Playing with Wonder

Kristi Wright posted this blog entry at KidLitCraft a few weeks ago, and the idea of wonder has apparently been simmering in my brain since then.

I’m going back to a picture book idea I had just begun to play with in December, when I went to the Big Sur Writing Workshop. During the revise or write time, I let myself start a first draft. When I went back to it this weekend, a bit of wonder rose to the surface. The story seems to want to go that way, so I’ll be looking back at Kristi’s ideas and seeing what resonates.

Thought I would also share it here, since we can all use a little wonder in our lives.

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Finding Balance (In Picture Books)

Rhyming in a picture book is one thing–and, so far anyway, it’s definitely one thing I can’t do. (If you want to read a few books by authors who can, I suggest pretty much anything by Sue Fliess; Interstellar Cinderellawritten by Deborah Underwood; and Cheerful Chickwritten by Martha Brokenbrough,) There’s also rhythm which, I think, is made up of word and sentence patterns, emphases, inflections, etc. that you hear (or don’t hear) when you read a picture book out loud. Take a look at In a Blue Room, written by Jim Averbeck (the rhythm is almost musical) and Sparky!written by Jenny Offill (I think the rhythm of the longer sentences broken up by the shorter ones mirrors the differences in personal rhythm between the girl and her sloth).

And then there’s balance. I’ve been thinking about this a lot, and I still don’t know how to explain it. It has to do with plot and structure. It has to do with how the story develops. It has to do with repetition. But, most of all, I think, it has to do with how the author distributes weight across…oh, across the pieces you would label “stanza” and “scene” in other genres. When the weight is distributed evenly, the story works. It flows.

Balance is actually easier to identify by its absence–that little bump you hit when the you read a sentence or a scene, and it isn’t quite delivered in the way your brain was expecting. author uses a set of three plot points, but one is two long sentences, the next is a half-dozen shorter ones, and the third is a single word with an exclamation point at the end. (Yes, I’m exaggerating–I told you it was hard to explain.)  For me, it manifests mostly as a moment of, “Huh?”

For some examples of balance done well, look at Sophie’s Squash, written by Pat Zietlow MillerBike On, Bear, written by Cynthea Liu, and Children Make Terrible Pets, by Peter Brown. Maybe after you read them, you’ll be able to define it.

Whatever it is, it seems to be the foundation I need when I’m writing or revising a picture book. Do I always build it early on? Of course not. Do I have anything close to it for several revisions. Rarely. But once I have some kind of draft–whether first or fourteenth, I can feel when and where the balance is off. And that’s often where I start the next draft, trying to pull that spot back into balance with the rest of the story. Or if I love that spot, try to pull the other stuff into balance with it. The best way I can describe it is–it feels like when you think you have the right puzzle piece of blue to fit into the empty spot of sky, but–when you go to press it in–it doesn’t quite fit. So you have to go off and hunt through all the other blue pieces.

I hate that when I’m working on a puzzle. Luckily for me, I love it when I’m writing.

If you want to see other posts by me about picture books, and some great craft posts about middle grade and young adult books, you can pop over to KidLitCraft. I’ll be blogging here and there, on an occasional basis.

Sunshine

The rain hasn’t completely stopped, but we are on Day Two of at least four days of sunshine, and I am wallowing in it. Normally, I consider myself a cool temps and misty grey type of person, but this winter–for whatever gazillion reasons–got to me. Today, I’m in  my office, wearing shorts, looking out the window at blue skies, and being happy. I’m getting ready to revise another blog post, and I’m going for a town stroll with my husband a little later.

I even swept off the treadmill and promised it I’d actually turn it on Monday morning.

I’m sneezing, my nose is running, and my eyes itch. Still, this year, I’m spreading my arms wide and welcoming in Spring with gratitude.

Daffies

Check out MG & PB Posts at KidLit Craft (YA Coming Soon)

I have done a bit of blogging over at the KidLit Craft website, back when they were MG Lunch Break and talking mostly about middle-grade books. Now they’re expanding their craft exploration to include picture books, with YA on the way.

My first picture-book post is up today. Take a look!

Alan Gratz’ BAN THIS BOOK: The Journey of a Quiet Hero

Before I plunged myself so deeply into picture books, I was struggling with a middle grade book in which the hero was too quiet, too passive. There was a big disconnect between the “flavor” of the boy in my mind and the actions I was trying to make him do on the page. In part, this was definitely my difficulty with writing character-driven plots, but it was also that I could never figure out what this quiet, gentle boy would actually do to make trouble.

Recently, I read Alan Gratz’ Ban This Book. The hero in Ban This Book, Amy Anne Ollinger, wants nothing more than to curl up with a book whenever and wherever she possibly can. She speaks, but never the words (the truth) that she is thinking. That is, not until she finds out that her favorite book has been “removed from” the school library.

Three you have it: The inciting incident. Does Amy Anne jump right over the threshold, leaving the ordinary world behind her without a thought? Of course not. There has to be a push-pull at the threshold and, for Amy Anne, there is no question that her first answer to the call will be to refuse it.

But I’m getting ahead of myself (and of Amy Anne). Ban This Book is the perfect journey for a quiet, passive hero. I spent three hours last weekend breaking down that journey (and, frankly, the whole plot). I’ve got the chart stashed for when I head back to my own book, but I want to do a blog post that identifies and describes the fundamental steps Amy Anne takes on her hero’s journey. (Or that does this as well as I could!)

Heads up: the post is going to be a REALLY long one, so I’m not going to put in examples—but, hey, you can go get the book and read it for yourself! Oh, also, there will be spoilers, so you may actually want to read the book first, then come back here. (Or, you know, just read the book and enjoy it!)

Anyway, for those of you who might actually want several pages of craft analysis, here we go.

The Ordinary World (1): As I said above, Amy Anne’s ordinary world is one in which she thinks one thing and speaks another. And the words she does speak are never the truth.

Gratz starts by showing us this world at Amy Anne’s school. We see Amy Anne hide what she is thinking right in Chapter 1, rather than tell her friend, Rebecca, that she isn’t interested in the story of Morgan Freeman law suit over a domain name. She lies that she has to return her library books and escapes.

The Inciting Incident: Mrs. Spencer, one of the mothers at the school, complains about some books, including Amy Anne’s favorite, and the school board tells the librarian, Mrs. Jones, that she has to take them off the shelves. One of the books is From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, Amy Anne’s favorite.

The Call to Adventure: Mrs. Jones asks Amy Anne to come to the school board meeting and speak about why she loves The Mixed-up Files. Obviously, Amy Anne doesn’t want to stand up in front of a bunch of people and talk. But she can’t explain why to Mrs. Jones. All she can get out is, “Okay.”

The Ordinary World (2): Up until the book banning, it’s relatively easy for Amy Anne to stay quiet at school. Rebecca is her only friend, and Rebecca likes to hear herself talk. In Amy Anne’s home, though, things are different. And harder. Her parents are both busy people, and Amy Anne has two younger sisters who are really good at saying what they want—loudly and with tantrums. She has pretty much given up speaking truth at home—other than some under-her-breath muttering and the occasional explosion. As the story progresses, the muttering gets louder and the explosions more frequent.

Refusing the Call: In a beautiful one-step forward, two steps back pattern, Amy Anne manages to say that she needs a ride to the board meeting and to push hard enough that her dad makes time to take her. But Amy Anne can’t make herself stand up at the meeting, let alone say a single world. And on the way home, when her dad’s irritation at the “wasted” time upsets her, he stops at the bookstore and buys Amy Anne her own copy of The Mixed-up Files. She can now back even further away from speaking—she can bury herself in her book and bury the truth (from herself) that the library copy is still banned.

Threshold: Amy Anne’s crossing of the threshold is about as far as is possible from Dorothy’s tornado or even Bilbo’s running out of the house without a handkerchief. The crossing happens at school, because—sadly, but very realistically—allies come to her side more quickly there than they do at home. And she crosses so gently, so quietly, that nobody—least of all Amy Anne—recognizes the step she has taken. She tells Rebecca about The Mixed-up Files, and Rebecca asks if she can read it. Again, Amy Anne gets out only a single word—another, “Okay.” This okay, though, sets off a chain of book loans and book borrowings that gradually and eventually builds up as much force as that boulder in the first Indiana Jones movie—the one that pretty much destroys the temple. Watch out school board. Watch out, Mrs. Spencer.

Allies and Enemies: As we step into the middle of the book, the beauty of what Alan Gratz is doing becomes clear. As the kids in the school find out about the books being banned and the books being shared around, they want in. Through a combination of friendship and pure book love, Amy Anne becomes the surprised leader of an underground library—she keeps stacks of books in her locker, tracks who checks out each book and who is waiting for it, and posts secret signs so the other kids can see what’s available.

An Underground Library.

Could there be a better way for a quiet, passive hero to come into her power? Book requests are made through notes passed in class, and book exchanges are made in whispers at Amy Anne’s locker. Her words have to stay few to keep hidden what she is doing, but they have to speak truth—otherwise, nobody will be able to check out the books. And what Amy Anne is learning is that not only does she love books, but she wants others to have the opportunity to love them. The board is still controlling Mrs. Jones, but they can’t control Amy Anne.

Well, not for a while. Amy Anne doesn’t just have allies, of course; she also has enemies—Mrs. Spencer, the Board, and Principal Banazewski. Amy Anne takes bigger and bigger risks (The Approach to the Innermost Cave, she gets caught, and she is suspended (The Crisis). Amy Anne, the girl who has always been so quiet that she was barely seen, has to leave school for three days.

The Innermost Cave: Amy Anne has probably spoken to more kids in the past weeks than she has in her entire school career. She has spoken out to the principal and, more than usual, to her parents. And she has been making a pretty loud statement with her library. However, during the suspension, she retreats back into silence. She thinks plenty, probably more than at the start of the book, but she says none of it out loud. Despite her parents (finally!) being ready to listen, Amy Anne can barely get any words out, let alone the ones she needs to express the injustice, anger, and fear she is feeling. And then, just before she heads back to school, she finds out that that Mrs. Jones has been fired. That innermost cave is dark.

Reward: What’s waiting for Amy-Anne when she comes back? A locker that isn’t empty (as she expected), but is instead filled with notes from the other students. Amy Anne’s words have built the friendships that will support her through the last pieces of her journey. These friendships are the talisman that she can now carry with her to fix the world.

Refusal of the Return: But not yet. The kids welcome her back, with the expectation that she will once again step into her leadership role—that she will have a plan to get Mrs. Jones re-hired and to get all the books back on the library shelves. She wants to tell them that’s not possible and to demand why they think she knows how to do this. But she only says, “I—I don’t know.” Back to quiet, back to the opposite of action. But, now, the words she does manage to speak are the truth.

The Road Back: With help from her friends, and from the two boys who were “enemies,” Amy Anne figures out what to do. Mrs. Spencer has bypassed the process for determining whether a book should be removed from the shelves—she has not completed a single Request for Reconsideration form. Amy Anne and her friends decide to fill out a form for every book in the library and to take the forms to the next board meeting. By requesting that every book in the library be banned, they will show how arbitrary and unfair Mrs. Spencer’s demands have been. They fill out 500 forms. In secret, of course.

Climax: And then Amy Anne’s littlest sister shreds every one of those forms. (She is playing at being a pony, and she needs fresh hay.) The forms are gone, all the kids’ works is destroyed, and the board meeting is the next evening.

Resurrection:Finally (after the biggest explosion of all), Amy Anne talks to her parents. She explains enough that her mom prints out 1,000 more forms. And then Amy Anne (in homage to her hero, Claudia, in The Mixed-up Files) runs away. All the way to the girls’ bathroom at school. She and Rebecca hide out in the bathroom all the next day, while student after student comes in to get forms to fill out. The first forms were filled out by Amy Anne and her friends. Now the whole school gets in on it—the underground movement has spread to every grade. More forms are copied; more forms are completed. Rebecca even gets to use her legal skills on Principal Banazewski. and by the end of the day, Amy Anne’s team has thousands of forms to take to the board meeting.

Return with the Elixir: The forms are the elixir, right? No, they aren’t. The elixir is the self-confidence that Amy Anne has built over the whole story—the self-confidence that lets her talk at the second board meeting. All the eloquence we have seen in her thoughts come out in the speech she gives. And, because she has always known how to read deeply, Amy Anne has the weapon she needs to stop any last arguments Mrs. Spencer might have. That weapon is a piece of truth (NOT spoiling this one) that Amy Anne has kept completely to herself, even hiding it from the reader. She mixes it with a bit of kindness, and Mrs. Spencer’s banning is done.

This is Amy Anne fixing the ordinary world of her school. Gratz’ circles back to the ordinary world of her home, as well, but—again—this is a spoiler I’m not sharing. You still have to read the book!

Lucky you. From another author, this book could have been a simple paean to reading and an argument against book banning. And I would have read it and liked it, because, hey: me + books = <3. But with Alan Gratz’ craft¸ it is the story of a girl who comes out of the tight, little box of a world she has been living in and finds the strength and skills to build herself a world that is expansive and happy. And she does it all with tiny, tentative steps and a quiet determination that surprises everyone—herself most of all.

What Feels Different about StoryStorm this Year

Well, first of all, the name is different. The last time I participated and went for my 30 ideas in 30 days, it was called PiBoIdMo. It was in November, too, which is a crazy month to try and get ANYTHING done–so happy Tara Lazar moved us all over to January.

Other things feel different this year. I know we are only on Day 3, and I know by the end of the month, I will be scrabbling for and accepting ANY “idea” to add to my notebook. Still, here’s what’s going on for me so far:

  • I’m committing morning time to actually thinking about ideas. I wake up pretty early, and instead of playing around online or giving myself some extra reading time, I’m idea-hunting.
  • I’m not just reading the blog posts and commenting; I’m USING the suggestions in the blog posts. And they are working. Not instantly, not without some stick-to-it effort, but by the time I head off to the day job, I’ve had at least one idea.
  • My ideas are better. Not better like, oh, wow, THIS will get me an agent or better like, THIS will get me past every craft challenge I have ever had. Better in the sense that I can see an actual story…I can see a want, I can imagine a basic structure of threes, and I have a glimpse of the first (of many, I know) ending and premise to try out. I have five ideas so far. Three of those are stories I actually want to write. One of them I already turned into a first draft. (Another one terrifies me–so, you know, balance.)

Some of you are saying right now, well, duh. Of course the first two differences are adding up to the third difference. And, in part, you’re right.

But I think it’s also the work I have done since I last participated–the writing and revising and reading and learning. If we talk about having a bucket for each idea to fall into, a bucket with some size and shape and functionality to it, then I have built myself a much stronger, much more sturdily made bucket.

Like I said, if course it’s going to get harder. Of course, at the end of the month, I won’t be excited about writing 3/5 of all my ideas. But…it still feels like a huge difference. And it feels like another reminder of where we can go if we keep putting in the time–baby steps or giant steps, I don’t think it really matters. We just need to take steps.

And if you needed another reminder of what we can accomplish, look what is happening today. THIS is where our steps together have taken the country.

Welcome to 2019.

My Word for 2019 is “Stretch”

Ever since I started doing this–thanks to Jo Knowles and Erin Dionne, I’ve liked the idea of picking a word for the coming year (as opposed to making resolutions, which I never liked and never kept). I skipped last year–not sure why; maybe the world was too wobbly, maybe I was foggy on where I wanted to put my focus, maybe my own life was too chaotic. This year, for whatever reason, I feel like I’m standing on a stronger foundation, and I can look ahead and think about who and how I might want to “be” in the next set of months.

So I’m picking “stretch.” I wasn’t sure at first, and I’ve played with various synonyms in my head, but this one kept coming back and saying, “Yes. Me.” Now that my feet feel more solidly planted (and not JUST because my tree pose is getting better), I am looking around and saying, okay…what are you going to build on top of that solidity? And I’m coming up with some responses.

Writing

Last year, at this time, I was drowning in yet another tangled MG manuscript and looking at my picture-book writing as a break or a distraction from the mess. This year, I am happily putting aside the MG work and coming down hard on the side of picture books. I’ll be querying agents, tentatively on my schedule for the second quarter of 2019. I’m shooting to write four new picture books as well–my goal is to go back to Big Sur next December with all new manuscripts for critique. I just registered for Tara Lazar’s 2019 StoryStorm. I’ve signed up for a four-series webinar on picture books, hosted by SCBWI Inland Northwest. All my craft work this year will be focused on improving my writing in this genre.

Health

Over the last few years, I have felt like I had zero control over my health, my fitness, and–frankly–my clothing size. In 2018, to save my mental health, I essentially took a year off on thinking about or trying to change my physical condition. It was probably the best thing I could have done for myself–nothing much changed physically (not for the better, but also not for the worse), and I cleared my head of a lot of psychological crud. This year, I feel like maybe I can stretch into a safer, saner way of getting healthier. I am going to keep up with the simple, baby-steps strengthening and flexibility work I’ve been doing at home–I’m not adding time, I’m not adding exercises, and I am for sure not adding a gym.

The stretch for me here is that I’m going to do my best to eat (rationally) low-carb, look into what it means to also eat low/anti-histamine, and reduce my portion sizes. I am going nowhere near a scale; in fact, I’m telling nurses and doctors not to say my weight out loud when I’m in their office. I do have a goal; I’d like to lose a clothing size by the end of the year. Whether this is, for me, at this time in my life, a possibility, I don’t know. But, again, I’m ready to try.

Structure & Scheduling

Years ago, when I was working at home, I tried to set up a regular pattern of hours and days. I experimented with a bunch of things–X first in the morning, then Y before X. Leave chores until the end of the day, get them out of the way at the start. Writing before anything else, writing when I had time. Monday, Wednesday, Friday tasks; Tuesday, Thursday tasks. It didn’t work. Not only did I never discover the magical system that made everything come together, I never managed to stick to whatever scheduling path I was on that week. All I did was stress myself out and bring myself to any given task in an unhappy, unpleasant mood.

Because I’m not quick to learn, I headed into this December break by mentally stepping back on the structure treadmill–figuring I would put in hours and hours of scheduled writing time. But I wanted to sleep in. I wanted to build character charts and learn to play D&D with my son. I wanted to practice my drumming and jam with my son and his guitar on Otis Redding’s Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay. I wanted to do a little cooking. I wanted to go to Ikea with my husband. I wanted to get back into my knitting. I wanted to sit and read a book for more than 15 minutes while I had lunch. And I found out that, at least for the past 10-days, my best pattern was no pattern. And the writing time I spent was good–brainstorming to a new direction in one picture book and getting close to that for another. So in 2019, I’m going to try listening to myself. Trying to keep family and writing as my primary priorities, I’m going to stay in touch with my brain and my inclination. I’m going to make choices on a here-I-am-at-this-moment basis.  That’s something I can stretch toward.

Politics

I am not actually planning to stretch much here, but it has become such a big part of my world in the past two years, that I want to acknowledge its presence. At times, like so many of us, I feel like I am not doing and will never be able to do enough to fight and resist the current administration. But there be dragons down that path. Realistically, I am okay with the time and energy I am putting into resistance, and I hope to maintain a relatively healthy balance in this area. The one change that I can see happening is that, if Kamala Harris does run for President, I will shift some political effort and time to volunteering for her campaign. Since I have done that for nobody before, this will be plenty of stretching.

Do you have a word or a wish or even a goal for 2019?