Monday, January 28, 2013

Hear the Cheering?

The Hamline MFAC community is a happy one today. Two of our own, Gary Schmidt and Mary Logue, are the authors of picture books that were honored by the American Library Association.

The Pura Belpre Award for best picture book illustrated by a Latino/Latina was awarded to Martin de Porres, the Rose in the Desert, illustrated by David Diaz and written by Gary D. Schmidt.

A Caldecott Honor, runner-up to the Caldecott Award for the best illustrated book, was given to Sleep Like a Tiger, illustrated by Pamela Zagarenski and written by Mary Logue.

These are illustrator awards, but as Jackie Briggs Martins, another MFAC luminary, recently said, "First was the word."

Wonderful books, wonderful illustrations. Congrats to all four creators.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Beckett, that Cheery Fellow

Samuel Beckett said something like this about writing:  Try again.  Fail again.  Fail better.

I pretty much love that.  I imagine most of us have a Platonically ideal story or novel or poem in mind when we start to work.  Or we simply set the bar high, as we should.  For me, anyway, I rarely come close.  If I'm lucky,  something emerges from the chaos, but it's almost never what I started out to do and it certainly isn't as wonderful as I'd hoped.

But it is usually livelier than some of the first drafts.  More fun to read.  Marginally spell-binding in one paragraph after all.  A trifle ruddier. Not as awful as I feared.    I'd taken Beckett's advice and failed better.

Every first draft is a total failure for me, anyway.  My Platonic ideal for one is very, very modest:  finish.  (I doubt that even qualifies as an ideal.)   When I look at an early draft, I think of the two-headed calf I saw at the Illinois State Fair:  interesting and grotesque.  Pitiable and risible.

Usually (turn away, Reader, if you are squeamish), I just cut one of the heads off and turn the beast into a recognizable animal.   Sometimes the operation isn't a success and the thing dies.  HOWEVER every now and then the monster turns out to be exactly what I didn't know I wanted but is just right for the job.   Or at least I can follow its cloven hooves through the snow and, Look!  A little house with a fireplace where I can fail in comfort.  

So -- many of you from Hamline are home starting a new semester with new advisors.  They'll give everyone time and attention and lots of advice.   My (unsolicited) advice is brief and borrowed from Mr. Beckett:   When what you're working on goes to pieces, try again.  Fail better.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Great stuff in the aggregate!

A couple of quick little cool thingys!

Yolanda Hare, Hamline MFAC alumna, has an article in the Jan./Feb. Horn Book that is 26 kinds of awesome: Beyond The Friends. Go read it!

The winter residency has its own hashtag on Twitter: #hamlinemfac. Type that into your Search feature up there for the latest updates. What would be awesome? If Hamlinites kept using the hashtag after the residency is over to talk writing, editing, submissions, and discuss what they've been up to lately. Because Hamline folks are great in general, and it is lonely being a graduate, alas!

Monday, January 14, 2013

Borrowing Words Part 2

The great thing about people is that sometimes they will say the damndest things.

Girl (running with net): Come on, Meghan, this is a ginormous scientific emergency!

People are generally funnier, cooler, and crazier than we give them credit for, and our favorite books have characters that reflect that. These books winnow the best and most interesting bits out of life -- and so should you. I keep a commonplace notebook and pile all kinds of cool stuff into it. I especially like to write down the funny stuff people say. “Maybe I can use this in a novel,” I think, and sometimes I can.

Sixth-grade girl: So I told him to bring it! So he brought it! And then he went home crying to his mom!

When I have a decent draft of a story, I like to go through and drop in some random stuff out of my commonplace notebook. If the little bit of funny doesn’t fit, I just take it out later. But if it does fit, it makes the language in the story so much livelier, and once in a while this little throwaway detail will branch out in a million unexpected ways.

Jay (running): I can’t stop, Dad, Darth Vader is on my tail!

Another thing that’s fun to do is to secretly take notes when your target audience is around. This is tricky, because with kids, one or two of them get wise to you pretty quick. But boy, the conversations they have are so awesome.

(Two kids are playing.)

Katy: Give me your jacket!

Sophie: Not in a million years!

Katy (intoning): A million years later....

You can also have somebody help you write dialogue. Sometimes I ask my husband for good lines and he’ll come up with some good zingers that I never would have come up with on my own, because he’s awesome like that. And again, borrowing from others is a good way for me to stretch a little and get away of the same old stuff that rattles around in my mind .

Melissa: I probably broke all the rules of poetry in this poem.

Dave: That’s the spirit!

P.S. Winter residency has begun at Hamline, which means I am living vicariously through Hamlinites' Facebook updates. Well, maybe it's not that vicarious. But I always wish I were in on the action.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

R U Having Fun Yet?

I'm mentoring a YA writer.  She's an earnest young woman with "a lot to say."  I tell her I have almost nothing to say and have made a so-called career out of very thin air and enjoyed myself along the way.  She thinks I'm kidding.  She says I don't understand what it's like to face the cold, white page every day.  I suggest paper of another color.  Ivory is nice.   She humors me.  After all, I could be her grandfather.    All I need is a front porch and a hound dog.  

I've written about this before -- the pleasure one takes in composition. How lovely it is to meet nouns in their natural habitat and pair them with unlikely and sometimes volatile verbs.

In a recent TNY piece, Daniel Mendelsohn writes about his correspondence with Mary Renault.  They became epistolary friends.  He sent her his early stories.  She said nice things.  Here's one  -- "Just carry on enjoying yourself with writing.  Love what you are doing and do it as well as you can."

He was very young and didn't write well yet.  Maybe he suffered.  Maybe he had cold, white pages to contend with.  But he admits he enjoyed what he was doing and, in fact, flat out loved it.

Try that.  Try being a deeply affectionate writer.   Don't be like the vegetarian who won't give money to the homeless because they'll just use it to buy meat.