Friday, January 30, 2009

Logic Brain

I can feel mine growing. I took a break from my novel thinking to write a poetry challenge Julie Larios offered on the VCFA forum. The challenge I accepted was to write a poem in which every line has an end-rhyme with the word "doughnut." Mine turned out to be completely inappropriate for children (and maybe for this blog), but I enjoyed the mental gymnastics.

Today, I got all fired up about a new middle grade story idea. I spent a good chunk of time writing a chapter, just exploring, and an equal amount of time outlining! This is new for me, to outline before writing very far, but I think it's good to practice the opposite of what makes you comfortable. Most people either lean towards intuitive, exploratory first drafts, or they outline and structure like crazy before they write a word. I definitely fall into the first camp, but I'm going to see what happens if I take the other path. So far, it's fun.

Currently reading: Rex Zero and the End of the World by VCFA's Tim Wynne-Jones. Having heard Tim read a bunch, it's really fun to hear his voice coming through so loud and clear in this book.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Here Kitty, Kitty

It's been a while since I posted Linkitties, but here are a few for you, mostly about zombies and knitting . . .

Zombies are alive and well (dead and well?) in Austin, TX.

My friend Cesar Torres is having a whole Zombie Week on his blog.

Kelly Link is so nifty you should buy her books, but if you need to be convinced first you can read two stories about zombies, "The Hortlak" and "Some Zombie Contingency Plans" from Magic for Beginners on her website.

And while we're on zombies, when I lived in LA, I had fun hanging out with the cast and crew of American Zombie, the first feature by documentarian Grace Lee. Love it!

VCFA grad Micol Ostow is celebrating the launch of The Bradford Novels with a blog bash. I'm pretty fascinated the potential of transmedia storytelling. I dig this post by Larry Kless on the subject. All the Bradford characters have their own blogs, their school has a website, etc. It's a mini-universe, and I am more than a little jealous of the models portraying the characters. I didn't realize until I saw their pictures that it was a childhood fantasy of mine to BE a book character.

You may have heard that Neil Gaiman won this year's Newbery Medal for The Graveyard Book. Well, he also wrote Coraline, a book which makes me swoon and which comes out as a movie February 6th. The director of The Nightmare Before Christmas, Neil Gaiman, and KNITTING, all in one movie?

I can't deal!

And you know what else is neat? The movie people are sending funky boxes to bloggers, like my beloved Knitty. Animation Archive has collected links to a lot of them.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Wait, you mean characters are supposed to DO things?

My main character participates in a lot of "activities," which is mostly because I keep auditioning things for her to do in my desperate search for a plot. Right now, she is mostly a dancer. But I've turned on my logic brain. I'm turning its cold eye on my monster draft and trying to figure out whether this choice has thematic and practical integrity.

As I'm exploring, I would love to interview people who have experience with any of these three activities in high school:

Competitive swimming
Track & field

If you'd like to inform me, shoot an email to Thanks!

Labyrinth Explains My Life, Part II

So I'm feeling empowered, like I've let go of something heavy, and once again, I've got a scene from Labyrinth running through my head. This time it's the part where Sarah says, "Through dangers untold and hardships unnumbered, I have fought my way here to the castle beyond the Goblin City to take back the child that you have stolen. For my will is as strong as yours, and my kingdom is as great . . . You have no power over me."

I do what any good blogger would do. I go looking for a clip of that speech on YouTube. And I found it. Delivered by an Italian actress. In what looks to be some sort of demo reel?


Tuesday, January 27, 2009


Before I left residency, I had to leave a draft of my novel (which I plan to make my creative thesis) with my new advisor.

It was a lot bigger than I expected -- 398 pages.


I expect that it needs to be less than half that length for the story I'm trying to tell. And then there's that other pesky issue -- committing to one story out of all this jumble.

It's going to be fine. I have faith in myself. But this is my work for the next semester, to cut and reinvent and maybe even start from scratch. Yipes.

Monday, January 26, 2009

ALA Rockstars

Congratulations to all the writers honored today at the ALA Youth Media Awards!

A special shoutout to my rockstar VCFA advisor Kathi Appelt, who received a Newbery Honor for The Underneath. And another to frequent lecturer and all-around-smart-man at VCFA, M.T. Anderson, who received a Printz Honor for The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Volume II, The Kingdom on the Waves.

I'm embarrassed to say that before I started my program, I wouldn't have been paying much attention to these awards. Today, I feel lucky to have learned from these people. I love school!

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Crying for cats

I'm back in Birmingham, only until tomorrow night, getting over my cold and post-residency exhaustion with lots of sleep and premium television.

On my way home from residency, I got stuck in Philadelphia. No one was nice to me -- not US Airways, not the TWO Quality Inns who failed to pick me up, not the ghosts who tease me in that city.

A call to a friend reminded me that this kind of delay can be an adventure. Thank you, friend.

When the Ramada shuttle driver swept me away from waiting for the questionable Quality, I went. I washed my socks and underwear in the sink. Ate the second half of the Snickers bar I had for lunch. Watched the end of Juno and cried. Watched a depressing documentary about a man who lost everything he loved in life (Cat Dancers) and cried. And it felt really good.

I love going to school. I hate leaving school. By the end of residency, I feel like my brain's been sucked out and replaced by marshmallows. Really stupid, emotional marshmallows. So crying for a weird man who danced with cats was cathartic.

Just read Need by VCFA alum Carrie Jones. The butt-kicking heroine and her growly boyfriend made my plane travel woes much more palatable. Thank you, Carrie.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

I am so tired, I could eat a . . . wait

I wanted to share that I won a scholarship prize for my critical thesis, "Growing Up Marvelous: Coming of Age and the Fantastic in Novels for Young Readers," and I'll be reading a bit from it tomorrow.

I learned a bunch from writing it, so I have no complaints about the work it required, but this is some yummy icing -- buttery, not so sweet that it hurts my teeth.

I'm also thrilled to report that the Super Secret Society of Quirk and Quill threw a sweet party for this semester's graduates, The Revisionistas. We latched onto their penchant for "slicing and dicing the written word" and went with a Clue theme, framing them as suspects in the murders of some of our favorite characters . . . This would be Humpty Dumpty.

"Who poisoned Pooh's honey pot? Who whacked the Wild Thing?"

Other highlights from the last couple of days included a book discussion on Unwind, The Adoration of Jenna Fox, and The Moon Came Down on Milk Street.

Jean Gralley, author of that last one, came to give her presentation on the digital potential for picture books, "Books Unbound." She was full of enthusiasm, and super inspiring. Check out the Digital Stories section of her website.

We also found out who our new advisors will be! I'll be working with Martine Leavitt. I admire her so much, my mind's a little blown.

We're keeping warm, but as you can see, it's a wee bit snowy here.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

When I am writing I do not love you . . .

. . . is what one writer posts on the wall of her office to remind her loved ones to give her peace when she's at work. I love you, but I will not be posting much for the next ten days.

Tuesday morning before the sun, I beat the blizzard and made it to the Vermont College of Fine Arts for my fourth residency.

The Super Secret Society of Quirk and Quill have already held a number of top secret meetings to discuss the party we're throwing for the graduating students, a joint wedding and baby shower for two of our own, and our graduation plans for next summer.

That is on top of all our normal meetings, readings, lectures, workshops, talks with visiting writer Carolyn Coman, and general hanging-out-iness. I'm in love with this place and these people, and I'm having a little trouble dealing with the fact that my last semester is here.

Also, I have a cold, but it is cold here, so that seems appropriate.

Before I left, I started reading Magic for Beginners by Kelly Link. Sigh. She's one of those writers who makes me want to write. To write better. So sweet. So jealous.

Sleep time has come. Posts will be sporadic at best.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Life lessons

Geoff's baby is learning self-soothing.

I'm still working on it.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Present day

I have at least one more Guatemala post in me, but at the moment, I want to acknowledge that this year has started well. I haven't made any resolutions, but there's one that's sort of made itself, as it keeps hopping around in my brain. My brain, unsurprisingly, is telling me to listen to myself.

This sounds very hippy-dippy, I know, but it's at the heart of any other resolution I might make. So far this year I have turned down food that would make me too full, turned down a drink that would make me feel bad, done spontaneous yoga, done a monkey school show I hadn't thought I could do, and cleaned my apartment.

I didn't just clean it (in fact, parts of it are still pretty dirty), I made it more livable. I cleaned the shelves in my bathroom (an alley find) so I won't hesitate to use them, rearranged the shelves in my closet so I can reach them better, and stored the AC unit that's been sitting ugly in my bedroom for too, too long.

Also, I agreed to show up Monday morning at 7am, outside, to participate in strength and endurance circuit training with two of the toughest people I know. I mean, seriously, he's a mountain man who teaches rock climbing. She tends to get cast in roles where she kicks people's asses and ends up covered in blood. Um.

Honestly, I'm only listening to part of myself on this one. The other parts want to know what I'm thinking. But it won't kill me. Probably. And it might be funny. Or inspiring.

[UPDATE: Rachel did not make it to strength and endurance cross-training. If Rachel ever learns to go to bed before midnight she might give it another go.]

I haven't been keeping track of what I'm reading here, mostly because I'm still reading The English Patient. I love it, but nothing about that book says, "read me fast." In the meantime though, I've also read Unwind by Neil Shusterman, and I'm currently plowing through The Adoration of Jenna Fox by Mary E. Pearson, two books that scream, "read me, read me now!" Both are speculative and pretty dystopian books about worlds coming apart, which I'm reading for a book discussion at residency -- led by my advisor Uma Krishnaswami and my upcoming workshop leader (yes, yes, yes) Cynthia Leitich Smith. I cannot wait.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Open, shut, shut, open

The visual field in Panajachel takes getting used to -- it's hyper-stimulating.

Color on color, signs, tuk tuks and pick-up trucks threatening to run you over. Women with babies on their backs and baskets on their heads shaking trinkets in front of your eyes, wrapping trinkets around your neck, bouncing trinkets on your shoulder, brushing trinkets soft against your face.

The Mayan women speak few phrases in Spanish: "buy something," "I have other colors," "for your mother, for your father, for your brother, your sister, your friend," and one that they all know in English: "I give you good price."

Space works differently there, a game of streets and alleys. That's where children stand in rows arm to arm, while a cat chases a mouse up and down the streets. If the mouse yells, "alleys" all the children spin so the lanes run perpendicular. What were rows become columns.

The streets of Panajachel and Antigua feel that way. You walk down a narrow, penned-in road. The sides of that road feel solid or at least impenetrable . . . iron doors, stone, hanging tapestries and sheets of corrugated metal. Then a door opens, or a color catches your eye, and you realize that a whole new space has opened up, a new, deep corridor.

Depending on which vendors set up where on a given day, the landscape shifts.

Sometimes, you will think that you're seated outdoors only to look up and see a thatched ceiling or ivy pressing down. Sometimes, like in this Antigua cathedral, you'll think you're indoors and look up to find that the lid has been lifted off by a bomb, or a volcano, or a mudslide, or maybe all three.

And because of this continual opening and closing, Lake Atitlan, a huge expanse with no walls and no lids, comes as a great relief.

Friday, January 2, 2009

The pleasure and the pain

Jamie says Guatemala is all about "the pleasure and the pain," high highs and low lows. And yet, the highs are so high that it balances out to fantastic.

I'm still exhausted. My whole body hurts. I'm in my bed-bug-free bed drinking Guatemalan coffee that I brought back with me and eating food from the 7-11. I can't get over drinking water from the faucet. Brushing my teeth with water from the faucet.

I haven't yet downloaded my photos. Once I do, I'll probably bombard the blog, but for now, here's the one picture I took with my phone. It captures both sides of the rollercoaster country pretty well. And it happened on the first day. If I'm going to share, I might as well do it in an organized fashion.

Waving children line the road on a rural stretch between Guatemala City and Panajachel. Their fathers are fighting, their mothers are working, so they stand on the road and wave, hoping people will stop to give them candy and quetzals.

We'd stopped at a restaurant in the middle of our 3.5 hour shuttle ride, and these kids came running. Geoff gave them quetzals. Allie gave them candy, and then the driver suggested we sing to them. He said what sounded like, "songs is like tips for children."

So we tipped them. John played "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star," we all sang, and they freaked out -- huddling together and laughing like they'd gotten an electric shock. They tried to sing along. We tried not to look too saddened by the bugs in their hair and the dirt on their mouths.