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Things that make good writing

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I've been trying so hard to write lately, and I have ideas crowding my head and rising up in my insides and wanting to get out. But at the same time, it's that pre-school runup where schedules are insane and each kid has a unique time and date for registration, dentist, etc. Add in tons of cross country practice and a track meet to the schedule, my own scout committee meetings, startup events for my husband's department (as in social events we should make an appearance at), and basically, I am losing my mind. I just have a hard time writing something intimate and personal (or funny and adventurous--whatever it is, it comes from that quiet whisper in my mind that I need alone time to process) when I'm sitting RIGHT next to someone in the waiting room and they are looking over my shoulder. So I brought a book to read and ended up taking notes. And thinking about not only this book, but others I've read that are particularly strong in something. So here are a couple of things I've learned from books that are especially well-written:

1. I think I have a fairly well developed sense of justice. So one thing that makes me really like a character is if they are essentially decent people in a world that isn't. If they quietly do their good thing without complaining, and let me, the reader, complain about injustice on their behalf, I'm hooked. Arthur in Kevin Crossley-Holland's books. Sam in Maggie Stiefvater's Shiver. Harry against the Dursleys or Umbridge or Voldemort or Snape. I'm pretty sure this is a personal thing, but I am much more sympathetic to these kinds of characters than the Bad Person Who is Misunderstood/aka Hot Bad Boy. Regardless which kind of character you like, though, standing two very different characters against each other can help saturate their colors a bit, and make them for vivid and memorable.

2. The use of weaknesses to solve the ultimate problem. I like a character with weaknesses. Someone likeable who still has something to struggle against. And I love it when they find a way to use what seemed a weakness as a strength. Brandon Sanderson's characters do this quite a lot. And even if it's not exactly a weakness, I notice this kind of "seeding" happening in other books, where the pieces crop up as the book goes along, seemingly unconnected, and then--the final piece falls into place and the MC realizes that this--THIS--is how to solve the unsolveable problem. There's a fantastic kickboxing scene at the end of The Knights of Crystallia (Alcatraz) that pulls a bunch of threads together quite awesomely. No less interesting is the way the ultimate solution in Shiver is laid out. I like this sort of thing because I like to be able to be surprised and at the same time reread and see how it was inevitable.

3. Nouns and verbs. Specific nouns and verbs that show what kind of thing your focal character pays attention to and cares about. I still remember wanting to eat Elizabeth Bunce's book A Curse Dark as Gold when I read it the first time. I'd spent nearly two years in Germany, and while I speak Germany, my reading lags. Being me, I had a library card and checked out books all the time in German. But it was still slow going. To get a book that was in my own language, and to have such LOVELY language...well, I didn't eat it, but I came close. :) The thing with language is, it doesn't have to be all sunsets and purple. It just has to fit the character, be specific, and surprise your reader with new ways of looking at things.

4. Just as you lay in the pieces of the plot solution, you should lay in reasons for meaning. In The Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight, by Jennifer E. Smith, the actual on the ground plot is slight. Two people get on an airplane. They talk. They get out at the other end, and one goes to a wedding and the other to...well, not a wedding. The thing that makes the book work is all of the investment the author made so we know the meaning of the events. The MC is scared to fly. Her dad was the one who helped her over that fear. Except it's her dad's wedding she's going to--to a new wife, the woman he left their family for. So when this total stranger (but very nice! See #1) helps her through her flying fears, the whole action takes on tons more meaning. In Shiver, we get a bit of backstory about something the characters went through earlier in life. Then in the Now, we get a similar situation--only, the stakes are higher this time. We already have a clue how that character will react, which heightens the tension, because we know how much more is at stake in the Now. In Harry Potter, we have been amply shown--over pages and volumes and bucketloads of story--everything Harry stands to lose if he acts. But we've also been shown why he can't NOT act when he walks into the forest.

What about you? What have you learned about writing from reading good books?


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I'm SO glad for summer! We needed it so so so so much. Leaving town for the mountains was something I HAD to do. And even after we came back, it's been good. We've been able to go running, we've been able to go swimming, our kids have gone camping and canoeing. My oldest has been able to practice driving (er...not as much as he needs to, thanks to all the activities, but it's a start). We've been able to read. My 14YO and I restrung my old guitar today because he wants to learn. (He is our music?-no-thanks boy, so this is an interesting development we want to encourage.) He also started cross country today (that's running, not skiing, in case you're wondering--August is the only month snow has NOT been recorded in this place)--our first kid in an organized sports program. So far, so good. I am kiiiiiiinda losing my mind with the encroaching school schedule, but if I can live through the crazy early mornings and late nights, I will hopefully be able to get some good writing in once school starts, too. I have a book that just needs to come out, and I can't wait for some uninterrupted time to sink into it. We still have a couple weeks' worth of school registrations, dentist visits, and school shopping, though. And I'm hoping to fit one more hiking trip in, too. (I've heard some great thing about the area a couple hours east of here in Minnesota. Flat, yes, but TREES.) We'll see.

Good luck to all starting school now, and good luck to all gearing up for September!

Summer places, part 4 (Table Rock)

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Table Rock is what everyone calls it. Table Mountain is what's on the official map. The trail starts at 7000 feet and ends at 11,109 feet, spitting you neatly out right under the nose of the Grand (as in Grand Teton). It's a GORGEOUS hike--and straight up! We all felt the altitude hit at some point. And once it starts to "level out" (haha), you're so high up that the easiest stroll really does take some effort. But it was so beautiful!! Especially for those of us who have been mountain STARVED all year (and that is all of us).

I don't know who strung the banner. It's been there a while.


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After this point there were not so many pictures, as a few waves of a storm came up (it caused HEAVY flooding in nearby Rexburg), and we were trying not to get hit by lightning. We had to ford a fast-moving river and get back before we got torched and/or our relatives called search and rescue. But we all made it back and it was quite the hike!

Summer places, part 3 (Darby Canyon)

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We did a couple of hikes in Teton Valley. One was up Darby Canyon, where in the 1950s, a group of hikers from a nearby girls' camp got hit by lightning and died. We hiked to the monument and then up to the Wind Caves, which are kind of cool--a waterfall comes out a cave in the side of the mountain. We tried this hike when our oldest kids were toddlers, and let's just say that it's a lot easier to hike when you don't have to carry everyone! It was slightly hazy and buggy, but the wildflowers were gorgeous on all the hillsides.

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Summer places, part 2--CA to Grand Teton

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A few southern California pictures. Up in the hills above Santa Barbara, looking down towards the ocean, and also the inside of a Chumash painted cave up there:



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Summer places, part 1 (ND-MT-ID-UT-CA-UK)

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A mix of pictures from our travels this summer. (Travels are not yet over--the kids all have various camps this month.)

Theodore Roosevelt National Park (southern unit--there are three unconnected parts to this park) in western North Dakota. It smells very nice, of grasslands!


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We're back

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We toyed for a bit with the idea of driving from Idaho to Devils Tower (no, there is no apostrophe, and yes, it bugs me, too) and then up through South Dakota, but it would have taken a long time and our boys have a trip early Monday morning. So instead, we drove straight back to North Dakota, which is 1000 miles. In one day. Yes, we are insane, but the kids handled it pretty well. And now we are digging ourselves out and trying to remember how this town works. When you've lived somewhere less than a year and then leave for nearly six weeks, you start to forget basic things about it.

The time away was WONDERFUL. We camped in Theodore Roosevelt National Park. We saw friends in Lancaster, CA, visited family in Santa Barbara, CA, and saw fireworks and went to the beach and went bouldering. My husband went to the UK for ten days for a pair of professional conferences. My 5YO played Legos with his same-aged cousin, and they and the next-younger cousin took swimming lessons together. We went up to Utah after that and saw my sister and the kids filled up playing with those cousins. We took walks and played at the park and went to a couple of museums at BYU and even stopped to sing a song in the wonderfully echoey tunnel. We went up to where we used to live in Idaho and played with my SIL's little neighbors (who were lying in wait for us and kept coming to the the door to play with our kids). We swam in her pool and went to the temple and visited our old church congregation (two days before they had a massive flood that they are still rebuilding from). We saw friends from grad school who live there now, and my kid got to see their old friends. I got to meet Sarah Williams, who I've known cyberly for YEARS--not to mention all the places we've been at the same time, only not quite at the same place. And we watched quite a few world cup games. YAY DEUTSCHLAND!!

Then we went up to Teton Valley (Idaho/Wyoming border) and floated down the Teton River with second cousins, visited with my 98YO grandmother-in-law, let all the kids play with the rest of their cousins, hiked to the waterfall in Darby Canyon, and climbed Table Rock (11,000 feet). We also spent a day swimming at String Lake in Grand Teton National Park. It was SO NICE. The only people we didn't get to see were my parents, who live in Arkansas. We all really needed time to spend with our relatives, to be at a higher altitude, to smell lodgepole pines, and to fill up on mountains and nature. I apparently have a mental/physical need to visit mountains every now and then, and I was getting pretty low, and needed a fix. :)

On the way out we drove through part of Yellowstone (on the 191), and saw a moose drinking from a stream, and also a grizzly bear strolling along! Later on, in North Dakota, we saw a coyote cross all four lanes of the interstate. And then near Fargo, we saw the most spectacular lightning show I've seen.

Now we're back to 3/4 of a house and 3/4 of a job, but at least we had a chance to fill up some of the holes and get some mental nourishment while we were gone. And our house actually wasn't a thousand degrees when we came back, and the dehumidfier went back on after the power was off in town here, so the basement isn't moldy (er, any more than usual, I mean), and mostly it just smells like Extremely Old House and not Floody Mold (like our old neighborhood--yikes!!! People we know in Rexburg had water fill their basements and burst out the windows, and in our neighborhood itself, the city sewer pump was overwhelmed and half the houses have sewage backed up in their houses. Not sure if it was just water or also sewage at our old house, but ewww!)

I'll put up some pictures when I get a chance, but right now we have no food in the house and we need to stop eating the snack food.


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We're in Idaho. I LOVE Idaho. Even when it's raining. We signed up to go on the rafting trip some of my husband's aunts and uncles put together. They did it a couple years ago and our kids thought it sounded like fun. My husband stayed home with the 5YO and I took the other kids. It was fun. But very cold and wet! It POURED on us. But it was SO beautiful! If you have ever been inside the Rexburg temple, there is a room covered with murals of a river and marsh grass and herons, and you turn around and see Grand Teton at your back. I swear we were in that place today. (Minus the heron--but a moose did swim right across the river in front of one of the rafts.)

I also went running, just to test the waters when it comes to altitude. I'm pleased to report that while yes, I felt the altitude (we've been living at 840 ft last year and we are currently over 6000 feet), it went better than I'd expected. Which is a good sign, since we want to do some hiking next week (notably a trail that goes up to 11,000 feet).

Then tonight we headed back to the lodge for dinner and visiting. We also watched a recent independent movie about Ephraim K. Hanks, a 19th century pioneer/mountain man/adventurer who also happens to be my husband's ancestor. He was in the navy and traveled the world, and he did pony express for many years, but his most well-known act was helping save a bunch of handcart pioneers who were trying to emigrate to Utah and got caught in an early snowstorm in Wyoming. Many rescuers turned back, but he felt like he needed to keep going, bringing provisions and praying for a buffalo that appeared and which he shot and brought along. I think what he found was somewhat akin to what first responders in refugee situations might find, only in extreme frostbite/hypothermia/starvation mode. He was able to rescue many people because he was prepared for disasters already (pony express/all that traveling) and because he stuck with it and didn't give up. At the end of the film were blurbs about what happened to the various real life characters afterwards. I don't remember what the last line was, but my feeling was something on the lines of, "All of you in this room are Hanks. Go and do likewise."

We came home to watch the supermoon rising over the Tetons. And now we're smelling the thousands of lodgepole pines in the breezes wafting down from them mountains. My favorite smell! I wish I could take it with me.


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We're off visiting family right now. It's SO nice. It's actually summer! It was winter right up to the moment the kids got out of school, so it almost feels like we've suddenly swapped hemispheres or something. I love being in a house with up to code electricity, two toilets, fully functioning plumbing, and walls and windows that aren't ready to collapse. (It did take me a while to get used to a level floor in the bathroom.) I am grateful every day that I don't have to smell the stinky sugar refinery that lives across from our house of horror. A little concerned that we'll go back and find the basement full of water, as they've had nearly 5" of rain this month alone, and even a little rain runs through the bad window frames and into the basement. But that's not anything I can do with at the moment, so I try not to think about it.

More than the much-needed relief from the house, though, is just the chance to see many of our relatives. We've always lived very far from everyone else and never really got it when people would say that they missed their families. But now we know. We lived near my parents for a couple years, then moved near some of our sisters and near enough to ancestral homelands that my husband's parents could see us as they drove up to see their own parents. And now...we just live way. too. far. away. I think we lived closer to them when we were in Germany than where we are now; North Dakota just feels like the end of the earth. My in-laws have such a wonderfully calm and peaceful house and they are used to small children in large quantities, and as soon as you walk in the door, you are overcome with such a peaceful, relaxing, welcoming feeling. Plus, one of my BILs lives nearby, and so my youngest has his co-conspirator cousin to play with every day. The only drawback is my husband being off at a conference in the UK. He's having a nice time, but we will all be glad when he comes back.

Meanwhile, everyone is very into the World Cup. Many of our favorite Germans are back (Mueller! Ötzil! Schweinsteiger! Lahm!), and we are all hoping for a German win. They're playing rather well so far. But we have enjoyed other games, including the happiness of Honduras scoring their first goal at the World Cup in 34 years. Maybe a lot of the things I'm trying to do haven't worked out, but I do love seeing someone get something they've been working so hard at for so long.

In writing, I have much of a draft done, but I have to insert a whole plot line into it, and it's tying my brain into knots. I can feel it rising inside me, and I *almost* have hold of it--but not quite. This place always makes my brain spark and fizz, but at the same time, I'm trying to visit, not hole up like a hermit. But I feel like if I can just get the pieces put together, the writing of it won't be too hard. (Or rewriting, more like--instead of revising, I'm pretty sure I'm going to have to start from scratch and add in scenes as they apply to the new structure.)

In reading, I picked up Harry Potter Page to Screen: the Complete Filmmaking Journey, by Bob McCabe, from the library. Wow. VERY cool book. It's all about how they made all of the films. I don't want to make movies. But I'm always fascinated to learn how people tell stories in other formats. I think that working on that film must have been the MOST fun (and possibly the MOST challenging) project a lot of those people have done. Imagine getting an enormous budget and being told to make a whole world--whether or not it appears on the screen in the final cut. We're talking incredible inventions of costumes, architecture, animal creation, etc. Most of it was NOT CGI, which means they actually built these things--like Buckbeak, or the basilisk, or the Forbidden Forest, etc. Then you have the actors, who are putting themselves into the characters (and a bit of the characters are getting into them, too), and all of these people working together to bring a story to life. I've heard many times writers describe writing as if they're catching hold of something that already exists somehow. That's exactly what it feels like to me--like these are things that exist on some plane, and we bring them into the world, clothe them in a physical way that people around us can understand. It feels like channeling, like inspiration. Like a gift. And when you create like this, it brings a lot of joy (once you're done with the tearing your hair out part). And reading the comments of all of these people, the ones who made the Marauders' Map, or who hand bound all the textbooks in the films, or created the Black family genealogical tapestry, or invented and painted on Sirius Black's tattoos, or found the place in Scotland where Hogwarts truly exists, at least in spirit, I could feel that joy of hitting the right note, of bringing just the right detail to life.


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Well, our house is still yucky and we still only have a 9-month job to look forward to in the fall. But it was sunny today! And I think all the school assignments are in. Whew!! And at least one family is glad we'll be here next year. My 9YO has a friend down the street whose dad teaches Norwegian in my husband's department, and given that he and his wife have done their time adjuncting, they know how it is. (Side note: this friend and her family are COOL. Both parents are writers; the mom has done several American Girls books and some nonfiction. They've taken their kids to live in Norway before. The older sister is the age of my oldest and also does music. The younger girl is smart, loves to read, and looks like Legolas's little sister. I've thought all year that the dad was actually from Norway--he speaks 100% Norwegian with the kids, and sounds authentic to me. But no! He learned Norwegian in college. I am amazed. And envious. And curious HOW he did that--because adults learning foreign languages can almost never pull off a native accent, and yet even most Norwegians think he's a native.)

Anyway. Language learning geekery aside, the 9YOs had to read some of their poetry aloud at school today, and I'm really impressed by my daughter's poem--it's unique and voice-y and just really good! Which made this writer mama proud. I could tell her friend is the child of writers, too, though--because she said that no matter what else my daughter does, she'll also be a writer. (Because she obviously understands the er, requirements of being a writer. Like having a paying job on the side! And also the ability to write no matter what else you're doing.)

I'm SO glad to have thing winding down. Tomorrow will be busy and my oldest has finals to deal with. But I think all the homework and projects are done. It was just so nice to hang out with my family tonight. My husband and second son made cookies, the oldest and middle kids played violin/cello duets, and I read Harry Potter to my younger two kids. It was just a nice day. And hey! Spring is on the way! Now that school gets out for the summer in a few days, it hit 68 degrees and there are leaves just starting to come out on a few trees! Ah, North Dakota... :/