Wednesday, July 28, 2010


Imitation and learning from the experience of others is, as the old proverb says, the most sincere form of flattery. Learning from experienced writers and studying their habits is good training, and, complementary. Hopefully what we work away on and produce will be well-received so that important writers are pleased and flattered.

Recently I was viewing writers' websites and was fascinated with Jane Yolen's. As an author of over 300 books and noted as one of the best children's authors of our time, Jane noted on her journal/blog that she was currently working on at least six WIPs, at the same time. Wow - busy, prolific and hard working. What an example.

Jane's writing is also an inspiration for me - her style and mastery of poetry and sense of imagination of children. Look at the wonder of Owl Moon. With her smooth ease and expertise of language coupled with her love of nature and the environment, Jane brings adventure to the life for children. Her work day is committed, too - committing to and controlling five to seven WIPs with different manuscript lives at the same time.

Who are your favorite children's authors - past or present - and how do they inspire you to imitate them? Reading about Jane has re-inspired me to really commit the time as she does and to get to concentrated work - on a number of my WIPs. Maybe someday some one will be flattering us through imitation.

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Saturday, July 24, 2010

Who Needs Brad and Angelina?

Paparazzi follow them, fans stalk them, sightings are reported, and rumors are circulated. My question is, Who cares? Why should I be interested in what Brad and Angelina, or any number of other movie stars or sports heros, are up to when in the world of children's literature, we have our own stars! And I can't recall a single time when any of them have made a headline for doing something illegal, ill-advised, or down right stupid.

I have recently returned from my third Residency at Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA Program for Children and Young Adults. A sense of euphoria, giddiness, ecstasy filled me the whole six hour drive home. Was it because I was thrilled to be going home - to be returning to my own bed and bath, where I didn't have to sleep atop my sheets in a sheen of perpetual sweat or perform feats of contortion to shave my legs in a 3 1/2 x 3 1/2 shower cell? Or because I was returning to food I could cook myself - mashed potatoes that didn't taste like a salt lick or scrambled eggs made from eggs laid by chickens and not some unidentifiable powdered substance that tastes like rubber? Or, was is because of the magic that is Vermont College of Fine Arts? I have my suspicions.

The Theme of this Residency was Fantasy! We read Frank L. Baum's The Wizard of Oz and books by the visiting faculty, Holly Black and Gregory Maguire, both notable creators of fantastical worlds. Also appearing at the Residency were VCFA's own M.T. Anderson and Jandy Nelson. Who needs misbehaving rock stars when you've got people like this to admire, stalk, and drool over? (And I did drool over M.T. Anderson. What could be more attractive than a man who wears plaid shorts and high top sneakers and sings the State Song of Delaware from his book Jasper Dash and the Flame-Pits of Delaware? And I thoroughly embarrassed myself when meeting Jandy Nelson - if you haven't read her book, The Sky is Everywhere yet, do so immediately. Blathering on about loving her book, the title of which I couldn't even remember in the moment. Was my momentary memory lapse because of the heat, lack of sleep, or my raging case of pencil envy? Again, I have my suspicions.)

I am entering my third semester at VCFA, during which I must write a critical thesis. A year ago, as a fledgling first semester, the mere thought of the critical thesis was enough to send my anxiety level to Oz. But now I feel ready, prepared by my first and second semester advisors, and psyched to be working with my new advisor Shelley Tanaka.

With the stars that shine the night sky of children's literature, and VCFA in particular, I wonder why I should need to look elsewhere for my heros. As Dorothy would say, why go looking for something when it's in your own backyard?

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Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Neil Gaiman Rules

I’m a Neil Gaiman groupie, so I was delighted to find his 8 rules for writing fiction in a recent Gotham Writers Workshop newsletter, reprinted from an article in The Guardian.

Here’s how Gotham ran it:

Neil Gaiman: 8 Good Writing Practices
Neil Gaiman has become so popular he is often considered the “rock star” of the literary world. He trades mostly in science fiction and fantasy in a variety of forms—novels, children’s books, graphic novels, comic books, and film. Among his trend-setting works: Coraline, The Graveyard Book and The Sandman series. He takes readers, of all ages, to the very edge of imagination.

8 Good Writing Practices
1. Write.
2. Put one word after another. Find the right word, put it down.
3. Finish what you're writing. Whatever you have to do to finish it, finish it.
4. Put it aside. Read it pretending you’ve never read it before. Show it to friends whose opinion you respect and who like the kind of thing that this is.
5. Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.
6. Fix it. Remember that, sooner or later, before it ever reaches perfection, you will have to let it go and move on and start to write the next thing. Perfection is like chasing the horizon. Keep moving.
7. Laugh at your own jokes.
8. The main rule of writing is that if you do it with enough assurance and confidence, you’re allowed to do whatever you like. (That may be a rule for life as well as for writing. But it’s definitely true for writing.) So write your story as it needs to be written. Write it honestly, and tell it as best you can. I'm not sure that there are any other rules. Not ones that matter.

I was particularly struck by item 5, since it relates to good critiquing practices. At first, I thought Mr. Gaiman was spot on: If you tell a writer exactly how to fix something, you’re imposing your vision on his or her story. Not good.

But after rereading the item, I wasn’t so sure I agreed with him. I mean, if you’re a seasoned critiquer, who knows a WIP well, and has a perfectly brilliant solution for a completely stuck writer, whom you may also know well, why not offer it up? It’s up to the writer to decide whether or not to run with it and make it his or her own. He or she might even hug you in gratitude. Or better yet, buy you a margarita.

Fellow critiquers (and writers), what do you think? Oh, and if there’s another item that struck you, which one was it and why?

p.s. To see the complete article from The Guardian, which includes wonderful rules for writing from a dozen or so famous writers, click on the link above.

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Friday, July 16, 2010

An Unexpected Ending

I've been spending time lately with Jacob and Wilhelm (Grimm, that is) and I want to share a surprising tale called "The Golden Key."

"In the winter time, when deep snow lay on the ground, a poor boy was forced to go out on a sledge to fetch wood. When he had gathered it together, and packed it, he wished, as he was frozen with cold, not to go home at once, but to light a fire and warm himself a little. So he scraped away the snow, and as he was thus clearing the ground, he found a tiny, golden key. Hereupon he thought that where the key was, the lock must be also, and dug in the ground and found an iron chest. 'If the key does but fit it!' thought he; 'no doubt there are precious things in that little box.'

"He searched, but no keyhole was there. At last he discovered one, but so small that it was hardly visible. He tried it, and the key fitted it exactly. Then he turned it once round, and now we must wait until he has quite unlocked it and opened the lid, and then we shall learn what wonderful things were lying in that box."

And that's the end!

Since the early editions of the collected Grimm fairy tales, this story has been the last one - number 200. Jacob and Wilhelm chose this placement purposely. Interesting. "The Golden Key" is a story with a DIY ending.

Why did they chose this story to conclude their collection? I have a couple of ideas. What about you?

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Monday, July 12, 2010

We're Just Not That Into You - Why I've Stopped Obsessing Over Rejection Letters

One of the first and hardest steps on the road of a writer is getting used to the idea of rejection. Getting that first rejection letter can be considered a milestone though, an event to celebrate. When you really think about it, the first taste of rejection gives you more in common with every other successful writer on the shelves today. You should feel proud. Giddy.

Then comes that second rejection and Kapow!!
Those thoughts aren’t comforting anymore and get replaced by more scathing ones…

You suck.
Your writing sucks.
And gee, are those crow’s feet around your eyes getting deeper or what?

My experience with rejection has been much like that. I’ve gotten form rejections and good rejections. Rejections that have made me want to work harder. And rejections that have made me want to go on a margarita and dark chocolate binge. And a little known fact about me – most of my rejections have come to me on a Friday. Usually after an inspiring critique group meeting or day of writing. Just when I’m feeling at one with the whole crazy publishing biz, the rug gets pulled out from under my feet. Thudding door stop snail mails. Quiet, stealthy e-mails. Reject. Eject. No matter how they came to me, the effect was the same – ouch.

Of course, now that I have an agent none of this should bother me, right?

Excuse me while I spit take.

Oh sheesh, it sure has! But as with any life experience once you get past the sting, surprising feelings bubble up.

On my recent trip to NJ, I had the privilege of meeting face to face with my agent. On a very hot, hazy early afternoon in NYC we chatted over salads about my writing career. A week prior to our meeting I’d found out we had FIVE passes (a much nicer word than rejection, btw) on my manuscript. I was glad I’d had a week to get used to that idea. It sure was a doozey of an e-mail to open, and while I didn’t collapse into a chocolate binge to numb the sting, I sent out a few e-mails to writer pals who I knew would tell me everything was going to be okay. A week later, I was able to look at it, somewhat objectively.

My big question to my agent was when should I go back to the manuscript and apply some of the suggestions. Her answer: it was way too early to concern myself with that. And while my jaw didn’t drop, my inner critic was stymied for the moment. What do you mean? It questioned. See, if I’d gotten a rejection letter on my own, I would have instantly sent out an e-mail/snail mail thanking said editor for their consideration and if I tweaked, would they reconsider? In my experience, I’ve never gotten a “sure, send it on back”, which leads me to believe, comments, however helpful or complimentary, are really just a pubs way of saying “We’re just not that into you.” And that’s okay.

As I ventured back to the ferry port that day through the manic, thumping streets of Manhattan, I had a revelation. My work will find a home. Those pubs that passed were just not that into me. Someone, somewhere will be into my work. Will fall in love with my characters. Will believe this story can stand on its own and that people will want to read it. A kind of peace came over me then.

Or maybe it was just delirium from heatstroke.

I’m not saying that I’m looking forward to another pass, but that I believe I’ll be able to keep it in perspective. And keep writing.

What are some of your revelations about rejections/and or the publishing biz?

*Photo Credit: Me, right after my agent lunch, on the Jersey side of the river, trying in vain not to melt

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Thursday, July 8, 2010

What's Going Right?

So often, my blog posts seem to revolve around writing challenges. Things that aren't working for me as a writer.

But for the past two weeks things have been going pretty well. As I write this, I'm up to page 28 of my current work-in-progress, the middle grade novel I was so uncertain about how to start in my blog post of two months ago.

It's actually flowing!

So for today, I thought I'd write a different sort of a blog post. I thought I'd try to analyze what's going right:

The first thing that's going write is that I decided that I would write for 15 minutes a day. (Thanks, Tricia!)

Finding time to write with two young children has often seemed impossible. But the first day that I had promised myself to write for 15 minutes, I sat down after my oldest went to bed and started writing. And, when my 15 minutes was up, I had no desire to stop. In fact, I have kept on writing in every spare moment I can find for the past two weeks.

I discovered that even in what sometimes seems a crazy busy life there are free moments. It's up to me to choose what to do with them. Do I turn on the t.v. and watch something I could care less about to relax after a hard day or do I curl up with my computer and work on my novel? The choice is up to me (and lately I've been making the right choice most of the time :o) ).

And then there are chores. Endless chores. Sometimes it seems like I shouldn't work on my writing because many items on my "to do list" remain undone. But, no matter how hard I work, there will always be items left to do. If I want to be a writer (and I want to be a writer!) I've got to write. I can't make my writing dependent on getting everything else done first or I will never have time to write (which felt like what was happening for a while).

But most of all, what seems to be going right for the past few weeks is that I'm having so much fun. There are times when I'm writing and it feels like tough, hard work and there are times when it feels like play. Right now, it feels like play. I'm not letting myself stress about how perfect it is, I'm just having fun telling a story.

So, the next time I'm having trouble getting into a flow, I'll try to remind myself some of the things that worked for me now. And, if I get too stressed to remind myself, please chime in and remind me.

So, what's going right for you? (And, if things aren't going right for you right now, what worked for you in the past that might work again? :o) )

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Monday, July 5, 2010

Help! Voice Needed

Yikes! Forgot to post. Took fourteen year old visiting granddaughter to mall yesterday...Fourth of July. Against my principles...but not hers. "Grandma, it's the ONLY time I have free, and I NEED a dress for..."

Well, it was for an affair she will attend with ME, and after looking at her wardrobe, I agreed.

Get to mall. I'm thinking Macy's and my coupons. She sees Free People. "My favorite shop!" she says. (Never heard of this store, but appropriate for the holiday, I guess.)

In no time we are standing in a tie-died draped boutique amidst artfully displayed racks of filmy rags. She finds a dress that looks like it might make it through one wash and runs to try it on. The salesgirl, decked out in what looks like a creative halloween costume, dashes to a rack and grabs more dresses. I whisper my price range, and she puts them back. Luckily the chosen dress fits and actually looks presentable. I pay and whisk my darling out to find Macy's I hope.

What does this have to do with my writing? Everything. I'm revising my novel about a farm girl the same age as my granddaughter. Actually, it takes place in 1920 and is based on the childhood of her great grandmother. Would my granddaughter read the book as it is now written? I don't think so. What voice must I use to make her want to turn the page? Certainly not the demure voice of my mother, whose memoirs I've turned into the novel. How can I inject anger, frustration, sarcasm, irony on to what are presently pages of quiet desperation?

Am open to suggestions. My price range, please. Any coupons out there?

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Thursday, July 1, 2010

A Question of Back-Story

I was one of the lucky ones. I saw the Roundabout’s production of The Glass Menagerie before it closed. I had seen The Glass Menagerie before, both the play and the movie, and I’ve read and studied it. But Judith Ivey’s portrayal of Amanda was unlike anything I’ve seen or imagined. Her character work was extraordinary. It was a performance I will never forget. And it was a brilliant lesson in creating back-story.

Ivey’s Amanda was relentlessly cheerful. Her goal was clear – a better future for her children. She tried so hard to achieve it, only to fall short each time. The scene where she finally sells the magazines subscription was so heartbreaking it was all I could do to keep from sobbing out loud.

But everything this Amanda Wingfield did and said was so full and rich and different. And it was all due to the incredibly rich back-story she created. She still loved her scoundrel husband who she hasn’t seen in years. I believed she would have married him all over again – knowing he would leave her to raise two kids alone – just to have that short time together. And knowing it was her choice she soldiered on, relentlessly cheerful, down to every last rise and shine. She made a decision on how to be a single parent and never changed. Unfortunately, her children did. They grew up.

Of course, I could be completely wrong about Ms. Ivey’s back-story. But isn’t that the beauty of it? She used her own personal back-story to create a flesh and blood character, with motivation and action. What I saw may not be what she imagined, but it was still our shared experience.

Oh – wait. I’m supposed to be talking about writing, right? Well, I am. I’m at that point in my WIP where I’m working on my characters, giving them each a fuller, more detailed back-story. I’ve long been a proponent of listing character traits, building in lots of tidbits that may or may not be used. But now I’m hungry for more. I want to go deeper – no more bits and pieces, I want to find the story in each back-story.

I took a look at Write Away, by Elizabeth George, one of my favorite books on writing, and looked for advice on creating character. George creates a Character Prompt Sheet for each character, chock filled with physical, emotional and psychological traits. She also free writes an analysis about each character. George says she considers the character analysis “ a bit of private conversation between me and myself and I often throw ideas on the screen one after another until I get a feel for the character.” Her analysis goes on for several pages, taking twists and turns in exploration.

I’ve often journaled as a character, but I’ve never before tried this kind of analysis -- this “third person” way of looking at character and motivation. I’m eager to add this tool to my writing arsenal.

So tell me, what is your favorite way to build character?

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