Friday, April 30, 2010

Luck of the Draw

I sat on a prize-panel recently. A lot of us have done this; everybody reads 60 books or so and one of them wins. I disagreed with most of the other people on the panel. They liked stories with social purpose; I like gorgeous writing. Given a different mix on the committee, probably another book would have won.

Which brings me to the Kentucky Derby tomorrow (Saturday). The two favorites are drawn down on the rail and all the way to the outside. They're separated by 18 other horses. Now it's supposed to rain in Louisville. Which -- when it comes to complicating things - is probably tantamount to having one of the book judges have a psychotic episode.

Probably the sages are right when they suggest there's not much to really get excited or distressed about. It's nice to win, but the rush subsides pretty quickly. Losing is a drag but the sun comes up, anyway.

After a certain winnowing out process, most writers are pretty good. Following that, ambition really helps -- getting out there, hiring publicists, pressing the flesh. But after a certain point, it's just the luck of the draw.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Writing Go Round

The world of writing is a merry-go-round. A writer has to juggle the act of creating with the world of marketing if we want our work to get published. Once published we have to deal with promotion and whether the book stays in print. For me, the business side can wreck havoc with the creative side. Yesterday ended with me grabbing a gold ring. But it started with me not even on the ride. Two of the smaller presses that carry my books are going under. One for good and one is being swallowed by a big daddy who has been less than communicative with us authors. We even banded together and hired a lawyer and as treasurer, I have been collecting dozens of small donations from writers who just wanted to say we deserve a say in how our books are handled. We got a few concessions, but mostly what mattered is that together we had a voice.

Last night I had the opportunity to put those concerns aside and talk about the creative part of my work. Spokane writer friend Kelly Milner-Halls put together a panel of local children's/YA authors at our local independent bookstore - Auntie's. Instead of a reading to celebrate her new book Saving the Bagdad Zoo, she wanted to share the evening with her friends and reach out to those who want to write for young people. I came home energized after hearing YA novelist Chris Crutcher talk about the need to find hope in our stories for even the most damaged characters. Terry Davis, author of Vision Quest, talked about the energy it took to work for beauty on the page. Kelly told how by the time a book is finished she hates it. Until she visits a school and a young reader falls in love with it, reminding her why she wrote it. I talked about how the older I get, the more I yearn to go deeper with my writing and that the only way I can, is by letting go of my research, to uncover the theme and narrative arc buried beneath.

Today will offer the same merry-go-round. And it's up to all of us to keep reaching for the ring - any color will do. Riding along with other writers can make all the difference.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

With a Little Help From My Friends

I told a pal here in L.A. I would take a look at the first chapter or so of her friend's YA about a girl raised by wolves who is trying to integrate back into society.

And I'd no more than sent the e-mail than the concept sounded familiar. Is there a book out there about kids-raised-by-wolves? A girl especially?

"Anybody?" as Ben Stein said in "Ferris Bueller's Day Off."

Thanks in advance.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Writing Dialog

You know how sometimes dialog rambles on with little happening to advance the plot? Last Saturday I attended a terrific workshop on dialog with novelist Janet Fitch during Spokane's Get Lit! literary festival. Fitch is the author of White Oleander and other novels and her dialog jumps off the page.

Since I am currently revising a novel and all three of my Hamline students are working on novels this semester, it proved timely.

I kept these suggestions in mind all week as I worked on scenes in my novel.

Some Dialog Tips from novelist Janet Fitch:

* Dialog should NEVER be used to impart information or back story.

* Dialog is for the reader, not the other character. Therefore, don’t repeat what has already happened or been mentioned in story.

* Every character’s dialog should be particular to them. A line that anybody could say – nobody should say.

* Purpose of fictional dialog is to reveal tension, characters putting pressure on each other. Purpose of real life conversation is to avoid conflict.

What do you think? Any of these ring true for you?

High Concept?

My agent told me recently that all novels need to be high concept these days. No longer can a mere coming-of-age novel cut it (i.e, sell it). According to her, high-concept does not mean it must have vampires, fallen angels or other paranormal elements, but it must have a hook and must be about something.

Wait a minute, I assumed all novels need a hook and must be about something!

So I looked up high-concept on Wikipedia: “High concept is an ironic term used to refer to an artistic work that can be easily described by a succinctly stated premise.”

Second hit on google is screenwriter/pitcher Steve Kaire. He gives five rules for creating high-concept:
1. Premise should be original and unique.
2. Story must have mass audience appeal.
3. Has to be story specific.
4. The potential must be obvious.
5. the Pitch (flap copy) should be one to three sentences long.

He also describes Non-High-Concept (phew, it exists) as: “projects that can’t be sold from a pitch because they are execution driven. They have to be read to be appreciated and their appeal isn’t obvious by merely running a logline past someone.”

So my questions are thus:
How do you define “high-concept?”
What do you think of “high-concept” in contrast to “non-high-concept” or “concept?”
And here’s the fun one—what would it take for your current writing project to be “high-concept?”

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Devices and conventions

Do you have some time on your hands? Time and patience, that is. Wading through any Wiki can be a crap shoot, but I've found some interesting stuff in TV TROPES. Want to know what books, TV shows, films, and Anime feature a character with an obnoxious laugh (the laugh meant to convey the character's overall badness)? Want to know what films use the plot trope of the "accidental hero?" TV Tropes has the answers.

According to the site's home page, "tropes are devices and conventions that a writer can reasonably rely on as being present in the audience members' minds and expectations. On the whole, tropes are not clich├ęs."

True, I suppose. But after wading through list after list of obscure tropes everything blurred into cliche for me. And that, I've decided, can be a helpful thing for a writer. So if you're thinking about adding a certain character quirk or a plot twist, it might be worth checking this site. Undoubtedly your great idea has been done and done and done.

The majority of contributors to this Wiki are clearly grounded in fantasy and science fiction and are steeped in the minutiae of their passions; further, books are not privileged. The children's book world can be a tad insular and old-fashioned (Think how long it's taken graphic novels to be accepted). TV TROPES is a fun escape from the cloister.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010


In L.A., anyway, (and I imagine on other NPR stations) a guy named Michael Silverblatt does an interview-the-author show. I tuned in for just a minute as I got off the freeway and pointed my Toyota (only going 35 compared to 135) toward the race track. MS was interviewing a poet, and Michael said something complimentary along these lines: "Sometimes when I read your work I'm reminded of a child talking before he's really sure what words mean."

And I thought, "So that's it!" I read a lot of poetry and some of it I like but don't, in the usual sense of the word, get. Some of it I just can't stand. Now I might understand why/why not.

A lot of the likable stuff resembles free-for-all, creative babble while the less likable has a manufactured, look-at-me-be-pre-verbal odor to it. I prefer to watch poets' minds at play, anyway, compared to concentrating on what they write. (And don't get me started about what-poems-mean!)

The so-called Language Poets have a political agenda; they think language has been so debased by advertising and "Meet the Press" dissembling that jarring juxtaposition and nonsense is the only way to reanimate language. Maybe they're right, but they rarely seem to be having any fun. While the kind of poetry I'm writing about this morning is usually very high-spirited.

Naturally, there's something in all of this for all of us: I'm a natural smarty-pants, so in YA faction I like high spirits and electricity on every page. And I know now why some competent picture books leave me feeling enervated. I don't feel a mind at play.


Monday, April 19, 2010

At Home with the Amazonians

I've just returned from a week in New York, and I'm rather amazed at the number of things I let slide while there. I need to catch up, desperately--so naturally I'm perusing the Internet.

I don't know what authors obsessed over before and their customer review feature, I'm only imagining they led much more complete, fulfilled lives. I learned long ago to stop reading the things, because it turns out the last thing you really want to know is what everyone with internet access and a basic ability to spell thinks of your book. You may trust me on this. For my first novel, a friend left a positive customer review and another reviewer held up something he said as ridiculous because the book was so very bad. My friend chose to be offended, and I rather thought that this wasn't about him.

But, as much as you really don't want to read the customer reviews, you also really, really don't want to use the review feature to castigate your rivals. Because it turns out that people pay attention, and that's when things get embarrassing:

An extraordinary literary "whodunnit" over the identity of a mystery reviewer who savaged works by some of Britain's leading academics on the Amazon website has culminated in a top historian admitting that the culprit was, in fact, his wife.

Prof Orlando Figes, 50, an expert on Russia and professor of history at Birkbeck College, London, made the startling revelation in a statement through lawyers following a week of intrigue, suspicion, legal threats and angry email exchanges over postings on the website's UK book review pages...

It ended on late on Friday evening with the surprise unveiling of Figes's wife, Dr Stephanie Palmer, a senior law lecturer at Cambridge University, barrister, and member of the top human rights specialists, Blackstone Chambers, as the reviewer calling herself "Historian", and responsible for several anonymous online attacks on the works of her husband's rivals.

There's an uncomfortable dinner table conversation for you.

Thursday, April 15, 2010


I went to an Illustrator’s event last night—Four famous illustrators talking about their work in regard to collaboration and expansion. Don’t forget, dear writer friends, that illustrators are also storytellers and that they work incredibly hard to come up with brilliant ideas. It is also a collaborative effort. No artist works alone. In every book, every illustration there has been help and guidance.

My favorite of the four was Chris Sickels, founder of Red Nose Studio. What I love about his work is how playful and profound it is. Here are some Utube links to his sculptures and animations. See if you find them as inspiring and enjoyable as I do.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Writing and the Home Office

No, I am not going to talk about taxes. But rather what a home office means for a writer - beyond the Schedule C write-off. A month ago my accountant looked at me and asked, "So how much square footage in your new house encompasses your office?"

Do I answer - my desk area? My filing cabinets, book shelves, living room where I read and read and respond to Hamline student manuscripts and edit my own ? My bed where I read some more? The kitchen where I think about my writing while chopping vegetables? The dining room table where I sometimes drift off during dinner, thinking about some writing problem?

Some days I think it might be better if I had an office away from home. Some of my writer friends have contemplated that over the years. A place where I go to work, so that when I return home, I turn my writing life off. So that I come home and pay bills, talk to my husband, play the piano, take a walk.

The home office is always there - weekends, Christmas morning, the middle of the night when you can't sleep. It's especially there when your kids are grown and out of the house and not interrupting you with squabbles and requests for overnights. I know. I know. When the kids are young, there is never enough time. But our kids are in their 20's and I still think there's not enough time. There never will be when we're trying to write well.

Boundaries. Like Sisyphus shoving that rock uphill, I am in a career that takes a giant to shove away the thoughts night and day, about a manuscript, research, a student's story, a knotty craft aspect.

I know how lucky I am to be able to work in my pajamas, jump on the computer without a commute, eat breakfast after some breakout writing time. Some of you are so frantically busy juggling, that my situation sounds like heaven. I've been there. But right now for me, it's time for some realignment. Time to step back sometimes without leaving home. To return to work the next day fresh and confident. Perhaps no writing on Sundays or after 5 p.m.? How's your home office working for you?

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Questions Galore

"What a distressing contrast there is between the radiant intelligence of the child and the feeble mentality of the average adult."

What might this quote from Sigmund Freud mean to us as children's writers? Do we stoke the already radiant intelligence until it is white hot? And how do we do this with our feeble intelligence? Do fantasy writers have a greater responsibility than, say, picture book writers? And what about YA -- is the teenager already well on his way to feeble mentality and how can 'Stoner & Spaz' or 'Wednesday Wars' delay that?

Is there a chance that kids get tired of radiating and just want to sit down with a good book? As a feeble adult, I sure do.

How about those of us who write funny books. How can that contribute to radiance?

And if a child's intelligence is so radiant, can it be etiolated by chatty critters with nothing to say or locomotives spouting feel good homilies?

I just have the questions, friends. I leave the answers to you.

Monday, April 12, 2010


Betsy Bird’s 100 Best MG novels countdown has been mentioned here a couple of times. #1 revealed today.

While reading through the comments I noticed one person said the #1 book was one she rereads, adding, “I rarely reread any book.” Oddly, this was the third time in about as many days that I’ve run across such a comment about rereading.

I reread a lot. A LOT. This is a carryover no doubt from my youth when I spent more time rereading than reading new books. As a result, I was poorly read by the time I went to college. (Cathleen Schine has a lovely essay on her very similar youthful reading habits in the NY Times.)

Rereading is my best medicine for getting out of the writing doldrums. I may not finish an entire book, but I’ll reread enough to absorb the writing and once again fill up my head with language I love and admire. And sometimes I do finish the book and go on to another favorite by that author, immersing myself in his or her voice.

Story hardly matters when I reread. A return visit is all about “the how” of it. Marveling at an opening and the immediacy of mood, admiring the deft passing of time, savoring a word.
Of course I read new (to me) books, lots of them. I’m always thrilled to find a new book and writer I love; even so, it’s rereading that fuels the writing fire.

Currently Rereading: The Truth of the Matter, by Robb Forman Dew. Anyone else rereading something?


Friday, April 9, 2010

The Parent Trap

I'd be interested to know what you think of this article from the New York Times Book Review. Julie Just, the children's book editor of the Times, writes about parents and YA lit:

Afflicted by anomie, sitting down to another dismal meal or rushing out the door to a meeting, the hapless parents of Y.A. fiction are slightly ridiculous. They put in an appearance at the stove and behind the wheel of the car, but you can see right through them.

Just posits that the role of the parent has changed in YA lit--from absent (see The Outsiders or Rumble Fish) to horrible parent of the problem novel to, now, inert and two-dimensional. This is a "loss of stature" and a "lowering of stakes," the parents might have their own problems, but these are "more muted and less interesting" than that of the teenagers. The parents float on the periphery, vaguely-troubled ghosts with control of the car keys.

Of course, the world of a teenager is a solipsistic one. The first person of YA lit, while realistic on the surface, creates a sort of expressionism where the only truth is what the narrator perceives, and these narrators are not prone to contemplating the inner depths of their parents' psyches. The parents seems peripheral because they are. After all, the point of being a teenager is separating from your parents. (This has benefits for the parents as well--as my father once told me your child's behavior as a teenager makes you suddenly look forward to sending her off to college. I'm sure he meant that in the nicest of all possible ways.)

Also, there are the dictates of writing stories that try engage with the contemporary world. You can't have every character be an orphan, and problem novels are really fairy tales; if the parents aren't going to be absent and they're not going to be monsters, they need to be gotten out of the way somehow to make the book go.

At the same time, it's a better book that gives its characters dimension. Parents can be peripheral without being flat-Laurie Halse Anderson, I think, is very good at this. In Melina Marchetta's Saving Francesca, the mother refuses to get out of bed one morning. She's as ineffectual and peripheral as it gets, yet you get a sense of some wholeness of pain there, and that sense makes for a richer book.

And the flat parent, too, has a purpose. In E. Lockhart's The Boyfriend List, the parents are absurdly, hilariously flat--but that's really the whole darned point.

What do you think?

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Questions from "Ask the Inkpot"

Hello Bloggers! Here are two questions for you that were submitted to "Ask the Inkpot."

Dear Inkpotters:

I've finished my novel! I've put six years, and lots of blood, sweat, tears, heart, soul (and everything else) into it. It's revised now, and sitting on the desk of someone I hope will send me a nice letter soon.
Now what? It's been so long since I began a project, I don't remember how to start. I have a few ideas, but I can't seem to get going. Any advice for getting on to the Next Big Thing?

Signed, Too Much Freecell

Dear Inkpot Blog,
If an agent or editor asks to see a synopsis of a manuscript (and not the whole thing), but that manuscript is a picture long should the synopsis be, how should it be structured, and what should it include?
Signed, Unpublished

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

The Exquisite Corpse - Group Writing Exercise

Will six of you writers join me in this group writing exercise? This week I have been reading essays in Creating Fiction: Instruction and Insights from teachers of the Associated Writing Programs, edited by Julie Checkoway. At the back of the book are several writing exercises. Writing exercises can pull out powerful material buried deep inside us. But like flossing, I often fight doing them. But not today.

Dinty Moore, Penn State Altoona, contributed this exercise. He says that that the resultant seven-sentence stories are strained and inelegant. But that they help us break away from predictability and familiar plots.

1. Write first sentence, introducing one character.
2. Introduce second character and establish conflict.
3. Problem grows more complex.
4. First character speaks.
5. Second character speaks.
6. Climax
7. Resolution

Okay - don't leave me hanging. Here's my first sentence. Next poster writes sentence one and adds number two and so on.

1. Sixteen year old Sarah Janson snuck out of her parents' house every night.

Monday, April 5, 2010

What's in a Name?

Ron has Stoner2. Well, my current work in progress is something I've been calling Thin Ice 2--TI2. Thin Ice is a book I wrote in the late nineties. Since then, every now and then, one of the characters would pop up and whisper to me. So this past year I finally got to it. TI2 is not a YA, but another attempt at adult hen lit. The main character in TI2 was a secondary character in TI1.The brother's girlfriend. Pretty quickly into the project I realized the new novel was only dragged down by keeping the ties to TI1. The main character in 2 shares only a couple of things with her 1 character: she's a single mom of two girls and a naturalist/science teacher. So, I've kept three characters but jettisoned all other carryovers.

I've known all along that the three carryovers can't and won't have the same names their origin characters had. But I just didn't get around to changing them. For months I've been thinking of them as Claire, Hannah, and Gwen.

I'm about four scenes from finishing the novel and I realized this morning that it was time to do it. You'd think I could wait a day or two until I get those scenes written, but no. Like a dog with a bone, I spent the whole day playing with names. The girls weren't much of a problem, but renaming the main character has been a nightmare. I pored over lists--women scientists, rose varieties, characters from the Bible. Just when I got one that seemed right, I'd get up and head for the coffee pot and by the time I was in the kitchen I knew it was a lousy name. I took a long walk and during that time I settled on and then discarded several possibilities. At about three this afternoon the perfect name appeared out of the ether. I celebrated by going out to work on the flower beds. I didn't even have my gloves on before the perfect name was smelling like decayed leaves.

I do think I've got the right names now. Not to be coy, but I'm keeping them under my opening-day baseball cap. Don't want to jinx it. They're nothing special, I'll say that. Simple, serviceable, Midwestern names. I haven't written a word of those remaining four scenes of course, but it still feels like I've put in a good day's work.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Vera Wang Knows All

Vera Wang says that she loves to travel and will go anywhere that gets her out of her routine and lets her see new things. It's easy to translate "see new things" into see things in a new way, which will lead us to re-vision. But we all know that one. Like the joke about the two kids' writers who go into a bar. (And before you ask, here's the joke -- The two kids' writers go into a bar, the bartender says, "Let's see some i.d. One writer says, "I wrote 'The Bunny Who Walks in Your Head at Night', and she illustrated it." "Oh, okay. What'll you have?")

I'm thinking about the first part of VW's recipe -- the getting-out-of-her-routine part. One of the ways I finished the new STONER2 draft was by getting out of my routine. I'm a natural morning writer, and I'm at my worst in the afternoon. So I started writing then. I don't like to write in coffee shops (what I call the I-Sit-Alone syndrome along with Will-Anyone-Ever-Notice-My-New-Socks-And-Then-Sleep-With-Me?). So I wrote in a coffee shop. I can't imagine writing in a car while someone else drives. Naturally I tried that.

It was fun, all of it. And it worked. I also, for a change, handicapped in the a.m. and won a couple of yards. Pretty soon this newness will tarnish and turn into habit. Too bad. Habit is what ruins a marriage and I don't want to have to take myself into counseling.

Happy Easter, by the way.



Since I have not been able to sell my last two picture books I’ve decided to bite the bullet and delve back into YA. Why not?
I’m fifty pages in, and every time I get stuck I ask, “why not?” We are so conditioned (at least I am, as my students can confirm) to ask “why.” One of the reasons I’ve been avoiding another novel is because I’ve felt that the field was becoming full of shoulds. It should be about vampires. It should be a potential series. It should use modern technology. I have certainly asked why of all these and more, and then hid under my bed cowering in fear (along with many of my colleagues and peers).

Asking “why” implies that something is not working, someone doesn’t understand what you are trying to say, right? Asking “why not” implies that you have an idea, maybe a wacky, bizarre, crazy idea, but you might as well try it.

For example:
WHY NOT have a trainjack in a contemporary novel?
WHY NOT kill off some important people? (and I don’t mean kill as in take them out)
WHY NOT have your character join a circus?
WHY NOT put her in serious danger around every corner?

I mean, if it doesn’t work after the first draft so what? Then you can ask the annoying “why” questions and fix it. (I still believe at some point “why” is necessary, so, dear students, don’t think you’re off the hook.)

Try it. Why not? Or as I prefer, Why The %&#! Not?
You might find it incredibly freeing.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Mysterious Process III - A Brother on Everest

I appreciate Anne and Lisa posting on the mysterious process of writing, every book a new challenge. Much like life, I keep saying. But one especially intriguing aspect is that others do not always understand. How can they, when we do not always get it ourselves?

My brother John has now departed on his own mysterious process, the final book in a seven-part series. I wasn't going to mention this for awhile, as he will be trekking in to Everest base camp for three weeks and won't make the final ascent for 6-8 weeks. But today the NY Times has a featured article on him, written by National Book award-winning NF author Tim Egan. Tim covers JR's range from confidence to conflict, in attempting to climb the tallest mountain in the world at age 62.

Our daughter in graduate school in NYC calls early this morning. Uncle John's in the NY Times. So - even my 91-year old mother could mostly handle the article. But the blog comments - oh, my. The entire range from hero to crazy man.

Enough. I saw the slides. I get the challenge. Yet I am not sure that I understand this one. But everybody has one or more Everests in our lifetime, whether we choose it or not. We've all got mountains to climb. Not as public as my brother's, but mountains full of crevasses and rock slides. And people who don't always understand.

I love my brother like crazy and wish him godspeed. That's the best we can do.

Mysterious Process, II

Lisa writes about process below. I've always told people your process should be whatever works for you, and Lisa's right to specify further--your process is whatever works for you for this book.

I used to write five pages a day. I would put my butt in the chair and not get out until those five pages were done. And when they were, my husband would reward me with two Reese's Peanut Butter cups (the little kind). It was great--I'd finish a draft in 3-4 months, my brain was really always working on the book, my chapters unfolded in perfect 15-page chunks, and my finger got a sense of the arc and fall of those five pages. I loved it, and it was always such a good answer when people would ask, "How do you write?"

I didn't have a kid then. Our rent then was the size of our heating bill now. I had something resembling a brain at that point--and that brain wasn't always focused on when the electricity bill shows up in my online banking or which kind of peanut butter makes my little boy weep the tears of the emotionally shattered.

Now I can only write when I can write--and some days the time stretches out before me like an empty field and the words come sprinting across it, and other days that field is littered with bear traps. I was told that being a mother makes writing easier--that you have much less time and so you make better use of it. The people who told me this are liars.

My process now is to write what I can, when I can. I write around the bear traps. It's a lot less of a good answer to that process question. And there's a lot less chocolate.