March 30, 2010

Subject: How do your priorities align with your time?

A Different Approach to Setting Goals
I’ve been all about goals and resolutions this year, inspired in part by reading The Happiness Project and in part by my desire to make progress with my writing. After reading a challenge from the folks at Teaching Authors, I even wrote up a six-word resolution for the year (Write. Create. Revise. Complete. Enjoy. Repeat.) So when the Vermont Novel Writing Workshop opened with a session on setting goals, I felt like I was in good shape.

YA Novelist and writing teacher Sarah Aronson, who organized the retreat and led the goal setting session, urged all of us in the audience to think realistically about how we use our time before setting our goals.

How much time do we have to write? How much time do we spend caring for families, working at jobs, driving kids around, volunteering, cooking, cleaning, watching TV, and even, um…, blogging? Write it down, all of it, she said.

Since I write while my kids are at school, I have about twenty hours a week to devote to writing—all of my writing. That includes my novel, blogging here, blogging at StorySleuths, and writing short stories. Twenty hours is a good chunk of time, and I’m grateful for it.

Then, Sarah asked us to consider how our schedules match up with our priorities.

Oh, I realize there’s nothing new to the idea of comparing time with priorities but I had never looked at it in the stark light of basic numbers. Twenty hours a week and maybe one or two hours spent on my novel? The rest spent on… what? Blogging? “Research”?

Holy crap.

New resolution: Spend two hours a day working on my novel before working on any other writing. Ten hours of focused novel writing a week should add up to real progress over time.

How do you allot your time? Do you set daily writing goals? If so, how does that work for you? I’d love to hear about challenges, tips, and ideas!

March 23, 2010

Subject: A Top Ten List from Vermont Writing Retreat

Last weekend, I traveled to Montpelier, Vermont to attend the Novel Writing Retreat at Vermont College of Fine Arts, a workshop for 25 middle grade and young adult novelists organized by Sarah Aronson and Cindy Faughnan. The faculty included Nancy Mercado, executive editor at Roaring Book Press, Emily Jenkins (E. Lockhart for YA fans), and Uma Krishnaswami.

Weekend Highlights

10. Visiting Montpelier. This was my first trip to Vermont, ever. It was unseasonably warm when I arrived (temperatures in the mid 60s!). I enjoyed walking from campus to town, which is home to the capitol, several bookstores, and the Capitol Grounds Coffee Shop.

9. Dorm Living. Nothing like cinderblock walls and the hum of a mini-fridge to take you back to college days!

8. Book Recommendations. My to-read pile grew after each participant shared a recent favorite MG or YA book. Several people recommended our current StorySleuths book (The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly) as well as June’s book, One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia. One Crazy Summer has gotten starred reviews from Horn Book, Booklist, and Kirkus. Another recommendation: The Sky is Everywhere, by VCFA grad Jandy Nelson.

7. Prizes. I won a door-prize, the F&G of Feeding the Sheep by Leda Schubert, who is a member of the VCFA faculty. Schubert’s rhyming text along with beautiful illustrations by Andrea U’Ren tells the story of a mother and daughter who raise sheep and harvest wool.

6. Cafeteria Food. I have no complaints about the cafeteria food at Vermont College, all of which was prepared by students from the New England Culinary Institute. We had some great veggies… plus delicious cookies at every meal.

5. Workshop. The retreat’s critique track included a workshop with four other writers. I always love workshop time when at Hamline, and this was no different. I learn so much from reading other people’s work as well as from their feedback on my work. Critique Group One was awesome.

4. Making Things Worse. Emily Jenkins, author of The Boyfriend List and The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau Banks, shared her techniques for plotting and pacing. At every step, she asks, “What’s the worst that can happen?” She also showed us different versions of the same scene so we could see how she revised for pacing. (My comments on the structure of The Boyfriend List are here.)

3. Reading Birthmarked. For her talk on pacing, Nancy Mercado gave participants a sneak peek at Caragh O’Brien’s new book Birthmarked, a dystopian novel set in a post-climate change society next to Unlake Michigan. Although I probably wouldn’t have chosen the book on my own, I have to say that I loved Birthmarked. Action, suspense, moral choices, plus a romance… definitely read it. Birthmarked hits bookstores next week.

2. Brainstorming with Uma. I am so grateful for the opportunity to talk about my work-in-progress with Uma Krishnaswami, author of Monsoon and Naming Maya. She provided excellent feedback on my opening pages as well as good advice about the directions I plan to take in the rest of the book.

1. Making Connections. As always, it was so great to meet other writers who love MG and YA books as much as I do. Good luck, all, in your writing. Hope to see your novels soon!

March 19, 2010

Subject: Ten Favorite Short Story Collections

Eager to read some middle grade and young adult short stories? Here’s a list of some of my favorite collections and anthologies.

  1. 13: Thirteen Stories That Capture the Agony and Ecstasy of Being Thirteen, edited by James Howe (Simon & Schuster Children's Publishing). Includes stories by Ron Koertge, Todd Strasser, and Bruce Coville.
  2. Baseball Crazy: Ten Short Stories That Cover All the Bases, edited by Nancy Mercado, (Dial Books for Young Readers, 2008). Includes stories by Frank Portman, Sue Corbett, and Joseph Bruchac.
  3. Geektastic: Stories from the Nerd Herd, edited by Holly Black and Cecil Castelluci (Little Brown Books for Young Readers, 2009). Includes stories by Tracy Lynn, John Green, and Sara Zarr.
  4. No Easy Answers: Short Stories About Teenagers Making Tough Choices, edited by Donald R. Gallo (Laurel-Leaf Books, 1997). Includes stories by Walter Dean Myers, Virginia Euwer Wolff, and Rita Williams-Garcia.
  5. No Such Thing as The Real World: Stories about Growing Up and Getting a Life (Laura Geringer Books, 2009). Includes stories by Beth Kephart, Chris Lynch, and K. L. Going.
  6. Pretty Monsters: Stories, by Kelly Link (Viking, 2008)
  7. Soul Searching: Thirteen Stories about Faith and Belief, edited by Lisa Rowe Fraustino, (Simon & Schuster, 2002). Includes stories by Uma Krishnaswami, Minfong Ho, and Linda Oatman High.
  8. The Year’s Best Science Fiction and Fantasy for Teens, edited by Jane Yolen and Patrick Nielsen Hayden (Tor, 2005). Includes stories by Kelly Link, Lynette Aspey, and Delia Sherman.
  9. Tripping Over the Lunch Lady and Other School Stories, edited by Nancy E. Mercado (Dial Books for Young Readers, 2004). Includes stories by David Lubar, Rachel Vail, and Sarah Weeks.
  10. Up All Night: Seven Sunsets, Seven Stories (Laura Geringer Books, 2008). Includes stories by Peter Abrahams, David Levithan, and Patricia McCormick.

Would love to hear recommendations for other short story collections and anthologies!

March 17, 2010

Subject: A Book Review for St. Patrick's Day (Bog Child by Siobhan Dowd)

Happy St. Patrick’s Day! Are you wearing green today? As usual, I forgot about the holiday. Fortunately, my youngest did not. She appeared for breakfast in a Kelly green hoodie and matching leaf-green t-shirt. Her St. Patrick’s Day spirit inspired me to hold off my planned post so I could write about a book set in Ireland that I recently finished.

Title: Bog Child

Author: Siobhan Dowd

Genre: Young Adult

Publisher: David Fickling Books, 2008


It’s the early 1980s in a small Northern Ireland border town. Fergus McCann needs to focus on studying for the exams that will take him away from Ireland to university. He struggles to concentrate, though, his mind and emotions occupied with the political turmoil that affects all aspects of Fergus’s life.

His older brother, Joe, is in prison, where he joins a group of hunger strikers appealing for status as political prisoners. Fergus’s parents argue constantly about the Troubles. And Joe’s old friend pressures Fergus to join the fight by transporting contraband across the border.

The novel begins when Fergus discovers a young girl’s body buried and preserved in peat. The body is presumed to be centuries old, and Fergus welcomes the opportunity to help a mother-daughter archaeological team investigate where and how the child died. Soon, Fergus hears the child’s voice in his dreams. Her story of betrayal and sacrifice mirrors many of the same themes Fergus encounters in his own times.

Bog Child brings to life a place and time in history that I know very little about. Dowd does not stop to explain the conflict, but much as Allyson describes in her recent posting about historical fiction at StorySleuths, the narrative alludes to factions and details in a way that lets the reader accumulate enough knowledge to understand the basics of the conflict. In the author’s note at the end, Dowd explains the hunger strikes of 1981. The book also inspired me to look up the Troubles online.

Writing Details

Dowd brings together a well-rounded group of characters in Bog Child. In addition to Fergus’s family, we meet Uncle Tally, who tends bar nearby, Owain, a young Welsh boy who stands guard at the border, and Cora, whose mother leads the archaeological studies. The characters reveal the complexity of the situation in Northern Ireland as well as the humanity of people who appear to be on opposite sides of the issue.

I really admire the way Dowd describes physical responses in a way that also reveals emotional reactions. Here are two examples from a chapter when Fergus visits Joe several weeks into the hunger strike. Joe asks to speak to Fergus alone and says, “You know. Love, That stuff.”

Fergus scrunched his fists to make the crying stop. “Yeah, I know.” He forced the crying feeling back down his throat. He sucked his lips between his teeth and bit the flesh, hard. He felt like a toddler crushing the jack-in-the-box back in (p. 177).

Dowd is unrelenting in her description of Joe’s state. His cause may be noble, but the experience of starving himself is anything but easy.

Another spasm came over Joe. His eyes dilated and he retched. Then he doubled over, grabbing his guts. Fergus got a whiff of something stale, like a breadbin that badly needed washing out, mixed with something chemical, like pear-drops (pp. 179-180).
Dowd writes with clarity and honesty about a place filled with conflict on many levels. She keeps the plot moving with a variety of storylines as well as a few unexpected twists.

I’m curious to know if anyone has read her other books. The London Eye Mystery has been in my pile of to-read books for a while.

March 15, 2010

Subject: The Power of the Adult World (or What's In Your Desk?)

Last Friday, my daughter had the day off from school, and she spent a better part of the morning digging through shelves and files in my desk.

She found:

  • A package of Avery pre-perforated business card paper
  • A box of yellow, pink, green, and orange chalk pastels
  • Stacks of old, unfiled photos
  • A box of gouache paints
  • An empty plastic 8x12” envelope, and
  • A file box containing drafts and sketches from the first picture book I ever wrote

What she did next:

  • She took three sheets of the business card paper to make business cards of her own, advertising the “grocery store” she runs out of our pantry.
  • She commandeered the pastels for her art class on Saturday.
  • She requested the box of paints for someday.
  • She filled the envelope with money and receipts from the grocery store.
  • And she complimented me on my drawing skills.

(As an aside… oh, how strange to see that old picture book story. It’s a full thirty-two pages long. I started it in part thanks to a challenge from my husband. Madonna had just released another picture book, and he said something like ‘If Madonna can write, then surely you can, too.” Thanks, love, for the nudge!)

Back to my desk

The treasures my daughter discovered reminded me of something I read once about Inkheart author Cornelia Funke:

Like Philip Pullman, Funke understands that children are intrigued by the power of the adult world (“Harry Potter’s German Cousins,” Times, May 13, 2006)

The power of the adult world.

I love that notion. It makes me think not just of Meggie in Inkheart and Lyra in A Golden Compass, but also of Millicent Min, Junie B. Jones, Ramona, Roy in Hoot, and Dewey in The Green Glass Sea, all trying to make sense of what is happening in the world around them and how they not only fit in but contribute.

So many aspects of the adult world fascinate our kids. Look at the way even toddlers beg to play with their parents’ cell phones or laptops. Think about the way they play dress up and “grocery store.”

I remember playing with the cash register at my grandma’s Laundromat, tapping on the secretary’s typewriter at my dad’s office, and sorting through fabric samples that my mom got from the Design Center in San Francisco. I dreamed of being a zoologist, a marine biologist, a journalist, and a spy like Harriet in Harriet the Spy (another character fascinated by the adult world).

Although Friday’s school holiday limited my writing time, my daughter’s questions and discoveries made me think of some character questions to explore:

  • What about the adult world intrigues the protagonist in my India novel?
  • If she dug through her mother’s desk, what would she discover?
  • What about her mother’s life intrigues her? Confuses her? Appeals to her?
  • And how do the answers to those questions impact her dreams and beliefs?

What about the adult world intrigues your characters?

March 12, 2010

Subject: How to Read Short Stories

One of the most common tips given to aspiring writers is read, an easy rule for me since I love reading. I read middle grade novels, YA, mysteries, magazines, recipe books, memoirs, the New York Times, writing books, articles about education reform, blogs, The Horn Book, and research materials for my novel.

But I don’t typically read short stories. Why? Probably for the same reason that many people don’t:

  • Limited time to read a large and constantly growing pile of books.
  • The disappointment that lingers after reading a dissatisfying story.
  • The sense that some short stories seem pretentious or contrived.
  • And most importantly, to me, the frustration of connecting with a character just before the story ends.

However, I feel compelled to read short stories given my goal to write two per month. The problem is that whenever I pick up a collection of stories, I invariably set it aside for something else.

I discovered that I am not the only person who doesn’t read a lot of short stories.

In a September, 2007, essay that appeared in the New York Times, Stephen King bemoaned the shrinking audience for short stories. He wrote,

In too many cases, that audience happens to consist of other writers and would-be writers who are reading the various literary magazines… not to be entertained but to get an idea of what sells there.

An audience of writers and would-be writers. That audience category would include me, only rather than conducting market research, I am more curious about what a short story looks like.

  • How long is a good story?
  • What makes it different from a chapter in a novel?
  • And the big question, when I find a short story I really like, what makes it work? Why do some stories hold my attention while others don’t?

In search of answers, I pulled a few short story collections from my shelf.

Then, after weeks of guilt when looking at the unopened stack of books, I decided on a new approach, one inspired by Gretchen Rubin of The Happiness Project. She says that

“By doing a little bit each day, you can get a lot accomplished," and
“What you do EVERY DAY matters more than what you do ONCE IN A WHILE.”

I decided to read one short story a day.

It’s an easy commitment to make, just fifteen to thirty minutes out of the day. A short story is perfect reading for a solo lunch or while waiting for my daughter’s gymnastics class to end.

Since taking the story-a-day tack, I’ve read—and enjoyed—more than thirty stories. Turns out that just like chocolates from a box of See’s Candy, short stories aren’t meant to be consumed one after the other. Instead, they’re individual treats, bon-bons to be savored in the moment.

In the coming weeks, I’ll share with you some of my favorite collections of short stories as well as some of the writing lessons I’ve learned from the stories.

In the meantime, I’d love to hear from you: Do you read short stories on a regular basis? Why or why not?

March 10, 2010

Subject: How many short stories can you write in a year?

Every time I encounter the quantity vs. quality debate, I vow to write more. One of my resolutions this year was to write two short stories a month. Sadly, I have not made much progress on that front.

Turns out, it takes a long time to write a short story. The first draft of my Geektastic-inspired short story, which I began for the StorySleuths StoryChallenge in January, is about 95% complete. It just needs an ending.

Although I’m off to a slow start, I’m not going to give up. I assume that the more stories I attempt to write, the more I will improve. Some may not work out, such as the other story I began in January. But some will.

Anton Chekhov, a master at short stories, gave this advice to his brother, Alexander:

To have as few failures as possible in fiction writing, or in order not to be so sensitive to failures, you must write more, around one hundred or two hundred stories a year. That is the secret.

A hundred or two hundred stories a year!


Better get typing.

(Note: The Anton Chekhov quote comes from Bob Blaisdell’s article “A Few Words of Advice from Anton Chekhov, The Writer, September, 2004).

In the coming weeks, I’ll be posting here about writing and reading short stories for middle grade and young adult readers. I would love to hear from you. What are your experiences writing short stories?

March 3, 2010

Subject: The Comic Toolbox, Chapter Two

Want to read more about the Rule of Nine and other ways to increase creative thinking? The website for John Vorhaus, author of The Comic Toolbox, has an excerpt from Chapter Two, "The Will To Risk.
I personally need to read the last section of Chapter Two:Concentrate on the Task at Hand. Vorhaus writes,
When you're concentrating on the task at hand, the outside world truly does not exist. You get in a lick of good work, pat yourself on the back for that lick of good work, then, taking that win, press on to the next piece of work, better equipped than ever to win.
Lately, I've felt like one of those water skeeter bugs that skims the surface of the lake, zipping from one place to another as I tackle first one task and then another. Sure, I've checked off a lot of items on my to-do list, but none are of critical importance.
The worst part is the feeling that I'm avoiding real work, hard work. I'm staying on the surface, flitting about, when what I really need to do is dive in deep. I need to find an ending for my short story. And I really need to work on the synopsis for my novel.
Tomorrow's the day I strap on my snorkel and mask. Tomorrow's the day, I take a deep breath and break the surface. I'm diving in.

March 1, 2010

Book Review: The Comic Toolbox by John Vorhaus

Confession of a bookaholic: I love books about writing as much as the next writer. I’m always searching for that nugget of information or secret trick that will help me improve my writing and power past my current writing struggles. This is the first in an occasional series of books on writing and craft.

Title: The Comic Toolbox: How to Be Funny Even If You’re Not

Author: John Vorhaus

I’ve always believed that humor is a gift and an art. While I love watching and reading funny movies and books, I’ve never thought about why a joke or a line of dialogue is funny. Either it is or it isn’t, right?

Wrong. In The Comic Toolbox, John Vorhaus, who taught at the UCLA Extension Writers Program and wrote for The Wonder Years and Married… with Children, explains the fundamentals of comedy and the elements involved in developing comedic stories using examples from classic movies and popular TV shows. (Note: The book was published in 1994, so some of the examples are dated. Anyone remember The Golden Girls?)

Besides talking about comedy in particular, Vorhaus also discusses the creative mindset writers need to overcome their fears and produce funny work. For those of you interested in the quantity vs. quality debate, Vorhaus comes out strong on quantity in “The Rule of Nine,” which says

For every ten jokes you tell, nine will be trash. For every ten ideas you have, nine won’t work. For every ten times you risk, nine times you fail.

Why should we continue taking risks if we’re liable to so much failure? Vorhaus explains,

…the rule of nine turns out to be highly liberating because once you embrace it, you instantly and permanently lose the toxic expectation of succeeding every time. (p. 12)

The nugget

Vorhaus provides a number of useful tools and exercises throughout the book, but the part that had the most impact on me was “The Comic Throughline” in Chapter 7, where Vorhaus describes the key elements in a successful comedic story.

Given his desire to experiment with many different story ideas (The Rule of Nine), Vorhause wanted

a way of writing the barest bones of my story in ten sentences or less, so that I could discover with a minimum of work whether I had an interesting, whole and solid story or not. (p. 76)

This Comic Throughline is an alternative to the classic Hero’s Journey as described by Christopher Vogler in The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers. Rather than embark on a quest, in the Comic Throughline the protagonist attempts to reach a goal only to find that the goal shifts, compelling him or her to face a moment of truth before risking all.

One stage of the Comic Throughline, which occurs about halfway through the structure, is called “A Monkey Wrench is thrown.” During this stage, Vorhaus explains, the protagonist experiences a shift away from his initial, surface-level success. Often, the monkey wrench occurs because the protagonist falls in love, and his loyalty shifts from himself to someone else.

Vorhaus’ description of this stage made me think of Marcelo in the Real World, last month’s StorySleuths’ book. About halfway through the novel, having adjusted to a new job working at his father’s law firm, Marcelo discovers a photograph of a girl injured in a car crash. Suddenly, he feels compelled to uncover what happened to the girl, even if helping her means failing at his job and losing his chance to choose where he wants to go to school in the fall.

Vorhaus says, “When the loyalty gets displaced, suddenly the story is about a character wanting two things that are mutually exclusive” (p. 89). Not surprisingly, the conflict goes way up after the monkey wrench enters the picture.

Why The Comic Toolbox earns a space on my writing shelf:

Although The Comic Toolbox seems to target screenwriters, its lessons and techniques apply to children’s writers as well. Why? Well, unless you write dark YA, you probably write comedy—and that doesn’t necessarily mean funny, ha-ha, but comedy in the classic sense. That is to say, books that offer hope and promise. Don’t forget that the Greeks and Romans defined comedies as plays with happy endings. I particularly like Wikipedia’s description of comedy:

Much comedy contains variations on the elements of surprise, incongruity, conflict, repetitiveness, and the effect of opposite expectations.
All these elements are also elements of good novels.

What writing books do you keep on your shelf? I’d love to hear recommendations.

February 23, 2010

Subject: How do you balance vacation with writing?

Sorry for the long absence! I lugged my computer along with me for mid-winter break, confident that I would find time to work on my short story, write a few blog posts, and draft my novel synopsis. And as with most other vacations, I managed to do no work at all.

Of course, a vacation is a vacation, right? I’m always encouraging my husband (ok, nagging him) to set email aside when we head out of town, and yet I hold myself to a different standard. I want to continue my work. The dictum “Write every day” haunts me (ok, nags at me). I feel guilty for not working, even though I’m on vacation. (Definition: freedom from occupation.)

I believe that part of this expectation to work is a result of being a mother first and a writer second. I’ve learned to squeeze my work schedule into specific time periods. I adjust my schedule around calls to pick up a sick child or changes in carpool plans. So when a school holiday rolls around, in my mind, I plan to write whenever I have the chance.

It never works that way. The moment I head out of town, my mind turns blank. Sometimes, I never even open my computer. I rarely jot anything down in my notebook. Why can’t I be like those authors who spin their stories out in their minds when away from their writing instruments? Why can’t I be more disciplined, like Charles Darwin, and find inspiration in my surroundings?

It’s as if my mind puts up a little sign: “On vacation.” The premises, for a short time, are as empty as my house. Vacant. Did you know that vacation and vacant share the same root word? According to Wordnik, the Latin word vacare means “to be empty.”

Of course, if you’re empty, then you have plenty of room to fill the well, and while I didn’t write at all on vacation, I read plenty. And more importantly, I spent time with my family, which is truly fulfilling.

What are your feelings about vacation? One advantage of being a writer is the ability to work anywhere. Do you try to write while on vacation? Or do you truly get away? If you do work, how do you balance your time. I'd love to hear your ideas and thoughts.

February 3, 2010

Subject: Plot Maps

Over on StorySleuths today, I wrote about the four plot lines in Marcelo in the Real World, our February book. To prepare for the posting, I made a map of all the scenes in the book using 3x5 cards. On each card, I wrote the chapter, setting, page numbers, scene number and a brief summary of the key action.
Once I had all of the scenes listed, I laid them out on my kitchen table and looked for patterns, logical groupings (scene sequences in film-speak), plot lines and structure.

This photo (sorry for the lack of detail) shows the entire novel, all 53 scenes. The two columns on the left represent the beginning and the column of six cards on the right represent the climax and resolution.

Why do I do this? Having a visual representation of a story’s plot helps me understand how the author composed the book on an abstract level. For instance, when I read Marcelo in the Real World, the pacing at the beginning seemed slow. It took a while for the story to really get going. The cards show why I felt that way: Stork uses the first quarter of the book (those two left-most columns) to set up Marcelo’s current world and his first day at work in the mail room.

Another interesting discovery I made was that Stork introduced the fourth plot line (the mystery about the girl in the photograph) exactly halfway through the book. That plot line carries the book forward and significantly impacts Marcelo’s attempt to do well at work. This is a good example of introducing a plot line to beef up the middle of the work.

Besides looking at how the scenes worked together, I also marked plot lines or layers, to use a Donald Maass term, in different colors. The card shown above is what Maass would call a “node of conjunction,” where several plot layers intersect (see my posting at StorySleuths for more detail on nodes of conjunction).

Marcelo in the Real World is not the first book I’ve mapped in this way. I made several maps when working on critical essays for the Hamline MFA program. A map for The Wednesday Wars by Gary Schmidt revealed how Schmidt wove together a variety of plot layers and subplots in a narrative that spanned an entire school year.

I made another plot map for That Girl Lucy Moon by Amy Timberlake. For that book, I looked at plot layers and nodes of conjunction, just as I did with Marcelo. Chapters in Timberlake's book featured multiple scenes related to different plot layers, all of which I tracked on several pieces of paper taped together.

Again, I used color to track plot layers. This image shows how many chapters incorporated several different plot layers at once.

I put teal squares around the nodes of conjunction, and I also looked for specific places such as the mid-point and turning points. In addition to looking at plot layers, I marked Lucy’s emotional feelings in red.

So how does this help me as a writer? I should note that I don’t make maps like this when I am drafting my story. I don’t always have a clear idea where I’m going, so a detailed map would be impossible for me to draw. It would be useful after a decent draft to identify holes or imbalances in story threads.

And I don’t make a map of every book I read, of course. It takes a few hours to complete. However, making a map is worthwhile when I want to understand how a particular book works. That Girl Lucy Moon teaches me to keep plot layers moving throughout the book and to refer to my character’s emotional state frequently. Marcelo in the Real World shows one way to build up a sagging middle through a new plot line.

Do any of you writers out there map favorite books or dig into their structure? I’m curious to know about other ways to develop a bird’s-eye-view of either a published work or work-in-progress.

January 28, 2010

Subject: Writing Retreats

When the dog barks every five minutes to go outside, come back in, go out, come back in…

When children burst into your office bickering about who gets to choose the next program on TV…

When the garbage truck outside beep-beep-beeps endlessly…

Isn’t it tempting to dream of escaping to a cabin in the woods or near the beach?

Uninterrupted blocks of writing time… perhaps a chance to talk books and writing with kindred spirits. Sounds lovely, doesn’t it?

The writing retreat doesn’t have to be a dream. Three Hamline MFA faculty members—Jane Resh Thomas, Phyllis Root, and Marsha Chall—are hosting a weeklong writing retreat in the woods this spring.

Here are the details:

Writing in the Woods Retreat

May 17-23, 2010

Spring Valley, Minnesota

The retreat features group workshops, individual critiques, craft discussions, time to write, plus opportunities to walk in the woods. The application deadline is March 19, 2010.

Jane, Phyllis, and Marsha are excellent writers and generous teachers. During my last residency, I was fortunate enough to be in a workshop with Jane and Phyllis. I learned so much from their focus on craft as well as their attention to the challenges and joys of the writing life. While I haven’t been in a workshop with Marsha yet, I enjoy her lectures at Hamline. She is funny, energetic, and enthusiastic.

Find more details as well as the application here: Writing in the Woods workshop blog and application.

A few of my favorite books by Jane Resh Thomas, Phyllis Root, and Marsha Chall:

Have you been to a writing retreat? Where? What did you like most about the retreat?

January 24, 2010

Subject: Describing Physical Reactions

I ran into this paragraph while I was reading "The Truth About Dino Girl," Barry Lyga's story in Geektastic:
I never knew that being in love was a physical thing. I never knew your body reacted. Like when I saw Jamie and my stomach felt like someone had tied lines to it and pulled it in ten directions at once. Or the way I suddenly became aware of myself, of my body, when I sat across the aisle from him in bio--the way I felt my hair and my eyelashes and my lips and my nose and every motion of my body as I breathed, hyper-conscious in every way (p. 302).
Describing physical reactions is hard to do. So often, when I'm describing physical reactions in my writing, I tend to fall on standard phrases, like "my stomach knotted" or "she realized she was holding her breath." Lyga helps us understand Katie's sensations by using a fresh comparison (stomach pulled in ten directions) and by narrowing in on her hyper-consciousness.

Finding a precise way to describe physical reactions requires attention. This week, as a challenge, I will pay more attention to my own physical reactions--when I'm stressed, when I'm happy, when I'm tired, when I'm hungry--and try to describe them in precise, fresh ways.
I recently started A Northern Light by Jennifer Donnelly. It's been on my to-read pile for a while now. After Lips Touch: Three Times, I've been craving books with rich writing. In A Northern Light, I love Mattie, the narrator, as well as the way Donnelly creates mystery by alternating between Mattie's current experience working in the Glenmore hotel and her recent past.
Although many more books lie waiting on my to-read pile, I'm on the look-out for other YA books that combine great plot with fantastic writing. Any recommendations?

January 21, 2010

Subject: On Spew, Snowflakes, and Jane Austen

I have been accused of being too analytical in my writing. Several writing teachers have urged me to write more freely in my early drafts while leaving issues of structure, for example, to later drafts. This recommendation makes sense to me on a logical level, but sometimes writing “to see where the story takes me” frustrates me.

This month, I’m working two short stories. Without intending to, I’ve taken two different approaches to drafting: one is Let-the-Story-Flow and the other is Look-Before-You-Leap.

The first story, which I'll refer to as "Emily Babysits," began with an actual incident, a little kid throwing a full meltdown tantrum at the grocery store. How would a teenager handle such a situation? And so I began writing. I write a long, long story about Emily, who hates babysitting, and the little girl she watches. When I finished, I was surprised by how much I learned about Emily, her family, and her outlook on life.

This method, of course, is the philosophy behind Nanowrimo (National Novel Writing Month): Don’t worry too much about what to write—just show up at the page and type. Let inspiration take you where it wants to go. I’ve participated in Nanowrimo twice, and each time, I’m pleased to see where thirty days and 50,000 words take me.

But the tough part, for me, is then coming back to this amorphous blob of a novel, or in the case of “Emily Babysits,” story and structuring it into a clear plot. I looked for a clear story focus. It is a short story, after all. Then I drafted up an outline of scenes and started over.

I did not follow the outline. I wrote three new scenes—perfectly fine scenes, only by the time I got to the third one, I realized I was way off track. Where did that cat come from? Why hadn’t the kid Emily babysits shown up? And what was I doing? How could I have spent so much time on these scenes before realizing I was going in the wrong direction?

Spew. That’s what I had written. I had spewed scenes onto the page, and they were going nowhere. Grr. I closed the file and haven’t opened it since.

So my second story, which is my geek story for the StorySleuths StoryChallenge, started with an “assignment.” I began playing around with possible geeky situations. When I found one that excited me, I brainstormed characters. It would be a rivalry story. But that didn’t go anywhere, so I kept at it, focusing on the one character that I connected with most. What made her a geek? At last, after pacing around my office, I realized it wouldn’t be a rivalry… it would be a romance!

But by the time I figured that out late on Friday afternoon, I couldn’t imagine sitting down to start with the first scene. I was tired, mentally and physically (my hands hurt when I spend too much time on the computer). However, I did manage to hand-write a summary of the story.

This week, I’ve taken the summary and turned it into what I called a skeleton draft. The scenes aren’t scenes yet—no real dialogue or action. But they do tell me enough to give me a sense of whether this idea might actually turn into a story. And that’s encouraging.

This method, if I can call it that while I’m in the midst of drafting, corresponds to something I found online years ago, Randy Ingermanson’s Snowflake Method. Ingermanson recommends you build up your story bit by bit, starting with a one-line summary, moving into a paragraph summary, which you turn into a page and so on. Of course, the idea of not wasting time on rambling appeals to the part of me that likes to see progress.

I still don’t know whether it’s better to start with an outline and write in a more orderly fashion or to ramble along following a story where inspiration takes you. My guess is it takes a little of both to create art. I would bet that when Laini Taylor comes up with those fantastic images in Lips Touch: Three Times (see my comments on Lips Touch here), it’s when she lets her fingers fly and her imagination run wild.

On the other hand, I can’t help but think of Jane Austen (ok, of Anne Hathaway playing Jane Austen in "Becoming Jane") handwriting those beautiful novels in days when ink and paper were not as abundantly available as they are now. She, like so many other writers, must have spent an incredible amount of time thinking about her stories before actually writing a single word.

Is it possible that today, in our world of pixels and word processing, we write too much? Should we think more before we type? Do any of you ever feel like you write too long? Or do you like what you find when you let your fingers fly?

January 18, 2010

Subject: When You Reach Me

Congratulations to Rebecca Stead and When You Reach Me, as well as all the Newbery honorees!

When You Reach Me was fascinating to read, with its themes of friendship and coming of age and its intriguing mystery, and its clever ending invites readers to circle back to the beginning and start reading again.
Anyone interested in learning more about the elements of writing in this book should click over to StorySleuths. Allyson Valentine Schrier and Meg Lippert reviewed When You Reach Me in November. All of their postings are found here: Congratulations to WHEN YOU REACH ME: StorySleuths' Consolidated Postings.
I'm looking forward to reading the Newbery honorees. I'm so happy to see Grace Lin's Where the Mountain Meets the Moon on the list as well as The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly, both in my To-Read pile.
By the way, the teen winner of the Schneider Family Book Award, Marcelo in the Real World, is the StorySleuths book for February. I hope you'll join us then and share your thoughts on Francisco X. Stork's fantastic writing.

January 16, 2010

Subject: Quantity vs. Quality

Over at StorySleuths this month, we’re reading a fun collection of short stories, Geektastic, as well as hosting a short story writing challenge. Somewhat coincidentally, writing short stories dovetails nicely with one of my own personal writing goals for 2010, writing short.
Let me explain the motivation for this goal. Novels are my form of choice, both for reading and writing. Opening the pages of a novel, I dive into a new world. And when I close the covers for good, I often miss my favorite characters for days.
While reading a novel requires a time commitment of a few hours or days or even a week, writing a novel requires far, far more. In the past five years, I’ve worked on drafts of three novels. Where reading a novel is like flying from New York to San Francisco, complete with in-flight snacks and entertainment, writing a novel is like walking the same distance, without a map.
Sometimes, it’s easy to get lost.
And really, to make the metaphor more apt, to write a novel, you need to make the trip multiple times, with each revision layering in more emotion, more characterization, more detail. The good news is that by the third or fourth time around, hopefully, you’re traveling a more direct route from start to finish.
In other words, it takes a long time to write a novel.
And I’ve been one of those “I can only do one thing at a time” kinds of people. I made the decision to focus my writing time on my novels only, rather than jump from chapter book to picture book to non-fiction and back. I don’t regret that decision, but sometimes, I hit roadblocks and I don’t make any progress on my drafts or revisions.
I don't just get lost. I stall.
This is where the quantity vs. quality argument comes to play. How many of you have heard the anecdote from the book Art & Fear, where the pottery instructor tells half of the class to focus on quantity alone—he’ll grade them on the number of pots produced, with no concern about quality—while the other half must focus on quality alone—they must only produce one perfect pot. To his surprise, when he compares the work produced by both halves, the quantity group ends up with better quality work as well.
More work produces better work in the long run.
So this year, while continuing working on my novel revision, I also plan to write two short stories a month. I’m hoping short stories will let me work on shaping plot, experimenting with character, and revising. And since I also want to have more fun with my writing, short stories give me an opportunity to write about a variety of subjects—when my novel gets serious, for example, my stories can be light.
What kinds of writers are you? Do you work on one project at a time? Or do you have several projects going at once? What’s your take on the quantity vs. quality story? Have you ever conducted such an experiment?
By the way, if you like the idea of playing with quantity, please sign up for the StorySleuths StoryChallenge. We’re encouraging writers to take a stab at writing a Geektastic-inspired short story. It doesn’t have to be perfect—we won’t be judging stories. Just suggesting a general story topic (something geekish), and asking writers to check back in with us on January 31st. We’re even offering a prize!

January 13, 2010

Subject: StorySleuths StoryChallenge

Inspired by our Geektastic reading this month, we're hosting a short-story writing challenge over at StorySleuths. It's a chance to put the tips we've gleaned in our sleuthing to work. I hope you will join us.

Just click over to StorySleuths StoryChallenge, add your name to the comments, write your own version of a geek-inspired story, and then check back with us at the end of the month. One writer will win a StorySleuths magnifying glass!

January 10, 2010

Subject: Completion Resolution plus Lips Touch by Laini Taylor

Complete was one of the six verbs in my six-word resolution for 2010. My goal is to complete the work I begin. And that means more than just complete a scene or a chapter or a draft. Complete has to mean, for me, take a writing project as far as I possibly can.

To the point where I feel comfortable sharing my work with others.

Can you tell I’m beating around the bush? I can’t even say what I really mean…

Complete work means ready to submit to editors and agents.

Geez, was that so hard? Actually, it was. Here’s the thing—oh, and this is a big confession—I haven’t submitted anything actively for a long, long time.

When I first started writing, I wanted to get published so badly. Anyone who’s been writing for more than a year knows what I mean. You’ve seen newbies at writing conferences or in classes, and they’re the first ones to raise their hands and ask all kinds of marketing and publishing questions, and everyone else knows that they only advice they really need is “Focus on the writing.” Ok, so that was me. I sent out a query letter after my first conference and, a few months later, got a very lovely rejection note to my first submission.

My first and ONLY submission.

Since then, I’ve worked on craft, trying to focus on improving my writing without worry about publication. I've written a couple of picture book drafts, a couple of short stories, and three middle grade novels. All in draft form. Now, it’s not like I’ve never shown these things to anyone. But I’ve never considered them finished.

Now it's time to finish something. To take a story or one of my novels as far as I possibly can. That is my task.

So, now that I’ve made my confession, let me move on to the word complete. In December 2008, YA author Laini Taylor spoke at our local SCBWI meeting. She told the crowd that one of the ways she combats perfectionism is to “cultivate the habit of completion.” I love the way that sounds.

"Cultivate the habit of completion.”

Last year, I said I would do that. I did not. This year, though, I resolve to complete my work. I will not let the perfect be the enemy of the good. I will be more like my friend Debbie, who sets target goals for herself and meets them.

How will I do this? Good question. Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project, a great new book, has a list of tips for sticking with resolutions on her blog. Here are several tips I plan to follow:

  • Write it down (check)
  • Hold yourself accountable
  • Set a deadline

My first deadline is to revise a short story I drafted last month into decent shape to share with my friend Susan in two weeks. More details on this resolution to come.

Lips Touch: Three Times

I mentioned Laini Taylor above. Last month, I read her new book, Lips Touch: Three Times, a National Book Award nominee. Lips Touch features three stories, each introduced with artwork by Laini’s husband Jim Di Bartolo. Can I just say how much I admire Laini’s lush writing? Her work is filled with metaphors and vibrant imagery. Here is a line from the first story, "Goblin Fruit":

Kizzy wanted it all so bad her soul leaned half out of her body hungering after it, and that was what drove the goblins wild, her soul hanging out there like an untucked shirt (p. 21)
Like an untucked shirt.

"Goblin Fruit" is probably my favorite of the three stories. I love the juxtaposition of Kizzy’s life in a small Oregon town with the superstitious traditions of her eastern European family. Let me highlight just one more passage. Here, Kizzy sees herself in a new light, thanks to the attention of the handsome new student, Jack Husk:

Kizzy wanted to be a woman who would dive off the prow of a sailboat into the sea, who would fall back in a tangle of sheets, laughing, and who could dance a tango, lazily stroke a leopard with her bare foot, freeze an enemy’s blood with her eyes, make promises she couldn’t possibly keep, and then shift the world to keep them (p. 41)
The paragraph continues in the same vein, spinning out a fabulous array of dreams and images. It’s poetic and unusual and adventurous.

Sometimes, when I write, I’m in such a rush to get the story down that I forget to spend time developing the language. This sentence from “Goblin Fruit” is an example of the richness that comes with staying in the moment and developing the emotion. Don’t you connect to Kizzy’s longing? And furthermore, don’t you suddenly wish you, too, had such dreams?

I recommend "Goblin Fruit" and Lips Touch: Three Times to anyone who loves great stories with beautiful, lyrical language.

(By the way, you can read more about Laini's method work working at Not for Robots)

January 8, 2010

Subject: Six word resolution contest

The team over at Teaching Authors is sponsoring a six-word resolution contest. Here's mine:
Write. Create. Revise. Complete. Enjoy.
What a fun way to keep the resolutions simple. Let me know you if enter the contest--I'd love to hear your six-word resolutions! (P.S., for those of you doing the Comment Challenge 2010, entering the contest at Teaching Authors and then posting your resolution here counts as TWO comments. Don't be shy!)

January 7, 2010

Subject: New Year's Resolutions

Back to work. So nice to spend a few weeks with kids and family, and oh-so-nice to get back to the routine of work.

Wondering where I’ve been and where I am now? To answer the second question, I’m at home, and I will not be heading to Minneapolis for the Hamline MFAC residency that begins tomorrow. I decided to take a semester off. I was feeling burnt out (think I mighta mentioned that in an earlier post or two) heading into my critical thesis semester. The more I thought about it, the more I realized I wanted to spend my time on creative writing, testing out all of the great skills I learned while working with last semester's faculty advisor, the wonderful and generous Jane Resh Thomas. Jane’s comment when I told her of my decision was supportive: “The muse hates to be abused.” I therefore resolve to nurture my muse by finding more joy in my writing.

As for my absence from Composition Book, it’s not just due to the holiday crazies. I’ve been blogging over at StorySleuths. Last month we dug into A Season of Gifts by Richard Peck. This month, we’ll be reading short stories from a collection called Geektastic: Stories from the Nerd Herd. Please click on over. In addition to posts from StorySleuths Allyson Valentine Schrier and Meg Lippert, we'll feature posts from Alvina Ling, the book's editor at Little, Brown, and Greg Leitich-Smith, who wrote one of the fifteen stories. Even if you haven’t read the book, leave us a comment to let us know what you think.

Speaking of comments, I’ll be joining the Comment Challenge 2010, sponsored by Mother Reader and Lee Wind. The idea is to leave five comments a day on kidlitosphere blogs for the next 21 days. I always feel a little shy about leaving comments, especially for bloggers I don’t know personally, but I LOVE getting feedback on my posts, so I’m going to be brave and reach out. Be encouraging and enthusiastic. That’s another resolution for the year.

Happy New Year to all! I wish you joy, happiness, good health, and success in your endeavors.