December 9, 2009

Subject: Going forward, looking back

I might have mentioned feeling, oh, weary last week. This week is better. I feel really good about my decision to set my novel aside for a while. It’s been a relief, and I’m actually excited about what I might work on next.

How did I shift from weary despair about the present to excitement about the future? By looking back, to the past, of course.

You know how sometimes different things happen at the same time—a series of coincidences? Well, in the midst of wondering why I ever started writing this novel, I flipped through my old notebooks, trying to find when the story sparked and what enchanted me about it. What had I been trying to achieve in the story?

Then, I saw a link to Linda Urban’s blog post about spine. She talks about your Big Why: “your reason for doing what you do.” I had seen the post several months ago, and it inspired me to read Twyla Tharp’s book on creativity. Why was I writing in general?

I also received my weekly email from Author, the online magazine from the Pacific Northwest Writer’s Association. It had an article by Bob Mayer that encouraged writers to set up strategic writing and career goals. Where, he asked, do you want to be in five years?

I needed a personal mission statement. Fortunately, I had already written one of those, a year ago when I was applying to Hamline’s MFA program. Here’s what I said I wanted to achieve:
I want to write entertaining and suspenseful middle grade and young adult novels about coming of age, finding inner strength, and the excitement of discovery and knowledge. I want to write about vivid characters who show readers the sense of possibility, the essence of hope and the truth of being human. I want to write novels that feature a strong connection to place, with beautiful language, striking details, and multiple layers. In other words, I want to write the kind of book that you can’t put down on a first read, but that you’d enjoy reading a second or third time for new details and deeper meaning.
It’s a little long for a mission statement. I’ll have to sharpen it. Still, it gives me a clearer picture of what I’m working to achieve.

December 2, 2009

Subject: A Season of (writing with) Joy

You know how the turkey carcass looks after Thanksgiving dinner? Empty and picked-over? That’s how I felt last weekend. And it was more than normal post-holiday blues. I felt weary, weighed down, blank. I suddenly realized that my work-in-progress is at a dead end. I’ve worked on it so long that the joy has disappeared.

My usual recourse in times of stress is to dig into a good book or visit a bookstore. I love to lose myself within a story, following great characters on adventure. And I find solace in bookstores, among the shelves. But somehow during the last few weeks of November, my desire to read also dwindled away.

No reading? No trip to the bookstore? Anyone who knows me can attest to the seriousness of my situation.

In fact, as the weekend progressed, I fantasized about scenarios that involved some kind of sabbatical from all writing and printed material. It would be like those monastery retreats, where you agree not to speak for two weeks, only I wouldn’t read or write. Maybe even for more than two weeks. Maybe for two months.

Of course, as soon as I thought about going cold turkey, I panicked. What would I do if I didn’t write? What would I do with that stack of books to read? How would I survive the holidays without visiting a bookstore?

Julia Cameron says that artists have an “inner well” or “artistic reservoir” that she likens to a “well-stocked trout pond.”

Any extended period or piece of work draws heavily on our artistic well. Overtapping the well, like overfishing the pond, leaves us with diminished resources…. We must become alert enough to consciously replenish our creative resources as we draw on them—to restock the trout pond, so to speak (The Artist’s Way).

My pond, to use Julia’s terminology, was empty.

First order of business (that is, after a wonderful talk with my husband), I reconnected with friends. Writing is so solitary. Sometimes I feel completely isolated in my office, tapping away at my computer. My friend Susan reminded me that we all struggle with writing at times. She told me she planned to follow Anne Lamott’s advice to “put the squeaking mouse in the jar and close the lid shut so I don't hear it anymore.” My friend Allyson supported my desire to spend more time on fun creative projects. And Liz reminded me to do what brings me joy.

I felt so much better. I am grateful for the support of my family and friends.

My goal for the coming year is to write with a sense of fun and joy. I will set my India novel aside so I can explore new characters, short stories and chapter books. I want to write books that are fun to read, and the only way I can do that, I think, is by writing with joy.

December 1, 2009

Subject: Join Story Sleuths for A Season of Gifts

This month I'll be guest blogging at Story Sleuths with Allyson Valentine Schrier. Starting next week, we'll be posting about writing tips gleaned from Richard Peck's new book, A Season of Gifts.

If you're unfamiliar with Story Sleuths, please click on over. Allyson and her blogging partner Meg Lippert, who teaches Writing for Children at the University of Washington, read and analyze respected new children's books as writers, searching for tips and ideas about how to improve their own writing. I think of their blog as a combination book club for writers (comments are welcome) and master workshop on writing. In the last two months, they featured Sherman Alexie's The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian and Rebecca Stead's novel When You Reach Me.
During the first week of December, Meg and Allyson will look at two picture books, Snow Day by Komako Sakai and A Penguin's Story by Antoinette Portis. Then Allyson and I will finish out the month with A Season of Gifts. Next month, they'll be taking a look at a new anthology of YA short stories, Geektastic: Stories from the Nerd Herd, edited by Holly Black and Cecil Castelluci, and featuring John Green, Libba Bray and M.T. Anderson.

November 23, 2009

Subject: Book Fair Confessions

While many people in the Children's Literature community spent last week at the National Council of Teachers of English conference in Philadelphia, I attended a different sort of literary event, working as a cashier at the Book Fair for my daughter’s elementary school.
Do you remember getting those newsprint flyers for Scholastic Book Orders when you were a kid? Helping out at book fair always reminds me of the joy I felt when my teacher handed out those order forms. I would spend the entire bus ride home circling my choices, and then I would eagerly wait for the books to arrive.

(Confession #1: Even now, I can’t wait for my daughter’s order forms to come home once a month.)

The Scholastic Book Fair brings those flyers to life. Our school library was transformed into a veritable bookstore. We sold everything from Jerry Pinkney’s beautiful new picture book, The Lion and the Mouse, to posters of cute puppies.

(Confession #2: I’ve always fantasized about owning a bookstore. This was my chance, for a couple of days, to shelve books, talk books, sell books.)

And what fun Book Fair was! Mad rushes at lunch recess to purchase bookmarks and pencils before the bell. Baggies filled with pennies, nickels, and dimes, oh my! Children buying Christmas presents for their teachers and siblings. Happy faces over stacks of crisp, new paperback books.

(Confession #3: Of course, I added to my stack of reading while I was there…)

That should hold me over for a while… Happy Reading!

By the way, you can click over to Jane Yolen's journal entry for a complete report on NCTE fun in Philadelphia.

October 30, 2009

Subject: Doubts, despair and stubborn persistence

Short story: A vacation + homework deadline for Hamline + life = too much time away from novel revision

Longer version: I feel like I lost the thread of my story sometime during the month of October. What is this novel about? Is it about anything? Should I keep going? Trust that something will emerge?

I hate the way doubt creeps up and takes over. Sometimes doubt sends me into a spiral, stealing precious time away from writing and paralyzing me. When that happens, I tell myself I have to keep plugging along. What else can I do? I knew that writing required persistence, skill, and discipline. I had no idea that writing required so much faith. Faith that a story will emerge. Faith that time and effort will yield results someday.

Did anyone see the Junot Diaz article in November’s Oprah Magazine? Diaz is the Pulitzer Prize winning author of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. He describes the process of writing his novel. He wrote every day, eight hours a day, and never got past page 75.

“Want to talk about stubborn? I kept at it for five straight years. Five damn years. Every day failing for five years? I’m a pretty stubborn, pretty hard-hearted character, but those five years of fail did a number on my psyche. On me.”

Every day failing for five years—that kills me. Sometimes I wonder if I can keep going. Can I keep trusting that if I show up every day that eventually, I will finish a book, produce a work that matches the vision in my head? Do I have faith?

Diaz says that his struggle taught him what a writer really is.

“In my view, a writer is a writer because even when there is no hope, even when nothing you do shows any sign of promise, you keep writing anyway.”
I hope he’s right.

October 3, 2009

Subject: Story Structure in The Boyfriend List

How does structure affect story, and vice versa? The basic structure of a story is simple--beginning, middle and end--but is that always the most effective way to tell a story?

E. Lockhart's The Boyfriend List uses an unusual narrative structure, a list, to weave together a story that jumps between the recent past, the current time and childhood. Rather than revealing the story in chronological "real time," Lockhart mimics her protagonist's soul-searching thought process through the list.

If you're unfamiliar with the book, here’s a synopsis:

A series of social debacles have taken 15-year-old Ruby from “reasonably popular” to leper in a matter of weeks. Her boyfriend dumped her. Her friends won’t speak to her. Everyone at her private Seattle prep school gossips about her. Even her carpool pal refuses to drive her to school. But she doesn’t want to talk about any of that, so her new therapist, hired when Ruby suffers panic attacks, asks her to make a list of boyfriends, past and present. The list gives Ruby the opportunity to reflect on her past, her friendships, her parents and herself, all the while coming to terms with her current situation. The first-person narrative, which includes footnotes, reveals Ruby’s insights on romance, boys, growing up and high school life.

(So awesome, by the way, to read a book set in Seattle.)

Each boyfriend on Ruby's list becomes the subject and title of a chapter in the book. For example, in an early therapy session, Ruby jumps back ten years, remembering her preschool friend Adam. She thinks he's irrelevant, but then she recalls meeting Adam again as an eighth grader when at a dance with her friend Kim. And then she realizes, "the story about Adam at the mixer was a story about Kim. And how we used to be." The chapters are structured to integrate the backstory elements that are critical to Ruby’s self-understanding, while building suspense by pushing off the answers to readers’ questions about what went wrong with the boyfriend and why Ruby’s friends won’t speak to her.

It’s interesting to note the similarities between The Boyfriend List and John Green’s An Abundance of Katherines. Like Ruby, Colin, the protagonist of An Abundance of Katherines, was recently dumped. Rather than go to therapy, he takes a road trip, during which he too reflects on his past girlfriend experiences. I think Lockhart came up with a more elegant solution for integrating the backstory with the list structure. (Both books also feature footnotes, another similarity…).

The narrative structure makes The Boyfriend List an interesting read by increasing suspense and incorporating relevant backstory in an organic way. By revealing information in non-chronological order, Lockhart creates suspense, builds character and hooks readers.

Now the question for me is how can I play with narrative structure to improve my own writing?

September 30, 2009

Subject: Cooking and Writing

When you're cooking a meal, do you clean up as you go or leave all the dishes for later?
When you write a novel, do you edit what came before or plow ahead?
I thought about the similarities between cooking and writing last night. I was making dinner, feeling smug that I had time to wash the bowls and knives from my vegetable dish before cooking my main course. It's nice not to have to scrabble through a pile of cutting boards and measuring cups to find the good knife, and it makes dinner more enjoyable knowing I won't have to spend hours cleaning up later.
It occurred to me, as I washed the bowls, that cleaning up as I go sums up the revision work I did earlier in the day. I was stuck, having taken a few days to finish up my Hamline homework packet, followed by a weekend off. I wanted to move ahead--I believe in the notion that forward progress is imperative--and yet I couldn't. Not until I fixed what was really bothering me in the previous two scenes. I started with some nitpicking. I embellished a few lines. Then I discovered the problem. It was a matter of attitude. My character was acting way too whiny and paranoid. I had to fix it before I could move on.
Of course, to carry the analogy along, I will have to clean up more when I finish the entire revision. Just like I still have to face dishes at the end of dinner. Hopefully, making little adjustments along the way will help avoid a huge mess later.
What about you? What works best when you're writing?

Subject: Blogs to Read

Check out these two blogs:
Darcy Pattison, author of Novel Metamorphosis: Uncommon Ways to Revise, blogs about writing and revision. She often features interviews with authors who share their revision stories, such as this one with Lauren Bjorkman.

This week, Through the Tollbooth is interviewing Laura Resau, author of Red Glass and The Indigo Notebook (coming out this month). Her novel What the Moon Saw is one my stack of favorite books. It features Clara Luna, an American teen who travels to Mexico to spend the summer with her grandparents in rural Oaxaca.

September 28, 2009

Subject: Banned Book Week

It's Banned Book Week, both a celebration of free speech and a reminder that censors continue to challenge books deemed inappropriate due to language or content.
I would like to thank the many authors, librarians, journalists, teachers and readers who work so hard to fight censorship and promote the freedom to read.
What gets challenged and censored most? Click here for a list of the top ten books challenged in 2008. You can also find a more detailed listing here.
Laurie Halse Anderson's novels Twisted and Speak recently faced challenges in three different school districts. You can read her blog for insight on the process and updates on the efforts to keep those books available to young readers. Thank you, Laurie, for writing books that reveal emotional truths about difficult experiences.
Thank you, too, to Judy Blume, Chris Crutcher and the many other children's and young adult writers who battle censorship. Judy Blume, the author of many of my favorite books as a child, edited Places I Never Meant to Be, a great collection of short stories by censored writers.
For record, some of my favorite reads from this year's list of challenged and banned books:
  • The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian by Sherman Alexie
  • Looking for Alaska by John Green
  • The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini
  • Me, Penelope by Lisa Jahn-Clough
  • The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman
What are your favorite banned or challenged books?

September 24, 2009

Subject: Exterior and Interior Emotions

Last night, I heard Rachel Simmons, author of Odd Girl Out, talk about her newest book, The Curse of the Good Girl, which is about helping girls live more confident lives free of the the "good girl" social confines. Simmons is a great speaker, and she did an awesome job reaching out to the middle school girls in the audience. One of the many things I learned was that "ehh" and "whatever" are not actual emotions.

Books like Odd Girl Out and The Curse of the Good Girl help me as a writer by reminding me of the issues that face my middle school and high school characters and readers. Sometimes through memories that I can mine for emotional responses. Sometimes through recalling experiences that seem trivial now but were a big deal as a teen.

They also help me with developing my characters' emotional responses. Simmons talked about exterior vs. interior emotions and using this distinction to get to the root cause of your feelings. Outward expressions like anger or frustration are exterior emotions that often hide other, deeper emotions such as embarrassment, fear, jealousy or regret. As a writer, this makes me think about combining surface level conflict with opportunities for the character to think about inner conflicts, needs and desires. Interior emotions seem to be the fodder for character thought, choices and growth.

Anyway, it was a great lecture at Town Hall that included some technical wizardry. Simmons encouraged audience members to get out their phones and text responses to questions like "What do you think of when you hear the term 'good girl'?" She showed the responses in real time on the screen behind her. (Can you imagine asking a group of middle schoolers to use their cell phones during a presentation? They loved it!) Go see Rachel if she comes to town on her book tour. And if not, check out her latest book. I'm looking forward to reading it.

September 23, 2009

Subject: Favorite Quotations from Donald Maass

I often refer to Donald Maass's book Writing The Breakout Novel Workbook when I need ideas about where to focus in revision. I picked up his newest book, The Fire in Fiction, a few months ago. In the back, he talks about originality and theme. How, when so many books come out every year, do you write something unique?

The following quotations helped me when I learned about a book that had a similar storyline to my work-in-progress and panicked, wondering whether I should continue writing:
Originality can come only from what you bring of yourself to your story. In other words, originality is not a function of your novel; it is a quality in you.
He follows that with:
Finding the power buried in your novel is not about finding its theme. I would say, rather, that it is about finding you: your eyes, experience, understanding and compassion. Ignore yourself and your story will be weak.
This resonates with me because it reminds me that I have to put myself into my writing. I'm not just telling a story--I'm telling a story that means something to me. That is what makes it unique.

September 18, 2009

Subject: Writing Down the Page

Sometimes I have a hard time starting a scene. I write the opening sentence once, twice. Delete those. Start over. Struggle to find the right words. Come to realize that I cannot structure a decent sentence. Wait, hands poised on keys. Wait. Wait.

Many writers recommend freewriting. For me, one of the best ways to get unblocked is to use a technique called Writing Down the Page from The Weekend Novelist by Robert J. Ray and Bret Norris.

Basically, you focus on action and imagery, keeping sentences or phrases short, line after line. The result looks like a page or more of free verse. The authors claim that writing this way, fast and without regard for punctuation or exposition, frees your inner critic.

This really works for me. I focus on the action of the scene, and as I do so, I end up surprising myself with imagery and ideas.

Here’s an example:

[Note: Izzy and Mom are driving through Delhi in a taxi. A beggar startled Izzy.]

Izzy turns her face and hides in the duffle bag

She feels Mom’s hand rubbing her back

The car accelerates

A few more minutes, the driver says

Mom: Good. Thanks. We don’t have much time.

Her voice sounds thick.

Izzy keeps her eyes shut

Likes the darkness

Smells the faint plastic smell of the fabric

I had forgotten about the duffle bag, but it’s a perfect place for Izzy to hide. What’s more, that notion that she “likes the darkness” feels like something that could take on more meaning.

Now, I can write.

September 16, 2009

Subject: Revising and Rewriting

This fall, I’m revising my India novel. I finished the first draft of this novel back in April. I spent about six weeks agonizing over what to do next with it. My Hamline faculty advisor, Claire Rudolf Murphy, advised dropping a storyline or changing the timeframe. I couldn’t. I knew something had to change, but what?

I decided to take a break from the story and work on something else. I picked up the draft of another novel. Same problem. It needed big changes, but where to start?

Now it’s September, and I’m back to the India story. My new faculty advisor, Jane Resh Thomas, suggested switching from first person to third as a way to gain some distance from my 14-year-old protagonist. Furthermore, she said I must put the old draft away. I’m rewriting. “Don’t peek,” she said.

Scary? Yes. But also incredibly freeing.

Over the last two weeks, I’ve brainstormed scene ideas and plot layers. I made mindmaps of different storylines. I wrote a one-line description of each possible scene on a 3x5 card. The stack of cards grew. Then, using my big dining table, I arranged the scenes, added cards, removed others and rearranged them. My story is taking shape and growing.

That storyline I couldn’t remove in April? Gone.

The hardest part, for me, is taking the leap from analyzing to writing. I could live in analysis mode (plotting, researching, character building) forever. Why? It’s safe there. It’s a world of possibility. A world free of mistakes.

But it’s also dangerous there. It’s limbo. So long as you stay there, you never move forward. You’re stuck.

I don't want to be stuck forever.

So today, I leaped out of story analysis and I rewrote the novel’s first scene. Or rather wrote it for the first time. It resembles the first draft but it’s different.

My character started her journey today, and so did I.

September 14, 2009

Subject: Definitions

Composition Book

A composition book is one of a type of stock-bound notebook commonly used by writers and students. Although available in several colors, the original marbled black-and-white cover, with its generic label on the front, is the overwhelming favorite. Wikipedia.

My journal of choice is the composition book. It lies flat when open, with no spiral binding, a key feature for a lefty like me. It’s small enough to fit in a decent-sized purse yet large enough for serious notes. And it’s unassuming—there’s nothing pretentious or fancy about it, which means I never have to worry about whether my observations are journal-worthy.

But there’s something more about Composition Book. It’s not just a journal or the title of this blog. It’s also the subject of the journal. Composition: Book.

The Composition of a Book

As a novelist, I’m interested in the craft of writing, what makes good books work, and how an author brings together elements such as place, history, character and time to create an engaging story. I’m on a quest to develop my skills as a writer.

While I’m actively writing my own novels, I’m reading, reading, reading. Mostly I read other middle grade and YA novels, but I also read books about writing. (For pure fun, I read adult mysteries—my favorites are the Maisie Dobbs series by Jacqueline Winspear and the Mary Russell series by Laurie R. King.)

I go one step beyond reading for pleasure, especially now that I’m attending Hamline University’s MFA program. I also look at how a book works. I love to uncover the structure of a novel or to discover the components that make a book unique.

Here are the first nine meanings for the word composition from an online dictionary:

com⋅po⋅si⋅tion  [kom-puh-zish-uhn]


1. the act of combining parts or elements to form a whole.

2. the resulting state or product.

3. manner of being composed; structure: This painting has an orderly composition.

4. makeup; constitution: His moral composition was impeccable.

5. an aggregate material formed from two or more substances: a composition of silver and tin.

6. a short essay written as a school exercise.

7. the act or process of producing a literary work.

8. an academic course for teaching the techniques of clear, expository writing.

9. the art of putting words and sentences together in accordance with the rules of grammar and rhetoric.

In this blog, I’ll be looking at the components of novels, analyzing structure and considering the overall effect of a book using examples from my reading. Since I am also working on the second draft of a novel, I’ll also share my experiences with the writing process.

September 12, 2009

Subject: Why "Composition Book"?

When it came to titling my blog, I brainstormed ideas about my goals as a writer, my inspirations, my challenges, etc. in my notebook… a Composition Book.

This quote from E. M. Forster illustrates my reliance on my trusty Composition Books:

“How do I know what I think until I see what I say?” E. M. Forster

My notebook is more than just a repository of information. It’s where I work through my thoughts and experiment with ideas. I hope this blog will be a similar forum, with the added benefit of being able to communicate and collaborate with others.