Tag Archives: blogs

Fun with Rubrics

Author Jo Knowles wrote a blog post called “Some Things I Learned from Being ‘Judge-y'”, in which she reflects on the experience of judging writing competitions, and compiles the feedback she gave to the submissions. Looking across her feedback, I was struck by the common threads and my mind started to bunch certain comments together. I was also super grateful that she generously shared her experience so that the rest of us could learn a thing or two. Her post epitomizes the generosity of the writing community. Three cheers for writers!

I thought it would be useful to apply Ms Knowles’ criteria to my own submissions, to see how my writing would fare and, most importantly, asses where it needs the most improvement. For ease, I adapted her comments into a rubric. By referring to the rubric during revision, a writer can see what he or she already does well, and which areas of the writing are weakest. And, then, by following a column, the writer can even figure out what to do to move his or her writing into the next category.

Can’t take the teacher out of the girl, I guess.

Here’s a link to the Writing_Rubric I made by adapting Ms Knowles’ comments. I tried to make it feel as universal and non-genre specific as possible. Feel free to use and share. I hope it’s helpful to others.

To learn more about author Jo Knowles, check out her website or follow her on Twitter.


Continuing Education

I’ve been thinking about an MFA a lot lately, and not just because it’s something that I can’t have. Since moving to Portland, I frequently daydream about creative writing programs because I’m struggling to build my community. In New York, I knew people who would read my work, critique it, and support it. Here in Portland, I barely know any kind of people, much less writerly people. I’m building a local community slowly, brick by brick. But it’d sure be a lot easier with an MFA program.

Another reason that I think about an MFA more often these days is that, as I become more serious about my writing, I become more aware of what I do not know, and hungrier to expand my knowledge of writer’s craft. Always a voracious reader, now I’m reading with heightened attention to the writer’s choices. And, while I consider myself well read, there are major gaps in my reading experience. An MFA would help me fill those gaps, certainly. But, in this, too, I’m going to have to go it alone, at least for now.

So, I’m putting together a syllabus. It’s a work in progress. I call it Shannon’s DIY MFA, the beginner knitting project of the literary world. Despite the dropped stitches, I think it has a certain homemade charm.

My syllabus could use a little rounding out, and I’d like it to have at least twelve books. It could probably use a little male-ness for comparison’s sake (though, with all the syllabi that have suffered a lack of female-ness, I’d much rather have this problem). It’s a hodge-podge of a few books that I’ve always wanted to read, plus a few books I think I should read, plus one book (Austen’s) that I would like to read again, with the writing central in my mind.

Poems, by Elizabeth Bishop
Leaves of Grass, by Walt Whitman

Short Stories
Bluets, by Maggie Nelson
Boysgirls, by Katie Farris
Drinking Coffee Elsewhere, by ZZ Packer

Their Eyes Were Watching God, by Zora Neale Hurston
Left Hand of Darkness, by Ursula K. Le Guin
Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen
Wuthering Heights, by Emily Bronte



Five Must-Read Blogs

Young Adult Fiction – YA, to those of us in the know – is all the rage right now. With Suzanne Collins’ Mockingjay recently released and following in the age group-transcending footsteps of Harry Potter and Twilight, everyone seems to agree that it’s okay for a grown-up to read a kid’s book. Even the New York Times Book Review concedes that adults – even smart, literary adults – need have no shame about enjoying YA.

What a relief.

As someone who has been reading YA books for quite a while (I started when I was about ten and I haven’t stopped yet), I’m glad that my reading habits are finally on trend. I’m very much enjoying watching some of the most talented storytellers in the publishing business get the rockstar treatment.

Sometimes, I can’t get enough of my favorite authors between the covers of their books. Fortunately, many authors write wonderful blogs. Here are five of my favorite blogs by YA authors. These are a must-read if you are interested in YA fiction, want to learn more about how to be a fiction writer, or simply love reading the musings of interesting folks.

  1. Kristin Cashore, author of the best-sellers Graceling and Fire (Graceling), blogs about everything from the fun – trapeze lessons – to the political – gay rights – at This Is My Secret. Her blog is always thought-provoking and has, I’ll admit, sometimes even moved me to tears.
  2. Maggie Steifvater’s newest book Linger (the follow-up to the wonderful Shiver) debuted at #1 on the New York Times Bestseller List this summer. Read her blog The World According to Maggie for funny, inspiring, and PRACTICAL advice on how to draft, revise, write a query letter, and, most importantly, make the time to be creative.
  3. Laurie Halse Anderson’s writing is powerful and haunting – from her YA fiction like Wintergirls
    to her historical thrillers like Fever 1793. And her blog Mad Woman in the Forest is pure inspiration. It is a community of writers with Anderson herself at the helm, equal parts teacher and cheerleader. In August, Anderson encouraged her readers to join her in a month-long challenge to write for fifteen minutes each day. If you have a writing project that’s stalled or you’d like to jump start your creativity, I highly recommend partaking. The challenge can happen any time at all – just start with Day 1.
  4. You know Sarah Dessen for her best-selling books such as The Truth About Forever and Along for the Ride. But do you know Sarah Dessen? Her blog is a personal and funny account of motherhood, writing, and life. She doesn’t sugar coat or pretend that she doesn’t watch TV. In fact, she’s a very vocal fan of Friday Night Lights. Like I said, she’s real. And I love her for that.
  5. John Green is the author of several books including Looking for Alaska and the co-author (with David Levithan) of the recent Will Grayson, Will Grayson And he happens to have the funniest and smartest vlog (that’s video blog to you) in the world. John and his brother Hank – the “nerd fighters” – roam the world making stream of consciousness videos “to decrease the overall worldwide level of suck.” They also post videos to their  vlogbrothers YouTube channel.

It is important to have heroes and mentors, and the writers listed above are a few of mine. I hope you all know – or know of – people who are doing something that you aspire to do, perhaps a few steps (or, in my case, a few hundred steps) ahead of you. Seek out people who inspire you to be better at whatever you aim to do – whether it’s writing a book, running a faster race, baking a cake, or standing up for your beliefs.

He Wants a Codename, He Does

The Dude, not MY dude.

The Dude, not MY dude.

The other day, a little sheepishly, my hubbie mentioned that some bloggers have little nicknames for their spouses. And, even if they don’t have cutesy little nicknames, they sometimes, you know, mention their significant others when they post. Especially when they post about events at which said significant other was actually present.

And he is. Present, I mean. He was there for the fireflies. He was there to dry tears when we returned home with no balloon. He definitely had to step over those balloons in the bathroom. So, once I got over my initial response (“I’m a blogger?”) I decided that if the guy wanted a codename in this teeny tiny little venue, I would give him one.

The question was, what should it be? I have a suspicion that part of his interest in codenames stems from his passion for super geeky role-play games (not the kinky kind!). But, would he – or I? – really feel ok if I referred to him as the Wizard? Make that a no. I checked this character name generator and came up with the name Lord Milner (aka Cruroar Milner, the Paladin). I mean, obviously this won’t do. I could never, ever in a million years refer to him as Lord anything. (With one exception. Check the bottom of the post.)

I often call him “honey,” so I could just refer to him as “Honey” on the site. I have an auntie who always calls boyfriends honeys (as in, “Do you have a honey?”) and I really think that’s adorable. Maybe too adorable, though. It’s just not me. Likewise, I don’t want to use fella, sweetie, cutie, or the like. I sort of wish I was the kind of person who could use the word lover. But.

When I was in college, my girlfriends and I would say to one another, “How’s the boy?” The sense of this was that boys were a mostly fun but also secondary component of our lives. I think that’s quite funny, but it doesn’t exactly ring true anymore. It was sort of the right spirit, though, so I went down the path and arrived at dude. I don’t want people to think that I’m comparing him to The Dude, who is funny but doesn’t have much in common with my dude.

My husband will, until further notice, be herein referred to as “the dude.” And, if people think I’m married to Lebowski, so much the better.

By the way, if you have not seen this SNL skit with John Malkovich playing Lord Edmund, you should really watch. The dude showed it to me. We both found it hilarious, and we often reprise it as our private joke. In these moments, I realize that I am with someone who has the same sense of humor as I do… and, dude, I’m glad.

In Which I Reflect on Fireflies

Fireflies on the Water by Yayoi Kusama

Fireflies on the Water by Yayoi Kusama, Whitney Biennial 2004

Vacation. Sunset. Your kid’s nap. Autumn. Christmas morning. Holding hands. Your looks.

When the end looms nearby, it’s hard to enjoy the experience itself.

It’s hard to be in the experience, rather than wring our hand’s over the impending finale. Whatever form that ending might take – the last chord, the first cry, the complete dark of night itself – knowing that it’s rushing inexorably toward us can prove a distraction, stopping us from lingering in the moment.

Perhaps I should just speak for myself.

In 2004, I went to the Whitney Biennial at the Whitney Museum of American Art and saw an installation piece called “Fireflies on the Water.” The most unusual thing about this piece is the way one experiences it: alone. I had never before had a solitary experience in a museum. Usually, I feel like I’m part of a many-legged organism, shuffling quietly and slowly from room to room. In this case, though, people waited in a line that snaked through much of the rest of the exhibit. People kept asking, “What is this line for?” Anticipation grew.

At the door to the piece, a guard allowed one person to enter the room at a time. He opened the door just enough to usher in the visitor. He acted like one of the Buckingham Palace guards, not making eye contact, not talking to anyone. Perhaps he had been instructed to behave that way, trained so that he was effectively part of the installation.

After about a minute, the guard again opened the door a crack. One person came out, one person went in. The person emerging from the room was dazed and smiling, like someone who’d been kissed rather unexpectedly. Perhaps they had, in fact. I wondered madly what was in that room. I had the wild thought that it might be a fortune teller.

When it was my turn, the guard opened the door and I found myself on a sort of runway leading into the center of a small room. I say that it was small because I had walked around the outside of the room but, if I hadn’t known better, I could just as easily have believed that the room went on forever. The room felt infinitely small and enormous at the same time. This must be what Lucy felt like when she walked through that little wardrobe and plopped down in Narnia.

I walked down that narrow plank, over a pool of black water. Strands of tiny lights hung from the ceiling, reflected in the pool and also in mirrors on the walls and ceiling. When I searched the web to find a photo of the exhibit, I learned that the piece had 150 lights in it – an astoundingly small number, considering that, in my first draft of this post, I had written that the installation had millions of lights. It felt like being inside a living organism, or perhaps being inside the night sky. Not just outside at night time, but inside the night.

The experience made me stop breathing for a moment. Then, as soon as I’d taken a good look around, I thought, Well, the guard’s going to be opening the door soon. So, I preemptively turned back. This is my way, so very very often, not wanting to be a bother, not wanting to take up more of my share. When I had walked the path back to the door, the guard was not there, and I argued with myself over what to do. Should I open the door and leave? Should I turn around again so I could enjoy the piece a bit more? Should I just stand here and wait until the guard does come, surely in just a few moments?

By the time I had decided to study the installation for as long as I could, and turned back to do so, the door did open and there was the guard, along with the next visitor, eagerly awaiting his chance. I smiled politely, and walked out. Once outside, I felt irrationally desolate. My experience was over, and I would likely never get the chance again. Why had I spent it worrying about pissing other people off?

The experience really did turn out to be a fortune teller of sorts. How many times since have I found myself outside the moment, wanting to shake myself and shout, For goodness’ sake, please enjoy this! PLEASE! But no amount of insisting at myself helps me to learn what I need to know, which is how to wrap my arms around the moments of my life, even (or especially) when I know that they can not or will not last. The older I get, the more accutely aware I become that the moments slip by quickly and easily if we let them. And, often, I do let them, whether out of politeness, or fear, or habit. Yes, I might cook dinner every night, but I will never cook this dinner on this night again. I will never have this embrace with this friend again. Never again this walk with my daughter on this rainy spring afternoon.

I think of that experience in the museum frequently. The installation piece functioned as my own magical mirror gate, showing me my own true nature and flaws. This is the person I must love and accept, but I need not let her live half a life. Part of why I’ve started writing with renewed attention is the sense I have that writing helps me to live a fuller, more thoughtful sort of life. Writing gives me a reason and an outlet with which to examine the world, and myself within it.

Writing – whether it’s here, in stories, or on spare napkins – gives me a way to examine those few, flawed moments that I spent holding my breath in a room full of fireflies, and to make something more of them. And that’s the best way I know to make the moments count – even, and especially, those “firefly” moments that insist on glowing for so short of time. Look carefully.

Internet 1, Shannon 0

After just a day or two of my reading deprivation, I had learned something that, really, came as no surprise. I learned that the Internet wants to take me down.

The Internet was not interested in my week of reading deprivation, and it would not be ignored. The Internet slipped me a rufi, stuck me in the trunk of its car, and dropped me out in the middle of the desert, where I woke up hours later, groggy and confused.

Here’s what happened: I’d read an email from a friend that happened to contain a link. A harmless, friendly little link. Something like, “Hey, here’s this recipe that you might like.” Or, “Here’s an article that’s right up your alley.” And, I’d be all, “Oh, that’s so nice!” Click. And, then, the blackout.

One little click, and then I’m looking at a recipe that actually lives on someone’s cute little cooking blog. So, then, of course, I have to read the whole article about homemade health cookies or how to roast mushrooms. And, then, I see the related posts. So I check those out, too. Or, my eyes happen to scan those clever comments and I end up delving into someone else’s blog so I can see her slightly different approach to fungi. Or, perhaps the blog reminds me of another recipe that I then need to go hunting for…

You get the idea. Perhaps you’ve even visited the blackness of this particular trunk.

The Internet is not evil. Neither are books, or news radio, or papers, or magazines. The reading deprivation is not about judging the quality your reading. It’s about re-claiming your time. And, for me, it’s about becoming aware of my own habits and how they sabotage my productivity on a daily basis. I’m going to start reading again today, and I’m looking forward to delving back into my stack. At the same time, I’m determined to do a better job of safeguarding my work time. Even from friendly little links like this one.

I know you’re out there Internet, and it’s true you’ve got an approachable vibe and an easy smile. But, I’m not answering your calls anymore. I’ll be the one doing the dialing.

Kristin Cashore, You Should Be My Friend

cashore_fireI know that one usually doesn’t go around lobbying for friends, but I have a compelling case to make.

You might not know this, Kristin, but you have been wooing me with your blog. After I read Graceling, I looked you up on the Internet because, well, that’s the first thing I do when I want to know more. And I happened upon your blog, where you proved to be witty and funny. Oh, so funny! Your blog makes me laugh. More surprising, though, sometimes your blog makes me cry. Especially when you post about how much you love the planet. And this post here. Oh, that one made me weep.

Hmm, I thought. Witty and funny and passionate and sensitive. A good combo. You blogged about books, and recommended some of your favorites. I picked up many of those, and your recommendations were wonderful! It’s a true friend, indeed, who puts books like this into my hands.

But, then, Kristin, oh then. Once you had piqued my interest, you started to blog about Buffy. And, Kristin, I was watching Buffy, too. For a while there, we were watching the same episodes. (I knew this because you would refer to your burgeoning love for a certain blonde vampire. My love, too, burgeoned.)

Just when it seems that all of this might have been a coincidence, that perhaps lots of people are reading YA and watching Buffy and loving Spike… then you write about watching the Olympics, and how much you love the Morgan Freeman Visa commercial with Dan Jansen.  And, you know.  It’s not that I’m saying that thousands of people aren’t watching the Olympics and weeping at that commercial right along with us.  I’m just saying that you should be my friend.  We could talk about books and drink tea and watch figure skating.

And, by the way, I’ll be looking for a character who bears a resemblance to Stephane Lambiel in your upcoming books.  He has a very princely quality, eh?

For any of you who don’t know, Kristin Cashore is the author of Graceling and its companion book Fire, both of which have won numerous awards and been listed on the NYT bestseller list.  She blogs at This Is My Secret.

Meditating, Knot by Knot

It was late at night. Usually I would have been reading a book. But, that wasn’t exactly what I wanted. I wanted to be alone with myself, not immersed in a world with other characters. I needed to be fully present to my thoughts and feelings, not escape them.

I had some thinking to do. I decided to knit.

I’ve been wondering what the purpose of my knitting might be. Years ago, it would simply have been a thrifty skill to have. I would have knit sweaters, scarves, blankets, hats, and gloves for my family and friends. I could even rip the stitches out of one piece after it’s usefulness was gone – say, after a child had outgrown it – and make it into something new. Talk about resourcefulness!

But, that’s not what I do. Nor is it what any knitter I know does. Knitters these days mostly knit as a hobby. They do it to express their crafty sides. For the satisfaction – and novelty – of making something with their own fingers instead of buying it in a store. Generations ago, it would have been unremarkable. Possibly, it would even have been embarrassing to wear hand-knit clothing. Now, it’s a practice that’s been adopted by hipsters. Women with comfortable lives and time on their hands. Women, I guess, like me.

There are lots of other things I could be doing with my time. I could cook – that’s very useful, and it’s also truly thrifty. I could be writing, which is something that I love and it’s also a way for me to earn some money. I could be reading, napping, catching up with friends, or any number of other errands that are on my list.

So, why am I knitting?

The answer (or, one of them) came to me that night as I lay on the couch in the middle of a quiet night. My fingers automatically completed the repetitious movements, my eyes saw the yarn but also looked past it. It felt a little like a meditation, like what I imagine a rosary might be like, if I ever did a rosary. I had some troubling thoughts, working out what I felt about big changes that are coming down the road in my life. As I knit, I was reminded – by row after row of purposeful knots – that sometimes we must allow for, even create, knots in order to make sense of our lives. In other words, sometimes things have to get pretty messy before we can clean them up.

In fact, knitting is a little like writing this blog. I’ve been questioning why I’m sending these little projects out into the hinterland of the Internet, out where few people will ever come across them. I’m realizing that, even if no one reads these meditations of mine, they are still useful, if only for me. I write to know what I think.*

Which, I suppose, is the same reason I knit.

*I’d love to accept credit for this sentiment. But, it was Auden who said something like this and many writers whom I admire have echoed and paraphrased it.

I’m up to something

A blog.

I have shied away from the idea for some time. Alternatively inspired, intimidated, embarrassed, and excited by the concept of putting my thoughts and opinion on The Web for Anyone to read.

But, the idea keeps coming back, and I’ve decided it’s time to stop batting it away. So here I am. The big question, though, is what’s it about? I don’t want to be a “mommy blogger,” though there are many talented ladies who do this kind of writing with skill and humor. I am a mommy and a blogger, and I won’t ever promise not to blog about the mommy business, but part of my goal here is to carve out something for and from myself. And when I say “myself” I mean the part that thinks about more than coloring with crayons and what to make for dinner. You know, that Shannon person who loves to write and read and watch movies and listen to music and drink beer and talk to friends. I suspect she is having a pout and maybe a good cry in a corner somewhere, convinced that she’s been forgotten and abandoned. So I’m trying to find her, maybe take her out for a steak and get to know her again.

Well that’s nice and all, but it still doesn’t answer the question: What am I on about with this blogging business? Allow me to get specific. (Fingers hover over keys, frozen in a blind panic at the mere mention of the word – No! Not SPECIFICITY!! Now, now. I’m sure it won’t be as bad as all that. Just take a deep breath and go for it. And, anyway, no one’s reading so you can always take it back.)

First of all, I’m going to blog about books. Books are my escape, my joy, my comfort. I’ll blog about books that I’m reading. Mostly novels, but some children’s books, a smattering of nonfiction, and the occasional sprinkle of poetry . I’ll eventually get around to making lists of my favorite books, but that might come much later, once I figure out how to coax the chaos of my thoughts into categories.

Second of all, and here I’ll allow some vagueness to exist alongside all that scary structure and specificity, I will write about some Other Things. It’s hard to say exactly what those things will be. At the moment, it suffices to say that I’ll explore thoughts about my life – the criss-crossed chords of parenting, of writing, of striving to be true to myself, and of choosing – always there is all this choosing to do – where and how to live. I won’t write every day, but I must put some kind of goal down in black and white to keep myself honest. I’m going to start by trying to post every week. Are Mondays good for you? Okay, then.

A note here about the sub-title, “sometimes it takes a while.” You see, the “it” mainly refers to the “thinking” of the title. And, for me, thinking does often take a while, seeing as it happens between trips to the playground and the shopping and the laundry and the cooking and the bathing and so on. But it’s not just being a parent that poses a hurdle for me. Ask anyone who knows me and she’ll tell you, I’m slow. Always have been. Not slow as in, That Shannon, she’s a bit SLOW. Slow as in, That Shannon, she takes FOREVER. I blame it on my being a Libra. If you’ve never read any Linda Goodman (and you should), I’ll just briefly explain that Libras, while beautiful, social, and charming, can’t make a decision if their lives depend upon it.

Don’t make that face at me.

I’m not young anymore. I’m not old, either. But the fact is that I am all grown up, with responsibilities and everything, and I’m finally trying to be the person that I’ve secretly wanted to be. I’ve been afraid to even talk about my desires, too embarrassed and far too easily daunted. I am trying, only just now, to be a writer. More importantly, I am trying to be me. Nothing against the me I have been all along, but perhaps I could achieve a less muddled vision of myself. I’m hoping that, with a little agitation, I can separate myself away from the people and influences that surround and embrace and nurture me, much like the yolk will finally be convinced to go a separate way from that clingy white.

I wish I’d tried all this some time ago, when I was younger and a little more resilient. But.

Sometimes it takes a while.