We all know it. We know “writing” is about so many more tasks than sitting at your computer, or with a notebook, and writing actual words and sentences and paragraphs and pages of that 1st or 2nd or nth draft.

We know it logically.

Still, there’s something in many, if not all of us, that places judgment on those other tasks. It’s not even so much that we get caught up in word-count tallies, I don’t think. I think it’s that we (rightly) associate writing with creativity, and we associate creativity with the new and fresh things that come when our story and prose are on a roll. We don’t always remember that creativity is stepping back and taking a new look at the colors in your painting, the ones you put down on the canvas last week. We don’t always remember that creativity is tasting the soup or the cake batter and thinking about what spice is still missing.

And even when we remember, we sometimes let doubt override the knowledge.

We “should” at ourselves. You should be getting more pages done. You should be getting started on the next draft. You should be in the zone.

Yeah, well, really I should be getting the things done that need to be done. I should be acknowledging that writing, drafting, revisng—it’s is not just typing–it’s organizing, it’s reviewing, it’s questioning, it’s brainstorming, it’s shifting puzzle pieces around and seeing how the fit here…and here…and there. It’s getting back in touch with our story any way we can.

So here’s what I’m counting as “writing” for a while.

  • Getting all the chapters I’ve written into a binder.
  • Organizing and then reading through my critique groups feedback on all these chapters.
  • Adding as many bullets as I want to my Ginormous List of Things That Still Need to Go into This Story.
  • Reading posts like this one by Jennifer R. Hubbard and reminding myself that, if I’m sitting at the computer (or typewriter) with my hands on the keyboard, my brain is expecting me–even telling me–to write, to produce fresh words.
  • Going through my Ginormous List of…with the full manuscript in front of me and using colored pens and sticky notes to scribble things like “Stick brother in here!” and “Ooh! Good place for the big question!”
  • Experimenting with plotting and organizing tools–will it be Scrivener’s scene cards again, or do I want a timeline spreadsheet. Or both.

Yet again, I realize that the book I affectionately refer to as “the one that almost killed me” put a big dent in this understanding for me, an understanding I think I had before the almost killed part. So I need to renew my lessons, rebuild habits I lost somewhere for a while. And that renewal, I think, means reaquainting myself with all the non-writing writing acts.

And perhaps bringing flowers and chocolate to keep that silly “should” voice busy and quiet.

There were a couple of really fun conversations going on over at Facebook today. Erin Dionne shared a question from a class discussion she was having: Whose story is Charlotte’s Web? There were several opinions!

Then Melissa Wyatt (and several other people) posted a link to a Bustle article about people’s first literary crushes, and that got a few of us talking about who was not on the list.

Anyway, I jumped in with my two cents (Wilbur’s! Calvin O’Keefe!) a few times, then got back to work.

But the fun has stuck with me. So tonight, right here, I’m putting up a Tiny Virtual Book Club post. I say “tiny,” because for all I know, it’ll just be me. And maybe you. But probably we won’t break any fire codes with the crowds. And whether I do this again, with another book? Who knows, we’ll see, making no commitments and applying no pressure.

Tonight, we’re going to talk about one of my favorites, a book I consider perfect for what it sets out to do and what it accomplishes. We’re going to talk about Ruth Stiles Gannett’s My Father’s Dragon, illustrated by Ruth Chrisman Gannett.

!!!dragon

You haven’t read it yet? Well, that’s okay. Go pick yourself up a copy. We’ll wait…

Now, this is not a book review, and lucky for you, because it would be such a gushy one, you’d need a heap of tissues just to mop up after me. I should mention, also, that I have never succeeded in participating in a non-virtual book club, so this may not become a book discussion either. But you never know, so here we go: Questions for discussion. Place your thoughts in the comments. And if there are more than one of you, take a look at the other comment(s) and drop in a reply.

  • Why do you think Ruth Stiles Gannett used Elmer Elevator’s son as a first-person frame narrator?
  • What story elements does Stiles Gannett use to keep the young reader engaged until we get to the island?
  • Once we get to the island, the chapters become more episodic. Why do you think Stiles Gannett chose that structure? What effect do you think the structure might have had on the young reader?
  • Can you think of any books published in the past 5-10 years that you would liken to My Father’s Dragon? Think about the structure and the length and the balance of language level with story complexity. Or do you think Stiles Gannett’s book is a “genre” of the past only?
  • What happened to the cat? (You may have to use your imagination on this one!

There you go. Don’t be shy–jump on in. Not sure yet if I’ll simply comment with my own take on these questions (yes, obviously I have a take on the questions), or whether I’ll wait and respond as comments (possibly) come along from others. But you’ll hear from me one way or another.

Enjoy!

Over the end-of-year break, I decided to jump ahead a bit and start plotting the next draft of my middle-grade magical realism novel. Usually, I really want to write to the end, but I had realized that the ending chapters from my first draft were really as complete as I could make them, at this point. And I had lots of ideas about what to change/add in the beginning and middle that I wanted to start getting down on paper.

So I sent the final chapters to my critique group, and I started work in a plotting spreadsheet. Mostly, right then, I was just trying to get the important scenes down with some general notes & thoughts. And I wanted to hear what my critique group said about the ending.

The good news: They liked it. They had lots of thoughts & suggestions (because they’re Super Critiquers), but they were totally on board with the main direction. So, yay!

And the not-so-good news isn’t really not-so-good. It’s just my internal doubt machine saying, sure, yeah, the ending works, but do you really know how to get there yet? Do I have ideas? Oh, I have ideas! I have ideas out the wazoo! Some of them are on sticky notes attached to the previous draft. Some of them are in the spreadsheet I started. A couple of the really important ones are on even bigger sticky notes stuck to my monitor. And some of them–a whole lot of them–are bopping around in my brain. I can tell you about the themes. I can tell you about each character’s big problem, including all the secondary characters. I can tell you ways those problems will interact with my hero’s big problem. I can even, finally, tell you about a few of the bad things I’ve come up with for my hero to do.

But can I see how it all goes together, seamlessly, beautifully, into that novel I want to write, that novel I want kids to read?

Not yet.

When I expressed this at my critique group, one of my friends told me this means I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be. Where I feel like I know too much, even if that feeling comes with not knowing what to do with it all. I think she’s probably right. I think I’d be saying the same thing to her if she was at this stage. For all I know, I have said it!

I’m totally excited about the Middle Grade Intensive I’m attending this weekend, in Oakland. I’m really happy it’s a one-day event, on a Saturday, because I plan to drink lots of coffee on Sunday and get myself to my desk and absorb what I’ve learned. And then…all those ideas pin-balling inside my mind?

I’ll see what I can do with them.

 

This Xmas, I asked for and got three pictures books–three of my favorites that I’d read in the past year. (Thanks, Kathy!) Typically, I get picture books at the library–I go grab a stack, bring them home, read them, and see if there’s anything I can learn from the ones I like. Then, back they go.

And, of course, when I buy one as a gift, I carefully and delicately read it first.

But my actual at-home collection isn’t huge. It is made up of those I love, just because I love them, and those I love that also have some craft element done so beautifully I want them in my study-to-learn pile.

So this year, I decided it was time to add to that pile. And to share a little bit about each one with you.

Sophie’s Squash by Pat Zietlow Miller, illustrated by Anne Wildorf

I’ve bought Sophie’s Squash for several young friends, because I just love this book. Sophie is, if not my all-time favorite picture-book hero, definitely in the top 10. She is stubborn, but not in a nose-in-the-air, la-la-la, I’m-not-listening kind of way. She simply knows what is going on with Bernice (her squash), knows what she wants for Bernice, and knows what she should do to get it. And she does, calmly and peacefully and happily. Even the one time she asks for help from someone other than herself, she responds positively because their suggestion resonates with things already deeply within her own self, not because the idea rings totally new and revolutionary.  And, wonderfully, Zietlow Miller has given Sophie parents who trust and respect Sophie’s sense of self, her personal strength. They are not enemies, not even obstacles. They are grown-ups with some different views than Sophie, as well as some extra experience and knowledge, but they nudge a bit and then stand back and let Sophie find her course. I love them all. The art is also fantastic. It’s obvious Anne Wildorf “got” Sophie, because the pigtails? They are SO Sophie!

Those are my reader responses. As a writer, I’ll be going back to Sophie’s Squash for lots of learning. Zietlow Miller’s dialogue is brilliant–she does so much, with so few words. I love this interchange between Sophie and her mother, after Sophie has lost her temper, just a little bit, with a boy at the library who calls  Bernice a “spotty thing.”

“‘Maybe Bernice should stay home next time,’ Sophie’s mom
suggested.

‘Why?’ Sophie asked. ‘She wasn’t the one being rude.'”

Perfect.

Sparky! by Jenny Offill, illustrated by Chris Appelhans

My one-word review for this book would simply be: <3

Okay, I’ll give you a little bit more. The sweetness of this story is beyond belief. The hero of the story, an unusual and wonderfully done first-person “I,” researches the only kind of pet her mother will let her have: one that “doesn’t need to be walked or bathed or fed.” And so, of course, she gets Sparky. A sloth.

First, let me say that I think Chris Appelhans must live with a sloth. Or several. Or have spent weeks and weeks studying them at a zoo. Because his art is not only absolutely beautiful but completley and gorgeously catches Sparky’s slothdom in all its not-moving-ness.

When I read this book again, just after Xmas, I was struck by something. And that is, as far as I can tell, the hero doesn’t actually win any of her battles. She seems extremely content with Sparky as her own pet, but there is judgment from outside, and that judgment is much more critical than, say, Sophie’s parents in Sophie’s Squash. And the hero does step out of her own, everything-is-okay-in-here space, to try and prove to the hater (one Mary Potts, who pretty much succeeds at everything and brags about it) that she is wrong. And, despite our hero’s attempts, Mary goes away unconvinced that Sparky succeeds at anything.

And I don’t see any huge moment of revelation for the hero at the end of the story. Any learning she does, over the course of her journey, isn’t obvious and certainly isn’t loud. I think what we end up (no spoilers) with is a very quiet, almost still, return to just our  hero and Sparky and what they have together. And I think that’s enough. Both for them and for the reader.

I want to go back to this book again (and probably again and again) and take a closer look at the storyline and the characters and see if I’m write about what the author, and very much the illustrator, have done here. And I want to go back again and again just to immerse myself in the love that is at the heart of the whole book.

Stuck by Oliver Jeffers

Product Details

This book was the first one I discovered by Oliver Jeffers, and–as usual–I was filled with awe (and, yes, a little jealousy) at the ability of anyone to write and illustrate this wonderfully. I bought this for the son of a friend, because I could just hear the little boy laughing and laughing at the story. It’s still my favorite of Jeffers’ books that I’ve read, and I still keep buying it for kids whenever I can find it.

And I finally have my own copy!

This book is simply silly. In the best, best way. The basic plot is that Floyd gets his kite stuck in a tree and then tried, for page after page after page, to get the kite out of the tree. By throwing things at it. Ridiculous things, none of which I’m going to mention, because any item would be a spoiler. The fun and goofiness of the story comes in watching what Floyd runs for next and of seeing it land in the tree and get….yes, stuck.

Plot? I’m not sure there is much of it, but it’s one thing I’m going to go back and study. Yes, there’s one action that creates a resolution, and there are a few adorable and even sillier twists along the way. And Floyd’s facial expressions–watch for when Jeffers adds that one extra line that shows the tiniest bit of extra surprise or frustration. At the Charles M. Schulz museum (a don’t-miss if you’re ever in or near Santa Rosa, California), you can look into the recreated studio and watch a video of Schulz’ hand drawing a character (Charlie Brown, I think). His pen flicks a line here and a line there and one more there, and all of a sudden you see not only the character, but a clear and complete emotion as well. I think Jeffers must have drawn Floyd like this–two or three lines and there he is, fully manifested on the page. Again…awe.

So I’m not sure yet what I’ll learn from this book, when I go back to it. I think, for now, it may be an example of when (and how) to break some rules. To step out of the pattern of threes, to not worry too much about bringing in different obstacles, to let humor override the need for increasing tension. We’ll see. One thing I’m sure of, I’m not going to tire of reading this book to myself, or of bringing it out to share with any visiting young readers.

 

I’m actually pretty excited about 2016. Why? I don’t know! And, possibly for the first time in my life, I’m looking forward to that…to not knowing.

Yeah, weird.

Of course, I have some plans for the regular, day-to-day stuff. Still loving my job, and still loving the WIPs I’m working on. I’ll keep heading into work and writing my grant proposals and crossing my fingers until we hear about them. I’ll keep making progress on the MG magical realism story–I’m getting started on the 3rd draft plotting already this week. And I’ll revise picture books and most likely write some new ones. Beyond that? I think it’s going to be a surprise.

In November, I read Suzanne Braun Levine’s Inventing the Rest of our Lives: Women in Second AdulthoodIf you were following my posts on Facebook, you know the book struck some major chords with me. Levine (no relation, as far as I know, but there are a lot of us!) tells the stories of woman after woman who felt/feels the way I’ve been feeling this year, which pretty much comes down to one question: What next?

Quick caveat: I know that it’s not just women who go through this. My husband and I have had and are having many conversations in which we both wonder about that question and not just about my life. But Levine concentrated on women in her book and, to quote Ms. Reddy, I am Woman, so that’s the persepective I’m going with for now.

For the past year, I’ve been feeling as though my antennae are out, doing an Uncle-Martin (Ray Walston, not Christopher Lloyd) scan for the next big thing on my Life’s To Do list. I’ve been incredibly lucky in the last many years–I found the partner I wanted, we found our house together, and we raised a son we love who is moving forward with health and happiness.

Believe me, I am very aware that the same Life for which I have a list could strike my luck with a big, old lightening bolt at any second. But for now, the good place is where I am, and if I have learned anything in the past decade, it’s to (try to) live in that place, not in the possible lightening-bolts place.

Anyway, I have checked off all the items that I placed on my list, lo those many years ago. And now, where the next item(s) can go, there’s a big old blank spot.

Oh, don’t think I didn’t spend a few months trying to “grasp” at something new, feeling like I should turn on my laser-pointer and ZING!…identify and target the new goal. Whatever that was supposed to be. I’m not that good yet.

Luckily, the mindfulness I’ve been working on has a pretty hefty kick to it, and in some moment when I must have been actually listening, I heard: STOP IT! And I realized I was looking at some of this backward. Sure, this is the first moment in many, many years, when I haven’t had a specific goal, something I needed to make sure happened and happened successfully. But it’s also, O.M.G, the first time in many, many years WHEN I HAVEN’T HAD A SPECIFIC GOAL, SOMETHING I NEEDED TO MAKE SURE HAPPENED AND HAPPENED SUCCESSFULLY. Maybe I should sit back and enjoy that for a while. You think?

Levine (the other one) talks about this stage as a “fertile void,” with all the possibilities and all the fear that implies. She spoke with woman after woman who, when they reached this age or this place, for reasons good and bad, thought they would just “go back” to the woman they were in their first adulthood. They thought they would pick up the things that, for another whole set of reasons, they’d dropped back there.

Guess what they found out? They didn’t want to. If Levine has a mantra in the book, it is her assertion that we are not simply who we were before, only older. Yes, that statement takes some parsing, but once you get there, you’ll see that it is perfectly worded. Because why would we be? And, me, personally, I say: Thank goodness I’m not.

Besides, honestly, I can’t even remember what things I was doing in my first adulthood. Yes, of course, one was my writing. And I have kept that going, and I will always keep that going, and it has its own stages and styles and discoveries. But, for me, it’s not new. Because it has always been here for me (since I was at least 12), it doesn’t answer the question: What next?

Right now, I still have only one answer to that question: I don’t know. How can I know, when I’m still figuring out who I, in this second adulthood, am? Or who I’m becoming? And I’m holding onto Levine’s idea that this void will actually be fertile. I’m looking forward to the magical surprises that are coming my way.

Many authors pick a word for their year. In 2016, as I try to stay mindful to what is going on around me, I’ll be paying attention to my reactions and responses. I want to know what attracts me and what I’d rather push away. I don’t want to make any choices yet. My word for 2016 will be Listen. I’ll be listening to, and for, myself.

Happy New Year, and may the best of all possibilities come your way!

“Petulant.”

That’s the word that has been coming out of the mouths of my critique partners lately. No, not about me, although I’m sure there are times they’ve been tempted. But it’s Charlie, my hero, about whom they’ve been using it. The hero of my MG novel. Charlie’s “petulant.” He pouts. He kind of makes it all about him.

This is so not what you want to hear about your hero.

Except, you know, it is, because if you don’t hear it, you can’t do anything about it. The writer’s critique mantra, right?

So I heard it, and I listened, and I’ve been thinking. And, mostly, honestly, what I’ve been thinking is, “stupid voice.” As a reader, I love voice. Voice puts the magic into a book for me–you can give me a great plot, you can give me funny dialogue, you can give me characters I care about who have something to lose. And I’ll love you for all of them. But voice…you will woo me and never lose me with a strong, distinct, gorgeous voice.

As a writer, I struggle with it. Over and over and over. Not so much on my picture books, or maybe I just haven’t recognized that struggle yet, but in my novels, oh, yeah. When I get it to work (when other people say, “I love the voice,”), I couldn’t tell you what I’ve done to get there. Which is only the littlest bit frustrating.

But I keep trying. So I heard “petulant.” And I tried to get myself to think beyond “stupid voice.” I thought about the MG books I love that do have great voices, and I thought about how those authors succeed at pulling me into their heroes’ thoughts and feelings without letting those heroes whine. I got close to sitting down again with The Wednesay Wars and Okay for Now (never a chore!) and seeing if I could figure out how Gary D. Schmidt does it.

And then I realized that the plan I was contemplating was actually to sit down and plot a few scenes of Schmidt’s. Plot? But I was struggling with voice. Why was I thinking about plot? I’m still not sure when/why my brain made that leap, and I’m still not sure it was the leap I needed it to make. But I realized I was thinking about all the things Schmidt packs into one scene, all the actions that provoke and evoke his hero’s thoughts and emotions. And I was thinking about how many more things Schmidt put into any one scene than I’ve been doing.

Am I just spending too much time in Charlie’s mind? Am I giving him so much time that his voice is getting taken over by the “me, me, me” of his problems? I wasn’t sure. I’m still not sure. But I was and am sure that I haven’t been making enough happen. I haven’t been getting Charlie to do enough.

So today I sat down to write a scene where Charlie doesn’t think. Or at least not much. I told myself to back way from the voice I’d been trying to get to–what I envision as a quiet voice, the voice of a thinker. I told myself that, if I saw Charlie heading too far down the thinking path (and today’s definition of “too far” was one step), that I had to give him something to do. I told myself to make things happen, to make Charlie act and react, and to see where the voice fell.

I think I got further away from petulant. I don’t think Charlie pouted much. Maybe. I know I got to a moment when I didn’t have enough that was going to happen, and I made something more happen. And I didn’t give Charlie time to do much thinking. I’ll see what my critique group thinks.

Did I hit a better voice? Did I hit any voice at all? If I knew that, I could give you the answer to life, the universe, and everything. (Yes, I know: 42!)

The story in my family goes like this: When my big sister was learning to read, she would come home in the afternoon, and she would play school with me. So at the same time as she was learning to read, she was teaching me. I’m sure that story, like most family stories, has some truth and some myth to it. All I know for sure is that I don’t remember a time when I couldn’t read. Or when I wasn’t reading.

I complained in second grade about not liking school, and I told my mom I didn’t like the reading time. Since that made absolutely no sense, my mom talked to the teacher and found out the class was doing out-loud reading together, and we weren’t supposed to read ahead. The teacher was a good one, and guess what–I got to read ahead. I kept reading. I became an English major in college, because there wasn’t anything I was going to do for four years straight except read novels. I had a bit of a scare in grad school when I hit burn out on Victorian novels, but I switched to mysteries and just kept adding to the piles of books on my shelves and the piles of words and sentences and paragraphs and plots in my brain. And throughout the years, I kept reading my old children’s books and eventually added the stories I found while my son was growing up. My entire family reads gobs, but there’s a reason why, some years ago, my sister gave me a copy of Sarah Stewart and David Small’s The Library, and it’s not just because Elizabeth Brown and I both have frizzy hair and glasses.

Do I have a point? Yes. I’m pretty sure it’s all those years of reading and reading and reading that have helped me be a good editor and critiquer.  I think you could talk to most editors and agents and librarians and booksellers (and, yes, writers, but I’m getting to that part of the connection in a minute), and they would agree. Words have patterns, books have patterns, and all those patterns carve little grooves of understanding and recognition in our brains. So when I am critiquing, and the pattern isn’t there or it’s flawed or off-center, I can see that. Or feel it, maybe. A little alarm goes off. And I make my note in the margin, and I write a deeper, more full explanation in the overall critique, and I keep reading and watching for how the patterns are doing. It’s nice, it’s why I like doing this kind of work, and it’s a happy feeling to be good at something, right?

Cue fingernails-on-the-chalkboard screech as I shift jarringly away from talking about reading skills to talking about writing skills. When just understanding and seeing the patterns aren’t enough. I’ve been working on a picture book for a while now, one that was pretty good to start, but not good enough, and on which I’ve slowly been inching closer and closer to getting it right. I got an agent critique on it at a conference, and my critique group has seen it several times, and I’ve had a couple of other strong readers share their thoughts. And everybody is saying the same thing–the balance between scenes is off, and the stakes aren’t high enough. Okay–that all meshes with my own feelings, the ones that come from those reader grooves in my brain. But I still hadn’t figured what to fix or how.

Because that’s the writing part. Now I’ve also written for a long time–I’ve mentioned before that when I about twelve, I fell in love with Phyllis A Whitney’s teen mysteries, and that’s when I decided I wanted to do what she did. And I’ve been writing since. Now, as I get older, the gap between four years old and twelve years old gets proportionally much smaller. But the hours I’ve put into writing still don’t come close to the hours I’ve put into reading. Thought, yes; learning, yes; I’ve taken it seriously and I’ve worked hard at it, but there is just no way that the writing grooves are as deep as the reading ones. (Cue sci-fi movie idea where we can order the grooves we want from a shopping site and have them instantly implanted in our brains!) So while I can, even with my own stories, get that recognition of the flawed pattern, it’s another, very different thing to know how to fix the flaw. Which is why, yes, it’s called work!

Yesterday, puttering around the house, I barely realized I was thinking about the picture book, and suddenly–there it was, the fix for the flaw. Not an alarm, this time, but a lovely little inner chime. I knew exactly what the stakes were, and I knew they were high enough, and I knew they fit perfectly with the story. I also saw what I needed to do to shift the balance so that it was right and solid. I could have written my own critique and explained it clearly and concisely to myself, and then I could have put my pen down and gone away.

Except it’s my story. Which means I have to do more than point out a solution; I have to write it. In actual words and sentences. I have to create the actions and the tools, and I have to find a way to insert them smoothly into pages that, while not finished, do already have a certain flow and pacing going for them. Am I nervous about whether I can do this? Am I worried that I’ll chop something decent into something worse? Well, sure. But the ideas have been coming–I emailed myself notes at about 3:00 this morning, and I sent some more before I got on the treadmill for some exercise. And, after I put up this blog post, I’m going to stay put at the computer and do just enough research to get a few more ideas. And then I’m going to start placing the pieces. And with every hour I spend on this, I’ll know I’m digging the writing grooves deeper and deeper.

And that can only be a good thing.

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