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.