Friday, April 02, 2010

Guess Who Just Had The Best Workday This Year?

Last week I began revising the 365 Story Project (again), this time into a traditional novel using only one of the story lines from the original material. This week I set up a spreadsheet to keep track of various parts of the job. I used a spreadsheet while I was working on my last book, and while that still hasn't sold, I do think a spreadsheet gives me more control of the on-going work. And it allows me to keep track of word count, which is nice in terms of daily goal setting.

Today I reworked (sometimes generating new material) one thousand, two hundred and forty-seven words! Yes, I know there are writers who wouldn't fire up their word processors for that, but I am not one of them. In addition, I made a submission, which involved doing a little market research. And I continued with some research for another project I want to get started on soon. This means, I'm sort of working on two projects at once, which is a new experience for me. I'm rather liking it.

Now that I've got the spread sheet going and am working a big three days a week, I can go back to giving you training reports, which I had to give up last August. Excited, aren't you? My computer guy found the training reports mind-numbing, which I will remember the next time he gets going on the kind of mind-numbing thing only a computer guy can go on about.

What's the point of doing training reports here? It allows me to use the blog as a sort of writer work buddy. Some writers report to their writer buddies each day, which makes them work harder so they'll have something to report. Why training report instead of work report? I like the whole idea of training. Working, not so much.

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Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Cannibalizing

Does Gail do any real work, you may wonder? She certainly doesn't say anything about doing anything that could pass for real work.

Well, since the end of January, beginning of February, I've been revising the first four months of 365 Story Project entries I did last year before everything went to Hell at Chez Gauthier. The revision was going well until a couple of weeks ago. I was getting (and still am) overwhelmed with the various storylines for the various arcs. I had colored notecards. I had lists. I was spending enormous amounts of time trying to manage information. I was reaching that point that comes in all writing projects at which the writer goes, What was I thinking? I'm ashamed to even have had this idea, forget about working on it all this time.

I was driving in the car one day, when I thought that perhaps the whole thing should shift to a traditional book format, that perhaps I had many book possibilities in the material I'd generated.

Nah, I told myself. That can't be right. And I continued struggling on.

Then yesterday I started reformatting from the beginning into a narrative for just one storyline, keeping only those things that will support that one storyline. Two chapters fell right into place.

I am cannibalizing the earlier work. I must say, cannibalizing feels good.

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Friday, March 19, 2010

As A General Rule, I Hate Writing Tips.

Practicing Writing directed me to 21Tips to Get Out of the Slush Pile. As a general rule, I find writing tips superficial and manipulating the material to make the sale. But these had a lot more depth and really seemed to address writing issues.

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Friday, March 12, 2010

I Particularly Liked The Part About Personal Shame Being The Writer's Most Common Accessory

Author Ben Esch (that is the best author photo ever) wrote a blog post called The Journey is the Inn that:

1. Makes Chaucer sound zenny, and

2. Is all too true.

Seriously beginning authors, you'd better like sitting alone with your computer screen in a room piled with paper and junk and collecting research books and professional journals you'll probably never have time to read and trying to avoid letting your teenage kids find out that their after school jobs pay better than yours because that's what Esch is talking about when he says, "Try to enjoy the process of writing."

I'm always complaining because I don't have more time to do those kinds of things.

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Thursday, March 11, 2010

More On Evil Plots

I found a transcript of an interview on plot at Oz and Ends. Deborah Lynn Jacobs is the author being interviewed. It's a long transcript, and if you skim, you'll need to do a lot of it. But Jacobs talks about starting her books with a premise and then coming up with a character.

In an earlier post I told about Cynthia Lord's workshop presentation in which she gave a talk on a classic plot structure involving giving a character something he or she wants and then creating obstacles to that character getting it. Jacobs' description of starting with a premise involves the question "What if?". She appears to keep asking it throughout the plotting process. "What if?" is another classic method for creating plots. It's probably closer to what I do.

Earlier this month, I considered doing a self-study program here at O.C. that would involve creating scene cards for books I was reading. Yeah. Like that's going to happen. Plus, it would be giving away too much of other writers' work. But what I may try to do here is determine how the plots of books I'm reading are created--do they have plots that are driven by a character's wants and inability to get them or did they begin with a premise?

So you can look forward to that.

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Thursday, March 04, 2010

This Speaks To Me

Strong Writers Do This at Writer's First Aid could have had my name on it. In it Kristi Holl talks about self-study programs, an idea she says comes from a book called The Art of War for Writers. I've done self-study programs in the past, and I can totally get behind the idea of writers as warriors.

In the comments to this blog post, someone talks about creating scene cards for novels you're reading, not writing. I've read about that. It's supposed to help writers develop a sense of how plots work. (Hmmm. A little muscle memory for plot, since we were talking about warriors in the last para?) I was going to do it a while back. I was going to use a notebook, had it next to my bed so I could make scene notes while I read. And that's as far as I got with that particular self-study program.

Hmmm. Maybe I'll try doing this particular self-study program here at Original Content. I could try working out the plot points in some books I'm reading, trying to develop some plotting muscle memory.

I found Writer's First Aid by way of Cynsations.

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Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Should We Start With Theme? Can It Even Be Done?

I've been going through some old writers' workbooks gathering my thoughts for a project I'm getting started on. I keep finding notes I took on various books on writing that I read over the past few years. I often don't even remember the titles of these things. I'm hoping I absorbed something that I'm not aware of consciously.

I do recall Rust Hill's Writing in General and the Short Story in Particular. Today I found a note I made while reading Hill: "The theme of the story--begin stating it from the very beginning."

I've been thinking about theme a lot this last year because of a discussion at the child_lit listserv. In a discussion of what makes a book YA, some people said that theme was as important, or even more so, than point-of-view. This, then, would justify classifying a book as YA even when main characters are adults speaking of their adolescent past. I had always believed that that point-of-view was a factor that made a book adult because the main characters were recalling experience through the filter of an adult's mind. YA, I thought, was from the point-of-view of characters who were in the midst of living their young adult lives.

So over the past year I've been thinking that maybe writers should have a good grasp of their theme(s) while they're writing. That note I made sometime in the past reminded me of that. "The theme of the story--begin stating it from the very beginning." Maybe that should be the case with novels as well as short stories, which was what Hill was primarily concerned with in his book.

Here's the thing, though...I've read (and heard) authors say that they're only aware of their themes after they've finished a work. That was certainly the case for me with my early books.

If there are any writers out there, do you think starting with a theme would be a good jumping off point for writing a book? Better than other jumping off points?

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Monday, March 01, 2010

Zenny

How do you write a book? The answer, by way of Practicing Writing, is:

"The only way to write a book, Iím fond of telling people, is to actually write a book. Thatís how you write a book."

Quoting Anne Enright.

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Monday, February 15, 2010

What A Whiner

I've been going through some old notebooks looking for material on a project I've been thinking about for, I don't know, seven years, maybe, and am just getting around to starting. I'm finding all this stuff from around 2004 and 2005 in which I complain about how little work I'm doing and how my work problems aren't related to lack of creativity but lack of structure and how I'm so frustrated with myself for having forgotten to write morning pages and how, once again, I'm trying to come up with another process that will make me more productive. It's depressing as hell reading all this crap. Then there are many pages where I took notes on books about writing that I'd read and remember next to nothing about now.

Evidently I overslept more frequently back then than I do now, too. I don't know what that was about.

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Wednesday, December 23, 2009

A Quotation Mark Shortage?

Laura Miller has a piece at Salon called All I Want For Christmas Is Quotation Marks in which she describes the lack of same in some of your more literary works.

For those of us who believe that writing is a form of communication, and thus writers should never do anything that will make it difficult for readers to receive what we're trying to communicate, refusing to use quotation marks works against what we're trying to achieve. Yes, you want to leave your readers with ideas, but you don't want to make them have to struggle to find them. You don't want to risk them not being able to find them at all.

Leaving out quotation marks seems like literary pretension to me. Does pretension ever assist communication?

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Saturday, November 28, 2009

Can't Have Too Much Balance

I like to find balance in many situations, so I was attracted to the series of Balancing Acts posts last week at Through the Tollbooth. I particularly liked the first one, Writing for yourself vs. writing for an audience, for this bit: "...we are guests in a reader's hands. How long do we dare go on about our hemorrhoids, he asks? Yes, we have to write for us. But we have to remember there is a reader out there who will toss our book aside for another if we are too isolated, too acute in a personal agenda, too insensitive to his or her needs as a reader."

Repeat the part about "too isolated, too acute in a personal agenda."

Found by way of Cynsations.

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Thursday, November 05, 2009

Avoid All These Things

If you NaNoWriMoers have a moment to do something other than write, you might check out Why Your Manuscript Can Get Rejected (Part II) at Guide to Literary Agents. Among the most interesting of agent Donna Bagdasarian's top reasons manuscripts are rejected:

"4. Not having the protagonist involved in the climax." This seems as if it would be impossible to do. However, a few years back I read a YA novel in which the protagonist was unconscious in the hospital during the climax, heard about it afterwards, and, being a first-person narrator, told us about it at that point. I was somewhat startled, and not in the good sense of the word. (Assuming there is a good sense for "startle.") However, the book did get published and bloggers and listserv people, and reviewers for that matter, loved it. So maybe no one else noticed it. Or maybe this agent and myself are the only people who care.

"8. Know how much is too much. If you can cut a scene and the story still works, you must cut it." In my experience, this is absolutely the case. It's true of business letters and blog posts, too.

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Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Index Cards Come In How Many Colors?

I'm going shopping for index cards later this week. I read Pick A Card, Any Card at R.L. LaFevers' blog (referred there by Becky Levine), and now I'm thinking that colored index cards could help with the story arcs (which are like mini-plots) in the 365 Story Project. They could certainly help keep track of characters meandering through the year of stories.

I'll let you know how that goes.

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Monday, October 26, 2009

Perhaps It's Just A Matter Of Finding The Right Terminology

I haven't had good luck over the years with writing in a journal regularly. I have dozens of them and have used them successfully in fits and spurts, but nothing that truly satisfied me.

I've tried meditation in the past, hoping it would help my concentration. You know--staying on task and all that? I think that if you have to concentrate on meditating you might be missing the point. Or if you're trying to use meditation you may be lost before you start. At any rate, it didn't work.

Earlier this year, though, I combined the two and started calling my journal work writing meditation. That I'm able to do several times a week. Of course, this is Gail we're talking about, so writing meditation for me is probably not what anyone who actually knows anything about the subject would call writing meditation. But I like the words "writing meditation." And so I use the journal more. (Perhaps if I used it less, I'd write more offical saleable stuff. Perhaps writing mediation is not a good thing. One morning I will meditate on that in my journal.)

I've had a similar experience recently regarding first drafts. I've written here frequently about my difficulty getting through a first draft. I love the advice so many writers give about just get through it and revise later. I can never do that, though, because by the time I get to Point G I've decided I want something to happen at Point M that can only happen if something different happens at Point C. So I have to go back and make changes. Many of these changes are good. They make it possible for me to proceed for a while. Until I have to do another do over somewhere along the line.

Well, last week I discovered the term "discovery draft." My moments of on-line research lead me to suspect that many people who use that term simply mean "first draft." It may just be a pretentious way of saying first draft.

However, the idea of a discovery draft makes me feel so much better about not being able to get through a first draft without starting over...and over...and over. Because what I'm doing with that discovery draft is discovering material and if it's just about discovery, then it's okay--in my mind, at least--to do things with those discoveries.

So what I'm thinking right now is you just have to find terminology that makes what you do make sense to you.

We'll see how long that works for me.

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Saturday, September 26, 2009

Writing Rah-Rahs

Book in a Week. This sounds good for those of us who can't stick with writing a novel for a month. (By way of Becky Levine)

Focus On One Writing Project Until You're Done (Procrastinating Writers). I actually do do this when I'm working on a big project, particularly if I've moved well along with it. I find that if I'm deeply involved with something, I'll continue to "work" on it even when I'm not working. By which I mean, if I've been working for weeks on something, at the end of the day while I'm doing something else, ideas will continue to come to me. I'll get ideas for the project while driving in the car. So, yes, I find that focusing on one writing project can be very helpful. More break-out experiences. More flow states.

On the other hand, if you spend two years on one project and then have trouble selling it, you may be sorry.

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Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Now I Can Write Just One Page And Feel Good About It

I've been feeling so much better about work since I read Writing in the Age of Distraction by Cory Doctorow because he suggests setting modest daily goals, "usually a page or two." Ah, yes. A page or two. Or, mainly, a page.

You know what else made me feel good? Reading Roald Dahl's Widow, Liccy, Recalls Her Life With The Real BFG because she says he started work around "10-10:30ish." On a real good day, I start around 10:30ish.

Tuesdays are always a short day for me, so today I didn't start working until well after one. Maybe two, even. Twoish. But I wrote a very satisfactory page and came up with the ending for the story I've been plugging away at for a few weeks.

But I wouldn't be feeling anywhere near as good about that as I am, if I hadn't read those two articles.

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Friday, September 11, 2009

A Day Of Work!

Today was my first full day of work since the middle of August. I hoped that as a result of this past month's chaos I would learn to concentrate more fully when I had the chance. But no way! I killed most of the morning on exercise, Internet reading, some phone talk, and e-mailing family and friends just like I always do.

I did manage to write a couple of pages, which is supposed to be good. And I sent an e-mail to a journal to make sure that a submission had been rejected, which it turns out it had. So that's done. And I did a little research on some new journals I might want to submit to. And I read some Short-Short Sighted columns on writing flash fiction, which made me think that I should totally revise the potato chip hospital story I've been working on.

So that's an afternoon of work, right?

Speaking of flash fiction, take a look at this flash story called Doofus about a second grader who can't tie his own shoes. What makes it an adult story? Would child readers like it? Could it work as a cross-over?

Answer in a thousand words or less.

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Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Thanks, Tanita

Tanita S. Davis referred me to an article by Cory Doctorow called Writing in the Age of Distraction. I'm very easily distracted, so, of course, I couldn't resist reading this piece.

Doctorow gives some advice on how to keep working. His most interesting thought is not to worry about writing more than a page or two a day. (A massive undertaking for me these past few months.) But another eye catcher was his suggestion that writers not do research.

What he meant was Don't do research right now. Keep writing and do the research later. I cannot tell you how many times I've come to a complete stop in order to research some minor point, sometimes even e-mailing people for information. And then I ended up not using any of the material I found.

So, yeah, I think he's onto something with putting off research.

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This Might Be Brilliant!

Has anyone else noticed how much time I'm spending at Procrastinating Writers? What does it all mean?

I was there just now where I found this post on un-schedules. What I like about this is that it gives you an idea of where you have time. Or it lets you know that you actually do have time.

Then when you find the bits and pieces of time, you can try using the Write Everyday tool to do something with it.

Today for the first time since the middle of August I actually did have a couple of hours to myself. I spent part of that time eating a bowl of ice cream and reading In the Shadow of Gotham. Then I e-mailed an editor who is on vacation, checked to see when I sent out a couple of submissions, and...wait for it...wait for it...wrote a paragraph!

So, anyway, I expect to have some un-scheduled time tomorrow, so there's some hope of doing a little work then, too. Except, if I know I have un-scheduled time, isn't that almost like scheduling un-scheduled time?

Well, nonetheless, if I really want to get back to work, this un-scheduling thing might help.

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Monday, September 07, 2009

Another Five Minutes! Huzzah!

I spent Labor Day spreading cheer and good will as well as low-salt lasagna, Splenda peach cobbler, and an entire Labor Day-type lunch for four other people. In short, I did not write.

Until just now. I went back to Write Everyday at Procrastinating Writers and did another five minutes on the potato chip story. Oh, my gosh. I am so stoked. I wrote five minutes! And I wrote five minutes Saturday night! On the same project! I've written ten minutes!

I know. That is tragically lame.

Check out Tanita's comment to this post. She writes about an article she read that claimed most writers only work about twenty minutes a day. In my experience, that's about right.

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Saturday, September 05, 2009

I Guess You Could Say This Sort Of Worked.

On Monday, August 31, I worked for about twenty minutes. This was very big news because it was the first time I'd worked in over two weeks. The closest thing to working I've done since then was making some notes for one of my 365 Story Project characters. This happened yesterday while I was reading a yoga article in a hospital cafeteria while waiting for some radioactive material to make its way to a family member's foot so she could have a bone scan.

So when I stumbled upon Write Everyday, a tool at Procrastinating Writers, I thought I would give it a try. It's supposed to allow you to set a clock for a specific number of minutes and then write until an alarm goes off. The first time I tried it, I did something wrong. I started a short story I've been thinking about (on the subject of buying potato chips in a hospital cafeteria, if you must know), so that's a good thing. But it never counted down the number of minutes or did anything at all.

When I reset it and tried again, it did work, even giving me a writing prompt. I hate writing prompts, as it turns out, but I do like the idea of time writing. So I may try this again and just ignore the prompt and go back to my potato chip story. Which I have now started even though it's Saturday night, and I never work on Saturday nights.

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Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Never Start A Story With Weather?

Storytellersunplugged did a post on Beginnings in which the posters included a list of "strange rules regarding beginnings." The third one was "Never Start a Story with Weather."

I sat there thinking, Ah...what?

Then I recalled the most famous weather-related first line ever written. "It was a dark and stormy night." Hmmm. That's thought-provoking.


At about the same time that Storytellersunplugged was posting on Beginnings, The Spectacle did one on Famous First Lines. I was impressed by the number of first lines by famous writers that began with the verb "to be." "It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen" from George Orwell's 1984. "There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it." Ė C. S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.

My graduate school career was limited to one class (which I did ace, just so you know), and the only thing I learned during it was never to start a sentence--particularly an important first sentence--with the verb "to be."

Perhaps if I become a famous writer, I'll be able to get away with it.

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Tuesday, July 14, 2009

But Development Is Hard. And Vast.

Editor A.Victoria Mixon guest blogs for Nathan Bransford with a post called Everything You Need To Know About Writing a Novel, in 1000 Words. She begins with a discussion of plot, I'm assuming because plot is so gawdawful.

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Thursday, July 02, 2009

Read It And Weep

In a recent Glimmer Train Bulletin piece called Making Stories Out of Stories, author Randolph Thomas does an excellent job describing the excruciating torment that is writing. I'm impressed he was able to explain how his story evolved. By the time I've finished a writing project, I usually have only the vaguest idea how it happened.

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Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Trying To Manage Time

Teaching Authors has a post up called "Ideal" Life vs. "Real" Life: Where Does the Time Go?". It's about writing and time management.

Get ready for a laugh--I once taught a workshop on time management for secretaries and administrative assistants. This was decades ago, when I'd been working for an agency that did management development and personnel management training for state and municipal employees. My bosses did time management programs for managers. Those programs focused on delegating work as a way to manage your time. You don't have time to do something? Get someone else to do it! Problem solved!

Why anyone thought I was qualified to teach time management I no longer recall. And note that the people I was teaching the time management workshop for were at the bottom of the executive chain. They were the people work was delegated to. Delegating wasn't an option for them. What I focused on was using "forms." Creating templates (pre word processing) for anything you possibly could so that you didn't have to come up with a new letter, memo, etc., for every single occasion. My plan was to save as much time as possible by cutting down on decision making and avoiding having to reinvent the wheel.

I only taught the workshop once.

I still think that you can save time with routines--do the same thing at the same time on a regular basis so that you don't have to spend a lot of time thinking about what you're going to do. Send the same letter to as many people as possible. That sort of thing.

It doesn't help a whole lot with managing writing time, though.

In her post on time management at Teaching Authors, Carmela Martino says that she procrastinates because of perfectionism. That's a classic problem for writers, one that is sometimes referred to as an inner editor. When I first heard about inner editors, I thought the idea was laughable, some kind of touchy feely, navel gazing thing. (That was before I started dabbling in zen, of course.) Then, after struggling with some of my later books and finding myself reading anything, absolutely anything, so I could avoid working, I began to suspect that perhaps my problem was, indeed, that I had been invaded by an inner editor. My weak ego couldn't face the knowledge that the manuscript I was working on was going to need draft after draft after draft. It was just too soul-sucking. I could make myself feel better by reading--something someone else had written. It's good to get some in-depth knowledge about politicians, isn't it? There was always a chance that reading would lead me to come up with some brilliant idea. It wasn't really wasting time.

Hmmm. Perhaps there's medication for that?

My latest time management twist involves looking over a writing project in the middle of my morning workout. (I have little problem working out for close to an hour in the morning. Why should I? When I'm working out, I don't have to work! You'd think writers would be the most fit group on the planet because exercise is such a fine procrastination device.) Then, while I'm on the treadmill or whatever, the material I've just looked over is in the back of my mind, and I often come up with some satisfying tweak for it. This is what is known as forcing a breakout experience, by the way.

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Sunday, June 21, 2009

Someone Else's Thoughts About My Old Enemy

I liked this Revision Checklist from Nathan Bransford because some of the items deal with revising plot, the bane of my existence.

Also, Nathan has created what looks like a table of contents for his blog. That must have been so much work.

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Saturday, June 13, 2009

Finding Inspiration

In Sampling: Getting Started with a New Writing Form, Becky Levine describes a method she uses for researching a new form of writing. This was the process she developed for herself when she was a new technical writer and had to write about a product she knew little about.

One of the things I particularly like about this post is that it describes finding inspiration in a form of nonliterary writing. I love when people are able to make those sorts of connections.

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Sunday, May 31, 2009

Unfortunately, Many Writers Don't Think About This

Marianna Baer posts at Crowe's Nest on using distinct voices for similar characters. This is particularly important in YA books, where you often find teen posses, and children's books, where you often find lots of friends.

I find it helpful, myself, to cut down on the number of secondary characters as much as possible. Then, at least, you need fewer voices.

Training Report: I'd hoped to look at some work this weekend. That doesn't seem like asking much, does it? Well, it seems it was. I did, however, mow the backyard this morning. I had one stellar idea while doing so, which I hope I remember.

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Wednesday, May 27, 2009

What I Did Instead Of Working

I read Thirteen Tips for Actually Getting Some Writing Done. I still haven't started working.

Here I go. Right now.

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Monday, May 25, 2009

This Kind Of Thing Is Work, Too

I spent part of Saturday with a few in-laws at an emergency room where the family patriarch was being treated. (He was home by three that afternoon and taking part in Memorial Day festivities today.) Because we had one too many people there and I wasn't actually related to anybody, I got to go out to the waiting room where there were chairs and a TV, making it far superior to where everyone else was.

Seeing my chance, I pulled out a notebook and went to work.

What I did was some freewriting on a character known as Grandpa Mike who is a hoarder, thus able to provide the kids in the 365 Story Project with all kinds of junk. At the end of last week, I'd decided to make him a bigger presence in the book. I needed to do a better job on why he has all this junk and where it is and how the kids get to it, anyway, and if I started using him more, he could provide me with a lot of material.

So I'm freewriting away trying to come up with what he did for work before he retired and how that related to the hoarding thing and what place he will have in Tanner's life. After doing that for a while, I realized that, no, I did not need another character to deal with, particularly an adult character, since this was a kids' book. Plus, a character should never be used just to fill space. Wrong, wrong, wrong.

I was no further ahead in doing a better job on why Grandpa Mike has all this junk and where it is and how the kids get to it. But now I knew that I didn't want Grandpa Mike around all the time, calling on the phone, and turning up at Easter and the Labor Day picnic. That may seem like a step backward, but not really.

Okay, that happened during the day on Saturday. That evening I was reading just before I went to bed when I suddenly came up with an idea for what Grandpa Mike could have been doing for work that fits in with all the junk he's collected all his life! That, my little lads and lasses, is what is known as a breakout experience. I'd been working on the problem, collected data, had let it go and relaxed, and voila! A problem solved!

I've got my idea written down on a piece of paper from my Nancy Drew notepad, and the paper is floating around somewhere on my nightstand, just waiting for me to go back to work. Whenever that may be.

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Saturday, May 16, 2009

I Have One Word For You--Birdhouse


I blew off all kinds of responsibilities to go hiking today, hitting four state forests in nine and a half or ten hours. The work never stops, though, because during one of my turns to drive (I read when I'm not driving--don't know where I am or what's going on) I noticed these bizarre tall poles along the side of the road in front of two houses. On the top of the poles were a variety of little wooden birdhouses. (Or they appeared to be wood from the road.) They didn't look very functional. The word "decor" comes to mind.

They'll be going into the 365 Story Project in a couple of weeks.

I am grateful to have come up with an idea that I'm quite certain I can use for a handful of segments. But I can't help but wonder--I was on the road or in the woods for around nine hours. Why the birdhouses? Why did that become an idea and not something else?

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Thursday, May 07, 2009

You Just Have To Think Up A Name That Works For You

I am always looking for the discipline that will make me...disciplined. I've tried using a journal first thing in the morning off and on for years. I thought it was supposed to make me more creative, if not more disciplined. It didn't do either.

Then last fall I added a short yoga practice to my workout a few days a week (which has done wonders for me physically--yoga cures everything). So I added some meditation to that because I read that some people find that meditation helps improve their concentration. In my case, not really.

But I've also read about various kinds of moving meditation, and I thought, hmmm. Why not writing meditation? It would be like those morning pages Julia Cameron talks about, only I'll call it "writing meditation."

This has been working for me very nicely. I'm writing about anything, about what I'm reading, about what I'm writing, jotting down ideas. It's really just all the usual junk you put in a writer's journal or notebook. I just call it "writing meditation," and that's made all the difference.

How well has this been working for me? I've had to miss some mornings this past week, and I feel myself drifting and feeling unfocused and somewhat lost. I definitely am less disciplined without the writing meditation.

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Monday, April 27, 2009

A Good Sunday

Yesterday I walked over to the UConn Co-op from a family member's home, a little under a two-mile walk round trip. I went over the weekend before, too, but hadn't brought any money with me. Thus the return trip.

The UConn Co-op is an independent bookstore, unlike some college bookstores that are run by chains. So you don't get the same old, same old when you're walking through its offerings.

Take graphic novels, for instance. When I look at the graphic novels at chain bookstores, I see a lot of superhero stuff and manga. The Co-op had a lot of the more unique, individual novels told graphically that I tend to be more interested in, as well as nonfiction, such as French Milk, that looked appealing.

I overheard something interesting while I was there. For some reason, a lot of parents and family groups were wandering around yesterday. (Perhaps the elders were there to make sure their kids hadn't been arrested at a spring break party.) One young man directed his family's attention to the book area by saying, "There's the Barnes & Noble stuff." Then he pointed out where the computer items were kept and maybe the tee-shirts, etc.

Think about it: When the big box bookchains first opened, they were modeling themselves on bookstores. Now people have to compare a bookstore to a Barnes & Noble in order to understand what goes on in one?

What are they teaching these young people at college these days?

Anyway, I blew my entire Christmas Co-op gift card on Leonard Marcus's Minders of Make Believe. I have a copy from the library, but I've already renewed it once, and I've only read a few pages. But those few pages made me want to underline like crazy! Lots of facts! About Puritans! I love the Puritans! Plus Marcus uses footnotes. Do you know how often I read nonfiction that has no footnotes? Do you have any idea how much that annoys me? So I decided I wanted my own copy.

So I'm walking back with my purchase, and I'm thinking that I can't start reading it until I finish reading Budo Secrets by John Stevens because I read only one nonfiction book at a time, and a guy from the dojang loaned me this thing maybe half a year ago. I would never mention Budo Secrets here because it's not related to my blog subjects, but as I was walking back to my in-laws' house, I suddenly realized that I could use a Budo Secrets-type book in the 365 Story Project! That means it is related.

I also realized that the 365 Story Project has no grandparents, and what's that about? The kids in the episodes are only ten and fourteen years old. What are the chances that all four of their grandparents would be dead? I decided I had to do something about that.

So it was quite a productive hour--a nearly two-mile walk, a happy wander in the Co-op, a book purchase, and some 365 Story Project work.

Training Report: I was away from the house a lot last week, which is why posting here was spottier than usual. I managed to get seven episodes written for the 365 Story Project, though, and a short story manuscript submitted to a journal. I was able to do that much because on Monday I happened to work out what the next seven or more episodes would be about. This means that either A. my father was right and a job well planned is a job half done; or B. I have now reached that stage at which if I'm given any topic I'll blurt out something about it no matter what.

I've got to step it up a notch or five or six because I'm still more than a month behind with these 365 Story stories. Trying to catch up is keeping me from working on other projects. I knocked off three segments today, though.

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Sunday, April 05, 2009

I Didn't Go Planning To Do Research

The 365 Story Project involves daily life for children on a street in a smallish town. If you're covering 365 days, you're going to have to include 52 Sundays.

Hundreds of thousands of kids in this country are getting some kind of formal religious instruction related to the faith their families practice. Just the fact that they are attending formal religious lessons, no matter what the faith, interests me. Therefore, many of my main character's Sunday mornings are spent in Sunday school. He attends an unspecified (so far) mainstream Protestant Sunday school because, though I started out life as a Catholic child, I taught Sunday school for 11 years in a mainstream Protestant church. Catholics don't even call their children's religious instruction what it was called when I was young. Protestant Sunday school is what I now know.

So today I got myself into church for the first time in probably two months. It's Palm Sunday. I like Palm Sunday. (Though I must say, when I was a child we were given palms in church that were like a freaking branch. Now all we get is what I think is the palm equivalent of a leaf. Oh, the glorious days of my youth.) No sooner had the service started, then I began getting ideas for the Sunday entries for the 365 Story Project.

And I started taking notes. In church. With the pencil the deacons leave in the pews for filling out the prayer intention cards.

To be perfectly honest, I've done that before. Seriously, church is so inspiring for me workwise, you'd think I'd get myself in there every week. But what seemed wrong this time was that I filled up the equivalent of half an 81/2 by 11 sheet of paper. It was the back of one of the program inserts!!!

I mean, I've made notes on the program before. (Lots of times I lose them after I get home, if I even manage to get them home.) But this time the material just kept coming and coming, and I kept picking up the pencil again and again and writing more and more.

For instance, all the kids from the Sunday school came up to the sanctuary to do a little palm parade. I sat there checking them out to see how long the boys were wearing their hair and was there someone there I could use as a physical model for a couple of my girl characters? I did find a hairdo I liked for my main girl character, as well as a couple of very stylish cuts on preschoolers that I wouldn't have minded for myself.

I had to struggle to control myself and sit with my hands folded while the minister was praying because, you know, it didn't seem right to be making a note about my main character and his brother using their palms for sword fighting while the minister was asking God to remember all those in need. And then Communion came and no way should anyone be working during Communion. But it went on forever.

I think that what happened would be bad, very bad, if I had gone to church intentionally planning to harvest material from the experience. But I didn't. I went to get a free palm. I'm hoping instead that all those ideas I was getting were divine inspiration.

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Friday, April 03, 2009

Now This Sounds Like A Useful Blog

By way of Nathan Bransford's blog I found Come In Character, a blog writers can use to help develop characters.

Today's Training Report: I actually did quite a bit today, even though I only finished one and a half 365 Story Project pieces. But I also did a lot of work on organizing threads for various characters and events within the manuscript, which is going to be useful down the road. I also got started creating a "media center" type page for my website. It will be a while before that makes its appearance, since I have to do a little writing for it.

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Thursday, April 02, 2009

Writers, There Is Hope For Us!

Stop the Internet, I want to get off! claims we can find Freedom at last. But only if we own Macs.

Today's Training Report: One and a half pieces for the 365 Story Project. I'm going to have to do several a day and work weekends because I am more than a month behind right now. I also got started on creating two more story threads, which I hope will speed things up. And, finally, I did some revisions on a couple of website pages, which Computer Guy should have up very soon.

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Monday, March 16, 2009

You...Me...Training Partners

And I'm going on some more about my day out with the New England Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators.

So, on Saturday I saw what are becoming my Salon friends--Loree Griffin Burns, Terry Golson, Melissa Stewart, and Dana Meach Rau, for instance, though there are more faces I recognize. This time, though, I also met a new person out in the parking lot, Jo Knowles. (In fact, when we were leaving, I almost hit her in the parking lot. Hey, I said it was just almost.)

Anyway, after a number of us, you know, just sort of mentioned in passing how our obsession with the Internet seems to be a whole lot more powerful than our obsession with our craft, Jo offered a story about how she and another writer who lives on the other side of the country control their wandering minds by checking in with each other off and on each day, setting goals together, and sort of keeping each other honest, so to speak.

Now, I have heard before of writers using this kind of relationship to do the very thing Jo and her friend use it for. However, I often have to hear the same thing a number of times before it registers with me. On Saturday, as soon as Jo explained what she does, I thought, "Training partner."

I will spare you the details of my two-year (more or less) relationship with my taekwondo training partner, Valerie. (Actually, I'm saving it for an essay.) I'll just say that sometimes I understand things much better if I can connect them to something I already know and like. (I have to use metaphors and analogies a lot in order to get along in life.) So while I no longer have my own personal training partner at the dojang, I understand training partners. And it appears that I like training (a term I use loosely, by the way) a whole lot more than I like staying on task at work.

So I'm getting myself a writing training partner. And the writing training partner is going to be this blog. I'm going to be keeping track of my writing statistics here. I'm not doing any goal setting or long-range planning because that's not how I train. I just get up and spend an hour to an hour and a half a day on some random physical activity. That's the way I'm going to manage my writing stats. I'm just going to keep track of the work I'm doing, whatever it is, because it will force me to work enough so that I have something to report that won't humiliate me. I use the term "humiliate" loosely, too.

Some of you may recall that I did something like this a couple of years ago when I was working on the first draft of the book I am still working on. Well, what can I say? Now I'm trying it again. We'll see if it takes this time.

Now, if you're a writer who would like to experiment with a writing training partner, go ahead and post your statistics, whatever they are, in the comments to my posts. I am not a competitive trainer or writer. Be zenny about whatever you have to report.

Today's training report: I revised the next to the last chapter of the ninth draft of the never ending story and got started on the last chapter. While this is rather a lot for me, I must admit that the chapter didn't require the kind of extensive overhaul that, say, the chapter before it did. A chapter that took me at least a week to revise. Also, I didn't allow myself to visit any news sites until afternoon when I was almost finished with the chapter.

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Thursday, February 26, 2009

I Love Contradictions!

Another great bit from a Glimmer Train Bulletin: Joshua Henkin uses a couple of terrific personal stories to illustrate what he calls "pleasing contradictions" and says they are "the lifeblood of a fiction writer."

As a humor writer, I look for what I call "incongruities," because I often find the clash that occurs when unlike elements are brought together amusing. So I use those kinds of contradictions when I'm writing humor.

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Tuesday, February 24, 2009

A Reason For Writing?

In a Glimmer Train Bulletin, author Roxana Robinson says:

"All the fiction I write arises from the same sort of impulse: it's a feeling of discomfort, a kind of unspecified anxiety, a need to uncover something that troubles and disturbs me. I write toward that feeling."

I'm not sure if she's saying that that is why she writes, but needing to write because you're disturbed and uncomfortable about something would certainly be a good reason as far as I'm concerned.

In this essay, Robinson also gives a great explanation of the difference between writing short stories and novels. And she does it in a nice, concise manner, too.

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Saturday, February 21, 2009

This Week's Writing Lesson

Meg Rosoff is blogging at Penguin.com. (Thank you, Leila.) In yesterday's post, she begins:

"Letís talk about writerís block.

First of all, I donít get it. I can always write."


I was only three sentences into the post and muttering obscenities at my monitor. But then Rosoff continues with:

"What I canít always do is plot, in fact Iím somewhat hopeless at plot, and am always amazed that my books emerge with any story at all."

At which point, I was going, "Why, yes, Meg dear, I know exactly what you mean."

I wonder if a lot of people mistake not knowing what to do next (which is all about plot) for writer's block. I spend a lot of time not knowing what to do next.

One thing I learned this past week while I didn't know what to do next, was that sometimes when I don't know what to do next, it's because what I just did wasn't right. (Again, we're talking plot.) You need a good platform from which to spring to the next thing, and if the platform isn't there, maybe you just can't get anywhere. In my case this past week, I even knew what the next thing was going to be. All I needed was transitional material.

What I finally realized was that I needed something better from which to make that transition. When I went back and wrote something better at the end of Chapter...I think it was Thirteen...I was able to go on with Fourteen.

I suspect I've had this revelation before and then forgot it. I hope I remember it now.

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Wednesday, February 11, 2009

And What Will Happen After All That Work?

I had a pretty good day today, working through an info dump and making a good intro/ transition on a chapter that didn't have one. I'm almost at the point in this manuscript at which I decided before Christmas that I needed to start over once again and do a ninth draft. That's good because if I recall correctly, the end was in sight back before Christmas, so it ought to be making an appearance again soon.

I'm about a month behind in reading my editor and agent blogs. I don't recall how I originally stumbled upon The Crowe's Nest, but I found this January 9th interview with Simon Pulse editor Michael del Rosario interesting. The part that related to my day was in his answer to the first question. In it he talks about how many people have to sign off on a submission before they even begin negotiating with an agent.

Jeezum Crow, as one of my characters would say.

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Friday, February 06, 2009

Writing Glimmers

Today a family member was telling me about how his e-mail in-box is always empty. As soon as something comes in, he deals with it. Job-related messages go immediately to their appropriate folders, other items are responded to and filed or deleted, junk is trashed. Everything is taken care of right away, he told me. No build up. In-box empty. All the time.

I almost said, "Ya gotta point?"

He inspired me to try to read some of the Glimmer Train Bulletins to which I subscribe. (Glimmer Train is one of the many fine publications that have turned down my short stories over the years. Yeah, I know. Some day they will all be sorry.) About fourteen of the things were languishing in my in-box. Now I'm down to twelve. Good work, Gail!

I found a couple of interesting things:

Crossing the Blank Page Fearlessly with a Roll of the Polyhedral Gambling Apparatus by Brian Ames

Yes, I was shaken by the appearance of the word polyhedral, too. But what Ames has done is create a chart for generating ideas from magazine articles. In the past I have been very turned off by the idea of using charts while writing. But a couple of years ago, I decided to try using a spreadsheet, and now I'm much more open-minded.

Plus, I do get a lot of ideas from magazines. And I'm trying to come up with an idea a day for the 365 Story Project. (Actually, I prefer to come up with several ideas at a time, so I know what I'm going to be doing for the next few days.) So I may give some variation of Ames' idea a try.

The Importance of Journaling by Cynthia Gregory

I hate using journal as a verb. Nonetheless, Gregory says something very interesting about writing in journals. "Write knowing that your journal is not about you...Rather, it is like a Polaroid camera that you aim at everything around you and with which you snap a photo...It is a recording."

Be sure to read the next to the last paragraph, in which she talks about her ex-husband's grandmother's journal. That sure sounds like an idea for a novel to me.

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Monday, January 26, 2009

I See Children's Books--Everywhere

Last Thursday night I went to hear an acquaintance, Susan Campbell, speak about her new book Dating Jesus: A Story About Fundamentalism, Feminism, and the American Girl. Susan's book, which I have not yet read, is an adult memoir. But as she was telling these very funny stories about her mother being called in to take her out of Sunday school class and going door-to-door as a twelve-year-old to ask people if they'd like to read the Bible with her, I thought, Hey, this could be a kids' book! A YA, anyway. She should reuse her material as kidlit! It could be hysterical!

Hysteria is very important in a book.

Another interesting observation about Susan's appearance: The crowd, and it was a nice sized one, was interested in content. They wanted to talk about religion, the subject of the book. I, however, wanted to talk about what you might call structure or format. I was looking for an opportunity (which never came) to ask if the author had considered using her material in fiction instead of nonfiction. At the very end of the hour, one person asked the ever popular "How long did it take you to write this book?" Otherwise, not a soul wanted to talk about anything but content.

One of the reasons I found this so interesting is that in reading print and blog reviews of books I've read it has appeared to me that I read differently from other people. A lot of readers are totally interested in content. What the story is about is of primary importance to them. I am at least as interested in how the story is told. And if writers really drop the ball with that, they've lost me.

I like to think that my concern with how a story is put together instead of the story, itself, is due to the fact that I'm a writer and putting a story together is my business. But I also wonder sometimes if it just means I'm superficial, sort of like someone who is only interested in clothes, rather than the person who is wearing them.

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Sunday, January 18, 2009

More On Writing What You Know--And My Vacation

Oz and Ends has a post up called The Dubious Wisdom of "Writing What You Know," in which he quotes four authors on the subject. And what a coincidence! One of them is me!

I'd like to add a little something to the discussion, since I'm the writer quoted who is most in favor of writing what you know--or, as I prefer to call it, writing who you are.

When you write about what you know, you're writing about what other people know because people are more alike then they are different. Shannon Hale said something similar: "people are people." Fiction should take the personal and relate it to human experience in general, just as personal essays do. It's just with fiction, you get to run with whatever personal experience you choose to use whereas with personal essays you're supposed to put up a show about sticking with the truth.

A personal essay-like story to illustrate my point:

Last weekend I was visiting family members in Vermont, including my cousin and his two children, who are in first and third grades. The kids had been reading some of my books. The third-grade girl told me that she was going to keep the Hannah and Brandon book, but she was going to let her younger brother have My Life Among the Aliens because--

At that point, said younger brother broke in, "Because it could have been about me!"

I was incredibly touched, because My Life Among the Aliens deals to a great extent with my experiences as mom to that child's second cousins, who are a great deal older than he is. And, yet, he identified with the Will and Rob of the book to such an extent that he felt that their stories could have been his.

What greater joy can a reader get from a story? What greater joy can a writer get from a reader?

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Monday, January 05, 2009

I'm Doing Something Official This Week

Tomorrow I start answering writing process questions for a high school creative writing class in Vermont by way of a magical bit of software that will allow me to see and respond to their questions in the privacy of their...ah...program, I guess you'd call it.

I love being able to do these bizarre appearances without going anywhere. Thank you, God, for the Internet. Some of your best work.

On a related note, Justine Larbalestier is doing a writing advice month this January.

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Tuesday, December 30, 2008

A Misunderstood Phrase

Justine Larbalestier has a post up called Write What You Know, NOT! in which she claims that the old adage "write what you know" is "rubbish."

I don't think the phrase "write what you know" is rubbish, at all. It's misunderstood, is what it is.

When I was a teenager, I hated being told to write what I knew. It made me incredibly angry. I lived on a small, rural farm, and I most definitely did not want to have to write about cleaning the barn or feeding the heifers or whatever the hell my father had out in the second barn at any particular time. I felt the teachers were trying to control me when they told me to write what I knew. They were keeping me from writing the mysteries, spy stories, and comedies I liked to read. My mother always told us, "The whole world can't be wrong and you right." I can distinctly remember thinking that I would show everyone that they were wrong and I was right and that I could be a writer without having to write what I knew.

Fast forward twenty freaking years, by which point I had published two short stories and one essay. I caught the attention of an editor at G.P. Putnam's Sons and began working on a book of short stories about aliens. The basic premise of the collection involved aliens dropping in on two suburban brothers who were left to deal with them on their own because their mother was too busy to notice there was anything unusual going on.

I had to come up with material for these stories. I had given my older son a birthday party with an Olympic Games theme. So I did a short story about a birthday party with an Olympic Games theme and had an alien crash it. He was wearing an outfit based on one my younger son wore when he was a toddler. The older boy did a science fair project on pulleys, so pulleys figured prominently in another story about an alien. I did a story about a dinosaur and an alien because the younger boy had a pair of shorts with dinosaurs printed on them that I just loved. (I did have a thing for his clothes, didn't I?) I used the neighbor's dog in a story. We had friends who were musicians, so I made the parents musicians. My husband plays the guitar, so that was their instrument.

After the book was published, an acquaintance said to me, "Loved the book. It was so real. It was about things that really happen." A lightbulb literally went off over my head. I didn't think the poor woman believed in aliens. I knew that she was talking about all the details that came from my life as a suburban mom. I thought, Oh. That's what they meant.

I realized in a blinding flash of light that writing what you know means writers have the option of turning to their lives for the details they need to describe characters and settings and to come up with plot points. That's dramatically different from having to write only about what has actually happened to you. Writers' lives aren't strait jackets. Nobody is holding a gun to their heads forcing them to write about that babysitting experience in 1986, or their grandmother's wake (though I do have a pretty good wake story) in '91, or every up and down in their marriage.

But when you need a town for a setting, being able to use one you know sure beats having to come up with one from scratch. And it can end up sounding a lot more realistic, too, because it's based on something real. A school building you remember, the camp your uncle owned, the house you lived in when you were in first and second grade, jobs your family members have held, the vicious dog that used to live next door, the food you ate on vacation...the barn those heifers you had to feed were kept in...all these things are things you know and can use. Any way you want.

Larbalestier talks about doing research for books. When you do research, that becomes something you know. You are then writing what you know.

My life is so intricately woven into my books that someone reading them could end up knowing so much about me it's frightening. And, yet, I've written two books about aliens and am working on a third. I've written about people who have lived a life dedicated to environmentalism to a degree I can only imagine. I've written about a lot of boys. The books aren't about me.

Because I still hate the expression "write what you know" I prefer to think of what I do as writing who I am. Whatever you want to call it, it has never kept me from writing about anything I wanted to write about. On the contrary, it has made all my writing possible.

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A Little Late For Me

a.fortis at Finding Wonderland directed me to something called One-Pass Manuscript Revision at HollyLisle.com. Now, once (or if) I ever get back to work, I'll be slogging through...ah...the nineth...draft of a manuscript. (I am not bragging.) Now is not the time to tell me I could have done it all at once.

However, what I find particularly interesting about Holly Lisle's revision process is that it begins with theme. I've been thinking about theme and its significance a lot this fall and winter, and it makes a great deal of sense to me right now to begin with that.

Maybe next time.

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Sunday, December 14, 2008

On Keeping A Journal


This week I'm going to be speaking in a friend's classroom about writing process. One of the things she was particularly interested in having me discuss was using journals. I've been keeping what I've called an idea journal, a writer's journal, and a writer's workbook for decades now. However, I've never spoken on the subject. So when I was in Reading Fool's library last week and saw Note to Self: On Keeping A Journal And Other Dangerous Pursuits by Samara O'Shea, I took it home as a little prep.

I ended up just skimming Note to Self because it's about those personal, intense journals that Note's publisher describes as "life-altering," "soul-enlightening," and "transformative." I had a life-altering experience in a parking lot once, but not so much with journals.

When I was in high school, I kept reading about writers who kept journals. Since I believed writing was my career path, I decided I should keep a journal, too. I wrote one sentence one evening. I was underwhelmed. I may have even been bored.

At any rate, I thought that was the end of keeping a journal for me.

Then when I was a sophomore in college I took an expository writing class. I didn't learn much in it but the instructor made us all keep idea journals. All we had to do was write down one idea for a piece of writing each day. I was off and running.

I think the pour-your-heart-onto-the-page kind of journal didn't work for me when I was young and doesn't attract me now because I'm not terribly interested in raw experience. What interests me is what I can do with that experience. What does it make me think of? Can I see a dramatic situation in it? If not, can I impose one on it? Can I combine that experience with something else to create a totally new situation?

Raw experience is sort of static, I think. Just writing down what happened to me today reminds me of a family member who got a video recorder back in the 80s and drove us nuts with it. He'd record us at some family event and then make us all stop what we were doing to go into the living room and watch what he'd just taped. He was, essentially, bringing our lives to a stop so we could relive the last few minutes through the miracle of technology. We'd live, and then he'd rewind.

A journal in which I'm just writing about getting up, working out, eating a sandwich at my mother's apartment, going grocery shopping, coming home to put up the Christmas tree, vacuuming, and making dinner is just rewinding and reliving a day that is already over.

But a journal in which I start playing with ideas for a Christmas essay in which various family members announce while trimming their tree that they hate particular ornaments, they've always hated them, they think the ornaments look like mutants, and they want to use them for target practice isn't rewinding but living a whole new moment. It's a moment in which something new is happening--an idea is being expressed. It's a forward-looking moment instead of a backward-looking moment because the idea has potential to become something even if nothing ever comes of it.

I don't think I'll talk to the fifth-graders about any of that.

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Sunday, December 07, 2008

A Plan! I Have A Plan!

The end of last week I finished what was going to be the third to the last chapter of the eighth draft of the book I've been working on for just about two years now. I was ready to get started on the next to the last chapter. I had material to revise, but I couldn't seem to do anything with it. I finally realized that that was because the ending was rushed. The thing just wasn't coming together properly. My old enemy, plot, was getting the best of me again.

That was Friday. I wasn't happy, but I've been writing long enough now to know that at some point, something would come to me. I would have a breakout experience, and it would probably come over the weekend when I wasn't struggling in front of a computer screen. I wasn't filled with joy over the prospect of being up in the air like that because something was very wrong with the manuscript, but I wasn't filled with despair, either.

Well, sure enough, it happened. It didn't come in a flash of light. The idea sort of evolved. But what finally came to me was that I could change one minor character and that would change the plot. I would have to change things all the way back to chapter one, and I'd have to bring this guy in earlier. I might have to bring his big scene in much earlier, which would mean some restructuring.

And that, folks, means another draft. Yup. A ninth draft.

It's a great relief to know what I'm going to do. I so love having a plan.

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Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Student Writing

I'm going to be giving a talk on writing process to some fifth graders later this month. The teacher I've been working with mentioned an author named Ralph Fletcher who writes books for teachers on writing. It turns out he also writes both picture books and chapter books.

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Friday, November 28, 2008

I Just Don't Understand How They Do It

I've talked here before about plowing right through drafts. I'm always reading that that's what you should do. Just work straight through without worrying about quality, letting the chips fall where they may, yada yada. And I'm sure I've mentioned that while I think that sounds like a stellar idea, I couldn't do it if I had a gun to my head. I get to chapter fourteen and have to go back and do some work on chapters four and seven so that what I want to do in fourteen can happen.

I'm working on a book I've written over and over again these past two years, and today, for the second time in a week or so, I had to spend a lot of time going back and creating a thread so it will be available for me to pull in another couple of chapters. If you suddenly start writing something in chapter seventeen without having provided the lead-in for it to happen in the earlier chapters, don't you feel as if you're standing on the seventeenth story of a building that has, shall we say, no structural integrity? What are the chances that you'll be able to patch things up properly down the road?

Unless, of course, all those other writers get the job done correctly the first time. That's a possibility, I suppose.

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Tuesday, November 11, 2008

It's Not Just For Treating Your Bad Joints!

Remember that post on yoga and writing I did recently? Of course, you do. Well, WordCount has a post from back in March on yoga and writing, too.

I'm going to be watching for this kind of thing now.

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Sunday, November 09, 2008

Reverse Engineering

I think Sam Riddleburger's plan to start with the ending of a story and work backwards sounds like a great idea. I wish I could come up with the ending of a story first so I could try it.

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Sunday, October 12, 2008

Doesn't This Mean I Should Go Hiking On Wednesday?

Today I was out hiking, when, after several hours, I had an idea for revising an essay I finished last Monday. The idea involved reworking the material for use as a presentation for teenagers or as an article for an educational publication for high school teachers.

Or maybe both!

I got the idea for the essay I was considering revising on September 28th, when I spent a big part of the day (a Sunday) reading. I finished a book called Chi Walking. I kid you not, it helped me formalize some thoughts about kids trying to publish their writing, which related back to the day last spring when a teacher at an elementary school asked if I had any advice for kids wanting to do just that. I had to tell her I didn't believe kids should be publishing their work.

Awkward moment.

One of the ways I justify all the time I spend doing non-work related stuff is that I try to convince myself that I could very well come up with some fine ideas by doing so. And on September 28th, and then again this afternoon, I think I did.

So wouldn't I be a fool to stay home and work on Wednesday when I could be hiking and, perhaps, coming up with a seriously important writing idea?

Of course, ideas are all well and good. You have to do something with them, though. So unfair.

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Friday, October 10, 2008

Maybe I Should Seek Therapy

I had a pretty decent day of work today, rewriting work I'd done earlier in the week and getting a little further, though not as far as I'd hoped. I realized that one reason I may have such difficulty sticking with work and keep escaping to play games of solitaire or to see what Sarah Palin is doing or to check to make sure we still have a stock market is that every single word matters.

I thought I was getting bogged down because I knew that I was going to do draft after draft and just knowing that the draft I was doing was not going to be the last sapped my strength. But it's more than that. Finding the exact word and creating the perfect moment in a storyline is a major responsibility. Talk about a load on your shoulders. Just a line can make all the difference in whether I can move on or not.

I keep looking for various methods to make the work easier. I've hoped that my martial arts training would somehow transfer to writing, but it's been six years so I don't think I should expect much to come from that. Plus, let's face it, I'm not that great a martial arts student so even if something did transfer how much good would it do me? A number of years back I had a six-week period when I thought that writing in a journal each morning was going to turn my life around. I was wrong. Then this past summer I read that meditation can improve concentration. So I tried that a few times. I thought it helped once, but then I couldn't remember to meditate each day. So, so much for that.

Then today I was wondering about some kind of word anxiety therapy. I was thinking that the New England Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators could run some kind of therapy salon.

I'd pay to go to that if it included lunch.

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Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Some Nonprofessional Reading

I still haven't finished the most recent issue of The Horn Book. But instead of working on it last night while I was on the exercise bicyle, I picked my way through a series of articles related to the mind in the September 22nd issue of Newsweek. One of them made me worry that some readers might perceive the main character in the book I'm devoting my life to writing as very, very ill. In fact, the article supported the statement from the one professional who has read the manuscript that went something to the effect, "Why aren't her parents seeking help for her?"

So today, I went back to work on Chapter 1 (which was already in its eighth draft) to try to deal with that little matter. I got Olivia a little help. Not that she needs it. Everyone around her just thinks she does.

If I'd read The Horn Book last night, maybe I would have finished chapter four today. Would that have been a good thing?

Anything that floats through my mind while I'm working on a project could end up in it.

Another Newsweek article mentioned flow, which I've talked about here in the past. The article described flow as "concentrated attention and the absence of self-consciousness."

What is "self-consciousness?" All the games loaded on your computer? The CNN website? On-line articles about Todd Palin and the clothes worn at the Emmy Awards ceremony?

I believe I was in a flow state for about forty-five seconds this afternoon. Maybe a minute and a half. Hooray!

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Friday, September 05, 2008

Lucky Number Eight!

So that book that I worked on all last year and went back to in July, slogging my way slowly through a new draft of the first four and a half chapters--Well, I got someone to read Chapters One and Two because I wasn't feeling the excitement. I would read books I didn't like and wonder, Am I doing what this author did? Am I taking too long to get to things? Am I stopping dead in my tracks in order to describe something? (What you might call the Da Vinci Distraction, because it was always happening in The Da Vinci Code.) Am I creating information dumps? Am I spending too much time talking about what the main character is thinking? Am I using the word think too much? Is there another word for think?

Anyway, my reader was in absolute despair, because he didn't like my manuscript. It didn't sound like me. It was all just Olivia's weird problems.

I had to reassure him that he was actually being helpful. Some of the things we talked about were things I was already wondering about, myself. I really didn't feel despair, but rather reassurance that I should make a dramatic change, as in starting the book in a different place.

I also wasn't focusing enough on what I wanted the book to be. I was just wallowing in the main character's angst, which did nothing but make her undefined and miserable.

So on to Draft Eight! I don't care if I work on this thing for the rest of my life!

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Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Curses!

Sam Riddleburger has a new book coming out next spring. At his blog he wrote about the decision he and his co-author made to eliminate the swearing that appears in the ARC. I don't yet know what language was cut because I haven't yet read my copy. I'm putting it off so I can enjoy the suspense as long as possible.

Those words we lump into the category "swearing" (or what the Gauthier boys used to call "swears") are of of great interest to me. Professionally, of course. Like Sam, I had to deal with the issue of language in a book. In my case, we're talking blasphemy.

Back before I began writing what would become The Hero of Ticonderoga, I wrote my editor to ask how many times a person could use "God damn" in a children's book. I wasn't seriously looking for a specific number, but I was concerned because Ethan Allen was going to figure prominently in the book, and Ethan Allen's use of blasphemy was legendary, in his own lifetime and beyond. It was an expression of his conflict with the late Puritan culture into which he was born. His use of profanity is very well documented. To not include it when writing about him would be so dishonest as to almost mean I wasn't writing about Ethan Allen at all. (I do love that man, in all his unsavory glory.)

Yes, I could have told my readers something like "Ethan Allen took the Lord's name in vain." But I believe I've mentioned my issue with telling instead of showing when writing. So Tess LeClerc, the main character in Hero, uses "God damn" three times. Each time she is paraphrasing Ethan Allen, and each time she is corrected by someone for her language. That was my way of trying to deal with the use of blasphemy in a children's book.

Hero was an ALA Notable Book, and the paperback is still in print. However, I don't know how often it's used in classrooms, and I've always wondered if the language was a stumbling block for schools. I did receive one complaint about the blasphemy. So when Sam says that they made the decision to change their language on the advice of a teacher who felt their book would be more "classroom friendly" without it, I certainly understand what he's talking about.

Language came up with the never-ending book I'm working on now, too, as I explained a year ago. In this case, I decided to go with that old Vermont favorite, Jeezum Crow.

Oddly enough, I've been wondering lately if my characters need expletives, after all. Sam says that in their case, "Using the swear words helped us write the book." But they didn't actually need them once they were done. I may find that to be the case, too.

Especially since I'm imagining a New York City editor going, "Jeezum what?"

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Friday, August 22, 2008

A Great New Rule For Me

Crissa-Jean Chappell, author of Total Constant Order, was interviewed for The Miami Herald. Be sure to read the very last paragraph, which quotes Chappell regarding her No. 1 rule of writing.

Seriously, remembering that might help me.

Link from Cynsations.

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This Is Painful

I'm working on the seventh draft of the book I wrote last year. I believe I only have to make major changes in the early portions of the book, but those early portions go on and on. I'm having big problems linking bits and getting from A to B. I'm sometimes only able to struggle through a page a day, or even less.

And I've only had one reader for this manuscript. With this draft, I'm responding to a couple of her suggestions that I felt were very appropriate. So, seven drafts with only one reader. If this ever gets picked up by a publisher, we could easily end up with a total of ten drafts or more.

I've always felt that writing becomes more and more difficult the more drafts you do because after a while the well runs dry. Where will the new material come from? After the experience of writing this book, I'm beginning to think that there are limitless things you can do with plot and character. You may have to dig them out of your own internal organs, but they're there.

In fact, it's a little frightening to think that a person could go on writing the same book forever.

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Sunday, August 03, 2008

Getting Into Work

When I am seriously working on a project, I'll continue "working" even when I'm not at my desk. I've called it immersion theory in the past. For several weeks this past month, I was stuck on the same paragraph, which you may remember because I whined about it here. Part of what held me back on that, I'm sure, was that I kept taking time off from work to go here and there and never got immersed in the job.

Last week immersion finally came. Yesterday, an intense housework day for me, an idea came related to a chapter I'd just finished revising. And today, while driving for a couple of hours, I got a big idea for changing a character in that same chapter. I didn't even know there was anything wrong with her. But now I'm sure she's just a dull, hollow shell.

She won't be after tomorrow.

It's good to be immersed.

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Wednesday, July 30, 2008

A New Organizational Plan

I've spent parts of the last three evenings rolling over the thirty-two or three blogs I try to read into Google Reader. (Please, don't anyone tell me there was an easy way to do this because I'm done.) I'm hoping that this will be the device that creates some kind of organizational turning point in my life because Google Reader allows me to organize my blogs by subject, which my former blog reader didn't. So tonight I read agent/editor/marketing blogs.

Some interesting tidbits:

Agent Kristin at Pub Rants reminds writers not to mistake voice for character development. Personally, I think that's a common mistake in YA.

Nathan Bransford tests the waters regarding the phrase coming of age. I won't say that I would never write a coming- of-age novel, but if I ever describe a book I've written as a coming-of-age novel, please, someone take me out and shoot me.

As a result of finally getting to spend some time with the agent/editor (well, mostly agent) blogs I've been trying to follow, I've decided I want to drop one of them. (Neither of the ones I mention here.) Now I just have to figure out how to do that on Google Reader.

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Thursday, July 17, 2008

One Paragraph! Just One Paragraph!

I'm working on a new revision of The Durand Cousins, and I'm stuck on this one paragraph in the second chapter. I've been stuck there for a couple of days. I cannot go on until it's just right. I've been reading about the Emmy nominations. I've been reading about the Russian royal family. I've been reading about how great Helen Mirren looks in her red two piece. All because I can't think of anything for this paragraph, so I can't move on.

I'm so glad I've got somewhere to go tomorrow.

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Friday, June 20, 2008

Plotting

Plotting is the absolutely most difficult thing for me to do when writing. Thus I found this post, in a blog I just added to my blog reader yesterday, very interesting.

Hope I remember what this guy had to say the next time I'm starting a project.

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Sunday, May 11, 2008

To Count Words Or Not To Count Words

Or, rather, to report when you're counting words or not to report when you're counting words. Justine has a post on the subject.

Last year when I was deep into the slogfest that was writing The Durand Cousins, I started posting my daily word count here. I stopped because my computer guy told me reading that stuff was making his eyes glaze over and that that couldn't be good for him.

I liked the idea of posting word count because keeping track of your word count is sort of like taking part in a race or, perhaps, hiking The Appalachian Trail. We're talking a race to the finish line here. People like watching races, don't they? Why wouldn't they like to watch as an author approaches the end of the trail?

Oh. Because it's boring.

Notice that I'm now calling Justine "Justine" even though I've never met her, and she has no idea who I am? It's offical. I am now cyberstalking her blog as I used to cyberstalk Jane Yolen's.

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Friday, May 02, 2008

How's That Study Month Going, Gail?

Yeah, the study month.

That's been a bit of a disappointment, mainly because I ended up getting two jobs for author appearances. One of them required revising my regular presentation for an older age group, and for the the other one I needed to create an all new presentation for littlies built around A Girl, a Boy, and a Monster Cat. The day I finished the first program, right down to making rough drafts of slides to give to Computer Guy, plans were finalized for the second job, so I had to go right back to work.

You are all aware of how slowly I work, right? I think I just about finished the second program this afternoon.

Then I kind of forgot that now's the time to be promoting A Girl, a Boy, and Three Robbers. That was kind of embarrassing.

Plus a manuscript was rejected far, far faster than I expected it to be. I thought I had a couple more months, easy, before I heard from that editor. She very generously gave me some feedback that makes me want to do some revision, though wouldn't you think doing a study month first would help with that?

I have managed to get through some of my reading this spring. Over the years, I've found writing books deadly and often useless, covering the same old generalities. But I inherited a just-like-new copy of Writing Fiction A Guide to Narrative Craft by Janet Burroway and Elizabeth Stuckey-French, and after having read a number of sections, I have to say that it is the most marvelous book on writing that I have ever read. I am learning masses of stuff. Masses.

What I like about this book is that the authors really get into nitty-gritty craft. There's none of this "Go forth and write your dream" malarkey that I found in a lot of books I've run across in the past. Burroway and Stuckey-French truly deal with problems I've had as a writer. I recognize a lot of what they talk about because it's stuff I've had to do or tried to do in my own work.

That does make me wonder if I would get as much out of the book if I wasn't a somewhat experienced writer. But I am a somewhat experienced writer, so I'm loving the book. In fact, it makes me feel embarrassed about a lot of manuscripts I've mailed out to editors over the years.

But, hey, Zen tells me that those are past moments and I should live in the present ones--the present moments being ones when I should be doing much better work because I've read Writing Fiction.

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Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Gail's End Games

Sometime this past year, I stumbled upon a blog review of one of my books. The blogger (I'm not going to link to him because I'm not that good and open-minded a person) said the end of my book activated his gag reflex.

Needless to say, that gave me something to think about.

I've been thinking about it a lot these past few days after finishing up The Durand Cousins. I eliminated the last two paragraphs of the book soon after I wrote them not because they made me gag but because they just weren't working. As I explained to a family member, in my experience, if something doesn't work in a manuscript, I probably don't need it. The story is probably better off without it.

I believe that The Durand Cousins is better off without those two paragraphs, but I realized that what dropping them left me with was a Gauthier ending.

Many of my books end with the main character experiencing a moment. Everything he or she goes through leads to a moment of not necessarily happiness but maybe satisfaction or comfort or enlightenment. But just a moment. The satisfaction or comfort or enlightenment isn't something that can last and create a happily ever after scenario. In fact, that was what the two paragraphs I ditched Saturday morning were about. Soon the character was going to experience more worries and work. What she was feeling was only for that moment.

Those moments might be interpreted as uplifting and hopeful, which is what some kidlit gatekeepers believe is required of children's literature (and what that blogger probably found gag-inducing). However, while I've been writing endings for around twelve years now, I didn't know about the uplifting and hopeful philosophy until very recently. Those endings might also be interpreted as a bit zenny, but I didn't know anything about Zen until the last few years, either.

Therefore, I have to put the Gauthier endings down to my world view. I am interested in those times when a person can live in a really brief moment of true satisfaction, contentment, enlightenment, or something that is good, unaware that it is only a moment and, thus, really a cause for unhappiness because it won't last. Yup, those are good times, good times. We're lucky if we get them.

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Wednesday, January 23, 2008

We Need Many, Many More Juvenilia Panels

For the last decade or more I've heard talk of kids "publishing" their writing. Sometimes that meant little books cranked out in grade school classrooms. Sometimes it meant school literary magazines. Sometimes it meant publications that existed for the sole purpose of publishing student writing. Sometimes it meant teenagers paying to have their work self-published hoping they would become the next Christopher Paolini. Sometimes it meant a reading teacher contacting me for advice on where one of her intermediate school students could get his work published.

I've probably mentioned before that I really can't get behind the child publishing thing. School publications are one thing, but anything beyond that is probably gilding the lily at best. Writing prodigies are few and far between. Few writers, of any age, perfect their craft without years of study and work. Suggesting to kids that they can take short cuts to publication is doing them a serious disservice.

So I was delighted to see at Justine Larbalestier's blog a post called The Juvenilia Panel. It seems Ms. Justine was part of a panel whose members read aloud their early writing. Their very early writing.

She says a couple of the panelists read "teenage monstrosities so bad that we wept on account of laughing so hard. WEPT!"

She also says, "Sharing our crappy writing from when we were beginning writers has the salutary effect of making it clear to those what aspire to be published writers but arenít there yet that we published folk didnít step fully formed from Zeusís head. There was lots and lots and lots of bad words and phrases and sentences and stories and novels written before we were good enough to be read by anyone other than our doting parents."

Exactly.

There's a great deal very young writers can be doing and should be doing as part of their training. Reading, for instance. Reading about writing. Taking writing classes. Going to writing workshops. Going to hear writers speak. Forming writing groups. And writing, of course. That goes without saying. All of this kind of effort will go a long way to making young writers forays into the real writing world less painful.

My own juvenilia? I do have a few pieces from grade school that are notable, no matter what their quality, because they indicate my interests haven't changed much. But as a teenager, I didn't finish much writing. I liked to think about being a writer, but at that point I wasn't too keen on sitting down and doing the work. If I were on a juvenilia panel, I might have to read work from my twenties, which would be seriously humiliating.

Nonetheless, I really think juvenilia panels are a marvelous idea.

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