Where's your favorite place to create? In your room at an easel or desk, on your bed or the floor? On a comfortable limb in a climbing tree, or underneath it, a sturdy trunk at your back?
To your left is the desk where I write. I didn't use to be this messy. When my work was drawing and painting, my studio was tidied at the end of each day. Before stories took control of my life, dust bunnies didn't breed under my furniture and weeds didn't rule my yard.
Now it takes a heroic effort to abandon my writing and focus on house or garden. And often, as I'm herding dust bunnies, the characters in my head demand I leave the dust and pick up a notebook. If I'm away from my computer for too long, I start feeling twitchy.
When I was a child, I'd create anywhere. Give me a crayon or pencil and scrap of paper, I'd draw and draw and draw. Busy restaurants, parades, grown-up parties, I didn't notice. I was one with my art. Then as I neared teenagerdom, I craved privacy. I drew in my room, on the bed or floor. But now the whole house is mine. It relies on me to keep it safe from dust and grime. My yard hopes I'll protect it from weeds and strangling vines. My husband hopes I'll remember to feed him and wash his clothes. The dogs don't hope anything. They never let me forget them for one second of the day.
I need my room at the back of the house where writing happens. Dogs are allowed but husband knows to tiptoe in the door and if my fingers are madly typing, he tiptoes out again. While the story streams from my mind to the keyboard, things pile up on my desk: books, manuscripts, notebooks, favorite birthday cards, photos of people I'd like to see more, and paper scraps where I jot important things. I've tried to fight the clutter. It returns within days. In fact, this post was meant to be about Spring cleaning. Alas, my desk still looks like the photo and it was taken weeks ago.
Truth is, a clean desk isn't important. Claiming your space is. Wherever you live, respect your needs as an artist and writer. Find the place and conditions that work best for you. Make time in every day, hunker down in that space and create. And if someone is screaming at you to clean up your room, draw the dust bunnies first!
Yesterday, I finished the fifth revision on my work-in-progress and sent if off to three invaluable readers. While I wait for their feedback, I'm pondering all I've gained from this book. Each novel is a journey. I learned the basics writing my first book. I knew nothing. Not point of view or how to format dialog or why all that lovely description puts young readers to sleep. I was as unpolished and new as new could be.
When I started this book, I had a couple conferences behind me. My writing toolbox seemed adequate, my confidence boosted by a contest win and a published story. But I was without a writing group and one-hundred pages in, I sent the manuscript off for professional review. Although the feedback was positive, the suggestions called for a rewrite I couldn't comprehend. My brain twisted into a knot trying to sort it out. In the end, I shelved the project and my creativity spiraled.
A year later, I was accepted into a most wonderful critique group. The story, of course hadn't let go of my brain. It had percolated into a nice, bubbly stew, begging to be restarted. So I did, ignoring the old version entirely. What I've written since doesn't even resemble it. And although I couldn't follow the professional's advice because I scrapped what she'd read, I did finally accept her wisdom and I think my work benefitted from it. So the first thing I learned during that painful year was even through the dry spells, there's growth. Just keep writing, keep trying, even if it feels like the worst writing you'll ever do. Even if it ends up in junk files. Write.
Another year has passed. I've written and revised the book and added to my toolbox. My critique partners challenge me to craft better sentences and paragraphs, to choose the right words and place them carefully. I listen now to the rhythms in the story, think about syntax and cringe at discords. My previously unstructured chapters now follow arcs, or they try to anyways, and my story strives to hit prescheduled points on a plot map: binding, low and turning. When I think of all I've learned through the writing of this book, I imagine my brain as a house with doors and windows wide open and knowledge sifting through. The greatest things is, the doors and windows didn't close when the book was finished. I'm primed for the next story, ready to learn what it has to teach.
I'm back from Eckerd College's Writer's in Paradise Conference and thought I'd share some of my notes, mostly the gems I hope to remember. Some of what I heard was a repeat of material I heard at the conference two years ago. But I realized while I was there that I learn in layers. Maybe we all do. Each lesson learned opens the door for deeper understanding of old lessons. The faculty and staff at Eckerd are fanatstic. They offer a packed week of energetic learning and motivation. I was honored to share my writing with the talented writers in my workshop. There's a sense that everyone there cares about growing your writing.
Ann Patchett was the keynote speaker so I'll start with my notes from her speech:
Ann Patchett: She spends a long time building a story in her head before she writes the first word. The book is the dead thing she creates from the beautiful story in her head. She's says we need to forgive ourselves for our inferior efforts to transfer that story to written word. Do the best you can and accept it. Every time she writes, she’s confronted by her lack of talent.
Learn to write a short story and you’ve learned to write a chapter. If you aren’t sure of a chapter’s thrill, make it short. If the chapter has material that readers can’t stop reading, make it long.
She writes the first draft chronologically so she discovers what the characters discover when they discover it.
Research either in the middle of the book or the end. Then forget it so you don’t have the urge to show readers all you know on the subject.
She uses the Visual Dictionary.
Daniel Woodrell: He studied Hemingway to learn to take readers inside the story in succinct sentences and paragraphs. He doesn’t know the heart of his story until he’s made two or three attempts. After fifty pages, he hits a groove and the chapter he’s writing feels like it’s connecting with the beginning; the story makes sense.
Don’t hype your characters or force plot on them. And don’t protect them. He fights an urge to defend his characters, to save their reputation, make them look good.
Each day, he reads all he's written of the draft before he types new words. Asked if he had 250 words written, did that mean he read all 250 words? His answer . . . yes. Mind blowing, isn't it?
Notes from Michael Koryta's Narrative Lecture:
Any word next to a period plays jazz.
Place shorter words and paragraphs at the points of greatest complexity.
For clarity, slow the pace. Short sentences make the reader read slowly.
Control the pace of the story with sentences. Long sentences create a flow that carries the reader down a stream of understanding.
Establish the conflict first; then paint the world.
If a character points out the shotgun on the mantle, that gun needs to play a key role later in the book.
Character’s emotion should change from scene to scene, arc from one emotion to another. It’s imperative that we see how events change the character. It’s not how the character works on the plot, it’s how plot works on the character.
Always increase obstacles and challenges, never decrease.
Look for scenes that can tie into the story as subplot. Subplots drive toward the main story.
Mark manuscript with Ds (dramatic/in-the-moment narrative) and Ss (summary) to measure the balance of show and tell.
To play with stretching and condensing time, write one to two pages about a small event (like eating an ice-cream cone); then condense a long chunk of time in one or two paragraphs.
A friend recently shared her disappointment over a loved one's lackluster response to a piece of her writing published in a literary journal. I understand her angst. A few years ago, I shared a story I was very proud of with friends and I was bewildered by their reaction. They seemed to have a hard time finishing the story, as if they were bored. Later, when that story won a contest, they asked, "what story was that?" They didn't even remember it.
My writer friend's experience made me wonder why normally kind, considerate people who clearly love us, respond insensitively to our writing. I tried to sit where they sat when they read those stories. First, none of them are writers. They have no idea how much a writer sweats over a piece. They can't envision the excitement at the start of a story, the anxiety waiting for feedback when it's finished and the grueling hours of revision. They haven't watched their email or snail mail for responses to submissions, cried over rejections and squealed when they read: We'd like to buy your story.
When non-writers read our work, they compare it to polished, published pieces. And not just any published piece. People read discriminately. They put down what they don't enjoy and tastes vary widely. I have friends who read nothing but non fiction, others who favor only one genre. Most of my friends are older and have no reason to read children's books. So, I imagine when I handed them a story meant for ages eight to twelve, they were also bewildered. How could they connect to a twelve-year-old protagonist's point of view or care that her conflict was successfully resolved in 750 words?
I don't share my writing with non-writers anymore unless someone asks (except for my husband, bless him!). It's kinder for all concerned. I do share my successes but I've tempered my expectations. Only writers can fully relate to this journey.
What is your writing process? I mean the physical process of turning your story into a document. Four and a half years ago, I sat down with a spiral-bound notebook and began writing a story. I filled that notebook and another and another with my first book. Then I joined a critique group which required legible copies of my chapters. Thus began my love/hate relationship with the computer.
The critiqued chapters stacked up. I noted the suggestions in a revision notebook. Then I sat down with a printed copy of the manuscript, the revision notebook and a pen. I scribbled changes in the white space, slogged back to the computer and pecked at the keyboard. That first book was rewritten a few times and I considered it a learning experience. As my writing grew, my process changed. I kept a notebook for each book, others for short stories and queries but each week I entered the new material into the computer.
I gradually abandoned the notebooks and for the last couple years, most of my work is typed on the keyboard. I still use the notebooks to jot story ideas and sometimes story beginnings but after a page or two, I'm cozied up to Microsoft. I feel like a sell-out, somehow. I'm a hands-on, creative type. I enjoy art touched by fingers and homemade crafts. I admire writers who wrote books by hand and poked at clackety typewriters. Several months back, I hit a wall in my writing and nothing I tried knocked it down, not plotting or character studies, not switching stories or genres, not even taking a break. Then I thought, why not go back to your beginning, dust off the notebooks, step away from the computer. It wasn't an instant fix but that notebook felt like an old friend and I did write in it. Now, I'm trying to stay conscious of my nature, take mini-vacations from technology and reconnect with pen and paper.
I'm blessed to have a husband who loves story as much as I do. He grew up in a reading household and he keeps a book within reach at all times. He also has a flexible mind. Which is a huge asset when I need to plot story.
I like to brainstorm away from the distractions of home. We walk a couple miles every morning and story often accompanies us. It usually starts with a plot point; a snag or stall. This morning, I had reenvisioned the beginning of a YA book. I shared it with my husband and we began to fill in the empty spaces. Birds trilled, frogs croaked, and peafowl honked. We automatically waved at passersby leaving for work. Our feet carried us down the path, while our minds plotted story.
We stopped briefly to check out the creek, flowing after recent rains, and again the marshy field where last week we spotted a mallard and her seven ducklings. Then our chat continued to the rhythm of our steps. The subject was apocalyptic. When I finally looked up several houses from our home, I laughed at us, the frumpy, middle-aged couple plotting the worlds' destruction on our bucolic walk.
Sometimes, we brainstorm story in the car, losing track of our destination until one of us blinks at the road and announces, "We missed the turn!" At the cafe where we like to eat breakfast, I force myself to focus on the waitress until our order is served. Then story is tossed across the table, seasoning our food with plot. It's no wonder so many authors acknowlwdge their spouses and children on the inside covers of books. Family--good listeners and eager plotters--deserve credit for their part in the story.
In April I attended a workshop led by author and writing coach extraordinaire, Joyce Sweeney. The workshop focused on character but Joyce also critiqued first pages. Since many attend summer conferences where first pages are often reviewed, I thought I'd share what I learned from Joyce about that all-important start to a book.
This is my fifth year dedicated to learning to write and beginnings still feel like my nemesis. I revisit them repeatedly, experience "aha" moments when I think I've found the perfect opening only to see it dashed in critique. How do you accomplish all that's required in two-hundred and fifty words? Readers need to meet the protaganist and it isn't a casual introduction. They want to know their personality, age, their goal and conflict, where they live and when. They might also meet secondary characters. They'll need to know their relationship to the main character and what distinquishes them. For that reason, I try to keep the characters on the first page to a minimum. You don't want readers scratching their heads over who's who.
On top of all that, the opening reveals the event that changes everything for the MC, the moment that sets the story in motion. That moment might be your HOOK! (yes, it is spoken in capitals. With an exclamation mark). Writers learn early about the need to snatch readers and reel them in. Huge units of brain power are burned trying to create irresistible openings. You have one, maybe two paragraphs to convince readers to buy your book. So, you promise thrills or chills or mind-shifting worlds. Which brings me to the first new tidbit I gleamed from Joyce's feedback: Genre should be evident from the start. If you're writing a ghost story, introduce spooky; if it's dystopia, show us the altered world; if contemporary, place us in the now. This is something I've ignored. I focused on character, conflict and setting, expecting readers to discover genre on the next pages. It's seems obvious now . . . if I'm expecting sci-fi and I find none on the first page, why would I read the book?
The second discovery I made at the workshop was about character introduction. Readers need to relate to the main character, even want to be the character. So Joyce advised against showing their big flaw on the first page. The example she read opened with a protagonist who vomited when she was nervous . . . and she did it on the first page. It was a well-written scene but would you turn that page? You want the reader to like/admire/feel-compelled-to-follow the character before you introduce flaws that make them gag on the chocolate they're munching.
First page reviews at conferences and workshops offer authors professional feedback. Eventually, your book will be submitted to agents and publishers and the industry is too overworked to read past a manuscript's unimpressive start. In my opinion, even people who choose non-traditional publishing benefit from first page critiques. We all want the same thing . . . to write books readers enjoy. So, I'll keep learning what I can about these vexing beginnings. Do they trouble you too? What advice has helped you improve them?
I recently tried to explain voice to a non-writer. I mangled the subject badly, prompting this post . . . an attempt to clarify my understanding of the term.
Publishing pros call for books with strong voice, a voice readers can relate to. For me, that voice is the narrator in my head that begins each story (for simplicity, let's assume the main character is always the narrator). The MC whispers a scene. One scene leads to another and as the story develops, so does the character. Their voice grows stronger, more distinct. By the end of the book, I know their history, their quirks, their secret dreams and greatest fears. I know how they talk and move. Most importantly, I know how they view and react to the world.
The challenge for writers is to translate the MC's point of view into words. From the opening sentence on the first page, the narrator is on stage. Joan Bauer's Hope Was Here starts: Somehow, I knew my time had come when Bambi Barnes tore her order into little pieces, hurled it in the air like confetti, and got fired from the Rainbow Diner in Pensacola right in the middle of lunchtime rush hour. That sentence defines the narrator as a keen observer and gutsy optimist who's looking for opportunities. I also sense she has a sense of humor from her colorful description of the ticket-shredding incident. Hope's personality, her voice, comes across loud and clear and I know from the opening, I'll love seeing this story through her eyes.
Protagonist's voices rise from a writer's experiences and you could say, each are versions of the writer's personality. But in order to fully realize the MC, writer's must be willing to face their own fears, prejudices, and fantasies; to explore unknown territory. The narrator should be free to have habits we dislike and think things we wouldn't. Their voice should speak the story without interference. Writers can't be cowards. Last year, a contemporary book I was working on stalled when I faced scenes I wasn't ready to write. Skimming through them with a watery version of the MC's point of view would have been a waste of time. I've restarted the book and I'm gathering courage. If I can't be true to the voice, I won't have a story worth telling.
In children's books, voice must be age appropriate. Many picture book writers capture the youngest readers with lovable characters who do laughable things. Middle grade readers are still dependent on their parents but they expect protagonists who solve their own problems without adult assistance. Middle grade voice is my favorite . . . straddling vulnerabilty, awkwardness, and the edge of maturity. Older teens are strongly influenced by hormones and the need to forge their own path. Most MC's in young adult books deal with love on some level and independence. The young adult voice runs the gamut from sweet to dark and gritty. Unlike those who write for adults, children's writers must tailor their story through a voice authentic to the intended reader.
One last thing about voice. Once the book is published, readers bring their voice to the page and how they experience the story is out of your control. At an SCBWI conference, author and creative motivational speaker Lisa McCourt shared her poem about the reader's voice. In it she says :
. . . It is your voice
saying, for example, the word barn
that the writer wrote
but the barn you say
is the barn you know or knew.
Recently, Rob Sanders of Picture This! challenged his blog readers to gather story ideas from their backyards. Ah, the great outdoors. Right now in Florida, color is bursting through the grays and browns of winter. Add to that the intoxicating scent of orange blossoms and the drone of bees pollinating and . . . I'm sorry, what was I saying?
It's nearly impossible not to be distracted by Spring. Every year, I succumb to its call and fight its effects through the beginning of May when summer claims the Sunshine State. Sometimes, I take my work outside to the porch, thinking the fresh air will be invigorating. And it is! But the wrong senses are stirred. My brain wanders away from the story and into the garden. The dogs feel it too. They whine at the door, begging to go out to dig and chase bees, lizards, squirrels - anything that moves. I long to dig too, nesting seeds in the earth, and to romp like dogs do, without fear of anyone thinking you're silly.
I admire Rob's spirited challenge to find inspiration in the backyard. He's a very industrious fellow and no doubt, he's already developed stories from his nature walk. But until there's a vaccination for Spring Fever, I best do my writing indoors.
We writers spend so much time alone with our story characters, we feel awkward in the presence of humans. Despite our insecurities, we attend conferences and critique groups, partly to ease our craving for social contact. I believe most writers benefit from peer support, especially when they're submitting and facing those confidence-crippling rejections.
I have several friends who are submitting manuscripts to various venues, some without the support of critique groups. I feel for them and it makes me even more grateful for my group. For me, nothing beats a physical group, the sincere advice, sympathetic coos and enthusiastic cheers offered in person. But when I submit, my insecurity rises to atomic level and I need additional support. Two children's writer's venues I've found extremely useful are the Verla Kay and Society of Childrens Book Writers and Illustrators' discussion boards. On Verla Kay, members can post questions in threads covering topics like genre, marketing, and craft. VKers helped me shape an agent-worthy query and while I waited, I researched query response time on their agent list. Some VK members are published authors who generously share their experience. Once, I was thrilled when Maggie Stiefvater answered my question and that was after she'd became a YA fantasy star.
SCBWI offers a similar discussion venue but you must be a paid member to participate. Most serious children's writers join the organization which has been the hub of my writing community, supporting regional critique groups and conferences. SCBWI's website provides helpful resources for beginning writers and grant opportunities. Writers use the discussion board to form physical and online critique groups, network, inform and learn. When I sold my first story, I sought clarification on contract terms and received a helpful response from a legal expert on SCBWI.
I'm sure there are other valuable websites dedicated to the children's writing community. The best thing about virtual venues is showing up just as you are and not worrying about bed hair or that coffee stain on your shirt. I've found the online writing community kind and encouraging, so no excuses, come out of your cave, turn on the computer and click!
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.
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