Thursday, March 31, 2011

Lesson learned...again

“You learn ten thousand lessons in your life, either ten thousand different lessons or the same one over and over ten thousand times.”
Bike store owner I once knew in Chicago.

After a winter in which I have perfected my impersonation of a hibernating slug, I stepped away from my desk chair and my house Sunday and went looking for sandhill cranes. These tall birds with rusty heads appear in March, usually in pairs, walking their backward-bending walk and clacking like hollow wooden sticks. They come to a woody marsh about thirty miles from where I live, and the window of opportunity for seeing them is brief: warm enough that they’ve returned but still cold enough to walk over the frozen marsh to see them.

I heard them before I saw them, and the whole time I wandered over the ice their clackety clacking helped me spot them, sometimes walking, sometimes taking wing and flapping slowly by.

I came back and put my butt in chair again, and I may never write about the cranes except in this blog. But seeing them has made me glad, and that’s not a bad thing for a writer. In time I’ll probably forget how glad they made me, and I’ll have to learn again that stepping away from my work for a while can actually make me a better writer or at least a less cranky one.

So what lessons about your own writing process have you learned—or relearned and relearned and relearned?

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Turn It Up

Every sound in a scene adds to the story. Sounds create setting, mood, character, and can provide tension. Like endowed objects, there can be endowed sounds—a sound that means more than merely what it sounds like.

Keep a list of human nonverbal sounds, and a list of nonhuman sounds that might be heard, and use them in your writing. Here’s a start…

Human Nonverbal:

Cry of a baby





Squealing tires

Gun shot

Wind through a maple tree in autumn

Glass breaking

Now for extra fun—especially if you are writing picture books—try to write the actual sound in words, making them onomatopoeic as possible. Margaret Wise Brown loved to do this in her books The Noisy Book and The Quiet Book. The sound of a truck going over a dirt road: burrippity burrp burrppity. Or the sound of a car siren: Err-u-ahh-err-u-ahh.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

A Messy Business


The word has cropped up several times recently in connection with writing, thanks to a letter from a current student, a conversation with a Vermont MFA grad whose first book is about to be published, and an email from a Hamline MFA student researching writers’ work habits for a thesis. So I’ve been thinking about messiness.

Writing is messy. Not just the papers scattered over my desk (anyone else remember the future paperless society we should be living in now?) but also the whole messy process, from diving into the chaos of our lives to find an idea, shaping that idea into some kind of story, and seeing the story differently over and over and over again as we revise. I’ve just finished the umpteenth deep revision of Supertruck. This story now comes in at just under 400 words, and yet perhaps the only constant words in all the revisions are “Supertruck” and “the.”

Writing is anti-entropic, creating order out of the chaos of the universe. Hard as it is to do some days, we need to trust the messiness of the process. I take heart from William Saroyan, who said that writing was the hardest way he knew to earn a living, with the possible exception of wrestling alligators.

Wrestling alligators. Now that’s messy.

Friday, March 25, 2011

You Again?

Below, Molly writes into Ask the Inkpot about how to get into a story again after putting it down for awhile. It's a great question, and something everyone struggles with. There was a time in my life when I could sit down and binge write a novel--getting out a draft in two or three months by writing every day, all day, and then doing the same thing with the rewrites. That was before the child, cats who need diapers, cats who need t-shirts, and the trail of dead mice that lead from my apartment to the funny farm.

I depended on that momentum, on living in the headspace created by working on a book every day; it propelled me through a book. This was how I wrote. To be honest, I'm still figuring out how to write in the real world. I'm a writer precisely so I don't have to deal with the real world.

I think one way to approach it is like approaching revisions--start small, low expectations, just try to get back in the book. So much of writing is finding ways to trick yourself, after all. Take a chapter (or several) that you have done already and type them back into your document--you'll probably start changing things here and there, and you'll get yourself back into the rhythms and voice of the book. If that's not enough, start actually doing broader revisions on the part you have--character, theme, plot--look at all your narrative threads and work on bringing them out. Write a summary of each scene and what it accomplishes, both in terms of plot and in terms of the development of the relationships between the characters and the character growth. Your job is to insert yourself back in the world of the book, to remind yourself where you were so you can go forward.

Of course, these are just ideas. Anyone else?

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Question from Blog Reader

Hello, Inkpotters!

Here's a question for you from the Ask the Inkpot mail bag.

"Can you make suggestions and/or offer exercises for help getting back into a story you are working on when it has been put aside for some time?"

Thanks, Molly

And, readers, if you have a question for the Inkpot Bloggers, please email it to

Until next time,

Inkpot Administrator

Monday, March 21, 2011

How-to, again

The first book on writing craft I encountered was Writing for Story by Jon Franklin, a gift from a good friend and writing colleague Lisa Westberg Peters way back when we were both newly published. Lisa's moved on from writing children's books and is now in school again and also blogging about her SE Minneapolis neighborhood. I'm still struggling with writing novels, however, and yesterday I pulled the Franklin book off the shelf.

Still a lot of gems in the yellowed pages, albeit arguable ones: "All of literature, in short, can be divided into two parts. Focuses are one thing. Transitions are quite another," or, "... there are three kinds of narrative, transitional, preparatory, and climactic."

And in case you don't immediately know what the heck he means, well, neither did I and I've read the book a couple of times. Yet, after some mulling and reading, it sinks in and makes sense.

Students in the Hamline program know I love talking and thinking about structure. I'd not looked at the Franklin book in years--over a decade, I bet--but I'm amused now to see how much he emphasizes structure. Evidently this first encounter with a writing book left a strong imprint.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Goodnight House, Goodnight...

The other morning I woke up at 4:30am due to some cat-related kerfuffle, and could not fall back asleep. Finally at 6 I got up and thought I'd read a manuscript I had to work on. I made coffee and toast and went back to my room to discover two of the cats sniffing the remains of a dead mouse under my desk.

Now, I can't read a book or watch a movie where anything bad happens to an animal. I can't handle animals suffering. I'm still emotionally scarred by reading Where the Red Fern Grows--not to mention when a babysitter took me and my brother to that nice cartoon called Animal Farm. I don't like nature, and find the whole Circle-of-Life thing deeply suspect. And I do not like dead animals. Nor potentially eviscerated ones. So I did what any right thinking person would do--dropped the coffee and toast, turned and fled the room, then sat on the couch and contemplated burning the house down.

Eventually, I tried to go back in the room but became certain the cats had drawn and quartered the thing and could not go in. This was a problem as I did have to go out later, and should probably not be dressed in my flannel sock monkey jammies when I did so. And my phone was in the bedroom, meaning I could not call my brother, my parents, 911, or the American embassy. Finally, my little boy woke up and I asked him to go into Mommy's room to get the phone, which he did happily. (Yes, this is true. In my defense, I did feel guilty about it.)

I should be tying this to issues of craft. And when I started writing this, I was thinking about empathy and the writer, about how the same thing that allows us to imagine whole characters can make it hard to be in the world sometimes, or at least to keep one's house free of rodentia. But last night I saw one of the cats staring intently under the oven, and so really I'm just hoping someone will volunteer to come in and take care of this for me.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Checking in

When I started posting on The Storyteller’s Inkpot, my daughter also started on her trek with Wilderness Classroom, skiing and dog sledding 800 miles through the Northwest Territories from Norman Wells down to Fort Resolution. They’ve covered a lot of ground since they left Norman Wells, roughly 400 miles. Each day they e-mail a check-in through SPOT, whose slogan is “live to tell the tale,” giving their location and a few statistics. Here’s part of today’s email:

High 3
low -24
18 miles
1 fox
3 raven

I haven’t been keeping statistics of what I’ve done in those same weeks, but I like the idea. My latitude and longitude seldom change, the highs and lows are less important because I have a house with central heating instead of a tent with a wood stove. So what have I done since they started their trek?

Bad poems 26
Maybe good poems 1
Revisions of stories 2
New stories written 0
Blog postings 7

I won’t be keeping a daily log because I know myself well enough to realize how quickly I’d turn against myself. Only 4000 words today? Not even one epic novel in verse? You’re never gonna make it before ice-out. Better write faster.

But it’s good to turn once in a while and look at where I’ve been and what I’ve done. To know I’m still moving and living to tell the tale.

Sunday, March 13, 2011


Anita Silvey's blog is always worth checking out. Today's entry is on The Westing Game, a book I did not discover until I was well into adulthood and which I did not finish reading until I was a professional writing teacher and had to read because it was on a required list. By then, I was ready for it.

I have this reading rule for books that I can't finish when I'm told it's a book I will love:Three strikes and...wait a decade then try once more. The Shipping News is due for its final shot soon.

Do any of you have books the world loves and you did not? 'Fess up now. (And yes, my other one is To Kill a Mockingbird, but that's come up before.)


Saturday, March 12, 2011

The Mommy Bloggers Are Coming...

I have a picture book out this month. It’s my first one in about three years. A lot has changed in that time. Honestly, I feel a bit Rip Van Winkle. Especially with the marketing biz. So I thought I’d share some of my discoveries with you.

First off, I got a trailer made. Cute. (if you want, you can view it here…) Then I hired a marketing company. Two savvy, smart women who used to work in publishing until, like everyone, they were laid off. They started Blue Slip Media. I highly recommend them if you have a book out and want someone to help market it.

One thing Blue Slip does is get the book to mommy bloggers. No, mommy bloggers are not a group of desperate housewives parading around after their babies are snug in the beds, wielding internet daggers and other such implements. They are not out to get you. In fact, they love books. I mean, they LOVE books, almost as much as they love their babies. And they have big followings (mainly all the other zillions of mommy bloggers). And, get this, they BUY books.

Are reviews in literary journals being replaced by moms (and dads)? It’s a word of mouth system. (word of internet?) It used to be an “in” book with librarians equaled sales. Key being, used to. Now, here come the mommy bloggers. Actually, the mommy bloggers are HERE. They are worth paying attention to.

Here’s a link to some of the top ones such as Momma Drama, Urban Baby, Booking Mama, etc.. or go to: topmommyblogs for a list of many. A lot of them offer free book giveaways, too.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Winter is almost over, really.

Writers! Ever hate the sound of your own voice? I mean writing voice? Uh huh. Well, I’m going through one of those periods now—not the first time—and to shake it off I do what I usually do: write different stuff. I’m trying some various poetry forms, writing short stories again, and doing a few other things/exercises, all of which at time seems like so much hocus pocus. But I persist.

And I’m reading a lot, hard copy and online. Here’s a quote and a link, both of which stirred the juices again. Can a return to the novel-in-progress be far behind? Here’s hoping.

“All really satisfying stories, I believe, can generally be described as spendthrift…. A spendthrift story has a strange way of seeming bigger than the sum of its parts; it is stuffed full; it gives a sense of possessing further information that could be divulged if called for. Even the sparest in style implies a torrent of additional details barely suppressed, bursting through the seams.” --Anne Tyler

Spendthrift? I wouldn't have used that work, but now I like it. A good children's book is certainly bursting through the seams.

And here's an interview with Alice Munro.

Turn your clocks ahead tomorrow night. Spring forth.

On Wisconsin.


Thursday, March 10, 2011


Today the oven doesn’t light,
the dryer timer knob is broken,
the car refuses to shift
into first or reverse unless
the engine is turned off,
and my computer will not recharge.

Lucky for me
they put odor in gas,
I’m fine playing dryer roulette,
there’s nowhere I need to go,
and I have not yet given up my stash
of pen and paper.

Clearly the thing at the top of my list
is to write this poem.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

One Word at a Time

The Writer's Almanac this past Sunday quoted E.L. Doctorow: "Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way."

Recently I drove (in daylight) four hundred miles through a snowstorm, not a bad one as winter storms go, not enough to close the highways, but enough wind and snow to obscure the other cars at times and to blow snow onto the passing lane so that I clenched my teeth and the steering wheel whenever I passed a semi. But the trip was worth it to get where I was going, and when I wasn't white-knuckling the steering wheel and the snow parted for a few minutes the scenery was stunning.

A good friend and great writer says she asks herself to write for only ten minutes a day. That's enough to get her started but not so much as to feel overwhelming. Once she's started, she almost always writes on beyond those ten minutes, often for hours.

Fog, snow -- it's all tough driving. Don't think four hundred miles, think passing the next semi. Think ten minutes of writing. Think one scene at a time, one word at a time. Then write.

You'll get there, wherever there is. And you'll be glad you made the trip.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Easy Analogy

As many of you know I like to bet on thoroughbred horses. Some other guys and I owned a race horse for awhile, I've watched videos on horse body language, and I know my way around the backstretch. I can't remember the last names of people I taught with for thirty years, but I can't forget every photo finish that cost me a hundred dollars.

Right now handicappers all over the country are sorting out the Kentucky Derby possibilities. The Derby is the first Saturday in May, and three year olds (all of them have their birthdays on Jan 1) whose owners have Derby dreams are running in prep races. Some are up to the task of competing against the best in May, some aren't. Already there are lots of defections.

The whole process of sussing out a winner reminds me of reading manuscripts for contests. At first, many look promising. Then attrition sets in -- Not fast enough, too fast, no stamina, stamina but no sense of pace, beauty but no guts, guts but no heart.

But it's just March. Somewhere, probably, there's a colt nobody has heard of who'll ship to Florida or New York, run lights out, and make everybody's heart beat a little faster. Just like the manuscript by somebody no one has ever heard up that makes the judges call each other and say, "Have you read X? Wow!"

Stay tuned. I'll know more in a month or so. About the Derby horses that is.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Hard to Please

I got my galleys for my new book yesterday. The book still doesn't come out until the fall--these are the copies for booksellers and early reviewers, and also for my mom. But seeing the book look like a book all of a sudden is a terrific thrill, and I was bouncing around the apartment showing them off repeatedly to anyone who would look. Since I live only with my four-year-old and he wasn't home, that left the cats--who looked at me disparagingly, then went back to tending to their individual neuroses.

I wonder if Jane Yolen, who has published 7,894,322 books, bounces around when she gets the galley to book number 7,894,323. I like to think so. I've heard writers be so restrained about the things that happen along the way--when an agent asks to see your book, when you sign with an agent, when an editor wants to take the book to acquisitions, when your pretty galleys show up on your doorstep. Well, you never know what's going to happen, they say. And this is true. You don't. So you might as well let yourself enjoy this stuff. All these little moments--a nice mention somewhere, an encouraging rejection-- just let yourself be happy--not for what it might be, but for what it is.

So, my shiny books and I enjoyed a quiet afternoon alone together, and then finally my boy came home from school. "Look!" I said, showing him the pretty stack. "It's my book!" He smiled appreciatively. "Oh, it's very nice!" he said. Then he looked up at me and added, "When are you going to write another book, Mommy?"

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Common Language

THE SAILOR’S WORD BOOK, a copy of which sits on my shelf, is crammed full of marvelous terms relating to sailing in 1867 when the book was published. Bran, for example, means to lie under a floe edge, in foggy weather, in a boat in Arctic seas, to watch the approach of whales.

Before I read THE SAILOR’S WORD BOOK, I had never heard the word bran outside of discussions of cereal and roughage. Now I yearn to bran.

In writing, too, terms take on meanings specific to our craft. At the last Hamline MFA residency the faculty discussed how we could create succinct definitions of the most frequent, and sometimes confusing, terms that keep cropping up in our conversations about writing. A few weeks ago when Marsha Q asked what words readers thought we’d do well to define, suggestions included psychic distance, emotional life of a character, and texture. Here are some additional terms I jotted down:


emotional line

endowed object



hero’s journey

intrusive narrator


talismanic word

ticking clock


unreliable narrator

world building

Anything else you’d add?

And by the way, if you perchance are planning on branning, I would love to come along.