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Archive for September, 2010

Sometimes you write what you know. And likewise, sometimes you photograph what is around you. And if you only have a tiny video function on your camera, you use it. Yes, people, I’m thinking of getting a real video camera. If you have any suggestions, please leave them in the comments. Thanks.

But first, check out these brief clips of my friend, Mr. Moose. Yes, this moose is a young boy, probably born this past spring. Last Wednesday he was pretty musical with those wind chimes. This week he’s on to break dancing, and rumor has it that he’s applied for a driver’s license.

 Would you dance with this moose? Would you let him drive?

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I came at writing slowly.

As a kid I spent most of my free time playing or watching TV. I liked to read but not in an obsessive way. And I didn’t write unless I had to for school.

My senior year of high school I had an English teacher who really knew how to bring books to life through discussion, and I discovered that I liked thinking deeply about books.

In college I started keeping a journal, but only wrote in it sporadically about girls I liked but was too shy to ask out, or about what life is all about, or about how I needed to get off my butt and do something, anything.

Sophomore year I decided to major in English because I had to major in something and didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life besides go camping and backpacking.

My last two years of college I wrote lots of old-style rhyming poetry, modeling the poets I was reading, and had two poems published in a student literary journal.

When I moved to Alaska a few years later and was living in a cabin outside of town, I wrote some really bad short stories about a guy living in a cabin where not much of anything is happening.

Yeah, writing what you know doesn't always work out.

Fast forward a few years: I’m teaching English in an alternative school and I discover Young Adult Literature. I start bringing home books by the arm-load, searching for a few my reluctant and struggling readers will connect with, and I fall in love with the genre.

Now that I’ve got my students reading, I’m looking for ways to turn my students on to writing so we start writing scenes using characters from the novels we are reading.

My students like doing the assignments, but I love doing the assignments.

I’m not sure I would’ve started writing YA if it weren’t for my students. Now, I’m hooked.

How did you come to be a writer? Did you love writing from an early age or did you discover it in a more roundabout way?

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For me, plot and character are interwoven like the DNA strands in a Double Helix. I map out character arcs and plot arcs, but end up looking at them together more than separately because the story has to work as a whole.

That said, here are few things I do to develop character:

1.  I write my MCs life story up until the book starts. This helps me to develop his voice for the actual novel. Nothing beats voice when it comes to story-telling. Your character can be doing something as boring as changing a light-bulb if he’s got a great voice.

2.  In the first draft I ask questions like this continually: What does my character want? What does my character need? What are his internal conflicts?

3.  And all throughout the revision process I keep asking myself: What is my character feeling right now? If I know his back story, I can usually get in touch with what he is going through. Often those feelings make it into the story as thoughts, actions or gestures. And these are the things that show who he is and what he is struggling with.

In one of my manuscripts, I totally changed who the MC was during a revision. I gave him a completely different back story even though in the book he still had to get from Point A to Point B.

I made him both more sympathetic and larger-than-life in a good way. Hopefully he does things that you wish you’d done if you were in his situation but you’d have to be pretty brave to try. At the same time he battles with guilt, anger, lack of self-worth, and helplessness. I think he’s a better fit for the story I’m telling.

So, my final thought on writing compelling characters: Have them take risks. And to have them take risks, put them in risky situations.

Thanks for stopping by. I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

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I was walking out the door to cut a few sprigs of brocoli and a couple of kale leaves from the garden when I was stopped in my tracks by this guy. 

I was planning on having steamed veggies for lunch. Yeah, I do that about three times a week during gardening season. I already had carrots, cabbage and califlower in the steamer. I figure the earlier in the day I eat healthy food the more likely it is that I’ll actually eat it. (I planted some M-n-M seeds this year, but unfortunately they didn’t take. I guess they don’t do well in a northern climate.)

But the moose—he was pretty persistent. I stood on the deck for about thirty minutes watching him strip willow leaves from trees, and look longingly at the vegetables behind the our seven foot tall fence.

Then he did something really funny and strange, and kept doing it for five or six minutes. My camera has a video function that allows you to take 15 seconds of video at  a time. The resolution isn’t that great but what he does is.

Yeah, he really had a thing for those bamboo windchimes. After he got tired of playing with the chimes, he approached the deck to get a closer look at me.

I’m sure glad I didn’t choose the PB&J for lunch, then I would’ve missed the whole show.

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The start of the Equinox Marathon.

I think life is composed of many marathons whether you are walking, running, writing, raising children, caring for elderly relatives, teaching, whatever the important things are in your life that you are continually working on and growing from.

For me, the Equinox Marathon, which I ran on Saturday for the 8th time, is a metaphor for life. It’s a pilgrimage up steep, tree-lined roads and trails to the top of a dome (think small mountain) and then back down a different way.

The high-point of the course, Ester Dome, is the most distant spot in the photo.

At times during the race I’m giving other runners a wave or a nod or a word of encouragement and receiving them as well, and acknowledging many of the fine folks lining the accessible parts of the course. But mostly, I try to approach the run as a form of meditation, where I’m relaxing my body, a small smile on my face, while I put one foot in front of the other.

And this is true with writing, teaching, driving, doing the dishes, having a conversation, whatever. When I focus solely on the task at hand, I both enjoy it more and do a better job as I’m swept into that elusive world of just living in the present.

Just like everyone else, I worry about things I have no control over, get nervous before giving a presentation, space out and burn food on the stove, stick eggs in the freezer—the list goes on.

During the race I worried about running too fast and burning out. I worried about my stomach cramping up from too much Gatorade. I worried about reinjuring my knee. I worried about tripping and doing a face plant. But these worries were interspersed with moments of smiling and being totally aware of what I was doing, which was making this amazing pilgrimage with 800 other people. Some walked and some ran. Some people finished in under three hours, some in over eight, but we all did it together.

A lone runner coming down Ester Dome.

It is kind of like being in a community of writers. No one is going to write your book for you, but hopefully you’re getting a lot of encouragement and comfort knowing that even though you are responsible for each step you take you are not on this journey alone.

What draws you away from being in the present moment? And what brings you back? And, have you ever stuck anything in the freezer that didn’t belong there?

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I discovered this tree a couple days ago while hiking around in the forest just up the ridge from our house. I’ve seen trees fall in the forest. And I’ve heard trees pop and crack and screech.  I’m guessing this one created some pretty wild sounds when it fell.

Years ago, while on a backpacking trip on California’s Lost Coast, I was in my tent, riding out a storm. Over the wind and rain I heard some very loud popping sounds. Instinctively, I moved to the side of the tent farthest away from the sounds. Then I heard a thud, and the ground shook just a little. The next morning I found the newly-fallen crown of a Fir tree just fifty feet from my tent.

It really made me think about how many things are just beyond our control. I’m glad I didn’t camp any closer to that tree.

Thanks for stopping by. Have a great weekend!

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Yeah, that's me at two. Love those PJs with the feet!

If you’ve been reading my blog for a while you know that I like to spend time in remote places, living close to the elements. The year following my college graduation I spent more nights sleeping in a tent than I did indoors.

But as a kid, besides sleeping out in a friend’s back yard a few times, I never went camping. The summer before my senior year of high school my older brother, Carl said he was going to ride his bike up the coast of Lake Michigan and camp out for a few days.

I was deep into summer basketball workouts, but reluctantly decided to invite myself along on Carl’s trip, not because I wanted to go camping, but because I didn’t want him to go alone. At least that’s how I remember it. Carl is just 21 months older than me and played a huge role in my life as a kid.

Our supplies: one sleeping bag, one blanket, a cast iron frying pan, and a plastic table cloth.

Our plan: one of us uses the bag to sleep, the other the blanket, and if it rains we’ll drape the plastic table cloth over a picnic table and sleep under it. We were brilliant.

Pretty Cozy Accommodations

We pedaled about 70 miles up the coast and set up shop just outside of Covert, MI.

For three nights we slept next to a campfire under the stars in the sand dunes. I had the sleeping bag, Carl the blanket. Yeah, turns out we’d brought that table cloth for nothing!

I almost didn’t go on the trip. And if it’d rained the whole time it would’ve been a completely different experience, but that trip touched me in a way I’d never been touched. Fast forward three years later—I spent the whole summer in a tent in Alaska.

My first home in Alaska, 1984.

What are your early influences? Is there a person or a place or an experience that awakened a part of you that you didn’t know existed? And, have you ever slept under a picnic table? I haven’t, but I came pretty close.

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