Monday, July 28, 2008


Writing is a journey down many different roads.

The process of writing is itself a journey. The story, book or article may begin with a quick idea when hiking in the hills or waking from a dream or during a concentrated search for inspiration or information when siting at a desk. The story takes form and changes over time, following a hard journey to completion and its end.

Training to become a writer is a journey - on the long route from the first earnestly written lines of a child to a complete novel of an adult, from learning basic grammatical and writing skills, reading and reading, keeping journals, writing and writing, polishing language, working at the craft, to mastering plot, and setting, and breathing life into voice.

The character, brought into being by the author, takes his own life journey through the pathways of the story. Through trials and tension, strength of character, or lack of it, he is propelled along the road of plot to the climax of the story and to journey's end.

During the journey of actual writing frequently the author's trail is arduous and difficult. But at other times, the immersion in the creative process is joyous and the road turns exciting when a satisfying story end is reached.

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Friday, July 25, 2008


There is an article in this week's NEW YORKER magazine entitled "The Eureka Hunt, Why do good ideas come to us when they do?" about the science of the "insight experience", discovering exactly what goes on in the brain when people have "Aha!" moments. It is a long, complicated article referencing medical studies involving fMRI brain scanners, EEGs, and anterior superior temporal gyrus. Most of it I didn't understand. But what I did understand was the "Aha!" moment itself.

As I've confessed, I've been lazy this summer -- unambitious, unmotivated, uninspired. Until Monday. On Monday I began to write. I was inspired by the post by J.L. Finnell and particularly by Robin's comment about the glass being half full. Was it an Aha! moment or simply a swift kick in the pants? Whatever it was it worked. I parked myself at the computer Monday morning and started writing. My character started talking to me, slowly at first, but steadily. And then a new character popped into my head (he'd been there before but not fully formed) and now he won't shut up!

I wonder what was going on in my brain when I read Robin's comment. Was my right anterior superior temporal gyrus stimulated, or was it my left? Why did her comment strike me as so inspiring? Why would such a simple statement (no offense, Robin), makes such a huge impression? It's made me think about my writing, and what inspires me. What makes me want/need to write despite the disappointments, rejections, and frustrations? I don't know. All I know is that the Aha! moments happen. They are real and glorious. And as long as that happens, the glass will always be half full.

Thank you J.L. and Robin!

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Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Quiet Down--I'm Trying to Read

Yep. We all know it's true. A strong voice is vital to a strong manuscript. Many notable editors believe voice is the one important writing element that can't be taught. You either have it or you don't. And nowhere is the voice stronger than in two formats currently enjoying success in YA: the first person "monologue" and the diary. When I read a book written in either of these formats the voice is often as loud as a leaf blower on a Saturday morning. I may want to know what happens next, but sometimes I wish someone else could tell me. Does anyone else agree that sometimes the voice is just too loud?

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Saturday, July 19, 2008

How High Would You Go?

This question popped up on my AOL screen the other day in a quiz about “famous losers”: Which thriller novelist had his first book rejected 28 times? To see the answer, take the jump.

It’s John Grisham. AOL went on to say, “Grisham has been coined by the media as one of the best novel authors alive in the 21st century. However, his first manuscript, A Time To Kill, was rejected by 16 agents and 12 publishing houses before an unknown publisher agreed to publish it.”

I once read that Madeleine L’Engle’s classic, A Wrinkle in Time, was rejected 26 times. She said she almost quit writing at age 40 because her writing career was going so badly. If you search the net, you’ll find plenty of other rejection stats for books that ultimately went on to become best-sellers.

On Verla Kay’s website, there’s a thread called “So ready to concede failure” where writers talk about how many rejections they had on a project before it was accepted by an agent. One writer had a whopping 101 rejections over 15 months before landing an agent. Another, 99 rejections before getting one.

Personally, so far I’ve received nine rejections on my manuscript--four were on queries alone, five were on requested fulls or partials based on reading the first three chapters. At the time it seemed like a lot. After reading about the triple-digit kiss-offs on Verla Kay, however, it feels like I’m just getting started.

I recently got a request from an agent to cut 50 mspp., so I stopped submitting to cut and revise. I’m almost ready to go back into submission mode. Of course, I’m optimistic the agent will want it. And if not, the one after that. If I weren’t, I wouldn’t be putting myself through all of this angst. Still, I can’t help wondering: if this agent passes, and then the next, how much longer do I give this project before I give up? Twenty-six rejections? Or do I go all the way to 101?

My question to all of you is, does anyone have a magic number for this? What’s the maximum number of rejections you’d endure before you tabled a project for good? When is it time to stop telling yourself, “Who knows, maybe the next submission will land me Agent X or a sweet deal at Publishing House Y?”

Your numbers, please.

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Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Lazy Days of Summer

"Summertime....and the living is easy" Life is easy in the summer. It's laid back, less hectic, relaxed, and yes, less productive. Summer has always been a slow time for me, writing-wise. Maybe because the kids were home, in and out, always needing something, and we had no schedule. I can't use that as an excuse anymore - one of my kids doesn't live at home anymore and the second one sleeps until noon and doesn't need me when he wakes up anyhow! So, what's my excuse??

I think it's a mind set left over from my own school days when summer was pure innocence and laziness. We slept late and played hard, and the family rules were loosened. We didn't have to be home by the time the street lights went on. We were free. Summertime was sacrosanct. The problem is, I'm not a kid anymore. It goes against my grain to sleep past 7 AM. The laundry, grocery shopping, household chores still need to be done and, surprisingly, my family still expects food on the table at dinnertime.

So it seems, the only area of my life where I can still be lazy and free is in my writing. I haven't done much since mid-May. Now, in my defense, May, June, and the first part of July were crazy hectic in my life. But all is calm now. I should be writing. I should be smoking up the computer, and spending hours with my new character. I an going to make a schedule, a specific time of day when I write. No laundry, family chores, or spider solitaire! I am committed. Writing is now sacrosanct.

I'll let you know how it goes in September.....

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Monday, July 14, 2008

Sometimes Short & Simple Is Harder

Recently I had a thirteen-word poem accepted by Babybug magazine. This four liner about building a snowman had as many drafts as the myriad seeds in a milkweed pod. The rhythm and rhyme had to be perfect. The plot had to appeal to an active two-year old. No uneven meter, slant rhymes, or description sans action. Tall order. Where did I go for inspiration?

Mother Goose. Confession time! I cribbed from the concept and cadence of "Pat-a-cake, pat-a-cake, baker's man." Rhythm? Rhyme? Action? Most of Mother Goose excels in all three - the reason for her lasting appeal.

I'm working on a new poem about bathtub boats. Perhaps I'll call upon the Mother Goose Muse again. This time the action might be splashing to make waves. Or pushing a boat down to sink it. Let go and pop, it rises to float again. Physical principles for two-year olds?

I already have pages of revisions. Short and simple ain't easy - or fast.

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Wednesday, July 2, 2008

What is your book about??.....

For years I worked in the film industry, both as a producer and screenwriter, and I quickly learned how to summarize a film project in industry parlance, what I'll call the "A meets B" method. If I was working on a project about a woman going through a divorce with a man who may or may not be a serial killer, let's say, I would pitch it as KRAMER VS. KRAMER meets CAPE FEAR. A film about baseball and friendship became BULL DURHAM meets BEACHES, and so on. The "A meets B" trope became so ubiquitous in Hollywood that often people conceived of projects based on these crazy combinations - SCHINDLER'S LIST meets CADDYSHACK, or BIG meets COLD MOUNTAIN. The combinations are so ridiculously wacky they become high concept by virtue of their incompatibility, and everybody loves a high concept. But as much as this tool is overused in Hollywood, it remains a punchy and effective way to get the essential idea of a project across in as little time as possible.

Now that I am a writer for children, when someone asks me what my book is about I stumble, and I generally ramble on, trying to impart the full plot and all of the complex themes of my work, all the while boring the person to death no doubt. So, my question is, should the publishing industry, should we writers for children, take a page from the film industry playbook, and describe our stories in this facile and often reductive A meets B way? Since publishers love high concept ideas, should we be conceiving of our stories by mashing together wildly different ideas to create something never before written?

GOODNIGHT MOON meets LEMONY SNICKET?? I think I'd like to read that one.

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Tuesday, July 1, 2008

When Characters Speak

One of the topics that fascinates me most about writing is when an author talks about how their characters "speak" to them. I've heard countless stories of writers waking up in the middle of the night to have their stories dictated to them by their main character. Most of the time, I'm in awe when I hear this and dream of the day (or night) it will happen to me that way.

I'm still waiting. Truth is I usually have to buy my characters a few milkshakes before they open up to me.

They do eventually open up, sometimes to the point where I have to tell them "not now" but I have yet to experience that thunderbolt moment of a character saying "Hey, wake up and listen to this!" Sometimes it takes a few weeks for a character to speak to me. Other times, a few months. In my experience I've had to really live with a character for awhile to differentiate which voice is which. It's hard for me to allow the story to evolve from that raw, organic place. My mind gets in the way and I begin to ask questions like "How is this relevant to the plot?" OR "What will - fill in the blank - think if they read this?"

Recently we did a character exercise in my writing group and my first thought was "Oh...crap." Writing on demand is not one of my specialties. Instead of pulling a character out of thin air, I dialed up an old friend from a story I'd struggled with a few years ago. I was pleasantly surprised when he spoke to me. I was equally astonished at how strong his voice was. Had he been sitting in my subconscious with duct tape over his mouth? Or had I just decided to listen?"

So my question is this - how does it happen for you? Do your characters speak to you or does it work better when you get to know them a little more? When do you feel you need to step in and lead, or should you ever do that?

I'm listening.

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