Category Archives: craft~writing

The Art of Essential Living (and Writing)

My debut middle grade novel, Another Kind of Hurricane was sold on April 3, 2014. On that same day, I got a phone call from our social worker, asking if we would be interested in changing the age range of the child we were willing to adopt. We had been in the process of adopting a child for 3 years, and were approved up to the age of 24 months. She asked if we were interested in, let’s say, changing the upward end of the range to 28 months.

Translation of that question: There is a child that the adoption committee wants to match you with. He is slightly older than the age range you requested. If you change your age range you will be matched with your son.

Answer to that question: Yes. And yes and yes and also yes.

growingPlant1My book sold on the same day I found out about our son. Two excruciatingly long processes in the soil, sun and rain, and they flowered on exactly the same day.

Explain that. (Seriously. I’m collecting reasons, magical and logical, for why these two journeys are so intertwined.)

Or I will explain it. Or I will try, at least. But bear with me? I want to finally write a little about my son, who just came to live with us in December. I’ve been protective of his journey, not wanting to expose him too much in too public a way, but there is a part of it that I want to explore now. Here. With you all. And I’m not sure why, but I think it has something to do with writing. Maybe. We’ll see.

Image 15

In Honduras.

My son was born in Honduras and lived his three years there before we adopted him. He lived in the same town, with the same family. His life with his foster mother was secure and full of love. This is evident. He is fully himself wherever, thus far, he has been – in his home town; in Tegucigalpa, the capitol city of Honduras; on Roatan Island; on my parents’ farm in very rural Vermont; and now, in my town in Vermont, in our little village, in our house. In all of these places, in all of these landscapes, he is…who he is. Do you know what I mean? He’s got a solid sense of self. And he is very comfortable residing there. No need to defend himself, no need to hide himself.

I believe he is like this for two reasons: First, he came into the world this way. He must have. And second, his foster mother nurtured this in him – through her love and gift of security – during those critical early developmental years in his life. (The respect and awe I feel for her, this woman who took in my son with open arms, raised him, and then let him go with those same open arms…that is for another post another day.)

Because he has this innate sense of centeredness, he is very curious about and very comfortable finding the ways that he fits into the landscape of our family. And here is where maybe he and writing overlap? Or are woven together?

My son’s first three years were full of the routines and rhythms of household chores. I’m learning this about him. He loves to do the laundry with me, for example, and learned the order of button pushing to start the washing machine by the second time we did it together. He loves to cook too. He sits on the counter, his short legs kicking the wooden drawer underneath him, and he dumps the flour, cracks the eggs, and pours the milk. Stir is one of his first English words. He watched my other 3 kids come home from school for about 3 days before he began taking their lunch boxes out of their backpacks and bringing them to me – because he realized that was what they did, day after day, right after they piled through the door and spilled into the house.

This kid watches routines. He feels rhythms. And then he acts. He finds the places where he can fit himself into the beat, into the music, into the pauses and patterns – and then he inserts himself. The earnestness with which he pursues this breaks my heart wide open. He is so transparent. He is so clearly identifying and claiming his place in the family, and in this new life. But – or maybe and – at the same time, he is so clearly tapping into something that is familiar to him at his core.

Image 1

Trampolining in winter in negative digit temps. Welcome to Vermont, kid.

Rhythms and routines. This is how you write a book too, isn’t it? On a meta-level: make a routine for your writing. On a micro-level: find and follow the rhythms of your characters’ voices and of the story. But it’s deeper than that. And I don’t know if I can describe what I am feeling adequately here. (Maybe someone can give me insight after reading this?) There is an essential quality to my son’s life right now…as in, he is practically all essence. There is an authenticity that buzzes through and around him that’s palpable. Maybe this is because he is, in a way, being re-born right now. And that newborn time is all about essence and core and what-you-see-is-what-you-got, right? Most kids keep this for a while, some for a long while, so I am, by no means, suggesting that my son is unique in this…but I do think that, among the myriad of other reasons I am so lucky to be mothering this kid, I am privileged to be a part of this kind of essentialness in such an intimate way.

Image 7

Yup, he’s drinking it all in…

This – this essentialness – is what we strive for in our writing, isn’t it? The transparency and truthfulness of the human spirit that breaks open the hearts (and minds) of our readers? That inspires them – in even the smallest ways – to live fully inside of themselves?

I don’t know. I think so anyway. What I do know is that my son humbles me every single day.

*     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *

Advertisements

39 Comments

Filed under Character Development, craft~writing, rhythms

In Praise of Imperfection

Next month our family will be moving across the country for a new job in a new state. That means putting the house up for sale and keeping it looking as perfect as possible for potential buyers.

This isn’t our first move, but I had forgotten how crazy-making it is to chase that level of perfection in a house with three kids and a dog. It means nagging everyone to pick up wet towels and renegade socks. It means constantly wiping smudges off the refrigerator and crumbs off the counter.

Not that I don’t do a fair amount of that anyway, but it’s reached obsessive levels, serving up a painful reminder: this isn’t how we live. It isn’t us. The house may look like a magazine (except for the secret dings and stains we’ve done a good job of hiding), but it’s a photo shoot, a moment in time, an expertly crafted illusion. It’s all-consuming, eating up our time, energy, and peace of mind.

There is no such thing as perfection. Not in life, not in writing. I know this.

We all know it.

But how do we put that knowledge into practice? How do we let go of the crazy in favor of the joy and peace that comes with accepting limitations?

I recently received galley copies of MOTHMAN’S CURSE, my debut novel, the dream I’ve been chasing for a decade or more. And all I could do was obsess over its flaws, both real and imagined.

When I caught myself doing it, I was horrified. My fear of imperfection was sucking the joy out of what should have been a milestone moment. Worse, I realized that unless I changed my outlook, my worries about “getting it wrong” would overshadow the entire journey, all the way up to the launch date and beyond.

Life is messy. Houses get cluttered. Words on the page don’t always sound as good as they did in our heads, even after a couple of rewrites (or ten or twenty). It’s okay, it really is. We learn and grow along the way. We get better. We teach each other. We take the risk, open our hearts, and send our words into the world.

With any luck, someone will think those words are pretty perfect just the way they are.

____________________________________________________

ChristineHayesauthorpicChristine Hayes writes spooky stories for middle grade readers. Her debut novel, MOTHMAN’S CURSE, is due out June 16, 2015 with Roaring Brook Press/Macmillan. She is represented by Ammi-Joan Paquette of the Erin Murphy Literary Agency.

10 Comments

Filed under Advice - Helpful or Otherwise, Anxiety, ARCs, craft~writing

The Delivery System for An Emotional Hit

One of the nice things about a group like the Emus is that while we’re all talking shop here, a fellow Emu may say something that lodges in your brain and helps you think about your own writing. A while ago, Kevan talked about adding dimension to his Monster of the Day series by trying to make sure each monster conveyed some emotion or feeling. (For the whole lovely discussion, click here.)

This started me thinking about how picture books are a delivery system for an emotional hit. I had the opportunity to read Jules Feiffer’s Bark, George to an audience recently and I saw that principle in action. It was a group of preschoolers at a book festival but they had older brothers and sisters and parents in tow. Bark, George delivers a hit of Funny. As I read this book to them, I realized that it was working for all three groups. But they were laughing at different things.

Unknown

When you read Bark, George to preschoolers, they scream with laughter over the fact that the dog does not bark, he moos (or quacks or oinks or whatever.) I am not two, I do not remember being two, but I promise you, at two, this dog mooing thing is hilarious. Every single time it happens.

629px-Make-Yourself-Laugh-Step-5

The older siblings are laughing too but they’re laughing at the visual gags. They get that it is impossible to pull a full size pig out of a very small puppy. Yet it’s happening. And as the animals get bigger, the joke gets funnier. They are also laughing at the vet. They love the “Ewww” factor when the vet puts on his longest latex glove. That moment leaves them a little helpless with joy.

And, oh, the parents are laughing. They’re laughing at their kids’ reactions and the sight gags and the vet are amusing them too. But where are they laughing the hardest? At that poor mama dog and her expressions. They get it. They are the mama dog.

Laughing-woman-by-Eder-Capobianco-Creative-Commons

I’ve long loved that book but reading it to that audience was like watching it be analyzed in real time—seeing exactly what worked for whom.

9780062051851

One of the joys and challenges of picture books is the dual audience—child and adult. A book can survive if it only appeals to kids but the parents may succumb to the temptation to shove the book under the couch cushion rather than read it one more time. A book can (unfortunately) survive if it only appeals to adults. They own the wallets.

But the best books are the ones where both audiences are absolutely delighted. Then the shared experience of reading the book becomes as important as the book itself. Then a book has a chance to become beloved. And one way of making that happen is to make sure that both audiences are getting a custom-mixed emotional hit.

What are your favorite books that reach both audiences?

mylisa_email_2-2 Mylisa Larsen is the author of Instructions for Bedtime (Katherine Tegen Books) and If I Were A Kangaroo (Viking.) You can visit her online at mylisalarsen.com.

11 Comments

Filed under craft~writing, Picture books

Writing in One Layer

In Photoshop, you can build a complex image using layers.  Layers are images that are stacked on top of each other like cellophane, with individual elements of the design or illustration existing on individual layers.

Background

Here’s a background layer.

BackgroundCircle

Here’s a yellow circle layer on top.

BackgroundCircleRed

I am awesome at this.

Images are stacked in this way so that they can be easily separated into manageable segments. This allows an artist to remove or make changes to various pieces of the work without having to recreate the entire thing.  That red squiggle needs to be orange?  Great.  Select the layer with the squiggle, change the color, and everything else can stay as is.  Easy peasy.

The more complex and layered an image, the more segmented it is. That’s great for small changes, but not for big sweeping ones. In order to make holistic changes to the work, the artist has to go in and edit each individual layer.

Hold up.  This is a writing blog, right?  Why am I talking about Photoshop?

A few weeks ago, at LeakyCon, I had the pleasure of being in the room for a Q&A with Kazu Kibuishi, the writer/artist behind the AMULET graphic novel series and the cover illustrator of the 15th-Anniversary editions of the American Harry Potter books.  He is a stellar talent.  While showing us several drafts of his cover illustration for CHAMBER OF SECRETS, he mentioned that he had drafted those images in one layer.

I was surprised.  The images Kazu showed us didn’t even look like drafts.  They were complex, beautiful, detailed paintings – and he had done them all in one layer, with no segmentation.  Why?  Wouldn’t that slow him down, if he needed to make changes?

In fact, he said it does the opposite.  He learned from watching artists Chris Appelhans and Khang Le that when drafting in Photoshop, it’s freeing to do all the initial work in one layer.  It allows him to paint with confidence, make decisions faster, and minimize production choices.  Because drafting isn’t about making production choices.  It’s not about self-censorship.  It’s about getting your ideas down authentically, in service of creating a compelling work of art.

Well, I thought about that.  I chewed on it for days.  Because it’s not just a strategy for working in Photoshop – it’s a philosophy.  Draft with confidence.  Minimize choices.  Don’t make production decisions too early.  Save layers for later, when you know more.  Just paint.

Or in my case, just write.

When I was newer to writing and not yet thinking about publication, I mostly wrote fan fiction – thousands of pages of it. I wrote it very, very fast.  Unless I got really stuck, I didn’t spend time pondering or fussing.  I just followed the bird in flight, chasing the idea as fast as I could and giving myself as much enjoyment as possible in the process.  I didn’t worry whether that page of witty banter was pure stuffing or whether the kiss I was writing drove the plot enough to be worth keeping.  It was fanfic, so I just wrote it to make myself happy, painting words with fast strokes, making the movie in my head come alive in the narrative.

Now I’m writing original fiction, under contract (hooray!), and I find myself slowing down. Thinking ahead. Manipulating the layers before I know what the whole picture looks like.  Editing earlier than necessary.  This wasn’t true with the first book of the series – I wrote that first draft without knowing what the full editorial process would entail, and without second guessing my choices.  With this second book, however, I hovered over myself a little bit as I drafted, questioning things that didn’t need to be questioned yet.

Immediately after Kazu’s Q&A, I sat down for a long chat with my editor, Cheryl Klein, about how to approach the revision of the second book in the series I’m writing.  One of her suggestions was that I should concentrate on the romance more.  I share this because anyone who knows me or my writing well will find it odd that I’d ever need to be given this note; I have a tendency to dive pretty deep into the romance.  I love, love, love to write the romance.  If anything, in the past, I’ve needed to pull back on the romance.  But because I’ve been drafting with too much of my brain focused on technical maneuvering and not enough of it focused on simply following the flow, I lost my romantic guts, a little, in this recent draft.  I pulled back before I’d reached the destination.

So I’ve decided to take Kazu’s Photoshop philosophy and apply it to my revision. One layer. No tinkering. Not yet. In the past week, I’ve blown through almost a hundred pages, including a couple of brand-new scenes that were incredibly fun to write and felt totally self indulgent. And maybe it’ll turn out that they are totally self indulgent and have to be removed.  I don’t care.  The romance is flowing.  The questions are vanishing.  The inner editor is on forced hiatus.

I’m not saying that fast is best (speed is a personal thing for authors – we each have our own process, and pace is part of that).  Rather, if you ever find yourself getting in your own way and picking at your choices too early, try visualizing your draft as something that’s pouring out in one uncensored layer, and see if it sets you free.

 

HiRes_Morrison_6861_cropMegan Morrison is the author of GROUNDED: THE ADVENTURES OF RAPUNZEL, due out summer 2015 from Arthur A. Levine Books/Scholastic. GROUNDED is the first book in the Tyme Series, co-created with Ruth Virkus. You can follow Megan on her blog at makingtyme.blogspot.com or on Twitter at @megtyme. She is represented by Ammi-Joan Paquette.

 

7 Comments

Filed under Advice, Advice - Helpful or Otherwise, craft~writing, Creativity, Editing and Revising, Editor, Illustrators, Satisfaction, Writing

Shoes: The Window to the Soul?

Chris Shoes2

My current favorite and most comfortable “wear everywhere” shoes.

You can tell a lot about a person by his/her shoes. Yes, it’s a snap judgment, a tiny thumbnail of a much more complex picture of heart, mind, and soul.  But still. I like to study people’s shoes, especially writers’ shoes, because I am always fascinated by their choices.

Rebecca's Harry Potter Shoes 005

Rebecca made these to-die-for shoes for her daughter!

Many are comfy, worn in, perfectly molded to the wearer’s foot. Some are impossibly clever, showing off hidden depths of talent (see Rebecca’s Harry Potter shoes). Still others are fancy, or quirky, or bold–shining with character and originality.

The mistake I make is wishing I could wear them all. (Warning: shameless use of metaphor ahead!) At our annual agency retreat, we do readings of works in progress. Even as I listen in awe, I lapse into melancholy over the display of talent. My brain declares: “I could never write like that!” (Or in Metaphor Land: “I could never pull off those strappy three-inch spike heels! I’d trip over my own feet!”)

Tam's Shoes

The lovely Tam’s purple sneakers

Mylisa's Shoes

Mylisa’s smart, sassy heels

And so it goes: Why aren’t my topics more edgy and why don’t they matter more? Why can’t I write with that much honesty? Why don’t my adjectives sparkle like that? Why can’t I be that original and important and WORTHY?  Why, why, why?

The truth is, there are too many kinds of shoes in the world to wear them all. But some shoes suit us so well! Others we have to try on and walk around in for a while before they feel like a good fit. And some we’re just not meant to wear. But that’s okay. Our shoes writing should reflect the unique, fabulous message that only we have to offer.

Jenn's Spiderman Shoes

These kick-butt Spiderman shoes were Jenn’s favorite growing up

It took me a while to come to terms with this. I devoured ghost stories as a kid. I loved mystery and adventure. Maybe, just maybe, I could even write my own mysteries when I grew up. When high school pulled me away from the books I loved to read Important books, I was devastated. Partly because I thought it meant I had to leave my favorite books behind, and partly because so many of those Important books were so dang bleak.

Chris Shoes1

The costume party platform shoes. I know, right?

Yes, we must stretch ourselves, read everything, learn, grow, discover, rise up, reach out, all those things. But if there is no passion behind the things we write about, no love, no personal truth, then what’s the point? There, I said it. My personal truth is writing about things that go bump in the night. Maybe there’s a deep psychological reason behind it. Maybe I just enjoy books that send a shiver up my spine.

Megan's Shoes

Megan’s killer boho sandals

I certainly don’t think that writers should limit themselves to just one type of “shoe.” What a ho-hum world that would be! In fact, I bought a pair of vintage Italian platform shoes for a costume party and ended up falling in love with them and wearing them out in public. Who knew? But there are certain types of shoes I will probably never buy or wear. (Anything with an animal print comes to mind.) And there are certain genres and topics that just aren’t for me. I have made my peace with it. Thank heaven there are enough writers and books and shoes for every possible occasion.

Chris Shoes3Right now we’re on vacation in northern Wisconsin. After a summer of line edits and working on a book proposal and ferrying kids around to endless activities, it’s nice to recharge and give my brain a rest. I can squish my toes in the sand, sink into the sound of lapping waves. Ideas come and go as they please, a gentle ebb and flow without the pressure of plot or  the structure of story.

Sometimes it’s nice to just go barefoot.

 

Lindsey's Shoes

Lindsey’s chic red shoes with pedi to match

Penny's Shoes1

Penny’s fancy shoes that are not as comfortable as she hoped

Penny's Shoes2

Penny’s super comfy writing slippers, with books as the perfect accessory!

Laurie's Shoes

Laurie’s honeymoon shoes, The Most Comfortable Shoes EVER

Amy's shoes

Amy’s funky-cute awesome sandals that I want to steal

Donna's Shoes

Donna’s versatile I-can-do-anything shoes

 

__________________________________________________

ChristineHayespic2 (534x800)Christine Hayes writes spooky stories for middle grade readers. Her debut novel, THE MOTHMAN’S CURSE, is due out June 16, 2015 with Roaring Brook Press/Macmillan. She is represented by Ammi-Joan Paquette of the Erin Murphy Literary Agency.

19 Comments

Filed under Advice - Helpful or Otherwise, craft~writing, Creativity, jealousy, Satisfaction, Writing, Writing and Life

Two Brains, Tulips

Last spring I visited a local tulip farm. If you’ve never been, picture a field full of red. Next to a field of yellow, next to a field of pink. On and on, acres and acres of color. It looks like some crazy/enthusiastic artist got hold of a GIANT box of crayons.
Tulip Fields
So I got inspired. That summer I ordered tulip bulbs for my gardens. LOTS of tulip bulbs. When the package came in the fall, I had 300 bulbs to plant. The neighbors, watching you dig hole after hole, say, “That looks like a lot of work.”
The thing about planting bulbs is that they come looking like deformed onions.
Tulip Bulbs
Then you stick them in the ground and suddenly your garden… looks just like it did before you started. NO progress.
Or so it seems.
Winter comes, and still no progress.
Then, along about February or March, there is finally a sign that something is happening. Some tiny, fragile-looking green shoots peek out, often when the weather dial is still definitely set at “Winter.”
Bulbs Sprouting
But then the weather softens, and suddenly those tiny shoots start looking promising. Spring comes, and all your hard work and waiting pay off. You have tulips. Now the neighbors slow down as they walk past your house. “Beautiful,” they tell you.
Tulip Garden
I think writing works a lot like planting tulips. We get inspired by a wonderful flash of creativity. We dig into a brand-new, huge project with dreams of how beautiful it’s going to be. We start to find the words and get a solid beginning going.
And then… frustration. The project hits a wall, and suddenly the first frost comes and kills any progress. So we wait. And wait.
And nothing happens.
The thing is, things ARE happening. But they are happening beneath the surface. Like tulip bulbs need cold before they can bloom, ideas need time to mature. Anastasia Suen, in her book Picture Writing (Writer’s Digest Books, 2003), talks about the brain’s two hemispheres. The left brain is the logical, step-by-step half that uses language. The right brain is the random, imaginative half that works with images or pictures. Both halves are working together to grow this project, but they have different jobs. So while our left half cannot find the words we need, the right half is working on a subterranean level, mulling over what the next step should be.
Then suddenly- FLASH! Inspiration hits, and we become unstuck. The seemingly dead project begins to send out shoots of hope. Spring has come, and the left half now has the words we need for our story to grow and flourish.
I’m currently working on several stories. Some are coming along, but some still need…something… for them to work. I’m looking at my trusted critiquers’ notes: “Needs a more satisfying ending.” “Something punchy and funny.” “Make it more character-rich.” “More story-driven.” When I sit down with my manuscript, though, I’m met with a frosty nothingness. How do I make all those things happen? So I shut down my computer. But my brain, I know, isn’t shutting down. Even though my verbal left brain is currently mute, my right brain will continue to work on these stories subconsciously. I don’t know exactly WHEN spring will arrive for them, but if I keep coming back to them, I hope to have that FLASH when suddenly the words are there, and I can look at my completed project and say, “Beautiful.”
Tulips and Books

 

Rebecca Van Slyke has an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts. She writes picture books, easy readers, nonfiction, and poetry. She’s currently working on something she swore she would never attempt: a middle-grade novel. She also has illustrated five art books for children. Her picture books LEXIE, THE WORD WRANGLER, MOM SCHOOL, and DAD SCHOOL are due to be published in 2015 and 2016. Rebecca is a second-grade teacher in Lynden, where she lives with her husband, daughter, and a very spoiled dachshund. She wants to be a cowgirl when she grows up. Or a penguin tamer.

9 Comments

Filed under Advice, Anxiety, craft~writing, Creativity, Faith, Patience, Writing and Life

Pantsing, Planning, and Doing Whatever Works

When I first started writing – really writing, trying to make whole stories hang together so that I could share them with other people – I was what’s now known in the writing community as a pantser, or a novelist who flies by the seat of her pants when writing a novel. I had a vague plan, but I just wanted to dive in and get going.  All that plotting and outlining wasn’t for me – I wanted to write, not think about writing.  So I’d write and write and write, and get it all out.  I completed some novels that way.  They weren’t very good.  They weren’t even salvageable first drafts that might work upon revision.  They were just sort of… puked up.  Some authors swear by pantsing, but it doesn’t work for me.

Neither does planning.  A planner is a novelist who knows in advance exactly what’s going to happen in the novel. As I became more intentional about writing, and especially when I decided to tackle writing a fantasy series, I turned to hardcore planning.  I wrote documents, sometimes fifty or seventy pages in length, describing what was going to happen in a given novel.  And then I’d go to write the actual living novel, and everything would change on me.  Characters who had been docile and compliant in the outlining phase turned mutinous and ran wild, knocking down the rest of my beautifully arranged plot dominoes.

Well, what then?  How should I do this?

The answer is still in development (and probably always will be), but I’ve written the bulk of four drafts of four different novels in the Tyme series in the past year, so I’m starting to get a pretty clear sense of my process.  As it turns out, I’m a little bit country, and I’m a little bit rock and roll.  I plan first, laying out the essential outline as I envision it.  Then I pants hard, diving in, writing what wants to be written, ignoring the outline as soon as it becomes a burden and I long to deviate from it (usually around chapter two), allowing characters to crop up and then vanish, letting plotlines meander and crash into each other.  While this is happening, I usually feel like I’m writing something awesome!

Soon enough, though, I realize I’m writing a draft.  Usually this realization comes right before the big climactic event, when it becomes depressingly clear that things are not in their proper places, structurally or emotionally.  That’s when I stop pantsing and go back to planning again.  At that point, however, I tend to plan backwards, starting from my ideal denouement.  What do I want from those final scenes?  Who’s there?  What are they doing?  How do they feel?  How do I want to feel?  What has to happen, during the climactic events of the story, to make that satisfying resolution possible?  What has to happen in the rising action to make that climax possible?  What has to happen in the establishing chapters to kick off that rising action with a bang?  Working backwards helps me to problem solve.

Even after engaging in so much careful backwards plotting and problem solving, I continue to find that drafts want to do what they want to do, and that part of my job is to let that happen.  So I pants some more.  But those rounds of planning get into the DNA of the story, and I find that, as I flip back and forth between the pantsing and the planning, stuff starts to tighten up and work out, without necessarily keeping to the established plan.

This way of going about it is certainly not the only way.  There is no only way.  I’m sure of very few things in this writing profession, but I’m certain of this: Whatever works for me as a writer is okay.  If I read a blog post, or attend a presentation, and the speaker says that their way is the right way, then I’m allowed to ignore that dictate.  I’ll learn what they have to teach, then go out and write however I need to write.

What works best for you?

 

HiRes_Morrison_6861_cropMegan Morrison is the author of GROUNDED: A TALE OF RAPUNZEL, due out summer 2015 from Arthur A. Levine Books/Scholastic. GROUNDED is the first book in the Tyme Series, co-created with Ruth Virkus. You can follow Megan on her blog at makingtyme.blogspot.com or on Twitter at @megtyme. She is represented by Ammi-Joan Paquette.

 

8 Comments

Filed under Advice, Anti-Advice, craft~writing, Plotting, Writing

Part Method, Part Madness: Luring in a Good Idea

shutterstock_108783638

“Where do you get your ideas?”

 Man, I hate that question. Not because I’m jealously guarding writerly secrets. Not because I haven’t thought about it. A lot. Just because when I try to answer that question honestly, I babble.

Here’s the thing. Ideas are strange creatures. I know they’re out there. I see them out of the corner of my eye. But it might be in the grocery store. Or in the woods. Or looking at me from the window of a passing bus. Ideas don’t seem to have an established, identifiable habitat. Or habits. Sometimes they’re out wandering at 2 AM. Sometimes they refuse to show up at all until sleep needs have been lavishly met. They eat chocolate. No, grapefruit. Spicy fish?

It’s a puzzle. I can’t give a satisfying, tidy answer. But here are a few things that work for me.

Show up at your desk. And get out of the house.

 Ideas like to know that there’s a place for them. Having a regular writing schedule let’s them know that when they show up, they’ll be treated with respect and given the warmest spot by the fire. They tend to show up if they know you’ll be there to open the door for them.

Until. . .they don’t. If for three or four days, I’ve been showing up and the ideas haven’t, if I’m starting to notice this fact and get a wee bit wound up about it, it’s time to get out of the house. Strap on the snowshoes or load the kayak on the car. Go into town. Do something I don’t usually do. Ideas like to slip in unnoticed. So give them that chance. And then get back to your desk.

Really think about form. No, quit thinking so much.

 Ideas come during times when I’m thinking carefully about some element of the picture book form. For example, I’m in love with the page turns in picture books. They can set up a joke. They can be used as time travel devices. Or to manipulate rhythm. So I might just sit and think, “What could I do with page turns?” After a while, my brain will say, “Hey, know what would be funny?” And here we go.

But then other times, a great idea comes from just playing, not thinking about much of anything. This is why you should walk out to the bus stop with your kids and play rhyming games while you wait. Or trade jokes. Or be silly and talk in badly done accents. Or draw dumb pictures in your writing notebook. Goofing off is a fertile state of mind. Ideas love it.

Relax. Or induce panic. Either one.

Ideas like relaxed writers. So breathe a little. Defend parts of the day from busyness. Give yourself space to just be. Space for ideas to float in for a soft landing. It’s part of your job. Nice, huh.

On the other hand, in a pinch, ideas can be flushed from the bushes by a good, old fashioned dose of panic. I hate this method. It has side effects that I do not enjoy. But when I feel like I’m in a rut, like everything I’m writing is recycled from something I’ve done before, it has to happen.

Sign up for a stretch class. Is it something you’re not even sure you can quite do yet? Taught by someone you have immense respect for and would hate to disappoint? Are there assignments that cause you to break into a sweat just thinking about them? Great. That should do it.

Or give yourself a deadline. In the next twenty days, write twenty picture books—one per day, from nothingness to The End every day. Warn your family ahead of time and then shut yourself in your room. Don’t allow yourself escape hatches. The first couple of days will be fun. Then it will get ugly. But part way through, out of sheer desperation, your brain will bump out of its well worn path.

So . . .

 I guess what I’m saying is to keep things lively. Mix it up. Nothing works all the time. When one thing stops working, move to another. Then another. Until you circle back around again. Make peace with the fact that it’s a little weird, a little messy, a little mysterious. And that when you try to answer that question about where ideas come from, you’ll babble.

 

mylisa_email_2-2

Mylisa Larsen is the author of the picture books, Instructions for Bedtime (Katherine Tegen Books) and If I Were A Kangaroo (Viking.)

You can visit her online at http://mylisalarsen.com

 

 

 

17 Comments

Filed under craft~writing, Creativity, Picture books

How to Build Character(s)

Memorable characters, like my husband’s aunt pictured here, demand your attention. How will their story unfold?

We all have goals, things we want to work on to become better writers and hopefully better people as well. Lately, for me, a key writing goal has been to build authentic, well-developed characters.  I struggle with this. Possibly because I’m an introvert who invests way too much effort trying not to ruffle feathers or let too much emotion or opinion come spilling out in the presence of anyone other than my spouse (lucky guy). I’d hate to give people the impression that I am not as emotionally stable as I might appear.

I also worry that pouring too much of a character’s inner workings onto the page will feel contrived or manipulative, that her struggles will be perceived as insincere, unearned.  Obviously I have to get past this. A fictional person on a page will never become the sympathetic, living, breathing hero of the story if readers have no clear view of her heart and mind.

birdbybirdI turned to Anne Lamott’s BIRD BY BIRD for wisdom. It takes time for us to know our characters, she says. We should ask ourselves “what happens in their faces and to their posture when they are thinking, or bored, or afraid. …Why should we care about them anyway?” Further on she writes, “Squint at these characters in your mind, and then start to paint them for us.” She explains that they should have flaws, but they should also be likeable, or at least interesting–and they become interesting if they possess clarity of vision in surviving the struggles they face.

And my favorite paragraph: “A writer paradoxically seeks the truth and tells lies every step of the way. It’s a lie if you make something up. But you make it up in the name of truth, and then you give your heart to expressing it clearly. You make up your characters, partly from experience, partly out of the thin air of the subconscious, and you need to feel committed to telling the exact truth about them, even though you are making them up.”

So I’ve been trying the method acting approach: using my own life experiences and feelings to inform my characters. Yes, they suffer through situations and events that I will never face, but the emotions and motivations they feel, those universal human truths, are the same. The process is a basic free association exercise. I sit down with pen and paper and choose a scene to work on. I decide what emotions my main character would be feeling in that scenario and just start writing, no editing allowed. The results are liberating. Even though much of the writing will need heavy revision or may even be scrapped altogether, the emotional truth that spills out is new for me, and holds real promise. I think. I hope. Time will tell.

How do you bring your characters to life? Tell us what works for you!

__________________________________________________

May Arboretum 027Christine Hayes writes spooky stories for middle grade readers. Her debut novel, THE MOTHMAN’S CURSE, is due out spring 2015 with Roaring Brook Press/Macmillan. She is represented by Ammi-Joan Paquette of the Erin Murphy Literary Agency.

12 Comments

Filed under Advice - Helpful or Otherwise, Character Development, craft~writing

Not-So-Deadly Deadlines

I love deadlines. Usually.

“Ummm… that’s due TOMORROW??”

I have a confession. I’m a terrible procrastinator. (Well, actually I’m a fabulous procrastinator. Ask my husband. “Have you made those reservations yet?” he will ask me. *Gulp…)

In fact, as I write this, I have deadlines for three projects. All due tomorrow.

*Deep breath* I can do this.

A few years ago I decided the time had come to finally get my master’s degree. After considering many options, I decided to do a crazy thing. I would take a leap of faith and apply for Vermont College’s master’s program in Writing for Children and Young Adults. Not only would I be adding a suggested 25 hours of reading and writing per week on top of teaching full time and being a wife and mom, I would need to complete 20 packets of work during the two-year program, including new manuscripts every month.

Where was I going to get ideas for 20 packets worth of new stories?? Oh, if I were working on a novel, maybe. I could add a few new chapters a month. But I write picture books. That’s two to six new story ideas every month.

The first month was covered. I had a few manuscripts saved up that I could pull out and submit. (It was a good thing, too, as we ended up moving that first month to a new house after living 17 years on our farm.)

Then came the second month. Again, I had a few stories I could dust off, plus a brand new idea or two. The third month rolled around, and once more I had new ideas. Every time I would come down to a due date, the ideas were there. Every time I hit “Send” I was sure that the idea well was now dry. Yet the next month would come, and with it came more ideas.

How was this working? Did panic get the creative juices flowing? Did I have a cooperative muse? Was it the power of prayer?

Panic and prayer notwithstanding, I think the secret lies in having a deadline. Deadlines help me organize my priorities. I am the WORST in the summer when I don’t have to show up for work. Somehow, the morning slips by without anything getting done. But if I have a deadline, it bumps laundry, weeding, and checking my email to a lower place on my “To Do” list, and I actually end up with something to show for my time.

Deadlines make me accountable to someone besides myself who will be expecting results. Not just any results, but my best work. When I am accountable to a critique partner, my agent or an editor, I don’t want to disappoint them. They are expecting something good to land in their inbox, and I don’t want them to see shoddy work, or worse yet, an empty inbox.

Finally, regular deadlines make me develop the habit of writing. And while practice may never make me a perfect writer, it certainly helps me improve my craft. I know that unless I actually show up to do the work, any creative juices, chance muses or divine interventions will pass me by.

So if you’re facing a revision, in need of some inspiration, or working on a new story, having a deadline just might be a lifeline.

Congratulations to Melanie Fishbane, winner of a copy of Adi Rule’s STRANGE SWEET SONG!

8 Comments

Filed under Advice, Anxiety, craft~writing, Deadlines, Deadlines, Education, Faith, Panic, Time Management, Uncategorized, Writing, Writing and Life