Saturday, May 25, 2013

The Seasons of Life in an Amish Community/The World of Temptation and Belonging

The Seasons of Life in an Amish Community

An introduction to what Rose faces when she joins the Amish to be with Noah.

When I moved to Mays Lick, Kentucky four years ago, I had no idea that my life was about to drastically change. Like most other people, I’d seen Amish occasionally.  I knew the basics, such as the culture’s choice of living electric and motor vehicle free.  What I didn’t realize was that I would become immersed in the primitive culture.  Within days of moving to our new farm, a steady-stream of Amish teens arrived to welcome me and my five children to the neighborhood.  The Amish adults were friendly too, but the younger members of the community were the ones who really made us feel at home.  The bond that tied us all together was horses.  I’d brought twenty-one of them with me from the riding lesson business I owned in Tennessee and the neighborhood kids were anxious to observe and eventually learn a more disciplined form of horse-back riding from the bare-back escapades they were used to.

It didn’t take long for me to notice the interesting dynamics going on between the Amish kids and the non-Amish ones who rode at the farm.  Along with some obvious flirting, there were also late night visits from Amish teens who simply wanted to watch a movie on my TV or play video games with my kids. 

Eventually, the community elders restricted the amount of time that the teens could spend at the farm.  The adults were worried that their children were interacting too much time with Englishers (that’s what the Amish call anyone who isn’t Amish) and the group gatherings in the arena were against the already established rules.  You see, the Amish youth don’t enjoy the freedom of assembly that we all take for granted.  They are only allowed to gather for church services and organized Amish events. 

Most Amish youth go through a state of rebellion where they question of whether they will remain Amish is decided.  This self-discovery time is called rumspringa.  Not all communities allow the young people to practice this tradition though, and my own community is one of the stricter societies. 

The Amish teens surrounding my farm have two choices.  They can either follow their community’s rules, or sneak around.  A fair amount of the kids choose the later and suffer the consequences when caught.  The punishment for watching a movie, playing a video game, taking pictures, or using a cell phone can be severe, so the art of sneaking is a required skill for every Amish teen.

Time is a major factor that limits the trouble most of the teens get into.  There is just too little of it.   Upon graduation from school at the end of the eighth grade, a typical boy will go straight into the work force, either employed by a family business such as building, welding or farming or they’ll work for another family in the community.  The girls might take an outside job, but many stay home to help care for their younger siblings and the household.  The ones that do work outside the home, might take a job at the community butcher shop, bakery, or do babysitting or house-cleaning for their non-Amish neighbors.  Most of the teens who earn an income will subsequently pay their parents approximately ninety percent of that income.  The remainder of their earnings is spent of personal items or saved for their future married lives.  The teens will continue to pay a large portion of their earnings to their parents until they turn twenty years old or when they themselves are ready to marry, which is usually between eighteen and twenty-one years of age. 

Even though the teens work forty hour work weeks, they also have daily chores to do at their homes.  These tasks include farm work, child care, cleaning and laundry.  You’d think with that kind of schedule, they’d have no energy for fun, but they still do.  Each week they participate in an organized youth activity, which is held at community member’s home.  Singing hymns and eating a basic meal are normal for the gatherings.  Following fellowship, volley ball nets are raised or a softball game begins.  The youth are well supervised and there is little mingling between the girls and the boys at these gatherings, but the teens still look forward to the time to relax and have some fun.

In my own community, I’ve watched a group of teens go through the rebellious period, begin courting, get married and have babies, all in the course of four years.  The seasons of life move quicker in the quiet country landscape of the Plain people than they do in the outside world.  But for all the negatives that non-Amish people might perceive with the culture, the Amish themselves appear happy and content.   And in the end, that’s all that matters. 

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Memorial Day YA

As a wee lad, I wore my Uncle David’s corporal patch on my bathrobe, and decorated my bedroom in models of battleships and fighter jets.  I played Army with the neighborhood kids and fought many imagined battles—though I don’t recall their mothers correcting their elocution in the middle of a skirmish as mine did.  “It’s a HAND grenade, not a HANG grenade!”

I got a little closer to the service when, as I came of age, the US started requiring young men to register for the draft again.  Around that time, I even scheduled some tests with a Marine recruiter—but he had to cancel, and I didn’t call back.  Truth is, when I found out that my barely-less-than-perfect vision ruled me out as a fighter pilot, I lost interest (which tells you that I didn’t belong in a cockpit, or anywhere else making life and death decisions).  All of which is to say, I may be talking military here, but I never served.

My wife, on the other hand, had a full military career before we met, so before I get to books, I’d like to  offer a Memorial Day thanks to her and to all who serve or served.  You picked up my slack. 

And now some books:
The following are but a few of the many YA-ish, military-related works of fiction out there.  These books cover several genre and time periods from ancient fantasy to contemporary to sci-fi.  Some are shelved as adult books, but I think a teen reader would connect with them—certainly the main characters still retain much of their youth, if not their youthful innocence in the end.

Something like Normal by Trish Doller.  The story of a modern soldier trying to cope with “normal” life in the States after seeing combat in Afghanistan.  I have yet to read this one, but it comes highly recommended by friends and critics.  It’s on my list.

Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card.  A modern sci-fi classic.  Definitely one of those stories that lays out the plot through the characters rather than with a bunch of exposition.  Lots of fascinating detail, and a relentless examination of both being in the military and being young.

Starship Troopers by Robert Heinlein.  An older sci-fi classic.  Like much of Heinlein’s ground-breaking work, this story examines the human condition while laying out the out the tropes we now think of a standard military sci-fi.

Monstrous Regiment by Terry Pratchett.  Typical Pratchett fantasy.  It’s funny, well written, insightful, and doesn’t shy away from the ugliness of life even if the characters include trolls and vampires.  Death and morality come in all shapes and sizes.

All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque.  I’m pretty sure I pretended to read the English translation of this World War I classic in eighth grade.  Certainly I watched the movie on late night TV and then coached my friends who were taking a test on the book.  Perhaps it’s time I gave it another try.

Not a classic, or even sold yet, but...

Marcus Addleberry by Me.  Couldn’t resist tacking this one on.  I recently completed this manuscript, and though it is not about the military, per-se, some of the characters are on active duty, and the military is part of the plot and setting.  If those characters demonstrate less than ideal traits, I hope the reader understands that we all have baggage and that fallibility is that much scarier for someone in the service.  Tell them thanks.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Ogres are like Onions (and So Are Your Characters)

The moment is a famous one. Shrek and Donkey are trudging through a vegetable garden, chatting about why Shrek is the way he is and why he does (or doesn’t) behave in certain ways. Groping for an analogy to make things easier for Donkey to understand, Shrek informs his friend that, “Ogres are like Onions. They have layers.”

“They stink?” Donkey asks and, in doing so, reveals one of his own layers with this funny kneejerk question. Because, even though Donkey is far from being an Ogre, he has layers too. Most people do. And, therefore, so should your characters.
As writers, we can use Shrek’s apt example to help us determine the “why” behind our own character’s motivations and discover and show the deeper reasons that explain his or her actions and inactions.

Though onions (and people) have far more than just a few layers, here are three that your characters should possess.

-Outer Shell (What your character shows the world)

-Inner Shell (Your character’s true personality)

-Core (Who your character is at his or her deepest level)

When you begin writing a character and exploring his makeup, often the first thing you will glimpse is your character’s outer being or the person he presents to the world. Sometimes, this shell is bright and shiny. Maybe your hero is a supermodel, or maybe she’s a famous racecar driver. Or, if you’re tinkering with an underdog hero, the outer layer we see might include shabby clothing or thick glasses. But this outer layer is more than what your character is wearing or what he does for a living. Think about Han Solo from Star Wars. On the outside, Han is a rugged bad-ass. He’s not playing around, and he’ll shoot you under the table with a blaster if you start talking smack. Han is outwardly confident, he’s boastful and cocky. Han wants the world (and maybe even himself) to believe that he’s only out for number one.
The outer shell is the show your character puts on and his most outward mask. More often than not, it’s just that—a mask.

Which brings us to…

These are the parts hidden beneath the outer facade, the bits your character is reluctant to show the world. Sticking with the example of Han Solo, we can see through his actions that, even though he puts up a tough exterior, he’s a good man. Though Han Solo is impulsive and even dangerous, as we get to know him, we also see that he has good instincts and that he’s brave. Even though he gives the impression of being invested in himself more than anyone else, we’re then left to wonder why he’s so tight with the Wookie. And if he has a best friend, Han can’t be too awful, can he? Obviously Chewie (not to mention Princess Leia) sees something in the dude and, soon, so do we. Because Han sticks around when the going gets tough, and he stick his neck out for the rebellion when he doesn’t have to. Despite what he’d prefer us to think, he cares.
As opposed to the outer layer, the inner layer is all about what your character is really feeling and thinking and what your character knows about him or herself. Ask yourself what the subtext is in your character’s dialogue. What is he or she trying to hide from everyone else? More importantly, why?

The core is your character’s center. It’s what’s left when all the other layers have been peeled back. This is the nucleus of the person you’ve created and, without it, she would be nothing more than a floppy two-dimensional paper doll. It’s good to remember that the layers of any given character build on one another and that makes the core the foundation upon which all other layers are formed.
Going back to Star Wars, we could focus on Darth Vader and get one of the best examples in the galaxy of a good character core, one of the main reasons being that we all know ole’ Darth possesses more layers than he does robotic parts.
Over the course of the entire Star Wars saga, we discover that, in the end, despite the villainous deeds of Darth Vader, Anakin Skywalker—the man—possesses an enormous capacity for good. The layers might have been bad, but the core itself held something pure. At the finale, when Anakin’s title, position, prestige, dark persona and mask (i.e. Outer Shell) are all stripped away, we see that, deep down, Vader is highly vulnerable, and he’s a dad who regrets his mistakes and loves his son. Enough to die.
Huh. Who’d have thunk?
And through his sacrifice, through letting his center escape and shine through the built-up years of darkness and evil-doing, Vader is redeemed. Pretty powerful stuff if you think about it.  
So, keeping Darth’s mighty example in mind, when you’re exploring the very middle of your character, remember to think about this being the molten lava portion of the person you’re creating or, if you prefer, the squishy vulnerable innards. In other words, the core holds the answers to who your character really is. I mean, really really.
What happens when your character is stretched to her max, when it’s do or die? What or who would your character give his life for? What does she care about more than anything in the universe? What is her most secret delight?
Often, you won’t know the answer to some or even any of these questions until you have a first draft. Because it’ll take some digging on your part. And because your characters won’t be able to give up all of that info anyway until you PUT them in the tough spots and let the cameras roll.
Usually, the core is what we find out about a character in the last act of the story, when all the other layers have been stripped away. And the core almost always consists of things that even your character was not aware existed. It’s a golden place, raw and dangerous, explosive and volatile. So handle with care.
Exercise: Draw three circles, one inside the other. Label the center circle “Core,” the middle one  “Inner” and the outer “Outer.” Within each ring, using free-association, jot down traits that might belong to each layer. You might get some surprises!  When you’re done, pick only one word in “Core” that best describes your character and circle it.

Here’s a fun example below that I got in a diagram for Batman.


OUTER: Bruce Wayne, Millionaire playboy, dashing, good-looking, care-free, cocky, self-absorbed, oblivious, privileged, unconcerned, uninterested, lady’s man, inconsiderate, superficial, businessman, philanthropist, spoiled brat. (Puts on this show so that no one will suspect he is Batman. Bruce Wayne leads a double life not so that he can have a life, but to support and help conceal his hidden life, which is tied to his deeper purpose.)  
INNER: Friend, teacher, intellect, martial artist, scientist, disciplined, detective, ingenious, knows only tough love, hunted, both hated and loved. Misunderstood! Stubborn, enduring, loner, unable to escape his past, forlorn. ORHPHANED. Melancholy, serious, inventive, caring, afraid.  (Bruce Wayne has few friends and trusts only two or three people. The friends he does have he holds in high respect. You have to be as stubborn as he is in order to get close to him. Driven. Controlled insanity. Constantly runs the risk of crossing the thin line that separates him from the villains he locks up in the Arkham Asylum.
CORE: Righteous, fighter, unstoppable, self-sacrificing, ANGRY. Fueled by injustice. Alone in his pain. Lonely. Bereaved. HAUNTED.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

What I've Learned From Sara Zarr (And A Hot-off-the-press Giveaway!!)

I’m in a bad, bad place right now. A very murky middle. I’m stuck between being recognized as a decent writer by publishing insiders but not quite being able to secure that coveted contract. I was told several months ago by the agent I’m working with that the novel I’ve been writing for close to two years needs to be rewritten…again. She said, “I love the first 80 pages but…too many plot lines…simplify.” I know this is the process. I know revision is the key to making a good manuscript seriously scream with awesomeness. But I thought I was done with this story. I thought I could move on. I thought I was finally at the point where I could fly out of the murky middle and reach the contract-signing finish line. Instead, I got a three-page, single-spaced email with all the corrections the agent wanted. It stung so badly that I cried, then ate loads of chocolate, then shut the novel away in its dark digital folder without any intention of opening it for eons. That’s when I heard Sara Zarr’s voice pop into my head for the first time.

In 2011, I was sitting in the audience of the SCBWI Winter Conference in New York City when National Book Award Finalist and seriously cool human Zarr got up to give the keynote speech. She said, "The time between when you are no longer a beginner but you are not yet in the business is the hardest ... and one of the biggest frustrations is no one can tell you how long this phase will last. There’s going to be a lot of waiting and you are going to have to decide what you are going to do while you are waiting.”

O.K. So it wasn’t my time yet. But I needed a break from my current manuscript. Because it made me feel like a failure just looking at it. So I decided, while I was waiting, I’d move on, write daily – some short stories, poems, contest entries. Still, I floated in the awkward, ego-destroying in-between, knowing the ball was in my court to get things done, get something to the agent and get some success. So why was I being so obstinate? Why couldn’t I just get it done?

Finally, this past week, I opened my manuscript up again, reread it. But I couldn’t see it any other way. I loved passages I’d written to the point where I’d read them over and over, unable to envision them altered or, worse yet, deleted for good. How could the agent not love them? The sting of rejection came raging
back, and I was about to send the story back to its digital abyss when Sara returned. An interview of Zarr popped up online. In The Vermont College of Fine Arts journal Hunger Mountain, she talked about her own struggles with rewriting her novel WHAT WE LOST:

The problem was that this opening became cemented in my psyche, a completely immovable part of my conception of the book. And once you become so married to a particular aspect of a work that you’re unable to see other choices, you’re in dangerous territory. Until the final, final draft, when others around you—an editor, a writing group, trusted readers—have affirmed that yes, you are near the end, you should be working with clay, not casting in bronze.

Right. Clay, not bronze. I was looking at my piece as if it were indelible metal. Immovable. Resistant. But really, I was the one being resistant. I needed to trust those around me, the agent who was working hard to help me get to the finish line. Her comments about too many plot lines and how the story was overly complicated was definitely an ego-buster, but looking again at the manuscript, I could see what she meant. Those first 80 pages she enjoyed so much held a rawness, a truth that got lost as things twisted and turned and knotted through the rest of the story. Sara mentioned this too, speaking again in her Hunger Mountain interview, where she talked of letting go of the unnecessary:

Every time I loosened my grip, something fell away that had at one point seemed permanent. There are things I miss, but it’s easier to take those losses when I know that the core of the story I wanted to tell remains and can now shine in unfiltered light. That’s where the “don’t let go” part of the process comes in. Hold on to the heart of what first makes you want to tell a story—that seed of inspiration, that character that haunts you, the moments you long to crystallize and bring to life.

So I’m picked up and running again with my manuscript. I’m not to the finish line yet, but I can see it. Sara said in NYC while delivering her keynote, "It takes a tremendous amount of faith to live a creative life - especially before you are published because there is no tangible evidence of its worth." I’ve learned worth won’t come at all if I don’t continue to go back to my “seeds of inspiration” to focus and create scenes that laugh, cry, scream and shudder with the truth at the heart of the story. I’m learning not to shut down and shove my work away when I get critical yet invaluable feedback from others. I’m learning to have faith in myself as a writer. And I can partly thank Sara Zarr for that.

To read Sara’s full interview on Hunger Mountain, go to

For a summary of Sara’s brilliant keynote speech at the 2011 SCBWI Winter Conference, go to

And in Sara’s honor, I am giving one lucky YA Fusion reader a copy of her upcoming title, THE LUCY VARIATIONS, to be released on May 7. Simply post a comment below about Sara, her books, or how frustrating this biz can be, and you will be entered in a random drawing for this hardcover book. Please include your name and email in the post. The winner will be announced Saturday, May 11. *****PLEASE NOTE: Only residents of the U.S. and Canada are eligible******  Good Luck!!!

Lisa Gail Green is the winner of Sara Zarr's new book, THE LUCY VARIATIONS!! Congratulations, Lisa, and thank you to all who commented for being YA Fusion readers!!