Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Writers, Michelangelo...and Prehistoric Cave Artists?

Hi folks, I’ll be chiming in again for a while. I had the good fortune to travel to France earlier this spring and see some of the breathtaking cave art that dates back 30,000-15,000 years. Throughout the caves, guides pointed out sophisticated use of perspective and nuanced gesture—similar to techniques that were considered groundbreaking during the Renaissance.  The artists often used the three-dimensional quality of cave walls to convey musculature in the horses, bison, mammoths, elk and other animals. This picture, from the French Ministry of Culture, shows a bison painted in Font de Gaume Cave. Notice the bulge in the rock that helps define the arch of the shoulders and back? One guide posed: “Were artists painting animals onto the rocks? Or were they bringing to life animals that they saw existing in the cave walls?”

This reminded me of that quote from Michelangelo: “In every block of marble I see a statue as plain as though it stood before me… I have only to hew away the rough walls that imprison the lovely apparition to reveal it to the other eyes as mine see it.” And it reminded me of how once writers move past the first blush of a first draft, those words become our roughly hewn marble.

Traditionally cave paintings were thought to have been created by shamans in a trance. Maybe. Scholars are constantly evaluating the evidence for that and other theories. I wonder if the explanation is simply that the hearts and minds of artists 30,000 years ago were similar to those of Renaissance artists and of artists today. Aren’t we all trying to create some meaningful reflection of our world that others will recognize too?

The next time you’re reviewing a draft and wondering what to do next, take comfort in this kinship with artists that goes back to the very origins of art. Hopefully, as Michelangelo described, we will all see the angel in the marble and be able to carve and revise until we set him free.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Dive in

We're nearing the end of another Semester in the Hamline MFAC program, and that means we are also getting ready to gather in St. Paul. I'll be doing a class with the Alums on voice during the first weekend and so I won't be lecturing during the residency. I will, however be joining the one and only Jackie Briggs Martin for an informal session on what's new in non-fiction. Yes that's right: the veteran YA novelist volunteered to help lead a conversation on a nonfiction. And why not! (That exclamation mark goes out to Eleanora, BTW). After all, I've been listening to Jackie, Claire, Jane and all others discuss the subject for several years now. Surely I can contribute something beyond "I like the pictures."

We encourage writing across the genres in the program. Talking across the genres is a good first step toward doing that, and is in fact what happens in workshops. I don't at the moment have any ambition to write nonfiction, but I do know that taking the time to read and reread the books Jackie and want to focus on and then requiring myself to articulate my reaction to those books can only help my fiction writing.

When the MFAC program  began I confess I felt out of my depth (i.e., miserable) when I was forced to co-lead workshops that included picture books, nonfiction, and poetry. Soon we'll no doubt be seeing some graphic novel texts. Now when I wade into all those strange waters I'm still very much out of my technical depth, but I no longer care because I love the conversations that roam all over the genres, even if I have nothing to offer beyond "I like the words." 

Monday, May 21, 2012

And What About Exclamation Marks!

I guess I'm on a punctuation march. Last week it was the eclectic ellipsis. This time it's the exclamation mark. Of course, we all know that it's used to denote an exciting sentence. In children's literature some of us get carried away, however, with placing it at the end of every sentence in dialogue. We can't help ourselves.

"Hi, Mary! School was fun!"
"It sure was, Billy! I can wait to go back tomorrow!"
"I don't think so! Tomorrow's Saturday!"

None of those sentences actually require an exclamation mark, except Billy's last one. Maybe. One might well wonder whether one even needs such a badly written conversation -- ever -- in their manuscripts. But I digress. What about exclamation marks? Tell us your secret uses for it.

Monday, May 14, 2012

The Eclectic ... Ellipsis

Do you incorporate the ellipsis in your manuscripts? I’ve seen this three-dot punctuation mark in manuscripts for decades and each time it seems that the authors implanted it into their work for individual reasons. As I understand the MLA Handbook, the ellipsis can be for the omission of one or more words, especially when what’s omitted can be understood from the context. Another is to show that certain text has been deliberately omitted because the entire material is much too long to repeat.

Some authors use an ellipsis in written conversation when the conversation of the character talking dwindles … then continues, apparently after the character (or the author) has thought of something else brilliant to say. I saw a whole herd of ellipses (plural) in one story, peppered about in almost every sentence, because they looked, well, literary. Stylish. Cute.

One of the best reasons for ellipsis usage comes from the late Kathleen Winsor, author of a book I loved when I was a teen in the 1960s. It was Forever Amber, a sexually titillating book that teenage girls weren’t supposed to read (so, of course we did).

I remembered Forever Amber After dear Mellisa Dempsey on Facebook quoted William Faulkner extolling the virtues of reading. Thanks, Mellisa!

When I researched Forever Amber I discovered that it was “the best-selling book of the 1940s,” and had been banned in nearly fifteen states because of its sexual references. No wonder we loved it!

Winsor was quoted as saying, “I wrote only two sexy passages, and my publishers took both of them out. They put in ellipsis instead. In those days, you know, you could solve everything with an ellipsis.” (Wikipedia, as written in Peter Guttridge’s 2003 obituary of her:

Kathleen Winsor: Author of the racy bestseller 'Forever Amber'" The Independent (London, England).

All right, writers: What do you solve with your ellipsis?

Friday, May 11, 2012

Give it up for Hamline grad - Naomi K. Downing!!!

It's not everyday that I get to interview a Hamline grad that's out in the world getting paid for their talents. So, today I'm very proud to proud to post this blog to inspire and encourage you, my peers. When I met Naomi, she was one of the "big fish" graduating, and lil' ol' me (new fish) was in awe of her spirit and the fact that she had a publishing deal before graduating. Here's to you, Naomi!

Can you give a backstory on how your pub deal come about while still a student?

During my third semester, while I created my critical thesis, I began a personaltransformation. I’ve always believed, deeply, that by playing artists access their creative best. Play is a word that has been diminished to the point that most define it as frivolous activities done by children. However, play is an essential creative skill that involves above all, the willingness to let go of control. In my critical thesis, I wrestled with learning how to play, meaningfully, as a creative adult.

My willingness to let go of control was stretched to its limits when I attended an SCBWI conference and an editor pointed out that I was writing with my head and not my heart. The minute the words were out of her mouth, I knew she was right. The ideas in my book mattered to me, but I was using clever characters and heady metaphors to hold true raw emotion at bay. At the same conference, another editor read a memoir I’d written a number of years previously. She looked at my life material and asked me to propose a series for Zondervan’sFaithgirlz brand.

Now I had a choice. I wanted to keep writing my fantasy, to finish what I’d begun and go about becoming an author in the way I’d always planned. But a new path had opened for me, a challenging path, one I wasn’t sure I could navigate. Still, the challenge excited me.

Over the next few months, I proposed a variety of series ideas, and then we decided on a series to follow a manuscript I’d written prior to the Hamline program. I revised the first book, sent it in, and my publisher offered me a four-book deal. And then… the real work began. The books were contracted in August 2010, and by this August all four will have come out. The deadlines have been fast and furious, and have meant that all my other writing has had to take a backseat. However, I’ve learned so much through the process of writing one book after another, and I know my other books will be all the better for it.

Many writers feel that life is perfect and they'll be rich once they get a deal, can you speak to that myth? I know you still have to market, right?

Marketing is one challenge writers face—promoting one’s own book requires a skill set that most creative people don’t naturally possess. Also, marketing a book feels a little like marketing a piece of your own heart. Rejection feels personal, so the courage required to walk into a bookstore and ask if they’d like to carry your book is enormous.

Silence is another challenge. Friends ask innocent questions like: How are your sales?Authors don’t receive sales statements from their publishers until three months after a quarter ends. So, I’m only finding out what I’ve sold in January-March at the beginning of June. This makes answering the sales question hard.

Time management is another big issue. Once writing starts taking a larger role in your life, the rest of your life is still in motion. Important things, like say, your job, are still there. . . You can’t quit and just write, not yet, probably for quite some time. So finding ways to balance the old life with the new responsibilities requires creative juggling and patience.

For me, the biggest challenge has been that my private creative work is now a very public, collective process. No longer can I write whatever I feel like on any given day. I have a deadline and I have a certain book that comes next in the cue. I can’t leave a narrative problem for a month while I move on to something else, and then come back and solve the issue. Even though I thrive on taking creative leaps, when a book is due in a short amount of time, I don’t have time to try an inventive new structure, or a beyond-my-comfort-zone point of view.

This is not to say that having a book out in the world isn’t a grand adventure. Just a few weeks ago, I received an email from a girl who was doing a project on my books because she connected with my main character, Sadie, and loved her story. It’s thrilling that the books are circulating, being read and enjoyed.

What is the greatestpiece of advice you've learned from Hamline/advisor?

From my fellow Hamline students, and my advisors, I’ve learned that the way I can give most in the world is by learning to be authentically myself. Creativity stems from deep inside us, and the work of the artist is as much learning to open up, to accept the positives and negatives that make up who we are, as it is to create beautiful works of art. Writing a story when you’re ignoring yourself, your most important tool, is like trying to paint with a muddy paintbrush. This is not to say that I must be perfect, or in a perfect emotional place, to write. Exactly the opposite, I think. What I must do is be honest with myself, in both good times and hard times, and let authentic emotions flow through me onto the page.

I’m on a blog tour right now, and at each stop, I’m giving away set of the first three Sadie books: Shades of Truth, Flickering Hope, and Waves of Light. To enter the drawing, send an email to Naomi@naomikinsman.com. A winner will be drawn on June 15, 2012.

Also, if you have any young writers (ages 9-12) in your life, please pass along this information about the writing contest my publisher is running in connection with the books. http://naomikinsman.com/win-a-kindle-fire-a-writing-contest-for-young-writers/ The deadline for entry is June 1, andthe grand prize is a Kindle Fire.

To find more information or to order the series, check out her website: www.naomikinsman.com/books

Stop Me If You've Heard This One

I blew through last year's "Broadwalk Empire" on DVD last week, watching three or four episodes a day, and if made me think about the kind of writing we do at Hamline, the kind in scripts that's handled by a word like Exterior or a few words like Int: A Wealthy Lawyer's Office. No wonder every parking lot attendant has a script in his trunk. No description! Just people talking!

Beyond that, though, I particularly liked the tags at the beginning of every episode: "Jimmy decides to move up in the world." Or, "Margaret ponders her future." As fond as I am of seeing where my story goes and as much as I like to be surprised, there comes a point where I've wandered off the road too many times and found myself in a pasture facing a cranky bull. That's when I ask myself what the tag lines are. In "Stoner & Spaz" they were things like this: Ben decides to defy his grandmother. Or, Colleen disappoints Ben yet again.

I like these more than I like the big beats in screenwriting: Theme Stated, Set-Up, Catalyst, B-Story, etc.

I once had a student in the VT program and I asked her to just write out all the tag lines. She was befuddled, anyway, and could only do maybe ten. But even the holes she had to leave were useful. Then she knew what had to happen to get from "X decides decides to enter the race after all" to "X finds Y is more important than any trophy."

All of us have our methods to finish our stories. Some start fast and hope for the best. Some outline. Some write the ending first. The variations are endless. If you're in trouble with a story, though, try some tag lines.

BTW: if you want to hear me talk 2 1/2 minutes about the new fairy tale book (LIES, KNIVES AND GIRLS IN RED DRESSES) go to my website (Ronkoertge.com). And then I pronounce my last name! I'm telling you, kids: the thrills never stop.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Run For the Roses

I sent a friend of mine an e-mail the other day and added some Kentucky Derby information. (It's tomorrow, by the way. First Saturday of May.) He wrote back to say he didn't usually watch the Derby but would now. I couldn't believe it. Not watch the Derby? I don't follow baseball but I watch the World's Series. And when I do my friends tell me who to watch for. It makes it more fun.

So here's who to watch for in Louisville. Not who to bet on. It's a sucker bet. 20 horses = a rodeo and who bets on rodeos. Still, here's who to keep an eye on. Months ago Union Rags was it. Big, gorgeous, and athletic: everything anybody could want from a three-year old on the way up. He's still a terrific horse, but he's not unbeaten. Bodemeister is the likely favorite. He won his last race by a quarter of a block and looked like he could have gone faster. However (here's the part that's fun) his workouts in Louisville have been lackluster. With a name like that, Creative Cause should be the MFA program's super horse and he's a nice colt, anyway. When it comes to workouts, nobody has looked better than Went The Day Well, and then there's the grey horse: Hansen got beat a few weeks ago, so his odds will be generous on Saturday.

And now I'm hearing it might rain! Oy!! It'll still be fun to watch, though. Just remember -- keep your Hamline tuition money in your pockets!

P.S. The May poem is up on my website. It's about dropping off a car at a mechanic's. No lofty subjects for me.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Words and Wisteria and SIN

While in church on a recent Sunday, I listened to the words said by an assistant pastor. They reminded me of the well intentioned, ambitious but bloated YA manuscript that I’d been critiquing for the last month. When I’m in critique mode, almost anything can become an analogy.

Each spring bountiful wisteria clusters hung from the maple and oak trees in the assistant pastor’s back yard, she said. Its pungent fragrance permeated the air. Its copious purple flowers and vines cascaded from each branch of her trees.

While she loved the fragrance and beauty of the wisteria, she reminded herself that if she left it alone to grow as it wished, she would be allowing what should be a beautiful spring event become a year-long detriment to everything in her yard.The wisteria would smother every leaf and branch of every tree. Their vines would crawl across her lawn, choking every blade of grass and even threatening to climb up the walls of her house.

The pastor went on to warn us that our own thoughts, if not tended as carefully as the unruly wisteria, would let us meander down the wrong paths, and cause us to tumble into sin, death, hell, etc. etc.

At about that time my thoughts meandered toward writing. Our words may be the most beautiful, picturesque, and evocative when they tumble from our minds onto the page and onto the next page and the next. Our words are so powerful! They are mesmerizing! The more we write, the more they enhance the story. Don’t they?

Like rambunctious wisteria (or kudu), over-abundant words left to procreate will crowd out the essential words that work best to form characterization, setting, plot, conflict, voice, point of view and every other literary element that makes a story memorable.

We are the master and mistress gardeners. Prune more. Sin less.