Monday, January 13, 2014

Rookies

A few months ago, I listened to a piece from TEDRadio on NPR that had me driving down the road with my jaw hung in awe. This amazing teenager spoke of her ever-unfolding experience as a young woman in this world with such bold honesty and uncanny wisdom that I nearly drove off the road. If you have not checked out Rookie.com, go do it right now.

Tavi Gevinson is a high school senior who refers to herself as "a senior citizen who goes to high school." She is more perceptive and witty and earnest than most of the chronological senior citizens I know, and she hasn't even graduated high school yet. But in all her prodigious wisdom, Tavi is so thoroughly a teenage girl. The difference between her and so many others is that she accepts that, takes complete ownership of it, and glories in the uncharted territory she is blasting through.

The greatest gift she offers her generation is a voice. She started a fashion blog in middle school and now has a website that is peopled by a number of bright young female contributors like her who face the challenges and triumphs and everyday flotsom of adolescence with grace and honesty. They share that space with any girl who dares to consider who she is and who she hopes to be. She can ask questions and search for the answers. She can give herself permission to take part in a discussion. After all, as Tavi explains, life is not a game that comes with a playbook and a set of rules, no matter how hard the "in-crowd" would like to claim it. Life is a discussion, and people are complex. No one is merely "one thing" or even two. We are full of contradictions and complexities and we should embrace them. Tavi not only "gets" that, she gives all teenage girls a place to embrace it.

One of my favorite points in her TED Talk comes at the end when she advises her audience to be Stevie Nicks. Stevie Nicks is "unapologetically present on stage and unapologetic about her flaws and about reconciling all her contradictory feelings, and she makes you listen to them and think about them."

If you have a teenaged daughter, introduce her to Rookiemag.com, and if you write for teenage girls, stop by and visit this insightful, unabashedly real website and meet that girl you are speaking to.


Wednesday, January 08, 2014

The Wisdom of Fiction

As an avid reader and writer of historical fiction, I have often ruminated on my own place in time and what would have become of me if I had been born in another era. I may never write "important literature," but many books have made me stop and think what I might have been had the circumstances of my birth been different. I have considered issues of health and science and technology and whether I would have even survived to adulthood in the 19th century or even the early 20th century. In most cases, I probably would have died before I reached my first birthday. The bigger question, assuming I would have survived, is what kind of person would I have become?

I have been moved to righteous indignation by classic books like The Witch of Blackbird Pond, Huckleberry Finn, To Kill a Mockingbird, and The Scarlet Letter, and more recent selections like Shine, Inside Out and Back Again, and The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. I can't help but wonder where my moral compass would have pointed if I had grown up in the Antebellum South or in WWII Germany. Would I have accepted bigoted codes of ethics as morally right or hidden behind the general attitude of the time because it was easier than expressing an opposing opinion?

Having come up through the 1960's and the explosion of free speech and equality-for-all rallies, I must have soaked up the social vibrations that that would have bounced my grandparents right out of their comfort zone. Yes, I had a loving grandmother who regularly used a slew of racial and religious epithets to describe the Jewish, African American, and Hispanic people around her, completely convinced that they were just ordinary adjectives and acceptable classifications.  My mother adopted some of that, but she was more subtle. My mother was also a staunch Republican—chairman of the local GOP—but a firm women's libber who started her own business. It was an interesting set of messages to ingest, so I don't really know what part of me stems from her influence and what was just innate.

Books have so much power, especially in our formative years (adolescence in particular), to both elicit a response and to shape it.  It was easy for me to stand in 1979 and see the injustice of Hester Prynne's sentence, but how would I have felt about it in the 1630's or even when Hawthorne published it in 1840? Would I have defended her?  Would I have protected The Witch of Blackbird Pond's Hannah in 1687 or would I have joined the hunt? Would I have stood up for Tom Robinson in the 1930s? I would like to think I had the gumption to choose the right path no matter where or when I lived.

I have always felt blessed to live in a more "enlightened" era where the lessons of history seem so obvious and clear in the books that I have read. I have looked around and thought that I don't have those sorts of huge choices to make, so maybe I'm not as evolved as I would like to think.

Then again, I have seen the fall of Apartheid in South Africa and protested in my own small way against those who supported it. I have been sickened by the sort of hatred that drags a black man to his death behind a pick-up truck or lashes a young gay man to a post, beaten to within an inch of his life and left to die. I have seen the kind of fanatical judgement that drives jet planes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and takes thousands of lives. I have heard the story of a 17-year-old Afghan girl who risked her life just to be educated. I have seen what fear and hatred can do to the marginalized of our generation.  We choose our response, big or small, and every tiny spec of dignity matters.

I choose to read the books I read, too, and I react to them of my own accord, from something that lives deep in my bones. Not every book has to ask some huge moral question, but each can show us a little about who we are or who we would like to be. There must be a reason I cry when Tom's life is lost because of bigotry, when Dimmesdale dies and Hester suffers on, when Hannah is hunted like an animal because of fear and superstition.

Would I have understood what it meant to be human even back then? I hope so. Maybe the rebellious literature of the age would have found me. Maybe I would have searched for it and loved it and learned from it. And maybe, just maybe, I would have written some of it.

Friday, November 08, 2013

Doubt 2.0

“Our doubts are traitors,
and make us lose the good we oft might win, by fearing to attempt.”  Shakespeare


“Doubt … is an illness that comes from knowledge and leads to madness.” 
 Gustave Flaubert, Memoirs of a Madman





It is strange that when certain signs come together to exclaim that we are on the right track and so very close to victory, some of us choose the perverse path to self-doubt instead of celebration and momentum. That is all me. Then again, I have been so close to the carrot that I could taste every molecule, and then it still slipped away from me, leaving me hungry and despondent. The novel that I eventually signed with my agent first languished with a "dream" editor for a year before it was rejected, then made a short run of submissions only to be stuck in the drawer as a backup for the next "big thing." I had thought I was on my way, than <> it was gone.

Three years later, here I stand with the SCBWI Work-in-Progress Grant in hand, an incredible Highlights Foundation workshop under my belt, fabulous feedback and support from my Montreat Gals, and I'm terrified I'm just a fraud. Or that I will screw up what I started. Is this a common disease among writers? 

I think the answer is probably "yes." (Either way, I'll take comfort in the possibility that I'm not alone.)

Perhaps my biggest problem isn't doubt, but the insane pursuit of perfection. I tend to have a hard time turning off the internal editor as I write. The upside is that when I decided to send in my WIP for the grant competition, it was already in decent shape (though far from perfect). The down side is that it takes me FOREVER to get the whole draft done and I my bleed a million words for ever ten that end up on the page.  I get stuck in the mire of research and plot and character perfection that sometimes brings the whole process to a halt. 

I'll never stop writing, no matter how many tumbles I take down the rejection hole. There are days, however, when I want to run screaming from the planet and say "I quit!" The pressure to prove myself has always haunted me. Whether that comes my tumultuous childhood or it's in my DNA, I couldn't say. I just know that I learn to let myself off the hook a little. So, here is my pledge:


I solemnly vow to allow myself to thoroughly suck it up, 
  •  That I will bind my internal editor with twine and throw her in a dark corner until I have pounded out a full draft, 
  • That I may delete entire chapters when I'm done and love it, 
  • That I will have faith that I can write a beautiful, creepy, haunting scene and back it up with action,
  • That I will not judge myself (at least until I've done at least 3 major revisions),
  • That I will not think about time or feel pressured to beat the rush (whatever that is),
  • That I will love my suckage and call myself WRITER.


In the spirit of NaNoWriMo, I'm off to crank up the word kind and embrace the craptastic first draft experience as I never have before.



Tuesday, October 29, 2013

The Retreat that keeps on Treating...

Last week I shared a bit of our Mountain Writers' Retreat, and now you can have a little slice of the magic for your very own. Just pop on over to the talented Jen McConnel's Blog for her run-down of events and a giveaway! Nothing like a little swag to keep the creative juices flowing. Be sure to follow this dynamic crew on Twitter and become an honorary killer...of superfluous words, that is.


Monday, October 21, 2013

Ms. Brown's Not-So-Vicious Circle

In a bear-proof house tucked into the mountains of North Carolina, eight women gathered around a kitchen table to talk about writing, life, and anything else that came to mind. A little wine and chocolate greased the wheels, as my fabulous weekend retreat in Montreat began.

There were war stories of agents and editors and rejections and triumphs, but the cream was the writing, itself, and the amazing women with such distinct voices and talent. Somewhere between the Zinfandel and the chocolate-covered peanut butter pretzels, I realized that we were creating one of those circles. Not a vicious circle like Dorothy Parker's or some bohemian movement like the beat poets of Ginsberg's generation, but our own little salon of YA/MG writers.

We spent our days writing and swapping bits of prose and advice as we nourished the friendships that had been planted online and now blossomed in our mountain hide-away. At night, we shared pieces of our YA stories, pieces of our souls. @Jen_McConnel led us through the Scottish Highlands with a selection from her upcoming release The Secret of Isobel Key. @laurenspeiller touched us with a beautiful piece of historical fiction set in Hawaii. @julianalbrandt danced us through creation with beautiful myths from her work-in-progress. @kiperoo moved us with her lyrical, lovely tribute to the poetry of Rilke. @PatEsden took us from the auction house to the darkest and creepiest place beneath the porch in her newest YA thriller. @RConstantine14 made us laugh and remember what it is to be a teenager in love with her wonderful upcoming release The Promise of Amazing. And our fearless leader who organized the whole shebang, @JayeRobinBrown, made us laugh and cry with selections from her upcoming release No Place to Fall as well as her newly polished work, Popsicle. If you haven't already, follow these amazing writers and twitter and in the bookstore.

Writing is a solitary business. It takes us to strange places that we often never show others, let alone ourselves. Having a circle of friends who understand your journey can light up the dark in ways that not only keep you sane, but make you a better writer. So many distinct voices. So much passion and creativity.

Thank you, my fabulous, not-so-vicious circle of YA geniuses. We shall kill many darlings in the days to come, but believe me—it's justifiable homicide with a freaking rainbow at the end.


Friday, September 06, 2013

To Young Writers

As an adult writer of fiction for young readers, I have sailed the high seas of rejection, weathering the tumultuous storms of writing one manuscript after another and querying for representation and publication. Too often I've been tempted to park my boat in dry dock and just forget it, but something always pulls me back. Perhaps its the love of writing. Or maybe my never-ending admiration for what it means to be a teenager. Or even the inescapable voice that just refuses to quit whispering stories to my tired old brain. Whatever it is, I have learned to listen and follow my bliss, no matter how hard it gets. The old adage is true: nothing truly worth having comes easily.

Along the way, I have met young people who love to write, maybe even live to write. Some of them have scarcely been on the planet as long as I've been writing YA fiction, but even they can feel defeated and frustrated by the process and by what feels like an almost impossible dream—future publication.

To you amazing young writers, I offer a few lifelines:


  • Never stifle that inner voice — If you feel like writing it, write it. Don't judge yourself before you even start and decide it's stupid. You never know where one little idea or word or turn of a phrase can lead you. And don't be afraid to make a mistake. Every writer has that secret drawer of crap that turned out to be too purple or lame or just a dead-end idea. You won't know until you throw it out there and see if it floats.
  • Build yourself a support network — You don't have to write alone anymore. Gone are the days when a writer lived in some squalid, isolated shack to suffer under the weight of his art alone. Social media and the interwebs have connected writers in the most amazing ways. Check out  Write On for some great chat boards and general information. Teen Ink also has a forum dedicated to teen writers as well as author interviews, reviews, and other cool topics. For a jaunt down under, check out the Teen Writers Club. The point is, you don't have to do this alone. Writers love to commiserate and share their battle scars as well as their successes. You'll find a lot of writes just need to connect with someone who can relate.
  • READ, READ, READ — If you're writing, odds are you love stories. (Duh!) Sometimes we get so caught up in trying to create our own masterpiece, though, that we forget to feed our creative soul. Take time to read. You'll be amazed at how much your own writing is rejuvenated and even improved by a little contact with the works of writers like John Green, Laurie Halse Anderson, Maureen Johnson, or Neil Gaiman. Whether you love graphic novels, mysteries, sweeping romance, hard-hitting realism, or silly fun, read it.
  • Visit your favorite writer —Well, don't stalk him or anything, but find his website and do a little exploring. Troll for information. You might be surprised at how many authors have writing contests, blogs, or advice pages or other kinds of interactions with their fans and young writers. Meg Cabot has a Fiction Club forum where you can share your experiences and have fun with her books. You can learn a lot by talking about other people's work. Veronica Roth answers a lot of burning questions on the FAQ page of her site. And don't be shy. If you're a fan, contact your favorite author.
  • Publishing isn't everything...yet — Don't worry about publication at this point. If you are interested, some of the sites mentioned above offer opportunities to publish your work, and there are some traditional options with magazines and other outlets as well. That said, sharing your work can teach you a lot, even if it isn't published and paid for. Consider submitting your work to your school literary magazine (if you have one) or the newspaper. If you know other people who are interested, start a critique group. A lot of adult writers, published and unpublished, are part of a critique group or writing club. While criticism can be hard to take sometimes, it is a necessary evil that will help you grow. And if you are serious about being published anywhere, you have to learn to take criticism and rejection. It's a fact of the writing life. 
  • Find a mentor — Even established writers have that one person who can guide them and encourage them in their journey. If you ever get a chance to meet a published writer, take it. If your library or school has a writer visit, sit up front, ask questions, and if there is time and opportunity, chat with her. You can also connect with writers online, often through some of the chat boards listed above.
  • Give yourself permission to suck —You will have those days when every word you spill onto the page truly, deeply sucks. (At least you think it does.) Some writers will use that as an excuse to quit. Even crappy writing is writing. You can throw it away later. For now, just get it out there. If you are really stuck, take a little time to read instead of write. You will often find a new sense of perspective when you come back to writing.


Above all...KEEP WRITING. 


So hop in your little boat, batten down those life-lines, and let the tide roll. 




Sunday, August 11, 2013

When it Really, Really Happens...

Warning: This post littered with excessive exclamation marks and potential gibberish. 


Pinch me! Pinch me again! Yes, it's real! I actually won the SCBWI 2013 Work-in-Progress Grant! 

The official announcement was made on September 30th, but I was notified a week earlier. I'm sure Chelsea thought I had blown more than a few brain cells at the other end of the phone, but I never imagined I could actually win, especially considering some of the amazingly talented people I was up against.

Here's the scenerio...

I'm cooking dinner, ramen broccoli soup for my pescetarian/vegetarian daughter, when the phone rings. The caller ID says Los Angeles, CA and I think, Who do I know in L.A.? (The grammarian in me would correct that to whom, but I'm not going to quibble at this moment.) I put the ladle down and answer the phone.

"Hello."
"Is this Mary Ann Scott?"
"Yes, it is."
"This is Chelsea Mooser from SCBWI."
*Gulp*
"Yes?"
"You are the winner of the 2013 Work in Progress Grant."
"WHAT? REALLY? ME? REALLY? ARE YOU SURE? REALLY?"

Just at the moment my husband walks in and wants to know who is on the phone. Of course, I can't talk. I can hardly breath! Meanwhile, I'm hearing warm congratulations in my ear and the name of my humble little work-in-progress, soon-to-become-a-real-book spoken by a stranger who actually knew what it was.

After a few instructions about staying mum on the social networks, etc., she offered further congratulations and said goodbye. I hung up and stared at my hubby, trying to force a bit of air into my lungs so I could speak again. Here's the extra cool part. When I told him what had just happened, he totally got it and cried and celebrated right along with me. He knew exactly what this meant.

A week later, SCBWI announced the official results, and I was finally free to blab all over FaceBook and Twitter and everywhere else.  I was already on my yearly holiday with Ghost Son in North Carolina so I wasn't there to pluck that precious envelope from the mailbox, but something awesome would be waiting for me when I got home.


And now...the bulk of those 2000 simoleans is already spent on airfare and the Highlights Foundation More Room to Create Workshop!  October is going to be an awesome month!

Now, I just have to finish the book (without screwing it all up) and get that book deal. I don't know...I might actually pass out cold when that happens!