Monday, September 30, 2013

Trapdoor by Paul Greci

When I was in college I majored in English and a close friend, Mark, studied Anthropology. We both loved out-of-the-way places. Mark had an eye for finding arrowheads and imagining life thousands of years ago while I had more current stories inhabiting in my head from the books I was reading.

When Mark got word of where a cave entrance was he didn’t need to twist my arm to go check it out. I was taking a Mark Twain Seminar and Tom Sawyer had just explored a cave.

We drove a maze of Southern Indiana dirt roads, then finally pulled over at a land mark I don’t now recall.

We stepped over a barbwire fence with a No Trespassing sign on it (a lot of our hikes started that way) and set off through the woods. I don’t remember if we were following a trail or looking for landmarks. Mark had the route in his head and I followed him.

After about twenty minutes we stopped at a hole in the ground about as big around as a manhole—the entrance to the aptly named cave, Trapdoor. To access the cave we had to lower ourselves down, then dangle from our forearms and drop. We knew the bottom would be there just a foot or two down, but still, there was hesitation on my part. But once Mark dropped and was just standing there unharmed, I swallowed my heartbeat and dropped too.

We could’ve brought high-powered flashlights with us but we didn’t. Me, in my Tom Sawyer mindset, and Mark, in his prehistoric fascination, both lit candles and proceeded to navigate through the darkest place I’d ever been.

We walked slowly out of necessity—the cave walls eating our meager light. We spoke in quiet voices—transported back in time.

By the time we’d covered the quarter mile obstacle course of slanting, loose, dark rock peppered with boulders to the end of the cave and then back to the entrance, all we could see as we peered up was a slice of starry sky.

Off-the-beaten-path experiences, whether they happen in a house or in a cave, are seeds to our writing. Sometimes they spout ideas right away. Other times they sit dormant for years and then, when conditions are right, spring to life.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Mayhem's Season Premier: Three New Stars!!!

Welcome to Project Mayhem's new season of Writing with the Stars... well, we can but dream of being beamed into every living room in America in our spangly gowns and sparkling tuxedos. (And get a look at Hilary's tap shoes!)

Seriously, it does seem like a new season on the blog. This summer, we said farewell to three magnificent Mayhemers--Lee Wardlaw, Mike Winchell, and Tracy Edward Wymer ("The Three Double Yous")--as they moved on to pursue other avenues of Mayhem in their lives. Then, in kind of our own papal conclave, we sent up some white smoke and were blessed by three great new writers who said YES! to the Mayhem. So, without further ado, let me introduce our newest members:

Joy McCullough-Carranza – Joy grew up in San Diego (where she was a total bookworm), went to college in Chicago (where she studied theater and became a playwright), and lived in Guatemala for a year (where she met her husband). Now she makes her home in Seattle with two book-obsessed kids and an equally book-obsessed husband. A walk through their home includes the ever-present danger of a falling stack of books. Between homeschooling her children, freelance writing and editing, answering someone else’s fan mail, and writing her own middle grade fiction, Joy is excited to make room for Project Mayhem in her life.

Braden Bell - was the least-stable, lowest-achieving middle school student in the history of civilization. He shocked every former teacher by eventually earning both a Master’s degree and a Ph.D. in theatre.  A middle school teacher by day and a father by night, he is around middle-grade mayhem 24/7. He teaches choir and directs plays, but whether he fights evil on evenings and weekends is something he cannot disclose. Braden lives with his wife and children on a quiet, tree-lined lot outside of Nashville, TN. He is the author of THE KINDLING, PENUMBRAS, and the forthcoming LUMINESCENCE.

Joe McGee - Joe was raised by wolves. Llama riding, Irish wolves who roamed the countryside, selling stories for cheese and Sour Patch Kids. At the age of 12, he began to write these stories down, filling spiral-bound notebooks. He has not stopped. He has ink in his blood and words in his heart. He is 17 feet tall and can swallow fire and can play six ukuleles at once and may have been a pirate in another life... Wait. None of that’s true? Well….what about the spiral-bound notebooks filled with stories? Yes, that part IS true.
He LOVES quirky, dark, strange fiction. (Tips hat to Roald Dahl.) He enjoys witty banter. Cemeteries, shadows, and tentacles make him warm and fuzzy. Joe has his Master’s Degree in writing and is very close to finishing his MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults at The Vermont College of Fine Arts (July 2014). He is represented by Linda Epstein of the Jennifer DeChiara agency. Joe writes picture books, young adult, and middle-grade (HUZZAH!)           
Website  Twitter 

I sat down (virtually) with the new recruits to chew the fat. Of course, since we're all writers, our first ruminations were about books.

Me: So guys, any thoughts about books you'd like to share? Favorite books as a child? Favorite lines? Books you'd love to read again for the first time?

Joy: I'd love the chance to re-experience the Harry Potter series - as a kid. (But watching my daughter discover them has been the next best thing.)

Me: Oh, me too. I've actually read the series aloud twice to my older two kids. Now I'm waiting for my first grader to show interest. But he wants to be Indiana Jones, not a schoolboy wizard.

Braden: My favorite book when I was younger was actually a whole series of books about pig named Freddy who solved mysteries. There were at least a dozen, I think. I still remember some of the names and characters because they seemed so vivid to me at the time.

Me: Whoa, never heard of that! (Quick web search) Hey, I've found it: Freddy the Detective, by Walter R. Brooks. Cool. I'll be on the lookout for those!

Joe: I've got a favorite line to share. Actually, I want to give you two. Can I do that? Can I lead off with some mayhem? ;) 

1. "Not all those who wander are lost." J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring.
2. "Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast." Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland.

Me: Speaking of breakfast, I'm a bit peckish myself at this time in the morning. What's your favorite breakfast, Joe?


Me: Yeah, I gather you're a bit of a night owl. How about you, Joy?

Joy: Hmm ... I love breakfast foods, both sweet and savory. I think I'll go for some super fluffy chocolate chip pancakes drowning in whipped cream. I wouldn't turn down some fresh-squeezed orange juice. No coffee, though. Because blech.

Me: Ooh, them's fighting words! But we all get along on Project Mayhem, even if we can create a bit of a stir. Braden, you got anything to add?

Braden: I have to leave the house at 6:25 to get the kids to school so I don't eat breakfast--that is a few extra minutes of sleep right there. So I have spoonful of peanut butter usually and then way too much Dr. Pepper. 

Me: Wow! I'm not letting my kids know that's an option. They'd be all over it! Well, now that we've got the breakfast issue out of the way, how's about having a little fantasy. Anyone want to share a dream vacation?

Joe: Riding llamas (or zebras) across New Zealand, stopping only to serenade the locals with ukeleles, and fireside stories.

Me: Okay, I'm expecting a new llama/zebra-with-ukelele novel from you any time soon. Joy and Braden?

Joy: I've never been to Europe, and if I have to narrow it down, I think I'd say Italy. But ideally, I'd love to do the whole shebang. Not with backpacks and youth hostels, though. Europe on a luxurious budget - now there's a dream!

Braden: I spend so much time gone and away from my home that when I am daydreaming about vacations, I tend to daydream about not having to go anywhere. Being able to putter in my yard, read, and watch some old movies is my dream vacation. Oh--and lots of lemonade and even more Mexican food. 

Me: Yup, let's hear it for staycations. And Mexican food!!

Thanks, guys. This has been quite a fiesta. You're all so great! I'm really looking forward to working with you at Project Mayhem. 

World, have your say, and welcome Braden, Joe, and Joy to the Mayhem!

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

The Top Five Roald Dahl Novels, by Matthew MacNish

The wagon outside the cottage where he wrote Danny, the Champion of the World

Today I would like to celebrate the world's greatest children's author (note: this is my personal opinion, and is not meant to disparage Judy Blume, who is obviously amazing, but did not much appeal to me as a boy, because her books were for girls, ew).

Roald Dahl is perhaps the most well known author of middle grade titles in the world. Or at least he was before there was such a thing as middle grade and young adult, and books were either children's books or something else. I don't say this to take anything away from any other authors, and I'm sure my love for his books is influenced by the fact that I was born at the height of his success, but even if you don't consider him the best EVAH, surely you have enjoyed at least one of his tales (and if not, you might want to get on that, like STAT).

Anyway, regardless of where he ranks on the Matthew-MacNish-greatest-children's-authors-in-history-scaleTM, today I would like to share with you my top five favorite Roald Dahl novels, in order, from nearly favorite to very favorite!

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

Such a wonderful, magical book. From Willy Wonka to the Oompa Loompas, to the eponymous chocolate factory, there is so much imagination in this book. I love it with all my heart. However, while I'm well aware that many people might list this as their favorite Dahl novel, for me it is only my nearly-favorite. Only because there are so many other wonderful ones! Like: 


As an adult with the humor bone of a twelve-year-old boy, I can never help but think of the title of this book standing for something very silly. However, while this book is full of fun and silliness, it's actually quite adorable. It also doesn't hurt that it is actually an expansion of a part of my very favorite Dahl book, shown below.


Oh Matilda, you precocious little genius you! Matilda is probably my favorite Dahl protagonist. The ways in which she stands up to her situation are so adorable, but also so inspiring. I mean it's all fantasy, of course, but it's also so real. This book also gets a bonus for having one of the best two movie adaptations of a Dahl book (see the next entry for the other one).

James and the Giant Peach

Other than Gremlins, this is Roald Dahl's first book. It's a story about a small boy who escapes his cruel aunts inside a giant peach filled with giant insects (it's not that simple, obviously, but we're in a hurry here) and then sails it across the Atlantic, by luring a flock of seagulls into towing it. I mean, it all makes perfect sense, right? As wild and ridiculous as it sounds, this is one of the greatest children's stories ever written, and it also has a most excellent film adaptation.

Danny, the Champion of the World

I don't know if I can put my finger on exactly what it is about this book. Perhaps it was the fact that I was about Danny's age when I read it. Perhaps it was the fact that I lost my mother not long after. Perhaps it was the fact that fathers and sons are ... well, fathers and sons. I don't know exactly, but this is my all time favorite Roald Dahl novel, and it's a somewhat less well known one than most, so if you have not read it, I highly recommend you remedy that.

Roald Dahl in 1954

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Sage Cohen's “10 Ways to Harness Fear and Fuel Your Writing”

I found this article at Writer's Digest online and, with permission from the author, Sage Cohen, am excited to post it here at Project Mayhem today.  As writers, we all experience the "fear factor" at one time or another, and Sage provides some wonderful tips for overcoming that fear.

THANK YOU, Sage, for allowing me to share your awesome article.

The writing life presents endless opportunities to meet fear. Facing the blank page, sending work out for publication, and reading to an audience can all be triggers. Fear is neither good nor bad—it’s simply an emotional weather vane that lets us know where we are meeting or anticipating challenge.

Fear becomes a problem when we do (or don’t do) something to try to avoid feeling it. And this is what too many of us are in the habit of doing. For example, if we let the fear of rejection prevent us from pitching or querying or submitting, we are ensuring that we’ll never realize our aspirations. Even worse, we’re reinforcing fear’s position as captain of our craft. But when we consciously work with fear, we can actually harness this energy source in ways that support our writing goals and enhance our writing experience. Here are 10 ways to do it.

#1 Learn to identify subtle signs of fear.
It’s easy to identify fear when we’re about to throw up or pass out or run screaming out of a building. But fear has many subtler faces that can be hard to discern. If you’re overperforming, underperforming or avoiding performing at all, chances are good that fear is in play.
For example, did you ever consider that the piece of writing you just can’t get right—and therefore endlessly revise—may be a reflection of your fear? That the important project you can’t find time to start is likely being thwarted by fear? Even your turbocharged accomplishment mode could be driven by fear. When we find fear at the root of a challenging habit or behavior, we are fortunate—because with awareness, we have choices.

#2 Acknowledge your fears without putting them in charge.
We all have negative thoughts that creep in when we’re afraid. Our job is to make sure they don’t short-circuit us. In A Beautiful Mind, when someone from the Nobel Prize committee asks schizophrenic mathematician John Nash how he silenced the voices that threatened to interfere with his work and his life, Nash replies something to the effect of, “I didn’t. They’re talking to me right now. I have simply made a choice to stop engaging with what they’re saying.”
This is every writer’s opportunity with fear—to learn to live with the negative stories that get airtime in our minds, without letting them limit what we know we are called to do. Chances are good that your fear is just trying to protect you from meeting pain. Once you give it a chance to see that you’re going to be just fine, it will likely let up, and eventually even shut up for good.

#3 Focus on process instead of results.
Fear tends to be focused on projected outcomes—which we cannot control. So, why not use fear as a signal to turn your attention to your process, instead? What we do have influence over is the intention, commitment and labor of love that goes into our writing. When you give your attention to following through on a goal, taking steps to improve your craft, researching places to submit, or reading that book on marketing, you are creating a forward motion that makes it harder for fear to hold you back.

#4 Put perfectionism in its place.
Many of us have this idea that we’re meant to be perfect as writers. Instead, try thinking of your writing as akin to your fingerprints. They are what they are—unique patterns that exclusively represent you—not good or bad or better or worse than anyone else’s.
Instead of trying to perfect your writing, then, strive to get acquainted with this pattern and become more and more proficient at expressing it. There is no endpoint in this process, and we will never arrive at “perfect.” So why not give up the chase right now, and just enjoy the resonance and beauty of our humble, flawed writing as it is? As Leonard Cohen sings, “There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”
Rather than “perfect” as an end goal, try setting your sights on “finished,” and see if that gives you a bit more appreciation for the light that seeps in.

#5 Don’t make things harder than they need to be.
If you’re used to approaching your writing life from a place of fear, you’re likely to expect that being a writer is really hard. Fear gets us all knotted up such that we have to work twice as hard at writing, publishing, promoting and presenting just to overcome our own resistance. Such an attitude lands you shoulder-to-boulder, on an eternal uphill climb. This gets tiring fast.
When you find yourself working at a pace that feels unreasonable or exhausting, take a step back to consider whether or not fear is at play. Being driven to accomplish and succeed can be a very useful quality in the writing life. But your drive could also be the fear of failure in disguise.
Sometimes, just being still is all our writing lives need from us. Often, more happens—or has room to happen—when we simply allow it without trying so hard. What if you were to expect some task that feels hard and scary to be full of ease and delight, instead? I’ll bet you could work faster and more efficiently—and even get better results—without fear weighing you down.

#6 Retrain your bad habits bit by bit.
Do you catch yourself doing just about anything to avoid getting started on or back to work on a writing project that really matters to you? Or, on the flip side, do you tend to write and rewrite an endless succession of drafts, unable to decide when a piece is finished? Try setting and enforcing some performance standards.
If you find yourself scrubbing the toilet with a toothbrush to keep busy instead of starting that piece of writing you anticipate to be difficult, give yourself a time limit: 10 minutes with the toothbrush, then 10 minutes at your desk. Whatever happens, happens, and then you are excused. The point is to give yourself the escape valve (otherwise, you will rebel), but then make sure you actually follow through with your goal.
Similarly, the next time you catch yourself about to revise that piece yet again, try setting a cutoff limit: three drafts, total, and then you will declare the piece finished. Indulge your habit to a point, but then decide when enough will be enough. Resolve to stop getting in your own way.
Like any practice, the more you implement whatever standards you’ve set, the more reliable you will become. Experiment with your own ways to accept and move through your resistance. Don’t forget to be friendly to the resistance. It just wants to keep you safe. Bit by bit, you’ll earn its trust.

#7 Do what scares you because it scares you.
What do you fear most in your writing life? Take a moment to evaluate if it truly is likely to do you serious harm. If the answer is no, then I invite you to make a point of doing this very thing—as much as you can—until you exhaust fear’s charge around it. I’m not suggesting this process will be fast or easy, though that’s possible. But I do know that the more ambitious you are in tackling a significant challenge, the greater your self-confidence will be on the other side.
In my own writing life, public speaking has been the numero uno fear to conquer. This first came to my attention in second grade, when I skipped callbacks for the role of Gretl in The Sound of Music because I was so terrified that I might actually be cast. (Though I was afraid, I really wanted that role!) I vowed then that I would not let fear interfere with my goals or desires again. And I’ve been working with my fear ever since.
How have I done it? By singing and dancing and acting in every play, performance and band that would have me. And in the past 20 years, by reading and speaking publicly at every opportunity. Flawed and committed, I’ve stayed with it and I’ve gotten better. I’ve had major humiliations and significant successes. I’ve learned how to prepare and that I can trust myself along the way. It’s taken a long time.

#8 Keep your eyes on the prize.
If you have something more interesting to focus on than fear, it’s far less likely that fear will hog the spotlight of your attention. One way to hold your focus elsewhere is to clearly articulate for yourself why you’re working on a particular piece of writing, what motivates you to stay with it, and what the imagined end result will be.
For example, if you know that the article you’re writing about cultivating organic community gardens is going to teach you about something that’s both a core value and an expression of your platform, you have an intrinsic reward that’s worth writing for. If you understand that meeting a deadline and a word count while earning a paycheck is going to bring you one step closer to being a professional writer, that can keep you focused on crossing those finish lines. When fear creeps back in, let it be a signal to remind you to hold that focus steady.
Writers with defined goals have a better chance of achieving them.

#9 Be realistic about your worst-case scenarios.
Fear exists to keep us safe. If you are feeling fear, you are likely perceiving danger. The harder you try to silence the fear, the louder it will get to try to protect you. Therefore, I propose that you lean into that fear, and really listen to what it wants you to know. For example, consider an inquiry process like this:
You:    Why am I unable to finish this story?
Fear:    Because if you call it “finished,” then you might find out it’s bad. If you never finish it, then you never have to send it out, and you’ll never know. You’ll be safer that way.
You:    What’s wrong with finding out it’s bad?
Fear:    Then you would be a terrible writer.
You:    According to whom?
Fear:    The people who read it. The publications that
reject it.
You:    But wouldn’t finishing something and getting feedback likely help me improve so that I might be one step closer to reaching my goals?
Your fear will have to agree.

#10 Set your fear of fear free.
In short, fear isn’t the problem—fearing fear is where we run into trouble. When we exit this loop, we’ll be in a better place to see clearly, aspire meaningfully and stop tripping over our own self-defeating feet.
I’m not saying that when we release fear’s vise grip, all of our goals are realized and our dreams come true. But it’s been my experience that we have far more room to breathe, experiment and evolve when we’re not squeezed into those small and invented stories that have been dictated to us by fear.
Your life and your writing are both precious resources. Don’t waste a drop of either. Put fear in charge of helping you see where you’re ready to grow, and be curious about how to move from fear to trust. When you walk through fear’s doorway, you have a chance to step into your greatest potential.

Sage Cohen is the author of the poetry collection Like the Heart, the World from Queen of Wands Press and the nonfiction books Writing the Life Poetic and The Productive Writer, both from Writer’s Digest Books. She has published a variety of articles on the writing life in Writer's Digest magazine, Poet’s Market and Writer’s Market. Sage holds an MFA from New York University and a BA from Brown University. Visit her at