ellen mcbee

She's always up to something…

Writers and Painters

So, for those who’ve been following me, you’ll know that I just returned from Jackson Hole Writer’s Conference.  I’m still organizing my thoughts on the experience, and I’ll write about it sooner or later.  But I do have two recommendations if you go:  1) sign up for as many critiques as you can get; and 2) make sure to put your name on the list of people who want to read at the conference.  It was a very supportive environment and I feel like I learned quite a bit.  In fact, I don’t really know how people go to more than one of these a year!

All that aside, this week I was thinking about writing (since I was at the conference) and about writers and artists and so on.  One of the common themes from the conference was that it’s important to talk about writing and not be secretive about it, as most of us are.  And then I got to thinking about my friend Melissa.

I met Melissa when we were in college.  As long as I’ve known her, she has been a painter.  She posts about her work, she sells her work to our friends, she tries out different media from time to time.  And we’ve all always known she was a painter.  She puts up shows; sometimes she sells everything, and sometimes only a few pieces.  None of us ever stop calling her a painter.

And, to carry this image a little further, we have another friend who sometimes appears in Melissa’s paintings.  I don’t think Melissa has any weird obsession with this friend; she just likes to paint her.  And she’s not painting the real person.  She’s painting an appearance, a physical form.  Occasionally, maybe a particular gesture or expression.  She’s not holding this friend up for ridicule or to expose her to the world.

So, my point is that I think we need to embrace the idea that we’re writers because we write.  It shouldn’t matter if you’ve made sales, or even if someone has seen your work.  You’re a writer because it’s what you do.  And even if some of your characters share an appearance, or a gesture or characteristic, with someone you actually know, it doesn’t mean you’re writing about that person.  You’re writing about some aspect of that person that interests you.

Maybe it really is that simple.  Writers write.  It has less to do with the outside than you’d think.


Ever been to Jackson?

Wow, is all I can say.

I know I’m supposed to be writing about writing–and I will be, once the Jackson Hole Writers’ Conference gets underway.  The kinds of things I’m planning to post:  what do people wear?  How formal is the event?  How are the classes?  And, should I be marketing What You Stand For as adult or New Adult fiction?

But Jackson is so overwhelming.

To catch up a little:  we left from Los Alamos on Saturday and drove up to Aspen.  I didn’t like the condo in Snowmass.  It was expensive and it was hard to unload the car there.  Plus there were very few options for feeding kids in Snowmass.  Next time I’m bringing breakfast AND dinner food.  However, the next day we went out rafting with Aspen Whitewater (Paige and Chris) and had an amazing time!  Mom enjoyed it too, but forgot to lean into the boat when we went over the rapids.  So, she and I fell out of the boat.  I still had a great time and it was so much fun!  Also I had some thoughts about the symbolism of learning to paddle in sync.  The most interesting part of that is that I went for the most independent paddler in the boat (15 yr old son), because I reasoned he wouldn’t be trying to pace anyone else.  Funny to think that it’s not necessarily the leader that people follow!

That night we made it to Pinedale, where we stayed in the very cute Log Cabin Motel.  It was scrupulously clean, definitely from another era.  We LOVED it.  We got up that morning and trekked out to the CCC ponds looking for a mother and baby moose with no luck, but we did see several beavers, birds, and thousands of butterflies.  In the afternoon we drove on into Jackson.

I’m overwhelmed by how beautiful it is here.  The condo has crappy views but the mountains somehow dominate.  After we moved into the condo we went up the free tram to Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, where we sat out on the deck and ate appetizers for dinner.  Then back to the condo, Mom and I went to the grocery store, and back to the condo for a good night’s sleep.

Then today Yellowstone.  Which I will attempt to write about tomorrow.

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On my way!

Just a short update today as I’m on my way to Jackson Hole!  But trust me not to do this the easy way; I have my mom, my husband, and all three kids along for the ride.  My husband is leaving us on Monday and I’ll be out and about with the kids for a few days before the conference at the end of the week.

And I’m thinking about signing up for Rocky Mountain in September.  My idea is that I can go to Jackson mostly for the feedback and networking and conversation, but in Denver I’ll be trying to get an agent.

It’s really beautiful here.  I was exhausted just looking out the window at all the mountains.  And there was so much WATER everywhere!  Quite a change from Los Alamos, I can tell you.


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What’s a Nice Girl Like You Doing Writing Smut Like That?

Hi, everybody!  I came back again today.

So first I want to point out that I posted the first scene from my book, What You Stand For, on its very own page.  You can read it by clicking on the link to the right.  What You Stand For is the second (or possibly third) book I’ve finished.  It’s nearly done, which is good because I’m going to a conference with it.  People do come back with contracts or even an agent, but me?  I’m just going for the experience this year.

I don’t talk much about writing.  Probably because everybody I know wants to do it.  People think it’s easy, that you just sit at your desk and work and then watch the money roll in.  Let me tell you that finishing that first draft is difficult!  And having out-of-control subplots (well, in my case I had misidentified them) didn’t help.  I kept realizing right around the 70% mark that I was not writing the book I had outlined and that I needed to go back and rework what I was doing.  Eventually I had to just keep going, knowing I had some serious flaws to fix in the next draft.

The other reason I don’t talk about writing is because my protagonists are mostly college age.  “Why, Ellen!” people say.  “Why’s a nice girl like you writing…pornography?!”

So then I have to explain that what I’m writing doesn’t really fit the New Adult label.  Yes, my characters have sex, but not very explicitly.  Yes, they go to parties, but they also study and read and volunteer and all those things a modern college student does.  Yes, my characters are people with problems, but they’re normal problems involving parents, friends, or other situations.

My writing projects in many ways have always been about college students. In high school I wrote a series of stories about a boarding school; when I was younger I wrote about kids away at camp or summer programs. I’ve always been interested not just in the growth and transformations people go through from child to adult, but the idea of that growth taking place away from parental figures. How do people decide who they really are? How does that affect the way we move through the world?

A few years ago I discovered New Adult fiction as its own separate category.  Many of the books I dipped into were traditional romance novels with protagonists who happened to be college students.  Many didn’t withstand feminist scrutiny, and a great many are primarily interested in dark pasts and heroes/heroines who have been abused in some way, reminiscent of the “problem novels” that made up much young adult fiction years ago.  Most of them have an extremely limited cast of characters. In nearly all of them sorority girls were either primary antagonists or stuck-up foils to the heroines. This approach seems to work for a lot of people, but I felt that there was a wider audience that wasn’t being served. Greek organizations today are more inclusive than ever, providing leadership and philanthropic opportunities for many students. And most students aren’t running from an abuser, but they are trying to make sense of themselves as adults in a world that continues to treat them like children.

I didn’t know why New Adult fiction was really a marketing title for contemporary romance.  I felt that the titles I read, while perfectly fine as romance, were not books I would have read as an older teen.  I thought, I could do something entirely different from pretty much any book I’ve ever seen.  And so, I wrote the kind of book I would want to read about college.  My biggest challenge?  Remembering that everyone has a phone–well, except Pati.

So that’s it.  I don’t think of what I’m writing as New Adult, but it doesn’t really fit any other category.  I’m just trying to write about that time when we transition from teen to adult in a way that grapples with hard decisions.


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A little about me

So, folks who’ve known me for a long time know that it’s been a long-time ambition of mine to be a writer.  This blog is about my efforts and life and work because I can’t extricate those things from each other.

I’m originally from several tiny places in Tennessee.  I was born in Sewanee, I lived in Decherd as a young child, and after that we moved to a farm in Normandy.  My graduating class had fewer than 40 people in it.  After that I went to college at Sewanee (also small but huge to me) followed by a move to Boston, where I took an M.Ed. at U. Mass (finally, someplace  BIG!).  And now I live and raise a family in Los Alamos, NM (back to small).

I guess everybody’s life looks neat and compartmentalized when you try to limit it to a paragraph.

I have about a million hobbies that I rotate through from time to time.  Sometimes I’m not writing because I’m too busy knitting a sleeve on a sweater! 

The big adventure this summer is the long-awaited addition to our house in Los Alamos.  We’ve spent the past few weeks getting a new roof put on, and now I’m getting the soffits and fascia replaced.  Since in some places I’m expecting they’ll find whole colonies of birds living in there, this is a long overdue project.

The other big adventure is that I’m going to a writer’s conference, my very first one, in Jackson, Wyoming this summer.  And I’m going to meet….Sarah Bird! 

I know! 

I had to send in my sample for critiques (I’m getting a total of four and can’t wait) about a month ago and guess what, I’ve already changed the beginning.  At least I haven’t cut out the part I sent.  Anyway, she wrote the book I think is the first New Adult book I ever read, Alamo House.  Also, a book I recently read called The Gap Year, which had gorgeous imagery and made me question what goals we should really have for our kids as grownups.

All right.  Nice to meet all of you, looking forward to sharing my adventures!



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