Conference Play

I love the yearly SCBWI Carolinas Conference. This year, with a diversity theme, especially fired me up. The sessions were helpful and encouraging. My crits went very well with great feedback both helpful suggestions and glowing praise. The keynote by Kelly Starling Lyons truly inspired me. I came home with a prioritized to-do list and plenty of motivation to do.

But soon after I returned home, soccer season for the kids amped up. My daughter and son both added sports, one of my work partners had to leave unexpectedly, and more rejections started to roll in. My resolve to rewrite sections wavered, and I changed gears on which novel idea to pursue.

In short, I got the post-conference blues.

In my limited experience, writers are mostly a dreamy bunch. When we get slapped back to reality, it can be a little harder to get that inspiration going again. That’s why I’m grateful for a few folks who’ve given me a boost back onto the writing saddle (even if I haven’t managed to giddy-up and gallop yet).

My critique group keeps me thinking about writing, and their work inspires me. My family and friends give me space, and provide endless source material. And I’m lucky to have my day job, which constantly reminds me who and what I’m writing for. Not for my ego (OK maybe a little), nor some writing ideal, nor to entertain solely (though I do want to entertain), not to preach (happens accidentally sometimes).

I’m writing for kids, but I’m also writing for the kid I was, could have been, am, and will be.

 

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The Journey of 50,000 Words. . .

After writing two novels, I would’ve thought I’d be better at starting a new one.

I’ve learned how to better prepare, though that’s not necessarily a good thing. I’m too cheap to invest in writing software to plan my novel, but I’ve done most of what those programs would do.

I’ve got spreadsheets for character traits, arc, physical description, and wants/motivations/backstories for each of the ten characters who actually speak. I’ve written  a synopsis and chapter-by-chapter breakdown, and pre-written a query letter. Most importantly, I’m aware they’re all guidelines.

I’ve read as much as I can get off the internets about the Shaolin Templesouth-shaolin-temple01and wokou pirate settings. I’d already done a lot of research on the Ming Dynasty for a future book.

I’ve even drawn the major characters, with plenty of (positive) comments from my wife and son, and some constructive criticism from my daughter (“your monk’s bald head is lopsided”).

So, I’m as prepared as I can be. And after all that, I’m still staring at a blank screen when I work up the nerve to open the blank first draft file.

I know the exercises and advice. Write three drafts of your first page/chapter. Or completely stream-of-consciousness launch it without regard to any craft. Hand write. Storyboard. Protected time. Dictate it. Act it out. Etc. Etc.

I’ll be honest. I know why the screen is blank. It’s not lack of confidence in my writing abilities. It’s not life interfering or a lack of time. And it’s not because I’m too busy blogging (OK, sorta, as in right now).

It’s fear, pure and simple. Fear of failure. One hundred or so rejections for two completed novels will do that to you. But the fear isn’t for my writing career. I’m going to keep writing, regardless of rejection.

I’m not writing for myself. I’m not writing for agents or editors or librarians or reviewers or even parents. I’m writing for you, kids, if any of you are reading this. And at some point, some of those people can help me get my story to you. But some of them (including myself) are going to be obstacles to that happening.

I know the characters and the story. I want to share it. It’s alive, in my head. But it’s imprisoned there right now. When it comes out as words, I have to get it right. I have to do it in a way that will convince those people above to share the story with you. I don’t want to fail you, and it’s such a cool story, I don’t want to fail it. Because failing it means failing you.

But I’m optimistic. It’s a good enough tale that it will bust out onto my computer screen at some point. Probably not exactly the way it’s planned out now. But something that’s true to its spirit, sometime soon.

I hope you’ll enjoy it someday.

 

Split Decision/Separation Anxiety

In a previous post, I wrote about a “first” book I read that had an impact on me. I haven’t polled my (successful) author friends to know for sure, but I suspect that many writers have a special place in their hearts for their first — as in their first significant novel/work. Whether that special place is heaven, hell, purgatory, etc. I’m going to guess depends on the writer.

I haven’t written a novel that’s been published, yet. I’ve only written two novels. But I can already tell that the first one, Treasured (or if you think that’s too Disney then Tomorrow the Mountains May Separate Us, or whatever it’s going to end up titled when it gets published), is going to be my writing life’s first love.

The few who have read both books are crystal clear on which one they think is “better.” It’s the one I’m currently shopping around to agents, Collard Green Tamales (a future post will describe).

I wrote Treasured fast because I couldn’t keep up with the ideas pouring out of my head. Even before I finished it, I felt like I’d missed out on so much of it. I still wish I’d taken more notes, paid more attention to all the possibilities of plot, character, theme.

If that sounds overly nostalgic, it’s because it is. “Kill your darlings.” That’s what Mr. King tells us to do. I take his advice seriously (except for the adverb part, obviously). But I’m certainly not suicidal, given the vague resemblance of one of the main characters to me (I know, red flag, autobiographical alert!) And I’m no murderer, so I have some illusions about how good Treasured is.

But despite those illusions, I still think it’s the better book. It’s braver. It wades deeper into themes. It’s setting and characters are more vivid. The plot has more twists and turns. It’s more layered.

It’s also the tougher sell. Fifty plus rejections later, that’s abundantly obvious. Most of them were form rejections. But the few query replies with comments had one element in common — the split point of view.

Treasured was originally an epistolary novel, letters written by a brother and sister who, unbeknownst to each other, both slip back in time to Chang’an, the capital of T’ang dynasty China. In various incarnations, the letters were addressed to different people, from different times, at different times either past or present. I alternated letters, then arranged them into blocks by plot, then wove them by theme. I eventually decided to keep the sister’s letters written from Chang’an (maintaining suspense about her fate), and to transform the brother’s letters into chapters written in first person past tense without revealing exactly when the brother is narrating from until the very end.

None of those changes mattered so far as acceptance goes, and the most recent comment still pointed to point of view. The sister’s voice is stronger (maybe I should become suicidal?), and the transitions between points of view are jarring.

Which is jarring to me as the arcs of the characters and the story depend on the two points of view being kept separate until the climax of the novel, when the two intersect. One of the major themes, connection, plays out through the spiraling points of view.

I know in my head that it’s not that big of a deal. It’s not like I’m J.R.R. Tolkien trying to shove the entire Lord of the Rings into one book.

But I feel a little like this woman when I  think about splitting my first book apart.

Though for all I know I might feel like these guys’ parents.

So, as I sit here typing this post, waiting for the upcoming SCBWI-Carolinas writing conference before further working on my current novel, I wonder what to do with Treasured. Do I take the advice of one of my critique group partners and separate the novel into one from the girl and the next from the boy?

Whatever I do, I hope that place in my heart for Treasured won’t look like this.

So much as this.

Re-reads

In my previous post, Deja Lu, I described the process of reading books with an eye toward learning writing craft. I suggested that reading for pleasure up front was the way to go. Re-reading the post, I realized that it’s never that simple. Experienced readers can multi-task. I’d like to think that’s why I read so much slower than my daughter and wife.

Of course I’m wrong about that. My wife proves her analytical chops when we talk about books we’ve both read.

But, just like re-reading my post, re-reading a book I’ve read before accentuates that analytical process. It has some similarities to re-reading/editing something I’ve written. I can focus more on craft, though that’s difficult to do when my re-read of the book either leaves me in awe as it did the first time, or makes you realize it’s not your thing anymore.

In fact, I’ve purposefully avoided reading some books I loved as a kid because, knowing what I know now, I fear I will be disappointed. Intellectually, I know that’s really misplaced and usually unjustified disappointment with my outlook on life at the time. Ironically, many of those books are what would now be considered young adult lit. I like to call it Catcher in the Rye syndrome.

And you can re-read a book too soon after reading it the first time. After just a couple of years, I’m still all aglow with When You Reach Me.

But I have purposefully gone back to read a book solely to study one craft element, for example:

to get ideas on how to weave setting into plot in The Giver (the original children’s dystopian novel)

use of second person in Dear Mr. Henshaw

ways to capture complex ideas clearly in A Wrinkle in Time and A Wizard of Earthsea

quiet characterization through showing in The View from Saturday

making your hero likable while still flawed in The Chronicles of Prydain

how to incorporate myth seamlessly into an independent narrative in Where the Mountains Meet the Moon

inserting little stories around a larger one (and making the little stories more interesting than the big one) in The Sword in the Stone

different ways of using magical realism in Because of Winn-Dixie, Savvy,

ways to fracture fairy tales in Red Ridin’ in the Hood

metafiction for kids in Inkheart

steampunk sensibility in The Golden Compass

ways to pull off straight-faced farce in The Phantom Tollbooth

Of course, you don’t have to stick to Newberry Award Winners, children’s books, genre you’re writing in, or even books to glean writing ideas or skills. Want to know how to create mystery from coincidence? Watch Krystof Kieslowski’s Trois Couleurs: Red.

And you don’t have to look for what to do. I won’t give examples of that because as your momma/daddy proly said to you, if you can’t say something nice. . .

What are some books you’ve gone back to for craft examples?

The Pulpy Procreation of Paper

The book that inspired me to write is one of William Faulkner’s earliest, and worst, novels — Mosquitoes. Why?

Long story long, in an English class, the teacher made us memorize and recite Faulkner’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech. The biggest challenge to reciting it was the line:

“It is easy enough to say that man is immortal simply because he will endure: that when the last dingdong of doom has clanged and faded from the last worthless rock hanging tideless in the last red and dying evening, that even then there will still be one more sound: that of his puny inexhaustible voice, still talking.”

First of all, good luck finding a teen who wouldn’t snicker at “last dingdong of doom”. After the innuendo, I couldn’t clear the image of a massive mini-cake mowing down skyscrapers. Second, how many clauses can you count? For years, my writing, shaped by reading a ton of Faulkner, had page long sentences with clauses nested within clauses.

My teacher recommended we read more Faulkner, though he specifically warned us against The Sound and the Fury as he thought we were not ready for it. Naturally I went out and read it almost immediately, and of course, it was barely comprehensible to me.blog-pic

Admit it, teens, you hate, hate, hate it when adults who are right about your limitations.

OK, I figured. Maybe I can handle some “lighter” Faulkner. I tried Mosquitoes.

It’s not a very good novel. It wanders. There’s no consistent theme. It’s full of stereotypical characters (even at that time). The setting isn’t terribly evocative (most of it takes place on a boat). Plot is haphazard. The attempts at humor fall flat (Faulkner is not exactly known as a humorist).  But the characters rip on each other a lot, the dialogue is snappy, and there’s a really cool, hot girl in it.

In short it was everything my aspiring teen author self thought was awesome writing that I could do. I could be the next William Faulkner!

Uh, no.

So, the American James Joyce launched an obsession that’s still going strong. I’m more and more hesitant to go back and read the crap I wrote back then. There are some diamonds (OK, cubic zirconium) in the rough, but overall, it gets worse by the year. Oh, and a few years ago I re-read Mosquitoes. It actually isn’t as bad as I once thought.

But no way, no how would it have been published today. Other than the mosquitoes, no vampires.

That book may have encouraged me to write, but it was another embarrassingly pulpy book that drove my lifelong alpha geek genre crush on science fiction and fantasy — Passage to Pluto. I’m too embarrassed to re-read that, but I would never have been motivated to start reading Asimov, Clarke, etc. without it.

As I think back to these reading catalysts, I realize my son’s reading has come a long way. At first, as snobbish parents, we discouraged him from reading too many comics and graphic “novels”. His teachers, thankfully, encouraged patience, encouraging us to just keep encouraging him to read more, regardless of what he read. But now, as we see that they did lead him to read more, we’ve eased up. Who knows, maybe Big Nate will inspire my son to become the next Faulkner.

Deja Lu

My son, who just turned ten, responded to my questions about a book with a quote from his school librarian:

“The first time you read a book, read it for pleasure. The second time you think about what the author is saying. The third time, you figure out what you want from the book.”

I wish I had learned that in fourth grade. Maybe I did and just forgot (Ha! to re-read whatever book that bit of wisdom is in).

Kidding aside, that way of reading is intuitive — at first. The reading bug bit me pretty early. By the time I was in first grade, I’d at least flipped my way through the family encyclopedia, marking the chapters I intended to go back and re-read with tissue paper (sorry, Mom). When I got older, I had little libraries all over the house (and yes, that included the bathrooms, though no toilet paper bookmarks). The nightstand drawer held the current books, and the most frequent re-reads.

But as I got older and time to read became more limited, I started to read less for pleasure and more for “business”. I needed to know what the author was saying the moment after I read it so I could go on and do something else: study for the science test, shoot some baskets, daydream about how to impress the cute girl I was way too shy to even introduce myself to, etc.

Then the moment came when I decided reading and writing was my vocation. I went to college knowing I was going to major in English. Since it was going to be my business, there was even less time for pleasure. And I had to adjust my reading for that added challenge. What was I going to write about what I read?

I’d unlearned step one, then I went into a profession where there is very little pleasure expected in reading. Now, almost full circle as a writer, I still skip step one of reading. A beautiful turn of phrase still makes me gasp out loud, but there’s no time to savor it.

“What a startling metaphor. I wonder how I could do something similar with. . .” or “that’s a very effective characterization, I hope she’ll carry that through and build on it as the plot turns” or “Shoot, I hope I didn’t write anything that clunky sounding” or “I should email that to the critique group, it would really help K’s novel,” etc.

I’m going to learn from my son. I’m going back to step one. But becoming a writer means taking that full circle. The close analysis, the potential of learning craft and opening the creative mind to new ideas, that all important step three, is going to be part of the pleasure of reading.

Now all I have to do is get my son to re-read Because of Winn-Dixie so we can talk about it. I can’t wait.

Origin Stories

As a writer becomes more successful, inevitably somebody asks her what inspired her to first start writing, or how she got her start. If the answer’s good enough, it gets published, too, usually on the inside back cover flap.

Like a superhero origin story.

I guess writing is like a superpower. I mean, what is a super-power but something possible that can be done better. Super strength. Super speed. Super agility. OK, maybe not this one.

Super writing? Believe it. Language is one of the most powerful abilities humans have. Pen mightier than the sword and all that. I will admit that a quick turn of phrase is nowhere near as immediate (nor as sharp) as this.

Along those lines, when you actually write them out, most writer origin stories aren’t the stuff from which ten year-old dreams are made of. Hemingway? Got drunk in Spain. Faulkner? Trying to woo a woman.  Countless failed law clerks, journalists and librarians ended up writers. Ho-hum.

It’s the children’s writers whose origin stories are interesting to children. Why? Most of them started writing children’s books because . . . wait for it . . . they love children.

But it’s the authors who wrote for their children who seem like superheroes to me. A.A. Milne had to record his son’s adventures with his stuffed bear. Lewis Carroll had his Alice to inspire him. Roald Dahl penned James and the Giant Peach for his daughter, Olivia, when she was alive; and then, poignantly, The BFG after she had died of measles. A more modern example, Rick Riordan, told his son Greek myths as bedtime stories until he ran out. He had to make some more up.

I’m no super famous author, nor a superhero, but I have an origin story of sorts. It’s nowhere near as entertaining as The Lightning Thief (as my daughter often reminded me), but it’s genuine, and I wrote it down.

It begins pedantically like most origin stories do. When my family first moved to North Carolina, we drove through a tremendous thunderstorm. We crawled along a dark, unfamiliar street, the willow oaks looming darkly on each side. Raindrops pounded the car, backed up by the low bass thunder rumble punctuated by spine tingling cracks and searing lightning. The power went out, and the streetlights vanished. Luckily, a fire station nearby still had a light on, and we waited out the storm in the parking lot.

I was stoked. Growing up in Arkansas, we were used to huge storms. I reveled with each lightning strike and laughed at each thunderclap, trying to pass my excitement on to my family to quell their fears. But it backfired, and my often fearless daughter became even more scared. Her quiet ate up my excitement, and I gave up, embarrassed and sad that I’d turned an already scary situation even more frightening.

It was a week of summer evening celestial fireworks. So it wasn’t long before I was putting her to bed during a storm. Lying close next to her, listening to the loud rain, she asked me to distract her with a story. This is what I came up with. It’s full of holes (as my critique group reminded me), lacks a coherent message, and is unlikely to be snapped up by a publisher (or so I gather from Farrar, Strauss, Giroux’s rejection letter). Regarding the last assertion, I’m too protective of it (you always are with your first, right?) to submit it again. At least, not until I become a Published Author (think positive) and have a little cache. I hope you enjoy it.

The Shepherdess

The very first time her parents trusted her to take their sheep out to pasture, the little shepherd girl’s cheeks burned with pride and fear. At first, everything happened just the way she rehearsed in her head. The sheep contentedly grazed on the hills above their home. They bleated when she used her staff to herd them along, but they obeyed. No wolves crept along the forest’s edge for her to worry about. The day idled away. The sun blazed purple-orange along fish-scale cloud edges. She was almost ready to head home when Lightning flashed. The little shepherd girl knew it was about to rain, and she did not want to get wet. She herded her sheep towards a nearby tree when out of nowhere a burning blaze seared her eyeballs. Smoke billowed from the tree.

She started to run, but a rumbling voice pleaded, “Please stay. I won’t hurt you.”

Curious, she approached the smoldering tree. The smoke made her cough. When it cleared, a wondrous sight appeared — a huge eagle stuck in the split tree. His sparkling gold and electric blue feathers crackled. His shiny silver beak stuck halfway into the tree trunk.

“Please help me,” he politely asked.

Just as politely, she replied, “My Mommy said I shouldn’t talk to strangers.”

The eagle grinned, “But I’m not a stranger. You hear me every time it rains. I’m Thunder. Nice to meet you.”

She beamed, “Nice to meet you, too. I’m a little shepherd girl.”

Thunder rolled on, “I hope I didn’t frighten you. You shouldn’t be too afraid of me. I don’t mean to hurt anyone. But I get a little excited, and I don’t have very good aim. Sometimes I miss. Like now.”

He blushed, a little embarrassed.

The little shepherd girl puzzled, “Should I be afraid of you?” Thunder explained, “Whenever you hear me, you should go indoors. I might miss and hit you instead. Or a tree. Like this one. . . I guess you shouldn’t stand under a tree, either. “

The little shepherd girl agreed, “I won’t next time. When I hear you, I’ll go inside. But I won’t be afraid. For a Force of Nature, you’re nice.”

Thunder meekly boomed, “Thanks. So will you help me?” The little shepherd girl frowned, “How?” Thunder answered, “By finding my sister, Lightning.”

The little shepherd girl was curious now, “How do I find her?” Thunder described her, “She’s a pretty fairy lady. She always carries mirrors. You climb to the top of a tall mountain, and then you close your eyes. When you feel the hair stand up on the back of your neck, open your eyes as quickly as you can. You’ll see her. Tell her where I am.”

The little shepherd girl climbed up the highest mountain around and did exactly as Thunder instructed. When she felt the hair stand up on the back of her neck, she quickly opened her eyes and beheld the prettiest woman she had ever seen. The lady wore a shimmering white silk robe, shining and glittering before the dark clouds. The robe paled next to the light from her two mirrors, one in each hand. Each burned as hot and bright as the sun.

The lady gasped, “Oh! I almost didn’t see you. Are you all right?”

Though her voice was kind, the light burning in her hands was fierce. The bright mirrors terrified the little shepherd girl. She knew Thunder needed help, but her tongue froze in fear. When she didn’t answer, the fairy flashed away.

Startled, the little girl’s worry for her new friend Thunder melted her fear. She didn’t know what to do. In a panic she skittered about calling for Lightning. Then she saw flashes over a nearby summit. Dashing down the mountain, she panted up the neighboring mountain and closed her eyes again.

This time, when the fairy lady appeared, the shepherdess braved the light. Breathlessly, the shepherdess told the fairy, “Your friend, Thunder is stuck in a tree down in the valley.”

Lightning puffed her cheeks out, relieved, “My friend Thunder? Where is he? I’ve been frantic, looking everywhere. Please take me to him.”

The little shepherd girl, exhausted from climbing, wanted to tell Lightning she couldn’t take another step. Lightning touched the girl’s forehead and sparks danced before their eyes, “I’m way ahead of you. Hold onto my hand.”

The little shepherd girl grasped Lightning’s hand, and, in a flash, they stood next to the tree where Thunder was stuck. He boomed, “Wow, Lightning. I am glad you are here!”

Lightning pulled on Thunder’s feet. With a crack and a boom and a flash, Thunder and Lightning launched from the tree and filled the sky. The little shepherd girl hurried back to her sheep.

As she herded them, she heard a low rumble that sounded like, “Thank you.”

A few days later, the little shepherd girl tended her flock when she heard the boom of Thunder. Remembering his warnings, she started to head back home. Just then, some bandits leaped from behind nearby rocks.

Their chief demanded, “We’re hungry. Give us your sheep to eat!”

The little shepherd girl was scared of the bandits, but she bravely spoke out, “That’s not nice! These sheep give milk and wool. I don’t eat them and neither should you! You better be careful. Thunder and Lightning are around. They might hit you by mistake.”

The bandit laughed, “You are the one who had better be careful, little girl. Now, give us your sheep or we will hurt you.”

The bandits started to attack the little girl when all of a sudden, they were blinded by Lightning. Some of the bandits stopped in their tracks. Others blundered into each other. The head bandit wasn’t blinded. He had closed his eyes in time. He was about to tackle the little shepherd girl when Thunder boomed. All of the frightened bandits covered their ears and ran away.

The little shepherd girl herded her sheep back home. She glanced up into the sky and said, “Thank you, Thunder and Lightning, for saving my life.”

A big flash of lightning spelled out

You’re welcome

From that day on, when the little shepherd girl heard Thunder and saw Lightning, she wasn’t afraid, but she did go indoors.