Friday, July 31, 2015

Photo Friday: Petrified Forest National Park

In June, we did a road trip out to Colorado, then back to LA via Mesa Verde and northern Arizona. I'll get to Mesa Verde eventually, and to Sequoia NP where we spent 5 days backpacking, but first I want to share a place many haven't heard of: Petrified Forest National Park (Note: it is NOT, as I kept saying, Petrified National Forest. Though that might be interesting too). It's a ways east of Flagstaff, and is bisected by I40.

The Petrified Forest was made a National Monument in 1906, and (to my surprise--I didn't think it was a Park when I was a kid)--became a National Park in 1962. People recognized early on that it was something special, and something that without protection would quickly be destroyed. Even today, cretins steal tons of petrified wood from the Park each year. I imagine that without protection, there wouldn't be a log left. But if anyone shows you a cool bit of fossil and says they found it in the park, give them a dope-slap, okay?

Enough ranting. What is the park all about? Petrified Forest is a stretch of Arizona desert that is littered with (wait for it!) petrified (fossilized) wood. Logs of it. Sometime in the late Triassic (say 200-220 million years ago), a lot of trees were washed downstream into this area. Then they were covered with volcanic ash, and the silica in that ash gradually replaced the organic matter in the trees, creating quartz crystals. Different minerals lend the "wood" amazing colors. The Park Service web page answers a lot of questions about the process and the wood, so I won't go into detail here.

Our visit was, of necessity (due to our travel constraints) at midday, which isn't great for photos. The Painted Desert in the northern part of the park, in particular, suffered from the treatment. But I managed to get a few good shots of the logs.

A bit of the Painted Desert, at about 100* F, noonish. Baked to death.
In the southern part of the park, we started seeing logs lying about on the highly eroded slopes of the Chinle Formation, a sort of mudstone that grows nothing because it is constantly eroding.
Colorful stone trees.
Some trees were BIG. This is the base of a tree, maybe nearly 10' across.
Lying around looking ready for the fireplace.
Another log and the Visitors' Center.
Pretty sure that's a fossilized knothole.
Close up to the quartz.
More colors of the logs.
Just a little glimpse of the amazing stuff nature does. If you are in the neighborhood, stop and take a look. I hadn't been since I was about 5, and that was a shame.

©Rebecca M. Douglass, 2015

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Writer's Musings: Why I Write

This week, instead of a flash fiction challenge, Chuck Wendig asked us all to write a 1000-word essay on why we write. I didn't count the words, but I'm pretty sure I'm under the line.

Why I Write

My initial reaction to this question was to ask why I even need to ask it. I write because that's who I am. What I do. What more is there to say?

But of course there is a lot more to say. If it's purely a matter of identity, how do I explain the years and years when I wrote almost nothing--taking nearly 15 years to draft an 80,000-word mystery?* So even though I have always thought of myself as a writer, always wanted to write books, and began almost as soon as I could hold a pencil, there must be a reason why I write now.

What I'm looking for is the reason why at this time in my life, I'm writing nearly daily (okay, I admit that it's not always on my books, and this summer has been a mess and I've really not written anything like daily, but it is a generally true statement). In large part, it still comes back down to the urge to write that's been there all along. About five years ago, that urge found a new outlet, and I began writing a lot more often, composing the stories that made up The Ninja Librarian, and sharing them with my co-workers at the library.

I think that might be at the root of why I kept writing more and more, instead of losing track of the project for months and years at a time, as I did with earlier books: I had found an audience. I had found an audience, moreover, that loved my work. The librarian after whom I modeled the Ninja Librarian was delighted to keep featuring in new stories. My other fellow library-minions laughed at the stories (in the right way) and asked for more.

There was another thing that happened about that time, that wasn't me, but had a lot to do with me continuing to write: the self-publishing world experienced a giant shift, from Vanity Press to genuine self-publishing, in a way that took a lot of the stigma and most of the expense out of the DIY approach. And I'd had enough of rejection slips (during those years when I say I mostly wasn't writing, I actually produced and shopped around two adult mysteries and a children's book, and collected the usual pile of [mostly well-deserved] rejections).

When I looked at The Ninja Librarian, I saw that it was good. I also saw that it was a bit stuck between audiences, if not between genres. And I didn't feel like spending the time to put it out there and let the agents tell me that. I wanted to share the book wherever I could. So I did it myself.

That led to the other reason I write, and write pretty regularly (most of the time now I have a fair bit of discipline about it). Because when I had put that book out there, and shared it in my community, and read bits of it to school children who bought copies, I started hearing the questions authors love: "When is the next book coming out?"*** There is nothing like someone eagerly awaiting your work to make you want to sit down and get to it. Especially when that someone is a kid, looking up at you with big eyes, asking for your next book.

So, ultimately, that's why I write: because I did it once, and now there are people who want more.**** And that feeds my ego, but it also tells me I'm doing something right. It tells me that yeah, I'm a writer. And that's pretty danged cool. That's why I write.

*Okay, there's that little matter of getting my PhD, getting married, and having two kids in that period, too. For quite a few years after high school, I was just too busy. Not too busy to write--I think I know now that a person can always find the time to write at least a little, if they want to. I was too busy to feel the urge to write.**

**I was also busy having my ability to write readable prose beaten out of me by the necessity of learning to write academic prose. It took me years to get over that.

***Note that this is very close to the question authors hate, "Are you writing anything now?" If one is a writer, one is of course working on something now. And if by any chance one isn't (writers block or life interferes, or something), one really doesn't want to be reminded. But "when is the next book due?" is a totally flattering question that feeds our pathetic authorial egos and soothes the ravenous insecurity-monster.

****Not enough to make me rich, but enough to keep me in coffee. That's worth something, right?

©Rebecca M. Douglass, 2015

Monday, July 27, 2015

YA Review: Under the Empyrean Sky, by Chuck Wendig

I've been following Chuck Wendig's blog for a long time now, gleaning writerly wisdom and writing prompts for my flash fiction. I've read and enjoyed (and written about) his writing book, The Kick-Ass Writer. Now I've read the first book in his dystopian Young Adult Heartland Trilogy.

Title: Under the Empyrean Sky (Heartland Trilogy #1)
Author: Chuck Wendig
Publisher: Skyscape, 2013. 354 pages.
Source: I think I picked this one up on a free or cheap day at Amazon.

Publisher's Summary:
Corn is king in the Heartland, and Cael McAvoy has had enough of it. It’s the only crop the Empyrean government allows the people of the Heartland to grow — and the genetically modified strain is so aggressive that it takes everything the Heartlanders have just to control it. As captain of the Big Sky Scavengers, Cael and his crew sail their rickety ship over the corn day after day, scavenging for valuables, trying to earn much-needed ace notes for their families. But Cael’s tired of surviving life on the ground while the Empyrean elite drift by above in their extravagant sky flotillas. He’s sick of the mayor’s son besting Cael’s crew in the scavenging game. And he’s worried about losing Gwennie — his first mate and the love of his life — forever when their government-chosen spouses are revealed. But most of all, Cael is angry — angry that their lot in life will never get better and that his father doesn’t seem upset about any of it. Cael’s ready to make his own luck . . . even if it means bringing down the wrath of the Empyrean elite and changing life in the Heartland forever.

My Review: 
As my regular readers know, I don't do a lot of YA books, and one reason is that they are often more violent and dystopian than I like. In many ways, that was true of Under the Empyrean Sky. But it's also a very well-written book.

Here's what I liked: it's a complex story with plot twists I never saw coming (as well as some I did). Teen angst was minimal, because these teens have real nasty lives to deal with. There is a realistic conflict, or at least tension, between Cael and his father. 

What I disliked: This is dark! The Heartland sucks. And there is a lot of violence in the book. Obviously, none of these things is necessarily bad. They just aren't to my taste so much. A more significant criticism is that, as with so many YA novels, a lot of stuff goes wrong because the adults and teens aren't talking to each other. This may be realistic in some ways, but I think those parents need some lessons in parenting, the way they hide stuff from nearly-grown kids, stuff the kids really need to know!

What intrigued me, and will probably make me read on: There's a lot still to learn about this world Wendig has created. I want to know more about it and how it works--especially what's out beyond the Heartland? I do find that I'm almost more interested in that than in the characters, which is not so good.

This is definitely a book for older teens. But I think a lot of older teens will really like it, especially those who are sick of vampires and moony females.

Full Disclosure: I purchased Under the Empyrean Sky, and received nothing from the writer or publisher in exchange for my honest review.  The opinions expressed are my own and those of no one else.  I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission's 16 CFR, Part 255: "Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising."