Sunday, January 31, 2010

The Writing Universe

Music playing, check. Children sleeping, check. Husband snoring, check. check. My most productive hours are at night. Everything is quiet and still besides the rapid movement of my fingers across the keyboard. It is just me and whatever story I am working on. I am one with the Writing Universe. All is well at the moment, all is well. Except, before I reach this harmonious stage, I am T.S. Elliot's Prufock : "And time yet for a hundred indecisions, / And for a hundred visions and revisions, . . . And indeed there will be time / To wonder "Do I dare" and "Do I dare" . . . Do I dare / Disturb the Universe / In a minute there is time / For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse."

But my thought process is not as poetic as Elliot's. It is much more chaotic, sounding something like this: Which manuscript should I work on? Why revise an old one when I can start on something new? Don't you dare start something new. I should finish something I've started. No, revise something I've finished. But, I can always do that later. So, what should I do now?

Once I have decided on a manuscript with very little effort, as you can see, I began to write. I am one with the writing Universe. All is well at the moment, all is well

Then my furry companion comes along, a cosmic collision in my Universe.

Let me out. Please let me back in. Give me water. The little one forgot to feed me.

Once her needs are met or I have chosen to ignore her, she usually falls into a deep slumber near the couch.

Now, it's time for me to start writing, again. My mind is set to launch, to imagine, to create. I am one with the Writing Universe. All is well at the moment, all is well.

Before I finish for the night, I wonder, "Do I dare and Do I dare . . . Do I dare / Disturb the Universe?"

Kennedy, the cosmic collision in my Universe

Friday, January 29, 2010

Sneaking Around

OK. So here I sit in Borders. I think this is the first time I've ever sneaked out in the middle of the day to write. My mother-in-law is watching the kids. She told me to go get some errands done. I grabbed my purse and flew out the door without mentioning that I really only had one small thing to do.

Now I find myself sipping a latte, thinking that this probably wasn't what she intended when she sent me out and offered to empty my dishwasher. Although it's possible that she wouldn't mind once she found out what a real treat this is to me.

Like a few of my fellow bloggers, I usually only get to write after my family has gone to sleep. Don't get me wrong. I'm a night owl and the later it gets, the more creative I become.

Except for the last few weeks. I seem to be suffering from writer's block. In fact, it's worse than block. I've been avoiding the computer altogether for a few days. I've got a lot of decisions to make about my storyline and I think I'm unsure how to do it.

I'm applying for a writer's retreat and a manuscript review, which means I will have to revisit my first 20-25 pages. Maybe doing so will clarify things.

As for the above picture, we don't have a furry pet, only a fish, and he is not very photogenic. I don't like to be left out, so here is a photo from my children's menagerie. His name is Faris and he makes a great pillow when I'm called in to chase the monsters away. Come to think of it, I actually have had a number of great plot ideas while performing this duty. Hey, maybe it will be Faris who helps propel me out of this funk.

However, it's probably best not to depend on a $3.99 donkey pillow from Walmart and to use my remaining stolen time at this bookstore to try to make my own story magic happen instead.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

How and Where of Binge Writing

I must say that I, too, am a binge writer. If I can have many hours of uninterrupted writing, I take it. A lot of times it is necessitated by pending deadlines, but it is how I would prefer to write. I also greatly prefer to write late at night. I could easily start late at night and stay up writing till morning, then go to sleep...if there weren’t people who needed to be taken care of or jobs to get to. Since coffee shops (and their outlets and free wi-fi) in the suburbs aren’t open past 10pm, the late-night writing occurs at home, often sitting on the couch with the laptop when everyone else is asleep. I am so hoping that when we move to a bigger home, I can find a dedicated “writing space” that is mine only. I feel that a dedicated space would help me to also have more scheduled time for writing--an hour or two each day. It used to seem crazy, that you could “force” inspiration into a schedule, but that’s not the issue anymore. New ideas spring forth all the time and now there are pages and pages of ideas waiting for scheduled thought.

In the meantime, if it’s a weekend and I need to get everyone out of my head but my characters, I will escape with the laptop to the local library or one of the coffee shops. It can be difficult to tune out conversations of others, who are shockingly uninhibited about discussing in public whatever topics cross their minds, using whatever verbiage escapes their lips. So sometimes I give in. I open my “ideas” document and I start jotting down some of the things I am hearing, they way people phrase things, what the people look like, and what my own responses might be if I were a person at that table. I might even imagine where they live, work, go to school, what their relationships and families are like, what they do for fun, what their political and religious leanings are, what music and movies they like.

Often the best time for inspiration happens when I am out walking/running the dog. In the dark, of course. I even bought a digital voice recorder so that I could just say the thoughts aloud as they came to me. Sometimes it was scenes of dialogue, which would have been hilarious or possibly worrisome if anyone ever did happen to pass us in those late hours. However, if I were speaking into the recorder, that would interfere with listening to my music, which greatly spurred my thoughts. I would listen to playlists of songs that fit with the mood of a particular scene or theme of the story or songs with which my characters would identify. So I opted to just listen to the music, try and retain everything that popped into my head during the outing till I could get in the door, grab the laptop and furiously type. Since these outings with my dog, Shamrock, were so good for my writing health as well as my physical health, I shall make his picture famous here.

I guess the last thing I’ll say about the how of writing is that music really does help me. In addition to what I described above for longer stories, I do find it useful for picture books. When I was working on the ideas and sounds for a story about a kitchen band, I was listening to three or four songs from my son’s music class about playing in the kitchen and tricks with rhythm sticks, sometimes listening intently to the different sounds so I could find accurate words to convey them. In writing picture books, I often must confront the issue of word count. Publishers certainly do not want anything over 1000 words, usually nothing over 800 words, even better if less than 600 or 700 words. How to tell a story in fewer words? It does help to look at successfully published picture books, but it also helps me to listen to certain songs.

Sometimes it’s the imagery and mood conveyed by the lyrics: the sheer beauty described in Van Morrison’s “Sweet Thing,” the hopefulness of The Beatles’ “Dear Prudence,” the intensity of obsession in the scenes of The Pixies’ “Cactus,” the horror and dread of Jeff Buckley’s “Nightmares by the Sea,” the incredible sadness in the images of Elton John’s “Empty Garden” tribute to John Lennon. Other songs tell entire stories in far less than 600 words, with very specific phrases and images: Peter Gabriel’s “Solsbury Hill”, “Fairytale of New York” by the Pogues, “Message in a Bottle” by the Police, “Werewolves of London” by Warren Zevon, “Tiny Dancer” by Elton John. Heck, the Beatles describe entire lifetimes in songs like “In my Life” and “Ob-la-de, Ob-la-da.” Why can’t I whittle down my far less poignant picture book???

There are songs that simply have lines that would easily lend themselves to illustrations: “I was a willow last night in a dream, I bent down over a clear-running stream.”--Heart, “Crazy on You.”
“You walked in to the party, like you were walking onto a yacht. Your hat strategically dipped below one eye, your scarf it was apricot.” Not to mention the dreams that were clouds in Carly Simon’s coffee in “You’re So Vain.” And the songs that effectively use humor to describe the story: “And now you know that I suck at this, and you suck at it, too. And now we’re nothing more than vampires in love.”--Marvelous 3, “Vampires in Love.”

So if you see me in your local cafe with my earphones in, I may be concentrating on one of these songs for guidance. But I may be faking it and instead listening to your conversation next to me. Watch out, you may end up in my novel...

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Should I Play or Should I Write Now

Would I write for 15 hours straight if I could? Probably not, I am too easily distracted. (oh look, something shiny!) There's always something that needs to be cleaned, or laundry that needs to be washed, shopping that needs to be done, or kids, husband, mother, or dog that needs attention. The list goes on and on. Yesterday, I found out it's possible to lock yourself in your room with the laptop, ignoring everyone, and it's OK; no major disasters. Although I'd be pushing my luck if I did that everyday. The only time I usually write is after my kids and husband leave for the day. Every morning there's a small block of time before my mother wakes up and turns on her TV. Usually by 11:00 when I'm struggling with writers block, Martha Stewart's annoying voice creeps through my mothers bedroom door. That's when I give up for the day.

I deal with writers block a lot. I think I have all of these great ideas, but putting them together coherently is hard. My brain feels disorganized. There is so much to think about when putting a story together, it's mind boggling. My plan is to get a special spot in our soon to be finished basement for me to write. I will post motivational words and quotes on the wall and have a board to post random ideas. I can keep reference and favorite YA books nearby, then maybe I can organize my thoughts and feel more open to writing.

I never dreamed when I started writing my current project, that it would take so long. Something occured to me today when I was cleaning the floor. I noticed the name of the mop was "Quickie". I thought wouldn't it be great if that referred to my writing. But then I realized there are things, like cleaning that should be quick, and others like writing (and one more I can't say) that should never have the "quickie" connotation. Some things will take time if you want to get it right, and I need to keep reminding myself that.

In keeping with my fellow bloggers, I wanted to share a picture of my furry companion. His name is Toby. He feels it is his purpose in life to protect me from random blowing things, so windy days aren't conducive to quiet writing, especially in the fall.

While I'd like to have more time to write, all of these distractions are my life, and I wouldn't give up any of them.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Inspiration on a Schedule

I have written at all times of the year. The most busy time of the year as far as writing is the holiday season. On a recliner across from the Christmas tree I attempt to weave new Christmas classics into the fabric of tradition. December 22nd, I am most productive, in remembrance of my Grandpa's birthday. My Grandpa once told me I could do and be anything I wanted, so with the dream of being a successful author I find it fitting to write on his day.

As far as how? Well I tend to plot out all my books before I even touch my mac. I have a diagram of events. Wait. No. Diagram sounds far too organized. I have scribbles of the plot line scattered through out my black journal. The plot points arrive in my brain at all different places, a few have dropped in while at theme parks, some in bed, and school when I should be teaching. Anywhere inspiration is scheduled to visit with me I scribble. Never neatly I might add. Neat enough. Oh and the scribbling doesn't always happen with pencil in hand, sometimes, I have to hound those around me to remember what inspiration gave me.

So with all the plot drudged up, the action chapters mulled over, I fasten my seat belt on the recliner and pound the keys. I have written for 15 hours straight at one point. I have to get it all out and I need to have little or no distraction. Sometimes no distraction can be achieved but then hunger, thirst, my dog Poof, and Bing Crosby movies set in.

In conclusion, I am a binge writer with a spot in inspiration's appointment book. I admit it. Okay I am done now. Or shall I write for a few more hours on the subject?

Monday, January 25, 2010

When? Where? How? of Writing

The official Robin Write Space is in the 3rd bedroom office with a view out the window if I lean back in my chair. The seasons are registered on the berry bush below - right now a discouraging brown with a few clinging dried up spots of red even the mid-winter birds won't touch. I have seen this before. The shoots and leaves and buds and blooms are in there somewhere! So I hope amid the stacks and files and folders that clutter this writing space, a publishable book lurks, as hidden as the berries-to-be.

I am portable. I have a regular booth-with-an-outlet at the local Panera if I get there before 7am. I can get in an hour of efficient writing before work and that is my most productive time of day. I've hauled the laptop to far foreign places like Jindezhen, China, and Umphamulu, South Africa. (The blogs for those trips are at and

I compose my stories at the keyboard after doing years of sermons and school papers that way. Besides, since I write picture books with repeating refrains, there is nothing like "cut and paste"! I keep a notebook in the car and jot notes or revise stories that way, too. I love deadlines imposed by others - thank goodness for my critique group Blog Buddies!

Of course, Potter the Literary Cat is my constant companion!

Sunday, January 24, 2010

The Writer In Me

In my mind, I've always been a writer. I can't remember a time when I wasn't jotting down poems or story ideas on scraps of paper, napkins, or whatever suitable item that presented itself at the moment. Below, I have provided one of my most memorable pieces. Written as an ode to my mother on Mother's Day:

A foggy cloud / A mistful kite /Aren't compared to you: / A light looking sight.

A crying tear / A drop of fear / When I don't have those things / I know you are near.

The day has begun / The sky has turned blue / Through all of those things / Nothing is compared to you.

I'm still not exactly sure what "a mistful kite" is, or how it performs in comparison to a non-mistful kite, but in the romantic musings of an eleven year old, this was poetry at its finest. Since these days, I have had to come to terms with a few things: There is no such thing as a drop of fear, or a crying tear, and the term "mistful" has never and will never grace the pages of Webster's Dictionary. So much for poetry.

Being a little bit awkward and much too shy, kept me from reaching any potential I had during my youth of doing anything great. But my senior year in high school, I was thrown into Honors English due to my inexplicable understanding of Shakespeare's plays the previous year. Thinking back, maybe it wasn't my genius that catapulted me into the class where I'd eventually rub shoulders with the best minds of my graduating class, but my teachers way of paying homage to the one student who actually stayed awake through her readings of Macbeth's and Hamlet's soliloquies. Academics weren't always so easy for me. Gym was the worst. They actually expected me to participate in something that didn't have a single thing to do with books. Needless to say, lying in between the bleachers alternating between reading, writing, and sleeping while my classmates physically exerted themselves was my surefire way of earning an F in the easiest subject on the planet.

Like my blogmates, college gave me little opportunity to do much creative writing, especially since my school had no creative writing courses. But in my final year, I did obtain the opportunity to do something creative in a gothic literature course in which I wrote and directed a play "Dorian Gray the Musical." In this same class, I also wrote a 40 page gothic parody featuring an asexual nun/monk, appropriately titled "The Nunk," which went well over my Professor's 10 page requirement. During that last year, another Professor, who thought I had potential for something (I'm still not sure what), forced me into the University's Honors Program. To my eternal shame, the one class that prevented me from graduating from college with high honors and a perfect GPA, as opposed to just plain old graduating with honors was the "B" I received in Major Black Authors. Just for the record, I really am ashamed of this.

I went on to grad school, and then took a break, because I felt it was time for me to start writing books, and stop writing 20 page term papers. By then, I had already been writing for children for several years being re-introduced since childhood to children's literature through the birth of my first son, and my husband's insane addiction to The Children's Book of the Month Club. My first manuscript "No Homework No Trash No bath," will probably never grace the shelves of any library or bookstore, but it was a great introduction into an exciting new world for me. I love writing about boogers, and singing ducks, and bringing my MG and YA characters to life; I love laughing out loud when I'm writing my characters. I love being inside their heads and transforming into them. Lately, I've been a precocious eleven year old boy in "Camp Lagoon" and an annoying fly in "If This Fly Could Talk" When I'm writing my stories, I feel like: if I don't laugh out loud when I'm writing this, no one will ever laugh while reading it; and if I don't write characters that I love, no one will ever fall in love with them.

I wish I could say that writing has always been this enjoyable for me. Though I have always loved to write, there are times when I've used writing as a coping mechanism; my link to sanity when all other things in my world have been turned upside down. Writing poetry (albeit bad poetry) helped me deal with the death of my father at 11 years old. Writing also helped me keep my sanity when a senseless act of gang violence took the life of my younger brother when he was only 18 years old. That was 12 years ago. One day, when I find the courage, I'd like to tell my brother's story. Although it may be painful, I have a feeling that it may turn into the most personal and liberating thing I will ever write.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Old Dream, New Dream

I once wanted to be an astronaut. Seriously.

My father says it's because I "sat around and took up space." (This same sense of humor landed me the name Monta Carla to go with Monaco.) But really, I worked tremendously hard to squeeze the required high-level math and science into my surprisingly normal life as a teenager and succeeded. I got accepted to Cornell.

Great, right? Except one day early freshman year, it dawned on me. I didn't actually like math, science or Cornell (but that's another story). Equations and experiments suddenly seemed less a means for "slip(ping) the surly bonds of Earth," and more like a punishment in one of Dante's Circles of Hell.

What I did enjoy was writing. I'd loved working on my high school paper, and the off-campus office of the Daily Sun was one of the few places I fit in at Cornell.

As soon as I was able, I switched majors (eventually schools too) and later landed a job working for a wire service in Washington, D.C. As a 22-year-old kid, I found myself doing things like going to the East Room in the White House for a joint press conference by President Bill Clinton and Russian President Boris Yeltsin, and participating in an interview with former Secretary of State James Baker.

(And having a haircut interrupted so the hairdresser could go cover up Larry King's bald spot with black paint. Totally irrelevant, but I've always wanted to tell that story.)

After working for a publisher of magazines and newsletters and going to graduate school for a Master's degree in American history, I passed up an assistant curatorship at the Navy Museum to try my hand as a freelance writer. Newly married, I liked the idea of something I could continue after I had children. I still write today, albeit not as much, while staying at home and homeschooling my two sons.

Why try my hand at fiction? My journalism career has been about informing people. I'd like the chance to captivate them.

About a year ago, I put fingers to keyboard and started a young adult novel where the life of a 16th century pirate has repercussions for a contemporary teenager. (It's set at the Jersey Shore, but I swear, no one is named Snookie. If you have no idea who I am talking about, count yourself lucky.)

It's exhilarating to be in control of my own fictional world. It's getting less terrifying to let the real people in my wonderful critique group read about it. It's rewarding when they understand, and I'm thankful that they are able to explain when they don't.

I still would like to "trod the untrespassed sanctity of space," but it's more likely that I will write a story about it, than actually go. of my books makes enough money for me to afford a commercial flight on the space shuttle. Hey, a girl can dream, right?

Quotes are from one of my favorite poems: High Flight by John Gillespie Magee, Jr.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Uncool Over-Sharer

When did I truly give a rat’s hind-end about writing? I always played around with it as a kid and valued it as self-expression as I got older. Poems, as they must universally be, were born out of junior high angst, but I kept writing them through high school and college. I won both the short story and poetry divisions of my high school’s “literary” contest. Yet my contributions to my college fiction-writing class were nothing short of horrible dreck. I had better luck in Arthurian legend class when the assignment was to write our own additions to the lore. In grad school the writing was purely technical and resulted in an award/publication for a research project, but by that time, I had pretty much put all creative writing aside.

My “outlet” consisted of annually updating a list of contact info for friends from college and providing commentary with the newsy section of who moved, got married, had babies, finished grad school, changed jobs, etc. There were also some very dark years, going through infertility, and then the anxiety of the adoption journey, during which I recorded every mood swing, spiritual crisis, and philosophical notion. Eventually I hope to return to these and fashion some sort of books that will be helpful to others going through these experiences. Honesty will be painful.

I found actual stories again while working as a school social worker. I was running groups for new students and didn’t like the material available for the 2nd and 3rd graders. What could I do but quickly write my own story about a girl who moves to a new house and attends a new school? The kids liked it and related to things the main character did and felt. Strangely, instead of tossing it aside after it had served its purpose, I pulled it out later that night and played with it some more. Ideas started coming, and I started keeping track of them. Characters in a much much longer story, either YA or adult, started talking to me. They talked a lot. I finally started typing what they were saying--outlines for the whole epic plot, entire scenes of dialogue, possible names, topics I would have to research. 70-plus pages of such stuff. I became truly inspired by friends I’d had since high school who were musicians, artists, photographers, actors--some of whom even dared to have no “regular” jobs!

That’s when it happened. The great non-backed-up hard drive crash of June 2008. As much as you can grieve for a non-living thing, that's how much I grieved. The hard drive sustained damage of certain permanence. The music I could transfer back from my ipod, and thankfully most of the pictures I lost had also been stored “off-site.” But my writing? All those pages and pages of writing and ideas that had been backed-up only in my brain? Those were utterly and completely gone. I realized how much it hurt that they were gone, how much I cared about trying to write.

The rebuilt laptop sat, now next to the back-up drive and thumb drive, and silently taunted me for three months before I finally took a weekend and re-created everything out of my head as best I could. I even added more. During that time I had attended three or four children’s authors’ workshops. The next year I completed two critique courses and several beginning drafts, digested others’ ideas, and generated my own. It’s hard to hone in on WHAT I want to write sometimes--children’s books that are about issues they may be facing, children’s books that are just plain fun, YA or adult themes, horror (inspired by the people who live next door to me; spoiler: the villains will get their due), personal-memoir type books about specific experiences, nonfiction books about extraordinary things that happen in people’s lives. Soon it will also be hard to hone in on WHEN I will ever be able to write much--besides being the parent of a very active 4-year-old, I am expecting twins this spring. I fear the excitement of writing will be on hold indefinitely, but I hope life will provide even more inspiration in the meantime. Can I be the deux ex machina of my own life?

“The only true currency in this bankrupt world is what you share with someone else when you’re uncool.”--Almost Famous. My name is Trager. I am hopelessy uncool and, clearly, an over-sharer.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Someone once told me that I'm a kid at heart. I agree, but why aren't my other body parts aware of it? (but that's another story) I hope if I can see life through a child's eyes, then I can connect to them through my writing. So, I guess I'm capitalizing on my immaturity, but why not?

As a child, I adored books. I remember one of my friends had the whole Golden Books collection, and every time I came over, to his dismay, all I wanted to do was look at them. I loved books with beautiful illustrations and would look through my favorites over and over.

I've always been a creative person and loved art and design, so I got a BFA and worked as a Interior Designer. In time I had three children and stayed home to care for them, until my youngest went to kindergarten. I read them the classics like Dr. Seuss and Mercer Mayer, renewing my love for children's book but never let myself think I could write one.

Later, I worked as a Teacher's Assistant in an elementary school. I enjoyed working with the kids. To them everything was black or white; you always knew how they felt. They would make me laugh all the time. This is when the idea really came to me about writing and illustrating for children. I had the opportunity to paint murals at two schools, and received rave reviews. I never thought I would make such an impact, and that's when I realized never to assume I can't do something. I was planning on illustrating picture books, but an idea for a young adult novel came to me and I couldn't let it go. I knew I could write it, IF I put my mind to it. (I tend to have a short attention span).

Well, here I am some years later, still working on the same story. It is a historical/fantasy about a girl having realistic dreams involving characters living during the Civil War. It's complex, because it has two different storylines, and two protagonists with two different voices. Why didn't I start out with something easy? I said I was creative, not smart. Considering I'm still at it after all of this time means it's something to believe in, so I will keep plugging away. I can't wait to see it all come together at the end! I do have other intriguing ideas for more stories, but they'll have to wait until my current characters have had their say.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

I began my writing career in the fourth grade in a creative writing class. The nun was very supportive as I began writing a story about terminating termites. The fascination with the written word continued and evolved into a love for comic books. Stan Lee and Bob Kane hooked me. On my south side block full of cop and city worker kids, in between playing war and baseball, a friend and I managed to create our own comic books. Ultra-violent with characters closely resembling the buffed up action stars of the 80s, we developed and refined our imaginations. That era ended with everyone moving out of the old neighborhood. I dabbled with comic books here and there but ultimately moved on to melodramatic ramblings of teenage life. No stories, just essays about life in general. I made it to college and wrote mostly papers, with a yearning to write something more creative.

Then one night in 2004 I went to bed like most humans do. I tossed and turned. Then they popped into my head. The Tannenbaum Tailors. A fantasy action thriller set inside a Christmas tree, that combined everything I loved about the movies, books, and life in general. I wouldn't actually write the story for another three years. Finally, I sat in a cushy recliner in December 2007 and committed the Tailors to my hard drive. I have since wrote a sequel and am working on a second. With revision a constant battle and my resolve resolute, I commit myself to become published and listed.

Monday, January 18, 2010

What - write about ME?

We decided this first week to introduce ourselves, and it seemed like a good idea.
Over the years, I have written wacky stories about “Galuumpa the Camel” and penned “The Dippy Donut Song,” but faced with talking about myself…I am back in Grade 2 with a large pencil and a empty sheet of wide lined paper!
I have been blessed with two distinct careers and I am passionate about both. For my earlier life I was a children’s librarian in Iowa, downstate Illinois and the Chicago suburbs. Then midlife I answered a call to the ordained ministry and was pastor at a busy suburban church. Now in (early) retirement, I have the best of both: I serve part time on a church staff and do story times at the local library for children ages birth to 3 years. I smile a lot!
Writing began pragmatically. In the library world there is constant need for collections of ideas for children’s programs. Jan Irving and I co-authored seven of these books while we were commuting together to library school. They centered on topics familiar to kids: food, clothing, transportation. During seminary I wrote steaming mounds of religious curriculum for several publishers to support my habit of graduate school. Since then, I have published almost 20 Bible story books for religious publishers, some of which are now going into reprint with new art.
Now I am venturing into the world of mainstream picture books with characters like Victoria Dragon and Tuk-tuk and collared lemming. They are far easier to write about than I am!

Wednesday, January 13, 2010


Every story needs one - here is ours!