Sunday, February 28, 2010


Always go for the active voice and don't be passive when writing. Always good advice and frequently given by editors, agents, writing teachers and critique group colleagues.

This critique group is very active in the writing life. This year alone several members have signed with agents and book and magazine publishers. We spend a lot of time working on our own manuscripts, much time reviewing each others' manuscripts, attending writing conferences and checking out writing blogs and web sites. Even though we spend hours sitting at the computer and reading, we are certainly active!

Using the active voice in the writing process doesn't always seem as easy, however, as the advice indicates. If we aren't as conscious of our voice writing the first draft when we are getting the story down, we realize the need to watch for the active voice when we revise the work.

Several weeks ago I googled some writing information and came across a memorial article on a much loved professor of writing from Notre Dame who had just passed away. Elizabeth Christman worked as a literary agent in New York with such luminaries as J. D. Salinger and Agatha Christie. Later she decided to teach and returned to college for a doctorate. Her students remember her directives on writing well, especially on the use of the active voice.

"The passive voice is the enemy."

So, I am going to be watchful of the intruder - the passive voice - who does creep up on me. When writing my WIP I'm trying to constantly check the text so my writing has the energy and directness the active voice provides. I hope to be a fully active writer. If I'm not successful my active critique group will guide me and make me move actively.

How do you approach achieving use of the active voice?

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Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Starting Over

During my first semester at Vermont College I started work on a new project, a supernatural YA story. Having never attempted a supernatural work before, I had a lot to learn. I chugged along through the first draft, completing roughly 150 pages. Some of it was sh*tty first draft stuff which Anne Lamott encourages us to ignore, some of it was decent. Towards the end of the semester, my advisor encouraged me to keep going, to push through to the end (I had finished about 3/4 of the story) but I stopped to do a major revision - cutting a character. That done, I was fairly content with my work. Obviously, it was a first draft and I knew I'd have to revise. My goal for second semester was to get to the end of the story - to finish it. Alas, that was not the goal of my advisor, Alan Cuymn (pictured with me above in a really bad photo, my eyes are closed and I have serious hat-hair).

When I first got Alan's comments on my packet, I gaped at the pages in disbelief. There was more of his handwriting on the page than there was of my typed words! I curled into the writer's fetal position (you all know what I mean - that horrible place we all go when someone criticizes our work). But after a short while, and a Hershey's Almond Chocolate bar, I was able to uncurl myself, look at Alan's comments with fresh eyes, and see the validity of his comments.

I start the story with a prologue (oh yes, the dreaded prologue about which there is great debate which I'm not going into here). The prologue begins with a very distant third person narrator, almost omniscient, then zooms in on the main character (psychic distance). Alan wanted me to start the prologue over, "get inside the main character's head immediately" he said. "You could try first person" he agreed. ARUGH! Heavy sigh.

So, I started the prologue over. My first attempt was first person, and there was a split decision in this critique group about whether or not I should keep it. I decided to chuck it, though, and wrote it again in close third person. Guess what! I like it! I think Alan's suggestion to get immediately into the character's mind draws the reader in faster and makes her more sympathetic and understandable. I think the writing is stronger and more compelling.

Hey, maybe listening to people who know what they're doing isn't such a bad idea! Isn't that why I enrolled in VCFA in the first place? To listen to people who know more than me? To push myself to become the best writer I can be?

I'm not sure I would call what I'm doing revising - it really is starting over. I don't know if I'll chuck the rest of the 150 pages totally or simply rework them. But I wonder how you approach revisions/starting over? Do you chug all the way through that sh*tty first draft? Or do you stop and revise along the way? Or do you start completely over?

Alan's last words to me when we spoke were, "Remember the writing is supposed to be fun." My first thought was, Yeah, right. But he is right. That's not to say it isn't gut wrenchingly hard, but it is fun.

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Friday, February 19, 2010

I'm About to Burst!

Okay, so when I was a little kid, we got to my grandmother's house on her birthday.

"Open your necklace, Nona," I told her.

This often told family story always reminds me how hard it is not to tell people something I'm really excited about!

Well, for the past few weeks something very exciting has been happening, and now I can finally let it out...

My picture book, "Where Do Diggers Sleep at Night?" is going to be published by Random House!

Maybe I didn't keep it such a secret after all. You all probably heard my screams of joy when I got the critique and emails that brought me to this exciting moment-- even if you live nowhere near New Jersey.

Right now, it is all so exciting, but also rather unreal feeling. I have been working and dreaming for this for seven years (I went back through my old writing emails to trace my path to publication), and now it is actually going to happen.

I am sure there will be lots to do in the weeks and months ahead, but today is a day to celebrate.

So please take a virtual piece of cake and a virtual scoop of ice cream and join me in my celebration! I look forward to joining all of you in yours real soon! :o)

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Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Don't Write Down, Write Up, Part II

Continuing my post of February 12th - in that same 1969 interview, E.B. White also said this about writing for children:

"Some writers for children deliberately avoid using words they think a child doesn't know. This emasculates the prose and, I suspect, bores the reader. Children are game for anything. I throw them hard words, and they backhand them over the net. They love words that give them a hard time, provided they are in a context that absorbs their attention. I'm lucky again - my own vocabulary is small compared to most writers, and I tend to use short words. So it's no problem to write for children. We have a lot in common." p. 147.

Hm-m, do you think today's MG readers are as open to "hard words" as readers of the past? I suspect the answer might lie in whether they are reading something that "absorbs their attention." Do you agree?

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Friday, February 12, 2010

Don't Write Down, Write Up

One of my Christmas presents was a book entitled THE PARIS REVIEW INTERVIEWS, VOL. IV, published by Picador in 2009. This is a selection of author interviews from the past and I immediately turned to the interview with E. B. White from 1969. One question White was asked was, "Is there any shifting of gears when writing such children's books as STUART LITTLE and CHARLOTTE'S WEB?"

And his answer was typical E. B. White.

"Anybody who shifts gears when he writes for children is likely to wind up stripping his gears. But I don't want to evade your question. There is a difference between writing for children and for adults. I am lucky, though, as I seldom seem to have my audience in mind when I am at work. It is as though they don't exist.

"Anyone who writes down to children is simply wasting his time. You have to write up, not down. Children are demanding. They are the most attentive, curious, eager, observant, sensitive, quick, and generally congenial readers on earth. They accept, almost without question, anything you present them with, as long as it is presented honestly, fearlessly, and clearly. I handed them, against the advice of experts, a mouse-boy, and they accepted it without a quiver. In CHARLOTTE'S WEB, I gave them a literate spider, and they took that." (pp. 146-7)

Wise words from a master.

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Monday, February 8, 2010


Lately I've been thinking a lot about how writing is all about believing. As writers, we are naturally dreamers. Even though the odds are incredibly stacked against us, we believe that our stories will find a home. That all our efforts will make a difference in the life of a child.

But our believing must begin long before that.

When the glimmer of an idea first pops up in our mind, we must believe. We must believe enough not to dismiss it as silliness or as having no future. We must believe in that idea enough to care for it and nurture it. Like a seed in a garden.

And when that idea grows into an unwieldy manuscript, we still believe. While it may frustrate us like a toddler throwing a tantrum, we strive to have the patience to turn it into the manuscript we believe it can be.

Yes, writing is all about believing. And believing isn't as easy as clicking some ruby red slippers. But still, we writers are awfully good at it.

And when we're having trouble, sometimes we just need a reminder from our fellow writers. A reminder that we and our stories are worth believing in.

So I'm curious, when the going gets tough, how do we all keep believing?

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Thursday, February 4, 2010

A Matter of Timing

In late January, after a period of bitter cold weather, the temperature spiked into the 60's, luring furry creatures out of their warm shelters. As I walked along, a red tailed hawk swooped in front of me. The object of her search, a fluffy gray squirrel, darted for cover. The hawk retreated to the branch of an oak tree, where she perched patiently, fluffing her feathers and scanning the winter woods for other possibilities. For the hawk, and for the squirrel, timing is everything, just as it is for the writer of children's books.

I've just finished Susan Gregg Gilmore's coming of age novel, "Looking for Salvation at the Dairy Queen," and, coincidentally, watched a movie, "Easy Virtue," based on a Noel Coward play. In both works, a key fact is revealed at just the right moment, and the plot twists, leading to an unexpected climax. In "Salvation," a death is explained. In "Virtue," a character's questionable deeds come to light.

When does the writer place his wild card on the table? What clues must the writer subtly provide so that the reader mutters, "Aha!" instead of "Now where did that come from?"

Timing is an art, and the writer, like the hawk, must get it right, or perish.

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Monday, February 1, 2010

You Say I-Pad, I Say AlphaSmart

Okay, okay, okay. I admit it. I want one. I want a shiny, new, unfortunately named I-Pad. I want to slip it in my bag and Hulu WEEDS whenever, wherever I am. I want the full board version of Lexulous to show up when it's my turn. And I want to access Facebook, Twitter, Ning, Verla's and all my blogging buddies 24/7.

But I know my limits. And I already spend way too much time on the internet. That's why I'm sticking with my AlphaSmart Dana. It's a lightweight, portable word processor. And it's distraction free.

Now when I hit the road for a carpool, a doctor's appointment, or an overnight to Grandmom and Pop-Pop's, I take my AlphaSmart and leave the laptop at home. It weighs in at a sturdy two pounds, and has a twenty-five hour rechargeable battery and a full-size keyboard. There's no boot-up time. You take it out and turn it on. And when you turn it off, it automatically saves. And one more thing -- because I can't go cold turkey on technology, it does have Wi-Fi connectivity for e-mail.

For drafting, you can't beat my AlphaSmart. The screen shows about six to eight lines of type, so I can review what I've written, but I stay focused on moving forward. I particularly love it for journaling as my characters. And when I want to add my AlphaSmart files to my Mac, I'm just a USB cable away.

We bought mine used on E-Bay for ninety dollars. It works like a charm.

I'd love to hear about other favorite first draft "writing instruments." Who drafts longhand in marble notebooks and who won't leave home without a stack of index cards. Is anyone drafting a book on their Blackberry?

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