Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Inspiration . . . Frustration, Chapter II

Chapter two of my August 16th post "Inspiration . . . Frustration." I struggled with my idea until one day, while vacationing in Maine, inspiration trumped frustration. I was off on a writing binge. In three days (and fairly sleepless nights) I had a first draft. In six days I had a story. The next week, things took a surprising turn.

Back story: a few months ago, I signed up for a writing conference and submitted a manuscript for critique with an editor. Conference day arrived and on a whim, I slipped a copy of the new truck story into my folder to take with me.

The critique session was cordial and useful. The editor said the manuscript I had submitted had a "fun, bouncy text perfect for toddlers," but was "a little slight" (that hated word) and needed more tension and depth. I agreed with her suggestions.

Five minutes left. I asked if she would be willing to scan my newest work and handed it over. Her expression changed as she read. Then she asked if she could take the story with her because she would like to take it to an acquisition meeting!

Have no idea when I will hear, but when I do, I'll write chapter three of "Inspiration . . . Frustration."

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Saturday, September 24, 2011

Blood Circle

Boys and knives are a dangerous combination. When a hundred rambunctious young boys descend upon scout camp, all looking to ‘whittle’, managing pocketknife safety is critical. Safety however, is not what boys want to talk about.

How about a Blood Circle?

Oh yes – the boys want to talk about that.

When my eight-year-old son came home excited about his blood circle, I put my younger daughter behind me for safety. Was he planning on drawing one on his little sister? I scanned his arms for scrapes and bandages.

When he saw my reaction, my son said, “Maybe it should have been ‘Safety Circle’ Mom.”

Hmm… ‘safety’ sounded generic, politically correct and parental.

“Look Mom.” He held his closed pocketknife in an outstretched arm. Turning around slowly, his arm traced a radius around his body. “This is my Blood Circle. No one is allowed inside my Blood Circle while I’m whittling, carving, or anything.”

As a writer, I have to avoid the safety circle. But a blood circle – that I can use.
This two-word description is immediately colorful, evocative, and memorable.

As a mom, I wondered if it was appropriate. Then I watched as it helped change my childrens’ behavior. After hearing blood circle, my son was very responsible with his pocketknife. My five-year-old backed up and carefully avoided the ‘knife danger zone.’

I’ll be looking for a place to use ‘blood circle’ in my stories, and I’ll use it as a measuring stick for my own descriptions.

What are some of your favorite and most memorable descriptions?

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Tuesday, September 20, 2011 ongoing practice

In Yoga, detachment is the practice of withdrawing the senses from stimulation. This works on many levels. At most basic – for instance closing your eyes – it allows you to go deeper within yourself and simply be a witness to your body in the pose. Not to judge, or compare yourself to your neighbor whose bakasana defies the laws of gravity, but to let the pose come naturally into your body all the while accepting, even embracing, your limitations. On a bigger picture level, it’s about relinquishing control. Not giving a person, place or thing so much importance that when your desires aren’t met it causes you suffering.

Ah, about that bigger picture stuff…

In writing, at least for me, detachment means letting go of desired outcomes. Easy? Um, no. I’ve been struggling with revision – and by struggling I mean completely paralyzed with fear about going back into my manuscript and making changes. Maybe it’s that I hypnotized myself into believing that my first draft was actually a finished novel (HA!). Maybe it’s that once I start playing and picking and killing my darlings I’m worried the whole thing will unravel and I’ll be left with…nothing. Whatever it is, I’ve been avoiding my 3 ring binder like it’s going to grow teeth and devour me.


Because I have absolutely no control over the million dollar question…will my work be picked up by a publisher? And if not, are the hours, days, weeks, months, even years I put into a project worth it?

This is where I’m trying like hell to practice detachment. My writing has brought so many wonderful experiences and people into my life but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t hoping and ultimately working toward having something more concrete to show for it. There’s no secret handshake, no list of steps that will ultimately lead you to that book (or books) on the shelf with your name on it. There’s hard work and more hard work. And absolutely no guarantees. Why, oh, why do any of us pursue this?

I’m not sure I have a simple answer to that. And that’s okay. So for now, all I can do is take a breath, close my eyes (momentarily at least) and open that 3 ring binder to begin yet another journey along my writing path. Not worrying about the outcome, but focusing on writing the best book I can.

How about you? What keeps you going on your writing journey?

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Saturday, September 17, 2011

After the Flood

Like many New Jerseyans, our house took some direct hits from Irene and Lee. After living with a completely dry, finished basement for the last 12 years, this time, it flooded twice and then our ceiling leaked, and our finished basement became finished in the other sense of the word. As in, kaput. Granted, we didn't suffer one iota as much as the folks in the hardest hits parts of the state, like Cranford (see Eileen's post, below) or Paterson. My heart goes out to the people in those areas, and, considering the complete devastation of their homes and belongings, I can't really complain. Relatively speaking, losing our basement wasn't so bad.

Still, I lost something in the flood that, as a writer of children's books, makes me awfully sad. I lost most of my longstanding collection of children's books. I have...make that, had...hundreds, maybe thousands of books. I'd been collecting them for decades, since I was a kid. My own kids have added reams of new titles to that collection every year. Three days post-storm, I got home from being stranded in Colorado to find them soaking wet and soiled, ruined. I'm not talking about them being ruined by the clear, Poland Springs-kind of water, I'm talking about the brown, smelly, yucky kind. These books clearly had to be tossed.

So lately, I've been throwing out everything from Rick Riordan to Carolyn Keene. So long, Caps for Sale. Nice reading you, Polar Express. Unwind, Artemis Fowl, The Thief Lord, all gone.

It is a drag. On the other hand, ruined book collections can be rebuilt, for the most part. As for ruined homes and lives, it's not so easy. My thoughts turn to those folks now. I wish them all a speedy recovery, and lots of financial aid from FEMA!

Paper Waiters, did Irene and/or Lee affect any of you, too, from a children's book writer's perspective?

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Monday, September 12, 2011

Robert McCloskey

Just finished reading ROBERT McCLOSKEY: A PRIVATE LIFE IN WORDS AND PICTURES, by his younger daughter Jane. It’s an engaging read about the family, their pleasures, troubles and travels. The illustrations are not only from his books, but also his watercolors and paintings of family members and scenes of the various places they lived. Jane and her older sister, Sally (of Blueberries for Sal), spent childhood time on their Maine island, in New York, Mexico and at a private school in Switzerland.

I do wish Jane had written more about her father’s writing process – for example, how long did he work on some of the books? However, she points out he was a very “private and shy man,” and much of her “understanding” came from “detective work, watching him and thinking about him and what he said and didn’t say.”

Miscellaneous facts from the book:

1. The children called him Bob. He did not like to be called Dad.
2. McCloskey suffered with depression, had a nervous breakdown and spent time in a sanitarium.
3. There was a real Burt Dow and his tombstone reads: Burt Dow, Deep Water Man.
4. McCloskey worked a long time on puppets for a TV show, but they were never used.
5. There was a Robert J. McCloskey (State Department – Intelligence) who occasionally received fan mail for the author. The book has photocopies of a humorous exchange about this.
6. And finally: when people approached him saying they had a great idea for a children’s book they wanted to write, his reply was, “Don’t talk about it. Do it.”

Great advice.

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Sunday, September 4, 2011

Step by Step

Having read the rave reviews, I saw the movie "The Debt" this weekend. The acting was good. Still, the final scene happened too was too coincidental, leaving me with the feeling a crucial step had been omitted. Film directors can get away with this. In films the action is rapid. The viewer's visual senses are fully engaged. When something happens that the viewer doesn't understand, he passes it off to inattentiveness.

The writer doesn't have this luxury. Everything has to add up, because the reader can flip back and check the sequence of events. Well, yes, you can play a film back, but you are less likely to do this. In the book I'm currently reading, the protagonist stops and puzzles over something someone said that will give him a clue to the killer. I went back and found the reference. I don't understand it yet, and at this point in the novel, neither does the protagonist. We're both waiting to see what it means.

A key to good writing: Take it step by step. No rushes to the finish.

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Friday, September 2, 2011

Setting, too, Can Change in an Instant

My Internet came back on about thirty minutes ago, after being down for days. Our phone is back, too. We only lost power for two days. And the television no longer blips every ten seconds. We were lucky that's all we lost.

Not everyone else was.

I grew up in Cranford, NJ. In my latest WIP, the town is called Crestview, but as I wrote every scene, my writer's eye saw Cranford. So you know those writer's tricks? The ones where you're stumped, have a bit of writer's block, so you throw an unexpected event in there to shake up your writing -- shake up your characters? Hurricane Irene really shook up my setting.

I was in Cranford on Tuesday, helping dear friends who live near the river. Tuesday was a gorgeous day -- brilliant blue sky and low humidity. I drove in to town from the parkway. Everything looked as I had remembered it. Sure, there was a couch at the curb here and piled up carpet there, but everything looked fairly normal until you got near the river. Then, every street was fronted with furniture from driveway to driveway. The entire town smelled like mud.

I can't say I thought about my writing then. I didn't. I thought about my friends and their neighbors. But now, as I polish my manuscript and get it ready to send to my agent, I'm reminded how important setting is to every story. Seeing my setting shaken on its head made me want to get those little details right. Because sometimes the smallest detail tells an entire story.

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