Saturday, January 31, 2009

The Pleasure of Words

"'I am half sick of shadows,' said the Lady of Shalott" has been going through my mind ever since I had a cataract removed. I was sick of shadows; cataracts prevent clear vision in situations of alternating light and shade. But the phrase from Tennyson's poem made me think of words...alliteration, and the use of letter combinations that give such pleasure to the eye, the mouth, the brain.

I looked up a few more alliterative phrases of earlier authors: Poe's sentence in "The Cask of the Amontillado":"I again paused, and, holding the flambeaux over the masonwork, threw a few feeble rays upon the figure within." And I bet you haven't seen this identified in a while: "Shall fold their tents, like the Arabs, And as silently steal away."... the last lines of Longfellow's "The Day is Done."

Careful and thoughtful choice of words in children's literature is key to timelessness. Consider the opening line of Henry's "Misty of Chincoteague," "A wild, ringing neigh shrilled up from the hold of the Spanish Galleon." Or O'Brien's first sentence, "Mrs. Frisby, the head of a family of field mice..." and my favorite opening sentence, "The Herdmans were absolutely the worst kids in the history of the world," from Robinson's "The Best Christmas Pageant Ever."

As writers for children we are plot-oriented. Every word, action, character, must "move the plot along." That's probably true, but I sometimes think that in our haste to get tothe end, the BIG MOMENT, we fail to stop and consider words for their own merit, their sound and hidden meanings. So in revision, once we've hammered out the details of plot, character and setting, we need to add the "music;" words that will make our phrases memorable for the reader.

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Thursday, January 29, 2009

Living History

How does an author make history come alive for young readers? To make stories, set back in times that may seem remote and disconnected to today, exciting reads?

I recently attended a literary seminar where the topic was historical fiction. Well-known writers debated the definitions of books of historical fiction, novels and straight history. There were various opinions as to how free authors can or should be in historical fiction with the lives, words and actions of real historical figures, people who have lived and acted on the world stage. To make the story work as a novel, to enhance plot or to make the characters more believable, does the author have a little leeway with actual known facts or is it acceptable for the writer to expand on the actual facts to make a more exciting or gripping story?

There was great discussion and difference of opinion.

As a writer of historical fiction for children I found the discussions fascinating as well-known authors discussed their craft. Frequently there aren't enough letters, diaries, audio tapes, etc. to reconstruct sufficient dialogue to make a story work, so the writer has to improvise. But the conscientious author will try to make the story ring with an improvised story line and dialogue that is as close as possible to the historical figures' personalities, the truth of their characters and the events in which they were involved.

It was fun to see this interplay at the seminar and exciting to attempt to write captivating and accurate stories of history for young people.

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Monday, January 26, 2009

Win the Award. Yippee! Write the Speech? Yikes! Now We Know . . .

Now we know who will be writing Newbery and Caldecott speeches in 2009.

Neil Gaiman has won the Newbery for The Graveyard Book. Beth Krommes has won the Caldecott for The House in the Night by Susan Marie Swanson.

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Sunday, January 25, 2009

To Read or Not to Read - Part 3

I've been reading a lot of YA lately. Not just historical fiction, but all kinds. I just finished THE ADORATION OF JENNA FOX which, like another one of my favorites, UNWIND, is a futuristic story that tells such a fascinating story that the reader is sucked into new worlds at the same time being forced to think about important issues like life and death, quality of life, and medical ethics, without even realizing it. I LOVE books that encourage thinking!

So, you might wonder what I've been thinking about...

I've been thinking about my critique group. There was one small instance in JENNA FOX that stopped me. Without writing any spoilers, the MC's parents go to fairly extreme measures to hide Jenna away, but when they finally concede to allow Jenna to go to school, they send her out into the world with her real name, Jenna Fox. It bugged me that they didn't at least change her name to keep her identity secret.

I know if Mary Pearson were in our critique group and had brought a rough draft of JENNA FOX to be critiqued someone would have said, "hey, how come her parents don't change her name?" Heck! I would have said it! And perhaps, if Mary Pearson were in our group, she'd have gone back to her desk/computer and written a whole convoluted sub-plot involving the name change of Jenna Fox when it OBVIOUSLY isn't necessary.

Reading more YA has made me realize how much REALLY GOOD YA is out in the world. It's also made me realize that perhaps I am too picky in my critiques. I'm not talking about ignoring glaring inconsistencies, or plot development that doesn't develop, or MCs who have no attraction, I'm talking about small stuff that can be justified with a suspension of belief, a faith in my reader that I don't need to explain every tiny, minute detail. Let the character live and let the reader read.

I am evolving as a reader. I am finding that most of the books I've picked up I've had to read straight through because the story is so engaging that I just want to enjoy it. Then I have to go back and read it as a writer - which I confess to not being that good at yet.

So as I am learning how to be a better writer and a better critiquer, I'm wondering how other writers read. Does reading influence your writing or your critiquing?

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Thursday, January 22, 2009

The Facts, Ma’am, Just the Facts

We’ve all seen mistakes in books--a deleted word here, a repeated phrase there--but I found a whopper a few days ago in a book I thoroughly enjoyed. (And no, I won’t tell you the name of it.)

A new character is introduced (really just mentioned--we never actually meet her) on the second to last page. She’s mentioned again on the last page, but this time she’s got a different name. Oops.

I sympathize with the author. And the editor, copy editor and everyone else who let this little nugget slip by. It’s not easy to keep all details straight in a brand new world.

I make a lot of mistakes like this as I forge through my latest WIP. Tired of my normal pokey-pace, I’m fast-drafting the second half. I’ve called a character Mrs. Maloney and Mrs. Mahoney. I’ve made a six block walk take an hour. And I’ve played fast and loose with money--a major part of the story.

So what’s a writer to do? How can you keep track of every little detail in a world that currently lives in one mind only?

Orson Scott Card offers great advice in his book Characters & Viewpoint. He suggests “Keeping a Bible”--a notebook or separate computer file that lists every decision the writer makes. To keep the momentum going, he doesn’t stop while writing, but reviews yesterday’s work and jots down all details and decisions. This, Card says, helps maintain consistency, brings him right back into the story, and makes him think about each decision.

As for me, I’m setting up a separate computer file pronto. If it works for Orson Scott Card...

What about you? How do you keep your facts straight?

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Sunday, January 18, 2009

Win the Award. Yippee! Write the Speech? Yikes!

Within the next ten days, one author and one illustrator will receive a life-changing phone call. On January 26th during the ALA Mid-Winter Meeting, the Newbery and Caldecott winners for 2009 will be announced.

Can't imagine how it would feel to get that (usually) early morning phone call, but I can imagine that after a burst of joy, my nerves would jangle at the thought of preparing and delivering that necessary and spotlighted speech. To refresh my memory about how others rose to the challenge, I reread some recent Caldecott and Newbery speeches.

Here are a few memorable nuggets:

2005. Kevin Henkes. Caldecott speech for Kitten's First Full Moon.

"Kitten, of course, is a child. She is myopic. She is curious. She is persistent. She wants and wants and wants. She makes mistakes. She misunderstands. She gets hurt. She is confused. She is scared. She is also a symbol, a symbol that says: childhood is anything by easy."

2006. Lynn Rae Perkins. Newbery speech for Criss Cross.

"It takes two people to make a book - a writer and a reader - and it's not clear-cut who is doing the giving and who is receiving. The roles of giver and receiver go back and forth like alternating current, when there is a connection."

2007. David Weisner. Caldecott speech for Flotsam.

"Deliberately leaving part of the process open to spontaneity can be scary. But to grow as an artist, I have to be willing to move into unfamiliar territory."

2008. Laura Amy Schlitz. Newbery speech for Good Masters! Sweet Ladies!: Voices From a Medieval Village.

" . . . flying a kite is a bit like being a writer. Most of the time, the words aren't right and the prose drags on the ground. We don't know how to get the kite into the air . . . We only know that we have to go to the shore with the kite in our hands, in case the wind is there."

Who will be writing the Newbery and Caldecott speeches in 2009? We'll know on January 26th.

Do you have nominations?

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Thursday, January 15, 2009

I'm Good Enough, I'm Smart Enough, and Doggone It, People Like Me!

Does the title of this post ring a bell? It was the daily affirmation for Stuart Smalley, the twelve-step-obsessed loser played by Al Franken in the classic Saturday Night Live sketch.

Despite the fact that Stuart was a dysfunctional nightmare, I can relate to his need to lift himself up every day. As everyone who’s not Stephenie Meyer well knows, writing and pitching children’s books can be one big ego-bruiser. Without my critique group, there’s no doubt I’d be one big mental mess.

The two weeks between meetings—-aka “sessions”—-can feel long and dicey, so I have my own daily affirmation ritual to tide me over: reading the Post-Its plastered all over my computer, desk drawers, and walls. Some contain advice on writing from famous authors. Others are encouraging words I’ve received from editors or agents. (I should really frame those.) These little pearls always raise my spirits and get my fingers working the keyboard. Among them…

1. Be persistent. Editors change; tastes change; editorial markets change. Too many beginning writers give up too easily. —-John Jakes

2. Today is the day I will not quit! --Some famous writer, speaking at some big conference, on the daily promise he makes to himself (can’t remember who or where, sorry)

3. Write when you feel like it and write when you don’t. -—Joan Bauer, keynote speaker at One-on-One, on the best writing advice she ever got

And my personal favorite for daily goal-seting…

4. BIC HOK TAM. But in chair, hands on keyboard, typing away madly (source unknown)

What’s yours?

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Sunday, January 11, 2009


I recently heard back from an agent I had submitted a manuscript to, and even though he passed, he wants to send it on to a colleague. That's the good news. The bad news is that he included a few suggestions in his email of ways the work could be improved. I'm not one to ignore a good piece of criticism, especially from an agent, but one tiny line in an email can mean weeks and weeks of work on a manuscript. The manuscript is out to other agents as well, who may have notes of their own. My critique group has also had their shot at it. And, a few friends have read it. They all have notes too.

So...whose notes do I follow? If I followed them all, I'd not only be writing for years, I would rewrite my book into a whiplashed piece of drivel without a heart and soul. If all the notes were consistent, then of course I'd honor them, but they're not. Some are directly opposed to others. Some fall in between. Some are extreme, some are subtle.

Of course, the real danger here is that I will give in to the temptation to ignore them all, since they kind of cancel each other out. Or, conversely, there's the risk of attaching myself too much to an outsider's idea in the hopes that it will miraculously "fix" my work, clean and simple. Every writer has to learn how to take notes and open themselves up to new ways of looking at their work, but knowing which ideas will improve the work while preserving its essence can be a challenge. I'm not always up to it.

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Wednesday, January 7, 2009


Recently, I've been reading a lot of posts about New Years resolutions. This makes a lot of sense considering the time of year, and normally I enjoy such posts. But, this year, they've been driving me a bit crazy.

It's not that I don't want other writers to make resolutions about how productive and inspired they're going to be in 2009. It's just that such resolutions inspire me to make some resolutions of my own.

But any resolutions I dream of making quickly get stopped in their tracks when I realize a simple fact... most writing resolutions simply don't make sense when one is less than three weeks away from giving birth.

How can I resolve to finish a novel or make more time for writing, when I know from past experience that my life is about to be turned upside down? I'm mentally prepared this time for the sleep deprived weeks that will immediately follow Baby's birth... but I doubt that being mentally prepared will make those weeks any easier. And I honestly don't expect the next few weeks or months to be a time of great writing productivity.

So when Anastasia Suen challenged the writers on the CW list to come up with our "one word" for 2009, my initial writing word was going to be "Submit". After all, no editor is ever going to accept a manuscript that's just sitting on my hard drive (which too many of them are). But that word for 2009 seems too remote for now-- a goal that I'll get to, but not for a while.

So I've decided that a more appropriate word for my situation at the start of 2009 is "Appreciate". Appreciate the wonderful miracle taking place inside of me that will put some of my writing goals on hold for a few months. Appreciate the sometimes cheerful, often stubborn, potty training toddler who still loves listening to Mommy's poems. Appreciate the time to think about my writing and the knowledge that, just like after the birth of my first child, the time for more intensive writing will once again come.

So at this start of 2009, I make some simple but important writing resolutions:
*to remember that time for my personal creativity is important (once it again seems humanly possible to carve some out).
*to set up a special writing space so once I get some writing time, I'm able to use it effectively.
and later in the year:
*to get those manuscripts off my hard drive and onto some editors' desks.
*to revise that stubbornly promising picture book manuscript.
*to complete the research and writing of that nonfiction project I've been inspired to write for so long.

Maybe I'll get more done in 2009. (I certainly hope so!) But by adjusting my expectations in this natural time of transition, I hope that I'll be able to keep myself on track and motivated.

So I'm curious, how have you dealt with times of transition in your own life as a writer?

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Sunday, January 4, 2009

Words, Words, Words

I spent a little time during the holiday intervening in word exchanges between two teenage grandchildren, each eager to verbally squash the other. They accomplished nothing but to irritate me; Each was impervious to the other's oral salvos.

"Hey," I said, "isn't this the season of 'comfort and joy,' 'merry gentlemen,' etc.?"

"Oh, Grandma!" was all I got from each, along with litanies of the other's negative aspects.

We got nowhere, so I sent them off to their computers.

Well, as a writer for children I'm supposed to be listening to what children say, using their colloquialisms, understanding their thought processes. My dear grandchildren gave me nothing to immitate. My dialogue must move the plot along. Each word counts, like a cog in a wheel. Without the word the plot fails.

I think what I have to do is examine the frustration behind children's arguments and capture that in dialogue that is both understandable, yet rich enough in word and phrase to convey the emotions driving the plot. It's a challenge, for sure, but it beats trying to reason with two cantankerous teenagers!

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Friday, January 2, 2009

Keeping the Faith

As I sit here on the second day of the New Year, I'm trying to think of something inspiring to say. I'm one of those people who don't watch the news unless forced. If something is really important for me to know, somehow, someone will tell me. I suppose I'd have to be living on a desert island with a coconut shell radio not to know the state of the economy and how it affects us all on many levels. And if I thought getting published was a pipe dream before, well, change that to a snowball's chance in hell these days.

This has been my quandary from the beginning. What am I writing for? Writing definitely feeds my soul and my need for personal expression. It's my hope that my stories can take a reader away from their life for awhile. To get lost in the drama and romance and connect with characters that maybe they too can identify with. It would also be cool to make someone laugh or smile, as one of my favorite things in life is a book that makes me laugh out loud (in the good way of course, not in the "this is pure drivel" way). When I'm in the zone and writing, all of this is on my mind. It's not about getting my name on the spine of a book. But when the dust settles, the line editing is done and I'm sitting in front of something I've poured a ton of my prana into...well, what am I supposed to hope for?

Instead of making lofty resolutions I'll be beating myself up over a month from now; my hope this year is to learn to love the process. The good, the bad, the rejections. All I can do is show up on the page, write, polish, dig deeper, and polish some more before sending it out there into the world. The rest is not up to me and no matter how much dark chocolate I swallow, I simply can't control the outcome.

What are you doing to keep the faith in these dreary times?

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