Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Reports of the PB's Death....May be Exaggerated

Mark Twain so famously wrote, "The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated."

So too perhaps the reports of the death of the PB may be magnified beyond current market realities. I wrote about this topic in October on this blog on a post titled "Digitized!" after a NEW YORK TIMES article suggested that the e-world was drawing the shroud over the PB.

Just several weeks ago the PW Children's Bookshelf had a lead article titled "Don't Write the Obit for Picture Books Yet." They wrote that some children's publishers seemed shocked that the TIMES would make this declaration since market data showed that PBs were about the same percentage of children's book sales in 2009 as in 2005 - approximately 11% (10.8 and 10.7%).

For my post in October I had interviewed several librarians - randomly scattered around the country - NJ, NC, FL and Oregon - who said that they had been buying just about as many PBs this year as in the past and that the public seemed as interested in them as usual. And, as that librarian said, the PB doesn't need to be plugged in or need extra batteries!

This is the happy news for those of us who write PBs and who, in the constructing the story, envision the child reader holding the book, touching and feeling the pages and seeing, hearing and reading the story, and anticipating with each turning page, the promise of the adventure continuing on the next page.

But the new media is here - and every type of communication and organization is involved in trying to keep up with it and harness it for their endeavors. The future of the iPad is often discussed too. Anecdotally, the iPad was the most popular gift in our family this Christmas with a number of people surprised at giving one as a gift and then receiving one themselves. It's here so we writers can continue writing for our hard back books and hope that children and parents will still like to feel the book in their hands but also adapt to the iPad and construct books that can at the same time adapt to that e-format as well. A concern, though, is that a PB remain a book and a form of literature versus a cartoon type presentation on a screen.

Writing for two versions at once - but better that the obit. How would you plan to construct a PB for both presentations and keep books for children literature?

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Thursday, December 23, 2010

Being Critical - In a Good Way

The above photo is of my desk. For some reason it doesn't look as messy in the picture as it does in real life. I have my piles -- VCFA packet pile, top left between lap and computer screen; 2nd wip pile, directly in front surrounded by research books and coffee cup; VCFA Workshop readings, pile to the far left. These are the essentials to my work. And I have been working!

I just completed my third semester at Vermont College of Fine Arts. During this past semester, as a requirement for receiving my MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults, I had to write a critical thesis on a topic of my choosing relating to the craft of writing for children. To say this was an arduous endeavor would be understatement. But I did it. I struggled through it with the assistance of my fantastic advisor, Shelley Tanaka, and several skype sessions with fellow VCFAers who were in the same critical thesis boat as I.

I truly disliked writing the thesis. But I must admit that I learned a lot. Not only about the topic I chose, which is closely related to my wip, but also about reading and writing critically. So, during this season of giving, my "gift" to fellow writers are my ever evolving thoughts on reading and writing critically.

For anyone who has been following this blog since it's inception knows that I am a reading convert. Going back to May 2008 I confessed that I didn't read children's literature. Now, two and a half years later, all I read is children's literature. My friends who used to ask me for book suggestion are disappointed when I suggest Suzanne Collins's The Underland Chronicles , Jennifer Donnelly's A Northern Light, or Claudette Colvin: Twice Towards Justice by Phillip Hoose. They look at me, roll their eyes and ask, "Aren't you ever going to read real books again?" Let's skip my response to them, because THAT could be a whole other post.

The title of my critical thesis is "The Appeal of the Ultimate Bad Boy: The Personification of Death in Books for Children and Young Adults". I looked at four books -- The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, Keturah and Lord Death by Martine Leavitt, Mort by Terry Pratchett and Keeper of Soles by Teresa Bateman -- that present Death as a main character. I chose this topic because in my current wip, Death shows up at high school to pursue the sister of a girl whose soul he's just gathered. What I wanted to learn was how did Zusak, Leavitt, Pratchett, and Bateman make their Death characters likeable? And why did they do it? What I learned is that there are a variety of devices writers use to make characters, even stereotypically bad characters, likeable and even human. By the end of all these stories the protagonist/reader roots for Death. So, which devices work best? Which can I employ in my own writing? As for the Why? writers present Death as likeable, I'll simply quote Gregory MacGuire when he spoke at VCFA's Summer Residency in July 2010 when he said, "The Why is as personal as prayer."

But beyond the craft of writing, I learned about myself as a writer - How I write. I am an impatient writer. I don't like to plan or outline. I just write. That leads to many, many, many revisions. I'm not saying that writing organically isn't good. I do that. But once I've got the basic premise down, once I know where the story's going, I need to slow myself down and think about pacing and plotting. When writing the thesis I knew what I wanted to say and just sort of vomited it out onto the page with little organization. Which meant I had to do major rewrites. Organization is not my strong suit. But being aware of a weakness in your writing only makes you a stronger writer. I also repeat myself (as my honest fellow Paper Waiters know). I write a scene and then explain it. They've been telling me this for years. I was aware that I did this, but didn't quite get it. Somehow, in writing the critical thesis and working simultaneously on my creative work I got it. It was that light bulb moment -- Ah, ha!

So, as much as I disliked the critical work VCFA forced me to do. I will not discount its value.

My point is, that as a writer of children's books. I must read children's books. And I can't just read them the way I read adult books. For fun. I have to pick them apart. I have to examine each level of writing from plot, to character, to pacing, to white space, sentence structure, and word. I have to discover what works for me (because what works for me, might not work for someone else) and what doesn't. What does the writer do that allows me to suspend believe and fall with Gregor and his baby sister Boots through the grate in their laundry room into the Underland, or root for Mattie Gokey as she struggles to be true to herself in 1906 Upstate New York, or to be grabbed by a long-ago, and nearly forgotten, event in history when I already know what's going to happen?

I'm not expecting too many comments on this post - it is Christmas - but if you have the time, just list a book that's helped you with your writing.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

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Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Bob Dylan - Must Be Santa

Last year a friend of mine who does a weekly music e-mail, sent out this offering of Bob Dylan "Must Be Santa" for Christmas. At first, I was like...huh? But this song and video never fail to make me smile.

So why include it here, on a writing blog?

First off...in case you haven't noticed there are only 4 shopping days until Christmas!!! (When did that happen?)

Secondly...I'm going to challenge you to use it as a writing prompt.

Yep. Here's your mission if you choose to accept it.

1. Find your sense of humor. I know mine is upset with me at the moment.

2. Go get a drink that warms your cockles. Coffee, Tea, Hot Chocolate with a mountain of whipped cream. Wine. Tequila. Disaronno.

3. Press play (if you've already done that, don't worry, you can still follow along)

4. Watch!

5. Comment. Have fun with it! Forget about wrapping, baking, visits, deadlines, bills, and hangovers. I mean, really I WANT to be at this party! Why does Bob change his hat so many times? Who are all those people? Who's the guy (or gal) passed out outside? And why...WHY do those three guys go tearing through the house?

I have my ideas...how about yours?

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Saturday, December 18, 2010

Kathleen Duey - Writing Tip of the Day

I ditched my first draft and am rewriting now, and I have to say, I totally agree with this advice!

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Monday, December 13, 2010

Guess the Christmas Gifts

What gifts are under the tree for these nursery rhyme characters?

1. Wee Willie Winkie.
2. The Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe.
3. Little Miss Muffet.
4. Little Boy Blue.
5. Jack and Jill.
6. Humpty Dumpty.
7. Doctor Foster.
8. Bobby Shafto and his girl friend.

Give up?

1. A Razor scooter.
2. The Pill.
3. A can of Raid.
4. A watch with an alarm.
5. A bottle of Percocet.
6. A parachute.
7. Waist high waders.
8. Skype.

Can you think of more characters and gifts?

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Friday, December 10, 2010

Shaking it Up

Sometimes a piece gets stuck. I see it one way. I've always seen it that way. And I can't see it any other way.

But then an editor writes back and says she'd like to see it a different way.

First Reaction: Excitement!!! She'd like to see it!

Second Reaction: Terror! How can I change it??? It's been the first way so long, I just can't see how.

That's when a great critique group comes in handy!

They read my stuck words and see where action is needed. What scenes are critical? What scenes aren't? Where is the tension good? Where is the tension missing? Where do I need to shake things up?

After a round of feedback like that, I admit I can sometimes feel overwhelmed. But then the possibilities begin to percolate in my brain. What if I cut that character? What if I changed that ending?

And suddenly I'm scribbling away and I can't stop. I revise once. Then again and again. I'm unstuck and I can't stop! Hurray!

Thanks, guys!

So, how does your critique / revision process work?

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Saturday, December 4, 2010

Comfortable Words

Under the weather recently for a few annoying medical problems, I found myself picking comfortable reading, low on dramatic action and high on colorful conversational cadence, books that invite you to pause and reread a sentence or two just because it sounds good, and you wish you could write like that.

One of my favorite authors in this vein is Rumer Godden, who wrote for both children and adults, passing away at 98 after publishing over 70 books. Years ago I discovered her book, Episode of Sparrows. The title itself invites the reader to sit and look...perhaps out the window or across the garden. One does not read about the protagonist, Lovejoy; one actually joins her and her friends in their quest to make something in their grubby lives beautiful.

When I mentioned this, a British friend described what she called her "poorly books," books that she read when kept in bed by a childhood illness. One, she said, was Little Plum by Rumer Godden.

It's a great gift to be able to write an action-packed story that keeps the reader flipping the pages to the end. Perhaps it's a greater gift to write a novel where each sentence is savored. "A poorly book."

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Thursday, December 2, 2010

Killing Your Darlings

Whenever I write a first draft, my main character is totally selfish. It’s all about him, him, him (since I tend to write about boys). Oh sure, he has friends, family, maybe even a love interest. But in that first draft, my MC thinks solely of himself and his problems. But in that second draft, secondary characters have to steal a little thunder, and the layering begins.

As I work through that second draft, I begin to listen more to what the secondary characters have to say. They’ve got goals to fill and problems to solve, too. Sometimes the MC knows about them, sometime he doesn’t. But they always affect the emotional arc of the story. Each important character should touch the MC in a meaningful way.

In that delirious first draft rush, I sometimes create characters that must be killed off in the second draft. They really aren’t needed to tell the story. But why did that first draft mindset kick them into the story at all? While I never regret deleting a character, I do often take their main character trait and add a dash of it to another character. Maybe the character wasn’t necessary, but something about her was.

I’m currently working on a YA and I’ve killed off a number of darlings. The original idea for the novel began with a kid working his first job. As I revise, the job is still there, but is not as important as it was originally. So I’ve killed off a number of customers. The creepy customer plot thread is completely gone. But the boss absorbed a bit of the creepiness. The eccentric old lady kicked the bucket. But the girlfriend now has a grandmother with some eccentric qualities. And Dad? Well, he was in a lot of scenes in draft number one. In draft number two, I shipped him off to Italy.

We’ve all had a hard time killing a darling or two. So tell me, for whom do you still pine? Have you killed off a character that you swear will rise from the ashes of your computer and morph into a new manuscript? Have you written anything with a saved darling?

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