Monday, September 18, 2017

Lessons on Plot

I’m just back from the Northern Ohio Regional SCBWI Conference, and my brain is teeming with ideas, so much so, that I feel I need the morning to decompress before diving back into writing my middle grade novel.

While reviewing notes from the conference this morning, I’m thinking a lot about Newbery-winning author Linda Sue Park’s inspiring opening address, in which she discussed Joseph Campbell’s belief that there are really only two story lines: Hero Goes on a Journey and Stranger Comes to Town. Ms. Park asked attendees to raise their hands if the idea of only two story lines was an exciting prospect, or a limiting one.
If you write for kids and haven't been to an
SCBWI conference, you should go!
I had the pleasure of meeting the incredible
author/illustrator Debbie Ridpath Ohi!

What a difference a few years, and novel drafts, make! Years ago, I would have felt terribly constrained by the idea that my plot would fit so neatly into one of two categories. I blame grad school for this. Sorry. I got a huge amount of wonderful lessons, and lifelong friends, from grad school, but “plot” was a dirty word in my program. We not only didn’t study it, we looked down on it, writing short story after short story where very little happened and endings were left completely ambiguous. “Plot” was the stuff of “commercial” fiction and none of us wanted to be labeled something as crass as a commercial writer.

Fast forward years later when my first adult novel fell flat because of plot issues, specifically a complete lack of pacing. Agents and editors loved the writing, but they needed story, and the ability to tell story was something that I’d either never really grasped, or had lost during the years I studied all the other important aspects of writing. If I truly wanted to write a novel that would reach an audience, I decided I had to learn how to create an engaging plot.

I read a lot of books on the topic, for both writers of adult and children’s fiction. My favorite is: “Writing Irresistible Kidlit” by Mary Kole. My copy of that book is thoroughly highlighted and dog-eared. The other thing I did was tear favorite books apart to see how they worked. I took my favorite middle grade novels and outlined them. I studied those outlines against the rules laid out in Kole’s book. I saw the patterns, and with that, finally, I started to see my own way forward as I committed myself to an idea for a middle grade novel.

For years, as I wrote a couple of adult literary novels, I had this romantic idea that I would just “follow my muse” and see where the book ended up. I used to have a quote in my email signature from E.L. Doctorow: “Writing is like driving a car at night. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” In retrospect, this was a terrible idea for me and my creative work. I’m a planner, not a pants-er.

I’ve learned the hard way that writing a novel with no plan makes for terribly headache-inducing revision. I would much rather take a lot of time, upfront, to plan out a novel, and have the end product be in pretty decent shape. Of course, I’m willing to veer off from my outline, but having that plan makes me so much more confident, and much less likely to procrastinate. When I sit down to start my writing for the day, I can look at my outline and know what scene is next. And, oh, it’s so much easier to put in little nuggets of information that will become important later…when I know what’s going to happen later!

I wish I had learned these lessons earlier, but I’m so glad I did learn them. Writing is always an act of discovery, but when you realize all stories basically follow a similar pattern, and when you set up your book to take advantage of that knowledge, you are freeing yourself to simply play around with the details of your universal story. My middle grade in progress is definitely a Stranger Comes to Town book. More details to come!

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Awesome Basement Re-do Starts with Something I Said I'd Never Do

Oh hey, what are you doing this summer? I'm outlining a new novel for middle graders while renovating our basement.

As I've mentioned here before, I find that this whole thinking and planning stage of the writing process goes more smoothly if I regularly take time to let my mind just wander while I'm doing something active. Taking long walks is good. Painting (walls, not canvas) is also very meditative, if also carpal-tunnel inducing. I've done a lot of painting in the last few months.

I decided to finally tackle our basement, which has been on the to-do list since we had a minor flooding issue almost two years ago, followed by a naughty cat (then another cat, then a dog) issue. This all led to boxes of books being thrown out (sigh, still upset about that), carpet being ripped up, which was yucky anyway, so that's fine, and an agonizingly slow redecorating process, interrupted by screams of "What are we going to do with this cat?"*
I don't normally mind pulling up old carpeting, but this was moldy and peed on. Lots of bleach went on this floor afterwards. Oh, and I took a nice long shower.

One door leads to a full bath, the other to the unfinished part of the basement with the laundry, etc.

Second door that leads to the unfinished side of basement. Why? Don't know. The tiny door under the stairs now holds bedding for the pull out sofa bed.

As you can see, the basement was "finished" previously, but it was dark, with dark tan walls, dark carpeting. We had an old desk down there because when we bought the house, I had planned to use the basement as my office. That didn't work out. I hated being down there, in the dark, by the cat litter boxes, all my work stuff out in the open for my then-toddler to grab.  The basement was used very little for the last few years, but as the kids got older, we wanted a place where we could hang out as a family to watch movies and where they could hang out together when they wanted to have some screen time.

So, regarding my heading, what did I say I'd never do? PAINT WALLS WHITE. I love color, but in this dark basement, with just the window wells for natural light, I decided to break tradition and start with bright white walls and trim, and what a difference it made! We used to have natural light down there only during portions of the afternoon. Now, we can sit down there at any time of day, without the need for artificial light, though I added numerous sources of that as well. (Tip...if you've got window wells, clean them up and paint them white, which will reflect even more light into the room.)

This finished portion of our basement might be small, but we expected it to do a lot for us. I'm really a stickler about rooms being, not just pretty, but functional, and I'm so pleased that the new basement fills both requirements.

Instead of color on the walls, I got it in the furniture, starting with the blue velvet couch. I searched for awhile to find a combo of bookcases and TV stand that would fit the wall so perfectly they'd *almost* seem built-in. A neighbor wanted to get rid of the loveseat, which I gladly took, adding the chair and tables for a very cozy spot for our family movie nights.

The little spot by the stairs became the kids' computer area, which these days is devoted to Minecraft. The chairs are my favorite thing there. On the other side of the stairs is our exercise space and an etagere for our printer and other office supplies.

It really feels it many ways like we have a new house. We spend so much time down there now. It took a long time to do all that painting/furniture assembling/etc., but I did do some great brainstorming on my new book while I was at it, and so now it's back to working on that, until I tackle the next room!

Bonus: saved several biology posters, which were headed to the dumpster. They were coming apart, but a little Mod Podge put them back together. Doesn't everyone need to know the Life History of Ferns?

*cat is fine, though old and toothless, living the high life in a nice set-up in our garage and regularly visiting with neighbor kids

Friday, May 12, 2017

My New Favorite Thing: Little Free Libraries

Little Free Libraries are such amazing things, and I’m so proud to have played a part in bringing one to our elementary school. 

I cannot tell you how much joy it brings me to stop by the playground with my kids on the weekend and see children peeking eagerly into that box or sitting on a nearby bench reading. It can be a challenge to keep it full, but we’ve been lucky to receive some large book donations. And if we can help build a library for kids who don’t have many, or any, books at home, I’m so happy to do that work. 

I was once that kid with very few books at home. Books were considered by my parents to be "too expensive" especially because "after you read it once, it's not useful." No one in my family had a library card. We had a library, of sorts, at my small school. It was basically a couple walls of shelves in a conference room. We had no librarian; the secretary would be brought in to stamp our books, and she was not too happy about it. Given those limited resources, and with no one to make recommendations, I checked out my favorite, "The Secret Garden," over and over until I'd filled an entire library card, front and back, with my signature (so much for my parents' idea that a book is only read once). 

I remember visiting the public library in the neighboring town (our little town didn't have one) with my best friend the morning after a sleepover. Our moms had arranged to meet there for the pick-up, and that may have been the only time my mom was in the library. I remember kneeling in front of a low shelf of picture books, excitedly pulling some out and flipping through them with my friend before my mom arrived. I was so, so sad to leave and so sad to have to leave those books there!

Much later, in my last year of high school, I remember taking a field trip to a community college library to conduct research for a report. This was back in the days of card catalogs, and I still recall that musty smell as I flipped through those yellowing cards. I remember being so intimidated of the library, not knowing how to find information, too scared to ask.

It wasn’t until my college years that I began to finally feel at home in a library, to know my way around, to feel comfortable going there for research or just to relax and read for pleasure. Today, I literally feel my blood pressure drop, feel a sense of well-being rush through me, whenever I enter a library or a bookstore. These are my favorite places in the world.

I have two children, and they know our town’s library intimately, have explored every nook and cranny during our weekly, sometimes twice a week or more, visits. The librarians know our names. Of course, it’s easy to think, well, every child in our town has this opportunity. The library is open to all, free to all.

Yes, but someone has to bring the child there. That might not be possible, for a whole variety of reasons. In my family, that reason was apathy, but there are many other factors involved. As just one example, there’s no public transportation in my town, so for families without a vehicle, even getting to the library can be problematic.

Our Little Free Library is at the public elementary school my children attend, in an economically diverse neighborhood where 70% of the students receive free or reduced lunch. These kids can walk to our Little Free Library. They can browse the books, take whatever looks interesting. They don’t need to worry about fines for books that are overdue or lost.

Little Free Libraries reach out into spaces the public library might not quite get to. They share the love, the knowledge, the pleasure of a good story. If you love books, consider adding an LFL to your yard or to some other public place in your town (click the link above for some great examples). The reward of seeing those excited little faces, the exclamations, these books are for us?, will more than make up for your time and effort.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Writer's High

So, it appears I've forgotten to post for awhile. In fact, I teased you with a February post just before I attended my first Society for Children's Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) Conference in New York, and then I never followed up to tell you how it went, and that was very naughty of me, and I'm sorry.

Reader, is it over the top to say I fell in love at SCBWI? Don't worry, husband, if you're reading this. There's nothing unseemly here. I fell in love with the community of writers, and I fell hard. I know it seems silly to say how nice everyone was, but it's the truth! There was no ego, not even from the writers and illustrators whose books have won buckets full of awards and sold incredible numbers of copies.

There was a feeling of camaraderie among everyone, published or "pre-published" (that's the term they use, love that!), a feeling of incredible responsibility toward our jobs. What could be more important than writing for children? For those three days at the conference, the answer was clearly nothing.

I came away inspired, my head spinning with ideas. I had to let everything settle for awhile. And then I got to work. I drafted a new picture book, talked to my agent, wrote a new draft. I also committed myself to writing a middle grade novel, first with a silent vow, then on paper with a number of goals with deadlines attached. And I wrote it in pen, so it's for real.

I'd been freewriting about a vague idea for a middle grade for a few months prior, but now I really am taking the plunge. I'm reading all the middle grade I can get my hands on, and I'm taking the books I love, and tearing them apart. It reminds me of a camp my kids attend where they take some small electronics item (like a VCR or clock radio) and use tools to take it all apart. They don't need to put it back together (thankfully!) but they do learn a bit about how those parts make it work.

So, I'm tearing apart my favorite middle grade books to see how they work, actually outlining a few to see where the author made certain plot choices and how that affects the book's pacing. You might think this kind of close scrutiny of amazing books would have a demoralizing effect, but it's really the opposite. Breaking these books into many parts makes writing one seem do-able.

If you can figure out how to write a first chapter, then why not write the second, and so on, until you're flying, for awhile at least.. Think of it like running. If you can run one mile, you can probably run two. If you can run two, why not a 5K? Is a writer's high akin to a runner's high? I don't know, as I've never experienced a runner's high.*

I suspect I'll keep along this way for awhile, taking notes, brainstorming ideas, figuring out who my characters are. I wouldn't be surprised if, before I even write the book's first sentence, I have 100 pages or more of typed notes. But I've learned through trial and error that this is the best way for me to work. (I've written two adult novels; one is "in the drawer"; the other is out on submission to agents.) I'm not a "pant-ser" as in a "fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants" writer. I tried that once and failed miserably. I need to plan out this book and then take my little road map and do the easy-by-comparison part, the writing.

Will check back in here periodically to let you know how it's going. In the meantime, here's my dog at his adopt-a-ver-sary party. Sit. Good Boy.

*I was a sprinter in high school. I never ran more than one lap around the track at a time. I ran a 5K recently and prayed for sweet death so I wouldn't have to finish.

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Taking a Stand

I’m a week away from attending my first Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators’ (SCBWI) Conference and am feeling nervous and excited. The suitcase is already out. I’ve solicited advice from friends on what to wear, and disregarded it. (Everyone said to dress in black in New York, but I bought a skirt of a dozen patchwork colors because, come on, this is children’s publishing. It’s colorful!)

In recent days, the Executive Director of SCBWI, Lin Oliver, shared a statement to address, what I presume must be complaints directed at the organization for members speaking out about recent political events. The letter does all the usual things such letters must do, reinstate that SCBWI members are varied in their views, remind that individual statements by people associated with the group do not represent the whole group. But the letter doesn’t apologize for standing up for certain values.

“We stand for freedom of expression, for inclusion, for the absence of hate, and for equality of opportunity for all. These are not political ideologies but expressions of our shared human values.”

But of course, you can’t believe in that statement and not take a side on current events. Loving your neighbor has, unfortunately, become a political ideology. Some well-known children’s authors have expressed their worries that being outspoken might hurt their sales. We all know there’s a new boycott sprouting up every day, and that authors are “brands” as much as they are human people trying to do their best writing. I don’t blame authors for worrying about such things.

But I don’t have any sales to worry about quite yet; my debut picture book won’t be out for awhile. So I figured I might as well get ahead of the game by stating right now that I plan to continue to play whatever role I can in working for social justice. If that’s offensive, you probably shouldn’t buy my books, though, to be honest, you probably wouldn’t like them anyway.

I had a hard time writing after the election, and the events of recent weeks have confirmed all my worst fears about the direction we’re headed as a country. But there’s only momentary comfort in hiding under the covers, so I marched and talked to friends and got back to work. It’s an important time to be a writer, and especially I believe, a writer for children who is helping to reinforce the values quoted above in a new generation. I’m so looking forward to meeting many others next week who feel the same way.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

The Age of Success

I was at a party recently where a friend and I toasted our recent professional successes, when she said “I love the 40s!” She was referring to our ages, not the decade. Since my last post, I had a birthday and turned the calendar to a new year. These events happen on the same magical evening called New Year’s Eve, which this year featured my husband and I, and our two kids, asleep by 9 p.m. in our hotel room after a day of museum-hopping in Chicago. Because that last day of the year is momentous in several ways, I tend to feel this whole stew of nostalgia and regret and hope and excitement and despair. A lot of bad things happened in 2016, but I also got an agent and he sold my first book. And the Cubs won the World Series. Those are things I never thought would happen, but they did, and I am so grateful, mostly about the book stuff, not the Cubs, though that was very cool.

Yet because I am hopeless, I have caught myself thinking, well, if I would have started writing children’s books a decade ago, I would have x books published by now. Then I have to punch myself in the face, because who thinks like that? Well, for one, the publishing industry. Writers are constantly reminded, via various lists and awards and profiles, that really young writers are really cool!

It’s enough to make any writer over 30 feel like it’s too late. If she hasn’t had a break-out success by now, she never will. I recently attended the Sewanee Writers Conference where an agent said she would not seek out any new clients who were “geriatrics,” which she defined as writers over 50. The fact that half the crowd was sporting gray hair didn’t seem to matter to the agent, or to the conference organizers, who put her on the speaker’s list every year. Most writers are already filled with a healthy dose of self-doubt. We really don’t need our age thrown into the list of worries.

Here’s an article I just came across about a study in Science looking at age and success. The conclusion was that how hard you work matters much more than your age. However, there’s a distinction made between science and the arts. Check out this quote from the article: “Harvard education theorist Howard Gardner told the Washington Post that early creative breakthroughs are likely to happen in fields where the work itself is suited to a shorter form, like math or poetry. But in law, psychoanalysis, history, or philosophy, you’ve got to spend more time marinating.” Have you ever written poetry? Then feel free to call this bullshit. I suspect Gardner has not written any or he would be aware that creative writers’ ideas also need to “marinate.” 
I think part of increasing my creativity as I age is about not caring
so much what other people think, which makes me more willing
to take chances. This wombat, for reference, doesn't give two fucks.

Even though I know this to be true, I sometimes have to remind myself. I was talking to a poet friend about the relative speed with which I wrote the picture book that recently sold. But what I left out of that account was all the years I’d thought about the story. (The inspirational nugget comes from my own grade school years.) Nor did I take into account the years I’ve spent volunteering at a public school much like the one in the book, gathering my observations along the way. Nor did I take into account the decades I’ve been writing, getting a bit better each year at all the facets that go into creating a compelling read. My friend said, “All your life was preparation for you to write that book quickly.” It does make you re-think the word “quickly,” doesn’t it? He’s exactly right.

I’m hoping that there will continue to be more research done on creativity and age. I’m hoping that more and more people will recognize that writers are in fact capable of having success (even a first success) later in life. I’m frankly tired of reading opening sentences like, “Though writer x didn’t start until well into his 40s, he’s had an amazingly successful career…” Why should this be surprising? It’s much more surprising to me when a 20-something has great success, yet so many people in creative fields hold that up as the norm.

Poets and Writers magazine ran a recent feature on writers over 50, which is great, yet they tagged the cover with a ridiculous, apocalyptic subhead, “It’s never too late!” Wow, thanks, I guess I won’t drink this arsenic after all. I also noted that one of the authors featured in the article refused to provide her age. So how’s that for progress?

I'll end this rather rambling new year's post with a memory of  a trip I took to Mexico with some girlfriends last December. I was facing all sorts of doubts about my writing and whether anything more would ever come of it, but bobbing in the ocean helped me forget about that for awhile. And so, too, did a marathon yoga session with a yogi who kept repeating the mantra, “You are exactly where you’re supposed to be right now.” I’m sure it’s new-agey claptrap to many people, but it helped me to put things in perspective, to stop wishing that I had done something better, sooner, and accept that I’d done good, and that better things were coming, and when they did (as they would in just nine months’ time), I’d be ready. Here's to a creative 2017, whatever your age!