Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Settings and Seasons

Screech! A red wing black bird darts agitatedly from the hedge, anxious to guard his nest of babies. Plop! A turtle quietly but quickly submerges in the pond, leaving only ripples behind.

Early summer scenes of nature are wonderful inspirations for a writer and are just over at the local county park. Because I write nonfiction for children and also use nature in fiction picture books, these sightings set up possible book subjects for me. How different the setting is at this same park in the depths of winter when the summer birds have flown south leaving only the winter birds to find some comfort from the cold, and when the pond is frozen over and the turtles sleep deep beneath the rim.

Same location - different setting - for a different approach to a book topic.

Different or unique settings can be close at hand like the local park, or merely your city apartment window, where you can watch the effects of the long light of summer or the shortened light of winter. And a writer can travel to all points in the country to find phenomenal settings of nature like our grand, deep canyons or towering mountains, or across the globe to find exotic sites of wonder - in all the seasons.

Currently my son is traveling in Asia and has sent back photos of surfing in Bali, Angkor Wat at sunrise, and the turquoise waters of Thai beaches. The wonders of nature - in fabulous settings. How great to experience them!

Once home from the park or abroad, writers get to work, listing and reviewing the new ideas which I personally really appreciate being lucky enough to discover. After sorting and analyzing, I start, with great excitement, the construction of a new story - having found the setting and season, and planning characters and plot around them.

Actually, it's fun! Where do you find your settings - and season?

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Friday, June 24, 2011

Cling to the Podium. Don't Sway.

This is my first blog post, and forgive me, I’m a little nervous.

Until now, I have focused on writing for publication. My projects are shared only after much revision, critique, more revision, and finally (if ever!) an editor’s approval. I love to write, so why shouldn’t I love to blog?

Blogging feels a little like public speaking. In front of a crowd, my heart thumps and my knees tremble. I have an embarrassing tendency to sway back and forth, as if standing on a rocking horse. Will I blog like that? Will my words wander so much, readers get dizzy? Or worse, what if no one reads it or comments? The fear of failing drives my heart into arrhythmia.

Writers track blogs by agents, editors and other writers. Blogpulse.com (by The Nielsen Company) has identified more than 163 million blogs. Not all for writers of course, but still… What can I add to the blogosphere?

Blogging advice says that I must choose a good topic -- ‘evergreen content.’ I must not be an ‘echo chamber’ simply recirculating others’ ideas. My own twisted concern is the immortality of my text in the blogosphere. Will I be happy with myself in retrospect?

I don’t know yet, but I have to try.

With public speaking I learned to practice – in the mirror, in front of my husband. On stage, I make eye contact with one friendly face in the audience, and if necessary, cling to the podium.

My blogging technique will evolve. At least it’s not tweeting – the dangers of that are fresh (don’t Weiner or Sheen-er).

I have to embrace the opportunity. To paraphrase Woody Allen, 80% of life is just showing up.

I’ve grabbed my Mac, and you can’t see me sway. Bring on the blog.

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Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Letting It Simmer

About three weeks ago I finished a first draft of my latest WIP. As I typed my last sentence a feeling of relief and euphoria washed over me. Relief because I’d met my self-imposed deadline of finishing before my children began summer vacation, euphoria because, well, I’d finished a novel and that’s always a nice feeling.

So I did my usual “pat on the back” things. Took a nice long bliss yoga class. Got a mani-pedi. Treated myself to a 60 minute hot stone massage to get all those kinks out of my neck from the long hours of typing (hmmm, could that be a tax write-off?). Unabashedly filled my cup with dark chocolate yogurt and toppings at Yoforia. I also sent my full off to a handful of readers who agreed to get notes back to me by the end of the month.

And then I promptly turned into a crazy person.

All phases of the writing process have their challenges and I think as I go through each one I deem it THE most challenging, but this one…the “letting it simmer” phase is the one I’m currently struggling with. Why? You know that advice about putting your manuscript aside for say, a month, so you can look at it with fresh eyes? Yeah, I have a problem with that.

Always have.

I’m not sure if it comes from the day in and day out spending time with one foot in this world and one foot in the world inside my head that makes it so hard to just chill for awhile. Or if it’s that raspy, paranoid We’ve got to get this done before another book with similar themes written by a celebrity comes out voice that whispers to me when my guard is down. Or if it’s the twisted anticipation of wanting to know my first readers don’t think my manuscript is beyond hope and simply sucks. Whatever the reason, I’m the proverbial dog with a chew toy, not wanting to let go.

So I wait. Hang out with my husband and kids. Watch movies. Spend hours at the pool. Gossip with neighbors. Read. Work-out. Catch up on all the housework I’ve ignored. And remember that yes, I do know how to do more than microwave dinner. And wait some more.

Letting my 370 unruly pages simmer.

Because as it simmers, and the flavors come out and I busy myself with something other than watching it boil over, I know I’ll be able to go back and look at it objectively (well, sort of) and see where I need to add some spice or take things out completely or if there are places I need to (gulp) start from scratch.

So how do you handle it? Do you let you work simmer? Or just keep at it until you think it’s done?

Read more!

Friday, June 17, 2011

Why the ___ Didn’t I Write That Book First?

Okay, I’d guess by now that a good number of our Paper Wait readers have read Adam Mansbach’s hilarious bestselling picture book, Go the F___ to Sleep.

If not, here’s a snippet…

The cats nestle close to their kittens,

The lambs have laid down with the sheep.

You’re cozy and warm in your bed, my dear.

Please go the ____ to sleep.

Although a PDF of the book, leaked by industry insiders, went viral months ago, the actual print version debuted his week. Despite causing some controversy among readers who thought it was in bad taste, the book has been wildly successful. It has already sold hundreds of thousands of copies—in time for Father’s Day gifts, no doubt--and is now number one on The NY Times' bestseller list. Can you guess under which category it’s listed? Hint: It’s not picture books.

And the answer is….Hardcover Advice and Miscellaneous. That categorization made me laugh. I suppose some readers, primarily sleep-deprived, grumpy, borderline-lunatic parents, might think this parody really does offer up helpful advice. I was one of those parents myself, not too many years ago, and I definitely let a choice word or two slip out when all else failed. I remember it being helpful to me at the time.

I read that several spinoffs of Mansbach’s book are already in the works. This makes me wonder where he’ll take his irreverent take on parenting next. How about... What the _______ is That ______ in Your Diaper?

So, who out there has read the book? Did you love it or hate it? Just for fun: What kind of spinoffs would you guess are in the works?

p.s. Happy Father’s Day, Dads!

Read more!

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Facebook. Twitter. Thumbs Up or Down?

Last month, Bill Keller, executive editor of the NY TIMES, published an opinion piece about social media. His article, "The Twitter Trap," taking the long view, also traced some steps in the history of communication.

"Until the 15th century, people were taught to remember vast quantities of information." Some even memorized whole books. Then with the invention of the printing press, Gutenberg changed the world. People no longer had to memorize, they could depend on reading the printed page and refreshing their memory by rereading. Did books create a decline in studious memorization?

Fast forward to . . .

Facebook and Twitter. Keller argues they do have promotional uses, but they are also "displacing real rapport and real conversation, just as Gutenberg's device displaced remembering." Do you agree?

I've often wondered if Facebook promotes quantity friendship, rather than quality friendship. If so, what effect does this have on the millions of users?

Keller writes that Twitter conversation is "more often than not, reductive and redundant." True? Does it contribute to a decline in complex, thoughtful conversation?

Some consider both Facebook and Twitter essential to a writer's career.

Do you use either one? If so, is it a thumbs up experience? Do you agree with any of the thumbs down thoughts?

Read more!

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Revising... and Revising... and Revising!!!

I've been busy revising a manuscript these past few weeks. It is a manuscript that I have revised many times before. Each time I see it getting sharper, better, funnier (at least, I hope it is). But it still amazes me how many times I can revise a manuscript that now (thank goodness!) weighs in at less than 500 words.

Characters can be cut. Storylines and wording can be simplified. Humor can be added (or at least I can try to). I'm sure there are more things I've worked at, but these are some of the most recent. It's overwhelming and exciting all at the same time.

Hopefully the new manuscript that emerges will be better than what came before. Right now I'm so immersed in the process I can't quite tell how it's going to end up. The excitement of being a picture book writer!

So how does your revision process go? Does it feel crazy too?

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Saturday, June 4, 2011

Don't turn out the lights.

I am again working on the first chapter of my manuscript. If the chapter were a lightbulb, I'd say it was 40 watts.

I have not made the problem clear initially, and that's causing succeeding chapters to lose power, as though they were running off a wobbly generator.

I have written other first chapters for this manuscript, but they seem to belong elsewhere in the book. Not in the beginning. The present final chapter comes, as it were, at the end of the grid, and the impact is very weak indeed.

I've just finished "Major Pettigrew's Last Stand" by Helen Simonson, published in 2010. While not a childen's novel, it is a delightful read, worth mentioning on this blog because it is a "first" novel and made it directly on to the Times Bestseller List.

I've gone back and examined its first chapter. Indeed, all plot threads are laid out in these pages. Like a good electrician who knows which wires will serve which parts of a dark house, a good writer must be sure that each thread snakes through the novel with enough "juice" to light up the ending. I'm sure Ms. Simonson rewrote that first chapter more than once.

To complete the metaphor, I've got to start my novel at 100 watts and finish with 100watts. No burned out bulbs in between.

Read more!

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Fund Libraries. Save Librarians.

I attended a small Catholic elementary school. We didn’t have great facilities, but we did have a small library. Every week, I looked forward to that half hour library slot, when I didn’t have to focus on what my teachers wanted me to read, and I could pick out the book I wanted to read. I remember parent volunteers, but I have no memory of a librarian. We stopped in each week, picked out a book to read during quiet time, and left.

My kids attended a large public elementary school. I volunteered in that library one morning each week and I looked forward to that time slot, too. But how the library – and the librarian – had changed.

In my morning time slot, I would watch the librarian interact with kids from ages five through twelve. From kids who couldn’t read at all to kids who were reading on a high school, maybe even college, level. From kids who could calmly listen to kids who couldn’t sit still.

I would listen as she taught older kids how to research, how to organize their research, and how to include their research in their writing. I’d learn a few short cuts as she taught third grade computer skills. I’d laugh when yet another first grader asked her to read Strega Nona, and then laugh again as her brilliant reading make the text come alive for the entire class. And I always kept a notepad handy to write down books she recommended to one kid, then another, based on reading level and interests.

But now, in many school districts across the country, the need for school librarians is questioned. And in the Los Angeles school district, librarians are subjected to interrogation as to their overall and individual value as teachers.

My guess is these Los Angeles attorneys haven’t spent one minute in a school library in recent years. Their memory of school libraries may be the same as mine – a wonderful opportunity to pick out a book, but nothing more. They are clueless as to the important role school libraries and school librarians play today in the overall education of our children.

One of the things that keeps me writing is the image of kids pulling my book from the shelves, wanting to read my words, my stories. But without librarians on the lookout to help turn reluctant readers into avid ones, to help select books that will challenge young readers to the next reading level without them even knowing they’ve been challenged, to help students learn to love the lyricism of well-written words, well, that certainly presents a greater challenge to us as writers.

So let’s learn a lesson from Los Angeles. Follow your school district’s budget. Make sure this doesn’t happen to the kids in your town. Fund libraries. Save librarians.

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