Finding the Write Rules

Editor Cheryl Kline challenged writers of children’s literature to post or at least ponder their guiding lights for writing (on her non-eponymous blog,  I love a challenge, so here goes!

My Advice to Me, Myself and I

Write because you must.

When I was younger, an actor/director told me there was only one excuse for being in theatre: because you’d be miserable doing anything else.  

Let your characters say what they need to say, how they need to say it.

One of my most recently-met characters insisted on reporting (past) conversations in “scripted” form instead of as bits of quotation-marked dialog.  I let her have her way in this one area, and it must have really given her some confidence, because she’s the biggest bossy-pants I’ve ever written.  If I’d insisted upon quotation marks, I might never have met her.

Don’t write down to anybody.

Admit it: you hated this when you were any age.  Your readers are smarter than you.  Get over it.

Write the story you want to read.

It worked for Tolkien, and it really saves on the old book-budget.  Just kidding.  I’d never apply a budget to anything as essential as reading.

Read it out loud to your kids.

Yes, I know there’s all kinds of advice out there about not relying on the feedback you get from your sister, your best friend, or the people-who-depend-on-your-goodwill-to-eat.  But if you’re writing for kids, read it out loud to your own.  Mine have no problem telling me when I suck.  I guess they know how to make their own food, though.  So, teach your kids to cook.  Then read your stuff to them.

I guess that’s about it for now.  (Hint: do a screen capture and then come back in a few minutes/hours/days to see my edits!)

What are your rules for your own writing endeavors?

Happy Birthday, Bill

Ah, William.  You heart-breaker.  You shameless flirt.  You had me at “the quality of mercy is not strained.”  I mean, how’s a seven-year-old supposed to resist language like that?  And here’s the thing: no one saw it coming.  Mom and Dad figured I wouldn’t notice you, probably counted on our age difference as something that would steer me clear of you–maybe even send me down for a nap.

But no.

From the first moment, from, “In sooth, I know not why I am so sad,” I was yours heart and soul.  From there it was but a short step to, “for you, I would be trebled twenty times myself.”  Ah, me, Will Shakespeare.  You captured my affections before I knew I had any to bestow.

Did you know I tried to give my daughter your birthday?  And when she insisted on being born two days early, I shook my head and asked, “Who will believe thee [fill in the name, fellow bard-o-philes!]?”  Did you hear I middle-named my first-born after you?  Called my second-born after the jolly knight of Twelfth Night?

You ruined me, Will, for anyone else.  Here’s to you–I raise my bumper high and toast this, your 447th year.

drink of the gods

If someone had walked up to me this morning and said, “You are going to spend ten minutes making yourself a mug of hot cocoa,” I probably would have responded with something like, “Dude.  Two words.  Swiss Miss.  Two more.  Thirty seconds.”  (Or maybe it’s Carnation brand we usually keep on hand?)

In any case, the [insert brand name here] that we usually keep on the shelves was GONE when I felt the cocoa cravings.  Ohnoes!  It’s cold and rainy and I absolutely, positively need cocoa!  The cold and rain put me off making a run to the grocery store or [insert coffee shop name here.]

But wait!  The internet will save me!  I googled around a bit and found a recipe here that looked promising and freely adapted it to suit my preferences, the amount I required, and what was on the cocoa-packet-less shelf in my kitchen.

As I blenderized and stirred my beverage, I pondered several things such as:
(1) I am an idiot for spending this much time on a mug of cocoa.
(2) I am not an idiot for spending this much time on a mug of cocoa.
(3) It feels nice to get up from my desk and stretch and WOW does this stuff smell amazing!

So, was the beverage in question worth the time it took?

Two words.  Um, yeah.

If you’d like to make your own mug of awesomeness, here’s my recipe:
1 cup raw milk
1 1/2 T raw cream
1 raw egg yolk
teeny-weeniest pinch of salt
1/2 tsp butter
1/8 tsp vanilla
2 1/2 tsp. rapadura (or sweetener of choice, to taste)
1 tsp honey
1 tablespoon high quality (best you can afford!) cocoa powder, unsweetened

Yes, that’s a whopping 9 ingredients.  I placed them in a blender to smooth everything out and then heated on a low heat to 117 degrees.  I then poured the chocolate-y deliciousness into a mug I’d warmed with hot water, because 117 is a perfect drinking temp, and I didn’t want the mug to cast an undesired chill upon my potion of delectable-ness.

If it is cold and rainy, or cold and snowy, or cold and [insert undesirable weather pattern here] where you live, I invite you to skip the powdered stuff and sample the drink of the gods.

Who’s Cidney?

If you know me, personally, you’ll know me as Cindy, or maybe Cynthia.  So who’s Cidney?  Well, when I was little, I had a friend who couldn’t manage to pronounce my name correctly.  She called me Cidney all year, and I liked it.  I was only five, and it didn’t occur to me that I could require everyone to address me as Cidney, or I would have.

Tee hee!  Enter the need for an easily-googled pen name.  Go ahead and google Cynthia Swanson.  Or Cindy Swanson.  Or CJ Swanson.  Wow!  There’s a lot of me out there!  Who knew I also ran PepsiCo or made cool art?

Use your kindergarten nickname, said a tiny little voice inside.  Now, being a writer, I don’t run the other way when the voices start talking.  I listen.  I take notes.  I write tomes.  Or in this case, I decide to spend a few days or maybe months trying on the name “Cidney” once again, at least in my writerly endeavors.

(Good job, says the little voice.)

Thoughts on MATCHED

So, if THE GIVER had a baby with UNWIND whilst living as a resident in the Capitol of Panem, it would look like MATCHED. (You have to suspend your disbelief on soooo many levels regarding Lowry’s and Shusterman’s novels to imagine this . . .) There’s a lot of buzz about MATCHED being the next great thing to give to your students/library patrons/kids/selves who loved THE HUNGER GAMES. I don’t exactly buy that particular sell. Okay, I did buy the book, so I guess I believed or wanted to believe. But if you are looking for the kind of heroine you loved in Katniss, or the kind of adventure the 74th annual Hunger Games provided, it ain’t gonna be found in MATCHED.

This heroine takes her time to put on her big-girl panties and play hard ball. It feels real, that it would take her this long, because if anyone ever lived in a candy-colored Capitol, it’s Cassia. Her journey isn’t one of fighting to survive. The journey she must take is one that brings her to the place where she realizes something’s rotten in the perfect State which has dictated every aspect of her perfect life. That takes some doing when you are well-fed and loved and basically safe.

That said, it’s a fun read and the world-building is just terrific. And there’s a great set-up for an action-filled second (and third?) book. There’s just not much action or danger in this volume. If that’s what you liked in THE HUNGER GAMES, you’d be better served reading elsewhere.

Thoughts on MOCKINGJAY

I really wanted to like Mockingjay. No, to put it more accurately, I wanted to finish the book and be utterly satisfied with the outcome of Katniss’ life. Because, along with so many of you, I’d grown to care deeply for the feisty teen. I wanted her to take out Snow (and Coin as well.) I wanted her to have a profound happily-ever-after with one of the boys she loved. I was even willing to be persuaded one way or the other although I leaned towards self-sacrificing Peeta just a bit. I wanted Prim to grow up to be an herbalist and healer. I wanted Buttercup fat and happy, Haymitch back on the wagon for good, and a cherry on top, please.
So did I like it? Did the novel, in fact, satisfy?
If you’ve read the novel, you know that what Ms. Collins delivered fell somewhat outside the purview of my expectations. So much so that it has taken six weeks for all my feelings to settle into something like an opinion. So here it is. Collins didn’t deliver either happily-ever-after or up-yours-Capitol the way I expected. Instead, she delivered what I’m going to call realistically-ever-after. Given everything that we know about how humans survive trauma, wartime, and devastating loss, the picture of Katniss rings absolutely true.
First the Capitol, and then Coin, spent untold effort trying to figure out how to complete unhitch and neutralize Katniss Everdeen. And they came so close to succeeding. It’s nothing short of miraculous that she retains a semblance of sanity after two rounds in the Arena, seeing her entire District destroyed because of her actions, watching as a warehouse filled with people she’s comforted are bombed, watching as her companions are horrifically slaughtered while she leads them towards Snow in the Capitol, and seeing her little sister burn to death before her eyes, and so many other horrors. A superhero could survive these things. A fictional character could survive these things. But what makes us love Katniss? She’s as true-to-life as they come. A real person—a person who loves and feels deeply—cannot experience these horrors without some degree of insanity, without some desire to end it all.
I agonized through the pages detailing Katniss’ mental derailment. Why? I kept asking. Why can’t I just have Katniss happy and married or happy and single or, well, just happy? Do I need this as a reader? Er, well, yes. Actually I do, if I value truth-telling. And that is what Collins gave me: not what I expected, not what I wanted, but Truth. The last paragraph, the last sentence—these are what reconcile me to the way in which Collins told Katniss’ truth:
I’ll tell them how I survive it. I’ll tell them that on bad mornings, it feels impossible to take pleasure in anything because I’m afraid it could be taken away. That’s when I make a list in my head of every act of goodness I’ve seen someone do. It’s like a game. Repetitive. Even a little tedious after more than twenty year.
But there are much worse games to play.

Peeta Bread

Hmmm. Where’d summer disappear? Well, the good thing about nearing the end of summer is that MOCKINGJAY is releasing soon. Are you one of the people who still has HUNGER GAMES on their too-be-read list? This is a great week to start reading. Although next week would be better. And plan to take the day off because once you sit down with the first book, there’s no getting up for any non-essential activities. In fact, it would be best if you just bought or borrowed all three books at once.

But I’m not here today to discuss the meritorious nature of Collins’ books. Rather, I present you with a recipe: a small homage to Peeta Mellark, that savior of all things Katniss. In the novel, the bread is described as stuffed with raisins and nuts. My version is made with whole wheat since I’m guessing Peeta would have known that whole wheat would provide Katniss and family with more nutrition per bite.



In a large mixing bowl, combine:

3/4 cup warm milk (100-120 degrees)
2 cups warm water (100-120 degrees)
2 T. yeast
1/8 cup sugar

Stir once and let sit until yeast has proofed. (Become bubbly.)

Add to above mixture:

1/4 cup oil
1/4 cup honey
1/4 cup loose-packed brown sugar
1 T. salt
3 cups whole wheat flour (fresh ground if you can grind it)
3 cups white flour or until sides of bowl are clean when mixing.

Mix together by hand or with dough hooks on a mixer until you have a beautiful dough. Knead in 1-2 cups walnuts and 1 cup raisins, 1/2 cup dried cranberries.

Often I add an additional cup whole wheat, but I live in a damp climate.

Let dough rise in an oiled, covered container until doubled. (1/2 hour to 90 minutes)

Divide dough in half. Form loaves and place in greased pans. Let rise in warm place, covered, until doubled.

Bake in preheated oven at 350 for 35 minutes.

For the full Katniss experience (which I do not recommend) you would avoid eating for a month before enjoying this delicious bread. And there’s something about putting the loaf under your shirt that just sounds really painful as well. That’s it. I need to re-read obviously.

Happy Baking while you wait for MOCKINGJAY!

Show, Don’t Tell

I picked up a 1996 Newberry Honor Book after reading an interview with the author who had just published a fourth book in the series begun with The Thief (Megan Whalen Turner, Greenwillow, 1996.) Not a very inspired title, I thought, and the cover art on my library-borrowed edition gave nothing away. I got drowsy reading three successive nights in a row, forcing myself to make it through to the chapters’ ends before turning off my light. And I rarely get drowsy reading. Still, I liked some of the quirks of the main character, and the book had been given a prestigious award, right?

I’m glad I stuck with it.

This is a story where things that you learn at the book’s end force you to reconsider (and in my case, re-read) everything you thought you’d understood. The technique, done poorly, can antagonize even the most generous reader. But I don’t think you’ll feel angry at Turner for holding out on you. The great thing about telling the story this way is that you learn who the protagonist is even when you don’t know what he is. (I’m sooooo avoiding a major spoiler here, trust me.) This writer understands the value of showing over telling.

As I re-read some of the early chapters that I’d found “slow,” I began to notice the art in Turner’s showing. Rather than tell us that the thief, Gen, is a handsome, rogue-ish fellow, Turner gives us a scene in which Gen charms the innkeeper, earning her smile where others in Gen’s group earn her scorn. The interaction between innkeeper and thief further shows us important character traits. Gen speaks gently when he learns her son is in prison. He’s insufferably haughty towards his fellows when she brings Gen, and only Gen, a lunch for the road. Now, it would have been so easy to just say on the first page that the thief’s a fellow who behaves kindly towards the down-trodden, but acts arrogantly around those who think too well of themselves.

Turner doesn’t.

The author holds her cards close, showing us Gen’s behavior in an array of testing situations which allow Gen to learn what he’s really made of. And we learn right alongside him. The author’s gamble pays off; The Thief is a great coming-of-age read.

I highly recommend The Queen of Attolia and The King of Attolia, the next two books in the series. Have a box of tissues at hand or something you won’t regret breaking when you throw it. (Let your knowledge of yourself direct you.) As for me, I’m off to the bookstore for the fourth in the series.

Cutting Hair

I did it. I went back to the pixie-short cut you can see on the right. After years of ponytailing and pulling the bundle of blond out of the turtleneck, I did it. And it feels GREAT! Honestly, what was I thinking, having thick, long hair in a climate like that of the Willamette Valley? Nothing ever really dries here, ya’ know? So now I can dry this head o’ hair in about 5 minutes, tops. WOW! Which means: more time for what I love! Books! Baking!

This week I’m reading The Nineteenth Wife set both in 1875 and the present. The dual-story keeps you from getting bored. I’m enjoying the multiple narrative techniques as well. The writer uses court depositions, diaries, pages from the Internet, and the first person narrative of the main character, a twenty-something boy/man. Still not entirely sure where the whole ball of wax is heading, but it is a fascinating look into plural marriages in the 19th and 21st centuries.