Christmas in Wisconsin: One expat reminscing

Don’t mind me. I’m not going home for Christmas this year and was just struck with a spontaneous, crippling bout of homesickness as the holidays approach :P. Occupational hazard of living the expat life over here in Singapore. Please. If you can. Ship me some snow.

Anyway, enjoy my glorious photos form last year’s Christmas back home in Wisconsin.

1012816_10100397525298645_1731329008_n 1476281_10100397525807625_1962971806_n 1480537_10100397526102035_1363314548_n 1493173_10100397525293655_1235020113_n 1506736_10100397524984275_644816372_n 1524974_10100397526176885_637338562_n 1525780_10100397526246745_1251648334_n1476445_10100399083236525_620240967_n 1476569_10100399083790415_2074750010_n1509211_10100407359475875_1718564115_n 1554458_10100407359246335_551692468_n 1499504_10100402888336075_2082870151_n  1551746_10100402888435875_978291620_n1509810_10100406851698465_1346135851_n945408_10100396323586885_1528026072_n1472931_10100396258013295_1544796563_n1489260_10100397158578555_922171525_n1517700_10100400478370665_1410856321_n

And then there’s the whole polar vortex thing? Like 40 below zero Fahrenheit for several days. You may remember that being when a bunch of people burned themselves throwing boiling water in the air to watch it freeze instantly–which it does. Maybe I’ll post my video later :P. In case you don’t live in a place that gets RIDICULOUSLY cold…if you leave your car sitting outside, your gasoline can freeze and then starting your car can be a bit tricky. Which is why you need……. HEET!

1464686_10100409446268925_1580921105_n“Sorry we have no Heet.” In the entire city of Madison. CRISIS! Pssshhh I don’t need to unthaw my frozen gas anyway

Seriously though, I’ll be fine :P, just had to reminisce a bit.

I’ve done it! Finally done it! Conquered the beginning of my novel!

merged photo(Oh and I made this image by layering two of my Belfast photos on Pixlr :P)

Hey everyone. Good news. After five months of fighting with the beginning of Hooligans in Shining Armour, I’ve done it. Finally done it. I have conquered first chapters of my novel.

anigif_enhanced-buzz-8296-1344235778-6The rest of it has been done for months; it was just a matter of finding the right place to start. And believe me, it’s had many…many…many different starts. It’s now been fully critiqued and professionally edited. Ready to go! If you’d like to read the first three chapters of Hooligans in Shining Armour, click here and scroll down to the link :) I’m so excited and so proud of it. Big props to all the many, many, many writers who helped me get here! Especially Kate Foster, who particularly helped me nail the beginning. Without them, I’d still be, oh God, don’t even want to imagine.

jump for joyAnyone else have something to celebrate about their WIPs?

Non-writers just don’t understand: My (not so) favorite question

are you publishedGranted, it is much easier to get published now with self-publishing, but still a ridiculous quantity of work, even after you finish and repeatedly re-work that novel.

Writer friends, do you have a (not so) favorite follow-up question you get after telling people you’re a writer?

Non-writers just don’t understand: The moment you realize….

queryHas this ever had that happen to you? You slave over your query letter. Tailor every sentence to perfection. I mean, you have, what, 300-400 words to craft a movie trailer of sorts for your book to suck in possible agents, lure them into at least reading the first line of your submission. You’ve had multiple people critique it and provide feedback. Maybe you’ve even hired someone to fine tune it. Must be perfect to send to agents, right?

So with one of my WIPs, I’ve been guilty of one thing: I keep thinking it’s done. So I’ve been working on my query. Then I discover that, nope, not so much done. But now, seriously, I am 99.999% done. I’ve finally done it. NAILED the beginning that’s been the bane of my existence for the past four months.

But my perfect query?

Not so perfect anymore…. It’s going to have to be re-worked.

Dexter-GIFs-14But really though, I’m just so ecstatic that I’ve nailed the beginning of it!

yes_napoleon_dynamiteWriter friends, has this ever happened to you? You had the perfect query, then changed you WIP?

 

A building a few blocks from the school I worked at on the Northside of Milwaukee. The school was 99% black. (taken 2009)

We need diverse books, yes, but really…

Writers, as you may be aware, there’s a big push right now, particularly in the YA world, for diverse books. Absolutely, indisputably, this is true.

But I want to change the conversation a bit.

In case you didn’t know…I’m white female YA author. Yep, another one. Here’s something that probably sets me apart though: I’ve spent six years working with mostly low income, African American students and families, particularly boys.

We need diverse books? I could easily write a book with an African American male protagonist that felt authentic and captured well the struggles and strengths that child brings to the table. Before my year and a half hiatus in Singapore, I could understand and speak Black English Vernacular, so I could weave that in, too, to make it feel even more real.

So let me paint a picture of this book. I’ll name the protagonist…crap, I have to make sure I’ve never worked with a student by that name…DJ. DJ will be a seventeen-year-old boy living in Madison, Wisconsin, home to one of the top public universities in the nation, filled with liberal white people such as myself, but also one of the worst places to be black in the nation.

My book would capture DJ’s daily struggles and dreams. And no, DJ will not be in a gang or coming out of juvie or anything like that. DJ aspires to be the first in his family to graduate high school and go to college. DJ’s parents (and yes, both would be in the picture) dream of him going to college as well, but they’re scared for him because they’ve experienced a lot of discrimination in their own lives while in school and at the hands of police—and this shapes how they relate to the school. DJ’s parents may have made mistakes in their lives, and may still be making them, but they love DJ and want what’s best for him. They want to make their own lives better and want DJ to have a brighter future than they have, but they don’t have the knowledge or access to all the resources needed to make this happen. This would be something I’d show in my imaginary novel.

DJ would strive to do well in school, but he’s been at a disadvantage since before kindergarten… his parents maybe didn’t know how to or have the time to provide the early life enrichment that most middle class white kids get. DJ would struggle with attention and focus; teachers would constantly be telling his parents to put him on ADHD medication and his parents might eventually listen because they want DJ to be successful. But in reality, DJ is suffering from the lingering effects of trauma, which effects brain functioning and cause things that look like ADHD. Some of DJ’s friends would be making bad choices, might be getting involved in gangs and crime, and try to pressure him into doing it, too. Which would leave DJ trying to find like-minded peers and role models and perhaps lead to him struggling with his own identity, particularly in light of how our media is rife with rappers going on about drugs and crime and belittling women. He would be left desperately seeking a positive, successful African American male role model, preferably who rose up from a situation like his rather than came from a middle class family.

My novel would capture the strengths of DJ’s family: the intense love and protectiveness, the interconnectedness of extended family and neighbors, the strong advocacy. But it would also capture the struggles of parents working multiple jobs just for the family to survive, substance abuse, community violence, parent incarceration, and poverty. DJ would be followed around by mall security, questioned by police while walking around, singled out for things in class that other kids are doing, too. But DJ would have a massive heart and massive dreams and fight to rise above all of this. DJ’s quest might be graduating high school or passing a specific class or having to make the choice between helping to take care of his family or going to college.

I could write this book well. I could easily write another book with a female African American protagonist and incorporate things about skin tone, hair texture, and the portrayal of Black females in the media. And (not to boast but…) people would read it and a lot of them would probably like it. Kids would be able to relate to DJ. Agents might be interested–I mean, it’s a diverse book, right?

But the question is…should I?

I’ve struggled with it and my conclusion at this point is that no, I shouldn’t. Our nation has a long history of oppressing African Americans (VERY simply put: slavery followed by overt discrimination and racism followed by continued systematic racism and racial profiling). Racism is quieter now but always lurking under the surface, ready to be ignited. Things like Ferguson happen. Bam, flames. And SOME white people be like, “It’s not about race. We have a black president! We’re a post-racial society!” No, we’re not. Have we made progress? Absolutely. But clearly we have a long way to go. It’s easy for white people to be ignorant of what’s lurking under the surface because we don’t have to deal with it every day. Racism is real and pervasive and systematized. I should not assume that, as a privileged white person, I have the right to take on their voice and tell their stories.

We need diverse books, yes, but really what we need are more diverse authors.

Non-writers just don’t understand: FINISHED MY FINAL, FINAL DRAFT…I think….

finalHaha. It’s saved as version 26 on my computer. Please God, let it be done. I’ve been perfecting it for a year! Not going to lie, for the first time, I feel 99.999% sure it really is there.

happy danceWe’ll see what my two awesome, amazing critique partners say!

Sacred beings and Mitakuye Oyasin: Lessons I learned on a service trip to Pine Ridge

blog pic….that the entire United States needs to have implanted in our collective brain.

Two summers ago, I took a group of students of color on a service learning trip to Pine Ridge Reservation. I call them my students, don’t mind me. My students spent an entire year fundraising (baking, poetry slamming, selling brats, writing letters) and engaging in learning activities in addition to all their homework AND over the summer. We were all so excited when it was time to go.

The trip was life-changing for the kids, but also for myself and my fellow chaperones. Click here to see pictures. My students worked incredibly hard under the scorching South Dakota summer sun: built bunk beds and outhouses, skirted a trailer, and helped roof a house. My students learned a lot about the history of the Oglala Lakota and of the terrible things done to them by our government. They faced extreme poverty with big hearts and open minds. Each student learned something new about themselves. To speak their mind, recognize their own strengths, say no, take risks and try new things, challenge themselves, and that, even when things seem so hopeless, they can make a difference.

On our last day, my co-chaperone told me that the teachers back home would NEVER believe what our kids had done and how hard they worked and learned. My students amazed me while we were there, and I’d been working with them all year to get them ready.

I learned a lot, too. When I first started consulting with the volunteer center about bringing my students, one of the staff shared that they’d had some bad experiences with kids from inner city Milwaukee–as though that suggested anything about what to expect from my students. We were also referred to as “inner city kids” by the staff while we were there at least once—we are from Madison, there is no inner city. I saw firsthand how my students were stared as we loaded on the plane, as we walked into the volunteer center and were the only group that wasn’t white. I watched white kids touching my students’ hair and asking them about rap and if they were from the ghetto (out of well-intentioned curiosity). During our learning sessions with staff at the center, there was a lot of talk about white privilege, which is something my kids are well, WELL aware of. I could sense discomfort from the other groups that this discussion was happening with a group of students who don’t have that privilege.

On the second day, one of the other adults (who I was later told was a bit eccentric) snapped on some of my students for no reason other than they were sitting outside talking and laughing during a break time; I can’t remember exactly what she said, but it included a racially-charged word. My students were upset and I was pissed, but they didn’t want me to talk to the lady. They said it wasn’t that big of a deal—because they were so used to it.

During one particularly long and (yes, I’ll say it) weird and boring lecture, two of my students were whispering. A lot of white kids were doing it, too. The speaker blatantly targeted one of my boys, yelled at and embarrassed him. It was so bad that a number of kids and adults from other groups came up and apologized to him later. The boy’s response…he kind of said he deserved it for talking.

After that, I had to have a talk with my students and say, I don’t care what the rest of the kids are doing, you will be better. And they were. My students never grumbled about having to work all day then have learning sessions THEN have small group discussions and journaling time. Because my students were there to learn and help. My students learned they could use power tools (better than me), conquer their fear of heights to roof a house, open up to people they’ve been in classes with for three years but barely know, and to be proud of themselves. They learned that terrible injustice still exists, but they can make a difference.

diffuse 3A few random favorite quotes from this trip:

Girl: “I wish I had a power saw at home. Then I could make anything!”

Boy: “This trip has really been life-changing…there is no number of times I would say thank you if I did it would go on forever and ever and ever. I’ll miss you and have fun in that foreign place of yours.” (i.e. Singapore, haha)

Girl: “GIRL POWER!”

I’ve been to fifteen countries, climbed over mountains, witnessed sectarianism alive and well, gone to the ruined village from whence my ancestors immigrated to Canada, toured ancient temples, swam in many oceans, walked with elephants. But this service learning trip to Pine Ridge, South Dakota was probably the best experience of my life, because of those students.

Wow, do I miss those kids. And all the dozens and hundreds of other kids I’ve helped through nightmares and pushed toward dreams over the past six years, most of whom were African American.

And as I sit here thinking about Travon Martin and Michael Brown and Tamir Rice, all I can think is, what if it were one of my students that was in the wrong place at the wrong time and got killed by police due to what started as a misunderstanding? Or one of their parents? Like Rumain Brisbon and Eric Garner. What Facebook images would be flashed on the TV screen? What tiny mistake would be touted to smear their character so we can reduce our cognitive dissonance over an unarmed human being killed?

But then I remind myself it doesn’t matter if it happens to “my” students. The fact that young black men are 21 times more likely than whites to be shot dead by a police officer is a national travesty.

Back to the Rez…

p1070911One particularly powerful guest speaker, a Lakota high school teacher, told us a few things that stick with me to this day.

Two important aspects of the Lakota belief system are Turtle Island (the Earth) and the medicine wheel, which incorporates the colors red, white, black, and yellow. To the Lakota, it symbolizes that we are all one, no matter the color of our skin. We are all brothers and sisters traveling together on Turtle Island. We shouldn’t be colorblind, we should celebrate our differences.

p1080210Mitakuye Oyasin: we are all related.

The most powerful thing this speaker said: the Lakota word for child literally means sacred being. What if our society thought of all children this way?

iceberg

Applying psychology to writing: Using icebergs to flesh out your characters

“If a writer of prose knows enough of what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an ice-berg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water. A writer who omits things because he does not know them only makes hollow places in his writing.”

Ernest Hemingway in Death in the Afternoon.

So it’s called the Iceberg Theory, or the Theory of Omission: show the reader a small part of it and let them infer the rest. Make the reader feel rather than understand. The ultimate show, don’t tell.

I’m not here to talk about Hemingway’s writing style though. I’m here to talk about psychology and writing. I’m a school psychologist. My job is to try to understand and attempt to predict human behavior so I can help support the learning and success of all students, regardless of what lies beneath the surface.

So let’s talk about that iceberg, but for our characters. One Sigmund Freud was also a fan of icebergs. Freud said the human psyche is an iceberg. The conscious mind is what’s above the water, the tip of the iceberg: our thoughts, awareness in the moment, what we can think and talk about rationally, memories we can access. The preconscious mind, just below the surface, can be accessed and understood by our conscious mind. The unconscious mind goes deep below the surface, unseen. It’s our feelings and motivations and urges; it affects our behavior even though we’re not aware of it.

This too applies to the people we interact with. Two things to think about: observable behavior and the unobservable internal processes that drive behavior. Our massive human brains use observable behavior, such as the words people say, tone of voice, facial expression, hand/leg/body movements, and their actions to guess what people are thinking and feeling and then decide how to react. But we’re just using small pieces of information (the tip of the iceberg); beneath the surface are all those internal processes driving behaviors, including feelings, thoughts, fears, expectations, goals, all shaped by an entire lifetime of experiences that we can never fully know. These life experiences shape how we uniquely see the world and what we expect from it.

ANYWAY, let’s harness this psychology to make characters that feel real without too much telling. One of the joys of writing is that we writers are gods of our book (no blasphemy intended). We make that iceberg! We craft all of our characters’ brains—and they all should have their own unique brains, even the minor ones we see once as readers. We create their past experiences, which, in turn, creates the lens through which they see and understand the world, their motivations, and their relationships with others.

If you’re writing in 1st person (or 3rd person close), the reader can have access to 100% of that iceberg brain, depending on how insightful your character is. Characters are more interesting if they don’t always understand themselves and why they do things, because, in reality, unless you’re fully self-actualized as a human being, you probably don’t fully understand yourself. It makes characters feel more human to readers.

For secondary characters, or 3rd person omniscient, we as writers have access to the whole iceberg, all the internal processes. We should know why all our characters do what they do, but the reader only gets the tip of the iceberg, the behaviors the main character can observe.

So it becomes our jobs as writers to give clues about what’s going on below the surface through dialogue, body language, tone of voice, and action. The reader can infer and fill in the gaps as to why with their own feelings, as Hemingway strove to do in his writing. So writer friends, when you’re writing scenes and dialogue, know what your MC is thinking (obviously) but also articulate for yourself what the secondary characters are thinking and feeling in that moment, too. Then build their observable behavior around those thoughts. This is particularly important for emotional turning points.

I’ll be brave and share an example from my manuscript Hooligans in Shining Armour, mostly because I’m the “god” in this book so I know exactly what’s going on in the characters’ heads.

~~~

Context: the day before, Fiona’s big brother, Patrick, tells her she’s living in Belfast forever. Fiona is devastated and they have a bit of a screaming match about it. Fiona threw his phone and cracked the screen, which just ticked him off more. The next morning, Fiona disappears. This dialogue is after another brother finds her and brings her home.

Observable behavior: The tip of the iceberg

Patrick stared at me from the couch, his leg bouncing. And again, I felt bad. Especially since I just found out everything I knew about Dad and them was a lie. Patrick had just been the messenger.

I cleared my throat. “I’m sorry I broke your phone.”

Patrick let out a slow breath. “I’m due for a new one anyway.” He nodded to the spot next to him.

Patrick’s internal processes:

Thoughts before Fiona walks into the house: Christ I’ve tried everything with that girl. And what did she expect to happen? Ma’s dead and she’s no family in the US. And why does she hate us so much? She’s not seen us in 15 years. She’s not even been here 5 days and she’s already wanting to run off on us like Ma. Perhaps I really should have warned her, but it was the day after the funeral and she might have just offed herself or something. And fecksake, why does she keep running out the front door like that? She knows it’s not safe, what with all those spide b*******s running about starting all kinds of trouble. Sh***, I shouldn’t have yelled at her yesterday. She’s just lost Ma and Da hasn’t exactly been around to give her a warm welcome. She’s a right to be scared. And what are we going to do about her university? I know f*** all about any of that. It’s the school’s job, Patrick. I need to be more patient. And now she’ll probably never talk to me again, after I worked so hard to get her talking in the first place, even watching that stupid model show of hers.

Feelings before she walks in: anger at himself for the way he handled himself the day before, fear that she’ll get lost or hurt while she’s running around in a town she doesn’t know, confusion about her behavior and motivations. He’s also angry at her, both for her selfish behaviors and because he’s spent 15 years wondering about her and now that they’re re-united, she just wants to leave. He’s also angry at his mom for abandoning them even though he knows she had to. Behind a lot of his anger is hurt.

Thoughts after she apologizes for breaking his phone: Thank Christ, she’s all right. Maybe she’s not done with me then. It’s just a phone anyway.

Feelings: relief that she’s returned home in one piece, hope that maybe he can find a way to help her come to love her family and her new life in Belfast, sadness that his sister is a complete stranger to him.

I haven’t even touched on Patrick’s past experiences here, but they’ve substantially shaped Patrick’s worldview and expectations for others.

Because this scene is from about halfway through the book, the reader would be able to use what they’ve already seen of Patrick to infer at least some of the thoughts and feelings underneath his observable behavior. Readers should also be able to get a sense of how the characters struggle to understand one anothers’ internal processes. So at this point in my novel, how Patrick and Fiona, for instance, are trying to understand each others’ internal processes and are starting to get better at it.

~~~

So, writer friends, think of all of your characters as icebergs. Know their internal processes (thoughts, feelings, past experiences, etc.) and use observable behavior to hint to the readers what’s going on under the surface.

References:

Cherry, K. “The Conscious and Unconscious Mind: The Structure of the Mind According to Freud.” Retrieved on December 3, 2014 from http://psychology.about.com/od/theoriesofpersonality/a/consciousuncon.htm

“Iceberg Theory,” Retrieved on December 3, 2014 from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Iceberg_Theory

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Non-writers just don’t understand: Writer’s hangover

Writer friends, you know when you’re working on that novel and the ideas are flowing and it’s just magic and you’re in the zone?that stuffs amazingYou just know what you’re writing is amazing and it’s just this rush of excitement and energy and brain juice and you just cannot stop. I dub this…the Writer’s High. Then you look at the little clock in the corner of your of your computer screen. It’s 2 AM. Oh, crap. I should probably go to bed

Those of you who don’t have the fortune of being a full-time, unpaid writer like me feel this the hardest. You just know, as you lay your head down on that pillow, that tomorrow…is…going…to…suck. (If it makes you feel better, writer friends, I usually end up waking up around 7:30 anyway cuz that’s my brain; hence this blog post instead of working on that WIP). If you’re like me, you still not going to be able to shut your brain off. Oh, the sacrifices we make for our craft.

The antidote? (for me anyway)

i heart writingOkay, so my coffee is nowhere near that fancy this morning. Just good ol’ American drip coffee. After I ingest enough, hopefully I’ll be able to get to the many (many) writing tasks I have on the docket for this week.

Who’s with me? Has this ever happened to you, writer friends?