Friday, May 28, 2010


What literary and illustrated treasures abound in our museums and libraries, and what inspiration they give us, the viewers! As I wandered through the Morgan Library this week with its new entrance and wonderful, expanded galleries, I was once again stunned by the variety and scale of the collections - early Assyrian and Sumerian seals, illuminated manuscripts from medieval and Renaissance eras, a copy of the Magna Carta (this precious document had been in the US for a special event and could not get home because of the ash cloud and so is on special loan), Gutenberg bibles, manuscripts of famous modern authors, and, of course, manuscripts and illustrations of early children's books, including Babar.

At the same time, the BEA, the giant BookExpo America, was taking place down at the Javitts Center. Many in the American publishing world attended this conference, listened to presentations of what's new in the publishing field and met and greeted authors, editors, marketing experts and publishers.

Most of us would be thrilled to be asked to present our book at the BEA conference. I know I could never aspire to the heights of the great writers who penned the masterpieces at the Morgan, but knowing such a high level conference on books is being held in New York and seeing such luminaries of the written word in one beautiful space like the Morgan does inspire me to try again to write a new piece, research and outline like crazy, get it down and as right as possible, and revise and revise. Most probably our books won't be labeled treasures of an era but if children read them, like them, hold them close and read them again, and maybe get some inspiration from them, then they do become treasures.

Seeing some of the important and fascinating manuscripts at the Morgan did give me some ideas for new stories for children. What experiences have given you inspiration and ideas lately for new treasures? I was excited just to get home and to start to jot down and outline my new story lines. Now I'm trying to get them right....and then revise.

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Monday, May 24, 2010

OMG! I've Got a Great Idea!

Last night I came up with an idea for a book that I am so excited about, I can't stand it. I was actively seeking ideas that spring from normal, every day occurrences. I wanted a normal action that when "what if" was added, the main character's world would explode, metaphorically speaking. And I found it. I don't want to do anything else but work on this idea. Flesh it out. Outline it. Write it.

If I could, I'd take my laptop to some seedy motel, lock myself in for days, and write "the downest and dirtiest" first draft in the history of first drafts. But, sigh, life gets in the way. I can't lock myself up and do nothing but write. I have to write in chunks.

So now what do I do? I've got work, family, volunteer commitments. I've got a WIP that is heading down the home stretch. But that darn idea, that hint of a story, that nugget of a book -- it won't get in line. It wants all my attention, right now!

What do you do when a new idea grabs you and won't let go? Do you make it go to the back of the line and finish your WIP? Do you put your WIP on hold and while you're hot on the topic, write like the wind ? Or do you try to work on both? Care to guess which approach I'll try?

Photo Credit: Bob Smith

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Thursday, May 20, 2010

The In-Between

Last month I wrote about my frustration with revisions – the process I love to hate. Hate because I’m impatient. Love because the scenes that came out of my last round of rewrites are some of the strongest in the manuscript. Even though there were times I wanted to pull my hair out, there was something comforting hanging out with characters I knew so well I could order their drinks for them before they arrived for our lunch date. I had a purpose.

Now I feel as though I sprinted through a final leg of a race and crossed the finish line only to find there’s nothing there. Just me, bent over and panting, sweat dripping down my face and wondering, okay, now what?

It’s not for lack of ideas. I have several, but here’s where my impatience starts to bare its jagged teeth. I don’t want to start a new WIP. I want to be 100 pages into a WIP. Like, yesterday.

The in-between bothers me more than any other part of my process because this is the time when my fears and doubts come out and form a virtual conga line around my desk. Can I really pull this off again? What if I get 30 pages in and find out I’m wasting my time? What if someone writes a better book in the meantime with a similar plot? Besides, none of your characters have fangs, wings, or fur, so how marketable do you think this will be? On and on and on.

I know this too shall pass. I’ll trick myself long enough to get some real work done and lo and behold I’ll have 100 pages, something to work with, new characters who will become old friends. Until then, I’ll just have to deal. I’ll go to movies, read books, work my muscles to fatigue at the gym, hang out with writer buddies and talk about things we writers talk about, and try not to be too upset that Casey James got voted off of Idol last night. Hopefully, while I’m doing all of that, my subconscious will be cooking up a meaningful plot, so when I get my butt back in my chair, the blankness doesn’t swallow me whole.

So how do you spend your in-between time? Or are you lucky enough to have no idea what I’m talking about?

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Monday, May 17, 2010

The Moral of the Story Is . . .

"Do not moralize."
"Do not try to teach a lesson."
For years, writers for children have heard this advice. And yet, some of the popular classics for the youngest audience moralize - THE TALE OF PETER RABBIT, THE POKY LITTLE PUPPY, or THE LITTLE ENGINE THAT COULD. Ouch! That moralizing is painfully overt.

For the last year, I've been fascinated by researching and retelling folktales. What about the morals in folktales? They can be in-your-face like that little engine chugging over the mountain, or they can be more complex. Consider two pourquoi stories with very different explanations of why bears hibernate.

The American folktale paints the bear as a mean, loud mouth bully. Sick of the bear, one fall night the animals of the forest wait for it to climb into a hollow tree stump and fall asleep. They stuff the stump's opening with tree branches and rocks to keep it dark inside and rejoice because they're rid of the bossy bear. In spring, the animals wonder if the bear is still alive. When they remove the tree branches and rocks, sunlight wakes the bear. Now it gets complicated because the bear announces his long sleep pleased him; it's the most comfortable winter he's ever had. Are we to believe him, or is he saying that, as a bully might, to save face?

So the bully bear gets months of time out for anti-social behavior, but he says he's happy. What's the underlying moral if we believe the bear? Revenge doesn't pay? And if we don't believe the bear, or leave out the bear's dialogue in the retelling, what then? Bullies get what they deserve?

The other folktale is from Lapland. In this story, a helpful bear performs a kind deed and as a reward Ukko the Thunder God grants the bear the gift of winter sleep. Bears will no longer need to worry about searching the frozen tundra for food during the long winter. This is an uncomplicated story. The kind bear is rewarded for thoughtful behavior. The underlying moral is simple. Straightforward.

I sold the retold tale from Lapland to Highlights.

But I'm still figuring out how to retell the other story. There is something super satisfying about playing a trick on a bully, but how do I deal with that bear?

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Thursday, May 13, 2010

An Audience of One

In my day job as a writing professor, I happened upon an old interview with Leslie Marmon Silko (b. 1948), the wonderful, Native American author of novels, short stories, essays, poetry, and more. When the interviewer asked her, “Who do you consider to be your audience? Who are you writing for?” I was struck by Silko’s response:

“I've never thought too much about an audience per se. When I first started writing, I wasn't sure that anyone would want to read or listen to the work that I did. I didn't think about it at first. In a way, it's good not to think about an audience. If you start thinking about the audience, it can inhibit what you do. When I was younger, there was concern about what will Grandma think, or what will Mama say or something like this, and that in a sense is being concerned about audience and can really inhibit a writer. Initially, I guess I assumed that I wouldn’t have to worry about an audience because there would not be an audience.”

Man, I envy her. Not having to think about an audience sounds so…freeing. As a middle-grade writer, there isn’t a moment when I don’t think about my (hopeful) audience. What would Joe sixth-grader think of this word? This phrase? This plot point? What will keep him turning pages instead of turning on his DSi? I can’t see him, smell him, or hear him, but Joe’s always here, peering over my shoulder, critiquing me whenever I’m BIC HOK TAM (Butt In Chair, Hands On Keyboard, Typing Away Madly). Frankly, Joe can be a real pain in the a--.

I can help but wonder: Are my overriding concerns about what Joe (and Jenny) reader would think squelching my creativity, making my writing seem less organic? Fellow children’s book writers, what do you think? Do you ever feel like you're too concerned about your young audience, to the point where it inhibits you and hurts your writing? Does it ever make you want to run for the relative freedom of the adult market? Is that a misnomer? Talk to me.

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Saturday, May 8, 2010

Building Momentum (Or Not?)

I used to think the hardest part of writing was finding an idea worth writing about. But now I'm definitely past that. I have several ideas I'm intrigued with. And one I'm particularly excited to get to work on.

So far I've written a brief synopsis and a first page. I know where I want to go but I'm stuck too.

You see, this manuscript is a manuscript like none I've completed before. It's a... middle grade novel!

Okay, so I've watched you, my amazing critique-mates, conquer the lengthy challenge that is a middle grade novel. But I write short, right? How am I going to do this?

Part of me thinks I can. If only I could build up some momentum. But my current life stage does not exactly support momentum building. (It's more like write a sentence, comfort a crying baby. Write another sentence, tell a preschooler he can't have another cookie. :o) )

So here's my question, awesome Paper Wait readers: How do you do it? How do you start out at page 1 of such an immensely huge project and have the courage to move on to page 2 and page 3? How do you decide that this project is worth investing so much time and focus into (instead of all those other projects that dance in your heads)? And how do you build up that momentum to just keep going?

(P.S. "The Little Engine that Could", one of my preschooler's favorite books just felt like an appropriate image for this post. :o) )

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Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Writers Needed

A recent trip to Israel and Jordan made me consider why the three great monotheistic religions flourished and spread from that region. For me, the best reason was the fact that these religions were nurtured first by the spoken word and then by the written word. Increasingly, their followers set down on paper the theological narratives, Old and New Testaments, and later, the Koran, followed by written interpretations of these narratives. Following them came the historians. My favorite on this trip was Flavius Josephus and his 1st century AD account of the siege of Masada, and Egeria, a 3rd century nun who kept a travel diary of her visit to the Holy Land, where she describes a visit to the house in Capernaum, thought to be that of St. Peter.

Now, as well as then, writers remain mankind's historical conscience, whether they are creating fiction or recording facts. The highlight of my trip was when I met Sister Gemma Del Duca, a nun who is Co-Founder and Co-Director of the National Catholic Center for Holocaust Education in Jerusalem. When I told her about Meg Wiviott's picture book on Kristallnacht (listed on this blog) she practically leaped into the air. "There's not enough being written for children about the Holocaust," she said. "We need more. Much more."

Writers, whatever your topic, keep on writing! The world needs to hear from you.

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