Monday, May 30, 2011


I am still thinking about the Answers, Inc. post from a few days ago on rhyming picture books. As a novelist, I don’t think too much about rhyming picture books, but as I mulled over the post a great writing truth presented itself to me; therefore, you shall have to hear about it. Ready?

Rhyming is to picture books as prologues are to novels.

Am I right, or what?

Both—rhyming, a prologue—are inordinately tempting to a writer. And more often than not, neither the rhyme nor the prologue ends up serving the story. But every now and then each proves indispensable, the perfect way to tell or begin the story.

That’s it. Have a lovely Memorial Day.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The earth under our feet

Yesterday I was wandering the Internet when I came upon a quote by Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh. Here’s a part of what he had written:

People usually consider walking on water or in thin air a miracle. But I think the real miracle is not to walk either on water or thin air, but to walk on earth.

Years ago I read The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck. What I remember of the novel (and memory, of course, is a chancy guide) is the old Chinese farmer going out to the field and taking off his sandals to feel that earth with the soles of his feet, an incredibly sensuous scene.

My mother grew up on a farm, and when I was small we had a huge garden for a few years before she became too sick to care for it. Our neighbor Mr. Reeser had a tractor and came to plow up the ground for us each spring. I have a vivid memory of standing on that turned-over clayey soil that still held the curve of the plow blade, earthworms crawling around the clods. I was barefoot. The air was moist with rain.

Both these memories rose up when I walked barefoot in my own tiny backyard a few days ago, breathing the earthy smell of rich, black dirt in the rain-drenched air, feeling the cool soil through the soles my feet. I might never use those moments from my own garden or that remembered garden in a book, but as a writer and human being I participate daily in the miracle of walking on the earth.

Pay attention. The feel of dirt under our feet matters.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Revision Redux: The Seven Deadly Sins

Molly asked for more specifics on right brain techniques for revision. Here goes. Last August several writers read my novel draft and I was all ready for the comments and the next stage of revision - line edits. But it was clear that my main character had to get to the historical event a week earlier, leaving me with many new scenes to write. It took me awhile to recover, but I had to admit their insights were spot on.

So after a few days of paralysis, I used my right brain to help reconceive the plot. I soon hit a roadblock when it came to scenes where my research of the historical event wasn't needed. What was driving my main character? After all this time, I still didn't have a clear enough sense. I tried Marsha Qualey's wonderful suggestion from the January residency - learn about the symptoms of the challenge your protagonist is facing. In my story it was Ottie's grief over the loss of her father. This helped me write about her behavior.

But I still lacked a deep understanding of her driving motivation. A couple of weeks ago at writing group, a friend mentioned a recent blog she had read about the technique of examining the seven deadly sins and seven heavenly virtues through the lens of the protagonist. This appealed to me in some strange way. I was raised Catholic. I knew all about sins and virtues and I thought it could be fun and possibly helpful.

This post comes from the Western Washington SCBWI blog.

"Give them a sin to struggle with. In a stressful situation, characters struggle more with their core sin. It becomes more tempting.

At the pivotal moments of your story will your character choose to act accordingly to their fundamental sin or their fundamental virtue? That’s what gives a story emotional power."

This free write exercise helped me choose pride as Ottie's sin, and love as her most important virtue. Something clicked. Understanding Ottie's and her entire family's driving principle helped me draft new scenes by understanding how she would act and the choices she would make.

Check it out. Sometimes those right brain exercises are pure gold.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Revision City: Using Our Whole Brain

I started a new novel on Sunday morning. Over morning coffee I read a fascinating news article that got the right side of my brain clicking on all cylinders. I grabbed a notebook and started brainstorming the story line. I had not been this excited about writing in weeks.

But here's the problem. I am deep into yet another revision of my historical novel. I had printed out some chapters and was editing for pacing and dialog. But it had been a dry week when nothing imaginative seemed to be coming forth. In all this deep revision work, I was using only my organized left brain to improve (ahem) my story. Last week I had also heard back from my agent that, sorry to say, my science book project still wasn't ready to send out. Even though I had emailed her with my new revision, insisting that I just couldn't do any more work on this. Couldn't we just send it out, even if it got a few rejections?

So by Sunday my right brain was screaming for attention and thus the desire to start a new story. This is not new for me. Over twenty years of writing, I have folders full of research and half completed stories. For me, revision is the hard part.

Recently I have been reading a lot about all this left brain/right brain research, including sections in two writing books. There seems to be a resurgence with new studies appearing every day. I am not going to try and explain it here. But you probably know the basics: organized left brain/freethinking right brain. After reading brain scientist Jill Bolte Taylor's book My Stroke of Insight about her recovery from a stroke, and the power of the right brain, it finally sunk in.

My revision work had been flat because I was only using the left side of my brain. No wonder I wanted to start a new story. I made some notes about it and put it away - for now. My right brain will keep composting the story, I am sure. But more importantly, I made a conscious effort to let the right brain be more a part of my revision process. I considered my agent's comments and enjoyed trying them out - right brain style. l let my right brain help me figure out sections of the novel that weren't working and solutions that might. Not only have I been having more fun with my writing, but it's working. Using both sides with intention produces better writing.

This seems to be my new thing, so I have a feeling I'll be returning to the topic. Let me know. How do the two parts of the brain work in your revision process?

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

ANSWERS, INK An occasional feature of questions that writers might have asked

Dear Answers, Ink,

I hear that rhyme is tough to write,

yet I love rhyme. My sorry plight:

Shall I, then, not compose

Except in prose?

Will S.

Dear Will,

Alas, my sorry skill

Cannot compose a rhymed response,

The task so great, it daunt, it daunts!

And there you have the problem with rhyme: rhythm and word choice can drive the narrative. While good rhyme, done well, adds its own momentum to a story, bad rhyme takes over a story. The rhyme, not the tale, becomes the driving force. Some common problems of bad rhyme include convoluted syntax, rhymes that are too often predictable, frequent use of the same rhyming sounds, and loss of narrative drive because of the need to rhyme.

If you have an idea for a rhymed story, try telling the story in prose first to see if a story exists beyond the catchy rhythms or enticing rhyme choices. If, indeed, you have your hands on a good story, then make sure your rhyming adds to the story rather than overwhelms it. Look for surprising and satisfying rhymes. Don’t contort syntax. Above all, remember that story comes first.

To rhyme or not to rhyme--that is not the question. The question is, does rhyme serve the story? If you can rhyme and still tell a good tale, more power to you. And if your rhyming tale contains star-crossed lovers, preferably vampires, you may have a hit on your hands.

Prosaically yours,


Sunday, May 15, 2011


Words turn into sentences, sentences into paragraphs, and eventually the logical structure of a story appears. But when does it stop? On the last day of a novel class I’ve been teaching a student asked, “How do we know we’ve reached the end?”

I thought about this—no one in the class had reached an end, but how did I know that? The simple, flippant answer is, it’s over when everyone is dead. But that’s not very satisfying. All the characters in the students’ novels-in-progress were still on the brink of trouble. There was no resolution to the main problem. I thought about my own novel-in-progress, which now has an end. I know it is the end. How? The protagonist has survived a long, hard journey and she is not dead. She’s alive. She’s okay. For now.

I thought about my current life and the difficulties I’ve been going through the past few months. For a moment I thought things were over (I’ve added melodrama here for effect, things were not anywhere near over—so don’t worry). It was not the end. And even though some of those difficulties are “over” now, there will be more as long as I am alive—that’s life, right? Life is not the same as fiction, right?

A week after class I dined with a wise philosopher friend (always useful to have one). We talked of life, literature, art. I told him how hard things have been, I told him about my novel, I told him about my student’s question. This is what he said: “Everything will be okay in the end. If it’s not okay, it’s not the end.”

Friday, May 13, 2011


As Phyllis pointed out, writers love words. They are the madeleines, the bon-bons, the dark chocolate of writing. But do writers love sentences? Sure we do, but I suspect at times it’s a love-hate relationship. Sentences are trickier than words, even devilish at times. Nothing reveals a writer’s weaknesses more quickly than the sentence. But a fine sentence is a lovely thing; many a writer has claimed a single one as a good day’s work.

I’ve been thinking about this because I’ve been reading How to Write a Sentence, by Stanley Fish. Fish is an opinionated man and doesn’t mind beginning his book by taking issue with that writing classic, The Elements of Style.

Here’s Fish’s definition of a sentence: “A sentence is a structure of logical relationships.”

Those “logical relationships” are key, he says. Each word and phrase in a good sentence has a role to play that is defined by its relationship to the other parts. Fish doesn’t think memorizing the parts of speech and being able to identify them has much value to a writer. Instead, he suggests the writer “Scrutinize every part of your sentence and ask, ‘What does it go with?’ or ‘What does it support?’ or ‘What information does it give about some other part?’ or ‘What is it referring to?’—all variations of the master question, ‘How does it fit into the sentence’s logical structure?’”

How to Write a Sentence is a short book but not a quick read; however, it is filled with lovely sentences.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011


Writers love words.

And so I’m delighted to learn a new one—palimpsest. Like Lisa’s Jahn Clough’s word pentimento, the painting beneath a painting on a reused canvas, palimpsest is also a term of reuse. Originally a palimpsest was a manuscript page from a book or a scroll that had the text scraped off of it so that new text could be written on it. The word literally means “scraped again.”

I love the word, but I don’t always love the deed. Recently I launched myself into a book-length project and found I had completely missed the goal for which the editors were aiming. Everything I’d thought about, everything I’d written had to be scraped away so I could start again. I knew going into the project that this could happen, but I was thrown, briefly, into gloom.

This is by no means the first time I’ve started something over—all my writing has been scraped and scraped again and often scrapped after scraping. But this time I found myself ruing my blithe response to students when I’ve suggested that they revise or even toss what they’ve written. “All writing is practice,” I tell them, and it’s true. But writing that we care about (and why should anyone care about our writing if we don’t?) is also hard work, and I need to remember and respect that hard work even when urging drastic action.

Writers love words. We’ll continue to put them down, scrape them off, and put new ones down. I need to scrape away the words I use to suggest that other writers palimpsestize their own writing, and I need to put new words down that recognize both the hard work writers do and also the sense of loss they might feel, as I felt, when they let those words go.

Luckily I believe that all good writing, scraped or scrapped, goes to word heaven and is very, very happy.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Creative DNA

Dear readers, Claire here in Spokane is jumping back in as a regular blogger for the next few months. I've enjoyed following my comrade's posts and look forward to joining in again.

Even when my writing is going well, I am never far from reflecting on my process. I ask my students to keep a process journal throughout the semester. I often ask fellow writers about theirs, perhaps in search of some magical formula that will eliminate the hard parts. Alas. Every book, every story has stages in the writing process that make me jump out of bed in the morning and others that make me tear my hair out.

Children's author Louise Borden was here recently for Spokane's Get Lit! festival. It was great to spend time with Louise, as I had admired her fiction and nonfiction picture books for many years, especially those on historical subjects. During her talk she asked the writers in the room, "What is your creative DNA?"

Isn't that a terrific expression? I believe she was asking us to consider how our personality is wired for the writing process - the ups and downs and all arounds. She encouraged us to figure it out and build on that knowledge. She mentioned that when panic or doubt sets in on a project, she reminds herself that she has faced it before and come out on the other side.

My creative DNA loves beginnings and new ideas and characters and struggles more in the later revision stages. How about you? What is your creative DNA?

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Acts of Courage

Writing is an act of courage. Take Ellen Levine’s forthcoming book, In Trouble, a book she wrote after an editor told her about a podcast about girls going away to have babies at a time when abortions were illegal. The editor thought that subject might be a good one for Ellen, and Ellen thought so, too.

In Trouble is set in the same time period as Catch a Tiger by the Toe, another brave Levine book in which Jamie, the protagonist, must lie or risk her father’s arrest for political beliefs during the McCarthy era. In Ellen’s new book Jamie must deal with a pregnancy resulting from rape, and while the book concerns choices it’s also about Jamie’s father’s release from prison and the power of love among family.

Folks at the Hamline MFA residency in January of 2009 who heard Ellen read from In Trouble might remember the intense and attentive silence in which we listened to her words. At the time Ellen said that we might be the only ones to ever hear the book, since the editor who told her about the podcast was no longer working as an editor and many other editors had turned down the manuscript, one even saying she couldn’t touch a book with abortion in it, no matter what the story was.

Editors as well as writers sometimes must act courageously. Andrew Karr of Carolrhoda Books is publishing In Trouble, which is scheduled to come out this September. In Trouble is a brave and wonderful book from a brave and wonderful author whose books are always about things that matter.

Full disclosure: I am proud to be a friend of Ellen’s, and I admire immensely her courage in her writing and in her life.

Monday, May 2, 2011


This list of writing rules has probably been floating around for some time because William Safire died a couple of years ago, but it's worth another look. My daughter sent the link to me today. I'm sure the fact that I edited and revised some of her writing this past weekend is only a coincidence.