Many Moms

Hope all you moms out there had a happy Mother’s Day! I couldn’t be with my mom on the day. But I sent her something I crocheted to say, “I love you. Thank you for being my mom.”

Orchids come out to play on Mother’s Day.

While at the craft store last week (I’m at the craft store at least three times a week), a woman said to me, “Are you a mother? Hope you have a happy Mother’s Day.”

I told her I was not a mom. She looked stunned and said, “Oh I just thought you were since most women are mothers.” I didn’t explain to her that I couldn’t have children. But as I walked to my car, I felt as I had failed somehow, since I couldn’t do something “most women” could do.

Don’t worry. I mentally slapped myself the moment I opened my car door. The act of opening the door was a reminder of how easily I could open the door to depression simply because of what someone said. I’ve done that too many times before.

So instead, I gave thanks for my mother, grandmothers (now deceased), sisters-in-laws, mothers of my sisters-in-law, friends, and the women who have been like mothers to me. Like my mother’s best friend, who lived several houses away on the block I grew up on in Chicago. She was the kind of neighbor who cared enough to correct me when I did something wrong.

Or like my fifth-grade teacher, who worked me harder than any teacher I’d had up till then, because she saw potential in me.

I think of my aunt who emails to see how I’m doing every once in a while. She doesn’t have children either, by the way.

Moms come in so many types besides biological. I think of writer friends who are “manuscript moms.” They helped me raise good manuscripts by beta reading them, giving helpful suggestions for changing them, and by reminding me of what’s good about them. And I have non-writer friends who mother me by inviting me to their homes for dinner or who send tea or other goodies to me in the mail.

But I also can’t forget that holidays like this can be difficult sometimes. One of my grandmothers died right before Mother’s Day years ago. So, my family attended a funeral instead of celebrating Mother’s Day. I can’t approach a Mother’s Day without thinking of her. Maybe you can relate. Maybe you’ve lost a parent or a child or couldn’t have children at all. If so, perhaps Mother’s Day is a struggle for you too. Just know you’re not alone in that.

When you think of Mother’s Day, who are you thankful for? Maybe you don’t have a mom or a significant female in your life, but are thankful for your dad or some other surrogate parent. Feel free to comment below.

These friends (Olive, Barbie, and Babette) have made a pact to spend Mother’s Day together. Though single (and yes, happy in their singleness) and without children (except for those they babysit), they’re surrogate moms and mentors to others.

Photos by L. Marie.

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How Do You Know You’re in the Flow?

Ever have a time when you were writing or doing something else creative, and you just couldn’t stop? Words or ideas poured out of you, and you had to implement them. We call this a state of flow. (And yes, I wrote a post about this five years ago. I’m taking a different angle on it this time.)

According to Wikipedia,

[F]low, also known as the zone, is the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, formerly the head of psychology at the University of Chicago and currently the Distinguished Professor of Psychology and Management at Claremont Graduate University, is known for his study on flow. Flow, according to Dr. Csikszentmihalyi, is also known as ecstasy. And no, I’m not talking about drugs here, though in his 2004 TED Talk, Csikszentmihalyi explained that “ecstasy is essentially a stepping into an alternative reality.” You’re so in the zone, it’s like you’re watching yourself create. You don’t notice anything else—hunger, weariness, etc. Csikszentmihalyi added, “[T]his automatic, spontaneous process . . . can only happen to someone who is very well trained and who has developed technique.”

I asked several writers how they know they’re in a state of flow.

Steve Bramucci, author of The Danger Gang and the Pirates of Borneo! (look for his next book this October) and managing editor over at Uproxx, said,

I recognize flow when I start to think, “This is brilliant! Have I accidentally stolen it from someone else? It’s too good of an idea NOT to have been written already! I must’ve stolen it! I’m such a hack!” At which point I google the idea furiously and, when I find it’s not stolen, I get this excited/thrilled buzzy feeling. Something akin to double fisting caffeine and green juice after a 6 am surf. I get tingly and overly emotional and write and write and write—only taking breaks to text my wife things like, “I really think I was destined to be a writer! I believe in my stories! I promise you this project will bring us financial security!” etc. If that all sounds insufferable, I’m sure it is. But it’s my process. It’s not what ends up on the page; insufferable processes can often lead to positive results.

Lyn Miller-Lachmann, author of novels for young adults and adults, said,

It’s when I feel that I’m in the time and place along with my characters, hearing them speak, feeling the same things they do, following them as they move.

Laura Sibson, a young adult and middle grade author (look for her young adult novel debut in 2019), had this to say:

When drafting, I know that I’m in a state of flow when I’m not tempted to look at the clock or check email or social media. My environment drops away in the sense that I’m not super-aware of what’s happening around me. In those moments, I’m fully immersed in my story world and it feels like the real world. I can see it as clearly as I see the scenery outside my window.

S. K. Van Zandt, another middle grade and young adult author, said,

For me, it’s the unstuck feeling. It’s picturing a scene in my mind, the “what happens next,” and the words are just there, as opposed to seeing the scene and staring at the computer. I think the ability to get (and stay) “in the zone” has everything to do with knowing your characters and story well.

Jill Weatherholt, author of Second Chance Romance (look for her next book this July) and romance short stories, said this:

When I feel what’s happening to my characters so deeply that I’m moved emotionally and I become completely oblivious to my surroundings, I know I’m in a state of flow.

Charles Yallowitz, author of Warlord of the Forgotten Age and other books in the Legends of Windemere series, put it this way:

I never really thought about being in a state of flow. I’m usually just writing along until I stop. So it’s almost like a trance.

How do you know you’re going with the flow when you work?

If you want to check out Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s TED Talk:

Kirstea, frazzled as always lately, took flow to a whole different level when she allowed her teacup to overflow.

My Little Pony Pinkie Pie and chicken figures by Hasbro. Kirstea Shoppie doll by Moose Toys. Photos by L. Marie.

Snow, Snow, Slow Your Roll

I’m sitting here as I write this, gazing out of the window at a gray-blue sky. We’ve had day after day after day after day of snowfall. And more is on the way, according to my brother and sister-in-law, who within hours of each other, texted the happy news to me.

   

Yeah, I know. That’s what winter is all about, Charlie Brown. Snow falls. Temperatures drop.

   

Anyway, I was complaining to Barbie about this recently. She’s a good listener. Even put down her magazine and gave me her full attention. I was explaining how the snowfall has caused me to slow down while driving.

She gave me a look as if to say, “Like that’s a bad thing?” Snow-Fro the Shoppet also concurred. She would. She was made for winter.

I like to zip around town, catching every green light, making good time, getting to my destination quickly. But zipping down a road, heedless of what the conditions are like, is how accidents happen. Having had my share of winter accidents, I learned the value of taking it slow. When you live with snow and ice, you adjust to the pace of the season.

Revision is that way. I’m revising a young adult fantasy novel for probably the twelfth time. I want to zip through it, like I zip down the street when the roads are ice free. But that’s what I did before. And I’ve discovered several things I missed in the earlier revisions. Like the gaps in logic or faulty descriptions I constantly find as I read the chapters.

My revision cave, where, yes, crocheting and video watching also occur

One chapter took me two days to work through. Two. Days. So, no matter how hard it’s been and how long it’s taking, I need to give myself permission to keep at it. “Slow your roll, L.,” I remind myself.

Winter is here in all of its messy glory. Just like revision. I’m trying to be present in the moment and present on the page in this season of change.

The sun is out, like a kiss of heaven. Though the snow lingers and threatens, I can’t help believing that I can weather the snow and the revision.

   

Barbie is a registered trademark of Mattel. Snow-Fro and Kissy Boo Shoppets and Fluffy Snowball and Terri Tennis Ball Shopkins are registered trademarks of Moose Toys. Photos by L. Marie.

Why Being Weird Can Sometimes Work

When I was in third grade, I was told that girls were scared of bugs. At least the boys at school who ran up to me with grasshoppers in hand believed that. But I wasn’t, which put a damper on their enthusiastic decision to chase me with said grasshoppers.

I watched the boys visibly deflate as I calmly looked upon the terrified grasshoppers clutched in their fists, instead of screaming and running. Some of them thought I was weird because I was not afraid. Others wanted my friendship, because I was not afraid.

What they hadn’t reckoned on was me having an older brother who inspired me to collect grasshoppers. Between us, we filled a jelly jar with them. (Mom was not thrilled.)

You probably realize by now that I was a weird kid, driven by curiosity. For example, I wondered why grasshoppers hopped. Why did they spit a brown liquid that looked like the tobacco juice my elderly tobacco-chewing relatives spit? (I know. TMI.)

(Apparently, others called this liquid “tobacco juice” too. Look here.)

Years later, after I had been an adult for a while, a publisher specializing in educational resources needed someone to write curriculum for elementary school-aged kids about insects, amphibians, and other animals. Guess who was asked to write it. Yep. Weird me.

Sometimes weirdness has unexpected benefits.

Lately, I’ve been viewed as weird for not having cable or even a working TV. Nowadays, books are my TV. Well, books and YouTube videos about Pokémon, movies, or new toys.

   

This is what’s on TV these days.

Being without a TV has helped me to better understand the characters in a book I’m slowly working on. I have more time to think about the questions I have concerning their lives and motivations.

Being without a TV also has enabled me to work on my paper crafting. For example, I’ve decided to do the same scene in different seasons. Winter (below right) is mostly done. I’m working on autumn now. I’m taking liberties with the colors, however. Instead of having a gray bench with a snowflake throughout the seasons, I decided to change the bench for each season. I need to draw and cut out hundreds of leaves to scatter on the autumn scene. After that, I will tackle spring and summer.

Some might view this activity as weird. But who knows where this weirdness might take me in the days to come.

In what way(s) have you been designated as “weird”? How has being weird worked for you?

Grasshopper from freeimages.com. Grasshopper in a jar from commons.wikimedia.org. Other photos by L. Marie.

The Prism Effect

When I was a kid, I was given a prism to use in one of my science classes in elementary school. I thought it was the most awesome thing ever. (Yes, this was way before cell phones were invented.) We discussed Sir Isaac Newton’s experiments with light refraction. As it passes through one object to the next object, light bends. Newton used prisms in his experiments.

As an article here mentions

Newton was the first to prove that white light is made up of all the colors that we can see.

In science class, we duplicated Newton’s experiment with a light source, cardboard, and a prism. (Yes, this was back in the day.) I don’t have photos from that experience. But this one comes close.

The white light containing the color spectrum makes me think of something else: a blank page. I see that confused look on your face. Let me explain what I mean. First, let’s switch out the phrase color spectrum and insert words. Now, think of a blank page as something containing all of the words that can be seen—wonderful, colorful words describing vivid images. A prism is needed for those words to be seen and understood. The writer is the prism that helps others see those words.

My mind turns on odd things sometimes. This was something I was thinking about recently. 😀

If the writing aspect doesn’t fit your life, think of the prism analogy this way. Our minds are prisms. We often take whatever is beamed into us and show the world the result. For example, let’s say we hear a lot of negative comments. Such a drab view of life might result in a negative mindset that spills over in our dealings with others. We tell everyone, “This is how life is—drab.” But unlike an actual prism, we have a choice as to what we do with what we’re given. We can either show the drab colors and say, “This is how life is and always will be,” or we can show something else: the colors of hope. Even if we can’t see them yet. By this we say, “This is how life can be. And it starts with me.”

For someone like me who is prone to depression, the latter is a challenge. But I’m still willing to give it a shot. How about you?

     

I saw this rainbow months ago while standing outside of a grocery store. A rainbow is a nice example of refraction.

Prism image from 924jeremiah.wordpress.com. Refraction experiment image from myscienceacademy.org. It is from an MIT YouTube video. Blank page from imgarcade.com. Rainbow photographs by L. Marie.

Check This Out: How The Queen Found the Perfect Cup of Tea

With me on the blog today is the always lovely Kate Hosford. She’s here to talk about her latest picture book, How the Queen Found the Perfect Cup of Tea, which was illustrated by the amazing Gabi Swiatkowska. This book, published by Carolrhoda Books in March 2017, is too delightful for words.

  

Check out the book trailer:

Now, let’s talk to Kate!

El Space: Four quick facts about yourself?
Kate: (1) I love the tea set that my grandmother left me.

Kate’s grandmother’s Spode china

(2) When I studied in India during college, I loved drinking chai on trains.

Indian chai at the launch party at Books of Wonder in New York

(3) This summer, I got to drink tea at the Buckingham Palace Garden Café, where they have really nice paper cups.

Fancy to-go cups

(4) My new favorite place in New York is the Japanese tea house, Cha-An, where they have wonderful Matcha and a great selection of desserts.


Matcha with something sweet at Cha-An

El Space: How did you come up with the idea for this picture book?
Kate: At first, I simply had a vague idea about a queen going around the world and drinking tea with children from different cultures. But after several revisions, the story became about a lonely, pampered Queen who thinks she is searching for the perfect cup of tea, when she is actually searching for friends and meaning in her life. In the final version, tea still has a multicultural function in the story, but it is also a metaphorical device for tracking the Queen’s emotional state. Gabi Swiatkowska did such a great job showing the Queen’s many emotional states not only as she learns to make tea, but as she learns how to do other things as well, like snuggle a kitten.

El Space: This is your second collaboration with illustrator Gabi Swiatkowska. What was your process for working with Gabi? How long was the process from writing to production?
Kate: Gabi and I met in an illustrators’ group in 2000, back when I was doing illustration. We were good friends before we became collaborators, which was probably helpful. This book has a complex emotional arc, with the Queen making a bit more progress in each place she visits, but then backsliding to her old haughty ways at the beginning of each visit to a new place. Gabi did an amazing job of conveying all the emotional complexity in the book. Sometimes I offered opinions that Gabi took, and other times, she would stand her ground. I have learned that when Gabi stands her ground, she is always right!

Gabi and Kate at their launch party at Books of Wonder

I started this book with my faculty advisor, Uma Krishnaswami, in 2009, when I was getting my MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults at Vermont College of Fine Arts. I sold it to Carolrhoda Books in 2013, and it came out this spring. In my original drafts, I had the children in each country giving the Queen little gifts, and acting deferential. Uma encouraged me to “turn colonialism on its ear,” and create child characters that are completely unimpressed with royalty. This is when the book really came together. When the children treat her like a normal person, the Queen begins to evolve emotionally.

Interior illustrations © 2017 by Gabi Swiatkowska

El Space: Favorite tea? What, if anything, do you take in your tea?
Kate: I drink a lot of peppermint tea and honey, lemon tea and honey, green tea, and chai.

El Space: In a discussion of why picture books are important, Kwame Alexander said

Picture books are the great experience equalizer. We don’t have to leave the comforts of the beds in the rooms of our houses, and yet we can still travel through time and place and circumstance.

Erzsi Deak said

Picture books are also the groundwork for understanding innately how Story works, as the reader anxiously turns the page to see WHAT HAPPENS NEXT.

Why do you think they’re important?
Kate: Oh there are so many reasons! I agree with everything that Kwame and Erzsi said, and here a few other reasons as well:

Picture books can create intimacy. Often picture books are read out loud, either by a teacher or parent. This sort of intimate experience allows the child and adult to bond over the book together, which then gives the child yet another reason to continue reading.

Picture books hone a child’s ear. When picture books are read out loud, they allow children to hear the rhythms and cadences of beautiful language, which hopefully makes them want to read more.

Picture books are good for the brain. The child who is seated next to a picture book reader is synthesizing the words on the page, the language of the reader, and the illustrations. The constant toggling back and forth between these elements is stimulating and complex, forging the neural pathways that are essential for increasing intelligence in a young child.

El Space: Name a favorite picture book from your childhood. Why was it a favorite?
Kate: Probably my favorite book was called Alexander and the Magic Mouse by Martha Sanders and Philippe Fix. It is a gorgeous, eccentric book about an old lady who lives on the top of a hill with a Magical Mouse, a Brindle London Squatting Cat, a Yak, and an alligator. One day, the Magical Mouse predicts that the town below will be endangered by thirty days of rain. It is then up to Alexander to make the treacherous journey into town to warn the mayor about the rain. The book’s illustrations are just spectacular, and I loved the fact that this eclectic group of animals lived with the Old Lady.

The cover where the Old Lady is serving tea

Strangely, I didn’t realize until I just reread the story that tea plays a rather important role in the book. The Old Lady gathers her friends every day in the drawing room for tea, she nurses Alexander back to health with ginger tea when he returns from warning the mayor, and at the end of the book, when the mayor comes to honor the Old Lady for saving the town, she gives the medal to Alexander instead, and invites the mayor and her animal family to tea.

  

The Old Lady, nursing Alexander back to health with ginger tea (left); the mayor, having tea with the Old Lady and her friends at the end of the book

El Space: What will you work on next?
Kate: A poetry collection about how brilliant the octopus is! I read Sy Montgomery’s incredible book, The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration into the Wonders of Consciousness. and then was lucky enough to meet Sy and interact with her namesake, Sy the Giant Pacific Octopus at the New England Aquarium. I also want to do something funny related to the life of a classical musician. This is a bit of a challenge since most of them had really difficult and tragic lives. However, Jonah Winter was able to do it in his fabulous picture book, The 39 Apartments of Ludwig van Beethoven, where he tries to figure out how Beethoven could have moved five legless pianos to 39 different apartments. It’s such a unique topic, and his treatment of it is wonderful.
I’m also very excited about a picture book I have coming out next spring with Abrams called Mama’s Belly. It’s about a little girl waiting for her sister to be born, and wondering if there will be enough love to go around. (Spoiler alert: There is!)

    

Thanks, Kate, for being my guest!

And thank you to all who visited this blog. You can find How the Queen Found the Perfect Cup of Tea at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Indiebound.

Want a curriculum guide for How the Queen Found the Perfect Cup of Tea? Click here.

You can find Kate at her website, Twitter, and Facebook.

One of you will find her book in your mailbox or tablet. Comment below to be entered in the drawing. You could name your favorite tea as you comment. The winner will be announced on May 1.

Kirstea, the tea-loving Shoppie, gives Kate’s book five stars!

Book covers, author photo, interior illustrations, and book signing photos courtesy of the author. The Soul of an Octopus, Surf’s Up, and Pumpkin Time covers from Goodreads. Kirstea photo by L. Marie. Kirstea Shoppie doll by Moose Toys.

Make ’Em Feel Something

A book I’ve been slowly going through these days is a writer’s craft book called The Emotional Craft of Fiction by Donald Maass. If you know anything about Donald Maass, you know that he’s a literary agent who has read thousands of manuscripts. He’s also written other craft books.

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Over the years I also have reviewed for publishers and other venues more manuscripts than I can count. But sometimes I found myself puzzling over why a manuscript didn’t work for me. Right off the bat, Maass’s book gave me insight with this quote:

When a plot resolves, readers are satisfied, but what they remember of a novel is what they felt while reading it. (Maass 4)

Many times, I did not feel anything while reading a manuscript. Even stellar writing, Maass mentions, can be a turnoff if a reader does not feel anything while reading a story. So the point of Maass’s book is to help writers create the kind of stories that cause readers to experience the journey—not just read about it. In other words, the kind of stories that make readers feel something.

Part of that experience is fostered through helping to immerse a reader in a character’s emotional journey. Have you ever had a hard time writing an emotional scene? I have. Usually while drafting, I only scratch the surface, especially if a character feels a complex array of emotions. Consider how you felt on an extremely emotional day.

emotions

So, writing emotional content does not come naturally to me. But Maass cautioned

While it’s fine to fill pages with what is natural and easy for you, it’s also critical to get comfortable writing what isn’t natural and easy. (74)

I want to get better at writing emotional scenes. This means I might have to rewrite a scene over and over until I break through the wall of resistance within myself.

Something else that inspired me to get better at writing emotional content is a quote from another book I’m reading. In one of the forewords to The LEGO® Batman Movie: The Making of the Movie, written by Tracey Miller-Zarneke, director Chris McKay and producers Dan Lin, Phil Lord, and Chris Miller wrote

When assembling these [LEGO] movies from the beginning, we always start with an emotional question to explore over the course of the story.

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They actually asked more than one question to shape their main character’s emotional arc. One of these questions was a what-if question. (I won’t share those questions, since doing so would involve a spoiler.) Sure, the filmmakers want to entertain people with their production. But also they want people to feel what the character feels along the way. This inspires me to carefully consider the what-if questions that are the basis for my character’s emotional journey.

the-lego-batman-movie-2017

How do you feel when you have to write scenes with high emotional content? Is it easy for you? Hard? If the latter, what do you do to press onward?

If you don’t write stories, consider the last book you read that really moved you. Why do you think it did?

Maass, Donald. The Emotional Craft of Fiction. Cincinnati: Writer’s Digest Books, 2016.

Miller-Zarneke, Tracey. The LEGO® Batman Movie: The Making of the Movie. New York: DK/Penguin-Random House, 2017.

The LEGO® Batman Movie poster from xemeston.ir. Emotions image from taringa.net.