Friday, March 30, 2012

Shameful Self-Promotion

If you've been following the "SLJ" Battle of the Books, my piece is up today at the School Library Journal site. It was a hard call, pitting what you might call a small book against a large one. Drawing vs. writing. The iceberg's tip vs. the entire freaking berg.

This web address below is for a Greg Pincus site; he'll have 30 poems during April, one a day. I don't know who's when but Marilyn Nelson is there; I am, and others you know/will recognize. Worth a visit.

Sometime soon Chris Heppermann and I interview each other for a popular blog. More on that soon.

And the April poem at my website will be up tomorrow. Whew.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Happy Hunger Games! Guest Post with Laura Ruby

Hey Inkpotters,

Have you all seen The Hunger Games yet? Laura Ruby was kind enough to Skype with us from Chicago about why this dystopian novel has resonated so much with young adults. She also talks about why she writes for that age group and gives a little advice to aspiring writers. You can watch the video below and weigh in with your take on The Hunger Games and writing for young adults.


Every writer has war stories -- a restless, sullen audience; a hotel with a horse in the room just above and a satyr next door; delayed flights and stomach flu.

Well, I'm here with good news: I'm just back from Chicago and three or four days (They do swim together, don't they?) of school visits and then a LitFest panel. I got to see Chris Heppermann (Hamline grad) and Eric and the girls; I hung out with Penny Blubaugh (Vermont grad) and Lance. I rode the El. I saw the lake. And it's true. That's one big lake.

Mostly I talked to students, and they asked questions. One boy wanted to know what color my hair was when I had hair. Because they'd read STONER & SPAZ they wanted to known if I'd ever smoked weed. I said that I had and they were amazed and titillated. Asked what was the most unusual thing I ever autographed I replied that it was undoubtedly a young woman's left breast. I confessed that I spelled my entire name. Slowly.

I don't mind smarty pants kids; I'm a professional smarty pants. And my job as a presenter in those situations is, it seems to me, to be honest and entertaining.

Afterwards there are always a few who come up and say something that just knocks me out. Like how much a book of mine has meant to them. How they were having a horrible day and something in STONER or STRAYS made them laugh and forget about their problems for an hour. When I hear things like that if I'm tired, suddenly I'm not tired anymore.

Saturday was the LitFest panel and it was just fun. Carl Deuker was there, Ann Angel, Ellen Hopkins. The kids loved Ellen Hopkins. She was generous with her time and advice and posed for one picture after another with her fans. Two hundred and fifty kids and all of them crazy about books and reading.

I don't do many school visits. I like to stay home. But this one this time was pure gold.

The Single Story

This article is worth reading and the TED video embedded within it worth watching. Both discuss the danger of "the single story" and the cultural and personal pitfalls such stories present. The author of the article, Kevin Hartnett, defines the single story as the simple narrative told about [children] within a family. Of course, these single stories exist outside families--they're acquired in schools, churches, workplaces: He's the smart one; she's the trouble-maker; she's the girly-girl, and so on.

Identifying the single story that is used to identify a character by peers, family, authorities is a worthwhile exercise for a writer. Having a protagonist confront that single story could be mighty useful for plot, theme, and character development.

How can the writer identify the single story (stories) a character lives with? As a writing exercise, create various scenes where friends or teachers or relatives discuss the protagonist when he/she is not there. That should help reveal how each community pegs a person. Cross community discussions are revealing too: Write a parent-teacher conference (again, with the protag not present); write a scene where the protagonist's spiritual advisor meets a coach, or a hated neighbor meets the protagonist's piano teacher. And so on. Use the other people in your character's life to explore all facets of the character you are creating.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Say What?

Hyperbole rules. True hyperbole is a figure of speech wherein a person uses exaggeration for emphasis, to get attention about something: “If I don’t get this car I’ll just die!” Or “I’m so hungry I could eat a horse.” Or “The wolf blew and blew until he blew the house down.” It’s intentionally not to be believed.

But today’s hyperbolist not only wants to get attention but also wants you to believe what he/she said. It’s as if the only way to make a point is to call upon the most grandiose, most extreme words as possible, magnify what happened -- and call it truth.

TV reporters (and politicians, but I won’t go there) are ruthless hyperbolists, particularly when reporters cover disasters. “The tornado hit the town and completely devastated it,” the reporter declares.

Pu-leeze! The town wasn’t completely devastated, obliterated, or “completely flattened,” either. Buildings were damaged, but the town’s still there!

“The cop gave every car on the block a ticket.” No, he didn’t -- just the one belonging to the loudmouth telling the tale later.

A woman asked a cashier to give her change. When she saw that the customer being waited on was paying with cash, too, she grinned, stuck out her twenty dollar bill and exclaimed, “Nobody uses cash anymore!” She had to be reminded that she, the customer and the cashier just did.

When it comes to hyperbole, the spoken -- rather than the written -- word might be the biggest culprit. Having been warned repeatedly not to overuse adverbs, writers apparently are more careful, at least on paper.

Have a hyperbole that you hate? Feel free to share it here!

Friday, March 23, 2012

A Question to my fellow writers...

...well, not really a question, but an "amen" will do if you agree or have heard the following. (Thanks Eleanora, I'm going to preach one more time for you!)

When people find out you're a writer/author, do you get:

"I've got a story for you! You should write me story."

"You know what? I should write a book, too."

"You should talk to my cousin/friend/aunt/uncle/son/daughter/etc, they've been saying forever how they want to write a book."

SOMEONE: "How do you get published?"
YOU: "Do you write?"
SOMEONE: "Not yet, but I'm going to start writing my book soon."
YOU: "You know you can actually google that question and get some good info, right?"

"When are you going to publish (another) book?"

"You're still not published yet? I have a friend who published her book already."

"Still not published? Maybe you should think about getting a real job."

"You should email J.K. Rowling, she published a whole lot of books."

"You should make your book into a movie."

"When you get published you'll probably make a whole lot of money. (silence) We should get married."

I know our friends/neighbors/family members mean well. Sometimes you have to chuckle with the remarks you get.

Have any outrageous comments to share?

Monday, March 19, 2012

Election Year

No, this isn't about politics, just about voting. There are two children's literature competitions I'm following and perhaps you'd like to too. Maybe even cast a vote. Hamline MFAC grad and Inkpot visitor Quinette Cook is participating in the Think Kid, Think March Madness--a fun event that pits poet against poet. The winning poet moves on to the next round. Quinette has made it to the second round (Brava!) and that competition should begin soon. Her word is "Deconstruct" (poets get assigned a word and have about two days to come up with a poem). Go and vote--for Quinette, if you will. But enjoy the work of all the poets.

The other competition is actually a poll. Betsy Bird has started another poll, two, really: 100 favorite picture books and 100 favorite chapter book. I'll be making and submitting my list of top ten. Will you?

Friday, March 16, 2012

Not Help; Just a Favor

Alicia’s “preaching” post reminds me of the recent email I received from a 31-year-old South Carolina man. He thanked me for writing The Secret of Gumbo Grove. He’d read it when he was 15 years old, the first book he’d ever read. I’ll call him Bill.
“Oh, what a day it was when the last page to a world that I never knew existed came to an end,” Bill said in his email. “It was liberating and disappointing at the same time. When would I do this again?”
Not for another ten years.
What??? Had my book turned him off for a decade? No. “Today I have well over five hundred books under my belt. Thank you for writing a book that showcased my sweet state all those years ago.”
Long story short: now Bill’s writing, too. He says he’s “an unpublished writer who has not a clue of how to be a published author. But this story -- if placed in the right hands -- I have all the confidence in the world would prove to be a classic.”
He didn’t ask for help -- just a favor --for a name and address of an editor. Instead I’ll list a few web sites -- homework! of course. This is the North Carolina Writers Network. Among other resources, it has a critiquing and editing service. As mentioned previously, Writing-World offers tempting topics as What is a Writer?; A Beginner's Guide to Writing Terminology; Learning the Craft; What Kind of Writer Do You Want to Be? etc. If Bill’s really serious, he’ll go here to give his writing a shot in the arm.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Preaching to the choir

A few days ago I had a heart-to-heart with a good friend. She was devastated with the treatment from her boss. Her cry resonated within my soul. I too, shed tears like hers. Back in '09, I was David fighting Goliath at Bank of America. I lost myself and fell into a depression. It was ugly. From that experience, I learned something that I shared with my friend and now, I share with you.

You are stronger than where you are right now. In your journey of creating a career path (after finding one first), cultivating a future for your family, and celebrating small victories--life happens. In our perfect little bubble, we expect the world to revolve around us and push us to greatness. We think, "If I work hard and have a positive outlook then everything will fall into place."

What happens when it doesn't?

What happens when your boss bears his weight down on you? What happens when your book gets a horrible review? What happens when you can't find a job even though you're one paycheck from being homeless? What happens when everyone else around you is successful, but you're still beating the pavement yet another year? What happens when you look in the mirror - if you dare - and don't recognize yourself?

Most writers might advise, "keep writing through your pain." Yet, you know your wrist will break because the pen's too heavy. What do you do? Cry?

Just like my friend came to me, I found solace in a friend. A good listener. And, I found solitude. I then realized: I am stronger that where I am right now. My circumstances might have me in a box, but my strength can't be contained there.

You are so much stronger than your circumstances. You can't let circumstances dictate or define you. Life happens and will continue to happen. Think of all the past hurdles you've jumped.

If I can borrow from The Help:

You is kind.
You is smart.
You is important.

Sunday, March 11, 2012


I'd sketched out a couple of posts I wanted to share here, but each reflected the downside of our recent warm weather: piles of very dirty snow. So in case you don't follow my friend and Inkpotter Jackie Briggs Martin's blog, here's a link. Enjoy her rumination on bread baking and writing and then scroll down for a recap of the presentation she and some other fabulous writers (including Inkpotter Phyllis Root & Hamline grad and Inkpot regular Chris Heppermann) did at a recent conference on poetry and picture books. I wish I'd been there.

Meanwhile, anyone want to come up with a writing metaphor based on dirty snow?

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Step Away from the Book, Lady, and There Won't Be Any Trouble

I was e-chatting with a former student, a woman from the Vermont program, so we're going back a ways. She'd been reading craft books and instead of giving her wings, they turned into concrete shoes. She wasn't blocked in the traditional sense, just stymied and overwhelmed.

I told her to just go back to the story she'd been working on and make a few mistakes. Butt in the chair, pen in hand, inhibitions tied up in the basement. Reading about writing sometimes is like reading about water. Just go to the well.

There used to be books about the wedding night with detailed instructions about how to proceed. We've all read DMV booklets. And, Lord knows, cookbooks. But at some point it's time to take off your clothes, get in the car, and cut up an onion. Wait. That didn't come out right. You know what I mean.

Reading about writing is fine and sometimes necessary and probably essential for an MFA student. But it can't replace writing. And it shouldn't get in the way of the writing. If and when it does, put the book down. Take off your clothes, get in the car, and cut up an onion!

For those who wait for the first of the month and the new poem, it's up on my website --

The March poem is short and funny. So you've been warned.


Tuesday, March 6, 2012


Ron, before I forget: A while back I had written about "tight lines." You wrote about Pico Iyer's defense of long sentences. Might one call that "longlining"? Another fishing term applicable to writing! :-)

Saturday, March 3, 2012

"The Best Word"

In my quest for a simpler life I’m supposed to throw away bags, bins, and drawers of precious writing junk I’ve squirreled away for decades. Instead I’m just moving stuff from one box to another.

But one pleasant reunion was when I found 40 pages I’d printed out in 1999 from Chuck Guilford’s web site “Paradigm Online Writing Assistant” and that’s still on the Internet. He offers valuable help under the headings of Discovery, Organizing, Revising, Editing, Informal Essays, Thesis/Support Essays, Argumentative Essays, Exploratory Essays, and Documenting.

Under the heading of “Revising” and “the Best Word” Guilford discusses clichés -- those tired, unimaginative words and phrases that we sometimes mistake for creativity but that cause not only the reader -- but also the writer who wrote them -- to yawn.

He lists several clichés, then asks that you rewrite the cliché, “making the same point more vividly and clearly in your own language.”

Try rewriting these three:
1. “I was hungry enough to eat a horse.”
2. “We ran up against a brick wall.”
3. “Ever since then she’s kept her nose clean.”

What did you come up? Let us know!

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Psychic What?

There I was, sitting in my writer's workshop at Hamline. It was a terribly cold January. The streets were piled with mountains of snow. Inside, the classrooms were toasty, and my toes tingled as they warmed. My workshop leaders, Anne Ursu and Marsha Chall, guided us in discussing the elements of craft in our work. As a novice writer, I copiously took notes while everyone else chimed in. Then the term Psychic Distance was tossed in the wind like it was common as character.

"Psychic What? Please don't tell me that we have to be clairvoyant, too?"

Marsha C read my thoughts. "Do you know need me to explain?" she asked. She shared that PD is a term that John Gardner wrote about in his book, The Art of Fiction. It's the "distance the reader feels between himself and the events of the story." It's like a camera taking a panoramic view and then zooming in closer, or vice-versa. (not her words exactly.)

There are tons of wonderful examples found in great novels, especially by our Hamline staff. But I ran across a light one in Robert Cormier's, I Am the Cheese. I chose this specific passage because of it's brevity.

          I am riding the bicycle and I am on Route 31 in Monument, Massachusetts, on my way to        Rutterburg, Vermont, and I'm pedaling furious because this is an old-fashioned bike, no speeds, no fenders, only the warped tires and the brakes that don't always work and the handlebars with cracked rubber grips to steer with. A plain bike - the kind my father rode as a kid years ago. It's cold as I pedal along, the wind like a snake slithering up my sleeves and into my jacket and my pants legs, too. But I keep pedaling, I keep pedaling (1).

Please feel free to share your examples of PD.