The sea, the sea, the sea

4Before continuing, set the soundtrack for your reading here (but only if you don’t mind reading with some music playing in the background).

The Wanderer (2000), Sharon Creech

“The sea, the sea, the sea.” When she first writes these words, Sophie, 13 years old and eager to leap into adventure, is preparing to sail across the Atlantic in a 45-foot vessel (The Wanderer) with her two cousins and three uncles. Her journal entries before and during the trip often start with these same words, a repeated paean to a life at sea, but with each iteration gradually revealing more of what that life demands.

Blue Sea and Distant Ship, Courtesy Tate Images

Blue Sea and Distant Ship, Courtesy Tate Images

Their voyage starts easily, although with conflict among the crew, both across and within generations. Sophie and her two cousins, Cody and Brian, are on one side of the generation gap. Uncles Mo (Cody’s father), Stew (Brian’s father) and Dock are on the other. The three uncles are brothers, and a history of rivalries and comradeship is revealed at various moments. Cody and Brian, not much older than Sophie, are at times allied with their fathers and at other times rebelling against them. Sophie, as the only girl and with no parent aboard, tries to stay out of it all.

When they start off through Long Island Sound, Uncle Stew sets their first task: each crew member must teach the others something. Brian teaches points of sail, Cody (whose dog-log entries alternate with Sophie’s throughout the novel) teaches juggling, and Sophie teaches the stories their grandfather taught her.

Waves Breaking against the Wind, Courtesy Tate Images

Waves Breaking against the Wind, Courtesy Tate Images

Early on, Sophie learns how to kill and gut fish, repairs the bilge box, and is the only crew member light enough (and fearless enough) to get to the top of the mast via the bosun’s chair. At sea, the chair swings out over the water as it rises or falls, and Sophie loves the feeling of flying out over the waves.

As is usual for Creech, behind the tale of adventure lies an exploration of family ties and belonging. Sophie’s an orphan, and the people she’s traveling with are part of her adopted family. The stories she tells come from their grandfather. But how does Sophie know this man’s stories? He isn’t her grandfather. He had moved back to England before the family adopted her. When her cousins ask pointed questions, she changes the subject or leans over the rail to stare at the ocean. The adults know something but won’t tell the two boys.

David Morse and Ciaran Hinds, 2006

David Morse and Ciaran Hinds, The Seafarer

For me, Creech’s book sets off echoes of old English poetry, Iris Murdoch’s novels, Conor McPherson’s 2006 play The Seafarer, Turner’s seascapes (for instance, the two paintings above) and Debussy’s music (which you might be listening to right now). Creech prefaces her novel with a brief quote from “The Seafarer“, an Anglo-Saxon poem at least 1000 years old:

This tale is true, and mine. It tells/How the sea took me, swept me back/And forth …

The lines below, from the same poem, remind me of Sophie in her bosun’s chair:

And now my spirit twists/out of my breast,/my spirit/out in the waterways,/over the whale’s path/it soars widely/through all the corners of the world – /it comes back to me/eager and unsated;/the lone-flier screams,/urges onto the whale-road/the unresisting heart/across the waves of the sea.

Compare those with an excerpt from Sophie’s journal:

And still the sea called, Come out, come out, and in boats I went — in rowboats and dinghies and motorboats, and after I learned to sail, I flew over the water, with only the sounds of the wind and the water and the birds, all of them calling, Sail on, sail on.

Sophie and the crew of The Wanderer sail on, and the strength of this novel is in how each faces the challenges of their journey.

Posted in Adventure, Newbery Award, YA Lit | Tagged | 2 Comments

NaNoWriMo ends, a new task begins

After a few days of rest (and way too much TV), I think I’m ready to get back into my usual routine. The semester will end in 3 weeks, which means I have papers to grade. I’m also giving a final exam, for the first time in several years. It’s take-home (I really detest the panicked atmosphere of an exam room during a timed test), and the students have had the questions for a month. They’re even allowed to talk with each other, as long as they cite their discussion partners in a bibliography. They’d better do well!

The good news: I won NaNoWriMo! (Remember, winning only means writing at least 50K words during the month of November; every NaNoWriMo-er can be a winner.)


As you can see in my NaNo widget, I made it past 51,000 words before Thanksgiving, which meant I could take it easy for the holiday, but I didn’t. Instead, I moved to the next steps: editing and getting feedback. I deleted the rubbish (I realize that’s a subjective assessment — there’s probably plenty more rubbish that I can’t see), and sent it out to my writing group members. They’re reading now, and I feel a bit like a college applicant waiting for the letters that will decide my future. With their feedback, I’ll start another round of revisions/edits, and then move into the query process. This new book is another fantasy, with dragons but no magicians.  You can find out a bit more about it under the “My books” page above.

The better news: I have the energy to start my historical epic. “Start” may, perhaps, be misleading. For last year’s NaNo I wrote a first draft and found myself mired in historical minutiae. The going was slow and painful, and I was happy to set it aside. After this past summer’s travels, however, I’m ready to leap back into it. I’ll read more YA historical fiction, taking notes on how other authors mix plot and history.

And now I really must grade those papers!

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Hunger Games and Protest

Lizzie Ross:

From my other blog. I’m wrapping up my NaNoWriMo 2014 project — I’ve already passed my 50K-word goal, but I need to do some major revising to have it ready to submit to my writing groups. Stay tuned for more news come December.

Originally posted on Readers Are Leaders 2014:

220px-Hunger_gamesThis morning’s Weekend Edition/Saturday on NPR included a brief interview with Stephen Carter, a professor and novelist who discusses how Suzanne Collin’s massively popular series of books and movies mirrors much of what’s happening lately, so much so that the District 12 Salute is being used by protesters around the world.

I generally like to wave at everyone on the bandwagon as it passes me by, so the universal fascination with Katniss et al. gave me the reason I needed to leave these books in the bookstore. (NB: I was well into Harry Potter before the world went mad.)

I didn’t like the first book in Collins’ series, yet forced myself to read it a second time and found it a bit more tolerable. Even so, I was not inspired to finish the series. One, there are an awful lot of really good books for adults that I haven’t yet read. Two, the idea of children killing children…

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Still here

Hey fan base! I’ve been busy, but not too busy (in other words, no all-nighters). Here’s my progress so far:

Screen shot 2014-11-16 at 9.50.05 PM


Once they get their system set for a few hundred thousand users, NaNoWriMo does a great job of keeping track of how much I’ve written. That graph on the right is just what I need to force myself past the moments of thinking I’ve made a huge mistake. As long as that brown bar stays above the grey line, I know I’m on track.

There are plenty of moments when I think perhaps this writing gig is too much like work, but I’ve learned to ignore them. NaNo provides advice from pep-talkers like Tamora Pierce (she suggests making your protagonist do something stupid to see how they cope), and several dozen discussion forums with writing prompts such as this one from “Pachelbel”:

Imagine your character going about his or her mundane daily tasks and finding something unexpected that brings about a strong reaction. It must be a physical object that creates either a physical or mental threat, or a mystery, whether real or imagined.

Pachelbel has another 200 or so of these suggestions, enough for 6 per day if needed. NaNo is about discovering your story and who your characters are, so everything is acceptable, even if later it gets edited out.

Anyway, I’ve passed the halfway point, so I encourage myself by saying the rest is a downhill ride. Yet halfway isn’t all the way, I have two big scenes coming up, including the obligatory battle between the goodies and the baddies, and I know that days of grinding away with no idea of where I’m going are still ahead of me. And then I get to edit it into a novel!

Meanwhile, I’ve been reading: 5 Mapp & Lucia books (including 4 not written by E. F. Benson!), a bit of Thurber, Augustus Carp, more Thurber, and now Diary of a Nobody.

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A Turning Point

Lizzie Ross:

From Julia Lee’s blog. She’s the author of The Mysterious Misadventures of Clemency Wrigglesworth, STILL not available in the US. What is her publisher waiting for?

Originally posted on Julia Lee Author:

autumn leaves of London Plane tree

The leaves are falling from the London Planes. I always notice them. They are quite unmistakable – pointy-fingered leaves in clearly differentiated shades,

bright green, or the colour of lemon peel, or at most a light golden brown, like roast potatoes. And all the size of plates – tea plates, dessert plates, even dinner plates. His eye, as he walked down Kilmartin Road, scanned to find the biggest – and yet bigger – leaves upon the pavement and in the gutter between the parked cars. He longed to pick up the biggest he could find and take it home. That would be an autumn leaf.

Why am I writing about this, and what am I quoting?

The fall of the plane leaves always reminds me of my first experience of publication, and prize-winning (writing as Julia Widdows). It was a turning point on my path as a writer and such…

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Day 5 of NaNoWriMo

Courtesy APOD, NASA

Courtesy APOD, NASA

I’m giving myself a star — actually, a few billion stars — for today. 3350 words.

I’ve been trying word sprints, which are similar to wind sprints (athletes should recognize that term). I set the timer for 30 minutes, write until the timer beeps, and then give myself a break of no more than an hour while I think about what to write next.

The writing isn’t smooth or without pauses, but I’m not allowed to get up from my computer, answer the phone (which keeps ringing! drat those robo-calls!), or look up a word in the dictionary. This is writing focused purely on idea — on watching it develop on the page as the words seem to magically appear. It’s like developing a photograph, the only difference being the photographer knows what to expect.

I’m at a point in my novel where I know what will happen in a few pages, but I have no idea what the few pages that take me there will look like. When I started this morning, I thought “a few” pages meant 3-4. By the end of the day, they were 10, and I still hadn’t reached the point where I know what’s going to happen.

I have to assume I’ll get there eventually. I just don’t know yet by what route.


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The Seven Pillars of NaNoWriMo Wisdom, Part 7

The last item of the list.

imagesThere are no rules.

A member of my writing group said today that he had signed up for NaNoWriMo but was still undecided about participating because he didn’t like that he wasn’t allowed to edit.

At first I tried to argue with him. “Read my blog post about that very thing. Editing gets in the way of writing. The point isn’t perfection. The point is to get a first draft.”

Then, taking a different tack, “No one’s looking over your shoulder to disqualify you if you do edit.”

As my voice got shriller, I suddenly realized that I was being an idiot.

Writing isn’t about copying other people’s successful strategies. It’s about finding what works for you. NaNo works for me because it gives me an achievable goal, with a few hundred thousand other people around the globe supporting me in spirit as they take up the same challenge. I know plenty of writers who, for whatever excellent reasons, hate it.

Fine. No judgments. People wrote good stuff before Chris Baty and his colleagues turned budding authors into rheumy-eyed word hounds for a full month, and people will continue to do so. NaNoWriMo doesn’t want to kill that. It wants to encourage people who’ve been thinking about “writing a novel” (I believe there must be a billion of us by now) to finally sit down and do it by bringing that first draft into the realm of the imaginable.

So, NaNoWriMo or don’t NaNoWriMo. Edit or don’t edit. Get a critique group or be that lone artist in the attic. There is no such thing as cheating (again, excepting plagiarism) when writing a novel. There is only getting it done, whatever it takes.

Next up: NaNoWriMo Progress Reports. Don’t know when, don’t know how many — let’s just say at some point next month you’ll be hearing from me.

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