Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Turtles, Possums and a Call for Readers

We've had a good long run of health here in our household these past few months, but we knew it would inevitably come to an end. Sure enough, the boy is down with a fever and stuffy nose this week. Fortunately (and fingers crossed that it stays this way), the germs haven't brought down either my husband or me. (Lack of sleep, on the other hand, just might.)

So yesterday the boy and I spent the majority of the day watching Disney movies. He particularly likes Cars, and I certainly don't mind watching with him. But eventually, enough is enough. Seeing as I couldn't bear to spend another day lounging on the couch, particularly when the weather is as lovely as I could ask for (and might not be this beautiful again until fall) I decided we ought to go out for a stroll in one of our local parks.

You would think this would be a great idea...

And as it turned out, it was! The walk in the park was wonderful, and it is not at all the point of this story. The point is what happened on the way there.

As I was driving down the curvy road to the park I noticed a turtle ahead of me in the middle of my lane. I did the only thing I could think of: I stopped, got out and helped the little fellow several feet into the grass. Hopefully he had the good sense to stay there.

Not my turtle. I was too worried about blocking traffic to pause for photos.

The experience was not what I would have expected. First of all, once the turtle noticed my presence, he was quite eager to move himself along under his own power. And he wasn't as slow about it as I would have thought, either. He bustled--as much as a turtle can bustle--to get himself away from me.

But after a moment I realized he was drifting a little too much in the wrong direction, and I attempted to steer him the other way by moving my hand into his path to discourage him. Apparently this was too much for the little guy. He stopped and pulled himself tightly into his shell.

So there I was with little other choice but to pick him up myself and carry him over to the grass. And suddenly I realized... I wasn't entirely sure I was comfortable doing so. What sort of turtle was he anyway? Would he bite my hand if I brought it too close? And how close was too close? Just how long was his neck exactly, and could he reach my fingers if they were on his back?

But despite my doubts, I mustered up the courage and picked him up, keeping my fingers as far back as I could while still maintaining a decent grip. He remained tightly in his shell, and a few seconds later he was safely in the grass.

There are two things I took away from this experience. First: the unfamiliar can be unexpectedly scary. I didn't know until I bent down to grab the turtle that I would feel a bit of trepidation in doing so. Even though I grew up in a very rural environment, there are a lot of nature-type things I've never done before, and first experiences with nature can be intimidating sometimes.

[Once when I was a very little girl, an opossum showed up at the sliding glass doors of my house. My mom and dad called me over to come see it, but I had no interest whatsoever. I didn't know what an opossum was! How did I know it wasn't going to eat me? For all I knew this could be some intelligent boogeyman creature that could break through glass and gobble me up.]

Books can be that way too--writing the unfamiliar can be scary. We can have a really exciting idea, but when we go to write it down, we suddenly realize we're a little bit nervous about writing what we don't know. What if it doesn't turn out the way we imagine? What if the end result is terrible and people laugh at us? What if we get it all wrong because we simply haven't had the right experiences?

That brings me to the second point: some things are really hard to get right if you've never experienced them yourself. If I had decided to write a story about a turtle rescue before this morning, I may have been able to write a relatively convincing scene, but I wouldn't have had the same details that I do now. I wouldn't know how quickly the turtle would try to escape or how I would feel about having to pick it up. Those are the sorts of details that add authenticity to a story.

So where am I going with this?

Well, I've been working on a book for a while now about magical worlds and the people responsible for keeping them nice and tidy and safe. (Spoiler: they don't always succeed.) I would very much like for one of the characters to be a bi-racial girl (with a white mother and a Kenyan-American father). I feel that a) girls like her need more representation in novels, and particularly in fantasy and b) her background could be a big asset to the story.

The problem for me, of course, is that I don't have the relevant experience. Because of that, I'm looking for a few expert readers--people who have the experiences I lack and can comment on aspects of the character's background that I wouldn't think of myself. So! If that sounds like you and you love to read and would be willing to help me make this character feel authentic, please contact me! You can reach me at audrey (at) alockwoodbooks (dot) com.

And if you don't have the background I need but still want to help, please share.

Many thanks to all of you!

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

7 Ways to Know You've Been on the Internet Too Long

Most of us have a sneaking suspicion that we're just a little bit too hooked on our wi-fi connection. Maybe it was the glazed look we got when scrolling through our news feed or the fact that we tried to have a conversation and tweet at the same time, and now the wrong words are going in all the wrong places.

But we're no worse than anyone else, we tell ourselves. We all have a little addiction. We haven't spent that much time on the internet this week.

Or have we?

How would we even know? Here are some helpful tips for checking whether you've been online a little too much:

1. You know that any article that starts with "7 Ways to..." is obvious clickbait.

Maybe the first few people to post an "X Ways to..." article just happened to stumble on a really good thing. Or they were savvy geniuses with a head for marketing. But now everybody knows: if you want more clicks, put a number at the front.

And those of us on the reading end, we used to be naive. We used to think our interest in these articles was genuine, that the article ideas were brilliant. Now we know better. We've been inundated with lists, and now we're jaded.

Clickbait is real. And we're no longer impressed.

2. But you clicked on it anyway.

Still, you had to know: what were the 7 ways? It doesn't really matter what the article is about. It could be "10 things in your house you should get rid of immediately" or "9 books you've never read that everybody talks about" or even "18 things that will start itching if you think about them too long." The compulsion is there. You must click.

Do you know all 7 ways? Can you guys the 10 things? Do you have 9 more books you need to put on your to read list? And what about those 18 itchy things? You're itching already--is that spot on the list?

We have to know what we're missing. Until we do, we'll have no satisfaction.

3. Because random internet surfing is mildly more interesting than picking your nails.

Which is what you'd be doing otherwise. Never mind that there's probably somebody sitting three feet away from you who, in another world, you would be having a lovely conversation with right now. You'd rather be bored than try to strike up a conversation you don't particularly feel like having.

We could go on about the evils of disconnectedness and the devolution of society, but let's not. That's not really why you're here after all. In fact...

4. You haven't read any of the words in the article except the ones in bold.

Face it. You're just skimming this article to see what the main points are. Once you know none of them are actually important, you'll go back to your surfing, content that you haven't missed anything vital.

We all do it. You see an article called "5 habits to make you a happier person" and you just have to know what the main points are. But you don't have time for a full read. Maybe if you just check the highlights to be sure you're doing all 5 habits... And if there's one you're missing, then maybe you can read the blurb under it, just in case it's applicable.

But you probably won't. As long as you get the highlights, you're set. You'll be happier in no time.

5. And now you're reading the normal print just to prove that you can do more than skim an article.

A bulletin point on an article called you out? How dare it! You'll show that article. You'll read every word, AND you'll remember them all.

But wait...

6. You can't remember what numbers 1 through 3 were without scrolling up.

Has any of this made any impact at all? Are you really going to remember 7 things from an article you skimmed in passing?

Of course not! Most of us can't remember 7 digit phone numbers any more, much less the brief article we read this morning about... wait... what was it about again?

7. But that wasn't really the point anyway.

You're just killing time. And that article you're reading is just looking for hits.

It's a win-win for everyone.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

How Dark is Too Dark for Teens?

Reflect reality.

This is the underlying concept in writing fiction. A novel is a lie we tell to understand some deeper truth. The most fantastical story can feel completely real if, deep down, it's telling the truth. Conversely, some of the "truest" stories can seem like absolute lies if at heart they are not authentic.

The drive to reflect reality is the impetus for some big things that are happening in YA fiction right now. The We Need Diverse Books campaign (a worthy cause, and I'm proud to know some of its greatest champions) is in essence a call to tell the truth. Reality isn't a thing that happens only to the nerdy white girl with a crush on the star basketball player. Everyone has a story, and a lot of stories have historically been overlooked.

Reflect reality.

But whose reality?

There's another angle to this question than that regarding diversity. It's a question of darkness. How dark is too dark? Do we ignore someone's reality because it isn't suitable for teens?

Given what I've seen published, I would say the market's answer to that is no. Take the contemporary book Speak, published almost sixteen years ago now, which deals with the subject of rape, or more recently the historical books Code Name Verity and The Book Thief, two of the most haunting tales I've ever read, both set during World War 2. Or consider the violence of The Hunger Games or the racism of Harry Potter. All of these books have been best sellers. All of them tell the truth about some very dark realities.

Several months ago I had a conversation with my grandmother about Code Name Verity specifically. She told me it had been recommended to her, and after reading a few chapters into it she couldn't understand why. It was too bleak for her taste.

I could see why it might have been recommended. My grandmother enjoys books that teach her about a new setting or a way of life she hasn't been exposed to. She might otherwise very much like a book about some of the early female pilots.

Why do people want to read about the darkness? she wondered. When she was growing up, the heroes in her stories always saved the day and came out on top. Why has that changed? Shouldn't we encourage young people with stories about courage and selflessness resulting in victory?

But for so many teens, that's not reality. They try to be brave. They work hard, they sacrifice, and yet nothing changes. A lot of teens deal with darkness. And in some parts of the world, the darkness is very dark indeed. I spent my teen years worrying over exams and stressing over how to make time for all my different activities. In other parts of the world, people that age have been working for years for an income that doesn't fully meet their needs. Some of them are even sold to abominable practices by their own mothers simply to provide enough food for the family. What about their stories? Should they be told?

Reflect reality.

I'm not saying all stories should be dark. Not even close. To date all my writing has had happy endings.

But some of my ideas don't. Every year I live I find in myself more compassion for those whose realities are bleak. Their stories are no less real than mine or anyone else's. They should be acknowledged in some form.

Perhaps if I had read stories like that when I was a teen my compassion would have been quicker to develop. Or perhaps not. Maybe emotional intelligence is something that takes more time to grow.

And yet I look at all these books that tackle the darkness, and I think, maybe not. Maybe there are teens out there who will read the hard stories and finally find emotional release because they see their own lives reflected in the pages. And maybe there will be other teens who, like me, have no concept of the hardships other people face and who need to learn some humility and compassion.

But what about innocence? Isn't that worth preserving? Won't exposure to darkness cloud the heart of someone still learning to navigate the world?

And honestly I think sometimes that's a very valid question. Studies show that exposure to violence, for example, can breed violence. We do need to be careful to preserve goodness.

But on the other hand, I think sometimes we mistake ignorance for innocence. How many of us grow up knowing where our clothes come from and how they can be affordable enough that we have more than three outfits to wear? How many of us are aware of how our luxury food consumption affects people in other parts of the world? So often what we see as innocence is ignorance of how our own behavior can be harmful to other people. There's nothing innocent about causing harm to those we share this planet with.

So back to the question, then: How dark is too dark?

I think in part, the answer varies from person to person. People mature at different rates, and some might be more ready to handle a hard book than others.

But also, I think it comes down to this: is the darkness there for its own sake, or is it there for a greater purpose? There is darkness in the world, and we have a duty to learn about it.

Reflect reality.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Adding Value

RAVENCON!

I went down to Richmond this past weekend for RavenCon. It was my first overnight (two nights actually) away from my little monster man, so I was a bit nervous. Turns out he did great! Though he did need some convincing last night that I wasn't going to disappear again while he slept.

The event was a huge success as far as I was concerned. There were a number of truly excellent panels and workshops, and I met several people that I enjoyed talking to.

Coming away from the weekend, what really struck me was the quality of the presenters in a few of the seminars in particular. I hear the phrase "adding value" quite a lot these days, but it's only now after some of my experiences at RavenCon that I really have a clear picture of what that phrase is about. There are three people I want to highlight as great examples of adding value.

1. Rob Balder

Rob writes the online comic Erfworld. He ran a workshop the first night of the convention about building up a creative career.

It took only a few minutes of his presentation before I realized just how knowledgeable he was on the subject. He said later that he spends 80% of his time working on the business side of his career. He's done the research, crunched the numbers, and put together a business model that works very well for him.

But he didn't end the seminar with his presentation. Instead he spent time talking to people individually about their career goals and brainstorming ideas for building up their own models.

He added a lot of value to me personally, and I left that workshop with so many new creative ideas.

2. John Glover

John is a writer as well as a research librarian, so he was particularly suited to running RavenCon's worldbuilding seminar.

It's so very easy when talking about worldbuilding to get caught up in one particular aspect of a world--perhaps the languages or the geography or the politics. John managed to talk about worldbuilding in a way that covered everything beautifully. He gave lots of ideas for research tools as well as methods for drawing on our own past experiences.

But like Rob, he didn't spend the entire time talking. He gave the audience plenty of opportunities to put what he was saying into practice. I walked out with a whole new take on a book idea. He added value.

3. Harry Heckel

Harry is a writer who, long with his co-author, is publishing a series on fairy tales. In the process he's done a lot of research on the history and purpose of fairy tales, and out of that research he created a presentation on fairy tales and retellings that he shared the last day of the convention.

Harry was a really fun person to listen to. He enjoys what he does, and that joy is contagious. He led the audience in a delightful discussion about fairy tales and made each person feel that their opinion was important and interesting. I felt valued and had a great time.


These three people were all doing something very right. They made their seminars worth attending. So what was it that they all had in common?

First of all, they were all well-informed on the topics they shared. They knew what they were talking about, and yet at no point did any one of them come across as having a big ego. They imparted their wisdom because they cared about building up the audience, not about looking smart in front of a crowd.

And second, they each gave the audience a chance to work with the information. They didn't just dispense tips, they led their attendees in putting those tips into practice.

Because of these three and others like them, RavenCon was a very positive experience for me. I hope I've learned from them not only how to use the information they taught but also how to add value to an audience.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

The Right Book for the Right Time

Several years ago I had a dream about going back in time to save a twin sister I never knew I had. I woke up with a feeling of amazement and knew that I had to turn that dream into a book. After several months of research and writing, Olympus Gate was finished. It's a story about an apocalypse, Ancient Rome, mistaken identities and fallible gods. I loved that book for being everything I had hoped to make it. It was the book I needed to write because it gave me confidence in my ability. And I'm still proud of it, despite the fact that it was finished too late for the market it would have fit.

The Never Silent was the book I had always wanted to read but that never existed before. I wrote it after Olympus Gate, when I was desperate for a book that was so totally me that I knew no one else could ever write it. And it turned out to be everything I hoped for. I still love that book as much as I think I will ever love a book, and I'm so glad that I wrote it.

These were books I needed to write at the time I needed to write them. We talk a lot about the timing of a book being right for its audience, but we don't talk so much about the timing being right for the author. I couldn't have written Olympus Gate any earlier than I did. I wasn't ready. And I couldn't have written The Never Silent a year later. By then I had a baby and my world was turned upside down.

The first year after my son was born, everything was different. I was an exhausted, emotional wreck a lot of the time, mostly from severe sleep deprivation due to being up every 45 minutes all night every night. I wanted to keep writing, but the only thing I could write was something lighthearted and fun, not at all how I would describe The Never Silent. And that was how The Curator came about. It was precisely the book I needed to write at the time I needed it.

Now The Curator is in late stage edits and I'm writing a new book. It's about tulips and secrets and the consequences of meddling in other people's lives. I'm loving it. The words just keep coming and coming. Is it the book I need right now? I think so. It's allowing me to try some new things I've never done before, and it's cooperating in so many ways, which is precisely what I need as I prepare for a new baby.

What will be next? I don't know. A lot may depend on my sleep status a year from now. But I feel a vague, far-off pull of a new idea. A murky feeling has been stirring in me lately as I look at the world and I realize just how much everything in it comes with a cost. I was thinking about this last night as I fell asleep, and yet again I had a dream. Maybe once the current books are done I'll come back to that dream, that feeling, that idea. Maybe this will be my next book, and it will be the new thing I need to write, precisely when I need to write it.