Friday, November 4, 2011

The Ultimate Inspiration is the Deadline

The whole concept of Nanowrimo is to give yourself the freedom to write whatever it takes to get to the end of a story, to FINISH the story as a whole by setting yourself a really arbitrary deadline - like 50,000 words in 30 days.  Will it be perfect at the end of that 30 days?  Good heavens, NO!  In fact, it will probably be as rough as riding a bicycle with two flat tires on a pockmarked gravel road on the day you hit your deadline - but that's not the point.  The point is to GET IT DONE.

So, with that in mind, I have a deadline I must meet, a goal that I must keep whittling away at in order to have even a shot at meeting it.  So, since my last two days have been filled with work-related meetings and preparation for said meetings, I've got a bit of a hole to crawl out of.  Like a 4500 word deficit kind of hole.  Nonetheless, I can only pull up my bootstraps, put my creative machete between my teeth, and hack away at the word jungle I've entered.

I got a bit stuck today, caught up in the mire of exposition.  I do LOVE exposition as a writer, but does my reader?  Probably not so much.  It just felt good to be feeling that history with my Main Character, Marlon.  He's been at his father's funeral for the last 2000 words, time to get him to the after-funeral gathering at his house and the blow-up between his mom and his grandmother.  I'm in a quandary about whether to show the kerfuffle in its entirety, or begin the scene just after Grandma has stormed out.  I guess only time and fleet fingers will tell.

Nanowrimo 2011 Day Four

Word Count for the Day (so far): 1640
Word Target for Day Four: 6666 (I know, right? Who thought THAT was a good idea?)
Total Words Written (so far): 3314
Writing Music of the Day:  Ben Folds Five, Whatever and Ever, Amen & Green Day, 21st Century Breakdown

Excerpt for the Day

        The smoke-laced minty breath of Grandma Barb washed over his ear a moment before she whispered in her growly voice, “Don’t worry, kiddo. We’ll getcha outta here soon. Can’t even believe yer momma brought you today. It just ain’t right, bringin’ a little kid to a funeral like this.”  She patted his knee and tapped Anita on the shoulder.       “Hey! I’m going to take the kid out from under this tarp to get some fresh air. It’s stuffy under here, and I need to stretch my knees.”  His mom shot an annoyed look at Grandma Barb, and nodded at them both dismissively, but caught Marlon’s arm long enough to warn him in a low voice.        “Don’t go far, be nice to people, and don’t get dirty.”        He nodded solemnly, his nine-year old mind already far off in the crisp air and November sunshine.  He politely waited for Grandma Barb, helping her heave her round sloping body off the rickety folding chairs, weaving her gently through the throng of his fathers friends and family, and walking her slowly out of the black pavilion the funeral home had provided.  A few times, a random adult stopped him long enough to pat his shoulder or arm with a pitying look or a “Hang in there, sport,” but he only smiled and nodded.  He didn’t know most of them.  They were mostly people his dad had worked with at the University or from his dad’s side of the family – the brown side, his dad had liked to say.  Marlon didn’t have words for these strangers today. He hadn’t been able to find his voice for days now, since the last moments he’d spent with his dad.          They finally broke free from the black-clad crowd and crunched through the brown grass and crumbling leaves of the old cemetery. Marlon steered his grandmother over to a large pink headstone that looked wide enough for her to sit on, and waited to steady her as she searched her enormous purse for her cigarettes and lighter.  Once she had one lit and had taken a deep drag, she sank down on the sturdy pinkish headstone of one Clarence Highwater, and gestured for Marlon to run along.          He didn’t need to be told twice.  He checked over his shoulder only long enough to confirm that his mother was too busy to notice if he took a walk, and began to head up the hill towards the larger, more ornate stone crypts that looked like tiny houses.  He remembered walking through this cemetery sometimes with his dad, since it was close to both their house and the University.  It was a quiet place for them to get away and have long talks when his mom was having her friends over to visit or she shooed them out of the house because they were “restless souls”.  He’d walked side by side with his dad, sometimes holding his big, brown hand that was surprisingly soft and gentle, but with rough spots where the pen hit his fingers when he wrote or graded papers.        His dad would point out the really old or interesting headstones or names, and they’d wonder over what the lives of their inhabitants had been like.  They would always pass a moment of silence at a newly minted grave or anytime they came across a life that had been cut far too short.         His dad had only been thirty-three.  Would some other kid come through this cemetery someday and wonder what had happened to cut Charlie Grunt’s life so short?Marlon crested the hill and spied another funeral procession of parked cars and black-clad people huddled in groups on the other side, hidden from his own family’s mourners. The only differences seemed to be that the cars in this family’s funeral were much nicer, there were a lot of teenagers in attendance, and the faces were mostly pink.
        Marlon spotted two boys roughly his own age sneak away from the crowd and wander through the surrounding headstones.  They were both dressed in black suits and shiny black dress shoes, a mirror of his own clothing.  The white-blonde of the younger and the more golden yellow of the older boy’s hair stood out in sharp contrast to the absence of color in their jackets.  They looked like the kind of kids who played team sports and went off-roading on growly 4-wheelers with their dad.           He didn’t recognize them from his school, and even if they had gone to his small-town school, they might not have been friends with a mixed kid like him.  Some of the kids at this school had asked things about his white mom and black dad before.  Most kids didn’t say anything, but they didn’t know quite to make of Marlon’s dark skin and soft black curls.  Derrek Farragut had it in his head for the longest time that Marlon had to be good at basketball, and had tried for months to get Marlon to play on his team at recess.  Marlon had finally relented, only to be confronted by an angry Derrek later on about why he sucked so completely at basketball.  But some kids just expected him to be into certain things because he was part black.  Things like hip-hop, rap, and basketball.        The two blonde boys didn’t look like they were talking to each other, just touching the headstones and righting the odd fallen and faded silk flower arrangement, kicking a tuft of deadened grass with their shiny black shoes.  He suddenly felt the urge to say hello to the boys, ask what school they went to.  Ask them who they had lost, maybe find someone to talk to who could understand for just a moment what he was trying to get away from right now.       He was getting away from the crying.        Or, more accurately, Marlon was getting away from not crying.       Everyone was so weepy – people he didn’t even know.  People it seemed like couldn’t have ever known his dad because Marlon had never seen them before in his life, but they all acted as though it was a great big painful tragedy for them with all their tears and hushed, wounded voices.  How well could they have really known his dad if his dad had never even talked about them?         And tears? Tears didn’t mean anything.  Marlon knew that because his own pain was so deep he didn’t even have access to his tears anymore.  They had all hidden away, burned up in his rage at the injustice of it all.  Those cardboard people with their drippy eyes were here and Charlie Grunt was not.  Charlie Grunt, who never did anything just because someone expected it.  Charlie Grunt, who looked stupid when he danced by himself in the living room to the oldies radio station, but looked like a graceful giant when he held Marlon’s mother and slow-danced with her to the radio.  Charlie Grunt who could skateboard and play the bongos.  Charlie Grunt who, when he got mad, went for long walks on bad roads and smoked cigarettes then lied about it to his family because they cared enough not to want him to.  Charlie Grunt who read The Hobbit to Marlon cover to cover, then made him read it on his own.  Charlie Grunt, who always drove too fast, like he was in his beloved Chicago, instead of the ultra Midwestern suburb in the middle of a cornfield city of Bloomington, Illinois.  Charlie Grunt, who had always been so big and solid but shrank into a marionette version of himself, bony and shriveled and hooked to a set of wires, by the time the cancer had taken its toll on him.  Charlie Grunt who wouldn’t be around any longer as Marlon’s teacher, confidant and hero.         Marlon’s anger made him even more restless and twitchy than usual, so the only way he found to control his urge to start hitting all those strangers with their tears was to get away from them.  Get away from his rage for a while.  Sometimes he could control it with his drumming, but it seemed like he wasn’t going to be allowed even that today.  Today was for the cardboard people, so they could have their say.  Marlon couldn’t watch it.But he could watch these two brothers like a reflection in a funhouse mirror – and see himself in their desire to get away from all the pain.  The older boy looked in his direction and Marlon thought maybe he’d seen him, because he cocked his head to the side and put his hand to his forehead to shade his eyes.  Marlon raised his hand as far as his shoulder in a wave before he heard his mother looking for him.       “Marlon! Where are you?  Marlon!!”       She wasn’t happy to have to look for him.  He didn’t have to see her lips tightened into a fierce line to know that. Her tone of voice said it all. She’d be even less happy that he’d made her yell all over the place to find him.  She didn’t like to seem anything less than perfect in front of his dad’s relatives, especially Grandma Esther.  Marlon knew the two women didn’t exactly like each other, but he could never figure out why.  No one ever discussed it, or mentioned it even, and they always were coolly polite, smiling glass smiles at each other when they were forced to be in the same place for any length of time.         Grandma Esther didn’t seem to like him either.  For the life of him, Marlon couldn’t figure that out either.  He couldn’t remember doing anything in particular to anger her, and Grandpa Joe had always treated him the same as his cousins, Hudson and Kennedy.  But Grandma Esther always kept him at arm’s length, her hugs strangely stilted and her conversation overly formal.  Like he was a foreigner that she didn’t quite want to make the acquaintance of or see again.        He’d asked his dad about it once, and his dad had sighed and chewed on his lip for a moment before answering only, “She loves you just fine, Marlon.  She just doesn’t know you very well, and she may never find a way to reach out to you, but that doesn’t mean we can’t still love her and Grandpa Joe.”  The very next day, Marlon had heard his dad’s voice raised in anger behind his office doors, “I don’t care about any of that, so I don’t see why you should! He is your grandson, Mama, your own flesh and blood and if you keep treating him like a leper, you will no longer be a part of our lives.” 
        But Marlon never got the chance to see if Grandma Esther was going to change how she acted because it was only a few weeks later that Charlie Grunt had gone to the doctor to see about a pain in his side, and the world had been sucked up into a tornado for them all.         “MARLON!”  The blonde boy started to raise his hand, but Marlon wouldn’t get the chance to meet him now.         “Coming!”

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Wasn't it John Lennon who said, "Life is what happens while you're busy making other plans?"

Nanowrimo 2011 Day One

Word Count for the day (so far - I'm not done!): 979
Expected Total so far: 1667
Current Progress: 979

This year's project for me is tentatively titled The Rude Awakening of Marlon Grunt, and is a pseudo re-telling of the amazing Frank Capra movie, It's A Wonderful Life.  I've done quite a bit more prep work for this story than I have in years past.  It looks like I'll need it since this year my "free" time is quite a bit less available than in years past.  The idea coalesced from a series of ideas that sort of wound up fitting together like a puzzle.

The first part of the idea was from a true story that a colleague told about a strange boy who she found on her couch one morning.  The boy had obviously come in and crashed on her couch by mistake, making for a very interesting morning for her and her family.

The second part of the idea was born from a story that a different friend told me about someone who had, regrettably, tried to take her own life when still a teenager and the subsequent events (or lack thereof) that had changed her life for the better.  Sort of a gift about how pointless suicide is, doing nothing to solve the problems you have, just creating pain for others.  And I began to wonder what had motivated that person to find a purpose beyond their pain.

Both of these ideas dovetailed into the great story that I simply MUST watch every year - the evergreen tale of George Bailey who dreamt of great things, but kept getting deterred from the life he expected by the life that was actually happening around him.  Wasn't it John Lennon who said, "Life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans?"  George, tired of the hand life has dealt him and looking for a way to deal with the dire mistakes of those around him, seeks to end his own life, believing that his death would leave his loved ones better off.  He is, of course, shown the error of his ways by his guardian angel, Clarence.

In my version, Marlon Grunt is the main character, and he is a sixteen year old kid without a father, living with his boozy mother and loving but crazy chain-smoking grandmother in a trailer park in Bloomington, Illinois.  Marlon has big dreams and great friends, but life keeps dealing him hard blows, and trying to do the right thing all the time is painful.  Eventually, Marlon makes the decision to try and end his own life.  Intervention comes in the form of a guardian angel - sometimes in the shape of Carrie Winthrop (a 17 year old ghost), sometimes in the form of Tre Cool - drummer for Green Day.

Excerpt from Chapter One:

November 1, This year. 

            “Look at him staggering around down there.  He’ll wander into traffic, T-Paul! He’ll be killed!”
            “I rather think that was the point, Clarence.”
The two watched with concerned eyes as Marlon Grunt’s skinny 16 year old frame lurched drunkenly from one side of the golf course pathway to the other.
            “Well, for heaven’s sake, we have to do something!” Clarence, ever the drama queen, was beginning to get that thready, panicked tone to his voice that suggested that he was about to go off his nut and attempt some sort of a miracle.            From the disheveled clothes and glassy stare the boy was exhibiting, it just might take a miracle to get him back on track.  Marlon slid down an embankment toward the road that wound through the country club’s neighborhood, losing his balance and skittering through the gravel that framed the winding road.  He surely didn’t see the pickup truck that was barreling towards him, just about to round the curve and take the senseless boy out of existence.  Clarence gasped and T-Paul rolled his eyes and waved an annoyed hand at the speeding truck.
            The driver of the pickup truck screamed and slammed on his brakes to avoid the squirrel that had leaped, kamikaze-style, onto the hood from an overhanging branch.  The squirrel clung madly to the windshield wiper, tiny body frantically tossing from side to side, as the truck tattoed the road with tire tracks and screeched, spinning, to a halt.  The clattery old truck rattled to a stop a mere fifty feet from where Marlon Grunt was picking himself up from the pavement and lurching off on his mysterious journey once more, oblivious to the violent death he’d just barely avoided.            Cory Winthrop, yet another 16 year old and the driver of the pickup truck, was trying to force some air into his lungs again.  He had collapsed, heart racing, against the steering wheel, and begun to shake.
            “OhmygodOhmygodOhmygod,” Cory whispered over and over again. The squirrel, indignant after surviving his wild ride, chattered angrily at the young driver, chastising him for his recklessness.  Cory heaved in a deep breath and sat up again, and tapped the horn, causing the squirrel to scamper off the front of his hood and dart into the darkness of some roadside bushes.  Before taking his foot off the break, Cory squinted into the darkness, trying to spot what he thought had been a human form crossing the road.  Satisfied that it had only been his imagination plus a squirrel-sized Evil Knievel, Cory slowly went on his way home.  It had been a rough night, and he was looking forward to his bed.            Marlon, on the other hand, was now sitting, practically folded in half, on the pink plastic swing of someone’s backyard playset, crying.  His head hung limp in defeat, and slobber leaked from his mouth.  It was a very unattractive pose, but Marlon was beyond caring.            “Relax, Clarence. I’ve assigned an intervention worker to his case already, she’s been waiting for an opportunity to move up in the organization, and she has just the kind of creative thinking we might need for Mr. Marlon Grunt.”
Clarence harrumphed, the elderly form he’d chosen puffing up with disbelief, like nothing so much as a wet chicken. T-Paul hid his smile and turned to greet his guest.
“Ah, here she is now.” The blurry golden shadow of a teenage girl came forward.  Her form was willowy and frail, but her eyes were bright with determination.  Hazel eyes met T-Paul’s with eagerness, unflinching and ready to face what may come.            “How can I be of service, Mr. Keeper?” asked the soul of Carrie Winthrop.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

My 90-Second Newbery Student-Artists - Awesome-tastic!

Author James Kennedy has kindly blogged about my honor's kids final video group projects and even given them their own webpage!

All based on Newbery Award/Honor books - written, directed, and performed by the 6th Grade Honors language arts classes last year.  SO proud!

I hope some of them choose to go to the screening on November 16th in Chicago!!

Mr. Kennedy would welcome them there. (He's the bomb-diggity)

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Saturday Six 8/20/11

Here are a few things I love this Saturday:

1) Rain.  I know.  I know.  You're so tired of rain.  You love the sun, the beach, the sweaty heat of summer.  Not me.  I love the smell of it, the rumble of thunder like a growly, atmospheric hungry stomach, the cloak of gray that it wraps the world in, letting only the bright green of the trees and plants come out to play. I love rain because it gives me an excuse to curl up with a kitty and a good book on the couch.

2) Speaking of Good Books...Paper Towns by John Green.  I can't believe I haven't read this book before now. I'm not done with it yet, so I won't slide a review here, but you can bet I'm enjoying the ever-loving snot out of it.  Oh!  And remind me to tell you about Stupid Fast by Geoff Herbach - another must-read!

3) Strawberry Pie. I just made my last strawberry icebox pies of the summer this week, and I'm going to miss them.

4) School Supplies/Office Supply Stores.  Oh, yes.  I could flip through folders, sift through staplers, moon over magnetic strip mounting tape, and plunder the pen aisle all doggone day.  You know you love it, too!  Did you know Sharpie makes erasable pens now?  You can get 2Gb flash drives for under ten bucks! They have everything a teacher or student needs to start the school year!  It's like Willy Wonka's Chocolate Factory this time of year - a brightly colored land of enticement.

5) Coffee.  This will probably re-cur in this section of my blog.  It should be widely known by now that I am a coffee-holic, and I 'm a coffee snob as well.  (No, McDonald's new coffee really ISN'T as good as Starbucks - you will never convince me of this.)

6) Hearing/Reading about what other writers are doing:  This week, one friend is at a gaming convention, another is being a hero for her family, another is attending an online writing convention, yet another is struggling with the line-edits to a new book, and many are preparing to return to school as either teachers or students.  Yes, all of this does prevent me (for a few moments) from doing my own writing.  But just like at school, where I'm constantly getting updates from my students about their writing, it inspires me to continue on with my own.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

The Crystal Pendulum -Win Trisha Wolfe's new book!!!

Trisha Wolfe's new book, the Crystal Pendulum, is being released soon, and you can enter to win a free copy or swag pack!!  It's a YA/Steampunk/Paranormal Romance, and I've included the link and the blurb from GoodReads below:

Click here for The Contest:

About Trisha's new book from GoodReads:

Sixteen-year-old Dez Harkly is one of the last of her kind—a part of a nearly extinct race of Kythan descended from ancient guardians who protected the pharaohs of Egypt. As Shythe, they must keep their shape-shifting ability and electric power hidden from the humans of their steam-powered world.

It’s the year 2040 and the Shythe Council has lowered their barrier, allowing the Narcolym—the dominant race of Kythan whose Flame ushered in the steam era—to enter their haven. As the Narcolym airships get closer, Dez secretly trains for an attack that her best friend Jace believes is coming despite the Treaty Act. Not only is Dez wary of war, and her growing affection for Jace, but she fears the change her fast-approaching birthday will bring.

When her power rockets out of control, Dez knows she’ll never attend the Shythe Academy with her friends, and worse, her mother’s planning to run. But a Narco named Reese could change her fate . . . if she can trust him. After Dez discovers why the Narcos have really come to Haven Falls, her guarded world crumbles. She’s forced to choose between the race who’s raised her and the enemy she’s feared her whole life.

THE CRYSTAL PENDULUM is an emotional journey of Dez’s struggle to overcome her fear and embrace her power—her destiny.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Novel #2, Draft 2, Chapter Six

Here's an excerpt from the draft of "Escape from Grace I'm working on.  Just previous to this, Beata's (our heroine)  younger sister, Imogene (6 yrs old), was detained and killed by the alien Megari rulers of earth.

Chapter Six
Citizen-Servants will report regularly to their local Megari Authority office to submit themselves for treatment.                                        (Rule Six, The Megari Way)

It was the most agonizing week of Beata’s life.  Not only was she missing Imogen and seeing her in every stray shadow or sunbeam, she was watching, helpless, the spiral of depression and anger that Mia and Duncan were on.  Dominic was still too young to understand what had happened completely.  He knew that his Immy was gone and he wanted her back, but he didn’t know why.  He asked about her at least two or three times a day, especially right before bed.  That was the time that Immy had used to snuggle up to him, play with his hair and make up lullabies to sing him to sleep, and sometimes herself as well.
Duncan was sinking further and further into anger.  His dark eyes burned with it whenever they passed by a government building.  He only communicated with her when she absolutely demanded it, and seemed to be pushing away from Dominic and Mia as well, as if he didn’t want to share in their pain, or perhaps didn’t want them to rely on him for security. 
His teachers at the Academy had disciplined him several times over the last few days for taking his physical aggression out on other Protector Academy students.  He was putting himself in danger and lashing out at the world, and it might just get him killed.  Strangely, the MHA hadn’t sent in an investigator yet.  Beata kept waiting for the message from the Authority calling her to the Treatment Center for interrogation.
The worst was that whenever he looked at Beata now, she felt the accusation in his stare.  In his depthless eyes, she had done nothing to stop this from happening.  She couldn’t protect Immy.  She couldn’t protect any of them.  None of them were safe.  And she’d just lain down and taken it.  There was no heroic rescue like in the great adventurous stories that he’d cut his teeth on as a reader.  There was no happy ending.  She was just gone and the world was cruel and unapologetic for that. 
Mia had become nervous and secretive, refusing to speak her mind where before she had been almost ruthlessly outspoken in her feelings.  She was just as likely to be caught staring off into space as looking furtively over her shoulder.  Beata was worried that she was beginning to become paranoid, so much so that she might inadvertently draw the unwelcome notice of the Authority.
Beata was struggling with just getting through the days right now.  Today was her regularly scheduled appointment with her Megari “treatment counselor”.  “Interrogator” would probably be closer to the truth.  This Megari oversaw hundreds of human Citizen-Servants of which Beata was only one, but Beata knew that she had to have been red-flagged for closer scrutiny after the last week’s events. 
A normal treatment session lasted about half an hour, and the Beata would spend it answering a written questionnaire while wearing a series of devices suction-cupped to her pulse points and temples to measure her reactions to various photopathic pictures her Megari counselor would project to her.  The questions were often strange or unrelated to anything that Beata would think they would want to know about her.  They asked questions like, “If an elephant crashed through your living room, where would you go?” or “What is your favorite method of cooking eggs?”  Some were very pointed - like, “When you are angry, what do you do with your excess of emotion?” or “When was the last time you checked the efficiency of your automobile?” 
In general, she’d answer them as quickly as possible, then submit to the physical examination, blood-draw, and tissue sample they required.  She always felt cold and a little violated when the Megari touched her, only in the most clinical ways of course, to perform their examination.  They were always men - something that was apparently a part of their race’s expansion plan.  Beata had never even seen a female Megari, although there were always the rumored sightings running around - someone’s supply contact had seen one once, but never anyone directly.
Today, there was a strange bite in the air.  The weather was turning cooler for the fall, only reaching the low seventies, when they’d battled ninety-degree temps last week as the last hot breath of summer blew through Arizona.  Dominic was at his early-childhood class, and Duncan and Mia were in school, so Beata had a moment to herself to contemplate what they might try to question her about today.   She slung her purse over her shoulder, and entered the old Interstate Bank high-rise, checked in with the human receptionist and was given clearance to go up to the twelfth story to her counselor’s office.
“Doctor” Veddito was waiting for her in the outer office, and his normal reception clerk, an older woman who dressed dowdily and frowned almost constantly wasn’t there.  Instead, there was a beefy Protector in sheep’s clothing, so to speak.  Immediately, Beata tensed even further, but Dr. Veddito took her by the elbow, steering her away from the reception area directly into his office, his massive, gray-feathered wings blocking any view she might have had looking back.  Veddito settled her at the round wooden table in his office as he closed the door. He projected a picture of her sitting, pencil in hand, answering a questionnaire.
With a sigh, Beata picked up the pencil and read today’s questions to herself before answering them.
“At what time(s) of day is your house empty of people?” 
“Describe your feelings towards the Megari Authority at this time.”
“Which do you prefer for cake, chocolate or white?”
“What makes you feel anger?”
“How have the Megari Authority benefitted your existence?”
Beata’s hand spasmed around the pencil in her hand, and the paper trembled with the shaking of her other hand.  She glanced at Veddito, her disbelief reflected in her gray-green eyes.  Could they really be so unaware of the feelings of their human servants that they would poke at her pain like this?  Like a child discovering how to burn ants with a magnifying glass, just to see what will happen?  Veddito made his beautiful mouth smile encouragingly, and he made a “please commence” gesture with his hands.  She saw the picture of her finishing writing and her smilingly handing it back to Veddito appear in her head.  As if it were a census survey she was filling out!
Her fist was clenched around the pencil like it had become a dagger and the paper an enemy she could somehow dispatch with a well-placed stab.  If the Megari could read minds...
The door behind her opened, and the enforcer stood just in the doorway now, letting his presence be known.  She could see the bulge of a weapon under his left arm.  So, it was a game of life or death now, was it?  Veddito must have showed him her trembling anger photopathically.  Better than any panic button, that.  
She forced the tendons and muscles in her fingers to relax, took a steadying breath and began answering the questions one by one.  She started with the easiest, and made a decision to play chicken with Veddito.  Would he know if she lied on these questionnaires?  She’d never tried it before.  The pain surrounding Imogen’s death was too dear to her, too close to her heart, for her to share any of it as part of some Megari “experiment” or “data-gathering”.  She was probably already in trouble, the very fact that the neckless musclehead was standing in the doorway was proof of that.  She would see if there was a way to toy right back with them.  They didn’t deserve the truth from her at this point.
“At what time(s) of day is your house empty of people?”  Usually from three to five p.m. on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays.   She answered this one honestly - they could check that easily enough - there were cameras on every corner in every neighborhood where people lived, and scattered, but hidden throughout the neighborhoods where people no longer went or lived.  Big Megari Brother was always watching.
“Describe your feelings towards the Megari Authority at this time.”  She was leaving this one until last.  She’d have to work up to that one.
 “Which do you prefer for cake, chocolate or white?”  White.  Well, really, it was chocolate.  In her old life, she’d been a Hershey Bar a week kind of girl.  She felt a silly surge of victory at this miniscule disobedience.  Veddito peered closely at her face, and she made sure she was still flushed with anger, pursing her lips together and focusing hard on the paper before her.  Veddito sat back, apparently satisfied that she was doing her duty.
“What makes you feel anger?”  Cruelty, injustice, frustration at being helpless, and disrespect for authority.  Some of that was true.  Let’s see if any of it would get her into hot water.  She’d thrown in the “disrespect” thing at the last second to see if they would even notice the irony of it in combination with her other answers.  Were the Megari able to even conceptualize irony?
“How have the Megari Authority benefitted your existence?”  She knew the party line on this one, and could give it in her sleep. The Megari Authority keeps us safe.  They provide us with efficient services, consistent supplies, and a chance to serve a larger community. This question appeared on every single questionnaire, and proved conclusively to Beata that the Megari must have some feelings or emotions, stunted and slight as they may be, to be so blatantly egocentric.
“Describe your feelings towards the Megari Authority at this time.”  She stumbled over this one again.  She didn’t know how far she could go without being exposed as a fraud and not making it out of the building alive.  She chewed the end of the pencil in thought, and from the corner of her eye, she saw Veddito nod slightly to the Protector in the doorway, who sidled back to the reception desk, closing the door behind himself.  So, Veddito must not consider her a threat any longer.
“Describe your feelings towards the Megari Authority at this time.”
Rage.  The nigh uncontrollable urge to punch you very hard in the face until your head is bleeding almost as much as my broken heart.  The overwhelming desire to rip your Authority down, brick by brick, rend your denizens limb from limb with my bare hands.  A sincere hope that all of you suffer horrible, painful, flesh-eating deaths and that I am there to watch and dance upon the ashes you leave behind.  So suck it.
“Describe your feelings towards the Megari Authority at this time.”
Fear.  That you will take Dominic at his evaluations appointment.  That you will turn Mia and Duncan into one of you: heartless, ruthless, efficient (oh, how I hate that word!). That you will take the rest of my pathetic excuse for a life from me by taking away the only ones I have left to live for.  That you will force humanity completely into extinction, and I will have let it happen without raising even a whimper. 
But she didn’t write any of that.
“Describe your feelings towards the Megari Authority at this time.”
Gratitude that I will be allowed to continue to serve them in any way that I can.
If the Megari could learn how to lie, so could she.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

The Saturday Six 8/13/11

Six things I love this week

1) Tomatoes & Cucumbers - It's that time of year in Illinois, where everyone's garden is coming due like a library book.  You planted the seeds/seedlings and now you find yourself wondering why you thought it would be a good idea to plant three tomato plants instead of two.  You look at the juicy pods of cucumbers on vines once tame, now threatening to take over the known universe.  You pray for enough counter space and decorative bowls for just a few more zucchini.  And you lament the fruition of your summer's hard work.

You can pickles, make and freeze buckets of marinara sauce, make zucchini bread by the pound - and it is not enough.  You keep a constantly refilling bowl of salsa/tomatoes & cucumbers in vinegar and it just keeps growing like Strega Nona's pasta. You make zucchini-tomato butter-stuffing, stuffed tomatoes, grilled zucchini, and gazpacho - and it still keeps coming.

You bring grocery bags of produce to work with you, and find yourself adding it to the growing organic pile that has taken over the break room/teacher's lounge table.  Your neighbors and family have stopped answering your phone calls because they know you will only find a reason to "drop by with a few garden goodies".  The paper-boy, sanitation workers, and mail carrier all work at double speed when they get to your house and pray they can make it away before you stumble out the door with no shoes on and a bag of zucchini to kindly force upon them. Finally, you reach the point where you send your own children out early in the morning with their little red wagon to leave random vegetables on your neighborhood's unprotected porches and stoops, like evil little garden elves of plenty.

Or, so I've heard.  Every once in a while, I lament the fact that there is absolutely no good place to put a garden in my yard (unless I dug one in the middle of my front yard).  Too many trees.  But not at this time of year - because now...everyone I know is trying to get rid of the stuff.  So, I do my heroic best to take them off their hands.

Me?  I'm having tomatoes & cucumbers in vinegar for dinner tonight.  Fresh salsa on my turkey dogs.  Zucchini Bread for dessert.  Word.

2) My niece and nephews.  This was my last week with the three of them, and after a wonderful summer, I can honest-to-God, hand on my heart say: "Dang! I'm gonna miss them!" We had so much fun, and I've never been more impressed with how wonderful and unique they are than to spend this amazing summer with them.  I think this is a reminder to me that I need to make more of an effort to be around during the school year.

3) School Registration.  What?  Yep, I said it.  I <3 me some school registration.  Why? Because not only do I get to personally welcome and make a short connection with all my brand new sixth graders coming in - I also get a chance to see my students who've moved on.  In fact, many times, I've been surprised by students who are finishing their final year in high school and make an appearance either to help out the younger kids with specific program like dance team or flags or band camp or because they're there to help out a younger sibling with their registration.

 It reminds me that, by virtue of being a teacher, I become something like a cultural touchstone in our community - like your favorite waitress at a local restaurant, or a librarian that always made you feel welcome. I've become a part of our community's nostalgia for its younger citizens.  That's cool.

4) Chicks N' Salsa - It sounds strange, but it's this wonderful little strip mall restaurant in Glen Ellyn that serves roasted chicken, fish tacos, and the absolute best veggie burrito in the business.  Awesome, affordable food without all the guilt of eating highly processed, fatty stuff. Every time I go to my dentist in Lombard, I treat myself to lunch there afterward.  Today was no exception. Grilled fish taco and a veggie burrito too big to finish. NOM NOM NOM!!!

5) Mid-Afternoon Rainstorms - we've been having some pretty bizarre weather this summer (even for Illinois!), but I have to say I love that it's August and my grass is still green. The world looks like it does in the first weeks of July - lush, green, and smelling of the rich, sultry aroma of wet earth. Even as I type this, we're having a little thunder-shower that's rumbling just enough to make Foxxy, my floofiest furry overlord head for the bedroom with her floofy tail low and nervous.  But it's not scary at all to me.  Luscious.

6) Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self by Danielle Evans.  This is a book of short stories that reads like memoirs from people you probably have somewhere on the fringes of your own life.  Each one has a distinct cultural voice, some made me laugh until I had tears - others provoked the tears for other reasons.  Every single story left me thinking, wanting still more of the colorful mind-movies her stories evoke.  Normally, I'm not a fan of short stories.  This one was recommended on NPR's FB page because Ms. Evans will be judging their next 3-Minute Fiction contest.  I picked it up thinking I'd skim it and see what to expect about her taste and writing style.  Once I finished the fourth page, I was hooked.  Word to the wise, it has language and situations that provoke some difficult conversations, and parents may want to pre-read.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Book Review - Joey Pigza Loses Control by Jack Gantos

4 Out of 5 Stars for Joey Pigza Loses Control by Jack Gantos

My nephews (7 & 9) and my niece (12) all really enjoyed reading this book with me - Three thumbs up from the peanut gallery.

Ever had a day when you just couldn't sit still?  When your thoughts ran through your head (and then straight out of your mouth) in one long, fast-flowing stream of consciousness?  Ever made a bad decision because you weren't thinking, or you didn't think it all the way through?  Ever have adults (or anyone else for that matter) tell you to "settle down" and give you THE LOOK?

Joey Pigza, the eleven-year-old hero of Jack Gantos's middle-grade series, has that day every day.  Times ten.  Plus infinity.

Joey has ADD - not just your garden variety ADD either, really severe ADD-ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder).  Gantos first introduced readers to Joey in his National Book Award finalist, Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key, and now he brings a slightly more in control Joey back to us in this Newbery Honor winning sequel.

Joey and his trembling mass of canine insecurity, Pablo, are visiting his ex-alcoholic father and chain-smoking grandmother for the summer.  Joey finally has his ADD somewhat under control with the help of medicinal patches, and his mother warns him to keep up with the patches - no matter what.  We get the sense that Joey's long-suffering mother is reluctant to let Joey stay with his ne'er-do-well father and sarcastic grandmother, but allows it only because she believes it's important for Joey to form a positive relationship with his dad.

Watching Joey with his father is like watching Joey's future, if he hadn't had a patient mother and better life through chemistry.  We can tell that Joey's father, a self-described dreamer, has battled alcoholism, unemployment, and a lack of control in his life.  But he loves Joey, so we want to like him.  His grandmother, on the other hand, is a caustic, rude, selfish woman, seemingly without a sympathetic bone in her oxygen-mask-sucking body.  By the end of the book, while our initial suspicions about these two have played out predictably, we're shown that it's not all black and white.  Every down-trodden dreamer is not a hero in disguise, and every chain-smoking harpy is not a complete villain.

I won't regale you with all of the antics that Joey ends up in, because that would ruin the book.  Suffice it to say that Pablo ends up in some cringe-inducing predicaments (including a stint locked in the glove box of the car), Grandma's regular means of conveyance is a grocery-cart with a couch cushion at the bottom, Joey turns out to be an absolute ace at pitching baseball, and Joey's dad decides that Joey's medicine isn't manly and that Joey can do without it.

Chaos definitely ensues.

I love these books.  Gantos tells his stories in Joey's irrepressible, startlingly self-aware voice, and the story would be depressing any other way.  Without Joey's eyes and heart as a filter, we would find many of the situations and other characters maudlin and shocking.  But because Joey sees the best in any situation, and tries to find the best in others, despite their shortcomings, we are forced to do the same.  Don't get me wrong, some of these situations are ones that make the hair on the back of my "responsible adult" neck stand straight up.  Joey is able to navigate them honestly, even when he's "wired", finding some measure of self-control within himself.  We, as readers, get to appreciate how he's growing up, learning about the fallibility of adults, and finding inner strength - sometimes just enough courage to ask for help.

My one criticism of the book has to do with the predictability of the character arcs.  From the very first chapter, we know that Joey's dad will let him down, and his grandmother will eventually pave the way to get rid of Joey.  That sense of impending doom hangs over the reader like a cloud until it actually does happen, making the bumps in the road along the way not as surprising.  I felt like the readers would have been better served by having more confidence in Joey's dad and grandma in the beginning, so that their eventual spiral out of control would be more jaw-dropping.

Overall, a quick read and fun ride!  Hilarious and shocking situations throughout.  Pick up the first book, Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key, to get an idea of where Joey's ride began.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Shopping the Right Idea?

A dilemma I'm beginning to struggle with as I get sucked deeper and deeper into the business of hunting up an agent for my work I writing marketable stuff?  Now, people will tell you in author blogs, advice columns and the like, that you should just concentrate on writing a good story, and eventually, someone will see the light.  There's a part of me (the biggest part, thank heavens) that believes this.  I have a good story with Mojo Fingers.  I'm a true believer in its appeal and the writing I did to make it happen.  But, as a Middle Grade/Young Adult Contemporary novel, it gets no love from the agents.

Now, I am at the very tippy-tip beginning of my agent search in any real way.  Example: I've only received 6 rejections, 5 of which happened before I knew my ear from a hole in the ground as far as what a query letter should really look like.  If this current round of queries gets rejected or worse yet, no response at all, I know I'll need to go back to the drawing board with my query letter.  Perhaps my first five pages don't have enough action in them.  I'm not saying that I don't have work I can do to change what else might be wrong, and that it's probably my writing at fault right now.

But, as I am looking at blogs and comments on query tracking websites, I'm seeing no love for the MG/YA contemporary.  Watching the majority of them get rejected in a big hurry.  Practically no turn-around time.  So, I begin to wonder to this the time for Mojo Fingers?  Should I get to work rehabilitating and revising Escape from Grace (my novel draft from last year) since it's such a wildly different concept?  Would it be worth it to explore other genres in order to get my foot in the door with SOMETHING?  I'm seeing much dystopian and steampunk YA get calls for fulls or partial manuscripts. I don't know that I'd really be good at a steampunk universe (think Cassandra Clare's "City of Bones" series, or Phillip Pullman's The Golden Compass).

There seems to be a LOT of interest in Middle Grade (early-ish) aimed at boys.  (Think Allan Woodrow's Zachary Ruthless series or Jeff Kinney's Diary of  Wimpy Kid series).  I might be able to write something like that, but it would be a stretch without a really rockin' idea - which I am not in possession of currently.

So, what will I end up doing?  Chilling out a little, probably.  My anxiety (I'm positive) has more to do with fear of rejection than anything else.  Most certainly I will continue querying for Mojo Fingers, and following advice from knowledgeable people - fixing my query letter, sending queries monthly, and most of all - writing good stories that appeal to me.  But, I'll also be hauling out Escape from Grace and hitting the revisions hard on that so I can start getting eyes on it as well.

Good writing - a great, compelling story, addictive characters - these are what I love in fiction.  I hope it's what I will be able to produce as a writer one day.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Review of Bad Taste In Boys by Carrie Harris

I give this book 4 1/2 out of 5 Gold Stars!

Kate Grable is the brainiest kid at her high school...which makes her the tastiest morsel for the zombies who want to...BRAAAAAAAIIINNNNS NOM NOM NOM NOM

Kate, as the student med assistant/trainer for her high school's football team, she gets to be near the adorable Aaron (not that she'd ever work up the courage to actually talk to him).  However, when she suspects the football coach of juicing the team up on steroids to win games, she finds out that it's not 'roid rage that's been giving her ex-fling, football player Mike the urge to nibble on her neck.

With the whole football team on the verge of a brain-eating rampage, Kate, Aaron, and her uber-geeky younger brother (who I am personally in crush with now), have to find the cure before their high school loses more than a few football games.

This was a quick-tastic read; fast-paced, funny, and headed straight for the action. Author Carrie Harris skates the line between gross and funny with flair (look out for flying fingers!), and it keeps the characters believable - even when they're zombies.  Kate is a kick-butt heroine - intelligent, brave and snarky, and I want to know more about the secondary characters already. Kate's younger brother will, I hope, have his own book one day.  She even set up a really neat moment with a seemingly random young man who was NOT the love interest of Kate, but could be - setting up a possible link to her next book, BAD HAIR DAY which, (don't quote me on this) could be a werewolf connection.

Perhaps the only thing holding it back from the full five stars is that the pace is sometimes so frenetic, that I feel that there might have been a few romantic, poignant, or tender moments that might have ended up on the cutting-room floor.  I'm reminded of an old Billy Joel song (I'm SO showing my age right now) called The Entertainer.  Perhaps it's just me being a sentimental lagabout, but it feels like there were things there that didn't end up in the final piece due to revising/editing. Here's the pertinent passage from the song:

I am the entertainer,I come to do my show.You've heard my latest record,It's been on the radio.Ah, it took me years to write it,They were the best years of my life.It was a beautiful song.But it ran too long.If you're gonna have a hit,You gotta make it fit--So they cut it down to 3:05.

Anyways, I really enjoyed reading this book, and I CAN'T WAIT to pick up the next one! If you need a little extra incentive to go out and get it, check out her book  trailer:

Sunday, July 31, 2011

It's A Brand New Blogging Day!

I know, I know - It's been a month - a MONTH! - since I've blogged. (bad writer! bad! bad!)  But it's not like I haven't been writing...just that I haven't been doing it on my blog.  (sorry)

But now, due to an AWESOME-TASTIC blog makeover by uber-tech-diva of darkness, Parajunkiee, that I won at author Carrie Harris's charity auction NIGHT OF THE GIVING DEAD, I have a brand new look!  It's like getting your hair colored, or a pedicure, or perhaps even a new outfit - that new blog smell is lovely and inviting.  Write on me it whispers.  Therefore, it's my first OFFICIAL post here at my new digs.

Just so you know, if you were a regular before, you'll need to reset your bookmarks, since it's hosted by Blogspot, rather than Wordpress.  However, this site is now the one hooked up to the link on my website, and I will leave links between the old and the new on the two blogs.

I have so much to cover on this blog, that I can't possibly even attempt it on one posting, so here's a teaser for the upcoming avalanche of new posts I'll be writing soon.  I'll need to review some of the 50 Books of Summer I've read already (including Carrie Harris's epic and hilarious teenage zombie extravaganza, Bad Taste in Boys).  I need to update you on what's happening with my agent search.  I should shout out to my new peeps at SCBWI after the fabulous weekend retreat in Springfield.  I want to talk about some new ideas I'm trying and the old ones I'm still working on.  I could even shout out to my students from last year, some of whom have shown me fabulous new ways to decorate myself with words, impressed me with their hilarious performances at Second City, and begun to write their own novels (and it's not even November!).

So, for now, I'll say...enjoy this last month of summer - finish what you've started and start the fall refreshed and ready to take on new challenges.  I know that's what I'll be doing!

Wednesday, July 27, 2011