Monday, October 31, 2011

The right place, the right time: following the breadcrumbs

Sometimes things work out just right. And last weekend was one of them--when I happened to be in Minneapolis and able to go to the lovely Birchbark Books and hear our wonderful Anne Ursu read from Breadcrumbs. All the chairs were full and we were enthralled to hear Anne read from her book.

We've heard parts of the story before and know of Hazel and her friend Jack , made of "baseball and castles and super-heroes and Jack-ness." And we may remember that Jack gets a shard from an evil mirror in his heart, gets entranced by the white witch, and forgets his friend Hazel. I bought a copy of Breadcrumbs at Anne's signing and am now to the place where Jack has just left with the white witch. There is so much I want to underline in this book, so much I want to share. I won't share all that I'd like but I have to pull this piece out--the description of the evil character who makes the mirror that explodes and sends one shard into Jack's heart:

"We'll call him Mal, though that is not his real name. His real name has forty-seven syllables, and we have things to do. Mal looks like nothing you know or can imagine, neither goblin nor troll nor imp nor demon. ...Mal is not any one of these things but all of them. Mal is a goblin. He has green-brown skin, a froglike mouth and sharp little teeth. Mal is a troll. He is seven feet tall and warty, has terrible breath, and a penchant for hanging out under bridges. Mal is an imp. He has a small bat wings, a high-pitched screech of a laugh, and pointy little ears. Mal is a demon. And that means he is up to no good."

I will not be able to think of personified evil again without thinking that its name must have forty-seven syllables.

This little section of the book made me wonder what I would write in describing "Mal," what ears or teeth or feet or voice. Perhaps evil uses e-mail, or Western Union, or a too-wide smile. Some morning, when faced with the blank page, I'm going to write a cousin for Anne's Mal.

In the meantime, it was wonderful to be at the reading with Phyllis Root, to hear Anne, to chat and laugh with Megan Atwood, and get a catch-up on the semester from Quinette Cook.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Keep it Simple - Fraud and Revision

Last Friday was a bad day. It had started out well - completed student packets and three good hours of writing under my belt. Until I received the phone call from my 93-year-old mother, concerning a relative in jail in Canada needing bail money. Already some of you are thinking - uh, oh. Red flag. But not Claire. And not my mother. "We need to help her." I fell for it. My busy brother's assistant did, too.

But in the end, I was responsible. I made the choice to lead with emotion and not common sense. I sent a wire with money. Yes, I did. And what does this have to do with writing? I didn't stay grounded. I got caught up in wanting to help, instead of listening to the true voice in my head saying, something is not right. I got taken in by fictitious police in Canada. Ah, I smell the beginnings of a novel. But I am in the middle of revision. First draft writing can lead with emotion, but not during revision. At that point, we must step back and keep it simple. Keep focused on the story and the characters at hand, with a detached eye. Cutting any and all parts that don't work, even if we feel strongly about them.

When my husband arrived home and heard about the Western Union wire I had sent, he was like - what???? He got on the phone with the fraud department and then I told John at Western Union about my bad day. He stopped the wire in time. My mother's money was saved. Like good editors, my husband and John didn't let the book go to press, even though I had decided it was good to go.

Listen to trusted editors and readers when they tell you something isn't working. Rather than react emotionally, step back and at least consider the information. Never wire money through Western Union to someone you don't know. Even Craig's List advises that. Too bad they don't publish books too.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Inspiration from Film

After a hard day of writing, why not curl up on the sofa with a good documentary? Here are some of my favorites for inspiration as a writer:

Between the Folds (Exploring Origami)

Artists and scientists discuss the possibilities of what we can learn about the world by folding a single sheet of paper. The artists are continually challenging themselves to perfect different techniques for different effects. Some artists implement hundreds of precise folds. Others strive to create a moving piece of art with a single fold. Reminds me of poetry. What can be created by understanding the rules of a form more deeply? What universal truths can we better understand by focusing on a specific question?

A Man Named Pearl
This is the story of Pearl Fryar, the son of a sharecropper who has become a nationally known artist, working in the unusual medium of topiary. The film shows how Pearl’s garden and life as an artist developed. It also shows how Pearl inspires others and sends ripples through his entire community by pursuing his artistic passion with generosity and integrity. This movie always makes me want to get to work, dig a little deeper, and think about how to be more generous as a writer.

The Natural History of the Chicken
This one would be easy to overlook from the title, but once you start watching, it’s hard to stop. You’ll meet Cotton, whose pampered lifestyle includes having his feathers blow-dried and dining at McDonald’s. You’ll see Janet Bonney reenact how she saved a beloved chicken’s life with CPR. You’ll hear retired farmers Bud, Doc and Babe express their admiration for a rooster named Mike, whose claim to fame you'll have to watch the film to discover. A great reminder that the world around us is full of colorful characters, stories and meaningful details.

These films are all available instantly on Netflix, so watch one and let us know how it speaks to you as a writer. Heck, each film is only about an hour, so you could watch all three!

And what are your favorite films for inspiration as a writer?

Thursday, October 27, 2011

In Praise of Boredom

I think boredom (or Boredom, if we think of it as an allegorical figure and if we do then it isn't wearing a robe like Honor but, appropriately enough, pajamas) is under-valued. I'm not a fan of social media, anyway, and I prefer to keep my big, empty head as empty as possible. Counting my friends every day doesn't deepen the mystery of existence for me. But, oddly enough, boredom does. To me, boredom doesn't mean apathetic or numb. It's a weirdly active state that usually arrives in slippers carrying a day-old newspaper. Boredom is curiously inviting. "Relax, pal," Boredom says. "Don't turn on the TV or pick up another book. Stare out the window. Drool if you want to." Boredom is a ouija board without the planchette, a clock with no cord or batteries. Boredom is all potential. And an unlikely balm to the tender and impaired parts of ourselves that need it the most.

P.S. On or around the first of the month I post a new poem on my website. Check it out in a few days.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Questions from the mailbag

Hi Inkpot Bloggers and readers,
Here are some questions sent to the Inkpot mailbag. If you have answers, please post!

Best regards,
The Inkpot Administrator

First question:
Pen names/pseudonyms. When to use, when to avoid? I publish both for teens/adults (PG 13 and up), and younger kiddos. A previous advisor suggested I use a pseudonym for one of these groups. Because, for example, if Dave Pilkey started writing bodice-ripping romance novels, young Pilkey fans might get ahold of them by mistake, and librarians might become skeptical of Pilkey's appropriateness even in his fiction for kids (Captain No-Underpants?). What do you think? Sincerely, Dave Pilkey (no, not really)

Next question:
Hi Inkpotters: In my notes from this past summer [Hamline] residency is a quote from either a lecture or a workshop session (it's listed on a page of quotes that I keep, so there's no context)--it's a great quote but I failed to include who said it and I"m hoping some Inkpotter out there will know. The quote is: "Fiction is emotion made visible." Any idea who belongs to this quote? Thanks in advance for any info you might have. Gail Israel

Third and final question:
Hello. I'm a middle school teacher looking for leveled texts on dystopia/utopia. Our base book is The Giver and many of my students are around a 3rd or 4th grade reading level....I've been looking for picture books or at least lower leveled books, but to no avail. Just wondering if you have any suggestions?
Thanks! Michelle

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Writers are Great at Calculus!

So I was telling my husband about the latest ideas in the story that I’m plotting out and he says, “It’s getting better and better all the time. You would be so good at calculus.” You can see why I love this man:

a) he likes my stories!

b) he thinks I would be good at calculus!

I never took calculus. Not in high school. Not in college. But my husband did. You have to, long before they give you a PhD in math, which he got, writing a thesis about Group Theory in Finite Geometries. And now he teaches Calculus to high schoolers. And he says, and I trust him, that the heart of calculus is to take a problem that you don’t know how to solve and find a way to make an estimate. Then keep making that estimate a little bit better, and then a little bit better, and then a little bit better. Keeping working at it and the difference between your solution and the final solution doesn’t matter because:

a) you know how to make your estimate a little bit better

b) eventually, your revised, revised, revised estimate will point you to a final solution.

Dr. Math said that I contributed to his understanding of calculus in this way because he saw how writers write and revise and revise and revise. There’s a lot to love about that man.

Keep rocking the calculus my friends!

Friday, October 21, 2011

In Trouble: About Publishing Controversial Books

In 2009 Ellen Levine came to our winter residency and gave a wonderful lecture on writing non-fiction. We all really enjoyed having her with us for those few wintry days.

During that stay, she mentioned that she had written a novel set in the sixties that involved an unwanted pregnancy and an abortion and she was having trouble placing it. During her time in Minneapolis she made contact with Andrew Karre at Carolrhoda. Andrew admired the novel and was happy to offer Ellen a contract. It’s now published, In Trouble. Last Saturday Ellen gave another insightful talk, at the Boston Book Festival. The subject of her talk this time: her experiences in writing a novel that involves a controversial topic.

Reading this talk is almost like having her back with us--except it's not snowing. Welcome Ellen Levine!

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Project Run Away

What do you do when a character creeps into your writing room, a character who isn't part of the WIP you're required to send to your advisor/agent/editor? Do you trust the Muse and write whatever this character whispers in your ear? Do you run away from her and focus on your deadline? Or, do you work on both? Do you ignore your hygiene and your dog and career, and life, in general (sorry for the melodrama) and write what the Muse provides because that fire burning in your soul, the one that's smoldering in your fingertips, won't extinguish any other way? You're the story's agent. You must give her a voice, yet the other WIP, and its revisions and its deadline aren't as appealing, not as fun, and is due real soon.

Any advice? Do y'all work on both WIPs? Run away from one? Or, in the words of the great Tim Gunn: "Do you make it work?"

Just curious...

Monday, October 17, 2011

Where's Waldo? Ralph Waldo Emerson, That Is

I love this quote from RWE:

" . . . days come and go like muffled and vague figures sent from a distant, friendly party, but they say nothing and if we do not use the gifts they bring, they carry them away silently."

It's such a sweet reminder to me (and to you) to write every day. The body craves exercise because it wants to be used. The mind likes to be tickled by big, difficult books and used until its synapses smoke. A piano plays better when it doesn't just stand in the corner. Thoroughbreds don't want to just stare out of their stalls; they want to run.

Write a haiku while you're stuck in traffic or waiting outside the grade school. Edit a single page. The days don't care how well you write, where you write or how you're dressed. They just want to be used.

Walt Whitman said, "What is called good is perfect and what is called bad is also perfect." And Walt didn't waste any time, either.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Cheers to our Alums: Books and Agents, Oh, My

What a delight it's been in the last ten days to collect news from our Hamline alums about their writing successes with agents, book contracts and new books. We salute you all. I am sure that some news has been missed, so please add to comments. I listed in order of pub date, so keep reading. So much good news, that I had to keep it short. Congrats to all. You inspire us.

Susan Latta is now represented by agent Karen Grencik of the Red Fox Literary Agency. She also published an article “When the Sun Set” in the September issue of Appleseeds Magazine and signed a work for hire contract with Heinemann.

Diane C. Mullen signed with agent Ammi-Joan Paquette at the Erin Murphy Literary Agency.

Tracy Maurer has signed with Kendra Marcus at BookStop Literary Agency and has published numerous books in three different series at Rourke Publishing, Inc. with many more in the works.

Ann Matzke is represented by agent Michelle Andelman at Regal Literary in New York and in September had three books released by Rourke Publishing, Inc. in their Little Math series and is writing three more for Social Studies series.

Molly Beth Griffin’s picture book Loon Baby came out this past spring (2011) with Houghton Mifflin. Her first YA novel Silhouette of a Sparrow comes out next April (2012) with Milkweed Editions. Molly is also critiquing and teaching at the Loft in Minneapolis. Check out her new web site:

Loretta Ellsworth’s new YA novel Unforgettable recently received a Kirkus starred review and a Kirkus Critic's Pick for September. Her previous novel In A Heartbeat was picked up by Scholastic Book Club and translated into Japanese and Korean.

Naomi Kinsman's Shades of Truth and Flickering Hope, the first two books in the From Sadie’s Sketchbook series (Zondervan) will be released November 18, 2011. The final two books in the series, Waves of Light and Brilliant Hues, will come out in 2012.

Debra McArthur: A Voice for Kanzas, middle grade historical novel, January 2012, with Kane Miller. Her new website/blog:

Christine Hepperman’s nonfiction book City Chickens with Houghton Mifflin (which she worked on while a grad student at Hamline) will be published in May 2012- web site - She also has an author site, where she has published some of her poems, recently published a few poems in literary journals for grownups and completed a work-for-hire book about the Bush v. Gore Supreme Court case.

Jamie Swenson has sold three picture books since signing on with Sean McCarthy at the Sheldon Fogelman Agency. Jamie met Sean at the July 2010 Hamline residency.
BIG RIG - Disney-Hyperion fall 2013, illustrated by Ned Young
BOOM BOOM BOOM - FS&G - spring 2013 illustrated by David Walker
IF YOU WERE A DOG - FS&G – pub date TBA, illustrated by Chris Raschka

Tamera Will Wissinger's GOING FISHING (tentative title) is a middle grade novel in verse that tells the story of a boy’s fishing day through a variety of poetic forms and patterns. It’s scheduled for publication with Houghton Mifflin in Spring 2013. The manuscript has already gone to copyediting and the editor is searching for an illustrator.

Cheryl Bardoe (our blogger) recently sold her fourth book to Charlesbridge - Behold the Beauty of Dung Beetles, Fall 2013. Her second book Mammoths and Mastodons: Titans of the Ice Age was named a 2011 NCTE Orbis Pictus Award for Outstanding Nonfiction Honor book.

Literary Festivals: Don't Forget Kids and Teen Lit

Literary festivals abound across our country, a boon for readers and writers. I committed this week to blog in honor of Alaska Book Week, started by a dear writer friend Deb Vanasse. Deb also launched 49 Writers, a blog that links writers around that state. What is terrific about both the festival and the blog is that it exists for all readers and writers, not just the adult market. Here in Spokane every April Get Lit! takes place. A wonderful array of presentations and workshops that also includes children's/YA writers. It takes ongoing support of writers and teachers to make sure children's literature isn't left out, but well worth the effort. How about in your community? Does your community have a festival or conference for book lovers of all ages? Let us know.

I have received agent and book news from several alums and will post tomorrow on exciting developments.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Plot Discussion: Okay for Now

So I’m studying some book plots in hopes of gaining insight into my own WIP. And I’m taking a workshop that encourages writers to use this model for the main plot:

Protagonist has a specific goal, with high stakes, and takes continuous actions to pursue that goal. An antagonist takes intentional, continuous steps to block the protagonist from reaching his/her goal.

Sounds good, right? Two equal forces, pitted against each other, maximizing conflict and tension throughout the story. Readers learn about and presumably root for characters by witnessing the lengths to which they will go to achieve their goals. Subplots occur that may round out, strengthen, or weaken either the protagonist or the antagonist.

With this in mind, how would you articulate the plot of Gary Schmidt’s Okay for Now, which Jackie mentioned is on the NBA short list. What is Doug Swieteck’s main goal? Who intentionally wants to block him from that goal? What actions does Doug take to achieve his goal?

Seems to me that Doug has two main goals: to fit into his new town and for his Dad not to be such a jerk. The story doesn't end until he's accomplished both of these, but already I’ve broken the mold outlined above. Plus, Doug encounters a series of opposing forces, rather than just one antagonist.

What models would you use to parse this plot? Which goal carries more weight in the story? Or do you see a different main goal? What would you say is the main plot? Vs. the subplots?

No wrong answers. Just looking for ideas…

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Well there was a little glitch

Every now and then there's a glitch, no matter what the endeavor. Franny Billingsley's Chime was also on the NBA short list. So now we know.

And if you happen to be at the AWP meeting in February in Chicago you can see Franny on the panel about poetry and picture books with Phyllis Root, Christine Hepperman, and me. Come if you can. I know you'll like her.

Breaking News!!!

And speaking of public recognition...

Ok for Now has been named to the short list for the National Book Award! Just announced. Congratulations Gary Schmidt!

Other books chosen (out of the 278 submittted) on the Young People's Literature list are:

My Name Is Not Easy, by Debbie Dahl Edwardson
Inside Out and Back Again for Thanhha Lai
Flesh and Blood So Cheap by Albert Marrin
Shine by Lauren Myracle

Judges for the Young Peoples Literature were Marc Aronson (chair), Matt de la Pena, Nikki Grimes, Ann Brashares, and Will Weaver.

Again, congratulations, Gary. I'm happily remembering hearing Gary read from this novel last winter.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Yin & Yang: Public & Private Writing Lives

I’ve been noodling on Claire’s post about the public/private sides of the writing life. We talk a lot in the Hamline community about focusing on the writing craft and writing our stories as best we can, about finding our fulfillment in the process rather than publication. That’s all good to emphasize the internal aspects of writing—the joy and satisfaction from personal growth in our own craft, hearts and minds. But writing also has an external component. It is, after all, a form of communication, which inherently implies that it is shared between a writer and an audience. For writers who want to publish their work, finding a productive intersection between the private and public writing lives is key.

Internal resources give us the stick-to-it factor needed to do the actual work of writing. But encouragement from the outside world sure can fortify us. When I’m working for months on something that I don’t know if anyone else will ever read, it feels good to get a magazine in the mail with my byline. When the plot of my current work is loosey-goosey-going-who-knows-where, it’s heartening to read at a bookstore and see children enjoy a book that has finished its journey. Good vibes don’t come just from publication—they can come from getting accepted to a workshop, or encouraging feedback from a trusted reader, or standing up and sharing at an open mic like Ron described.

We can’t all be Thoreau at Walden Pond. It’s human nature to want recognition from others, and to draw on that positive energy to fuel our work. Knowing what you need as a writer, and how to get it, is where cultivating the public life of the writer becomes important.

Public and private. Yin and yang. Everything in balance.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

On Voice, Authenticity, and Goosebumps

Whether singing competitions are your cup of latte' (or proof that yet another artist will sell her soul for a record deal and maybe a future, not-so-G-rated scandal), writers have a lot to learn from these shows and its contestants.

The X Factor is in the U.S. now. The show originated in the U.K. and has discovered talents like Alexandra Burke (her version of Cohen's, Hallelujah is breathtaking), Leona Lewis, Susan Boyle, etc.

Tryouts and boot camp ended last week. The contestants' experiences are similar to ours. They brave the scrutiny. They wonder if their voices are authentic enough. A five-million dollar recording contract is at stake for the winner (okay, so that part is nothing like our experiences). The judges look for a contestant with the "X Factor." That thing that no one can articulate, but we and they all know it when we hear it, and more importantly, when we feel it.

So, Jackie's post about the senses made me think about how artists in other genres can no better explain the artistic process and all its mysteries. We all do our best. And we can all learn from each other.

Take a look at this audition by Melanie Amar0:

In the first few seconds, we know her voice is authentic. The audience and judges know it, too. How? She sings in key, her voice is authoritative, she moves seamlessly and effortlessly from her upper register and into her lower register, while using all the tools in her singer's toolbox to "assault" the audience's senses. She sings from her soul. Even if her song choice isn't your cup of latte', I dare your goosebumps to stay asleep, especially during the falsetto. I dare them.

The point is an artist (I know; that's a big word and all) must assault the senses from the first word, that first line, through the middle, until she belts the climax from the rooftops, then follows her character towards a satisfying ending, a powerful one that leaves the reader smothered in goosebumps, breathless and wanting more.

Trust your goosebumps.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Sitting Around the Fire

I'm part of a lot of poetry readings in the L.A. area. Sometimes I perform, sometimes I just listen. I was at one the other night where I read with some old friends. It was an unlikely setting: a restaurant/bar with a large glass semi-wall separating our space from the bar with its color TV and play-off games. And rather than get up and read on a stage, the mic was passed around from poet to poet. When it was my turn, I just stood up.

But here's the point. I was reminded of how primitive it is to tell a bunch of people a story. Charles and Laurel Ann and I write a loose-lined, easy-going poem, anyway. So we essentially took turns telling stories.

How far back does this go? All the way to the caves, wouldn't you think? Some mighty hunter or huntress comes in, drops forty pounds of meat and brags. Somebody has a dream and wants everybody to feel as scared or as excited as he was. Somebody at the bottom of the pecking order discovers he can lie beautifully and people will see him differently.

Can't you see the tribe around the fire, glad to be safe for another night. Maybe it's raining. A child whimpers. There's an ominous sound from outside but it turns out to be nothing. Then someone says, "The most amazing thing happened to me today." And everybody stops chewing and listens.

The logic of the senses

Recently on a break from other work, I picked up Ray Bradbury’s Zen and the Art of Writing and by chance turned to this paragraph (and please insert your own pronoun of choice; this book was published a while ago when pronouns were harder to come by, so many writers stuck with just one):

"Why all this insistence on the senses? Because in order to convince your reader that he is there, you must assault each of his senses, in turn, with color, sound, taste, and texture. If your reader feels the sun on his flesh, the wind fluttering his shirt sleeves half your fight is won. The most improbable tales can be made believable, if your reader, through his senses, feels certain that he stands at the middle of events. He cannot refuse, then, to participate. The logic of events always gives way to the logic of the senses."

I love “The logic of events always gives way to the logic of the senses.” If we feel we are there, we believe it, we accept the story. I will believe I’m eating apple pie, not in someone’s kitchen but on a space ship to Mars if you tell me about the warm juicy apples, and the smell of cinnamon, and the crumbs of crust that can’t be held down because of the weird no-gravity thing in our space ship.

Here’s a quick example from popular literature. My grandson Owen has been reading the Percy Jackson series and wanted to share with me, so I’ve been reading them, too. From the first, The Lightning Thief, here’s the description of Mr. Brunner, Latin teacher : “middle-aged guy in a motorized wheelchair. He had thinning hair and a scruffy beard, and a frayed tweed jacket, which always smelled like coffee.” Well, a few pages later we learn that Mr. Brunner is actually Chiron, half-man, half-horse, trainer of gods. But we already believe in his solidity as a character because we’ve seen his thinning hair and scruffy beard and smelled the coffee of his jacket.

So much of writing is about really noticing--and then getting it down on paper. Hope the noticing and naming are going well where you are.