ellen mcbee

She's always up to something…

That Damn Eugenics Research!

Crap. Eugenics is getting inside my head.

So, I’ve been reading for the Polish Boy Scouts project this week, and it’s still exhausting and hard reading. In particular, I’m dipping into “War Against the Weak” with inroads into “Bloodlands.” And then, when I need a little light relief, I’m looking at a book of propaganda posters I just bought. So, yeah, I’m probably in a really horrible mood, which is why I’ve been hanging out in my office this week.

So, the eugenics book concentrates on America, but Edwin Black is the son of Polish holocaust survivors. His argument is that this movement born in America grew to horrible adolescence in Nazi Germany (poetic, huh?). And guess what was eventually at the root of eugenics? Why, American Nativism!

(For those of you who know me in real life, Nativism is sort of “my” topic. If I ever do my Ph.D. in history, it will be on American Nativism.)

So then, there was a weird juxtaposition of real life and writing life when my Facebook feed became completely clogged with posts both for and against Planned Parenthood. In particular, one pseudo-friend posted about how Margaret Sanger thought black people should be eradicated, so I jumped ahead in War Against the Weak to read about her thoughts. She’s often portrayed as an anti-Semite or a racist when in fact she was neither. She became a birth control activist after seeing too many women die as the result of repeated pregnancies, miscarriages, and self-induced abortions. She wanted to prevent those problems by preventing unwanted pregnancy. She wanted women to be in full control of their own bodies.

She was also tainted by eugenics, as were an awful lot of social reformers. She believed in “negative eugenics,” meaning that she thought the unfit should be sterilized. But she also thought the government shouldn’t interfere in family planning; people should be educated on how to prevent unwanted pregnancy and would then be responsible enough to make their own decisions.

Okay, I admit freely that this is a gross oversimplification of her views. She wouldn’t endorse killing people who were retarded or blind or so on, so the eugenics people weren’t as supportive of birth control as she might have wished. And she thought everyone should limit the size of their families, not just poor people and immigrants.

So, here’s the dilemma: is Planned Parenthood tainted by eugenics too? The words we use are that people who can’t afford to take care of children shouldn’t have them. Or that people who are temperamentally unsuited shouldn’t either. Or even that people shouldn’t have more than a certain number of children. In my own awkward way, I guess I wonder if we’re still saying that some people are a “pauper” class (see: the Jukes) and should have birth control so they don’t have more kids. Do we really mean that some people shouldn’t have kids because they are too poor?

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The latest: Boot Camp

I learned so much from Agent One-on-One Bootcamp!  This is an online class offered by Writer’s Digest University. I have lots to say, nearly all of it positive.

Probably best of all was that her feedback on my strengths matched what I’ve been told by others (including at Denver and Jackson Hole conferences).  Voice, dialogue, and character seem to be my strong points.

Anyway, the agent in question answered me promptly and sent my first ten pages back well in advance of the deadline. She was approachable and professional during the discussion, and her presentation on beginnings was very useful and valuable. I have to say if anyone is on the fence about trying one of these, this is the second one I’ve done and both were worthwhile. They might seem a little pricey, but not when compared to the costs of going to a conference.

The only complaint I have is that I thought there would be discussion with the other students and it was minimal. The course description encouraged people to share their writing and to carry on discussions, and I posted a few invitations, but no one was interested. I really need to get moving on finding a writing group!

In other news, my non-writing life continues busy. My kids have too many activities (all together, not individually) and I have too much housework and not enough time. So, what else is new? I’m still writing.

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Heavy reading these days

So, I’m continuing the World War 2 research.  I’m planning to draft it during National Novel Writing Month and I recommend this to anyone who needs that little extra bump to get moving on a project.  I’m nowhere near through with my research but it’s time to start writing an actual story.  I still don’t know where this project is going!

Anyway, earlier this week I finally finished dragging myself through Kristallnacht, a book by Martin Gilbert.  The accounts of Kristallnacht itself (when Nazi Germany erupted in “spontaneous demonstrations” against its Jewish citizens, destroying businesses and homes and arresting people and burning down synagogues) are harrowing enough.  And the chapter about the world closing its doors and turning its back on these people, even after the world knew all about the violence and outright thievery directed against them, is hard reading too.  But the worst part was how Gilbert summarized the deportations and mass killings.  A thousand a day, for seventeen days, and then all the Jews from City X were gone.

I’ve heard the six million figure as long as I can remember, and the three million ethnic Poles, and however many of other groups.  And it’s horrible.  Somehow, thinking about a thousand a day for however many days makes it more horrible.  It’s kind of like Matthew Shepherd and those guys who killed him saying he was intimidating when Matthew Shepherd was 5’2″ tall.

Anyway, I’m not sharing this to depress people.  But I’ve made another decision about the direction that the research is taking.  The Holocaust is a story that’s been told, by survivors, by those who were lost, by people who were there, and by people who weren’t but are far more eloquent than I am.  I want to write about the young people who fought and won the war.  And not just soldiers but underground, and all the support people.  Society didn’t really have the concept of New Adult then so I feel like I’m putting a new social construct onto an older society.  But all I can do is try.

I’m still waiting for a critique (I can’t remember if I wrote about that here and I can’t be bothered to look right now) of the first thousand words of What You Stand For.  It’s with an agent and I’m waiting to hear yes or no before I send it out again.  And yes, I have a new opening scene!  I figured out that what I really needed to do with the opening scene was to 1) show what kind of book this is; 2) show what kind of people these are; and 3) get the main conflict moving in the first scene.  I’m putting that up tonight too, so I hope everyone enjoys it.

I also want to say how grateful I am that people are following me–and reading and commenting.  I started this blog in the interests of getting myself out there as a writer, but now I’m enjoying it for its own sake.  It’s just a way to interact with the world as a professional even before I’ve made any sales or done any publishing.  And I hope you’re all enjoying the journey too.

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Embracing the writer you really are

Colorado Gold with Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers!  I laughed!  I cried!  I drank!  I met lots of really cool people!

Including an editor!  WHO WANTS ME TO SEND HIM THE BOOK!

So that was pretty exciting, but…let’s just say the rest of the weekend my interactions with him suggested that he wouldn’t like the book I was sending.  He told me that he didn’t see a lot of New Adult that wasn’t romance but he was intrigued by the sorority girls being the heroes.  So, after a whole lot of soul-searching and existential questions, like “Is it still art if everyone’s structures are the same?” and “Was it even art in the first place?” and a talk by William Kent Krueger who said that he was a much better writer when he stopped trying to be Ernest Hemingway…

I’ve decided that I’m a romance writer.  Or that this is a romance story, anyway.  Which I have to be if I want to write about this age group–and get the book into the hands of readers.  Because honestly, in the first drafts of this book the romantic story kept trying to take over.  Which doesn’t mean that I was falling into plot traps, or that I wasn’t as good with my characters as I should be.  It just means that I wanted to write the romance all along.

All my musings led me back to the question of why I wanted to be a writer at all, and why I wanted to write this particular story.  It was to tell the story, and it was to talk to young women.  Not in a preachy sort of way, but in a meeting of equals way.  The same way I parent, you know?  Parenting is a two-way street; it’s not something I do to them, it’s something parent and kid do together.  It’s not about imposing my needs on them; it’s about recognizing their needs and teaching them to be civilized people too.  I used to be a young woman.  And now that I’m a less-young woman, I want to explore the themes of making mistakes, and learning to trust again (including yourself), and in the end being who you really are.

So that means for the next few weeks I’m restructuring this manuscript, adding back scenes that I thought were too romance-oriented, and writing two serious (gulp!) sex scenes.  I’ve already written some serious foreplay scenes with these two, so how hard can it be to get everyone’s clothes off?

I know.  I just have to jump in and do it.

At least my shoes were comfortable this time.

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September mornings

Ahh.  After the long weekend the kids are back at school.  And I’m doing my last prep for Rocky Mountain Gold.

Well, I wish it was the last!

They don’t tell you what editor/agent you will meet with beforehand.  So I’m doing three separate packets based on posted submission guidelines.  I figure that if I don’t meet the other two I can still use the package.  So I’m writing my synopses today.  I’m almost finished with the six page one, and then I’ll cut it down to three, two, and one.  Next I need to write one more query letter and print out the sample pages each requests.

I can’t decide if I should print off a complete manuscript.

I think putting the manuscript of the first book away for a while was a good decision.  I’m re-reading it now as I write the synopsis and it seems fresh and new.  Also, it’s still funny.  And it’s still a good book.  Maybe the strangest thing is that the scenes leading up to the They Have Sex scene are better than the actual sex scene.  I’ll have to think about that.  Meanwhile, this is a good book.

Today I’m sitting in my sunroom admiring the new sound wall.  It’s almost finished and they’ll put in a gate and I’ll have my alone space back.  I can’t really decide if I need to be alone (no kids or husband around) when I’m writing, but I definitely work better when I don’t have a back yard full of construction workers!  There’s plenty of yardwork I could be doing, but first:  Colorado.

The other writing news is that I’m working on my second book.  I’ve written around 25,000 words, and have rearranged scenes and story so that I have finished the first act.  I’m workshopping that material Friday morning.  Also, after a lot of soul searching, I’ve decided to have the second book of the series as a dual viewpoint between Brooks and Kit.  Her voice is so well-developed that sometimes it narrates my real-life adventures.  I don’t have a real handle on him yet, but expect it will come.

All right, back to work with me.  And you.

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The Rainy Season

I haven’t been in the blog for a bit. Summers are hard for moms! It’s because the schedule is never the same, day to day or week to week.

In any case, it’s rainy season here. It’s kind of rainy season with a vengeance. I haven’t seen it rain like this in Los Alamos in several years now, though of course we got three days worth last September. I like the sounds it makes. I like watching the grass grow. And I like the way the ground is soft even when the sun’s shining.

I also like that I didn’t hang the laundry on the clothesline today.

I’ve finished my last pass through What You Stand For, although I have a pivotal scene I’m going to need to rewrite. Over Thanksgiving break, Kit meets up with her ex-boyfriend, who works in Kit’s family’s hardware store. They have a fairly civilized conversation in which he tells her that there’s nothing wrong with her but he was in the wrong place to be making long-term plans with her or anyone. Now that I’ve started work on the sequel (What You Settle For), though, I need for the two of them to be fighting still. So it’s time for a new scene.

I wish I hadn’t thrown out the scene I had where they did fight. Although I threw it out because it was too cliche-ridden to use. I’m not sure I should have her sit down to talk with him but she does in some way need to find “closure.” Maybe hers comes from accepting that he’s never going to tell her she was fine and she needs to come to that understanding on her own.

This seems like something that would happen in real life (an important goal for me). But I’m not sure it’s dramatic enough. Hopefully when I’m actually sitting down to work on it, inspiration will come. And if it’s funny enough, it won’t matter if it’s dramatic.

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This was my week…

I think I’ve mentioned before (and if I haven’t, well, here it is):  I do an awful lot of volunteering.

Part of that is being a mom of three school-age kids in a small town.  They do a lot of activities.  Consequently, I have a lot of time where I’m hanging around waiting for something to finish.  And this year, the three school-age kids are all going to three different schools.

My son, T, is in the high school band.  So I have volunteered to be in charge of the marching band uniforms this year.  He’s also an Eagle Scout candidate, so I’m a merit badge counselor.  He does ski race club, so I’m on the board for that.  My daughter A is in the middle school band and is a competitive gymnast, so I’m on the board at the gymnastics school.  A plays hockey and I volunteer to keep score.  My other daughter K loves swimming and has lots of friends who all like to hang out here.  She’s in elementary school, so I put together the yearbook.  And I’m on the board at our pool.  And this week I was co-director of our church’s VBS.  I used to teach Sunday School but I’m over-committed already, so I costume the Christmas Play every year too.

Also, I’m sure I missed something.  And meanwhile, I like to write, and knit, and read, and watch TV.  I sew sometimes but don’t really like it.  I scrapbook but that’s been sitting for a couple of years now.  And soon I’ll be deep into the long-awaited renovation on my house.  I’ve lived in the house for 14 years and am finally ready to modify it.

Not to be whining, though.  I’m busy but I still find the time to write.  This week I have finished my final revisions to What You Stand For.  I’m starting the draft of What You Settle For (though possibly will change the title to What You Long For.  Or even something else).  And I know I said I wasn’t going to be ready, but I am.  So I have signed up for Colorado Gold the first week in September!  I’ve booked the conference, and the hotel, and I’m going to attend a pitch session to see if I can get the thing sold.

The plans at the moment are, if I come back from Colorado with no contract or interest, that I will start sending out queries trying to get the thing sold.  I’ll be looking at partner publishing as well as traditional routes.  Because, honestly?  It’s good.  It’s a good book.  I would have wanted to read it when I was in my late teens.  It would’ve been great to read about a character who resented her family and friends sometimes, who had to battle against assumptions about her, who was for the first time examining her life and her attitudes.  Instead young adult fiction then was often written from a “problem of the week” viewpoint.

But, I digress.  Independent of what happens in the book, I’m confident that it’s well written.  Selling and writing don’t come from the same place, so selling is a whole new set of skills for me.

Okay, back to work for me.  Have a great weekend, all!

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Jackson Hole Writers’ Conference

So, as I’ve said previously, a few weeks ago I was at the Jackson Hole Writers’ Conference.  Not to try to sell the book (though I wouldn’t have said no to that!) but to get feedback, advice, opinions, and build some kind of network.

The experience was fabulous, and I’d really love to go there again.  It was two and a half days of classes, talks, critiques, and talking openly about this WRITING thing.  It was fun–and it felt valuable.  The two best talks I heard were those given by April Eberhardt, who spoke about the new ways manuscripts are published.  She was very frank about the advantages and disadvantages of traditional and alternative publishing.  The other best talk was given by Cynthia Hand, who spoke about the three things needed to be a successful writer.  I thought her seminar was very informative; she talked about the skill set and also the talents and ways to fire up the passion you need to carry you through.  Since at the moment I’m in editing hell, I really loved it.

But nowhere could I find the information I needed:  what kinds of things to take to the conference?  Also, what to wear?  So here is my own in-hindsight answers to those questions.

What to take:  Copies of the material you’ve submitted for critiques.  A water bottle and a granola bar.  An umbrella.  A cardigan or light jacket.  Pens and paper.  Pages you might like to show to people.  Pages for your reading (four minutes long, last evening of the conference).  And business cards.  Although, a note about business cards:  I thought nobody else there had any and it seemed a little forward to offer them.  But as soon as I mentioned I had a card in any conversation, other people were offering them too.  It was a pretty introverted group and many of them came with friends, so it was hard to find anyone to have lunch with.  After the first day I went back to the condo and made sandwiches for my lunch.

What to wear:  Comfortable shoes.  Otherwise, people were everywhere from polos and jeans to Western wear to business casual.  There were people wearing loafers or cowboy boots or sneakers or really cute sandals.  Since I have hard-to-fit feet, my shoes were pretty much uncomfortable.  I was on my feet more than I expected to be.  Also, in Santa Fe you pretty much see western wear on both men and women, but in Jackson that seemed to be just men in cowboy boots and hats.

A little more about reading:  I’ll post the reading I gave at some point, but it was fun!  I even got some “woos” in addition to the applause.  People were very interested in what I was writing and I talked to many new people afterward.  I did have to sign up for the slot on the first day of the conference, so if you go make sure to ask.  I will also say that I felt like a complete marshmallow.  There were readings describing industrial accidents, and some fairly serious poets, and science fiction, and nature pieces.  I read about two girls going to a fraternity party!

Anyway, with everything I learned and did there, I feel like I have a lot to process.  I don’t know how people go to more than one conference in a year, although I was looking at maybe going to Denver in September.  I just have to get my husband on board…

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Rambles and Travels

Since my last post, nothing happened!

No, of course that’s not true.  I went to my parents’ 50th anniversary party, saw a lot of people I haven’t seen in 25 years, had a birthday, took my son on his first college visit, and had a nightmare flight on the way home.

I should warn that there are some things I find really boring myself, and one of them is the minutiae of the difficulties of travel.  Let’s just say that my flight out of Nashville was delayed, so I was late getting to Dallas and missed the Santa Fe connection.  I ended up going to Albuquerque, where the agent took almost an hour to set me up with vouchers for a hotel, taxi, and shuttle to Santa Fe.  Then this morning the shuttle was booked so I had to rent a car to get my children to where my car was parked in Santa Fe.  So, I rented a car for an hour for about half the amount I paid for having a car for a week at my parents’!

I’ve been trying hard to talk about writing as a job and not as a hobby since I left Jackson.  People who’ve known me only here in Los Alamos are a bit surprised when I say that I’ve been at a writers’ conference.  I suppose I seem too practical, too grounded in the reality of routine, to be an artist.  People who’ve known me for a while or are brand-new acquaintances are interested and ask me where I blog.  Today I met the lady who is teaching my son’s drivers’ ed class and she is a writer.  We talked shop a little, and it felt natural.  Normal.  I’m starting to feel like a writer who writes.

Speaking of, make sure to check out my “The Beginning” page today.  I’ll be adding the revisions I’ve made to the original post from a few weeks ago.  I thought I’d leave the original up so that anyone who is interested can see what my process looks like.  And later I’ll be digging into Scrivener to learn how to use it.  Before I went out of town I made it halfway through the tutorial, but now I don’t remember what I learned.  Hopefully it will all come back to me as I’m working.

Taking my son back to Sewanee was enlightening.  When my husband and I were there, we weren’t exactly slumming, but it was definitely less clean, shiny, and state of the art than it is now.  Night Study in the library, which always smelled like a thousand lit cigarettes, has been replaced by a 24 hour computer lab.  Students now need their IDs to access not just the dining halls but their own rooms, where I never locked my door even one time (although it must be admitted that this was because the keys were bulky and sometimes got stuck).  The gravel paths that ate our shoes have been paved.  The dining hall is open and food is accessible all the time.  Printing is free.  95% of freshmen return for their sophomore year, which made me wonder if the University is working harder to keep them and better able to help those in financial need or if admissions are just that much more selective.

One piece that I’m glad to see still operates is that the admissions counselor talked about the network, and Sewanee as a family.  I demonstrated that myself; our tour guide was talking about being a biochemistry major and at the end of the tour I gave him my husband’s contact information.  Because it’s not just about being in school, it’s about what happens next.  Buck’s own mentors have retired and passed away and the new professors in the department don’t really know him, so they don’t put students in contact with him.

I was surprised that our tour guide didn’t talk about the honor code as a way of life, although my son said his did talk about it.  I knew a couple of people who were thrown out on honor code violations.  The honor code really was ingrained and was a large part of who we were.  And are.  Although I wonder sometimes how much of it we already held when we came to Sewanee in the first place.

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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.

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