music is what helped me become a writer. And prepare for the appalling lack of income! 😉

Sympathy for the Devil?

There’s a new school of thought roaming the halls for fiction. I’ve referred to it in the past as revisionist fairy tale history. The stories handed down through the generations are very clearly morality tales all with the same basic message–being good is better than being bad. There are myriad ways to put that, but the easier to digest the better. Wolves, vain queens, little men who can spin straw into gold are best avoided and it’s easy because they so obviously look evil. It’s Black Hat Syndrome or the Disney-fication of character as I like to call it. But a new tendency, a revisionist modern view, is starting to take root in fairy tales.

I say modern because it’s our modern sensibilities, our post-Freudian minds, that asks the question, “Why does evil exist?” It begs the question, what happened in the evil queen’s life to make her hate the step-daughter so much? Can we really blame a wolf for wanting a meal–a lot of us eat meat? Is it wrong to expect payment for doing all the work while the maiden gets a new life? My question is, do you think our fairy tale reading ancestors would have asked these questions?

It’s a topic I’ve been wrestling with lately regarding the new crop of fairy tales. I’m sure everyone knows about Maleficent, Disney’s new live action take on Sleeping Beauty from the villain’s perspective. I will admit, when it first heard about it I was a little miffed because I was in the middle of writing a novel called The 13th Fairy based on the original story and I set it in Reconstruction America. It was told from the point of view of the overlooked fairy who didn’t make the party list because of a lack of golden dishware. A ridiculous reason to exclude a guest who has the potential to give some great gifts or (as they found out) a truly horrific curse. I started to wonder what happened to the fairy after she dropped the party-killing bomb. I thought her story would be much more interesting than a girl who falls asleep and waits for a prince she’s never met to wake her with a kiss. I always thought it was a little presumptuous of the other fairy to put the rest of the castle to sleep while they waited for the big rescue. Talk about royal prerogatives! Nowadays the castle folk would have sued.

But I digress. I think it’s a sign of maturity when you start wondering more about the bad guys in a story than the heroes. When we’re kids we ask why about everything, but I don’t remember questioning the stories that ended “….And they lived happily ever after.” I figured it went without saying it included pretty dresses and lots of cake, the only happily ever after a seven year old can imagine. Now I wonder about the other characters. Were the castle folk paid for their time in stasis? Were the king and queen relieved to have some new clothes? Most importantly, did Maleficent (the best name for a villain, by the way) regret her impetuous act or did she have a real axe to grind? I still haven’t seen Maleficent, but I can’t wait to find out what happens.

Are there any fairy tale villains you wish you knew more about?

Old Mother Goose

Old Mother Goose,
When she wanted to wander,
Would ride through the air
On a very fine gander.

Mother Goose riding her gander Mother Goose on Gander  Illustrator unknown, engraved by Edward P. Cogger  (ca. 1864-1867)

Mother Goose riding her gander Mother Goose on Gander
Illustrator unknown, engraved by Edward P. Cogger
(ca. 1864-1867)

Mother Goose had a house,
’Twas built in a wood,
Where an owl at the door
For sentinel stood.

This is her son Jack,
A smart looking lad.
He is not very good,
Nor yet very bad.

She sent him to market,
A live goose he bought.
“Here, mother,” says he,
“It will not go for nought.”

Jack’s goose and her gander
Grew very fond,
They’d both eat together,
And swim in one pond.

Jack found one morning,
As I have been told,
His goose had laid him
An egg of pure gold.

Jack rode to his mother,
The news for to tell;
She called him a good boy,
And said it was well.

Jack sold his gold egg
To a rogue that he knew,
Who cheated him out of
The half of his due.

Then Jack went a courting
A lady so gay,
As fair as the Lily,
And sweet as the May.

The Rogue and the Squire
Came close at his back,
And began to belabor
The sides of poor Jack.

And then the gold egg
Was thrown into the sea,
But Jack he jumped in,
And got it back presently.

The Rogue got the goose,
Which he vowed he’d kill,
Resolving at once
His pockets to fill.

Jack’s mother came in,
And caught the goose soon,
And, mounting its back,
Flew up to the moon.

HAPPY MOTHER’S DAY!

“Jack” and the Beanstalk

I think we can all agree that, on the whole, fairy tales try to teach us something about life. Usually there are warnings about the dangers of taking a dark path, talking to strangers, and not minding your elders. Others show how goodness can reap its own rewards and sometimes a castle and a title for your troubles. What about stories that do neither? I’m talking about Jack and the Beanstalk.

There’s some debate as to how old the story of Jack and the Beanstalk is, but the story pretty much stays the same. Jack and his mother are poor and their last asset, a milking cow, is no longer viable. Jack has to take the cow to market, but is met by a man along the way who offers him magic beans in exchange for his cow. Jack, for some reason, jumps at the chance and upon showing his prize to his mother is rebuked. She tosses them out the window in a huff, but by morning they have grown clear to the clouds. Jack climbs, finds a home and a sympathetic woman who feeds him and warns that her husband will come back hungry for the “blood of an Englishman”. Jack, who is either clever or proof that God takes care of fools and babies, eludes the giant three times and steals his gold, his golden egg laying goose, and a self-playing harp. He then chops down the beanstalk killing the giant and lives with his mother happily ever after and rich.

It’s a great story, action-packed and complete with a happy ending, but what’s the moral? If you’re stupid enough to sell your cow for some magic beans you may luck into a fortune if you’re willing to kill a giant? I’ve read and seen a few versions of this story. My favorite was the one with Matthew Modine called Jim Henson’s Jack and the Beanstalk: The Real Story aired on NBC when it did mini-series before succumbing to the black hole that is cheap reality TV. It gave a plausible account as to why Jack did what he did and the repercussions of his actions. Of course I saw the Warner Bros. big screen adaptation, Jack the Giant Slayer, which was a slight disappointment. At the end when (spoiler alert!) the magical crown that controlled the evil giants was finally taken by the princess, she handed it over to Jack instead of using its power herself. This after an entire movie of her trying to prove that she could take care of herself. But it got me thinking, what if Jack had been female? Would it have turned out the same way? Is it true that women prefer diplomacy to violent confrontations? I would submit that there are few who actually like physical confrontations, but it seems more acceptable for women to take that path.

 

Once there was a poor farmer who lived with his daughter. Her name was Jacqueline, but everyone knew her as Jack. Jack and her father only had one milking cow and very little else, but the day came when the cow no longer gave milk. Jack’s father decided the best thing to do would be to sell the cow at market to a butcher and in that way have some food to eat for the winter. Jack loved the little cow, but her father was unmoved by her pleas. So with a heavy heart and a small snack for the road, Jack offered to take the cow herself so she might have a chance to bid the creature a proper goodbye.

Along the way, she met with a man who looked even hungrier than her. Already feeling down about having to butcher the cow, she offered her meager lunch to the man. He gratefully sat down to eat and asked that she sit beside him. At length he finished the meal and then asked Jack why she looked so sad. Jack told the man the story of her cow and what had to be done to keep food on the table. The man considered a moment and said, “What if you didn’t have to kill your cow and could still put food on your table?”

I would say it’s a miracle,” replied Jack.

Not a miracle. Magic. Magic beans to be more precise,” corrected the man. He fished into his tattered pocket and pulled out four iridescent beans no bigger than a fingernail. He placed them in Jack’s hand. “Now, although I am thankful you shared your meal with me, I cannot give these to you without payment. Magic unpaid costs more in the end.”

But I have nothing to give you. I’ve told you I’m poor,” reasoned Jack.

“Ah, but you have that nice cow. I promise she will not be killed or eaten, but to keep her alive and your stomach full you must give her to me in exchange for the beans,” he replied. Jack was skeptical, but was heartsick over the thought of having to eat her friend, so she handed the lead over to the man. Looking down at the handful of beans, sparkling in the sunlight, Jack had only one question.

“How do they work?” But the man and the cow had disappeared. Jack saw that as proof of the man’s magical claims and ran home, the beans clutched tightly in her hand…

Will Multicultural become a new genre?

When I was an undergrad, I had a work-study in the school career center. My main role was internet research, a sweet gig for a sophomore which came with an office and unfettered access to a computer. One day I was called into a planning meeting for a networking event. What made it different from the other networking events was its focus on multiculturalism. The office hoped to attract multicultural alumni and connect them with multicultural students. It was an excellent idea until I pointed out what I thought was an obvious glitch. Multicultural included the GLBT community and would attending our networking reception as say a white male, automatically out that student as gay? Here I was, a 19 year old intern and I’d stumped the professionals. Then I asked, perhaps naively, why the event had to be labeled as multicultural since anyone answering to that label should feel free to come to all networking receptions?

I bring up this odd memory because I’ve been looking at literary agents “what I’m looking for” blurbs and noticed an odd trend. Some list within their interests “multicultural”. Is that a genre? I always assumed that when they listed categories like YA, sci-fi/fantasy, thriller, and such they weren’t specifically asking for white. For that matter, if they could, would an agent say they were interested in white lit? I think the backlash would be tremendous. I thought the publishing community was in the business of supporting those who create engaging stories with protagonists we can connect with and antagonists we love to hate. Does that have a color? A gender? An age?

I’m well aware of the current hue and cry being sent up to make literature more inclusive and I agree that it should. I just wonder if trying to get more diverse will create a sort of literary segregation where multicultural will become its own genre. I’m sure there are those who would applaud the shift, but I think it would miss the point. In an age when the world is getting smaller while at the same time we’re becoming more cosmopolitan shouldn’t we embrace the idea of multiculturalism as a foregone conclusion? Not doing so sounds as antiquated as referring to female medical professionals as “lady doctors”.

Then again, I remember going to a writer’s conference and having a pitch session with an agent who felt my YA fantasy wasn’t edgy enough because the protagonist was too optimistic and attached to her mother. She explained that YA audiences expected more angst and snark. I wanted to explain that snarkiness doesn’t fly in all homes, and particularly not in a Hispanic home, but I was too crushed to say anything after my protagonist was labeled middle grade. Would a separate category give my protagonist better opportunities?

I don’t know what the answer to this question–it’s becoming a trend. But my research into NA and my adventures in publishing (or pre-publishing I should say) has given me more perspective. I’ll take my cue from those NA writers who said the best way to change the market is to be a part of the market. Labels are a marketing tool, not a definition as to how I should write my stories.

In the end, the career center decided to have a networking reception open to all and attracted students from all walks of life, but they still opted to call it a multicultural event. I still think it was just an event.

At the Crossroads of Fairy Tale and Folklore

According to my outdated (read: paper copy!) Webster’s Dictionary the definition of fairy tale is a story about fairies, magic deeds, etc., while folklore is defined as the traditional beliefs, legends, etc. of a culture. So does that mean all fairy tales and folklore have in common is etc.? What’s etcetera anyway in this case? I like to think that the etc. in a fairy tale are the traditional beliefs and legends and the etc. in folklore are the fairies and magical deeds. Which means they’re the same, right? Well, now I suppose I have to address the 800-pound gorilla. That gorilla is called culture.

Does culture determine whether a story is a fairy tale or folklore? Does that imply that anything that doesn’t originate from Northern Europe (from where most popular fairy tales come) is folklore? Moreover does that imply that Northern Europe doesn’t have a culture? Neither should be the case. Fairy tales started out as folklore which became so popular that they transcended culture. That means that all folklore, despite culture, can grow to fairy tale status. All they need is a little push in the direction of popularity.

One of the barriers to wider appeal for many folk tales is language. Would we love Grimm’s Fairy Tales or the stories of Hans Christian Andersen so much if someone hadn’t decided to translate them? We should invite more cultures to the party. Right now the subject of diversity is really hot with writers, especially YA/MG writers of which I am one. It’s kind of a minefield of emotions, political correctness, and common sense that everyone has to wade through. As a parent, I want to make sure that my daughter sees herself reflected in the books she reads and the shows and movies she watches. As a writer, I want to insert my reality into my writing (even though I write mostly YA fantasy). But as a bona-fide member of the person of color club, not to mention being part of the largest minority–womankind–I feel as though I shouldn’t have to bang the drum too loudly because it’s worse than preaching to the choir. Instead of asking for change, I’m going to make change (I know there’s some funny cashier joke that I should make, but I can’t think of one–any suggestions?). For my own edification and hopefully for your enjoyment, I want to explore folklore that begs to be more popular, starting with my own.

 

 

What’s in an age appropriate label?

As some of you already know, I’m a writer. As to the titles of my works that can be found on a shelf or e-book, let’s just call me pre-published. I’m working on the third book in my series called Rhymes & Misdemeanors, a YA fantasy. But as my series progresses, following the adventures of a 17 year old girl on the brink of adulthood and magical chaos, it’s getting darker. The themes are becoming more mature as she matures, which is what you hope for in a character arc. However, it’s bringing up all these questions.

For one, can it still be called YA if the dark turns in my series include murder, betrayal, and sex? Yes, I said it. My book now has sex. And not illusions to sex, a whole chapter dedicated to my protagonist losing her virginity. The series didn’t start that way, but now I have to think about labels when trying to market a YA book with a less than YA element.

For another thing, why do I have to give my book an age label? As a parent, I know it’s important to let your child read age appropriate stories, but when I was 12 I read The Godfather! How much credibility do I have there?

So I went in search of the elusive label called New Adult or NA. I find it oddly poignant that NA also means not applicable because that’s how my series is starting to feel. It starts very YA and then becomes something more nebulous–adult yet pre-adult. That used to be Young Adult. Now we have New Adult, the 18-25ish set. It’s HBO’s Girls in book form for which I have little patience. But I didn’t want to dismiss it outright, so I started by looking at book covers. With precious few exceptions, NA books have an entwined couple with a slightly suggestive title hanging overhead, or it’s a woman-child with a determined look in her eye and a bare-chested man in the background and a single word title capturing the moment. This is not what I wanted. I have nothing against romance, or even erotica, but would I be lying to my readers if I slapped NA on the spine and they hoped to find YA’s sexier older sister? My book is about a girl who is trying to find her place in a world that says her desire to be more should be tempered by her sex and her station. Would NA audiences accept that as a viable topic?

Not wanting to be swayed by marketing tricks, I sought out the source of some of the less risqué titles of NA. I found a wonderful community of writers who think NA can be more than just a one-trick pony and prove it with their work. However, their optimism was tempered by the reality and some came out and said that NA audiences would feel tricked if romance wasn’t the main plot. But I’m heartened by a recent blog series written by one of those supportive authors, Jill Archer, whose blog is asking that very question. The authors she interviews also seem equally as optimistic and it gives me hope. (Read about it here, here, and here)

But my questions still stand. What do you do with a story of a young woman who is working her way to and through adulthood who actually manages to mature? Do you give her a new label or stick with the old one and hope her readers grow with her? The idealistic answer is “write your story and to hell with the labels”, but what’s the real answer? Maybe like my protagonist, it lies somewhere in between. I’ll make my own niche in both. In the meantime, I’m going to write my story and worry about marketing later.

April Fool

I think of April first as a time for the topsy-turvy to take over. I think the weather has a lot to do with it.

I’ve never been one for tricks because I really do believe in the golden rule. If I drop a balloon full of pudding on someone’s head can I really avoid a prank call about my car being totaled?

Instead I want to write about the role of The Fool in fairy tales, one of the chief archetypes. What they all seem to have in common is that they are good for no reason. Their families go out of their way to give them the worst of everything and ridicule them for any kindness they show. So does that mean that a fool in the times of the Grimm Brothers was kind despite the wretchedness of his life?

One of my favorite stories is The Golden Goose. The youngest of three sons (they’re always the youngest of three) has to chop wood for his family because the elder two have had terrible axing accidents after denying a old man some of their lunch (talk about fools!). The Simpleton, who is given vinegar instead of cider and hard bread offers to share the meal and is rewarded with a Golden Goose. After parading around town with the treasure, and having townspeople stick to it and each other trying to pull off a feather, he arrives in a town that offers the hand of a princess if they can make her laugh. Being simple and not having noticed the train of buffoons behind him, he shows her the goose, everyone falls and she laughs thus proving that girls like guys who can make them laugh.

Another story, The Queen Bee, runs along the same lines except he helped animals and insects who helped him in return. He and his smarter, older brothers are given impossible tasks to complete and the young idiot gets it done with the help of some ants, some ducks, and a bee. For his trouble he wins himself a castle and a princess to marry. These are called serendipitous fools, very popular in fairy tales. Couldn’t we all take a lesson from that?

I recommend that for today, instead of giving your best friend a fake winning lottery ticket or calling your parents and telling them you just got married, try being a fairy tale fool. Be nice for no reason and here’s the kicker…people will think you’re up to something thus playing the biggest trick of all. Happy April Fools!