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!
Spring's here, no doubt. The azaleas are blooming and bees buzzing, oak pollen turning cars green. All that activity woke my muse from her long winter nap, ending an excruciating dry spell. She's granted me three picture book stories and rough sketches for a dummy book. While attempting to resurrect last year's novel, the protaganist of my very first book appeared. I listened to her telling her story in my head for a week and finally gave her the floor.
That's the thing about stories. You can't always control them. I considered my first book a learning experience and wasn't sure I'd ever revisit it. But here it is revived. I spent a week digesting the original's weak plot and passive protaganist and brainstorming new material. Chapter one is roughly written and the story's unfolding bit by bit. There's so little of the first book in it, they're barely related.
Picture books aren't docile either. Once you step into that realm, ideas for new stories multiply. I've been working on a dog book for kidlitart's dummy book challenge. Last weekend, a new story popped up and wrote itself in one day. I thought, maybe I should illustrate this story instead. New stories always seem shinier than old ones. They glow with potential, especially since no one else has seen them. Then you take them to critique and before you even get there, doubt dulls their finish. Afterwards, no matter how high the praise, you know that story won't shine again without lots of polish.
But I'm not complaining. I'm happy to have something to polish and I'm learning to accept the mercurial fountain that springs stories to life, grateful for the words that come.
I'm not a person who handles creative productivity slumps well. So, with my latest novel project stalled, I turned to a picture book I'd written. The text could be improved but what it really needed was art. After a week of uninspired drawing, I headed to the library for resource material and came home empty handed. How is it that two local libraries lack books on Louisiana?
I'm trying really hard not to panic about the absence of my artist self. She'll come back. She has to come back. Art's been a vital part of my life since toddlerhood. I can't imagine my life without it. I thought back to those early years when horses ruled my drawing. Eventually, I added dogs and people to my portfolio. An idea surfaced. Why not go back to the subjects I loved to draw the most, horses and dogs, find the joy art used to bring me before it became a job.
I immediately knew the story I would write about a very special dog who grew up with a horse trainer. But I also knew I needed support. I've tried to go it alone the last few months and it just doesn't work for me. The January news from Florida SCBWI mentioned the Dummy Book Challenge, a guided sixteen-week process from story idea to finished dummy at kidlitart . I signed up before doubt interfered. Then I emailed Rob, the leader of my old picture book group, asking if they had room for one more. I'm waiting on their reply. Next step, gathering photos of my subject, who is now deceased. I don't have many but I know the ones I have will make me smile and I'm hoping . . . praying, that they make my fingers itch for a pencil and paper.
Is it really three days into 2012 already? Time is so sneaky. I meant to make resolutions but somehow they haven't solidified. Author, Julianna Baggott shared her enlightened goals on her blog, Baggott, Asher, and Bode . One of her resoultions was to revisit her vows every week and renew them. I don't think I'm disciplined enough to do that. I don't even like to look back at year's end to examine how many I achieved.
2011 battered the world. Oppressed nations erupted, Mother Nature attacked, and here in the U.S., discontent grew in the downtrodden masses. As the presidential election looms, candidates point fingers, fueling hate and further splintering a government that badly needs to unite. Despite the turmoil, I sense optimism for this new year. Is it just lingering holiday euphoria? Or upbeat predictions tossed from experts on TV? I hope not.
My writing suffered serious setbacks last year. Two novels stalled, resisting my best efforts to revive them. Three picture book projects await art and the artist in me is AWOL. I've always worked through dry spells in my art and writing with positive results, until now. By the end of 2011, I was feeling pretty desperate, so I could definitely use hope. My budget allows for no writing education or motivational conferences this year. But I have supportive friends and family, some of them writers who understand this process. And there's already a bright dot on the calender, my first published story, due in Highlights, May 2012. I'll look for inspiration where I can find it, including books . . . thank you, God for libraries! Maybe my first resloution will be learning to trust the dry spell will end.
Julie, my long-lost high school friend, flew in from New Mexico this weekend. Her visit tops any Christmas wish I could have imagined. We bond with childhood friends in ways mysterious and elusive to adults. In adolescence, Julie and I shared tender, sometimes raw moments as well as breath-gasping giddiness. Saturday and Sunday, we toured Tampa and Ybor City, the historic hispanic district. We ate superb Spanish cuisine, spotted herds of eclectic Santas and elves flocking to nightime events and fascinating wildlife at a local preserve, but nothing matched the stroll down memory lane.
At one point, Julie pointed to a group of young women huddling for a group photo and she said, "that was about the age we were when we saw each other last." I had deeply regretted losing touch with her and wondered where life had taken her. When we finally reconnected a few years ago, I discovered her path and mine divurged in many ways, except one: We shared a passion for writing. During her visit, the conversation often drifted to our stories. Julie is studying the craft at Sante Fe Community College and thanks to the internet, we trade work and offer each other feedback. It's incredible that our desire to learn the craft occured at the same time. Then again, our creativity was part of what bonded us in childhood. Julie is a master storyteller and I can't wait to see what she does with her talent.
It was hard to say good-bye to Julie. But I feel certain we treasure the renewed bond enough to stay connected and now that we've talked about our writing in person, we're even more motivated to encourage each other's efforts. Here are a few photos from our trip to Lettuce Lake Park . . . new memories, sure to become fodder for fiction.
Julianna Baggott's new adult/YA crossover, dystopian novel, Pure is due out February 8. On the Pure website, New York Times bestselling author, Danielle Trussoni describes the book as "a dark adventure that is both startling and addictive at once. Pressia Belze is one part manga heroine and one part post-apocalyptic Alice, stranded in a surreal Wonderland where everyone and everything resonates with what has been lost. Breathtaking and frightening. I couldn't stop reading Pure." Julianna's presenting a unique opportunity for astute readers, writers and anyone interested in the creation of books to join Pure's Inner Circle and be involved in the process of Pure's trilogy. You can read about it on her blog, Baggott, Asher and Bode.
And to celebrate the season, here are two photos we snapped this week: My Christmas cactus in full bloom and a peacock strolling through a neighbor's decorations.
My husband and I spotted this dementor/moss creature hybrid on our morning walk. I love the way its hair glows against the leaves. J.K. Rowling drew from her experience with depression when she created the dementors. She introduces the creatures in her third book, The Prisoner of Azkaban with Harry describing their effect as cold that reached inside his heart and Ron saying he felt he would never be cheerful again.
That sums up my mood as I dealt with Caroline Leavitt's review of my new book's first ninety pages. After almost two weeks, I've sorted her advice into: Totally Agree, Need To Think About It, and What? I can't find my story's start now. The emotional conflict departed with the first two chapters and the plotline driving the following eight chapters was destroyed. In other words, it's a train wreck. In order to continue working on the rest of the novel, I swept the wreckage into a metaphorical room and I'm not opening that door until the entire book is written.
But when that time comes, I'll want clear notes that help reconstruct the book's opening so I need to ask more questions. I hope I've recovered enough to respond to Caroline's advice with some objectivity. I like that she encourages questions. I imagine if she taught a physical class, there'd be lots of lively discussion. She has a good sense of humor . . . more Dumbledore than Voldemort. I'm not sure what I'll do with her suggestions that conflict with my previous learning. I was committed to that learning and its sources and I don't know Caroline well enough to toss it out. Maybe I need to shut the opposing views in another room and let them duke it out. I'm tired of wrestling with the issue and I have dementors to battle. Caroline offered advice from John Irving: If you don't feel you are on the edge of humiliating yourself or losing control of the whole thing, then what you're doing isn't vital. If you don't have some doubt of your authority to tell this story, then you're not trying to tell enough. I can't argue with John Irving.
That's a rain tree in bloom. In another couple weeks the yellow blossoms will morph into papery rose-colored seed pods, followed by an invasion of rain tree, seed-loving insects called Jadera bugs or soapberry bugs. The rain trees' brilliant show is one more sign Florida's easing out of summer.
But I digress. I should be writing about my mentorship. Correction. I should be working on the second hundred pages of my novel. I'd like to blame this lethargy on Monday. Truth is, I'm tiptoeing around my writer self, leery of undoing the flimsy bandaid that's holding her together.
Caroline Leavitt responded to the first ninety pages of my book with constructive criticism and a dollop of praise. She asked questions that drove me deeper into the story, addressed weaknesses in the plot and undeveloped characters, and encouraged me to ask questions. I digested the review and a few days later I responded to Caroline with more questions and some clarifying notes about plot and character motivation. So far, so good. Sure, hearing I started the story too early (meaning chapters one and two were trash) hurt. But I was feeling challenged and motivated and the story was growing.
Then, I got Caroline's response to my response. She liked some of the new plotlines and character development and she says this is a great story . . . at heart. Who doesn't want to hear their story's great? It's the caveat that worried me. That along with the rest of the comments that felt like they wiped out the other eight chapters I sent. It's amazing how fast the thrill of seeing ninety pages in print turns into the agony of imagining them shredded. I spent four days in a torrent, my brain spinning around and around the issues with no results. Yesterday, my brain shut down and I'm leaving it be. In the meantime, my story's stopped and I wonder, was this mentorship a mistake? Maybe I'm not ready for this level of criticism. I've only been writing for four years and my education's spotty. Maybe, I don't know enough to understand what Caroline's trying to teach me.
Trusting someone you've only just met with your book is hard. No matter how much you respect the person who recommended them and how shiny their credentials. When they ask you to put aside your doubts and believe in their instincts, it feels like jumping without a parachute. If their advice conflicts with what you've learned, you need a super hero's courage to jump from the plane. I've never worn a cape. Right now, I'm hiding in the bowels of the aircraft where no one can find me.
Look at that . . . there's blue sky and trees out there! I've been huddled over the computer for fourteen straight days, finishing ninety pages and a synopsis to send to my mentor, Caroline Leavitt. Today, I printed them and tomorrow I'll mail the package. It was so cool to see that stack of printed paper, the beginnings of a real book. It feels like an accomplishment. It's hard to get that sense from a computer file.
Two weeks ago, Caroline said to send the messy draft but I couldn't do it. The story had changed too much since I started. Plot lines had veered and I worried it wouldn't make sense. I thought, I'll just zip in there and tidy things up, a week, ten days tops, I'll be done. Uh-huh. Once I opened that door, the story took over. It whispered new thoughts, enlightened me about characters' motivations, tweaked scenes. I carried a notebook around, scribbling through the day and night. I'd edit ten pages; then each morning, I'd pull out my notes and revisit scenes. Finally, I stomped my foot, faced the story and hollered, "This isn't supposed to be a real revision!" And so it allowed me to finish what I started but only if I promised to keep taking notes for the REAL REVISION.
Day before yesterday, I faced the synopsis with headache-inducing dread. I started this book without an outline and so far the story's unfolded chapter by chapter. I have a clear image of the ending but the unwritten chapters in between are up in the air. After one-hundred pages, I feel I'm just getting to know my characters. The story arc isn't complete and it's unclear how conflicts will be resolved. I wasn't sure how to approach the synopsis and I can only hope what I wrote makes sense. As uncomfortable as the experience was, I'm glad to have attempted it at this stage. I think it will help when it's time to write one for queries.
This afternoon, I'm taking a break to catch up on friends' blogs and write this post. Tomorrow, I owe everyone and their brother an email. Friday, I pick up where I left off . . . Page 91.
I write middle grade and young adult books with a magical twist. I'm represented by the fabulous Leslie Zampetti of Dunham Lit.
Lorin Oberweger - Freelance Editor