Thursday, January 28, 2010


"Melody - each person has their own special melody that sings. We each have a different rhythm and listen and react to a different cue. And as writers this is especially true," said Rita Dove, former U.S. poet laureate.

Earlier this month many of the most illustrious American poets, and numerous poet laureates, assembled in Key West for the annual Literary Seminar, which this year was dedicated to Poetry. Although the event took place during one of the coldest weeks in Florida memory, when Key West did not resemble a tropical paradise, it was a wondrous time with wonderful sessions dedicated to the craft of writing poetry. Many of the poets gave readings of their works and quoted poets from Keats to Yeats.

The poets emphasized melody and the magic of the poem, meter, form and shape, sound, rhythm and flow. They discussed the use of a poem, and its metaphor and larger meaning.

All of their techniques of course apply to all genres of writing. Authors of children's books listen for the sense and sounds of their words, whether they are writing picture books, chapter books or YA.

A number of the poets referred to children's literature, either working with the memory of a favorite book from their own childhood or the sense of sound and lyricism from early children's stories and poems.

One poet's suggestion was to keep things physical for children under twelve, relate the language, ideas and references to children's own lives and to their rhythms and perceptions. Another was to get tone, meter, and sound into children's ears early.

I came back to my desk energized to work at putting sound, meter, rhythm, and especially melody, into my work. How do you incorporate these elements in your work?

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Sunday, January 24, 2010

White Spaces

I've just come back from my second Residency at VCFA, better thought of as the magical and mystical Brigadoon, rising out of Montpelier twice a year. The drive to Vermont in winter is exquisitely beautiful and nearly magical. Trees dusted with powdered sugar snow, icicles sparkling in the sun, and signs warning "Moose Crossing Next 15 miles" add to the magical atmosphere. (In New Jersey, deer are as common as pigeons - hardly as magical as a moose.)

During the 10-day Residency we talked a lot about white spaces - what is not specifically written, but what happens off scene, between the lines, where the reader is allowed to imagine. Sometimes, allowing the reader to imagine a scene is more powerful than specifically showing the scene. For example, VCFA's newest faculty member A.M. Jenkins read a scene from her book BEATING HEART, "This time it's in Carrie's room, on her bed. Afterward, he rolls over onto his back while she tucks herself up against him, letting one finger play over his chest."* It's a sex scene. Did you miss it? What happens between the word "bed" and "afterward" is left to the reader. How magical is that?

Trusting the reader to fill in gaps is a powerful tool, which when used appropriately, can make the writing stronger. It's a skill I hope to use in my own writing.

But thinking about white spaces, especially in Vermont in January, makes me think of the white space of our VCFA campus (pictured above) and all the magic that occurs during the Residency. In the intense ten days spent on the VCFA campus atop its hill in Montpelier, magic does happen. Friendships are made, mentors are discovered, trust is inherent.

And then, I cannot help but make the leap to the white space between Residencies, the six months which occur "off scene" when students return to their lives and homes (many much further away from Vermont than New Jersey) and yet are still magically connected to VCFA through five packet installments due to our advisors every three to four weeks. The work that occurs in these "white spaces" is truly magical for it is when we as writers use all that we have learned at the Rez, from our lectures and workshops, and from communing with other writers over meals in the NECI cafeteria, and through evenings spent unwinding in the Pit.

My advisor this semester is Alan Cuymn author of seven adult books and three books for children. I am looking forward to working with Alan to see what magic occurs in the white space of my second semester.

*Jenkins, A. M. Beating Heart: A Ghost Story. New York: HarperCollins, 2006. Print. p 91.

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Wednesday, January 20, 2010

A Writer's Retreat

This past August I took a weekend trip to Asheville, North Carolina to visit the Biltmore Estate. I didn’t go kicking and screaming, but my idea of a vacation is usually more of the big fruity drink, toes in the sand variety. When we reached Biltmore House, it was a jaw dropper for sure, but when I rented the audio tour, the story behind the house is what drew me in and made me wish I’d known the Vanderbilts.

Why? George Vanderbilt loved to read. The library is a sumptuous two story room, walnut-paneled with deep red furniture made when furniture was a work of art. Books line the walls from top to bottom. A spiral staircase takes you to the second level of books and there’s a secret door so Mr. Vanderbilt could come down from his bedroom to retrieve or return a book. (A secret door?! How Colonel Mustard in the Library with the Lead Pipe is that? Gotta love it!) It’s a place his guests could retreat to and curl up by the massive fireplace with a good story. Among his guests? Edith Wharton.

On the house tour we went through one of the bedrooms where Edith Wharton stayed while visiting. As the mountain breeze caused the curtains to billow, I imagined her rising in the morning, hot breakfast waiting, full day of staring out at the Blue Ridge Mountains and feeding her soul ahead of her. Did she write anything there? How could she not?

Yes, that’s what I thought of as I walked through Biltmore House. How cool it would be to have this beautiful and inspiring place where all you were expected to do was just be. A stroll through the rose garden, back to your room to nap or write a letter, tea time with scones and lemon curd and clotted cream, a five course dinner, a library beckoning you with its volumes…

Oh man, how I crave a writers retreat!

Truthfully, at the center of all these hedonistic layers of yumminess is permission. Permission to let myself find the joy in creating.

This morning as I sat down to revise a chapter I’ve been having trouble with, I was literally reduced to tears. It was one of those mornings where every word that came out of my keyboard felt skunked. It didn’t help that a virtual Venga Bus of editorial insults barreled through my brain. Also pressing on me was the knowledge that if I didn’t hit the deli counter at some point in the afternoon, my daughter would be without her beloved bologna for yet another day. Then of course there’s that orthodontist bill I need to call about. And another three day weekend is coming up and - you get the picture. You’ve been there. I know.

Since I don’t have any millionaire friends who have a mountain retreat I can hole up in for awhile, I was thinking we could put together a virtual retreat right here on The Paper Wait.

First – the place. Large, log cabin type retreat, with a view of the mountains. Rustic enough to create a mood, but with modern amenities, like a whirlpool bath. A fire place is a must, so at the end of a day spent creating we could sit and discuss our drafts or talk about great books we’ve read. There would be a chef on site. (so more time could be spent just be-ing) Someone to cook healthy but yummy brain food. Chocolate would be on the menu every day.

Okay..what next?

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Thursday, January 14, 2010

A Tale of Two Revisions

Last year I submitted one of my retold noodlehead folktales to an editor at a magazine I've been published in before. I've had good luck with my retellings of stories about fools - young readers love to say, "I know better than that!"

The editor, who was about to retire, sent back a cordial note saying it was "a funny idea," but the plot lost suspense early on because the reader could guess this fool would never find the possessions he was looking for. She also couldn't believe the fool could be SO clueless he wouldn't recognize his lost property when he saw it. She offered to have me resubmit.

I set about revising the plot to fix the suspense problem. When I resubmitted to a different editor, I got back a nice note saying she found the story "interesting . . . but a bit depressing." The fool in this revision still searched all day for his missing property and never found it, and I had belabored his long walks in the hot sun. As often happens in revising, you fix one thing and ruin another. I hadn't paid attention to the tone of the story. The light, foolish touch had disappeared and at the end the fool is resigned to his loss, which leaves the reader feeling gloomy. The editor was right. It was a downer. I e-mailed and asked whether she would be willing to see a revision. Lucky for me, she said yes.

In my second revision, I carefully balanced plot and tone - the fool still faces some hardship searching for the lost property he never finds - but I shortened and lightened the descriptions. Most importantly, the ending now has a humorous twist. The fool, rather than being resigned to his loss, is hopeful. He has a plan to solve his problem. This plan elicits smiles, for even the youngest reader will see his foolish plan won't work.

And how does this blog tale end? I sold the story and have renewed respect for the tricky mechanics of revision. Now that's not foolish!

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Sunday, January 10, 2010

My New Year's News!

As I sit down to write this post, my first post of last year feels fresh in my mind. Last year, as the entire writing world seemed to be making wonderful productivity resolutions, I was just a few weeks away from giving birth. With expectations of sleep-deprived nights in the months ahead, increased productivity seemed an impossible goal. So I resolved to lower my expectations for a bit and appreciate the wonderful roller coaster my life was about to turn into.

So now as I look back on 2009, I can appreciate:

*the birth of my beautiful baby boy!!!

*my oh so grown-up 3-year-old who is now all potty trained and helps me pick out baby food and bibs for his baby brother

*the many doctors, therapists and generous family members who have helped our baby to make some wonderful progress through a very tough year

* and the WONDEFUL AGENT I just signed with--

Wait! Did I just say agent?

Yes I did!

Somehow in the middle of this crazy year, I managed to revise some old manuscripts, create some new ones and sign with the incredibly awesome...

Teresa Kietlinski of Prospect Agency!

With all her experience designing picture books, Teresa is the perfect agent for me. And for those of you who read about my submission indecision malady,well, needless to say, a smart, energetic agent like Teresa isn't going to let my manuscripts just sit on my hard drive. We're going to revise them and get them out onto editors' desks. Hurray!

Here's hoping next year's New Year's news is even more exciting! (I won't say it out loud, but you all know what I'm hoping for. :o) )

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Monday, January 4, 2010

Thank You, Jon Scieszka!

Today is Jon Scieszka's last day as our first ever National Ambassador for Young People's Literature. How incredible that such a position exists. And how incredible that they chose Jon Scieszka, the absolute perfect man for the job!

When I sat down to write this post, I went to Jon Scieszka's website to see a list of his many books. I was amazed to see how many of them I had experienced personally:

For me, first there was MATH CURSE. What a wonderfully funny math book! I used to have my third graders solve some of these very silly problems as a very motivating math lesson.

Then there was the TIME WARP TRIO series. These chapter books are hilarious! And so motivating for the reluctant readers I worked with in my private practice!

And then there was TRUCKTOWN. Oh how my three-year-old loves TRUCKTOWN! He loves all the characters, was thrilled when a book in this series came in our Cheerios box and chose to give his cousin two books from the series as his Chanukah present.

On top of all that, I found some books that I loved personally. Knowing my love for children's literature and writing, our local librarian recommended I read Scieszka's memoir, KNUCKLEHEAD: TALL TALES AND ALMOST TRUE STORIES OF GROWING UP SCIESZKA. Such fun! Read it if you can!

And the other day I found Scieszka's awesome introduction to the world of modern art, SEEN ART?. My kids are still way too young for it, but I couldn't resist getting a copy for the future (and for me to enjoy write now!).

Sorry if I've rambled into lots of mini book blurbs here, but I haven't covered half of Jon Scieszka's books. And his influence has gone far beyond the books he has written. It has extended into his efforts to motivate boys to read with his wonderful website, "Guys Read" and, of course, all his amazing efforts to connect kids and books during his year as ambassador.

Wow! Talk about inspiring! Talk about making a difference as a children's writer!

Thank you, Jon Scieszka!

P.S. Check out links to a lot of other great Scieszka thank yous here at A YEAR OF READING, the awesome bloggers who came up with this idea.

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Sunday, January 3, 2010

Details, Details, Details!

In writing for childen we are often advised to keep our eye on the action, the plot engine, and the goal of the protagonist. Pause for description or too much information, we are told, and the reader (or worse yet, the agent or editor) just may close the book. Forever.

But a phrase in Diane Schoemperlen's's Our Lady of the Lost and Found caught my eye yesterday: "I have put my faith in the transformative power of the telling detail, however small and apparently insignificant."

That set me to thinking about why I read, and yes, why I read as a child. I loved (and still do) the descriptive passages that transported me to another time and place. In my reading today, I stopped to savor the descriptive details I that encountered:

Verlyn Klinkenborg, in today's Times essay, Snowing Forward, calls the color of the winter sky "diluted turquoise." Dicken's description of the London cold in A Christmas Carol as "piercing, searching, biting," makes the reader rub his fingers together just for warmth. In The Long Winter, Wilder tells us "the blizzard was scouring against the walls and the winds squealed and moaned in the stovepipe." With these words she places the reader smack in the middle of the prairie storm.

So in my revisions this coming year, I will be adding more detail, desperately trying, of course, to avoid making the plot engine conk out. As Schoemperlen says, "the most ordinary object becomes extraordinary in the process of observing it and putting it into words."

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Friday, January 1, 2010

Outlining 2010

In the great plotter/pantser debate, I’ve always worn pants. A clear beginning is what inspires me to start a novel. An identified ending sets the goal for the entire story. But that murky middle really slows me down.

I can pound out a strong beginning. Along the way, I can zoom through a few chapters on an inspired plot point, a developing relationship, or a curious subplot. I can even weave them together and sprinkle in some back-story. But I always get derailed. It’s not writer’s block that stops me—I could write crap forever. But writer’s wilt—when I just don’t care about anything I write—stops me cold every time.

So in 2010, I’m ringing out the pants and ringing in the outline. It may be tough going at first and I don’t do tedium well. But I believe in the long run I will be a better writer if I give my manuscript more targets to hit along the way.

So to you outliners – any tips you want to share? How do you make sure you raise the stakes higher and higher in your outline?

Photo: Ian Britton

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