Archive for the ‘finding Inspiration’ Category

Last month while I was having a chat with fellow writer, Doug Soulter, I was reminded of a childhood memory.

When I was a kid I used to hang off the end of my bed so I could look at the world upside-down. I would do this for ages. After awhile, something kind of magical would happen; the world would shift and all of a sudden I was living like some kind of upside-down creature, pinned to the ceiling by reversed gravity. My perception of reality changed. I could see a whole different world around me. High hurdles to jump over every doorway, dangerous ceiling fans to dodge, light fixtures to swing on. Outside my window, trees seemed to be dangling into a vast nothingness. I wondered what would happen to me if I ventured out my front door.

I was a weird kid.

With maybe too much time on my hands.

upside-down01

The reason the aforementioned conversation had sparked this particular memory was directly related to the topic of changes in perception. While we were waiting to hear an author speak at a local library, I asked Doug about his current writing project. I’d heard he was reworking one of his novels as a screenplay and this decision fascinated me.

Why would he choose to do this?

He explained that his writing roots were firmly entrenched in screenplay writing and for several years, he’d departed from that format to pursue writing full-length novels. That in itself had been quite an adventure. He was interested to see how much he’d learned from writing novels when he returned to screenwriting. I asked him about some of the differences.

For one thing, he said, screenplay writing really helps you tighten your focus; if you can’t see it, you can’t write it. Meaning, if you can’t visualize something happening, then it can’t be in the script. It can’t happen. The entire story takes place through the eye of the camera – your POV character, as it were. He said that’s why screenplay writing is so great for helping you see things visually.

Talk about a change in perception.

That really got me thinking about how changes in perception can effect our stories, our ability to stretch as writers.

This year, I finished working on a YA project and then switched to revising an old MG project I’d had in a drawer for a few years. The change in perception from YA voice to MG voice was startling. I could see some of my mistakes right away. In some areas, the voice was too old, too adult in tone, in others, too young. I needed to stabilize it, make it consistent. One thing working on the YA novel had helped me find was a strong voice. I could now see where the voice in the MG was going wrong in this story and I was better able to fix it. Once that issue was addressed, the rest of the revision started to move along quite nicely.

Spending time studying and working in a different style, working with a change of perception, helped me see my writing in a clearer light – the good and the bad.

Some of my favorite authors write in different styles and I love when they stretch in unexpected directions. Usually it makes their writing stronger, better. One of my writing mentors, after having 19 young adult novels published, decided she wanted to write a picture book. Even though she was a master craftsman at the young adult historical fiction genre, she started at the beginning with picture books. She read a ton of picture books, went to conference talks about picture books, and studied how to write picture books before delving into this new style of writing. Her first picture book comes out next year and it’s really amazing.

And she’s not done learning.

I never want to be done learning either. How about you? Do you write in more than one style? What have you learned from cross-training your writer’s brain?

 

(FYI, the awesome picture above is from a 2012 French- Canadian romantic science fiction film called Upside Down starring Kirsten Dunst and Jim Sturgess that I stumbled across while mindlessly searching through Google. My daughter and I have vowed we must now see this movie.)

scbwi2013I love being a part of the SCBWI tribe.

And not just because I get to run away every summer and play with my fellow writers in a celebration of children’s books. I don’t think I could make it through this grueling struggle towards publication without such a crazy-supportive community.

As Lin Oliver stated in her opening address of the SCBWI Summer conference, “Let’s admit that we’re all kind of weirdos”. That’s probably why I feel so at home when I’m there; the place is chock full of kindred spirits.

I always enjoy the parade of the faculty that follows her opening speech. This is when each speaker marches across the stage, introduces themselves and sums up life, the universe, and everything in one word. (Strangely, I have never heard someone use the word forty-two.) As usual, not all writers follow the rules.

Here are some of my favorites from this year:

David Weisner  “Plastics”

Richard Peck  “Surveillance”

Jay Asher  “Subtlety”

Then Jay spoke for his writing partner who couldn’t attend the faculty parade: (in high-pitched voice)”Hi, I’m Carolyn Mackler and my word is Asparagus”.

Matt de la Peña “Honesty” and “Tequila” (I think the tequila helps with the honesty.)

Kristin Clark Venuti “Brain fart”

Ari Lewin “Bacon”

Laurie Halse Anderson made up a word, “Frenergy” which she described as frenzy and energy.

After wracking her brain all night trying to think of a word, Alyn Johnston was inspired by the talking elevator in the hotel : “L-lobby!” (Did I mention that the elevator has a very laid back Californian accent?)

LiveImage.ashxAfter several other inspiring words, the conference got rolling with a great keynote from Laurie Halse Anderson that just made me love her forever. (Okay, I was already a fan of her work, but now it’s permanently carved into my heart: me + LHA = reader love forever and ever.)

I’ve felt an emotional disconnect with my writing lately. It’s all tied up in agent-submission fatigue and self-doubt. Anderson shot straight to the heart of that when she discussed her early writing struggles. At one point she said:

“Your fear is that you are a fraud with no talent.”

I wondered how she could see into my soul from eight rows back. I almost cried. She told us that there was a reason that we could hear dialogue and see in pictures. We have the gift of magic, of ‘Once upon a Time’.

“Books are proof humans can do magic.”

Amen! and Hell, yeah! I almost screamed out. She said that we are NOT like the other grownups; that we defend, protect, and celebrate childhood. We write books with integrity and honesty. In short, she said all of the things that recharged my writer’s heart and reminded me why I loved writing. She reminded me to forget about trends and to write what I love. It was the best way for me to start the conference – letting go of the negative crap and embracing the creative. Throughout the conference, this was the focus for me. I didn’t care this time about how to best market myself or which agents to pursue or what editors were wanting; I looked for things that inspired me.

I spent some quality time with my writing friends and sampled the local cuisine.

Me and most of the Oklahoma gang

Me and most of the Oklahoma gang

Eating at Toscanova with the whole gang.

Eating at Toscanova with the whole gang.

Bavette Alle Capesante (OMG! so good!)

Bavette Alle Capesante (OMG! so good!)

I checked out the art of a billion illustrators – not an original idea.

I think I see Jerry's bald head somewhere in the back.

I think I see Jerry’s bald head somewhere in the back.

I may have even donned a costume and danced a bit.

The Great Catsby and the girls.

The Great Catsby and the girls.

The Movie Mogul and Who is that fabulously feathered masked woman?

Jerry, The Movie Mogul and Who is that fabulously feathered masked woman?

I met some authors and took some awkward photos – they were all so generous with their time and kind words.

Laurie Halse Anderson at least knows how to keep her eyes open...

Laurie Halse Anderson at least knows how to keep her eyes open…

Joking around with Mac Barnett

Joking around with Mac Barnett

Me and Matt de la Pena. The flash went off and I froze like a deer waiting to be shot.

Me and Matt de la Peña. The flash went off and I froze like a deer waiting to be shot.

I may have gone overboard with the books.

too many books

(My bag weighed in at 49.5 lbs at the airport – score!)

I’ll be sharing posts in the weeks ahead about some great talks that helped me find the inspiration that made me excited about writing again. I hope you enjoy them.

As for my writing goals this month, I’ve toned them down a bit. Last month was a little crazy (which may have contributed to my negative state of mind).

Here are my #writemotivation goals for August:

1. Enjoy the SCBWI Summer Conference. DONE!!!
2. Revise, revise, revise. I have tons of critique notes from crit camp to review – not to mention my critique from the conference. I will be very busy with this.
3. Write, write, write. DITTO.
4. Read, read, read. I’ve indulged in this goal for the past few weeks and have read over six books already. More on that to come!
5. Keep that exercise routine going. Blech. Yes, I’m working on it. Stop nagging me. I’m just back from vacation, er, a business trip, whatever.

I hope you’ve all had an enjoyable summer and are rejuvenated from your various adventures. I know I am. Here’s to a productive and inspired fall!

Doing a favor for loved ones rarely puts one’s life in danger, but then it also rarely involves psychotic chickens.

Last week, the kids and I set off on a four hour road trip to house-sit for my folks deep in the Ozarks of rural Missouri and to experience what my dad kept calling an adventure (my first clue something would go terribly wrong).

I was greeted with a four page manifesto of chores – the bare minimum necessary to keep the place running smoothly. That’s okay, I thought, I wrote my folks something similar once when the hubs and I went on vacation many, many moons ago – a survival guide for babysitting the younglings, more than double the length of their instructions.

It’s all in the details.

I admit, I may have glazed over some of the details in that first reading due to road fatigue and children demands – What’s to eat? How do I work the TV? Why are there so many bugs here?

One of the details mentioned something about a rift in the chicken world with one particularly spiky chicken nicknamed “The Bitch” who had to be quarantined away from the younger chickens throughout the day so she didn’t terrorize them and peck them unmercifully. Good thing I didn’t have to start worrying about that just yet.

We started the next day with a brief introduction to the psychotic chickens. Entering the pen and throwing scratch on the ground. Don’t ask me what scratch is, I don’t know. I just measured it out of the bucket labeled “scratch” like the directions said and spread it around like I was told. I am not a country girl – as you may have guessed by now. The two oldest chickens met us near the gate to the pens, clucking in what sounded like a friendly manner. They went after that scratch the minute it hit the straw-covered ground. That gave us time to observe them and check out their surroundings – and most important of all, look for eggs. My folks had been gone a good twenty-four hours by then so we found a good haul. We made our slow departure, eggs in hand. I left the chicken compound thinking, hmm, maybe this chicken thing would be easy.

Ha.

After that excitement, the daughter who has developed an extreme phobia to all flying insects, decided to stay inside while the boy and I enjoyed a beautiful walk along the countryside. I did remember the one detail in the instructions about bug spray; if you’re going to spend any amount of time outdoors, spray, spray, spray. Or you’ll get nasty chigger bites. Spray we did, then off we went to enjoy nature.

Trevor Walk

Trevor walking up ahead.

Wildflowers

Wildflowers in the morning sun.

Uphill Walk

If only I hadn’t forgotten how steep and rocky the hills were on the return trip. Who needs an elliptical or treadmill? This hill was set to extreme cardio level 10!

By the time we’d walked a little over a mile, I was breathing so hard it hurt my chest and my calves were singing in pain. I thought I was going to die. And I hadn’t even begun the daily chores. Nice. When we climbed the final steep hill back up to the house, my son decided he’d had enough. Time to take a shower and call it a day. I tucked him in to his favorite spot with his favorite things and started a movie. He was back asleep before I went out the door. I envied him.

It wasn’t so much that the tasks were difficult – mostly there was a lot of watering garden areas and moving hoses around, carting water buckets to flowerbeds, that kind of thing. What killed me was climbing up and down to those rocky hills about thirty times to get it all done. I was a sweating, drooling, zombie-shuffling corpse (complete with incomprehensible moaning) by the end of the day.

And I haven’t even mentioned dealing with the chickens.

The instructions said around noon I’d have to corner The Bitch and pick her up – I was told not to worry because she was used to being picked up and this should be fairly easy to do (another warning sign that things would go terribly wrong). Once I had a firm hold of her I would then need to let the younger chickens out of the coop into the open area of the pen. After they were all out in the yard, I would gently secure The Bitch in the coop and lock her in for the remainder of the day after making sure there was plenty of food and water inside.

Right.

Let me just tell you that is not what happened on the first day. Or the second. Or the third. Not even on the fourth.

I brought my daughter along to help me corner said spiky/bitchy chicken.  After a few minutes, it was clear she wouldn’t be fairly easy to pick up no matter how “used to it” she was. All of our chasing did manage to direct her into the small dog crate in the chicken yard  – also used for chicken separation. Sweating and panting, we made sure she had food and water and locked her into solitary.

I was exhausted. And my chores were only half-done at this point.

For the rest of the day, there was just more water hauling, kid-wrangling, body-aching to contend with. The younger chickens actually put themselves to roost in the coop that night so locking them back in and releasing The Bitch, as we now affectionately referred to her, into the main pen was much easier than our noontime adventure. The only other notable event came when we were wrapping up our final evening chores. We had to bring in the leftover cat food for the outside cats so it wouldn’t attract raccoons. A little after dusk, I had my daughter shine the flashlight along the walkway while I retrieved the food. (Have I mentioned she’s also an arachnophobe?)

At the first sight of this…

Daddy Long Legs courtesy of Benny Mazur via Flickr

Daddy Long Legs courtesy of Benny Mazur via Flickr

…she screamed and the light went out.

I froze and asked her what happened.

  “Spider!” she yelled and pointed at the harmless loping thing as it made its way across the deck.

 “Turn the light back on,” I said. She did and then promptly screamed again.

“Eek!”

There was another one, a little closer, but still just as harmless, moseying along. At this point, my light source companion bailed on me, not waiting to see what other horrors lurked in the darkness. She high-tailed it back into the house.

I sighed and wondered if she’d ever get over her irrational fear of all things creepy and crawly. There was just enough light that I could still make out fuzzy outlines of most things so I just soldiered on. I was almost at my destination; the end of the deck. I grabbed the food dish and then screamed even louder than my daughter. Inside the dish, coming towards my hand, was the largest daddy long legs I’d ever seen (trauma of the situation may have warped my recollection of events and size of said arachnid). I dropped the food dish with a mighty clatter and spilled out all of the remaining cat food. The raccoons fed well that night, I must tell you.

I bolted into the house even faster than my youngling and slammed the door. I couldn’t stop laughing at the ridiculousness of the situation and the entire day. My daughter, once learning what I’d done, joined in laughing at me. This, of course woke up my son who just looked at the two of us like we were insane. At that moment, I’m pretty sure I was.

Day two was pretty much a repeat of day one, with the added bonus of pain. Copious amounts of pain from all the work I’d done the day before. I knew I wasn’t in great shape, but it wasn’t very nice of the Ozark Hills to advertise this fact so maliciously. Also, the chickens were much less cooperative.

Yeah.

Less.

The Bitch didn’t fall for the old, let’s go into the dog crate routine so easily this time. Instead, she hid underneath the back roosting nest after leading us on quite the aerobic chase around the pen. I finally had to go get a long stick to prod her (gently) to come out. Her response was to run around the back side of the coop where only a slimmer, younger chick could fit. Let’s just say she got herself stuck in an embarrassing position – literally stuck between the coop and the fencing.

WTF?

That wasn’t in the manual.

I pulled the fencing out as far as I could to make it wider for her and she still remained stuck, flapping her little wings and running her legs in mid-air, like a chicken with her head cut…er,I mean, to no avail. I gave her a loving, gentle prodding with the stick (I swear, it was loving and gentle) and she finally came out. Still, it took another ten minutes to get That Bitch in the damned dog crate.  Another day in the hole.

That night, way past their bed time, the younger chicks decided to test the new babysitters. They weren’t ready to go quietly into the coop. I reread the instructions and it said we were supposed to chase them in to the coop – and that they were used to this. (HA! And again I say, HA!) As this was night time, and I thought this was a quick chore, like it had been the night before, I did the unthinkable – I forgot to spray, spray spray before going out to do this simple task. It took at least fifteen minutes to corral all of those damned psychotic chickens into their coop. And don’t think I wasn’t a little bit tempted at my weakest moment to bring out The Bitch to finish the job and chase them into the coop for me.

The other chores went a little smoother, although I did drop the cat food dish, again – less to spill this time. I think it was just a little PTSD from the night before. Or maybe from my entire experience thus far.

One nice thing about this day…

Fireworks 2

…It ended with a bang!

Fireworks 1

And we only set one little small fire that was put out in a second. No problem.

(Did I mention that I woke up with the worst chigger bites all over my arms and legs?) Apparently, toothpaste works wonders for the itch when nothing else does, also you smell minty fresh. I thank my daughter for that home remedy she learned while watching some science program. You rock, even though you abandoned me in the dark. All is forgiven.

So what if the nice, relaxing country vacation where I could hang out with the kids and get some writing done didn’t happen exactly the way I thought it would. We eventually got into a better rhythm with the homestead and all of its creatures, even the psychotic chickens. By the fourth day, I woke up and didn’t feel crippling pain, just good, honest muscle ache – that I could work with. We all three had our stations in the chicken coop when it came time to put The Bitch in solitary and she went in with much less stress for all involved and in record time.

There were some really good moments, too. We made time to visit our favorite eating establishment there in Gainesville, Missouri. Antler Package & Pizza, otherwise referred to as The Antler, where they do indeed decorate with antlers and the heads that came with them.

Taking a break for dinner at our favorite Missouri hangout - Antlers.

Taking a break for dinner at our favorite Missouri hangout – The Antler.

Regardless of the décor, the food is to die for. Trevor devours the famous cheese pizza and my husband swears they have some of the best burgers around.

On the final day, once the sore muscles faded and the itching stopped, the chores were done, and there was time to just be, I had time to absorb my surroundings and this is where I was…

Trees at Sunset

and here…

Sunset Deck View 1 Sunset Deck View 2

and I did find some inspiration. So in the end, even the psychotic chickens were worth it.

Sometimes when I’m reading or listening to a news story or looking at a piece of art, I get this overwhelming feeling of inspiration that I can hardly contain and I must drop whatever I’m doing to start writing. I thought sharing some of these moments of inspiration might be a fun element to add to my stable of blog posts, so here’s the first one.

Caroline Shaw recently won the Pulitzer Prize for Music for her piece Partita for 8 Voices.  At 30 years old, she is the youngest composer to win since the inception of the award. She is also one of only a handful of female composers to win this honor. Shaw wrote this piece for the vocal group partita-for-8-voices---shawRoomful of Teeth, “a vocal octet dedicated to re-imagining singing in the 21st century.” (Description from group’s website.) Shaw is also a member of the group.

Sol LeWitt Wall Drawing 305

Sol LeWitt’s Wall Drawing 305 – Inspiration for Shaw’s piece

What I found most intriguing about this interview on NPR was how modern and avant garde her composition was and that she was inspired by a piece of artwork by Sol LeWitt entitled Wall Drawing 305. I love it when one form of artistic expression inspires another. It happens to me all the time.

This particular art piece is one of a series “in which LeWitt experimented with textual instructions that direct the draftsman to construct shapes on the wall. Called ‘location’ drawings, these works are done in black pencil with geometric figures emphasized in crayon, foregrounding the process of drawing as a problem-solving mechanism.” (excerpt from Mass Mo Ca website).

As to how it inspired Shaw, there’s one moment in her music piece  where the lush harmonies give way to a cacophony of vocal noise, like several people talking at once.

“It’s funny, my first thought was, ‘Wow, that’s what the Internet sounds like!’ When you open your computer and everyone’s talking at you suddenly,” Shaw says. “But I was really wanting to hear the sound of jumbled talking, where you can’t understand what’s going on — and then, suddenly, one beautiful, simple chord.”  (excerpt from A Moment With Pulitzer-Winning Composer Caroline Shaw.)

After hearing the interview and this description of what it sounded like, I had to hear it. I found it surprisingly beautiful and haunting. The spoken voice part blended in so well with the whole composition. Click on this link to hear Partita for 8 Voices for yourself.

So that’s my first “Inspiring Stories” post. Be sure to let me know what you think and feel free to share any inspirations you’ve had.

My friend Anna Myers gave a great presentation at our last SCBWI OK schmooze here in Tulsa entitled “Secrets to Character Development”. Anna knows a little something about character. All of her 19 novels are character-driven. Before she starts a new book, her main characters come to her almost fully formed. When she sits down to write, she puts on some music with a strong connection to the story she wants to tell, becomes very quiet, almost meditative, and waits for her character to show up.

Then she forgets herself.

That’s the most important thing to remember about character development, according to Anna:

“You have to ditch yourself.”

I’ve seen Anna perform a few school visits, and when I say perform,  I mean Anna puts on the semblance of a wardrobe, takes just a beat to get into character, and then launches into a monologue. She becomes a character from one of her books in order to tell the kids about the story – a very effective, attention-getting technique.

Lose yourself and become your character.

http://katherinegscott.files.wordpress.com/2011/04/children_playing_nurse_7.jpg

Is anybody in there?

Anna added one caveat to that:

“You must first learn your craft. If you haven’t learned your craft, you’re wasting your time.”

She then pointed to me out of the group gathered and said that when she first met me, my writing was horrible (I nodded in agreement), but then I worked at it and worked at it and my writing improved. Now I’m on the cusp of success. (Feels like I’ve been here forever, but the publishing world sometimes moves slowly, requiring tenacity…and PATIENCE.)

Once you’ve done this, once you’ve learned your craft, you have to stop trying so hard.

Easier said than done?

Yes. But that also can be accomplished with practice. Lose the barriers between yourself and the child you used to be. After all, you can’t write from the perspective of a twelve year-old girl if you’re stuck in your forty-something mind.

This whole talk sparked a vivid memory for me.

I was working in Albany, New York, as a nanny for this lovely family. Both the husband and wife were eye surgeons. The wife, Anna, (I think I’m destined to be influenced by fabulous women named Anna) and I would often have interesting philosophical discussions. It is partly due to her that I learned to open up my empathy and see the world through others’ eyes. We were discussing child abuse for some reason, and let’s just say for the sake of argument that I’d been in close proximity to and witness of some ugly abuse in the past. During this discussion, I made a grand statement as I was apt to do back in my late teens, early twenties, and said something about how I couldn’t understand how anyone could hit a child. Ever.

I thought it was an easy position to support and I thought Anna would agree with me, one hundred percent. Instead she surprised me. In her way of disagreeing, she said, “You can’t? I can.”

Then she had me imagine that I was a single teenaged mother, stuck in a tiny, cramped apartment – day in and day out – with a howling baby that I had no skill in caring for. Imagine that I felt like my life was over. I’m sleep-deprived, hungry, have no coping skills, and no support system. And the baby won’t stop screaming. “Don’t you think at some point, you might just lose it and lash out?”

I was shocked. This was not the answer I’d expected. Then I thought about what she said. I could picture myself as this young girl and what it would be like to live her life. Maybe things were not so black and white.

I now find it easy to understand people’s motivations – what makes them tick – by using this same method of stepping into their shoes. I just need to work on stretching a little farther until I actually feel myself becoming them, becoming my characters, before I start to write. Almost there.

How about you? Do you channel your character effortlessly or do you struggle with characterization?

photograph by Hugh Lee and licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0. httpwww.flickr.comphotossahlgoodeI’ve had a pretty productive week on the writing front and not all of that frenetic activity was related to my goals. I worked on a submission for a scholarship entry that was based on a writing prompt. I used to hate writing from prompts, maybe because I’m not great at taking direction. Or maybe because I don’t like limits and restrictions on what I can write. Most of my writing ideas have come to me out of the blue and I have to write them down before they evaporate into the creative ether from whence they came. But then this past summer I heard Kate Messner talk at the SCBWI LA Conference about how she gets her ideas for picture books. She said that sure, some of her ideas come to her out of the blue, but why wait for those rare moments? Why not work at generating them? She gave everyone present her secret matrix for brainstorming ideas and then made us try it out. Within five minutes, I actually had some possible picture book ideas – not that I’m ready to write picture books just yet, but that is a goal I have in the future.

Kate said: “Many picture book authors write lots of crappy picture book manuscripts because it stirs the pot of creativity!” Sometimes while you’re working like this, it can facilitate an actual “fall from the sky idea”. Either way, it’s a great thing to do while you’re waiting for inspiration to strike. Kate does this about twice a week to stir up new ideas.

Ever since that talk, I’ve looked at writing prompts in a different light. Speaking of prompts generating ideas, the one I used for the scholarship entry definitely sparked an idea for a new novel. I got so excited about it that I may sketch it out a little more before pursuing my other first draft novel I’ve already started. Which idea will win out? We shall see.

I know I can’t share Kate’s matrix, but I won’t leave you empty-handed. Here are two sites to get you started if you want to give writing prompts a try.

  • The first is from the Poet’s & Writer’s website. They post a prompt each week, one for poetry and one for fiction.
  • The second is from a teacher’s tumblr page simply called Writing Prompts, where he posts his daily writing prompts that he uses in class. He describes his teaching style as “Nerdfighteria takes over The Colbert Report with Ira Glass as a guest.” Wicked awesome. You can even donate books to his classroom library to help support his cause. I’d say it’s a right worthy one.

So what about you? Do you use writing prompts to kick-start ideas? Do you despise them? Share your thoughts.

On to this week’s goal progress:

1. Complete revision of Middle Grade manuscript (Museum Crashers) and prepare for final critiques. I revised four chapters out of eighteen which is right on track with my goal to finish a complete revision by the end of the month.
2. Continue making progress on first draft of new Young Adult manuscript (Pretty Vacant). I didn’t work on this at all last week. Okay, I did make some mental progress, which does count in my book, but next week I want some physical progress down on paper.
3. Follow up on submissions outstanding for Young Adult manuscript (Institutionalized) and pursue any additional avenues that arise. The time limit for an exclusive submission hadn’t quite run out, so I did nothing but wait this past week. Waiting is the worst, isn’t it? Next week is a different story. Action will be required.
4. Exercise at least three times a week. Woohoo! I did make this goal. That explains why I’m so sore. Everywhere.

Hope you’re all making headway on your goals as well. Looks like spring’s making an appearance this week. As the kids have some time off from school, I’m sure I’ll be making at least one trip out to our local zoo in between making time for the writing. Have a great week!

dramaqueenIt may surprise some of you, but I was a bit of a drama queen when I was a teenager. What? Mother of all things zen? Oh yes, my daughter comes by it naturally. I was a big door slammer, too. I once slammed my bedroom door so hard, it knocked the center panel of wood right out. Kinda took the steam out of that temper storm.

I did manage to find a creative outlet for my teen hormones-gone-wild; the theatre. One of the few saving graces my little backwater town offered was the delightful community theatre, The Gaslight. Although they had a strong teen theatre program, I actually broke on the scene with one of their adult plays, a summer musical called Sweet Charity. I was the only teen to get a speaking part – very exciting. I played Rosie, the new girl.  It was a small role where I had to play an innocent girl, fresh off the bus in her hemmed up prom dress, the newest addition to the taxi dancers at the sweet charitydance hall where Charity, the lead character, works. As fresh meat, she’s picked right off the line by a smarmy old guy. There was a lot of improv required for that role and the old guy in question was a sweet veteran actor named Gene, who worked at the post office for his day job. He had me blushing many times just by whispering nonsense into my ear. As I recall, “You’re such a ham!” was one of his favorite sweet nothings. I didn’t do so much acting as reacting in those early days. I’m not even going to tell you about the prank he pulled during one of the mid-week pickup rehearsals. Talk about initiating in the new kid! Oy vey! Despite the hectic rehearsal schedules and performances and the embarrassing (yet hilarious) pranks, I was hooked. I was in love with acting.

By the time I went away to college, I still loved theatre, I just wasn’t so in love with the idea of being an actor. I still hung around the acting crowd. I got a job as a stage hand for one of my work study gigs and I even took an acting class at the college level. I’m so glad I did. For one, because I met a fantastic friend in that class. And for another, I learned many things about studying people that I still use in my writing to this day.

We would have to do these acting exercises outside of class and write journal entries about our experiences. Most of these exercises involved many hours of people-watching. Things like, observing how different people walk. An exercise might say something like “Notice that each person walks in a unique way. Describe some of the different gaits you observe. How would you capture that on stage? What does that person’s walk say about them?”

Fascinating, no?

You can surely see how using this exercise could be beneficial when describing a character in a novel.

One of my favorite exercises was about hands. Just hands. How much can we tell about someone by studying their hands? Think about how much we do with our hands, how we talk with our hands, what we do when we don’t know what to do with our hands, etc. So interesting those exercises.

I still enjoy people-watching. You can find many ideas for characters while simply observing your fellow man going about their day. It does take a little effort to put down your cell phone from time to time and actually look around you, but trust me, it’s worth the effort. The other day, while I was sitting in a café, waiting on my order, I noticed this woman standing in line, wearing a very unusual outfit. She had short-cropped brown hair that was full of movement and style. She wore a crazy print shirt with a furry pink vest on top. It looked like a creature from a Dr. Seuss book had been turned into a fur vest. There was baubly jewelry bouncing around her neck and some kind of cross-body purse. Then I noticed her shoes. They didn’t seem to match the outfit. Plain white support shoes? I didn’t get it. Then, the line moved forward and my view of her changed. She had a stilted walk, more like the stumbling shuffle of someone who’s had a stroke. I looked closer at the spiky, sassy hair and realized it was probably a wig. The woman no longer appeared to be a young hipster, but an aging flower child, still showing her individuality as she battles against time and disease. Oh the story ideas that hit me from just that little moment. That brief encounter. That character study, in the flesh.

Take some time to do some people-watching this week. Jot down some of the unique things you see. You might even get some story ideas out of it, if not a little drama.

One year ago at the end of February, 2012, I began this little blog, not knowing what would become of it. One year later, it’s still going strong and I’ve met so many wonderful friends because of this little space. I’m grateful to all who stop by and comment and those who just stop and read. You all help make this writing journey less lonely and much more fun. Thanks for all of the encouragement and companionship!  On to the post!

There’s this song by Snow Patrol called “Headlights on Dark Roads” that begins with such an astounding proclamation that it immediately caught my attention the first time I heard it.

“For once I want to be the car crash
Not always just the traffic jam
Hit me hard enough to wake me
And lead me wild to your dark roads”

Having been in a couple of ugly car crashes, I had to wonder what kind of person would choose that? To feel the terror, the violent impact and pain that comes from a split second mistake. To see a monstrous, out of control hunk of metal roaring towards you and to feel utterly powerless. Someone would choose that over a stagnant life where nothing is happening?

Fascinating.

That first stanza grabs you, makes you want to hear more, makes you feel something visceral from the very beginning of the song. It continues with the next verse after the chorus:

“My tongue is lost so I can’t tell you
Please just see it in my eyes
I pull up thorns from our ripped bodies
And let the blood fall in my mouth”

Powerful, no? I think some of the very best song writing is like poetry. For me, Snow Patrol is one great example of many. There is so much passion in their lyric writing. I would also recommend seeing them play live. They are fantastic.

So I’ve been thinking a lot about this song of theirs lately and what it means. All about how one would rather have a life full of passion and pain rather than the alternative of safety and boredom.
Life is pain?
A life worth living has pain?
All kinds of ideas were generated, which is another great sign of art inspiring art. This heavy, deep thinking about car crashes then seemed to leak into my reading selections because the last three books I read all began with violent car crashes and death. Interesting how one part of our life can influence another, whether purposefully or not.
There the similarities in the stories ended. That was something else that fascinated me; how writers could take a similar premise and develop three completely different stories from it. Here’s a bit about each of the three books. I really enjoyed reading all of them.
If I Stay by Gayle Forman

ifistay-paperback

Wow. This is the smallest of the books, but one of the most emotionally powerful. Gayle Forman made me tear up, fight back, and then submit to an ugly cryfest with this wonderful book. Saying anything else would just spoil it for you. Except that there is now a sequel, Where She Went. Music is a very big part of this book and you can sample each of the songs mentioned in the book from a playlist on the author’s website.

On a day that started like any other…

Mia had everything: a loving family, a gorgeous, adoring boyfriend, and a bright future full of music and full of choices. Then, in an instant, almost all of that is taken from her. Caught between life and death, between a happy past and an unknowable future, Mia spends one critical day contemplating the one decision she has left—the most important decision she’ll ever make.

Simultaneously tragic and hopeful, this is a romantic, riveting and ultimately uplifting story about memory, music, living, dying, loving. (Plot summary from author’s website.)

You can read an excerpt of the book on her website.

Learn more about Gayle Forman here.

Follow Gayle on Twitter here.

Before I Fall by Lauren Oliver

Before I Fall

Have you ever wanted to replay a day where you totally screwed everything up and fix all your mistakes? What if it was your last day? Lauren Oliver was an author I had never read before. She has a new series out, the Delirium Series, but before I committed to something like that, I wanted to read one of her first books and make sure I liked her enough to invest that much reader love. And I do. Emotion and voice and ah! I could go on for days. What a perfect book to start your writing career.

What if you had only one day to live?

What would you do? Who would you kiss? And how far would you go to save your own life?

Samantha Kingston has it all: the world’s most crush-worthy boyfriend, three amazing best friends, and first pick of everything at Thomas Jefferson High—from the best table in the cafeteria to the choicest parking spot. Friday, February 12, should be just another day in her charmed life.

Instead, it turns out to be her last.

Then she gets a second chance. Seven chances, in fact. Reliving her last day during one miraculous week, she will untangle the mystery surrounding her death—and discover the true value of everything she is in danger of losing. (Plot summary from author’s website.)

Learn more about Lauren Oliver here.

Follow Lauren on Twitter here.

The Adoration of Jenna Fox by Mary E Pearson

The Adoration of Jenna Fox 1

I came across this title while in search of something new to download onto my Nook. I’d remembered my daughter raving about this book a few years ago, but little else. Something vaguely about a girl recovering from a car accident and trying to regain her memory. Unfortunately she’d checked it out at the library so it had slipped from my mind as soon as it was out of sight. I’m all for reading something new and trying out authors I haven’t read before, so download it I did.

Amazing story and not at all what I thought it would be. I had no idea it would be such a clever and heart felt exploration into what it means to be human. I ripped through this one in record time. And now I find out it’s a series? Oh, yay!

Identity.

Where does it lie? In a face? A voice? A bundled string of events we call a lifetime? Is it in our DNA, bone, flesh, ancestry? How do we define our identity, and is it a once and for all definition?

Who am I? Can anyone ever know for sure just what it takes to be who we are?

We all search for our place in this world and how we fit in, but for Jenna Fox that search reaches dark new dimensions when she wakes from a coma and can’t remember who she is. Worse, she doesn’t remember the people who claim to be her parents. There is something curious about them, about the house they all live in–in fact, curious describes her whole life, as she attempts to unlock the secrets of who she was, and who she has become.

The Adoration of Jenna Fox is about Jenna’s search for identity, a quest as old as history, but as startling as the future. (Plot summary from the author’s website.)

Learn more about Mary E Pearson here.

Follow Mary on Twitter here.

Have you read any fantastic books about car crashes?
Have you been in a car crash? How did it change your life?
Let me hear from you.

PAY ATTENTION!

That’s something daydreamers like me dread hearing.

Back in school hearing that phrase usually meant that I had been staring into space, thinking about some exciting adventure deep in an underground cavern that had taken me far away from the doldrums of geometry or some other tedious subject that was boring the pants off me. Hearing, “Pay attention!” meant someone else had noticed my mental absence and had decided it was time I started suffering like the rest of the class.

Nowadays, it means the same thing – still daydreaming – except now it’s usually my son parroting those words that I’ve said to him a million times, although he’s improved it by adding his own delightful twist. Trevor puts his hands on either side of my face and turns my head so I have to look at him before he says, “Mom, pay attention.” Without this step I may stay firmly planted in my head, ignoring everyone and everything around me for hours.

I can’t help it; daydreaming is an essential part of being a writer and one I don’t neglect.

But so, I’ve come to learn, is paying attention.

During her keynote address at the SCBWI LA Summer Conference, Clare Vanderpool, Newbery award winning author of Moon over Manifest, talked about how her mother always pointed out historical sites to her when they traveled and whenever some significant current event happened, her mother always told her to pay attention:

“This is history”. Remember. Clare Vanderpool

Similarly, Gary Schmidt, two-time Newbery Honor winner and author of Okay for Now and The Wednesday Wars, spoke at the conference about the importance of paying attention during his keynote address, although his source of inspiration came from his border collies that he walks with every morning before he starts his writing day. He said that border collies can teach you a lot about life: “Pay attention. Surprises are delightful.”

It’s so easy in our culture to miss it all  – PAY ATTENTION!” Gary Schmidt

Sara Shepard, best-selling author of the Pretty Little Liars series, discussed the importance of paying attention to surprises while writing when talked at the conference about how to write a series. And she is a planner. She said that writing such an intricate series where there are so many secrets, red herrings, etc., requires a great deal of planning ahead and outlining, but she always allows for those moments of intuition that just happen as you write.

“Allow for moments to happen while writing.” Sara Shepard

Karen Cushman, Newbery award winning author of The Midwife’s Apprentice, said something similar during her keynote address at the summer conference about looking for surprises in our first drafts. She said that sometimes accidental repetitions or interesting images we’ve created can lead to surprises we didn’t intend – she once accidentally gave the ocean an address.

We as writers are the ones who will be telling future generations what our time – right here, right now – was all about, what will we say?

Will we be too easily distracted by all of our media devices and busy lives to slow down enough to observe the world around us, to share what we see? To let other lives impact us?

A few weeks ago, when I was parking my car, I saw a little girl trailing behind her mother, dropping bits of candy from a box clutched under her arm. She turned to pick up the one of the bits she’d dropped, but her mother tugged at her hand to keep her moving forward. The little girl stumbled forward in her over-sized rain boots, but her eyes swung back to the dropped candy with a sad sense of longing on her face.

That image of the little girl stuck with me all day. I can still see her bouncy curls and loping gait. I don’t know if I’ll ever use that moment in any of my writing, but I’m so glad I stopped to observe that interaction instead of rushing into the store and missing it.

There are simple moments like this all around us every day. Instead of taking out your phone the next time you’re waiting in line, look around you and observe your fellow human beings. Pay attention. You’ll be amazed at the surprises you find.

 

My first day of the conference, an ecstatic empty vessel, ready to be filled with the words of sages.

To be surrounded by the  kindred spirits of our international SCBWI “tribe” for four days was exactly what I needed. Every speaker added a little more to my depleted well of the creative self deep inside me. I left completely filled up and then some. Many speakers brought me to tears. I hate crying in public, damn it. Still, the tears spilled and inspiration came by the truckload. So much so that I had to just sit with everything for about a week after returning home to let it all soak in before I wrote one word.

Not only did I get to spend five days away from home, meeting new friends, filling my brain up with literary wisdom while surrounded by like-minded individuals, Ialso spent most of my free time with some of my dearest writer friends from our local Oklahoma region of the SCBWI. And what did we do after listening to fabulous speakers all day? Talked more about books and literary stuff! *sigh*

(A very special thank you, thank you, thank you! must go out to my ever-so-patient mate who suffered through countless rounds of questions like ‘where’s mom?’ and ‘when is she coming home?’ and ‘are you sure she didn’t run away for good this time?’ so I could take this much needed journey. You are my rock, and I love you!)

I even talked some of my friends into dancing their butts off with me at the Hippie Hop party on Saturday night. It had been way too long since this mama had dragged her tired self out onto the dance floor. We laughed at ourselves and kept on dancing anyway. Sorry for those of you who had to witness my out of control dance moves, but when the music commands it, you gotta shake it!

Fellow SCBWI’ers getting into the spirit.

Although my roommate Barbara, and crit partner extraordinaire, didn’t “dig” the rap music, she stayed and danced like a trouper.

Me and my Regional RA Assistant Feeling Groovy.

To top it all off, I had the best critique discussion ever with a fantastic agent who wants to see my entire manuscript.  YES! YES! YES!  There was a celebratory dinner in my honor. (Did I mention how much I love my writing friends?)

The week could not have gone any better.

I wish I could share all of the knowledge and insight I learned in detail, but alas, it is forbidden.

FORBIDDEN!

FORBUDT!

VERBOTEN!

I do understand the reasoning. After all, the presentations are the property of the speakers and many of them put so much of themselves into their words, that there is no way I could relay the depth of their presentations here. I can only give brief overviews, a quote here or there, my impressions of the keynote addresses and break out sessions that I attended, and what I learned overall.  Still, I think you’ll find many of these things very enlightening and useful. I shall be spreading this information out over several posts during the next few weeks.

(I don’t want to blow your minds all in one sitting.)

You can also find tons of information about the conference from the official conference blog site here.

To start us off slowly, here’s the first lovely literary tidbit to nosh on:

Several speakers addressed a recurring problem they see with manuscripts they read; the story doesn’t start in the right place.

Either the writer is giving the reader too much history or back story in the beginning of the book or the writer is starting off at a break neck pace, leaping right into an action sequence without allowing the reader to make any connection to the character at all.

Take some time to think about your story and the best possible beginning it could have. Then start where the actual story starts. This may seem like a simple idea, but it’s harder than it may seem. If your story, for example, is about a girl who’s running away from her problems at home, who then lands in even bigger trouble while living on the streets when she crosses paths with a gang of street hustlers, do we need to see the precipitating event? The family dynamic, that drove her from the security of the familiar? Or do we want to jump straight into the action and watch her sneaking out in that first scene? It could be either way. It may depend on what story you are telling and where the story actually starts.

The best beginnings incite questions in your reader.

“What happens next?”

You need to introduce your main character and the conflict of the story as soon as possible without causing confusion and yet at the same time entice  your readers enough to want to turn the next page.  Give them enough set up of the character’s world so that they feel connected to it, but don’t give them so much of an information dump that they struggle to understand what is happening or get bored with a lecture on the history of the Land of Nod or with who begat whom.

If your reader is lost or unable to follow your plot, they will put your book down and cease being your reader. No author wants that.

One of the agents at the conference, Linda Pratt of the Wernick & Pratt agency, suggested that “It can be helpful to re-evaluate an opening line and/or page upon a work’s completion when you know how the whole novel plays out because a good opening sets off the whole work.”

Be flexible (another phrase I heard often) and try moving things around to see what makes the most sense. Figure out where your story truly begins.

That’s something to think about, eh?

I’ve got a ton more planned, so make sure you stop by every few days to see what’s new. By the way, I couldn’t get all 1,244 conference attendees to stand still long enough for a group pic, so here’s a panorama shot of the main ballroom right before a keynote speech. Most of us are in there. Hi, all!

One last thing, I’ve been interviewed – for the first time! – by AG over at Nerd Couture. So if you can’t get enough of me – I certainly can, but there’s no accounting for taste – stop on over and check it out. I’m going to pop over myself just to see what I’ve been whispering behind my back.

So glad to be home!

smile, everyone!