Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Mysterous Process

I think we may all be in agreement that the process of writing a book is strange and convoluted. Yet, everyone wants to know how a writer works. Do you write in the morning? Do you write every day? Do you have a special place to write? Do you compose on the computer?
Really all of this doesn’t matter. I’ve published thirteen books now (and written more) and am still trying to come up with a process strategy. This is what I’ve decided so far:
Every book is writing for the first time. Every book teaches you something new. Every book has it’s own process. Every book is different.
Not very enlightening, but still it’s fascinating (to me) where this stuff comes from and how we do it. A voyeur peeking in the window to watch a writer work would see what? Someone sitting at a computer, or lying on the floor, or pacing the room, or petting the cat. Most likely nothing exciting or informative. What I really want to watch is what goes on in the brain. Tell me which image attached is the more interesting.
It doesn’t matter a hoot how you work, what matters is how your mind works. However all we have is what we see on the outside to give us a glimpse into the inner workings. Unless of course we are writers and we get to explore brains every day, our own and our characters’.
The novel I am currently writing is nothing like my others, so I am learning everything again for the first time. How exciting (or agonizing depending on the day).
I am curious what other writers think.

Monday, March 29, 2010

History vs. Historical Fiction - A Case of the Willies

I got the willies two weeks ago during the revision of my novel. I woke up in the middle of the night and thought, I can't write about this real brother and sister from 1920. Her descendants are still alive. They will protest.

I have written nonfiction history and contemporary fiction. But in my current novel, I am putting my two loves together. I have written two historical fiction picture books, but never a novel. A long-running stumbling block for me has been that all my historical fiction main characters are based on real people. I find it so fascinating that they actually lived through these events. But my determination to be accurate and honor the actual history, so critical for a nonfiction writer, does not always serve the fictional narrative. Until now I have sometimes criticized historical fiction writers who I believed played too loose with the facts. My current story sticks closely to the actual historical events, but my main character is placed in a situation that likely in real life she was not. And that's where my doubts crept in. Maybe she needs to be a fully made up character I told myself. But I'd already tried that and it hadn't worked. I'd fallen in love with my Ottie, and couldn't give her up.

I talked to my writing group, the very group who responded to a draft of my gold rush novel a few years ago - "I know it really happened, Claire, but some of this isn't working . . . " I emailed Liza Ketchum, asking how she has handled this dilemma. She wrote back that her serialized novel, ORPHAN JOURNEY HOME, was based on the story of a real family of orphans who actually did make a similar journey in 1828. But she changed some details to make the story work. Almost two hundred years later, descendants got in touch with her after they read her story in newspapers across the country. They were thrilled that the family story had come back to life. "You can do this, Claire," Liza wrote me.

Still I worried. So many adult novels use real historical people. But not many children/YA novels, unless based on family history. I decided to do some reading, find some more examples, for safety sake. Like we ever have that as writers.

In one article, Sue Reichard wrote about the two types of historical fiction. The first kind is when the setting is historical, but there are no historical events or persons in the story, like "Catherine Called Birdy" by Karen Cushman. The second type is when both the setting and characters are factual. Like Melanie Benjamin's new historical novel, ALICE I HAVE BEEN, which centers on Alice Liddell --- best known as the "real" Alice in Wonderland from the works of Lewis Carroll. But Liddel's new novel is for adults. (

I kept searching. A posting on writer Crawford Killian's blog helped me finally understand what I needed to do. "Historical Fiction with Real People" (
He concludes: "But the point I'm finally making is that you are using your characters, not the other way around. If you're thinking of writing about a former US president, he has to dramatize your vision of the world—both as it is now and as it was in his time. You may use lots of historical factoids, but they're really just window-dressing. The key question for you is this: How do I make this person in history provide "anecdotal evidence" for my view of the world?"

Sounds like writing any novel to me. Still I worried. I talked to my agent. She talked to Editor/writer Marc Aronson. He said, "no problem." So what was my problem?

In researching my main character and her family, the local historical society had already given me the contact info for her 80-year-old nephew. The NF writer in me was thrilled. I love primary source interviews. But the fiction writer in me - oh, my. What if he didn't like that I was fictionalizing his family story? But Harry, Jr. was the only one who seemed to have some historical information I needed. I dove in, confessed to Harry what I was doing. The fiction part didn't register a blip on his screen. All my worries for not. He has emailed me some many terrific details about small town life and the historic period. I couldn't be luckier. And he seems to enjoy sharing.

Maybe it wasn't the fiction/nonfiction dilemma that gave me the willies after all. Maybe it was me, letting that old doubt creep in. But now I have recommitted and am whaling away. And I am grateful to everyone who has helped me get there. Sometimes those doubts help us dig deeper into the story, even while kicking and screaming that we've dug enough. How about you? Done any digging lately? Overcome any doubts?

And the Winner is...

A while back someone posted about Betsy Bird's 100 best middle grade books challenge. Well, the votes are in and she's working through them on her blog now. She's up to (down to?) number eleven. I find the listing of votes received that follows each book synopsis to be almost the most interesting thing. Anyone who wants to see a compiled list should jump over to Six Boxes of Books and scroll down a post. (Thank you, Laurie Amster-Burton!)

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Raging Against the Penguins

I'm not the world's biggest David Mamet fan--and I probably don't want to meet the person who is. But this memo that surfaced--an exhortation to the writers of CBS's now defunct The Unit--contains some interesting advice for writers, even if it did cause him to go all caps lock happy:




Read the whole thing. What do you think?

Friday, March 26, 2010

If This Sounds Familiar, Skip It

I've been in and out of town a lot, some trips for fun, some not so much fun. But I taken STONER2 with me everywhere since my editor wants it as soon as she can get it. So I've worked on it sitting on a sick friend's patio in Saint George, and at a little table in a motel just outside of Zion National Park. Ron, the mobile revisionist.

Here's the part that might sound familiar: Every time I go through this draft I can cut. A line or two of flabby dialogue here, a lazy descriptive passage there. A better joke here, a more Zeus-like bolt there.

Cutting isn't for everybody all the time, and I know I'm the Surgeon of St. Paul during residencies. But this book just can't be rotund. Colleen's charm is too atomic, Ben isn't the kind of narrator to stand and gaze.

For anybody thinking of submitting a ms., here's a new way to think about the first pages, the ones that are so important. Forget about content and think only of velocity. Try it and let me know what happens.


P.S. I'm looking for a title for STONER2. Any suggestions? The winner gets credit on the dedication page.

Dare Double Dare

Yesterday, Lisa dared us to fling ourselves into this career. Writing is all about daring yourself--how else could anyone have the gumption to start a book?

We talk a lot about fear in writing. Fear is an excellent way to keep you from writing, of course--fear of failure, fear of what you're writing, fear of what will happen afterwards. Fear is the great purple beast that keeps you company under the bed while you lie there not writing. And it's always nice to have company at times like that.

But I think fear can be healthy, too. When you are first sitting down to write a book, it should be scary. Fear means there's something ahead that's hard, that needs to be conquered. If you're not scared to write a book when you sit down to do so, if you already know how to write it when you begin, what's the point of writing it?

I don't know if this will always be true for me. But I've written seven books now, and I've been terrified to write every one of them.

I have a draft of a book sitting on my editor's desk. Two of the minor characters in it won't leave my head. They came out accidentally, randomly, just to fill a narrative need, and now I keep thinking about them. I want to give them their own book--but it's impossible. It's fatally flawed from the very premise. I don't know how to make it work. I can't make it work. I don't have the vision for it, or the poetry.

So, I guess I better try. But first, I'm going to hang out under the bed awhile. My purple beasties are calling.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

I Dare You

Sid Fleishman died this week at 90—on the day after his birthday. Sid is known for The Whipping Boy (Newbery winner in 1986) and the McBroom series of the 70’s. He’s a father in the field. Along with his son, Paul Fleishman—they are the only father and son to have both won a Newbery.

Sid was a magician before a children’s book writer. I can contest to that—I met him a few years ago at a conference where the audience convinced him to get on stage and perform—he was indeed a performer. He was lively and thoroughly engaged with his audience. A delightful man.

According to the NYTimes obitiuary he “flung himself into the field on a dare.” What a great career that dare turned out to be.
Now I dare all of you to do the same. Go fling yourself into this career. Right now.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Will You Grade on a Curve?

Teacher education is a big program at the university in my town. As a result, the campus library has a pretty nice collection of instructional materials. I was browsing those shelves yesterday and couldn’t resist one title: 250 Tests for Young Adult Novels. This book was published in 1995, and most of the novels included are adventures or mysteries (including one by Hamline’s own Liza Ketchum, The Ghost of Lost Island). Each test has 20 questions and there is even an answer key in the back so the teacher who gives the test needn’t have read the book. Way Cool!

The tests are multiple choice and are clearly intended to primarily measure if the student read the book and retained plot and character details. Some questions: “What caused the plane to crash?” (For Hatchet); “What is Maniac allergic to?” (Maniac Magee). “What does Delia throw into the ocean?” (The Ghost of Lost Island).

If this book helped some teachers incorporate fiction into the classroom and encouraged more reading, I say hooray. But as I browsed the book I started thinking how different the tests would be if they were intended for use with writers, not readers. First of all, writing teachers are notoriously tough, so there wouldn’t be any of this multiple choice nonsense. Short answers, at least.

“Describe the narrative voice used in _____; be sure to reference John Gardner’s psychic distance scale in your answer.”

“Identify two endowed objects in _____ and explain how the author paces the appearance of those objects in the story.”

“Identify three places in ____where a period of time passes. What technique does the author use to kill time?”

I’m kind of getting into this now. A test! Next summer at the Hamline residency I’m scheduled to do something on “Reading as a Writer,” using our required reading list. Returning students--you’ve been warned.


Monday, March 22, 2010

Duty, Vacation, or Work?

I am writing this from Culebra Island—20 miles off the eastern coast of Puerto Rico. Culebra is seven miles of winding hills and valleys shaped like a long winding snake. There are no high rises or resorts, just shabby shacks, rattling jeeps, aimless chickens, and turquoise sea.
This is where my mother lives. So this is where I go to visit her—as all good daughters do. Duty?
Of course a week with mom means I need an escape outlet. So I’ve been reading books just for pleasure, sipping a strong cafĂ© con leche on the dock, and swimming every day. Vacation?
And then there’s the research. My picture-book-in-progress involves a scuba diving bunny, so to capture a believable essence it helps to go under water myself. I couldn’t get scuba certified, but I could take a snorkel and mask and hop in. Snorkeling is a divine experience for anyone creative. You enter a world with thousands of species with symbiotic relationships, danger, survival, and peace. And you get to be another swimming thing with all the others, observing a way of life that exists on this planet with us humans but is utterly foreign and often never seen. See the proof of my research in the photos Work?

As writers everything we do is part of our work. Every experience combines and we get to make meaning of it. Of course the real work of my trip may not be the underwater illustration research, but the connection of that world to the relationships that go on above the sea. Or something else entirely that hasn’t hit me yet. While doing one thing, something unexpected may arise. Vacation is the best place to work, and family dynamics are ripe for writers. What a perfect combination.

(PS faculty member, Liza Ketchum is here as well--she's been coming to Culebra with her husband for twelve years. Great writer minds think alike.)

Saturday, March 20, 2010

March Madness

Bear with me as I post yet another metaphor for writing. March Madness has hit our household. Every game, every victory of an underdog team sets the walls shaking. If you're not into basketball, likely somebody you know well is. Maybe you are thinking, what is the big deal? It's that in college basketball anything can happen. On a given day any number of teams can beat a number one seed. Like the Northern Iowa men's team just did, sending Kansas home and busting brackets all over the country. On a given day we can write as well as any Prinze or Newbery award winning author.

Gonzaga basketball is a glue that has held my extended family together since the men's Cinderella run into the Elite Eight twelve years ago. My mom likes to say that she and Dad went to Zag games years ago when they were poor relations. Sometimes some of our family members might think we are poor relations, writing books that may never sell. Gonzaga's men's team has played in the NCAA tournament for twelve straight years. Talk about consistency. Coach Mark Few likes to say that they just keep "sawing wood," every day, every game. Tomorrow morning they play number the one seed in the West - Syracuse. Tonight the Gonzaga women's team plays, too, as the women's NCAA tourney starts up. By the time you read this, both games may be over. But the Zags will be back sawing wood in the gym next week - either way. And so must we. Putting words together every day. Bust your bracket. Make this the year March Madness comes early and stays late. On a given day, we can make those clutch free throws and we must. We must keep giving it our best shot.

Whatever keeps you going, outside of writing, do it. Fill up your well. Right now for me, it's the NCAA tourneys. Go Zags, go U of Washington, even go Duke, Elizabeth. Unless, of course, they're playing my favorite team.

Friday, March 19, 2010

More Mystery, Please

I just got back in town and went almost immediately to hear Tim O'Brian (THE THINGS THEY CARRIED) talk at the downtown library. One of the things he said was this -- fiction, rather than explaining things, should depend the mystery. He meant the mystery of being alive and doing contradictory things, being involved in stupid wars, hurting the people we love.

One of the complaints I hear about kids' writing is that it does, in fact, pretend to solve thorny problems. At its worst, it reminds me of the Hays Code in Hollywood which demanded that vice be punished.

At its best, on the other hand, it charts the intimate shipwrecks we call relationships and celebrates the passing joys of this planet in ways that most fiction-for-adults can't or won't.

Are you stuck this morning, friends? Ask the gods for more mystery. They've got tons of it.


Thursday, March 18, 2010

The 'Pot at the Movies

We get to see about three movies in the theater a year these days--by the time you pay the babysitter at the end of the evening, you've dropped the GNP of a small country. But my parents provided free babysitting last week, and so we went to see Alice in Wonderland. I love just about everything Tim Burton and Johnny Depp do together, though I have a hard time watching Johnny Depp without being heartbroken he's not playing the villain in the film version of my trilogy. (This version is entirely hypothetical, which is one of the many reasons Johnny Depp isn't starring in it.)

This Alice, like most of Burton's adaptations, uses the source material loosely. The Alice in question is all grown up now, and about to be proposed to by an obsequious chinless nitwit. But then there's this strange white rabbit who leads her into a hole in a tree and--well, you know the rest. It turns out Wonderland is actually Underland, and the whole place has fallen into ruin under the terrible rule of the Red Queen (the deeply fabulous big-headed Helena Bonham Carter). It's Alice's destiny to get the vorpal sword and destroy the queen's Jabberwocky and (callooh! callay!) return the kingdom to Anne Hathaway.

This sampling and remixing isn't quite successful--some things seem to exist just for the sake of being referents. And it's difficult to hold tension in narrative when the whole plot depends on a character fulfilling a destiny we know they've had the entire movie. What's left is just how they do it, and in this case it's by (bander)snatching a bunch of different elements of the books, sticking them in a martini shaker for a few voila. The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!

That said, what they do with Alice is a good model for character development, especially in fantasy. (Because--say it with me-- fantasy is all about the inner journey of the protagonist.) In the beginning we're presented with her in the ordinary world, not quite fitting in, unsure whether or not she should marry Lord NoChin. In Underland, everyone's trying to figure out if she's the "real" Alice, the girl of destiny--or just some other Alice. The Caterpillar pronounces her Hardly Alice early on, while Johnny Depp says she's the real Alice but she's "lost her muchness." Which is an awesome way of putting it. Alice can't seem to fit into her heroic destiny--she can't even stay the proper size. The movie is about her journey from Hardly Alice to the Real Alice (who, while being apt with the vorpal sword, is also a raging capitalist).

They do something very curious with this journey, too. Through Underland, Alice survives and succeeds through her basic goodness. She acquires allies because she shows them kindness--that's her power. And she wants no part of slaying the Jabberwocky; she says she couldn't possibly slay anything. So her ultimate success rides on her ability to decide that she can be a killer after all--in sense, overcome that goodness. Which makes you go, Huh.

Anyone else see it?

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

All A Twitter and the Writing Life

No, I not writing to say that I have joined the Twitter crowd. But I know a little bit more about it since hearing a fascinating interview with Twitter founder Evan Williams. I just googled to try and get you a link, but no luck. All I found were articles about William' plans for the future. But last week's radio interview featured Williams' thoughts about the creative life. His years living on his parents' couch, up to all hours working on his many internet plans. Did he have any idea how successful Twitter would be? "No way." He said in the middle of all his inventions he had no idea if they would ever be successful. Even those like Blogger and Twitter gave him no early sign that he had hit the jackpot. Working on them you just never know, he said.

I am driving along thinking, this guy must be talking about writing. Not exactly, but definitely the creative process. In the middle of a book, we just have no idea if this manuscript is heading toward genius or mediocrity or somewhere in between. Right now I am communicating with you through one of his genius inventions, Blogger, a program he designed and worked on for years, including the month when it had been successfully launched, but no money was coming in, so he had to fire all his employees for a time and run it by himself.

Hmm. Writing, Twitter, Blogger. Williams started six companies; two have been successful. He didn't sound like a person who was going to slow down, settle back with his millions. More creating ahead for him. Sounds like a writer to me, except for the money part. CRM

Monday, March 15, 2010

Farewell, my lovely

Last week I spoke to an adolescent lit class at the local university. This is something I do each semester. They've always read one of my books beforehand, so that's nice, but this session was especially fun as each student had a question ready. After the formal session I was chatting with them one on one as I signed books, and a woman wanted to know about the ending of the novel they'd all read, Come in from the Cold. "Why did you just jump to the end," she said. "Suddenly they were married."

I didn't lose a beat, I'm proud to say. I said, "I thought I'd already told the reader all she needed to know to make the leap." That answer seemed to make sense to the student and she said yes, she guessed she had known enough to make the leap.

I'm now in editing mode of a rough draft. I'm sifting through the scenes and extended dialogue asking of each passage, Is this part necessary? What does the reader need to know?

Those aren't questions that can be asked too early in the process. And they have to be asked more than once as the revising reveals the real story. But oh dear, such good stuff is disappearing. What fun I had coming up with it. The reader will never see any of it, but during the long hard slog that's a first draft at least I amused myself. Otherwise, why write?

Saturday, March 13, 2010


Congrats to our frequent commenter Christine (the red head) on the sale of her book: City Chickens!

Hope the marketing committee keeps that title. (The exclamation mark in the title, BTW, is my good-news addition.)


Friday, March 12, 2010

High Concept Nonfiction books

This is a terrific interview with Carla Killough McClafferty, award-winning author of nonfiction books such as The Head Bone’s Connected to the Neck Bone: The Weird, Wacky and Wonderful X-ray, and Something Out of Nothing: Marie Curie and Radium.

Even if you don't have an interest in writing nonfiction, I think you'll appreciate McClafferty's discussion of high concept books that take a universal theme and give it a new twist and deeper significance. It also features info on writing book proposals and the pros and cons of having an editor.


Greetings from Arizona. We've been visiting my parents for the last week. Being married to an academic has its plusses and its minuses, but spring break makes up for a lot of minuses.

A bit of a theme to this week's posts. I think one of the most important things a writer can do is find herself some kind of community. You need people who understand this crazy life. When you get slammed in the New York Times Book Review, people who are not writers tell you what an honor it is just to be in there and you should be happy. People who are writers never tell you this. They tell you to take the review and tear it up into pieces and stick it in the cat litter. This is advice you can use.

I made two writer friends on an online forum a decade ago and they've kept me sane all these years. One of them writes kids' books too and she reads everything I write before I send it anywhere. These are the sort of people you're happy for when good things happen to them, and when bad things happen to you they spend all their writerly energy detailing for you how worthless the perpetrators are. A fringe benefit of having writer friends: they insult people really, really well.

This is one of my favorite things about Hamline for students--you're giving yourself a community of writers, and that will stay with you. These are people who can read your drafts, who can commiserate with you, who can tell you to let your cats pee on things. These are people who get it. This is invaluable. And I'm excited about getting back to my wolf pack in the summer. (Though things are a little less feral than the analogy implies, at least at the beginning of the residency.)

On another note, here's a link for the fantasy writers on Friday morning from The Enchanted Inkpot: New Fashioned Fantasy: What Does It Look Like? It's a very interesting read, and I agree with a lot of it, though I'm always somewhat hesitant about trend pieces. They are interesting and useful, but not prescriptive. I would agree that contemporary fantasy (beginning in our world) is well outshining the traditional Tolkienesque fantasy. But don't get discouraged if you're writing a good old high fantasy; there are always exceptions. (Kristin Cashore's Graceling, as the article mentions, is a good example.) Just write your book, and write it well.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Lunch and Controversy in NYC

I was in NY this weekend meeting with a (new for me) publisher. The publisher happened to be in NJ, which I gather is where publishers go now since the rents are cheaper. During the weekend I was able to get together with two of my favorite New Yorkers and children’s lit people—our very own effervescent Jill Davis, and one of our previous guests, the divine Ellen Levine. We shared writing/publishing woes, laughed and gossiped in a Thai bistro uptown, like three women on a Sex and The City episode, only our show would be titled Writers for Children and Young Adults and the City.

Much of the conversation turned to Ellen’s latest foray into the world of book challenges. For those not familiar with her novel Catch A Tiger By the Toe, it is a middle-grade historical novel taking place during the McCarthy era in 1953. One might imagine many book banners protesting from a certain political side. But the surprise is that the person challenging the book is a leading Civil Rights Activist who noticed the “n” word appearing in the book and claims the book is racist. The word is spoken by the bully in the novel as a racial slur. The protagonist denounces and rejects racial and ethnic stereotyping. It is yet again another situation of a word in a book taken out of context. The irony of the activist trying to ban this book is both amusing and mortifying. These days no word is safe. If anything Ellen said she expected protests from the right since the family in the book are members of the CP, but this was a surprise. Had the person read the book she may have noticed her faux pas.

As Ellen herself put it: “To remove a book from library shelves for the use of a word is to travel down that mindless but painfully destructive McCarthy road once again. Have we learned nothing?”

And so now I am home from the city, back in my quiet studio and working on something to give that NJ publisher.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Winter in Yellowstone - Wolves and Writers

We just returned from a trip to Yellowstone. Something about the national parks grabs me down to my core. Makes me want to take a long road trip and visit every one. Makes we want to write thank you letters in time to John Muir and Teddy Roosevelt and the thousands of unsung Americans who helped set up our national parks and keep them going today. Something about the wild opens up my head for the work of writing when I return home.

I had finished up my first set of packets before I left and sent off a manuscript to my new agent, so my head was clear for a new adventure and new ideas. Only one road is open during winter in the park, but we saw more wildlife than I could have believed. Bison covered the land, such a change from the days of slaughter. Elk, coyote, and the most intriguing - the wolves. March is Wolf Watch month in the park. Teams of biologists follow each pack from dawn to dusk, monitoring their activities. A pack of visitors make it a yearly ritual to come follow along - wolf groupies. Sunday we joined them, standing on a hillside, looking through spotting scopes at one pack's bison kill - the ravens flying overhead, the lone black wolf skulking toward the huge rock formation, waiting until the pack of which he is not a part, are napping in the sunshine.

I am grateful that I am part of a pack of writers here in Spokane and at our amazing Hamline program. I am grateful that we still have wild lands to visit, to remind us that we humans are only a small part of this great planet. Something about this trip will weave into my writing. That I know. But even more I know that getting outside, keeps me balanced for the inside work of putting words together every day.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Poetry Lite

I had dinner with a bunch of poets (A gaggle? A murder? A pod? A pride? A pentameter?) last night and while I was shuttling between the Academy Awards and the living room I was thinking about Marsha's YA/Not YA dilemma.

It's barely a question in poetry. Verse can be light, but nobody I asked thought of poetry for, say, high school students vs. poetry for adults. Billy Collins did "Poetry 180" and literally everybody in the book was a poet-for-adults who'd written poems that a kid would like. You know that's true for most of my poems, and it's just as true for a lot of my friends. People like Barbara Hamby and David Kirby.

Really dense and difficult poetry isn't so much for adults only as it is for people who like puzzles. A smart kid would get a kick out of someone like John Ashberry who has an enormous wingspan that casts a giant shadow but is also very playful.

The funny thing about YA fiction vs. poetry is that I'll usually give a generic kids' novel set mostly in a mall frequented by vampires a few pages to get going but when I read a line of poetry like this -- "Even if the gust that undoes us/is dimmed in oblivion" -- that's it for me.

Having said that, now I'm wondering if patience separates Fiction/YA fiction. I tend to be patient with Fiction, less so with YA novels. I have a feeling that the former could go anywhere but I usually know right where the latter is headed.


Sunday, March 7, 2010

YA? Adult?

Later this spring I'll be speaking at a chi lit conference in Minneapolis. My topic: the line between YA and adult lit. I'd love to steal your ideas and pass them off as my own! So... answer this, please. Say you pick up a novel in a brown paper wrapper and you begin reading on page one. What are the four or five clues that will make you decide "YA" or "Adult?"

And please: I don't want to hear any writerly nonsense, e.g., "I never think about audience." THAT won't help me.


Thursday, March 4, 2010

Gold Medals

Miss the Olympics? There's another excellent competition going on in Canada, this one a literary smack-down. The annual Canada Reads festival is in high gear, and this year's book list has generated some alternate lists and competitions to spring up, the primary one being Canada Also Reads.

I love Canadian lit. One of my favorite books of the last few years is one of the five Canada Reads titles, Good to a Fault.
It's finally out in the US this month.

Oh Canada.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Let it Go

I'm supposed to be doing my taxes. I'm leaving to visit my parents in Arizona tomorrow, and it's the last possible moment I can do them without pissing off my accountant. Since I am incapable of managing these things on my own, my accountant is high on the list of people I need not to piss off.

Doing taxes, for me, is many hours of coming face to face with my own inadequacies. I can't find things I should have kept. I can barely add. I can't deal with the forms, I can't even understand them. It's the real world of money and organization, and I'm fairly sure that real world is going to lead to my doom. This is why I write fantasy.

Every year, my mom and I promise each other we won't kill ourselves rather than do the taxes. It's worked so far. But I just found out I messed something up even before I begin, to the inconvenience of my accountant, and am beginning the whole ordeal already awash in self-hatred. It's embarrassing. I like to be good at things. My accountant, I'm sure, is beginning the procedures to declare me legally incompetent for the safety of those around me.

So, I just saw this OK Go video for This Too Shall Pass. I'd embed it here, but record companies are even stupider than I. So, just go take a break and watch it. And then watch the sequel, which is just jaw-dropping. And, by the way, a good little lesson on suspense.

Feel better? I thought so.

OK Go's thing is they make these amazingly intricate videos shot in one take. Their first one, this self-produced treadmill video, is a classic. Sure, these videos sell records, but these guys just set out to make something cool, something that stops you in your day--for just a moment to marvel. They're art, and they are joyous. I think if we can do something like this--something that makes someone stop and take a breath, and maybe even forget for a moment that they are brain-addled and incapable of functioning in the real world, then we've done our jobs.

OK. I gotta go. But this too shall pass.

Graphic Novels - Oh, My - Stitches

Yesterday Anne sent us a link that featured several writers on the 10 Rules for Writing. At first I dismissed it, but when I hit a rough spot in my revision late yesterday, I printed them all out, hoping for a magic clue to get me over my hump. Two lists suggested no internet while writing, which would have stopped me in my tracks and forced me to stay with the words. But that's another story. This story is about the suggestion to read widely (oops - no adverbs.) I don't know any writers who don't. But still there are genres I haven't explored much.

Like graphic novels. I have to admit the curmudgeon in me just couldn't get past the idea that they were like the comic books my brothers devoured growing up. Until I read David Small's memoir Stitches over the weekend. It moved me like no recent book. I don't even think I could have handled reading about his awful childhood except for the blend of pictures and words that together took me deep into the psyche of this dear boy and thus deep into my own. Small, famous for Imogene's Antlers and other delightful picture books, put it all out there. Nominated for a National Book award, it fits their criteria that the book appeal to young people and adults. Some reviewers wondered if this book would only appeal to adults. I disagree. I believe that teens everywhere will be drawn to this story of pain and of hope and drawn to study his picture books with a new eye. Hey, this guy survived. So can I.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

The White Elephant

So writers are wondering what to do with their gift. Their calling. Their avocation. The pull that art has over life. And, naturally, its opposite. The money we make and don't make. The people we love who won't shut up.

See if you don't adore this stanza from a Jack Gilbert poem as much as I do --

When the King of Siam disliked a courtier,
he gave him a beautiful white elephant.
The miracle beast deserved such ritual
That to care for him properly meant ruin.
Yet to care for him improperly was worse.
It appears the gift could not be refused.


Rules of Writing

This article from the Guardian is making its rounds: Ten Rules for Writing Fiction. It's inspired by Elmore Leonard's upcoming 10 Rules of Writing, about which I'm somewhat conflicted. Rule #1, you see, I'm breaking in the book I'm writing RIGHT NOW, and I'm breaking it something fierce. The rules about verbs of utterance, adverbs, and--for the love of all that's holy--exclamation points, are good ones--though, like with chocolate, commenting on political web sites, and em dashes, I would urge self-control rather than total abstinence.

Really, I'm not a huge fan of writing rules--my rule is: "You can do whatever you want, as long as it works." That last part is the sticker.

The Guardian's asked a bunch of writers for their lists, and they are really worth reading. I will vehemently argue against some of the rules here. Cut out the metaphors and similes? Really? The last thing I want to read about are things that are only like themselves. Meanwhile, Jonathan Franzen looks like he's striving after a career in fortune cookie writing. I hear it's quite lucrative.

Arguing, though, is probably part of the point. But the more interesting rules, to me, are the writing life rules. Write, they tell us. Read. Have a Thesaurus. Don't write reviews. Don't write letters to the editor. Be fearless. Love what you do. Don't have children. (I would amend that to "Have kids, just don't let them get the croup.")

My favorite list is Neil Gaiman's. Maybe because he says what I think, only a heck of a lot better:

The main rule of writing is that if you do it with enough assurance and confidence, you're allowed to do whatever you like. (That may be a rule for life as well as for writing. But it's definitely true for writing.) So write your story as it needs to be written. Write it honestly, and tell it as best you can. I'm not sure that there are any other rules. Not ones that matter.

That guy's smart. He must write children's books.

Meanwhile, congratulations to Hamline MFA' 10 student Cheryl Bardoe for the publication of Mammoths and Mastodons: Titans of the Ice Age.

This is a fabulous cover.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Where To Begin?

We talk a lot about revising a manuscript, but what about beginning? Not the hook of the first line, mind you, but what to work on. The idea.

I am between books. I can work on anything. So, the process of beginning begins again. Usually I start the new by sifting through the old. I go through my journals of words and sketches to see if there is anything in there that I may have overlooked—anything I did while I wasn’t really thinking. Usually it is in these sketchbook/journals where I find my best work—a doodle, a word here and there. I may look at it from a slightly new place in life and find the connection that will make it zing. I even go through old, old, old work—stuff I did in pre-school when I was truly uninhibited (as seen in the attached images. Just to show you what I can REALLY do.)

Sometimes it really does seem as though all we ever need to know we learned between the ages of 2-12—especially when it comes to creativity. All of our beginnings and inspirations came so easily then. Don’t get me wrong—I am not saying that ideas come from my childhood, rather they come from the old mixed with the new, combined with a heavy dose of imagination, assembled into something logical but just as fresh.

A common question for authors is: Where do ideas come from? As if that is some well-kept secret that we writers have the answer to, maybe we don’t even know. This is my simple answer: Ideas come from other ideas. Ideas come while I am working. I may be writing a blog entry, a letter, doodling at a lecture, and I combine one or two of these incongruous elements into an idea I want to work on further. I try it. I see. I try something else. And the one that grabs me will come eventually. The world is chock full of ideas, they are all around you right now. Work begets work.