Monday, August 29, 2011

The Smallest Doors Open Widest

Pamela Smith Hill (the second of my instructors who I love love love) discussed the importance of research in writing. Maybe it’s the the librarian in me, but research is close to my heart. I did extensive research in all three of my books, but (hopefully) the reader doesn’t see it. Research is essential to historical novels because if one is using actual events (ie., the Civil War or World War I) the details need to be accurate. But Hill urges writers not to let the facts hold them back. Write from the imagination to get the story down and revise the details later.
4 types of research:
Books and other printed materials- Primary and secondary sources. [She credits librarians as being a great source.]

Interviews- decide how and who you will interview. In person? Phone? Via email?

Location- Hill visits locations where she sets her tales. This also includes archival research in local libraries where she finds treasures like letters, photos and newspapers.

internet there are MANY valuable resources beyond Google and Wikipedia. Ask the reference librarians. Our local reference people are rock stars!

Happy Writing.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

writing with sole

I had the most amazing day with my young writers today. My dear friend Cindy Sterling gave me a writing exercise she used to do in the classroom and I adapted it to my workshop.

Give each participant a piece of drawing paper and either crayons,markers, or pencils. Have each person remove one shoe(you might want to spread newspapers on the desk since who knows where those shoes have been?) Draw an outline of the footwear and set the shoe aside.

Here is the fun part: this exercise can be designed to fit a specific moild. I asked my kids to write a biography of their shoe. Where did it come from? where is it going? what does it see? hear?

My young writers stunned and amazed me. Tamara's shoe was a plain white tenis shoe reluctantly bought by a young girl who later decorated it with paint and glitter, and it followed the girl throughout her life.

Jenny's flip flop was washed away on the beach and ended up in Hawaii.

Nathan's shoe was a very pristine men's business shoe that quickly learned the meaning of dirt- literally from the streets, and figuratively in business, and Mia's shoe experienced the drama of witnessing several love relationships, and ultimately being thrown against a wall.

I wrote a short piece as well, but it was not nearly as good as what the kids produced.

Happy Writing.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

“We Who Write Poetry Are Doomed.” David Greenberg

Poems are crystallized language, faceted with the heat of your intelligence
Story – stories are a conundrum of a puzzle- limited language

Very few words rhyme naturally and fluently with sounding Forced rhyme
Using meter helps challenge your brain

A great poem does not announce itself as a poem- it dawns on the reader it is a poem

Every line by itself should sound like prose- not attempting strange contractions.
Any one line has the quality of prose, when combined they form a poem

A piece of poetry is like a trapeze –the more dashing and daring the lines, the more exciting the poem. The less probable yet fluent the language, the more intriguing.
Language should be unforced
Convoluted grammar
Intense economy of language
Many poems tell a story

[David entered into a discussion on rhyme in children’s books since many picture books rhyme.] A good rhyme should not be easily predictable.

2 qualities that make for a good rhyme:
1 Words share phonetic value but spellings are different
2 Multisyllabic rhymes are more difficult than monosyllabic

Exercise Try six words and create lines that rhyme

Here is my bad example:
Giant tabby cats
Grapsing flabby bats
That hang from their claws
[I need to use an aws sound at the end of this line]

Next we tried multisyllabic

Yeah, right. YOU try it! Good luck!

Happy Writing.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Get Rid of the Wrong Words

The highlight of my week was another guest speaker, Virginia Euwer Wollf. She is a lively speaker whose passion for writing radiates from her. Ms. Wollf is probably in her seventies, but moves like a much younger woman. [later I saw her vigorously walking on the beach]

The hardest part may come as a surprise: Getting rid of all the wrong words. [this reinforces why we need NOT to revise and edit our work too quickly. We need distance from the mss in order to give it a cold read, and read it the way an editor will.]

Cleverness is not a good trait for a kid’s book

If a story is in trouble the problem is in the point of view
When you get into trouble- look at how far you’ve come. Sometimes [a fix] can be as simple as one sentence.
When it stops working create a storyboard.

[She mentioned some of the obstacles we all impose on ourselves, ie texting, facebook and other distractions. There is a web site called Freedom that for a free, will lock you out of the internet so you can write.]

Ms. Wollf uses Rachmaninoff as an example on writer’s block. After receiving terrible reviews fro his first concerto he suffered three years of depression. He went to a hypnotist, and was able to create his wonderful second piano concerto.

[Most of her session was question an answer. Ms. Wollf was interested in what WE were working on. She enjoyed it when I talked about why writers need to attend workshops and conferences. I said, “Our friends and families don’t mind that we write, they just don’t want to hear about it. All of us in this room have imaginary friends who are real to us, and we get that about each other.”

Ms. Wollf mentioned Harold and The Purple Crayon as a great motivator.

Happy Writing.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Deb Lund On Writing Picture Books

I don’t write picture books, nor do I intend to try, but I found Deb’s presentation informative. Picture books are generally 32 pages, but your mss may not be that long. [under 1000 words] Some of these pages will be illustrations. Written for ages 3-7.
They come in 14 double spreads- 2 sides of the page 14 times.
The pictures tell the story, too. They SHOW don’t tell
Story picture books around 400 words
Characters solve their own problems
Picture books are meant to be read aloud- they should be in a kid’s voice, but can include challenging words [ provides an opportunity for teachers and parents to teach vocabulary]
Focus on action and dialogue

Writing is a combination of memory and imagination
We each need a list of what we are interetd in
There has to be a problem- the crux of the tale
No struggle? No story.
Create a character and put them in peril. Writers are troublemakers.
Make use of your senses to convey emotions. If you NAME the emotion, ie He is bored, you are telling instead of showing. [He rolled his eyes, yawned, and looked at his watch.] *

She explained a Storysaurus [this was a line drawing of a dinosaur to demonstrate the rising and falling action of a story. Beginning, middle, (the high point of the dinosaur’s back,) and end.]

Her last words of advice
1. Write!
2. Learn the craft
3. Join SCBWI {Society of Children’s book Writers& Illustraors}

Book recommendations: Creating Characters Kids Will Love Elaine Marie Alphonse

The ABC’s of Writing for Children Elizabeth Koehler-Pentacraft, ed.

Story Sparkers- A creativity Guide For Children’s Writers Debbie Dadey

• That evening, Deb held workshops with exercises to help us show not tell. In one, she had each of us take an “emotion’ card. Each card contained nouns and adjectives, ie Grief, fear, greed, etc. She asked for volunteers to “act-out” the emotion. The rest of us were to describe the actor’s actions. For example, the woman who demonstrated Grief: “Folded into herself as if closing a shell and screamed.”
• The next exercise was similar, but this time we drew personality traits, like selfish, proud, adventurous, etc. Both of these are fun in a large group.

Happy Writing.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

If There is an Axe in the Room There Has To Be a Reason

In my notes is a random page that likely came out of a First Pages discussion, but I like some of the quotes from it.

Stories are told in scenes- they move the story forward
Something changes- if not there is no reason for the story to occur
Each scene needs a hook to catch the reader. The book itself needs a big shepherd’s hook, [but throughout are all these small hooks to keep the reader reading.]

[There are only so many story likes out there.] Take something familiar and tweak it- take something ordinary and make it feel new. [We all know the Wizard of Oz, but Geoffrey McGuire gave us the Wicked Witch of the West’s side of the tale in Wicked.]

Don’t trick the reader. [I love this]If There is an Axe in the Room There Has To Be a Reason. It can’t be there by “accident.”

3 line rule in dialogue,[ otherwise you are writing monologues] Of course there are exceptions
[character] Flaws add validity. [Not flaws in the writing.]

Happy Writing.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Writing Easy Readers

In the afternoon of the second day we had a wonderful guest speaker named Susan Blackaby who specializes in writing books for Early and low level readers. [Her talk focused on research she did about how the brain allows kids to develop language skills. Because I was an avid and early reader early I have always taken my ability for granted.]

Three components:

Connecting symbols to the sound
When the brain recognizes text there are five parts of the brain need to work in sync. If One is out of sync, reading is difficult
[she used her own daughter as an example in trying to find textx that would enable the girl to connect to written words. Most of what was extant in the Hi-lo reader selection Blackaby found inadequate, so she dtarted writing them. She terms her work as good books for bad readers.]

She discovered certain words and types of words are difficult for slow readers to process. For example, “the diver is in the river,”
“Take the water to the skater”
The skater’s daughter likes bottled water.” are confusing because the words have si,iarl sounds and spellings.
The trick is to use simple, monosyllabic words in creative ways. NOT See Dick run, See Spot Run.
In early chapter books the language needs to be simple enough the kids can set up patterns and connect with the text.

[a good exercise is to challenge yourself to write something lively using single syllable words. It’s REALLY hard to make it interesting as you will see from my dull example.:
The man on the raft is in the lake. He wears black under a hot sun as fish float by. Birds fly and sing. A cat sits on the shore. It waits for fish.]

If you want to write for this market, she recommended a book called Teaching Reading Sourcebook from the Consortium of Reading Excellence]

Happy Writing.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

The Scariest Moment is Just Before You Start Writing

On the second day of the OCCBWW conference, Noa Wheeler from Henry Holt presented. She was lively and funny, and thankfully did not need a microphone. (The sound system at OCCBWW was awful. It popped and scratched.)
The stuff in [brackets] are my thoughts

-Learn to Laugh at Yourself
-Don’t Panic
-The Scariest Moment is Just Before You Start Writing
-Write something-anything-to open the writing door

[I love this following piece of advice] ** Write about something you know really well, but write about it as if you have never seen it before. Approach everything as if for the first time [this forces you to focus on details] the interaction between the subject and writer makes it new.

Turn OUTWARD- listen to dialogue- note it- change one word to extrapolate- layer it
Ask questions about things around you to help you arrive at something new
“What if?” take something ordinary so it does not resemble the original at all
Research –[but not everything. Enough to get the details accurate].

Set limits
Make a date to share writing with writing buddies [Open mic, write-ins]

Do writing sprints- for an hour on writing. Just write without a plan. Do NOT reread and revise[kind of like we do for NANO]
Set word ;limits ie 1000 a day no matter what [again Nano]

If you are in the middle of a story, novel and you’re stuck- switch writing locations [go outside if you’re in or vice versa]
Change position inside your story. Better to write SOMETHING than nothing
Make a slight change to alter the story [ ex. used in Charlotte’s Web, If White had been stuck, , Instead of Where is Papa going with that axe, he could have asked where is MAMA going? [See how it changes the perspective?]
Any story is a series of questions and answers

Skip over what gives you trouble and go back to it later [I will often make notes in my own drafts like “Fix This Later”]. This helps preserve momentum.
If you write drafts in longhand, use a PC or vice versa. Helps you use a different part of your brain.

-Moving physically can get your mind moving
-Forward motion is also rhythmic- like defibrillating your writing.
-Read or watch something outside your genre
-Don’t revise right away [Cindy S.!!!!]
-Ask “What more do I need?”
-Read out loud- you can hear the verbs and nouns
-Don’t back away from the jugular
-Reverse outline- outline mss as if you haven’t written it yet
-Get out of your own head

Later in the week Ms Wheeler had some submission advice, but I will share that at the end of this series when I go through the agent and other editor’s submission suggestions. First we write, do massive revisions and editing THEN we worry about sending it somewhere.

Happy Writing.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

“Touch the brain with a finger on fire.” Heather Vogel Frederick.

Here again are some of my notes from the conference. “Notes” meaning= they may not make sense.
One of the highlights of the OCCBWW was the random quotes David Greenberg shared with participants each day.

“There are rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately nobody knows what they are.”
(I can’t read my scribble to attribute the quote. Bad chicken scratch writing.

Day 1 afternoon session Heather Vogel Frederick- middle grades-ages 8-12

How do we catch an agent or editor’s eye?
Writing is an art, publishing is a business. [Publishers may like your work, but if they don’t see a market for it, they will pass. So getting rejection does not mean the work is bad, just not for them.]
“Touch the brain with a finger on fire. If you light up like a Christmas tree[as you write] so will the manuscript.

Three elements of story are setting, character, plot

Memorable characters are what readers [and editors[ are looking for.
Characters have an inside and outside. Use exterior details to give clues of internal qualities, bring characters to life

Look at the opening line(s) of some of your favorite works. Right away c a sense of character is revealed.[again: voice]

Have an emotional investment in the work- Glow embers to stir reader’s reaction- use shards of emotional experience – no tears from the writer- no tears from the reader.

In Plot- you take a bad situation and make it worse.

“What if?” is the secret of the writer’s toolbox
Do not wait 100 pages to get moving. The hero faces obstacles. Interior vs. exterior conflict. Make the character struggle- give them something to do.
Every time a character faces a door, it sticks.
You lose energy during flashback

Writing is an emotional bungee jump.
The happiness comes when we get it right
When the hero brings home the trophy it can be an emotional trophy.

The War of Art helps in overcoming resistance [ a book recommendation for writers]

Know the market before submitting
Trade market- stands alone, get royalties 10% unless there is an illustrator, then royalty is shared. Writer owns copyright on mss.
Open format, sometimes has curricular ties
In nonfiction needs to appeal to consumer-has to entertain beyond the facts. Is competing with fiction
Focus the book on an unanswered question.

School/library market-tend to be in series-paid flat fee, no royalty or copyright. Strict formats, curriculum ties
Sometimes it’s a good way to break into publishing market.

In my next blog, I will translate my notes from the presentation by Noa Wheeler, a book editor at Henry Holt.

Happy Writing.

Friday, August 12, 2011


AS PROMISED, I AM SHARING MY ATROCIOUS FIRST PAGE. MY COMMENTS ARE IN ALL CAPS TO MAKE IT EASIER TO SEEMichael Tate sat in the school library, which was quiet except for the hum of the copy machine and computers. The old battle ax librarian was old school and she demanded silence .Normally the hush didn’t bother him, but he was caught up with his assignments and would have liked a diversion to avoid thinking about what his sister Cassady had said to him last night.- HERE IS A MISSED OPPORTUNITY. INSTEAD OF THE LONG DRAWN OUT DESCRIPTION OF THE LIBRARY AND THE LIBRARIAN, WHO ARE NOT IMPORTANT TO THE ACTION, I COULD HAVE JUST STARTED WITH LAST NIGHT.Michael sauntered to the front desk and grabbed the newspaper. –I AM TAKING WAY TOO MUCH TIME HERE WITH SUPERFLUOUS DETAIL-The headline blazed: BODY FOUND IN HOME, VICTIM DEAD POSSIBLY ONE YEAR. Last night he had seen this story on TV. THE HEADLINE IS INTERESTING, BUT IT COULD BE WOVEN IN TO THE DIALOGUE.
“I can’t watch the news anymore,” his mother, said as she and Michael went to the kitchen before dinner.
“Why not? “ Michael’s father asked.
“A mother was accused of putting her daughter in a microwave. The baby was burned from the inside out,” she said.
“Gross,” Cassady said. She was helping their dad Frank fix dinner. Their mother rarely cooked. “She could burn water,” Frank liked to say.
“There was also a woman found dead in her house after a year,” Michael said.
Cassady scrunched her face. “Michael!”
Michael sat on a stool at the kitchen island. “The only reason they found her was thieves broke in and someone discovered the body while they were ripping her off.”
(I DID GET COMPLIMENTS ON MY DIALOGUE, WHICH IS NOT ABYSMAL)Michael’s sister carried four plates and silverware into the dining room. “Thanks for ruining my appetite.” She spread the plates around the table and picked up the silverware. THE PANEL ALSO LIKED MY VERBS“It wouldn’t hurt you to skip a meal,” their mother Grace said. OKAY HERE IS A TELING DETAIL, WE SEE THE CONFLICT. THE PROBLEM IS, WHOSE STORY IS IT? MICHAEL’S? HIS SISTER’S? HIS PARENTS’? DO WE EVEN CARE?

Sorry about the all caps.:)
Happy Writing.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Once upon a wordy tale I told you all about what happened last night and the night before and last week and blah blah blah blah

One of the unique features of the OCCBWW was First Pages where we looked at anonymous first pages from manuscripts. Problems in manuscriopts almost always exist in the beginning. When we write something WE know what we mean, but often we leave out important detail to engage the reader.

One of my biggest faults as a writer is front loading with too much back story- in short giving away the plot in the first three pages instead of giving the reader a reason to read my book. When one of the editors at the workshop said, “Backstory is essentially plot notes for the writer,” a light bulb pinged over my head. It’s the outline I should copy and paste somewhere else for me, not my poor readers. Duh.

Engage the reader with imagery right away, not long drawn out weather reports or descriptions of the scenery.

We’re all tempted to do this, as if to slowly invite the reader into our setting. The problem is, he or she will be asleep before the tale even begins. WE know that the air was crisp with the aroma of autumn leaves, and our character wears green socks and smokes Winstons, but does the reader care?
Do these “details” move the story or just add words? (See June 28 blog entry) Are they “telling” details that reveal quirks of character? Will those green socks serve as a symbol later in the story? Are the leaves important? Does the character have a penchant for leaves? Is he or she a botanist? Will the character smoke the leaves because he or she is out of Winstons? If not, strike them. Get moving.

But don’t move too fast.

Writing is like a high wire act. Too slow, and you’ll probably fall.
Too fast, and you might not fall, but you’ll zip across so fast the audience won’t see anything.

Before the reader gets invested in the action, let him or her know the character before we see the conflict. The opening line of Fahrenheit 451 “It was a pleasure to burn,” leads us right into Guy Montag’s character. Essentially it reveals his conflict, too.
Pick a scene with your character(s) and start there. And make sure that scene leads into the next scene, and the next.
Writing is so easy (not!)

For my next blog I will post my first page and analyze specificially what went wrong. I don't recall anyone saying something goo about it. :(
Happy Writing.

Monday, August 8, 2011

The dog ate my blog

Dear blog readers,
I have been remiss about adding to my blog. Most of July I was off the map for a week long writing workshop OCCBWW
and on vacation in Oregon and Arizona. In the meantime I have been revising and editing before going back to the salt mines. (Teachers go back August 19th)

For those of you who write for children and young adults, I highly recommend the OCCBWW conference. Yes, it’s in Oregon, so the airfare will cost you, and yes, even though it’s in July, you will need a winter jacket. The weather in Oceanside, Oregon is schizophrenic: one hour it’s 40 degrees, an hour later the sun comes out and it’s 70. The constant roar of the ocean and the scenery make you forget the weather (for the most part).
This is the first workshop I have attended where the instructors worked harder than the participants. A unique feature is First pages. Participants submit the first page of a manuscript they are working on (anonymously) and these pages are projected on a screen. Each instructor, a panel of editors, agent, and writers, offers his or her expert input on what works and what doesn’t. I like the anonymity and brevity of this exercise. Most manuscript problems occur in the beginning of a work. If the start of a story has issues, an editor is not likely to read beyond page one. My own manuscript had too much back-story on the first page (this is a chronic problem for me.) One instructor likened back- story to “notes for the writer on plot.”
The anonymity enables you not to feel victimized because, unless you show someone your work, nobody else knows who wrote it.

My brother and his family live in Portland so I combined this with a family vacation by renting an ocean view beach house. Each evening a rolling roster of family members (my brother and his wife, niece Erica and her son Micah, and cousin Bob and wife Cheryl from Washington) and I sipped wine on the deck and let the ocean and sunsets entertain us.

I barely got over my jet lag when I jetted off to Tucson to visit an old friend from my overseas days. Leslie and I had been part of a quartet of friends in 7th and 8th grade much like the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants girls. It’s an odd phenomena when after 40 years, one can pick up the conversation as if only a day has passed. Leslie (and her sister Barrie who was visiting for part of the time) had a blast. Tucson is a lovewly city and is on my list of places to retire.

Anywhooo, this is a very long excuse for why I have not written. The next few blogs will be discussions of things I learned at OCBWW.
On the first day, as a means of introduction, our host David Greenberg had everyone do a six word memoir:

Born there
City named after me

I know it’s 7 words, but math is not my forte.
To make up for it, I wrote a 5 word bio:

Not from
Except here.

I plan to do this with my AP class on the first day of school as an ice breaker.
My advice to them:

Listen, learn
Outside the box.

Happy Writing.