Sunday, October 30, 2011

A Good Place to be Lost

This Life Book excerpt is fully redacted for privacy. The story is set in the U.S., before the four children moved to Mexico and began their eleven years of transience, on the run from Something Bad.

Watercolor #947 by David Peterson

A Good Place to be Lost

Nyanya took you to the fair. You loved the stuffed animals, especially the teddy bears and horses. After exhausting yourselves with games, you all took a pony ride. You got stuck with the pooping pony. Your sister was right behind it, and she laughed whenever it swished its tail out of the way to lay a big one. After dinner, your mom explained that the family was going back to Mexico. “It’s a good place to be lost,” she said.
You took a bus down to the border, stopping and changing buses frequently, purposefully getting lost, randomly taking new routes to Sonora, Mexico. The first few nights, you stayed in hotels. Your sister said it all seemed exciting at the time. She said no one realized the kind of change that was coming.
Why did you move? Your mother had seen someone. Always, whenever your family moved, from barrio to barrio, city to city, country to country, it was because Nyanya had seen someone who might have ended up hurting the children she loved.
It might be hard to think about it. The time that came next will probably remain guarded in your memory banks forever, in some hidden, encrypted drive.
Sometimes, you might look around your classroom at all the faces. These kids have their own hardships, of course, but they can’t possibly know what your past like. How it was to be constantly on the move. To not have a roof over your head when you’re travelling. To sleep in sketchy hotels, or even out under the stars. To not have enough food and to pray to God to supply your next meal. To settle down and make friends with your neighbors only to get uprooted again because your mother was afraid of Something Bad.
Something Bad stalked your family the way darkness stalks light, always on your heels from town to town.
"Living in Fear" by Philip Wartena Photography
Who was that? They look familiar. What if they recognize us? What if they tell someone who tells someone else? Something Bad might happen if we go outside. Something Bad might happen if we talk to the wrong people. Something Bad might happen if we’re seen in the wrong store or in the wrong parking lot.
Nyanya had to stay on her toes. To eke out a living means to survive in the world through heavy labor, hard times, and the sweat of your brow. Nyanya spent her whole life and much of her children’s lives eking out a living.
You might have felt it sometimes, but you didn’t know all the details. And maybe that’s better. It’s enough to know that Mexico is a dangerous place. As dangerous as it is unique and beautiful.
But this is part of your history. It’s part of what makes you who you are today.
Here are some of the stories of your family’s life in Mexico. (See: An Average Day)


Monday, October 24, 2011

The Multiplicity Premise

A few thoughts from my two current nonfiction #fridayreads.

This post is about the creation of story and the organic process that entangles character-driven action with plot. 

As every author knows, having a story line is just the beginning. It's then necessary to develop the narrative. A good narrative is an organic process that builds on itself and begins to take on a life of its own, often leading an author in directions he hadn't anticipated. (pg. 36)
Rifkin's quote is in reference to government pilot projects and "siloed" agendas that don't fall under the umbrella of a unified go-green-to-save-the-world narrative. Thus, they might be great projects, but there's no urgency to them, and no story for them to find place within.

Next, I want to present the multiplicity premise that forms the basis for Internal Family Systems Therapy by Richard C. Schwartz.
It can make sense to think there exists, inside your brain, a society of different minds. Like members of a family, the different minds can work together to help each other [or to harm each other], each still having its own mental experiences that the others never know about. (pg. 16, Marvin Minsky)
Schwartz shows with this premise that Multiple Personality Disorder is simply an extreme polarization of these individual internal entities. We all have these individualized parts, he says, and they sometimes work together and they sometimes don't. That's why you might say, "Part of me loves him and another part of me wants to shove his face in the wall." Actually, this is exactly true!

Photo from Teen Tweens Blog
When we act on emotions, we put one or another of our internal entities in the lead. Often, when we make emotionally charged decisions, we act opposite what the majority of our not-so-extreme parts desire. We will be acting against our Self, our seat of consciousness, which "contains the compassion, perspective, confidence, and vision required to lead" (pg. 40) our disparate parts.

With these ideas in mind, let's turn to characters, the movers and shakers of our written worlds. A certain amount of verisimilitude pervades even our most fantastic worlds. Our art most closely mirrors reality in the way our characters act. If we accept the multiplicity premise, our characters (who are not usually the ideally balanced and harmonized minds a therapist hopes to help her clients become) will act out of emotion with polarized entities swapping the leading role. A Needy Child will sometimes take the reins, giving way to a perfectionist Great Protector, getting hijacked by a Fearless Rebel. A self-deprecating Bossy Schoolmarm does damage control, leaving the Needy Child to lick her wounds.

The narrative -- the organic process by which story skein spools and unravels -- is organic because it's chosen by the human minds involved, specifically those of the characters living within it. In this analogy, characters are dynamic, and authors sit as compassionate, all-perceiving, confident, visionary Self-Leaders, bringing the cacophonous sound of multiple minds finally into accord.

So, authors? How do you deal with characters acting with extreme parts in the lead? Does the plot suffer when art mirrors reality this way? Do we, as authors, need to reel our characters in?


Reviews and Interviews: Jeremy Rifkin's The Third Industrial Revolution
The Huffington Post (Excerpt)
The Huffington Post (Review)
The Diane Rehm Show (Interview)
Energy Bulletin (Audio Review)

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Here's what life looked like on:
An Average Day

This is an excerpt, redacted, from a Life Book.
The lives of four children hiding from Something Bad in Mexico.

Photo by Ryan Sitzman

No breakfast.
No lunch.

           to stave off hunger,
           you'd boil leaves from the lemon tree.
                      If you had sugar,
                      you'd use it to soften the bitterness
                      of brewed leaves.

On bad days, though,
           you didn't have sugar.

Under the door -- a slit --
                                                       you weren't allowed to go outside:
                                                            Something Bad might happen.

A few generous gifts
rolled through.
from neighbors' leftovers.

You'd wait,
           like normal,
                      for Nyanya to bring home dinner.

           she didn't arrive
           until past midnight.

She worked at a restaurant,
           would stay till close
           to bring home leftovers.

The worst part
wasn't Hunger.


           you could deal with.
The painful stomach-gnawing
           went away after a few hours,
                      especially if you woke
                                                                                        to make the day go faster.
                                                                                                              And you did.


The worst part
was watching the others
That was harder than being
--seeing your family hungry and knowing you couldn't do anything about it.


That was hard.

It was also hard
to drink bad water
from the hose when there wasn't enough
                       (never enough)
to refill one of the big jugs
you got from the store.

But when you're thirsty,
you drink,
even if it doesn't taste good.

                                                       Even if it tastes terrible.

                                                                  You'd clean it
                                                                    by boiling it,
                                                             and it would still taste

Your sister said,

"I have to give it to Nyanya.
She would always bring us food.
At least one meal.

She was a strong woman,
                      and her children always came first." 

Monday, October 10, 2011

The Takeaway: Making Readers Care

I've been working on a query for the past three weeks, so boiling my book down to essentials readers will care about has been at the front of my mind.
For instance, how do you make people care about
these little purple things? Mitochondria img src. 

Apparently, the steps to making people care about a project are universal. Here's the process my brain went through and what I discovered.

  1. I'm passionate about science and the possibility that humans can, through science and other means, better themselves.
  2. Lisa Iriarte tweeted about an annual conference dedicated to making interstellar starflight a reality in the next 100 years. She blogged about it here, and I was sad to learn that much of the conference was inaccessible to the average person. I'm that average person: someone interested enough to attend the conference and donate but not necessarily educated enough to, say, help build a starship.
  3. Then I stumbled on The #SciFund Challenge. Awesome, I thought. Scientists are trying to fund vital world-saving research through crowdfunding, getting average people (me, me!) to care about what they're doing. They're trying to make science accessible.
  4. Then I read this article by scientist and sci-fi writer Elissa Malcohn entitled "Science With Heart: Connecting with your crowdfunders through the language of emotion." And I realized the article could very well say "Books With Heart: Connecting with your readers through the language of of emotion." The steps are the same.

I urge you to go read the article. (Oh, and totally take a gander at the project while you're there. Very cool.)

And for nibbles, here's the the takeaway. In some key ways, these items should find a way into book, pitch, query, synopsis, and marketing plan (including blog/website/book trailer).

1. Sense of wonder: Something unspecified but extraordinary is possible. How can we inject a sense of wonder into our query?  Touch the universal? Touch our inner child? 
2. Sense of urgency; raised stakesResearchers are on a quest in a race against time. Characters are also racing against time. Urgency is a must. What will happen if they fail? Stakes are essential.   
3. Sense of mysteryIntroduction to the species and why it is important. Mystery can be simply leaving a few early questions unanswered--urgency drives us to read on and find those answers.
4. Sense of adventureInvitation to be part of the adventure. By laying out a character's goals and his/her limitations to those goals, a reader takes part in the adventure. We've all felt it--our own bodies viscerally willing a character to succeed. How can we set up these goals and limitations in a query, pitch, story arc?
5. Sense of belonging: A taste of the experience. Essential for marketing. What can we offer readers in return? Signed copies? A chance to take part in the next adventure? A recipe in the back of the book of some food eaten by your MC? Deleted scenes? Even if we're currently unagented and unpublished, we can be thinking along these lines.

How are you applying these or other ideas to make your book (pitch, query, trailer, etc.) accessible? What ways have you found make a reader care?

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Staring blindly at the dark . . .
   & refusing to listen to the voices

~ ~ ~

My hubby isn't a reader, and we hardly ever talk about my writing. He doesn't read my published short stories. We don't brainstorm together. I don't share hopes, desires, fears. He doesn't cheerlead or nay-say.

Img from Nankurunasia
He is supportive. He loves giving me time and space to write. But it makes me wonder. . . .

So I asked him straight-out: "Do you think I'll succeed? Do you hope so? Or are you afraid to say anything, the same way I'm afraid to say anything to you? Because talking about it might jinx it?"

He said, "I do want you to succeed. But there're so many writers out there -- good writers, too, I guess -- who try and try and just don't get anywhere. I don't want that to be you."

When your own dark voices suddenly manifest from the lips of someone you love, what do you do?