About the Eyes

I’ve been reading several books about children’s development, which makes sense since I have a 3 year old and a 3 month old. One of those books called attention to how adults and children may have different ideas about objects, with one reason being adults are much more likely to take in a visual aspect while children might be more inclined to taste or smell or touch or listen to it.

Actually, when you think about kids this just makes sense. Who knows what taste there might be on a pine cone? I bet a child would tell me. Probably also explains why so many parents are always screaming “Get that out of your MOUTH!”

But how does that translate into what we write? The majority of authors (especially in brick and mortar stores) are adults. We would then use a lot of visual description when we want it to be real to the readers.

I have a group of characters living on some far-off planet who don’t use their eyes. These nearly blind people can sense movement but not much else. It was such a difficult thing for me to describe things using their noses and ears as the primary senses and the visual as a distant fourth (behind touch). While I haven’t yet decided to have them put everything in their mouths to taste, I can’t promise anything about their futures.

What do you do to distinguish between characters? Do they all use their eyes as a primary sense?

I think if I were to catalog all the descriptive words in my current novel, most of them would be geared toward the visual. Makes me think I should look at that while rewriting. Yay! Just one more thing to edit and polish. I will finish it eventually, I swear. Though it might help to find less things I want to fix.

Pets, Continued

I think it was because of a show and tell subject, but when I was five I seriously wanted a tarantula. I know a lot of people aren’t fond of spiders, but somehow the larger the better for me. Not that I generally enjoy them crawling on me – I don’t. However, if I had a pet spider I’m sure I’d make an exception.

I’m not sure what draws people to exotic pets. Many of us don’t think farther than cats or dogs unless we get the cool factor involved or unfortunate allergies. The “cool factor” isn’t the best reason to get one, according to exoticpets.about.com.

I knew a woman many years ago who had flying squirrels and chinchillas. She lost a flying squirrel in her car, but I suppose that happens when you take them out of the cage. Never did hear what happened to it.

Many stories don’t feature pets. When you do put a pet into a story, it’s important to take the time to develop the character and explore what it means for the plot. Sure, it might also just be fun to mention that your best friend has a pet snake, but if it doesn’t actually mean anything it might be like the gun that doesn’t go off – a distraction that must be dealt with during revision.

If, instead, your friend runs an exotic pet boutique, it might be weird that her home isn’t a menagerie of critters. Or it might be the starting point of a short story that she can’t handle more life forms to feed and house while she’s at home and she made friends (and even named) her plants.

All right, I’ll admit it: I named my house plants for a while. I had three until my husband liberated them from my tender care. By which I’m saying nicely that they held on to survival by sheer willpower. I do better with actual animals. Somehow the blinds were closed and I’d forget to water those poor plants for too long at a time, but they had names!

Probably best if I stick with the child for some time. She’s thriving. Someone might even attempt to draw a correlation between the intelligence of the life form I care for and how well I care for it.

Which brings more questions for the writer about the character and the types of pet he or she might choose. What do you choose for your characters? Did a pet ever steal the scene? Do you consider writing animals in or out depending on the needs of the story? What pets other than cats and dogs have you run into or even had the pleasure of owning?

What About School?

There are so many things about school that people love or hate. But one thing that seems to come up more often are the different options about schooling.

I went to public school, as did many of my peers. It’s something we have in common. We expect certain things, whether included in anecdotes from way back when or while reading a fictional story. I’ll admit I open-enrolled to a different school than my assigned choice based on geography after a move during high school, but that seemed the best choice at the time.

Open-enrollment is still a good choice for many students, and they’re choosing it more often. Another choice families are making is to move to the school district where they want their children to go to school. We did take school districts into consideration, though the final three choices of houses when we looked (three years ago while pregnant) all ended up in one school district. Luckily, we didn’t mind that district at all. The elementary school is visible from my house, which we didn’t know when we purchased it.

Some students go to private schools. I’m not sure how they view charter schools, if they’re part of the private phenomenon or something else they haven’t figured out a good word for yet. Private schools often tend to be based on the same principles as public school: learning from a desk with a teacher, though they do their best to make it better than what someone gets in public school – or at least to try to make it seem that way to be worth the cost. Many of the private schools in my area are religious-based. In addition to the regular subjects, students are also taught their particular religion.

Charter schools started in the 1990s and has several success stories. Instead of the usual teacher, desks and books – they try learning in different ways. Some of them incorporate radical learning methods to make things more interesting and fun for students. I remember a few in Chicago with great results teaching kids discipline through yoga.

There are also choices to not attend a school, but to learn from home. Home school options are many and varied, incorporating almost everything from guided learning in the real world to workbook packets to study from at the kitchen table. One of the newer catch words is unschooling. Many times the question for these children is socialization, once the question of whether their academics were up to snuff, and home schooling associations exist to associate with other children. Unschoolers are often out in the world with people of all ages (or that is the premise of unschooling) to learn from everyone and work with all kinds of people while they do it.

Theories abound on the best way for a child to learn. Many burn our public schools in recent years and worry about the state of education. Are you worried about your kids? Do you think I’m worried about mine? While the answer is probably yes to both questions – also consider this from an author’s standpoint. I write books for young adults. There are so many options for education and learning, and at some point all of those will enter into books.

Is your heroine the kind who was unschooled? Is she struggling with certain things, either as a student or as an adult who never got into the subject because she was never interested in it? Did your hero have issues with public school and rebel against all authority figures? Is your private school student the only one in her class who didn’t go Ivy League when her charter school sister made it?

Maybe all the different kinds of school can be shown in both good and bad lights in fiction, and it’s up to the author on how the characters need it to be for the story. There is truth and there is an ability to push it only so far for believability.

I’m thinking of exploring all of that, somehow. How does school affect your YA protagonist and the other characters in your stories?

Stay-at-Home Mom?

I read a lot about SAHMs. For a time, I might even have been one. It’s just an interesting term because, in my experience, one rarely stays “home.” I suppose you could, and many do, but there’s only so much to do in the house.

So how do you decide if you’re staying at home or not? Does it count if you pack up the kid and take her with you at least five days a week? Does it matter if we’re headed to the gym or a playgroup or just out grocery shopping? Yes, that would be a lot of groceries, but it’s a place to go. Don’t forget the pool and the library to mix in with the other errands that should only take 5 minutes each, right?

Some of them used to take 5 or 10 minutes, before I started dragging the munchkin with me. If it isn’t her meandering path that takes three times as many steps as we’d need, it’s someone else stopping us to talk about how cute she is or how old she is. It’s not that I mind the attention or begrudge her the exploring time, but nothing takes 5 minutes anymore. Except things that used to take a minute or less, like climbing the stairs.

Assume that it’s going to take half an hour when I stop somewhere, and I’m a lot closer to reality. I grab a diaper bag and the toddler and pack them in the car, along with my purse and keys. Still haven’t figured out the best way to keep my stuff and her stuff in one bag and have it organized and useful, so I carry two and keep the bare minimum in both. Then the garage door goes up, because she’s excited enough about going outside that I can’t open the door before I pack her in the car. So I wait, then back out. There’s five minutes or more already, depending on how cooperative she’s feeling about going wherever we’re going.

That kind of activity just keeps going, in reverse for getting her out. Sometimes I can direct her to go where she’s going, but most of the time I make sure she’s last out of the car so she doesn’t wander off without me. It hasn’t happened yet, but there’s no reason to let the first time be in traffic.

I have been thinking that not working full-time means I’m a stay-at-home mom. So I try to say that with an introduction, but then I keep addending it. I mean, I’m also a writer. While that may not be a paying gig most of the time, I do have paying jobs in tutoring math and teaching yoga. Both of these are part-time, but it still means I need to go somewhere at a specific time and place for a specified duty.

Which of those parts means I’m not a SAHM? I’m not exactly sure, but I think the answer is a little of all of them. You can find me outside the house nearly every morning (Sundays being the exception) and between two and four evenings a week. Suddenly it doesn’t feel like I’m at home that much.

I have made it a high priority to be home during naptime, or if not with me then let the little girl rest with someone I trust. She’s much less cranky when she gets her scheduled nap. I also put her to bed at a specific time and she generally wakes within a few minutes of the same time every day. I can’t say it’s the best for every kid, but I know it works for mine.

I know all mothers are full-time mothers, but I wonder if I’m not the only person who tries to define the quality of staying at home by whether or not the mother has a full-time job. There has to be a different way. What do you think defines a SAHM?

Closing and Changing

The Borders bookstore near me is closing. It’s across the street from Half Price Books and a block down from Barnes & Noble. The HPB moved down the street last year (maybe half a mile), but otherwise all of them had occupied close quarters for years.

It’s sad to have it close. I love the coupons from Borders Rewards that kept me going in and out of the store more often than I would have. So what is it that’s changed for the rest of the store that means it has to close? Is it just more of the “future” of the publishing industry where we’re moving toward e-books and away from printed paper books? I know Borders isn’t closing everywhere, but it’s more than just here.

And what does this mean for those of us who still want to get those traditional publishing contracts – to be in the brick and mortar stores?

What about the libraries? Do you still go check out enough books for them to keep buying? Are we going to get to a place where you need to read everything online? How will we share that with the kids too small to care for the electronic devices? How will we keep the rich detail from the picture books on such small screens?

Do we expect the toddlers to not dismantle the devices? Just yesterday I found the keys my daughter ripped from my laptop at 6 months of age. Who needs home and control, right? I must admit the iPad is nice for her to play around with, except for the excess of fingerprints and other marks she leaves over the surface.

I suppose one thing to look forward to is the child-centered devices may begin reading the stories to kids. Then there will be studies upon studies about how it isn’t the best way for them to absorb the language (without a native speaker to show how the words are formed with the mouth and to keep the child’s attention focused) until at least the age of 3. We’ll begin the debate of whether it’s better to have the child with books rather than yet another animated movie and point fingers at each other for the digital babysitters. (Really, how else do you manage to shower when you’re alone with a small, mobile, curious child?)

The change also hits the authors in their marketing. Marketing is a struggle no matter how you look. Word of mouth about your words, whether in the bookstore or online or any other manner, doesn’t work the way you intend. Somehow a few of us have recognizable names and the rest of us languish in obscurity.

Do future writers still dream old ideas for success? I’m sure some of us do – just as I’m certain some of us are floundering among the changing landscape, searching for the best path to take. Self-publishing has never been easier, but it’s difficult to stand out from the masses and their largely disappointing reputation.

P.S. I apologize for the extended absence. One of my part-time jobs takes more time than I like to admit. I’m enjoying my break and working on getting organized – which includes more time writing and blogging.

Facilitator for the Writing Group?

I’ve been a member of one writing group or another for about four years. I’ll admit to having run one online, and while I like setting the rules – it’s always another matter to enforce them without upsetting the group in question. Dynamics between any group of people are often fragile and must be tended with care.

In my writing group, I admit I’ve been gone awhile. I’ve attended twice in the last three months due to other commitments. I’ve been working on getting those rotated out of my Saturdays again, and there are a few uncertainties about the coming year that I hope will be resolved soon.

Last Saturday, I was the facilitator since the “real” leader was gone. It was bad weather. The other veteran of the group didn’t mind if I took over, so I did. I attempted to keep everyone on track. All participants did get to read and comment. I only banged the table once for attention, and my meeting ADHD kicked in one other time when things seemed to get off track.

Then I got an email with some proposed new rules for the group, and it explained that I was the new facilitator for the next year. Uhm, wow?! I don’t know how they decided that was a good idea, though I am capable of the position. I’m just not always the nicest to deal with and I will stick by the rules of the group. In my online group, sometimes that meant I had to have difficult conversations to get members to do what they were supposed to do.

It must seem like a lot of time when we have three hours to read and discuss writings, but really, it isn’t. There are often at least eight or ten of us, which means only about 20 minutes each. When a person brings part of a novel, explains for a minute or three where the passage is, reads the passage, and the other members comment… it could easily be 45 minutes before we look up again. I know our group once spent half an hour discussing six words that one man presented to us. (Amazing discussion and I hope to see him again soon!)

So the new rules have three issues for me. One, that there is a somewhat arbitrary page count that isn’t consistent. That’s a little thing, and easily remedied by assessing word count. Two, that no one will ever be told to read first the next time. There are twenty-five people on our email list, and while most of them do not show up on a regular basis there is still the possibility of it happening. We’ll never be able to listen to anywhere close to that many in a single session, and what other option is there except to have them go first the next time? That is how a different group I’m in handles it, but they routinely have twenty or more show up. Three, the new rules state no children may be present. It doesn’t state exactly how old is old enough to attend the group, but this one really bothers me.

It’s not an issue about a baby-sitter or the difficulty of getting one on a Saturday. My husband gets to hang out with our daughter every other Saturday. During football season the game is on. The rest of the time they find things to do. Twice I had to take her to the group with me, because something came up at the last minute. I prefer not to take her because she can be a distraction, but it’s been my choice. A good friend of mine brings her six year old, who is much better behaved than my twenty month old toddler.

So if I rarely bring my daughter, why is it such a sticking point? I take her to my weekday group in Iowa City. We miss the gym that day to drive two hours each way to listen to some really wonderful women writers and get some feedback. They’re amazed to see how much my little girl has changed and celebrate the little one. I love that my daughter gets to enjoy the atmosphere of that kind of group. It should be up to me. I like that she gets that kind of exposure to the written and spoken word. I like to have the choice. As she gets older and better able to sit through those meetings, I might take her with me more. It’s not about a stray curse word in stories or content she may or may not understand. It’s simply the experience.

I know this doesn’t take into account that people may not be comfortable with what they’re reading, and then might become self-conscious with young ears listening. Seriously, with their parents, how could they not have already heard these words? It could give a parent a teaching moment to explain why we talk about these things in books and stories when we wouldn’t use them in everyday life. It might be a good time to talk about some of those situations in a less personal manner.

It also might not, but I always have good intentions. “The Road to Hell…” and all that.

So I’m waiting for an answer, to see if I’m really the new facilitator, and then to see how much these new rules are one person or the entire group wanting change. I suppose there’s always the possibility of splintering the group. Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that. I think the group has a lot of good qualities, but change is never easy – even when it’s good.

Blueberry Girl, by Neil Gaiman

Blueberry Girl was a gift to my daughter by a friend of mine. It was written by Neil Gaiman, and illustrated by Charles Vess.

It’s a beautiful book with full-color illustrations. A little repetition keeps her attention and large words (I hope) spark her vocabulary.

I know she’s only one, but she listens to everything. She says more words every day, and though they’re not completely clear, she’s getting more expressive.

I haven’t let her pick this one up and carry it around the house yet. It’s not a favorite of hers, but I like reading it to her. The words are calm and the pictures don’t excite her, which makes Blueberry Girl a great choice for bedtime.

Dedication

I’ve been accused of being dedicated to my writing. It’s true. I was more dedicated (are there levels of dedication?) before my daughter was born.

Kids change plans because we’re not just accountable for ourselves anymore. Someone else needs time and attention and diaper changes and food. Lots of food!

Luckily she naps and gives me time to write. As long as I sleep less than she does, there’s time to squeeze it in. So you won’t find me doing laundry or dishes or any other household chores during that time, because I only keep up with them enough to get by.

I know I’ll never be an immaculate housekeeper because it isn’t that important to me. I prefer to write. Who wants to spend all their time keeping the house in perfect order anyway? My daughter scatters her toys all over the floor and it would be a full-time job to keep them – and her – corralled in one spot. If the kitchen and bathrooms are in order, a lot of the rest can slide.

Yeah, I bet a lot of you aren’t coming to my house anytime soon, but those that do can’t complain. I don’t let it get to a point where it’s embarrassing, but like the old saying goes: “on your death bed, you’ll never say you wished you spent more time cleaning your house.” Or was it at the office?

Does it really matter? If you know what’s important to you, get it done. There’s always time to squeeze in a little more. And there’s no room for belly-aching if you just didn’t want to get off the couch because there was another movie on. You can spend 30 hours a week playing video games. You may choose to do anything you want (within certain limits, such as legality and morality). It’s a choice. Live with it.

The Little Engine That Could

My mother brought a copy of this book for my daughter. I’m glad to share with her books I loved as a child.

The Little Engine That Could, by Watty Piper, is a great book to help anyone know that they can do something only if they try. The mantra of the Little Blue Engine is “I think I can – I think I can!” all the way up to the top of the mountain.

Do you ever wonder what you can do, if you just think that you can?

A lot of people tell me I do a lot of things. Okay, I do. Is it because I have superhuman abilities? Haha, I wish. Sometimes I wonder if I get things done because I think I can squeeze them in.

Somehow, I think I can squeeze in some time to learn Mandarin, and the time is there. I think I can squeeze in time to write a novel, even after having a child, and I managed a rough draft in about seven months. I think I can scale buildings in a single bound!

… Wait, I still haven’t managed that one.

I enjoy reading the book to my daughter, though. One day she may attempt things just because she thinks she can. It might even be because of this book we are reading together. Then again, it might also be due to me not letting little things like time crunches get in my way.

What obstacles threaten what you want to do? Can you get rid of them?

James Stevenson

I’ve been reading Corn-Fed and Cornflakes.

These books are both written and illustrated by James Stevenson, and both are full of fun poetry. My daughter only kind of looks at the pictures at this point – they’re not the full-page illustrations in the books she carries around with her – but she listens when I read them to her.

All right, she listens when I read just about anything. She is quieter when someone else is holding her when I’m reading, though.

I really enjoy his short poetry, though. They’re small things about garbage bags or snow-covered cars shown through a different perspective with a humorous effect. I see a ton of them on the Amazon page, and now I’m wondering if I can find a few others to read to her.

It makes me want to write poetry. I just finished a poetry challenge and I’ll not brag about it because I know I’m not that good. It’s fun, and that’s the important part to me. I think I’m better with prose. It might be because I’ve had more practice.

Children’s picture books often seem closer to poetry than books aimed at older audiences. I think it’s because the economy of words forces the authors to say so much more. It’s a good exercise for any writer to try to say more with fewer words.

I do have one poem from the challenge I really like and will be attempting to send it to magazines once I smooth out one last line. Wish me luck.

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