Wednesday, November 24, 2010

And Now...for a Word from Our Sponsor

Hello Storyteller's Inkpot readers,

Just a quick note from Hamline University to invite you to join two of our Inkpot bloggers for a one-day workshop on Saturday, December 4, 2010 at StoryStudio in Chicago, Illinois.

Award-winning young adult and children’s book authors Marsha Qualey and Marsha Chall will present a morning workshop and lunch to give you a sneak peek inside Hamline's accredited, low-residency master of fine arts in writing for children and young adults program. Qualey and Chall are both instructors in the program. Current students and alumni, as well as the dean of the Hamline University Graduate School of Liberal Studies, will also be in attendance to answer your questions. The cost is $25, including lunch. Attendance is free for SCBWI, CLN and StoryStudio members.

The topics presented at the workshop include 'How to Capture Your Childhood Memories and Channel Them into Your Writing' and 'How to Create Authentic, Novel-Worthy Characters in Your Books.'

Click here to learn more about the December 4 event and to register to attend. We'd love to see you there! And, if you can't make it, watch for future workshops of this kind on our website.


This is not turkey-related (sorry) but you've been on my mind lately. You in the 2nd person that is. I recently read YOU, by Charles Benoit. YOU is a dark, downward spiral of an everyday teenager—i.e., you. I mentioned it to my writing class, and this week I have four stories in second person, so "you" is now on many minds. Here is a bit of my textbook cautionary response:

Second person is by far the least used point of view in fiction. It has severe obstacles. Second person requires the reader not only to step into the head of the protagonist, but into her very shoes. The reader becomes the protagonist.

In turn, second person requires the writer to become one with the reader. The writer must convince the reader that the events are happening to her personally and that she is seeing and experiencing these events through her own eyes. Second person is often used in conjunction with present tense because both add immediacy to a scene.

Second person is more common in nonfiction, such as in instructional or advice-giving articles. It makes the lesson up-close and personal rather than formal. Think of the “Choose your Own Adventure” series, where the reader makes choices, and the outcome is open-ended. It often has a jarring effect in fiction. Your reader picks up a book to escape into another character for a while and using “you” destroys this illusion. It can feel weird--as though you are being bossed around with someone always telling you what to do and feel. This may be exactly what the author intends (or not).

I'm not totally anti-second person. It can have a lingering and powerful effect on the reader and it is an exciting challenge for the writer. Give it a whirl this weekend--become one with your reader. (put that way it sounds kind of thrilling...) Why not?

Those of you using second person, have anything to add?

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Low-Hanging Fruit

A student sent me this quote from Robert Olen Butler's From Where You Dream:

"When I've finished a work, and some time passes, and I'm working up to something new, I feel that I am utterly wasting my life. I do trivial, ghastly, quotidian stuff; I hate myself; I complain about myself to my wife, and that hatred daily increases. Finally she says to me, 'Honey, it's OK, you've now reached total self-loathing; you're about to start writing.' She's always right. Soon thereafter, the door opens up to my unconscious, to my new work, and I leap in. And then I write every day and I am scared every day and I am happy every day."

This is apt for me right now. At least the first half, I wouldn't know anything about the second. The book I've spent all year complaining about is done, I've turned in the copyedits, I'm waiting to see the final draft of the cover and dipping my toe into the ocean of pre-publication panic. I am done. I am writing--absolutely nothing.

Some people write because they love writing. Some write because they love having written. I think I write mostly to keep the horrible feeling of not-writing away. It's what I'm for, simply--and when not doing it, I am for nothing but self-pity, Top Chef, and the terrible realization that I have no actual job qualifications. That book you're working on, that story you're telling yourself a little more every day, is the stuff that propels you forward. Storytelling is the driving force of life. And of course there's always the panic that you'll never have an idea again--this is it, the well is dry. I have friends who have ideas popping up everywhere, and all they have to do is walk out into their lush gardens and pick whichever one looks the juiciest. I'm the next-door neighbor whose backyard is a thicket of weeds and cracked dry soil and malevolent squirrels. Every once in a great while a tiny green shoot of something pops up tentatively, valiantly photosynthesizes, then thinks Aw, screw this! and gives itself to the boll weevils.

This happens every time, and you'd think I'd learn after awhile and chill a bit. But, I ask you, if we go around learning from past experience all the time, how would we be miserable? I'll be like this until something happens, some brave little shoot survives the parched soil, soul-sucking pestilence, and periodic hailstorms of the quotidian.

Theoretically, it could happen, right?

Monday, November 22, 2010

Giving Thanks

Writers have to be versatile. In addition to cranking out our masterpieces, we work day jobs, parent, teach, write greeting cards and advertisements, waitress, bar-tend, edit, blog, and etc. This is nothing new. One of the main advocates for Thanksgiving, as we know it, was a writer.

Sarah Josepha Hale was born in New Hampshire. When she was 34, her husband died, leaving her with five young children. Funded by the Freemasons, her first book of poems, The Genius of Oblivion, was published in 1823, beginning her life in letters. Throughout her long career she wrote novels, poems, and children's books. She was even better known as an editor, editing a woman's magazine that published the writings of some of America's best writers (men and women). She was hugely influential on women of her era and politically active in liberal causes.

Her first novel, Northwood, was about the immorality of slavery. It was in that novel that she described a Thanksgiving dinner at length in mouth watering detail (especially if you are not a vegetarian), giving special mention to roasted turkey and pumpkin pie.

While Thanksgiving was primarily a New England holiday, celebrated on different days in different states, Hale was one of the most vocal supporters for establishing it as a national holiday. She wrote letters to five presidents in a row. On October 3rd, 1863, Abraham Lincoln (no mean writer himself) instituted the holiday: "The year that is drawing towards its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature, that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible." (Dibs on The Habitually Insensible Heart for a book title). He proclaimed Thanksgiving a national holiday, celebrated each year on the last Thursday of November.

So we have Sarah Josepha Hale partly to thank for the holiday, as well as for the nursery rhyme "Mary had a Little Lamb." And like so many of us, she was a multi-tasker.

Friday, November 19, 2010

A Little Yin

if, indeed, my last post was yang. I'm thinking back week or ten days ago to the one about the break-out novel (Someone already wittily suggested fictive acne.) Mostly I complained about being prodded to write what would essentially be a best seller. And the whine wasn't because I didn't want to be rich, popular and adored but because my editor couldn't be more specific than, "Something different. Not what you usually write." I'm sure my attitude was, "I'll show you. I'll write two sequels!"

What if I was wrong? What if all of us who have been urged to do something very, very different and have dug in our heels have been wrong? Everyone knows that doing the same thing and expecting a different outcome is madness. I always expect my next book to knock everyone's socks off, yet the socks stubbornly stay on even though I promised that the barefoot photos would be tasteful and available only to discriminating clients in the UK.

Hmmm. Well, I'll keep everyone posted, as I ponder these things. Happy Thanksgiving to all.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Joining the Frey

My Twitter feed exploded on Friday. I was traveling and couldn't quite piece it together. James Frey. YA book packaging. A million little suckers. It turns out that NY Magazine has published James Frey's Fiction Factory, an article about the memorist's--oops! j/k!--novelist's new effort to become a YA book packager. Frey's been going to (adult writing) MFA programs like Columbia and recruiting writers to pitch him ideas. He tells you there is so much potential. Spielberg. Michael Bay. Merchandising rights. Frey's vast social network. And, I think, a pony.

Oddly, there's a catch. The contract seems to be a wee one-sided. $250 bucks for selling a book. A possible $250 upon completion. You have no rights to your name or image--they can use it whenever they want. You are not allowed to say you wrote the book--except they can tell the world you did if they feel like it. You will get 30%-40% of profits--except you basically have to take their word on what those profits are. You will be liable for any legal action, but you will not own the copyright. You are required to write more books in the series if they ask. But they might ask someone else. And you are not allowed to sign contracts on any "conflicting projects." Also, you have to work closely with James Frey.

No matter. As everyone knows, YA literature is all about one sentence pitches, Michael Bay, and merchandising rights. It's the path to glory. And its function is to make everyone very very rich. Right? (For a good rant and round-up of other rants, see Liz Burns' fine A Chair, A Fireplace, and a Tea Cozy. Also see Maureen Johnson's essential commentary on the contract.)

It's all ridiculous. And gross. The writers who've signed themselves away to Frey should be doing more due diligence, of course. And Frey is, at best, a douchebag. But the MFA programs letting this guy come in with his snakeoil are really culpable here. These programs take students' money, spend 2-3 years purporting to teach them to be artists, and then invite this guy in to dazzle them with sparkly promises while treating them like monkeys at a typewriter. If I'm reading the article correctly, Columbia has six students currently signed up with this company, essentially becoming a feeder program for serfdom on Frey's YA manor.

You can teach people about craft all you want, but that's all worthless if you teach them that their work is worth this little. (Though perhaps the problem is these programs simply don't think of YA as real, worthwhile writing....No mention of him going to any of the children's writing MFAs) The outside world is happy to take things from you, to tell you your work isn't valuable. This is your art and your job. Your words are valuable. Your time is valuable. Your name is valuable. And if you don't value these things no one else will. Be wary. If you have doubts, show your contract to the Author's Guild. If an agency asks you for money to sell your book, walk away. Do research. Make sure you're being fairly compensated for your work, that you're protected, that your name is your own to use as you wish, and that if someone's promising you something he puts it in writing. Don't sell yourself for only a dream of riches, or even the promise of a pony. Because you're the one who is going to have to clean up after it.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Thoughts on a theme of picture books by number

Many moons ago or so (I have difficulty keeping track of time), we were discussing the NY Times depressing article about the picture book market. I had a hard time believing that parents would really eschew those extraordinary works, but if there is a movement as such, I doubt that it will last.

The other day, my son Isaac and I went into our local chain bookstore, which shall be unnamed, but starts with a B (I know; they both do). I like to go there because we can sit anonymously in large comfy chairs and read for hours. I buy my books, however, at independent bookstores (I buy coffee and hot chocolate at the chain, so they can't complain). Bookstores, especially large ones, have an area where picture books "face out." The decision to face out a picture book (have it shelved so that the full cover shows) is obviously vital to the marketing of that book. As we entered the children's section of the B store, there it was, a whole wall of picture books, facing out, every single one of them Disney; the ones a team writes after the movies come out (as opposed to their publishing arm, Hyperion, which publishes many fine books). Needless to say, I didn't even stay for our requisite hot drinks. Shaking my head and sputtering, we were out of there.

My son is big reader and book buyer, but even when he was little, he knew the rule: I will not buy him a book adapted from a TV show or movie. When I worked at the Scholastic Book fair at his school, I pulled all of those books off the shelves (The other parents definitely thought I was neurotic). When my son sees those books, he makes a face like he's smelled sour milk, so he is well conditioned.

So, after leaving the B store, we went straight to our independent bookstore, Island Books, in Newport, Rhode Island. I wrote about it earlier when I mentioned Shakespeare and Company in Paris. I said I would go in and ask the owner Judy to put a mattress on the floor for me like they have in the Paris bookstore. I figured a piano was too much to ask. Well, when we got there, there was indeed a bed on the floor. It was for a beagle, but still, I was impressed that the bohemian lifestyle was alive and well in Rhode Island. We did sit and read, maybe not long enough to be entitled to move in, but long enough. We had to get drinks at the cafe across the way, but that was fine, because I always worry about spilling on the books.

I've suggested Shrek, by William Steig, for those attending our illustrious residency at Hamline. It's a wonderfully funny book with Steig's usual playfulness with language, and theme of love and devotion. I am using it for the dialogue workshop because it epitomizes idiosyncratic characters and dialogue. Many people now associate Shrek with the movie. It was after Steig's death, that the book of the movie appeared, displacing Steig's real book on many shelves. I don't know for sure, but I can't imagine that it would have been Steig's wish?

All of us have heard or said that writing a picture book is the hardest thing to do. From my experience, that is the case. I have written several, but never had the chutzpah to try to sell the little banal atrocities to anyone. I still think that the best of them are works of art comparable to any other masterpiece.

Many said during the eighties and early nighties that the children's market was stagnant. Guess what? They were wrong. When I tried to sell my first YA novel in the diary form I was told by agents that nobody reads diaries. The agents were wrong. Don't let doomful naysayers (even The New York Times, which has a place of reverence, not to mention makes a big pile, in our house). You be the one, as J.K. Rowling did, to turn the proverbial tides.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

The brave new world of research

This morning I came across a hand-written, nearly illegible letter from my great-uncle Carleton. In his cramped, wobbly hand (he was 92 at the time), he wrote about his grandmother's wedding. He remembered her stories about this event, which took place on the family's front porch in Randolph, VT, in 1861. Uncle Carleton recited the guest list. He also told me about his grandfather, who mustered out with the First Vermont Division soon after the wedding, broke his kneecap, and ended up carrying the wounded on stretchers for the rest of the war. Carleton's letter, written in 1983, connected me to an event from 125 years earlier. His personality bristles on the page and brings back his querulous voice.

As someone who has spent many hours reading old letters, diaries, and journals, I waxed nostalgic--briefly--about the demise of hand-written archival material. I thought about the letters of Susan LaFlesche, the first American Indian woman doctor. Her sloping handwriting described the trials of her medical training; her pride at standing firm during surgery while a male student fainted. I remembered a diary I read at our local historical society, written by a 12 year old Vermont farm boy, whose syntax and vocabulary helped me find the voice of an 18th century narrator. What would be lost if people no longer put pen to paper?

And then, a friend mentioned that she has never deleted over 10,000 received e-mails. I thought about Wiki-leaks, releasing a tsunami of e-mails about our two wars; about kids who send thousands of text messages per month; about voice messages piled up on my own cell phone--and my heart quailed. Is this a historian's dream, or nightmare? Will we go crazy, sorting through an avalanche of e-mail posts, texts, phone conversations--and yes, blogs like this one--in search of the telling fact or detail? Is this the true meaning of "too much information?"

On the other hand, there are advantages to this brave new world. My current novel takes place in 2004 (already ancient history to some readers). I was thrilled when my friend Jack Burrage sent me to a website with the complete record of every Red Sox game from that fabulous year. In one quick e-mail, he saved me hours of digging. So maybe this isn't an either/or situation--but it does leave me muddled.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Art Vs. Entertaiment

I'm just back from Palm Springs and a little gig at a library. Some sixth graders had read the second of the Shakespeare novels-in-verse (mine, not Will's) and had some questions and comments. Mostly they said the book was fun to read. Their teacher had to tell them things about the various forms-of-poetry and their response was basically, "Oh, okay. It was still fun." When they asked me if I had a good time writing it, I said that I did.

A few years ago my editor at Candlewick called me up and chided me about not writing the break-through novel. Mild interrogation didn't reveal exactly what that was, but she would know it when I submitted it. Somehow I needed to be elevated from the mid-list. I needed to break through; I'd gotten about as far as I could go with the novels I'd been writing. She didn't use the word "art" but I could feel it hovering there like an alien spacecraft, its probes greased and at the ready.

After the conversation I thought, "Oh, dear." Or some other word with four letters.
I could just feel the doggedness closing in. Many doggednesses. A pack of them. My editor was being so serious, and I am not a serious person. And art has always sounded serious to me even though I know better and even said in a lecture that the membrane between craft and art is very permeable, and God knows I'm a craftsman.

Basically I couldn't think much about the so called break-through novel. It was the famous wet blanket. Or wet diaper. I'd rather just bumble along and write what I wanted. I'd rather, in a word, be entertaining. Screw art and the unicorn it rode in on.

Advice nobody really asked for: take it easy on yourselves. Be light of heart. Good things often happen effortlessly.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Let the Right One In

My little boy was expelled from preschool for biting last week. Apparently that sort of thing still happens even in this post-Twilight age. You’d think people would be more understanding. This all poses an interesting challenge as I attempt to "write books," "do my job at Hamline," and generally function without injections of Klonopin.

Tonight I took the little biter out for pizza at the local co-op to take his mind off the infestation of snot that’s now consuming his body like paranormal romance in a bookstore's YA section. He had little appetite for it, which surprised me—until he vomited all over the table.

Now, he’s lying in his room coughing and he sounds like something out of Fever 1793. This is what happens, apparently, when you go through a few days without biting anyone.

I was doing to do an extensive post about some articles that have popped up in the past few days. The post is now going to be less extensive. You understand, right?

Hamline's own MFA graduate Christine Heppermann has an article in the latest Horn Book about being a student in the program, and for anyone interested in a low residency MFA in Writing for Children, it's a great description of what you can expect-- even though Christine never mentions how meaningful our conversations about Project Runway were to her. The article isn't online, but you could just come over here to read it. Especially if you babysit.

A couple weeks ago, I posted on the NY Times article on declining picture book sales. Here's another response, from the Children's Book Review, on the value of picture books.

And at, agent Mary Cole writes about contemporary YA, and what it needs to do to stand out in the sea of paranormal romance and dystopian books that are consuming the YA sections of bookstores like snot in a preschooler boy.

There's more, but oddly enough I can't remember what it is. You understand? Yes? Good.

Friday, November 5, 2010

editing advice

About revision, I find myself telling writers: Be neither the doting parent, who blindly adores every word; nor the critical parent, who destroys the joy and pleasure of the process through self battery.

Be that balanced parent who says: "Lovely. Bravo. Now practice it again until it's perfect."

Thursday, November 4, 2010

To Write Daily Or To Not Write Daily

I’ve been reading Writers On Writing, A collection of Essays by Writers. Two stand out for their contradiction.
Carolyn Chute, author of four novels, (her first, The Beans of Egypt Maine was a critical, yet controversial success) says:
“I am an unmarketable person. I can’t teach writing or make a living in any public way, as I get confused when interrupted or over-stimulated. So, my only income is from novels. I make about $2 an hour. This should explain the absence of dishwasher, clothes dryer, running hot water, electricity, health insurance and other such luxuries.

Writing is like meditation or going into an ESP trance, or prayer. Like dreaming. You are tapping into your unconsciousness. To be fully conscious and alert with life banging and popping and cuckooing all around you, you are not going to find your way to your subconscious, which is a place of complete submission. It takes me three days of complete boredom and no interruptions to calm myself enough to get to that place."

Walter Mosley, famous and acclaimed author of over thirty books, including, the Easy Rawlings mystery series, says:

“If you want to be a writer you have to write every single day. The consistencies, the monotony, the certainty, all vagaries and passions are covered by this daily recurrence. It doesn’t matter what time of day, and there’s no time limit on how long you have to write. Some days it might only be a few minutes, other days it might be a few hours. The important thing is that you breathe and dream your writing every single day or it will lose its life.

Nothing we create is art at first. It’s simply a collection of notions that may never be understood. Returning every day thickens the atmosphere. Images appear. Connections are made. But even these clearer notions will fade if you stay away more than a day.”

Mosley is a commercial and financial success with a plethora of novels behind him and in front of him. He is a good and admirable writer. Chute is not as well known, she lives quietly and poorly in the woods (with her also “unmarketable” husband) yet she is just as committed to her process and her personality. She is poor, but she is honest. She is a good and admirable writer.

Is it possible to be a writer who is a little of both? Can we write daily and also not-write daily? Is every writer a walking contradiction?

Monday, November 1, 2010

Operatic writing

As writers, we pay constant attention to the Don'ts of writing. Don't Tell: Show. Don't bog the story down with long flashbacks. Don't create stereoytypical characters. Don't give in to melodrama. And whatever you do: Don't kill your characters off at the end. That's cheating.

Saturday night, my husband and I were given complimentary tickets to the Metropolitan Opera's production of Il Trovatore (Verdi). Most of the first act was given over to endless flashbacks and telling, as Ferrando entertains the Count's restless troops with a complex tale of a Gypsy's curse, a dead baby, and a daughter's revenge. The opera's love story is based on a hopeless triangle; the audience knows, well ahead of time, that a final union is impossible. In the last scenes, Verdi gives us betrayal, suicide by slow-acting poison, a beheading, and fratricide. We never know whether the main characters go through any sort of internal change, as most are dead when the final curtain falls--or lying prostrate with grief. The opera broke every rule in the book--and the audience went wild when the final curtain fell. My husband's first comment, even though he cheered as loudly as anyone, was: "What a silly plot."

Indeed. But does the charm of opera reflect our hidden desires? Do we all long to be as wildly dramatic and overemotional at times? Do we, too, wish we could reach the soprano's impossibly high note while lying in a lover's arms, our long hair cascading across the stage? Do we imagine a lover sending his army to rescue us from a tower? Would we challenge a rival to a duel by swords, in order to win the one we love?

Perhaps the message of the opera to writers is: Let it all go. Don't be afraid to fall--and fail. Every now and then, wail and scream at the top of your lungs. Be passionate, scale the tower walls, declare your love to the world. Hit the high note--and go out with a bang.