Saturday, February 27, 2010

Desperately Seeking Title

I posted this on that Facebook/SMtP page my publicists set up for that book, but I'm contained by space there. Not here.

I'm futzing around with these poems-about-the-Greek gods. All the Olympians and a few of their cronies or girlfriends or pets (Cerberus, for example). The poems (and they are poems vs. straight-up prose) sound like me -- smarty-pants and fast with dollops of what they call in TV writing ""moments."

But I can't come up with a title that's both attractive and true. I did like "A Hipster's Guide to Olympus" but I think 'hipster" is almost archaic by now and I don't much want to use now-slang. Still, the angle of that title is right.

The subjects are the true Olympians -- Zeus, Hades, Persephone, Demeter, Aphrodite, etc. Both their Greek and roman names apply: Ares/Mars, Dionysus/Bacchus, etc.

Any ideas?


Thursday, February 25, 2010

Tell Me A Story

A Sunday night ritual at our house is watching Sixty Minutes. A few weeks back, shortly after my return from the Hamline residency, the show featured a segment on Don Hewiit, the genius producer of the longest-running TV show in history. "Tell me a story," Hewitt says to his reporters. "Every kid in America knows that."

Hewitt passed away last year. But footage from interviews and production meetings revealed a man who valued story above all else. What's the best story to tell about this person, this situation? What angle serves the story best? These questions to the likes of Mike Wallace. Hewitt discussed how every week he likes to feature three stories, one of which wil appeal to every viewer in America. Not to water down, but to reach Americans coast to coast. There is always one story segment that draws me in more than the others.

This week I am reading James B. Stewart's book Follow the Story: How To Write Successful Nonfiction. I just wrote to one of my students in her packet letter about Stewart's emphasis on story-telling rather than analysis. The old show not tell.

Every kid in America wants a story. Let's go write them.

Slaying Angels for Fun and Profit

I appreciate Ron's post below, and I've been thinking about all of this a lot. Writing depends, not just on time, not just on having a nice room of your own, but on having the mental space to create. And sometimes life just doesn't allow that. I just went through a period where I wrote next to nothing for over a year. Even typing that kills me. Oh, I tried. I came up with ideas. I started books. But nothing took. I couldn't see in stories any more. I couldn't hear voices. I just didn't know how to make the books go anymore and it killed me. Because this is what I do, it's all that I do. You want to depress a writer, ask them what they would be doing if they weren't writing. I have no other skills, except for obsessive Olympic-watching, making snarky comments about Project Runway, and pie.

Sure, a lot of it was situational. My husband was ill for a year and a half. My little boy was labeled a social deviant by the toddler program at the school we'd been so happy to get him into. I couldn't manage to write around my teaching. I hadn't really figured out how to write and be a mom. There was so much stress, and when there wasn't stress there were time sucks, and when there weren't time sucks there was the croup, and more croup, and still yet more croup. I wrote nothing. People kept asking me, "What are you working on?" and the question would make me want to weep, or at least eat many cupcakes. I wanted to print up a t-shirt: DON'T ASK ME ABOUT MY WRITING.

My husband's better now. My boy, by switching schools, has magically lost his social deviant status. And after the last residency at Hamline--which was particularly awesome and inspirational--I got home and began to write again. I'm nearly done with a draft of a book I started five weeks ago, and I'm in the deep romance phase of writing. The truth is, things aren't that much less stressful, but a switch turned on in my brain and I remembered how to tell stories again.

It bothers me how whimsical these muses are, how easy it is to forget how to do what we do. Life is always hard. There is going to be more illness, more hardship, more croup. And this is what I do, and I need to be able to do it when the angels intrude. Or when the well is dry. Or when I forget the only thing I know how to do--make up stories.

I admire our students so much. They write. They figure out their lives and they get their work done. They amaze me.

All I can do is listen to the better angels, and scowl at the worse ones, and tie up and threaten my muse, and wait for the moment when the ideas come and the story lays out in front of me like a shining path. It feels helpless. But when you're on that path, nothing's better. I just wish I knew how to find it more often.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Slay the Angel in the House

Not only did Ms. Woolf want women to have rooms of their own, she advised them to "slay the angel in the house" if someone wanted to write. She urged women to make time for their work even if it meant being bad wives and mothers.

I think it's good advice. Most people -- both men and women -- spend far too much time making nice. That time really could better be spent writing.

However, I know and know of a lot of women who not only don't slay the angel, they fix breakfast for it and make sure it's warm enough and has clean socks. Lucille Clifton, who just passed away, said that one of the reasons her poems were so short is because she had so many children! But she wrote the poems anyway. Clearly, the angel in the house spread its astonishing wings over everything and every now and then gave her ten minutes to herself.

Between poetry and prose, I turn out a lot of work, but I should. It's all that I do besides indulging my low-voltage vices. The writers who deserve the credit are the ones with wives and husbands and children and parents and health problems and dingy colors and less than sparkling whites who also get the work done.

My hat, the one with the feather, is off to them.


Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Significance of YA Lit

I was interviewed recently for a local paper. This was one of the questions and my answer. It’s a question with different answers so feel free to chime in. I’d love to know what you think.

Q: What is significant about young adult fiction? How has it changed and where is this industry heading?

Young adulthood is a time of life that exists unto itself. It is full of “firsts.” It is a place of limbo between childhood and adulthood that can be awkward and confusing and incredibly enlightening. The literature speaks to that.

Young Adult literature has grown tremendously in popularity since I started in the field in the early 90's. Then, it was a lesser-known field and had small to moderate sales, though quality writing was evident. It was kind of a hidden and marginalized field, giving those in it a certain bond. But things shift and publishing is cyclical. Now the YA field is booming and it has “cool” factor--much due to Harry Potter and Twilight, both so immensely popular that it put the field on the map in a big way. These books were (and still are) being read, selling, and making money. This is both good and bad. Good, because more people are aware of the legitimacy and excellence of books for children and therefore more writers are emerging and publishing. Bad, because like everything that becomes popular it can attract quality of all levels and tends to follow the immediate trend. The trend now is vampires and the super natural, so that overshadows those who want to read and write more contemporary or historical fiction. The heightened popularity of one or two "big bang" books can sometimes take the focus away from the smaller, riskier books. However, the need for all types of young adult literature is not going away. More adults are reading in this field because there are so many good books available.

As far as the future of the industry, you'd get a more knowledgeable answer from someone directly in publishing—publishers are thinking very hard about all that. Publishing will likely continue to shift to a variety of multi-media forms, but we will always need good storytellers. The form in which it reaches an audience doesn’t matter. Writers who continue to create thought-provoking, entertaining, and enlightening stories for children and young adults do.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Mothers and Daughters

Well, it’s happened. Over the weekend I received an email from a teen who said, “My mom says she remembers reading and really liking one of your books when she was in high school.”
The math adds up. Fortunately the fact her mother liked one of my books apparently didn’t negatively influence the daughter’s reaction to the book she read. She was very kind and it was a fun message to get.

I read Anne of Green Gables for the first time this past year. One of those “should-read” books I could just never bring myself to read. It was my mother’s favorite girlhood book, and I’m pretty sure that’s the reason I resisted. I also remember my mother not being too bothered by my resistance because she had always refused to read the book her mother had loved and pushed on her: On Our Hill, by Josephine Daskam Bacon.

I have my grandmother’s copy of On Our Hill. The book—which appears to be a first edition—was published in 1918. That would mean it wasn’t a childhood favorite of my grandmother’s, just one she must have discovered as a young married woman during the year of her first pregnancy and no doubt hoped to share with a daughter someday. That didn’t happen, but her granddaughter, nearly a century later, is suddenly curious. I may have to give it a whirl.
Oh, by the way—I liked Anne of Green Gables a lot.


Saturday, February 20, 2010

Next to Godliness

If you're stuck, clean your desk. I like to throw away every precious note and scrap of paper w/out glancing at it. The more valuable I believe it is, the faster it gets tossed. I figure I'm stuck for a reason and part of that reason is the debris in front of me. How can my characters talk with all that paper in their mouths?

I'd like to hear what other writers do when they get bogged down.


Thursday, February 18, 2010

Time Away/What Do Kids Think

The discussions you miss while spending time away from the internet and our blog. Over President's Day weekend, we went cross country skiing and time away from the computer does open up one's brain without needing Mac's Freedom program. I have stopped bringing my laptop along on these weekend trips, but still have that trusty notebook to jot down ideas and prioritize all that I will get done upon my return. Besides the thinking time, I love listening to radio programs in the car with my husband. Somehow the contained space allows the interviews to really sink in and gives me time to reflect. We went over the border into British Columbia, so I enjoyed CBC radio's enthusiasm for Canadian Olympians - refreshing. And I enjoyed the interview with American author Kate Walbert - A Short History of Women. What a novel about five generations of women, starting with a suffragist in 1914. Such a thoughtful interview about her work.

Made me sad that children's/YA authors don't usually get to discuss their work in such depth. Makes me appreciate so much our lectures at Hamline where we do. It also made me wonder if the internet is the only way to communicate with young readers about what they are reading. Yes, schools visits give us face time with kids. But that is usually about our own books and perhaps their writing. Not so much about what they are reading and how it affects them.

WE also listened to a show about Charles Darwin and I thought again of how much I loved the book Charles and Emma: The Darwins Leap of Faith. When I got home I took a look at that book again and wondered. Do teens like it as much as I did? A friend suggested I log onto Goodreads. I enjoyed the discussion about the book but was disappointed that it was mostly adults commenting. Many of them also wondered if teens would like this NF book as much as we adults.

Thanks for reading my riff. What is your take? How do we connect with young readers as well as the gatekeepers? I know Lisa has younger friends on Facebook. Some of you still have children of the age you write for. What's a writer to do?
As always, the best books are those that resonate with young and old. Let's get writing them.

Tax Time

I woke this morning thinking it is time to do my taxes…. oh the horror! When I was in graduate school I learned one of the biggest tax tips of my life—SAVE EVERY receipt and DEDUCT EVERYTHING! If you make any money from your writing, all that you spend on it can be deducted.

So for what it’s worth I thought I’d share my rudimentary system of doing taxes:
I take every receipt from 2009, which I have collected in a large manila folder in the bottom of the desk drawer (this is the most important step—really save every receipt, even the ones you don’t think are deductible--you can always figure out later if they are!) This includes every book, every tube of paint, every pencil, every toner cartridge, every bus or plane I took for a reading or speaking gig, every meal I bought while on that trip, every art museum I visited or play I saw (I get huge inspiration from art, plays and movies for all my work), etc….

All those receipts get dumped on the floor and I start organizing them in five piles labeled: Office, Art, Books, Printing/Copying, Postage, Travel, and Research. I add them up on my handy calculator. Then I write what I make from my three sources: Teaching, Royalties, Speaking and School Visits, and figure what percentage of the itemized receipts is to be deducted from each income earned. I add and subtract all those numbers, along with deductions from my home office/studio (1/4 of rent or mortgage plus 1/4 of utility bills, which goes against my royalty earnings). Then, the easy step, I bring those numbers to my magic accountant, and hold my breath while I wait for him to do the rest. He is so worth his fee, and his fee is also deductible.


You'll find me under a pile of receipts now…

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Public Service Announcement

Have a Mac? Have no willpower? Find yourself procrastinating from writing by checking the 'Pot?

Download Mac Freedom. It will disable your internet connection for whatever interval you specify.

Thanks to Lisa Yee for the link.

The Wisdom of Short Track

I was trying to put together a post yesterday, but my boy woke up coughing at 4:30, I burned myself on the fireplace and impaled myself on my cat's tooth. Sometimes, it's better to keep to yourself.

Ron asks about our ambition in the post below. I've certainly had many works Karl me--When You Reach Me was the latest, and perhaps the most devastating. Speak is another. Holes. The Wednesday Wars. Robin McKinley's Spindle's End. My work is not the Karl-ing sort, I don't think. But sometimes when I close a book I am filled with the need to write, to add to the well of stories that produced this one. I would love to leave people with that feeling.

I've been watching the Olympics rather obsessively. Short track skater Apolo Ono--geriatric at 27, apparently--decided to come back this time for one more hurrah. He had to get himself in mental and physical shape again after long revels with Bacchus (and reality TV), and he said when he was training he asked himself every day, "Did I do everything I could do today to be the best?"

So I'm thinking about that. About the things I can do to be better. About good work, and the good things it produces. All that leads me to the inevitable conclusion that I need to do exercises in poetry. I'm no good at poetry. I don't have the patience or precision. But I have a book--In the Palm of Your Hands. It has exercises. It looms on my shelf. I eye it warily, like an unpaid bill.

"Did I do everything I could do today to be my best?" It's hard--there are sick toddlers to care for and calls to the insurance company to be made and taxes to procrastinate doing. But I'm thinking it's time to crack open that book.

On another note, back to first sentences, Kate Coombs at Book Aunt has a post on MT Anderson's.

Monday, February 15, 2010

An Inner Karl

Karl Lagerfeld, the designer, said that the reason he works so hard is to prove to others that they're useless.

He does work hard, too. Always sketching and changing his mind and ordering people around. Yet the people who work for him adore him. They think he's a genius (he probably is) and treat him accordingly: what he wants he gets.

Fine. Good for him. What I'm really interested in today is his attitude, the one that wants to prove to others that they're nugatory at best.

Kids' writers are an amiable bunch, clement and fraternal/sororal. But what if we each had an Inner Karl, a cool killing machine with a very high collar.

All of us could trade war stories about stupid or mean kids' writers, snotty and fat-headed ones. I don't mean that. Inner Karl would never show himself in workshop or the faculty lounge or anyplace else. But he would be a guy who could motivate us to work so hard our friends and foes would drop their pens and brushes in despair.

Could you stand to have others brought to their knees by the ruthless beauty of your work?

Just asking.


Sunday, February 14, 2010

Carb Crash

In January many of us who chime in here spent 11 days at Hamline University in Saint Paul, Minnesota at camp for writers. Okay, it was part of an MFA program, but the going-to-camp comparison is apt. We had 11 intense days in close quarters, during which we were immersed in discussions and lectures and workshops dealing with the subject of writing, and writing for children and YAs in particular. I always come home inspired, exhausted (and, this time, bearing a virus) and raring to write and wanting to delve deeper into the subject of writing and ready to talk about all I’ve learned. And then, like the overwhelming exhaustion that follows an indulgent, delicious carb-heavy lunch, comes the crash.

I’ve crashed. Oh, it’s not that I can’t write. I am in fact getting quite a lot done. It’s just that the conversation about writing has become so much buzzing in my head and right now I simply have nothing coherent to say on the subject. What little juice remains I will try to preserve for when I respond to student work in a week or so.

What’s a blogger to do?

Link to cool and/or amusing stuff. Despite the cranky melancholia that’s underpins my day to day outlook, I have a thing for the smiley face, and I especially love smiley face water towers. Enjoy.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Plagiarism Controversy

There’s an interesting article in the NYTimes about a 17 year-old, Helene Hegemann, who has published a novel, Axolotl Roadkill. The novel is about a 16 year-old’s experience in the drug and club world of Berlin. The book has risen fast in word of mouth buzz, high acclaim, favorable reviews, and sales, and it is a finalist for a Leipzig Book prize.

However it’s been discovered after publication that many lines, phrases, passages and even entire pages have been lifted from the novel Strobo, by Airen, published in August of 2009, as well as passages from his blog.

The book is still up for the award and still well received. Heggeman defends herself by saying that she represents a generation that freely takes from all media and creates something new, and that: “There’s no such thing as originality anyway, just authenticity.”

Creative people have always been inspired by, and even stolen from, all that is in the world, but I’d say lifting an entire page from another novel is plagiarism. But that’s me.

Remember the Harvard student who plagiarized Meg Cabot (was it Meg Cabot? I know it was someone famous…) and the book never came out and the student is now hiding under shame and lawsuits? I can’t help but wonder since Heggemann has plagiarized a less-than famous work if that is why no one seems to care. In fact, some blogs out there say she has done that author a favor by upping his sales! Or maybe everything is changing and we now live in a world where nothing belongs to anyone anymore.

Oh, gee.

It’s an interesting article and worthy of discussion. Read it and tell me what you think. I really want to know.

fyi: Axolotl is an aquatic Mexican mole salamander. It is on the verge of extinction.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

The Amazing Power of Poetry

The poetic voice is not a natural form for me. But running through every Hamline residency is the power and invitation to write and appreciate poetry, even for us died in the wool prose writers. From NF writer Catherine Thimmesh's suggested revision technique using poetry to Kelly Easton's advice to revise at a deep level by using poetic language to Christine Heppermann's beautiful poetic reading, poetry is setting is sensory language. Mary Logue and Ron Koertge regularly read poetry to us. In January 2009, Phyllis Root and Jackie Briggs-Martin in a swirl of brilliant scarves invited us to bring poetry into our lives every day.

Recently poetry rang deeply for me in a personal way. A close writer friend of mine in Spokane just had hip replacement surgery, caused by a break due to brittle bones developed over years of taking a needed medication. Young, much younger than I, Emalee was quite devastated at first. How could she deal with the loss and fear of a body that might not come back around?

She wrote poetry. And then she had a lunch celebration where she read us her poems to her old hip, to the surgeon putting in her new hip, to her life with her new hip. These were not hackneyed, emotionally outpourings. Those would have held power to heal, too. But the beauty of Emalee's language took me even deeper. We weren't all writers at the luncheon, but I felt as if my life as a writer helped me understand the power of the moment even more.

When I went to visit Emalee at the hospital the other night, we talked about how she had learned to write poetry. Through an 80-year-old poet at her church who met with her every month for five years. They studied great poems, what they meant and how they were written. And Emalee began to write her own. Sounds like an MFA at Hamline.

I asked Emalee if I could post about her poetry and she smiled in delight.

Excerpt from "Ode to the Hip I was Born With"

"The gowned ones will carry you out.
Your last sigh will be far from me.
But to dust you shall become
And to dust I shall go, too.
In some generation yet to come
When Venus collides into Mars
And what is hard on our planet
Turns vaporous
We'll slip away with all the others
Till gravity pulls us close again
And we enter the dim light
Of a barely born blue star
That waltzes slowly,
With a fresh moon."

On days like this I love being a writer and I love having friends who think so deeply and take me there, too.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Open Eyes

This is, I guess, really a continuation of the "process" discussion. My first drafts are always so influenced by the reading and on-the-ground research I do while writing. The smallest thing can steer a book off on a new course. While reading for a novel I've been suddenly steered to write about hair salons and restored muscle cars. While walking a neighborhood in Minneapolis once to "get it right" for a book, I spotted two seventy-something women kissing passionately and that took the story in a new, important direction. The other day I was out walking and a grouse burst out of the snow. I turned around and headed home, as it was clear I had just been handed something I needed for a scene that was eluding me.

Producing pages in any fashion possible is crucial for that first draft, but it's just as important to every now and then look away from the story.


Tuesday, February 9, 2010

First Inkpot Question - Developing a novel plot and structure

Dear Inkpot,
What process do each of our Inkpot bloggers go through when developing the plot and structural design of a novel? Do any of you loosely outline or work out characters, theme, plot and structure in separate analytical pages or storyboards as you write?
Many thanks,
"Finding My Way"

Ron says:
I never outline or make much of a plan. I make up an interesting character, usually with an attitude, and let him or her loose. First drafts are low on description and setting and big on dialogue. In a sense I let my characters talk their way through the story. That part is fun. Then the work gets a little harder. But I've got 150 pages or so of fairly entertaining drivel.

Claire says:

After a long hiatus from novel-writing, I returned to the form last year. I had sense of plot and the ending with my earlier novels during the first draft. They all deepened and evolved during revision. This time around I am writing an historical fiction novel based on a real girl. I am using a few light strokes from her life and research on the historical events. In my first version I started with a different main character and after drafting about 1/4 of the story with loose outline in mind, I realized her voice wasn't working, wasn't unique enough to that period and region.

I decided to use a real girl from that period, but have been delighted, even surprised to discover a stronger fictional voice. She added new dimensions to the plot and with her stronger voice helped me flesh it out more. Now in revision, I am working to deepen Ottie's characterization and figure out her inner narrative arc. The inner arc has always been my challenge and through revision of that, my plot is getting stronger, too, as Ottie participates and reacts to events.

Lisa says:
For me, the initial draft has to come without much premeditated thought and no revision until there are enough pages to make me feel as though I have something worth saving. Usually I begin with a sense of a character who has something she is going through and, like Ron, has plenty of dialogue so that she can converse her way through scenes.

I don't develop the plot or even much structure until I have some sense of who and what I am writing about, i.e. at least 100-150 pages. Then I will spend most of the time rearranging chapters to play around with the order of things (cutting much in the process and adding some). I might do a plot outline at this point, but minimal--mainly going over timeline and sequence of events to see if there is a plot and where the gaps may be. I will do a storyboard with a brief line or two (as I do with picture books) trying to make some sort of system out of number of chapters, chapter length, etc.... I find all this interesting and kind of fun as it doesn't always lead where I expect. There are always surprises.

Snow Days

It seems Snowmageddon is hitting around the country, and much of Minnesota is digging its way out, again. It's going to hit here in Ohio later today. We get good snows in Cleveland, thanks to Lake Erie, and it always reminds me of my Minnesota youth. I remember last year there were snow days for the kids at a fairly regular pace here and I felt bad for the parents. Now I am one of those parents, and I'm guessing I'm not going to get much work done until the end of the week. To Virginia Woolf's Room of One's Own I'd like to add Reliable Day Care. But I guess a load of Blue's Clues DVDs will have to suffice.

A few links for your Tuesday's pleasure:

Betsy Bird has compiled her Top 100 Middle Grade Books, and is beginning to run them down. She gives some history of each book. It's incredibly cool.

I was cyberstalking the editor for my last book, who is brilliant, and ran across this round-up of a first pages workshop he did (scroll down a bit). Since we've been talking about beginnings, I thought I'd share:

Three most important things to have on the first page: Introduce the MC, Establish voice and character, Tell us what's going to happen.
We can do that, right?

Our Lisa Jahn-Clough has a great essay up on Hunger Mountain, So You Want to Write About Sex?

I like it when my characters grapple with wrong choices, but figure out a better choice—and when I say better, I mean a better choice for them, not necessarily for all. This is what, I hope, gets readers to think: “Would I make the same choice as Penelope or Phoebe? If not, what would I do in the situation? What is the best choice for me?”

Hamline MFA alum Loretta Ellsworth has a new book out, In a Heartbeat. Loretta, like Ron, is doing a blog tour and has a really cool post here on the inspiration for the book:

I’d never heard of the theory of cellular memory, which is the idea that memory is stored not just in our brains, but at the cellular level. If every cell in our body has its own mind and if you transfer tissues from one body to another, then the cells from the first body will carry memories into the second body.

The whole thing is worth a read. Now, I better get back to work before the Snowpocalypse hits.


Sunday, February 7, 2010

Sam Shepherd Says

"I had a sense that a voice existed that needed expression, that there was a voice that wasn't being voiced."

As some of you know, I like to read plays. A gambling buddy of mine (horses only, we're not degenerates) works for a theatre company in NY, so he sends me things, and I always look forward to the plays in that Best American series. I think reading nothing but dialogue makes for good dialogue in my books. Anybody's books, for that matter.

There's something about SS's quote that attracted me and I think it's the last part, " . . . the voice that wasn't being voiced."

I remember working with a student who had an angry narrator (girl) and a spunky sidekick. The other details -- standard issue parents, a high school, etc. don't matter. The narrator was the problem. The voice. It didn't take either of us long to discover that the most interesting person in the story wasn't the rather whiney narrator, but the sidekick. Insouciant and funny, the book glowed every time she turned up. That was the voice that wasn't being voiced.

I've told a lot of students who are mired in their novels to look to the side. Is there someone standing there just waiting for a chance to sing?


Saturday, February 6, 2010


For over a year now I've been planning to record my name on the teacher's guide author name pronunciation website (no kidding!) My name has plagued me ever since my first book. You see I was born Lisa Clough and then decided to change it to Jahn-Clough when I was eleven. Listen to the audio for the whole story:

The thing about the recording is this: 1. I needed to call from a landline. I gave up my landline when we moved to Savannah, and I have no friends in this town who have one (it's a transient place). So finally I got Ed to let me into his office one Sunday afternoon to use the phone there. 2. I need complete privacy for such a self-centered kind of recording--speaking on the phone to myself is not typical behavior. So I had to ask Ed to wait in the hallway, and still I know he could hear me. gag. 3. The recording time allotted is 3 minutes. I wrote mine out and practiced (just like a lecture)--it was a little over 1 minute. Turned out to be exactly 1:18 by the time I erased and re-recorded it ten times and finally did one acceptable. Fine. Or so I thought. 4. My big mistake was not to listen to all the others first. I'd listened to some a while back but had not remembered the average length. Turns out most of the authors on the site say all they need to in an average of 25-50 seconds. The rare few over one minute are long and tedious in comparison. Mine is now in that category. gag. Plus the sound of my own voice is excruciating. This is a hard lesson in cutting for me.

All this said. the site is a quirky kind of time-kill. Perfect for a Sunday morning. I suggest listening in to your favorite children's authors tell you a bit about their name. (some of your fine Hamline faculty are on there, too!) We all have interesting little tid-bits about our names, so find your favorites and then plan your own recording. However to save embarrassment I recommend that you keep it under 60 seconds. You can even try writing it out here!

once again the website is:

Advertisement for Myself

When "Shakespeare Makes the Playoffs" was almost ready to go into copy-editing, I hired a two-person publicity agency in San Diego to help generate some interest. One of the things Barb and Sarah did is make me a Facebook page. It's not there for friends (in the Facebook sense but of course it's for real friends); it's more for kids who get turned on by the blog tour and want to know more.

The blog tour is something I'd never have done on my own. The publicists set it up, and do most of the heavy lifting. Sometimes there are questions-ahead-of-time, and I simply answer them. Facebook isn't my cup to oolong but I'll get used to it. If you want to take a peek, log onto Facebook and enter Shakespeare Makes the Playoffs. Not Ronald Koertge. There's another one of those in Texas and his page has a picture of his car!

You can ask me anything by writing on the wall, of course, or - more likely - via the new feature on our MN blog. Or in the Comment box.

Now to less mundane things -- Am I remembering right when I think "A Wrinkle in Time" starts with "It was a dark and stormy night"?


Friday, February 5, 2010

Got a Question? Ask the Inkpot!

Hello bloggers and blog readers!

Great suggestion to add an "ask the inkpot" component to the blog!

And so, with no further ado, if you have a question you'd like to submit to The Storyteller's Inkpot, please email it to:

(Bloggers, I'll be in touch with you to let you know the secret magic word that unlocks that account, so that you can check in to see what readers are asking).

Signing off,

Ask the Inkpot

[The following question came through the comments of Ron's last post, and because it's late and I am too giddy from seeing Project Runway to sleep, I've decided to make it the inaugural edition of an exciting new feature, ASK THE INKPOT. Hey, we need an email address. Administrator? Oh, Administrator????]]

Dear Inkpot,

I'd love to hear something about lumpy middles. Any advice for rewriting, rewriting, rewriting those sections?

Muddled in the Middle

Dear Muddled,

I think a muddy middle is the most intimidating thing to deal with. I have trouble with revision--I can scorch the earth and begin again, and I can tinker with what's there, but the sort that lies in the middle is hard for me. I try to think about distilling a book down to all the narrative arcs it contains and making sure every scene has a place in one of these arcs and somehow propels it forward. I think about all the small stories that play out in between the characters and if they have any shape. And I think about the ideas in the book and how the scenes serve those ideas.

Sometimes the answer for me is that the book needs more of a backbone, some kind of tension or structure or idea that gives it shape. It can be as simple as sharpening the desire of the protagonist (or antagonist) or tightening the conflict or... What moves us forward? What keeps us turning the page?

But I don't know. I'd love other people's thoughts on the matter.

What say you, Inkpotters?

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Richard Peck's Advice on Beginning

Richard says that he ends up throwing away his first chapter before he sends any book in to his publisher. He doesn't plan to do that exactly; it just happens to do the trick.

When I heard him talking about this, I knew immediately what he meant. I tend to tell myself the story in chapter one, anyway. I get to know the characters as they fill out; I plant things that I think I might need later; I describe the setting; in short, I fool around with intent.

So the next time I had a book finished enough to send to Candlewick, I threw out the first chapter and looked at it again. What an improvement!

I lean toward the draconic, anyway, so I love just tossing out 16-20 pages. Sure, things needed to be added and stuff in general smoothed out, but w/out the original chapter, the book started with a bang. And a rather mysterious bang. Who are these people, and why are they where they are?

Those questions got answered little by little rather than all once once in a very static and embarrassingly lumpy first chapter. Interestingly enough, the new first chapter was heavy on dialogue and moved right along while the original opening chapter was light on dialogue and heavy-on-the-page.


Sexy Nonfiction

Two weeks ago the ALA awards were announced and I finally got around to ordering and reading a book I've wanted to get to all fall - Charles and Emma: The Darwins' Leap of Faith by Deborah Heiligman, nominated for a National Book award and winner of the inauguaral YALSA Nonfiction award.

Great. But by now, you might be wondering, Claire, does award-winning make it sexy? No, the opening does. Ron wrote about hooks, Ann about first chapters. Try this one.

In the summer of 1838 ... Charles Darwin drew a line down the middle of a piece of scrap paper. . . He was in his late twenties. it was time to decide. Across the top of the left-hand side he wrote Marry. On the right he wrote Not Marry. And in the middle: This is the Question.

Many of us have been in that spot. Many teens may be wondering if they ever will.

Hundreds of books have been written about Darwin, including his own Evolution of Species, published in 1859, twenty-one years after his wedding. But none have ever focused on Darwin's relationship with his devout Christian wife Emma. The book is a marvel. Not only does it reveal the challenges of faith for them both, but also the 20+ years that Charles worked on his epic book, his scientific process and the family life swirling around him. It reads like a great novel. Indeed they do marry. But the promise revealed in the first chapter is carried all the way through. How can you love someone who doesn't believe like you do?
Charles put off publishing his historic book for many years for fear of its reception in Christian England, but also for fear of what it would do his family. Christian Emma supported non-believer Charles every step of the way, in spite of worrying that they would not be together in eternal happiness. The book with every revision became stronger and so did their relationship. Emma was no whimpering wife; she outlived Charles by twenty years.

Heiligman's personal narrative arc in writing this book is that she was a religious studies major in college who married a scientist. In her acknowledgements she says she never would have written this book without the years of their marriage, and myriad discussions about the intersection of religion and science.

Try some sexy nonfiction. You'll like it. Oh, by the way, there is an epigraph or quote at the start of every chapter, quotes from Darwin's book, and quotes from those who knew Charles and Emma. Selectively and lightly done. I marvel how are blog posts draw on each other.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

A Very Good Place to Start

Lots of talk about beginnings lately, here and in the ether. A 4th semester student was gathering book recommendations on Facebook of books that dangle a promise in the first chapter. (The suggestions she got were: Holes, The Book Thief, The Wednesday Wars, The Thief, and The Schwa Was Here.)

I'm working on my own beginning. This is the first totally new thing I've written for some time; the last two books I've written were sequels and I didn't need to spend too much time introducing the characters or the world. So I'm relearning how to begin a book. And I don't know what the rules are. Once I was in a writing group and someone detailed for me exactly what a first chapter of a novel should do. I still remember her standing over me saying, "Anne, the first chapter of a book....." Alas, I don't remember the rest.

So, here's what I think about when I write beginnings:

I want my first chapter to give a strong sense of the main character. I want it to give some idea of what kind of story this will be. I want it to introduce the characters and story through active scenes. And I want the reader to want to turn the page to see what happens in chapter two.

Pretty simple, right? Am I missing anything?

There's a huge temptation in a first chapter to have it be an info dump, to use the whole thing to set up the story that's going to happen in chapter two. We talk about books that begin before the story begins, a kind of prologue where the main character walks to school or lies in bed and thinks about things. I did this on the first draft of my first novel, in which there's a chemical spill in a small town. I placed all the characters in a bookstore cafe and introduced them leisurely as they drank their coffee and didn't do much, until the last line of the chapter when the sirens go off. My brother read it and said, "Start with the spill." He was right, and it's the best advice on beginnings I ever got.

On another note, I heard a reading a year ago of one of the most gripping first chapters I've ever encountered. The book it belonged to is City of Cannibals, by Ricki Thompson, a beloved Hamline graduate assistant, and it's just come out. Anita Silvey called it one of the best pieces of historical fiction she'd ever read--there's an epigraph for you.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010


Before the catchy first line there's (sometimes) an epigraph. I went to the library yesterday and came home with a bag o' books. Some adult, some YA. Each of the adult novels had an epigraph, but not one of the YAs did. I've wondered about this before--why are they used less often in children's literature?

Lest someone launch into a comment about the pomposity of epigraphs, I'll disclose right now that I've got epigraphs in two of my novels (the epigraphs were also used for the titles). The first was in Come in From the Cold, for which I lifted Joni Mitchell lyrics (and earned a place on her official [fan-run] website!) and the second is in Too Big a Storm, for which I used a line from Margaret Wise Brown's wonderful The Sailor Dog.

There is something about epigraphs, of course, that says "In Case you don't get what this is all about, here's a big fat hint."