Friday, October 28, 2011

Dateline: Kathmandu

Dateline: Kathmandu

On our flight from Paro, Bhutan to the Kathmandu airport we flew over Mount Everest,
which was lying just below us, thrusting through the clouds in snow laden sunny splendor. What a thrill to see the grand mountain.

In Kathmandu we visited ancient temples and especially enjoyed the restored Kathmandu Valley ancient city of Bhaktapur, with its many stupas, temples, formal buildings and wide squares and courtyards. Then we traveled out to the country and stayed at a lodge securely positioned on the side of a steep mountain where we overlooked the magnificent Annapurna peak. Early in the morning before the clouds descended we could see many of the snow covered mountains in this majestic range.At the end of the trip we stayed in a great lodge by the Chitwan Jungle Park where we rode elephants on a safari across a wide river into the jungle to see one horned rhinoceroses.

The magnificent scenery and animals were fabulous for all the travelers and for a writer. But for a children's writer the chance meetings we had with so many interesting people, especially children, were bonuses for possible story ideas.

Which fascinating person would come alive in a story for American children? Is it the young woman we met who told us her enthralling story of her dream to climb Mount Everest (which is the highest mountain in the world at 29,029 feet)?After much grueling training and much work obtaining sponsors for the climb, she finally reached the pinnacle, and became the first non-Sherpa woman from Nepal to successfully complete the climb.

Is it the funny and clever trio of small boys...

we met on the hillside on their way home from school dressed in their uniforms? Nepal's children are taught English beginning in first grade so these boys in third grade had quite good English (since we could not speak their language, Nepalese). They were full of beans and thrilled to chat with us. When asked if they had had multiplication yet they said "Sure!" "OK, what's 3 x 3 equal?" The middle fellow yells "Six!" "No!" we say. Then someone says "Times, not plus." "OH," he says "Nine!" They were funny and quick. Of course they requested sweets from us , which we had been advised not to give them, but we could give them pens and magic markers.

Or was it the manager of the restaurant tucked on the deep green mountain side who had his picture posted on the wall from Desert Storm when he had been with a Gokha military unit that provided security in far away Kuwait for American marines in a hot, dusty desert? The Gorkhas are the tribe from Nepal that served with the British army with distinction for many years.

Maybe it was the teenage girl in the traditional Gorkha village that we hiked to on one of our treks? Some of the older men had served with the British army and were now retired. Many of the young men work in the Gulf states and send good money home. Everyone dresses in traditional clothes, the women trim, slender and pretty in their long, narrow skirts. They all work hard on the steep slopes of the mountainside farms where terraces of rice, millet and vegetables are stacked down the mountain. Everyone meets you, including little children, with folded hands and the greeting, "Namaste." Just as we were leaving we passed a teenage girl who was dressed in clothes that would be stylish at any American high school. We said, "Hi. Namaste." She disdainfully looked at us with typical teen condescension and declined to answer.

Wonderful scenery, people and stories - it's hard to know which to focus on.

Read more!

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

The New Amazon Market

Amazon is publishing 122 books (electronic and print) this fall, and 'aggressively wooing' some top authors, reports The New York Times. The New Republic says “writers should embrace Amazon’s takeover of the publishing industry.”

While playing down Amazon’s market power in its newly assumed role as publisher in addition to retailer, one Amazon executive noted that “the only really necessary people in the publishing process now are the writer and the reader.” And Amazon?

Amazon Publishing is a new market opportunity for writers, and can be seen as a force for necessary change in the industry. Amazon’s willingness to share the Nielsen Bookscan sales data with authors has other publishers following suit.

On the other hand, concerns have arisen: will Amazon Publishing add editorial value or will it be a glorified vanity publisher, loosing an avalanche of slush pile dross? What about those ‘unnecessary’ people like agents and editors? What of books from traditional publishers sold through Amazon: could they be quietly buried on the site if they compete with Amazon's own titles?

To manage its group of six imprints Amazon has hired ‘well-regarded’ professionals including former agent and former CEO of Time Warner Book Group, Laurence Kirshbaum, and Ed Park, author of the ‘acclaimed novel’ Personal Days, and previously editor of The Believer and The Village Voice.

Several well-known authors are signing on, including self-help author Tim Ferriss and reportedly, actress and director Penny Marshall. Businessweek notes that thriller writer Barry Eisler, who turned down a $500,000 two-book deal with a traditional publisher earlier this year, later signed with Amazon. Eisler was swayed, at least in part, by Amazon’s ability to publish an e-book version and a paperback within a matter of days, both at cheaper prices than the traditional house’s practice of charging print prices for e-books. “What I care about is readers, because without readers I can’t make a living… If I can find a way to get readers books that cost less and are delivered better and faster, I want that.”

Sounds good, but what about less recognized authors? Will worthy authors, and in turn readers, get lost in a wave of low quality text? Will Amazon ensure the same credibility as traditional publishing houses?

What effect will Amazon's increasing dominance have on our industry?

Read more!

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Project Runway Writing Parallels

One of my favorite reality shows is Project Runway. If you’re not familiar with PR imagine the elevator pitch as this - Twelve unknown fashion designers vying for the chance to show at Mercedes Benz Fashion Week and win $100,000 to jumpstart their own line. Each week they are given challenges to create fresh, modern, fashion forward designs which are judged by a panel of experts. The culmination of each episode is the runway show, when we find who’s in and who’s out and who goes on to be in the final three (or four depending on how the fashion gods want to go that season) to compete at Mercedes Benz Fashion Week.

I’m drawn to this show for many reasons - the drama, the fashion, but mostly I love to see creative minds in action. It fascinates me how the designers can take seemingly ridiculous challenges – like fashioning a garment out of supplies from a pet store (photo above) – and produce such breathtaking results. They aren’t always breathtaking. Some are downright disastrous and often there are epic fails (which usually produce the most hysterical one-liners from designer Michael Kors.) These components are what make this such an exciting show to watch unfold.

So where are the parallels to writing?

High Stakes – what makes this show so dramatic – other than the multitude of creative personalities – is what’s at stake each week – design something amazing or you’re out. Throw in some crazy materials, time limitations and team members that don’t get along and it’s a recipe for compelling drama.

Apply these same principles to your writing – intense situations, offbeat characters that clash and high stakes which can alter your protagonists life depending on if they meet their goals or not will help you craft a page turner.

Think Outside the Box – When you are limited to buying your design supplies from Petland Discount you have no choice but to think outside the box. How to apply that to your writing?

On every page. In your descriptions…dialogue…plot line…characters. Anything that remotely speaks mundane – think of a way to change it up, make it fresh and ultimately make it yours! Your unique voice.

Don’t Design for the Judges – In every season there’s a designer or two the judges seem to have something against. No matter what they put on that runway, their vision just doesn’t connect with the experts. Inevitably there will be that episode where you’ll see the ill-fated designer struggling with the design because of what the judges told them and suddenly they are more worried about the opinion of the judges than fully fleshing out their design vision. May as well start packing up that sewing kit, dear.

Take out the word judges and put in…editor…agent…market and this easily applies to writing. While it’s important to have an eye on the market, or the wish list of an editor/agent, writing specifically to please someone else will almost always lead to flat, uninspired prose which in turn leads to frustration, rejection and a whole lotta chocolate. If you don’t connect to and/or love your writing, who else will?

Make it Work! – Tim Gunn’s trademark usually uttered after he gently talks a designer off the ledge. Said designer has either completely derailed or is standing with their hands in their hair surrounded by bolts of fabric they suddenly have no idea what to do with.

Ha…that’s me, during revision! This is the wisdom I find myself repeating as I go in and tackle revisions. There are times I feel like I’m so far off course that I want to just scrap it and there are times I feel so overwhelmed I’m ready to jump ship. But I don’t. I go in, apply some of the above and ultimately make it work! Or blow it big trying!

So what about you Paper Waiters? Any of these PR pearls of wisdom apply to you? Or have you found some writing advice in a not-so-typical place?

Read more!

Sunday, October 16, 2011


Dateline - Shangri-La

Haven't you always wanted to write dispatches from exotic places like Shangri-La? I was mentally composing this post/dispatch several weeks ago when traveling in Bhutan but wouldn't have been able to send it since wifi is intermittent in the mountains.

Shangri-La conjures up images of remote, snow capped mountains, deep valleys, and elusive monasteries cut off from the outside world where the inhabitants pursue lives of peaceful contemplation while achieving great longevity due to the special air of the valley. Hilton's novel, LOST HORIZONS, set in the Himalayan kingdom of Tibet of the 1930's, gave us all this image of harmony and tranquility and a sense of adventure to search out such exotic places.

Bhutan, another Himalayan kingdom, is indeed lovely. The nation had been cut off from the rest of the world for several centuries and just opened again about thirty yeas ago and is gradually letting in tourists. What a privilege to visit this land of soaring Himalayan mountains and steep sided gorges and valleys.

We did visit ancient monasteries where Buddhist monks continue the traditions of contemplation and education of younger monks. We hiked to several monasteries, up mountains sides, where the clouds were truly below us. The traditional architecture was fascinating, scenery spectacular and the people lovely.

All the time, while gasping for breath while climbing, or from the incredible views spreading before us, the writer within was commenting - wow! How to describe this magnificent place and civilization and bring it home to children?

I did start a new PB set in Bhutan and am trying to tie in the many threads of Bhutanese life that we witnessed and that will bring the story to life effectively. I have a definite plot, a great setting and a spunky MC, so now I need to work on crafting the text.

What travels - local or distant - have given you inspiration this year?

Read more!

Thursday, October 13, 2011

First Page Session

The day of the SCBWI First Page Session had arrived. I laid the first page of my picture book manuscript on the long table with 34 others. It would be the first time it was read aloud in front of an audience and editors. I picked up my packet of manuscripts and took my seat. It was time to begin.

A volunteer read the first page of picture books, chapter books, and middle grade and young adult fiction. Two editors would then give their critiques.

Some manuscripts were funny, clever, and made the audience laugh out loud. Others were long-winded, awkward, and confusing. I wondered to whom each one belonged.

I looked around the room at the anonymous authors. I caught small glimpses of each person's life- their interests, sense of humor, dreams, and experiences. Their voices or the voices of people they know (real or imaginary)- filled the room.

As the reading continued, I tried not to be distracted by my anticipation. It was difficult. I flipped forward in the packet. My story was next!

The volunteer introduced my picture book. She read the story quickly, while I looked up to gauge the editors' responses. What did they think? They critiqued my work, and in less than two minutes, it was over.

I wanted to call out, “Wait!” I still had so many questions.

The beginning was rushed, the editors said. There wasn't enough passage of time during the character's journey. The title was bland.

But the editors also said it was a story/topic that children would relate to. It included strong writing with good rhythm and repetition. It had a real “picture book feel”.

On my drive home, I could have been inspired by the editors' positive comments. Instead, I thought of the other manuscripts. The ones that were funny, intriguing, memorable. The ones that stirred up personal memories in the editors. The ones they wanted to read more of. Why hadn't I written one of those?

A strong trait of any editor, writer, or artist is to see potential in a work. Michaelangelo said it best: “In every block of marble I see a statue as plain as though it stood before me, shaped and perfect in attitude and in action. I have only to hew away the rough walls that imprison the lovely apparition to reveal it to the other eyes as mine see it.”

My picture book may have thick, rough walls around it, but tools in hand, I'm ready to start carving!

Have you participated in a First Page Session? Was it a good or bad experience?

Read more!

Saturday, October 8, 2011

What Writing Has in Common with a Cross Country Move

For the past several weeks, I have been overwhelmed with moving trucks and cardboard boxes. Our family's cross country move is very exciting, but it has also managed to turn my entire life upside down.

That got me thinking. Do moving and writing have anything in common?

And I managed to find several similarities...
Similarity #1-- That frustrating period when you feel you should be done, but you're not! There is still unpacking and setting up and finding doctors to do. Or, in the case of writing, revising and revising and revising to do. (Oh how I want the manuscript-- or the move-- to be done, but it's not!)

Similarity #2-- Both are more work than anybody can possibly understand who isn't doing it or hasn't done it before. I would never have imagined how insane it would be to pack up the lives and possessions of four people and move them to the other side of the country. Not until I started doing it. Similarly, people who don't write have no understanding of how challenging, frustrating and exciting the process can be.

Similarity #3-- Finally, I realized that making a move is all about making a really big change. And, whenever I make a change, my writing travels in exciting new directions. When I started to learn the cello, I didn't become a great musician, but I did end up writing a collection of poems about a girl who played the cello. And when I made my biggest change-- having children-- I learned all about trucks and ended up writing what will be my first published book, "Where Do Diggers Sleep at Night?".

So in the midst of my remaining bits of chaos, I wonder: What new interests might come from this cross country move? And what writing projects might emerge from these new interests?

Read more!

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Elements of Style

Recently I picked up William Strunk's Elements of Style. I had not looked at it in years, and I was struck by its relevance. Admidst the verbal anarchy of email and the blogosphere, this book provides an oasis of clarity. In 71 pages, Strunk dismisses the pompous, the passive and the indefinite.

On page 14 "There were a great number of dead leaves lying on the ground" becomes "Dead leaves covered the ground." On Page 15, "A period of unfavorable weather set in," becomes "It rained every day for a week." And on page 35, "In many cases, the rooms were poorly ventilated, " becomes "Many of the rooms were poorly ventilated."

Mr. Strunk, a friend and teacher of E.B. White, wrote, "Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecesary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.

All writers should read and reread this little book.

Read more!

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Sh%#@y First Drafts Are Like Dating

We all write them.

Okay. Full disclosure. I just wrote, "We all right them," and had to delete and rewrite my first line. It was as if my brain wanted to help me prove my point.

Now I know the difference between write and right. I also know the difference between a sh%#@y first draft, a better second draft, and a good third draft. And I know how to keep going until one draft feels just right.

It took some time for me to get to this point. I wrote my first novel chapter by chapter -- rewriting and reworking each chapter many times before moving on. I didn't have the confidence to write a sh%#@y first draft. I thought I needed a really strong sense of every plot line, every character, every setting and sensory detail before I moved on.

I was wrong.

Now when I write a first draft, I look at it like dating. That first draft is just to get to know your characters. Having a main plot line and a few subplots helps, but even if you trash your plot, but you got to know your characters really well, that sh%#@y first draft served its purpose. If you know your characters, you can put them in any situation and their dialogue and reactions will ring true.

The second draft, well, that's sort of like an engagement. You're making plans together, testing the waters, maybe having a fight or two. You're adding tension to that relationship.

By the third draft you're a newlywed. Everything is all sparkly. Sigh.

Every draft after that adds the grit of little details. The toilet seat is up. Somebody has to take the dog out in the rain. There is no clean underwear.

When you finally reach the point in your manuscript marriage when everything feels just right, it's time to submit...

And start looking about for the next batch of characters to fall in love with.

Read more!