Wednesday, December 29, 2010

the sounds of silence

Hypergraphia is the overwhelming urge to write, and it is a trait/malady which I have, yet lately, it's been dropping off. I used to be constantly writing things down. My purse was full of scrawled-upon napkins and scraps of paper. I had numerous notebooks.

I've always argued that non-writing time can be as productive as writing time, and this was the case for me. Some of my best ideas came on walks or runs, while swimming or driving. But why did this spring dry up? A quick analysis of the before and after solved the mystery. My car radio used to be broken. I used to just run or walk the dog without accoutrements. I swam by myself. I never had a radio or television in the kitchen. So I would drive, run, walk, swim, and cook in silence, my mind dwelling in the world I'd created in that morning's work.

But then my car radio was repaired. My daughter gave me a tape deck to use when I ran and made me tapes with energetic music. My husband started swimming with me. He put a radio in the kitchen, so I listen to NPR while I cook. I started catching up on phone calls when I walk the dog.

So, last week, I returned to the quiet. I ran without music. I walked the dog without my cell phone, kept the radio off while I was driving and cooking. Hypergraphia returned. The ideas poured out, the scraps of paper multiplied, problems in my plot solved themselves, as I completed meditative (some call them mundane) tasks. Silence can make us anxious, I think, or lonely. We are a culture that avoids it. But for the hypergraphic, silence is like the sky. It's open and endless and waiting.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Hats Off: Accomplishments of Hamline MFAC faculty 2010

It’s time for reflection, so here are a few things the Hamline faculty have accomplished this past year:

Marsha Wilson Chall: Her picture book, ONE PUP’S UP came out and won a National Parenting Publication Award (NAPPA) Gold Award.

Kelly Easton: Her adult novel, TIME IN THE REGION OF SKY, won first prize "The Golden Grace Note" in the Grace Notes Forthcoming Novel contest. It will be published this spring.

Lisa Jahn-Clough: Sold a YA novel, BLUE’S SHADOW to Houghton/Harcourt. Her picture book, FELICITY AND CORDELIA: A Tale of Two Bunnies (FSG) is released in February 2011 and was featured in a PW article on the sudden surge of bunny books.

Liza Ketchum: is passionately and furiously finishing her YA historical novel.

And, along with Phyllis Root, taught a Whole Novel Workshop in Historical Fiction, hosted by the Highlights Foundation.

Ron Koertge: SHAKESPEARE MAKES THE PLAYOFFS came out in the spring and received a starred review in The Horn Book. The Canadian magazine, “Prizm,” accepted three Flash Fiction pieces for publication in 2011. NOW PLAYING: STONER & SPAZ 2 is coming out in 2011.

Mary Logue: sold a picture book, SLEEP LIKE A TIGER to Houghton/Harcourt.

Jackie Briggs Martin: Her picture book THE CHIRU OF HIGH TIBET was released and has been named by Kirkus Reviews "Best Books of 2010.”

Claire Rudolf Murphy: Finally received the illustrator sketches for her picture book AUNT SUSAN, MAMA AND ME (Peachtree Books).

Marsha Qualey: Completed an Inkpot month-long poem a day challenge, sold a story to an educational publisher, started another adult novel, and is adapting one of her YA novels into a screenplay.

Phyllis Root: Got a starred review in Kirkus for her chapter book LILLY AND THE PIRATES. Her picture book, BIG BELCHING BOG has been released to great reviews.

Gary Schmidt: Sold a fantasy novel, WHAT CAME FROM THE STARS and a picture book, A ROSE IN THE DESERT: A Saint's Life of Martin de Porres, both with Clarion. OKAY FOR NOW (sequel to Wednesday Wars) is released this April.

Jane Resh Thomas: Along with Marsha Chall and Phyllis Root taught a Writing in the Woods workshop. Jane also bravely survived the installation of another titanium knee and a cracked tail bone (we're glad you're okay Jane!!)

Anne Ursu: Signed a two-book deal with Walden Pond Press/HarperCollins. The first book, BREADCRUMBS, will be out in 2011.

Hats off to all!

Monday, December 27, 2010

The Liminal State

When I'm between novels like I am now, I always write poetry. Usually, I try the hard forms. Not because I'm so good at the so-called easier ones (free verse, for instance) but because my free verse is so close to my prose that sometimes I can barely tell the difference.

Really odd forms like the ghazal are always attractive, but I wrote a whole book of ghazals (INDIGO) and of course it sold in the dozens. By trying rare forms I'm usually avoiding the sonnet. It's such a bear, partly because anybody can write a bad one. Dahdum, bahdum, dahdum, bahdum, baddum: full rhyme. Do that 13 more times and then you can show your mommy and she'll put it on the fridge.

But a good sonnet is a real challenge. I tend to look at Shakespeare, of course, and guys I know like Tim Steele. Then I sit down and see if I've got the chops.

Usually not. I'm reminded of some guy in his underwear heating soup on a hot plate in a furnished room while watching "Top Chef."

But I'm never sorry I tried. There's always a word or an iambic foot or a slant rhyme that, like the porridge, is just right. Then I throw the whole thing away. There's always tomorrow.

Happy New Year everybody.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

fees for contests

The fee for contests seems to be its own closet industry. I remember listening to Joyce Carol Oates speak many years ago, and she said that there were no contests that were not fixed. I found that so cynical and depressing coming from someone who obviously would never need a fixed contest. The academic version of this are departments who run "searches," which they are legally bound to do, when they have already picked their candidate.

When I heard Ms. Oates speak, I had just moved from playwriting to fiction, so I thought I would test this out. After carefully checking out the contests to make sure they were legit, I forked out my ten or fifteen dollars and entered some. I won a couple and was happy that the world was not as uniformly corrupt as Ms. Oates implied. After that, I decided never to pay again for a contest unless there was a subscription included; fair is fair. This year, however, I sent my adult novel to a contest and it won and will be published. Still, while my experience is that good things can come from these contests, I don't generally bother with them. I'd rather focus my energy on straight submissions and publication; the literary journals that run most of these contests also accept unsolicited submissions, and many now accept on-line submissions so you don't have fork out for postage either.

If you're going the contest route, it seems wise to analyze the cost/benefit ratio. A legitimate contest where your book might be published seems worthwhile, while a small prize or mere publication in a journal to which you could submit anyway may not be worth the cost, given the odds against you. Obviously, you want to consider the fee relative to the monetary prize.

There are also awards that don't charge, which are usually supported by a larger body such as a university, publisher, or arts council (Check your own state's art council). has a list of prizes for writers of children's books. There are several web-sites and magazines that list adult awards.

A quick google search turned up many web-sites that focus on exposing scams. Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America,, has a good article on the contest industry.

I might add that we are lucky to be in the children's field where there is still vast enthusiasm for great writing and originality. In the adult field, that is not the case. I have many friends who have written beautiful adult books and been told by their agents: "What a masterpiece. But there's no market for it. I can't sell it."

Good luck to all.

Gifts from the Hamline MFAC Community

I hate shopping. The canned holiday music and newspaper ads this time of year nearly send me over the edge. But when I sit back with a strong cup of coffee in the morning or a glass of wine in the evening, I am grateful for the gifts I have received from the many people in my life who support my sometimes euphoric, sometimes neurotic writer's life. I couldn't survive without them. A special shout out today to the supportive Hamline faculty, students and alumni.

On Sunday I finished up the last of my Hamline student packets for the semester. Every student I have worked with over the years has given me the gift of their passion and creativity. They have trusted me with their deepest work. They challenge me to respond more clearly, to articulate what I believe can help make their creative and critical writing stronger. They teach me by introducing me to new stories and characters. Thank you. Thank you.

They introduce me to new subject matter, too, like tapping into dreamwork to create stronger stories, using Jewish myth or the art of burling in historical fiction. Or like Bonnie-Sue Hitchcock, who managed to write pieces for NPR while completing her first semester at Hamline, they also write about their world. Check out this one on how Bonnie' small town in Colorado is the first to give all of its residents free regional bus passes.">

I believe we learn from every type of writing we create and read. Lucky me.

All of us students and faculty have until January 7th to rest and prepare for the stimulating residency and reunion of kindred souls. I can't wait.

Writing cheer to all. CRM

Monday, December 20, 2010

answer to the inpot question: on weaving threads

What a great question. One of the most common remarks I make on manuscripts relates to weaving more threads through the book (which really means, keeping track of your threads).

Novels in progress can be overly ego-centric via the main character, with secondary characters standing around like hand-maidens ready to serve. This can create both a claustrophobic atmosphere and a one-note plot. So grabbing hold of secondary characters' plots threads and pulling them through creates texture and interest.

Of course, there are other kinds of threads: character, metaphoric, thematic. These are as important as the plot threads. What I've been noticing lately is how good sit-coms are at repeating small details to a large effect. I was just discussing with my daughter Isabelle the Seinfeld episode where Elaine breaks up with her boyfriend and he calls her Bighead. She finds the comment ridiculous, but when she goes outside, birds keep flying into her head. A passer-by comments on how the birds just can't seem to avoid her. On a recent HBO sit-com, the boss is upset that a girl at work is exposing her midriff. When he tells her not to, she accuses him of calling her fat. There are several other scenes with the boss feeling politically incorrect about weight and women because of his faux pas, each increasing in hilarity because of the echo, with the viewer happily connecting the dots. The show ends with him falling off of a building and grabbing his employee's bared stomach fat to hang on for dear life.

On the opposite hand, I've recently seen two shows where the script opened up all kinds of plot threads and then just let them drop. The first was the new Spiderman musical on Broadway. The second was the film Black Swan which was "full of sound and fury, Signifying nothing," although probably not "told by an idiot" as the line from Macbeth begins. Both had these and-then-they-woke -up-and-it-was-all-a-dream type of endings. I wanted to jump up and yell: "But what about those threads!"

The thing I find most helpful for keeping track is to simply bold words on my computer draft that I want to pick up later. It might be a simple character detail, like nail biting, that I want to remember so I don't show the character later peeling off stamps with her long fingernails (consistency of character). Or maybe everyone in the surreal high pressure school bites their fingernails (thematic thread) or rebels against the demands of beauty (metaphor/theme), or she decides to be a hand model and needs to stop, but can't so she goes to a twelve step program where she meets the girl or man or dog or scissors of her dreams and lives happily ever after (plot thread). Any technique that notices the opportunities in front of us on the page will work. One book I can think of that does this brilliantly on every level is Holes. Other techniques/thoughts?

From the Mailbag

Hello Inkpotters,

Here are two questions that have been submitted in the past (gulp, whoops!) month and a half. Inkpot bloggers, please weigh in on these questions, as your schedules permit.

New Years resolution for this administrator? Check the Inkpot mailbag more frequently....

Happy Holidays, Inkpot Bloggers and Followers!

The Inkpot Administrator


Dear Inkpot,

Stories are made up of threads woven through a main plot.Could you discuss different ways/techniques you keep track of, tease out,revise, shape, let go of, and build up these different threads. Sticky notes?Highlighters? Reading the story over and over again and focusing on adifferent thread? This question is of course a revision question, once there a story to play with.

Thanks, Tangled Up in Threads

Dear Inkpot Bloggers,
What do you think about fees? Contest fees, application fees, etc. A struggling writer can be nibbled to death paying fees for contests, residency program applications, etc. You pay it knowing you are helping to subsidize the prizes, you may get a subscription out of the deal, and seems like such a scam. But everyone does it. If you've already written on this, I apologize for asking again.

Susan KoefodM.F.A., 2004 (Hamline) Your following me is most appreciated....

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Another view of picture books

A quick post:
Check out this recent PW article about picture books: It's a more positive view of the market, written in rebuttal to an earlier, dreary NYTimes story on the same subject.

Now, if I could only write one of these dang things...Picture book stories are so much more difficult to write than novels!

Tuesday, December 14, 2010


Last week came the news that is giving authors access to BookScan information--which tracks sales of your books in the big chains, Amazon, and some independents. You can just click on a tab and find out how many books you sold the week before, and see a lovely map of your sales across this great land.

This confirms my suspicions that Amazon, with its sales ranks and customer reviews, exists solely to drive authors batshit crazy. We need something, of course; we're all such paragons of sanity and equanimity--at least we have been since no one drinks absinthe anymore.

It seems like such a good thing. And, indeed, people on the internets are embracing the news. Transparency! Access! No more of those nasty publishing-types holding the keys to all the information!

The thing is, those nasty publishing types have met authors before. When they speak to you in soft, soothing tones, it's not because that's just how they all talk.

Listen to me now. You do not want this information. Just like you don't want to know what every person with internet access thinks about your book. Having internet access is not necessarily a sign of good judgement. My mom once set up a Google alert for me so she could find out whenever any blog or message board mentioned my books. Then she turned it off. Some things, even your mother doesn't want to know.

The thing is, it's really hard to sit down and write when you're constantly pressing reload on Amazon for your sales rank, or when your email dings with the news that some blogger thinks your characters "have some intelligence," or when you're shrieking at some customer reviewer on Amazon because she obviously didn't read your book and probably can't read anyway because it's really hard to read with your head so far up your ass. And it's really really hard to write when you discover you've only sold 5 copies of your books in Montana, ever. And then you start thinking about Montana, and what you ever did to it, and why they don't appreciate your genius, and how you are not a genius at all but a complete failure and should develop an absinthe habit to numb the emptiness gnawing at your soul, and then you look at the population of Montana and divide it by copies sold, except you forget how to do long division and anyway it doesn't matter because your books sold per person in Illinois is so much higher, and you're clearly beloved in Illinois, SO WHAT IN THE HELL IS WRONG WITH MONTANA?

The internet provides all sorts of ways to drive you nuts. And to make sure you never write again. Don't go looking for it. Let those nasty publishing types tell you what you need to know in their soothing tones. And then just go on living your life as a paragon of sanity and equanimity.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Speaking of Poets--Happy BDay Emily!

Yesterday, (no, two days ago already) it was Emily Dickinson’s birthday. I am only just finding out because Billy Collins was on Prairie Home Companion this weekend in honor of her, and I listen to the rebroadcast of PHC on Sunday afternoons while lying on the floor. You can hear an older quite excellent interview with Billy Collins on why he loves Emily here.

Emily did not care about fame and success. She wrote 1800 poems and less than a dozen were published in her lifetime! As a child she hid at the top of the stairs when visitors came and listened. Her adult life was spent alone as a recluse working in her garden and writing poetry like a madwoman. Later she spent most of her time in bed (I am so in awe of her!)

Here’s a line from her poem, Compensation:

For each ecstatic instant

We must an anguish pay

In keen and quivering ratio

To the ecstasy.

So even though it’s two days belated, it’s never too late to read your favorite Emily poems. Or, for a little excitement, try Billy Collins reading his poem "Taking Off Emily Dickinson's Clothes."

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Poets in Solidarity

It has been almost a year since we heard--mid-residency--about the massive earthquake that leveled Port-au-Prince, killing more than a quarter of a million Haitians. Six weeks after the quake, eighteen poets, self-described as a "quiet group, and often not a group at all," gave a reading in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to benefit Partners in Health, the wonderful organization started by Dr. Paul Farmer. Now, as the anniversary of the quake approaches, these poets have published Poets for Haiti: An Anthology of Poetry and Art. Seven poets read from the new collection last night at Porter Square Books, our favorite local independent. It was a packed house, the largest I've ever seen at an indy reading.

Ophelia Dahl, CEO of Partner's in Health, introduced the evening. She spoke of how the medical workers at PIH "accompany" people in the communities where they work, in the spirit of a Creole proverb that translates, roughly, as "you can't eat okra with one finger." The poets read with passion and verve. The hair rose on my neck as Haitian poet Patrick Sylvain cried out for his homeland. Former Poet laureate Robert Pinsky first read John Donne's "For Whom the Bell Tolls" before sharing his own "Ginza Samba," an ode to the hybrid backgrounds we all share. Later, I read through editor Kim Triedman's introduction. She is speaking of poets, but her words apply to all of us:

"We work alone. We listen to our own heady music. We write words that may or may not ever be heard. We tunnel deep into ourselves...but poets also represent something greater than themselves. They have always been the voice and the conscience of their generations--the conduits of change, and of hope, and of urgency."

Then, as if in an echo, I turn on my computer this morning to find posts from Jane and Phyllis. They both described a poetry reading at the Birch Bark Bookstore, presented by members of Nolan Zavoral's poetry collective. It was a frigid night in the Twin Cities and in Cambridge, but in both cities, poets, writers, and readers filled independent bookstores to hear fine words. Conduits of change, hope and urgency. Indeed.

Fine words for the end of the year. Happy holidays to all.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Observations of young writers

I've been AWOL, too. Must be the season. For me it's not a partner with a broken foot or parenting duties, or even anything to do with holidays (I'll admit I am a scrooge). No, I am immersed in end of the semester portfolio reviews.

I have 58 undergraduates all taking Writing Children's Stories in three separate classes. We are just finishing the YA section of the semester. As with the picture book and MG sections, there are odd coincidental overlaps between classes, even though they don't know one another. For example, this week alone I've had four stories about teen pregnancy. And all of them decide to have the baby, either keeping it or giving it up for adoption. There have also been a number of stories about rape. Drugs (especially hallucinogenic episodes) is another popular topic, including one where the mom is a heroin addict. A lot of them are writing about college students or older teens, a couple about kids in the army or marrying a kid in the army. Unlike the picture book and middle-grade stories, not one brings in an adult to solve a problem (the majority of picture books did). And contrary to what is hot in YA, I have not seen a single vampire, fairy or fallen angel. However, there was an appearance of zombies, and two vaguely futuristic settings, one WW II story, and one steamy gay romance (from a very brave student!)

Not sure what this all means, but since these students are between eighteen and twenty years old it is curious to note what they are reading and writing.

By the way. not one of them reads paranormal novels. In fact they were surprised when I sent them on assignment to a local B bookstore and all they saw were vampires.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Odds & Ends

I know, I know. I've been AWOL. But I have an excuse. My wife broke a little bone in her foot recently, so I'm driving and picking up and shopping, etc. It's a vertical break and a clean one, not horizontal and jagged. No surgery, just one of those tall, black soft casts. I asked the orthopedic doc if he had that in another color, maybe with a sharp high heel and a little chain across the instep. Alas.

I just saw an ad for something called "A Working Writer's Daily Planner 2011." Under 'What You'll Find Inside' there was this (partial) list: How to Format a manuscript, Story Idea Generation, How to End a Story, A Place to be Inspired," etc.

I found that book and list profoundly depressing. I'm sure it will help somebody somewhere, but it certainly isn't my cup of oolong. My computer formats my manuscripts, I ask the gods for story ideas and get them, I end stories when they're just about over but not quite, and I don't believe in inspiration, just my blue collar work ethic. I wish people would just write more and not buy yet another book about writing.

I'll bet you'd like Elissa Schappell's "St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves." Here's a quote from a TIN HOUSE interview where she's talking about adolescent POV: "Intuition -- that deep, inborn, and uncorrupted knowledge kids have -- that really interests me. Later etiquette or other screens occlude it but kids are really alive to profound stuff. They're on that weird threshold, they have this double optic: they're really alive to some adult truths but then they can pull back and view the world through kid goggles."

"Kid goggles" is very nice, isn't it? Let's all get some for Christmas.


Thursday, December 2, 2010

the middle morass

When my husband and I dine out, we often order appetizers, which we find to be the most inventive and interesting dishes on the menu. The other night, at a restaurant known for its creative chef, we were hungry enough to ignore that habit and ordered main courses. Mine was a very plain chunk of cod with a sauce that was indecipherable. Michael's was a steak slathered in a sauce far too decipherable, and couple of measly slices of potato. "Ugh," Michael said. "We should have known. A meal is like a book. The middle is always the worst part."

As a reader, I certainly find that to be true. I often find the energy lagging in books and I'm tempted to jump to the last few chapters (dessert!). Furthermore, as a writer I encounter the kind of writerly exhaustion to which Liza alluded in her last post, around page 150; in other words, the middle.

Some things can help. If I write the ending chapters (as I am tempted toward as a reader), I can trick myself into working backwards, so I don't notice when I get to the middle. The randomness exercises that Liza mentioned, be they Ron's talismanic words, my picture cards, or just plain reading articles on subjects far and wide, can push me through. Another way of getting through is to write chapters that I do not plan to use. Often, though, the only solution is setting the manuscript aside for a couple of months (something which I recognize is not always practical in a graduate program).

Well, I've finally finished the two books I've been working on: one adult, and one MG. On the first, it simply took years and years of writing and tossing, writing and struggling through the middle. On the second, I was helped along by a brilliant agent, whose advice supplied the key to unlocking the structure of the book. Does anyone else share this middle morass? What do you do about it?


Years ago, I was author-in-residence at a lively middle school where two exceptional teachers had created a strong writing program. A cardboard box, decorated with skull and crossbones, sat the the front of one room, with a sign reading "graveyard for dead words." Each day, students scrawled tired, cliched, or vague words on slips of paper and dropped them into the box. The graveyard held words such as "nice," "thing," "very." Great idea.

Perhaps because I've been feeling bone tired lately, my own prose seems ready for this graveyard. It tastes like Pablum, rather than chef Ana Sortun's fragrant Egyptian carrots flavored with dukkah. As a remedy, I've turned to suggestions from our esteemed faculty. The first is Ron Koertge's talismanic word exercise, where you pluck three words, at random, from the daily paper, and find a way to use them in that day's writing. My words this morning, taken from the Boston Globe: Scrooged (who knew that was a verb?); slash; taunt. I guess I was in the mood for verbs.

Last night, I spoke with Jackie Briggs Martin, who suggested that I keep a running list of favorite words. I chose the first words that popped into my head: chaparral; canyon; home. All nouns--and an odd mix that makes me think of Kelly Easton's enthusiasm for randomness. Saying them out loud already adds spice to my day.

What are your talismanic words? Your favorites? How do you add grit and spice to your writing?

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Wednesday Links

There was a post floating around Twitter a month ago that said something like, Writing is 3% talent and 97% ignoring the internet. This has nothing to do with the links below.

Publishers' Weekly has a terrific round-up of the bumper crop of imprints devoted to young adult books, with quotes from the editors about what they're looking for. These are smaller houses, and if you've got a YA to shop it's a great place to start. There are imprints devoted to romance, multicultural fantasy, contemporary YA, lists that spin toward the dark and edgy. Though I take some exception to the publisher of WestSide Books' description of their list as, "No fantasy, no romance, no dragons, no vampires. We publish books that kids will relate to based on their own experiences. We don't want them to feel alone if they are going through difficult times." Because sometimes there's no greater company in difficult times than a girl with dragons to slay, or who is madly in love with someone who sucks out her soul. But that's another post.

Those of us at Hamline have had the privilege of hearing children's book expert Anita Silvey's wonderful talks on the stories behind the classics. Now she's got the Children's Book-A-Day Almanac. Every day she features a new book somehow tied to the day's date, and writes about the history and significance of the book.

Finally, the end of the year means all sorts of best of lists--and we at Hamline are thrilled that Jacqueline Briggs Martin's The Chiru of High Tibet made Kirkus' best of list--and mock Newbery and Caldecott discussions. 100 Scope Notes is keeping track of these, and has a round-up of the Caldecott lists up today. My little boy would vote for A Pig Parade is a Terrible Idea, but somehow I don't think he gets a vote.

Now, get back to work.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

And Now...for a Word from Our Sponsor

Hello Storyteller's Inkpot readers,

Just a quick note from Hamline University to invite you to join two of our Inkpot bloggers for a one-day workshop on Saturday, December 4, 2010 at StoryStudio in Chicago, Illinois.

Award-winning young adult and children’s book authors Marsha Qualey and Marsha Chall will present a morning workshop and lunch to give you a sneak peek inside Hamline's accredited, low-residency master of fine arts in writing for children and young adults program. Qualey and Chall are both instructors in the program. Current students and alumni, as well as the dean of the Hamline University Graduate School of Liberal Studies, will also be in attendance to answer your questions. The cost is $25, including lunch. Attendance is free for SCBWI, CLN and StoryStudio members.

The topics presented at the workshop include 'How to Capture Your Childhood Memories and Channel Them into Your Writing' and 'How to Create Authentic, Novel-Worthy Characters in Your Books.'

Click here to learn more about the December 4 event and to register to attend. We'd love to see you there! And, if you can't make it, watch for future workshops of this kind on our website.


This is not turkey-related (sorry) but you've been on my mind lately. You in the 2nd person that is. I recently read YOU, by Charles Benoit. YOU is a dark, downward spiral of an everyday teenager—i.e., you. I mentioned it to my writing class, and this week I have four stories in second person, so "you" is now on many minds. Here is a bit of my textbook cautionary response:

Second person is by far the least used point of view in fiction. It has severe obstacles. Second person requires the reader not only to step into the head of the protagonist, but into her very shoes. The reader becomes the protagonist.

In turn, second person requires the writer to become one with the reader. The writer must convince the reader that the events are happening to her personally and that she is seeing and experiencing these events through her own eyes. Second person is often used in conjunction with present tense because both add immediacy to a scene.

Second person is more common in nonfiction, such as in instructional or advice-giving articles. It makes the lesson up-close and personal rather than formal. Think of the “Choose your Own Adventure” series, where the reader makes choices, and the outcome is open-ended. It often has a jarring effect in fiction. Your reader picks up a book to escape into another character for a while and using “you” destroys this illusion. It can feel weird--as though you are being bossed around with someone always telling you what to do and feel. This may be exactly what the author intends (or not).

I'm not totally anti-second person. It can have a lingering and powerful effect on the reader and it is an exciting challenge for the writer. Give it a whirl this weekend--become one with your reader. (put that way it sounds kind of thrilling...) Why not?

Those of you using second person, have anything to add?

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Low-Hanging Fruit

A student sent me this quote from Robert Olen Butler's From Where You Dream:

"When I've finished a work, and some time passes, and I'm working up to something new, I feel that I am utterly wasting my life. I do trivial, ghastly, quotidian stuff; I hate myself; I complain about myself to my wife, and that hatred daily increases. Finally she says to me, 'Honey, it's OK, you've now reached total self-loathing; you're about to start writing.' She's always right. Soon thereafter, the door opens up to my unconscious, to my new work, and I leap in. And then I write every day and I am scared every day and I am happy every day."

This is apt for me right now. At least the first half, I wouldn't know anything about the second. The book I've spent all year complaining about is done, I've turned in the copyedits, I'm waiting to see the final draft of the cover and dipping my toe into the ocean of pre-publication panic. I am done. I am writing--absolutely nothing.

Some people write because they love writing. Some write because they love having written. I think I write mostly to keep the horrible feeling of not-writing away. It's what I'm for, simply--and when not doing it, I am for nothing but self-pity, Top Chef, and the terrible realization that I have no actual job qualifications. That book you're working on, that story you're telling yourself a little more every day, is the stuff that propels you forward. Storytelling is the driving force of life. And of course there's always the panic that you'll never have an idea again--this is it, the well is dry. I have friends who have ideas popping up everywhere, and all they have to do is walk out into their lush gardens and pick whichever one looks the juiciest. I'm the next-door neighbor whose backyard is a thicket of weeds and cracked dry soil and malevolent squirrels. Every once in a great while a tiny green shoot of something pops up tentatively, valiantly photosynthesizes, then thinks Aw, screw this! and gives itself to the boll weevils.

This happens every time, and you'd think I'd learn after awhile and chill a bit. But, I ask you, if we go around learning from past experience all the time, how would we be miserable? I'll be like this until something happens, some brave little shoot survives the parched soil, soul-sucking pestilence, and periodic hailstorms of the quotidian.

Theoretically, it could happen, right?

Monday, November 22, 2010

Giving Thanks

Writers have to be versatile. In addition to cranking out our masterpieces, we work day jobs, parent, teach, write greeting cards and advertisements, waitress, bar-tend, edit, blog, and etc. This is nothing new. One of the main advocates for Thanksgiving, as we know it, was a writer.

Sarah Josepha Hale was born in New Hampshire. When she was 34, her husband died, leaving her with five young children. Funded by the Freemasons, her first book of poems, The Genius of Oblivion, was published in 1823, beginning her life in letters. Throughout her long career she wrote novels, poems, and children's books. She was even better known as an editor, editing a woman's magazine that published the writings of some of America's best writers (men and women). She was hugely influential on women of her era and politically active in liberal causes.

Her first novel, Northwood, was about the immorality of slavery. It was in that novel that she described a Thanksgiving dinner at length in mouth watering detail (especially if you are not a vegetarian), giving special mention to roasted turkey and pumpkin pie.

While Thanksgiving was primarily a New England holiday, celebrated on different days in different states, Hale was one of the most vocal supporters for establishing it as a national holiday. She wrote letters to five presidents in a row. On October 3rd, 1863, Abraham Lincoln (no mean writer himself) instituted the holiday: "The year that is drawing towards its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature, that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible." (Dibs on The Habitually Insensible Heart for a book title). He proclaimed Thanksgiving a national holiday, celebrated each year on the last Thursday of November.

So we have Sarah Josepha Hale partly to thank for the holiday, as well as for the nursery rhyme "Mary had a Little Lamb." And like so many of us, she was a multi-tasker.

Friday, November 19, 2010

A Little Yin

if, indeed, my last post was yang. I'm thinking back week or ten days ago to the one about the break-out novel (Someone already wittily suggested fictive acne.) Mostly I complained about being prodded to write what would essentially be a best seller. And the whine wasn't because I didn't want to be rich, popular and adored but because my editor couldn't be more specific than, "Something different. Not what you usually write." I'm sure my attitude was, "I'll show you. I'll write two sequels!"

What if I was wrong? What if all of us who have been urged to do something very, very different and have dug in our heels have been wrong? Everyone knows that doing the same thing and expecting a different outcome is madness. I always expect my next book to knock everyone's socks off, yet the socks stubbornly stay on even though I promised that the barefoot photos would be tasteful and available only to discriminating clients in the UK.

Hmmm. Well, I'll keep everyone posted, as I ponder these things. Happy Thanksgiving to all.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Joining the Frey

My Twitter feed exploded on Friday. I was traveling and couldn't quite piece it together. James Frey. YA book packaging. A million little suckers. It turns out that NY Magazine has published James Frey's Fiction Factory, an article about the memorist's--oops! j/k!--novelist's new effort to become a YA book packager. Frey's been going to (adult writing) MFA programs like Columbia and recruiting writers to pitch him ideas. He tells you there is so much potential. Spielberg. Michael Bay. Merchandising rights. Frey's vast social network. And, I think, a pony.

Oddly, there's a catch. The contract seems to be a wee one-sided. $250 bucks for selling a book. A possible $250 upon completion. You have no rights to your name or image--they can use it whenever they want. You are not allowed to say you wrote the book--except they can tell the world you did if they feel like it. You will get 30%-40% of profits--except you basically have to take their word on what those profits are. You will be liable for any legal action, but you will not own the copyright. You are required to write more books in the series if they ask. But they might ask someone else. And you are not allowed to sign contracts on any "conflicting projects." Also, you have to work closely with James Frey.

No matter. As everyone knows, YA literature is all about one sentence pitches, Michael Bay, and merchandising rights. It's the path to glory. And its function is to make everyone very very rich. Right? (For a good rant and round-up of other rants, see Liz Burns' fine A Chair, A Fireplace, and a Tea Cozy. Also see Maureen Johnson's essential commentary on the contract.)

It's all ridiculous. And gross. The writers who've signed themselves away to Frey should be doing more due diligence, of course. And Frey is, at best, a douchebag. But the MFA programs letting this guy come in with his snakeoil are really culpable here. These programs take students' money, spend 2-3 years purporting to teach them to be artists, and then invite this guy in to dazzle them with sparkly promises while treating them like monkeys at a typewriter. If I'm reading the article correctly, Columbia has six students currently signed up with this company, essentially becoming a feeder program for serfdom on Frey's YA manor.

You can teach people about craft all you want, but that's all worthless if you teach them that their work is worth this little. (Though perhaps the problem is these programs simply don't think of YA as real, worthwhile writing....No mention of him going to any of the children's writing MFAs) The outside world is happy to take things from you, to tell you your work isn't valuable. This is your art and your job. Your words are valuable. Your time is valuable. Your name is valuable. And if you don't value these things no one else will. Be wary. If you have doubts, show your contract to the Author's Guild. If an agency asks you for money to sell your book, walk away. Do research. Make sure you're being fairly compensated for your work, that you're protected, that your name is your own to use as you wish, and that if someone's promising you something he puts it in writing. Don't sell yourself for only a dream of riches, or even the promise of a pony. Because you're the one who is going to have to clean up after it.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Thoughts on a theme of picture books by number

Many moons ago or so (I have difficulty keeping track of time), we were discussing the NY Times depressing article about the picture book market. I had a hard time believing that parents would really eschew those extraordinary works, but if there is a movement as such, I doubt that it will last.

The other day, my son Isaac and I went into our local chain bookstore, which shall be unnamed, but starts with a B (I know; they both do). I like to go there because we can sit anonymously in large comfy chairs and read for hours. I buy my books, however, at independent bookstores (I buy coffee and hot chocolate at the chain, so they can't complain). Bookstores, especially large ones, have an area where picture books "face out." The decision to face out a picture book (have it shelved so that the full cover shows) is obviously vital to the marketing of that book. As we entered the children's section of the B store, there it was, a whole wall of picture books, facing out, every single one of them Disney; the ones a team writes after the movies come out (as opposed to their publishing arm, Hyperion, which publishes many fine books). Needless to say, I didn't even stay for our requisite hot drinks. Shaking my head and sputtering, we were out of there.

My son is big reader and book buyer, but even when he was little, he knew the rule: I will not buy him a book adapted from a TV show or movie. When I worked at the Scholastic Book fair at his school, I pulled all of those books off the shelves (The other parents definitely thought I was neurotic). When my son sees those books, he makes a face like he's smelled sour milk, so he is well conditioned.

So, after leaving the B store, we went straight to our independent bookstore, Island Books, in Newport, Rhode Island. I wrote about it earlier when I mentioned Shakespeare and Company in Paris. I said I would go in and ask the owner Judy to put a mattress on the floor for me like they have in the Paris bookstore. I figured a piano was too much to ask. Well, when we got there, there was indeed a bed on the floor. It was for a beagle, but still, I was impressed that the bohemian lifestyle was alive and well in Rhode Island. We did sit and read, maybe not long enough to be entitled to move in, but long enough. We had to get drinks at the cafe across the way, but that was fine, because I always worry about spilling on the books.

I've suggested Shrek, by William Steig, for those attending our illustrious residency at Hamline. It's a wonderfully funny book with Steig's usual playfulness with language, and theme of love and devotion. I am using it for the dialogue workshop because it epitomizes idiosyncratic characters and dialogue. Many people now associate Shrek with the movie. It was after Steig's death, that the book of the movie appeared, displacing Steig's real book on many shelves. I don't know for sure, but I can't imagine that it would have been Steig's wish?

All of us have heard or said that writing a picture book is the hardest thing to do. From my experience, that is the case. I have written several, but never had the chutzpah to try to sell the little banal atrocities to anyone. I still think that the best of them are works of art comparable to any other masterpiece.

Many said during the eighties and early nighties that the children's market was stagnant. Guess what? They were wrong. When I tried to sell my first YA novel in the diary form I was told by agents that nobody reads diaries. The agents were wrong. Don't let doomful naysayers (even The New York Times, which has a place of reverence, not to mention makes a big pile, in our house). You be the one, as J.K. Rowling did, to turn the proverbial tides.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

The brave new world of research

This morning I came across a hand-written, nearly illegible letter from my great-uncle Carleton. In his cramped, wobbly hand (he was 92 at the time), he wrote about his grandmother's wedding. He remembered her stories about this event, which took place on the family's front porch in Randolph, VT, in 1861. Uncle Carleton recited the guest list. He also told me about his grandfather, who mustered out with the First Vermont Division soon after the wedding, broke his kneecap, and ended up carrying the wounded on stretchers for the rest of the war. Carleton's letter, written in 1983, connected me to an event from 125 years earlier. His personality bristles on the page and brings back his querulous voice.

As someone who has spent many hours reading old letters, diaries, and journals, I waxed nostalgic--briefly--about the demise of hand-written archival material. I thought about the letters of Susan LaFlesche, the first American Indian woman doctor. Her sloping handwriting described the trials of her medical training; her pride at standing firm during surgery while a male student fainted. I remembered a diary I read at our local historical society, written by a 12 year old Vermont farm boy, whose syntax and vocabulary helped me find the voice of an 18th century narrator. What would be lost if people no longer put pen to paper?

And then, a friend mentioned that she has never deleted over 10,000 received e-mails. I thought about Wiki-leaks, releasing a tsunami of e-mails about our two wars; about kids who send thousands of text messages per month; about voice messages piled up on my own cell phone--and my heart quailed. Is this a historian's dream, or nightmare? Will we go crazy, sorting through an avalanche of e-mail posts, texts, phone conversations--and yes, blogs like this one--in search of the telling fact or detail? Is this the true meaning of "too much information?"

On the other hand, there are advantages to this brave new world. My current novel takes place in 2004 (already ancient history to some readers). I was thrilled when my friend Jack Burrage sent me to a website with the complete record of every Red Sox game from that fabulous year. In one quick e-mail, he saved me hours of digging. So maybe this isn't an either/or situation--but it does leave me muddled.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Art Vs. Entertaiment

I'm just back from Palm Springs and a little gig at a library. Some sixth graders had read the second of the Shakespeare novels-in-verse (mine, not Will's) and had some questions and comments. Mostly they said the book was fun to read. Their teacher had to tell them things about the various forms-of-poetry and their response was basically, "Oh, okay. It was still fun." When they asked me if I had a good time writing it, I said that I did.

A few years ago my editor at Candlewick called me up and chided me about not writing the break-through novel. Mild interrogation didn't reveal exactly what that was, but she would know it when I submitted it. Somehow I needed to be elevated from the mid-list. I needed to break through; I'd gotten about as far as I could go with the novels I'd been writing. She didn't use the word "art" but I could feel it hovering there like an alien spacecraft, its probes greased and at the ready.

After the conversation I thought, "Oh, dear." Or some other word with four letters.
I could just feel the doggedness closing in. Many doggednesses. A pack of them. My editor was being so serious, and I am not a serious person. And art has always sounded serious to me even though I know better and even said in a lecture that the membrane between craft and art is very permeable, and God knows I'm a craftsman.

Basically I couldn't think much about the so called break-through novel. It was the famous wet blanket. Or wet diaper. I'd rather just bumble along and write what I wanted. I'd rather, in a word, be entertaining. Screw art and the unicorn it rode in on.

Advice nobody really asked for: take it easy on yourselves. Be light of heart. Good things often happen effortlessly.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Let the Right One In

My little boy was expelled from preschool for biting last week. Apparently that sort of thing still happens even in this post-Twilight age. You’d think people would be more understanding. This all poses an interesting challenge as I attempt to "write books," "do my job at Hamline," and generally function without injections of Klonopin.

Tonight I took the little biter out for pizza at the local co-op to take his mind off the infestation of snot that’s now consuming his body like paranormal romance in a bookstore's YA section. He had little appetite for it, which surprised me—until he vomited all over the table.

Now, he’s lying in his room coughing and he sounds like something out of Fever 1793. This is what happens, apparently, when you go through a few days without biting anyone.

I was doing to do an extensive post about some articles that have popped up in the past few days. The post is now going to be less extensive. You understand, right?

Hamline's own MFA graduate Christine Heppermann has an article in the latest Horn Book about being a student in the program, and for anyone interested in a low residency MFA in Writing for Children, it's a great description of what you can expect-- even though Christine never mentions how meaningful our conversations about Project Runway were to her. The article isn't online, but you could just come over here to read it. Especially if you babysit.

A couple weeks ago, I posted on the NY Times article on declining picture book sales. Here's another response, from the Children's Book Review, on the value of picture books.

And at, agent Mary Cole writes about contemporary YA, and what it needs to do to stand out in the sea of paranormal romance and dystopian books that are consuming the YA sections of bookstores like snot in a preschooler boy.

There's more, but oddly enough I can't remember what it is. You understand? Yes? Good.

Friday, November 5, 2010

editing advice

About revision, I find myself telling writers: Be neither the doting parent, who blindly adores every word; nor the critical parent, who destroys the joy and pleasure of the process through self battery.

Be that balanced parent who says: "Lovely. Bravo. Now practice it again until it's perfect."

Thursday, November 4, 2010

To Write Daily Or To Not Write Daily

I’ve been reading Writers On Writing, A collection of Essays by Writers. Two stand out for their contradiction.
Carolyn Chute, author of four novels, (her first, The Beans of Egypt Maine was a critical, yet controversial success) says:
“I am an unmarketable person. I can’t teach writing or make a living in any public way, as I get confused when interrupted or over-stimulated. So, my only income is from novels. I make about $2 an hour. This should explain the absence of dishwasher, clothes dryer, running hot water, electricity, health insurance and other such luxuries.

Writing is like meditation or going into an ESP trance, or prayer. Like dreaming. You are tapping into your unconsciousness. To be fully conscious and alert with life banging and popping and cuckooing all around you, you are not going to find your way to your subconscious, which is a place of complete submission. It takes me three days of complete boredom and no interruptions to calm myself enough to get to that place."

Walter Mosley, famous and acclaimed author of over thirty books, including, the Easy Rawlings mystery series, says:

“If you want to be a writer you have to write every single day. The consistencies, the monotony, the certainty, all vagaries and passions are covered by this daily recurrence. It doesn’t matter what time of day, and there’s no time limit on how long you have to write. Some days it might only be a few minutes, other days it might be a few hours. The important thing is that you breathe and dream your writing every single day or it will lose its life.

Nothing we create is art at first. It’s simply a collection of notions that may never be understood. Returning every day thickens the atmosphere. Images appear. Connections are made. But even these clearer notions will fade if you stay away more than a day.”

Mosley is a commercial and financial success with a plethora of novels behind him and in front of him. He is a good and admirable writer. Chute is not as well known, she lives quietly and poorly in the woods (with her also “unmarketable” husband) yet she is just as committed to her process and her personality. She is poor, but she is honest. She is a good and admirable writer.

Is it possible to be a writer who is a little of both? Can we write daily and also not-write daily? Is every writer a walking contradiction?

Monday, November 1, 2010

Operatic writing

As writers, we pay constant attention to the Don'ts of writing. Don't Tell: Show. Don't bog the story down with long flashbacks. Don't create stereoytypical characters. Don't give in to melodrama. And whatever you do: Don't kill your characters off at the end. That's cheating.

Saturday night, my husband and I were given complimentary tickets to the Metropolitan Opera's production of Il Trovatore (Verdi). Most of the first act was given over to endless flashbacks and telling, as Ferrando entertains the Count's restless troops with a complex tale of a Gypsy's curse, a dead baby, and a daughter's revenge. The opera's love story is based on a hopeless triangle; the audience knows, well ahead of time, that a final union is impossible. In the last scenes, Verdi gives us betrayal, suicide by slow-acting poison, a beheading, and fratricide. We never know whether the main characters go through any sort of internal change, as most are dead when the final curtain falls--or lying prostrate with grief. The opera broke every rule in the book--and the audience went wild when the final curtain fell. My husband's first comment, even though he cheered as loudly as anyone, was: "What a silly plot."

Indeed. But does the charm of opera reflect our hidden desires? Do we all long to be as wildly dramatic and overemotional at times? Do we, too, wish we could reach the soprano's impossibly high note while lying in a lover's arms, our long hair cascading across the stage? Do we imagine a lover sending his army to rescue us from a tower? Would we challenge a rival to a duel by swords, in order to win the one we love?

Perhaps the message of the opera to writers is: Let it all go. Don't be afraid to fall--and fail. Every now and then, wail and scream at the top of your lungs. Be passionate, scale the tower walls, declare your love to the world. Hit the high note--and go out with a bang.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

The writing state mind

Claire's entry spoke eloquently of the challenges we face as writers. Anne's boggled my mind with all of the things that I should be doing to forward my career, at the cost of...writing time, so I found it very redemptive that the comment from the publicist was to just write.

I have been writing a lot lately, because I remembered how to get into the writing mind, or the writing state of mind (I've always liked the spacial resonances of that term, the vastness).

There are certain things I can do to bring myself to that state: reading, staring out the window, meditating, walking, swimming, reciting poetry, listening to Mozart or Finzi or Piazolla etc., looking at art and photography.

More important, though is what I must not do, lest I be exiled (to batter and abuse the metaphor further) from the writing state. I must not:
Answer the phone
Check my e-mail
Look at houses on
Google anything
Purchase anything on Amazon
Listen to the news
Open mail
Wear headphones when I run or walk (and bring paper or a tape recorder with me instead)
Listen to the radio when I'm driving

Yes, one does have to return calls, check e-mail, write their blog entries, send manuscripts out and try to promote them eventually. But none of these things should crowd into the writing space and time, which is sacred. None should come first. To write is to both receive and give. Water can only be poured into an empty vessel.

What interferes with your writing space and time? What helps you?

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Steve Almond Speaks

Actually Steve Almond talks dirty a lot of the time. But this post isn't about that. It's about a paragraph in "Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life." In the following quote, SA is talking about a musician he admires:
"That was how Boris operated. The turmoil of his life invoked the refuge of music where he found, if not quietude, at least an ordered universe. He knew which notes would produce beauty, how to arrange them, which details to include, the optimal tempo, how the song sounded in his head, and how to make it sound that way in the world. . ."
Remind you of anything? Writing, for instance? A lot of us find refuge in fiction and poetry. In language. We struggle to find the words that will produce beauty; we arrange and rearrange them. We look for the telling, even the most plangent, detail as well as the optimal tempo.
We really are all in this together -- the novelists, the poets, the musicians -- their theirness bleeding into our ourness. Oh, yeah -- and the synchronized swimmers. They're in there with us, too, in those beautiful spangly suits.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Always Listen to Your Publicist.

I had the pleasure of attending Kidlit Con in Minneapolis this weekend. It's the annual conference of the Kidlitosphere, the people who blog about kids' books. The conference was also useful for writers; there were panels on blogging platforms and practices, on author blog tours, on virtual school visits featuring the Skype-d in looming disembodied head of Nick Glass at Teaching Books. (Take home message from that panel: you might want to think twice before pouring yourself a soda near your mic when you're being Skype-d into an auditorium full of people.)

It's a bit scary as writer to go to these things--you realize all the things you should be doing that you're not. Like, oh, blogging, blog tours, virtual school visits, and other things that one does, on occasion, to publicize one's books. You could hear the steady undercurrent of stressed mutterings from the writers in attendance about building their online presence--or maybe that was just the voices in my head.

The keynote speaker was Shiver author Maggie Stiefvater--who described herself as the poster child for blogging. And indeed she is: she started her blog years ago and over time built a massive following that does things like show up at readings, buy her books, and tell other people to buy her books. These are good things, I've heard. And if your DeLorean time machine still works and you can go back to 2004 and start a blog, you totally should--but how do you get a new blog noticed now? As we talked about last week, there are book trailers, but they seem fruitless unless you can do one like this.

The conference also featured a panel of book publicists--Laura Lutz from HarperCollins, Steven Pomije from Flux, and Lindsay Matvick from Lerner. Kelly Barnhill, a Minneapolis author with a middle-grade fantasy coming out next year, asked the question on all of our minds: "What can writers do to help you?" We poised our pens, sucked in a breath, and prepared ourselves. The publicists looked at each other and then Steven Pomije leaned into the mic and said, "Write books."

Friday, October 22, 2010

Letting Go

I am dropping in as a guest today, grateful for all the stimulating posts this semester. I appreciated Ron writing about letting go of details, trusting the iceberg holding the story up. Anne and Lisa wrote about letting go of articles that tell us which genres are selling and thus what we should be writing. Kelly wrote about letting go of pre-ordained structure and using elements from all aspects of our lives to deepen our stories.

I am working on letting go - of time. I hoard time. I plan my writing times every day, like if I get in so many hours I can control the outcome. And then I get an email - picture book publication delayed yet again due to illustrations not ready. Another email that editorial decision about one of my projects will be coming soon. I wait. And I wait.

But I must write. I can't live if I don't write. But how to write without anxiety about the outcome? When Anne and I presented on the writing life at a residency a couple of years ago, she said something like, “If I am only happy on the days I get a contract offer or a great review, I am looking at one unhappy life.” Can writers be happy when outcomes are so dependent on waiting and wondering?

Yes. Yes. We can be happy if we're putting words on paper. We can be happy when we get an insight that only comes from the writing, not the talking about the writing. We can be happy sharing with other writers or reading a great book. We can be happy closing down our computers and trusting that the words will be there again, even with the deadline of a Hamline packet due tomorrow and tomorrow.

Be happy. Let go. CRM

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Worth a Thousand Words

A couple weeks ago, the New York Times published an article saying the picture book was fading. Sales are down, orders are down--and while the article cites the down economy, it suggests that some of the lag is due to parents rushing their kids into chapter books early to get them ahead. As the parent of a three-year-old, I was dismayed to learn that I was stunting my child's intellectual growth through Grumpy Bird, but have promptly cast it aside in favor of Anna Karenina. I've found it helps to pretend all the main characters are bunnies.

But now the author of the Early Word Kids column suggests I might want to reconsider trashing the Scieszka for Solzhenitsyn. Picture books, it turns out, are actually useful to children's development. She cites a number of reasons, including the relative sophistication of the verbal and visual content of picture books as opposed to early chapter books.

It's never fun to open up the newspaper and discover the thing you've devoted your life to is languishing. (I mean, this is how newspaper reporters feel every day.) But trends come and go in publishing. Get in your time machine and go look at the YA section of the bookstore six years ago. Go ahead, I'll wait. And, really, the economy can probably explain a lot--including, as the blog Mother Reader points out, an early entrance into chapter books. ("I can understand," she writes, "the mindset of an economizing parent who, when purchasing a book, wants to find one that will last a little bit longer. Hey, we do it with shoes and it works.")

The picture book will come back and it will be the dystopian novelists who are reading articles about the fading market and think the world is ending. So, get back to work.

And now, a word from our sponsors at Hamline's MFA in Writing for Children. The deadline for applications for the January term is Nov. 1. If you're curious about the program, you can try a mini-immersion--one residency and one semester. For more details, and for pictures of the handsome student body, please see the website. Please note that handsomeness is not a requirement for admission, and may in fact be an effect of the program.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Dear Snoozin

When it comes to back story and getting necessary information into the novel, ask yourself if all that info is as necessary as you think it is.

The old Hemingway adage about the iceberg is still a good one. The right, really salient detail can hint/suggest at tons of stuff that doesn't have to be be poured directly into the novel.

This happens all the time in poetry where the part does stand for the whole and the precise word does the work of many worker bee words.

And, of course, there is always the surgical approach -- if the back story info takes a page, cut it by at least 1/2. Rent a chain saw if you have to. Such a wonderfully brutal tool.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

INKPOT QUESTION - Do I Need A Book Trailer?

Cecilia B. DeMille says "I've had several friends with debut novels this year who have arranged for near-Hollywood-style book trailers. I have no idea how much this costs. I've seen others that were self-made using software that came on their computers. Some of these are terrific; some not so much. I hope to soon find a publisher home for my middle grade novel. How big a deal is this book trailer thing? Am I expected to have one? Will I need a second mortgage to make a decent one? Do I have to hire a film company, actors, acquire costumes, etc.? I find the whole idea scary, and truth be told, a little gratuitous. I'm a writer, not a movie producer."

Ah, the movie trailer. It's become more popular, but it is not essential. You can have one made through a media designer (such as digital weavers ) for about $500-$1000 which usually includes promotion to get top google hits and utube. Or you can make one yourself (or get a tech savy friend) on QuickTime or IMovie.
Many of my editor friends admit they don't know if a trailer reflects on sales at all, it all depends on how the author promotes it. Some publishers will use an author's trailer (whether professionally done or "home-made") on their websites along with the book. Marketing folks don't mind extra marketing from the author.
My author friends who do trailers like to have some "thing" to show off their book and a trailer has kind of replaced the postcard mailer that authors used to do.
Trailers do make books look like movies, but this is a way to compete with all else in the media. An uphill battle--poor little books need all they can get.
I repeat-you DO NOT NEED A TRAILER for your book. In fact, if you're not up for promoting it all over the place, it is not going to do anything for you. If you ARE UP FOR PROMOTING it and using it as an advertising tool then do it. It can't hurt!
All that being said, and in spite of my own skepticism about trailers, I just did one for my upcoming picture book. Actually I had a friend do it. It's very simple--some music, images from the book and a few teaser lines, then the cover and publisher. It makes more sense (I think) for picture books since images from the book are already there. Mom Blogs might use the trailer if they review the book. I'll post it on Facebook for fun, and my publisher said they'll post it as well. Ask me in six months if it did anything at all. But it IS fun to look at, and reminds me that I have a book coming out!

First and MOST essential, get a publisher for your book and then think about the marketing side. The marketing department can also advise you on all this. Mine is just one opinion. Best of luck to you!!!

Friday, October 15, 2010

Narrators for Desperately Seeking Snoozin'

Desperately Seeking Snoozin' may be having connundrums about narrators, but she has a knack for metaphor. I love the image of her dog digging up the back story. A lot of questions come to my mind, like for what age is she writing? Is the book comical? An adventure? That can inform her choice of point of view and narrator. If it's for youngish middle readers, omniscient point of view can free her in terms of bringing in back story. If it's YA, maybe she could experiment with POV: try first person, or even second, as an exercise. With my own writing, playing with point of view has given me revelations about structure (No that is not too strong of a word) and character.

As a tool, I've often written back story in one piece, then deposited it in little snippets, so it's not too loud or obvious. Experiment. We so often feel locked into our first draft choices.

Seeking Snoozin' is quite right in her statement that she doesn't want her characters repeating information, or announcing the back story, which would be like a big poster that says AUTHOR INTRUSION all over it. But dialogue still remains one of the best ways to communicate back story. And yes, if it is a control thing, it's time to let that narrator take over and get that nap she needs.

I also wonder if this is really a narrator issue. It sounds like it might be more about time, something that frequently comes up with work that I edit, and which certainly is an important choice. Maybe the book actually begins earlier than she thinks it does. Maybe it needs an episodic or diary structure. Perhaps these past scenes can be woven in as a separate narrative. Remember in Louis Sachar's Holes the way the past story is woven in as a separate narrative. And yet, Holes feels like third person limited POV in Stanley Yelnats perspective rather than the omniscient book it is. I've found this a great solution in books that are pushing the envelope a bit out of realism, and used it in The Outlandish Adventures of Liberty Aimes. Another example is in the Lemony Snicket series. Or maybe Desperately Seeking Snoozin' would like to join us here at Hamline University, where we hash these questions out in person in lovely St. Paul.

Anyway, I'm guessing from Seeking Snoozin's strong voice, that she will find a witty and innovative way to handle her narrator, even if it's leaving him/her in the yard with the dog for a few days.

Speaking of point of view, I am speaking about Snoozin in the third person. Good luck to you, Snoozin'

Mailbag: 'Ask the Inkpot' Questions Posed

Hello Inkpotters and readers! This blog admin is ashamed to say it's been a little while since the 'Ask the Inkpot' mailbag was checked. My apologies...

Below are three questions posed by readers. Inkpotters, can you weigh in on these?

Blog Administrator

Bill Kennedy asks "why don't you use real photos, and who draws the cartoons?"

Cecilia B. DeMille says "I've had several friends with debut novels this year who have arranged for near-Hollywood-style book trailers. I have no idea how much this costs. I've seen others that were self-made using software that came on their computers. Some of these are terrific; some not so much. I hope to soon find a publisher home for my middle grade novel. How big a deal is this book trailer thing? Am I expected to have one? Will I need a second mortgage to make a decent one? Do I have to hire a film company, actors, acquire costumes, etc.? I find the whole idea scary, and truth be told, a little gratuitous. I'm a writer, not a movie producer."

Desperately Seeking Snoozin' says "Hi. Narrators drive me batty because I do not understand how to use one--it's a control thing. I think. Anyway, I am working on a third person limited POV story where vital information occurs before the story wheel begins turning. I have tried to plant the back story into exposition/dialogue/ action, and my backyard, but none of these solutions feel best. And my dog digs it up every time. Each time I weave the past into the story, the characters tell each other information they already know. So, the back story stalls the story, yet the information is crucial for the reader to know. How, then, should I use a narrator? If my narrator discusses the past, then the story feels like an adult story--one that isn't wrapped in plastic behind the cashier at a convenient store. Should I consider a prologue? Do any of you have an extra copy of The Best Kept Craft Secrets that All Writing Professors Know and Will Share for Cash? I have cash. I'm a bit sleep deprived, so if this information does not make sense, you should delete it. Immediately. Thanks!"

Readers: If you have a question for the Inkpot bloggers, submit it to


For those who don't receive the Writer's Almanac, I can't resist posting this poem on punctuation--especially since I sometimes bug students about the semi-colon and then realize I probably misuse it myself. (Note to Anne: when will you give that promised lecture on grammar and punctuation that we all need?)

On Punctuation

by Elizabeth Austen

not for me the dogma of the period
preaching order and a sure conclusion
and no not for me the prissy
formality or tight-lipped fence
of the colon and as for the semi-
colon call it what it is
a period slumming
with the commas
a poser at the bar
feigning liberation with one hand
tightening the leash with the other
oh give me the headlong run-on
fragment dangling its feet
over the edge give me the sly
comma with its come-hither
wave teasing all the characters
on either side give me ellipses
not just a gang of periods
a trail of possibilities
or give me the sweet interrupting dash
the running leaping joining dash all the voices
gleeing out over one another
oh if I must
give me the YIPPEE
of the exclamation point
give me give me the curling
cupping curve mounting the period
with voluptuous uncertainty

"On Punctuation" by Elizabeth Austen, from The Girl Who Goes Alone. © Floating Bridge Press, 2010. Reprinted with permission.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

writing as shoplifting

My mother was an avid shoplifter. She is Bipolar and prone to extreme behaviors, to put it mildly (I'll tell you about visiting murderers in prison in another entry). I've always thought of her as a combination of Auntie Mame and Mommy Dearest. But, really, pick your metaphor. We are borrowers, sponges, knitters together of many pieces, or thieves (but never plagiarists) in the night, synthesizing our experiences into art. Every book we read, play we see, every nasty break-up and passionate beginning, every odd dream, sensory memory, and cloud we watch can find its way directly or abstractly into what we write. Randomness is being more intentionally open to this, to steal words and images and to create something original, what the Dadaists call collage.

My mother was certainly a random shoplifter. She stole dog beds, mini-bikes, make-up, and clothes, but only from the corporately owned stores. A socialist at heart, she would never "steal from the little guys." Now, at ninety, still witty and bright, she is kept from her crimes by my brothers, and her wheelchair. I wouldn't be a writer without her.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

What's on the Wall?

How fitting that Anne should post about procrastination, just when I realize that I am avoiding cleaning my office. The chaos in my writing room is a habitual problem, so the avoidance is not new. The trouble is, a month ago I agreed to an online interview with Creative Spaces. This sounded fine, until I read the fine print and discovered that I would have to take pictures of my writing space--and then write about it. These photos are supposed to highlight some of my favorite objects (yes, they are endowed). I'm also supposed to wax eloquent about my room, with its clutter of photos, books, stacks of manuscripts, etc.

The deadline is approaching and my "creative space" shows no sign of cleaning itself up. I can move the piles of books and drafts to one side, to highlight the cherry boards of my writing table. I will happily photograph the narrow wall beside my computer table, to show off art by our own Lisa Jahn-Clough, by my pal the illustrator Eileen Christelow, and by my artist son, Ethan Murrow. But what to do about the quotes, typed up or hand-written on post-it notes, that litter my walls, cling with magnets to the filing cabinet, tilt at a drunken angle from my computer? These are quotes that made me laugh, or inspired me, or pleased me at the time. Do they make some sort of statement about my writing life? Or are they just random? (Kelly would say that's a good thing: being random.)

Here's a sample. "We are all just walking each other home." --Ram Dass (My husband, who grew up riding subways and buses in Manhattan, has no idea what this means.)

"What used to be called liberal is now called radical, what used to be called radical is now called insane, what used to be called reactionary is now called moderate, and what used to be called insane is now called solid conservative thinking." --Tony Kushner

"There is a vitality, a life-force, an energy, a quickening which is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and be lost. The world will not have it."
--Martha Graham. (This is on my wall because my mom--now in a wheel chair--once danced with Graham. It's also a good quote for me to read when I think of giving it all up and going to work in a plant nursery.)

A scrap of paper, torn from the moleskin notebook I carry on garden walks, says: "Horticulture is the art and science of moving things around"--Dennis Collins (the horticultural director at Mt. Auburn Cemetery, which is also an arboretum and one of my favorite places to walk).

There are poems: "Kuan Yin" by Laura Fargas, about the Chinese goddess of mercy. "Today," by Billy Collins. "The Peace of Wild Things," by Wendell Berry.

"A List of Instructions for the New Milennium" from the Dalai Lama dangles from the filing cabinet. His devilish smile beams from a photo above my desk.

A post-it note has this, from E.B. White: "Life is always a rich and steady time when you are waiting for something to happen or to hatch." (I remember sticking that up when both of our daughters-in-law were expecting.)

And this, from Kurt Vonnegut: "Hello babies. Welcome to Earth. It's hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It's round and wet and crowded. At the outside, babies, you've got about a hundred years here. There's only one rule that I know of, babies: 'God damn it, you've got to be kind.'"

Random? Perhaps. Revealing? Maybe. What's on your wall?

There Are Other Things I Probably Should Be Doing

I have a bill in my email that I need to pay. It's been sitting there for ten days. It's not a big bill, and paying it will take me all of ten seconds. I'll do it tomorrow.

I left a shoe at the Quality Inn in Lee, Massachusetts. I need to call them so they can mail me my shoe. This, I will also do tomorrow.

The cat still has, like, mange. I still need to call the vet. I will. Tomorrow.

It feels good, this tomorrow thing. Everything will get done, you see. I have a schedule, a plan. Some people might even call this responsible.

These people are probably putting things off, too. In the most recent New Yorker, there's an essay called Later: What does procrastination tell us about ourselves? It's a very long essay, and I can only guess the author had something else he really needed to be doing. It reviews some of the literature on the subject of procrastination, delving into Kantian ethics, game theory, and making excellent use of the word "dillydallying." In case you are checking the 'Pot to avoid writing, I will also mention that the essay tells us: "Victor Hugo would write naked and tell his valet to hide his clothes so that he’d be unable to go outside when he was supposed to be writing." This puts a new spin on Les Miserables.

Oh, and the link to this essay was sent to me by my critical thesis student. I will let this pass without comment.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Delacorte Contest for a First YA

You're a SCBWI member, aren't you? On p. 39 of their recent BULLETIN there's a Delacorte Contest for a first YA. If not, the info is at

It's a long shot, but I bet those all the time. Tell your friends!

Thursday, October 7, 2010

A Little Tense

I've been thinking about this issue of tense ever Liza posted last week. As Liza said, Philip Pullman's--whose Golden Compass is a formative book for me--essay against the use of the present tense in the Guardian got widely circulated among writing types. Pullman writes:

I want all the young present-tense storytellers (the old ones have won prizes and are incorrigible) to allow themselves to stand back and show me a wider temporal perspective. I want them to feel able to say what happened, what usually happened, what sometimes happened, what had happened before something else happened, what might happen later, what actually did happen later, and so on: to use the full range of English tenses.

The whole essay is worth a read, and I'd be interested to know your reaction. (Somewhere, there is irony in Pullman's avowed atheism and his narrative predilections, but I haven't finished all my coffee yet.)

The whole thing started when the writer Philip Hensher wrote a similar essay in the Telegraph because half the Booker finalists were present tense books. Hensher blames creative writing teachers for the trend, as they are the font of all evil. He says writers use it in pursuit of vividness, but "in a literary context, it quickly takes on a weird, transfixed, glassy quality--the opposite of vividness."

Sure. It can. The trick of course, as with any choice in writing, is not to do it badly. (Thank you. You can all acknowledge me in your books.) Laura Miller says as much in her response at Salon. (You may have to click through a pop-up ad for a Last of the Mohicans deluxe DVD, sending you into an instant state of temporal discombobulation. I am here to assure you that it will be all right.) "The present tense is one of any number of crutches clung to by mediocre writers," she writes. "The problem lies less with the tool than the workman."

For children's book writers, the immediacy granted in present tense is no small thing. In young adult fiction past tense gives you a narrator who is telling events from some future position in time and thus must have perspective on these events--whatever growth they experience in the novel will have already taken place. The present tense allows a narrator with no perspective, one who is exactly as evolved as the main character. Present tense has particular use in dystopian fiction--in which the characters can only live in the present, in which there's no guarantee there will be a future to narrate from. (The best example is The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness, the book I will not shut up about. It's "more interested in the possibilities of language," in Hensher's words, than any book I've read in a long time.)

There are fads in narrative, but also fads in what's considered the proper way to tell a story. Someday I'm going to get hopped up on Theraflu and come on here and rant about the opposition to point of view switches and intrusive narrators. I don't see the good in limiting the tools in your narrative workbench; the point is the mechanisms of narrative--point of view, tense, syntax--are a conscious choice, with meaning for and effect on the story. Choose consciously, wisely--and if anyone complains blame your writing teacher.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

56 Picture Book Manuscripts

I have fifty-six undergraduate students this semester. We just finished the picture book section of Writing Children’s Stories 101. Following Ron’s post I can safely say that hardly any of these students decided to dress dangerously. Here are some of things I found myself repeating:

- If you begin a book with a bored character looking for something else to do, chances are your reader will look for something else to do as well.
- Rainy day activities (unless Cat in The Hat) are not fun or funny.
- Eliminate all mothers. They ought never be around to solve problems—it’s just not interesting.
- Aren’t we done with pirates yet? Though I suppose, if done well, everyone loves a pirate.
- No need to over-detail. There will be pictures after all.
- Read rhyme out loud to someone other than a kind friend, and PLEASE ask yourself—WHY MUST IT RHYME? (I totally understand editors’ request never to submit rhyming picture books)
- Make your character suffer more than you think they should.
- Don’t be afraid to exaggerate here and there.
- Do freckles really illuminate? (I did repeat this twice)
- Look for patterns everywhere.
- If there is a talking cricket at the end you might consider alluding to it in the beginning.

But in spite of all this, there is good in every piece—always something that can be taken and made even better. (And all fifty-six get to rewrite their manuscripts!) Now to find that germ of good in my own work, and treat it with nothing close to timidity. Suicidal lemmings anyone?

Monday, October 4, 2010

Music to My Ears

"Musicians practice to reduce the risk of catastrophe, but to play with complete safety is an insult to their art." Ben Fountain.

A lot of what I read is very safe. And predictability (a synonym for safety) may be due to trying to avoid catastrophe. Which is probably a bad review, an out-and-out rejection, or not even finishing the novel, story, or poem.

If I think about this quote, though, I remember passages in my books (passages I loved even if no one else did) that shook free of safety. I wrote these when they were least expected. Probably when the ego was busy looking at itself in the mirror and the other guards were smoking and talking about Saturday night.

I suspect recklessness is better tolerated in poetry where not much is at stake and the idiosyncratic can be rewarded by publication in an obscure journal. (There's a catastrophe of a different magnitude. )

I very much like the idea of not insulting one's art by playing it safe. It's a bit abstract, but still a useful tool to wield when someone is floundering. Are you stuck? Unhappy with your work? Ask if timidity might not be the problem.

Then dress up in something dangerous and go back to work.