Calling Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle

This weekend, I’ve started writing out very basic scene cards, in prep for doing my own kind of Nano-Y first draft of a MG novel.

I say kind of, and I say Nano-Y, because I doubt I’m going to get where I want to go in a month of writing, at least not if the temp job I have continues at a mostly full-time pace. I know there are writers out there who manage, and maybe I will be able to some day, but I’m allowing myself some gentle space as this all falls under a big life-transition umbrella for me, too. I also say kind of, because I’ve never DONE NaNo, so I don’t actually  know the process/guidelines. Instead, I’m basing the process on one I did a few years ago when I, yes, wrote a book in a week (150 pages of wonderful dreck in five days). I won’t be doing it in a week again, either. (For more information about the Book in a Week idea, see April Kihlstrom’s BIAW site. For more on NaNoWriMo, check out their main page.) And I’m starting by creating a very basic card in Scrivener for each scene.

Here’s the info I put on each scene card:

  • Protagonist’s Scene Goal: The ACTION they want to accomplish in this scene. The action part of it is important to me, because without reminding myself about it, I can easily end up in some nebulous sloshy place, a lot like when Milo stalls out in the Doldrums in The Phantom TollboothYes, character layers and theme are critical, but I’ve gotten so slogged down in those lately, in early drafts, that I’m trying to push them away for now. They’ll come out as I draft and they’ll deepen as I revise.
  • Obstacles: Some of these are from antagonists. (And I’m noting those specifically this time around. The last time I did this, I was really weak in the main antagonist’s story line and had to kluge it in. Which I think worked (no complaints about this in the rejections), but it was a lot of work. So I just want to keep the antagonist stuff further up front in my mind, even in this early dump. Other obstacles will come from the protagonist himself, some from his allies, and one or a few from the environment around him.
  • Response: The basics of what my hero does in reaction to the obstacles. This helps me make sure he fails, fails, fails for a while, the starts to gain strength and fight back with more power.
  • End Scene: The action/moment on which the scene ends. This was a huge help last time when I was trying to blast through from scene to scene, because it gave me a rolling momentum to keep going, keep going, keep going.

And that’s it. Just dipping back in to this method felt so good. I’ve gotten very bogged down in some mix of plotting and drafting in the last couple of years, at least on my longer projects. (Possibly one of the reasons I’ve fallen so in love with the picture book form.) Somehow this tangled mix of needing to just write and needing to know where I’m going was, I think, partially responsible for the historical YA ending up in a drawer for now. (The other responsible parts being the historical and the YA!) And then I’ve done a few false starts on the MG, which make me feel like the YA tangle is looming over me again.

So I want to do it differently. I want to step back to the process that worked so well for my last MG. While I’m not shooting for a whole first draft in a week this time, I am shooting for that same just keep swimming writing technique. The one where I don’t take a break at the end of a scene, but click on the next scene card and write more. The one where revision ideas about past scenes get scribbled on a sticky note and attached to the print out. The one where questions get tossed into Scrivener’s Notes section. The one where I use a LOT of brackets around phrases like [MAYBE A SAMURAI. MAYBE A MIME]. The one where I recognize and remember that THIS DRAFT IS AND SHOULD BE ABSOLUTE GARBAGE, and all the little changes I might even consider making will be totally irrelevant, because AT LEAST 99.99999999999994% of the words will disappear or change. Seriously, last time I did this, when I sat down to read through the first draft, I didn’t even get halfway through, because I realized almost instantly that I’d written my protagonist as an observer and given all the take-charge stuff to his sidekick. Who needed to stay a sidekick. So I started plotting and writing again, making sure I kept my hero active, active, active, and THAT became the so-much-better “first” draft I took through my critique group. And THAT flowed so much more smoothly and effectively, because the garbage came first.

I want that again.

So what does this all have to do with Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle? Well, mostly, she’s on my mind, because I was talking to a friend whose little girl has fallen in love with Amelia Bedelia, who for some reason makes me think of Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle. Maybe because, in my world, as goofy as Amelia is, she has huge doses more of common sense than do the people for whom she works. Kind of like Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle. And, today, I’m thinking of Mrs. PW because she had all those wonderful cures. Remember? “The Won’t-Pick-Up-Toys Cure.” “The Answer-Backer Cure.” “The Slow-Eater-Tiny-Bite-Taker-Cure.”

I think I need an Unsticker-To-It Cure. Oh, I’ll stick to my story. I’ve proved that to myself, in a good way, on these picture book revisions, as well as in a not-so-good way on the YA. What I need to stick to is this process, the rapid pacing, and the pushing through all the distractions and doubts.

So, you know, if one of you could turn to your partner and say, “What are you going to do with this child?!” and then go off to work and totally abandon the other one, who would then call a friend and says, “What am I going to do with this child,” and could listen when the friend says, “Call Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle. She can fix any child,”  well, this child would be very appreciative. Meanwhile, she’ll keep writing.


Zen and the Art of PiBoIdMo

True confession one: I’ve never read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle MaintenanceI know people who’ve read it, though, so that counts for something. Right? And I’m certainly no expert on zen as a practice. I think about it, though. So that counts…

Oh, never mind. It’s just a good title for my blog post.

I’m pretty sure that one aspect of Zen, at least, is the concept of living in the moment. Of not spending too much time or energy regretting the past and re-living things you can’t change or fix. Of not worrying about the future or grasping at events or opportunities or dreams that may be out of your control.



Okay, listen. Here’s how my morning went.

I took my notebook into work with me, and get three ideas for the day. So far. They were even “problem” ideas, which I’ve decided is what I’m shooting for–an idea that actually comes with a problem for some hero to solve.  And here’s what went through my mind as I wrote down the ideas.

  • Awesome! I already have my idea. I could stop right now and not bother thinking of any more ideas today. (Trying to make a decision about the future.)
  • Ha! Two ideas. I could count one for tomorrow, and then I could take a PiBoIdMo day off! (Again, projecting what I’ve just succeeded in doing into the future.)
  • Oh, shoot. I didn’t leave any space after that first idea. What if I have more thoughts on it, and then I don’t have any room to jot them down? (More future worry–definitely my particular skill.)
  • You know, that idea I wrote down an hour ago isn’t so hot. I mean what kind of kid would have a problem like that? What was I thinking? (Regret over a past action.)
  • This is feeling like last year, when I plopped down any old idea. Do I want to keep doing all November this year?. (Angst about past and future. I win the worry contest!)

Okay, I’m joking. Sort of. But, truthfully, the little, crazy, is-any-of-this-writing-stuff-really-good-enough voice did toss these thoughts into my head. No, they didn’t linger, because I know that voice, and I know better–usually–than to listen to it. Still, it made me realize–PiBoIdMo has to be about not just living in the moment, but about celebrating the moment. So, come to think about it, does NaNoWriMo. Because they’re both about speed and instant acceptance and randomocity. If you give credence to your doubt voice for more than that fleeting second, you risk throwing yourself off. You risk putting down the PiBoIdMo notebook or the NaNoWriMo file on your computer–putting down your project. You risk pulling the rug out from under yourself and just losing that all-important momentum.

So don’t. No, we can’t shut the voice up for good. But we can push it away, into the past or future if it has to go somewhere, but out of the now.  For all our writing, yes, it’s best to stay present, to be focused on the time we’re putting into our manuscripts at the moment. I think, though, that it’s even more critical for these events. Yes, they’re about quantity, rather than quality. Yes, they’re about racing to get words on the page. What they’re really about, though, is freeing our minds up in a way we rarely do, in a way that gets us out of the self-critical place and into the place of flowing creativity.

I still haven’t done NaNoWriMo. Some day. This is my second year for PiBoIdMo. And I’d like to say thanks, here, to both Chris Baty and Tara Lazar for bringing them both into my world. And wish the best of luck (and FUN!) to all of you participating this year.

Friday Five: Restart

Yesterday was a catch-up day. My to-do list had gotten pretty long while we were out of commission, so I plugged myself in at my desk and slogged through, checking things off and moving on.

Felt good.

I have dipped a toe back into my writing & reading, too. Just a bit. And today felt like clearing the decks on things that were getting in the way of doing more of that.

For this week’s Friday Five, a peek at the baby steps I’m taking back into my word world.

1. Ran through a very rough draft of a kind-of concept picture book. Made a couple of little tweaks, and then sent it out the door to my critique group, with a request that they give me feedback on the overall (if any) viability and any ideas for creating that viability if it doesn’t exist. Yet.

2. Completed PiBoIdMo with more than 30 ideas, took the PiBoIdMo Winner’s Pledge (which means I am officially entered for some awesome prizes!), and ordered my PiBoIdMo 2011 mug, with Bonnie Adamson’s fantastic art, from the CafePress PiBoIdMo shop. The big victory for me here was not just finishing the month with enough ideas, but not letting the last few days of the month slide away without any ideas, after I took a couple of days off for being sick. I wanted to actually, actively complete the challenge, and I did. Yay, me. Yay, anyone who also won or participated. Yay, everyone who spent any time writing speedily for NaNoWriMo, too. November is really about doing more than you would/could have, if you hadn’t tried to take the challenge. So kudos all around!

3. Opened the Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook again. Got started on the next exercise. Picked a scene to view from the other way around. And today I’ll dig in and really start looking at the YA historical. Again.

4. Read something other than an Agatha Christie mystery or a Terry Pratchett novel. All of you know with what high esteem I seriously hold both these authors, but they are also restful for me in a way that goes well with being ill, or tending the ill. So I’ve been reading a LOT of both. Yesterday, I started and finished Ruta Sepetys’ Between Shades of Gray. It felt great to pick up something new, something intense and powerful. Okay, probably not the smartest choice for a cold day when the sun set by 5:00, but definitely a read to recommend. And, again, a historical novel with tight, short chapters–something I want for my own YA and something I am really going to have to push myself to get right.

5. Critiqued pieces from two of my critique partners. Lovely to get back into reading good stuff and digging in for helpful feedback. Have I mentioned that my brain was starting to atrophy?

What little pieces of reading and writing did you keep going in your life the last week or so. Did you push through for NaNo, pass the great number THIRTY in PiBoIdMo, or even just get an hour in here or there to move words from your mind to your computer’s? Whatever you managed, you have my admiration and my congratulations!

PiBoIdMo & My Lightening-Fast Reactions

It’s November 10th. Ten days into the month that is PiBoIdMo.  It’s been an interesting week and a half. The guest posts at Tara Lazar’s Writing for Kids (While Raising Them) blog have been great! And it’s as much fun as I thought it would be to just open up my senses and imagination for picture-book ideas.

So far, in terms of numbers, I’m being successful. I’m pretty sure I’ve had more than one idea on every day, and many days in my notebook have three or four ideas jotted down. Are they any good?


What I’ve found is that, apparently, PiBoIdMo turns me into something an awful lot like this:

No, it doesn’t make me eat spiders. Ew.

It does make me quick. Quick to snatch up any idea that comes into my brain–be that an image, a question, a phrase, a character. I don’t know if it’s the anxiety that I won’t get any ideas that day, or the determination NOT to get anxious about that possibility. But I am not spending a lot of time filtering the possibilities through any questions about whether I can actually develop this idea into a story, or whether this idea has already been done.

I think this is okay. I think it’s probably the right way to go. It’s not that different from the idea behind NaNoWriMo–you’re shooting for quality, not necessarily quantity.

With the assumption, the commitment to yourself, that you will take some of that quantity and actually turn it into quality. No matter how hard that transformation is.

Do I have any ideas that actually feel like winners? Winners to me, yes. I do. There are a few that come with a spark, a smile, a thought that this one is going on the post-PiBoIdMo list of things I want to spend time with. That makes me feel a lot better about all the others that don’t—yet—have that pop. Plus, I have a sense of even more as starting points–ideas that need a twist, or a reversal, or a quirky angle that will turn them from unlikely to likely.

If you’re participating in PiBoIdMo, what have the first ten days been like for you? What have you discovered about yourself, about the way you search for ideas and how they feel when they do come into your brain?

Let’s Talk about 1st Drafts: A (Hopefully) Gentle Post-Nano Pep Talk

A week or so ago, I blogged about progress–thinking about what people would be feeling as they came to the end of NaNo. Now that NaNo is over & authors everywhere are actually looking over what they did produce in November, I’m feeling the need to talk about things a little bit more. Actually, this post is prompted in part by the disappointment an online friend was (hopefully, not is, anymore) feeling about her 1st draft. So this may turn into a bit of a rant.

Qualifier: I very much like the idea of NaNo. I did a variant in Book in a Week a few years ago, and I was thrilled with the results–with where that week got me, in terms of understanding my story and in terms of having actual material to move forward with.

Note that I did not say I was thrilled with the draft.

That first draft was–well, let’s just call it an Anne Lamott-approved 1st draft. I sat down to read it after the week, and started scribbling notes and thoughts, and then I stopped reading. Because it was just that bad.

I did not stop revising. By maybe 1/3 of the way through, I’d seen that my hero was being a totally passive observer, letting his sidekick drive the choices and actions of the story. I didn’t have to read the whole manuscript to find out whether he continued that way; I knew he did. And I knew that, before I could do any other revising, I had to tackle this major problem.

So I wrote a second draft, in which I pushed that hero to the front. I made the story goals his goals, and I threw the obstacles in his path. Did I work on other, smaller issues as I went through all the chapters? Of course, I did–I’m human! But that was the revision focus. And when I finished that draft, I had something I thought I could work with. Something I thought I could pass through my critique group without too much humiliation and embarrassment.

What’s my point? That first draft–whether you wrote it in a week or a month–is supposed to be bad. REALLY bad. How could it be otherwise? Unless you have the brain of, I don’t know…Stephen Hawking? Albert Einstein? William Shakespeare? ______________ ? (Fill in the blank with the name of any famous author you’ve heard say they DO write a beautiful first draft!), you cannot write a manuscript that fast and THINK about it at the same time. Yes, I know, you did think. So did I during the Book in a Week process. But I thought for seconds and minutes. I did not think for hours, because I had none of those to spare. And neither did you.

What do you have, from your NaNo work? Do you have crap? If you answer anywhere near “Yes,” I want you to step away from the computer, give yourself a hug and some chocolate, and do the happy dance. Because you’re supposed to have crap. And you got it in a month–many of us take a YEAR (or more) to reach that point! You get to start turning that horrible stuff into something better 11 months ahead of schedule. Are you on Twitter? Did you see all the tweets from agents and editors, in varying degrees of tact, asking you NOT to query them about this manuscript on December 1st? The fact that you recognize how bad your first draft is proves you have the skill level and the knowledge of the craft to see that.

Okay, rant finished. But seriously, if you’re feeling disappointed or discouraged or–please, no–like you’ve failed in any way, well, just don’t!  Is there something you particularly hate about the story so far? Wonderful! Take that element and fix it. Figure out what you hate about it, why it makes you want to take the whole manuscript and use it to heat the wood-burning stove this winter, and revise around that problem. Save the AL-approved 1st draft, if you want to reassure yourself that you’re not losing any treasures (but really so you can show yourself how much BETTER that next draft is–and the next, and the next…).

I love NaNo and BIAW. I love the idea of tackling this big a project in such a short time, of riding an adrenalin wave, of producing more words and ideas than you ever thought possible. I browsed through NaNo’s website before writing this blog, and that’s really what the month is supposed to be about. I do not like all the bad feelings that come to some NaNo writers when the adrenalin leaves, and the crash comes. No matter how bad those words look on the page, you have achieved something wonderful.

Let yourself believe that.

Progress: The Muddy Definition

I didn’t do NaNo this year. I keep saying that someday I will, but November never shows up on my calendar as a one-project, one-focus month. Every year, though, I follow along on blogs and Facebook and Twitter and eavesdrop on the conversations about how everyone is doing.

And every year, at this time of the month, with turkeys on order at the grocery store and cranberry sauce gelling in the pot, I think…how must NaNo writers be feeling. Four or five days with kids out of school, family visiting, and tryptophan sending us into naptime…and how many more words left to write?

I find myself worrying a little about NaNo stress levels and hoping that nobody’s really beating themselves up about word count or having to write The End in concrete in a week. I find myself hoping that they know there are many different meanings to progress and knowing that they have already achieved some form of it.

Here are just a few things that qualify, on my tally sheet, as progress:

  • Discovering the true, important goal of your hero.
  • Figuring out why your antagonist is so mean.
  • Working out the elements of your world–whether that be an elven forest, a far planet, or a particular street corner in your neighborhood.
  • Writing five chapters in a row without knowing what you’re doing, then realizing the connection between these scenes and the story arc—even if  you put off the revision till later.
  • Writing a half-page of perfect dialogue.
  • Writing one chapter in third person, another in first, two in present-tense, and six in past. And being okay with the fact that you’re playing around and experimenting.

Whether you did NaNo or not this month, I’m betting you achieved one of these progress markers, or another with as much weight. Let’s face it–the best progress of NaNo is taking your writing so seriously, with utter commitment, for this one month. And realizing, out of that month, that–minus the sore wrists and the exhaustion–this is the commitment you want to feel about your writing all year long.

What’s your definition of progress? What did you do this month that makes you proud of yourself as a writer? Leave me a comment and share.

Then go out and buy another two pounds of yams and another can of whipped cream for that pumpkin pie!

Friday Five: Thoughts on Picture Books

Before I get started on my Friday Five, don’t forget to stop by and read my interview with Martha Engber, author of The Wind Thief. Leave a comment at that past, and I’ll enter you in the drawing for an ARC of her novel.

I am writing a picture book. Honestly, I wasn’t sure, as a writer over the past few years, whether I would ever do this. There is a magic in this genre, and I–like most people–have been captured by a certain special books that have stayed with me (and on my shelves) all my life.

I’m the person who spent her graduate years studying Victorian novels. Hello? 700+ pages? And this was decades BEFORE Harry Potter. I love novels, I love trilogies, I love series because when you fall in love with a world, or with a set of characters, you get to stay with them. When I was twelve and finished The Hobbit and found out there was more…!!

But I went through the mother years of being surrounded by picture books, by rereading and rereading my son’s favorites and managing to get in a few rereads of my oldies & goodies, as well. And when I got started with my own kids’ writing, the picture book thoughts were there as possibilities–the ideas that were right for that genre, not right for a novel.

So November 1st, in tandem with NaNoWriMo and Tara Lazar’s PiBoIdMo, I dug out the one idea I’d really been thinking about, opened up Ann Whitford Paul’s new book, Writing Picture Books, and got started.

So, for this first week as a picture-book writer, here are five thoughts:

1. I love the rhythm that Ann talks about, and that Anastasia Suen also discusses in her book Picture Writingthe rhythm of the threes. It is a beautifully simple structure and, while I know I’d be crazy to assume that meant simple writing or a simple book, it’s something I can work with. My brain likes patterns, and I like the one I’m finding here.

2. I am learning, all over again, to focus on the hero as impacting his own life. A young child, or a young bunny rabbit, can’t always solve their own problems, but–in a picture book–we’d darn well better see them trying and making a serious difference in the way the plot goes. It’s not just a matter of pushing the adult characters into the background; it’s bringing the child into the foreground. Still working on that one!

3. This thing about leaving room for the illustrator’s ideas is tricky. Critical, I know, but tricky. My gut is that, for this first pass I’m doing, the effort is sort of “blanding” my story out more than I want. That’s okay. During revision, this is something I’ll look at, how to make the words sharp, crisp, and energetic, while still leaving space for the art.

4. Tesseract. Remember that–a wrinkle in time? Something of the sort goes on when I work on the picture book. Time twists in a strange way, reconnecting with word count from a whole new angle. It’s not a switch I can explain, but I feel it. Ten words, which fly from my fingers when I’m working on a novel, take longer for this book. I had some idea (fear?) that I would sit down on Day 1 of this month, shoot off the 500-600 words of the story, know they were bad, and then have no clue where to go next. Instead, I’m still somewhere around the 400 mark, know quite well that’s too many for where I am in the story, and am watching the same kinds of thoughts, questions, and reactions mull around in my brain as I do when I draft 3,000 words of a novel. Cue Twilight Zone music.

5. I’m finding a freedom, for me, in writing a picture book that I don’t always feel when I’m working on a novel. This freedom may mean that I still don’t quite believe I can/will do this, so its more of an experiment than a commitment. (Don’t worry, I’m trying very hard not to let it become that!) Or it may mean that picture books are not (still? yet?) my greatest love, so that I’m putting less pressure on myself than I do for the novels. Or maybe it’s just that, even with the time warpage, I can see the end of the first draft only a day or two away, with revision (which I love) being right around the corner.  Who knows? For this month, anyway, I’m just going with it.

What are your thoughts on picture books? Reading or writing?