Monthly Archives: June 2013

A conversation with author Kirstin Cronn-Mills

I love guest posts, not just because they give my weary fingers a break, but because other writers make me see the craft in new ways.

She's adorable AND she writes!

She’s adorable AND she writes!

So today I present Kirstin Cronn-Mills, one of the founders of my writing group and a person with amazing intuition. She’s taught me about energy and inner peace, which are good to have when the writing world beats you down. She’s written two young adult novels, The Sky Always Hears Me and the Hills Don’t Mind, a Minnesota Book Award nominee, and Beautiful Music for Ugly Children, which was nominated for a Lambda Award.

Beautiful Music synopsis: Gabe is a guy with big summer plans.  He’s got a job as a radio DJ, Beautiful Music for Ugly Childrenfollowing in the footsteps of his mentor, and he wants to move after graduation.  He’s also hoping his best friend Paige will fall in love with him—she’s smart, she’s hot, and she tolerates his music habit.  He couldn’t ask for more. His only problem?   The rest of the world has known him as Elizabeth for the last eighteen years.

Beautiful Music went through several major revisions. Did you love the book more each time?

Kirstin: That’s a very interesting question, and not one I’ve thought about!  I’ve always been unreasonably in love with Gabe & John—and I really loved my story line when John was actually Elvis, as in faked-his-death Elvis, because that was a wonderful thing to imagine.  But then Elvis took over the book, so we had to let that part of John go, and I was sad.  Did I love it more each revision?  I had a new appreciation for it after each revision, especially after incorporating my editor’s suggestions.  He made the book into something even better.

You could face controversy because you’re a hetero woman – and a married one – writing about a trans man. How has the trans community responded? How about conservative readers?

It doesn’t much matter that I’m hetero, but it does matter that I’m cisgender (my body and brain match up).  Some people have questioned it, but not as many as I’d expected.  I’ve gotten very kind comments from trans* men about how they’re grateful to see themselves in a book, and how it’s the first time it’s happened for them.  That’s the kind of stuff that makes me infinitely happy.  I’m not sure any conservatives have read the book.  : )  I haven’t seen any comments to that effect, anyway.

People have objected to things in the book that I haven’t expected.  One review group thought I was being misogynistic because Gabe was tokenizing women, and that comment surprised me.  But I also understand it, because Gabe does spend a lot of time looking at women and thinking about them.  However, if you’re new to allowing yourself to be a guy in public, and you’re new to allowing yourself to think like a guy, I’d think there might be a lot of staring at women going on.  Gabe’s a hetero dude.  He’s going to look.

John is my favorite character. (John is Gabe’s friend and mentor, a former DJ who first played Elvis on the radio.) John didn’t make an appearance until the second or third draft. Why did you decide John needed to be part of this story?

After the book came out, I realized that one of my goals with BEAUTIFUL MUSIC was to create allies for the trans* community.  John matters to the story because he’s Gabe’s constant, unshakable ally.  Everybody needs a champion like that, especially someone who’s just emerging as his true self.

Clearly you’re a music fan with eclectic tastes. The radio station in Beautiful Music is the most important setting, in my opinion. Is music as important to you as books? Did you ever consider a radio job?

I would have loved a radio job!  I’m still in love with radio when it has personality and real people behind the mic—those stations are few and far between, these days, but they’re still there.  I wanted Gabe to have an opportunity to share his musical passions, and a tiny little radio station was one place that would allow it.

Music might be more important than books, for me.  There are books everywhere, and they’re easily acquired.  Music, to me, is more intimate and personal, and more emotional.  Music matters to my state of mind.  Books aren’t quite like that.

You’re a prolific writer despite having a family and full-time job teaching college. And there’s no such thing as full-time teaching – it’s more like a job and a half. How do you make it work?

I don’t—not very well, anyway.  I never have enough time to write, which is why it’s taken 7 years from idea to shelf for each book.  : )  Maybe, once my child is out of the house, I can shorten that time frame!  Family matters most to me, then job (because it has to matter), then writing.  That formula needs to remain as is for a while.

We’ve been in a critique group together for about 10 years. In your opinion, what’s the good, the bad, and the ugly in a critique group?

I can honestly say that our critique group is directly responsible for my first book—without your encouragement, I wouldn’t have even had the guts to try and complete a novel.  The input from everyone is extremely valuable—we have so many smart people in our group!  And I’m trying, but I can’t think of a bad or an ugly!  Well, I guess it’s bad when people move away.  : (

What do you like to read? Tell us some of your favorites, all time or recent.

That’s a very, very hard question for me.  I appreciate contemporary realism more than anything. I’m not much of a fantasy fan—I like magic realism, but I really dislike dystopia (I realize nobody admits that, but I’ll be the first).  Some favorites: the Harry Potter series, American Gods (a grown-up novel by Neil Gaiman), anything by A. S. King (YA), and OF COURSE all the books our writer’s group has produced!

What’s next?

I’m working on an illustrated YA novel with a graphic artist from Minneapolis.  The main elements?  Sibling rivalry and street art.

You can learn more about Kirstin and her work on her web site.

Kirstin and I "working" at our annual writing retreat.

Kirstin and I “working” at our annual writing retreat.

New to the collection …

tttcover-u5800

I went to Hudson’s Chapter2Books yesterday and bought Steve Shaskan’s new book The Three Triceratops Tuff.  It’s a clever twist on the three billy goats.  Steve and his wife Trisha are the dynamic duo of Twin Cities kids lit and the nicest people you’ll ever meet.

Check out his book trailer. Then go buy it.

A post on … what was I saying? … hmmm … writer’s block?

Recap from yesterday’s post: Writer’s block is an excuse to leave the page.

This your brain on writer's block.

This your brain on writer’s block.

Author Philip Pullman describes why writer’s block is an excuse:  “Writer’s block…a lot of howling nonsense would be avoided if, in every sentence containing the word WRITER, that word was taken out and the word PLUMBER substituted; and the result examined for the sense it makes. Do plumbers get plumber’s block? What would you think of a plumber who used that as an excuse not to do any work that day?”

And I wholeheartedly agreed – until I got writer’s block. It didn’t feel like howling nonsense. It felt like a condition.

For more than a decade, my job duties were primarily writing. First I had a tour of duty in a newsroom. Then came public relations. I wrote press releases, commentaries, web copy, brochures, speeches, reports, white papers, talking points, marketing materials, and signs. Yes, I wrote signs.

After work, I went home and wrote some more. My husband joked that I “wrote books while stirring soup while talking on the phone while folding laundry.”

I wrote two young adult novels and found an agent. We had close calls but no sale. So I wrote more. Short stories, the beginnings of new novels, essays, flash fiction, and memoir. I landed a ghostwriting gig and some nonfiction work.

Busy, busy! My keyboard was on fire. Then one day I just stopped.

I’d blame a personal crisis, but I actually stopped writing pre-crisis. I’d blame office overload, but I’d left my job. I’d blame my husband, except he was urging me to saddle up and hit the paper trail.

I’d open my computer files and tell myself, jump in. Pick up where you left off. Or start new. Just type. Just close your eyes and start pushing random keys. But every story idea was ridiculous. Dialogue was stiff. Descriptions were cliché. Characters were flat.

I froze in front of the screen. I was done. For ten months, my laptop served as nothing but an email and Internet tool.

I didn’t understand how I went from writing stories to staring at walls. I still don’t. I’d like to analyze the cause, or causes, and I’d love to offer a step-by-step guide to recovering your muse. (That guide would sell.)

Was my writer’s block “howling nonsense?” Was it fear of failure? Was it an excuse to quit? Was I tired, or just lazy? Or was it something quite real but invisible, a flood of stifling chemicals in the creative part of my brain?

Author Barbara Kingsolver says a writer must chain her muse to her desk and get it done. Maybe my muse had chained me to the desk. I wasn’t so much quitting as escaping. Snowbirds flee northern winters for sunny beaches, right? It’d been a long time since I’d had sand between my toes.

One day, my new boyfriend gave me a present. A new laptop. I’d told him I was a writer. He probably found it odd that I never actually wrote.

I played with the laptop for a while. So light and small and shiny. Pretty colors! Icons! Programs galore! I felt a ping of creativity, then a creative flare, like the Grinch’s tiny heart growing three sizes in one day.

I wasn’t cured with a new laptop. (It didn’t hurt.) But it made me think about whether I was a writer or someone who dreamed about being a writer. Not a newspaper writer or a brochure writer, but a writer who invents. A writer whose material comes from within.

Characters started talking to me again. Places turned into setting, and conversations revealed voice. Stories spun in my head. I had dreams of plot points.

I created my first document and named it TheGrahamCrackerPlot. Page one begins like this:

Dear Judge Henry,

I will tell you three things right now.

Number One. I am only eleven years old. I do not want to go to prison, even if it’s a prison for kids.

_________________

The Graham Cracker Plot sold in a whirl of emails and phone calls. It’ll be released in the fall of 2014.

If this happens to you, this big, bad writer’s block, try to reframe it as writer’s hurdle. That’s my only real advice. You can jump the hurdle. You can. It’s not as high as it looks.

And forget about your muse. You don’t need it. You never did.

Writer’s block? Hah.

Writer's block: when you'd rather make Lego houses than write.

Writer’s block: when you’d rather make Lego houses than write.

To write is to write is to write is to write is to write is to write is to write is to write.
Gertrude Stein

I didn’t believe in writer’s block. I was a journalist, and if I could write every day, so could you. So could every writer.

When writers whined about their little block, I wanted to yell, hit the keyboard and make those fingers dance. Just start writing. Just write. Write! Sometimes I did tell them. Then happy hour ended.

See, the real world of writing – where you actually write; where your writing is a job – doesn’t accept the concept of a block lodged in the part of your brain that processes written language.

Allow me to provide some real-world examples.

Example one. The newsroom.

You’re a reporter back from a city council meeting. You have 15 minutes until deadline.

Editor: How’s that story coming?

Reporter: Kind of slow, actually.

Editor: Underneath my desk is a bottle of whiskey. Take a shot. That’ll pick up the pace.

Whiskey consumed. Five minutes pass.

Editor: We needed 12 inches. Now we need 15 or we’ll have a hole.

Reporter: Fifteen inches? I can’t. I just can’t. I have writer’s block.

Editor: Write the story or write your resignation letter. I’ll be back in 10 minutes for one or the other.

Example two. The PR department.

The boss enters your office. You minimize your screen to hide eBay. (Your bid on a cake decorating kit is about to expire.)

Boss:  We’ll have the annual report in time for the annual meeting, right?

PR pro: I was just about to email you about that report. The annual report is expensive, and it’s bland and technical. Who reads it? You. Nobody else. So I’m thinking we should do the annual report every other year.

Boss: But it’s an annual report. And it’s a requirement of our bylaws.

PR pro: But I have writer’s block!

Boss: What’s that?

PR pro: I can’t write that report. No matter how hard I try, no matter how much time I spend with a blank document, I can’t get it out.

Boss: Excuse me? Can’t get it out? Take a laxative and get out a rough draft by Friday.

Example three. The public affairs team.

Boss: I want to read our editorial before you submit it to the Star Tribune. I’ve got some time this afternoon. Just leave it on my desk.

Big sigh from the media pro.

Boss: Is there a problem?

Media pro: The topic is so complicated. It’s impossible to break it into a digestible and snappy 500-word commentary. I’m certain they won’t print it, so why waste the time?

Boss: Every person in the state will be affected if the Education Fiduciary Subcommittee passes the Guidelines for Fiscal Obligations Regarding Other Post Employment Benefits for Certified Staff In Public School Districts. GFOROPEBCSPSD. Everyone at the Capitol is talking about it.

Media pro: GFOROPEBCSPSD just isn’t sexy.

Boss: Make it so.

Media pro: Truth is, I have writer’s block.

Boss: Truth is, you’ll be permanently blocked from entering this workplace if I don’t see that editorial – that sexy editorial – on my desk after lunch.

_____________________

So there you have it. Writer’s block doesn’t exist. It’s an excuse to do avoid the unpleasant aspects of writing. Writer’s block is a fraud perpetuated by writers who want to watch Dr. Phil instead of working.

That was my unshakable belief – until I had writer’s block.

More on that tomorrow.

Ten Fun Summer Things Mom Did When She Was a Kid. Things You Will Not Do.

My follow-up to yesterday’s post is the list, “Ten Fun Summer Things Mom Did When She Was a Kid.”

My daughter will laugh at the list, and then I’ll insist there be no repeat performances. Sure, I grew up in fresh air. So what? I’ll probably die from skin cancer or tick disease or revenge from the neighbors I mud-balled. There’s probably a sliver festering in my body soon to be infected with flesh-eating bacteria.

I don’t want that for my daughter.  Are video games really that bad? What’s wrong with a little TV? The Internet is educational.

I had a different childhood. Mom stayed at home with the kids. So do I, but I’ve been initiated into the Helicopter Parents Club. My mother was unaware of the constant threat of kidnappers and popsicle-induced ADHD. She knew one good sunburn would turn to a protective tan. And what’s a wood tick or two or three? Flush ’em down the toilet! See if they crawl back up.

As granny would weeze, “Times ain’t the same.”

Regardless, here’s the list. Writing it was magical, and now I want to write a book about neighborhood kids in the 1970s. I’m sure that’s never been done, right?

Indoor gyms? For shame!

Indoor parks? For shame!

So I offer a glimpse into the summers of Shelley. “Ten Fun Summer Things Mom Did When She Was a Kid.”

  1. Capture daddy long leg spiders. Pull off the legs and watch their heads roll around the sidewalk. Whoever collects the most heads wins. Save the heads in a jar.
  2. Make mud balls. Throw them at targets for points. Do not select a neighbor’s house for a target. Because he will yell at you, you will run into your house, he will ring the bell and tattletale to your mom, and your mom will know you are hiding under the bed.
  3. Hose down a neighborhood hill. Use mom’s cookie sheets for an outdoor waterslide. When finished, bang out dents with a hammer. Good as new!
  4. Get bucket of water and bunches of toilet paper rolls. Soak wads of toilet paper. Throw them at dad’s car. See how many will stick.
  5. Guilt mom into watching talent show in which you and your best friend act and sing the Grease soundtrack – all 24 songs.
  6. Now that's summer. Nice cartwheel, kiddo.

    Now that’s summer. Nice cartwheel, kiddo.

    Go to home of stylish grandmother with a dozen closets. Take out dresses, shoes, wigs, make up, perfume, jewelry, handbags. Sort and divide. Have a 1970s fashion show. Insist on being Farrah Fawcett.

  7. Buy packs of candy cigarettes. Wear jeans, white t-shirt and and red-and-blue hankie things on head. Pretend bikes are motorcycles. Pretend bikes aren’t pink with sparkling purple ribbons. Smoke and ride the lonely highway through sunbaked deserts, baby, smoke and ride.
  8. Put batteries in fancy new tape recorders. Record friends burping and farting. Rewind, replay.
  9. Stake out campsite in nearby woods, something far from the law. Drag blankets/sheets, beans and can opener, cowboy hats, dad’s tools (for breaking branches). Hang sheets high in trees. Make camp. Plan stagecoach robbery. Open beans and pretend to eat because beans are gross.
  10. Get dad’s ties. Wrap around jump rope. Secure with string and tape. Jump, skip, attempt double dutch. Watch the pretty colors as the rope swings.

Now I’m all nostalgic. I’m going to text the friend with the purple bike and see if she’ll come over and download Grease. If she’s busy, we can sing “Look at Me I’m Sandra Dee” via Skype. Just like the good old days.

Summertime and the writing is NOT easy

When did parks getting boring?

When did parks getting boring?

School’s out, and so is full-time writing. Starting today, I’m a full-time mom and part-time writer – a part-time writer with a deadline for a second novel.

And that’s fine. My laptop will be with me forever, but my kid will not. We’ll be a duo of summer slugs until she flies out the door for a friend. She’s only eight, but that door’s already in constant motion.

Last summer, her budding social life carved out writing time for me. But it wasn’t the flurry of productivity I expected, and this summer’s going to be no different.

It will go like this:

___________________

I set up our craft table. We color and cut and glue and giggle. Then the doorbell rings, and she’s either out the door or taking a friend to her room.

The inventor of glitter has some explaining to do.

The inventor of glitter has some explaining to do.

So the laptop and I settle into my office. I’m on a hot streak and then … interruption.

Mom! The glitter bottle exploded and it’s stuck to the glue on the floor and the glue got on the floor because the glue bottle exploded.

How’d these bottles explode, Samantha?

I don’t know. We didn’t do anything wrong. I think YOU tipped ’em over or those bottles had too much carbon dioxide or maybe ants ate a hole in the bottom.

___________________

My daughter and I resume work on the ultra cool Harry Potter game we’re making. The doorbell rings, and she’s either out the door or taking a friend to her room.

Me. Laptop. Office. I’m on a hot streak and then … interruption.

(Sniff, sniff) Mom, I fell off the trampoline across the street. I think I broke my leg. So I jumped over those bushes and I ran home. I need an ice pack. (Sniff, sniff) Mom, can you take us to the gymnastics studio?

___________________

We plan a lazy movie morning with breakfast popcorn.

Doorbell. Me. Laptop. Office. Hot streak. Interruption.

Mom, will you take us to the Mall of America to look at American Girl Dolls?

No. I’m not driving to the city for dolls. Think of something else to do.

Can we go to the beach?

Not now. Pick a day next week so I can plan lunch and stuff.

Can we go to the Wisconsin Dells?

Are you serious? Really?

Fine! You never let me do anything!

___________________

My daughter and I set up her favorite game, Life. (The board game Life is longer than actual life, and Life inevitably makes me a broke mechanic living in a mobile home with so many kids they can’t fit into the tiny Life car. I love life. Hate Life.)

Doorbell. Me. Laptop. Office. Hot streak. Interruption.

Mom, I’m starving. Can you make pizza for lunch?

Sure.

She shouts downstairs that it’s a yes, pizza for all, and a group of kids whoop. A group. There’s one pizza in the freezer. Clearly I’m still in winter grocery mode, but my cell phone holds the phone number for every pizza place in town. Problem solved.

___________________

And the body language says ... sooooo bored!

And the body language says … sooooo bored!

Another day. Daughter-Mom Activity. Doorbell. Me. Laptop. Office. Hot streak. Interruption.

Mom, we’re bored.

It’s the second week of summer. Are you kidding me?

We’re soooooooo bored! Sooooooo bored!

I knew this day would come. I’ve got this list for you and the gang. It’s “Ten Fun Summer Things Mom Did When She Was a Kid.” Don’t even whisper the word bored until you’ve done everything on the list.

And so she gets the magic list, which I will blog tomorrow. Summer cliff hanger!