There’s Plotting and there’s Planning…and Then There are Surprises

I’m a plotter, never a pantser. Would I love to be (more of) a pantser. Oh, heck, yes. In writing and in life. In life, I’m a planner, although I will stake a claim to have loosened up at least somewhat in the last decade or so. But I love and use lists and calendars, and if they’re not crutches, they are definitely tools.

Still, I’m learning to welcome surprises, even when they sneak up on me without too much warning. As I headed into Asilomar two Fridays away, I knew that I hadn’t really identified what I wanted to get out of the conference. I had hopes and dreams, as we always do, but I hadn’t done much visualization or intentionalizing–probably fear of failing at those dreams was getting in my way. It turned out well, though, because the big surprise (for me) was how resoundingly I responded to all the motivational and dream-based talks I hears. Typically, I am looking and hoping for craft support–specific writing tools and how-to’s. I surprised myself with some of my workshop choices, and I surprised myself by how well I came back from down moments and by how deep into my heart I felt the happiness of the weekend.

When I look at where I am on my writing path, there are surprises there. Oh, sure, there are some that feel more like disappointment than happiness, but there are some pretty good ones, too. If you’d told me ten years ago, even five, that I’d have switched my agent search from agents who represent Middle Grade and Young Adult to those who rep MG and picture books? I’d probably have laughed, you know, in a nice way. Picture books? Seriously?

Well, yeah. I started that part of my journey while I was writing The Writing & Critique Group Survival Guide, with an idea that I wanted to follow through outside the book. And now I have four picture books that, well, while they’re not as ready as I thought they were before last weekend, they’re pretty darned good and I am definitely in love with them. With the characters, the stories, and–oh, yeah–the writing process of bringing them together. Young adult? Doesn’t feel like anything I want or need to be writing. Twists and turns, and surprises.

Who knew? When I started this blog, I knew logically that the writing path I was going to talk about would be one of curves and hills, fallen trees and patches of quicksand. But as I move along it, continuing the climb, I understand the challenges of the route at a deeper level. And I know, too, that there’s always the possibility I’ll come around a corner and catch a glimpse of a rainbow, maybe even the shimmer of that pot of gold.

Because there are always surprises.

Highlights & Thoughts from the 2016 SCBWI Golden Gate Conference at Asilomar

I’ve been watching this conference for a decade. I have heard wonderful things about it, but–since it’s not cheap (well, staying at Asilomar isn’t cheap; the conference itself is more than reasonably priced), I felt like I needed to have some work to show before I went. So this year is it. It was a wonderful, wonderful weekend. And, although so many things are still circling around in my head, in no particular order yet, I wanted to get a few randomy thoughts done before I forget them.

  • I wasn’t sure what I needed this weekend to be. Turns out I needed it to be about rejuvenation, recharging, and–most of all–recommitment. And it was. Obviously, I need to sustain this feeling and act on it, but I came away feeling that, yes, my writing is going to land at the top of my priorities list once again. Everybody I met and listened to contributed a lot to this feeling, but Deborah Underwood‘s talk about getting rid of obstacles to our creativity really hit a home run for me.
  • You think you’re ready, and you’re not always ready. That includes the state of your manuscripts, your receptivity to hearing critiques about them, and your understanding of what they need to improve. But if you smile and breathe and give things a few hours to sink in, they usually do, and you find yourself thinking the critiquer much more sincerely later in the day, because you now do have some next steps to follow. AND you can see why they’re necessary and important.
  • Clare Vanderpool is not only a wonderful writer and a speaker with a lot of important things to say, she is very possibly the funniest person on the planet. If you are a conference organizer, invite her. If you have a chance to attend a conference where she’s on faculty, go. And be ready to nod and nod and then LAUGH AND LAUGH.
  • I’m pretty sure I’ve never been to a conference where tears were shed during so many talks. It may have been the theme: Live Your Story, but people shared so openly and honestly, the keynotes and workshops stopped being just about my work and your work and became about our work and our worlds and our lives.
  •  Rhyming picture books DO get me. Who knew? Go get Deborah Underwood’s  and Meg Hunt‘s Interstellar Cinderella and Corey Rosen Schwartz‘ and Rebecca J. Gomez‘ and Keika Yamaguchi‘s What about Moose?, and you’ll see what I mean.
  • We had power outages that faculty laughed and spoke through, even though, literally, the power was going off, on, off, on, off, on, like a badly out of sync strobe light, and must have been driving them crazy.
  • I remembered that calendars have power. Every weekend, I will be calendaring my weekday writing into its after-work time slots. And I will be printing a monthly calendar to check off all the days during which I put in writing time. I have promised myself I get to go back to Asilomar in 2017, IF I DO THE WORK. Guess what? I’M GOING TO DO THE WORK.
  • The deer at Asilomar barely look up when you walk near them. Okay, they look up, but they keep chewing away and just let you ooh and ah at them. Because we are no threat. Now we all just need to work on expanding that safety and peace beyond our relationship with deer and beyond the gates of Asilomar.
  • There was a quilting conference going at the same time as ours. I never did get a chance to sneak past their classrooms and see all their work, but I chatted with some while we were in line for meals, including the cousin on one of my absolutely favorite picture book authors. Yes, I asked her to tell her cousin how much I loved her book. Random and special.
  • I have some work to do with my art notes. Or maybe I should say without my art notes.
  • Some of us had to take off after the last sessions, but some of us lingered, joining each other for one last long talk around the lunch table in the dining room. As the last of us pushed away our chairs and started to head toward our cards, one of us said that it felt like leaving summer camp–making sure you gave and got hugs, exchanged emails, shared good and powerful wishes for the next year. I understood what she met, but it felt different for me. I never wanted to go back to summer camp. I DO want to go back to Asilomar.

And I will.

Why I Want Hilary Clinton to Win

Quick note, in case you missed it, the title is not about why I’m voting for Hilary. A week or so ago, Kurtis Scaletta wrote an excellent post about his reasons for voting for Clinton, but that’s not where I am. Yet. Or not yet.

I still haven’t decided. Luckily, or unluckily, out here in California, I still have time. I’m going to watch some more debates, I’m going to read more posts and articles like Kurtis’–both about Clinton and Sanders, and I’m going to think. A lot. (I’m also going to give myself breaks from thinking about this, because frankly I need them.) And I can tell you one thing: I WILL VOTE IN THE GENERAL ELECTION FOR WHICHEVER ONE OF THEM WINS THE DEMOCRATIC NOMINATION, BECAUSE COME ON, PEOPLE, HAVE YOU LOOKED AT THE OTHER CHOICES?

Anyway, this post is about the fact that, given all my reasons for voting for one or the other of the two Democratic/Socialist candidates, there is a massively huge part of me that really wants Hilary Clinton to win.

Yes, because she’s a woman. And because, while I may not agree 100% with the preferences Courtney Enlow expressed in her ALL-CAPS EXPLOSION, I do agree with her anger and disgust and frustration at all the crap that’s being thrown at Clinton, yes, because she’s a woman, and at the fact that some people are still accepting that crap as okay. (And, yes, I’m looking very closely at my own vacillation to see if there’s any crap at its roots.) I am in complete sympathy with Enlow’s CAPS and her swearing, because, holy moly, people, it’s 2016, and it is BEYOND TIME that we have a woman president. It is BEYOND TIME that we are capable of electing a woman, of not giving her a hard time for needing to use the restroom during a debate, of recognizing that part of the reason she is the way she is is that SHE HAS HAD TO BE to get where she is.

I want us to be there so badly it hurts. Not just for me, but for older women in my  life who have waited even longer for us to get there, who see us on the cusp–FINALLY!!!–of something so important, and get to watch us being all, whoa….wait a minute…whoops…not yet! What Gloria Steinem and Madeleine Albright said about and to younger women was wrong, wrong, wrong. It was dismissive and petty and, I think, pretty immature, and I would  like to think that SOMEDAY we will understand that feminism is supposed to give women equal CHOICE as one of our equal RIGHTS. I make no excuses for either of them, but…do you know how long they have been fighting for this? DO YOU KNOW HOW LONG? Is it any wonder they slipped?

So why am I not sure about my vote? Lots of reasons, and I think (and hope) that my reasons are about the individuals, not the gender. I may end up voting for Hilary Clinton because she is experienced, competent, whip-smart, and will, I know, hold the line for me on most of my biggest issues, even if I don’t think she will push other (also important) issues as far as I want her to. I may end up voting for Bernie Sanders because he shares more of my ideals and because this country does need a revolution, and because, hey, I would be almost as happy to see the first Jewish atheist in the white house as I would be to see the first woman there. I may vote for Sanders even if I don’t think he has enough of a plan to make much of his stuff happen.

Like I said, I don’t know. I don’t know yet how I’m going to vote. What I’m coming to realize, though, is that even if I do end up voting for Bernie, and even if he wins, I’m not going to be completely happy. I will be amazed, stunned, celebratory, probably even jubilant. But I will also be disappointed, angry, frustrated beyond belief, and most likely in miserable tears.

And ain’t that just rainbows and unicorns?

Things I’m Counting as “Writing” These Days

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.

Tiny Virtual Book Club: My Father’s Dragon

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.


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.


A Brainful of Ideas

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.


Picture Books for Presents

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

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


Sparky! by Jenny Offill, illustrated by Chris Appelhans

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

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.