Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Tending the Garden

In this week's Storyteller's Inkpot post alum Donna Jones Koppelman* talks about how gardening and writing have a lot more in common than one might think.

One beautiful spring day last week, I got impatient about planting my garden. Impatience turned to impulse, as if often does, and I bought a rototiller!  I love it.  It’s petite as a hummingbird but does the job like a bulldog. I love to plan my garden, plant my garden, tend my garden, and harvest my garden, but many of those aspects of gardening are vulnerable to conditions I can’t control—like weather. Tilling up the soil is something I can control, and with my own rototiller, I am unstoppable.

Gardening is a perfect metaphor for writing. I reflect on the parallels as I wait for the seed of an idea to germinate, as I edit out the weeds that impede the growth of my prize plant, and as I pray the hailstorm of my insecurities don’t ruin that last chapter. So what is the rototiller in this metaphor?

A rototiller prepares the soil for a luscious garden. It stirs up all that’s hidden, so I can spot weeds, roots, and shells I couldn’t see before. It makes my garden inviting. It beckons me to come and plant, and I like to think well-tilled soil is a glorious, comfortable place for tiny growing seeds.

In writing, my rototiller is my routine. My daily routine makes my work space a fertile place for ideas to grow and blossom. I have a friend who says she cannot write until her whole house is clean. That is not true for me (or I wouldn’t have written a word in twenty years). I just need a clean surface on my desk. I need white paper and a really good pen. I need brushes and paints or drawing pencils close at hand. I need my favorite craft book, THE WAR OF ART by Steven Pressfield, from which I read a chapter every day. I need a poetry book, from which I read a poem every day, and lastly, I need a scented candle.

Whew. Sounds really neurotic, right? But the process of gathering all these things and placing them just so gives my brain the time it needs to shift from who is driving sports carpool to what story I will tell today. Clearing my desk clears my mind. Setting up brushes and drawing pencils signals my brain that it’s time to get creative. It’s time for fun. Mr. Pressfield reminds me it’s time to WORK, and poetry shows me that work should be lovely. Lastly, I choose a scented candle with a smell that fits my work for the day. Smells are powerful stimulants for my memory and thought process. I like to think E.B. White chose a cotton candy scented candle to write those marvelous scenes at the fair. Or maybe it was a pig scent? Or perhaps he had a completely different routine.

In graduate school, I studied routine in schoolchildren, particularly homework routines. Students who followed the same routine at homework time every day had significantly higher grades than students without routines. They finished their homework much more quickly than students without routines, so I know routines are effective.

What is your routine? Be intentional as you till up the garden of your mind. Get the pesky weeds out of the way, so you can nurture those good ideas. Harvest day will come.

*Donna Jones Koppelman graduated from Hamlin's Masters in Fine Arts in Writing for Children and Young Adults in 2015. She is represented by Alyssa Eisner Henkin at Trident Media, and she adores her new rototiller. 

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Scene It

This week author and MFAC faculty member Marsha Qualey* examines the importance that scene can play in her own upcoming projects.  Read on as she reflects on a few poignant excerpts from Sandra Scofield’s The Scene Book and how they have have informed her process.

I’ve got two writing projects going right now and for the first time that I can remember neither one is a new (conventional) novel. One of the projects involves revisiting a novel as I adapt it into a screenplay. The other is a possible graphic novel for young readers.

I am thinking a lot about scenes. Not that I didn’t before, but when writing my traditional novels it was always the connective tissue between scenes that consumed most of my attention and energy.

Sandra Scofield’s The Scene Book is rich in pithy reminders that help me keep to the task at hand. Here are a few that are bulletin-board worthy:

From “The Focal Point”
“[the focal point] is not the epiphany, that old standby moment when the sky opens and meaning shines down on the protagonist” (54).

(Huh. I once ended a scene exactly that way—with literal sunshine breaking through and the protagonist thinking, “Illumination.” Should I go back and see if there’s an actual focal point prior to the epiphany?)

From “Tension”
“Tension doesn’t have to be negative” (86).

(Scofield is writing about sex scenes here, but still, a good reminder)

From “Scene Openings”
“…the scene may be entirely fresh action, requiring a more fundamental orientation” (142). One way to provide this orientation, she later explains, is to “comment on character, setting, or event” (145).

(An editor once told me she hated scenes that opened with dialogue, and ever since I have been hesitant to do just that. Such is the power of our editors.)

From “Scene Activity and Character Response”
“A good scene lets us know the spatial relationship of people and things” (126).

(Hmm. Maybe that’s why my editor hated the dialogue-opened scenes—she’d seen too many that delayed grounding the reader in the physical setting.)

From my bulletin board to yours.

Marsha Qualey has been a faculty member in Hamline's MFAC program since it began. She is the author of several YA novels, one novel for adults, and several work-for-hire books for younger readers. For more information please visit her website.

Thursday, March 3, 2016

Poetry 101

In today's post, author and MFAC faculty member Ron Koertge* explores the ancient and venerable tradition of courtly love in his own, uniquely poetic way. Read on to find out how those romantic rules apply to today's world.

Chris Heppermann and I recently finished the third book of the Witch trilogy, and I wanted to write something that had another kind of magic: Poetry. Muses can be jealous, so I invited Erato to dinner. She scolded me about Prose but warmed up after a few drinks and we kissed goodnight. Chastely. 

I’d been reading about Andreas Capellanus, the guy who pretty much made up the rules for courtly lovers. I found myself wondering what it would be like to apply those rules to somebody in the 21st century:

Courtly Love 
I prowl the city until a window opens
and a pale arm emerges. Beautiful,
slender fingers. 
I stand there every day, right after my
lute lesson. 
Rain soaks my pointy green-and-gold shoes. Snow gathers on my velvet hat.
I strum and sing, paying no attention to the couples all around me, their arms

I don’t sleep well, so I’d lie in bed and wonder about things like what’s my soul doing out of my body at 3:00 a.m., do enough people even know what courtly love is to make that little poem attractive and could that title be more maladroit?

Since I’m a fan of the prose poem and of a writer named Lydia Davis, I tried another version (title pending):

All our friends are getting divorced: infidelity at the Hilton, assignations in the Corn Maze. My wife and I keep busy: she with Cooking & Wine classes. I thrive in Lute II, practicing every day. My longer and more flexible plectrum is a godsend. Nevertheless, Saturday nights can bring turmoil and disquiet. Also Friday nights. Sometimes Thursday. At those moments, we dress and leave the house separately. My custom leatherwork boots are comfortable as are my doublet and jerkin. I go directly to the Tudor Inn on Main Street. A window on the second floor opens to reveal my good wife, fetching in a fine twill bodice. I begin to strum and sing, even if passersby jeer at my velvet hat, even if my song is almost drowned out by the bickering of couples on their way home from the therapist.
Hmmm. There are a couple of giddy things in here that I like – the flexible plectrum for sure. And the modern-leaning last line. On the other hand, the much shorter version has some visual punch and some general concentration that appeals to me.

Like a lot of life, this one is a work-in-progress. Looks like I’ll keep mulling things over in the night and hoping my soul gets back before the alarm goes off!

*Ron Koertge is a faculty member at Hamline's MFAC program.  He writes poetry for everyone, fiction for young adults, and recently co-authored a young reader series. You can discover Ron's literary work by visiting his author's website or visit his faculty page to learn about him as a professor at Hamline University.