Archive for March, 2010

Trail to Nowhere

When I clip into my skis and hit the trails out my door I know I’m not headed far.

The trails, which I’ve being skiing on for ten years, loop around and cross each other, and sometimes I don’t know what trail I’m on or which direction I’m heading but I know that I’m on a piece of land bordered by four roads.

It’d be tough to get lost so I just ski, because basically I’m going nowhere. I’m gonna eventually end up back at my door, unless I get stomped by a moose.

A couple weeks ago one of my neighbors offered me a map of the trail system. I thanked her for the thought but declined because I like accessing that little bit of unknown right out my door.

I want some structure but not too much.

I’m rewriting a book I started eight years ago. My rewrite is set on the same old trail system. And because I’m not exactly sure where I’m going, I’m paying even more attention to where I am, and I’m noticing the little details of my journey.

I’m not sure where it’s all leading but I’m enjoying the twists and turns, even if I am confused at times.

The confusion forces me to look more deeply at my story. It may slow me down and I might be on the trail system longer, but what I discover while I’m gliding in confusion-land could be just the thing my story needs, or it could be another trail to nowhere.

So, with varying amounts of success, I’m trying to embrace the confusion, to use it as a window into awareness.

How about you? Any thoughts on confusion and awareness?

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I’m almost done reading Drop City by T. C. Boyle. It’s an intense, and often hilarious, National Book Award Finalist, story of a 1970’s free-love, it’s-all-cool-and-hip commune that relocates from California to the roadless banks of the Yukon River. Some unexpected alliances form between two very different back to the land movements.

A month ago I read a great YA novel, We Were Here by Matt de la Peña.

It’s the story of three boys who escape from a group home and set off on a journey down the California coast. I won’t tell you more because I don’t want to spoil the book.

In an interview with Sara Zarr, Matt talks about the ideas that inspired We Were Here, and a writing strategy he uses in general. Matt says: “When I was writing short stories I developed a weird strategy. I’d always take two partially finished stories and throw them together, no matter how odd the fit… For We Were Here I did something similar.”

Read the interview if you haven’t. It is one of the most delightful conversations about writing that I’ve read in a while. And, yes, it involves two of my favorite YA authors.

Last night a car full of older teens got stuck half-way up my snowy driveway. They said they were looking for a pet store and their GPS directed them to my place, and yeah, there’s no pet store out where I live, and my driveway is 500 feet long and snakes up a hill. The nearest store of any kind is three miles away.

A big kid in the back seat never got out of the car, not even when two other kids were pushing and one was driving. He just sat there on his cell phone. My first thought was he’s the top dog, drug-dealer, or whatever. Anyway, I was able to pull them out with my truck. Much to my surprise, one of the kids tried to pay me. I didn’t take the money but thanked him for the thought. It really was the last thing I was expecting.

And I thought of the unlikely Drop City commune on the banks of the Yukon River, and Matt de la Peña’s method of throwing two really different stories together, and then about my WIP and about how I’m going to give it a close look to see if I can mash some Mangoes  into the Moose Meat.

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Wood is the main fuel that heats our house so I spend quite a bit of time doing wood-related chores from cutting down trees,

to hauling wood in a wheel barrow,

or a sled,

to splitting and stacking wood,

and yes, burning it.

Over the years I’ve used the woodpile as a place to think. When I was teaching I’d mull over which short story to read to my class, or how to connect with a student who was in a crisis, or how to make some boring grammar lesson interesting.

As a writer I use the woodpile to try out voices for my characters, or to think through a plot problem. And to remind myself that it takes time for a story idea to mature into a novel.

I love the woodpile and the wood chores because I am working on providing a basic need. For me, that is grounding in and of itself. I’ve grown to love doing simple chores that connect me directly with being a human.

It’s all too easy for me to get caught up in worrying over things I can’t control and trying to change things that I have no control over. Working at the woodpile helps me to take a step back and breathe. It reminds me that I am alive in this amazing world.

What activities do you do that are grounding? What do you think about while you are doing them?

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A week ago I had the pleasure of facilitating a discussion with Kendra Marcus of Bookstop Literary Agency. Kendra was in Fairbanks visiting her daughter and offered a free question and answer session to any and all writers.

Kendra contacted Alaskan author Deb Vanasse through SCBWI and Deb (who is one of my long distance critique partners) contacted me. For writers in Fairbanks this was quite a treat. We don’t get many literary agents just stopping by and holding free sessions.

Luckily for us, Kendra enjoys winter weather.

At the end of the session I offered Kendra a ride. She thanked me for the offer but said she wanted to walk the mile up to the University, where she was meeting her daughter. It was a windy day, about 8 above zero.

As for the discussion, I didn’t have to do much facilitating because the ten writers, some published some not, some agented some not, who materialized at the Coffee House were bursting with questions, and Kendra’s responses led to more questions. Kendra even did a first page critique for one writer.

Her love for picture books, middle grade and young adult literature was very apparent. And she knows the book business; she’s been an agent since 1984. If she’s not already on your agent list, check out her website and see what you think.

Here are a few thoughts from Kendra regarding submissions:

1.  Make sure your story has layers of complexity. Too often I see stories that are just dealing with the surface. They don’t go deep enough.

2.  Let the character drive the plot.

3.  Pretend I’m a kid. You have to get my interest on the first page.

How do you know when your first page is doing its job? How do you know when you’ve gone deep enough in your story? How do you decide when your story is ready for submission? I’d love to hear your thoughts on any or all of these questions. Thanks!

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I’ve got a few awards to accept and pass on. Deb over at Ranch Girl Ramblings, gave me this one. Thanks, Deb!

I’m pretty happy today because I can actually use my computer. It was invaded by a nasty virus which I tried to fight, but my outdated weapons just drove it in deeper. So I called the guys at Dell and they nuked the sucker. I’m seriously happy about that. A few other things I’m happy for:

That I can breathe. Sounds simple but it’s true.

That the knee surgery I had last April didn’t actually make things worse.

I’d like to pass this award on to Tina Laura Lee at Watch Me Practice. Tina, please tell us a few things you are happy about when you are ready.

Alissa Grosso passed this award on to me. Thanks, Alissa! She has two blogs: Slightly More Than Dirt and one at her Author Website.  They are both cool.

I’m passing it on to Heather Kelly at Edit to Within an Inch of My Life. Heather has this cool thing going called Monday Meeting. It’s like standing around the Cyber Water Cooler at the beginning of the week and talking about what you hope to accomplish. Check it out.

Stephanie Thornton at Hatshepsut, a fellow Alaskan writer, gave me the Sunshine Award. Thanks, Stephanie!


The Sunshine Award didn’t come with specific requirements. I’m going to keep this one in the North Country and pass it on Terry Lynn Johnson, author, and driver of Sled Dogs in the wilds of Canada. Enjoy the returning sun.

Jill Kemerer passed this one on to me. Thanks, Jill! It’s supposed to say “You’re going places, baby,” across Bogart’s face but I couldn’t get that image to load so I just went for the Generic Bogart. I followed this award back several blogs and tried to upload the image but kept getting blocked. Another cyber-secret yet to unveiled to me. You can see the genuine image here. It’s pretty cool.

Requirements: Say where you’d like to be in ten years and pass it on. In ten years I’d like to be paddling my kayak next to a pod of Killer Whales, something I did on my first kayak trip twenty years ago. I seriously doubt that will even happen again, but it was amazing and humbling.

I’d like to pass this on to Ali Cross. Recently she’s started an Ask Ali Vlog on her blog. Check it out.

And finally, Roz Morris, across the pond at Nail Your Novel, gave me this:


Just for the record, I’ve never been called a Sugar Doll (at least to my face).  When I told my wife about the award, she looked at me, smiled, and said, Hey, Sugar Doll. The Sugar Doll is sort of like the Honest Scrap Award, only with a twist. Share a few things about yourself, except with the Sugar Doll, it specifies that those things be interesting. Interesting to whom, I’m not sure, but I’ll give it try.

1. My main responsibility in my first post-college job was counting Walrus on Togiak National Wildlife Refuge. I got paid three dollars a day. I know the wage is not impressive but it’s considerably more than I’ve made as a writer thus far.

2.  I’ve had WiFi for two years now, but have never owned a microwave oven.

3.  I bought my first computer in 1994 but did not have indoor plumbing until the year 2000.

4. For sixteen years I had a beard that hung down to the middle of my chest. I finally shaved it off three years after I got married because my wife really wanted to see my face.

I’m gonna sling this award across the Pacific, and south to Jade at Jade Hears Voices. Share a few interesting things about yourself, and pass it on.

 Today, I’m hosting Agent, Kendra Marcus of Bookstop Literary Agency for a question and answer session at College Coffee House from ten until noon. I met Kendra at a conference a couple years ago. I’m not sure what brings her to Fairbanks, but it’s very generous of her to offer this free session, open to all.

Afterwards, I hope to start my next rewrite of my YA adventure story. What are you working on this week?

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