Monday, November 30, 2009

Listening to Other Voices

In the NEW YORK TIMES' Saturday Art Section there was a fascinating article about Colum McCann, author of LET THE GREAT WORLD SPIN, who just won the National Book Award. McCann spoke about delving into other peoples' lives for a glimpse of significant but small events that were large influences in their lives. He listened to many voices as he traveled around the country, seeing each story, whether it spoke of generosity, terror, sadness, nastiness or love, as part of a larger story or novel.

McCann talked about "listening to other voices," part of the research a writer does in developing the story - children's authors and adult novelists.

So yesterday as I was reading the article I was sitting on a plane, confined for several hours. There were a lot of small children on board and I started to listen again to other young voices. Some didn't want to sit still, others wanted FOOD, and others settled in to read their books or watch a video. There were many voices and as things quieted down, I listened.

What do we notice when listening? When there are many voices? What do you concentrate on?

It was a shining and clear day and I listened to the four-year-old two seats away by the window. As the plane lifted off from Newark Airport we looked down at the Port of Newark/Elizabeth and at the ships at the loading docks next to the giant cranes filling up their cargo holes in preparation for setting out to sea. We watched small pleasure boats on New York Bay leaving white wakes in their paths, and as we headed inland a bit, she exclaimed at how green it was! Yes, I said, that's our Garden State!

She had many interesting insights and I listened for all I was worth. Someday a fragment of the voice will make it into a children's story. I'm going to keep listening - and writing.

What are the voices that you notice, concentrate on or collect?

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Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Interview with Rebecca Barnhouse

Rebecca Barnhouse and I first met at Rutger’s One On One Conference in October 2007. We were placed in the same Five on Five group with our editors. Both of us wrote historical fiction and both of us had manuscripts set in 15th century England. When the session was over Rebecca and I spoke for a few minutes I discovered that she teaches medieval literature at Youngstown State University in Ohio! Wow! She is a real medievalist and I’m just a history buff.

After One On One, Rebecca and I emailed occasionally – mostly I emailed her asking for references – and then we “met” again on Verla Kay’s Blueboards, where I learned Rebecca had sold her manuscript to the editor she’d been paired with at One On One.

I pre-ordered Rebecca’s The Book of the Maidservant and as soon as it arrived I curled up with a blanket and the book and read it in one sitting. I enjoyed the story and was mesmerized by Rebecca’s ability to make her medieval characters and their world come to life. Johanna’s voice is original, spunky, and made me laugh out loud.

Rebecca and I are both hoping that 15th century historical characters become the new vampires!

I was thrilled when Rebecca agreed to be interviewed for this blog.

1) When did you fall in love with history and, particularly, medieval history?

When I was a teenager, I did a lot of calligraphy and spent time pouring over photos of hand-lettered books. Later, in graduate school, I found out I could actually take courses—for credit!—about medieval manuscripts. I was hooked. Studying medieval books allows you to delve into so many other subjects that help you understand why a book was made and for whom, how it was put together and how it was used, where it traveled, and how it ended up where it is now.

2) What was your favorite childhood book and why?

So many! How can I name just one? But with that understood, I will mention the Little House books. I loved hearing about what I called “olden times,” but I also loved the fact that my fourth-grade teacher read those books to us every afternoon while we drew or dozed or listened, rapt. Then she’d pull out her ukulele and we’d sing. Now the books and the reading and the singing have all melded together in my memory.

3) You’ve written several scholarly books on medieval history, what made you decide to try your hand at writing for young adults.

As I was writing the scholarly books, I was also writing for young adults—I just wasn’t getting published. In fact, I wrote my first YA novel long before I wrote anything scholarly, and several more contemporary YA novels followed. All of them have been consigned to the scrap heap of history! Some of my academic publications focus on the way the Middle Ages are portrayed in young adult literature. Writing those books and articles gave me the impetus to go from writing contemporary YA novels to historicals.

4) Dame Margery Kempe was a real historical person. The Book of Margery Kempe is considered the first autobiography written in English. Can you tell us what made you want to write a “companion” piece to her story?

I teach Margery’s autobiography, and like my students, I have conflicting opinions about her. She’s fascinating but also frustrating. One of the things that particularly bothers me about her is the way she treats other people, especially her maidservant, about whom Margery said some unkind things. When she made it sound as if her servant wanted to cook and clean for all the other travelers on their pilgrimage, that was it! I had to know how the servant would have responded to Margery’s words.

5) Johanna is a wonderfully original and appropriate character for her time and age. How did you discover her voice?

When I first decided to write this novel, I was overwhelmed with work from my job as a college professor. For several months, I simply had no time at all to begin writing—yet, I was telling myself the story in my head all along. Without really realizing it, Johanna’s voice started to seem real to me. I could particularly hear her every time I crouched in front of the fireplace to build a fire, something Johanna spends a lot of time doing. When summer finally came, giving me time to write, her voice was ready to be gotten down on paper.

6) Can you describe your writing process? What is your day like?

During the summer, I try to write every day. Wordcounts help me along: I can generally write 500 words without too much trouble, and if the words aren’t coming easily on that particular day, I’m allowed to take a break before writing another 500. I tend to start at the beginning and keep writing until the end without a lot of outlining, although I take lots of notes. Once I have a draft, the real work begins: outlining, looking for repeated scenes, examining character motivation, and all the other things that go into rewriting.

7) I write historical fiction and I love doing the research. Sometimes, in fact, I love doing the research so much that I don’t want to stop researching and start writing. How do you know when you’ve done enough research to start writing?

I understand your problem! I, too, am sometimes tempted to let the research get in the way of the writing. But I usually start writing knowing I’ll do more research when I get to a place in the novel where I need more information—I have to see what my characters are up to before I find out what I need to know. To keep the rhythm of the writing going, I leave blanks in the manuscript where there are topics that I need to research further.

8) Your second novel, The Coming of the Dragon, (due for release by Random House in Fall 2010) draws on the legend of Beowulf. Like Johanna in The Book of the Maidservant, Rune stands on the edge of the Beowulf legend. What can you tell us about him and how you came to tell his story?

Again, the novel springs from a text I teach. The last part of Beowulf is my favorite section of the poem. It’s definitely the part that evokes the most emotion. Just like with Maidservant, I had a hankering to hear the story—about the dragon attack on old King Beowulf’s realm, and the desperate battle to save the kingdom—from the perspective of a teenager who was part of it. Although it’s set in 6th-century Scandinavia, the novel is historical fantasy. But I was halfway through writing it before I realized I was writing fantasy because I was still thinking of it as history. History plus a dragon, that is!

You can learn more about Rebecca and her books by visiting her website. Rebecca Barnhouse

Thank you, Rebecca, for your time.

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Friday, November 20, 2009

Revision 9-1-1

You know you have one. Admit it.

A manuscript that’s sitting somewhere untouched with dust so thick you could etch your name in it. Maybe you shelved your picture book because the gaggle of geese which deftly honked out the meaning of life in iambic pentameter just didn’t fit the market. Or your YA characters dressed flashy, talked trashy but didn’t do much of anything else. For whatever reason you shelved your piece, it’s there, either waiting to be discovered post mortem or dying the slow death of manuscripts that just don’t work.

Enter Cynthea Liu and her Revision 9-1-1 Workshop.

When I found out Cynthea was giving a workshop in my area, I jumped at the chance to attend. So many conferences solely focus on networking and subbing your work that craft often gets overlooked. This was an opportunity to focus on revision for four delicious hours. I dusted off my beloved manuscript, the one that I shelved because it was “too quiet” (still wondering if in editorspeak it simply meant – it stinks!) and went, coffee in hand, to find out how I could revive it.

Cynthea began by having us go through our manuscripts and circling –ing words. Using too many -ing words can give your work an “echo” and make YOU, the writer too obtrusive. I have to admit I was a bit surprised at how many –ing words my ailing manuscript had.

Hmmm…really, I sent it out this way!!??

She also touched upon characters – and how to make the generic “Hot Guy” or “Soccer Mom” leap off the page. One word - specificity. (say that ten times fast, I dare you) Surely my manuscript didn’t suffer from that…oh, wait, eek! It did. While I know I saw my characters having depth and being unique, a quick read of my first ten pages didn’t exemplify that. How could I make my protagonist’s version of what was going on different than any other funeral scene? Seeing the world through her own unique filter is how and while I know that’s what I always try to do when I sit down to write, looking back over my work with an objective eye – really helped hit that lesson home.

There are far too many other tips to list in one blog post, so I’ll leave you with my favorite. One – which I suffer from a little bit more than I’d like to admit – is if you’re working on a scene and you feel like it’s something you could see on television, CHANGE IT. Turn it on its head – do we first meet “hot guy” leaning up against a locker? How can you make it different? Maybe hot guy rides a bicycle to school because he’s a budding environmentalist. Or we first meet him barfing up his lunch behind the bleachers. Anywhere but the locker.

I have to say, when I first left the workshop I felt a little bummed – very caught up in the “I really sent this out like this?” blues. Then something great happened. I got a vision of how the opening scene could work better, how my character could come to life – how I could turn my story on its head and work on it again to make it a truly unique. I’m once again psyched to work on it. So thanks Cynthea!

Cynthea Liu is so generous with her writing expertise and loves to talk shop! For more great tips you can visit her website.

And now – if you leave a comment, you will be entered in a drawing to win Cynthea’s YA novel The Great Call Of China. You have until Sunday to leave your comment. It will be random so don’t worry about being witty, just join in the conversation!

So what are some of your favorite tips when handling revision? And how do you feel about it – love it or hate it!

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Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Who Should Tell The Tale?

I'm always looking for folklore to retell. Recently, I purchased an old volume - INDIAN LEGENDS OF AMERICAN SCENES, published in 1939. Before buying it, I checked the background of the author/reteller. Well, Marion E. Gridley lived on reservations, produced dramatizations of legends with Indian actors, was an officer in a national organization devoted to Native Indian interests and welfare, and was adopted by different tribes in name-giving ceremonies. She published widely about Native Americans and was the wife of Whirling Thunder, an Indian chief. But Marion E. Gridley was not a Native American. Neither am I.

Is it important for the author to have the same background/heritage as the folklore being retold?

I am not Turkish, French, British, Venezuelan, or Finnish, but I've published folktales from those countries. I've also retold Native American tales. I do research to find more than one version of the tale and consider my sources carefully. Even then, I suspect there might be some Native Americans who would say I should not be retelling their folktales. I haven't LIVED their traditions.

Are folktales and legends fair game for anyone to retell? Or should there be exceptions? What about Jewish, Hispanic, or Black folklore?

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Sunday, November 15, 2009

LinkedIn for Writers and Agents?

I’m still in submission mode--querying agents; sending requested partials or fulls; receiving helpful or form rejections; sometimes hearing nothing more than crickets. Along the way, I’ve realized how inefficient the whole darn process can be; as I see it, anyway. Querying multiple agents can be nothing more than a time-sucking duplication of effort for writers like me. And for agents, sending countless rejections is just another royal waste of time and effort. There must be a way to streamline the process, for all involved.

Which got me thinking. Why isn’t there some type of networking site, a la LinkedIn or Facebook, specifically for writers/authors and agents, so they can hook up?

As I see it, every writer could have his or her own page, with a photo. (Heck, if you look like the next top model, it couldn’t hurt your odds of being picked an agent, I mean.) On the rest of your page, you could upload your manuscript’s (or manuscripts’) logline, query letter, first page, partial, and full manuscript, as separate links, for agents to click on as desired.

Agents would find you through a key word search. Suppose Agent X was desperate for a manuscript with the following specs: a high-concept, middle-grade fantasy about a boy protagonist who morphs into a dung beetle at night, but only when his mom attends PTA meetings, and his dad plays bocce ball. He or she would simply type in the search words, et voila, find the lone three writers worldwide--you included, woo hoo!--with the exact same key words on their networking pages.

Agent X would then request a page viewing from you, the writer/author. If granted, Agent X could view as many of your links as desired, and either reject your logline, query, ms., etc., or offer representation--yippee!--by clicking on the appropriate box. Of course, you’d be notified immediately by e-mail, and given the opportunity to accept or reject the offer of representation, say, within two days.

Writers could search for their perfect agents the same way. They could even set up the terms of what types of agents they'd like to include in their search terms, for example, include only agents from New York City. Agents would also have the option to block certain writers or types of writers from contacting them, due to, say, a prior rejection or other mismatch situation.

Of course, a small fee would be required to participate. But it would be well worth the savings in time and effort for writers/authors and agents alike.

So, gentle readers, what do you think? And what other elements would you like to see added to the site?

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Thursday, November 12, 2009

Getting my Stiletto in the Door

One of my first posts on this blog was about rewarding myself with a pair of shoes when I had completed a full draft of a novel. I think it’s fitting then, that this same manuscript, LANDSCAPE OF LITTLE DRAMAS just won Best of the Best in the 2009 Get Your Stiletto in the Door contest run by Did I mention it’s hard to do the Happy Dance in stilettos?

When I got the "you won" phone call on a sleepy Sunday afternoon, it was one of those surreal moments where you can hear what the person on the other end of the phone is saying but your brain kind of explodes like a Christmas cracker. I’d actually been working on another manuscript when the phone rang and BAM just like that I found out I could still do a hitch kick.

After doing several more leaps and punches in the air (luckily neighbors didn’t see this or authorities would have been called in) I went inside to tell my husband the news.

First he smiled and told me he was proud. (Awe)

Then said “Guess you’re not making dinner.” (Babe, like my brain could handle cooking right now.)

And then…

“What does this mean?” (Imagine the sound of a needle skating across a vinyl record)

That question haunted me through my celebratory Margarita and into the night. And even when I woke up in the morning, there was that question sitting right next to my alarm clock as I hit the snooze button.

What DOES it mean?

For one it means I have claim to a really chic sounding contest title – me! – I’m the 2009 Stiletto winner.

It also means I wrote a story that the judges enjoyed reading and deemed Best of the Best. (hope I’m not starting to sound obnoxious)

As the afterglow of winning fades I also realize that what it truly means is that there is work to be done! Now that I have my stiletto is in the door - I’d like to keep it there.

First things first – I’m going to get a pedicure.

A huge thank you to all the volunteers at who ran this amazing contest!

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Monday, November 9, 2009

It All Starts With An Idea

When I first started getting serious about writing, the part that often seemed the trickiest to me was coming up with a great idea. I would focus on each story or poem as though it might be my last because I could never imagine coming up with an idea as good as my current one.

Recently, I've tried to be more proactive about coming up with ideas, and I think I've gotten better. But this month, fellow children's writer and blogger, Tara Lazar, has come up with an awesome challenge for those of us who "write too short" for NaNoWriMo.

The idea of Tara's challenge is to spend the month of November generating picture book ideas. One idea per day to be exact. It's a challenge, but it's do-able. And you can join in at any time. (So don't worry that the month is part gone!)

What's really great about this challenge is that it's causing me to look at the world around me much more actively. Everything is a potential idea. And by the end of the month I'm going to have an amazing list of story possibilities. (Actually, it's already looking pretty inspiring.)

So, to add my part to PiBoIdMo (Picture Book Idea Month), here are a few of my favorite ways to "catch a new idea":

*DO SOMETHING NEW-- for me it was studying cello and taking a jazz class. I'm not at all talented as a musician, but the experience of learning something new as an adult seems to stimulate my brain. (And maybe being such a novice helps to give me a bit more of a kid's perspective.)

*LEARN FROM MY CHILD'S PASSIONS-- Okay, I never thought I'd write a book about trucks, but after living with a truck obsessed three-year-old, I've got two truck manuscripts in the works.

*LET FRIENDS AND FAMILY "CATCH" IDEAS FOR ME--There are those times when I say something in a joking way, and my husband or my mother says, "You should write that.". And, on at least two occasions, they were right!

So, those are a few of my favorite techniques. Where do you get your ideas?

P.S. Don't forget to check out Tara's blog for all sorts of amazing posts about how to generate great picture book ideas!

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Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Scratch, Scratch

At present my thoughts on writing are not positive. For the past two weeks I have been wondering why I am doing this at all. Two novels completed and circulated; none accepted. Two or three others in progress. I am a competent writer, but I think in today's market, writing that is catchy and sarcastic, with an enormous plot engine bursting with action is what is needed. I can't do this.

My characters are standing in the wings waiting to be called on stage again. But why should I let the curtain rise if all they are going to hear are boos and hoots from the audience?

I look at the bookshelf where one of my current manuscripts sits, each chapter in a separate colored folder. If I chucked the pile it it would give me more space...for books, someone else's books, of course. Is that what I want?

And then I hear a mouse scratching in the far wall. We live in the woods and a mouse or two always slips in for the winter. Should I set a trap tonight and catch it, ending its story too, or do I ignore it, at least for now?

Scratch, scratch. That is what a writer's characters do. They join us on walks, meet us coming around the corner, or they are lying in the bed when we go to make it. They won't leave. Ridding the house of mice is easier.

So, I have to live with them, the characters, not the mice. But can I continue to commit them to paper?

I'll think about it.

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Sunday, November 1, 2009

NaNoWriMo Take Two

On November 1, what else can a writer blog about but NaNoWriMo? And yes, I'm going for it again this year. I will confess though, I'm cheating. I plan to finish a WIP rather than start a new manuscript. I already have over 25,000 words down on my YA, but I'm tossing out two plot threads, so I figure that brings me down to somewhere between 15,000-20,000. I'm aiming for a 60,000-word first draft, so who knows? I may hit that magic 50,000 word mark after all.

I've got around 40 buddies so far, but if any of you readers are taking the NaNo challenge, buddy me -- we're all in this together! I'm Judy P at NaNo.

Now, let's get started!

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