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.