Sunday, May 24, 2015

Sounds Like Texas

It can be difficult to understand customs and traditions that you didn't grow up with. I once worked with a woman from Delaware and when I asked her about things she missed from home, she said she really missed Scrapple. I thought she'd said Scrabble and I couldn't imagine why she thought she couldn't play Scrabble in Texas. Did she think the only words we knew were y'all and fixin'?

Before I could offer to set up a game in the lunchroom she read my confused expression and went on to explain that Scrapple was food, pork to be exact, and that it was best described as "everything but the squeak." Wikipedia can explain it to you further. I was reminded of this exchange yesterday in a local grocery store when I saw Scrapple in the meat department. What can I say? Austin is now home to enough people from all over the country that we can find "everything but the squeak" next to our brisket.

I don't by any means think that everyone from Delaware enjoys Scrapple. She was one person I met from the great state of Delaware who did happen to enjoy it. And I think she was originally from another state anyway. As a native Texan who has lived in another state as an adult, I understand having to explain things and clear up incorrect assumptions. No, I didn't grow up on a ranch, or even own a horse. No, I didn't have a gun rack in my truck. In fact, hold on to your hat, but I didn't even drive a truck. As irritating as the assumptions were, I did understand why people thought them.

And I understand why reviewers and editors sometimes question or challenge things about stories set in Texas that just don't sound right to them.  Here are a few things that seem to trip up non-Texans. (And to be fair, some of these are probably also assumptions made about people from states other than Texas and people from those places probably get irritated about having to defend or explain them, too.)

1. No, it is not odd for a grown-ass woman, or even a grown-ass man, to still call their father "Daddy." In fact, they don't even have to have a particularly close relationship with him for that to be completely normal in their world. Likewise, not all Texans call their fathers Daddy.

2. No, there is no consensus on the correct spelling of mama vs. momma. The correct version is the one you like best. The end. And it is not unusual for a grown-ass man, or a grown-ass woman, to call their mother "Mama," which is, by the way, the correct version in anything I write. It should not be "corrected" to Momma. I wrote it the way I wrote it intentionally. Also, not every Texan calls their mother Mama.

3. Yes, the characters could have driven for nine hours and still be in Texas. It can take over 11 hours to drive from Beaumont to El Paso. No, I am not making that up and here is proof of the distance/time for said drive. And God help you if you hit Houston during rush hour. Texans don't always exaggerate but when we do, it's not about the size of our state.

4. Yes, there are vegetarians, and even vegans, in Texas. Yes, they could be native Texans. No, their mamas and daddies probably aren't okay with it. But they might be.

5. Yes, breakfast tacos are a thing. You can even get them in vegetarian and vegan varieties. Of course, you can also get them with bacon, sausage, and even smoked brisket. I've yet to see a Scrapple breakfast taco, but I wouldn't lay odds against such a thing existing somewhere in Texas. For the record, if I ever ask you to pick me up a breakfast taco, I do not want Scrapple in mine. Bacon, egg, potato, and cheese, please. And don't forget the hot sauce!
And yes, we really do have a road with an 85 mph speed limit --
but no, that is not the only road where you will encounter drivers going 85 mph.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

May Is Short Story Month

I'm reading a short story a day this month, thanks to the prompting of Sara Zarr, who is also participating along with Nova Ren Suma. As you can see if you clicked on their links, Nova is already doing a wonderful job of keeping track of her daily reads on her blog and Sara plans to list hers by week. I've tweeted mine and mentioned them on Facebook but I've decided to list them all here, a reference for myself as much as for anyone else. As the month wears on I know I won't remember everything I've read, and I'd like to remember them all.

You can follow along with several writers' lists of their daily reads on Twitter: @sarazarr, @novaren, @jessicacapelle

If you're participating, feel free to leave your Twitter handle or a link to your blog in the comments!

Day 1: "The Two Davises and the Rug" by Lydia Davis.

Day 2: "In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried" by Amy Hempel.

Day 3: "The Lottery" by Shirley Jackson.

Day 4: "Lamb to the Slaughter" by Roald Dahl.

Day 5: "Miriam" by Truman Capote.

Day 6: "Paul's Case" by Willa Cather.

Day 7: "Who's Irish?" by Gish Jen.

Day 8: "It Has Come to Our Attention" by Allen Kopp.

Day 9: "Abandon Changes; A "Girl Parts" Story" by John Cusick (available at YARN).

Day 10: "Dimension" by Alice Munro.

Day 11: "How to Talk to Girls at Parties" by Neil Gaiman.

Day 12: "It's Just a Jump to the Left" by Libba Bray.

** Life intervened and I got way off track so I'm catching up now. I didn't manage to keep up with reading a short story every day in May but I did come back to the challenge.

Story 13: "Wild Swans" by Alice Munro

Friday, April 24, 2015

The Circle of The Writing Life

I recently shelved a manuscript but, while I was making decisions about how to proceed with that one (which still isn't completely settled), I was writing something new, sending it to beta readers, and revising it. Now I'm querying that one and working on another new one. I think I will probably go back to the recently shelved story at some point and try to do what needs to be done to make that one work, but for now I needed something fresh to work on. Or, to be more honest, something new showed up and felt more pressing. And so the cycle goes.

I don't usually share writing here but thought I'd share a little of what I'm working on now. Please feel free to share a bit of your work in the comments or link to wherever you share such things. Please also feel free to share stories of revived manuscripts that eventually found all their necessary elements after being set aside for a while.

CLOSING TIME (excerpted)

Holy shit! She’s flirting with me? Okay, gotta go. I smile and nod. And then I cringe—right before I run the hell away, ditch my shopping cart next to the Ace Bandages, and slam my sweaty palms against the bathroom door as I shove my way in.

Stevie is leaning over the sink, splashing water onto her face. I swear it’s all happening in slow motion. Water droplets shatter against her skin and cascade back toward me like exploded fireworks.

My hip slams into the sink next to Stevie’s and my whole body reverberates. Every uncontrollable to-and-fro echoes up from the soles of my feet and thrums along my spine before it crescendos in my brain. I’m like a crash test dummy bouncing against the steering wheel. I grip the edge of the counter and manage to steady my limbs, but I can’t slow my breathing.

“What the hell is wrong with you?” Stevie stares at me in the mirror. Water drips off her chin.

“Tampon Girl.” It’s all I can manage between ragged breaths.

“What does that even mean? Are you hallucinating? Oh, shit.” She puts her hands on my shoulders and turns me to face her. “Don’t look at her, Brynne. Focus on me, okay? I need you to tell me what you took. And how much.”

I shake my head. “No. Nothing.” My eyes lock on something beyond her elbow. The stick on the counter looks just like the one on the front of the box—right down to the pink stripe.

Doesn't the writing process sometimes feel like hiking a trail after a heavy rain? Will this end in the satisfaction of a job well done, or with something broken?  

Monday, March 9, 2015

On Listening Harder

Our Austin SCBWI conference was this past Saturday and as usual, the lineup of presenters was stellar. But here's the part that may shock someone new to attending conferences and listening to presentations on craft: I already knew most of what I heard. And it was still worth every penny and every minute.

When I first started attending SCBWI conferences I knew a thing or two about writing but I still felt like I learned something new at every one. It was an exciting time. Information was being presented in a way that was specific to the kidlit market and crafting picture books and young adult novels and it was information I needed so I tried to soak it all up like a sponge. There is truly so much to know and so many ways to approach writing that no one could ever know everything, but it's also true that there comes a point where you start to think, "Yeah, I already know this." You think your sponge is full. You think it a lot. And you're probably right.

This is the point where it's easy to stop listening, to put up a wall. It's also the point, I would argue, where you need to lean in, to listen harder. Sure, I went to some conferences for a while where I really felt I might not have gotten much out of the material because I already knew everything I was hearing. But I listened anyway and then I listened some more. And then a funny thing happened.

It was like a door swung open in the middle of that "wall of everything I already knew" and it led to a new place: a place where all of those already known things began to apply very specifically to my projects. Suddenly, everything I already knew about writing in general, and even writing specifically for the kidlit markets, began to teach me (in big ways) about MY writing. The presenters didn't start opening their presentations with, "Hey, Shelli, this one's for you." But so very often it was.

Now when I go to hear a presentation on writing, I try to hear MY information. It's usually in there, when I listen hard enough.