Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Writers in Therapy

First of all I am honored to be in the Write 6 critique group. Every time I write something and submit it, I feel grateful that everyone takes the time to carefully read my material. At first, submitting my work made me nervous. After putting so much time into my manuscript, would they hate it? Am I kidding myself? I'm not a writer. But then everyone made me feel so at ease, and I realized we are all in the same boat. Drifting on the sea of uncertainty. (Sorry, I got carried away.)

What's more frightening is having friends and family read my work in progress. They have no idea how hard writing is. I really want to share but, I feel like they may have higher expectations. I don't want to let them down, and they see how much time I've put into this. As my son says "Mom, aren't you finished yet? What's taking you so long?" At least my fellow writers know exactly how I feel and there's comfort in that.

It's also fun to get their emails of new material to read; like a present waiting to be opened. I've learned a lot about my work in reading theirs. I've learned to think like an editor when revising my own material.

One of the most important reasons to be in a critique group for me is having a deadline to keep going. If I don't have a goal to work towards, the weeks drag on without writing. Being involved in the critique group, at least I know I've written something. Putting anything on paper is important; I know many revisions are forthcoming, but it's a start.

The Write 6 is like a writers therapy group. A couple hours a month I can get together with people who are honest and supportive, and I always leave feeling energized. How much are Therapists? Maybe we should start charging; we could start a whole new career in service to all of those lost writers out there. Franchise anyone?

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Critical Hit

Today I wrote twelve more pages of the magnum opus of a trilogy that I have been working on for three and a half years. I wrote today. I spent great deal of the day immersed in the world I created. I have many influences to thank for this day's work. One of those influences stem from this very blog. The Write 6 spur me on and force me to think on my literate feet. I find myself thinking about what they might say when they read a particular sentence or sequence of dialogue. I am forever hopeful that they can't pull away from the passages because it is so awesome and I can see their notes on certain chapters. Sometimes the notes maintain their honest critical eye and other notes remind me that they are still having a blast reading and critiquing!
I like many other writers resisted the whole critique group idea because I felt like I could be so damn hard on myself that I couldn't bear what others might think or say. BUT I was wrong joining a critique has been helpful. I feel great having the outlet and how each of the members keeps me honest with every critique given. It is quite the experience to take work that we toil at and work so hard on and then give it to other people to look at. Ugh so incredibly vulnerable I feel sometimes. (Did I just sound like Yoda there?)"They are gonna think this part sucks? I know it." That thought has assuredly gone through my head many times. Oftentimes my perception of things is way off.

So join a critique group! Leave your insecurities at the door and just do it. Live it. Love it. I am incredibly lucky and grateful that I found the Write 6. I have learned and will continue to learn from this group. Thanks 6ers and Carmela!

Monday, March 29, 2010

Critique is NOT Criticism!

For years I resisted being in a critique group! Having been an editor and writer for curriculum and library publications I’d had had too much Really Good Stuff that got scraped by some opinionated person with a fancier chair. Plus I have enough form rejection letters to paper the office and a bathroom. Why would I voluntarily seek more criticism?
Then I found this definition of “critique”: One-one-one or group constructive feedback session in the form of a collaborative analysis of a design or issue integrated with brainstorming alternate solutions. And on a trip to Mayslake in Oakbrook I found a 6 week series of “critique sessions” led by author Carmela Martino. Armed with picture books of a dandelion and a wingless dragon, I signed up.

The first night was scary, but her ground rules were reassuring. We only responded to a class member’s story with positive statements and questions. Hardest of all was sitting silently while others talked! But after the first round, it was not “criticism” but real “critique” and helpful! (FYI: Carmela is beginning a new series of critique sessions soon. Children’s Writers Critique Class at
We 6 Blog Buds went through two sessions with Carmela before we started meeting on our own. Of course friendships have developed that ignore any life differences! I think the greatest benefit I get is the idea generation when I am stuck. If a character needs more definition or the ending is incomplete, they will spend time with me brainstorming how to make it better. Then they are treated to the rewrite the next month and end up wanting stuffed toys of all my animal characters!

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Who Are My Characters?

I think most of my main characters (whether they are animals in a picture books or teenagers in YA fiction) share a common trait. They are outsiders. Sometimes they are trying to fit in, other times, they just want to be left to their own devices; but in the end they have to stay true to who they are. I believe I'm drawn to this character model, because as a kid I was always just a little too shy, and extremely awkward. Most times, my characters share personality traits of people I know, including myself; but none of them are based on one person.

Although I agree with Monta and Trager, that a characters physical appearance is secondary to their personality, I love it when I can close my eyes and picture the character I'm creating. It helps me feel that I know them a little better. In my YA fantasy novel, my main character is a biracial teenage girl (AA/ Caucasian). Since I don't have a daughter, I image her looking like a teenaged female version of my older son. Brown curly hair, copper colored eyes, tall. Personality wise, she is insecure and awkward. Her abilities cause her emotional angst, but one day, she will learn to use them to her advantage. When I image her, I think of inner and outer traits that comprise a whole being.

The personality of my characters depend on the story I want to tell. I ask myself, how do my characters fit in the world around them? When determining the race of my characters, there's always an internal debate. I have two concerns: one is that if my characters are African American, they may not appeal to a larger audience; the other concern is I don't want to feel that because I'm African American my main characters must always be African American.

Despite these concerns, it is more important to me that my reader is able to relate to my characters. For a little while, I would like my reader to become the person I have created. They should be able to close there eyes and picture the character as I can. If that happens, I have achieved what I have set out to do.

Friday, March 26, 2010

History Helps

I really enjoyed reading Trager's post, because she and I seem to have a lot in common regarding the appearance of characters in our young adult novels. I, too, find myself thinking about personality and interaction between the characters first and what they look like second. That said, my MC's appearance is based on her ancestry.

Her forefathers (and mothers) would have come from the west coast of Ireland. I think she will be Black Irish, which refers to her dark hair and dark eye color, not her skin. Legend has it that the people from that region with these genealogical traits have the men of the Spanish Armada to thank. Twenty ships wrecked off the coast. However, historians believe that none of the survivors were allowed to live long enough to cause any, shall we say, mischief. They do think it's possible that Irish chiefs employed Spanish soldiers around the end of the 16th century. These men certainly could have, um, stirred things up in the genetic pool. Another option is that folks from the Iberian peninsula simply migrated 2500 years ago, but frankly that option isn't as much fun.

I think in general much like it has been a challenge to remember to include setting as I tell my story, since not everyone has been to Wildwood (yet), I also probably will have to go back in the end and rework in details about appearance.

BTW: Thanks Robin for sharing your story of Fluffy Kitty earlier in the week. It served as a good reminder that particularly in picture books writers don't always have the last say. I found extremely interesting a conversation that took place earlier this year via our chapter's SCBWI listserv. There was discussion of a cover controversy related to a book called Liar by Justine Larbalestier. Please check out her website to hear about her experience.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

En-hear-ening characters

Envisioning my characters--is there an equivalent, like “en-hear-ening” them? I think I am at least as audio as visual. In imagining my characters in YA/adult, I have them quite physically defined in my mind, and I very often picture actors in my head or even people from works of art if I am actively writing that particular story. If I am just jotting down ideas or writing paragraphs of an outline for a story, I’m focused on theme and plot and have only the vaguest ideas about what characters look like. It would be unusual for an image of a person to come so clearly to me that I build a whole story around that image. For me, their personalities are stronger than appearance. I start out with my ideas of the personality and as I write or scenes come into my head, their personalities grow and choices they make change from what I had originally imagined. I am one of those people whose characters do speak to them--whole scenes of dialogue. So I have a good idea of what they would say, how they would say it, motivation, and how it propels the story forward.

Since I listen to a lot of music, many of my characters become characters in songs relevant to the story, or songs remind me of certain characters, which helps me be more specific in their personalities and motivations. Even if it’s never mentioned in the narrative, I would know what kinds of music they liked. That can be really fun if you have a creature who has lived longer than a normal human lifetime--tv and movies and internet have not always been around, books were not always widely available to everyone, but music has always been accessible and create-able.

News events also influence my characters--stories that come up, elections won and lost, medical advances, scientific discoveries--would these impact my characters? How would they feel about them? Sometimes a discovery is made about a historical event from centuries past--that may become something that one of my characters actually lived through. Last week, sadly, singer/songwriter/musician Alex Chilton suddenly passed away. My young protagonist would have no idea who that is, but perhaps her older (obviously cool) relative or her vampire friend who has been around “a while” would react to that.

Picture book characters are different for me. I picture animal characters more vividly than I do if the characters are people. I usually do not have strong visuals in my head of my child protagonists. My imagination focuses much more on their personalities, and I like them to be feisty! There is one story, about Mother’s Day and a little boy named Noodles, in which I couldn’t help picturing my own son as I was writing it. I think I was having a really difficult time coming up with something to write at that time, so thinking about him and that topic helped me persevere. But most of the time I am more inclined to picture the settings and action around my characters than their personal appearances. I have only vague images of what my vampire or witch families look like--whimsical, a couple people are only slightly foreboding--and more defined ideas about the drafty old cobwebb-y castle. When Marisol moves, the text is used to describe her new room, new house, new school, new playground. In my mind, the physical appearance of Marisol and her family members is quite fluid. If the stories were ever illustrated, it should be a pleasant surprise to me to see what the PB characters actually look like!

“Children by the million wait for Alex Chilton when he comes ‘round. They say ‘I’m in love. What’s that song?’”--the Replacements, off Pleased to Meet Me, 1987

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Elves not Elvis

The characters images in my head are all over the place. I honestly am not sure what they look like. I know the people who I have based characters on and can imagine them in some elven form. So that is cool but then sometimes they tend to look like Vulcans. Anyway, I have done sketches of my characters and I waver between the cartoonish and the realistic.
My characters greatest appeal is their size. I wish I could shrink down to their size and experience the world from their perspective. The best thing about it is scale. So I have to put myself in their shoes of course. I suppose I can feel what my characters are feeling better than picturing. I can feel the whoosh of their movements and the gravity that pulls them from place to place.

One can derive that my characters should look accessible, enchanting, familiar, and well... downright cute. I do plan on selling action figures and plush toys so they have to be. I know for sure though that one of my fellow Write 6ers has definitely cornered the market on the cuteness of our characters. Nothing like a little competition to keep the creative juices flowing.

If empires can be made with three circles on a piece of paper then the sky is the limit with the look of characters and how they can affect the child within all of us. The power of illustration is indeed a mighty one.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Visions Dancing in My Head

We all have mental pictures of what our characters look like. Because I write picture books, my mind works in images. Characters are fleshed out in my mind as I write and some of what they say and do is based on how I think they appear. This week we aspiring authors are describing characters we are working on – living with, actually.

But first…the story of Fluffy Kitty!

I make words, not pictures. My stick figure cows need labels as to which end gives milk. So when a story is sold, I am in the hands of the editor to pick a compatible artist and send my suggestions along. It is a rare situation where the author and artist even communicate. Most of that time that is very successful and I am delighted with the result.

Case in point…Fluffy Kitty!

I had written a collection of stories about the events surrounding Christmas from the point of view of animals that might have been there: The donkey that carried Mary to Bethlehem, the camels bringing the Wise Men. One character was a Siamese cat who lived at an inn where Mary and Joseph seek shelter. In fact in the story it is the cat, Silky, who shows them where she had her kittens in the barn. Silky the Siamese.

When the book arrived, there was Shaggy Donkey as expected. But the cat had morphed into a fat gray Persian who was now named Fluffy Kitty! After the initial surprise, I fell in love with her. But she constantly reminds me that my images are only mine.

So for this week, I am wrapped up in an arctic lemming. He is a little like a weasel with a pointed snout and sharp front claws for digging. In the summer he is brown, but my story is set in early winter so he has just changed to pure white. He moves very fast, skittering over the frozen tundra. The lemming has bright black eyes and a tail bushy enough to wrap around himself to keep warm all winter long. Most days he is curled around my neck, correcting typos and indicating he would never say something as trite as “That’s really cool.” (Get it?)

And if Tuk-tuk ever finds a publishing home, we’ll see if that is how he looks!

Friday, March 19, 2010

Add Tension...Don't Be a Chucklehead

A while back, I read some of literary agent Donald Maass' book Writing the Breakout Novel. A couple of things really stood out for me:

"Examine the novels you most admire with a tension-sensitive eye, (and) you will find that your favorite authors find subtle ways to infuse tension in every moment. Tension can be apprehension, a question, an inner need, uncertainty, contrasting desires, hostility hidden in humor...The big problem with 80 percent of the novels we reject at my agency is not too much tension; rather, it is too little...

"Next time you plow through a weak (novel), pay attention to the movement of your eyes. Watch how they skip down the page. Feel your inner impatience. Nothing is happening, you think. C'mon move it along! What you really mean is, make that paragraph matter. And that one.

"There is only one sure way to do that: to make it contribute to, deepen, or elaborate the conflict, problem, or complication at hand. When tension is present, the words matter. When tension is absent, our care diminishes on a curve."

Easier said than done right? He also stresses the importance of making the reader care about and identify with the protagonist in the opening pages of a novel. "Most stories build toward enormous heroic actions at the end, which is fine, but what about the beginning? What is there to make me care?....Demonstrate special qualities right away."

Out of curiosity, I also did a Google search on writers about writing and found some very poignant, useful and entertaining advice. I particularly enjoyed Mark Twain's musings:

"Substitute 'damn' every time you're inclined to write 'very;' your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be."

"The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug."

"As to the adjective, when in doubt, strike it out."

"The time to begin writing an article is when you have finished it to your satisfaction. By that time you begin to clearly and logically perceive what it is you really want to say."

Samuel Johnson said something similar: Read over your compositions, and when you meet a passage which you think is particularly fine, strike it out.

George Orwell had a very eloquent way of conveying that writing is hard: Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.

And, an author named William Styron, with whom I am sadly unfamiliar, called into question the sanity of good writers: The good writing of any age has always been the product of someone's neurosis, and we'd have a mighty dull literature if all the writers that came along were a bunch of happy chuckleheads.

I don't know if the last two are useful, but at least maybe the words of these two men will make us all feel a little better in our struggle to tell our stories.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Quotes to contempate & inspire

Victor Hugo:

"It is from books that wise people derive consolation in the troubles of life."
"Each man should frame life so that at some future hour fact and his dreaming meet."
"Music expresses that which cannot be said and on which it is impossible to be silent."

"One is not idle because one is absorbed. There is both visible and invisible labor. To contemplate is to toil, to think is to do. The crossed arms work, the clasped hands act. The eyes upturned to Heaven are an act of creation."

Dorothy Parker:

"I don't care what is written about me so long as it isn't true."
"This is not a novel to be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force."
"The cure for boredom is curiosity. There is no cure for curiosity."

"I'm never going to be famous. My name will never be writ large on the roster of Those Who Do Things. I don't do any thing. Not one single thing. I used to bite my nails, but I don't even do that any more."

E. M. Forster:
"We must be willing to let go of the life we planned so as to have the life that is waiting for us."

Logan Echolls, Veronica Mars:
"I thought our story was epic, you know? You and me. Spanning years, continents. Lives ruined. Bloodshed. EPIC."

Ocsar Wilde, Portrait of Dorian Gray:
"Be warned in time, James, and remain, as I do, incomprehensible; to be great is to be misunderstood."

W. B. Yeats:
"Think where man's glory most begins and ends and say--my glory was that I had such friends."

Lester Bangs, Almost Famous:
"The only true currency in this bankrupt world is what you share with someone else when you're uncool."

The Simpsons:
“A noble spirit embiggens the smallest man.
(It’s a perfectly cromulant word.)”

And finally, to sum up:
"I might repeat to myself slowly and soothingly, a list of quotations beautiful from minds profound - if I can remember any of the damn things." (Dorothy Parker again)

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Just Do It

When I realized not to listen to what people thought I was capable of, is when I started writing. It was all up to me to decide what I could do. No longer did I want to listen to the negative voice in my head. Why couldn't I write? I didn't have an answer so, I just started writing.

I noticed a similarity in the people closest to me who have been successful in getting what they want. Boldness and tenacity. They don't seem to ask themselves if they can do something, they just do it. I guess that's the quote I should live by. Apparently Nike knows best. "Just Do It."

My closest friend, Liz has influenced me to not question myself. She has a houseful of kids, caring for two parents and still finds time to explore career options. She's opened an imports store which is now closed, but that doesn't matter, because she tried it. She's opened a dance studio, been a cheer coordinator and a pageant organizer. She'll never look back and say what if. I'm sure she never asks herself if she could do it, she just does. Sitting on the sidelines is not an option. We need to be bold to really be something.

My mother is another example of boldness and tenacity. In her failing health, she never questions how sick she is, she just assumes she'll get better. She just won't quit. She lets everyone know that she's still in control. If this is the way we live our lives, things will happen.

So we need to make it known what we want and just do it. I'll question my writing, but I'm not going to question whether I should be writing. Hopefully someday I will be published, but for now I'm satisfied to just write.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Influential Generations

"If you can dream it you can do it." -Walt Disney. I spent an entire summer reading a very large biography on this man, this man, who would lose touch with the world around him to provide us with quality entertainment. Sometimes his priorities were a little off but he nonetheless profoundly influenced me. So thanks Walt.

Also my Grandfather's words echo in my mind every time I think about my writing endeavors. When I was fourteen years old, he told me that I can be anything I want. Anything. When he passed away two months later after several bouts with bad health. Those words have forever changed me. I strive to live by his example and take literally all the wonderful things that man taught me. I love him so much that my heart hurts just writing about him. It is my grandfather's legacy that keeps me writing.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Words to work by

When I am stuck on one project, I remember a line from a conference: “What else are you working on?” Picture books are so easy and so hard to write and the stack of impersonal rejections is staggering. If I put all my hopes and dreams on the Magic Dragonfly and she flits from one slush pile to the next for several years (decades?) waiting will be an exercise in frustration. I get enough exercise! So I keep tweaking Victor Javalina and Danny Lion and Tuk-tuk the Lemming. More than that I keep asking myself: what else am I working on? This week is was the Bush Dancers in the Outback! Tomorrow – what else?

Sunday, March 14, 2010

A Writer's Fantasy: Please Come True

Even though most writers would like their stories to be enjoyed by almost anyone who picks them up (that of course is a fantasy us writers like to conjure up), for the most part, we do have an imagined reader in mind. I've always been taught that a writer must always know their audience. And with that bit of knowledge, I hope that I produce books that my audiences will fall in love with.

When I write about boogers and boys having adventures at camp, I image my books being passed under the table in school, or a group of kids huddled in the corner of the library laughing their butts off at a particular line or passage that has totally cracked them up. The disapproving teacher Mr. Micheals or Librarian Robin (who both happen to be successful writers),walks up to them and tells them "shhh", because they are giggling loudly and uncontrollably, and are disturbing the class or the quiet atmosphere of the library. If they are in a classroom, the teacher Mr. Micheals may have to confiscate the book to regain order (He will only return it several days later, once he has read it, and has rushed out to the bookstore to purchase his own copy). If the naughty readers are in the library, after her third warning, Librarian Robin may ask them to leave. Of course they are welcome to check out the book, but please don't fight over it. The dispute is settled as all matters of importance are handled between the group of friends; a game of rock paper scissors.

The winner will turn the book in late because he couldn't quite part with it just yet (He will pay the fines of course). Librarian Robin looks at him disapproving, because the pages are crumpled since he slept with the book, and some of them are stuck together by a mysterious looking goo that happens to look a lot like boogers to her. He would smile sheepishly and ask her when does the newest book by Urania Smith come out. Librarian Robin informs him that she, Urania Smith, also writes fantasy for older people and has a new book out now, but her newest middle grade novel won't be out until next month. She also tells him that there is already a waiting list for that particular title. He is disappointed because he doesn't think he can wait that long, but agrees to sign his name to the waiting list anyway. While signing, he notices several familar names already on the list. The friends he beat to get the book he'd just returned! He wishes he could scratch their names off the list, but that nosy librarian is watching him like a hawk.

While leaving the library he sees two teenage girls laying down on the grass in front of the library reading. Their shoes are off their feet and they are totally engrossed in their books. He's curious about what has them so distracted and draws near enough to get a better look at the titles on the books. He freezes, shocked. He notices the name of his favorite author, Urania Smith, written in fancy letters below the titles. He moves along, but remains in awe at how she can write books for an ordinary kid like him and for silly teenage girls too. Then he remembers something the librarian had said when he'd checked out the book about a month ago: "Urania Smith is one of the most talented children's authors out there today."

He feels a tingle creep up his spine. Man, he can hardly wait to get his hands on her new book.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Twilight (Pirate) Moms

Please forgive me for my post not being as well-thought out as some of my fellow bloggers or written anywhere near as eloquently. I'm in Florida balancing two small kids and an agenda of Disney World, Sea Aquarium, Indian villages, and sand castle building.

There is a category of young adult fiction these days that appeals strongly not only to teenagers, but also to adults. Harry Potter and Twilight, of course, both made the crossover in a huge way, but I know a number of women who pick their reading material predominantly from the young adult shelves. And, it’s not because they are researching whether or not a book is appropriate for their children.

Most of their choices do seem to have a supernatural theme. (Shiver, Fallen, Hush Hush are favorites.) In other words, they are not picking the typical high school, Jill cheerleader books. But, what they do seem to like, aside from the fantasy, is the Romeo/Juliet aspect, good triumphing over evil. Age-old story lines with new twists. Good old-fashioned escapism with a great plot.

I guess my ultimate dream is to write a novel that is picked up by both teenager and mom. (Yes. I am writing for a female audience. Sorry, J.B.) That said, I also would like it to be something I wouldn’t mind my teenage girl (if I had one) reading. I'm not aiming to be edgy, just to wrap people up in a fantastic tale. Make them fall in love with my characters. Is it too much to ask that production start on Team Johnny and Team Gavin shirts?

And, if that's too tall an order, at least my own mom will read it and like it. (Or at least tell me she does.)

Perhaps I should go continue trying to make it out of my first chapter.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Imaginary Reader

Imaginary agents, never let you down, when all the others turn you away they’re around.

Imaginary readers never disagree, they always care, they’re always there when you need, satisfaction guaranteed.

Sorry, I was paraphrasing this really old song by Atlanta Rhythm Section that the phrase “imaginary reader” made me think of. The person for whom I imagine I am writing changes. If working on a picture book, I often imagine if my pre-school son would like it or if it is more problem-solution, I think of elementary students with whom I used to work, if it would be useful in some of their situations. If working on the YA (possibly adult) stuff, I have a vague imagining of an adolescent girl reading it, hoping that she would find the protagonist inspiring--to be independent and confident and not terrified of making a mistake, finding at least part of her identity before tying it to someone else. I purposely try not to imagine my adolescent self as the reader! Sometimes I do worry about friends or family reading it or parents of my son’s friends or former students because of language/violence/sexual content. Then I think how unrealistic that would be since I would never reach that broad an audience and I don’t ask friends or family to read anything I have written. whew.

It’s a big contrast from writing my grad school thesis, which I imagined just our professors and some classmates reading. When we next submitted for symposium I imagined the professors from other schools reading it. Then we won and were asked to submit for publication. I didn’t really imagine the journal editor reading it, just took her notes, and then did feel anxious about social workers, some of whom had participated in the study, across the state reading it. It was exciting that the participants would be able to see the results but a bit nerve-wracking opening ourselves up to questions regarding research methodology, statistical analysis, or the conclusions we drew.

If I write something I know I will bring to critique group, I only briefly consider my fellow writers reading it. That used to be scarier, but now I look forward to it because it’s so instructive and people want you to have good work. They bring different perspectives to the table--the funny part is when one person really likes how you did some specific part and another person wants you to change it completely. It’s really helpful when more than one person has the same reaction to a part of the story. Seminars and courses have taught me how to imagine editors and agents as the readers, and some editors and agents maintain blogs with great tips about what they look for. I think the writer takes that into account more when revising, not when writing the story originally, unless given a specific assignment from an editor.

More and more, I imagine myself as the reader. Sometimes my actual self just wants to throw it all out, but authors at workshops have suggested to never throw out anything you have written. Come back to it and maybe parts of it will work for you. So I try to imagine my future self reading something I wrote and deciding it wasn’t as awful as I initially thought, in fact, it might be something I could work with. Don’t censor yourself. I also ask myself if what I’m writing is something I would enjoy reading, if no one else ever saw it. Is it something I would go back to and read again or keep adding to? This question becomes important because I really don’t know if I do want to try to get my stuff published. (How Salinger of me, minus the previous literary credibility.) I do have that sense of once it’s out there, you can’t change it anymore. And then, of course, the imagined reader becomes real.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Writing in a Teen's World

"Why can't I wear that to school? Can I take the car? Why can't I see my boyfriend instead of study for the test? Clean my room?" These and many other questions are posed by my target audience almost everyday. Teens live in a world of questions, even though they want you to think they know all the answers. I love writing for teens because they are like adults only more open to new ideas. Most of them haven't made any major life decisions yet. Failure is possible but, they still have time to change. Teens are on the verge of everything. They are like a ball rolling uphill, but are building momentum as they near the precipice.

From the time kids leave junior high to the time they go off to college is only four years. Four years is nothing! They change dramatically in that time. Those four years make an indelible impact on who they are as an adult. Thinking of this makes me want to take every kid this age, and give them a big hug now to tell them they are worthwhile. As I try to give advice on growing up to the young people in my life, I just end up saying things like "Boys are stupid, that's why." or "Girls are mean." or "You are very lucky, you just don't realize it." It's a wonder they make it through the maze of puberty and into adulthood.

I think about my 16 year old daughter, her friends, and my old 16 year old self when I'm writing. That was a long time ago but some things don't change. Friends are still important; the feeling of wanting to belong is still strong, and any small thing that happens seems insurmountable. They swing on a pendulum from happy to sad. When my daughter is happy and having fun with her friends, I remember how care-free and exciting those days were for me. When she's not having a good day, I remember how I took things hard and sometimes didn't know how to cope. The teenage years are a complex web of emotions. Teens today have more pressure on them to succeed. They need the enjoyment and escape that reading can give. They need time to explore and feel the rush of knowing anything is possible. If I can give them a world to escape to when their boyfriend breaks up with them or their parents fly off the handle, then I've succeeded.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Come one Come all

Hmmm....I picture my readers as kids from 8 to 92 and above 92 not to exclude the life marathoners. (That's right I said marathoners) I picture that age range being able to follow the slam bang action and wonderment I hope to provide the world with my writing. Nestled around a bright Christmas tree wrapped up in a blanket immersed in the world I have created, is where I picture my reader.

Of course it would be an absolute joy to watch someone read my stories to see if they have an intense look, a crumpled forehead, or wide eyes. I just want to evoke emotion and provide the brain with scintillating prose. My hope is that when the readers have finished one of my books that they feel that there time was well spent. I hope that they would want more.

In conclusion, I don't write books just for kids, I write books for the kid in all of us. So the more the merrier.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Take me to your reader!

I find it helps when I am stuck to imagine who will be eventually reading the book I am writing. Inevitably the Book as Bedtime Story image flashes by, but I find more often I think in terms of a teacher or librarian with a group of children. That’s why I like to include funny noises, images that go beyond the pictures, and familiar feelings of the preschool or early grade school child. As I move into a new writing interest – the Story as Impetus for Learning – my mental image is the classroom corner where the book is the starting point for a unit, a taste of new information with imagination that I hope will spark a young learner to know more.

Since my first publications were written on assignment, I wrote mostly with the editor in mind. She set me the word count and specifics of the story, and I filled in the creative blanks. Imagine my surprise when it started to sell and I found out who was reading the Baby Bible Storybook! Babies loved the thick pages and grandmas loved the exceedingly cute art. I assumed someone read the words, as well. It sold a whole lot of copies (and the words “on assignment” mean I did not make a “whole lot” of money) and spent time on the Best Seller list in its particular category. I wrote variations like Baby Bible Animals and Baby Bible ABC without a lot of further thought for the chubby little hands that would hold it.

My awakening came when some books in the series were translated into other languages: French, Portuguese, Indonesian.

The picture shows a Spanish copy I hand delivered to a mission in Costa Rica.

Then I had a letter with the Arabic version (printed, of course, back to front!) stating that this particular translation would be used to teach reading to rural Egyptian children who would have no other books or schooling. It took my breath away!

So I hold one image of my reader, but wait to be delighted by where the words end up.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Of making many books there is no end.*

Each week stacks of shiny covers are unloaded and stand proudly on top of the shelves. Like a gourmet chef in a world of food, I am surrounded at the library everyday with the picture books that have made it past the slush pile, off the press and onto the shelf. I certainly view them with a writer eye as well as a purveyor-of-story-times view!

I consume critically, pictures first. Then I read the opening line. In the picture books world that one line is a substantial percentage of the story and has to be perfect. If it not good, the “reader” will not have the patience to go on.
Virtually all pictures books are the same number of pages so the amount of text, the interplay of text and pictures is key. Are the pictures an integral part or only decoration? More than two paragraphs on a page and it is suspect.
If it gets past those stages, I go to the ending. Only grandmas like “sweet” stories. Kids want to laugh and they want to be surprised. The bigger the twist, the better.

Most time the books get a “satisfactory.” As a tax based institution we buy only well reviewed books form the biggest publishers. Once in awhile I find one – usually on a particular niche theme like explaining mommy’s tattoo – that I cringe to share. How did this get published and my great story of a frog lies deep in slush!
And there is about one book a month over which I totally swoon – as a librarian, a writer, a nana, a human. At those moments I despair of getting Victor Javalina into print. Why, why, why didn’t I think of that storyline or play on words?

Well at least I know the competition is good and publishing, for all the bad economic news, is still turning out wonderful beautiful picture books.

* from Ecclesiastes 12:12

Thursday, March 4, 2010

The Way We Read

If you’re writing your own stuff, I think it changes how you read others’ work both consciously and subconsciously. In novels I would deliberately be looking for how an author uses transitions, her choice of words, how the characters are given distinctive voices, use of dialogue. I think it’s very helpful to look at how an author shows instead of just tells--like showing a character’s emotions versus just telling the reader “he felt sad,” or showing how a couple falls in love versus just telling the reader that they have and expecting it to be accepted. I am also interested in how an author gets the reader to root for the characters. One thing I did appreciate about the Twilight books is how believable it would be (at least for the first couple books) that readers would strongly cheer for Edward and also strongly cheer for Jacob. Interestingly, I found it sort of difficult to ever really root for Bella, the alleged protagonist. Oh! And a great thing for me to look at in novels--the very first sentence and the very first paragraph. So important to hook the reader (or editor to whom you submitted) right away. I attended a workshop Ophelia Julien did on writing supernatural themes, and she did a great job of addressing the first sentence/first paragraph.

Harry Potter--there are just so many things I liked about the series as a reader (talk about a character for whom to cheer--where is my ‘I heart Snape’ shirt?) but reflecting on it from a writing standpoint causes me to marvel all the more. People were SO invested in Harry! People will never forget him. Quite an accomplishment for Jo Rowlings, especially considering how much the series changed as it went on. The first book was so enchanting, painting such a detailed picture of Hogwarts and the world of magic. The books got darker and darker as Harry got older. I really liked the fifth book, but I did feel like I actually missed Hogwarts because much of the action took place at the ministry of magic or the headquarters of the order of the phoenix. A more specific aspect that I noticed is that Harry is present in almost every scene throughout the series. The story is through Harry’s eyes. Yet there are instances where Harry is not present, but the author still wanted the reader to be privy to the action. I am thinking of a scene (I think in the sixth book) in which Snape has an important conversation with Narcissa and Bellatrix. How did the author present this so that it didn’t jolt the reader out of the story?

I had a fairly strong reaction when reading a recent popular book about temporal displacement and a spousal relationship. As a reader I felt like I didn’t quite believe in the characters’ motivations, I was bored by all the tedious detail spent on surroundings that ultimately lent nothing to the story, and I found the death scene, while emotional, to be quite confusing as to what actually happened. From a writing standpoint, I thought “this is an interesting idea that could have been much better, where was the editor?”

I read The Notebook a long time ago, before I started taking writing classes. A sappy book but people loved it. Upon reflection, I think it would be useful to see how the author went back and forth between the present timeline and the story of the past (the story the elderly husband was telling his wife about how they fell in love in their youth). I think readers were invested in both timelines, wanting to see what happened and wanting to see if love does conquer all.

The way I read has changed the most regarding picture books. I have taken the suggestion passed on by Carmela Martino to type out the text of a picture book and study it that way, without the pictures. This has helped me see how a story can be told in well under the word count limit, how they effectively use sound effects words and repetition, where to let the illustrations elaborate on the words. But even in just reading to my son, I can’t help but notice many more details in picture books than I previously did. Sometimes I am excited to discover a book I hadn’t known before (The Dark, Dark Night or Jez Alborough and his crazy duck or a simple book about a little boy picking up all his trucks in his room). Other times I am just appalled and can’t believe something that seems so sloppy got published. When you read a picture book, you think it just came out of the author the way it is, it’s so simple, so few words, but the good ones take a LOT of work!

Obviously, as part of a critique group, the point is to critically evaluate someone else’s work. What a pleasure to actually enjoy reading all the works brought to be critiqued! And although they are all written for children--they have been so varied: picture books and poems, novels written for middle grades, YA novels, holiday themes, historical themes, adventure, educational, and pure fantasy. While I strive to be helpful in my comments, I know that seeing the choices the authors make and the elements with which they struggle is beneficial to my own writing as well.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

I've always liked Young Adult novels but now I'm reading even more just to learn from them. I'm reading supernatural thrillers to learn how to give the dream sequences in my novel a mysterious feeling and I'm looking at contemporary chic lit to know how to handle teen relationships. I'm constantly thinking about how other authors handle character's voice, plot, dialogue, setting, etc.

A perfect example of great character voice is The Help. I know it's not considered a YA novel, but it does have a broad appeal. The author makes each character shine and it's obvious by the dialogue, who's speaking.

Beautiful Creatures and Wicked Lovely give wonderful details, putting you in a world where the impossible is possible. I especially love when an author can do this with ease, giving me something to strive for. I love the Harry Potter series for the interesting interwoven subplots and wonderful characters.

I'm also finding some books that I believe are not worth publishing, one of which is totally disappointing because it's about a boy who doesn't know he's an angel, at least that's what I think it's about; I didn't get far before putting it down. The main character doesn't seem genuine and the dialogue is very awkward at times. I hate to say it, but it makes me feel good when I read a book I dislike, because I know I can do better. Is that wrong? I think I can almost learn more in seeing what not to do. It's also amusing to me to find typos in books; misspellings make me jump and say "Aha!". In Beautiful Creatures the author references a Victorian house that was built before or early in the Civil War, but the Victorian era really wasn't until after the war. I guess I'm discovering the importance of watching the details and being thirow. Oops! Spell check, I still have a lot to learn.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Reading as a Writer

Unlike some of my blog-mates, I haven't been writing fiction all that long, but in the past year and a half or so, I have found that reading isn't just for pleasure anymore (although it still is very pleasurable).

In my quest for a perfect first chapter for my own manuscript, I tend to browse stacks of YA books in the Borders, just reading the opening sentences. I also like downloading free chapter samples to my Kindle (Yes, I confess I have one and love it.) for the same reason. Of course, if the first page is very engaging, I end up hitting "buy now" and my research costs me money. I guess that is a sign the author did a good job with his or her opening paragraphs and is worth studying.

Carmela Martino encouraged us in a writing seminar to pick an aspect of writing, like back story, and track all instances of it in a novel. I do mentally make note of style, setting, things I like/dislike, but I admit that I haven't yet made my first attempt at this. I intend to try it because it makes sense. If one can see how back story is woven throughout the whole narrative, it might not be as tempting to get all the detail out up front, for example.

I also really enjoy reading what my critique group writes for our discussions. I find that I am learning a tremendous deal from their writing choices and the comments other people make.