Friday, August 31, 2012

An Argument for Walk-Away Days by E.L. Konigsburg

“I think you should learn, of course, and some days you must learn a great deal. But you should also have days when you allow what is already in you to swell up inside of you until it touches everything. And you can feel it inside of you. If you never take time out to let that happen, then you accumulate facts, and they begin to rattle around inside of you. You can make noise with them, but never really feel anything with them. It's hollow.” 

 E.L. Konigsburg
From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler

Thursday, August 30, 2012

August Theme: Leaving the Writer's Life Behind ~ by Christine Brodien-Jones

It seems that ever since my book THE OWL KEEPER came out, my life has gone into warp drive.  Okay, I'm no best-selling children's book author, but nonetheless the pace has picked up as I've gone from one deadline to the next.  Besides writing three books in four years, I've done all the things that authors do - marketing online/offline, conferences, festivals and other book promotion events - with scarcely any breathing space in-between. 
 So, at the end of September I'm flying to Madrid with my husband Peter to hike 500 miles across northern Spain, on an ancient pilgrim's path known as the Camino de Santiago.  Carrying a small backpack each, we'll set out from the medieval town of Roncevalles, in the Pyrenees, and head for the fabled Galician city of Santiago de Compostela.  We'll be away six weeks, and for most of that time we'll pretty much be off the grid. Forget getting any writing done.  Or reading!  The one book we're taking is John Brierley's guide to the Camino, a "practical & mystical manual for the modern day pilgrim." It weighs almost nothing.  In fact, we're packing only the bare essentials. 

And that, of course, is the point: travel light, travel slow. 

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Letting Go: August Theme: Jen Cervantes

The very phrase letting go implies loss. Sure, it means something has ended, but it can also mean a new beginning. Last week, I took my daughter to college. It was heart wrenching to say the least, but I soon realized that by letting her go, she is able to create her own journey, to sail to new shores and fulfill her own dreams. So if letting go can be freeing, why is it so damn hard? I think we’re wired to resist change. As writers we live in worlds of change; our stories have to morph and change to stay alive.  In some ways so do we. Looking back, when I’ve let something go (and mind you the harder I hold on, the more I know I need to let it go) I’ve seen the most growth. I’ve released story ideas only to be greeted by new ones. I’ve let go of steadfast beliefs only to be greeted by a healthier mindset. I’ve even let go of two complete manuscripts to sign with a new agent! Some letting go’s are harder than others.

It is part of our nature to look ahead, to seek new shores. But in order to get there we have to leave another place behind. And we can only look over our shoulder for so long until that shore is a miniscule dot on the horizon.

Monday, August 27, 2012

August Theme: Walking Away

     Whenever I get overwhelmed with a project and I need a break from it, I grab my wallet and I take a walk. The purpose for the walk is to go out and purchase a yummy hoagie for myself to eat. Nature and exercise are good reasons to go for walks but they aren’t as good as the Hoagie reason. Once I get back to my house with the lovely hoagie, I get to work eating it. It never takes long for the magical powers of the hoagie to spread all throughout my body. By the time I have eaten the entire hoagie, I am totally prepared to go face the difficult world of writing with my newly acquired powers. I emerge refreshed and ready to tackle anything.
The End.

“If more people ate hoagies there would probably be no more war.”
-A wise Hoagie sales person...

Sunday, August 26, 2012

August theme: Step AWAY from the computer!!

By L.A. Jones
I have most of my light bulb moments when I’m doing something mind numbingly boring like hoovering or washing my hair. I mean seriously, washing my hair!? It’s amazing how many of my plot-hole dilemmas have been solved in the shower. In fact, I think it should now be obligatory for books about writing to include the tip: when you’re stuck, go take a shower.
I have an ongoing joke with my boyfriend about how much (or how little) work I actually do. He’ll come home after a gruelling day decorating to find me sitting on the sofa, staring into apparent nothingness with a pad and pen in my hand.

“What are you doing?” he’ll ask. “I thought you had a deadline?”

“I do,”I’ll reply, with the slightest smile. “And I’m working hard on it.” To which, he’ll usually just roll his eyes.

The same goes for anything else. When I’m watching a film, him: “What are you doing?” Me: “Working.”When I’m about to take a nap, him: “What are you doing?” Me:“Working.”
OK, so we laugh about it but it’s sort of true. A creative mind never stops, no matter what we’re doing. I had the idea for my first published novel, The Nightmare Factory, in a dream, and my second came to me whilst taking my dog for a walk, and the one I’m writing now whilst driving my car. I’m constantly thinking about how things relate to my book. How I can make it better, what I can do to make the characters stronger. Even when I’m reading a newspaper or watching a film, my brain is still quietly sewing ideas together as it draws threads of inspiration from even the most insignificant of things. Sometimes, a writers job is not to write but to just step away from the computer and lose themselves in everyday activities, because ask any creative person, this is when the best ideas will surface.

Don’t get me wrong, we still have to put in the hours sitting at the laptop and trying to make sense of all this wonderful inspiration, somehow piecing it together into something that resembles a book. But occasionally it’s OK to just step away for a bit and dwell on the novel whilst doing something completely different. I like to think of it as constantly having a song playing in the back of my mind. One that I just can’t get out of my head. Sometimes I focus on it more than others and pick apart every lyric, and other times I just listen to the tune. But it’s always there. It never goes away, until one day, I set it free, ready to be heard by everyone. 

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Author Interview: Stefan Bachmann/THE PECULIAR

Today, our special guest on the blog is Stefan Bachmann, author of the forthcoming middle grade fantasy, THE PECULIAR, which recently got a starred review fromPublishers Weekly. I was lucky enough to snag an ARC of Stefan’s debut and can say without reservation that it’s nothing short of brilliant. From the very first page, you will be hooked.

But what do we really know about this amazing new writer? An internet probe (heh, heh…I said PROBE) reveals that he lives in Switzerland and studies classical music. But today, we’ll dig deeper to learn more about the man and the myth that is Stefan Bachmann (IF that is his real name….).

First up, Stefan, I should know better than to trust the internet as a reliable information source, but I wanted to ask you about one rumor in particular. My sources tell me you’re eighteen years old. So my first two questions are: 1) is this true and 2) how do you deal with the unrelenting, fiery hatred being directed at you by older authors who resent your youth and talent?

       1)      It’s a LIE. I turned nineteen in June.

I      2) I haven’t encountered any unrelenting, fiery hatred. At all. Which makes sense to me, because I’m not sure it’s worthwhile resenting youth and talent. Experience and the ability to work hard are probably better traits to have as a writer, and I only have one of those, sometimes, when there’s no internet or movie or ice cream to distract my wandering little brain.

If someone reading this does happen to hate me with unrelenting, fiery hatred, stopppppp: people don’t write books to spite other people, or to show off, or to be a brat.  They write them because they feel they have a story to tell. And everything that happens after that – getting an agent, getting a book deal, getting good reviews and publicity and sales – is really almost completely out of the author’s control. Really.

In their review, Publishers Weekly said it was, “An absolute treat for readers of any age.” Pretend I am Grumpy Old Mr. Throckmorton who lives next door. You know him: terminal scowl, hikes his pants up to his armpits, looks like he might feast on village children in his spare time. So, I’m Mr. Throckmorton. Convince someone of my considerable age to read your wonderful book. AND SPEAK UP, SONNY!

Ok, Mr. Throckmorton, FIRST OF ALL: You need to stop eating village children. Seriously. Someday you might eat one who has a scissors in her pocket and she will snip her way out like Little Red Riding Hood. That being said, if you’re into being creepy, there’s a fair bit of creepy stuff going on in this shiny book raht heah. *holds up shiny book*

What, you were not utterly bedazzled by the cover? Oh. Well, letsee,,. It has a character in it named after you. He’s a jerk, but don’t worry – the book also takes place around the time you were a wee lad, so it'll doubtless bring back all sorts of good memories!

You were a wee lad in 1850, were you not?

Oh, you weren’t? Ahem. *flees*

THE PECULIAR has been described as a “gothic-steampunk-faery tale.”  Why so greedy? Why write in so many subgenres?  Is it a sign, perhaps, that you just need to focus more?

But- but I like gothic-ness and steampunk and faery tales!

Yeah, that's pretty much my reasoning, right there. I wanted to write a book with all the things I liked squished into it, and so that's what I did. It could have ended badly, but I think these things happen to work well together. Victorian England has something innately gothic and grotesque about it, and steampunk has its beginnings in that period anyway. Also the juxtaposition of faery magic and clockwork technology is interesting to me.

You’re a composer! That’s so cool! And sad, because now people have another reason to hate you. (Try not to let it get you down.) A sample of your work can be heard here. Who are your musical inspirations and what do you hope to do with your musical skills?

Thank you! And again, no reason to be haytin’. There’s nothing enviable about going to conservatories, and practicing for hours on end, and playing at nerve-wracking concerts, and then doing edits until midnight. 

But I digress. My musical inspiration comes probably mostly from film and classical music. I think Danny Elfman, Alexander Desplat, Dario Marinelli, almost all the big current film composers are completely brilliant. And of course, Beethoven and Chopin and those folks. I used to be very uppity about pop, but now I don't think I could survive without some good acoustic voice-driven stuff. Regina Spektor, for example. Or Amy Macdonald. Look her up, and you will be happy for ever and ever.

Eventually I hope to get into film composing. Or TV music. Or any kind of commercial composing, really. I'll write jingles! For ice cream trucks!!! :D

Now we come to the part of the interview called JUSTIFY YOUR TWEET. This is where I pick a random tweet from your twitstream and demand that you justify its contents. On July 1, you tweeted:

So my question is: 1) what could your little brother possibly have done to deserve you unleashing your unparalleled martial arts prowess on him and 2) what kind of unparalleled martial arts prowess can you claim to have if your younger sibling can slip an elbow past you (did you have to return your black belt with head hung low)?

My little brother and I need no justification to fight. We’re almost like adults that way.  Also, by “unparalleled martial arts prowess” you mean, FLAIL/YELL/LASH, and my black belt in that art is MINE, and I will not return it. Little brother got lucky, is all.

So, if I get this right, you were born in the US but have spent most of your life abroad (or, for you, I guess, it’s not really abroad and more like home).  Do you get back to the States often?  Where do you see yourself in five years?

I do go to the States! Not very often – maybe once a year – but any more than that and I would eat all the Reese’s EVER, and die, so all’s good. In five years, I see myself…  hunched over a desk writing my fifth book? I hope? That would be great.

What is something from the world of THE PECULIAR that you wish was real (something you could possess or some state of being) and what from that world are you glad can NEVER be real?

I’d like the bird on the cover. And since I’m not greedy at all, an airship would be ok, too.
The thing I'm very glad is not real is a certain faery named Jack Box. I won’t say exactly who or what he is, because it’s a SURPRISE, but he is rather frightening, and has many tails, and many eyes, and many sharp, sharp teeth. 

How much did you draw from established faery lore and how much is your own creation?

A lot of the basic concepts in The Peculiar are based on English folklore, but there’s only so far I could go with that. For instance, everyone has a vague notion of what a goblin is, but there isn’t a lot of concrete information about what they look like, or what their characteristics are, or whether they are vicious, or gentle, or wild. So I had a lot of leeway there, and a lot of room for inventing my own details, which is one of my favorite things to do. The interesting thing for me was seeing how all these “English” faeries would fit into industrialized Victorian cities. Answer: there will be problems.
I definitely did tons of research, but most of it was into London and Victorian customs rather than folklore. Sooo many hours spent studying 19th century city maps.They're complicated.

You write about faeries. Are you now or have you ever been an elf sympathizer?

Of course. I’m all into saving trees and whales, and blowing things up in the process.

Except for that last bit.

Okay, okay, all joking aside: I mean it when I say this is a fantastic book (one of two I’ll be recommending to people this fall).   My sincerest congratulations to you, Stefan. I can hardly wait for Book Two in the series.

Thanks so much! Also, people, the other book he’ll be recommending is doubtless going to be awesome. I mean, Lemony Snicket’s artist made the cover. And it's about master-thieves. What more do you need to know?

Stefan Bachmann’s THE PECULIAR hits stores September 18. Run, don’t walk, to get it!

You can find Stefan:

--At his blog

--On his Twitter account

Friday, August 24, 2012

August Theme: The Art of Letting Go...or Not

by Stephanie J. Blake

I've been working for almost five years (off and on) on this funny middle grade novel. It's gone through numerous revisions and numerous plot and character changes, (not to mention it has snagged the attention of three agents). It's got heart and humor and a splash of magical realism. The plot starts perfectly. The middle definitely does not sag, but, darn it, something still is not right starting with the climax! Don't get me started on the rushed ending. And for the life of me, I can't figure out what is missing. Two agents couldn't help me figure it out, either, and I suspect it is time to walk away from the story altogether.

Here's the problem. I am in love my main character. She's so spunky, so real, so tortured, so flawed. She deserves a happy ending.

Of course, I've done some other writing over the years. I mean I sold a different book and all. It's not like I've been slaving away on this one manuscript this whole time. I have half a dozen abandoned novels on my computer, a couple of them are actually over 40,000 words and have complete outlines and character bibles. I have six or seven really original ideas for novels in my notebook. I even wrote one very bad picture book and actually had the guts to share it with my agent.

I lie awake at night thinking of how to "fix" the plot. I've come up with ideas while I'm pulling weeds. I've jotted things down while I'm waiting for my son to finish up at baseball practice. I have sat up in bed and thought, "Eureka!" But nothing seems to work.

It's time for me to put this manuscript under the bed.

And I'll probably have to take some time to figure out my next move, which honestly will probably be planning my book launch and booking school visits and appearances in 2013.

I have to turn off that little voice inside me that whines, "But, what about your option book?"

I'll have to learn the art of letting go.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Creative Drift Creates New Continents (August Theme) by Dia Calhoun

Raised in the high discipline world of ballet, I grew up believing that results were achieved by hard, grinding, relentless work. Work at the barre, work at center floor--always driving, pushing, straining. Some of this was useful training for a writer, or for anyone who must work daily to accomplish a goal (writing a novel) that may take years.

Some of it was not.

It took me years to understand that such an attitude toward work, beneficial as it may be for muscle training, can be counter-productive to an art form that demands a high level of creativity—such as fiction writing. Gradually, I’ve redefined my definition of hard work. Here is what I’ve learned.

Swinging in a hammock under a maple tree while turning over some story problem in my mind is far more likely to result in a creative solution than beating my head against the computer. So is taking a walk or gardening, or any other activity where I consciously allow my mind to drift and hover over my story.

Consciously is the critical word here. I’m not talking about the popular notion of “refilling your well” though that’s important, too. I mean holding an idea about plot or character or concept loosely in my mind and playing with it in order to generate new ideas. This is like a child holding a marble in her hand and turning it randomly to see the different ways the light catches the colored depths. Sometimes my thoughts do stray from the story, and that’s fine--drifting is part of the process. As soon as I realize I’ve strayed too far, I gently bring my thoughts back to the story problem.

Because this process is conscious, because it produces results, such time certainly counts as work. It COUNTS. Almost always, after fifteen minutes in the hammock, I find a new solution. My BEST work is now done in this manner.

Our culture has conditioned us to believe in the “Ballet” method of working because it can easily be seen and monitored by others. A person in a job at a company typing away at a screen “appears” to be working. Put her in a hammock under a tree—there you can’t measure or monitor her the activity of her  mind and subconscious. People watching believe she is just being lazy. But I believe new continents  rise from such creative drift.

Imagine a company where people do creative work. Imagine that each employee has not only a desk but a hammock. And each person has been taught to consciously drift to solve problems and generate new ideas. Now stretch your imagination to the limit and imagine the company actually valuing this method of working. How dazzling forward the world would leap.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

My Latest Walk (August Theme) by Holly Schindler

I've been juggling revisions all summer long, which is like being in heaven for me.  I love revision.  Talking love here.  Love.  It's so easy for me to walk into my office and get lost in the process.  And I mean lost.  I'm talking, "Wait.  What day is it again?" kind of lost.

This month's theme has been a great reminder for me to get outside and knock the cobwebs off.  A few scenes from my latest get-outta-the-house jaunt, at the Finley River in nearby Ozark:

My dog, Jake, is always sooooo glad when we push ourselves away from the desk...
...and walk near the Finley...
...and check out the skies.  I swear, Missouri has the best skies.  

And the sunsets aren't bad, either.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Sept. Theme: Walking Away (Alan Gratz)

As much as I hate to admit it, Nancy Reagan was right. Sometimes "Just say no" really is good advice.

Usually, saying yes is a good thing. Yes is an enabling word. It's a move-forward kind of word. It's a get things done kind of word. I recently listened to the audio version of Tina Fey's excellent Bossypants, and I loved what she had to say about improv theater. Here's her first rule of improv (summarized by me):

1) Agree. Always agree and say yes. You are required to agree with whatever your partner has created. The rule of agreement reminds you to respect what your partner has created. Start from a yes, and see where that takes you.

That's a great rule. It's particularly great for creative work, when an early "no" can be crippling. Say yes, and see where that takes you.

Where saying yes all the time gets you into trouble is with obligations. Yes, I'll come to your book festival! Yes, I'll speak at your conference! Yes, I'll judge your writing contest! Yes, I'll critique your manuscript! Yes, I'll blurb your book! Yes, I'll do your interview! Yes, I'll write an essay for your anthology!

Oh, and yes, I suppose I'll get that book written too.

Don't get me wrong--I want to do all those things. All those things are a big part of why I wanted to be an author in the first place. Before I was published, I wanted to be a guest at book festivals and conferences, I wanted to be asked to judge writing contests and critique manuscripts and blurb books. I wanted to give interviews and write for anthologies.

And I still do. But I've learned I have to start saying no to some things. I just don't have time to do all the writing things I want to do that aren't actually, you know, writing. I've had to walk away from some of those things. I've had to prioritize.

The only person who is really going to guard your writing time is you. It's hard, but saying no is sometimes the most important thing you can do.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

August Theme: Walking Away (Stephanie Burgis)

Way back in early 2010, I had one of those rare, precious experiences in writing: I heard a girl's voice in my head, whispering:

Here's the thing about me: I don't give up.

I knew it was the first line of her novel. Within about an instant, I knew so much more about her (Antonia O'Toole) and about her story, too. It was going to be a road trip. There would be ghosts and gangsters and witches. Antonia would be racing across America in the 1930s, heading for Hollywood.

I was on a high of excitement as I went out to dinner with my husband that night, telling him all about it. He loved the idea, too. I wrote up the idea as a little page-long summary, and my writer-friends all cheered me on. "Go for it!"

And then reality crashed in just as I sat down to start making it happen. Wait a minute. What was I thinking? I wasn't an expert in 1930s America. I'd never structured a novel that way before. Why would I think that I could do that? Possibly worst of all, it would have to include so much personal family history that it would feel intensely vulnerable to write.

This was going to be way too hard. I fled straight to a novel I thought I could handle, one that would be so much easier.

But I couldn't stop thinking about my 1930s novel. Antonia was nagging at me, with her spiky attitude and her snarky voice. I started reading up on 1930s America, "just for fun". I devoured books and documentaries, even as I kept on working on that "easier" book. Obviously I wasn't going to be dumb enough to really write something that would be so much too hard for me to pull off, but...

Over a year later, in February 2011, I sat down again with the idea. With my heart in my throat, I started writing. I wrote the first 6,000 words...

...And then I panicked again. No way. This book was turning out to be way too personal, way too raw. Way too scary.

I wrote the first 12,000 words of a different novel, one specifically designed to be safely impersonal. It was completely different from the style I prefer reading, but that made it feel safer, in a weird way.

I sent it to my writer-friends. They said, "Ah...." Their enthusiasm was, um, less than deafening...and it resonated with a truth inside me. This book wasn't me. But my 30s book was too hard! I certainly couldn't let myself write that!

So I threw myself headfirst into another project, one that would be light and frothy and absolutely safely commercial. I wrote the first 12,000 words almost too fast to think, and I sent them to my agent and editor.

Long story short? Everyone could tell I hadn't taken the time to think. I retired, to lick my wounds.

Here's the final, essential truth I came down to.

I have no idea which ideas will be successful, which books other people will love. So when it comes right down to it...the only thing I can do, as a writer, is write the books that I love, no matter how much they scare me. That way, no matter what happens in the end, I'll still be glad to have written them.

I finally went back, with fear and trembling, to my 30s book in September 2011. In March 2012 I won a bursary from Literature Wales to work on it, based on those first two chapters of the book (tentative working title: Antonia O'Toole Takes the Low Road to Hollywood).

Today, on August 16th, 2012, I finally finished the first draft of the book. It's been over two and a half years since I first got the idea, and a year and a half since I first started writing it down. There's been a lot of walking away - or, more honestly, running away - in the meantime.

But oh, am I happy to have done it.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Walking Away (August Theme) by Bob Krech

This summer I've been watching Season 2 of  The Glee Project with my daughter. She just finished her freshman year in college and I'm finding there are more television shows and movies that we both enjoy and can watch together (ie: The Wire, Modern Family). For a stretch there, there weren't too many programs we had in common and we are not a big TV family so we were working with a limited number to start with. I like to write YA and I'm finding that watching a show like The Glee Project (or Glee for that matter) gives me ideas, background, impressions, language, and really, just lots of material to ponder about the lives of teenagers. I also love the music and the talent. Plus the lyrics to so many of the songs are just plain great writing. It's all a pretty uplifting package.

After watching last night's episode (the season finale!), I find myself humming and singing all kinds of things this morning, so I'm just going go with it. With this in mind, and in a desperate attempt to connect to this month's theme, using perhaps the simplest writing form known to man (the list), here's some of my favorite "walking music" for your playlist:

As She's Walkin' Away - Zac Brown Band featuring Alan Jackson
Walk on the Wild Side - Lou Reed
Walk this Way - Aerosmith or Run - D.M.C. versions (both great!)
Under the Boardwalk - The Drifters
I Walk the Line - Johnny Cash
I'm Walkin' - Fats Domino
Walking to New Orleans - Fats Domino
Sleep Walk - Santo and Johnny (instrumental)
Walk on By - Dionne Warwick
Walk Away Renee - The Left Banke
Walk Like an Egyptian - The Bangles
Walking On Sunshine - Katrina and the Waves
Walking On the Moon - The Police
Walking the Dog - Rufus Thomas
You'll Never Walk Alone - Jerry and the Pacemakers
Walk Like a Man - The Four Seasons

Hey, each one's a little story of its own. And you can dance to them!

Monday, August 13, 2012

August Theme: Walking Away (Tracy Barrett)

I spent a week earlier this month at the SCBWI Summer Conference, where Newbery-winning author Clare Vanderppool gave a very funny keynote in which she described a typical writing day, which included trying to work while surrounded by all the chaos of a household with four children. She then said something that contradicts the advice that I’ve heard ever since I started to take this writing thing seriously: You don’t have to write every day.

And lately I’ve been hearing other writers say the same thing.

I find this validating. I’ve never been able to take that advice. Some days have just been too full, too busy; some days my creative juice has gone elsewhere; some days I had obligations that absolutely, positively had to be met.

After I took on a heftier volunteer position with SCBWI than I had previously held, I determined not to let my writing go by the wayside. I knew it would be tough; I still had a year to go in my day job, and taking care of all of these responsibilities would be a challenge. It was only when I realized that I was never not working—either writing, dealing with SCBWI issues, trying to keep up with the minimal promotion that I do, or tackling my day job—that I decided to call a halt to it.

So the instant my day job ended (May 11—a date I’ll never forget!) I declared that I would take a writing sabbatical every week. One day a week I would do no work related to writing, promotion, or SCBWI. If my mind wandered and I came up with an interesting plot twist or a solution to a character dilemma, I could write it down as long as it didn’t fill more than one standard-sized Post-it.

Now that it’s been a few months, I can safely say that the advice to write every day, while it might work for some, doesn’t work for me. While taking a day off every week, I did major revisions on not one but two manuscripts, I jotted down the first few chapters of an entirely new kind of story, and I’ve roughed out the basic lines of a project that’s been tumbling around in my head for a long time. It isn’t one-size-fits-all, just like any other advice: writing a crappy first draft and revising it later vs. revising as you go, or outlining vs. not outlining. What works for you on this particular project on this particular day is what you should do.

And what works for me, at least for now, is to walk away one day a week.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

And So I Walk - August Theme from Jody Feldman

The traditional logic may tell you to stay, face your problems. Not so, at least not for me when it comes to my writing. The longer I sit and face the problem area on the page, the more it turns into lines and squiggles and nonsense and a random collection of words that will never work the way I want them to.

So I walk away. I do it almost daily. My two-mile path takes me to the elementary school and back. I pass the same houses and trees, tread along the same sidewalks, watch out for the same cracks. I do not vary my route. I do not take social walks.

This is work. This is part of my process.

It was on one of these walks I realized I had the wrong main character for The Seventh Level. It was on one of these walks I learned why Gil wanted to win The Gollywhopper Games so badly. It was on one of these walks I discovered the twist for Gollywhopper 2.

It’s on these walks I come up for new workshop ideas, for ways to word speeches, for different variations on my school talks.

My favorite times to walk (weather aside) is that point in my writing day when I have come to an impasse, small or large. The routine of walking the same speed along the same path provides the white space I need to for accidently-on-purpose brainstorming.

I don’t force any issues. The problems are already entrenched in my mind. When I close the door behind me, my thoughts may meander from last night’s dream to tonight’s dinner to the color of peacock feathers. Somewhere along the memorized path, I come back to my characters and my plots and other necessary inspiration. And often – nearly always – I come back inside the house, back to my computer, ready to stay and face my problems.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

August Theme: A Walk to the Couch (Platte F Clark)

I like to think of myself as an avid indoorist, thanks to the US Army. Sure, hiking was enjoyable once, and then I was introduced to the “forced march.” Sleeping under the stars was at one time thrilling, until the government had me do it in sub-zero temperatures using “cold weather gear” which turned out to be a promise rather than a descriptor. And taking deep breaths of fresh mountain air lost much of its appeal as gleeful sergeants chucked CS (orto-chlorobenzylidene-malononitrile) gas canisters at us and watched the hilarious results.

Maybe I’ll return to nature and commune at some point, but in the meantime when I need to walk away from writing for a bit I love watching movies with my kids. And not only movies, I love many of the current cartoon series on Disney, Cartoon Network, and Nickelodeon. There’s an art form there, crafted in 11 and 22 minute chunks, that I find inspirational. Okay, maybe not front-leaning-yoga-on-the-beach-at-sunrise-as-a-sea-turtle-slips-into-the-ocean inspirational, but still kind of neat.

I enjoy storytelling on all levels, and there’s an artful abstraction at work when you only have 11 minutes and you want the audience to empathize, worry, cheer-on, and laugh over such a short arc. I think it’s fascinating to see what resonates with my kids (I have seven, including four teenagers, so I end up doing a lot of ad hoc focus groups). So for me, I’ll recharge the writing batteries with an animation-fueled laugh-fest with my kids (we also love classic Three Stooges!) Of course that may also explain why I authored a book called Bad Unicorn, and why there’s a stuffed squirrel impaled on the cover.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012


For me writing is not just sitting at my laptop.  During many parts of my working day, I don’t look like I’m working much at all…especially to my wife.  Writers need to be good daydreamers.  We need to be good at imagining. 

I’m not talking about just letting your mind wander (although that’s important and can lead to unexpected ideas).  I’m talking about letting your mind wander into your story.  To get your thoughts deeply in that part of your head where your story is alive.

Taking a walk—which I do everyday—is my time to work on my story in my imagination.  So to you writers out there, here are a few suggestions for things to ponder as you take your own writer’s walk:

  1. What if…?  Nothing gets your creativity engine revved like a “what if” question.
  2. Readers love characters with big emotions.  What are situations you can put your character in that will bring out some powerful feelings?
  3. Work out a hook or catchy line to start or end your next chapter.
  4. What do you think your readers are hoping will happen for your protagonist?  Tease and deliver (but maybe not quite in the way your reader is expecting).
  5. Pick of a part of your story you think readers might start skimming.  How can you get them through that scene quicker/better?
  6. Readers like to see how others handle problems. What is something that worried you as a young person?  How can you have your character wrestle with that fear?
  7. What have you done to make readers care about your protagonist in the first chapter?  Consider ways to make that emotional connection stronger.
  8. What are important aspects you want to reveal about your protagonist/antagonist?  Develop a secondary character or situation that illuminates this part of the protagonist/antagonist’s character.
  9. Ponder why readers will read your story.  What is it that will appeal to a young reader?  How can you make that more appealing/powerful?
  10. What are you doing/saying with your story that no other author would?

If you have others, please post them in the comments.  I’d love to hear helpful suggestions you use to think deeply about your story and writing craft.

Happy walking!

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

August Theme: Surprise Yourself by Naomi Kinsman

The conventional wisdom is that when a writer needs to write, she must go sit in her chair and place her hands on the keyboard. She must show up to work. I fully agree with this notion. I believe waiting for inspiration to strike is foolish. Writers who refuse to show up at their desk unless they "feel ready" are comparable to marathon runners who only run when they "feel fast." How can a runner become faster if they don't train? And how will our ideas begin to flow if we don't tap into them regularly?

That said, I know I personally don't allow myself enough room to play, and that lack of play is also foolish. Just as inspiration is unlikely to strike if I never write, it's even more unlikely to strike if I brow-beat myself into droning away, word after word at my desk. And yet, often I fall into the trap of refusing myself time away from my desk. In fact, this is such a problem for me that when I attended Hamline's MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults, I wrote my critical thesis about my personal struggle to learn to let go and open up to surprise. 

Viola Spolin, beloved teacher of improvisational theatre, defines spontaneity as "the moment of personal freedom when we are faced with reality and we see it, explore it, and act accordingly." Consider her statement for a moment. In order to achieve spontaniety, we must face reality. We must see it, explore it, and physically do something. None of these actions have anything to do with a computer screen. In fact, a computer screen is almost the opposite of reality. To me, computers have come to symbolize virtual reality, or reality that isn't real. We must move around, take in the sights, smells, tastes and sounds of our environment to face actual reality. And thus, time away from the screen is essential for spontaneity.

Why does spontaneity matter? I think a moment of spontaneity, that flash of inspiration for which no artist can plan, elevates a created what-not into a work of art. We've all made the hand-turkey step by step at one time in our lives. A hand-turkey might be a created object, but we'd hardly call it a work of art. But if spontaneity is required for art, what does that mean? We have to cross our fingers and wait for these magical moments to arise?

Nope. Here's the good news. In my research, I learned that just as runners train for speed, writers can train for spontaneity. Truly. My husband, the marathon runner, logs weekly miles, just as I log weekly words. Then, one day a week, sometimes more often, he goes to the track and does sprints to build up his speed. For writers, the parallel tool is play. Seriously. How fun is that? And what makes something the right kind of play? Here's the scoop. 

1. Choose something physical: just move your body. You can bake a new concoction, dance, paint at an easel, snorkel, plant new flowers, or whatever catches your fancy. The main thing is to engage your body as much as you can.

2. Choose an activity with rules or guidelines. In order to allow your brain room for those flashes of inspiration, you need to become mentally engaged with the game at hand. 

3. Let go. Spontaneity is not to be forced. One day, a brilliant idea might show up while you play. The next, laughter may be your reward. Not every activity MUST result in quantifiable results. The main thing is to remember to show up and play, in just the same way you show up to work. Work results in raw material to shape, but play results in artwork that is fresh and uniquely your own.

Spontaneity is that exact intersection of the conscious and the subconscious, when what is intuitive and invisible leaps into our awareness, ready for us to deal with it, to wrestle with it and to shape it into art. Artists need spontaneity. It's essential. Don't feel silly when you take that break and play. You're giving your intuition a chance to bubble up and over. You're giving your creative gift to yourself, and ultimately, to the world.

If you'd like to explore resources on the importance of play, check out Dr. Stuart Brown's work at the Institute for Play here.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Children's Library Nonfiction: Where Do We Go From Here? by Trudi Trueit

I had just settled in to work on this month's theme, to scribble a few lighthearted thoughts on how vacuuming helps me grapple with stumbling blocks in my writing, when I got a phone call. It was my nonfiction editor from Marshall Cavendish and she had bad news. The conglomerate that owns Marshall Cavendish decided to put MC's library imprint, Benchmark, up for sale. Everything had been frozen. What this meant for me was that four books I had spent much of this year writing for my Careers with Animals middle/high school series (and the two more I was to write this fall) are now in limbo. Worse, the six books I had anticipated helping to launch next month (Backyard Safari series II and a book on Horse Care) would not be released. That’s ten books. A year and a half of my life's work. Worse still, my editor and most of the incredibly talented people I’ve had the pleasure to work with over the past five years will soon be losing their jobs. 

As a nonfiction writer in the children’s library market, I have felt the ground shifting under me for some time. When I first started writing library books about twelve years ago, this segment of the publishing world was a smoothly operating machine. Publishers laid out their schedules two years in advance. I was offered reasonable advances with fair royalties from a variety of publishers. Deadlines were spaced well apart, allowing me to do in-depth research and quality writing. I was booked out six months to a year ahead of time. But slowly, things began to erode. First, it was the schedule; deadlines came faster and faster until I had to start turning down jobs that would not allow me adequate time to do the kind of research and writing I insist upon for a book bearing my name. Then it was the royalties. Gradually, they trickled away, replaced by work-for-hire salaries that have decreased year by year. Last summer, a publisher I had worked for in the past (and that paid an acceptable fee) asked me to write 12 books (about 4,000 words each) in five weeks – that’s a book every three days. It was an impossible task, even if the work-for-hire fee had been reasonable (it wasn’t). I never expected to get rich writing children’s library books, but now, I am fighting to hold on to an industry that is losing its grip. Soon, for my own safety, I am going to have to let go. And that breaks my heart.

It is, sadly, a sign of the times. In virtually every state, budgets for libraries are being slashed at the local, state, and federal level. Today's news told of the most recent victim: the Jacksonville, Florida library, which faces an 11% budget cut. The cuts would close the library on Sundays, reduce hours during the week, eliminate 71 full-time jobs, and chop the materials budget in half. It translates to 5,000 fewer copies of books for children and teens. No money to purchase books means, of course, no money to pay me to write new ones.

I wish I had an answer for what is happening. I wish I could tell you that writing to our politicians, voting for levies, and volunteering at our local libraries would help us change course. A lot of us have done those things already, and the cuts keep coming. Still, I’m not ready to give up. As long as I write, whatever I write, I will do what I can to support libraries and the wonderful librarians who motivated me to read and write as a child, and who continue to inspire me.

There was a bright spot in my stormy week. I learned that a large county library system in my state selected one of my fiction books, Secrets of a Lab Rat: No Girls Allowed (Dogs Okay) for their 2012-13 Global Reading Challenge for fourth and fifth graders. I was invited to be their guest author and give a short talk to the finalists next spring. I can’t wait to share with the kids how I practically lived at the library when I was their age! And how fiction and nonfiction books opened up a whole new world to me. I want to be able to tell the next generation of writers that there is a place for them in creating nonfiction. I hope there is. I pray there will be. But I’m not sure. Right now, I’m not sure of anything. 

Friday, August 3, 2012


Once upon a time I gave to a friend a plaque that said, “A clean house is the sign of a dull woman.” This friend struggled to keep her home clean, and really how important is it to be tidy, so long as no one’s health is endangered?

But me, I’m tidy. Not because I’m dull; because I’m a writer. (Which, okay, some might consider dull.) ANYHOW. One of the ways I work out story problems and get to know my characters and discover the very best word for a hole in a poem is by wiping down the countertops and running the vacuum and sliding the duster over (and under) the picture frames. There’s something about the repetitive motion that allows my mind to whirr and hum and very often, experience one of those oh-so-satisfying “yes” moments.

And yes, this can also be achieved by yard work, but y’all, I live in Alabama, where for half the year the heat and humidity make it just about unbearable to be outdoors doing anything beyond sipping ice-cold tea from the comfort of a swayback hammock.

So. Housework. When you’re struggling with a work-in-progress, give it a whirl. Worst case scenario: your mother-in-law will be very impressed.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

August Theme: Walking Away

Like most writers I've learned that often the best thing I can do when I get stuck on the page is just walk away for awhile--literally. In fact, any activity that doesn't require my full attention--like walking--can give my active brain just the break it craves. Then, while my brain is enjoying that break, nine times out of ten my subconscious will kick in with a solution to whatever writing problem I'm currently grappling with.

Here are some activities (besides walking) that often seem to help my brain relax into writing solutions: 
--driving somewhere familiar (grocery store, the gym, the library)
--folding laundry
--doing dishes
--listening to music
--embroidery *

*I like old-fashioned stamped cross-stitch. It takes less thought than counted cross-stitch, so it allows my brain to wander while I stitch. Plus, the slow nature of hand-stitching is a nice reminder of the way we embroider stories, one phrase, a sentence, a paragraph, a page, many pages, and one chapter at a time.

Pillowcases embroidered by the author

I learned embroidery from my mom. She made this alphabet sampler on the occasion of my son's birth.
Love of embroidery goes back generations in my family. This sampler was stitched by my paternal grandmother.