That photo is hard for me to look at because of the feelings it evokes: sadness, loss and longing. Photos do that. So can books.
I recently did a workshop with screenwriter and New York Times best selling author Stephanie Storey. What struck me in her talk was the emphasis on bringing EVERYTHING when depicting emotion in a character. It's easy to capture emotion in a photo of beloved dog.
In writing, it's so. Hard. To. Do.
My critique group partners and I talk about this all the time. We love books because of the emotional connection, but we struggle to write emotion in depth. In a recent Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators Insight interview, author Stephanie Garber said that it isn't a colorful cover or favorite genre that makes us keep reading a book. It's the feelings we connect with. She believes feelings are the heart of books.
Although I love novels with fantastic world building and intriguing plot, I agree with the Stephanies. What keeps me reading past midnight, what makes me slow down when I near the end, what makes me long for more pages, is my relationship with the character. I want to love a character so much, I dread every bad moment. I want to fight not to close my eyes when danger threatens. When their heart is broken, I want my tears to be unstoppable, and when they triumph, I want my heart to soar.
I think most writers try to achieve this and most succeed on some level. But few accomplish a heart-stealing read. I repeatedly ask myself why. I WANT, yes with capital letters, want to write that kind of book. But how do I make that happen?
Stephanie Storey goes to great lengths to explore her character's emotions. She visits museums as her character, takes online personality tests, even sees a therapist as her character. She says writers need to bring their deepest, most vulnerable feelings to the page. The part of themselves they're afraid to show to others. Those feelings are what make characters real.
So easy peasy, right? Bringing everything means revisiting places in ourselves we'd rather forget. It means remembering painful moments in great detail. So, no, it isn't any more easy or fun than looking at a photo of a dog I lost at a difficult time to a pain-riddled disease. But for books that stay with readers long after they return to shelves, we must go there.
Book reviews are helpful to writers and readers. I've been a lazy reviewer in the past, so in an effort to become a more consistent reviewer, I'm hoping to post one a month.
Today, I'm featuring VINCENT AND THEO, THE VAN GOGH BROTHERS by Deborah Heiligman. It won ALA's Excellence in Fiction and Printz honor awards for 2018 and I can see why. Besides books on writing craft, I don't read a lot of nonfiction. But the artist in me couldn't resist this book.
It's thick (409 pages), but the chapters are short and mesmerizing and their complimented by Van Gogh's sketches and paintings. It's clear from the start, this author immersed herself in the life of these brothers. The biography is based on the enormous volume of letters Theo and Vincent exchanged. It's a tragic story, but also one of hope and endurance. Vincent's mental illness is portrayed with honesty and sensitivity, as is Theo's poor health from syphillis. Vincent's devotion to his art and the brothers' devotion to each other transcended the tragedy in their lives. When you finish this book, you'll want to set it down gently and find a quiet space to let it settle in your soul.
Writers invest a lot of time learning their craft. We study books and blogs and attend talks by authors, editors, agents and teachers, all in an effort to write better stories. We hear pretty much the same advice from everyone:
Never Open Your Book With A Dream
Avoid Backstory Whenever Possible
Shun Passive Verbs
Balance Dialog, Action and Internality
Get Rid Of Adults (for children's writers)
We listen. We take their advice to heart. We work to present dramatic stories with dynamic verbs and sparse backstory. We avoid sleeping scenes with even a hint of a dream. Then apologizing to our beloved parents, we kill off the adults. We advise our critique partners to attack every instance that doesn't follow the rules and we slash the offending sections.
So, it's with utter dismay that we pick up the latest award-winning novel and discover it opens with a dream and pages and pages of backstory, or the author uses to-be verbs in every other sentence, or most of the story focuses on adults. I used to frown at these books, scratch my head. Fellow writers and I would discuss the mystery. How did these books get published when they break the rules we've been taught?
What I've come to understand is that great books tell a great story. Period. Readers don't know the rules and they don't care. And when it comes right down to it, neither do publishers. No doubt, they want writers to know their craft. They want them to write the best book they can with bonus points for beautiful language and style. But compelling story and voice is what sells books.
When I was an art student, we were told, learn the rules, then you can break them. So that's my advice to new writers. Study, learn the rules and apply them. Practice, practice, practice. But don't ever let rules get in the way of your creativity. When you write a first draft, kick them out of your head and let the story flow. Focus on what makes your story original. Run wild with its uniqueness. Tell it the way only you can. The rules will be waiting in your handy dandy toolbox when you revise. Apply them with care, where needed. They should always make your story better. If not, put them aside.
Authors are often asked where their stories come from and they give a variety of answers: dreams, memories, an event that rattles the insides of their brains and demands to be honored, like the bombing of New York's twin towers.
Kelly Barnhill, who recently won the Newbery Award with her middle grade book The Girl Who Drank the Moon, talked about the book's origins in Publisher's Weekly. She said an image of a swamp monster spouting poetry sparked the story idea. That image percolated and mixed with her interest in how people see the same thing differently, and her setting was inspired by a trip to Costa Rica.
I think most stories evolve like that. A seed's planted, then another and another, growing a jungle of words in our heads. They have to get along at some point, come together in a cohesive way and they have to make us ask "what happens next? That's when our fingers start typing.
The book I'm working on now started with drawings I did of fantasy figures I saw in the wood floor of an old house my husband and I were restoring. I imagined a lonely girl finding those figures and the story was born. Another book grew from a longing to commemorate the days I spent riding and training horses and the last book sprang from living in a dynamic urban neighborhood.
I like to hear the main character's voice in my head before I start, but I'm not always that lucky. Sometimes, I have to write for a long while before that voice emerges. Since I'm a visual person, setting is vitally important. I need to see the world first, to understand the geography, the buildings and environment. If I try to write without that, the world doesn't feel real.
My critique partners and I have discussions about describing our characters. Should we be specific, so readers have clear visuals, or should we be vague so more people can identify with the characters. I rarely know much about my character's physical description at the start of a story. For me, physicality is not nearly as important as personality.
Let's not forget plot and conflict. It's what drives the story and I've learned the hard way not to start a story without knowing the protagonist's goal. If you have a story screaming to be written and you don't know the main conflict, take a deep breath, take a walk, take the time you need to figure that out. Explore issues that are important to you, like Kelly Barnhill's interest in the way people's perspectives color their world. Ask yourself how your interests and concerns might shape your character's world. Then ask what your character wants and what's the worst thing that could happen. Now, you have the start of a solid story.
What are you waiting for? Start typing!
Before readers launch into a literary journey and spend hours and hours reading a story, they must be charmed or fascinated by the protagonist. It helps if the character is funny or feisty. Everyone likes feisty. Feisty faces the world with chin up and eyes blazing. Readers can't wait to see what that character gets up to and they believe whatever she faces, she'll be up to the task.
It's tougher to start a story with a protagonist who's downhearted and pessimistic. In her excellent book The Magic Words: Writing Great Books for Children and Young Adults, Cheryl Klein likens the experience to listening to a negative person at a party who goes on and on about their bad luck and how it never changes. Who wants to spend time with that person? She says negative, defeated characters are unappealing. If you start a story with a protagonist who's downhearted, it's vitally important to show they're resilience and assertiveness. Immediately! And humor counts double in this story.
So, guess who starts every book with a dispirited, passive person?
Yep, that would be me. My muse NEVER imagines characters who wake up on the right side of the bed with a sword drawn to vanquish their enemies. In my critique group The Skyway Writers, my critique partners know I always want their eyes searching for the passages where my character lacks assertiveness. They help me see when she's reacting instead of acting, passive instead of active, finding problems instead of solutions and embracing defeat instead of believing in victory.
I think most writers tend to pen protagonists with personalities that echo their own. If you're not a witty and daring optimist, that doesn't mean you can't create appealing characters. You just have to dig deeper, find the parts of you that believe in miracles and have the courage to overcome the most dreadful events. Write the character you hope to become!
Do you have a story, essay, photograph or painting you'd like to share with peers across the country? Teen Ink is a magazine featuring work by teens, and only teens. You can submit throughout the year and they consider every submission for publication. They have contests for Cover Art, Fiction, Nonfiction, Poetry, Educator of the Year (you nominate your favorite teacher), Environmental, Travel and Culture and Community Service.
If you're 13 -19, Teen Ink is looking for your writing and art: serious, funny, long or short, they enjoy it all. Be sure to send holiday-themed pieces months ahead of the holiday. Nonfiction winners are published each month in print and online. If your submission is accepted, you receive a free copy of the issue featuring your work and a choice of merchandise from their store.
If they accept your stories or art, Teen Ink and its partners and affiliates become the owners, with the non-exclusive right to publish your work in any format, including print, electronic, and online media. That means they can reuse it today or years from today. But you retain the right to submit your work for non-exclusive publication any where and any time you wish. So, if you see another magazine or contest you'd like to submit to, you can.
A word of caution: some magazines and contests only accept work that hasn't been previously published. So any time you submit your work, ask yourself if you'll be satisfied with the rewards offered. Being published in a national magazine that's available in classrooms and libraries is a pretty significant accomplishment. If you're interested in making art or writing your career, that publication credit will impress colleges and the people you hope to sell your work to. And every piece of writing or art we share with the world, makes a positive difference.
No kidding. Yeah, the word has a rigid appearance. If it could speak, it would sound snooty and authoritative, and I doubt it's on anyone's favorite words' list. But it's a tool successful artists and writers count on to get their work done.
When I was younger, I believed creativity happened when the muse struck. Like one glorious, spring day, you wake with an idea and an urge that can't be denied, and the work pours from you in an inspired frenzy. I didn't seriously wait for spring, but I did create based on urges.
Then I started painting portraits for a living. Deadlines loomed. Payment depended on me producing portraits and the more I produced, the more I got paid. So, I learned to work, every day, three hours in the morning, three in the afternoon. Six hours a day is the magic formula for me.
Every artist and writer is different. Author Gary Schmidt writes five hundred words a day, then he stops, no matter how excited he is by the story. Some people are most productive before dawn, some late at night. Some need music, others silence. What's important is finding what works for you and making it a habit.
The only way to do that is by honoring your creative time. Put it at the top of your list and guard it fiercely. Don't let other bits of life shove it aside. I know, I know, that's hard to do. Friends are calling and texting and there's always something fun happening. But when your optimum creative window approaches, hide your phone, your iPad, your laptop. Lock yourself in a room with just you and your art.
Paint. Write. Even if you're not inspired. It won't be brilliant every day and some days you'll think it's trash. But everything you produce is worth the effort. Every jot leads to the next jot. Award-winning artists and writers don't always love what they do or what they create, but they keep showing up at their desks and easels. Because they know a day will come when what they produce makes them smile from the inside out. Those are the days we live for.
This year, I'm focusing LikeWise posts on opportunities for teen artists, writers and readers to showcase their talents. I'm starting with The Scholastic Art and Writing Scholarships. Established in 1923, it gives senior high students access to over $3.5 million in scholarships from local institutions and $10,000 individual scholarships at the national level. Silver medal awardees can earn $1000, and selected works will be featured in the National Catalog and The Best Teen Writing anthology.
Students from grade 7 through 12 can apply for awards in twenty-two diverse categories, from comic art and sculpture to flash fiction and novel writing. Anyone enrolled in a North American educational system can apply, including home schoolers and those attending American or Canadian schools abroad. Students are encouraged to explore topics freely. No work will be excluded because of content.
Contest deadlines vary by region and there's a handy form to determine your deadline on the website. When I typed in my zip code, it said the deadline in my area for the 2016 awards was December of last year. But the contest for 2017 opens for everyone in September. That gives you plenty of time to dream up a new project or polish one you've already created. In the meantime, check out previous winners on their website and get inspired on their blog. And if that's not enough to stoke your artistic fire, check out this video of the 2015 award ceremony. Wow, oh, wow. They really know how to honor.
I love learning. School learning, book learning, workshops, hand-me-down knowledge, if you're teaching something I'm passionate about, the loading dock in my brain is eager to receive it. Studying craft is vitally important to developing my art and no matter how accomplished I get, I never want to stop growing.
But all that learning can interfere with the creative process, especially if you're a perfectionist like me. When the voices in your head won't let you write a sentence without nagging . . .
Do you really need that adjective?
Shouldn't there be a comma there?
You're using the word just again?
When you doubt the book before the first draft of the first chapter is written . . .
Hasn't this story already been penned by someone who did it brilliantly?
My version will never live up to theirs.
When messages about syntax, character arcs and pacing interfere with the creative stream, it's time to pack all that learning in a box and shove it behind a locked door in your brain.
I've been reading books on writing by James Scott Bell (yes, yes, more learning). He talks about the single most powerful element in good fiction being the joy the writer brings to telling the story. That jolted my artistic heart. I thought about all the books I love, about how from the first word, I feel I'm sitting with a powerful storyteller. Their joy in writing that tale sings from the pages.
After reading Bell's words, memories rose of getting so lost while drawing or painting, the world around me disappeared and I'd lose track of time. The first couple years of writing, my stories came like that. Creativity erupted whenever a quiet moment occurred and was stoppered only long enough to take care of life. Then I learned HOW TO WRITE and HOW MUCH I DIDN'T KNOW. All that learning slowly smothered my creativity.
So my one and only new year's resolution is to rediscover the joy in my art. It's not easy shutting out lessons once you've learned them. But I'm hoping to do that and if you're feeling stifled, I encourage you to do the same. You can invite those critical voices back when you finish the first draft. They'll be more than happy to help you polish and shine. That's the best part about learning, it's there when you need it.
This time of year life seems to speed up. There are so many scribbles on the calendar, it's hard to keep track, and 2016 urges our brains to charge ahead. Between festivities, gift-giving and gatherings, we creatives struggle to balance work and play.
If you have a project due, like a book publishers are waiting on, you're probably huddled in a hidey hole, curtains drawn, ears stuffed with cotton and a towel crammed under the door to drown out holiday music and the smell of baking cookies. You finish a day's worth of edits and crawl out of your cave, then dress for the party you wouldn't dare miss, if only your head wasn't filled with plot. But as your significant other shows off his eye-popping Christmas sweater, your brain sneaks back to story. And there it is, the perfect twist for that boring scene you couldn't figure out! Your fingers itch to type. You can't wait to get home to your computer. But
. . . you glance at your beloved, now singing off-key carols with friends and family.
They laugh and roll their eyes at your unfocused look. But they get it. They understand the creative process commandeers our brains, and they love us anyway. So you stay at the party. Life is not all about art, even when there are deadlines. And tomorrow, bright and early, it's you and the cave and the book.
If you DON'T have a publisher breathing over your shoulder, set your work aside and enjoy the holidays. Creativity needs down time. It's fueled by the life we engage in, including manic shopping with strangers wearing bells and blinking sweaters, and making a mess of your kitchen with people you love. January 2nd, when the confetti is swept aside and a new year stretches before us, we'll pull up our story files, set a canvas on the easel and create.
Whatever holiday you celebrate, focus on love. It flows more freely this time of year, so open your heart, give and receive, store the good feelings to fuel your next year.
I write middle grade and young adult books with a magical twist. And creatures, always creatures. I'm represented by the fabulous Leslie Zampetti of Dunham Lit.
Lorin Oberweger - Freelance Editor