Embracing the writer in…you

Several months ago I decided it was high time to make a proactive step into solidifying myself as a writer. Sure, I slaved over my laptop at both home and the day job. I punched out nearly 160k words in six months without batting an eyelash. I alienated my family and friends because “I have to finish it.” But did that mean I was a writer? Maybe, maybe not. I still felt sort of – transient – I guess is the best word. I didn’t really feel like I was part of that world. The fantastic writer world where imaginations fly free, and we are surrounded by creative minds. Where words are plucked from the air like a ripe grape. Nope. I was still sidelining.

After doing some checking around I found several writers’ groups. You know, the big dogs. The one’s you have to fork over some dough to be a part of. The serious kind, for serious writers. One that looked promising was the Romance Writers of America (RWA). This sounded good. But I was not a fully fledged ‘romance’ writer, was I? My forte was more YA fantasy with, of course, kissing. When I picture “Romance Novel” I see a corseted red-head gasping in the arms of some super steroid, long haired (don’t forget the leather cord holding the hair back), half naked Adonis. That is SOOOOO not me. The thought actually makes me giggle uncomfortably.

Next up, the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI). Now here we go!!!! This is more like it. All things KidLit. From tots to teens and everything in between! Heh, I’m a poet and didn’t know it… Sorry, shiny ball happened. Anyway, I looked into it and felt it a good fit so, wa-bam, I signed up. This was my claim to writer-dom. I was now a member of something! Big girl writer panties are ON yo!

When I received the email about the Winter Conference in January I knew I HAD to go. There were no if’s, and’s, or but’s about it. I was going! By late December, I had everything booked. Now terror set in. Non-refundable flight to a HUGE city I had never been to, a nice chunk of change forked over to a hotel that I had never seen, and a registration fee paid to an event where I would only know me, myself and I. Holy CRAP what am I doing?!

As I got on the plane last week, I mentally went over the multiple places I had stashed an ID, credit card, and cash in case I got mugged somewhere. But that was so negative, and I didn’t want to begin this journey on a negative foot. I sat in the seat and focused on having the most amazing time. I would not allow the big-bad-city to scare me. Sure, I’m from Tennessee, but I grew up in Sacramento and visited San Francisco often enough to befriend a bartender (whole ‘nother post on that, lol). I was not a stranger to big cities, but NYC was just – different.

All my positive thinking mojo did the trick! It was a FANTASTIC weekend! NYC was awesome and the SCBWI folk were beyond amazing. I met a fellow writer, and Twitter friend, and we hit it off. Happy to call her an actual friend now. 🙂 And met dozens of other writers and illustrators.

Up until this point, whenever I talked about what I write, it was sort of awkward. When I mentioned I write YA Fiction I generally get hit with the pregnant pause and “Ooohhhh… That’s cool” with an exaggerated nod. Not so much with the SCBWI crew. They wanted to know what I write, how long I have been writing, what was my story about, am I pitching yet, have I written anything else, am I published, etc etc… Whew! So many wonderful questions from people who were just like me! It was AWSOME! I did not feel awkward discussing my writing at all. The only times I felt ill at ease were when I ran into someone who had been writing since the womb, but then the next person I talked to was an elderly lady writing her first novel. How much more awesome can you get?

The speeches were better than I could have ever dreamed. Damn you Chris Crutcher! You cannot share stories like that and NOT have a mom cry uncontrollably!!! Cassandra Clare gave us the inside tip on love triangles and I totally fan-girled her. She signed my name badge!! Jane Yolen was phenomenal! And a surprise visit from the one and only Henry Winkler was inspirational.

Over the course of two days, all-around awesomesauce surrounded me, and I could not have been happier. By the time I boarded my plane in LaGuardia Sunday evening exhaustion took on a whole new meaning. Not only did every limb ache from standing and walking, but my brain was surely reduced to ooze. But the good kind of ooze.

I learned so much in that time that I will never forget. The nitty gritty of what makes a good novel; voice, hook, plot, action, emotion, show – don’t – tell, and a story that is not like any other! But it was more than that. The things that really stuck with me did not have to do with the nuts and bolts of writing a novel or picture book. It was the other stuff, the beating heart of writing; the writer.

I learned that no matter what, if you believe you are a writer, then you are. If you have a story to tell, then tell it! It does not matter if you are published or “pre-published.” It does not matter if you’ve had ink stained fingertips since birth or if you picked up your first writer’s notepad yesterday. It does not matter if you cannot outline to save your life or if you have a whole database dedicated to every micro detail of your books. It does not matter if you are grammatically incorrect or if the folks at Webster’s or Idiot’s Guide to Writing consult you before publication. It does not even matter if you are 40+ and writing books for teenage girls and boys! You know why? Because you are a writer. We come in all shapes, sizes, backgrounds, education, experience, ages and outside professions.

That is what’s so fabulous about being a writer. It does not matter when the bug bites you, as long as it bites, and bites hard. I will never forget the inspirational words for a newbie writer like myself. Never give up, never back down, never lose your voice, never stop challenging yourself, never let go of an idea because it’s ‘too risky,’ and by GAWD do not EVER stop writing! These are my new ‘words to live by.’ My new mantra. Why? Because I am a writer…

2 going on 13…Oi

Admittedly I have been on a sort of hiatus from blogging, reading, and my new BFF Twitter because of the grand task of editing. Yeah, a lot of have been there, right? I have also been dealing, coping, puzzling over the behavior modification my son has undergone lately. By a show of hands who all has, or has had, a 2 year old child? I see… Let me ask you this, from one parent to another, did your child come equipped with the 2YO 2.0 chip as well?

If you’re not familiar with the 2YO 2.0 chip…let me explain the finer details. The 2YO 2.0 is an upgrade from the standard 2YO chip. The standard 2YO chip comes equipped with increased language skills that include such things as ‘pee pee on the potty,’ ‘I hungry,’ and the ever popular ‘lub you too.’ It also has fierce hugs, infectious giggles, goofy grins, and never-ending tickle buttons installed. The standard 2YO chip was what my son was running on until a couple months ago. That is what his upgrade was installed.
The problem is no one warned me, or DH for that matter, that there was in fact a 2YO upgrade and that this upgrade would override the existing operating system at random. The 2YO 2.0 chip comes with all that was available in the standard version, but with added bonus material. Included in the language package you will find ‘don’t want it,’ ‘no, Daddy do it,’ and the less popular ‘go away.’ The upgrade also includes random screaming to the point of exhaustion, Disney/Pixar movie obsessions that border OCD, tourette’s like behavior that parallels multiple personality disorders, extreme aversion to waking before the sun rises (which also includes turning on the light before he’s awake), and the ability to disintegrate all bones in their body at will when they do not wish to be held.
Let me give you an example. The following is a typical night in my house…
Get home with Boog about 6pm after picking him up from school (aka day care). The whole trip home, it’s three miles door to door, was met with announcing over and over that he “wants to watch Buzz Lightyear first!” In big people speak this is Toy Story.
Upon entering the house Boog takes off his coat, shoes, and IMS hat (he wears it every day) and immediately goes to Daddy’s laptop. It’s fascinating yet terrifying that my 2 year old can work a laptop with proficiency, but that’s another post. He pops in Toy Story and informs me “we wait” while Microsoft boots up the DVD player. Boog contentedly watches Buzz Lightyear while I get dinner ready and DH vegges out to Top Gear reruns.
Then it’s time for dinner…
Up until this point Boog was running on the standard software. When faced with leaving his blessed Buzz Lightyear the upgrade is triggered and 2YO 2.0 takes over the operating system of my child. After lots of “NO!”s and “DON’T WANT IT!”s, and even more falling limp-noodle style on the floor for good measure, DH and I look daggers at each other and ignore him. I try to rationalize that if he’s hungry he will eat.
Boog approaches the table repeatedly, but runs when you make eye contact yelling ‘no, don’t want it’ only to return looking longingly at his now cold plate of food. It reminds me of hyenas in the wild skirting the fresh kill still surrounded by lions. The constant darting in and out, testing the defenses. DH and I finish our plates and do our best to pretend Boog does not exist as he slinks his way back to the table now holding ‘Lubby’ (aka small blanket he likes to snuggle with). Avoiding eye contact, Boog slips in over at my side and says “Hold this a minute” referring to Lubby. Timidly, as you never know what will trigger the next 2.0 upgrade, I take Lubby and place it on my shoulder. “I want you,” says my son. “Sit in lap…peeeze.”
“You can sit in mama’s lap only if you eat your dinner,” I state with mild authority, still wary of the impending 2.0 upgrade.
I place Boog in my lap where he proceeds to devour his plate of food with the single minded obsession of a starved beast.
My point is…children should come with a warning label. Something that will inform parents that no matter how much you try to do right, you will constantly second guess yourself when it comes to their behavior. That your adorable little person, who still enjoys snuggle time before bed, will occasionally turn on you with the vehemence of a angst riddled 13 year old. That the little angel who takes your face in their hands with a declaration of “look at me” before kissing your face will undoubtedly tell you to “go away” if you’re not their favorite person right then.
Is the warning label necessary? Does its nonexistence make me second guess bringing a child into this crazy world? Absolutely not. It would just have been helpful to know what to look out for.
So for now I will grit my teeth when Boog doesn’t want me, or when the shirt I have chosen for him to wear is not the right one, or when he insists on Daddy taking him to bed (when it’s my job), or when he refuses to touch anything on his plate because he wants pizza for dinner and not the chicken and veggies I have provided. Why? Because he is my Boog, my Booger Butt, my Pumpkin, my Little Man, my Baby Boy and I know, without a doubt, that one day when he is grown with children of his own he will seek advice from me on this very same thing. But instead of hearing ‘no, don’t want it’ or ‘go away’ he will look at me and say, “Thanks, Mom.”

Author Interview: Makaya Vista, Peak-n-Boo Children’s Books

Today I would like to introduce everyone to a phenomenal person and author, Makaya Vista. She is truly an inspiration to not only me, but everyone she comes in contact with. She will be your biggest fan, your toughest coach, and your truest conscience. Her books are making waves with readers young and old and I wish her the brightest future.

 

What drew you to writing?
Basically, I guess I began ‘writing’ as soon as I learned to print letters. I love words, putting them together and seeing my thoughts on paper, playing with word combinations, word play, describing things as I saw them, or how things made me feel. Maybe writing things down was my effort to try to explain further even though I rarely shared what I wrote back then. Writing is fun, relaxing, exciting, interesting, healthy and enlightening. 

Writing is also a way to interpret or express something including frustrations, elations, injustices, or sorrows; the writer directs the twists and turns, adds satire, humor, mystery, suspense, or gives credence to an idea or story. I love writing poetry and relate it to black and white photography. Some see it as black OR white, when in actuality it offers more depth than a color photo in many ways with its shades of gray and contrast; it has more feeling. 
Speedwriting is a way of unloading, clean up my internal hard drive, so to speak, to make room for more. Writing children’s books, for me, was more of a challenge to keep with the age, not be boring, be funny, make the reader think, offer something to learn and promote discussion and interaction. Peak-n-Boo helped to make this easier for me as they were the perfect subjects with a story to share.
You have done all the editing and illustrations for the Peak N Boo series. Was that your plan from the beginning?
I actually sent out test copies of my Peak-n-Boo stories to several friends and invited a couple groups of children to read the stories aloud to each other. This feedback was most helpful to me – what flowed well, or stumbled, and where there were questions and humor. It was great to hear children explaining parts of the stories to each other. 
I liked to watch the children work to get all correct on the reader quizzes at the end of each story. If a question came up, they’d search the book to share the correct answer. The smaller children, though not reading yet, stayed involved commenting on the illustrations and the expressions on the dogs’ faces. All of this was very valuable feedback.


What inspired you to write about Peak N Boo and were they always meant to be children’s books?
The Peak-n-Boo books began as experimental educational tools or aids for the children I was tutoring at the time. As my leukemia was demanding more medical attention, my immune system would require me to be more cautious around crowds and children I wanted to continue to help in some way. 
The Peak-n-Boo stories were initially mean to help the children with reading and memory skills, while offering insights into some dog behaviors. Some of the younger children expressed fear of dogs and didn’t understand why the dogs approached them, and sniffed at them as they arrived. Peak was newly rescued, and with Boo a natural mentor, they offered natural educational experiences for the children. 
The first story, Dreams Can Come True, shows Boo, the natural mentor helping the puppy, Peak, gain confidence, trust and learn that differences were positive, as was patience and love. The Treadmill Rules, the second Peak-n-Boo book continues the lessons of patience, as well as learning from one’s mistakes and not giving up when mistakes are made. Special Delivery shows Peak grown into a beautiful confidant dog. Though her body has grown up, Peak was still young and impetuous and lacked experience. Would she put herself in danger without thinking? Would she continue to listen and learn from Boo?
Peak and Boo are rescue pups that have found a warm, loving home with you. Can you tell us more about them and their personalities?
Boo had a very rough start. When she was first rescued they had very little hope for her. She came into my life when she was 8 months old a few days after she’d been rescued. For some unknown reason, the people who had her kept her in a wooden box “dog house”. It was too small for her growing body. As she had not been able to fully stand up in the box her bones did not develop correctly. 
When rescued she was also malnourished and weak. I was asked to meet her and to offer some comfort care such as massage, Reiki and T-Touch. Boo’s eyes showed life even if somewhat dim at that time. I let her know that I would shower her with love and care. She was very shy and frightened of her own shadow. Every sound or the slightest move of hand sent her cowering behind furniture, or struggling to get behind the toilet or under a bed. 
Before Boo was able to eat by herself, I sat on the floor with her offering her food from my hand. No matter the type of bowl or where I put it, initially Boo was afraid of it. She was unstable and easily fell over. She slowly began to gain some strength and within a couple months another veterinarian did X-rays to find a prognosis for Boo. She told me Boo would require several corrective surgeries to allow her better mobility and ability. I was fortunate that the veterinarian was remodeling her clinic. She offered me a deal – a trade for the Boo’s surgeries – my artwork for her clinic walls. 
Following her surgeries Boo would require strengthening exercise to build muscle. One way was to swim; the other was walking on an incline. At the time we lived near the ocean. With life-vest on Boo loved to swim. When we moved to the desert Boo took to the treadmill immediately. She seemed to instinctively know it was good for her. When she wants to walk, she will stand on the treadmill and wait for someone to turn it on for her. She also uses the treadmill to walk off anxiety as needed during a thunderstorm. 
Boo later went on to pass with flying colors, her classes in ‘good citizenship’, training as a service dog and has been registered with Therapy Dog International for going on 8 years. She has made hundreds of visits to nursing homes, hospitals, to visit shut-ins, children and families that have lost a pet, veterans and soldier dog handlers, and has consistently shown great empathy toward other beings.
Peak was much younger than Boo when she first came into our lives. She’d been found on the outskirts of our desert town. She was alone, hungry, had injuries, was parasite ridden, and her fur was blotchy, dry and dull. Like Boo, Peak had no socialization skills; she suffered from fear-aggression that could be a very dangerous situation for a dog and those who might encounter her. 
Boo seemed to understand that Peak was in great need; she showed a natural empathy toward Peak. They really bonded well from the beginning. Both had been considered either un-adoptable or at the low end of adoptable. 
As with Boo, I could see life and a great desire to thrive in Peak’s eyes. Peak is amazingly smart and has a great desire to please. She has also grown into quite the jock, and is very the athletic. She loves to run; she will pump out another mile or so on the treadmill almost daily even after a long day of play outside. 
As Boo has gotten older, she has slowed down. It is very heartwarming to see Peak lie by her side and lick her face to console her loving mentor. She let’s Boo know that she loves her. Peak has also become protective of her home and family, and both dogs show tremendous gratitude.
Each of the books has an activity section at the end. How important is it to you to include educational material with your writing for children? Do you witness the benefits from such writing?
The quizzes at the back of the books were always a part of the books. When tutoring the children I’d always finish up the sessions with a few questions about what we’d covered to check their retention. I loved how the children like answering the questions, and how thrilled they were with each correct answer. The children were also working with homonyms and other word forms. 
I like to incorporate various areas in learning sessions; I like to encourage the children to think, and to figure out things. I noticed the children responded well to the quizzes and would try to out-guess each other, as well as explaining various words to the younger children. That is also why I added the bonus comic strip in the back of the second and third books with another quiz. I like word play and the Peak-n-Boo books offer many variations. Hint, I’ve noticed that children do better on the quizzes than adults.
There is no question that you are a strong advocate for “giving back” to multiple causes. Tell us how the Peak N Boo series falls into this.
As mentioned above, the Peak-n-Boo books help children with reading skills and memory but also, it is important that I get the message out. Teaching young children how to safely and gently interact with pets and animals is necessary for the safety of the child and the animal. I think when children understand the behaviors of animals, specifically dogs in the case of Peak-n-Boo; harm to or from animals is less likely. 
My goal with the Animal Protector Patrol is to teach children safe, positive interaction with pets. As animal abuse by younger and younger children is at a critical stage in our country and children that get bit by animals continues to happen, this is a problem that needs continued attention. 
A parent may not think it is necessary as they do not have pets in the home, but children will encounter animals. Their friends may have a pet or grandma may have a small dog or cat. Children need to know different animals act differently, and pets of different ages and varying situations may bring about differing reactions from the animals. An animal that is afraid or injured gives signals that a child needs to learn at an early age. Children need to know that harming a pet is not acceptable; that pets feel pain and they too have good days and they have times when they want to be left alone. Children need to learn there are appropriate ways to meet an animal and that animals have their own ways to greet people, children, babies, and other animals. 
They need to learn what not to do when around pets, especially dogs. A dog may run after a child that is running and screaming not knowing that the child is not trying to instigate play. Also it is important not to bother a dog when it is eating, or startle an animal when it is sleeping.
Do you currently do any book signings and where can folks find your wonderfully heartwarming books? Do you Facebook or Twitter?
Saturday October 29, 2011, I will be speaking at our local library as part of the Hassayampa Writer’s Club’s annual Celebration of Books presentation. 
Next month, November 12, 2011, I will again be at our local library as part of an author presentation series. I plan to speak about my Peak-n-Boo books though the bulk of my presentation will be interactive and will address animal protection. It will be geared toward small children and their parents. I will offer several of my coloring/activity educational aid illustrations to hand out to the children. The question and answer portion will be a group activity to encourage the children to share their thoughts and express any questions or experiences they may have had with pets and animals.
My author website is http://animalprotectorpatrol.com/ and my Facebook fan page is located here.
What is next for Peak N Boo? Will there be more adventures for this duo? Do you have any other projects in the works?
I do have other Peak-n-Boo stories in the works, but honestly have put most of my efforts in the Animal Protector Patrol educational aids. This is an area I am very passionate about. Stopping animal abuse and educating children on appropriate interaction with pets is of the utmost importance to me right now. 
I currently have dozens of coloring/activity illustrations to encourage discussion and interaction. Hopefully these will get put together in booklet forms to assist as teaching aids for educators. My work encourages the children to share what they know, and to interact with each other, parents and educators. 
As ASU professor of social work has shared with me personally, animal abuse is on the increase, and is being committed by younger and younger children, even little girls, previously rare.
What advice would you offer aspiring children’s book authors or writers just starting out?
Write about something you know, something you are passionate about. Most children’s writers do not illustrate their own books. In my case, the illustrations and facial expressions of Peak and Boo are key to the stories. I had not planned to be an illustrator, or a writer of children’s books for that matter. It really snuck up on me. 
I was trying to figure out a way I could continue to work with the children I’d been tutoring while I would need to deal with cancer and treatments. The books also became a tremendous healing tool for me personally as they kept my mind off what I was going through and gave me a sense of purpose. I needed to heal, get well and continue – I have work to do.



The fine art of pretend play

For anyone who does not know me, which is likely to be the vast majority of anyone reading this, I have a small son. He turned two this summer and he is the light of my life. I know what you’re thinking…mom’s always say that. You very well may be correct, but I also meant it. Ten years ago I was not even sure I could have a child so Boog is like my little miracle baby.

Yikes! Before I start the boo-hooing let me get to the point of this post: pretend play.

Boog has finally entered the stage of his young life where he interacts with pretend play. You know, the stage in a young man’s (or lass’) life where they pretend to make a cake or pretend to drive their matchbox car on the “superhighway” in the living room or even pretend to “fly.” It is an amazing stage of development.

The power of human imagination never ceases to amaze me. Now I see it happening with my son and I am so thrilled! This is where the fun begins… We will get to build forts out of chairs and blankets and defend our turf from the nasty, snarling pirates who threaten our booty! YAAARRRGGGGGG! We may even get to rescue a damsel in distress from an evil tyrant who set a ginormous, scaly, fire-breathing dragon to guard her door! Egads!! The times we will have…

See I am a huge kid at heart and I suppose that is why I like fiction so much. I never grew out of my pretend play phase of development. I would like to think that is true of most, if not all, writers. We unlock the part of our brain that houses the pretend play and set it free into the world for all to pretend play with us. Not everyone has this ability and I think it is a fantastic one. It might even classify as a superpower! Do I dare hope…?

My DH has lost his pretend play ability, which I suppose is normal for some folk. He had it at one time I am certain, but then the left side of his brain claimed dibs and locked his over-active imagination away. There is nothing wrong with this so please do not get the wrong idea here. DH is fantastic with the logic stuff, which seems to elude me at times, so we make an equal balanced pair. Some people just ‘grow up’ while others, those like me (and quit kidding yourself, you’re in this group too), just…..don’t.

Fiction, especially the speculative fiction genres, allows us writers to keep a firm grasp on that inner child who still lives for pretend play. We need pretend play to survive in this crazy world of ours! We need that place, even if it’s just in our heads, where happy endings are a must, where the heroes win, where the villains lose, where magic is fully alive and well, where our deepest desires all come true and where we get to….well, pretend.

Am I looking forward to sharing the wonders of the imagination with my son? Abso-freakin-lutely! One day he will get big (I dare not say ‘grow up’) and he will make the decision to either sway toward the world of logic, reality, non-fiction or hold on to his inner child and continue the pretend play. Which do I prefer, you ask? It doesn’t matter. Because for now I have my little prince who will join me while we slay dragons, save the princess, rob the rich and give to the poor, leap tall buildings in a single bound, and every other bit that makes pretend play so much darned fun.