Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Sound Soaring

As I watched W.S. Merwin, American poet and the recipient of this year's Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, be interviewed on television this week, I was fascinated to hear this great poet speak of language, sound, and the expression of emotions and ideas through sound.

It was enlightening to hear him explain the use of vowels in emotional contexts and the joy or grief they can express, and how consonants are used to form these sounds into words and expressions of the emotion or thought.

When writing for children, either in prose or poetry, the apt use of sound is critical. Often, I think, we might forget the sound of our language when we wrestle with character development, plot and setting.

Sound is one of the underlying elements that a reader might not recognize as a power in the story, verse or novel, but it's a strength that adds some of the depth and emotional charge to the tension or feel of the text.

The onomatopoeia of the language, where the word imitates the natural sound of the object or action, enhances the reading experience, especially for children. In a simple line such as "the eagle soars," the child can feel the swish of upward movement and speed and perhaps even thrill of the great bird flying high.

How do you use sound in your writing?

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Thursday, June 25, 2009

My Life Online

I recently won the whimsical "Avocardo" pencil drawing by MG Higgins (check out her website A Day at the Zoochini ) in an online contest to guess the name of the drawing. I am particularly fond of the avocardo's whale tail. It makes me laugh to imagine why an avocardo would need to drive so fast. I now keep my Vege Pun near my desk to remind me of the silliness in life. But the avocardo also reminds me of the wide world of writers I have "met" in the last year on the web.

Since starting our blog, our critique group has encouraged us to surf the web, post on Verla Kay, individual blogs, and bring visitors to The Paper Wait by visiting other writers' blogs. To say that I was less than enthusiastic with this assignment would be an understatement. But after nearly a year, I've had a change of heart.

That is not to say that I am now a web junkie. I'm not, I don't understand the abbreviations, nor can I make the sideways smiley faces, I don't twitter and I'm not on facebook, and I don't know all the proper terms and lingo, but I understand how people get sucked into the web and form friendships with people they have never met in person. In the last year, I have found tremendous support and, yes, "friendship" on line. I am excited to read the posts of people I "know" and even more excited to see their books in the bookstores. Their rejections and successes have become mine and mine theirs.

In two weeks, I will venture northward to Vermont for my first semester in Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA program where I will actually get to meet, in person, a slew of people who have befriended, supported, and accepted me into their community. As I've said in earlier posts, I am excited, thrilled, and scared out of my wits. But it's not as scary as when I went off to college as a freshman - more than 30 years ago. Then I didn't know anyone else who was going, I didn't meet my roommate until she showed up at the room, and it cost a bloody fortune to call home to hear a reassuring voice. Now, because of online forums, blogs, and email I feel as if I "know" people already and my own family will be a mere cellphone call away.

All of this makes me wonder if other professions are as supportive of each other as children's writers are? I seriously doubt if lawyers or doctors have online forums to share their disappointments and successes. I wonder if adult writers do?

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Monday, June 22, 2009

Mission Submission

Pearls Before Swine By Stephan Pastis

Over the past few months, I rewrote, revised, puttered with and polished my middle grade manuscript. My core query is tightly written and ready for agent-specific info. I researched a targeted agent list and I am putting finishing touches to each query. My synopsis is a 500-word wonder. Will I let the worst possible time of the year during the worst possible economy stop me from hitting send?

Heck no. For me, it's the right time.

If I wasn't ready before, I had an aha moment at our last critique group meeting. We discussed how editors and agents must view "prepublished" writers. How they must see two-thirds of conference attendees as never-to-be-published, with one-third holding publishing possibilities. And how the same work of fiction is viewed oh-so-differently once it's fully justified and between the covers, rather than printed flush-left on 8-1/2" x 11" copy stock.

Enough of this, I thought. Hit send, and send, and send again, until I find a match.

Agents do sign first-time writers and editors do acquire that work. They do get excited by manuscripts they find in the slush. (Or as Edward Necarsulmer IV at MacIntosh & Otis calls it -- the Discovery Pile. I love that.)

So, I'm spending my summer vacation on the agent prowl. Anybody care to join me? And has anyone out there been discovered in the slush? Care to share your story?

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Thursday, June 18, 2009

To Finish Or Not To Finish?

Last month, on Friday, May 15th, J.L. posted an interview with Kristen Kemp in which she said one of the biggest reasons writers fail is they don't finish what they start.

But is every project worth finishing?

Last week I wrote a retelling of the old tale about a father, his son, and their donkey traveling down a hot, dusty road. When the father is riding the donkey and his son is walking, a passerby says the little boy should be riding, not walking. So they switch places.

The next passerby says it's a disgrace the young boy is riding and the old father is walking. Now they don't know what to do, so they both walk.

The third passerby calls them fools for walking down that hot, dusty road instead of riding on the donkey.

The point of the story? You can't please everyone, or each person looks at a situation differently. But aren't these adult concepts? Would they have meaning in an easy-to-read story for children? I doubt it. I should have thought longer before beginning to write. The donkey story may be finished, but I think the hee-haw is on me.

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Sunday, June 14, 2009

Goldie Writer and the 3 Critique Groups

Once upon a time there were three bears-- Papa Bear, Mama Bear and Baby Bear-- who lived in a small cottage in the forest. One day, they were about to eat their porridge, but it was too hot. So they went out on a walk to give it time to cool.

Uh oh! They forgot that today was the day their critique groups were coming over!

Well, the critique groups came over, chitchatted and started their meetings without Papa Bear, Mama Bear and Baby Bear. Then along came Goldie Writer with her rough draft. She heard the groups meeting and couldn't resist the temptation to sneak inside.

First, she sat down with Papa Bear's critique group. When it was her turn, Goldie Writer read her manuscript aloud. Then she waited. All the bears in Papa Bears critique group told her what was wrong with her manuscript. And, according to them, there was a lot wrong! "It was boring," said one. "It was confusing," said another. "I just didn't like it," said a third. Could her manuscript really be that bad? Papa Bear's critique group was too hard.

So Goldie Writer moved on to Mama Bear's critique group. When it was her turn, she read her manuscript aloud. Then she waited. "Oh, how nice," said one bear. "Just lovely dear," said another. "My grandchildren would just adore that story," said a third. "Oh, I'm sure a publisher will pick it up any day now," said a fourth. Goldie Writer's head was spinning. In this group, nobody told her anything was wrong. Could her manuscript really be that perfect? Mama bear's critique group was too soft.

So Goldie Writer moved on to Baby Bear's critique group. She read her manuscript aloud for the third time. "I really liked your main character. She was spunky and likeable," said one bear. "Yes," agreed a second bear. "And the opening to your story had me completely hooked. I couldn't wait to read the next page." Then a third bear chimed in, "I completely agree," she said. "But you might want to look at your ending again. You had me kind of confused there." And a fourth bear added, "And take another look at your dialogue on page 4. It feels a little too much like an info dump to me there." Goldie Writer grinned. They liked it! And they gave her real ways to make it better. She couldn't wait to get home and start revising. Baby Bear's critique group was just right!

At that moment, who should come home, but Papa Bear, Mama Bear and Baby Bear.

Papa Bear found his critique group steaming. "There was a girl here and her story was soooo awful. Thank goodness she's gone!" they said.

Mama Bear found her critique group happy but confused. "There was a girl here and her story was just lovely. Where could she have gone?" they wondered.

Then Baby Bear found his critique group. "There was a girl here who wrote a very intriguing story... and now she's a member of our critique group!"


And so, in this badly fractured version of this traditional tale, Goldie Writer continued to return to the bear's cottage on the first and third Friday of every month. And she continued to leave filled with inspiring ideas of how to make her good manuscripts even better. And they all lived happily ever after!

The End

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Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Brain Toggle

I am in the midst of selling my house and buying another one. I am also in the midst of writing a novel, on deadline, for a publisher. What that meant today is that I had to toggle back and forth all day long between intense talks with a mortgage broker and real estate agent and chapter sixteen, in which my main character's middle school world begins to seriously fall apart. It's hard enough to write when I have the whole day devoted to my work, with nothing to distract me, just my own imagination. But when I have to mentally multi-task, it's almost impossible. Almost. Today I learned a valuable lesson. If I really have to write, and be creative, and funny, and all the things one has to be to create a piece of good writing, I can do it. So, that leaves me with no excuse for all the times I feel I can't write, because the light's not quite right, or I'm hungry, or tired, or...you fill in the blank. Sometimes it feels good to be tested.

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Tuesday, June 9, 2009

8 Highlights from the NJ-SCBWI Conference

Eileen and I are back from the 2009 NJ-SCBWI Conference, held Friday and Saturday, June 5th and 6th, in Princeton. Apparently, the word is out about this terrific conference—-it’s getting bigger by the year. Kathy Temean, the R.A. who organizes the conference, announced there were around 240 attendees this year, up 30 or so from last year. Many of them crossed state lines to attend too. With this year’s faculty of over 20 top agents, editors, and art directors, even famous authors like Richard Peck (pictured), who can blame them?

Here are just a few of Eileen’s and my conference highlights.

1. The conference was extremely well-organized: Participants received personal folders containing their daily schedules for pitch sessions, one-on-one critiques, and lunch table assignments as well as detailed information on events and panels. Volunteers, who were identified by name tags, gave directions and monitored pitch sessions. All were courteous and cheerful and guided the buzz of conference excitement. (Eileen)

2. A house that bucks a frustrating submission trend got a round of applause: Saturday morning kicked off with a faculty panel consisting of agents, editors, and art directors, each of whom gave a short pitch about their houses or agencies, including what types of manuscripts they're looking for, how to query them, and their response policies. As per the trend, most editors and agents said they only respond to queries if they're interested. So when one panelist stood up and announced that her house responds to all queries, whether or not they're interested, attendees applauded. (J.L.)

3. Pitch sessions were longer this year: In prior years, an attendee had one or two minutes to give his or her pitch to not one but three editors in quick succession. This year, pitch sessions were five minutes long with only one editor. The new setup provided breathing space and afforded time for a little dialog. Thanks to roving monitors, my pitch session was controlled and the experience went off well. (Eileen)

4. Richard Peck’s master class: Not only is Richard Peck a wonderful writer, he’s an electric speaker who gave so many great writing tips, I don’t know where to start. Among them: “Let the change of seasons help shape your story.” “When I get a page exactly the way I want it, I take out 20 words.” “Take your first chapter and throw it away.” (Because the story really begins with the second chapter. The first chapter is usually just warm-up.) “Always write your dialog standing up, it improves the pace.” (J.L.)

5. Kathy Temean’s marketing workshop: She gave the latest and greatest tips on creating web sites, blogging, and twittering. Kathy’s bottom line: Keep your name out there! (Eileen)

6. Steve Meltzer’s workshop on novel rewrites: Lest you think your manuscript is “done” once you land the sale, Dutton’s associate publisher/executive editor showed us some revision letters he sent his writers, which ranged from a few paragraphs to 15 pages long. Said Meltzer: “It’s not about writing the first draft, it’s about whether you can rewrite.” (J.L.)

7. Carolyn Yoder's historical writing workshop: She gave helpful suggestions on how to write historical fiction and nonfiction for contemporary children and present the past to them in an exciting way. She also talked about doing the necessary research and reference record-keeping that good history storytelling demands. (Eileen)

8. Miscellaneous faculty comments: Margery Cuyler, publisher, Marshall Cavendish, said a whopping 10 percent of her list is published from the slush pile and that her house is interested in launching new talent. And agent Scott Treimel, when asked what he’s seeing a lot of manuscript-wise, said that lots of paranormal stories, zombies and werewolves were hitting his desk. “And stay away from pirates,” he added. (J.L.)

In all, it was a first-rate conference, with far too many highlights to fit in one post.

So tell us, what are your highlights from this or prior years’ conferences?

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Thursday, June 4, 2009

Can I Take You Back?

To me one of the hardest things to do in creating historical fiction is to get the reader to identify with the problems of the characters at that time in history. In the last fifteen years, the ability to communicate instantly has increased beyond the wildest dreams of Edison and Bell, or anyone else, for that matter. Our modern environment, air pollution not withstanding, is squeaky clean compared to earlier centuries.

Can today's middle-grader place herself in a time where there are no cell phones, text messaging, i-pods and other forms of electronic communication and entertainment? Can she imagine itchy woolen stockings, vermin-filled rush floors, and no refrigeration? What about the smell of manure, woodsmoke, fresh-mown hay?

And if my heroine's caught up to her ankles in pig muck while her father has gone off in their only conveyance, the horse and buggy, and she smells...oh no, it's not woodsmoke. The cabin is burning! Will my reader think I am just making this up? Will she sweat through the challenge the heroine faces and cheer her on to saving her home alone? Without dialing 911?

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Monday, June 1, 2009

E-Query Etiquette

Once upon a time, in a galaxy much like this one, a writer's tools were quill and ink pot. I won't bore you with the evolution of writing implements, but let's face it - we have it pretty easy in the 21st century. Ergonomic keyboards and mice (or "mouses" but dang, that just sounds wrong), the ability to communicate with anyone at any time of day and a vast universe of information at our fingertips make us a pretty spoiled lot.

One of the latest and greatest conveniences for writers is the ability to communicate with editors and agents via e-mail. I know policies vary from house to house and even person to person, but it is becoming more common to e-query - which brings up a multitude of questions. What exactly is e-query etiquette?

E-mail, at least for me, has always been a very informal, fun way to communicate with friends. I liken it to sending a postcard with jargon like lol, rotflmao, OMG - kwim? My most recent e-query left me a little stumped. I followed this agent on Twitter and also read her blog, but I didn't feel comfortable making reference to either because I just couldn't fit it in the query without feeling a bit stalkerish. And yet, the very nature of e-mail BEGGED me to be informal. Why couldn't I tell her I highly recommended a pair of yoga pants from the website she Tweeted about? Wouldn't that be a cute, fun way to differentiate myself from the virtual slush pile? Honestly, I'm not sure.

Ultimately, I decided against being cute or informal and wrote the query as if I were sending it the old fashioned snail mail way. I did make reference to the agent's website and why I thought my manuscript would be of interest, but I kept my mouth shut about the yoga pants*. No matter how may times my hippie dippy right brain said "go for it Dudette".

I think one of the traps we can easily fall into in this information age, is that all of this "Right now I'm getting a bikini wax - YEOWCH" Twittering can make it feel okay to jump into the party. Knowing what a person has had for lunch or how they spent their weekend lends a false sense of familiarity. The truth is, until a contract is signed or a manuscript is sold, you are selling yourself as a prospective client, not befriending someone.

When it doubt, be professional. jmho.

So how do you handle e-queries? Is it ever okay to be informal?

*(btw...the pants are reeeeaaaally comfy, great fabric, cute pattern and don't show even a crescent of moon in Down Dog!!)

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