Friday, December 3, 2010

Jo's Pink Ribbon

I'm thinking about Jo March tonight. Do you remember in Little Women when Jo first took her manuscript to a magazine editor in New York? Didn't she lovingly wrap her pages in a pink ribbon? I'm fairly sure a ribbon was involved. And I'm fairly sure the whole bundle hit the bottom of a wire trash bin before she had a chance to pull her skirts from the quickly-closing door.

I know. It's so common. The bundle of papers on the editor's floor. Mine joined them again this week and I know this is part of the journey but I couldn't help but wish oh please let this be the right person and I know.

Rejection slip in the mail today, my friends. I'm squinching my nose up as I type because I know the story probably wasn't ready. My March mini-NaNo could use months--years?-- of ripening. However, I met an editor at an SCBWI luncheon last spring, and she had a deadline for us to send one manuscript this fall. I sent it and crossed every finger and toe. But my story wasn't a good fit for her, and I can't help but think that I'm still so new and naive and I wonder when WHEN will my writing not wear a pink ribbon.

That ribbon is naivite, isn't it? It's too much hope, maybe. It's green-apple newness, and not-readiness, and not quite good enough to publish-i-ness.

And although it's best to shake it, shake myself a stiff martini, and get on with making my apple-green story much, much better, I can't help but take tonight to just sniff and sigh. Tonight I'm just sad.

What do you do with rejections? Stick 'em on a nail, like Stephen King? :) I keep them in a binder. Jay hates binders, but I figure binders make everything better. They organize and store and somehow keep old things relevant by having them perch, upright, on the edge of a shelf. My green binder is fat with four unmarked chapters and one new, thin form letter. Blech.

Tomorrow I fill the well, as my friend Sophia so eloquently reminds us. I'm sure cinnamon toast and Santa Claus will clear the blues.

How do you overcome the not-a-good-fit-for-us-best-wishes blues?

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Story or Skill?

Hello! Just before Thanksgiving break, one of my NaNoing 6th graders asked a question that I've been mulling on all week. She asked, "What do you think is more important? The plot, or the writing?"

! ! ! ! !

I love this question. Lydia answered herself quickly enough. "I think it's the plot," she said. "I mean, think about it. Why would you pick a book up anyway? Because you read the back and think it sounds good."

And Lydia's absolutely right: a good story is crucial. But exceptions abound, don't they? What draws us to books, what keeps us in them once we've started? What do we value as readers? Can we finish a book even if it has a lame plot? Does crappy writing make us chuck unfinished stories across the room? I've been trying to compile a list of awesome story/awesome skill titles, and I'm falling woefully short. I thought I'd at least start the list here and ask you all to pile on it with me. :)

Awesome Plot, Awesome Writing

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins has to lead this catagory simply because I just finished it. I'm totally traumatized, of course, and will never shake Cato out of my memory. However its plot is wildly imaginative (as well as horrifying), and the prose is so tight, I almost cried. After reading the first two pages, I shook my head and wondered how I ever thought I could write a novel.

Awesome Plot, Not-so-awesome Writing

Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. Killer story! Brilliantly eerie concepts of the monsters we create with our own hands. Love how Mary is the monster and her dad inspired the character of the cold-hearted Dr. Frankenstein. Love how she wrote the beginnings of the tale in a Swiss chateau with her hubby Percy and their bff, Lord Byron on a cold summer night, sharing scary stories. Do NOT love the writing. It's stuffy and overwrought. It meanders and moralizes. It clouds things I want clear and illuminates bits I could care less about. But it's a classic. Hmm. Do I just not know good writing when I read it, or could plot maybe weigh in heavier than clean, concise prose? :)

Not-so-awesome Plot, Awesome Writing

The Little Stranger by Sara Waters. I waited years for this latest of Waters' books, and I was woefully disappointed when reading it. Her writing is gorgeous--when I'm in her books, I feel the cramp and cold of old cars, see the late-summer sun glint off of high windows, sigh with the sadness of a mother's slumped shoulder, shield my eyes at gaudily decorated rooms and aristocratic women. But the story wasn't good enough! I know, I know--who am I to say so? But I do say so. A cranky doctor spends 500 pages terrorizing a small family out of their fine home.
Not enough! I did finish the story, but I felt grumpy and let down most of the way through. And I jumped to the end to see 'whodunit.' So, maybe no matter how gorgeous my writing grows to be after decades of practice, I will not rely on style to tell a stale tale.

Not-so-awesome Plot, Not-so-awesome Writing

Pretty Little Liars. I want to simultaneously give this series a frat-boy high-five and a wicked-twisty snake bite. You know the kind where you make your frenemy's forearm burn? Because I think the plots are ridiculous and the writing made my eyes feel coated in bubblegum: "she watched his tight-from-running ass" and "taut-from-swimming abs." Seriously? But I finished the whole first book. So well done, Sara Shepard. I mean, holy cow--debuting as a best-seller? Nabbing a TV series? Seriously--high five!

I waded through over 300 pages of teenage sex, drugs, stealing, drinking, lying, and blackmail. Why? Because no matter how much it drove me crazy, I wanted to know who was sending the mysterious texts. Is that a good plot? I don't think so. I think it's a brilliant gimmick. Especially since we don't find out the texter's identity until book four. :)

So, the cynic in me raises an eyebrow and wonders, is gimmick even more important than plot and writing style?

No, no, no. Of course it isn't.

But is it?



Stop it.

Tell me what you think!

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

NaNo Love

NaNo is in full swing here in midwest Wisconsin! :) Some highlights from our first week:

Team Dracula has been writing with a vengence. My 7th grade students have already upped their word count goal. By the fourth day, they both neared their initial target of 2000 words. Harper Madeline bumped her goal up to 5000, and Alexsis Rocks is shooting for 4500.

Alexsis flopped down yesterday and said, "I'm kind of sick of writing." I told her how normal that was and asked what I could do to help her along.

"Well, I could use some candy," she said. Oh! Missed opportunity! I'm not that teacher with the glass bowl of candy on her desk! But of course I love candy. Of course we need candy to help get us through. Left-over Halloween bowl . . . here I come. :)

With no sugar to boost her mood, I asked Alexsis if she wanted to be done with her story. She thought for a minute, then said, "No. I don't want to just give up on it. That's lame." She decided to get to the "blood and stuff because that's interesting." I totally agreed.

Not only is Team Dracula flying along, but my four sixth graders heard about our novel project and asked to get in on it. Absolutely! They deferred registering online; they weren't interested in word counts. They're just on fire to write these stories that bump and spin in their brains. One girl plans to write a full-length novel modeling the Percy Jackson series. Another is inspired by Twilight, but wants her werewolves and vampires to fall in love. Another girl is working on a WWIII dystopian romance. What a gift of a job I have! To sit with these girls each day, hacking away at scenes; working out dialogue and punctuation; planning action sequences and twisty endings. I am daily inspired and encouraged by them all.

We spent time last week haunting author websites. They pored over blogs and sites of Rick Riordan, Derek Landy, Terry Deary, Scott Westerfeld, J.K. Rowling, Jeff Kinney . . . . Some of the students are writing letters to the authors, and to read their first drafts was so touching:

"I'm writing a novel too."
"Do you have any advice?"
"I LOVE your books!"
"I want to write a book like yours."
"I'd really like to hear back from you."

I love, love, love watching young hearts fall in love with authors and their stories. There's really no greater romance, in my mind.

As for me and my NaNo? I'm plugging away, but I'm woefully behind. Since I'm registered on the Young Writers site, I can't seem to buddy-up with you grown-up NaNoers. I'm at something like 6500 words today. I'm very proud of those words. :) No sense in beating myself up, right? It's all about the ride. And who knows? I may get swept up in a wildfire of writing over Thanksgiving break. Here's crossing my fingers!

Here's a funny anecdote to end: A fifth grader asked me about my story. Now, my story is a YA book touching on all sorts themes not appropriate for fifth grade boys. I hemmed and said, "Oh, you know, it's about friendship."

"But, like, what happens?"

"Oh, it just covers this one night when all these friends get together."

He just looked at me, clearly disappointed. "So, your story doesn't really have a plot?"

Oh, ouch! Could this be wisdom from the mouth of babes? It took me days to recover. No, my story has a plot. It has a subtle plot, a Catcher-in-the-Rye plot, I tell myself. Not a Deltora Quest plot (and more's the pity for me! Deltora Quest is awesome! Where in the world do you come up with your ideas, Ms. Ridda?)

But our conversation didn't end there. He asked the title of my story. I told him the working title was Cinnamon Blue.

"Does it have any cinnamon in it?" he asked.

I shook my head. "No, buddy. It doesn't." I don't know if I've ever let down a student with so loud a thud in all my life.


Tuesday, October 26, 2010

NaNo for Two or Three

My seventh graders and I are going to novel together through National Novel Writing Month. I teach English at a small international school, so when I say 'my seventh graders,' I mean both of them. :)

I've registered all three of us on the NaNoWriMo site under Team Dracula. We've been reading Dracula this month, and they're learning how to craft a really killer horror story. They're both prepping characters: good ones, bad ones, expendable ones. They're describing monsters, devising brutal murders and impossible supernatural powers. They're facing the reality that I'm actually going to ask them to write every day next month.

They both looked at me today. One said, "This will be hard." The other immediately said, "This will be fun." I smiled and said, "It will be both."

Their stories will be between 2000-5000 words. With just the two of them for company, I don't know that we'll be able to sludge our way through the murky sloughs of writer's block. It will absolutely be hard, and I'm worried I won't have the skill to quietly encourage them through.

But, oh, if they make it---and if they learn how to work through a tough scene, and if they feel a character pull them in a whole new direction, and if they hear dialogue faster than they can record it---what fun it will be! And what an honor it will be to join them on their journey.

And I? Am I ready to write 50,000 words? Oh, man. I don't know that I am. Life and sickness and then more sickness knocked me out of the writing scene this summer, and I got all cramped and un-muscle-y and resigned. Can I really jump into this ridiculously challenging marathon? This is going to be hard. ;)

What's your plan? How many words a day? How many weekend retreats from family and laundry? And what is the treat you will give yourself at the end?

I'll keep you posted on our class progress. I believe I will find tremendous inspiration in the efforts of my two sweet girls. Learning from them, expanding my own heart and mind as they open themselves to a new challenge--that is going to be the most fun.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Birthday Wishes

I recently had a birthday. Though I packed my tiara away the second I turned 30, and I've inexplicably soured toward streamers, I found myself celebrating richly.

So much can be accounted for among those flickering candles; so much can be hoped for in their wisps of smoke. I held so many wishes in my heart for this new year that I heard them tumble over themselves as I blew. Who knows what the universe heard. Who knows what may be granted, what may be denied, what may be a surprise to me, a bungling of my heart cry or a wry game of the Fates. Who knows.

But I know I wish for more writing. For more friendships with writers. For more risk and strength and barbaric-yawp bravery. And I wish for health for my loved ones. And I wish for calm. And I wish, and I wish, and I wish . . .
And I wish to hear from you. :)

On my birthday, with my Snow child, looking forward to all good things together.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Gardening Pains

Ways Gardening Has Sort of Kicked my A**

1. Rain has rotted my roses.

2. Slugs have devoured my pansies. I poured salt on the slugs--like the leaches in "Stand By Me"--but salt actually just blanches and dries pansies. didn't know that.

3. Rabbits and chipmunks have severed my morning glories.

4. They have also devoured two pumpkin vines, one squash vine, two rows of lettuce, radishes, and an entire tomato plant.

5. Three planters filled with nasturtium, zinnias, and kitchen herbs actually didn't have drain holes, so rain has rotted their roots. Their leaves sag brown or blow away like transparent gray paper.

6. Rabbits have eaten half of my sedum and also half of the marigolds I planted around the sedum to protect it from the rabbits.

7. A storm whipped off a branch from my ash tree, and the branch landed on my potted impatiens.

8. I planted the ferns too late and in too much sun. They have withered into brown crumbs.

But! Ah, but! The potatoes and one tomato plant have not only survived but are enormous, are imposing, are promising far more harvest than I would have hoped. And rows of onion flourish despite our hardships.

So I have learned that gardening is far more about defensive tactics than about healthy soil and organic seeds--at least in my world. Gardening is about strong fences, wise research, careful evaluation of tools and goods. It's about protecting roots from rain and leaves from hot sun and from black-hearted, hungry critters.

And life is no different. And if these very real, very annoying gardening stories could be read as metaphors for our last several weeks, then I would say the lessons are the same. I must build strong fences to protect what's within. Research carefully to know what I face. Evaluate the tools I use, and improve them if they are not doing the job.

And celebrate what is flourishing.

The rains have hit us hard, and my god but those a**hole bunnies won't leave us alone. :) But we'll harvest some good crops next month, I am sure.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Shush, Slush. Hush.

I've been thinking about Laura Miller's article on the slush pile today. The Salon article, which is entitled, "When Anyone Can Be a Published Author," has the tagline, "How do you find something good to read in a brave new self-published world?"

At first I thought the article simply showed what an absolutely fan-glorious-tastic world we new writers are entering. Miller writes, "Aspiring authors have never had more or better options for self-publishing the manuscripts currently gathering dust in their desk drawers or sleeping in seldom-visited corners of their hard drives. Writers can upload their works to services run by Amazon, Apple and (soon) Barnes and Noble, transforming them into e-books that are instantly available in high-profile online stores."


It can't be that easy, right? Of course not. Miller takes this dizzingly-delicious view of the future writing world and looks through the perspective of the reader.

The reader. Bah. Who cares about the reader? ;)

Oh, wait. I'm totally a reader. Just finished The Sugar Queen (glittery gold star for magical realism!) Have revisited the old Anne of Green Gables series this summer for a little comfort, a little familiarity. Am tearing through Ash so I can write Malinda Lo a thick, oozy fan letter. I love, super-love, triple-scoop love reading.

So what does the future look like for me, the reader? Not so brilliant.

What tired editors and over-worked junior editors do is suffer through slush piles. They read thousands--thousands!--of unsolicited manuscripts a year to hunt for that one lost jewel of a tight, witty, relevant novel. Miller paints a bleak, albeit hilarious, picture:

"It seriously messes with your head to read slush. Being bombarded with inept prose, shoddy ideas, incoherent grammar, boring plots and insubstantial characters -- not to mention ton after metric ton of clich├ęs -- for hours on end induces a state of existential despair that's almost impossible to communicate to anyone who hasn't been there themselves. . . . Instead of picking up every new manuscript with an open mind and a tiny nibbling hope, you learn to expect the worst. Because almost every time, the worst is exactly what you'll get. In other words, it's a dirty job, but someone's got to do it, and if the prophecies of a post-publishing world come true, it looks, gentle readers, as if that dirty job will soon be yours. Also, no one will pay you for it."

I am fascinated and horrified by this. Fascinated because it will be so interesting to watch slow, subtle changes: what determines 'good' in popular fiction, what 'bad' writing will do to good writers, and how the languages of readers, writers, critics, and publishing may muddle so Babel-badly that understanding among them will disappear.

I am horrified by this idea, really, because it reminds me that I am just slush. Slush! One of hundreds of thousands of unsolicited manuscripts, of red-eyed, chipped-nailed dreamers begging the gods and unseen, exhausted editors for my one chance at immortality. It is such a sad idea that I doubt my little story. My little, torn, shorn story that isn't ready for anyone's eyes yet--I look at it and wonder if it could ever rise above the slush pile. How do you keep going when the terrors and bogeymen of Cliches, of Boring Plots and Shoddy Ideas loom and leap and lurk? What gives you confidence when the slush doesn't hush?

Sunday, June 20, 2010

My Faerie Queene

Beautiful Thistledown Nursery and Greenhouse hosted their fourth-annual FaerieFest this weekend. We celebrated the coming summer with faeries and greenmen, pixies, witches, and bellydancers. All them friends, all of them magical. The most magical was of course, Queene Clarabella Snow.

She found my new bottle of lavender, made by friend Melissa of Aurora's Apothecary Herb Shop

All visiting fairies were invited to write wishes and draw pictures on slips of brown paper that were hung in the trees. The wishes come true, we were told, when the papers--whoosh!--were whisked away by the wind. Here Clara is both scribbling baby-wishes in green crayon and also devouring far too many cheddar Elmo snacks.

I took plenty of notes as I toured the greenhouse, sketching unusual pots and leaves, copying Latin names and nicknames of plants I'm sure one of my characters grows in her own greenhouse. What a fantastic way to research for my story! :)

Next year, I'll have to pull out my own wings and dance with the drummers and my sweet baby girl.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

The Monsters of Templeton

I just finished reading Lauren Groff's The Monsters of Templeton and couldn't go to bed without giving it it's due shout-out.

No YA book, that's true, but it clearly deals with YA themes: a young, clever woman, Willie Upton, runs to the welcoming womb of her small-town home after making a mess of her attempts at a grown-up life on the west coast. Her visit home becomes one long summer of self-discovery. Although she knows who she is in a rudimentary way: town royalty, one of the last of the town's great founder, she dives into library journals and family documents to find more. As Willie digs into the past to understand her present, she uncovers ghosts and murderers, fire-breathers and monsters. It is an utterly suspenseful, 200-year-old coming-of-age tale.

The story is beautifully crafted, offering chapters narrated by passed family members as well as some of their vibrant letters and journal entries. We also get pictures of many of her ancestors--an element, I admit, I'm not sure added to the story as a whole.

The bits from the past were, for me, more compelling than Willie's real life. Her would-be townie boyfriend wasn't believable, speaking 'hick' and towing cars one minute, reading Spinoza and complaining about the hegemony of marriage the next. Her fey friend who swam in Speedos but scored with all the ladies was another muddle. But nothing about Willie's slowly-revealed family tree was a confusion. Groff excels in making the many names of Willie's past bloom and burn with life. I was especially captivated by the Civil War-era letters of two dear-friends-turned-bitter-enemies, Charlotte and Cinnamon. :) (Isn't Cinnamon a fantastic name?)

Speaking of bitter, I have to confess that when I read Groff's bio, I was wrenched with bitterness. First, she is two years younger than I am, and this novel was a bestseller in 2008. Second, she wrote the novel while working on her MFA at UW-Madison. How difficult it is for me to celebrate her success! When she has my life! Have you ever watched someone live your life and muttered, "If only . . . "? Not only has she succeeded while I have just puttered, but she has trained where I oh-so-badly wanted to train. Madison is my Christminster. (wry smile. Any Jude the Obscure fans out there?)

But I won't leave on a bitter note. I looked up her website, and Lauren Groff is not only brilliant and younger and well-trained, she is also hilarious. She posts a final blog just a week ago in her "news" section that clearly explains why is she breaking up with blogging. Please check it out! I love how she says frankly, "The problem is that I would always look back at you the next morning and cringe a little. In broad daylight, your face smeary on the pillow, you were neither as clever nor as interesting as I had dreamed when I posted you the night before." Oh how I wish had found her before she quit blogging! I should have loved to read her other smeary-pillow bits.

Final note--how curious that the UK edition should have such a lovely, such a provocative cover when ours is stark in its wood-cut classicism. Hmm. What do we need to do to get a little color and allure from our publishers?

Thursday, June 10, 2010

James Bradley Comes Home

Tonight I went to the History Museum at the Castle in downtown Appleton to hear James Bradley speak. I knew next to nothing about him, but I figured that any opportunity to hear an author talk about his work was one to snatch. Jay agreed to put Clara to bed, so I slicked on some gloss and threw a cobalt scarf over my baby-stained raincoat and was out the door. At the castle, I climbed two flights of stairs, passed a coffin of Harry Houdini's (was it really his?), and turned right into the Living History room. It was a biggish room, holding about 140 people in fold-out padded brown chairs. James Bradley stood in front of burgandy velvet curtain, his white Japanese shirt--short-sleeved with frog-clasps--a stark contrast to the suit and tie I had expected. But really what had I expected? I knew he was an historian. A WWII nonfiction writer. Honestly, I expected tortoiseshell glasses and tweeds.

James Bradley is the author of NYT bestseller Flags of our Fathers. He has also written Flyboys and The Imperial Cruise. I was a little late, so I missed the opening of his talk, but it was information I quickly gleaned from his website: he is a Wisconsin boy who went to UW-Madison. While still a student, he flouted most of his professors and followed the advice he read in Reader's Digest from James Michener (paraphrased): "When you're twenty-two and graduate from college, people will ask you, 'What do you want to do?' It's a good question, but you should answer it when you're thirty-five." Bradley took time off college to travel the world for a year. He asserts that this time prepared him for his journey as a writer because of the experience and perspective he gained.

When he graduated with a Bachelor's in history, he never imagined he would write a book. In fact, he didn't begin writing until he was 40. At that time, his father died. "I didn't set out to write a book. I wanted to know why my dad wouldn't talk about Iwo Jima. It was as simple as that."

He said he's often asked about his process, about his "research." He seemed to scoff at this a little. "'Research' is the big word. But I didn't have a plan." He started with a question about his dad. The question led him to several boxes of momentos. In one box he read a letter that his 22 year-old father, John Bradley, wrote to his parents two days after John helped raise the flag on Iwo Jima. This discovery led to several phone calls to the families of the men in his dad's platoon.
He said that the families were tired of hearing from reporters and researchers. The families of the men who helped raise the flag didn't want to glorify their sons or make them into heroes. Bradley said, "I just want to know, did he have a girlfriend? Did he play football?" The book was well received by the families because he told their sons' stories honestly, frankly.

When his book came out in 2000, it was an instant bestseller. Bradley said this didn't surprise him because the photo on the cover is the most copied photograph in the world. It's an iconic image. He said that he had the most recognized image with stories no one had ever heard: from a marketing p.o.v., he was confident the book would sell.

How difficult it was for him, then, to hit brick wall after brick wall. First, he tried pitching the story as a movie. Whom did he call for help? Ross Perot! "He had a lot of money, he was patriotic, and he knew Hollywood," Bradley said. Unfortunately, Perot refused.

"'Bradley, you gotta write a book. You gotta write a book, Bradley,'" he told us he heard over the phone. "'Hollywood'll steal your idea. You gotta write it down. You gotta write a book.'"

So though he really didn't want to, Bradley wrote the book. After that, he cold-called 50--50!--agents. By the 50th, he realized that agents don't actually appreciate phone calls; they really just want to see your work. :) (Good tip!)

When an agent finally took him on, his manuscript was sent to three big houses in New York. Bradley told us that he mused, "Hm. Which one will I choose?" He was certain all three would be interested in buying it. All three refused it. Twenty-four more publishing houses refused it. He said that one publisher sent him a letter that said, "We've heard you're not getting any positive responses, and we wanted to let you know why. The publishing industry judges the stories you want to tell aren't worth the paper they'd be printed on."

Oh my stars! Do professionals in the publishing world really write letters like that??

Bradley took a moment to charge the young people in the crowd (I'm sure he was talking to me, right?): "If you want to get anything done, you gotta go through a lot of no's."

He followed up with a story he heard while working with Clint Eastwood during the production of the "Flags of our Fathers" movie. Eastwood told him that he pitched "Million Dollar Baby" to Warner Bros, with whom he'd worked closely for years. Their response was, basically, "Clint, you've lost it. It's a boxing movie? And it's a boxing movie with a girl in it?" They refused to support it. Eastwood said, "I don't even start to think it's a good idea until I hear two people telling me it's a bad idea."

So we'll keep those chins up, right writers? If Academy-Award-winner "Million Dollar Baby" and NYT-bestseller Flags of our Fathers had to struggle to live, we must expect our little seedlings will struggle too. But we'll be tenacious, yes? And we'll have excellent senses of humor.

He talked much more about his other books and on his current project, but it's really the QA I found the most interesting. He asked clearly that if folks had questions, to please raise their hands; however, if they had comments, please go to his website and share them there. He wanted to know their stories, but he couldn't write them down in a format such as this (he's looking for new stories for his next book). Clear enough, yes?

The first hand up was from a dear white-haired woman who shared for some time that the woman with her had been a neighbor of Bradley's father and that they had gone to school together. She was clearly delighted to be talking to the author; her voice was timorous and she was clutching the shoulder of the woman sitting beside her. Bradley was oddly terse. He inserted during each breath, "We'll talk afterward." "I look forward to talking with you afterward." "Are there any questions?"

The second hand was of a man standing on the side of the room holding a large frame. He wanted to tell Bradley about the photograph, that "meaning no disrespect," the photograph was taken moments before that iconic picture was taken. He said more, about the landscape, and maybe about his father. The man tried to give the picture to Bradley, but the author said, "Why don't you take this?" and asked for any questions.

The third--you won't be surprised, will you?--was a gentleman who shared information on a charitable organization that is slightly similar to the foundation that Bradley has started. Bradley said, "Did you hear that? He was talking about AFS, which distributes kids all over the world. Are there any questions?"

Questions. Authors want questions. James Bradley especially wants questions. He was hard-pressed to get them tonight. I was tickled to death by this. I wrote in my journal, "This has to be the suckiest part of authors' speaking engagments." It really must. Worse than leaving your family or lumpy motel mattresses or mikes that don't work, dealing with a difficult crowd HAS to be the worst. Have you ever seen an author deal with a difficult crowd? How did he/she handle it? Or are you an author who has dealt with chatty, opinionated folks? What's your secret for a gracious exit?

:) Yes, I'm back to writing my zero draft, but I'm already planning how to handle myself in upcoming speaking engagements. It never hurts to be prepared, right?

I hope James Bradley enjoyed his visit home in Wisconsin. He's looking for stories of today's America; he kindly reported that his talks with our principals and mayor have given him a positive view of our midwest version of America. He said he may just stop reading the New York Times. :) Reports of New York's beaches and parks closing down, of LA declaring bankruptcy had him thinking that we had fundamentally changed as a country in recent years. The buoyant tales of community and closeness he has heard here has encouraged him.

Whatever the truth of Wisconsin's 'community' may be, I do hope his next book offers all of us inspiration and joy. Wishing him the very best of luck on his continued journey!

Monday, June 7, 2010

Put. The Scissors. Down.

21,500 words. That's all I've got after my cuts.

Oh my stars. I have 1/3 of a novel. What do I do?

I've got a couple of little plans. I need to take some notes walking down certain streets. Gotta see how the sun hits the trees at certain times. Check out flowers in bloom, birds in song, etc. Plan to visit two herb-queens to get their stories on making concoctions and to sniff around their greenhouses. I'm looking forward to these little visits.

But I need much more. I need whole huge chunks more. I need twice as much story as I have now, and I know notes and descriptions aren't going to give it to me.

I'm leaning on Ray Bradbury. Laini posted a clip of him talking about his creating Fahrenheit 451. The editors required 25,000 more words for his original manuscript. He asked, "How did I do that? I got the characters to come to me. Montag came to me and said, 'Do you know who I am completely?' I said 'No.' I said, 'Tell me.'" He listened to each of his characters and let them tell their stories.

I hope I have the ears to hear. And honestly, I hope I've created honest-enough characters who will tell me who they are completely.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

June Revisions Week 1

Revisions. How I had looked forward to them! After a couple of gruelling months, spitting out scenes and dialogue and hazily touching on beats to develop later, I couldn't WAIT to reread my draft. I couldn't WAIT to cut and slice and clean.

But holy cow, folks! Revising a novel is waayyy harder for me than I imagined. First, I had to overcome the temptation of reading my paragraphs and murmuring, "Oh, that's good. Man, that's poignant. Wow, how did I come up with that? Total genius." :) Next, I had to figure out how to move further than two sentences in one hour. The freedom to revise really sunk me for a couple of days. Only after many attempts did I fiiiinaly shift into a gear that works: cutting. Right now, I'm cutting. I'm not making better, I'm not improving or embellishing. I'm just cutting. I've cut 6 of 15 pages so far.

Yowza! I hope that's not the trend! I'll have a straggling scrap of a story remaining if it is! But my plan is to cut the remaining pages this coming week. The next week, then, I'll spend taking notes and researching. Hopefully, then, the third week will be a grafting week---attaching new green shoots to my scenes.

I already miss the zero draft process. How fickle am I? But I do. I miss sitting in the dark and dreaming up crazy conversations or peculiar scenes. I know more creation time is ahead for me; I just have to cut, cut, cut right now to find the real golden threads of my story.

How are you doing? Jennie wrote about how she's found a whole new beat she needs to follow. Are you writing that now, then, Jen? Are you back into the creating part? Jay, how is your story coming? And guys, Jay told me about a blog he wants to start soon that I think will be hilARious. Can't wait to read it! Sophia? Jldy? Sarah? Jen? How are your stories coming?

Wishing you all happy writing!

Tuesday, June 1, 2010


I've been thinking about weight lately.

I haven't been so concerned with physical weight; it's the other kind that interests me.

A wise woman told me a story regarding the weight of bitterness. Her story followed a young man who visited a town elder asking for freedom from anger and resentment. The elder directed the man to bring a sack of potatoes back. The man did so. The elder asked for the names of all the people who had wronged the young man. As he called out each name, the young man was told to carve each name into a potato. With the newly-carved potatoes back in the sack, the young man was told to carry the sack until next he met the elder. The potatoes grew very heavy. Soon, they began to rot. It was not long before the young man returned to the elder and said, "I cannot keep carrying this heavy bag of stinking potatoes on my back." The elder replied, "We release our anger and resentment only after we realize carrying them hurts us far more than it hurts anyone else."

So interesting to me, this idea of the weight we put on ourselves. We carry the insults, the neglects, the snides and snips. How our shoulders ache and how our spirits sag.

On the other hand, I've been thinking of one my favorite characters from The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. As Aslan readied his small army to help Peter and Edmund in their final battle against the White Witch, he called on a second lion to help him. The story goes,

"The most pleased of the lot was the other lion, who kept running about everywhere pretending to be very busy but really in order to say to everyone he met,
'Did you hear what he said? Us lions. That means him and me. Us lions. That's what I like about Aslan. No side, no stand-off-ishness. Us lions. That meant him and me.'
At least he went on saying this till Aslan had loaded him up with three dwarfs, one Dryad, two rabbits, and a hedgehog. That steadied him a bit."

So, then there is the weight that Aslan puts on us to steady us a bit. I am fascinated by this idea. Is it true? That we may need burdens to calm us, to still us? Or more, as Loriensleaf included in her blog, is it true that we need burdens, or suffering, to create parts of heart? Are we not as effective, not as poignant, not as expansive when we are free and light? I love thinking about that 2nd lion: bouncy, chatty, full of opinions. Steadied and still only by enormous, unsought-for weight. Was that fair of Aslan? Was it really necessary?

How can weight be both a self-inflicted punishment and a Love-inspired gift? How can we complain that we 'carry the weight of the world on our shoulders,' but then admonish others to 'carry their own weight in this world'? And what about someone being a 'dead weight?' And doesn't it feel good to talk with a friend and take some weight off your mind?

I don't have any answers; I just think the subject is infinitely interesting. What do I carry because I choose to, and what do I carry because it makes me stronger? What can I let go? What do I cling to, despite its rot and stench? Welcome, welcome responses. I'm eager for more anecdotes, more opinions. This issue 'lays heavily' on my mind these days. :)

Friday, May 28, 2010

Rock and Sand

Madeleine L'Engle once wrote, "It's a good thing to have all the props pulled out from under us occasionally. It gives us some sense of what is rock under our feet, and what is sand."

All of the props were pulled out from beneath us recently. Love kept us from plummeting, and Hope, and Support. The sand still sort of swirls around me. If I peer into it, my eyes sting with the grit of Injustice and Fear. I try not to look. Standing with Jay and Clara is all I need right now.

So okay. Standing and solid. Back I go, then, to my story. My story is ready for rewriting. I pulled it up yesterday and officially began revisions. I love revisions, love cutting. Huge dangers, though, in spending 60 minutes on two sentences. Did that this morning. Can't succumb. The goal is to have round 1 of revisions and research done by the end of June.

*sigh. Here we go. A little shakey, a little pale. But determined to get back in. I hope you will join me again. I've missed you. :)

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Poetry Tuesday

Facing such trials these days that I do very little but play with my daughter, scrub things, and read Hafiz. Sometimes, when the lights go out, the familiar touch of his longing guides me better than my own instincts. In the dark, his voice says, I am blind, too.

The Poor and Pure of Heart
by Hafiz

In this city, in all these stores, I have spent
Everything I have, even my last dime.

I'm so hungry now, I'm chewing on my hands for food
And my emotions have turned from callousness into insights.

Like the rose whose petals fall after blooming,
In my body and spirit I have set a fire.

Last night a nightingale came to my window and sang.
Its song was so sweet I listened, and it had this to say:

"O pilgrim, be happy. Your Beloved is often angry because of
Poverty and bad luck. There is no need for you to act like this!

"If spiritual enlightenment is taking too long and you are tired of the world,
Then give up everything, even your words.

"Even if waves of misfortune were to come crashing on the roof of the sky,
The poor and pure of heart would stay completely dry."

O Hafiz, what if it were possible to achieve union with God?
Do you think that for even a moment you'd continue to behave this way?

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Is This Week 1? and Writery Treats

This week was peppered with writery treats. One brought snuggish sighs, one giggles, and one barbaric yawps.

First, I finished Beautiful Creatures by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl. It's a rain-drenched, small-town mystery well over 500 pages, offering some terrific stuff for readers and writers: gorgeous southern setting, a newness to the old (and fading) tale of supernaturally-crossed love. Heart-melting bad-guy-making-good-choices with the drawl and self-possession of Val Kilmer's Doc Holliday in Tombstone (love, love!). Also, great lessons on character. Most of them--protagonist Ethan, his green-eyed mystery girl, Ethan's recluse father, bff/goofball Link, razor-sharp town librarian--are relatable and consistent with unique p.o.v's delivered in strong dialogue. Not perfect (what is?), but captivating. Fantastic with ginger tea and chocolates! ;)

Speaking of good writing, Salon's Laura Miller posted an amusing article on bad writing today. In her article, she included a link to a story about the Inklings--that group of smarty-smarts like C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkein who would gather to read and discuss their writing. Well, the Inklings would gather and challenge one another to read from a certain novel, Irene Iddesleigh, by Amanda McKittrick Ros. The challenge was to read as far into the novel as one could without laughing. How mean! And how hilarious! Imagine those dusty, brilliant, tweeded professors with pink cheeks and glittering eyes, stifling their laughter. According to the linked article, Ros has earned the title "The Greatest Bad Writer Who Ever Lived." Isn't that provocative? Don't you want to read her books just to find out? I see one of her novels is available on Amazon for $250. :( What a loss. Don't you think we could learn so much to read the worst writing ever?) How I would love to play the Inklings' game.

Last, I found a new writer to love this week. Has anyone read Malinda Lo's Ash? I haven't yet, but I saw it was on UW-Madison's recommended reading for 2010, so I looked Lo up. And she is fierce! Unapologetic! Have I been worrying about the pull and suck of blogging? Malinda has a list of thoughtful blogging policies. Have I been stressing out about how to review the YA books I've been reading (Struts and Frets, A Kiss in Time) that haven't thrilled me? Malinda declares that reviews are useful for readers, but not at all for writers, and she "refuse[s] to be drawn into the psychosis-inducing vortex of Amazon/Goodreads/Google doom that befalls many writers!" Check her out if you need some strong talk. She has great tidbits on writing books and publishing as well.

So, speaking of writing books . . . who out there is writing a book? Who wrote a scene that surprised you? Who watched a character make a choice you had no idea was coming? Who wrote something on page 112 that is going to change everything that character did in the previous 111 pages? :) This is our glory, yes? Our delight. I got out 3300 words this week. I wanted more, but I'm shirking a scene.

I'll tell you a secret: I think I need to drink a little too much to write a certain scene. Is that a cop out, do you think? Too naughty? Too irresponsible? But I'm not channeling my inner Hemingway; I'm channeling my inner Bridget Jones. :) In Fielding's second novel (nothing like the movie!), Bridget writes Christmas cards while polishing off a bottle of wine. You can imagine, her letters get more and more revealing. I want to write a scene that sounds something like Bridget writing a Christmas letter to her boss, ending with (something like--I'm paraphrasing!), "and I love you not just as a boss but as a man."

What do you think? Should we all get a little shliquored, write, and then share what came out? Could be totally fuu-uun (needly sing-song). ;) Oh, man. What would Kay Ryan say?


Sunday, May 9, 2010

Poetry Sunday

I've been thinking about Kay Ryan more these last several days.

A few nights ago, I spent hours scouring writers' blogs. By the end of the evening, I couldn't help but wonder what she would say about our blogging community. In some writing/blogging circles, the idea of building followers is imperative. The idea of creating blogging gimmicks to attract readers is mandatory. The skill of commenting personally yet wittily on each blog you follow is an absolute necessity.

How would Kay handle herself in this world? The answer clearly abides in her choice to stay far removed from it. She does not tweet or blog; she loathes the idea of modern 'mentors' and 'workshopping.' She has never taken or taught a creative writing class. She lives quietly, teaches remedial English, hikes in the desert. No tenure and guest speaking at great universities. No gimmicks. No ambitions beyond living truthfully to herself and to her art.

It's interesting that her privacy may have hampered her success. One article suggests that Ryan's work may have taken decades to attract wide readership in part by her lack of literary connections. But is that such a bad thing? She has said, "I think the people who become the most interesting writers are always going to come from, in some sense, desperate circumstances. There is a great deal of very private testing that has to happen in a writer. It has to be faced. I'm not sure it is good idea to hold hands with others too much."

Holding hands. That's what we're doing as we network on the internet and attend luncheons and retreats. In a way, attending these events is, to me, delightful. And in a way it is, for me, imperative. I don't know that I would have carved out the time necessary to write a novel if Laini hadn't gathered us up and cheered us on. I wouldn't have continued if Jennie and Jay and jldy didn't keep holding my hands through April.

But as I consider Kay Ryan tonight, I wonder what it would take to become a "most interesting writer."Stop blogging? Stop reading blogs? No; I like you guys too much. :) I will stay devoted to a small circle of lovelies whom I enjoy and find inspiring. But I won't believe it when I hear folks say a new writer has to blog, has to have hundreds of followers. We don't have to. We can succeed without them. I think what our poet laureate can teach me is to rely on the wind and the desert, the cup in my hand and the dog howling out back . . . rely on the world to shape my writing, not the computer. And rely on myself to succeed--but, oh, how daunting that sounds.

I will try to blend my delight for connection and need for support with the reality of a writer's inevitable private testing. I'm certain I will not grow roots as deep as Ryan's, but I'll trust I'll blossom sweetly, all the same. :)

Outside Art

Most of it's too dreary
or too cherry red.
If it's a chair, it's
covered with things
the savior said
or should have said--
dense admonishments
in nail polish
too small to be read.
If it's a picture,
the frame is either
burnt matches glued together
or a regular frame painted over
to extend the picture. There never
seems to be a surface equal
to the needs of these people.
Their purpose wraps
around the backs of things
and under arms;
they gouge and hatch
and glue on charms
till likable materials--
apple crates and canning funnels--
lose their rural ease. We are not
pleased the way we thought
we would be pleased.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

One More Round?

High fives, my friends! Clinks of crystal goblets glittering with champagne! Noogies, hugs, fist-pumps (and/or fist-bumps), and cheers led by team captain, Jennie! What an extraordinary achievement: to have committed to writing for a month, and to share that month's ups and downs together. So brave! So vulnerable! So awesome! I couldn't be more delighted to be among you all. What a treat to have traveled this road with you.
We each came into this venture at different spots of our novels: jldy, just beginning a long-loved story; DM giving fresh eyes to a story you've been working on (and living out in your imagination) for three years. Jennie, in the delicious throes of following a story that you had developed well but that was twisting its own plot, and I was pushing through a story I had started in November but really hadn't devoted time to until Laini Taylor called for a mini-nano in March.

So where did we end up? Did we meet any personal goals? Or was this month really just about developing: developing both our stories and ourselves?

I don't think I could list all the lessons and blessings I gathered through this experience.

You three are enormous blessings. (With the door always open for new writers. We're a friendly bunch; come join us!)

I learned that most of us have "the sky was purple" moments, and I also (humbly!) learned that it's probably better that the sky was purple rather than "the amethyst twilight kissed the tips of the quivering aspen while the June breezes slipped in and out of Carla's red curls, blah, blah, blah."

This lesson is due to a fantastic essay on how important it is to write like we talk. Author Timothy Hallinan shares this fantastic piece of advice: Read it [your story] aloud to someone you like and trust – someone like your ideal reader. It's amazing how the better pieces of writing zip right by when you're reading your work to someone, and how the less-good patches seem to take longer to get through. You can actually feel the energy – both yours and your listener's – flag when the over-written material makes its appearance. Circle or underline those passages and keep reading. You'll come back to them during your next writing session.

Note to self: NO OVERWRITING

I also learned to stop taking my issues out on the NaNo. Poor NaNo. I gave it a hard time last week. :) To make up, I'll share this wildly successful NaNo story:

Stephanie Perkins wrote a novel during the 2007 NaNo WriMo. She cleaned it up, sent it to an agent, sold it to an editor, cleaned it up a bazillion times more, and her novel Anna and the French Kiss is coming out this winter. Hurray Stephanie!! Bravo for drive and resilience and creativity and--lest I forget to say it--hurray for the NaNo that brought you and Anna together! :) (Seriously, click on her name and then scroll down a little in her blog. She lists the events of the whole whirlwindish ride. Totally inspiring.)

So are we going to go again? One more ride on the roller coaster? Are we up to sharing out ups, and down with sharing our downs?

I'm totally in.

In March, I wrote 14,000 words; in April, 9400. I would love to finish the bare-bones of this story in May--another 7,000? And then start revising.

What do you say?

It's within view, guys! :) Can we make it through the poppies? Will weariness overtake us?

Monday, May 3, 2010

Two Joys

Time to share lemon-drops of joy!

My first May Joy is this ray of sunshine:

Could she be cuter?
And can you see the spikes?
And will she forgive me when she's older? :)

My second May Joy is this newly tilled garden:

Oh, the possibilities . . . :)

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Poetry Sunday

Editor and blogger Molly O'Neill occasionally celebrates 'Poetry Friday' by sharing a favorite poem with her readers. I find that little tradition completely lovely and wish to adopt it.

Kay Ryan is a poet who reminds me so much of Annie Dillard: a rooted muser, a wit and a wonderer, but never the fool. To get to know her better, enjoy an essay she wrote in 2005 about her experiences at that thing she dreads the most, the Writers Conference. Some snippets I cherish--

On the old way of mailing one's writing to an editor:

Whether or not I started out liking the patient discipline of this exchange, I came to like it. It slowed me down. If I’d gotten those poems back at email speed, say, they wouldn’t have been away long enough for me to lose hope the way you need to. You really shouldn’t be living for a reaction all the time. I also liked the fact that there were no faces or voices; we were all disembodied, writer and editor alike. Just the slow old mail. I wanted my poems to fight their way like that. Fight and fight again. No networking, no friends in high places, no internships. I think that’s how poems finally have to live, alone without your help, so they should get used to it.

On writers' workshops:

I have to assume that the writer respects these other writers’ opinions, and that just scares the daylights out of me. It doesn’t matter if their opinions really are respectable; I just think the writer has given up way too much inside. Let’s not share. Really. Go off in your own direction way too far, get lost, test the metal of your work in your own acids.

On poetry readings in an auditorium of hundreds of listeners:

But what could you tell about anybody’s poetry in this big-top atmosphere? The room is all out of proportion with how poetry works. The pressure is all wrong. This place is right for revivals and mass conversions, for stars and demagogues. I don’t think I’d trust poetry that worked too well here. Aren’t the persuasions of poetry private? To my mind, the right sized room to hear poetry is my head, the words speaking from the page.


Here is her poem, "That Vase of Lilacs," to celebrate the budding of ours.

That Vase of Lilacs

Not just lilacs
are like that;
other purples also
leave us vacant
portals, susceptible
to vagrant spirits.
But take that vase
of lilacs: who goes
near it is erased.
In spite of Proust,
the sense don't
attach us to a place
or time: we're used
by sweetness--
taken, defenseless,
invaded by a line
of Saracens,
Picts, Angles,
double rows of
matched casually
by nose in an
impersonal and
intermittent immortality
of purple.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Week 4: The Nano Effect?

When Laini Taylor blogged in late February about having a "March Mini Nano," I had to google "Nano" to find out what she was talking about. :)

"Nano," I learned, is part of the abbreviation "Nano WriMo," or National Novel Writing Month. The month is usually November, and the goal is usually to push out an entire novel in thirty days.

The idea is a heady one, isn't it? To just drive and drive and drive yourself and your story to the very end. I loved the idea. So when Laini said she would try a March Nano--try to finish her first draft by the end of the month--I jumped in.

I didn't finish, that's clear. :) I'm fairly sure I'll need all of May to finish this first draft (and then I'll need June to do a little research, and July to take a break from the story before August's major cuts and trims. . .)

But what I wanted to throw out tonight is that I'm losing faith in the Nano Effect. Pushing out a novel--requiring constant movement of plot to the bitter end--is significantly affecting my word choice, my sentence craft, my writing.

Maybe this is too much of a reveal, but I think it's interesting.

On the first day of the March Nano, my writing went like this:

"Shelly chose to disappear. She pulled in her breath and with it, all of her. Her cells and her peach skin and her brown hair and her long limbs all rushed into the wind tunnel of her inhale."

By the end of the first month, I had written only 14,000 words--not even half of what I needed--but the writing still had some sense of how I like to work words:

"Carla built space between her and Patrick like an architect, like an artist. Frank Lloyd Wright, sculpting air and distance, silence and mystery, like a master would form wood and glass."

Maybe not great, but it has character. It has at least the shadow of style. But as I moved past my characters' little moments and really chugged along during this second month, the narrative nearly disappeared. I'm writing stuff like:

"The sky was purple." Because I don't feel I have time to think of a new way to describe twilight, but if I write the sky was purple, I can go back and rewrite.

"She was a sparrow." I have no idea what a sparrow is like, and I don't know how to apply that to a character, and I don't have time to research it. So I'll write a horrible sentence like this so hopefully I remember to go back and create a lyrical metaphor.

"He grabbed her leg and pinned her in a *find pin name . . . She elbowed him in the throat *what's that called?" I'm barely even finishing the bad sentences, sometimes. I just throw in a note to myself to look it up later and maybe even rewrite the sentence so it's higher than a 3rd grade reading level.

"*something freaked them out" That was where I left last night. I couldn't even write a sentence! My mind feels so word-weary I can just spit out notes to myself!

This is what I mean by the Nano Effect. Is this rush and push and mad-race just forcing me past the lovely words and descriptive images? And will I really be able to salvage this when I go back to rewrite? And is the rush worth it? Could I produce a better first draft if I gave myself more time to enjoy the crafting of each sentence?

My brain is exhausted. What do you think? Push through? Is my second wind coming? :) Looking forward to hearing from you writers. I am always so encouraged and refreshed when you share your week's journey with me.

p.s. My goal was 6000; I wrote 2600. I'm so proud I got even that much! :) I'll keep trying through May; I hope so much you will write along with me. My goal for next week is 4500.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Week 3: SCBWI and the Fab Four

Two years ago, I went to a book signing to meet Thomas Maltman. He was a teacher at Silver Lake College where I had started taking grad courses. Strange as it sounds, Tom was my advisor, but we had never met. Our schedules constantly conflicted. Luckily, my husband and I had a little time to chat with Tom that Thursday night at Conkey's Bookstore in Appleton. We asked him about his writing, and asked for his autograph, and then I shyly mentioned I had written a story. He asked me about it, and I blundered through a hazy explanation. He said it sounded interesting and that I could send it to him if I wanted.

Okay. Is it clear that Thomas Maltman is a good, good person? Because, who does that? Who takes interest in a stranger's obviously amateur work and asks to see it? Almost no one. Beautiful Thomas Maltman and his lovely, haunting book, The Night Birds.
Nervously, I emailed my story to him. He emailed back with kind words, saying the story was Grimmish--high praise!--and he passed it on to an editor friend of his.

His editor friend, Nick Healy, from Compass Point Books/Picture Window Books, wrote six months later. He said the writing was strong and fresh and the plot was original. His publishing house didn't work with fantasy picture books, unfortunately. His best suggestion was for me to connect myself with SCBWI, the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators.

Is it also clear that Nick Healy is a good, good person? Because, how many manuscripts do editors page through? Not only to read my story but to respond personally to me, an utterly untrained, unagented novice, was a gracious gesture.

I had never heard of SCBWI. Having no real sense of what good it could do, I signed up February 2009, paid the dues, and received a membership card. Then I had a baby. :)

This tale is my twisty-turny homage to two kind strangers who helped me find my way to Milwaukee last Saturday to listen to editor Molly O'Neill speak at the SCBWI-Wisconsin chapter's Spring Luncheon. Saturday's event was my first real introduction into the world of children's book writers. Guys, it was fantastic! What I got out of it the most was, we--all four of us--can absolutely do this. This is a world we belong in!

Molly O'Neill is passionate about books. She spoke frankly on how we can write a story that makes editors fall in love. She also explained an editor's journey, from loving a story, to considering seriously who else would love it, to talking about it constantly to her peers and colleagues. She shared an honest fact: if she loves a story, but can't see how it could sell well, she won't sign that author on because she would be doing a disservice to that author. Creating a bad sales record actually hurts an author in future endeavors. Interesting, isn't it? As we write our first drafts, we (I) just dream of getting a contract. Sales--marketing, publicity, awards, book lists--are vital. We need to reach for them, somehow, too. But without looking like we are. Right? Maybe even without telling ourselves we are. Hmm. Wouldn't you love to hear what published authors think about this issue?

SCBWI offers its members tons of support. Critiqe groups and listserv chat-groups. Workshops throughout the year as well as regional seminars and retreats. Editors, agents, and published writers are invited to speak. I heard a handful of success tales about how members met agents and editors at society events who bought their stories. In fact, those who attended the luncheon get to send Molly one manuscript this year. I'm crossing all my fingers that my story can be one she'll fall in love with. :)

So. How did I do this week? My goal was 6000 words. I wrote 1900. Yowza.

But I brainstormed more this morning, and I've got a good feeling. I expanded the setting: more space, more time. I'm jumping into week 4 with another goal of 6000 and a determination to meet it. Crazy-congratulations to Jennie for exceeding her 6000 words last week! Bravo!! Your enthusiasm for your story, the love-affair you have with your characters, is truly inspirational. :)

DM, how's chapter 14? And is chapter 15 outlined and ready to go? jldy, how are you doing? You've got some foundations set, and now you're slowly building, right? Tell us how you power through.

What secret did you learn about yourself this week? Better yet, what did you learn about a character? I learned a character really likes "The Wizard of Oz." How cool of her! I had no idea before last Tuesday when she started talking about playing "Dark Side of the Moon" while watching the movie.

My character's obssession with Oz makes me think of us a little bit. The Technicolor Fab Four, skipping down our yellow brick road toward the Emerald Publishing House. We can help each other along the way: put out fires, wake each other when we get poppy-sleepy, and oil each other's creaky joints. :) What do you think?

Weee're off! Week 4, here we come!

Monday, April 19, 2010

Wisconsin Loves James DeVita

Or at least, I do.

Which is not to say that my report on his visit to Neenah last Wednesday for our annual Fox Cities Book Festival will be more detailed than my report on Gennifer Choldenko. In fact, I have less to share. I didn't notice a food table, and I didn't notice what he was wearing, and I didn't take time to count the attendants. I just watched and listened and tried desperately not to reveal the giddily-manic-high-school-fan waving frantically inside me.

James began his talk explaining how teachers and librarians played key roles in his pursuing a writing career. Posted by his computer is a note from his 6th grade teacher encouraging him to keep at it. And libraries are where he learned everything about the writing world--how to write a children's book, how to write a query letter, how to submit manuscripts, and then, what to do when his manuscript's been rejected.

I couldn't help but be encouraged to hear how he succeeded publishing Blue and The Silenced in this quiet, persistent way. I can appreciate that an author doesn't necessarily need to be polished and grooomed for the publishing world in order to get published.

He shared then how it actually took him until age 30 to ever show anyone his writing. It took him that long to get the nerve, he said. "I write fat and fast," he said. "It's kind of sloppy at first, and I've come to accept that. Just getting ideas out--it's rough, and bad, and humble. It took me years to be brave about being bad in front of my peers."

He recommended Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott as wonderfully funny and really useful for new writers. He confessed he had a literary crush on Anne. She visited Madison where she has a huge band of followers, and he stood in line with a hundred people to meet her. He said he was a mess--his voice went up three octives, he was hot, mumbling, and altogether lame. She, of course, was gracious and lovely. :)

He talked next about the origins of his new book. The idea for his recent YA novel, The Silenced, first came in the late 90s when a school asked him to write a play about youth violence. James had made his career as an actor, training in New York and UW Milwaukee, working as a classical actor at the American Players Theater in Spring Green, WI. As he researched for his play on bullying and violence, he queried thousands of kids. He found that students wanted to talk less about bullying and more about what the schools were doing to maintain safety (this is when talk about arming teachers and profiling students was in effect). Students were buzzing over the issue of how much of our lives are we willing to give up for our own safety?

Around the same time, James was writing another play, The Rose of Treason, an inspiring story of German WWII protester Sophie Scholl. Twenty-one year-old Sophie and her university friends were the first to resist the Nazis. They would type up leaflets describing Nazi activity and pass the papers out covertly at movie theaters, drop them in doorways, mail them from out of town--all in an effort to inform and move Germans who didn't know or didn't want to know what was happening.

Here James shared something extremely interesting. He said that he writes about things that bug him, things he doesn't understand. "I write the questions. I want to think I would be a good man and help my neighbor. But then, they [totalitarian regime] would come and take my two children. So would I? I want to ask these questions. I don't know."

I think this is fascinating, and really appealing as a reader. I love that he doesn't offer the reader a didactic morality tale; he doesn't craft and manipulate in the worst way writers can--puffed with propaganda or trite lessons (think Richard Paul Evans). I live that he explores, and we join him. I think that method of storytelling shares a lot of the responsibility of the story with the reader, and it offers the reader a great deal of respect.

Next in the program, James read what was one of my favorite scenes in the story, when the students' art class is stripped of all projects, the windows are painted over, and students are drilled by Mr. Greengritch (a sizzling antagonist) to embrace the body and deny the individual. "You see people, you live like you're all so different and unique, like you're all so special. Well, you're not! Mommy and Daddy lied. And starting now, this facility will no longer tolerate any differences whatsoever." Chilling stuff.

The last portion of James' presentation was Q&A. I asked him to share his writing process, and if large amounts of coffee were involved. He laughed and said yes, he poured about seven cups of coffee (leaving one for his wife so she wouldn't kill him) into a big green mug and walked out back to his writing studio. Leaving home was important, he said, to step away from the daily routine. Then, his first job is shutting off the 'screaming monkeys,' the voices in his head that criticize and nag. "I just shut that off and tell myself to write one sentence. Then another. I say 'Shut up and write,' I actually do that. When I'm on a roll, I don't hear them."

His process is similar to Timothy Hallinan 's suggested steps to writing: he starts the day by reviewing what he wrote the day before. That way, by the time he hits the blank page, he's on a writing roll. He reminded us new writers that writing is like driving in the dark with your headlights on: you can only see what's directly in front of you. But if you drive a little farther, you'll see a little farther. If you stay still, you won't see new terrain. So stay in your chair, if nothing else. And try to drive your story a little bit farther.

Brilliant stuff. Thank you so much, James DeVita! And many thanks to the board of the Fox Cities Book Festival for coordinating such a stellar event.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Week 2 Check-in Time

Happy Wednesday morning, fellow writers!

How did you do? How are you feeling?

This week, I came to accept something about my writing style: I don't formally outline. I don't story map. This is my dirty little secret that I'd love to chat about with you, my circle of writing friends.

To serve as my story compass, I have about 200 words of an idea I came up with in November. As I read and reread that short paragraph each morning, I imagine how my characters will somehow embody this idea. I write a sentence or two, like Get her to the bathroom, or picks a rose then meets friends at fountain, and that instruction serves as a goal post for the day's writing. Laini Taylor talks about how sometimes writing feels like you're whacking through thick jungle overgrowth, and I've come to terms that my storytelling is VERY jungle-whacky.

I wonder how you approach storytelling. I have the inside skinny on the DMs style--you've got the whole story in your head, right? I can't tell you how this boggles my mind. To sit down and know of course this fellow is going here, of course this plot twist will arrive there. You should tell us more about this. It seems an enormously precious gift that you should share. :)

My original goal this week was 1500 words, then I upped it to 6000. I wrote 4500. Week 3's goal will be 6000. I'd really love to plough to the end of my story by April 30 so I can start from the beginning and weed, prune, and graft. You know, move from my exploratory 'zero' draft to draft 1. :)

p.s. This is totally snooty, but I read a post on Open Salon this morning, one that lamented the writer's plight--primarily, being surrounded by wannabe, bloggy writers--and advised us all that if we are happy doing anything else, please, please don't be a writer. I just want to say I think this is nonsense. I think anyone who wants to write should write. I've read so often that shtick, "Writing is so hard; if you're happy teaching, teach. If you're happy laying brick, lay brick. Leave the writing for the writers; only we know how tedious and back-breaking it truly is." Non. Sense. Writing is not exclusive. Only an exclusive group will earn fame and fortune, but the telling of stories, the airing of views, the relating of facts and finds--that's open to everyone.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Gennifer Choldenko Loves Wisconsin

That's what she said, anyway, after speaking for an hour at our local library yesterday. :)

Gennifer's visit kicked off our week-long Fox Cities Book Festival. More than 50 folks, young and old, joined her in the large conference room of the Neenah Library yesterday at 2 p.m. The April day was gorgeous--high 60s and sunny, so she immediately thanked us for giving up the beautiful outside to join her inside. Inside was warm and cheerful in its own way: pink plastic cups of lemonade and spring-colored cookies decorated a large table in the corner; bright red copies of Al Capone Does my Shirts were for sale in the children's section. Gennifer herself was in black and grey, but her green eye shadow and turquoise reading glasses were adorably festive--signs of her eternal whimsy, I think, amidst the prosaic task of a powerpoint presentation.

Her presentation began with pictures of a tidal wave and a lightening bolt. Gennifer acknowledged that many people may think that great ideas for stories come like gorgeous ocean crashes or flashes of lightening. Instead--switch to a fly--she said her best ideas were those that buzz around her like flies, ideas that can't be swatted away or ignored.

She shared how she struggled to publish a story after her first picture book went out. When folks suggested to her that she had writer's block, she insisted she had publisher's block. She just couldn't get published. Here she mentioned something very interesting: she said that she had heard that 'funny' sells, so she had been writing light, airy books following that advice. (I've heard that bit of advice, too, many times.) But it didn't work for her. She finally sat down and wrote the deepest story she could think of, and that story was Notes from a Liar and her Dog.

I can't help but think that this anecdote supports the idea that we should write from our hearts rather than from what we hear 'sells.'

The next large chunk of Gennifer's talk was about the development of Al Capone Does my Shirts. She had read in a San Francisco newspaper that children lived on Alcatraz while the prison was fully functioning. This idea, she said, was too great to ignore. To learn more about the island and its facilities, she signed up to volunteer one day a week as a guide. This caused her to know the island in all kinds of weather, in all seasons. She learned what the views were like, what the wind was like, and it introduced her to people who could answer her many questions.

She took notes on post-its and scraps of paper while she was on Alcatraz, and then she said she compiled between 10-15 outlines, trying to map out the story. Gennifer said there are two types of authors: the kind that makes an outline and sticks to it, and the kind that flies by the seat of her pants. :) She said she felt she was somewhere in the middle: she got lost without a guide (hence the 10-15 outlines), but she needed some freedom to keep the story fresh.

Developing the voice of her main character was a fascinating process. She chose a young male character, and one who lived in the 30's. In the beginning of her writing, his voice was stiff because she was following what she thought was a model of 'historical fiction.' The character loosened up, evolving into an authentic (hilarious) young man once she thought of her dad being a young man in the 30's, and realizing his voice would be nothing like the stiff, canned stuff she was writing at first.

The last section of her talk was a generous chunk of question-and-answer time. I asked her to talk a little about the editing process. She had shown a picture of a tower of mss with notes from her editor. I wondered if she struggled with changing her story and if she was pleased with the final result. She adamantly assured us that no change of her story ever felt like a compromise. Every enhancement was just that, she said: a way to make her story better. She had friends that sulked and pouted when they got editor's notes, but she was lucky to have no editorial tension. She liked the revising process.

The hour ended with a boy, about age 10, telling Gennifer that he was a new writer and wanted some advice. What she said was priceless:

"If you really hate something or really love something, that's the kind of thing you want to put in your book because you'll have so much feeling about it. . . . Have fun with it. Don't follow the shoulds. You know, people say, 'write what you know.' I don't believe that. Write what you're interested in. You may know nothing about it, but then you find out."

What a wonderful way to begin our Book Festival. Thank you so much, Gennifer, for sharing your journey with us!

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Book Review: Once Was Lost by Sara Zarr

I read Sara Zarr's new book, Once Was Lost, in a day. I didn't mean to. It was one of those stories that was so strong, so streamlined, that the force of it yanked me out of my Saturday.

Books about young girls in youth group wrestling with their faith are enormously tricky to write. The world of evangelicalism, the world of youth group--with its guitar-playing leaders, community-building circle time, tear-streaked prayer vigils, and sexually-charged lock-ins--it's just begging to be ridiculed. It wears a flourescent pink target for any free-thinking woman in her 30s who struggled through those Wednesday night meetings to attack with snark, sarcasm, and disdain.

Sara Zarr doesn't do that.

It's astonishing: she takes on the struggles of a teenage girl--a pastor's daughter no less--and gives the girl depth, gives her struggles dignity.

Honestly, I was happy enough to wander through the personal and spiritual struggles of Sam, the main character, for a couple hundred pages. She was so relatable and so refreshingly honest that I enjoyed her company. However, page 35 shoves the reader--and the plot--into an agonizing search for another lost soul. How lame is it to say my heart raced? That I fanned the last few pages to see if I could catch a glimpse of the end? That I read after my eyes burned and begged for a break?

Lame or not, I think my reactions tonight indicate I was spending time with some fantastic writing. Sara Zarr is so very good at so many difficult things: handling the subject of faith with grace and sobriety; plotting a story in 13 life-changing days; never once making fools out of the wandering, the believing, or the cynics. (She takes shots at the media, and I can't help but give her a high-five for that.) Her dedication to detail is sharp but not overbearing. Her male characters are multi-dimensional--not always true in YA books for girls.

Zarr herself seems to be as relatable and honest as her main character. Spend some time with her on her website, She shares tips for writers, info on her journey to publication (it took a full decade!). I look forward to checking out her other two novels, Story of a Girl (NBA finalist) and Sweethearts (Cybil finalist).

Isn't it delicious finding a new author? :)

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Week 1 Check-in Time

Hello! A couple of us have decided to band together and write our way through April. The first full week of April has passed--it's time to report. How are you doing?

I'll admit that this week was a great one--but for so many other things than writing. The sun was out, so Clara and I took many walks in her wagon. We played in the park altogether. Easter and family and a birthday party ruled the weekend. In short, I let many loves fill up the week, and my story-love suffered. I wrote 450 words. That's it. They're interesting words, but they are so few.

Last month, when I was struggling with my story, Laini Taylor recommended the book Page after Page by Heather Sellers. It came in the mail yesterday, and I've enjoyed reading it. Sellers meditates a lot on the resistance we put up as soon as we start a New Great Thing:

"I will write. In our minds we say: I'll incorporate more writing, better writing, into my life. Then when it comes down to doing the new thing, we say no. In so many ways, big and small, we say no. Can't do it. The thing we want seems good in our head; the reality of practicing it feels very different.
We tend to sketch out how things should be and then they play out quite differently. We don't like that. I want to learn to write. But not this way. I want to learn the new thing. Not in this way.
That's how it was, exactly, for me. I wanted to learn some more yoga techniques. I signed up for class and paid in advance. I bought a new sticky mat, and another book on yoga, and I went to my first class. I sat cross-legged. I wanted to learn yoga. But not from that teacher who was chubby and odd and not very good. . .
Whenever you take a class or buy a book or start a new endeavor, it won't be how you expect. You have to figure out how to learn from that class. That book. That particular endeavor. You have to let it teach you. Resistance is our way of shutting down fear."

It seems clear I've resisted my stories this week. I'm trying to hush my mind to hear why. And I think, for me, the reasons are common ones: I'm afraid the story on paper won't look like the story in my head. And I don't really know what's going to happen. Two big fears that keep me from the computer and usher me outside in the April sun with my baby.

So my goal for Week 2? 1500 words, and facing my fears. Letting the stuff on paper be what it is. And--the bigger of the two fears--facing the unknown with my characters and letting them guide me on the honest plot path.

How did you do this week? What did you learn? And what are your goals for Week 2? Jo and Jay, I look forward to hearing from you!

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Happy Easter!

Be it Easter, Ostara, or plain old Springtime, Clarabella and I celebrate with you.
We hope your day was tulip-kissed!

Thursday, April 1, 2010

April Is a Month for Writers

What a delicious month for writers April seems to be! It’s as if poets and editors, authors and illustrators pop up with the daffodils and remind us with a shake of their golden heads what a brilliant community we share.

First, of course, we celebrate National Poetry Month. I know folks celebrate in multitudes of ways. I’m pulling out my Poetry Speaks collection to listen to the greats read their work. (Favorite? By far, Yeats’ dreamy Lake Isle of Innisfree) Check out 30 Ways to Celebrate from for ideas on how to join in the revelry.

Next we welcome authors and illustrators to Northeast Wisconsin for our 3rd annual Fox Cities Book Festival. I am especially looking forward to the YA writers this year, Gennifer Choldenko and James DeVita.

I hope I attend both of their sessions. I hope I don’t clam up and crawl into bed and pretend I’m sick when I should be heading out the door to hear them at the Neenah Library. The truth is I’m star-struck by both. Gennifer has this delightfully successful life that I yearn for.

Need I say more? :)

Jimmy, well, he is and will always be Jimmy DeVita, heartthrob of Spring Green’s American Players Theater. I’ve seen him play Dromio, Romeo, Angelo, Benedick, Antonio . . . and finally, after 16 years, I’ll have a chance to see him as himself. The idea is daunting. But his books Blue and The Silenced are so intriguing that I think attending his talk will be worth the butterflies.

April also invites members and non-members alike to attend the SCBWI-WI Spring Luncheon. Molly O’Neill, assistant editor at Katherine Tegen Books, will be speaking. I’ve been reading her blog, and I can’t wait to meet her. She seems both whimsical (watching elephants march through NYC at midnight? How charming is that?) and fiercely--gosh, what's the word? Determined? Capable? Grounded? No matter what, I'm looking forward to learning from her. I hope to meet her, too. Any tips from scbwi members for a newbie attending her first local conference?

And of course, April will welcome all of us writing our zero drafts with Laini Taylor to continue the work we started in March. One or two amazing souls completed their projects, but the majority of us have much left to write. I can't say what an encouragement this group of women has been to me. Knowing I have to post a number count each Wednesday with them has goaded me to the computer like no other motivation has. I consider myself dizzyingly lucky to play on the same team with them all.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Rose Geranium

I have an enormous, spindly rose geranium growing in my kitchen. A sweet-hearted friend blessed my new home with a seedling three years ago. I had no idea how to care for it, but it has defied my ignorance and grown. The thing has freakishly stretched out like Mario’s beanstalk straight to Ludwig von Koopa.

It isn’t a lovely plant. I’ve seen pictures of full-bodied bushes grown in South Africa. (Check out this gorgeous picture from organic farms that grow and distill the plant for Aveda.)

Now check out my darling girl.

It doesn’t flower. I’ve read that the plant blooms delicate white flowers with deep purple hearts. Not once in three years have I spied a blossom.

So, not so gorgeous, my long-limbed rose geranium. But have you ever smelled its leaves? Their scent is described as “lemony-rose,” and I think that’s a beautiful name for many of things: my daughter’s baby doll, a martini, or a poem about loving the wrong kind of boy. The smell, as an essential oil, is often used as an antidepressant. When I pull the shades open each morning, the rough fabric brushes the plant’s mint-green leaves and wafts their sweet scent over the kitchen table. It’s a calming smell, an after-bath-lotioning smell, an enfolded-in-Grandma-Lillian’s-arms smell.

How easy would it be to draw parallels between myself and the plant: spindly, not so bloom-full. Taking up a good amount of space for no determined purpose (but, you know, smells kind of pretty). But that sort of comparison isn't kind to me or to the plant, so instead I look for maybe its witching-worth. What do the wise women say are the magickal properties of the rose geranium? I think that finding layers of meaning in common things like plants and colors gives existence just a little more significance, a little more glamour.

I read tonight that some claim the rose geranium offers courage and protection.

Now there's a lovely thought to meditate on. All that winding wood, all those curled, grooved leaves are casting a lemony-rose spell of protection over my home and my family. Jason and Clarabella Snow can sleep still, wrapped in a sweet-scented shield. I can face ogres of depression and wizards of cynicism with deeply rooted courage.

It's romantic, I know, but I love the idea that a plant--especially a weird looking, flowerless one--can strengthen our hearts and guard our lives. I hope I look for the might and valor growing steadily in all my dusty corners.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Book Review: Hold Still by Nina LaCour

Imagine waking without your spine. Losing the bone and cord that holds you upright, that gives you your nerve. Caitlyn wakes on a warm June day to news that her best friend, Ingrid, committed suicide. We experience every crushed breath, every limping thought as Caitlyn staggers beneath the weight of her anguish. The story's first-person narrative takes us through each season of Caitlyn's first year alone. The summer passes quickly as the main character flees literally and figuratively from her loss. As fall brings her back to high school, though, she reinserts herself into society a staggering, hollow figure.

What awakens Caitlyn from her numb state? Who will fill the void in her heart? It certainly doesn't seem to be her favorite photography teacher, Ms. Delani. No help comes from Alicia, Valerie, or any of the other popular girls. Will the new girl, Dylan, offer solace? And why does cute, popular Taylor keep hanging around?

Some of the strongest scenes in this novel are shared among Caitlyn and her mom and dad. YA novels, like YA movies, can prop parents in a scene like store displays, waving too-wide hands and smiling too-bright smiles. But Caitlyn's parents have enough layers of their own to make them real and extremely sympathetic. Also, the scenes that take Caitlyn out of her affluent suburb and into San Francisco thrum with energetic detail that surely must come from the author's own delight in her hometown.

Caitlyn is a girl you want to know. She's angry and haunted, she's considerate and bold, she's resilient and kind. She uses art to heal, and her art inspires the reader to look at the world in honest colors, just as Nina LaCour's writing inspires us to look at the women around us with clear, compassionate eyes.

Check out Nina's very cool site,