Monday, September 24, 2012

Time to Jump on the NaNoWriMo Bandwagon?

One of my new school-year resolutions is to re-commit myself to a half-written MG novel. I absolutely love the idea, but after a few very rough partial drafts, I was so frustrated with plot and structuring challenges, I put the manuscript aside for a few weeks. That was a year ago.

So, can National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) help resuscitate my dream? With its exponential growth, some writers must think so. In 1999, NaNoWriMo started with 21 writers. Last year more than 250,000 participated. At least one NY Times bestseller, Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen, is a result of this dedicated frenzy of writing.

The rules dictate that 50,000 words are written entirely from scratch. Can I really write more than 1500 words a day for 30 days, every day? I don’t know. I am not a quick word producer but I’m hoping NaNoWriMo will force me to write faster. Will faster be better though?  If not better, will it be valuable?

About fourteen percent of participants ‘win’ (reach the 50,000 word target). I’m not starting completely from ‘scratch.’ I do have the general outline of a plot and characters sketched out – is that cheating? Or useful planning? Either way, my goal is to progress my manuscript.

I’m wary of abandoning my previous work, but as Ernest Hemingway observed after losing several manuscripts, starting again might be the best thing that ever happens to it.

So, ever tried NaNoWriMo? How did it go? Would you recommend it? Anyone want to join me?

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Thursday, September 20, 2012

Put Said to Bed

Last week my daughter's teacher sent out an e-blast letting us know what the children would be learning the upcoming week. As I scanned the e-mail I noticed in their Writing lesson they were going to learn how to "put said to bed". The image I kept getting was of poor little said, being sent to bed with no supper. I wondered if said would be the type of word who kept looking for ways to stay awake, rubbing its eyes, asking for water and maybe needing an extra blanket or two.

I was impressed because I don't remember learning something so fun in my own fourth grade class. I remember doing a report on the natural resources of Alabama.

But then I thought, is this really the right lesson for a writer? 

Said gets a bad rap, doesn't it? Use it too much it gets redundant and boring. Don't even think of spicing it up with an adverb (shudder) because the literary police will actually come knocking on your door and ticket you for lazy writing. "Then of course there are using other words in its place," she scoffed. 

Just the other night I had a conversation with my daughter that went something like this...

G - "Mom, what's another word for said?"
Me - "What do you mean?"
G-"You know, what can I use instead of said?" 
Me - "Um, hmm, well, you see..." 

No, really, try and answer that question easily. It wasn't that I was stumped, but I had to ask her what was going on in the scene. And then suddenly I was getting into dialogue mechanics* and the tone of the scene and what point did she want to get across and really all she wanted to do was finish her work, watch some Phineas and Ferb and then go to bed herself. 

To be clear, I don't have a problem teaching fourth graders to find different words for overused ones. I get it. This is for creativity, not creating a Printz-worthy masterpiece. It expands their minds, makes them think. As I revised some of my own writing this week, that little phrase kept going through my head. And while I didn't put said to bed on every page, I did give it some warm milk and made the suggestion on quite a few. The result was tighter, more concise dialogue.

Maybe not a bad lesson for writers after all. 

So how about you? Do you have trouble putting said to bed? 

*For a great lesson on dialogue mechanics and the word said please refer to the book Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King.

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Sunday, September 16, 2012

Fineena's Final Choice

In our village in Ireland this summer, a 58 foot fin whale swam into our harbor, settled in to a corner where shore meets pier and rested in shallow water. The chest-high cement wall along the pier overflowed with villagers craning their necks to see over and down towards the water below.

With her nose into the apex of cement walls, able to submerge just inches beneath the surface, she rose and blew, spraying seawater from her blowhole and puffing every few minutes. It was a fascinating spectacle. How often can you watch a whale, and see its face, with protruding gray balls for eyes, and a white horseshoe mouth bigger than my kitchen, up close, for hours on end?

Sadly, it was soon apparent that our whale friend was not well. 
Muddy red water let everyone know that Fineena, (Irish for ‘beautiful child’, the name dubbed her by locals) was bleeding internally. No one, not the veterinarian, the whale specialist, nor the fishermen could help. This was real life, not a children’s story. Fineena lay ill for three days before dying, enduring tidal shifts which left her slick black skin half exposed above the water, scratched ragged from a gale-force storm which tossed her helplessly against the cement pier and rocky bottom. 

Simultaneously macabre and inspirational, from a writer’s point of view, I wonder where I should take this story. Children’s reactions were as varied as their accents. One teenage boy broke into tears. Others watched wide-eyed with obvious questions. Some just accepted it, with “That’s nature.” 

Can I use this emotive experience to write a happy picture book ending for Fineena? Can I use the powerful death scene I witnessed in a middle grade novel and how? Her behavior brings up so many questions and infinite story possibilities. Why did she choose our village as her final resting place? Why not the shallow creek where the seal colony lives, or another of the limitless, uninhabited coves nearby? Fineena swam past hundreds of boats with low keels, their thick-roped moorings stretching from the water’s surface to the bay floor, creating an underwater maze. How did she manage to cause no damage? Why was she so determined – was it something about the echo of human voices across the water? 

I wrote my initial impressions as the story unfolded. When I look back at that draft, I am struck by the richness of detail and emotion, and authenticity. The voice, using the point of view of the whale, is much more powerful than my remote efforts. So writers, you’ve heard it before: write it down, right away! Take copious notes. It matters. Readers will feel it. 

I don’t yet know what my final choice will be for the story, but it feels like a story worth sharing.

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Sunday, September 9, 2012

School Visits: An Update

A few months ago, as I was preparing for publication, I posted a link asking for advice about school visits. Thanks to all who gave me some very helpful and encouraging advice!

Over the last several months, I have gotten an opportunity to use that advice. I have done school and bookstore programs including: "Goodnight Trucks" (a truck slumber party), "The Truck Stop Guide to Writing a Picture Book" and "Rhyme Crime Time" (where I dressed as Sherlock Holmes and investigated "rhyme crimes"). It has been A LOT of fun.

But now, I've got a new challenge coming up.

Northwest Bookfest is just around the corner... and I got brave enough to volunteer to do a presentation in the children's tent.

My presentations have been going really well, but in the venue of a book festival, I am eager to take my presentation to the next level. I really want to make everything as fun and interactive as possible!

I think I want to blow up my visuals so that kids can easily see them from farther away. And get the kids to help me with some truck sound effects. (Both of these ideas should make my school presentations more engaging as well. Yay! :o) )

But those are just a couple ideas. I am eager to do everything possible to make my presentation fantastic.

So awesome Paper Waiters-- how can an author make a standout presentation in a festival venue? (Any suggestions gratefully accepted.)

p.s. If you are in the area, please stop by Northwest Bookfest on September 22nd - 23rd. I will be in the story tent on 9/23 from 11-11:30. :o)

p.p.s. If you are in the Seattle area and are looking for a fun and informative author visit for the 2012-2013 school year, please stop by and check out my school visit descriptions! :o)

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Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Learning from an Expert

In an attempt to understand how to handle plot, back story and character development, I am rereading Carl Hiaasen's books for children: "Hoot," (Newbery Award,2003) "Flush," "Scat," and "Chomp." There are three elements common to his work. One, the main character, always a decent kid, is confronted by a problem or challenge developing either from a family or school situation. He immediately elicits reader sympathy as he moves to solve the problem by himself, often against overwhelming odds. Parents and adults are present, but they are often feckless or have their own problems, or, are sometimes part of the problem. The main character loves and respects his parents but does not ask for their help. He is often protective of them. Supporting characters are edgy, weird and raunchy, definitely "over the top." Second, the plot moves quickly from the first chapter, often from the second page, and there are several threads, all connected with the main plot. As one plot solution develops, another problem arises, and another, until the final solution is reached. The bullies are "taken out," but they return again and again to attack the main character. Third, back story is inserted sparingly and intermittantly, often in a short paragraph, always from the protagonist's point of view. It is rarely presented in dialogue. Hiaasen's books feature south Florida environmental issues, and additional information is always necessary. It is done so well, the reader scarcely realizes he is reading it. I think these three points alone make Hiassen's work appealing to middle graders...and obviously to the Newbery Award Committee.

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Saturday, September 1, 2012

The Possibilities of Digital Publishing

Over the months and years, we've talked a lot about the move toward e-books and digital publishing. But this recent interview with David Levithan published in Digital Book World is an eye-opener. I'm a huge David Levithan fan -- a fan of both his writing and editing. And in reading this article and understanding that he is also on the cutting edge of digital publishing and what it means to the middle grade and YA marketplace -- well, I just wonder if this guy ever sleeps! So please take a moment to read this article. It may open your eyes to some interesting publishing possibilites.

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