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.