Wednesday, October 28, 2009


We've just returned from a glorious trip to Turkey where we were enthralled with the vibrancy of modern Istanbul and the richness of their ancient cultures. We saw wondrous Hellenistic and Roman sites, amphitheaters and temples. Overlaying all was the deep sense of history and the memory of the story of those who had walked there before.

As I prepared for the trip, I read Nobel Prize winner Orhan Pamuk's book, Istanbul, Memories of a City. The book is memory - autobiographical, looking at Pamuk's childhood and family life with the backdrop of his Istanbul as he saw it, with the soul of a city saddened by the decline of their former empire symbolized by signs of decay of the once proud mansions lining the Bosporus, sinking under their peeling paint and sagging frames.

Pamuk weaves memories as he draws in the reader into the middle of his family's living room and dinner discussions. What an incredible job he does in setting the scenes and recalling the personalities present, whiffs of fragrant foods served and swirls of conversations.

The details - can we do the details as he does?

What details he slides so smoothly into the story that set the readers in the immediacy of the place. What a great example for writers to see his art. I have been mulling over his techniques, trying to conjure up such depth of memories from childhood - lunch meals, picnics, chores, interactions of family and friends, the color and sound of the time and place.

I found Pamuk's example fascinating. Digging for details of memory. When writing for children how do you dig for details of your childhood? Details that are common to children now as well as back in your time? Perhaps- excitement in the house, happy or tense, fear of being left at home, out of things, of really being left and having to stay with other relatives, as almost cast off, as Pamuk, times of great fun with a circus coming to town or being taken sledding in the winter with frost bitten toes or to a big game in the summer or hide and seek on a hot evening when you would have liked to have hidden from the mosquitoes.

How do you dig for memories and with what do you dig?

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Sunday, October 25, 2009

I'm SO Excited!

Can you guess why? Here is the cover for my upcoming picture book Benno and the Night of Broken Glass. I don't have a release date yet, but I've been told he'll be in bookstores by mid-April.

Needless to say, I'm so excited! Thanks to Josée Bisaillon for the wonderful illustrations.

I'm not kidding when I tell you that I can stare at this photo and not get enough of it. It's like looking at a picture of one of my children.

I guess Benno is my baby (though his gestation period was more like nine years instead of nine months). It's hard to believe that it's finally happening. I think the wait will be worth it though, given how beautiful the illustrations are.

I've dedicated this book to my sister, and in her honor I will be donating my royalties to The Bone Marrow Foundation. If you don't know what this wonderful organization does, please check out their website. It is a charity that is near and dear to my heart.

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Thursday, October 22, 2009

Calling All Lurkers--Let Your Voices Be Heard!

One of the reasons I love blogging is it caused me to go cold turkey on online lurking. I was a virtual long-time listener, first-time caller when we began the Paper Wait well over a year ago. I fervently followed a number of blogs, sopped up tips and traumas from Verla Kay's Blue Boards, and breathed agent and editor preferences in and out better than any Lamaze coach. But my internet voice was, well, silent.

Fast forward to today, and I can't believe it took me so long to speak up. I love being part of different online communities (most especially this one) and I find that commenting on blogs or on the Blue Boards makes me think more deeply about the issues under discussion.

Adding my opinion to any blog roll or forum was intimidating at first. And sometimes, it still is. But I like being part of the conversation.

So tell me, how did you come to tame your inner lurker?

Photo: Ian Britton

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Monday, October 19, 2009

Step Right Up For Creative Writing 101

I have a bulging miscellaneous folder in my file cabinet. It's where I throw odd pieces of information, interesting interviews, story ideas, short stories I admire, etc., etc. Every now and then when this file grows so obese it crowds the whole drawer, I go through it searching for things to throw away. I weeded this week and what did I find?

A gem: a page from an old Cornell Magazine with a selection from Kurt Vonnegut's (class of '44) book BAGOMBO SNUFF BOX in which he lists eight rules for his "Creative Writing 101."

1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.

2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.

3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.

4. Every sentence must do one of two things - reveal character or advance the action.

5. Start as close to the end as possible.

6. Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them - in order that the reader may see what they are made of.

7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.

8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with the suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, the where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.

I'm mulling over what he means in #7. Is he saying you should write for yourself?

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Thursday, October 15, 2009

Query Don't?

A wonderful agent from a top New York agency called me the other day.

Nope, it wasn’t “the call.” I’ve never queried this agent. He doesn’t even know I’m shopping a manuscript. In fact, his phone call had absolutely nothing to do with publishing. So why the call?

His young son and mine happen to be budding bff’s and we were simply setting up their next playdate. (Got you to take the jump, though, didn’t I? Heheh.)

This brings me to my quandary. Should I spill the beans? Tell him I’m in the hunt for an agent? Ask him if he’d be willing to take a look at my unbelievably [insert hyperbolic adjective here] manuscript? What if he said, “Sure, send me the full,” then passed? Um, can you spell “awkward”?

Fearing this, should he be off-limits, a Query Don’t? You know, just my kid's friend’s dad; someone to talk Little League with; filed under: Don’t mix business with parenting?

I confess, I tend to shy away from using my industry contacts, this one included. I’m just a whole lot more comfortable cold querying editors and agents—-whatever the outcome. This is why I was heartened to read agent Nathan Bransford’s recent post saying that 62 percent of the first-time authors he polled landed their agents through cold querying. On the other hand, I also know how contacts can open doors in any industry.

So I ask you, gentle readers, am I crazy? Is any potential contact fair game, no matter the relationship? And do you take full advantage of your contacts—-or prefer going cold like me?

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Saturday, October 10, 2009

When Is It Time To STOP?

I have a friend who has been working on an historical novel for almost six years. Her research took more than a year and then she began writing. During the last five years, she has attended conferences and been awarded a place in numerous competitive writing residencies all over the country. Each experience has given her an editor's or mentor's opinion about her book - sometimes an opinion based on one chapter, a few chapters and a synopsis, or a larger chunk of the manuscript.

What advice has she received?

Conflicting advice. Some said delete the flashbacks. Others liked them. Some said she needed a first person POV. Some said she needed an omniscient POV. She's heard that her structure of chapters that move from one character's POV to another detracts from the narrative tension. She's heard that her changes in POV are compelling. Some wanted more history. Some wanted less history.

So when is it time to stop collecting conflicting advice and start the submission process with an agent or editor? How do you know when enough is enough?

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Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Let Your Writing Roar!

Yesterday, my son and I checked out LIBRARY LION by Michelle Knudsen,illustrated by Kevin Hawkes, from the library. What a wonderful book! It all starts when a lion shows up at the library and wants to listen to story time-- a fun and fascinating premise.

As I read this book aloud, I thought about the trend toward fun and fascinating picture book premises that I'd noticed when I scanned my son's bookshelf before last night's bedtime story.

Here are just a few:

LITTLE PEA by Amy Krouse Rosenthal,illustrated by Jen Corace-- the story of a pea who doesn't want to eat his dinner (candy!)

KITTEN'S FIRST FULL MOON by Kevin Henkes-- the story of Kitten who thinks the full moon is a bowl of milk and tries to drink it

CLICK, CLACK, MOO: COWS THAT TYPE by Doreen Cronin, illustrated by Betsy Lewin-- the story of cows who get hold of a typewriter and start typing Farmer Brown demanding notes.

I could keep going here, but noticing these books and their incredibly cool premises made me think about our incredibly challenging job as writers. Most of us want to write books as unique and memorable as LIBRARY LION and the others I've listed. But writing books like this takes... the courage of a lion!

What will people think of my crazy premise? we may wonder. Is it too different? Can I really pull this story off and make it work?

The other day, I got tempted back to a "safe" story. My husband read it and yawned. He knows and loves my best stuff, and this, he told me, wasn't it. It was too sappy, too boring, too predictable.

I sulked for a bit. But then I went back to a fun, quirky idea that really fascinated me. And I tried to take it to its fun and quirky ultimate extreme.

I'm not sure how I did with it yet. That's one of the hardest parts of writing, I think. Believing in what you did before we get "the call" validating our efforts. But, at least I know that I took a risk. And that risk might just let my writer's voice roar.

I'm curious, what books do you think roar like a lion? How do you find the courage to let your own writing roar?

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Sunday, October 4, 2009

Views on Point of View

I have just finished Carl Hiaasen's SCAT. The book is compelling, and quite a page turner. It's a good "read" for a middle grader, and even for a reader few decades older.

Why was SCAT compelling? Well, I really cared about the main protagonist. I didn't agree with all his thought processes, but he came across as sincere and honest, and he had a big problem to solve, one that got more complex at the plot developed. The supporting characters were well drawn, but did not diminish the main character.

And what about the "villains?" Hiaassen had sections devoted to just them and their nefarious machinations. Technically, a children's writer sticks with just the protagonist's point of view. Hiaasen breaks this rule, successfully, I think.

So, I'm asking myself, and anyone who's reading this, which technique is more attractive to the young reader, strict single point of view, or a chance to "get behind the scenes," going where the protagonist cannot go?

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Friday, October 2, 2009

Nuances of Character

Recently a beloved uncle of mine passed away. Since I live so far away from my family it was easy to keep the grief and shock of the situation at bay and go about the business of preparing to attend the services. It wasn’t until I read his obituary – deftly crafted by my first cousins – that I felt an acute sense of the person they (and we) had lost. One line in particular – He loved the New York Yankees, New York Giants, Notre Dame football, Frank Sinatra and a good cigar – drove me to tears because it painted such a vivid picture of my uncle. It was perfect and fitting but at the same time (because let’s face it, the writer’s mind never shuts off) I wondered why, of all the facts about my uncle in his obit, did those make me really Feel?

My guess is because our likes and dislikes make us human. It’s what connects us. They are nuances of character.

The simple facts bring us deeper into the core of a person. Maybe reading the above sentence didn’t have the same effect for you it had on me because you didn’t personally know my uncle. And while it doesn’t paint the complete picture – if you look beyond his particular tastes I think you can get a sense of who he was as a person.

Even if I didn’t know him, what I can gather from that sentence is that he was a man of tradition. Family and roots meant something to him. He loved kicking back to watch a great game (and would be thrilled with the Yanks nabbing the AL East woohoo!)and enjoyed the finer things in life. He was also a bit of a romantic.

Pretty powerful stuff to glean from what appears to be a list of sports teams and taste in music.

How then, do we as writers use this information to make our characters live and breathe and pop off the page?

Creating a character notebook with a laundry list of likes and dislikes always seems daunting to me, not to mention extra work. I envy writers who can pull that off. I’m more of the mind that the character is “out there” waiting to be discovered if I can only shut-up long enough to listen. It’s when I listen, that I usually get a sense of the character but this process doesn’t always present the “likes fried chicken, hates Coke, plans on dyeing hair purple in a month” details that pull a character into focus. Sometimes I have to play around a bit, get to know them before their likes and dislikes are apparent.

While these minute details may sometimes seem pointless and get overlooked (or over-used) in our writing, they are an integral part of making a character three dimensional.

So who are some of your favorite pop off the page characters? And what was it about them that made you identify with and/or remember them?

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