My ALS #IceBucketChallenge Response

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So, my friend, Amy (A.S.) King has so generously slapped me with the icy cold gauntlet of the #IceBucketChallenge. If you are somehow unaware of what this is, it is a fun (and chilly) way to help fight against ALS. You take the challenge, donate what you can, and help spread the word. Plus, you get to watch people dump ice cold water over their heads, on the interwebs. If you don’t accept the challenge, you’re supposed to donate your soul (kidding), and you get called out over the web, and people everywhere will snigger and laugh behind your back and call you names that you have never even heard of. Really though, it’s a good cause, a silly challenge, and an opportunity for a spot of interwebs fun.

Read here for more details: http://www.alsa.org/fight-als/ice-bucket-challenge.html

Anywho, as I was saying, A.S. King Tweet-called me out and so, in gentlemanly fashion, I pick up the gauntlet and respond via this video: Click HERE.

 

And, I further challenge my wunderbar literary agent, Linda Epstein, and the extremely talented and hilarious writer, R.L. Saunders, to step up and accept the glove of frigid H2O buffoonery with which I have tauntingly slapped them.

 

Must Have the Precious

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Maybe it was the irregular sleep chart patterns. Maybe it was finding that everyone around me was simply breathing too loudly, or too close to me, or that their eyelids made noises when they moved. Maybe it was the incessant pacing, or the growling, or the muttering, or the fact that I answered anyone who dared speak to me in some angry, eldritch language. Or that my eyes were red, or that I was hovering eighteen inches off the floor, shooting lightning bolts from my eyes….

I mean, really, it could have been any one of those things. One of those things that told me…you’ve been away from the words too long

gollum

He didn’t write today

Because that’s just it. As writers, we crave the story. We need to put pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard, or chisel to tablet (and if that’s you, you may seriously want to consider upgrading your routine). We need to pour out the words. We need to greet that page or screen (no, stop it, stone tablet writer…I’m not mentioning you. You just need to get with the times). We need to create. In short we need to write, and we need to write frequently. Ideally, every day, even if you can only find the time to get a few words down. A few is better than zero. We NEED to WRITE.

Yes, yeah, I know, I know….life, and jobs, and kids, and raising chickens, and commuting, and cooking, and fatigue and back alley games of ultimate backgammon. Dude, I get it. Life happens. It happens to all of us. And I’m writing this post to let you know that when you turn into a monster, that it’s ok. That it’s NORMAL. You’re a writer. It happens to all of us. It’s an occupational hazard (to everyone around us).

I’m writing this because after two days of zero words and then one where I produced less than I would have liked, I began to feel the symptoms (see paragraph 1). Then I realized, by Neptune’s beard,  we’re like Tolkien’s Gollum, from The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings! Our writing is our Precious!

“We wants it, we needs it. Must have the precious.” – Gollum

When we are writing and producing, we are clutching our Precious; happy and content and singing weird songs to ourselves in dank caves. What? You don’t? When something steals our time, or life intrudes, or the word count does not add up to much at the end of the week, we may find ourselves running amok, shrieking “They stole it from us! Sneaky little hobbitses. Wicked, tricksy, false!” We grow irritable, confused, anxious, and prone to levitating, speaking in alien tongues and shooting lightning bolts from glowing red eyes.

Don’t shoot lightning bolts from glowing red eyes. Get writing.

WCCI’ve joined Jessica Cooper in holding ourselves accountable by keeping a weekly tally and then posting a pic of it on Twitter #WCC (Word Count Club). Basically you list each date Sun-Sat, with the number next to it, and then a weekly total. Even zeros. That’s right, big ‘ol goose eggs are a helluva a kick in the [deleted for family content's sake]. Seeing three days of zeros is enough to light an inferno under your posterior. There’s no prize, just a visual look at what you’re doing, public accountability, and the admiration and/or commiseration of your fellow writers. So, I’m hoping you’ll join us in Tweeting your #WCC pics.

Hold on to your Precious, my friends….because the Hobbits of life will try and take it from you.

Go To The Mountain

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photo (8)

Image courtesy of Heather Demetrios

What does that even mean? Guy disappears from his blog for a month and comes back with cryptic messages about going to some mountain? Well, I’m about to tell you what that means and what it might mean for you. My own journey towards that mountain has taken me away from the interwebs for a bit and, as the universe is so keen  to do, this metaphor has cropped up in Neil Gaiman’s “Make Good Art” speech and in my friend, Heather Demetrios‘s, Vermont College of Fine Arts graduate lecture.

Go to the Mountain. In Gaiman’s speech, he explains that he imagined where he wanted to be (an author, making good books, able to make a living from his stories, etc.) was a mountain. A distant mountain. It was his goal. Furthermore, he says “…I knew that as long as I kept walking towards the mountain I would be all right. And when I truly was not sure what to do, I could stop, and think about whether it was taking me towards or away from the mountain.”  He explains that he said no to writing jobs (editorial, magazines, etc) that might have paid more money, because at the time it would have taken him away from the mountain. Had they come earlier in his career, he might have taken them (because they’d be closer than he was at the time to the mountain).

This is an absolutely wonderful metaphor. What is your mountain? What is your goal? And are you making decisions to reach that mountain? Will you be like Thorin and the dwarves of Erabor, striving to claim what is yours? Sorry, couldn’t resist an opportunity to throw in a Tolkien analogy.

No one is going to just swoop down from the summit and give you what you want. You have to take strides. You have to leave the comforts of your Shire (now I’m on a Tolkien roll, see what you’ve done?). You have to keep the summit in sight and move ever on and on, choosing those paths that will lead you closer to what you want.

You have to make decisions and you have to move forward. You do…IF you want it bad enough. For each of us, those decisions, those paths, may be very different. It may mean the jobs you take (or do not), the places you live (or do not), the social events you decline, the extraneous activities you cut out, or the sleep you do not get. That journey towards the mountain may mean vast changes for some, and small changes for others. It may mean a change in the people in your life. It may mean surrounding yourself with friends who truly support and encourage and share similar goals and beliefs. It may mean changes in relationships. It may mean a complete life change, an absolute shaking of your personal tree. For some, the decisions may be easy. For others, it may require much more difficult and/or complicated decisions. Easy or hard, minor or major, you make those decisions so that you can move forward, step after step after step, journeying towards that mountain. And that journey can be wonderful, exciting, and full of discovery, life, and love.

Just like our characters, we must move forward to achieve our desires, to reach our goals, to grow and change. We must go to the mountain.

Ask yourself, are you moving towards the mountain, or have you wandered off the path? Are the decisions you make taking you towards your dreams? Are your sights truly set on the mountain? And what does that mean? What ARE your goals? What sits atop that mountainous, snow-capped summit?

I hope you get there, and that you find what you are looking for. In the meantime, keep moving forward.

Go to the Mountain.

Everyone Has a Story to Tell

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Everyone is tattooed!

Ok, maybe not “everyone,” but it seems like the majority of people I know, or see, or meet, have at least one tattoo. Age, profession, social class…it doesn’t matter. There are octogenarians getting their first ink; doctors with half-sleeves; Kindergarten teachers with their ribs done. Tattoos are not just for pirates, bikers, rebels, or criminals any more (in truth, tattoos existed as social, religious, and cultural marks long before they became the mark of the rogue or outsider, but that is another story).

I went to the indoor water park the other day and couldn’t help but notice the amount of ink walking around; older men and women, younger men and women, moms, dads, artsy looking folk, or conservative slant…it didn’t matter. There was a lot of ink. As a writer, I observe and record, keeping an eye out for potential story and/or character material. I like to watch and listen for details. So, I pay special attention to what I see. In this instance, people’s tattoos.

Names, and dates, and portraits, and entire scenes; characters and symbols and song lyrics. Each tattoo was unique to that person. I was in getting some of my own work done last week and I askedtattoo one of the guys if anyone still pulled “flash” (pre-drawn pieces of art available as tattoos) off the wall. Not many people do anymore. It’s just like some unspoken tattoo parlor code that you simply must display flash for customers or else your ink dries up and your tattoo machines stop working. But most people come in with custom ideas, or art, and work with the tattoo artist to create ink unique to them. Maybe it’s their grandmother’s picture, or a tribute to a friend who has died. Maybe it’s a passage from a book, or a symbol of what drives them (like a whisk for a chef or something). Whatever it is, it’s meaningful to them; it says something. Because they have something to say and they want to display it on their body, FOREVER, to let the world know/see.

They have a story to tell and they want to share it. Like writers, they have something important enough to say that they are willing to put it out there, to expose themselves, to make a permanent mark.

Writing is the same. Our stories are our ink. Our books are our bodies. Once you publish, post, send, distribute, or share your work, it’s out there; you are exposing yourself. You are displaying something, by choice; something you feel is important enough to share with the world.

We all have stories to tell. As writers, we shouldn’t just be pulling “flash” off the wall. Make it meaningful. Make it count. Make it your own.

We all have stories to tell. What is yours?

Musing on the Magic of Middle-Graders

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Having three young boys, I am often reminded of the magic that exists at that age; how their minds process the world. It is a unique blend of awe and curiosity, coupled with slow-drying beliefs based on experience and exposure (like a blob of Elmer’s glue drying on the page, it can still be smeared if pressed upon before drying). It is an age where innocence balances on the border of maturity and imagination still has a healthy part in looking at the world and then looking beyond it, to places that exist in story or dreams; to see things busy adults, or practical minds are either incapable of seeing or simply dismiss. Middle-grade is that wonderful age where children begin to develop independence, while craving adventure; they don’t need the constant security and protection that a younger child requires, and they have not fallen into that hormonal whirlwind of adolescence.

If this age were an era, it might be termed the Age of Discovery.

Summer is almost upon us and middle-graders far and wide will be home, removed from the classroom and homework, lessons and teachers. There will be baseball games, and fireflies, trees to climb, dares, and tag, and hide and go seek, and forts, and bicycles, skateboards, ramps, and races. There might be clubs, and codes, and rock collections.

photo (6)As I write this, there is a fort in my living room, made out of blankets and dining room chairs. There is a jar of tadpoles that the boys came home with yesterday. They (the boys, not the tadpoles) have magic wands they carved themselves out of sticks they found in the woods. They’ve turned the old swing set into a fort and perch in it, hatching plans, while our one-eyed puppy sits up there with them, watching for eavesdroppers. The other night we toasted marshmallows and made S’mores and as the night crept in, the boys danced around in the dark, finding wood for the fire and challenging each other as to who could make the “perfect” S’more. And in the dark, there might be monsters, or fairies and the flames might belch forth jets of dragonfire.

As a father, I encourage these moments of inventiveness and exploration. As an adult, I secretly revel in them, drinking them in like an elixir of youthfulness. As a children’s writer, I record them, adding to the vault of story material and middle-aged relevance.

So take this as a reminder, whether you have children of your own or not, to be mindful of the magic that middle-graders will create, experience, discover, and revel in. Be mindful of it. Let it fuel your inner child. Let it fuel your stories.

And maybe…maybe build a fort of your own. Really, who says that we have to grow up?

where Writing meets Storytelling meets Playtime

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IMG_2238I love writing. LOVE it.

I love everything about it and I’d better, right? I’m a writer. If I didn’t love it why would I do it? Because we all know how easy it is… [sarcasm: the use of irony to mock]

But I don’t just love writing, no. I love storytelling. I write to tell stories. I don’t write instruction manuals or greeting cards (and no offense to those who do), I write STORIES.

So, two things: writing and stories. Love them. Good, got that, Joe. You love writing and stories. Ok, but hold on..I’m not done. I also love games that foster creativity, develop and depend on imagination, and encourage storytelling – especially when it involves the writing of stories. I grew up playing Dungeons & Dragons and more role-playing game systems than I can remember. I’ve traveled thousands of worlds, in thousands of different bodies. I’ve been beyond the farthest reaches of space and journeyed to the center of the Earth. I’ve led armies and faced unspeakable horrors and ridden airships over sand swept arid wastelands where witches on the backs of scorpions hurled hexes at me. I’ve saved kingdoms and crumbled empires and died a thousand times. I have followed my imagination where it has led me and I’ve done so with groups of like-minded folk.

storiumSo, some of you may have seen me Tweeting and screaming about this thing called Storium. This is not a sales pitch…their Kickstarter campaign is over. Storium is an online storytelling game where you and a group of people share in the telling of a story. Any story you can imagine! The only limits are your imagination. This is an excerpt from their site:

Storium is a web-based online game that you play with friends. It works by turning writing into a multiplayer game. With just your computer, tablet, or smart phone, you can choose from a library of imaginary worlds to play in, or build your own. You create your story’s characters and decide what happens to them. You can tell any kind of story with Storium. The only limit is your imagination.

Storium uses familiar game concepts inspired by card games, role-playing games, video games, and more. In each Storium game, one player is the narrator, and everyone else takes on the role of a character in the story. The narrator creates dramatic challenges for the other players to overcome. In doing so, they move the story forward in a new direction. Everyone gets their turn at telling the story.”

As I write this, I am involved in several games: I am Finnur Helgasson, a Skald, in a viking game; I am Garrett Mackenzie, a young gambler in a game where the Old West meets the X-Men; I am Stephen Kimball, a university professor who has lost everything, in a game about worlds colliding and reality warping; I am Dillon Mcafferty, a young werewolf, in an urban supernatural/fantasy game with witches and vampires; I am Sebastian Grimm, a lucid dreamer in a contemporary Wonderland; and I am Zara Grey, an occultist, in a gritty steampunk game. In each one of these games, the collective storytelling and unfolding tale is so inspiring and exciting to be a part of.

See, the thing is…I do all this on MY time. The stories slowly unfold, when people have time to jump in and write a part, or react. There’s no pressure. I’m playing with people from Sweden, and the UK, and Australia, and California. So, there’s time zones, etc. It’s convenient. So, instead of that twitch to distract myself via Twitter or Facebook surfing, I jump on and play my Storium games.

AND THIS HAS FURTHER FUELED MY WRITING! It’s been like drinking a dozen Red Bulls for my writing. I’ve always said that writers need to take their creative muscles to the gym. I teach my students to do writing exercises, or free writes, to warm up. This is like staying constantly limber. And you know what? It’s made me love writing EVEN MORE (like that’s possible). But it is, it’s made me feel like that 12-year-old who wrote stories in his spiral-bound notebook and shared them with his friends at recess.

It invigorates me every day. It’s pushed me to write even more and the more we write, the better we get.

So, I urge you all to check it out. Writers especially, but you don’t have to be a writer. Not everyone using Storium is. There are all kinds of folks, but the one thing they share is the desire to tell a story and I think that we’re all storytellers at heart. This is a place where you can go to play…and still write, still imagine, still swap tales and meet people with equally wonderful imaginations.

But don’t just take my word for it. 6, 676 other people felt the same way. 6, 676 backers believed in this project enough that the Storium team raised $251,362 (1005% of their goal). They will be able to bring Storium to schools and they’ll be able to provide (at the start) 60 worlds to play in that come from professional game designers, industry giants, award-winning novelists, screenwriters, and storytellers.

I’m happy to have backed this project and I’m excited at what it could mean for so many potential young authors, not to mention how it could be used to encourage writing and reading in a youth growing up in a digital world. I’m using it already with my children. And I’m thankful for how it has given me back my youthful vigor and fueled my enthusiasm for writing.

So, check it out for yourself: STORIUM……   I hope to see you and share a story or two soon.

- j

The “My Writing Process” Blog Tour…

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IMG_2631I am a big proponent of the whole “it takes a village to keep a writer sane” theory. You know, the one that reinforces the fact that we are not alone, that we have a community around us even when we spend innumerable hours with fictional people that we convince ourselves are anything but. Even though we bang keys and stare at a screen for hours. Even though we lock ourselves inside a steamer trunk, inside a shipping container, on board an ocean carrier, until our novel is done, emerging wild-eyed and disheveled with a first draft in hand.

So, when Sheryl Scarborough asked me to continue the “My Writing Process” blog tour, I was like….”no.”

Kidding. Of course, I was willing to be a part of the blog tour. Thank you, Sheryl, for asking me. Let me just add that Sheryl is part of the Vermont College of Fine Arts (VCFA) family (a member of the awesome Dystropian class of Jan. 2013) and as far as writing communities go, you do NOT get much tighter than VCFA. You can check out Sheryl’s answers here, along with Laura Cook‘s, and Ingrid Sundberg‘s and Rachel Lieberman‘s and Peter Langella…all VCFA peeps, all awesome.

That being said, let’s get on with it…

1. What am I working on? I can’t tell you, it’s a secret. Next question? Oh, what? I have to answer that? Ok….I am currently working on a middle-grade novel. While I am not keen about revealing much online about it while it is in the process of being written, I will say that it has magical realism roots, is centered around a fierce science fair and features a geek vs. nerd battle of the ages. There is a tree house, a meteor and a pet wallaroo. There may even be a knitted bow tie. Ok, there is a knitted bow tie. I am also doing revisions on a couple of picture books. I have several other picture books, short stories, screenplays, and novel ideas badgering me, but I have managed to push them into the closet and lock the door for now. They’ll have their time, but focus is essential to finishing this book. My goal is to have the first draft done by the end of June.

2. How does my work differ from others of its genreI think that, ultimately, we’re all different, right? I mean, we each bring our own unique experiences and our own voices to what we write. However, I will say that my work has been described as quirky, humorous, and, at times, rather unorthodox. I’m not sure that this is different, but I write picture books, middle-grade, young adult, screenplays, and graphic novels, and it all seems to gel into one big visually oriented media monster that makes my storytelling vivid and cinematic in its beats and pacing. I’ve also become a big fan of the inserted multi-genre components that A.S. King (think PLEASE EXCUSE VERA DIETZ), Caroline Carlson (MAGIC MARKS THE SPOT), and others do, as well as telling the story from multiple points of view (like A.S. King, Kathi Appelt, Tim Wynne-Jones, and others).

3. Why do I write what I write? I am, simply put, a big kid. I’m living out there in NeverNever Land…holding fiercely to my youth and fanciful flights of imagination. And, as the father of three young boys, I am constantly observant of, and reminded of, the obstacles, events, concerns, and experiences of children. Children, middle-grade aged especially, live in a world where magic exists. There are trolls behind trees and trash can lids are shields. Fallen logs are bridges to distant lands and creeks may have Civil War gold buried in them. The blend of innocence and discovery, mixed with the willingness to believe in, and expect, magic is a canvas open to so many wonderful and creative stories. Middle-aged children want to believe in magic and as a writer, I can give them that, Because the world, as it stands, needs a dash of magic. It needs a sprinkle of “what if?” And that’s what I try to deliver.

4. How does my writing process workWell, first I gather a bucket of toads. Then, I paint the toads with splashes of different colors and then I let them go. Wait..that’s not right. That’s my revision process. Writing process, right. Well, I am a very big proponent of mapping and visual connections. I like to take a big piece of newsprint paper and draw my character in the middle of the page. Then I list some of the key points that define him or her. Then I connect him to the secondary and influencing characters, the setting, significant objects. I’ll use colored pencils to trace out certain paths, or connecting lines. I’ll make circles around groups, or triangulate relationships. I’ll follow dashed lines to important connections, like newly discovered treasures. All of this brainstorming/visual play allows me to better grasp the overall story in a way that a watchmaker might look at the relation of every cog, gear, and flywheel.

I do the same with my picture books, storyboarding the entire thing out on a big sheet of paper before actually writing the complete text of the story.

Once I feel like I have a handle on where these characters want to take me, I jump in and start writing. While I am aware of structure and mile markers and significant plot points, I really like to take Bradbury’s approach and follow my character’s footprints through the snow. But, I don’t worry about chapters and parts and how long this section is over the other. I write in scene by scene snapshots, in moments; self-contained capsules that all float on the surface of the story pond like lily pads. And I like using Scrivener because I can just move these scenes, these lily pads, all around the pond in whatever order I find works best. It’s great because I might write twenty scenes that I thought were the beginning of the book, only to say, “nah…they belong in the second quarter of the book…except these two, I’ll put them after the first five new scenes I am going to write…” So, I guess my process is very fluid, evolving and growing as I continue to write and discover the story by writing my way through it. I like to be surprised.

And I LOVE revision. Revision is like washing the grime off the rocks you found, you old prospector, you, only to find that you have a hunk of glittering gold underneath.

I write everywhere and everywhen. Usually without music, usually on caffeine. I write every day (usually). I’ve built myself a treadmill desk and that’s great for long writing sessions. But I will write with a fox, and I will write with no socks. In a boat, with a goat. On a plane, in the rain…you get the idea.

So, there you have it. A little insight into my writing process…

Next week, in a continuation of the “My Writing Process” blog tour, R.L. Saunders (one of my uber wunderbar agency mates) and Donna Galanti, author of THE HIDDEN ELEMENT and the upcoming middle-grade series, JOSHUA AND THE LIGHTNING ROAD, will share their insight. Please make sure to check out what they have to say on Monday, May 5th.

rhonda2R.L. Saunders lives in Key West where she writes, chases iguanas, and sips tropical drinks from coconuts in the company of Gilligan and the Skipper. Her current manuscript is upper middle-grade contemporary fiction, set on Historic Charter Boat Row, where her biological dad worked as a fisherman for 20 years. She is an amazing writer and absolutely hysterical. Although she won’t admit to being funny. I am happy to call her my friend (really, I’m just saying that in case I go to the Keys and maybe I need a place to stay or something. Kidding!). She is represented by Linda Epstein of the Jennifer De Chiara agency.

donnaDonna Galanti is a whirlwind of writing. She writes suspense, young adult and middle-grade. She is a member of the International Thriller Writers Society and the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. A HIDDEN ELEMENT, her sequel to A HUMAN ELEMENT (Imajin Books) will be released this summer and she recently announced the sale of her middle-grade series JOSHUA AND THE LIGHTNING ROAD to Month9Books (2015). She is an active part of the Pennsylvania writing scene, and very involved in several blogs and writer’s groups. She is represented by Bill Contardi of Brandt & Hochman. She’s one rad woman.