Tag Archives: creativity

I am weary of conflict

img_5348I’ll be honest. I’m having a tough time.

For a while I was just burned out. Writing four books in less than eighteen months will do that to a writer. But now it’s been almost three months since I turned in the last project. I’ve been on two canoe trips and spent lots of time in my happy place. I’ve rehabbed my knee and gone back to doing aerial silks. I’ve been trail running with the dog. And I’ve been trying to map out my next project.

It’s not working. The words aren’t cooperating.

Quite a few years back, when my daughter was little, she came home from an obviously awesome lesson about story structure declaring, “I hate stories that don’t have trouble!” It’s Writer 101 material, of course. Good narratives need conflict—they start conflicted and get worse and then even worse. Trouble is key.

And trouble is also my stumbling block. I am so very weary of conflict. My social media universe is nothing but trouble. My morning OPB shows. The newspaper. Every conversation. Everywhere I turn. Trouble. Sometimes it seems like the world is going down in flames. Or maybe just American democracy and civility and the safety of children and respect for other members of humanity.

As I scribble ideas in my journal, I can think of lots of snippets and images — a fish floating through a girl’s room, Miyazaki-style; a road made of solar panels; a boy farming carbon in some future world; a cross-country romp. Yet when I try to shape them into a narrative, I run into the trouble problem.

I want male characters who ask for consent and diverse characters who are not oppressed and female characters who aren’t demeaned. I don’t want them to have to fight for their lives or save the world or make heart-rending choices or defy authority. I don’t want to write villains or a world in ruins or a broken family or abuse. I just want everyone to be calm and happy and swaying in place with their hands entwined.

I am overwhelmed with heartache and trouble. The words aren’t cooperating. Everyday I try to acknowledge the suffering, to speak against it, and to amplify the voices that the world needs to hear, and then I try to turn away from horror and circle back toward a place where I can create. I try to return to joy.

But it’s not working. That’s the truth—at least it’s my truth right now. The words are not cooperating.

I’m a curious bird

I haven’t been blogging much lately because of the double whammy of deadlines and burnout, but I did a recent interview with Ruth Tenzer Feldman, the author of an amazing trio of books that link near past and ancient past Jewish history through time travel and feminism. You definitely want to read Blue Thread, The 9th Day, and the forthcoming Seven Stitches! Anyway, here’s the interview we did (which originally appeared here). It was lots of fun! Thanks, Ruth!

So, Amber, with all you’ve done, what has brought you to writing?

I am pretty sure that Mo Willams based one of the characters in The Pigeon Finds a Hot Dog on me:

Screen Shot 2016-09-02 at 7.56.14 AM

I write because I am curious about so many things. I want to know about Ama divers and Antarctica and the history of women explorers and Nordic biathlon and dog genetics and how toilets are made. I love documentaries and memoirs because they plumb people’s obsessions. The writing life gives me an excellent excuse to learn and experience all the things I’m interested in.

I write for teens because I like them better than adults (present company excepted). Young adults are on the cusp of the world. So many possibilities are on the horizon. It’s an exciting time in life when you get to figure out what you stand for and carve your own path. The problem with many adults (again present company excepted) is that they get entrenched in ways of thinking and being and living. I love the brilliant energy young adults bring to the world.

Do you have a favorite piece of your writing?

If so, what is it and why? There is a scene in The Way Back from Broken (the beginning of chapter 33) that is really important to me. It began as a picture book manuscript in the very early days of my writing adventure. I took it to a manuscript critique at a writing conference. The literary agent who read it told me (to my face) that the world doesn’t need another ugly duckling story and that I wasn’t a very good writer anyway and that it would be best if I quit immediately.

I probably wasn’t a very good writer back then but I ached to write about how we can live with our own brokenness. It was a story that I needed to tell whether the world needed it or not. And that’s the thing about writing… it is an audacious act that proclaims: My story matters. I matter. My voice will not be silenced.

Every time I read that section of the book, I want to simultaneously offer a rude hand gesture to that agent and a fist bump to my own pugnacious self.

If you could change one aspect of the publishing business, what would it be and why?

So many things… First… Oh, wait… What did you say? I only get to change one thing? Well… shoot (actually I’m saying a bad word here)… Here’s the deal: Writing a book is hard. Selling books is even harder.

Thousands and thousands of books are published each year. Some are amazing. Some are boring. Some are downright terrible. Helping your book—your blood, sweat, and tears on the page—swim to the surface and into the hands of the right reader often feels like an impossible task. I wish that it were easier to sell books. I wish less of the publicity work fell on my shoulders. I wish that good books always sold well and that writers could create without the looming threat of unpaid bills.

Word-of-mouth (direct or via reviews on Facebook, Amazon and Goodreads) is still the primary driver of book sales. If you know and love a writer, the most helpful thing you can do is share your appreciation for their work with your friends and family. Plus, it’s cool to talk about books with interesting people. Books are awesome!

Be All There

Sometimes I hit social media like a rat hits a pleasure bar. Treat me. Treat me. Lots of uncertainty in my life these days. I blogged about it here and here. I turn to Facebook and Twitter hoping for something funny, something sweet, connection, and I confess, a bit of validation.

The result… I struggle to get into the flow space I need for writing to be fun and fluid and fast. I march. I drudge. I write the words and meet the goals. But it doesn’t feel good. To get the writer’s high, I need to really be in the story not grubbing around online hoping someone will tell me I’m smart and cute.

So here’s the reminder… for myself and for you.


Calling All Young Writers – I’m teaching a free, transmedia storytelling workshop this Friday

Book Fan Friday is a workshop for tweens and teens who love to write.

April 12, 2013 @ 4:30 pm

Powell’s Books at Cedar Hills Crossing
3415 SW Cedar Hills Blvd.
Beaverton, OR
503 228 4651

Transmedia storytelling refers to the delivery of story through a variety of media.  These forms can include film, graphic novels, traditional books, flash fiction, gaming, iPhone/iPad delivery of content, and various forms of audio.  Typically, story lines are interwoven and connected but not strictly repetitive.  Often, fan engagement and participation in the creative process are facilitated by social media.

Increasingly, all media forms—books, movies, games and TV shows—are looking for transmedia opportunities.  During this session, Amber will introduce transmedia storytelling and show how the Angel Punk team (www.angelpunk.co) delivers story via novel, feature film, comic books, and an interactive fan site with an emphasis on the creative process.




Wide Open Spaces (Required for Writers)

My family and I spent spring break in a rented house on North Andros, the largest island in the Bahamas but one rarely frequented by tourists.  There are no large resorts or mega-hotels, no gift shops, no high end spas.  In other words, my kind of place.

I had a week’s reprieve from email (the wifi was down most of the time), to-do lists (other than: eat, read, kayak, swim, snorkel, bird-watching, sleep, repeat), deadlines, and the interwoven schedules of my family of four.

I re-remembered and re-affirmed that what I love and what I need is wide, open space.  I need the horizon so I can see where the moon sets each night.  I need the expansive sea so I can track the rise and fall of the tides.  I need the untrammeled sand, twice renewed each day, to find my path.  And most of all, I need the wide, open spaces of my mind once it is cleared of all the must-do, should-do detritus of daily life.  I can not create without  it.



You Do NOT Have To Save the World

On VivaScriva.com, a blog about critique and the writing process, I recently blogged about using Publisher’s Marketplace to get a handle on what kinds of manuscripts are and are not selling in today’s YA market.  (Get the nitty gritty details here.)  These patterns are still dominating my thoughts.

Even as the number of titles featuring zombies, dystopias, ghosts, murders, etc have surged, peaked, and ebbed, I’ve notice one thing that doesn’t seem to be changing.  There are a whole lot of main characters who have to, at least according to the log line, SAVE THE FREAKING WORLD.  Think Bruce Willis plus asteroids for the YA set.   Confession: I’ve written log lines like this for my own book.  (Hangs head in shame.  Plans to revise.)

As a fan, I love epic fantasy, but as a reader and writer, I’m captivated by fully-fleshed, step-off-the-page-real characters.  Hence my love for THE FAULT IN OUR STARS by John Green and CODE NAME VERITY by Elizabeth Wein.  The characters in these books are heroic.  They are heroic because they live richly and die bravely.  They don’t have to save the world.

Real teens live many lives–protected and dangerous, religious and not, lonely and social, quiet and loud, painful and triumphant–but very few of them have to single-handedly deflect an astroid from hitting Earth and thus save all humankind.  They just don’t.

They often have to survive terrible things and books can buoy them up.  (If you weren’t immersed in the loud and raucous #YAsaves conversation last year, this link will get you up to speed.)  They also like to have fun (one of the reasons I often prefer spending time with teens rather than adults).  Fun in real life and fun in reading.

Last night I attended to book launch for POISON, the debut YA novel by the late Bridget Zinn.  The tag line reads “Can she save the kingdom with a piglet?”  That’s right!  WITH A PIGLET!  What follows is about as far from the doom-and-gloom of the recent rush of teens-killing-teens as you can get.  Think THE PRINCESS BRIDE–good, silly fun.

It’s a good reminder in these dark days of YA that we can write stories about characters who don’t have to save the world.  All they–and we–have to do is create authentic lives, whatever that may look like.  And like Bridget, we should try to leave something good behind.

My heros (and genuinely FUN adults): the YA literati of Portland launching Bridget’s book with cupcakes and good cheer


One true thing

Much of the time writing is NOT fun.  In fact, at a recent writing retreat with my critique group, Viva Scriva, Liz R. and I were discussing the things we like to do more than writing (at least when we’re in the slog phase).  Much debate there was over cleaning toilets (me: prefer over writing; her: less than writing) and laundry (both: prefer), etc.

When I’m deep in a draft (or more typically in revision), my fingers are typing away while I’m thinking things like move that clause to the front, pick a better verb, and describe more viscerally.  I plunk away for a page or two then I check twitter or each a piece of dried coconut (me: prefer eating to writing).  Then I get back to it.  Hours later I’ve laid down a couple thousand words or revised a few chapters.

But sometimes, I find the flow of it.  I become my characters and they take me places I don’t expect.  I inhabit my scene as fully as I inhabit these pajamas and this desk chair.  When this happens, I ride the wave through and often find, much to my amazement, that I have written ONE TRUE THING.  Maybe just a sentence or an exchange of dialogue or a description that captures something’s essence exactly, the ONE TRUE THING is enough to keep me going day after day, page after page.

May it happen for you.

Ideas into stories–the compost/rock tumbler approach

Photo by Kevin Fleming

Perhaps the question most frequently asked of authors is Where do you get your ideas?

When I heard William Gibson speak,  he said that he imagines he has a compost bin attached to the back of his head.  He throws things in there–articles, snippets of conversation, images, experiences–and eventually they knock together enough to transmogrify into something new.

When Laini Taylor launched DAYS OF BLOOD AND STARLIGHT, the wildly inventive sequel to DAUGHTER OF SMOKE AND BONE, she talked about how stories are born when many ideas crash together.

Sometimes I carry ideas around in my back pocket for a very long time.  One in particular–a scene with a broken-winged heron–has been very persistent.  I tried to make it into a picture book, which earned me my “worst critique ever” experience.  (After reading it, Big NY Agent told me that I couldn’t write.)  I rewrote it a bunch of times, but it never really worked.  I think it’s not a big enough idea to graduate into “story” status.  It needed transmogrification.

I was gleeful when I realized that–with a complete overhaul–the heron and the emotion behind the image could be woven into the novel I’m currently writing.  The idea will emerge from the head-bin completely different than went in but it has not been lost.

It’s at times like these when the writing process becomes alchemy–a little bit of magic in real life.


I choke up every time I read MIRETTE ON THE HIGH WIRE

It’s Caldecott season.  Chris Raschka won the medal for A BALL FOR DAISY.  I loved his acceptance speech in the most recent Horn Book.  Actually, the awards issue of that mag is my favorite one because you get an inside peek into the minds of incredibly creative people AND the super talented (also creative) people that helped them make the book happen.  It’s a great reminder of how diverse the creative process is and how many hands/minds/hearts it takes to make a great book.

All this Caldecott talk made me think of one of my favorites: MIRETTE ON THE HIGH WIRE by Emily Arnold McCully.  It’s one of those books that I never get tired of reading.  And every time I read it, such emotion rises in me that I stumble over the words.  The beauty and depth of the feeling behind those words catch in my throat.  I want to “be” in those stunning paintings with my feet on the wire, walking through space, reaching out a hand to pull another through.

Read it.

You’ll be glad you did.

Flash fiction – Vicks VapoRub

Recently, I was on the faculty at the South Coast Writers Conference in Gold Beach, Oregon.  I had a wonderful time teaching and connecting with many talented writers.  I also was lucky enough to get to attend a workshop taught by the poet, Drew Myron.  Each participant received a clear vial of something.  We smelled and then we wrote.  It was a blast.  Here’s the piece of flash fiction that came out of that writing prompt.


I know we’re in love—the real kind—because you kiss me even though I’m sick.  I’m talking funny, nose-plugged, nestled in warren of blankets.  Laptop balanced between us, we’re cruising YouTube for TED talks and snowboarding clips and the Beanie Baby parody of The Hunger Games.

Every few minutes you lean through a mentholated halo of Vicks VapoRub and nuzzle my neck.  The smear of it under my nose drives you back into the pillows with watering eyes.  Laughing and wiping tears on your sleeve, you tell me a story.

There was this guy in my dorm in college.  Edgar.  We played ultimate frisbee on the quad every Thursday.  And he had the world’s worst smelling feet.  Anyway, in sophomore year, he started dating this girl.  I don’t remember her name just that she was in our ecology class and had dimples and she didn’t last long with Edgar.  Here’s why.  

It was late.  The rest of us were partying in the room next door.  But Edgar and Dimple Girl were having sex.  And she was kinda loud, so those of us near the wall between the rooms got full-audio.  They’d been going at it for a while when the moans turned to screams.  

Screams?  You pause, grin wicked, and stare at me until I can’t help blushing.

You wanna know what happened?

I nod and dodge as you dive-bomb my neck.  Mission accomplished, you flop back against the headboard.

That douche, Edgar—I found out later—reached for the lube and got the Vicks by mistake.

Oh my god!  I snort into the comforter.  Tiny bits of down tickle my cheeks.  Vicks!  Not Vicks!  I nuzzle your shoulder with the bite of it in my nose.  It ropes us in, sharp as barbed wire, but we are all tangled limbs, new love, and the scent—thank god only the scent—of Vicks.