Friday, December 3, 2010
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
! ! ! ! !
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?
Tell me what you think!
Tuesday, November 9, 2010
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
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
On my birthday, with my Snow child, looking forward to all good things together.
Sunday, July 25, 2010
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
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 clichés -- 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
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
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.
Thursday, June 10, 2010
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.
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.
Monday, June 7, 2010
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
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
Friday, May 28, 2010
Tuesday, May 18, 2010
The Poor and Pure of Heart
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
Sunday, May 9, 2010
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. :)
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--
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
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
My first May Joy is this ray of sunshine:
Oh, the possibilities . . . :)
Sunday, May 2, 2010
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
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
invaded by a line
double rows of
by nose in an
Wednesday, April 28, 2010
"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
Weee're off! Week 4, here we come!
Monday, April 19, 2010
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
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'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
Wednesday, April 7, 2010
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
Thursday, April 1, 2010
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 Poets.org 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? :)
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?
Friday, March 19, 2010
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
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, http://www.ninalacour.com/