Saturday, October 30, 2010

The writing state mind

Claire's entry spoke eloquently of the challenges we face as writers. Anne's boggled my mind with all of the things that I should be doing to forward my career, at the cost of...writing time, so I found it very redemptive that the comment from the publicist was to just write.

I have been writing a lot lately, because I remembered how to get into the writing mind, or the writing state of mind (I've always liked the spacial resonances of that term, the vastness).

There are certain things I can do to bring myself to that state: reading, staring out the window, meditating, walking, swimming, reciting poetry, listening to Mozart or Finzi or Piazolla etc., looking at art and photography.

More important, though is what I must not do, lest I be exiled (to batter and abuse the metaphor further) from the writing state. I must not:
Answer the phone
Check my e-mail
Look at houses on
Google anything
Purchase anything on Amazon
Listen to the news
Open mail
Wear headphones when I run or walk (and bring paper or a tape recorder with me instead)
Listen to the radio when I'm driving

Yes, one does have to return calls, check e-mail, write their blog entries, send manuscripts out and try to promote them eventually. But none of these things should crowd into the writing space and time, which is sacred. None should come first. To write is to both receive and give. Water can only be poured into an empty vessel.

What interferes with your writing space and time? What helps you?

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Steve Almond Speaks

Actually Steve Almond talks dirty a lot of the time. But this post isn't about that. It's about a paragraph in "Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life." In the following quote, SA is talking about a musician he admires:
"That was how Boris operated. The turmoil of his life invoked the refuge of music where he found, if not quietude, at least an ordered universe. He knew which notes would produce beauty, how to arrange them, which details to include, the optimal tempo, how the song sounded in his head, and how to make it sound that way in the world. . ."
Remind you of anything? Writing, for instance? A lot of us find refuge in fiction and poetry. In language. We struggle to find the words that will produce beauty; we arrange and rearrange them. We look for the telling, even the most plangent, detail as well as the optimal tempo.
We really are all in this together -- the novelists, the poets, the musicians -- their theirness bleeding into our ourness. Oh, yeah -- and the synchronized swimmers. They're in there with us, too, in those beautiful spangly suits.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Always Listen to Your Publicist.

I had the pleasure of attending Kidlit Con in Minneapolis this weekend. It's the annual conference of the Kidlitosphere, the people who blog about kids' books. The conference was also useful for writers; there were panels on blogging platforms and practices, on author blog tours, on virtual school visits featuring the Skype-d in looming disembodied head of Nick Glass at Teaching Books. (Take home message from that panel: you might want to think twice before pouring yourself a soda near your mic when you're being Skype-d into an auditorium full of people.)

It's a bit scary as writer to go to these things--you realize all the things you should be doing that you're not. Like, oh, blogging, blog tours, virtual school visits, and other things that one does, on occasion, to publicize one's books. You could hear the steady undercurrent of stressed mutterings from the writers in attendance about building their online presence--or maybe that was just the voices in my head.

The keynote speaker was Shiver author Maggie Stiefvater--who described herself as the poster child for blogging. And indeed she is: she started her blog years ago and over time built a massive following that does things like show up at readings, buy her books, and tell other people to buy her books. These are good things, I've heard. And if your DeLorean time machine still works and you can go back to 2004 and start a blog, you totally should--but how do you get a new blog noticed now? As we talked about last week, there are book trailers, but they seem fruitless unless you can do one like this.

The conference also featured a panel of book publicists--Laura Lutz from HarperCollins, Steven Pomije from Flux, and Lindsay Matvick from Lerner. Kelly Barnhill, a Minneapolis author with a middle-grade fantasy coming out next year, asked the question on all of our minds: "What can writers do to help you?" We poised our pens, sucked in a breath, and prepared ourselves. The publicists looked at each other and then Steven Pomije leaned into the mic and said, "Write books."

Friday, October 22, 2010

Letting Go

I am dropping in as a guest today, grateful for all the stimulating posts this semester. I appreciated Ron writing about letting go of details, trusting the iceberg holding the story up. Anne and Lisa wrote about letting go of articles that tell us which genres are selling and thus what we should be writing. Kelly wrote about letting go of pre-ordained structure and using elements from all aspects of our lives to deepen our stories.

I am working on letting go - of time. I hoard time. I plan my writing times every day, like if I get in so many hours I can control the outcome. And then I get an email - picture book publication delayed yet again due to illustrations not ready. Another email that editorial decision about one of my projects will be coming soon. I wait. And I wait.

But I must write. I can't live if I don't write. But how to write without anxiety about the outcome? When Anne and I presented on the writing life at a residency a couple of years ago, she said something like, “If I am only happy on the days I get a contract offer or a great review, I am looking at one unhappy life.” Can writers be happy when outcomes are so dependent on waiting and wondering?

Yes. Yes. We can be happy if we're putting words on paper. We can be happy when we get an insight that only comes from the writing, not the talking about the writing. We can be happy sharing with other writers or reading a great book. We can be happy closing down our computers and trusting that the words will be there again, even with the deadline of a Hamline packet due tomorrow and tomorrow.

Be happy. Let go. CRM

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Worth a Thousand Words

A couple weeks ago, the New York Times published an article saying the picture book was fading. Sales are down, orders are down--and while the article cites the down economy, it suggests that some of the lag is due to parents rushing their kids into chapter books early to get them ahead. As the parent of a three-year-old, I was dismayed to learn that I was stunting my child's intellectual growth through Grumpy Bird, but have promptly cast it aside in favor of Anna Karenina. I've found it helps to pretend all the main characters are bunnies.

But now the author of the Early Word Kids column suggests I might want to reconsider trashing the Scieszka for Solzhenitsyn. Picture books, it turns out, are actually useful to children's development. She cites a number of reasons, including the relative sophistication of the verbal and visual content of picture books as opposed to early chapter books.

It's never fun to open up the newspaper and discover the thing you've devoted your life to is languishing. (I mean, this is how newspaper reporters feel every day.) But trends come and go in publishing. Get in your time machine and go look at the YA section of the bookstore six years ago. Go ahead, I'll wait. And, really, the economy can probably explain a lot--including, as the blog Mother Reader points out, an early entrance into chapter books. ("I can understand," she writes, "the mindset of an economizing parent who, when purchasing a book, wants to find one that will last a little bit longer. Hey, we do it with shoes and it works.")

The picture book will come back and it will be the dystopian novelists who are reading articles about the fading market and think the world is ending. So, get back to work.

And now, a word from our sponsors at Hamline's MFA in Writing for Children. The deadline for applications for the January term is Nov. 1. If you're curious about the program, you can try a mini-immersion--one residency and one semester. For more details, and for pictures of the handsome student body, please see the website. Please note that handsomeness is not a requirement for admission, and may in fact be an effect of the program.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Dear Snoozin

When it comes to back story and getting necessary information into the novel, ask yourself if all that info is as necessary as you think it is.

The old Hemingway adage about the iceberg is still a good one. The right, really salient detail can hint/suggest at tons of stuff that doesn't have to be be poured directly into the novel.

This happens all the time in poetry where the part does stand for the whole and the precise word does the work of many worker bee words.

And, of course, there is always the surgical approach -- if the back story info takes a page, cut it by at least 1/2. Rent a chain saw if you have to. Such a wonderfully brutal tool.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

INKPOT QUESTION - Do I Need A Book Trailer?

Cecilia B. DeMille says "I've had several friends with debut novels this year who have arranged for near-Hollywood-style book trailers. I have no idea how much this costs. I've seen others that were self-made using software that came on their computers. Some of these are terrific; some not so much. I hope to soon find a publisher home for my middle grade novel. How big a deal is this book trailer thing? Am I expected to have one? Will I need a second mortgage to make a decent one? Do I have to hire a film company, actors, acquire costumes, etc.? I find the whole idea scary, and truth be told, a little gratuitous. I'm a writer, not a movie producer."

Ah, the movie trailer. It's become more popular, but it is not essential. You can have one made through a media designer (such as digital weavers ) for about $500-$1000 which usually includes promotion to get top google hits and utube. Or you can make one yourself (or get a tech savy friend) on QuickTime or IMovie.
Many of my editor friends admit they don't know if a trailer reflects on sales at all, it all depends on how the author promotes it. Some publishers will use an author's trailer (whether professionally done or "home-made") on their websites along with the book. Marketing folks don't mind extra marketing from the author.
My author friends who do trailers like to have some "thing" to show off their book and a trailer has kind of replaced the postcard mailer that authors used to do.
Trailers do make books look like movies, but this is a way to compete with all else in the media. An uphill battle--poor little books need all they can get.
I repeat-you DO NOT NEED A TRAILER for your book. In fact, if you're not up for promoting it all over the place, it is not going to do anything for you. If you ARE UP FOR PROMOTING it and using it as an advertising tool then do it. It can't hurt!
All that being said, and in spite of my own skepticism about trailers, I just did one for my upcoming picture book. Actually I had a friend do it. It's very simple--some music, images from the book and a few teaser lines, then the cover and publisher. It makes more sense (I think) for picture books since images from the book are already there. Mom Blogs might use the trailer if they review the book. I'll post it on Facebook for fun, and my publisher said they'll post it as well. Ask me in six months if it did anything at all. But it IS fun to look at, and reminds me that I have a book coming out!

First and MOST essential, get a publisher for your book and then think about the marketing side. The marketing department can also advise you on all this. Mine is just one opinion. Best of luck to you!!!

Friday, October 15, 2010

Narrators for Desperately Seeking Snoozin'

Desperately Seeking Snoozin' may be having connundrums about narrators, but she has a knack for metaphor. I love the image of her dog digging up the back story. A lot of questions come to my mind, like for what age is she writing? Is the book comical? An adventure? That can inform her choice of point of view and narrator. If it's for youngish middle readers, omniscient point of view can free her in terms of bringing in back story. If it's YA, maybe she could experiment with POV: try first person, or even second, as an exercise. With my own writing, playing with point of view has given me revelations about structure (No that is not too strong of a word) and character.

As a tool, I've often written back story in one piece, then deposited it in little snippets, so it's not too loud or obvious. Experiment. We so often feel locked into our first draft choices.

Seeking Snoozin' is quite right in her statement that she doesn't want her characters repeating information, or announcing the back story, which would be like a big poster that says AUTHOR INTRUSION all over it. But dialogue still remains one of the best ways to communicate back story. And yes, if it is a control thing, it's time to let that narrator take over and get that nap she needs.

I also wonder if this is really a narrator issue. It sounds like it might be more about time, something that frequently comes up with work that I edit, and which certainly is an important choice. Maybe the book actually begins earlier than she thinks it does. Maybe it needs an episodic or diary structure. Perhaps these past scenes can be woven in as a separate narrative. Remember in Louis Sachar's Holes the way the past story is woven in as a separate narrative. And yet, Holes feels like third person limited POV in Stanley Yelnats perspective rather than the omniscient book it is. I've found this a great solution in books that are pushing the envelope a bit out of realism, and used it in The Outlandish Adventures of Liberty Aimes. Another example is in the Lemony Snicket series. Or maybe Desperately Seeking Snoozin' would like to join us here at Hamline University, where we hash these questions out in person in lovely St. Paul.

Anyway, I'm guessing from Seeking Snoozin's strong voice, that she will find a witty and innovative way to handle her narrator, even if it's leaving him/her in the yard with the dog for a few days.

Speaking of point of view, I am speaking about Snoozin in the third person. Good luck to you, Snoozin'

Mailbag: 'Ask the Inkpot' Questions Posed

Hello Inkpotters and readers! This blog admin is ashamed to say it's been a little while since the 'Ask the Inkpot' mailbag was checked. My apologies...

Below are three questions posed by readers. Inkpotters, can you weigh in on these?

Blog Administrator

Bill Kennedy asks "why don't you use real photos, and who draws the cartoons?"

Cecilia B. DeMille says "I've had several friends with debut novels this year who have arranged for near-Hollywood-style book trailers. I have no idea how much this costs. I've seen others that were self-made using software that came on their computers. Some of these are terrific; some not so much. I hope to soon find a publisher home for my middle grade novel. How big a deal is this book trailer thing? Am I expected to have one? Will I need a second mortgage to make a decent one? Do I have to hire a film company, actors, acquire costumes, etc.? I find the whole idea scary, and truth be told, a little gratuitous. I'm a writer, not a movie producer."

Desperately Seeking Snoozin' says "Hi. Narrators drive me batty because I do not understand how to use one--it's a control thing. I think. Anyway, I am working on a third person limited POV story where vital information occurs before the story wheel begins turning. I have tried to plant the back story into exposition/dialogue/ action, and my backyard, but none of these solutions feel best. And my dog digs it up every time. Each time I weave the past into the story, the characters tell each other information they already know. So, the back story stalls the story, yet the information is crucial for the reader to know. How, then, should I use a narrator? If my narrator discusses the past, then the story feels like an adult story--one that isn't wrapped in plastic behind the cashier at a convenient store. Should I consider a prologue? Do any of you have an extra copy of The Best Kept Craft Secrets that All Writing Professors Know and Will Share for Cash? I have cash. I'm a bit sleep deprived, so if this information does not make sense, you should delete it. Immediately. Thanks!"

Readers: If you have a question for the Inkpot bloggers, submit it to


For those who don't receive the Writer's Almanac, I can't resist posting this poem on punctuation--especially since I sometimes bug students about the semi-colon and then realize I probably misuse it myself. (Note to Anne: when will you give that promised lecture on grammar and punctuation that we all need?)

On Punctuation

by Elizabeth Austen

not for me the dogma of the period
preaching order and a sure conclusion
and no not for me the prissy
formality or tight-lipped fence
of the colon and as for the semi-
colon call it what it is
a period slumming
with the commas
a poser at the bar
feigning liberation with one hand
tightening the leash with the other
oh give me the headlong run-on
fragment dangling its feet
over the edge give me the sly
comma with its come-hither
wave teasing all the characters
on either side give me ellipses
not just a gang of periods
a trail of possibilities
or give me the sweet interrupting dash
the running leaping joining dash all the voices
gleeing out over one another
oh if I must
give me the YIPPEE
of the exclamation point
give me give me the curling
cupping curve mounting the period
with voluptuous uncertainty

"On Punctuation" by Elizabeth Austen, from The Girl Who Goes Alone. © Floating Bridge Press, 2010. Reprinted with permission.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

writing as shoplifting

My mother was an avid shoplifter. She is Bipolar and prone to extreme behaviors, to put it mildly (I'll tell you about visiting murderers in prison in another entry). I've always thought of her as a combination of Auntie Mame and Mommy Dearest. But, really, pick your metaphor. We are borrowers, sponges, knitters together of many pieces, or thieves (but never plagiarists) in the night, synthesizing our experiences into art. Every book we read, play we see, every nasty break-up and passionate beginning, every odd dream, sensory memory, and cloud we watch can find its way directly or abstractly into what we write. Randomness is being more intentionally open to this, to steal words and images and to create something original, what the Dadaists call collage.

My mother was certainly a random shoplifter. She stole dog beds, mini-bikes, make-up, and clothes, but only from the corporately owned stores. A socialist at heart, she would never "steal from the little guys." Now, at ninety, still witty and bright, she is kept from her crimes by my brothers, and her wheelchair. I wouldn't be a writer without her.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

What's on the Wall?

How fitting that Anne should post about procrastination, just when I realize that I am avoiding cleaning my office. The chaos in my writing room is a habitual problem, so the avoidance is not new. The trouble is, a month ago I agreed to an online interview with Creative Spaces. This sounded fine, until I read the fine print and discovered that I would have to take pictures of my writing space--and then write about it. These photos are supposed to highlight some of my favorite objects (yes, they are endowed). I'm also supposed to wax eloquent about my room, with its clutter of photos, books, stacks of manuscripts, etc.

The deadline is approaching and my "creative space" shows no sign of cleaning itself up. I can move the piles of books and drafts to one side, to highlight the cherry boards of my writing table. I will happily photograph the narrow wall beside my computer table, to show off art by our own Lisa Jahn-Clough, by my pal the illustrator Eileen Christelow, and by my artist son, Ethan Murrow. But what to do about the quotes, typed up or hand-written on post-it notes, that litter my walls, cling with magnets to the filing cabinet, tilt at a drunken angle from my computer? These are quotes that made me laugh, or inspired me, or pleased me at the time. Do they make some sort of statement about my writing life? Or are they just random? (Kelly would say that's a good thing: being random.)

Here's a sample. "We are all just walking each other home." --Ram Dass (My husband, who grew up riding subways and buses in Manhattan, has no idea what this means.)

"What used to be called liberal is now called radical, what used to be called radical is now called insane, what used to be called reactionary is now called moderate, and what used to be called insane is now called solid conservative thinking." --Tony Kushner

"There is a vitality, a life-force, an energy, a quickening which is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and be lost. The world will not have it."
--Martha Graham. (This is on my wall because my mom--now in a wheel chair--once danced with Graham. It's also a good quote for me to read when I think of giving it all up and going to work in a plant nursery.)

A scrap of paper, torn from the moleskin notebook I carry on garden walks, says: "Horticulture is the art and science of moving things around"--Dennis Collins (the horticultural director at Mt. Auburn Cemetery, which is also an arboretum and one of my favorite places to walk).

There are poems: "Kuan Yin" by Laura Fargas, about the Chinese goddess of mercy. "Today," by Billy Collins. "The Peace of Wild Things," by Wendell Berry.

"A List of Instructions for the New Milennium" from the Dalai Lama dangles from the filing cabinet. His devilish smile beams from a photo above my desk.

A post-it note has this, from E.B. White: "Life is always a rich and steady time when you are waiting for something to happen or to hatch." (I remember sticking that up when both of our daughters-in-law were expecting.)

And this, from Kurt Vonnegut: "Hello babies. Welcome to Earth. It's hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It's round and wet and crowded. At the outside, babies, you've got about a hundred years here. There's only one rule that I know of, babies: 'God damn it, you've got to be kind.'"

Random? Perhaps. Revealing? Maybe. What's on your wall?

There Are Other Things I Probably Should Be Doing

I have a bill in my email that I need to pay. It's been sitting there for ten days. It's not a big bill, and paying it will take me all of ten seconds. I'll do it tomorrow.

I left a shoe at the Quality Inn in Lee, Massachusetts. I need to call them so they can mail me my shoe. This, I will also do tomorrow.

The cat still has, like, mange. I still need to call the vet. I will. Tomorrow.

It feels good, this tomorrow thing. Everything will get done, you see. I have a schedule, a plan. Some people might even call this responsible.

These people are probably putting things off, too. In the most recent New Yorker, there's an essay called Later: What does procrastination tell us about ourselves? It's a very long essay, and I can only guess the author had something else he really needed to be doing. It reviews some of the literature on the subject of procrastination, delving into Kantian ethics, game theory, and making excellent use of the word "dillydallying." In case you are checking the 'Pot to avoid writing, I will also mention that the essay tells us: "Victor Hugo would write naked and tell his valet to hide his clothes so that he’d be unable to go outside when he was supposed to be writing." This puts a new spin on Les Miserables.

Oh, and the link to this essay was sent to me by my critical thesis student. I will let this pass without comment.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Delacorte Contest for a First YA

You're a SCBWI member, aren't you? On p. 39 of their recent BULLETIN there's a Delacorte Contest for a first YA. If not, the info is at

It's a long shot, but I bet those all the time. Tell your friends!

Thursday, October 7, 2010

A Little Tense

I've been thinking about this issue of tense ever Liza posted last week. As Liza said, Philip Pullman's--whose Golden Compass is a formative book for me--essay against the use of the present tense in the Guardian got widely circulated among writing types. Pullman writes:

I want all the young present-tense storytellers (the old ones have won prizes and are incorrigible) to allow themselves to stand back and show me a wider temporal perspective. I want them to feel able to say what happened, what usually happened, what sometimes happened, what had happened before something else happened, what might happen later, what actually did happen later, and so on: to use the full range of English tenses.

The whole essay is worth a read, and I'd be interested to know your reaction. (Somewhere, there is irony in Pullman's avowed atheism and his narrative predilections, but I haven't finished all my coffee yet.)

The whole thing started when the writer Philip Hensher wrote a similar essay in the Telegraph because half the Booker finalists were present tense books. Hensher blames creative writing teachers for the trend, as they are the font of all evil. He says writers use it in pursuit of vividness, but "in a literary context, it quickly takes on a weird, transfixed, glassy quality--the opposite of vividness."

Sure. It can. The trick of course, as with any choice in writing, is not to do it badly. (Thank you. You can all acknowledge me in your books.) Laura Miller says as much in her response at Salon. (You may have to click through a pop-up ad for a Last of the Mohicans deluxe DVD, sending you into an instant state of temporal discombobulation. I am here to assure you that it will be all right.) "The present tense is one of any number of crutches clung to by mediocre writers," she writes. "The problem lies less with the tool than the workman."

For children's book writers, the immediacy granted in present tense is no small thing. In young adult fiction past tense gives you a narrator who is telling events from some future position in time and thus must have perspective on these events--whatever growth they experience in the novel will have already taken place. The present tense allows a narrator with no perspective, one who is exactly as evolved as the main character. Present tense has particular use in dystopian fiction--in which the characters can only live in the present, in which there's no guarantee there will be a future to narrate from. (The best example is The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness, the book I will not shut up about. It's "more interested in the possibilities of language," in Hensher's words, than any book I've read in a long time.)

There are fads in narrative, but also fads in what's considered the proper way to tell a story. Someday I'm going to get hopped up on Theraflu and come on here and rant about the opposition to point of view switches and intrusive narrators. I don't see the good in limiting the tools in your narrative workbench; the point is the mechanisms of narrative--point of view, tense, syntax--are a conscious choice, with meaning for and effect on the story. Choose consciously, wisely--and if anyone complains blame your writing teacher.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

56 Picture Book Manuscripts

I have fifty-six undergraduate students this semester. We just finished the picture book section of Writing Children’s Stories 101. Following Ron’s post I can safely say that hardly any of these students decided to dress dangerously. Here are some of things I found myself repeating:

- If you begin a book with a bored character looking for something else to do, chances are your reader will look for something else to do as well.
- Rainy day activities (unless Cat in The Hat) are not fun or funny.
- Eliminate all mothers. They ought never be around to solve problems—it’s just not interesting.
- Aren’t we done with pirates yet? Though I suppose, if done well, everyone loves a pirate.
- No need to over-detail. There will be pictures after all.
- Read rhyme out loud to someone other than a kind friend, and PLEASE ask yourself—WHY MUST IT RHYME? (I totally understand editors’ request never to submit rhyming picture books)
- Make your character suffer more than you think they should.
- Don’t be afraid to exaggerate here and there.
- Do freckles really illuminate? (I did repeat this twice)
- Look for patterns everywhere.
- If there is a talking cricket at the end you might consider alluding to it in the beginning.

But in spite of all this, there is good in every piece—always something that can be taken and made even better. (And all fifty-six get to rewrite their manuscripts!) Now to find that germ of good in my own work, and treat it with nothing close to timidity. Suicidal lemmings anyone?

Monday, October 4, 2010

Music to My Ears

"Musicians practice to reduce the risk of catastrophe, but to play with complete safety is an insult to their art." Ben Fountain.

A lot of what I read is very safe. And predictability (a synonym for safety) may be due to trying to avoid catastrophe. Which is probably a bad review, an out-and-out rejection, or not even finishing the novel, story, or poem.

If I think about this quote, though, I remember passages in my books (passages I loved even if no one else did) that shook free of safety. I wrote these when they were least expected. Probably when the ego was busy looking at itself in the mirror and the other guards were smoking and talking about Saturday night.

I suspect recklessness is better tolerated in poetry where not much is at stake and the idiosyncratic can be rewarded by publication in an obscure journal. (There's a catastrophe of a different magnitude. )

I very much like the idea of not insulting one's art by playing it safe. It's a bit abstract, but still a useful tool to wield when someone is floundering. Are you stuck? Unhappy with your work? Ask if timidity might not be the problem.

Then dress up in something dangerous and go back to work.