Feb 23, 2014

Big Families: Teaching Teamwork But Keeping Things Fair

This is a big one.

I have thought a lot about this, in fact. I have wanted to have a very large family from the time I was very small. When I was about two or three, my mother caught me trying to nurse my baby dolls. As late as eighth grade, when they handed out "flour babies" as a school project, I was thrilled for the opportunity to pretend I had a newborn to carry around and nurture. I have wanted to be a mother for my entire life.

WHen my friends asked me when I was in high school, I used to say I wanted twelve children--enough to have two basketball teams or baseball teams that could play each other. I was not really joking. I have loved the idea of a large family. I loved visiting houses where large families lived. I wanted to have lots and lots of kids. I looked forward to developing traditions and a family culture and friendships and a support group that would just be tight and close and friends. I envied my friends who came from larger families than mine (and, OK. I came from a family of six. That's still pretty big.)

I wasn't aware, when I was young (or when I started having my family) that being in a large family might have its downsides. I was amazed to realize that some people who came from large families didn't like it--they felt exploited, or shortchanged, or something. And they then made the decision to have only a few or one or no children.

It has made me ponder a little bit. Is it exploitation, to have a family so large that you cannot get by without the kids pitching in? Older kids helping younger kids out, all kids over a certain age doing a share of the housework? And my poor oldest kids. They won't know the benefit of lots of different lessons because I can't afford them yet, with so many kids down the pipeline absorbing expenses. They spend some time babysitting instead of going on playdates with neighbors several times a week. I may only have a small amount of one-on-one time for each kid on busy days. I may have no time at all for some, if some are having meltdowns/have to go to the dr/need lots of help with a school project on a certain day.

I was feeling all guilty and worried until I had an opportunity to be around someone (an adult) who surprised me with their lack of willingness. I'm not sure of any other way to put it than that: lack-of-willingness. A lack of willingness to be inconvenienced, to do a job that is mundane or grinding, to pay attention to kids when they would rather be doing something else. This person was sort of a part of our family for a while and it surprised me to see up close what they struggled with; not just helping others, but being able to help themselves. I realized that this is not a trait to be desired at all. If you aren't used to being inconvenienced, to doing things you'd rather not be doing when there are more fun things to do, If you aren't used to stretching yourself to do a task you are not used to, you can end up in a world of hurt as an adult.

And that's when my thoughts about this whole big-family thing turned around. If you grow up without having to do things to create the comfort you're a part of, you just expect it to happen to you. Case in point: a boy whose mother does all their dishes, laundry, and cleans their room for them. They go off to college without knowing how to go about these things, and also unused to the tasks. They're going to be pretty messy roommates for a while, and it will be a real burden for them to suddenly assume it all at once, instead of learning, year by year, how to do it for themselves.

So a big family, done right, can teach some really great and important life skills. It can teach hard work. It can teach teamwork, because there's a very real need for it--my house would never, ever be acceptably clean if my kids did not help out. One person cannot keep up with nine peoples' messes. It can also teach compassion and nurturing. I cannot be holding the crying four year old WHILE I am nursing the needy newborn AND bouncing the irritable toddler on my knee--an older kid gets that opportunity, to help her sister feel better. To put herself in someone else's shoes. To get used to being needed, and be OK with being needed.

I think that's a problem in today's society. I think a lot of people shy away from obligations. They don't want to feel obligated or needed. I'm not saying this is the case with all people who come from smaller families--that's not it at all. And I'm not saying it's the case with all people who don't want kids, either; I have childless friends who, for instance, adopt needy rescue animals. That's not what I'm talking about here. You'll know what I'm talking about when you see it: people who are used to playing all the time, not working. People who are used to getting what they want, not waiting. People who get bored really, really fast because they are used to spending much of their time being entertained.

That may sound harsh. And I know a few people's feathers will be ruffled, reading this. Sorry about that.

I want my kids to learn something different. And my hope is that having a large family, if you do it right, can teach these skills without overwhelming the kids so much that they look back on their experience with pain and frustration. I've been thinking about ways to do this--strategies for balance. Here's what I have come up with so far.


1) Make sure you praise them and say thank you. Even if it is something they know they have to do, people like to be thanked and appreciated for their hard work. Kids are people.

2) Rewards. As an example, Jeff and I go out on a date each week. If my kids complain I don't say "tough, it's part of being part of this family": instead, I remind them that mom and dad go on dates to keep this family healthy; that maintaining our relationship is something that benefits them as well. And I give treats: incentives for older kids to do a good job and for younger kids to be easy to babysit. I was the oldest in my family, usually the babysitter, and struggled with my siblings. They were not very motivated to be good and easy kids to babysit, and a lot of the fallback ended up on me. I really couldn't win. I had to stay home and watch the kids and I got chewed out and lectured afterward because the experience was always contentious and destructive. Kids went crazy and disobeyed rules (it seemed sometimes, on purpose to get me in trouble.) Ugh. Bad memories. I want babysitting in my home to be a time for the kids to bond and have fun away from parents... and to test the waters a bit. Be given a chance to obey rules on their own. The reward seems to help with this.

3) Related to the above: power struggles. I try hard to stay out of them. Not just between myself and my children, but between the kids, too. I do that by not allowing kids to "tell" on each other unless a) someone is being hurt or b) something is being destroyed. And I will only step in if it sounds like some real contention is stirring up. I think it's healthy for kids to learn conflict resolution. I think it's unhealthy, most of the time, for a parent to step in and start handing out punishments unless a rule is being broken (eg hurting or destroying). I will, however, process conflicts with my kids after they've been resolved, and try to help them figure out better ways to deal with conflict.

4) Burdens. I try very hard to be aware of the burdens each of my kids have. For instance, my sixth grader is currently managing the workload of 6 different teachers, she has play practice for a couple hours after school, and she has mutual activities to attend (which I want her to attend.) She often stays up until 10:30 at night doing homework. On occasion,I decide that she doesn't need to do the dishes, even when it's her night. Sometimes I need to do them for her, and that's OK if she understands I'm doing it *for* her, because I want to make sure she's healthy and able to balance her load of responsibilities.

5) Fairness. I know that's a word a lot of people put down nowadays, but I think it is very important to *try* to be fair. It won't always be fair, and kids need to know that. One child's needs sometimes outweighs another's, and sometimes one kid needs a different approach than another. Sometimes one kid gets a special treat because they had to have their tooth pulled even if, yes, it was their fault for not brushing their teeth. Sometimes the overburdened adolescent needs some time to herself with mom and no other kids just to talk. And of course, it's absolutely unfair that the tiny baby gets every waking minute of mom's undivided attention for months after he is born. That's life. But... a parent should try very hard to be as fair as he or she can be. We adults still like to be treated fairly. Give kids equal opportunities to be good and earn rewards. Don't blame one kid for things more than another. Some kids do test the waters and push boundaries more than others, but watch that. Make sure you don't scapegoat. And Don't favor one kid's brand of brilliance over another's. Loli is a briliant writer and singer, and my natural feeling is to be amazed and grateful for that. But MayMay is brilliant with people, and engaging, and a ray of sunshine and she is always thinking of others. That deserves just as much time and attention and recognition. Try to do things that will help your kids to not compare themselves to each other and compete for your affection.

6) Be always available. It's important. If you have eight kids you have approximately no free time. If stuff takes you away from them, it better be important stuff. (Stuff like a cultivated hobby or talent is important stuff--we need those sorts of things. Yes, I am talking about writing. But you maybe only have time for one. I cannot do writing AND sewing AND be a gourmet cook AND become a super couponer.) Stuff that takes you away needs to be important and there can't be that much of it; you have to choose between better and best. Because they all need some time with you. My mother had a saying: if your house is clean, that's nice. But as a mom, your most important job is to be a lap. If the dishes are dirty in the sink and the room is strewn with objects and the counters are sticky and the laundry in a giant messy pile all over your living room floor, your most important job is *still* to be a lap. And a good friend of mine added to this: as they get older, it changes from lap to ear. The most important job you have with older kids, is to be an ear. That means you need to be there and available to listen when they want to talk.

7) Don't exploit them. There is a point, I think, where help and family teamwork can become exploitation, and I think that line is crossed when parents forget to think of their children as humans with needs equal to theirs. For instance, don't make your older kids babysit everyday. Or every other day. Your kids want you around, and your teenage girls are not ready to take on the burden of full-time or even part-time parenthood. Be respectful of their wants, too, as they age. When they get old enough to start to go out and play with mixed groups or go on dates, plan a weekend *with* them. Don't just say "Bye, too bad, Friday night's ours." Maybe you can switch up date night so they can go out and have fun when fun stuff is going on. And don't make them watch kids when church or major school activities are going on, or burden their hours so much that they can't participate in something that will give them enrichment, such as music or sports.

So important.

I think that's all I have for now. If you guys have stuff to add, I'd love your advice. My brood of eight will thank you, too.

Feb 8, 2014

Fantasy Writing and Subtext: Showing vs Telling when you're worldbuilding

I want to grab my head and moan just looking at the heading I put there.

I believe fantasy is actually very difficult to write. There are people who disagree with me. They believe that fantasy is an easy genre because you can "just make it all up." But these people don't understand what makes a good fantasy story. In writing escapist fiction of any kind, you need to write a world that makes sense--that doesn't give the reader red flags that it is imaginary. It needs to seem real, and so there are rules. When you write historical fiction, those rules center around research. You figure out what is authentic, and you work hard to figure out what is not. You do your very best to include authentic details and social structures and landscapes and towns, and characters whose speech never contain jarring modernisms. For instance, if you're writing in 1850, you should probably avoid analogies or metaphors that involve electricity like, "the shock ran up and down his spine." (that's kind of a lame metaphor anyway.)

In Fantasy, you are creating all the rules. You don't have real things to go back and refer to. You're making everything up, which means you have to think hard about every application of those rules in characters' speech, actions and abilities. In their environment. In the way people and whole, made-up societies or perhaps even civilizations or galaxies of people interact with each other and their environment.

You have to think everything through in excruciating detail, and there's a much higher probability that you can give a reader a "red flag" or create a plot-hole or inconsistency to make your entire story seem improbable. Those "How it Should Have Ended" youtube videos point out problems like this in movies we have all watched. The suspension of disbelief needed to create a good fantasy story requires a lot of planning and thinking and creating. We call this World Building.

There are a lot of articles and essays on this subject. Fantasy writers work hard at world building, and so it's natural that when we start to write our story, we get caught up in our world and forget that the entire point of a book is plot. And characters. Characters, though, aren't enough to make a story worth reading--plot is essential. The world you build is very important, but if you get too involved in description at the beginning of your fantasy story, you slooooow dooooown the plot. To the point where the reader (unless they are a very seasoned reader of fantasy or are willing to give you the benefit of the doubt and skip paragraphs) will set your book aside. Yes, they love being caught up in a world. But they need movement. They need a current that takes them through the world and makes it exciting and gripping.

How do you manage to include enough detail to describe this world, its magic elements, its alien social structures and landscapes and also (like with any other story) characters and backstory, but still hook the reader at the beginning and keep things moving fast?

H. G. Wells is fantastic at this. If you read one of his stories (the Time Machine is a good example), you finish it feeling like you've just read a 500 page Science Fiction novel. You're completely shocked when you realize the story you've read, the world you've experienced with all the characters and action and social commentary and alien lifeforms and those poignant, aching moments came about in the course of around 100 pages. It is pretty mind-boggling.

So how does he do it? How can you do it?

My friend read the first three chapters of the fantasy manuscript I am working on right now and reminded me of the answer (and gave me a name for it when I didn't have one before, though I knew the general principle): subtext.

In general terms, subtext usually refers to messages sent, and inferences made, that aren't actually explicitly stated. For instance, in dialog, the way a phrase is worded can make a character seem bored, or angry, or impatient, or however they are, without the author saying "such and such character was bored" or using the ever-popular (and-overused) descriptive-tags-method: e.g. "she said boredly." (not a word, btw.)

In fantasy, the subtext is also your world. For instance: (I'm using examples from my own story. Sorry)

Shem breezed in and took off her coat.

“You smell like the sea,” Madiglen said, handing Shem the porridge pot and a ladel. “You look like it, too.”

Shem began ladeling portions into a dozen bowls, adding cream jasmine honey on to each. “I know. It’s the hair. Like a hurricaine.”

“A lovely hurricaine,” Madgilen agreed, and placed a hand on top of her cloud of curls. “Are you feeling good about tonight?”

“I’ve put it off three months already. I’d better feel good about it,” Shem replied. “We are due for a superior moon this month, so there won’t be a better time.”

“It will help, but your confidence will make the biggest difference. Remember that.”

Shem sighed and ducked out from under her hand.

“Just make sure you don’t skip any chakras. I’d suggest three meditations, and don’t indulge in any heavy foods today.”

This scene occurs on the first page of my story, when I should be doing some pretty intense world building. But see how I'm not taking time to explain about the chakras; I just mention them casually the way anybody living in this world would. SO the reader infers that Shem and Madgilen are involved somehow in some kind of meditative practice--something I could have explained, but didn't. We also realize from this paragraph that they live by the sea, they live humbly, there are about a dozen people living there. We know Shem has unkempt curly hair. We also learn some things about her relationship with the convent mother--it is a lot like a mother and daughter. We know something is about to happen, and that Shem has put it off, and therefore, must be nervous about it, and that it will happen tonight. I didn't have to explain any of this; I just had the characters act it out and pay attention to small, relevant details.

Subtext means you let the world come into focus for your reader through the everyday actions, dialog and (very small) observations of the main characters. (Too much observation is the same thing as over-explanation by the writer, only filtered through the main character.)

It is very tempting, when writing fantasy, to explain a whole bunch up front, sort of the way a playwright gives "Setting" at the beginning of a play, but you cannot do that as a storyteller. Those scene-setting descriptions are for professionals doing a job. The reader just wants to escape; they don't want to have to do all the work of imagining a bunch of things up front and then remembering those things for the rest of the story. And they will struggle to remember if these things aren't interwoven and significant to the plot.

Let's say you walk into a room. You could either:

a) pause in the doorway and categorize every detail in the room, then walk in and sit down.

b) walk into the room, gaining an overall impression as you enter it, then observe details as you walk: the ground under your feet, the chair as you sit in it, the table in front of you after you sit and it comes into view.

The first example is like info-dump--giving the reader every detail about something before things happen and details become relevant. In the second example, details come into focus *as* they become relevant. You notice a floor you're walking on because you don't want to trip. You notice a chair you're about to sit in because you need to make sure it's something you can sit in--not broken, or fragile or covered with valuable antique embroidery, for instance. You notice a table in front of you because it's right there.

In fact, maybe you choose between two different chairs in the room as you walk in, and that choice says something about you. If you write it that way, that's three birds you've killed: action, scene setting and character development.

Only someone like like Sherlock Holmes could walk in a doorway and make a bunch of detailed, random observations in rapid-fire succession, then file these away in his perfect memory-bank for future reference as action commences. Your reader is not Sherlock Holmes. Generally speaking, readers, like writers, are pretty much normal people with normal memories and average ability to focus. Most of us need details slow-fed to us, and we won't remember many of them unless they're made relevant through connecting them to something important--i.e. plot and character development.

Most of us need our details half-chewed for us through subtext. And it's a fun skill to develop. Think how tricky you are, fitting a dozen details into a paragraph, with the reader none the wiser they've just been info-dumped on. We're sly, skilled creatures, us fantasy writers.

Feb 6, 2014

2000 word goal: what the numbers mean

My 2,000 WPD (word per day) continues to be a success. Usually I end up with a bit more than 2,000 words, so that's even better. I realized something the other day. At 2000 + words per day, six days a week? I'm NaNoWriMoing every month. (2,000 x 6= 12,000 per week x 4= 48,000 per month and add on the extra 2,000 because of extra days in the month/extra words=50,000.) That sounds crazy to me. And honestly, it doesn't feel like it to me. I feel like I've upped my pace a bit, and it has been a little stressful with ther baby nursing all day--my house kind of gets neglected and my kids miss me because I am in my room nursing a lot, but I think with focus and 2 hours a day? Done. (my babies nap about one and a half hours a day. Done.)

Anyway. That doesn't mean I'm writing a novel per month, though. NaNoWriMo operates on the premise that 50,000 words = 1 novel. Which kind of isn't true. If you want to publish with a publisher, you're looking at 65,000 as a minimum to qualify as a novel. If you are writing for adults, 85,000 is the minimum (some will argue otherwise) with about 100,000 as the sweet spot.

So, that's two nanowrimos.
And I'm currently writing two novels at the same time, so that's four nanowrimos before I finish a book. So... four months. And then it usually takes me about two months to rewrite, get a few people to read it and re-rewrite. So four more months. So ETA on these books is about 8 months until I can turn one in to my publisher/market one to literary agents. And eight months is about how long it usually takes me to complete one. So this is about right for my goal (to finish 2 in the time I usually finish one.)

I have found something interesting. I tend to have certain word-count breaks. Usually I'll have various levels of "feel done" stages. I want to quit at about 750 words. I want to quit again at about 1200-1400 words and then breaking my goal of 2,000 usually leads me to around 2,200 or so words per day. It's like I have a 700-750 word chunking thing going on in my brain. SO I get through 3 of my "chunks" for this 2,000 word goal.

I have been surprised to find that I experience a lot less writers' block, writing this amount. It seems (to me) to smooth me over some breaks in scene or narrative that are difficult to pick up the next day. And I think it also gives me a better overall grasp on the flow and big picture of my story, because i'm writing it in bigger chunks.

I have found it to be exhilarating.
Now, I need to figure out how to manage my time better.

Feb 4, 2014

BRT (Bunch of Random Things)

This is just going to be a bunch-of-random-things post.

So this is day eight of my 2000 word experiment. So far, I have done just fine. My writing has ranged from 2000 to 2500 words daily and I'm still able to get other stuff done. Not much other stuff, because I'm pretty much stuck nursing this incredibly cute infant around the clock, and I can't get much done anyway.

Speaking of incredibly cute infant:

I think his blog name might have to be DavyJones.

Anyway, he loves the nursing. Loves it just about every half our. This baby came out clusterfeeding and hasn't stopped for one day. Except for one day when I think he was feeling sick, and I got very worried about him. But he's doing just fine and is happy, and his brothers and sisters love him a lot.

I have realized that writing, for me, is at this point a part-time job. I have enough stuff going on (drafting fiction, networking, poetry, marketing) that we're talking a few hours a day minimum. So I need to make myself a good plan, how to do this and still be an acceptable mother. I think it will be much easier when this baby is no longer quite so needy and can go a couple hours between feedings, but it is still important for me to figure out how to do the writing thing while also keeping house clean, kids schooled, laundry done, etc. I love my kids, but lately feel so much like i miss them. Because if I go where they are, they maul the baby. Like, hang all over him, lean on him, climb on top of him (in Chumba's case) so I have to go somewhere away from them to feed him... which he wants to do, as I said, all the time.

... our greenhouse is now completely enclosed. We still need to caulk up the little holes, and next spring, put the cement board and insulation on, and mortar the cinderblocks. BUt ideas are brewing, and I'm excited, and it is beautiful. Seriously. I love seeing the outside, and from the inside, it's such a restful place.

Well, that's all for now. Thanks for reading.