Wednesday, March 31, 2010
I think we may all be in agreement that the process of writing a book is strange and convoluted. Yet, everyone wants to know how a writer works. Do you write in the morning? Do you write every day? Do you have a special place to write? Do you compose on the computer?
Really all of this doesn’t matter. I’ve published thirteen books now (and written more) and am still trying to come up with a process strategy. This is what I’ve decided so far:
Every book is writing for the first time. Every book teaches you something new. Every book has it’s own process. Every book is different.
Not very enlightening, but still it’s fascinating (to me) where this stuff comes from and how we do it. A voyeur peeking in the window to watch a writer work would see what? Someone sitting at a computer, or lying on the floor, or pacing the room, or petting the cat. Most likely nothing exciting or informative. What I really want to watch is what goes on in the brain. Tell me which image attached is the more interesting.
It doesn’t matter a hoot how you work, what matters is how your mind works. However all we have is what we see on the outside to give us a glimpse into the inner workings. Unless of course we are writers and we get to explore brains every day, our own and our characters’.
The novel I am currently writing is nothing like my others, so I am learning everything again for the first time. How exciting (or agonizing depending on the day).
I am curious what other writers think.
Monday, March 29, 2010
I have written nonfiction history and contemporary fiction. But in my current novel, I am putting my two loves together. I have written two historical fiction picture books, but never a novel. A long-running stumbling block for me has been that all my historical fiction main characters are based on real people. I find it so fascinating that they actually lived through these events. But my determination to be accurate and honor the actual history, so critical for a nonfiction writer, does not always serve the fictional narrative. Until now I have sometimes criticized historical fiction writers who I believed played too loose with the facts. My current story sticks closely to the actual historical events, but my main character is placed in a situation that likely in real life she was not. And that's where my doubts crept in. Maybe she needs to be a fully made up character I told myself. But I'd already tried that and it hadn't worked. I'd fallen in love with my Ottie, and couldn't give her up.
I talked to my writing group, the very group who responded to a draft of my gold rush novel a few years ago - "I know it really happened, Claire, but some of this isn't working . . . " I emailed Liza Ketchum, asking how she has handled this dilemma. She wrote back that her serialized novel, ORPHAN JOURNEY HOME, was based on the story of a real family of orphans who actually did make a similar journey in 1828. But she changed some details to make the story work. Almost two hundred years later, descendants got in touch with her after they read her story in newspapers across the country. They were thrilled that the family story had come back to life. "You can do this, Claire," Liza wrote me.
Still I worried. So many adult novels use real historical people. But not many children/YA novels, unless based on family history. I decided to do some reading, find some more examples, for safety sake. Like we ever have that as writers.
In one article, Sue Reichard wrote about the two types of historical fiction. The first kind is when the setting is historical, but there are no historical events or persons in the story, like "Catherine Called Birdy" by Karen Cushman. The second type is when both the setting and characters are factual. Like Melanie Benjamin's new historical novel, ALICE I HAVE BEEN, which centers on Alice Liddell --- best known as the "real" Alice in Wonderland from the works of Lewis Carroll. But Liddel's new novel is for adults. (http://www.suite101.com/article.cfm/childrens_writing/14324#ixzz0hu3d6dFH)
I kept searching. A posting on writer Crawford Killian's blog helped me finally understand what I needed to do. "Historical Fiction with Real People" (http://crofsblogs.typepad.com/fiction/2008/01/historical-fict.html)
He concludes: "But the point I'm finally making is that you are using your characters, not the other way around. If you're thinking of writing about a former US president, he has to dramatize your vision of the world—both as it is now and as it was in his time. You may use lots of historical factoids, but they're really just window-dressing. The key question for you is this: How do I make this person in history provide "anecdotal evidence" for my view of the world?"
Sounds like writing any novel to me. Still I worried. I talked to my agent. She talked to Editor/writer Marc Aronson. He said, "no problem." So what was my problem?
In researching my main character and her family, the local historical society had already given me the contact info for her 80-year-old nephew. The NF writer in me was thrilled. I love primary source interviews. But the fiction writer in me - oh, my. What if he didn't like that I was fictionalizing his family story? But Harry, Jr. was the only one who seemed to have some historical information I needed. I dove in, confessed to Harry what I was doing. The fiction part didn't register a blip on his screen. All my worries for not. He has emailed me some many terrific details about small town life and the historic period. I couldn't be luckier. And he seems to enjoy sharing.
Maybe it wasn't the fiction/nonfiction dilemma that gave me the willies after all. Maybe it was me, letting that old doubt creep in. But now I have recommitted and am whaling away. And I am grateful to everyone who has helped me get there. Sometimes those doubts help us dig deeper into the story, even while kicking and screaming that we've dug enough. How about you? Done any digging lately? Overcome any doubts?
Saturday, March 27, 2010
EVERY SCENE MUST BE DRAMATIC. THAT MEANS: THE MAIN CHARACTER MUST HAVEA SIMPLE, STRAIGHTFORWARD, PRESSING NEED WHICH IMPELS HIM OR HER TO SHOW UP IN THE SCENE.
THIS NEED IS WHY THEY CAME. IT IS WHAT THE SCENE IS ABOUT. THEIR ATTEMPT TOGET THIS NEED MET WILL LEAD, AT THE END OF THE SCENE, TO FAILURE - THIS SHOWS THE SCENE IS OVER. IT, THIS FAILURE, WILL, THEN, OF NECESSITY, PROPEL US INTO THE NEXT SCENE.
ALL THESE ATTEMPTS, TAKEN TOGETHER, WILL, OVER THE COURSE OF THE EPISODE, CONSTITUTE THE PLOT.
Friday, March 26, 2010
Thursday, March 25, 2010
Sid Fleishman died this week at 90—on the day after his birthday. Sid is known for The Whipping Boy (Newbery winner in 1986) and the McBroom series of the 70’s. He’s a father in the field. Along with his son, Paul Fleishman—they are the only father and son to have both won a Newbery.
Sid was a magician before a children’s book writer. I can contest to that—I met him a few years ago at a conference where the audience convinced him to get on stage and perform—he was indeed a performer. He was lively and thoroughly engaged with his audience. A delightful man.
According to the NYTimes obitiuary he “flung himself into the field on a dare.” What a great career that dare turned out to be.
Now I dare all of you to do the same. Go fling yourself into this career. Right now.
Tuesday, March 23, 2010
Teacher education is a big program at the university in my town. As a result, the campus library has a pretty nice collection of instructional materials. I was browsing those shelves yesterday and couldn’t resist one title: 250 Tests for Young Adult Novels. This book was published in 1995, and most of the novels included are adventures or mysteries (including one by Hamline’s own Liza Ketchum, The Ghost of Lost Island). Each test has 20 questions and there is even an answer key in the back so the teacher who gives the test needn’t have read the book. Way Cool!
The tests are multiple choice and are clearly intended to primarily measure if the student read the book and retained plot and character details. Some questions: “What caused the plane to crash?” (For Hatchet); “What is Maniac allergic to?” (Maniac Magee). “What does Delia throw into the ocean?” (The Ghost of Lost Island).
If this book helped some teachers incorporate fiction into the classroom and encouraged more reading, I say hooray. But as I browsed the book I started thinking how different the tests would be if they were intended for use with writers, not readers. First of all, writing teachers are notoriously tough, so there wouldn’t be any of this multiple choice nonsense. Short answers, at least.
“Describe the narrative voice used in _____; be sure to reference John Gardner’s psychic distance scale in your answer.”
“Identify two endowed objects in _____ and explain how the author paces the appearance of those objects in the story.”
“Identify three places in ____where a period of time passes. What technique does the author use to kill time?”
I’m kind of getting into this now. A test! Next summer at the Hamline residency I’m scheduled to do something on “Reading as a Writer,” using our required reading list. Returning students--you’ve been warned.
Monday, March 22, 2010
I am writing this from Culebra Island—20 miles off the eastern coast of Puerto Rico. Culebra is seven miles of winding hills and valleys shaped like a long winding snake. There are no high rises or resorts, just shabby shacks, rattling jeeps, aimless chickens, and turquoise sea.
This is where my mother lives. So this is where I go to visit her—as all good daughters do. Duty?
Of course a week with mom means I need an escape outlet. So I’ve been reading books just for pleasure, sipping a strong café con leche on the dock, and swimming every day. Vacation?
And then there’s the research. My picture-book-in-progress involves a scuba diving bunny, so to capture a believable essence it helps to go under water myself. I couldn’t get scuba certified, but I could take a snorkel and mask and hop in. Snorkeling is a divine experience for anyone creative. You enter a world with thousands of species with symbiotic relationships, danger, survival, and peace. And you get to be another swimming thing with all the others, observing a way of life that exists on this planet with us humans but is utterly foreign and often never seen. See the proof of my research in the photos Work?
As writers everything we do is part of our work. Every experience combines and we get to make meaning of it. Of course the real work of my trip may not be the underwater illustration research, but the connection of that world to the relationships that go on above the sea. Or something else entirely that hasn’t hit me yet. While doing one thing, something unexpected may arise. Vacation is the best place to work, and family dynamics are ripe for writers. What a perfect combination.
(PS faculty member, Liza Ketchum is here as well--she's been coming to Culebra with her husband for twelve years. Great writer minds think alike.)
Saturday, March 20, 2010
Gonzaga basketball is a glue that has held my extended family together since the men's Cinderella run into the Elite Eight twelve years ago. My mom likes to say that she and Dad went to Zag games years ago when they were poor relations. Sometimes some of our family members might think we are poor relations, writing books that may never sell. Gonzaga's men's team has played in the NCAA tournament for twelve straight years. Talk about consistency. Coach Mark Few likes to say that they just keep "sawing wood," every day, every game. Tomorrow morning they play number the one seed in the West - Syracuse. Tonight the Gonzaga women's team plays, too, as the women's NCAA tourney starts up. By the time you read this, both games may be over. But the Zags will be back sawing wood in the gym next week - either way. And so must we. Putting words together every day. Bust your bracket. Make this the year March Madness comes early and stays late. On a given day, we can make those clutch free throws and we must. We must keep giving it our best shot.
Whatever keeps you going, outside of writing, do it. Fill up your well. Right now for me, it's the NCAA tourneys. Go Zags, go U of Washington, even go Duke, Elizabeth. Unless, of course, they're playing my favorite team.
Friday, March 19, 2010
Thursday, March 18, 2010
Tuesday, March 16, 2010
I am driving along thinking, this guy must be talking about writing. Not exactly, but definitely the creative process. In the middle of a book, we just have no idea if this manuscript is heading toward genius or mediocrity or somewhere in between. Right now I am communicating with you through one of his genius inventions, Blogger, a program he designed and worked on for years, including the month when it had been successfully launched, but no money was coming in, so he had to fire all his employees for a time and run it by himself.
Hmm. Writing, Twitter, Blogger. Williams started six companies; two have been successful. He didn't sound like a person who was going to slow down, settle back with his millions. More creating ahead for him. Sounds like a writer to me, except for the money part. CRM
Monday, March 15, 2010
I didn't lose a beat, I'm proud to say. I said, "I thought I'd already told the reader all she needed to know to make the leap." That answer seemed to make sense to the student and she said yes, she guessed she had known enough to make the leap.
I'm now in editing mode of a rough draft. I'm sifting through the scenes and extended dialogue asking of each passage, Is this part necessary? What does the reader need to know?
Those aren't questions that can be asked too early in the process. And they have to be asked more than once as the revising reveals the real story. But oh dear, such good stuff is disappearing. What fun I had coming up with it. The reader will never see any of it, but during the long hard slog that's a first draft at least I amused myself. Otherwise, why write?
Saturday, March 13, 2010
Friday, March 12, 2010
Even if you don't have an interest in writing nonfiction, I think you'll appreciate McClafferty's discussion of high concept books that take a universal theme and give it a new twist and deeper significance. It also features info on writing book proposals and the pros and cons of having an editor.
Wednesday, March 10, 2010
I was in NY this weekend meeting with a (new for me) publisher. The publisher happened to be in NJ, which I gather is where publishers go now since the rents are cheaper. During the weekend I was able to get together with two of my favorite New Yorkers and children’s lit people—our very own effervescent Jill Davis, and one of our previous guests, the divine Ellen Levine. We shared writing/publishing woes, laughed and gossiped in a Thai bistro uptown, like three women on a Sex and The City episode, only our show would be titled Writers for Children and Young Adults and the City.
Much of the conversation turned to Ellen’s latest foray into the world of book challenges. For those not familiar with her novel Catch A Tiger By the Toe, it is a middle-grade historical novel taking place during the McCarthy era in 1953. One might imagine many book banners protesting from a certain political side. But the surprise is that the person challenging the book is a leading Civil Rights Activist who noticed the “n” word appearing in the book and claims the book is racist. The word is spoken by the bully in the novel as a racial slur. The protagonist denounces and rejects racial and ethnic stereotyping. It is yet again another situation of a word in a book taken out of context. The irony of the activist trying to ban this book is both amusing and mortifying. These days no word is safe. If anything Ellen said she expected protests from the right since the family in the book are members of the CP, but this was a surprise. Had the person read the book she may have noticed her faux pas.
As Ellen herself put it: “To remove a book from library shelves for the use of a word is to travel down that mindless but painfully destructive McCarthy road once again. Have we learned nothing?”
And so now I am home from the city, back in my quiet studio and working on something to give that NJ publisher.
Tuesday, March 9, 2010
I had finished up my first set of packets before I left and sent off a manuscript to my new agent, so my head was clear for a new adventure and new ideas. Only one road is open during winter in the park, but we saw more wildlife than I could have believed. Bison covered the land, such a change from the days of slaughter. Elk, coyote, and the most intriguing - the wolves. March is Wolf Watch month in the park. Teams of biologists follow each pack from dawn to dusk, monitoring their activities. A pack of visitors make it a yearly ritual to come follow along - wolf groupies. Sunday we joined them, standing on a hillside, looking through spotting scopes at one pack's bison kill - the ravens flying overhead, the lone black wolf skulking toward the huge rock formation, waiting until the pack of which he is not a part, are napping in the sunshine.
I am grateful that I am part of a pack of writers here in Spokane and at our amazing Hamline program. I am grateful that we still have wild lands to visit, to remind us that we humans are only a small part of this great planet. Something about this trip will weave into my writing. That I know. But even more I know that getting outside, keeps me balanced for the inside work of putting words together every day.
Monday, March 8, 2010
Sunday, March 7, 2010
And please: I don't want to hear any writerly nonsense, e.g., "I never think about audience." THAT won't help me.
Thursday, March 4, 2010
Miss the Olympics? There's another excellent competition going on in Canada, this one a literary smack-down. The annual Canada Reads festival is in high gear, and this year's book list has generated some alternate lists and competitions to spring up, the primary one being Canada Also Reads.
I love Canadian lit. One of my favorite books of the last few years is one of the five Canada Reads titles, Good to a Fault.
It's finally out in the US this month.
Wednesday, March 3, 2010
Yesterday Anne sent us a link that featured several writers on the 10 Rules for Writing. At first I dismissed it, but when I hit a rough spot in my revision late yesterday, I printed them all out, hoping for a magic clue to get me over my hump. Two lists suggested no internet while writing, which would have stopped me in my tracks and forced me to stay with the words. But that's another story. This story is about the suggestion to read widely (oops - no adverbs.) I don't know any writers who don't. But still there are genres I haven't explored much.
Like graphic novels. I have to admit the curmudgeon in me just couldn't get past the idea that they were like the comic books my brothers devoured growing up. Until I read David Small's memoir Stitches over the weekend. It moved me like no recent book. I don't even think I could have handled reading about his awful childhood except for the blend of pictures and words that together took me deep into the psyche of this dear boy and thus deep into my own. Small, famous for Imogene's Antlers and other delightful picture books, put it all out there. Nominated for a National Book award, it fits their criteria that the book appeal to young people and adults. Some reviewers wondered if this book would only appeal to adults. I disagree. I believe that teens everywhere will be drawn to this story of pain and of hope and drawn to study his picture books with a new eye. Hey, this guy survived. So can I.
Tuesday, March 2, 2010
Monday, March 1, 2010
We talk a lot about revising a manuscript, but what about beginning? Not the hook of the first line, mind you, but what to work on. The idea.
I am between books. I can work on anything. So, the process of beginning begins again. Usually I start the new by sifting through the old. I go through my journals of words and sketches to see if there is anything in there that I may have overlooked—anything I did while I wasn’t really thinking. Usually it is in these sketchbook/journals where I find my best work—a doodle, a word here and there. I may look at it from a slightly new place in life and find the connection that will make it zing. I even go through old, old, old work—stuff I did in pre-school when I was truly uninhibited (as seen in the attached images. Just to show you what I can REALLY do.)
Sometimes it really does seem as though all we ever need to know we learned between the ages of 2-12—especially when it comes to creativity. All of our beginnings and inspirations came so easily then. Don’t get me wrong—I am not saying that ideas come from my childhood, rather they come from the old mixed with the new, combined with a heavy dose of imagination, assembled into something logical but just as fresh.
A common question for authors is: Where do ideas come from? As if that is some well-kept secret that we writers have the answer to, maybe we don’t even know. This is my simple answer: Ideas come from other ideas. Ideas come while I am working. I may be writing a blog entry, a letter, doodling at a lecture, and I combine one or two of these incongruous elements into an idea I want to work on further. I try it. I see. I try something else. And the one that grabs me will come eventually. The world is chock full of ideas, they are all around you right now. Work begets work.