Friday, April 30, 2010

Words of a Writer

I was thinking last night of how glad I am that I know how to read well. I LOVE to read. It's one of my most favorite things to do. This week I checked out six great YA books I've been wanting to read from our library, and I felt like I was in heaven. Yeah, that's how much I love to read.

One of the reasons I love to read is that I get to learn new words. In fact reading is one of the way people expand their vocabulary. There are many words that I don't actually use in my everyday speech, but I know how to spell them, probably can pronounce them, and if I cannot deduce what they mean from the context in which they are used, I grab the trusty old dictionary and look them up. (Yes, this is what writers do for fun.)

I don't use a lot of big words when I talk. In person, I talk in a sort of country slang. You know, like "My horse needs shod." Or, "I ain't even gonna do nothin' today 'cept prop my feet up and read." (Well, that might be a slight exaggeration, but you get the drift.)

Of course if I ever go to New York and meet a bunch of important publishing people, I will probably talk correctly. But I digress.

Reading lets me learn big words that I occasionally use in my writing. I might not actually use these words in my speech (unless I go to NYC and want to impress people) but here are a few words that I know the meaning of, thanks to reading:

  • hyperbole
  • eschew
  • behemoth
  • hiatus
  • egregious
  • ubiquitous

Those are just a few of the words I've learned from reading. But hey, it's Kentucky Derby weekend, which trumps even reading and writing for me!

So let me just eschew this ubiquitous blogging now, with its egregious interference of my horserace viewing. This is a behemoth weekend of racing, so I now take a brief hiatus to watch (today) the La Troienne Stakes (Rachel Alexandra runs), the Kentucky Oaks, and tomorrow (am I filled with hyperbole yet?) the Kentucky Derby, where a filly named Devil May Care will run against nineteen colts.

What big words do you use in writing, but not in everyday speech? And who do you like in the Derby?

Monday, April 26, 2010

A Writer's Holiday

I am taking a writer's holiday. Is it here? Oh, how I wish.

No, this writer's holiday is simply a break between projects. For the moment, I have no revision notes from an agent or editor, no novel to finish or chapter to edit, no story line to conjure. But instead of feeling guilty and jumping right back into another project, I am taking a much needed break to recharge my braincells. And I feel absolutely fine about that.

Instead of writing, here's what I'm doing:

1) Cleaning my desk down to the actual bare wood, and dusting it. *yay*
2) Going through my stack of 'books to read,' propping my feet up without guilt, and reading.
3) Repotting the basket of pansies on my front porch into an old graniteware container.
4) Breaking out the ironing board and getting to the bottom of the ironing pile.
5) Giving yearly vaccinations to the horse, the donkey, and the dog.
6) Getting a massage and having a glass or two of good Chardonnay. (Life is too short to drink cheap wine, folks.)

This is not procrastination, or laziness, or unwillingness to "write every day." It is simply a wonderful break that will hopefully refresh and recharge my writing chops. My little "writer's holiday" might last a week, or a month, or longer, until I get some revision notes to work on, or another idea floats through my head and demands attention. But for now, my brain and I are enjoying a little down time.

Do you take writer's breaks? (Or any other kind of breaks?) What do you do to relax and recharge your mind?

Sunday, April 18, 2010

A Day at the Horse Races

I am a huge horse racing fan. And this time of year, right before Triple Crown season, I become a little antsy, waiting for the Kentucky Derby, and the Preakness, and the Belmont Stakes. I've even been known to cut out of a SCBWI (Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators) conference session to find the hotel lounge and a television in order to watch one of the races.

Conference Speakers: The state of the publishing business is . . . blah, blah, blah

Me: OMG OMG OMG Did you see that?? Smarty Jones just won the Preakness by almost twelve lengths. Twelve lengths, people. O.M.G!!

So, for those of you who have never been to the horse races, let me see if I can share a little of the excitement.

You don't really have to get there at the crack of dawn. Most races start mid-day and last until evening, with a new race about every half-hour.

This is the statue of the famous Seabiscuit, in front of Santa Anita Racetrack in Southern California.

Here are the starting gates, where the horse will load so they all break at the same time.

Here is the saddling area. You can wander right up and watch the horses getting ready before each race. I like to do this before I place a bet, and see which one has fire in his eyes.

Here are the buglers in the call to the post. You can't help but get excited right about now, because

the horses are being led out to the track. You can get right up close to them and watch

as they each are assigned to a pony horse. That's what they call the horses that lead them under the grandstands, out to the track and trot and canter alongside them as they warm up.

Here is a pony horse leading two time Horse of the Year, Curlin.

You don't have to spend a lot of money at the track. You can place bets for as little as one dollar. People have all kinds of methods for picking winners, and some do just as well picking horses that have Cat, Kitten, or Chocolate in their names. Go figure.

I tried to get a picture of the betting windows, but a beefy security guard confronted me and threatened to take my camera. Seriously. He made me delete the picture I took, but let me keep my camera. *Whew*

Have you got your bets all placed? Great. Because the race is about to start, right in front of you

they come charging out of the starting gate and the whole crowd is on its feet cheering, and the hooves thunder by right in front of you and your heart beats fast in your chest, and the announcer is calling out names but you cannot hear because the crowd is so loud and the horses stampede right past you

and you're jumping up and down screaming which one won? Was it Chocolate Kitten, number 8? Yes, yes, yes!

And when all is said and done, they cool the horses off with a bucket of water and lead them back in front of you and you better go get a sandwich and a coke because in a few minutes they'll be bringing in the horses to be saddled for the next race, and where's my program? I need to study who's running.

Hope you enjoyed my little photo montage. Remember, the Kentucky Derby is always the First Saturday in May, which is May 1st this year. And if you can't make it to Churchhill Downs, I hope you'll tune in to NBC to watch it.
That's where I'll be, right in front of my television, jumping up and down screaming for my favorite.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Killing my Darlings, er . . . scenes

Sometimes we get so stuck in the middle of writing our precious manuscripts, and so enamoured of our words, that we can't find our way out of a hole in the ground if we try. Right smack in the middle of my latest middle-grade novel, which is told in alternating chapters of two different voices - a boy and a girl - I had dug myself a big hole and couldn't seem to climb out.

Each chapter in the manuscript moved the plot forward in a linear fashion. One particular incident would occur, and then the next thing happened. It became a bit of a puzzle, however, when the two different characters met and their storylines intertwined. But I was doing fine, except for one point in the story where I ended up backtracking a bit, making the same stuff happen twice from two different viewpoints.

My critique group caught me on it. (Not much slips past them - LOL) "Slowed down the story. Got me confused. Didn't like this at all" - were the comments I got. Darn. I soon realized that the reason I had trouble fixing this was because I had written a scene (about a girl learning to ride a horse) that I loved too much.

Writers often hear the old adage to "kill your darlings," meaning deleting unneeded words or scenes that we become attached to. I mean, hey, we wrote them so they must be good, right? My critique group was not so sentimental, however. "Just skip that whole part," they unanimously agreed, "and start up again here," they pointed out - taking the proverbial red pen to three pages of a favorite scene.

Arghh. They were right, of course. As soon as it was pointed out, I realized they had pulled me out of my hole, there was no more backtracking in the story, everything once again moved forward and made perfect sense. Thank you, critique group. I love you guys!

So here, if you care to read on, is the scene that tripped me up, that I was so hung up on, and that is now Gone from My Manuscript forever. Bye-bye, Darlings . . .

Swede brings an old saddle over from his house along with a saddle pad. He tightens the cinch on old Paintball and I’m suddenly nervous. And it is still raining. But suddenly the clouds part and a brilliant blue sky appears.

“Put your left foot in the stirrup,” he instructs. “Then grab the saddle horn and hoist yourself up there.”

I feel like an IDIOT trying to climb up on the horse. It always looks so easy when you see cowboys do it, but I feel like a total klutz. Swede helps push me up and finally I’m mounted on Paintball’s back. He adjusts the stirrups and starts leading us around.

“Don’t let go of him,” I say.

“I won’t.” Swede holds onto the horse’s lead rope. “I believe this old horse is gentle as a kitten. He didn’t even flinch when we saddled him.”

Maybe, but that doesn’t make me feel any better. It’s fun, though, to be up so high. I can see a long ways. Out across the corrals and the back pasture, and all the way past the clear-cut behind Aunt Trudy’s five acres. I’m holding onto the reins, but Swede is actually the one controlling Paintball. “Look at the rainbow,” I say. “Wow. It’s a double one.”

“It’s always a lucky day,” says Swede, “when you see one of those.”

We start down the driveway toward the main road. This is only the second time I’ve ever been on a horse, so it’s not like I actually know how to ride. It’s exciting but scary at the same time, and I feel jittery every time Paintball takes another step.

“Swede,” Aunt Trudy hollers from behind us. “Don’t take her too far. You don’t know what that old horse might do.”

“Just relax, Trudy. We are not going to do anything except walk.” Swede looks up at me and winks. “Your aunt’s a worry-wart, isn’t she?” he whispers.

“I heard that,” calls Aunt Trudy. “And darned tootin’ I’m a worry wart. This girl is my responsibility, and I don’t want anything to happen to her.”

“Trudy, this horse is so old and pathetic he probably couldn’t spook if he tried. If he moves too fast he might fall down.”

FALL DOWN? Great. Paintball lifts his head up and stares at something moving up the road. I grab the horn of the saddle for safety, but he doesn’t spook or skitter sideways. He just keeps on walking calmly.

As the figure in the road gets closer, I can see it’s someone running. It almost looks like that boy I met in the driveway a few weeks ago. DAVID.

My face turns pink when I think about him. I barely knew him, but I remember telling him practically everything about myself. About Pendleton, and about how I got my name. He probably thinks I’m a total DORK. I almost wish Swede would just turn the horse around and head back to the barn, before the boy gets here.

As he jogs closer, I can see David’s t-shirt is soppy and wet. He must have been running right through the rain. It would be awesome if I was riding Paintball all by myself, but instead I’m sitting up here like a little baby being led up and down the driveway. I sort of automatically lift my hand to wave, and then immediately wish I hadn’t.

Maybe he’ll just jog right on by, but David slows to a walk and turns in the gravel driveway. Why did I WAVE at him? I suddenly wish I could just crawl under a bush and HIDE.

“Hey, I didn’t know you knew how to ride,” he says, walking close.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Shelter Animals - Writing your Passion

When we first moved to this area over six years ago, I went to the local animal shelter to volunteer my time. I am a staunch animal lover, and wondered what I could do to help. After a short afternoon of training, I was allowed to walk the dogs and pet the cats, with the idea that it would help their loneliness and perhaps allow the animals to become more adoptable.

I kept up this routine for a few months. I'd take a choke chain and leash, wander down the concrete aisleway, bombarded with the frantic barking of manic dogs standing on their back legs with paws against the chain link gates that held them in. I'd pick a dog that appeared fairly friendly and looked like it wouldn't knock me over. I'd slip the chain collar over his head, drag him (or it would drag me) out the front door of the shelter and give the poor animal a few minutes outside the confines of his prison. Sometimes I would turn the dog into a fenced outside yard and allow him to sniff and smell around. Eventually I moved on to the cats.

We adopted two of these kittens.

Cats are my most favorite animal in the world. Seeing them trapped in their tiny cages, plaintively wailing to be let out, or depressed, hunched in a ball in the back of their cage, blocking out the world, almost broke my heart. Still, I persisted, stroking them under their chins, cuddling the pitiful kittens, crowded in cages together for sometimes weeks at a time.

It broke my heart, especially knowing the awful percentages: roughly 50% of dogs and 75% of cats in shelters are euthanized each year. And I'm certainly not knocking animals shelters. They do the best they can with limited resources and the overwhelming onslaught of unwanted animals. But I kept thinking - surely there is something more I could do? Raise money for the shelters? Volunteer at pet give-aways? Give speeches to educate people on the need to spay and neuter their animals?

But how much of a difference could I make? Really. One person. And then, as I became more focused on my writing career, I started to realize that perhaps I am making a difference, in the best way I can, my own way. Because without being directly aware of it - kindness and compassion for animals creeps in to every single story I write.

illustration by Nancy Lane, from my novel FINDING CHANCE

The main character in my novel might be a girl, or a boy, but in every single novel I've written so far - a starving dog, a neglected horse, a lost cat, or an animal that needs to be saved - has crept in under the radar. Not by direct choice - because I've never been a fan of books for kids with overt "lessons." But these situations find their way into my books in a more subtle way.

One of the reasons I'm such a big advocate of putting children and animals together is that caring for/about an animal (even in the pages of a book) is one of the ways young humans develop compassion, responsibility, kindness, and respect for living things.

And just as one unspayed mother cat and her offspring can reproduce more than 400,000 kittens in her lifetime - can the power of one child, or many children, reading about animals - help them develop traits that will ultimately make the world a better place for humans, as well as a more compassionate place for all animals?

Although I cannot take in every animal I'd like to bring home, I hope I've found the very best way to help dogs and cats and kittens in shelters everywhere. I will stay home and write about them.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Twitterville and Introvert Power

I picked this book up while browsing the new non-fiction section of our library a couple of weeks ago: Twitterville - How Businesses Can Thrive in the New Global Neighborhoods, by Shel Israel. I wanted to know what all the fuss was about.

I mean, my agent, Joanna Stampfel-Volpe, recently became a twitterbug. And a whole bunch of her clients, (my agent-sisters and brothers) were also on there, as well as tons of other people in the publishing business, chatting back and forth about - well who knows what they were chatting about? I certainly didn't. And I felt a bit left out of the club. You know, like when everybody gets an invitation to the coolest party in town and I didn't receive one?

But the introvert, creative side of me, the part that doesn't like parties and meeting new people, the part that prefers my own company and really needs lots of quality alone time in order to WRITE, thought nah, I'm not gonna join Twitter. Who needs more noise and irritation in their life? Not me. And then I read this book.

Twitterville not only gives a fascinating glimpse at how Twitter all started in the first place, and how individuals and companies have embraced it, but the author makes the case that it is basically just individuals talking across the universe, and perhaps this real-time communication can bring us all closer together and further our understanding of each other. Heady stuff, yes?

And so I was inspired to join Twitter. Yes, I did. Three days ago. Look me up on there if you want, and we can chat. @LinBenson It's fun!!

Another book that I read recently, called Introvert Power, Why Your Inner Life is Your Hidden Strength, by Laurie Helgoe, Ph.D. actually gave me the courage to go ahead and try something like Twitter.

Introvert Power is a wonderful book. As I devoured the pages, I thought, the author is talking to me. She is describing me. Yes, somebody finally gets it!

I've always been a bit shy around new people, and this book explains how society tends to tag us introverts as strange or backward - if we don't push ourselves to make friends, go to meetings and parties, have a fully rounded social life. But there are so many of us out there (over 50%) that do enjoy our own company. This book allowed me to embrace that part of myself, and realize it's who I am and actually be proud of it. It was a very empowering book for me to read and I highly recommend it.

Because I learned that being an introvert probably allows my creativity to shine. And that being an Introvert and being able to enjoy Twitter are not mutually exclusive.
Aren't books wonderful?