Parenting v. Censoring

I work with kids and books. Like a lot. I work for a childhood literacy nonprofit and I volunteer basically all my during-school-hours free time at my sons’ school library. I also write children’s literature, dabbling in everything from the occasional picture book to can’t-stop-addict-levels of YA. Oh, and I am raising a herd of wild bookivores, constantly saving all our pennies for our next raid on the used bookshop.

Pretty much everyone knows I am That Mom, so I understandably get asked for book recommendations a lot. And I got one last week that stuck with me a bit more than usual.

Probably because it annoyed me.

The mom wanted a time travel middle grade book, preferably part of a series. So I started rattling out whatever floated to the top of my head. As we proceeded, I offered yet another series title and then hemmed and hawed a little at whether it was more sciencey time travel or more magical time travel. You know, just to explain the flavor.

That was a no-go. She didn’t want anything fantasy. Not even remotely. In fact, she was looking for this series as a way to ween her child off of this dumb fantasy kick he’d been on.

The conversation ended pretty quick after that.

Now, I am not the most perfect laissez-faire parent on the planet. As my sons’ school librarian can witness, there are some books the children will not be bringing into my home. (Except during banned book week. Then there is so much Captain Underpants around this place. *claws at eyes* SO MUCH CAPTAIN UNDERPANTS.) But shuttling a child away from an entire genre of books because—what? they have magic? they’re made up? Seriously, after this kid’s been successfully weened off fantasy, is the rest of fiction at large under the gun?

Now there is a lot of stuff that I personally choose not to read. But that doesn’t mean I don’t want the rest of the world reading it. As a general rule, censorship is for military-uniformed evil overlords cackling in their plushily-appointed offices. I don’t like. Honestly, I don’t really understand anybody who thinks hard censorship in any form of media is a good idea.

However, the game changes a little bit when the little absorby-brains belong to children. I mean, I don’t let my kids watch movies that I sometimes want to watch. (I mean, the Iron Giant and Star vs. The Forces of Evil proved to be just too terrifying. Nobody sleeps for like a week after the kids watch a ‘scary’ show. Can you imagine if I let them watch Invader Zim???) There are lots of books, music, and movies that I don’t necessarily want the kids ingesting for lots of reasons. Am I required to defend those reasons?

(That said, a small clarification on why I don’t like Captain Underpants books: I think they’re obnoxious. I don’t hate that the characters are disrespectful to authority figures or anything like that. The kids are free to read them anywhere I don’t have to see it. They can have their desks at school chock full of Captain Underpants books and that is fine. But if I hear so much as one tra-la-la…)

Part of a parent’s job is to shield their kids from bad stuff—‘bad’ usually being a somewhat subjective term. Another part of their job is to raise their kids up to be good people—‘good’ being another subjective term. Parents go at these objectives in different ways. Sometimes the routes don’t make a lot of sense from the outside looking in.

I don’t know what was going through this mom’s head when she decided to steer her kid away from the fantasy genre at large. My annoyance with her was a knee-jerk reaction, but maybe she has really good reasons that I just don’t know about. Maybe I’m a judgmental monster. Parenting is tough and there will always be someone there to deem your best effort not good enough. If I don’t feel like I need to defend all my own reasons for not letting my kids read something I object to, why do I feel entitled to this other mom’s reasons?

I wish I had a clearer conclusion, but this is murky stuff. I can’t make the call on what is appropriate or inappropriate reading for another person’s family. It could be that forcing someone to allow what they don’t agree with is a problem right along with removing other things that they might want access to. I suppose that’s a thing each parent has to decide for their own home.

What do you think? What’s the line between thumbs-up-you-are-an-involved-parent and boo-on-you-you-censoring-dictator? Does that line change over time as a child grows? Tell me your thoughts in the comments below! And until next week, happy reading!

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All the Recaps

Hello, friends! I’ve got about three ultra-mini posts here, so I decided to mash them all together so that I don’t have to drag any of it out for you. I’m sure you all have better things to do. So here are a few recaps of the things I’ve been working on lately, and a sneak peak of what’s to come.

Writers Conference This last weekend was the annual Alaska Writers Guild fall conference and I gleefully attended. As always, I had a great time, got great info, and chatted with great people! The speakers were all excellent, plus I got to relive my younger years by holding a friend’s sleeping two-month-old in one arm while drafting on my knee with the other. Plus, I had the luxury of flying down to Anchorage this year. (Eight hours of driving distilled into a forty-minute flight. SO LUXURIOUS.) I’ll be posting some of my conference lessons and stories in the weeks to come.

Grant Review Board Related to the conference, I was on a small board reviewing grant proposals over the last couple weeks. We had quite a few more proposals than we had in previous years. There were so many strong submissions and it was a tough time winnowing it down to just two. I hope this year’s winners can do amazing things with their funds!

Snow White Deadline This Blood and Ebony deadline has been breathing down my neck for the last few weeks and so I am pleased and relieved to let you know that I met it juuuuust in time. Therefore, I was able to get the olive oil of my homeland and not have to watch any doofy song-and-dance nonsense. Huzzah! Blood and Ebony went out to alpha readers Friday night and I’m hoping to have it out to beta readers before the end of the year. Except maybe this time, I’ll manage my time in such a way that it doesn’t arrive in their inboxes in the wee hours of morning smelling like panic and poor life choices.

Gals Read The fall session of Gals Read is officially upon me. I’ve been prepping for the last few weeks and today marked the start of training week. Hooray! After training ends, I’ll spend my days reading Space Boy and Anne of Green Gables to the fantastic fourth grade girls of Fairbanks. The program has grown again this year, and we are now in every public elementary school in the district. That is awesome! I can’t think of a better use of my time than turning impressionable children into desperate book addicts who stay up way after bedtime with flashlights. *hero pose*

Also on the radar is NaNoWriMo, which is working hard to sneak up on me, but not this year, NaNo! This week is going to be crazy, like the one before it, but once I claw my way through Gals Read and out the other side, I’ll start thinking about what I want to draft out for this session and post a project soon. As I mentioned in the halfway check-in on my annual goals, this session is basically my last chance for the year to get my one first draft in. I don’t plan to squander it (yet).

How about you fine folks? What bookish pursuits have you been up to lately? Any exciting projects in the works? Let me know in the comments! And until next week, happy writing!

Talking Heads in Space

As mentioned, I’m working through an editing pass on Blood and Ebony, my Snow White retelling. It’s mostly solid at this point. (This is why I have to let drafts rest for a while before I start editing. I always set them aside convinced they’re utter rubbish and then when I look at them again, I’m surprised at how not-horrifyingly-embarrassing they are. It’s a nice surprise.)

There is, however, one thing that keeps cropping up, over and over again, a little problem I like to call Talking Heads in Space.

I’m sure you’ve seen these kinds of scenes before (especially if you’re one of my beta readers). The scene opens and two characters are having a conversation. And… that is all. There is no sense of the setting, or what is going on around them. There are no other people in this closed universe in which they chat. They aren’t doing anything. Heck, the only actions we have are nodding and sighing and laughing and eye rolling. All head stuff. They are two heads, talking in the blank vacuum of space.

And Blood and Ebony is, unfortunately, full of them. The book has a lot of interrogations in it, which tend to seem less like interrogations and more like boring, vaguely frustrating conversations between two people who don’t really like each other and can’t seem to get to the point.

This is a problem.

Talking heads in space is boring. In a lot of ways, it’s a glorified info dump in chit-chat form, disconnected from the rest of the plot. And that is lame-sauce. A lot of my edits for this book have focused on these scenes.

So how does one fix up a Talking Heads in Space scene?

Scenery These characters are talking somewhere, right? Even if you’re writing a space opera and these characters are legit chatting in the vacuum of space, the vacuum is not empty—far from it. So build up the scenery a bit. Where is this conversation taking place? What’s happening around them? If this scene was in a movie, what would the props guy put up around them. Be the props guy!

Consequences from the Past Character conversations must be informed by what the character has already experienced. So think about what has already happened in the book and how it would carry consequences into this scene. Maybe the characters were arguing the last time they spoke and so now they’re sulking. Maybe Character A ruptured a bursa earlier in the story and she spends the scene crankily massaging her still-sore knee. Maybe she’s worried about revealing too much information because she saw Character B talking to Character C and is worried that B is a traitor. Maybe she should be thinking about these things throughout the conversation. *strokes chin thoughtfully* Maybe.

Consequences for the Future Much like consequences from the past, make sure that each conversation knits into the rest of the story. No conversation should be there just because you really wanted a tense scene, or a funny scene, or a whatever scene. Every scene needs to have consequences for the future of the book. It must move the plot forward in meaningful ways.

Sensory Details This is closely related to adding scenery, but specifically from the perspective of the point of view character and going a little deeper than you would in a movie scene. What smells does the character pick up? What colors are there and what do they remind the character of? Any distracting background noises? Any tastes? Textures of the seats? Blisters in the shoes? The waistband feeling a little tighter than it used to? Adding these details will change the perspective of the reader from outsider-looking-in to benign-undetectable-brain-parasite-looking out.

Inner Workings Another detail that will help your reader inhabit the characters’ worlds and minds is a glimpse of the characters’ inner workings. What is your character thinking throughout the scene? How are they processing their verbal combatant’s quips and insults? How do they handle a confession of love? How hard is it to stifle their desperate hunger and have a coherent conversation when they haven’t eaten in two days and can’t stop smelling the burger joint next door? Let readers know the innermost thoughts and emotions of your characters to help shift us from a talking head to a working whole.

Adding details like these grabs those talking heads right out of space and puts them on top of bodies which are a part of the world around them. It plops those conversations in the midst of a time-space continuum between the past and the future, where the characters were and where they’re going.

So now that I’ve worked out what needs doing, I’d better get to doing it. Blood and Ebony is due to readers this weekend and if I don’t finish on time—*gulp*—musicals. I’ll let you know how it shakes out next week. Until then, happy writing!

Obey or Be Destroyed: A Guide to Bending Yourself to Your Will

Last week, I was chatting with some friends and lamenting my lack of progress on my latest edits for Blood and Ebony, my Snow White retelling. I had a self-imposed deadline for it that was coming up fast, but I wasn’t getting much closer to being done. I was frustrated with myself because I’m normally pretty good about making myself keep my own deadlines.

And then it hit me: the reason I wasn’t feeling any motivation on this project. I’d given myself a deadline, but I hadn’t affixed a punishment to it. I hadn’t assigned myself a consequence.

It can be hard sometimes to feel like a professional in this trade, especially if you’re not making a working wage and claiming tax exemptions and putting out a new book every two months. Any given project is less likely to make me a dollar than it is to make me yell at my kids because, oh my giddy aunt, how can they always tell when I’m trying to work and know the perfect way to ruin it? *clears throat* Anyway, if the rest of the world isn’t treating you like a professional, it can be hard to think of yourself that way as well. But that kind of thinking can easily nudge writing a little lower on the pecking order of what gets our time and attention and before you know it, you’ve blown half of your project time and aren’t any closer to your goal.

There are lots of ways to combat this struggle. For me, I respond unfortunately well to looming punishment. I assign myself terrible consequences and—here’s the important part—I follow through on them. I once confidently told my friends that I would have a story to them by a certain date and declared that I would run a mile for each day I was late. Yeah. I was eleven days late. I hauled my non-runner-rear down to the track and ran eleven miles in one go, fueled entirely by determination and high fructose corn syrup. It hurt so badly I worried I’d damaged something, and I was wincing and limping for days. But I haven’t missed a deadline since.

Now I’m not suggesting you immolate yourself in retribution for dropping the ball once in a while. (Seriously. Please don’t damage yourself.) But I am suggesting you find the things that motivate you. By leaning into the things that you love/hate, you can amp up the motivation to do a thing that maybe isn’t quiiiite as high on the to-do list as it should be all by itself.

So if this sounds like something that might help you hit those goals a little harder, here are a few ideas for coming up with your own system of rewards and/or punishments.

What is your goal?We’ve talked about making smart goals here before, but just for a very brief recap, make sure your goal is specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time bound (aka- has a deadline). Maybe you want to finish an editing pass, or write a single chapter, or enter a short story in a contest. Knowing exactly what you want to do and how you’re going to do it is the first step. Always have a goal. (And when you attain it, make another one! Onward and upward!)

What do you love? These things make excellent rewards. Pick a thing that you really want, or that you really want to happen, that you won’t just go out and get/do for yourself regardless of whether you hit the goal. Just make sure that it fits the size of your goal. Promising yourself a vacation to the Caribbean every time you draft a new scene isn’t very sustainable.

What do you hate? These things make excellent punishments. Pick a thing you don’t want to happen, and that is an appropriate punishment for the crime, but is still mild enough that you’ll actually go through with it. Maybe do a hard workout, or pledge a small donation to a political party you despise, or go sing on karaoke night, or whatever you wouldn’t normally do. But if you won’t hold yourself to it, don’t assign it. Make yourself miserable, but not so miserable that you flake out.

What is a reasonable deadline? As Goldilocks would surely tell us, you don’t want a deadline that’s so ambitious that you have to stop feeding your dependents to achieve it, or so lame-sauce that you won’t have to worry about actually working on it until it’s time to retire. Instead, pick a deadline that’s juuuust right: challenging, but possible if you put in a balanced amount of work.

Who can help you stick to it? Not everyone needs this part. Some people have all the grit ‘n’ gumption they need to make it happen no matter who is or isn’t watching. But then again, not everybody can just will themselves to follow through with their rewards or punishments. If you’re one of those people, grab a buddy! Writing pals, parents, partners, whoever—let them know of your task, your deadline, and what they’re to pressure you into doing at the end of it all.

Once you answer these questions, bring all the elements together into A Plan. Your plan, and those looming consequences shadowing it, will give you that extra burst of motivation to hit that goal out of the park. I know it works for me every time.

After pinpointing my lack of consequences, and therefore lack of motivation, my friends stepped in to help. In short order, they had assigned me a nightmarish punishment (they will deprive me of my ancestral right to piri piri sauce and high quality olive oil and instead make me watch a musical—a musical, people *shudders*) and then—poof!—just like magic, I suddenly had all the motivation in the world.

Killing Your Darlings: When A Character You Love No Longer Exists

I’ve had a character on my mind a lot lately. She’s this super cool, hyper-intelligent mermaid excavating ancient underwater libraries and toppling on-land monarchies. The victim of a generations long curse, she’s just become free and isn’t taking anyone’s trash one second longer. She’s fierce and clever and the undisputed leader of her shoal. She’s also like thirteen. The girl is totally boss.

She also doesn’t exist. Like, super doesn’t exist, even more than most fictional characters. This character and her entire arc were cut from a book that had too many side stories. She was on the page only long enough for me to fall in love, and then she was gone.

I tend to produce hefty drafts that are waaaay too big for their genres. Even epic fantasy (from which this particular character hailed) doesn’t usually leave enough room for me to squeeze in everything I want to. So when it comes time for editing, I have to be pretty aggressive about what gets trimmed. You can only tighten the wordcount so far by changing ‘have to’ to ‘must’ and ‘is not’ to ‘isn’t’.

When I edit, I try to use this as my rule of thumb—does it further my core story? I like a side quest as much as the next guy, but if it doesn’t tie back into the heart of the story I’m trying to tell, it stands great risk of getting axed. Especially if the word count is already nearly 40k above industry standards. *coughs*

They say no word is ever wasted, and I believe that. But cutting still hurts, especially when I have to cut something or someone that I adore. So as I’m slash-and-burning my way through a sloppy first draft, here are three tactics that I employ to help me through the carnage.

Meld your characters. Combine your favorite aspects of the character-to-be-cut into a more meh character who’s sticking around for the long haul. Or replace the meh character entirely, but keep that character’s role and scope. This can be a little dissatisfying, since you know the character has so much more in them, but sometimes it can be enough for you to just know that they are awesome and move on. (Besides, you can always dream of wild literary success and then you can create entire spin-offs of whatever the heck you want, no matter how ridiculous. I’m looking at you, Bree Tanner. *glares*)

Move the character to a different book. Set aside the character and maybe even their entire storyline to be picked up in a later book. Maybe this is a series and the arc can be used to tighten up a sagging middle on a later book. Maybe their delayed quest can even become the key arc of its own book. Or maybe this character is so boss that they can move into an entirely different world and still rock it.

Chalk it up to practice. Professional athletes don’t just show up on game day, stretch out, and play the match of their lives. They practice for hours, days, years, leading up to it, and writing is the same. Sometimes the words you write are simply to help you clarify what you actually should write, or to work on improving your language, or, heck, just to become a faster typist. Practice is what takes you from novice to grandmaster. Not all practice is pay dirt that will be cashed in some day. Sometimes it’s just dirt that you have to move out of the way to get to the gold underneath.

Right now, I think my mermaid friend is destined for Door Number Two. I tried to just cut her and forget her, but that was like eight years ago and she’s still haunting me, leaving cold puddles at my bedside and tipping over cups of water. It may be best to just indulge her. She’s the stubborn type.

How about you fine readers? Do you have any beloved characters/places/mechanics/etc. that you’ve had to cut? How do you deal with it? Let me know in the comments! And until next week, happy writing!