It’s been a long while since I’ve posted here, although I am still a participating member of our Books Around The Table group. I needed a blogging break. But I have been busy with various other projects, and I am excited to tell you about one of those projects here.
Though not related to children’s books, it still deals with narrative. The big difference is that this time the story is told through movement and costume, rather than pictures and words.
I have posted before about my textile work on our blog here and here. When I was first experimenting with garments as a form of storytelling, one of the first test garments I made was this:
There is an engineering challenge to sewing conjoined garments. I like to make my mistakes on a prototype if I can (although I still make lots of wrong turns in the final piece as well).
That experimental piece led to these, among others:
But I kept looking at that first test piece and imagining how dancers might use it to show the transference of love, knowledge, and life experience from one person to another, like the relationship between a mother and daughter – or how I feel as both daughter, and mother. Memento mori…
Could a dance piece be part of my garment work? Could there be live performances to coincide with an art show?
I met with dance artist Erica Badgeley to talk about the idea. I asked her for a budget estimate to choreograph and produce a short dance piece (five to ten minutes) for a few live performances, set to music by cellist Gretchen Yanover. Then I applied for an Artist’s Project grant through 4Culture in hopes of getting funds to pay the artists involved, buy supplies, and perhaps rent an exhibit space. The grant deadline was March 4th, 2020.
I got the grant.
But in the meantime, COVID-19 had happened. By the time I was notified, we were in full pandemic mode. The plan to have live performances had to be scrapped for the foreseeable future. Could we videotape the dance and show that virtually instead?
I didn’t know then that Erica had been studying how to create dance films. She was excited about this new direction. So, rather than looking for exhibit options, we looked for a videographer and filming location.
Erica began choreographing. We met in my backyard, outdoors, masked, socially distanced…
Lucie Baker was brought in to dance the duet with Erica
I started working on designing and building the costumes.
We’re back in the grey tunnel of winter here in Seattle, a tunnel made even darker by the gloom of 20 months of Life Under Covid. When it all gets too heavy, I turn to the GOOD NEWS/KINDNESS file I keep on my phone: a list that proves sometimes the world works the way it should. Let’s take a moment to celebrate these individuals who make a difference. Might lift your spirits, too.
The dad and his son in early Spring ushering a mother duck and her eight ducklings across several city blocks — stopping traffic as needed — to get them all safely to Green Lake.
The grandpa and grandson walking to school one Fall day, holding hands plus each one with a grandpa-sized glove on their outside hand – so all four hands were warm.
The woman dropping off a bag of beautiful handknit hats at the local fabric store that was putting together donations for people without houses.
The grey-haired lady at the post office mailing 185 postcards to Georgia voters before the November 2019 election.
From a pre-Covid school visit: A little girl bent over in a wheelchair, propelling herself with her feet. As she rolled along with a line of kids, she was the one to say to me. “I hope you have a nice day at our school.”
From a visit to Emerald City Smoothie with my triplet grandnephews: When it was our turn at the register, we were slow getting our order organized. Instead of getting annoyed, the guy behind us reached forward with his credit card and treated us.
And kudos to these kind people I read about:
The chain of 900 drive-thru customers at the Dairy Queen in Brainerd, Minnesota, last winter who each purchased the meal for the car behind them. The chain went on over two and a half days, finally ending when one customer said he didn’t have enough money to pay for the order behind him, which cost more than his, at a point that the restaurant was out of carry-over funds left by other customers.
The family that created a stick library for dogs. Every neighborhood should have one.
The Southwest Airlines gate steward who returned a Buzz Lightyear doll to a young passenger, after photographing the doll’s adventures in the airport.
“The Don Quixote of Brooklyn” who tilts at plastic bags. This former middle school teacher, now traveling poet, created the Snatcherlator, a 20’ extendable pole that aids his efforts. His quest? To remove garbage from the branches of trees throughout the city.
And the Canadian vet who came to the rescue of an Army wife who was driving her two kids and two dogs and a cat 4,000 miles from Georgia to Alaska to reunite with her husband when she was met with whiteout conditions in British Columbia with 1,000 miles still to go. Kudos to the bigger group of vets in Alaska who paid for his ticket back home, as well.
Not to mention MacKenzie Scott’s $6 billion in gifts. Gotta respect someone who takes the old adage to heart: “To whom much is given, much is expected.”
I welcome more items to my GOOD NEWS/KINDNESS list. Please add your stories in the comments.
The longer I’ve been a writer, the more I’ve come to trust my intuition. I wish I’d had more faith in it sooner or, rather, understood earlier what a powerful compass it is. It’s funny because it’s something I’ve always used in critiquing the work of others. I can tell quickly if the story of a student has gone off the mark because I’ll feel it. It’s not an intellectual knowing. It’s the reader in me who simply wants to stay interested in a story.
Recently I attended a Zoom seminar by best-selling mystery writer Elizabeth George, best known for her Detective Inspector Lynley novels. I’ve heard George speak a few times and you’d be hard pressed to find a writer who is more exacting about her writing process than George. She maintains lengthy files on major characters, their biographies, their behavior, motivations, important scenes and developments not just for one book but for the course of the still-growing series. With some twenty Detective Inspector Lynley novels, keeping track of who said what to whom fourteen books back is a challenge. (George’s self-described tendency toward OCD has to be helpful.)
She is equally exacting when it comes to editing her work. Unlike most writers she doesn’t belong to a writing group, instead she’s figured out her own precise process.
George’s manuscripts undergo three readings before she sends them to her agent. The first read is what she calls the Fast Read.
George prints out her manuscripts then sits down with a hard copy (often 700 pages or more) and a pad of Post-It notes. Even if it takes all day she tries, if possible, to read the new mss. in one long sitting, looking for things like:
– repetition of words, expressions, moments, actions, settings (she doesn’t want to forget that the same two characters have had a conversation at that same little coffee shop described in the same way four times now)
– accurate chronology
– things she forgot to put in
– unnecessary characters or themes
– inadequacy of themes or characterizations
She writes notes to herself on the Post-Its , not on the manuscript. She’s very specific about that, although I didn’t get a chance to find out why. Then it’s time for the Slow Read. She’s looking for the same things, but now she rereads the mss. over the course of several days. And now she also looks for:
– things to cut
– she takes each POV character and pulls out all the scenes with that character looking for consistency of attitude, voice, arc, eye color, etc.
She asks herself:
– Have I proved my premise?
– Have I fully illustrated my theme?
– Have I touched reader’s emotions?
– Are there characters in conflict?
– Would human relations really be like this?
– Does the character grow, change or learn something?
Then she puts the book back together and asks some more questions of herself:
– Does story start in right place?
– Are events and scenes causally related?
– Is the climax exciting? Is there a “bang in the bang”?
– Is there a resolution?
– Is there justice in the end? Psychological, judicial or physical justice?
– Are characters fully revealed at the end?
– Any anticlimaxes? In other words, has she failed to deliver on story promises?
– Used the right POVS?
– Used the right voice for each POV?
– Avoided obvious, unnecessary dialog such as hello, come on in, how’re you? etc.
Then she writes herself an editorial letter, telling herself what needs to be fixed, what clunks, what works, what she needs more of, less of. The kind of detailed letter a good editor might send you.
Finally, she starts rewriting, but, no, it’s still not done. She now sends the revised manuscript out for a third read, what she calls the Cold Read. According to George, the important thing to look for in this reader is someone who has not seen the story in any of its versions, and someone you are sure has no axe to grind. For George it’s been the same reader for some 33 year–a friend she taught with when she was a high school English teacher.
George, naturally, has a specific approach to the Cold Read, too. She provides her reader with an open set of questions and a sealed envelope, not to be opened until the reader has finished the book.
For the set of questions, she asks her reader to mark up the hard copy of the mss. with symbols. She keeps it simple—for example, jot down B when bored, ! when you think you know who the killer is, P if something feels wrong or inadequate about the setting (P is for place).
Then the reader opens the mystery envelope and here George asks questions more specific to that particular manuscript, such as are there too many scenes in Havers’ point of view? Did I prove my point?
Now she writes what she hopes is her third and (final?) draft. Whew!
But the truly interesting thing for me in all of this was to learn that George, despite her exacting process, when all is said and done, relies on plain old gut feeling.
“I listen to my body.”
In particular, she’s notices a feeling of dread. She may not know yet what it is, but that feeling tells her something is wrong and she jots that moment down. I call that moment of dread, “a niggle”. It’s a tiny twinge inside that’s saying something is wrong here, something isn’t working, something is tripping me up. I hadn’t put a word to how that often feels, but “dread” is right.
Why “dread”? Well, for me, it’s the dread of needing to rewrite and not knowing how to fix it. I don’t want to do it! If I’d known how to do it right I would have done that in the first place! The more experience I’ve had, the less I truly dread this. I have more confidence in my ability to eventually figure it out (really the ability of my subconscious to figure it out) or, if it comes to it, to know when to give up.
I call on my intuition more quickly than George. I often rewrite as I work, but it’s because I’m having that same feeling of things not working. When I dread plunging back into that scene, when it bores even me–the creator, when it won’t take me naturally to the next scene—it’s time to stop and rethink.
I’ve come to realize more and more, it all comes down to what your gut (or maybe that headache or that niggling worry) is telling you. Don’t be afraid of it, any more than you’re afraid when you read a library book and realize you’re bored or confused or annoyed. All you have to do is note it, come back to it and make it better. (Hey, that’s all! 😉
Books Around The Table is the blog of Margaret Chodos-Irvine, Laura Kvasnosky, Julie Larios, Julie Paschkis and Bonny Becker. We are a critique group of children's book authors and illustrators who have been meeting monthly since 1994 to talk about books we are working on, books we have read, our art and our lives. We invite you to sit down with us around the table and join the conversation.