Saturday, December 24, 2011

So what do Pagans do for Christmas?

"So what do Pagans do for Christmas?"

The question is indicative of deep thought and a willingness to accept. Not the words -- those could go either way -- but the tone, and the fact that he has acknowledged my family's religion at all. Old family friend usually avoids topics like this. I am touched he has asked.

I open my mouth, and I close it.

Christmas is religious, but it is cultural and societal and traditional, too, and I love it. Snow and puffs of cold breath and other people's lights twinkling through the trees, I love.

In my family, traditions are based loosely on survival. Where can we get the best deal for the most of us to be fed and protected and happy? Free continental breakfast and enough room for everyone to sleep. We usually get together at a hotel near my sister's house, and we swim and splash in the hot tub and eat at the Chinese restaurant, and we forget, annually, that nothing is open on Christmas Eve, and me and a sister or two go out looking for anything that's open that sells any type of sustenance, and we come back with gas station food. And everyone is hungry and cold and a touch cranky and this, too, I love.

This is one of those off years when none of us can afford it. A handful of us will gather at my sister's, but when one of us is missing, part of us all is missing, so we won't be whole. My sister can't make it in from the city. We weren't able to bring her here in time.

"So what do Pagans do for Christmas?"

We gather like the rest of you, and be together, and speak our true language, a language of half-quotes and loose references that only family understands. Only together do we not have to explain, to conform, to work at fitting. Only together can we be us.

Before the hotel tradition, back when we were all at home, the tradition was that we put up a tree -- I wonder how my parents always, always made this happen -- and my grandma piled on us a passel of well-meaning presents slightly disconnected from our personalities, and we would find ways to amuse ourselves with them that were not necessarily included in the instruction manuals. My parents gave presents, too, always managing something meaningful and sweet.

Twelve -- they gave me a bucket filled with grooming supplies. Didn't have a horse, just wanted one so bad I couldn't stand it and they got me things to make me feel a little closer to my goal.

Seventeen -- a little red box with a tiny gold cross inside. Yes, a cross, with none of us having figured out what religion we were, except that we all loved the X-Files and Scully wore a cross and damn if we didn't all adopt our mannerisms from television the way the (diagnosed) autistic members of our family tend to do. A little note accompanied the cross: "Faith is the substance of things hoped for."

There are years, like this one, when I have little faith.

But it is a temporary situation, like a waning moon that is sure to wax, to bring new holidays and new rituals and new traditions to blend with the old. A gleam of light on a motel pool and a train drawing ever closer, and a Go-Mart bag full of crackers and cheese. The family will gather and the snow will fall and we are all going to be okay.

"So what do Pagans do for Christmas?"

The best we can.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Gifts. And also, breaks.

I took a break. Sorry! Sometimes I have to disappear into a cave and do nothing but think about characters and setting, and I don't write a word, even on my blog.

Today I started blogging again, over at Smack Dab in the Middle. The theme is "gifts." You can catch me there today, and I'll try to be back here tomorrow.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Today's Bad NaNoWriMo Advice: Word Padding!

You don't want to stop typing. But you've got nothing to say. So what you do is, you start typing anyway and you see where you end up. And the funniest thing happens. You actually figure out stuff to type. Now, don't get me wrong. The stuff you type doesn't make sense. It doesn't fit in your story. It does nothing for your plot, it doesn't build suspense, it does nothing to resolve conflict. More likely, you just let your eyes roam around your writing space while you describe the stuff you see. Like:

Need to clean the litter box after I meet this stupid daily word goal. What is that next to the litter box, is that a candy wrapper? When did I eat candy? Wait, I think a better question is, when did I last eat something that wasn't candy? Also, did I know I had this many coffee mugs? I see three on top of the TV, all in various stages of emptiness. There's mold floating on one of them, that must have been from my first 1,667 words. Which one of these coffees is hot, I wonder? I'd really like a drink of coffee, but I can't pick up my hands from the keyboard long enough to take one because I'm in the middle of a stupid word war and I've only got 45 seconds left and I keep losing and I really need to win this one and nobody needs to know I described my disgusting, filthy living room that has been completely neglected during November. How do they know this isn't what my character's living room looks like? It could be. Nevermind I'm writing a dystopian novel set in 2811 and there are no living rooms anymore. These word war people don't know that! Also, where's the dog? Have I seen the dog today? Have I walked the dog today? Is there a chance the dog has been swallowed alive by that teetering pile of dirty laundry? Dirty laundry! There's still dirty laundry in the future, right? Okay, that's where Joe-Bill and Lucy-Ellen meet, they meet at the laundromat. Okay, I got this. Lucy-Ellen walked into the laundromat (note: figure out what a futuristic washing machine looks like later) and her eyes are immediately drawn to the dark figure folding a pair of (note: figure out what futuristic boxer shorts look like later) in the corner of the (note: are there corners in the future? Maybe all the buildings are round. Like the inside of a coffee mug. Wow, I really wish I could stop typing and drink my coffee. Wait, why do I have a World's Best Grandma coffee mug on my table? Did my grandma come by? I don't remember seeing my grandma. Is there a chance my grandma has been swallowed alive by that teetering pile of dirty laundry?) "Hey, there," Lucy-I-forget-the-rest-of-her-name says.

And that's when the timer goes off and you stop writing and start frantically feeling two dozen coffee mugs until one of them is warm, while doing some exploratory poking of the laundry pile with your toe.

You've just done two things:

1. You've written. Badly. Very, very badly. But a minute ago your character was alone in her (note: decide what houses have instead of living rooms in the future) and now she's in a laundromat meeting her love interest. So, believe it or not, in your caffeine-induced haze of keyboard-vomit, you actually did move your story along a little.

2. You've just added 388 words to your novel.

This is what NaNoWriMo is all about.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Today's Bad NaNoWriMo Advice: Promise to do stuff

I know, I KNOW, okay? This NaNoWriMo advice series is supposed to be daily! And it would be! I swear! Except I'm busy -- you know -- doing NaNoWriMo!

And avoiding NaNoWriMo. Okay, fine. (Why does NaNoWriMo make me channel Clementine so often?)

Anyway, today's bad advice is this: promise to do stuff besides NaNo during November. Like posting on your blog daily, dishing out advice even while in the midst of failing spectacularly at meeting your own daily word count. And participating in a group blog (which, by the way, is not really bad advice, and I quite enjoy it -- you can find my monthly post at Smack Dab in the Middle today). And, you know, doing the dishes and going to work and stuff.

But part of the fun of NaNo is figuring out how to squish words in around the edges of your life. How are you all doing so far?

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Today's Bad NaNoWriMo Advice: Autosummarize!

This is the worst advice EVER if your goal is productivity. But then, if your goal is productivity, I don't know why you're even talking to me. It's November 15 and I'm at 847 words. For those of you keeping score, that means I am 24,153 words behind schedule.

In Microsoft Word, there is a tool called "Autosummarize." This tool will take your novel and boil it down to the key ideas (assuming it has any -- which, it's a NaNo novel, so it's okay if there aren't any key ideas yet).

I think you should go try this tool on your in-progress NaNo novel.

Let me be clear: there is no earthly reason to use this tool on your in-progress NaNo novel. Unless of course you just need a study breaker. And maybe you don't, you with your 25,000 words and your pretty progress bar. But me? I need a study breaker. Or two. Or six.

My current NaNo is only at 847 words, so there's no point in summarizing it; it's plenty brief. Instead, I have asked Microsoft Word to autosummarize my most recently published middle grade novel, Body of Water.

Here is Body of Water in 100 words or less:

Ivy didn't like being called dingbat much. "Hey, Poison Ivy. Stop snotting on Dad. I turned to Mom. Anson was Anson. Mom tugged my shoulder. Ivy and Dad started drifting away. Mom asked, soft. Just Ivy. Even without my pockets, Ivy persisted. 1. Class rings Mom and Dad walked hand in hand, relaxed. Ivy giggled and Mom pasted on a cheerful smile. Mom twitched. What if Ivy has to go?" Hateful, just like Ivy. Ivy moaned. For Anson It started with my grandma, my mom's mom. Trees. 1. Class rings 1. Class rings

For the record, I think "Trees." is really what makes this summary special.

So what does your novel boil down to?

Monday, November 14, 2011

NYT Review

Oh, by the way. While I was hiding under a rock, pretending NaNoWriMo didn't exist, this happened:

When Ends Don't Meet

Yes. That would be a review of my novel in the New York Times Book Review.

I haven't been this happily hyper since my sister Heather and I went on weekend-long Pixy Stix binge in the late nineties. Let me tell you, it wasn't pretty. There should be a maximum amount of Pixy Stix two teenage girls are allowed to buy without parental consent.

Today's challenge: Work Pixy Stix into your NaNo wordcount for the day.

Today's Bad NaNoWriMo Advice: Do As I Say, Not As I Do

I'm embarrassed to even show my face.

Remember the last time I blogged my "daily" NaNoWriMo advice? What was that, over a week ago now?

As Clementine would say, "Or ten days. Okay, fine."

Yeah. That's the last time I wrote on my NaNo novel, too.

There was a train, see. And a city. And a sister I haven't seen in a year. And when it was all said and done, there were 11,000 very bad, very boring words of a novel I hoped never to be forced to read, let alone write.

The thing is, when I was writing every day, I could force myself to keep going. And if I had kept going, I probably would have ended up someplace okay. Then I could have revised okay into decent, and decent into all right, and all right into good, and good into great, and great into fabulous, and I would have had a finished novel.

But I stopped.

And when you stop while the novel is still awful, you won't start again.

So don't stop. Don't be like me. Don't do what I did and go from 11,000 words to ... 87.

As for me? The month isn't even half over and I'm not done yet.

See you tomorrow. I mean it!

Friday, November 4, 2011

Today's Bad NaNoWriMo advice: Coffee!

It's no coincidence that Starbucks releases their winter specialties November 1. They do it on purpose. They know we're NaNoing and they want to provide us with caffeine and comfort in one fell swoop.

It's known as the Peppermint Mocha, and I could write at least a thousand words about it, and most of them would be "love."

Of course if Starbucks isn't your thing, you can always make a cup of tea, or break out the french press, or fire up the coffee pot, or do the Dew. Whatever it takes to sufficiently caffeinate yoruself for the insane and sleepless charge to 50,000.

Because sleep is overrated. Just like spelling, syntax, and all the other things we will be foregoing during the month of November.

How's everybody holding up?

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Today's Bad NaNoWriMo Advice: Forums!

This is the worst advice EVER if your goal is to stay on task and increase your word count.

If you're looking for a study-breaker, a good laugh, or a reason to feel better about your own mistakes, though, this is a must.

On the NaNoWriMo forums, there is a magical place. A magical place reserved for all the typos, all the mixed metaphors and nonsensical thoughts that occur when you write a great volume of words at high speed.

This magical land of wonder can be found here, in the NaNoisms thread.

But first, a touch of good advice: put put down the coffee. I wouldn't want you to ruin your keyboard.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Today's Bad NaNoWriMo Advice: Do Not Backspace!

To paraphrase Yoda, Type or type not. There is no backspace.

The backspace key is addictive. Once you start backspacing, you can't stop. You'll have to fix all of it. The typos. The dangling participles. The disappearing, reappearing, re-disappearing characters. The settings that magically change from the beginning of the sentence to the end of the sentence. The nauseatingly flowery descriptions. The forbidden adverbs. The bad dialogue. The messed-up line spacing. The plain old bad writing.

Do. Not. Backspace. No matter what. To paraphrase Monty Python, the backspace key is no more. It is an ex-backspace key. At least until December first, at which point you'll have 50,000 misspelled, ill-used adverbs of completed first draft to revise.

In other words, don't backspace until after you've written a novel.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Today's Bad NaNoWriMo Advice: Write First, Caff Second

When you get up in the morning, write a little bit before you have your morning coffee. You are much less likely to try to stop yourself to make corrections or check for typos.

The flip side? You are also much less likely to remember to turn on the computer before you start typing.

Happy November!

Monday, October 31, 2011

Today's Bad NaNoWriMo Advice: Wing it!

Don't spend today mapping out your plot, like you would if you had any sense. Instead, do what I do. Spend it sleeping (because you won't be doing much of that the next thirty days). Eating (like a chipmunk preparing to hibernate. Do chipmunks hibernate?) Buying an extra can or six of coffee, and possibly an extra coffee pot, to hold up to the demands of November. Walking your dogs, who are soon to be neglected. Make sure your laptop's plugged in to charge. If you're one of those crazy people who can write by hand, buy pens.

But don't spend too much time today stressing over your plot and whether it's going to make sense. Leave that for, oh, say, November 25-ish.

So have you signed up for NaNoWriMo yet? Who's with me?

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Today's Bad NaNoWriMo Advice: Sign Up!

It's almost that time again!

If you need bad advice during NaNoWriMo 2011 -- you know, advice like "it's okay to skip class to write" and "Pad your word count by giving every character two middle names and making them insist on being called by all of them" -- I'm your gal. See you in two days!

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Wildlife, law enforcement, and other reasons this day stands out

BODY OF WATER is out today! See?

My release day so far:

I got off the bus to walk to work in the mist just before dawn, and four deer hopped a fence and stood on the sidewalk, not six feet in front of me, making eye contact for a minute before wandering away.

A minute later, I got stopped by the police. Seriously. A police officer stopped me and asked what I was "up to." I told him I'm an autism teacher on my way to the church to meet a student. He looked appropriately chagrined.

I am not making this up.

My plans for the rest of release day include hanging with a cool kid for a few hours, then curling up with Tara Kelly's AMPLIFIED, also out today. Which just proves that this day was worth waiting for!

Monday, October 24, 2011

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

One Week: Journey

I remember pulling out of the campground, the brown Nissan bumping off the one-lane road onto the two-lane highway, the Battle Run Campground sign getting smaller behind us as we swept through the leaves beginning to scatter on the road.

Up ahead was an apartment that used to be a post office, a mail slot between mine and my sister’s rooms, a rope swing in the back yard, a general store across the street, a horse a mile up the road to visit, a new friend, a new world, a new me.

Behind was summer, sweet honeysuckle and warm sand, lapping water so familiar and soothing, smoke rising, people laughing, dead spots of grass in rings where the tents were. Bike tracks cut into dried mud, extra firewood left in plain sight in case any other scavengers needed to find it, blood spots on the bathroom floor from my sister’s run-in with a bike spoke. Behind were brief friendships, lasting lessons, a separate world, a different me.

Every move was bittersweet, the first half of the trip spent looking back, distant, quiet, melancholy, breathing the air as the scents there changed, grew unfamiliar, drew me away from the most recent version of everything I knew. The second half, looking forward, giggling, nervous, excited, planning new stories, new adventures. Ready for change.

This time next week, Body of Water will be here and that changes things. Today I’m looking back at Livvie Owen Lived Here, thinking of pet mice and pet cats and weathered porch boards and trailer vents and heavy quilts and fish lamps. But long about Friday, it’s going to sink in that Ember’s coming, with her bouncy dog and her Tarot cards and her yellow sweatpants and her spells and her ashes and her hopes and her adventures and her story.

See you when we get there.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Smack Dab in the Middle

I am THRILLED to be blogging at Smack Dab in the Middle, a group blog written by several wonderful middle grade authors. You can catch me there on the 17th of each month. This month's theme is Inspiration.

P.S. Before you go to Smack Dab, let me direct your attention to the right side of Dooley Noted. Check out the little counter at the top of the sidebar. It's been dutifully counting down to BODY OF WATER since we were 86 days out. Check out how the number is now in the single digits. This is so cool.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

TWO WEEKS: Equipped

Dear Coleman Outdoor Gear Company:

Thanks for the midnight zipper of the tent next to mine. It was only spooky alone in the tent if you forgot there was a sister on each side of you and parents across the clearing. Somebody always had to sneak out for a granola bar or to use the bathroom or to walk around the quiet campground with the embers burning low or to have a last cup of coffee or to check for ghosts. (That last one might have been me.)

Thanks for the wake-up sizzle of bacon over the little camping stove. By fall I would be a vegetarian, but thank goodness I wasn't yet. Something about Dad standing at the picnic table, making a perfectly respectable breakfast that you could have in a kitchen, made me feel whole. When the food came, it seemed to appear overnight and it tasted better because of how happy everyone was that it was there.

Thanks for the afternoon rattle of ice beginning to melt in the cooler. I froze to the wrist pulling out wet soda cans and handing them to my sisters, happy to claim the job that meant I got to play with the ice cubes. Dozens of gnats drowned in that cooler, but the soda tasted so good on a sweltering day that it felt like a lifesaver, so I figured it was a toss-up.

Thanks for the bedtime hiss of the lantern, turned a little lower. Underneath, I could hear the rumble of voices, storytelling from the day, occasional laughter lulling me into a warm, fuzzy, comfortable sleep, glasses still on, flashlight still burning, book still open on my chest, until somebody's tent zipper woke me in an hour or two.

Thanks for the house, minus the walls.


Dear Family,

Thanks for being the walls.


Tuesday, October 4, 2011

THREE WEEKS: The View From Home

Here's what I saw when I opened my bedroom door in the summer of 1993:

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Four Weeks: Lost

Around and around the looping roads of the campground, I galloped an imaginary horse, clutching invisible reins in my hands. I was too old for imaginary horses. As a rising seventh-grader, I felt too old for a lot of things. But who cares about convention when you live in a tent? I was happy to stay a horse-crazy kid before school came and forced me to acknowledge those imminent teen years I'd been dreading.

In the lazy heat of midsummer, I stretched out on my red blanket in the shade and I drew several versions of my stable logo, for someday when I would own my own stable. I read SADDLE CLUB books and thought myself into them, and when the time came to get up off the blanket, to gallop my restlessness away, I had the horses pictured perfectly. I knew their names and personalities. I, on my own two feet, spooked at tree branches and gusts of wind. I whinnied and snorted and pawed the earth with my flip-flops. I tossed my tangled mane.

I must have looked plain crazy to everyone except my family. They were accustomed to me. They could see my imaginary horses.

Then one day, out of shy boredom, I silently nodded when a stranger asked me to seesaw. We didn't talk much and the awkwardness grew -- until she said, "This feels like jumping on a horse!" -- and I nearly fell off in shock.

"You like horses, too?!"

There was hardly any silence for a week after that.

We spent the days cantering our bikes side by side along the lake. We swapped favorite horse books and favorite horse tips and favorite horse stories. When she finally had to leave, we stayed in touch for years.

Today is September 27. On this day five years ago, grown, and with the campground the furthest thing from my mind, I knelt in the pasture at the head of a horse named Stuff, who I met and started riding just a year after my campground time. I rode him for three years before I bought him at the age of 16, and spent the next nine years revolving around him like the earth around the sun.

I didn't know, in the campground, that those dreams I wanted so badly I could taste the dust and smell the leather were only a year away. And of course I didn't know how it would end, twelve years down the road. A morning too warm for September, the engine cooling from my long drive home, a breeze stirring wisps of hay that should have already been eaten. Except he wasn't hungry.

In every book I write, there is an animal and it is usually lost. There is Orange Cat in LIVVIE, lost to a car. There is Widdershins in BODY OF WATER, maybe lost to a fire.

I can write about being homeless and I can write about lost dogs and lost kitties and little girls who feel lost themselves. But I can't write about horses yet. Even while I ride my new horse and spend hours at his side, I can't write about horse-crazy little girls, jumping seesaws and cantering bicycles. I haven't found the right words to describe something that isn't there.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Five Weeks: Morning and Evening

Ember Goforth-Shook, who in a brief five weeks will tell you BODY OF WATER if you let her, worries a lot. She gets that from me, but not twelve-year-old me. I didn't start worrying till a year or so later, older and not quite as wise.

In the campground, what was to worry about? Morning was like this: Weak, early, seven o'clock sun peeking up over the mountain, shadows spilling down the grass. The sun not touching till halfway out to the swim line, so the water out there was lit up orange, still and silent but tossing the sun back up into the sky. Quiet water and quiet minnows and quiet sand, as yet untouched by feet. Except for ours. Special, privileged. The first humans each day to touch the water.

And night was like this: Sun smoking on down toward the mountain, fires springing up, twirling sparks into the sky like stars with every log tossed on. And logs were free. Every family that left, left firewood and we were gatherers. And hunters. We hunted ghost stories along the edges of the friendly woods. We hunted secrets in the warm, soft mud. Found treasures like, literally, a silver spoon -- dug up out of the mud with our toes, the irony was not lost on us. Campfire evening leaned down into cozy-tent night with the crickets and the tree frogs singing, and all at once, shushing each other so we could hear the water lapping, soft, and the rumble of distant thunder.

What wasn't to love?

I mean, there was stuff in the middle. Daytime stuff, like seventh grade and house-hunting and grocery stores. But that isn't the stuff that sticks. For Ember, either, that isn't the stuff that sticks, because, as her time in the campground draws to a close, she stares out across the lake and she starts to feel homesick.

Homesick before you've even left. This makes more sense than you maybe realize, unless you're like us, and you've moved and moved. Unless you've ever stood and wished yourself backward in time, so you could smell the woodsmoke once more, feel the sand and the mud on your feet, grip lost silver with your toes and cup your hands around fireflies.

I don't always drift so far away, but today I am distant like the thunder, spinning toward the sky like the sparks. On this warm September evening in my grown-up town, I am looking back at twelve and it is shining like sun on the water, halfway out to freedom.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Six Weeks: Haiku

Swimming at daybreak,
we had special privileges.
Forget walls and doors.

Water is warmest
when the air is cool with rain
or with September.

Sand deep and shifting,
We mocked stability, we
Tripped over driftwood.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Seven Weeks: Building Character(s)

We are on day two of a cold, soaking September rain, the kind that stirs the earliest dead leaves to scatter on the sidewalk, the kind that stirs the earliest embers of autumn and of story. I am close to writing something new. I know because I am vibrating with energy that has nowhere to go, so I am dropping coffee cups and walking into storm doors. I am distracted, half-lost in impatience and anticipation and the hope that the story gets here soon, before I start forgetting to eat and to go to work in the mornings.

Seven weeks from BODY OF WATER, rain makes me think of my red blanket, which is not mentioned in the book but which is pictured in my head. September 1993 was warm enough, from what I remember. But I know it rained. Any time it did, we had to pull our belongings to the center of the tent, to keep them off the nylon walls that would let the water through if we touched them. There was a scramble to close the “skylight” – the removable cover that hid the mesh roof of our dome-shaped bedrooms – and then we would pull in, blankets and tennis shoes and roller skates and dirty clothes pile and ever-shrinking clean clothes pile, gathered to the center as if it were all a part of one big turtle hiding in its shell. Me, I always sat cross-legged on the middle of the pile, ratty red blanket draped over my shoulders. It was my beach towel on warm days and my shawl on cool days. In rain, it was my shelter.

Sitting in the middle of a dome-shaped tent, on top of all your earthly belongings, imagining yourself as a giant turtle while the rain pounds away outside, you can’t help but giggle. And if you’ve ever had, or been, a sister, you know that one sister can’t laugh for no reason without the other sisters joining in. So there we were, three blue and gray tents, giggling in the rain.

The next morning at sunrise, me and Heather went walking, looping the familiar streets of home. The storm-weakened sun was barely up in the sky and was nothing but a faded red ball, so dim we could look straight at it without hurting our eyes.

“It looks like one of those dots,” I said.

And, remarkably, she got it. “On a library book!”

We kept walking, cooking up a whole story about how we were nothing but characters in a library book, and the sun was only red-orange here because we were in the middle grade section, but characters in other books, in other sections, saw their suns in different colors. And maybe one day we would look up and the sun would be a different color and we would know we had been reshelved, and we could spin a whole adventure about trying to get back to our own familiar section.

Every word we thought as children scrawled itself across the pages in our minds. Everything was story. As long as the sun stayed its own familiar color, we could trust, more or less, that we were where we were supposed to be. We could relax and let the story write itself. We could dream up other worlds with different-colored suns, and secretly wonder if the other sections were as fun to write, and live, as ours.

Then the sun rose and yellowed and burned into full daylight, and we ran off to other settings, scaring up new plots and building our own characters.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Eight Weeks - Kindred

In eight fleeting weeks, BODY OF WATER, which is mostly fiction, will stroll out into the world, and a few of my secrets might seep out. Like, I have washed my hair with apple-scented hand soap and lied to teachers about where I did my homework. Like, I am not above eating fried bologna off a stick. And I sort of have an obsession with fuzzy pajamas.

Want to know what’s crazy? I recently met someone who lived in a tent for six months. Six! We didn’t quite make it to three. She was a little older during her camping time – ninth grade, not seventh – and we are the same age, so it’s easy for me to think back on her camping year.

We were at Herold Court that year, a second-floor apartment where the walls sweated in summer and my best friend wasn’t allowed to visit at first because my parents didn’t quite think about how the “I Heart Herbs” sticker on the car window could be taken if you didn’t know my mother gathered mullen for congestion and burdock for arthritis. The year my friend slept under the twinkle of cricket chatter, I was drenched in the humid hush of the box fan in the window. In winter we went sledding down the yellow line of Kentucky Road until we tumbled, laughing, into snow-filled ditches. I hope my friend was under roof by then. I don’t know which months she camped because she didn’t want to talk about it much.

Some days I feel frivolous, like I don’t understand even the things I’ve done. Like it’s not okay for me to write a book about living in a tent, because, even though I’ve lived in a tent, I was me at the time and not a regular person, and I didn’t get the same things out of it that a regular person would. And then I think, what do I mean by regular person? A person who has never lived in a tent? A person who has only ever washed their hair with shampoo? A person who doesn’t heart herbs and who takes fuzzy PJs for granted?

The kid in me would say there is no regular, everybody is different (because she thought she was pretty deep). But even that seventh-grader who was free of congestion and smelled faintly of apples -- who night after night went to bed wearing something other than fuzzy pajamas -- even that girl wanted to be like other people sometimes.

Which is why I am grateful to my new friend for sharing a touch of her story, even if she didn't want to talk about it much. I can't guess her story, wouldn't dream of trying. I was me, not her, my camping year. But some things -- some things she doesn't have to say. Some things I think I might know.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Nine Weeks

It's hard to believe school's already back in. Summer crashes into fall without regard for anything. Maybe there hasn't been time for vacation, or maybe you don't have your school clothes out, or maybe you're not quite back under roof just yet, but here it is fall, deceptively subtle with only a yellow leaf or two to show for it.

School bus didn't come out to the campground, so Dad drove us in and I showed up to seventh grade smelling like cigarette smoke and campfire smoke and the early red maple leaves I'd crunched under bare feet the evening before. It was tough to reconcile school breakfast, syrupy French Toast sticks, with the previous day's dinner of hot dogs on actual sticks, blackened till they blistered. It was tough to reconcile school company -- girls with neat hair, teased bangs, and purposely-ripped-up jeans -- with my evening company of sisters in swimsuits and tangles.

My pre-algebra homework was half-finished because other things seemed much more important the evening before. I missed the lake, more than half drained now because of a drought downriver. I missed elementary school, with its neat math problems I understood, printed on wide-ruled paper. I sensed change, something deeper than autumn.

I spent days gazing out of classroom windows, unaccustomed to being indoors. I spent nights under the stars, hazy through the campfire smoke, thinking of better things than math. I was a lucky girl, luckier than my squeaky-clean classmates stuck under ceilings. I knew just enough to know that this couldn't last forever.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Livvie turns one!

My little Livvie Owen has been out in the world for one year today. In her honor, I will ask you a question.

What would your dream home look like? Feel like? Smell like? Is it a house? A cabin? A mansion? How many rooms? How many people to fill those rooms? How did you come by it and how long will you live there? These are the questions Livvie would ask you if she met you. She wouldn't quite look at you and she wouldn't quite be sure how to word them, but these are the things she would want to know.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Ten Weeks

Ten weeks now till BODY OF WATER.

Let me tell you about the first week in the campground.

It was only an adventure, only another chapter in our fictional lives. We were raised to believe we were characters in books, taught that adversity was fodder for plot, that conflict kept the pages turning. Most chapters had a happy ending. My parents were still the authors and we kids were in charge of the dialogue and a few of the illustrations. We didn’t have to worry much. My parents would find a way to wrap up this chapter neatly.

That summer must have been so hard for them. There are days I can’t write characters through hardship and my parents had to write three real-life girls through it. But if it was hard, they never let on. If they were scared, they never let on. We were on a camping trip, which we’d never been on before. Tents and campground passes were a luxury we could only afford if we weren’t frittering our money away on silly things like rent. This was a treat, this camping trip. This was a once-in-a-lifetime plot twist.

The first week, everything was new and we couldn’t stop giggling. We walked barefoot on hot pavement. We held our breaths past the big blue dumpsters you could smell for half a city block. We were careful of glass. We swam on the campground side of the lake, not the beach side, just to prove we weren’t afraid of the sucking mud and the hidden marine life. We had splash fights. We ate from the vending machines. We sat on the warm dryers in the laundry room come evening and we watched other campers bed down in their little family groups around their campfires and we scoffed at the ones who brought RVs and televisions. After the first few nights, we felt like old pros compared to the people checking in.

And never mind the people checking out. We didn’t have to worry about that.

They made us switch campsites every two weeks. It was a rule presumably put in place to prevent people like us from living in the campground long term. They had to know. The caretakers of the place, they had to notice that we never left. They had to notice that after the first couple of site changes, we stopped taking the tents down and simply transported them fully-assembled, one at a time on the back of the truck. I remember sitting on the edge of the bed of our brown Nissan, clutching the roll bar with one arm and my tent with the other. We moved from Site One to Site Thirty. Site … 42, perhaps? And 14. I can’t remember them all. And the caretakers of the place, they had to see. But they never said a word, only smiled at us and went on their way.

I wish I knew where those people are now. I would send them copies of BODY OF WATER. And something chocolate. Would S'mores be too much?

I’m supposed to be talking about the first week in the campground, but it’s hard to talk about a single week when the whole summer feels like one sunny blur. I know that the first week, we were still fairly clean and crisp from the luxury of living indoors. We did not miss living indoors. We did not miss beds and chairs and tables. We maybe missed TV a little, but we hadn’t watched that much of it before, and the people at the campground were way more interesting to watch. And maybe, when dusk fell and the sun was still bright enough to dim the campfires and I knew it would be dark soon, it’s possible I missed the nightlight I was embarrassed I had still been using.

But outside dark isn’t scary like inside dark. I slept sound and woke rested, ready for adventure.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Eleven Weeks

Eleven weeks seems like a strange amount of time to mark, unless that's how long you lived in a dome-shaped tent in the summer of '93. For eleven weeks, my sisters and I roamed Battle Run Campground, swimming, and storytelling, and roasting whatever would fit on the end of a stick.

Little bits and pieces of those eleven weeks are always with me. Of course there is the obvious, the crackle of fire and the green splash of lake water, but there's other stuff, too. Like when I unzip my duffel at the Writer's Conference, the noise is exactly like my bedroom door at the campground. Like any time I see initials carved into wood, I think of the names kids carved into the campground's climbing tower, which they tore down years ago. When I wrote my name there, in blue ink from the pen I always carried, I thought it would stay there forever.

In a way, it has.

Eleven weeks from today, BODY OF WATER will be released, and a kid named Ember will tell you about her summer in the campground, so different from mine – but I hope, just as permanent. Once we get there, if you would, take just a second and turn around and look back to this spot right here, and think about how much time that actually is to live in a campground. By the time we left, the tents were worn through and the fires burned low to embers. We were taller and tanner, older and wiser, and we knew how to make a place home.

It's a skill I've used plenty more times over the years. But that's a story for another novel.

Monday, August 8, 2011

My Not-So-Fictional Characters

Funny what makes it in, what stays out. Every little animal I've ever kept has made it, or will make it, into a book. Henry's there already, in the form of Orange Cat in LIVVIE OWEN LIVED HERE.

You can meet Lola this October when BODY OF WATER is released – she plays the role of Widdershins, at least in my head.

And in my third book, which you will hopefully get to read at some point, my sister-in-law's mean and hateful little poodle, Chewbacca, makes an appearance.

I sort of hate that dog. He broke Lola's nose once, but that occurrence did not make it into either novel.

Sorry, I don't have a picture of Chewbacca. If you really want to know, he looks like a dirty cottonball. With fangs.

Buddy Sunshine, my oversized Rottie mix, did make it into a middle grade novel that has never seen the light of day.

And in my most recent novel, there is a cat named Stella who is a lot like my Sage-cat. Actually, Sagey-Boo was also in LIVVIE, in the form of Gray Cat (although she is clearly not gray).

You know who, quite conspicuously, has never made it into a novel of mine?

These guys:

That first one is Stuff, my very first horse. And the second is my current horse, Magnum.

As a kid, all I ever read were horse stories. When I wasn't reading horse stories, I was visiting a neighbor's horse, or cleaning stalls to pay for riding lessons, or, after I managed to get a horse of my own, out playing in the pasture with him. Sometimes I read horse stories and played in the pasture at the same time:

So guess what? For Camp NaNoWriMo, I am finally writing a horse story! Maybe someday some horse-crazy kid can lie on their horse's back and read it. That's the dream. I am super-serious about this. As serious as Magnum:

Also, eventually, my husband's new pup, Oscar, will have to make it into a novel. Because, OMG, cute.

So how's your Camp NaNo coming?

Thursday, August 4, 2011


I started seventh grade from a campground. Battle Run Campground in Summersville, West Virginia, to be exact. It's a beautiful place, tree-shaded, lakeside. In fact, it's made up of a sort of sprawling peninsula, surrounded on three sides by shimmery dark-green lake water.

It is the perfect place to vacation.

Up until school started, it was the perfect place to live.

Let me tell you about school nights and school mornings in a campground. Campgrounds are not built for school days. They are built for hazy summer memories of campfires and marshmallows and bathing suits and bicycles.

And, apparently, beer and country music. At least according to the campers at Site 16 next door to me. The campers there stayed up well into the night, blasting Alan Jackson's newly-released "Chattahoochee" over and over.

I'm sure it was shocking to those drunken campers when, at one in the morning, a disgruntled twelve-year-old stuck her head out of her tent and screeched, "Don't you people know it's a school night?"

But it wasn't their fault I couldn't sleep. It was not because of the song.

Up until now, it had been summer. Summer was when you're supposed to stay in a campground, but now it was school time and school time is fall and fall is when you're supposed to rake leaves into neat piles on the flat lawn of your three-bedroom brick ranch-style house with the chain link fence and the one-lane street.

Well, we had the one-lane street. It looped and spun among progressively-empty campsites as September came.

I don't remember being nervous about school, but I do remember being cold. Five-thirty a.m., walking barefoot to the shower house and waiting longer each day for the water to get warm, I cursed the hour and the lack of sun. Why did school have to start so early, anyway? Why didn't they leave time for a swim first?

After school, I came home to the campground and unleashed my stress in the form of a swim, or a gallop on foot around the campground, or a bike ride. It wasn't till darkness gathered, an inch earlier every day, that I remembered about homework. Me and my sisters would stroll down to the shower house, most always empty these days, and set up shop in the laundry room, scribbing in notebooks and watching the storms come, occasionally remembering to do a math problem or to study a spelling word.

It was awesome.

Waking up, and coming home, in a place like Battle Run, well, that was blissful. It was the middle part of the day that stank. Seventh grade was a shock because it was different from anything I had known. People I knew -- a lot of people, since I had attended four elementary schools, two of them twice -- were suddenly taller and meaner. The pressure to conform, to fit in, to be like everybody else was immense, which was a challenge for a very literal kid, since no two people in that school were alike. Everybody had their own problems, their own situations, their own rude comments and their own little hang-ups.

As far as I knew, none of them lived in a campground.

For the first time, I wondered if maybe I wasn't supposed to like where I lived. But I still did.

A while back, I wrote a book about a kid living in a campground. For a lot of reasons, she doesn't love it as much as I did, but a big part of her loves it very much. Which is how most homes are. The book is called BODY OF WATER and it will start seventh grade -- I mean, it will be released -- October 25.

God, I hope it doesn't fit in.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Camp NaNoWriMo!

This morning, while attempting to type "Camp NaNoWriMo," I managed to post a whole blog that was nothing but the letter C.

Then, just now, while attempting to type "while attempting to type," I typed "tpyed."

Then, while attempting to type "Camp NaNoWriMo," I typed, "NanOwrImo."

Then, while attempting to type, "while attempting to type 'while attempting to type'", I typed "tuyped."

And then at some point -- I'm so lost now that I really don't know WHAT I was trying to type, except it included the word "typed" -- I typed "typied."

Maybe I should NaNo in longhand.

At any rate, it's that time. You in?

Friday, July 15, 2011

Stopping and Starting

Every time the bus driver slams on his brakes at a stop sign – I don't understand, he drives this route ten times a day, does he not remember where the stop signs are? Do they sneak up on him? Are they camouflaged until the last second, whipping off their branchy costumes and leaping into the street? – my broken computer hinge gives way and the screen falls backward onto my knees so the computer is lying flat, looking up at the WIC ads and stroller guidelines and rate increase announcements on the ceiling.

There are a LOT of stop signs on this route.

So I'm writing and it goes like this:

I don't know what makes Monday different from every other sweat-in-your-butt-crack just-this-side-of-committing-murder-for-a-cold-drink early August day in Delbarton. Maybe it's the heat, which



is holding in the nineties even hours after the sun's gone down. Or it could be Hyacinth's ear infection, which has caused her to scream for three straight nights while I have lain awake on top of the sheets, studying the dead bodies of moths in the light cover. Maybe it's the fact that I am



halfway through an ice-cold jug bath, pouring gas station water out of a gallon milk container and shocking my system into full alertness, when I remember our water service was turned back on yesterday and I could be taking a piping hot shower.

Maybe it's Lock Rawley




And this is about the time I remember that I'm on the 6:45 to Barboursville, which is about as crowded as a bus can get, not counting the inbound Walnut Hills coming back from Wal-Mart. I've got headphones in, so I can't hear the repeating litany of thud-crap, thud-crap all the way out Route 60.

Odd, nobody else this morning is wearing headphones. Except for the lady who is asleep against the window with her purse slowly spilling off her lap into the aisle, and the woman with a cell phone pressed to one ear and her palm pressed to the other – presumably to block out the noise of my computer being shaken to pieces -- everybody can hear everything I'm doing.

So now I'm making a conscious effort not to throw a minor hissy fit every time the bus skids to a halt, and it seems to me like the bus driver is making a conscious effort to come to a sudden stop at least once per mile. I think his goal is for my computer screen to detach completely and fly up the length of the bus and shatter on the “Passengers Must Remain Behind The Yellow Line” sign.

I think it is safe to say I'm not going to get much writing done this morning.

This office sucks.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011


Things I found in my duffel bag while unpacking from West Virginia Writers Conference:

-Six new pens, three new pencils, and 14 bookmarks advertising every type of book, from romance to murder mystery to picture book

-One of my dress shoes. If anyone at Cedar Lakes comes across a high heel, I ... don't need it back, actually. I had to ditch them halfway to the dining hall anyway. Who wears high heels to a lakeside conference that feels so very much like a dreamy summer campground from childhood?

-My room key, about which the conference center was very gracious in allowing me to mail back to them instead of charging me $10. I thought I'd locked the key in the room. Turns out I had, for reasons that escaped me, neatly packed it next to my toothbrush. (Seven hours sleep all weekend, folks. This is what happens.)

-An unpopped bag of popcorn Julee gave me (thanks, Julee!) at two in the morning when I realized I hadn't brought snacks and I was hungry, but then I fell asleep before I managed to locate the microwave

-Hand-outs from some excellent workshops and classes

-Scribbled messages in notebook margins: "Remember chicken poem." "Open with exercise?" "B-fast 7:30." "Change 'second' to 'last' in final poem in FV." (Which I forgot to do.) And my favorite: "Casualties: 111111111" -- I kept track of all the times somebody likened deleting passages from your book to murder. Twice it was me and I don't even like that metaphor.

-One dirty sock. Seriously, between the shoe and the sock, I feel like I ought to check and make sure I came back with both feet!

-A bunch of beads that fell off my flip-flop. But for every bead I managed to find and bring home, I'm sure I left at least four in my room at the lodge.

-So much relaxation, inspiration, and excitement it didn't fit in the duffel bag and I had to carry it in my feet that won't stop skipping and my lips that won't stop smiling and, most importantly, in my pen that won't stop moving.

I can't wait until next summer!

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

The Class I Failed

How many minutes in my life have I spent staring through golden mist on a morning highway? I remember it being the most romantic, intoxicating feeling. At six years old, chocolate milk in one hand and crayon in the other. At ten, Coca Cola and a pencil. Sixteen, coffee and a Bic. Scratching out the story with every mile: where I was going. Or where I wished I was.

When I was a kid, I thought every highway would go exactly where I wanted it to. I thought the mist would always be golden.

This time last year I had a foot on each end of the highway. Sold the house, moved three hours away, two weeks before school let out, and commuted to finish out my contract. Every morning I was in the car by four, driving down and down on roads that crumbled and steepened the further south I went.

This morning, children woke up there, in houses next to the crumbling highway, where the mountains are so tall the sun doesn't rise till eight. The highways run in circles. The mist is gray. I spent a year trying to get those kids to tell me their stories, to dream big, to tell me where they wanted their highway to lead.

They didn't understand the question.

Ten months I taught them and they never understood the question.

It has taken me a year to even be able to look back on those months in the coalfields. My anxiety level ratchets up several notches and my mind tries to change the subject, tries to find something else to dwell on before I have to remember each specific face, so adult, so tired and old, so tragic on a seven-year-old. How I hated that look in their eyes. How I hated that year, trying to teach my kids something that can't be taught. Hope and dreaming and a little bit of peace. How to be a damn kid for a minute.

Some days – every day – I wish I could have another shot. Do better by those children. But this time last year, I couldn't force myself to stay. I put in my resignation and the nightmares stopped. I put a For Sale sign in the swampy yard of the house with messed-up plumbing and locked windows. I jumped on the highway at the first opportunity, drove up and up until the mist turned gold.

Left those kids behind.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Sasha's Voice

The novel I'm working on now is written partially in verse. More specifically, in incorrect verse. Sasha takes poetry forms and bends them just enough to fit what she needs to say.

Here in the darkness,
crickets call and night birds sing.
I know to keep still.

If you really tried,
you could be a little more
totally clueless.

Window panes rattled
with anger and thunder, till
the sun went away.

“Sasha, why don't you
talk no more?” he wants to know.
Wish I could tell him.

I don't know much about writing poetry, and neither does Sasha, but I'm having fun learning along with her!

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Moving Day

The prompt (from Writer's Toolkit):
Write about something you did that you didn't want to do.

My response:
I love moving day, and I hate it.

I mean, I know, right? Everybody hates moving day. Everybody hates filling out change of address forms and saying goodbye to the good neighbors. Everybody hates boxing up the big things.

But the little things are worse. The things that are lost until the big things are gone. All these things end up in a box that is impossible to label:

This box contains a half-empty shampoo bottle, five socks with no mates, a plastic horse with a broken leg, four playing cards, and seventeen filthy pennies.

I've moved. I've moved again. Some years it seemed like there was nothing but the moving.

So I know all about the pennies in the carpet after the boxes are gone. I know about things that are impossible to label.

My mother woke us early every moving day, but she didn't have to. We were up. We were going over and over it in our heads: What's going to be next? Will this one have a nice kid next door? Will this one be furnished? Will there finally be a sofa? Which stray cat will find us this time? How will we bear to leave him when it's time to move on?

Then the sun rises, and mom comes in, and we spend the next hour piling a truck's worth of belongings into the car. Deciding what to leave. What to take.

Saying goodbye to this neighborhood's stray cat.

We never think there will be tears. We're six, eight, and ten. Twelve, fourteen, sixteen. Seven, nine, eleven. This never was our cat.

Still, there are tears.

It takes a mile for our eyes to dry, but then we get to the fun part. Moving day is about packing and it is about unpacking, but my favorite is the part in between. The reprieve. The drive, which may be long or short, which may be fast or slow, but which is inevitably full of promise.

The hope is always the same: This place will be different. This place will be perfect. We will have our own bedrooms. We will each have a best friend. We will unpack and unpack and there will still be space. We will finally open the door, bring the cat inside, because this time, we will stay. The cat will be permanent and we will be permanent.

We giggle, on that drive. We make jokes. Even Dad, creased with tension over roads and rent and security deposits, will smile.

I love the drive.

I love the drive so much, I hate arriving.

Arriving to basement apartments with no windows, rooms too small to fill with dancing. Kids who won't be as nice as we hoped. Another stray cat we will love and lose.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Two quick giggles.

1. "Customers who visited this page ultimately ended up buying ..."

2. "In Gorillas. Edit categories."

Friday, January 7, 2011

Oh. THAT'S what I look like to other people.

Because my computer isn't working -- and neither is my car -- I've gotten into the habit of waiting for the bus at the local university library, where I can use a computer to work on my writing stuff. I only live a few blocks from the university, so it works out pretty well.

Today, just as I was leaving my apartment, I thought of a perfect conversation for two of my characters to have. My hands were full, and it was snowing, so I didn't stop to write it down. I just repeated it to myself over and over so I wouldn't forget it before I got to the library.

Let me back up. Walking across town, I was carrying:

-a shoulder bag with writing stuff in it -- pages with my editor's handwriting in the margins, pens that rarely get used but often get lost, notes to self on the back of McDonald's receipts -- and random stuff I need for the day, like a hairbrush and Tylenol and half of yesterday's lunch because I forgot to clean out my shoulder bag.

-Another shoulder bag full of school stuff -- data sheets, random sight word cards, a plastic rhinoceros that I think might have come out of a borrowed testing kit that I've already given back, and pre-test materials for a germ unit (which is annoyingly well-timed, since I'm fighting a head cold).

-a plastic bag with my breakfast and lunch in it (today's).

I was bundled up because it's not a long walk from home to campus, but it's a windy one, and I had these bags draped over me like Christmas tree tinsel. I was taking huge gulp of hot coffee every two or three steps, because, did I mention it's windy and also very cold?

And I was talking to myself. Animatedly. With dialogue. Using at least two different people's names. Saying the same thing over and over.

I don't know why people think writers are eccentric. This all makes perfect sense to me.