What I’ve Learned from Writing “Dancing with the Stars” Fanfiction

ABC created the show, now I’m creating the fanfiction.

It had never occurred to me to write fanfiction until my kiddo requested (or what might more accurately be described as begged and pleaded with) me to do so. I’m now past the halfway point of my “journey” in DWTS fanfiction—embarking on chapter seven, “the most memorable year of your life” week—and it’s been an eye-opening experience in some ways. Because as crazy as it sounds (and I do acknowledge that it does sound a little crazy), I’ve learned a lot about writing from this exercise.

Writing for your audience: I often read interviews with authors who say things like, “I just write the story I need to write. I don’t think about the audience, age range, etc.” And okay, sure. That’s good as far as it goes, but sometimes it doesn’t go too far. When you’re writing for young kids, you have to meet them where they’re at to a certain point, and be aware of what they’re emotionally and developmentally ready for. The kinds of issues you might be facing with family and friends when you’re in the first grade can be vastly different from those you face in the fourth, even though the actual ages involved aren’t that far apart from each other. So it’s been good for me to have to write not just for a specific audience, but for an audience of one—whose tastes and experiences I know very well indeed and whose interest it’s been a joy to engage.

World building: Writing this kind of fanfiction is its own special brand of fantasy—it’s far outside the realm of what would be possible in my kiddo’s world and in its own way, has some of the elements you’d expect to find in  young fantasy: being chosen for a quest, being able to do something you never thought you possibly could. It also has a specific world within which I have to operate as I’m writing or else the story won’t make sense or even work on a very basic level.

Skipping the romance: I am a romantic (with both a capital and lower case R) at heart, and I tend to write stories that have at least some kind of romance involved. It’s been interesting to write something that can’t have anything romantic involved—the main characters and dancing partners, after all, are an elementary school-aged girl and a grown man (Val—it’ll always be Val for my kiddo). So, there’s a friendship and a trust between the two main characters but that’s all. It might sound so obvious that it should have occurred to me before this, but writing a story without a romantic element is pretty much the same as writing one that has that element. It’s about the relationships, no matter what form they come in.

Even without these lessons learned (lessons which I certainly didn’t anticipate), I’ve been gladly taking up my laptop to write this rather bonkers little chapter book for my biggest fan and best reader. She loves it, I love creating it for her—it’s a win-win. Now I just have to get it all written. The new season of DWTS starts soon, and I’ve got a fictional Mirror Ball Trophy to hand out before it does!

Movie Love: Richard Linklater’s Boyhood

An official movie poster for what’s a fairly astounding film.

Let’s just get one thing out of the way: I am a big Richard Linklater fan. I still think Dazed and Confused is Matthew McConnaghey’s best work. I came of age with Céline and Jess in what’s now called the “Before” trilogy. So I went into Boyhood with a predisposition to be pleased with it.

Pleased doesn’t quite cover it, though. Without giving anything away, it’s fair to state the obvious—the movie covers the life of one family, in particular as one boy experiences it—over the course of twelve years. And just as the aforementioned trilogy captures single, seminal days and nights in the lives of Céline and Jess separated by years of living in between, this one captures a series of moments over a large swatch of time, year by year. Some of these are life-changing, some of them aren’t necessarily so. But they all become seminal because they are the small moments that make up a life. Not a life that’s being lived in some overtly extraordinary way—one that’s extraordinary simply because it’s a life.

If you were a passerby observing the characters from Boyhood you would think their existences were totally ordinary. Sad sometimes, sure. But mostly pretty average. Peel back the surface and it’s anything but, though. Filmed over the course of twelve actual years, Boyhood does the seemingly impossible (and in my opinion rare and beautiful): it gives the viewer the gift of sight into someone else’s world. That it’s a fictional world doesn’t matter in the least.

Some of the best storytellers and some of their best stories—from George Elliot’s Middlemarch to Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead and many in between—do on the page what Richard Linklater tries to do on the screen. They peel back that surface and expose the epic struggles, the tragedies, the joys, the hard work, and the play that is day-to-day life of a single human being (or in the case of Middlemarch, of many). Because every life has these stories, and if you look deeply enough—closely enough—you can catch a glimpse of the wonder and struggle that exists just underneath the veneer that most of the world sees. It’s a gift to read such a story, and it’s a gift to see one on the screen.

Boyhood is likely not for everyone. It’s nearly three hours long, and if you’re looking for something plot or action-driven, then you are very much barking up the wrong tree. It’s also utterly lacking in cynicism. But it’s intriguing and it’s ambitious and it’s beautiful—and for me, personally, it’s yet another reason to love Richard Linklater and wonder at his ability to show moviegoers an inside look at what George Elliot described as the many who “live faithfully their hidden lives.” And for that reason alone, I’m looking forward to seeing it again.

Reptilians, Fantasy, and a Little Bit of X-Files

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Fox Mulder, pondering aliens. (Or, really, just an excuse to post a dreamy picture of a young David Duchovny on my blog).

Did you know that approximately 4% of the U.S. population believes that the government (nay, possibly even the world) is being slowly taken over by Reptilians? I admit that I did not—and that my recent discovery was accompanied by one part dismay and one part (4%?) pure joy.

I am no Fox Mulder—I have no urge to believe this or any other weird theory, conspiracy or otherwise. But I’ve always been fascinated by people who do believe it. Once, many years ago, a friend and I went to a talk by a UFO-ologist at the Orient Heights Branch Library in East Boston. The idea of this talk being given at this location was, frankly, too much to pass up. Plus, I’d recently discovered my own love fantasy and sci-fi. This was a win-win situation.

It was also a completely surreal experience. Here I was, back in land of my youth—where, as far as I knew, no one had been harboring longing thoughts about that the aliens were coming. (Though maybe 4% of them secretly were?)

The gentleman who spoke that day described himself as a skeptic and a debunker, but he was clearly more than that. To debunk the false reports of UFOs and aliens, you have to believe that real ones exist. And most of the people not only believed it, but a number of them had experiences with UFOs and aliens that they shared. It was like being at a support group for folks overcoming alien encounters of one variety or another—a safe space in which to talk about what they’d seen or what had happened to them.

Today, of course, you don’t need to huddle in the basement of a tiny branch library in East Boston to find like-minded people—you have only to type the right words into Google and a community exists for you, right there on your computer screen.

This is a strange and truly wonderful world.

A world in which 4% of Americans believe in Reptilians.

While I do not share this belief (or that of ghosts, fairies, demons, Nessie…the list goes on), I do love stories about them. I love the idea that something strange exists just beyond what we can see and experience, even if the reality of it falls short personally. I even greatly appreciate that for many people this isn’t just an idea but a belief that’s real and part of the fabric of life. For me, though, it’s expressed through story—through what I write and what I read and what I watch.

So where does the line get drawn between the fantasy writer, the skeptical UFO-ologist, the person who doesn’t rule out the possibility that ghosts linger among us, and the person who fervently believes that Queen Elizabeth enters her room in Buckingham Palace each night and peels away her human skin? This is not a question I can even attempt to answer. But I do feel like people crave this connection to something beyond them (in whatever form that takes) and always will.

The truth is out there—all kinds of truths, really—and thankfully fiction helps me discover it.

Well, Hello There

A lot feels like it’s happened since I last posted here—perhaps because it has. Yet another inane national conversation about the general merits of reading YA has come and (thankfully mostly) gone. The school year ended for the rest of my small family. The Supreme Court has made some questionable decisions (don’t get me started). Three fingers on my left hand decided to up and stop doing useful things like feeling what I touch and bending. And with the help of medication and physical therapy, they’re very slowly starting to work again.

Then there was my last ever residency, at the end of which I graduated—at long last—from Lesley’s MFA program.

Really, that’s a lot in a few short weeks. Immediately after graduation, I felt an overwhelming sense of loss. I won’t be at the next residency in January, and neither will the many friends who graduated alongside me and who’ve returned to their homes in other, far-flung places. But once that time of grieving for what’s past was over, I mostly feel—with the exception of my fingers, which are still kind of numb—kind of…exhausted.

Not in a bad way, though. More in a taking stock way. I’m reading through the story that made up my thesis (as well as most of my time at Lesley) and slowly rebuilding the opening chapters. Because I know things now that I didn’t before about the story, and the beginning just doesn’t work anymore. And it’s good to be in place where I can realize that—and begin to see the forest for the trees (and maybe vice versa, too).

So, onward. To new revisions, new stories, new books to read, and new experiences. Maybe even a blog post or two every now and again. I’m crazy like that.

The Problem with Promposals

Sure, it was the Yule Ball and not prom. But Harry, Ron, Parvati, Padma definitely proved that it’s now how you ask, but whom you ask that matters.

If you’re someone who’s aware of and thinks at all about young adults and their worlds, you must also be aware that it’s prom season. I went to both of my proms, both times with boys who I was dating. Both times, I did the asking. As a student at an all-girls school, there wasn’t a whole lot of choice if you were looking for a male date—if you wanted to go to our prom, you found a guy and ask him.

This is not the norm in our society, though. And if news and cultural reporting over the last few years is any indication, it’s getting to be less and less the norm. What’s replacing it? The promposal, of course—in which (mostly) boys are expected to put together elaborate scenarios in which to ask (mostly) girls to the dance in question. Said promposals are meant to be photographed and/or filmed so that they can be publicly disseminated to as wide an audience as possible.

I’ve seen pictures and watched videos of these public “asks”—some of them are sweet and  thoughtful. Some are clearly just an excuse for showboating, and still others seem pointedly created to put the girl in question on the spot. I’ve been reading more and more about this relatively new phenomenon and several things bother me about it.

The first is a problem that I have with actual proposals and the fact that the word promposal is derived from the marriage proposal. The latter is, even in these modern times, expected to be something driven by the guy in a heterosexual relationship—in other words, the kind most likely to be found in advertising, television, films, and even books. He picks a ring, he chooses when to ask. Woman are taught that they have no agency in this—you just sit around and wait for your significant other to pop the question. It doesn’t matter if the woman in a relationship is ready to get married or not—all that matters is when the man is ready to ask.

Frankly, I find it a little disturbing that this idea didn’t go out of fashion with the dowry and trousseau. Haven’t we got more advanced ideas about marriage now (on every possible level)? Even more disturbing is that we’re now passing it on as an ideal to be achieved to younger and younger men and women, along with the idea that it has to big, it has to brash, and it has to be as public as possible. Having this kind of pressure cooker—where one teen has to create something extraordinary that no one else has ever done before and the other is put on the spot in a public way, thereby robbing her of any real choice as to with whom she’s going to prom—is unhealthy for anyone, regardless of what their sexuality or gender identity is.

A recent Boston Globe article touched on one of the reasons why this is so toxic—one that even the teens “engaging” each other in promposals recognize: “It’s more likely to prompt a ‘yes’ from a girl.” One student whom the Globe interviewed came right out and admitted it: “I thought I should do it publicly because the pressure of it being public would increase the chances of her saying yes.” Another piece on CNN talked of the pressure on girls. A young woman named Ria Desai was quoted from a blog post on the topic saying, “Turning him down marks her as a ‘huge bitch,’ a label she doesn’t deserve in any way. Yes, rejecting him will hurt his feelings, but doesn’t every girl deserve the chance to make the decision that she wants to make?”

Yes, every girl does. So does every boy. And I do understand that there are many people who think is this sweet and romantic and shows a nicer side of what’s perceived as a hook-up culture among young people. But I can’t help but see it as a slippery slope: and one in which the person being asked is put on the spot in a way that a private question—will you go to prom with me?—could never achieve. There will be plenty of time for high school students to be educated into societal relationship expectations. Why rush them into “proposing” when they can’t even legally vote?

What’s next? Holding an NFL-style draft to see who gets to ask the more “desirable” girls to prom? Alas, that one’s already been achieved….

To Celebrate Children’s Book Week, Let Them Eat Cake

Every year, the Children’s Book Council celebrates Children’s Book Week. As someone who spends a lot of time reading, editing, and even attempting to write children’s books, it seems only right to do something to mark the occasion. And what better way than with cake?

Let’s start with a classic, created by Sugar Therapy and originally discovered on Flavorwire, the only thing missing here is some Turkish Delight…though on second thought, perhaps we’re all better off without it.

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Then there are the modern classics—an almost-complete series of them!—found on the fabulous Cake Wrecks and created by Karen’s Specialty Cakes. These are almost guaranteed not to take a cue from Bertie Bott’s Every Flavour Beans. Which means no vomit or booger flavors (thank goodness).

But let’s not forget about the picture books, as no proper celebration would be complete with out them. And I love both this book and this cake—found on Bookriot, and made by Cake Lava—more than I can possibly describe.

Harold and the Purple Crayon Cake

And because I’m a baker of sort as well as a children’s book editor, I’ve got my own children’s book cake to share—one that I made for my kiddo’s recent birthday. She’s more than obsessed with The Boxcar Children books right now and specifically asked for a boxcar cake. No problem, I thought—I can do that!

Turns out making a literary cake masterpiece isn’t as easy as it would seem at first glance. Getting the frosting to be an acceptable shade of red required copious amounts of red food coloring, which in turn got all over my hands, making me look like I’d just had some sort of bloody battle right in my own kitchen.

The black frosting was no walk in the park either.

Piping a thin line of frosting, like playing the game “Operation,” takes a very steady hand. Which apparently I don’t have. But none of this mattered at all, as the birthday girl was thrilled by the results—and positively gloried in her own literary-themed cake. Just like the magic of a kid finding the right book, it was magic to make this very shoddy little cake for the right kid too.

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Besides, it still tasted just fine. Happy Children’s Book Week!

 

Time Out: Acadia National Park (The Best Place to Have One)

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The view from Sand Beach at Acadia National Park, where the water was a whopping 40 degrees and the fog rollled in fast and furious.

L.M. Montgomery wrote about kindred spirits—the people who’s souls speak to yours in some deep and important way and who become the best of friends and comrades. I think there’s such a thing as kindred places, too. And Acadia National Park is just such a one for me.

Thankfully, last week I got to spend several days there with the two most kindred of spirits, my husband and my kiddo. Usually, we go to Acadia in the summer—swimming in Echo Lake, climbing every mountain we can get our hands on, and generally enduring the enormous crowds on every one of them.

In April, the park is very different. Most of the time we were there, the normal greens and blues were replaced by varying tones of gray. This was no less beautiful, but very different from what we experience when we go in August.

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I like to call this one “Glacial Erratic in the Fog.”

The sun was out on only a single day we were there—the rest of the time, the weather ranged from cool and misty to very cold indeed with a driving rain. We found this did not hold us back.

Indeed, there was much to see in the gray of April that you miss entirely in the summertime. The views from the mountaintops were different without those pesky deciduous tree leaves to block them out. Of course, there was fog to block out the view, but that’s another story.

SAM_2415Plus, we  got the occasional glimpse of something like this tiny nest (measuring only a few inches in height) hiding in a hedge.

SAM_2402There were deer and loons and woodpeckers, and frogs to serenade us at twilight.

There were also important lessons learned.

For instance, if you give an eight-year-old a cheap one dollar notebook and tell her it’s a travel journal, she will take writing in it hyper seriously, and keep its contents strictly under wraps (journals are private, after all).

The weather can change from 35 degrees with driving rain and gale force winds to nearly 60 degrees and warm sun—and then back again—in a mind-bogglingly short period of time.

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We took advantage of the lone day of sun to climb Pemetic Mountain, the fourth largest in the park.

Then there’s the importance of watching where you walk. It turns out that if you’re paying more attention to where your kid is stepping than to where you are, you will sprain your ankle (who knew?) and then have to hike another couple of miles back down the mountain and to the car. After which, you will spend weeks to come in an air cast.

But if you can, using Elsa from Frozen as your role model, just let it go, taking the good with the bad and focusing predominantly on the former, you can enjoy every blustery and beautiful, arctic and aching moment of vacation.

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It’s All About the Process

Like Kate and Leo’s love, my revision process goes on…and on.

Good friend, brilliant writer, and fellow Lesley MFA type, Sabrina Fedel, tagged me as part of an on-going “My Writing Process” blog tour. Since it’s good to stop sometimes—especially when you’re in the throes of something like writing a creative thesis—and really ponder what on earth it is that you’re doing, I took up the call. So, without further ado, here’s my two cents.

What am I working on?

Um, it’s complicated? My thesis is a historical fantasy novel set in the late eighteen hundreds and told in three voices. If this sounds more ambitious than it strictly speaking should be, that’s because it is. It has entailed an absurd amount of very hard work just to get a first draft completed, and will continue to require the same for near, as well as distant, future. BUT…I love this story with all of my heart and soul, and so the researching and revising will, like Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio’s love in Titanic, go on and on. Hopefully the end result will be less tragic, however.

Now that I have Celine Dion firmly in my head, let’s continue.

Because this is only one of two large writing projects I’m working on at the moment. As I’ve mentioned before, I stress write. And my current stress writing manuscript is well past the first draft but not quite to a finished second draft yet. Let’s just say that the last two thirds of the story is being entirely rewritten. Far from an overcomplicated historical fantasy, this one is contemporary YA that focuses on family—the one you’re born with and the ones you can create for yourself—with a healthy dose of romance thrown in for good measure. If my first story is my Titanic, this is one more akin to say, Bring It On (in my dreams, at least).

Both are necessary for my sanity.

How does my work differ from others of its genre?

Ha—well, let’s just say that I hope it does? Right now, I’m in the thick of both and so it’s hard to tell really. I find with my own writing that it’s necessary to take a step back from it in order to gauge something like this. Mostly, I hope for the best and I keep revising.

Why do I write what I do?

The aforementioned need for sanity is a big part of it. This does not mean, however, that I’m the type who works out her neuroses on the page. I write fiction and I find that the world of make-believe is much easier to tackle when it’s not tied down to my own special blend of emotional issues.

At this juncture in my writing, I guess the question I’ve been thinking about a lot more is why I’m attempting to write YA fiction rather than why I’m working on a specific story. The answer is a complicated mix (yes, I’ve used that word twice now—it’s not by accident) of factors. Clearly, I edit books for young readers for a living, so literature for kids and adolescents is something near and dear to my heart. And while I love, love, love writing picture book stories, right at this moment, I’m feeling really captivated by YA and how, for this age group, so much is in flux and changing—or about to change—in momentous ways. And so, this is where I am right now.

How does my writing process work?

Okay, at the risk of continuing to make myself sound like a madwoman, it works in giant bursts of writing energy—often in the middle of the night when I’m in the midst of a first draft of a story—during which I am hyper-focused on what I’m writing.

Then there’s a cooling down period. It’s almost like having a crush. At first, it’s hard to think about anything else, but then you get to know your crush better, and either you lose your initial fervor, or your attraction grows into something deeper. I try to take advantage of that first rush of the crush while it’s with me and get as much done as I possibly can during this little honeymoon period.

Then it’s on to the harder work of figuring out of this crush is worth my while, or is just a flash in the pan. My laptop is filled with discarded ideas that have proven themselves unable to keep my attention—whose dashing concepts or brawny shoulders of plot briefly captured my eye, but whose long-term relationship prospects were dim.

The two projects I’m working on right now are at different stages in their post-crush lives, but both are firmly in that phase. For my thesis, I feel like the story and I have hit a few bumps and we maybe need to take some time away from each other before we recommit. For my contemporary YA story, it’s still a newer relationship, so while there are kinks to work out, it’s not hitting the skids or heading into therapy or anything. Yet.

I’m not taking this metaphor too far, am I?

The long and the short of it is: I write in bursts, and when they come, I write a lot and whenever I can possibly fit it in. If that means at 2:30 in the morning, so be it. I keep my laptop by my bedside, just in case (no long hand writing for me, thank you very much). For many years, I tried to keep myself on the straight and narrow when it came to writing time, but I’ve learned to just go with what works. Often this means I am tired. But it’s worth it in the end.

So, there you have it. I hope Sabrina’s not on the verge of disowning me as a friend and fellow writer because of these answers to her questions, and I’m looking forward to reading some of the other responses, which you can check out here:

Michael Anthony, A Veteran’s Perspective…

Kyra Renee Clay, Traveling to Me: The Road towards living (a Dream)

Alexis Marie Chute, Alexis Marie Writes

 

Book Spine Poetry

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This is just what I came up with after a quick perusal of our bookshelves. If I’d had time to head to the library, this could have been a true masterpiece.

Too much work? Check. Needing a little procrastination break? Check, again. Wondering what to do to celebrate the looming National Poetry Month? Well, not as much, really (you can’t win them all). But armed with two out of three,  when I saw this post on the School Library Journal website the other day, I knew my path was clear.

I could have gone an actually poetic route here. I could have gone for something more philosophical. Instead, I opted for the silly and borderline gross route. What can I say? Anything that can work Harry Allard and James Marshall’s The Stupids Die into everyday life is a good thing in my book (and if you have not read this book, please run out and do so).

Want to procrastinate and come up with your own book spine poetry to share—or just want to peruse others’ works of genius? Then pop by here!

Which Online Quiz Should You Really Take?

The Empire Strikes Back

Do I belong among the clouds? Only if Lando Calrissian wears that cape for me.

Long ago—in a whole other century, in fact—I remember pouncing on quizzes in magazines like Seventeen. Want to know if the boy you like is crushing on you, too? Perhaps even what kind of prom dress you should buy based on your favorite movies? There was a quiz for it. And I could never resist.

The urge to fill in a few blanks and have a simple quiz spit back something fun…or funny…or even mildly disturbing about you has its charms. Now, however, you don’t need to flip through the pages of a teenybopper magazine in hopes of finding these little gems. For lo, seemingly every day of my life, someone posts the results of some Buzzfeed quiz or other on Facebook. And I’m sorry to say that, like a moth to the flame, I’m helpless to follow the links, click away, and (apparently!) rediscover who I really am.

So, here are the things I’ve learned about myself through online quizzes in the last couple of weeks (yes, it’s embarrassing that I’ve taken quite so many):

What kind of dog are you? Great Dane. This is apparently has nothing to do the size of my body, but rather the size of my character (phew).

What city should you actually live in? London. Of course, I could have told Buzzfeed that without taking the quiz.

What fictional city should you actually live in? Yet another “duh!” I’d be hanging out in the clouds on Bespin with Lando Calrissian. I only hope I don’t have to make a deal with the Empire to secure the city’s safety!

What Harry Potter character are you? To my great dismay, I didn’t get either Hermione Granger or Neville Longbottom (love you, Neville), but Harry himself. Here’s hoping this is because of my deep and abiding courageousness and not because of some impending need-to-sacrifice-myself-to-save-the-world type scenario.

What ‘80s pop hit are you? Whitney Houston’s “I Want to Dance With Somebody.” I-I-I-I-IIIII will always love Whi-tnee-ee-ee-eee-eee-ee-eee-eey. Really. After her tragic death, I couldn’t listen to her music without getting sad for a long time. Plus, I have some fond karaoke memories of this particular song, so it’s all good.

What career should you actually have? Professor, it seems. I did love teaching during my brief stint at it—though I did wonder if editor or writer were even an option on this one. They’re just not the kind of jobs most people think about. Or maybe they were there and I didn’t get them? Are the internet gods trying to tell me something?

Which Jane Austen Character Are You? This one gave you the choice of discovering which male or female character you are, so naturally I took it twice. I got Elizabeth Bennett and Charles Bingley, though clearly this can’t be a scientifically sound test, or these two would not exist in the same plane (despite their appreciation for each other).

So, there you have it: my entire character spelled out in just a few short quizzes. What did our procrastinating souls do before the internet? Oh yeah—Seventeen!