Monday, December 24, 2012

Holiday Writers

     How many of you write during the holidays? I don't mean write as in Facebook or Twitter or send cards and letters. That's a given.
     Do you write in your journals, work on manuscripts, take notes in your story ideas book, think up new storylines, revise?
     I guess I'm saying that writers don't take days off -- though we do sometimes. I know that I do. But when the muse calls we got to get to the chair and create or recreate. Or at least sit there and think about writing.
     Writing at the Storyteller's Inkpot has helped me a lot. It has made me think, and, of course, write.
     I attended two book signings recently -- one in which Orson Scott Card regaled us with his explanations about his reasons for writing "The Speaker for the Dead" and his new book(s); the reasons for writing "Ender's Game" and its upcoming movie; the "new" ending of "Ender's Game;" his Mormon religion; so many more, all told in an engaging, practised manner that made us laugh or nod our heads. Most of the attendees -- probably 50 or so at Quail Ridge Books and Music in Raleigh, NC -- were high school and college students, teachers, writers, and avid readers.
     I also attended picture book author Kelly Starling Lyons' book launch of "Teacakes for Tosh" at Quail Ridge, too. This was like a festival, with some 100 children and their parents, with crafts activities, a drumming selection, refreshments (teacakes, of course), and lots of energy.
    Both attracted devoted readers. Yet both were very different. Perhaps Card's reflected the traditional book signing and Lyons refelected the new.
     Anyway, back to my original questions. During these holiday hours, are you writing? Are you signing books? Taking notes? Revising?
     Whatever you're doing, let writing be part of your days and nights, or at least think about it.
     Merry Christmas! Happy Kwanzaa! Happy Hannauka! Happy New Year!

Thursday, December 13, 2012


Self-promotion doesn't bother me.  My motto might be this  -- If I don't, who will?   But this entry isn't completely self- promoting.  If you are reading my daily Twitter piece,  that's lovely.   But this blog entry is just my usual, rather aimless musing on something.  In this case Twitter.

I think I once said in print that I'd never  be a Twitter-er and had no use for Facebook.  But I started a Twitter account because the independent press that publishes my poetry books (Red Hen Press) urged all their writers to have, ahem, "that presence."

So I took a look at what other Twitter folks were up to and at first  just didn't get it.  Talk about sublunary.  Then I found some clever things and wondered if that wasn't, as they used to say, the ticket.
I'm sure lots of people have said how much like haiku Twitter can be, and that's what piqued my interest.  Something compact and runic could be right up my alley.  And mysterious.  And funny.

Harder, of course, than it looked.  That's why I started to write about the Albino Alligator.  I could manufacture an episode every morning.  I'd do my best to move the story along and to have at least one interesting/surprising word or phrase in the post.

It was fun.  It was hard.  Maybe what I objected to about the usual Twitter piece is how the writers stepped into the same river every day.  But not everybody did that.  And I wouldn't let myself.

I liked the Albino Alligator.  I looked forward to having him eat people.  Then civilization got to be too much for him, and he went deeper into the swamp.  So my aunt stepped forward and said, "Ronnie, write about me."

I'm doing that now.  She was ill a very long time before she passed, and I love seeing her again in her beautiful clothes.  When I was five or so and she'd come to visit in the winter, she'd slip into my bedroom and cover me up with  w/ her fur coat.  As often as not, she'd leave w/out it because I was sleeping so soundly and she had another one.

Isn't that a story worth telling?


Monday, December 10, 2012

Borrowing Words: or, Why it’s good to get out of your head now and then.

One of my scenes was annoying the heck out of me. Allegedly, in the scene Jake and Liza would argue, and as a result, useful plot-related things would develop, and it would be great. But would the scene cooperate with my grand plan? Oh heck no. On paper, the characters just made faces and then galloped away from each other like a pair of startled calves.

Me doing story work.
So I opened a blank document and rewrote the scene via dialogue. Now the kids just insulted each other and then ran away. NOT HELPING.

Then I remembered something Ron Koertge said at my first residency five years ago – that sometimes he opened a dictionary, chose out five words, and wrote a scene using these words.

Sounded good, so I got out Fowler’s Modern English Usage, which was at hand, and instead of choosing five words, I picked a word for every line of dialogue. (Though I wouldn’t use the super-nerdy words like “inter alia” because geez, these are middle school kids, not Truman Scholars.)

So I wrote the dialogue again. Wow! Jake and Liza were still flinging insults, but these insults were more interesting! Though we still didn’t have, say, a throughline for this scene.

By now (due to all this writing and writing) I had finally figured out what these two goofballs wanted from this exchange, so I did this exercise one last time. At last! A dialogue with an actual point! And, even better, it didn’t look like the same stuff I’d dredged out of my head a million times before.

Thoreau said it best: “It is remarkable how easily and insensibly we fall into a particular route, and make a beaten track for ourselves. I had not lived there a week before my feet wore a path from my door to the pondside; and though it is five or six years since I trod it, it is still quite distinct. It is true, I fear, that others may have fallen into it, and so helped to keep it open. The surface of the earth is soft and impressible by the feet of men; and so with the paths which the mind travels. How worn and dusty, then, must be the highways of the world, how deep the ruts of tradition and conformity!”

Borrowing words from other people is one way to step out of the ruts, writing-wise.You have to surprise your brain into going in a direction you don’t expect. (Of course the “ruts of tradition and conformity” are everywhere – in subject matter, in clichĂ©, in the direction of the story, in the roles that girls and boys are expected to play in the story, etc. etc. ad lib. But one subject at a time, please.)

Of course your editor side is all like, “You can’t go around scrying words all day! You might destroy the direction of your story!”

Dear Muse, please send us Oreos from heaven.
Well, that editor can go stuff it. When I was an undergrad who hung out with the gamers, I knew a guy who had a bag full of runes that he liked to pour out and “read” on occasion. “I know it’s not magic,” he said. “It’s more of a way to figure out what’s going on back there in my unconscious mind.”

And scattering a handful of words in front of you to see where they lead is just like that. Sometimes your deeper mind is up to something, but your yammering front brain likes to steal the whole show. If you use all the tricks you can, sometimes you can get the attention of the quiet gal in the back, and she’ll surprise you with some good stuff.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Long Live Bookstores!
     I was saddened to learn that Quail Ridge Books and Music in Raleigh, NC is going to be sold. This is an award-winning independent bookstore with an incredible children’s section. Its owner, Nancy Olson, now 71, opened the store in 1984. Each week she hosts  signings and parties for authors of children’s books as well as those for adults from Al Gore to Amy Tan, and such children’s book authors as John Scieszka, Ashley Bryan, James Ransome, "Erin Hunter" (Warrior series), Mo Willems, and Junie B. Jones. Just within the last few weeks Rosemary Wells and Orson Scott Card. were there.
     I’ve been a Quail Ridge speaker numerous times over the last twenty years, and a loyal customer practically every week over the last ten. Children’s services coordinator Carole Moyer I think of as a special friend who’s kept my books on the shelves. Other Quail Ridge staff greet  me when I  enter and are always willing to help me find books and magazines and even gift-wrap them.
    One particularly tender incident occurred a few years back on a excruciatingly hot day when my dog Shaka Zulu and I drove to Quail Ridge. It was so hot that I couldn’t leave my dog in my Volvo even with all the windows down. The bit of shade I found under a tree for him wasn’t any cooler. I kicked myself for bringing him.
     I  tied Shaka to the tree and told him I’d be back in ten minutes. Shaka growled, “Make it five, Old Gal, make it five.” That's how we rolled.
     I rushed into the store where Nancy smiled and chatted with customers. She spoke to me and I responded, adding that my dog had given me five minutes to make my purchases and get back to him under that tree.
    “Oh, he’s welcome in here,” she said. “Dogs and bookstores go together.” Surprised and grateful, I hurried back to fetch my darlin’ dog.
     Shaka is a well behaved dog. I worried, though, that with so many people walking around inside, and so many tall book-bulging stacks and cards everywhere to wiggle his butt and tail past would be too much of a challenge for  him.
     Shaka Zulu wasn’t anybody’s fool. He knew which side his dog biscuit is buttered on. Once inside he seemed to understand that he’d have to be on his best behavior if he was to stay in this comfortable place. Maybe he also smelled something familiar -- books? Books were all over the place back home. He'd slept on many of them on the couch.
     Shaka behaved, I made my purchase, and we hurried back to my car. It was an experience not many dogs get to have. Shaka seemed to enjoy it, and I did, too.
     I’ll keep my fingers crossed that Quail Ridge’s new owners will love books, authors, illustrators -- and dogs -- as much as Nancy Olson does.
     What’s a special memory that you have about your favorite bookstore?

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

An Attempt

I happened onto a guy named John D'Agata writing about the essay.  He's quoted in an old piece in "The Los Angeles Review."  Interesting enough, the copy that I have is missing pages.   Thus I have part of an essay about the essay.   But enough to get my heart started.
The title of this apercu (isn't that a cool word and since this is more a sketch than anything else, it's apt) comes from the French assei:  an attempt.  To write an essay is to try something.  And probably fail though success in the usual sense of the word really isn't the goal.
Here are a few things from my tortured copy of "TLAR" --   The goal is never again think of the essay as five paragraphs.    Anybody who has taught composition knows why five paragraphs will get a student from English 400 to English 1A, but he/she also knows the process has probably crippled the student for life.  Who would ever want to write something that moribund again?  The 5-paragraph essay is not an attempt; it's a foregone conclusion just as anesthesia will render every patient unconscious.
And then this:   "A thesis statement . . . denies a text the possibility for reflection, digression, discovery or change."  Aren't those attractive nouns!  Especially digression -- the path that leads off the well-marked trail and that might take one to a view point that's not on the map or a cave with a half decomposed body.
Let's finish w/ a quote from the editor of the 2000 edition of "The Best American Essays"  -- "If the essayist has all the answers, he isn't struggling to grasp, and I won't either.  When  you care about something, you grapple with it because it is alive in you.  It thrashes and moves like all living things."
For the Hamline students who have to write critical essays, keep this in mind:  if it's just lying there on the page, it's probably dead.  Bring it to life.  It is, after all, your monster.


Friday, November 23, 2012

The Lives and Letters of Townsend Warner and Maxwell

Alas, I have finished reading the book I mentioned in my previous post, The Element of Lavishness: Letters of Sylvia Townsend Warner and William 1938-1978, edited by Michael Steinman (Counterpoint).  A few of them each night, just before sleep, have given me better dreams than usual.  One of the great pleasures of these erudite, affectionate exchanges is the startling originality of the language, an originality of being.

Beset by "the minutiae and careful queries" of her publishers, Townsend Warner complained, "I am like those children who spend their time crawling about under cotton-looms in Manchester factories, fastening loose ends.  It is tedious in the extreme. It would be a pleasure to do it for somebody else's book--but not for one's own.  It is like trying to get sand out of one's navel."

While she edited the papers of her lover, Valentine Ackland, dead of cancer at sixty-three, Townsend Warner suffered.  "The  letters are so sad and my memory of the last years till so raw," she wrote to Maxwell, "that I had to take myself off and hide in plain hard work and useful futilities.  I am perfectly well, but made of damp sawdust.  If I were in an hour-glass, I would stick."

Maxwell replied, "The only way I know to dry out the dampness of sawdust is by writing.  It is the only cure, for the likes of you and me, for it doesn't matter what evil under the sun, including those that are incurable."

Such language is inimitable.  However hard I tried, I would never think Sylvia's particular thoughts, for they are the deep expressions of a distinct sensibility.  We must find our own imagery.  Now that the book is closed, I feel bereft.  On to her other books of stories and memories.  Then to the fifty-year correspondence of Maxwell and Eudora Welty: What There Is to Say We Have Said.  Then back again to the Maxwell-Townsend Warner lettersWhat a pleasure to anticipate.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Happy Thanksgiving, everybody!

You know, if Benjamin Franklin had had his way and made the turkey the national bird, it would have been protected under federal law, and then we would have had to eat something else for Thanksgiving. So mull over that while you're battling your cousins for that drumstick tomorrow! And thank the folks who decided on the bald eagle instead!

/random post

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

"I'm a genius but nobody knows it but me.”

Ran into this quote this morning via @JohnFugelsang on Twitter: 

“If you're going to try, go all the way. Otherwise, don't even start. This could mean losing girlfriends, wives, relatives and maybe even your mind. It could mean not eating for three or four days. It could mean freezing on a park bench. It could mean jail. It could mean derision. It could mean mockery--isolation. Isolation is the gift. All the others are a test of your endurance, of how much you really want to do it. And, you'll do it, despite rejection and the worst odds. And it will be better than anything else you can imagine. If you're going to try, go all the way. There is no other feeling like that. You will be alone with the gods, and the nights will flame with fire. You will ride life straight to perfect laughter. It's the only good fight there is.”

-- Charles Bukowski, Factotum

I have nothing to add.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

How to Write

You would be surprised by the frequency of simple errors in other people's manuscripts.  We all benefit from editors, as I learned again and again  whenever a copy editor returned a manuscript that bristled with Post Its.  Last week a couple of anonymous notes on writing came my way.  They may give you a laugh as they did me.

Words on a t-shirt:

Let's Eat Grandma.
Let's Eat, Grandma.
 Commas save lives

And a list of guidelines, doubtless written by an English teacher who had had enough and couldn't take any more:
  1. They're =They fucking are
  2. Their= Shows fucking possession
  3. There=Specifies a fucking location
  4. You're=You fucking are
  5. Your= Shows fucking possession
  6. It's=It fucking is
  7. Its=Shows fucking possession
  8. We're=We fucking are
  9. Were=Past fucking tense of “are”
  10. Where=Specifies a fucking location
  11. Loose=Not fucking fixed in place
  12. Lose=Cease to fucking keep
  13. Affect=A fucking action
  14. Effect=A fucking result
  15. Could've=Could fucking have
  16. Could of=You're (see 4) a fucking retard
I thought about cleaning up the language, not to offend readers whose sensibilities are more delicate than mine.  But why?  Words are only words, and words are writers' materials.  Taboo words have greater force than others, if they're used purposefully.  As they come more frequently into the ordinary conversation of old ladies like me, they lose some of that force, but they haven't yet lost it all.  (Consider your own reaction, Reader, to the appearance of such words at a website about writing for children.) If the list above were cleaned up, it would lose the hair-tearing tone the author intended, and therefore its humor.

Meanwhile, I've been reading An Element of Lavishness, the correspondence of Sylvia Townsend Warner and William Maxwell, her New Yorker editor for forty years.  Warner wrote scores of stories for the magazine.  Over time, although they rarely met, author and editor became intimate friends.  The tone of their letters is the contrary of the tone in the list quoted above, all elegance and decorum and delicate irony, all patience and kindness.  One of the most striking things about the correspondence is the writers' mutual encouragement.  Maxwell wrote novels, as Warner did.  They sent their books to one another as gifts, always a dangerous thing for writers to do, lest one be forced to remark on a friend's book that doesn't please.  Whatever they may have thought in their heart of hearts, they always found generous things to say.  Maxwell could write about a storm strong enough to blow his wife into the arms of a stranger and shatter plate-glass windows all around, with a sense of the danger unmitigated by the humor of the telling.  Warner wrote about an aged friend who enjoyed a little adultery, when the robin that came and went through the sitting room window and was her constant  companion took umbrage at the arrival of another robin who entered through a window in the kitchen.  Such little things became matters of moment, because gifted writers had noticed.

These two old friends both loved music (Warner was an expert in ancient music) and books and culture and one another.  Whether the topics were storms or birds or Cardinal Newman or the cats in the garden or Maxwell's little girls or the Cuban missile crisis or Warner's need to hunker down at home during World War Two, when she might have taken refuge in America, their impulse was always to comfort and share ideas and entertain.  A reader of these letters takes vicarious comfort and entertainment, too.

Friday, November 9, 2012

The Nitty Gritty: Which Questions to Ask? Which to Answer?

     When I give talks at schools and conferences, I’m used to spouting the some stock (though significant) answers to the same stock questions that folks have asked me over  most of my writing life.  
     Like “What made you decide to be a writer?” “What’s your favorite book that you wrote?”  “Where do you get your characters/ideas/words?”  “How old are you?”  “What’s it like to be a Negro/Black/African American writer?" (tired of being labeled)  “Are you a millionaire and travel in a limo?”
   These questions are acceptable, of course, but  I’d love to field some unusual questions, too, ones that would challenge me to indulge in spectacular answers. Wouldn't you?
     Well! Award-winning short story author Edith Pearlman (Binocular Vision) in her keynote address at the North Carolina Writers Network Annual Fall Conference the other evening told me how to do this. I’ll pass it on to you.
     She said she thought of questions that she didn’t get asked but that she wished she would. Then she wrote down answers to them. Repeating those questions to us and then telling us her answers became the centerpiece of her talk.  I’m sorry that I didn’t write down her questions or her answers. I was too busy thinking about my questions that I’d like to answer aloud to my own audience.
     Like “Why did I move from writing journalism to writing fiction -- or is there a difference?”  “What kind of book would I'd like to write that would become a guaranteed best-seller?” “Why do I declare, and rather emphatically, that the language (American) I use in my books  is ‘regional vernacular’ and not ‘dialect’?
     How about you? What would you publically ask yourself -- and have the courage to answer -- in front of your audiences?

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Stay in the Room

I've been reading Ron Carlson.  (BTW.  Why does his name sound so pleasant while mine cacophonous?)  Anyway, his short stories are terrific and I suggest them highly.  He also has "Ron Carlson Writes a Short Story," a pleasant little how-to book where he explains the process that finalized as "The Governor's Ball," itself a gem of understatement.

As he traces the story from the first sentence, he gives advice about writing.  The piece that I want to chat about is this:  Don't Leave the Room.   He's adamant about this.  Stay in the room.  No hot drinks.  No fridge.  No nothin'.  Stay in the room.   Butt in the chair.  He chronicles the difficulties.  The siren call of Mr. Coffee, for instance.  

We all know the difficulties.  Ulysses had his men tie him to the mast.  Ron stays in the room.  Good for him.  However, lots of us don't stay in the room and we do all right.  I speak for many when I say something is still writing when I'm sorting whites from coloreds.  (And if you use Mrs. Stewart's Bluing for sparkling whites, raise your hand now.)

Writing is getting done when I'm playing w/ Amos, the outdoor cat.  Watering the corner of the lawn that the sprinklers miss.  Seeing what the weather is in all the cities where my friends live.

Maybe this Ron's advice is this:  if you can't stay in the room, take the story along.   The story always calls, "Shotgun."  Likes to ride around and do errands.  Likes to take the air.

Dozens and dozens of people have told me how they write at stoplights.  Waiting for kids after school.  Writing w/ a flashlight as the soccer game rages a dozen yards away.  Writing at lunch while the others gossip.  Writing on the bus or train.  Writing for 15 minutes while everybody else is settling into sleep.

The biggest room is the world of the story.   Stay in the room.


Wednesday, October 31, 2012

NaNoWriMo starts November 1!

It's almost time for National Novel Writing Month! It's that month of crazy where writers all over the world grind out 50,000 words of a new novel between November 1st and 30th. No sweat!

This is where writers reach down within themselves to fling words at the pages as fast as they can. This month is the epitome of the sh!tty first drafts that Anne Lamott talks about in her book Bird by Bird (and the sh!tty first drafts chapter is a good one to read if you plan to dive into this endeavor).

NaNoWriMo isn't for everybody -- Maggie Stiefvater has written  a Dear John letter to the idea, because this way of writing isn't her way of writing. Nothing wrong with that. Whatever method brings you to an awesome book is the method you should use.

This time for NaNoWriMo, I'm cheating. I've written a 152-page rural fantasy about kids turning into animals, but for some reason the plot still hasn't bothered to show up. So I'll hide those finished pages and write the story again from the beginning. Maybe this time around I'll tie all these threads together and get an idea for a ending with explosions. Wouldn't that be nice!

If you're up for the crazy, go to the NaNoWriMo main page and sign up. Good luck!

P.S. Debbie Ridpath Ohi has a link to a NaNoWriMo musical at her website ... because she can.

Monday, October 29, 2012


Really, if this advice came from somebody in Ojai, CA, somebody with a crystal glued to her forehead and a wind chime on the patio, I wouldn't be surprised.  Instead, it comes from  Hilary Mantel, the woman who wrote WOLF HALL, a terrific book.
It's  trouble-shooting advice.  Trouble w/ a character.  A main character is likely but any character, of course, is eligible.
Bring him/her into a room w/ a single chair.  Ask the character to sit down.  Be cordial.  Get comfortable.  Ask what's on his/her mind.  See if he or she will talk to you.  
Sounds simple, and it is.  I can see why it might work even though it doesn't work for me.  Well, it sort of works.  What happens to me is that the character-of-the-moment is pushed off the chair by a character from the past.  The fictional past.  I might have predicted that Colleen from STONER & SPAZ would show up because she's a motormouth; instead it's Margaux from MARGAUX WITH AN X.  And she wants to chat.  Isn't jealous of characters who came after her.  Doesn't want to be in another book.  Just wants to know what's been going on.  So we have some imaginary coffee and pretty soon she says good-bye.
The whole thing was unsettling.  It gave me  a sense of characters forever detained.  In a word -- incarcerated.  Locked in the stories I made up for them.   Ben from "S&S," Margaux, the kid from TIGER, TIGER, BURNING BRIGHT, and all the rest.
Made me wonder if that's why I wrote/re-wrote all those fairy tales in LIES.  To give those familiar characters new lives.  New things to do.
What I decided was this -- I'd ask everybody from my fictional past to drop by.  My studio isn't a dentist's office, so no waiting.   Everybody's welcome.
It certainly made for an odd thirty minutes.  I couldn't remember some of their names, but there they were milling around, chatting each other up.  Every now and then one would come over and look at me affectionately.  I wasn't a daddy but more like a god.  And they weren't worshipping but they were glad to have some essence and heat.
Pretty soon they'd had enough and they left; then it was just me and an empty chair.

 P.S. If you're following the adventures of the Albino Alligator on Twitter (redhen45), I think I'm about to introduce a new character.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

"We Call It Voice, But It's Really Much More"

Friday's Barnes and Noble Review published a conversation between
Scott Hutchins, author of A Working Theory of Love, and Justin Torres, who published We the Animals this year.  The discussion is long and meandering and varied enough in its ideas and opinions to give any reader plenty to ponder, but it has a lot to do with voice and something to do with psychic distance (the distance the reader feels between herself and the scene).

Hutchins talks about point of view and the reason he chose a first-person strategy: "...what's especially funny and striking to me is those little bits started out in the third person. But I felt how that choice was weirdly distancing, whereas the first person was where the story could happen."  Although Hutchins doesn't generalize to other writers' choice of points-of-view, the implication hangs in the air that a third-person strategy is necessarily distancing.

I disagree with that proposition.  In fact, the weirdest, most disorienting effect I know is first-person, present-tense narrative written from a long psychic distance, an effect that often shows up in the work of developing writers.  For example, the narrator tells a story that happened to her long ago, as if the events were occurring even as she speaks.  When an inexperienced novelist tells me, "But first-person is the way the story came to me," I'm not impressed.  While the story may have come to her that way, the question is whether she has a sufficiently subtle understanding of craft to bring off a first-person narrative.

With what precedes Hutchins's statement about first person, however, I entirely agree: "I definitely started with voice. I was writing little bits here and there--never a scene that led to another scene--as I was scraping together work and life, and an intelligence (not mine) began to assert itself on the page. We call it voice, but it's really much more. It's a personality, a way of seeing the world, a past, a vision. Hopes and fears, of course, but also opinions. We humans, I've noticed, are full of opinions" [my italics].

We talk about point of view, psychic distance, and voice as if they were separate, because we must pretend that they are, to talk about them at all.  The concepts in practice overlap.  The point of view in most contemporary fiction for children is either first-person or third-person, limited to a single character's perspective.  Until Judy Blume's Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret and S.E. Hinton's The Outsiders, first-person narrative was comparatively rare, but Hinton and Blume were so successful others imitated them.  Eventually, and for a long time, editors explicitly banned first-person fiction.

The reason for their distaste, I imagine, was the predominance of badly written first-person narrative.  This approach is so devilish that Marion Dane Bauer once told me, after she published a first-person novel, that she would never subject herself to such limitations again.  The writer of a first-person narrative must create a  distinctive sound, stance, attitude, and personality that continues without deviation throughout the novel, except in the dialogue of characters other than the narrator.

Of course every narrator ought to sound different from every other

 Every character, of course, ought to speak from his own distinct personality.  The first-person voice/sound/stance/attitude/personality, however, if written well, is merciless in this respect--unrelenting--always inside the narrator's head. The writer is trapped inside the narrator's perspective and can't get out.

Third-person narrative, on the other hand, enables the writer to vary psychic distance in accordance with the effect she intends, so long as she doesn't shift so often or suddenly that she gives the reader whiplash.  I like John Gardner's metaphor, in The Art of Fiction.  The perspective moves closer or further away from the viewpoint character's sensibility like a camera on a dolly, enabling the writer to view a scene from as far away as the next ridge across a valley or as close as within that character's sensibility.  Point of view and psychic distance are related but different aspects of narrative.  An agile third-person viewpoint, written from one character's vantage, enables a writer to control the perspective with far more freedom than a first-person narrative does.

Here's the beginning of Ernest Hemingway's short story, "Cat in the Rain":

"There were only two Americans stopping at the
hotel. They did not know any of the people they passed
on the stairs on their way to and from their room. Their
room was on the second floor facing the sea. It also
faced the public garden and the war monument. There
were big palms and green benches in the public garden.
In the good weather there was always an artist with his
easel. Artists liked the way the palms grew and the bright
colors of the hotels facing the gardens and the sea.
Italians came from a long way off to look up at the war
monument. It was made of bronze and glistened in the
rain. It was raining. The rain dripped from the palm
trees. Water stood in pools on the gravel paths. The
sea broke in a long line in the rain and slipped back
down the beach to come up and break again in a long
line in the rain. The motor cars were gone from the
square by the war monument. Across the square in the
doorway of the café a waiter stood looking out at the
empty square.

 "The American wife stood at the window looking out.
 Outside right under their window a cat was crouched
 under one of the dripping green tables. The cat was
 trying to make herself so compact that she would not
 be dripped on.

"‘I’m going down and get that kitty,’ the American wife

"‘I’ll do it,’ her husband offered from the bed.
"‘No, I’ll get it. The poor kitty out trying to keep dry
under a table.’
"The husband went on reading, lying propped up with
the two pillows at the foot of the bed.
"‘Don’t get wet,’ he said."

I don't pretend to know precisely where the dolly places the camera in any of the foregoing sentences.  I think it unarguable, though, that something happens to the perspective between the first paragraph and the second, even between the first and second sentences of the second paragraph.  The third-person narrator begins, in paragraph one, from a considerable distance, if not from omniscience.  The first sentence of paragraph two continues outside the wife's perceptions, although the camera has moved inside the hotel room.  In the second sentence of paragraph two, however, the perspective subtly moves inside the wife.  We see the cat through her eyes.

Think about the difference between Hemingway's second paragraph and this seemingly slight revision:

"The American wife stood at the window looking out. 
She saw that, outside right under their window, a cat 
was crouched under one of the dripping green tables. 
The cat was trying to make herself so compact, the 
wife thought, that she would not be dripped on." 

In Hemingway's version, we know, without consciously registering the fact, that we see the cat through the wife's eyes.  In the slightly revised italicized version, however, "She saw" and "the wife thought" are phrases that are not in the wife's perspective.  (I suppose "She said" is also outside the speaker's perspective, but we're so used to "saids" that we hardly notice them.)  Here the narrator stands between the reader and the scene, telling the reader the wife's perceptions.  "She saw" is information filtered through the narrator, and filters automatically distance us.  This effect is not a matter of correct or incorrect practice; it depends upon intention.  If distance is what the writer intends, fine: filters help to bring about that distance from the scene.  If she wants us to experience the scene from inside the viewpoint character, however, the narrator must be moved out of the way.

Moreover, the italicized version not only moves us outside the wife's perspective; it also changes the focus of the two sentences.  In "A cat was crouched," Hemingway's original, the subject of the sentence is "cat," and the verb is "was crouched."  The focus of the sentence is "a cat was crouched," the thing perceived.  In the italicized revision, however, the subject and verb are "she saw."  This latter sentence focuses on the American wife's act of perception.  The thing perceived is almost always more interesting than the act of perception, unless the sentence is about Helen Keller, and she has just regained her sight.  In the second instance, we understand, without being told by the narrator, that the wife understands from the cat's position its effort to keep itself dry.

I won't go on about the delicious dialogue, but I'd argue that it reveals a wife who, without asking directly, is baiting her husband to retrieve the cat, and a husband who wants to look good, while having no intention of going into the rain.

The italicized revision, with only the addition of "she saw that" and "the American wife thought," is not slight, after all.  The difference is subtle.  However, the effect on the reader matters.  If the filters persist, their effect will be profound

Do a search of your own fiction manuscript for filters: he saw/heard/realized/wondered/smelled/felt/remembered and so on.  How do you want your reader to experience that scene?  Do you want us outside the viewpoint character's perspective or inside?  How do the filters or absence of them create distinctive effects?

Saturday, October 27, 2012

New Words for Old

     Don’t most writers want to preserve our  published words forever? But now and then I would like to substitute a “mo better” word for certain weaker ones  that “slipped” through.
     Publishers usually won’t go for that. They’ll just reprint the whole book as is, good or bad.
     Lois Duncan, however, is one author who has the good fortune of  being able to  “update” her text in several novels.  Since her publisher has started its own trade book line and is setting these books into print from scratch, “updating” some texts  won’t create extra financial problems.
     One book she “updated” was  Daughters of Eve, originally published in 1979 at the beginning of the Women’s movement.  Here a group of girls takes revenge upon males who’ve mistreated them.
     “My editor told me that today’s readers are so conditioned to violence that the acts of revenge in my original book were nothing more than slaps on the wrists,” Lois says. “I had to make the vengeful acts more vicious.”
     In another book  (she didn’t say which) her characters were in trouble, but Lois  realized that in today’s YA mystery novels  the characters just pull out their cell phones or lap tops, send  ‘SOS’ text messages, or go to Facebook or Twitter to get help. She’s had to figure out other ways for her characters to get out of danger. Of course, she does.
     Yesterday’s names like Melvin and Gladys  in one book were changed to today’s Cody and Madison. 
     “I had to change hair styles, clothing and slang, too  – no more ‘Golly gee’ or  ‘Oh, heck!’  I’m old fashioned enough to shy away from a lot of the words that kids today throw into almost every sentence,” she says.  “Keeping the language comparatively clean while still making the dialogue between kids outside the hearing of adults sound natural was a major challenge.”
     She overcame those obstacles, of course. Watch for her “new” older books!
     Do other authors’  recent book makeovers come to mind?

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Researching Agents -- Getting Down to Business.

The best time to acquaint yourself with agents is before your story is finished. With billions of (legitimate) agents, it’s best to research early so you aren’t utterly overwhelmed when it’s time to submit.
 Start with one of the links below and do a search for agents who work in your genres. Look at the agent’s website and read a few interviews, or their Twitter feed, or their Publisher’s Marketplace listing, and be sure they rep the kind of books you write. This is especially important if you cross genres or age groups. It’s good to weed out the agents that say “Absolutely no poetry/cookbooks/animal fiction!” if you are writing a cookbook in sonnets for finicky raccoons.

If an agent looks like a good match, then research more deeply. I do a search on Google, then cut and paste any info I can find about this agent into a Word document: interviews, submission info, pertinent tweets, biographical stuff, etc. etc. ad lib. I’m targeting agents that insist on editorial work; that represent authors, not single books; that specialize in children’s lit; whose interests are wide-ranging; and who would work with me on my long-term career goals. You might expect different things from your agent. That’s why we do the research.

Sometimes all your research simply reveals that the agent would not be a good match for you, so you take her off the list. No sweat! There are still plenty of agents in the sea. (NOT LITERALLY because the salt water would kill their e-readers.) Also this way you know that all your agents are legit, i.e. have a good sales record and take care of their clients.

When this agent is all researched out, be sure to list these things at the top of your Word document about her:

1)      How to submit a query to this agent. Do they want only a single-paged query, or will they accept sample pages? And how many? (Some accept three pages, some three chapters.)
2)      List the link to their submissions page and the email/snail mail address to send your query to.
3)      Also the short paragraph about why you consider this agent to be a good match for your novel.

Then when I’m writing the personalized lead-off sentence for my query, the info is right there. “I’m querying you because you repped “A World of Sin,” and my novel reeks of sin, and also gin. I am also looking for an editorial agent who is a bulldog with contracts, and you seem to fit the bill.” And for another agent, “You mentioned that you’d like to see a novel that’s like Beowulf … WITH MONKEYS. Well guess what I wrote!”

Make a document or spreadsheet for all the agents that interest you. Then you get a good idea of who you want on your A-list, your B-list, etc. Be sure to research a lot of agents. As Miss Snark says, query widely, because you never know who will pick up the MS.

Be patient and persistent. I’ve seen a good novel get representation after 78 rejections. One really awesome novel found representation after 130 rejections. That novel won all kinds of awards and is still in print three years after it was published. So when you get knocked down, get back up!
When it comes time to send out your query, ALWAYS go back to the agent’s website and make sure she has not changed her submission guidelines or email address. Also, be sure she is still open to submissions. From time to time agents will temporarily close to get caught up.

P.S. Here are some great websites for agent research!

1) Literary Rambles: This is probably the place to go first for the Agent Spotlight series, which focuses on a new children’s agent every Thursday. Casey McCormick and Natalie Aguirre do all the Google-searching for you and list the highlights plus all the links in an easy-to-search format. Also author interviews and book giveaways!

2) AgentQuery: With tons of agent listings, and a search feature that lets you cross genres. Also valuable info on agent searches, etiquette, and how to avoid scammers (another reason you should carefully research your agents).

3) Chuck Sambuchino’s Guide to Literary Agents Blog: This is under the aegis of Writer’s Digest. Industry info, helpful posts. They also let you know about new agents entering the industry almost as soon as Publisher’s Marketplace announces them.

4) Publisher’s Marketplace: Where to find industry news, agents, editors, writers, you name it. For agents or editors, click on “Browse Members” on the left-hand side.

P.P.S. Go read about the photo of the awesome kingbird in the Denver Post!

Friday, October 19, 2012

The Advertisement

"  . . . for those who want to write Poetry Professionally."

Seriously.  That's what the ad said.  Write Poetry (note caps) Professionally (double-note caps.)

I almost dropped my authentic John  Keats-like quill, only $19.95 from Poets R US.  What can it mean to write poetry professionally?  And how to tell a professional poet from someone who just "fools around with words?"

Maybe there's a uniform.  Most professions have uniforms.  The CPA with a tie.  The doctor with the white coat.  Certainly baseball and basketball players.  Bowlers, even, with those cool bags that look like the scrota of Olympian oxen.  But those are team sports.  Writing poetry is a much more solitary art.  

Except, now that I think of it, the doctor goes over charts alone after the last patient.  The CPA loosens his tie and turns to his calculator when the office is dark.   The basketball player shoots a hundred free throws on his own.  At that point they could be wearing anything.

Maybe that's what it is -- time spent alone with a singular focus.  Looks like a professional poet can dress any we he/she wants.  I have an old pair of bunny slippers, one with an eye missing.  Works for me.  But I'm not really a professional.  I just text the muse semi-regualrly and see if she has any work for me.

If not, I'm on my own.  I can look at that poem about the deer with the glow-in-the-dark teeth that I can't finish.  Boy, I'll be if I was a professional poet, I'd know exactly what to do.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Why an MFA in Creative Writing?

   You might be contemplating an MFA experience and going through all the questions typical of making this life changing decision. It's true that you don't need an MFA in creative writing to be a writer, but an MFA opens the doors to incredible possibilities. Not only do you get to focus on your craft, you get the mentorship of professional writers caring about your work. I didn't quite understand this until I started the Hamline MFA in Creative Writing for Children and Young Adults. 

   When I was first shopping around for programs, I was having a hard time finding something that seemed to fit what I wanted. My interests were in picture books, middle grade fiction, and young adult fiction. I believed that attending a program that offered a more general MFA would be fine, but once I discovered what Hamline offered, I was hooked. I never imagined that the facuilty and fellow MFAC students would be ... just like me.

    Imagine a gathering of people, from all over the country, that are interested in the same thing you are. We all come from different backgrounds, but those little quarks that make grown adults love children's literature, bring us together. Yes, we own replica mockingjay pins, and yes, some of us paint our houses like the one from UP.      

   Whatever your interests are, finding the MFA program that fits your needs will open the doors to people just like you. It is a fantastic feeling to be able to reach out to others in the program; to receive the support, and understanding, needed to continue on. Plus, you gain the opportunity to network with professionals, and future professionals in your field of interest.

   So when you are investigating a writing program, look deep inside yourself, and ask what is it that you truly love to write. Find the program that matches those interests and you just might find your people. 
A conversation with Gene Yang, author of American Born Chinese, and newest Hamline faculty member

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Real Poems

     In today's issue of The New York Times Book Review, Holly Black considers Lies Knives and Girls in Red Dresses, Ron Koertge's book of poems that retell familiar fairy tales in a decidedly modern voice.  Any review is a good thing.  Any review in the Times is a very good thing.  (A good thing for the ego, anyway.  An editor told me that a Times review doesn't usually sell many books, but I think it's good for the writer's reputation, and it certainly feels good.)  This review of Ron Koertge's new book of poems, however, exemplifies the frequent condescension to children's literature in American commentary on the arts.
     Last year, in a New Yorker essay about Paula Fox's oeuvre, Joan Acocella, dispensed with the Newbery Medal winner's "twenty-two children's books--actually they are 'young adult novels,'" with two sentences.  "[T]hese, less daunting to write than regular fiction, may have interfered with her work on novels."  By that last word, Acocella means Fox's six novels for adult readers--that is, her real novels, as if her children's fiction were a dirty little secret, a vice she practiced to avoid actual work.
     This sort of false distinction makes Paula Fox's One-Eyed Cat and The Slave Dancer; Dylan Thomas's A Child's Christmas in Wales; T. S. Eliot's Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats; and Carl Sandburg's Rootabaga Stories something less valuable than their authors' other work, merely by virtue of the usual audience's age.  On the contrary, all of these works, including Ron Koertge's Lies Knives and Girls in Red Dresses, are worthy of adult interest and professional literary criticism, by people who can distinguish blank verse from their hind quarters.
     I do think that much of the socalled poetry that is published for children is ignorable. Koertge's poetry, however, is anything but that kind of doggerel.  Contrary to Black's broad description of them as blank verse, these diverse poems demonstrate his supple practice of various poetic forms.  Black might have said more about the poems' acid humor, too, and the Swiftian satire on contemporary society, and the ironic mockery of conventional romantic blather. 
     Of course, we should cut Black some slack.  Undoubtedly the Times editor  gave her a skimpy word limit.  We must be grateful, in these dark days, that a book of poems for any audience, especially such a tart and serious book, should be noticed at all.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Pay Attention. Life is More Fun.

In “The Art of Fiction,” an essay, Henry James wrote, “Try to be one of the people on whom nothing is lost.” Plenty has been lost on me, no doubt, but I enjoy my life more if I pay attention.
I've had a lot to notice lately, and, in fact, the advice of a lawyer to note everything in daily diary. My son and I, driving in our little Saturn three weeks ago, were rear-ended by a hit-and-run driver in a big Suburban, so I have spent a lot of time since then comforting myself with the knowledge that every experience is useful to a writer. Even if I never write about particulars of the incident, the attendant emotions will inform what I write from now on. We were both badly whiplashed, but no injuries are visible. Although we've been advised not to write or talk publicly about the accident, one little glimpse might be allowable.
While we waited for our friend Nolan to take us to the ER, we talked with the cops who reported the incident. I asked one of them about the obvious carapace that underlay her clothing. “Kevlar,” she said. “We're never without it.” The other said, “Mine's lighter.” She opened the top button of her shirt to show me. I reached over and touched the twill tape that softened the edge of her armor. Nobody raised an objection. When they walked away, though, my son said, “Never touch a cop.” My son, of course, is six-five, two-eighty, and very fit, while I—well, I suppose I might have swung my parrot-headed cane, but I couldn't have done much damage. The policewoman might have reacted differently if my son had touched her.
Such details of our lives easily escape us, unless we keep a notebook. When I went to Paris alone, I purposely left my camera at home, preferring to experience the trip directly, rather than through a lens. Now what I remember most vividly are the things I wrote in my little pocket book: the American reporter at a sidewalk bistro whom I told, “Apres le divorce, Paris,” and who laughed and replied, “Apres le divorce, Afrique”; the driver who took out a sign with the corner of her bus, stepped onto the sidewalk to survey the damage, shrugged dramatically for the street audience, and drove away; the pert young thing in a mini-skirt who strode past another bistro, loudly appreciated by a gaggle of young men, her Yorkie on a string, and then strode back again, tossing her head, the little dog on her arm, and then strode past a third time, haughtier than ever, as the dog nuzzled her face. The boys did everything but lick their chops and say yum yum. I don't think I would have seen the nuances through a camera.
Once our neighbor across the alley, Mr. Lapole, asked us to accompany him to check on our next door neighbor, O'Malley, whose house was dark that evening. My little boy called him Mr. Old Malley. He used to yell at the kids who stepped on his grass. Lapole turned the key in the lock, while I shone a light through the tiny front-door window on the body that lay on the floor. Somebody turned on a lamp. O'Malley was obviously dead, but, for the sake of good form, I felt for a pulse in his neck. His body was stiff and cold, and his skin next to the floor, where gravity had deposited his blood, was livid. His glasses lay broken at the foot of the stairs. He hadn't been unconscious yet when his glasses broke; he had crawled to the foot of a Victorian chair,  removed the upper denture from his mouth, and placed it above him on the maroon cut-velvet seat.
The two men with me stood there with their hands in their pockets.
I went into the kitchen and called the police. Under the sink, in a three-by-five-feet area that a cabinet might have covered if O'Malley hadn't been so stingy, stood forty or fifty empty Listerine bottles. A Listerine habit must be a terrible thing. Several bowls squatted on the table, some heaped with quarters, others with dimes, others with nickels, amid a pile of too many pennies to be contained in a few bowls. After a policeman had been there for an hour, a stranger showed up and identified himself as O'Malley's nephew. I had never seen him at the house in ten years. He stepped over O'Malley's legs, oblivious to his face, and surveyed the bowls of coins. “Dammit,” he said. “I still have to drive to Black Duck tonight.”
These incidents and the facts of our car accident will probably never appear in anything I write. I did notice them, though. My notebooks have all been lost, but whatever I wrote in them enables me now to remember very clearly what I felt about the two men with their hands in their pockets, the bottles on the floor, the coin-hungry nephew, and the observing self that I observed.
Now I see that these incidents have shown up in my writing, after all.

Friday, October 12, 2012

The Details

       Mies van der Rohe said, “God is in the details.” A quote, that just by saying out loud, reverberates multiple meanings and can invoke inner contemplation. God can mean different things to different people, depending on their culture and background. But essentially, Mr. van der Rohe calls for focus on the glorious minute. While he may have meant to inspire architects to pay attention to every aspect of their design, this aphorism draws the attention, and contains meaning, for all artists.
    Mies van der Rohe is attributed to creating the sky scraper wrapped in glass. This look is sleek and without break. It isn't covered in detailed wood working, or stone sculptures. He believed architecture should reflect the age of its creation. He appreciated gothic cathedrals, but that was not his age. His was the modern industrial age of steel and glass. As literary artists we take in the world around us, our experiences, and input them into our work, just as Mies did in his architecture. Robert Bulter, from From Where you Dream interpreted Mies's famous quote into “the human condition resides in the details, the sense details” (14). He believes that writers are “sensualists” that we are “...ravished by sensual experience” (14). Our details come from never looking away, to absorb the world from grandiose sky scraper, to the grasshopper in Times Square. To “...yearn to take life in,” is the standard of which Mr. Butler demands of writers (14).
   What's more exciting then being called out to live life and take notice of the beautiful things that will inspire. Good writing comes, not only after sitting down day after day, but from letting the whirling experiences of life spin inside of us. Once ready, the spinning snake will spring, surging vibrations to our finger tips and onto the page. Do not close your eye's. Allow yourself to hurt, to love, to find joy, and observe the age that you live in. If you have writers block, if you find the blank page to be an abyss, go out and be "ravished by sensual experiences". (14) What spins inside shall erupt.

Butler, Robert Olen. From Where You Dream: The Process of Writing Fiction. Ed. Janet Burroway. New York: Grove, 2005. Print.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Oh, Ain't It Awful

So I get turned onto a David Rafoff YouTube piece.  About 3 minutes.  Something like "Why I Write (And Why It Just Gets Harder").  He's a smart guy, easy to listen to, and he has a simile about the writing process that is not for the squeamish.
This is maybe the 3rd or 4th thing I've read/heard recently about how hard it is to write.  The torture of it.  And it never gets any better.  Only worse.
Really, fellas.  Is it that bad?
Some interviewer asked me once how I faced that cold, white, blank page.   I told him it was a piece of paper, not an ice floe.
Am I the only writer who feels lucky to be able to get up in the morning and write something that might or might not be awful?  
I'm often ask to give advice to young writers and I'm going to start saying, "Stay away from sourpusses."
I've been told I don't know what it's like.  How can I not know what it's like to write; I've been doing it for more than 40 years.  Sure, it can be disappointing and of course it can be frustrating.  But is it really that hard?  Butt in the chair, fingers to the keyboard/pen to paper. End of story.
No wonder I like to run with horse-players.  When their 6-1 shot runs out of the money, they bitch once and turn the page.  And when they win, they buy drinks.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Help Wanted.

Let's say you're reading the job listings in the newspaper -- or, okay, online -- and you run across this ad:

WANTED: Part-time novelist to churn out high-quality stories for young readers. Needs ambitious writer who's strong in craft. Work 10-15 hours/week. Flex-time, work from home. The pay isn't worth a damn, but oh well. Call 867-5309.

Wouldn't you jump at a job like that? Wouldn't you be polishing your pitch and resume and fixing up sample chapters for your boss just to get a job like that?

The real question: Why do you need an outside boss when the job is already yours for the taking?

So let's sit down and get started!

P.S. No, the internet doesn't need you, and the dishes can surely wait.

P.P.S. This post is meant for me more than anybody else. :p

Monday, October 1, 2012

Lit Flix and The Heart of It All
     After repeatedly rewriting what was supposed to be a quick, short, scintillating piece about commingling with other North Carolina writers whose books were made into films, I’ve finally set it loose into Storyteller Inkpot Land. Why did I struggle so?
     The heart of this piece I thought would involve who said what and why to whom about having one’s book(s) adapted for the screen.
     But I couldn’t seem to write about it the way I’d felt about it.  My inner editor (stamping around in my gut) said it still didn’t feel quite right. Know what I mean?
    The event was the Ninth Annual Eastern North Carolina Literary Homecoming, held on the campus of East Carolina University, Greenville, NC, Sept. 21-22.  Hamline grad Melissa Dempsey teaches children’s literature there, too, so I was able to see her again. Hooray!
     I was invited to the Literary Homecoming (second time) because my book Just an Overnight Guest (Missouri setting) had been adapted into a made-for-television film (California setting!) starring Richard Roundtree and Rosalind Cash. Dr. Margaret Baur, North Carolina Literary Review Editor and Literary Homecoming chief, insisted. She encouraged and inspired me when the demons peeking over my shoulder urged me to give up.
     My children’s lit partner was Lois Duncan, a truly congenial writer who’s written over 50 books, especially beloved for her YA mysteries. Eight -- yes, eight! -- films have been made from her books, like her Hotel for Dogs and I Know What You Did Last Summer.
     She and I upheld the children’s and YA literature world through our panel and our workshops, surrounded by supportive audiences, delicious meals, and probably a dozen featured writers of adult novels and poetry. Yes, poets were there, too -- James Applewhite ( recipient of the 2012 Roberts Award), Sarah Rosen Kindred, and North Carolina Literary Review poetry editor Jeffrey Franklin.
     Among the other writers were keynote speaker Charles Frazier, whose book Cold Mountain (1997 National Book Award winner) was adapted into the movie of the same name, nominated for seven Academy Awards;
     Timothy B. Tyson, whose book  and film  Blood Done Signed My Name set  folks’ blood to boiling, at least the book did in North Carolina when it was published;
     Daniel Wallace, author of Big Fish, adapted into a film directed by Tim Burton;
     Dante James, Emmy-award-winning independent filmmaker and  producer of the PBS series Slavery and the Making of America;
     Former Random House and Alfred A. Knopf editor Randall Kenan, whose short story collections garnered him a Guggenheim Fellowship, and whose short story Foundations of the Earth became a film;  and
     Distinguished journalist  and memoirist James Dodson, whose book Faithful Travelers became a made-for-TV movie Dodson’s Journey. 
     The Literary Homecoming’s panel titles explained their contents: “The Blockbuster, the Independent Film, and the Made-for-TV Movie: Different Venues, Different Audiences” withFrazier, Tyson and Dodson. 
    “Short Stories into Short Films” with James, Kenan, and script consultant, filmmaker and teacher Elisabeth Benfey, which included showings of James’ adaption of   Charles Chesnutt’s  short story “The Doll,” and Kenan’s short story to film “The Foundations of the Earth.”
      Now it was Lois’s and my turn:  Pop(corn) Culture: How Youth Audiences Shape Literary and Film Industries.” With children increasingly being exposed to films, television shows, and video games, and thus immersed in visual media that reflect a changing world,  “How could children still be interested in books?” was the moderator’s first question.
     Being sleep deprived, having just completed my writing workshop,  and striving to remember my snappy answers to questions already given to us, I’m not sure what Lois said, but it was passionate and spot on.
     I said something like, “Though circumstances have changed over the eons, children’s emotions have not.  And it’s young people’s emotions that our books speak to, through our characters and their journeys.”
     We also both said,  in our own ways,  that video games and films lead children to books, and vice versa, and that’s the way it should be.
     Now you know what I spent the last two weeks trying to write. Having reached this last sentence this moment, I finally realize that what I’d said about emotions was the heart of what the conference meant to me then, and to this writing now, so I guess  I’m finally done.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Writing queries -- the basics!

Sooner or later, as much as you like to work on your stories, you will have to send them out into the cruel world where they will have to war with other stories, Gladiator-style, for that coveted place in an editor's heart. So you write a query, which is basically a single-paged letter introducing your novel to some jaded, bleary-eyed reader who has seen way too many of these things. You want your letter to pique her interest so she'll request pages, or even your full MS.

The best way to learn to write a query is to read slush -- the unsolicited queries and MSS that pour by the thousands into literary agencies and publishing houses. If you ever have the chance to work for a literary magazine, an editor, or an agent, then do it. You soon see for yourself how many of these letters sink into a mind-numbing morass of sameness -- and how one good query just blows the other letters away.

If you can't read slush, then do the next best thing and go to Query Shark and read the many, many queries agent Janet Reid critiques. In fact, read the whole blog and learn from her critiques! It's the best education in query writing you'll get.

Okay: So let's set up a query.

Now, these guidelines I'm giving you applies to e-queries, which is how most agents are taking their queries these days. Some agents prefer snail-mail queries, and for those, you'd add your contact info and date at the top as you would a regular business letter. (In e-queries, contact info works best at the end of the letter, not at the top.)

The first paragraph of the query lays out why you chose this agent/editor. "I'm sending you this because you rep YA fantasy with brawling raccoons, which is what my story is about." Because we hate getting mass-produced letters written by robots. (P.S. I'll cover agent research in my next post.)

The second (and sometimes third) paragraph is the synopsis of your book. A lot of us groan and whine and reach for the bourbon when it comes to synops, but it's important to put in the extra work. You want the synop to be understandable and awesome.

Make the synopsis into a puzzle, a Rubik's Cube that you're playing with just for fun. Keep some scrap paper handy and, in odd moments, slap a synopsis down on it. Then when you've written it, throw it away. The next day, write another synopsis, just off the top of your head, and throw that one away. If you mess with the synopsis over a series of days, you're keeping it simmering on the stove, metaphorically speaking. Pretty soon you get a synopsis you think is worth keeping. Revise that one.

When you're a whiz-bang astrophysicist who's demoted Pluto, all other puzzles are easy.
The last paragraph is your bio. Keep it short and sweet. If you're published, mention your very awesome books. If you're unpublished, it's no biggie, just say something short and sweet about yourself. "I'm a chicken wrangler who graduated with an MFA for writing for children from Hamline University. My articles have appeared in Czar Times, Ming Vase Monthly, and Gum Chewer Aficionado, and I won the National Yodeling Championship three years in a row." That oughter get their interest.

Then thank the agent for their time and interest, put on the closer, and follow that with contact info -- mail, phone, and email. Then follow that with your sample pages, pasted in the body of the email -- NO ATTACHMENTS because viruses are scary.

I adjure you, I beseech you: Start working on the query, and especially the synopsis, BEFORE the novel is finished. (Writing the query also helps you tighten your novel's focus.) Write the query, revise it, then send it to critique buddies everywhere. Listen to their advice and revise it a couple more times. When it's in decent shape, enter it in a few query critique contests. (Keep an eye out for these around the internets -- they are super-helpful.) Persistence (and revision) wins the game.

Next up: Researching and submitting queries to agents!

Further reading: How to Write a Query Letter from Nathan Bransford, former agent; "How to Write a Query Letter" from AgentQuery; Miss Snark, who is no longer blogging there but she is still awesome; and the Snarkives, which are Miss Snark's posts topically sorted.