Category Archives: the writing process

Puss in books

 

cat holding reader

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As some of you know, I collect images of books in art. I now have many hundreds of images I can peruse. And it’s fun to see the themes and motifs that show up over and over with books like birds, clouds, the moon, butterflies, oh, and Cats. Hundreds of cats, thousands of cats, millions and billions and trillions of cats.

Illustration by Emma Block

Illustration by Emma Block

Cats and books just go together like tea and hearths, rain and solitude.

Sometimes the cats are a subtle presence, barely there:

Illustration by Shawn Fields

Illustration by Shawn Fields

Illustration by Christina Tsevis

Illustration by Christina Tsevis

Illustration by Helen Oxenbury

Illustration by Helen Oxenbury

Sometimes it’s all about the cat:

Illustration by Blanca Gomez

Illustration by Blanca Gomez

Illustration by  Charle Vysotsky

Illustration by Charle Vysotsky

Illustration by Yusuke Yonezu

Illustration by Yusuke Yonezu

Illustration by Celestino Piatti

Illustration by Celestino Piatt

 

Sometimes they’re just part of the ambience:

Illustration by Jun Kumaori

Illustration by Jun Kumaori

Illustration by Karen Hollingsworth

Illustration by Karen Hollingsworth

Illustration by Christopher Silas Neal

Illustration by Christopher Silas Neal

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No credit found

 

But often, it’s the human, cat and reading experience all entwined:

Illustration by Alexander Sokht

Illustration by Alexander Sokht

Illustration by Sultanov Yuriy

Illustration by Sultanov Yuriy

No credit found

No credit found

Illustration by Linda lee Nelson

Illustration by Linda lee Nelso

Probably the most famous cats in literature are T.S. Eliot’s cats from Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats. I particularly like his “Naming of Cats.”

The Naming of Cats is a difficult matter,
It isn’t just one of your holiday games;
You may think at first I’m as mad as a hatter
When I tell you, a cat must have THREE DIFFERENT NAMES.
First of all, there’s the name that the family use daily,
Such as Peter, Augustus, Alonzo or James,
Such as Victor or Jonathan, George or Bill Bailey—
All of them sensible everyday names.
There are fancier names if you think they sound sweeter,
Some for the gentlemen, some for the dames:
Such as Plato, Admetus, Electra, Demeter—
But all of them sensible everyday names.
But I tell you, a cat needs a name that’s particular,
A name that’s peculiar, and more dignified,
Else how can he keep up his tail perpendicular,
Or spread out his whiskers, or cherish his pride?
Of names of this kind, I can give you a quorum,
Such as Munkustrap, Quaxo, or Coricopat,
Such as Bombalurina, or else Jellylorum-
Names that never belong to more than one cat.
But above and beyond there’s still one name left over,
And that is the name that you never will guess;
The name that no human research can discover—
But THE CAT HIMSELF KNOWS, and will never confess.
When you notice a cat in profound meditation,
The reason, I tell you, is always the same:
His mind is engaged in a rapt contemplation
Of the thought, of the thought, of the thought of his name:
His ineffable effable
Effanineffable
Deep and inscrutable singular Name.

Illustration by Francois Knopf

Illustration by Francois Knopf

 

 

Art, Pleasure, and Beauty, No Less

Beauty, everywhere you look....

Beauty, everywhere you look….

Getting back from Europe last week, I started reading a book titled Better Living through Criticism: How to Think about Art, Pleasure, Beauty, and Truth by the New York Times critic A. O. Scott. I know that his opinions about movies/art/culture often jibe with mine, and I loved the lunch-room conversations — videotaped and posted under the title “Sweet Spot” on the NYTimes website and on YouTube — he had with the late David Carr. So I’m interested in what he has to say about these four slippery-fish abstractions: Art? Pleasure? Beauty? Truth (the slipperiest and fishiest of the four)?

I thought a lot about the first three categories when I was in Europe. Can you be in three of Europe’s great cities – Paris, Rome, Barcelona – without thinking of them? The first two – art and beauty – are everywhere outside you,  and the third – pleasure – fills you up inside to the point you can barely sleep. And since I was traveling with my husband, our married daughter, her husband, our grandson, both of our grown sons and one of their girlfriends – eight of us on the Grand Tour! – I got to see what moved them and what they thought was beautiful, too, so my pleasure multiplied. I think we all agreed there was beauty everywhere we looked.

THERE WAS BEAUTY IN THE MUSEUMS…

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THERE WAS BEAUTY IN THE SHOPS…


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THERE WAS BEAUTY IN THE STREETS…

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THERE WAS BEAUTY UNDER OUR FEET AS WE WALKED, AND IN THE SKY ABOVE, AND IN THE SMALLEST PLACES AND SPACES, AND IN THE LARGEST VIEWS….

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When beauty is underfoot, overhead, in front of you, behind you, all around you, you feel it, don’t you? I’m not sure I understand the “why” behind my feelings –  maybe while I travel, the feeling is all I need.  Now that I’m home, I have a good book to read which might help me learn “how to think” about those feelings, about why something appeals to me — why a particular Etruscan vase or Roman lamppost or Paris thistle or Barcelona chocolate shop makes me stop my wanderings long enough to snap a photo — when a host of things I walk right past might appeal to other people. Is there any accounting for taste? Is “beauty” always a subjective quality, or is there some universal standard? As a writer, I learned to question “beauty” because it can be too easy, too pleasant. I like the idea of “wabi-sabi,” the imperfection that makes for perfection. It will be interesting to see where A.O. Scott takes me. I think “Truth” might be a hard nut to crack. But Art, Beauty, Pleasure…I’m ready to think about them. Meanwhile, I’ll leave you with a little something of Scott’s that I marked with a star. It involves a question that I think writers should ask themselves:

“[Criticism] has always been part of the landscape…arising from our desire — nearly as strong as the urge toward pleasure itself — to think about, recapture, and communicate our delights, to make them less solitary, less ephemeral. The origin of criticism lies in an innocent, heartfelt kind of question, one that is far from simple and that carries enormous risk: Did you feel that? Was it good for you? Tell the truth.” 

Aha. Truth.

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WHAT NEXT?

On March 30 I sent all the interior illustrations for LITTLE WOLF’S FIRST HOWLING to Candlewick Press for publication next Spring.

It has been an intense and exhilarating five months creating the final art for this book: learning Photoshop, (thank you Kevan Atteberry for help with that); collaborating with my sister Kate McGee, (I did the black layer, Kate did the color), and figuring out what the art would look like.

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And now, except for the cover, it’s done.

What next?

 I am reminded of a family story. My mom and dad raised five kids.

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That meant every three years between 1962 and 1975 they joined the audience on the football bleachers at Sonora High on a beautiful June evening to watch one of their kids graduate. After the youngest, my brother Tim, was handed his diploma, Mom turned to Dad and said, “Well, Harve, what shall we do now?”

I know. It’s not really comparable. Mom and Dad worked on their project of raising kids for thirty years. Theirs was a much bigger “what next?”

LITTLE WOLF’s been growing in my mind and studio for less than a year and a half. But I did become very fond of him and will certainly miss the almost daily interaction with Kate as we worked on the art.

My cousin Jerry has a quote for times such as these. It’s advice from 1790: “The most sublime act is to set another before you.” – William Blake, Proverbs of Hell. Blake was in his mid thirties when he wrote that, and already he’d produced an impressive body of work: books and engravings, both. Clearly he leapt forward to each next task quickly and with joy.

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But I am feeling a little empty. All I could do for Little Wolf has been done, (except for the cover). His boat has sailed.

I suppose this is why some author/illustrators work on more than one project at a time: to make it easier to face the end of possibilities when you send the artwork away.

I told Bonny Becker, (fellow BATT blogger), that I was having trouble letting go of Little Wolf. She reminded me of a picture book idea I had floated awhile back, a story that started with a mouse squeak.

“Get to work,” she suggested.

p.s. Mom took up air racing.

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ADDENDUM

Our critique group met Tuesday and Julie Paschkis brought along a special tin of tea. It’s BATT Brand Finis Tea, made in Seattle and London. Ingredients: Wit, Wisdom, Labor & Love of Bonny, Julie, Laura, Margaret and Julie. Directions: Steep tea for three minutes and 32 seconds. Sip slowly and savor the sensation of sending it off.

We toasted Little Wolf with our mugs of berryblossom white tea. I get to keep the tin until the next member has a book to send off. A tradition is born. Thank you, Julie!

 

 

 

And it was just right… The Rule of Three.

three little pigs

Three blind mice. Three little pigs. Three wishes. Most of us have figured out that three is a magic number in western culture. One theory has it that three is magic to us because that’s the triumvirate of family. That most basic mystery of man and woman equals child.

So we get three coins in a fountain. The three-act play. Three guesses. One-two-three go! Somehow, for whatever the reason,  three feels just right to us.

And it’s a number that you should take full advantage of as a writer, particularly if you write picture books. You can use three to make something feel completed and satisfying. Or you can break the “rule of three” to make something feel snappy or to make something feel prolonged. It creates rhythm in your language and in how your story unfolds.

Let’s look at some examples.

Here are the first few pages of “Lily’s Purple Plastic Purse” by Kevin Henkes. He works with three and variations of three to give his prose just the right rhythms.

lilly

LILLY loved school.

(page turn)

 She loved pointy pencils.

She loved the squeaky chalk.

And she loved the way her boots went clickety-clickety-click down the long, shiny hallways.

 Lilly loved the privacy of her very own desk.

 She loved fish sticks and chocolate milk every Friday in the lunchroom.

 And most of all, she loved her teacher, Mr. Slinger.

(page turn)

 Mr. Slinger was sharp as a tack.

He wore artistic shirts.

He wore glasses on a chain around his neck.

And he wore a different colored tie for each day of the week.

 “Wow,” said Lilly. That was just about all she could say. “Wow.”

 Instead of “Greetings, students” or “Good morning, pupils,” Mr. Slinger winked and said, “Howdy!”

 He thought that desks in a rows were old-fashioned and boring. “Do you rodents think you can handle a semicircle?”

 And he always provided the most tasty snacks—things that were curly and crunch and cheesy.

 “I want to be a teacher when I grow up,” said Lilly.

“Me, too!” said her friends Chester and Wilson and Victor.

 Henkes is all over the Rule of Three here.

His first line is singular and definite. Lilly loved school.

Henke is using the power of one. One subject, one verb, one object. One sentence on the page. And then page turn.

Now he’s going to convince us of that singular declaration. So no paltry two or three examples. He lists six things that Lilly loves about school, ending with the most important: Mr. Slinger. Lilly really, really loves school!

And just how cool is Mr. Slinger. He’s not two or three kinds of cool. First he’s four kinds of cool. Before Henke’s breaks his pattern. At which point, all Lilly can say is “Wow.”

sharp as a tack

Then he’s three distinct kinds of cool. He’s cool in how he says “hi” in the morning. And notice that Henke gives three ways of saying “hi.” Then he goes into a different kind of sentence construction because he’s been playing with numbers a lot and we just get a straightforward declaration about how Mr. Slinger likes his room set up.

But then it’s back to numbers. His snacks are the best in three distinct ways. And Lilly doesn’t have one friend or two friends, but three.

 

It’s important to be aware of the moments in which you break from a pattern. Let’s go back to those pages about how cool Mr. Slinger is. First we get four quick examples. What if Henkes had gone on to five or six quick examples in a row. Maybe it would work, but there’s a good chance it would have gotten tedious and you, the reader, would have stopped absorbing the information.

So he takes a breath. (“Wow,” said Lilly.)

And now he goes into three more examples. Why not two or four here? Because he’s about to end this sequence, this line of thought, and he wants it to feel “just right.”

mr. slinger

You can work with the Rule of Three, not only in how you structure the rhythm of your prose, but in the structure of your story, as well.

I was very aware of the rule of three in my book “A Visitor for Bear” where Bear doesn’t want visitors, but a pesky mouse keeps showing up, pleading to be allowed to stay and join Bear for tea and cheese.

mouse in cupboard

I wanted Bear to really feel the pressure of this persistent Mouse. So, of course, I didn’t have Mouse pop up three times before Bear changes his mind. I didn’t want this to feel “just right.” I wanted it to feel extreme, so I had him show up one way or another five times in a row before Bear cracks.

Why not push it? How about six times? Actually I did have Mouse show up six times in my original draft, but the editor, rightly, felt it was too much. That one extra incident took the story from funny to starting to feel repetitive and tedious.

Many, many picture books or other simple stories (particularly folk and fairy tales) will have the hero (one of three brothers, of course) try to win the princess’s hand or discover Grandma’s true identity three times, before the plot turn. The fourth try being the one that works or that reveals the secret.

If your story is for the particularly young child, the third time might be the charm. Three tries with the third one being the successful one.

three walnut shellsHow exactly to play the numbers game is ultimately a matter of instinct, trial and error, and style. But you have a head start if you work your prose and your story line knowing the magic of three.

 

 

P.S. I’m conducting a picture book workshop, The Secret to Writing Great Picture Books, in Spokane on April 22, 2016 through the local SCBWI. It should be a blast and I think you’ll come away with a great start on your own picture book. Find out more about it here: https://inlandnw.scbwi.org/events/how-to-write-a-successful-picture-book/

Creating a Character? Keep it Simple.

Picture books writers, generally, aren’t doing elaborate character sketches and questionnaires about what secret object their character keeps in the sock drawer, his favorite breakfast food or what her grandfather did for a living. There isn’t going to be time to develop or to even hint at much nuance.

But like most characters, your main character needs to start in one place and end in a different place emotionally. And that not only comes from a change in situation but a change in their character.

So how do you set up a character quickly? I tell my students to think in terms of a core trait. One clear thing you can say about this character after just a few lines.

How would you describe these picture book characters?

visitor for bear “No one ever came to Bear’s house. It had always been that way, and Bear was quite sure he didn’t like visitors. He even had a sign: No Visitors Allowed”   (A Visitor for Bear, Bonny Becker)

Even if I didn’t know this character (but of course I do since I wrote it!) I’d say grouchy and reclusive. There’s a lot I didn’t know about Bear until Kady MacDonald Denton did her illustrations. For example, I didn’t know that Bear was such a fastidious homebody with his ever-present apron, big fat bottom and delicate paws. Although a lot of character is suggested in the text–Bear is very deliberate about fixing his breakfast, he’s the sort to make tea and he has cozy fires- think the reader has a strong sense of his most important trait from the first few lines.

What about this puppy? What’s his core trait.

last puppy“I was the last of Momma’s nine puppies.

The last to eat from Momma, the last to open my eyes.

The last to learn to drink milk from a saucer,

The last one into the dog house at night.”       (The Last Puppy, Frank Asch)

Well, Asch makes it clear across 8 story pages that if this puppy is anything—it’s last! And he has good reason for beating that point home. I won’t give it away, but it sets up one of the best final twists ever in a picture book.

What can you say about Corduroy from the opening lines?

corduroy“Corduroy is a bear who once lived in the toy department of a big store. Day after day he waited with all the other animals and dolls for somebody to come along and take him home.

The store was always filled with shoppers buying all sorts of things but no one ever seemed to want a small bear in green overalls.”    (Corduroy, Don Freeman)

Easily overlooked, like so many children? I know that we quickly care for this little bear and want him to get picked. Later in the story, Corduroy is made even more pitiful because his overall strap has broken making him even less desirable and neglected, but that’s just icing on the cake. Right from the start Freeman has tapped into a universal quality. Who hasn’t felt left on the shelf at one time or another.

The thing about a truly outstanding trait is that it carries the story direction and resolution within it. You just know that the last puppy isn’t always going to be last and Corduroy isn’t always going to be overlooked.

What do you know about Lilly from these opening lines?

lilly“Lilly loved school! She loved the pointy pencils. She loved the squeaky chalk. And she loved the way her boots went clickety-clickety-click down the long, shiny hallways.”      (Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse, Kevin Henkes)

One word fits Lilly perfectly: exuberant. And, as with all good stories, it’s this very trait that causes her problems. She gets over-exuberant about her purple plastic purse and this causes problems with her teacher. Henke’s book has the longest set-up I’ve ever seen in a picture book. A whopping 500 or so words of what looks to be about a 1,300 to 1,400 word book. It really heightens the emotional trauma of her turning on her beloved teacher. But, really, we get Lilly after just a few words, especially the “clickety-clickety-click” of her boots.

And then there’s Daisy.

Daisy“You must stay close, Daisy,” said Mama Duck.

“I’ll try,” said Daisy.

But Daisy didn’t. “Come along Daisy!” called Mama Duck.

But Daisy was watching the fish.”       (Come Along Daisy, Jane Simmons)

Everyone knows a Daisy. She’s an easily distracted child. But notice how much those few words “I’ll try” do for this story. It makes Daisy a likable character. She’s not willfully disobedient, but she’s not able to promise for sure, either. And she won’t lie about it. Take out the “I’ll try.” And you have a different Daisy.

How about this classic opening? In some ways it doesn’t look like much:

babar“In the great forest a little elephant is born. His name is Babar. His mother loves him very much. She rocks him to sleep with her trunk while singing softly to him.

Babar has grown bigger. He now plays with the other little elephants. He is a very good little elephant. See him digging in the sand with his shell.”   (The Story of Babar, Jean de Brunhoff)

Well, here’s an opening that would probably land this book in the editor’s trash today. Look at that clumsy jump in time. “Babar has grown bigger.” Boom! That’s it? And where the heck is this story going anyway. But it doesn’t matter because in the next two lines Babar’s mother is shot dead and he’s launched into a completely different story. De Brunhoff spends little time getting Babar on his way, but even so we learn several critical things about Babar. He’s happy and he’s good but the key trait is that he is loved. This is why the reader feels for him as he goes away from his home and then comes back.

So, do your characters have a key trait? It’s not that you can’t get some nuance and depth in, but what can be said about your character after the first two paragraphs?

Just for fun, to see the power of a core trait, you might try an exercise. Take a few rather bland lines. For example:

Cat went to the forest. It was dark. Cat walked into the forest.

Now add a trait:

Scaredy Cat went to the forest. It was dark. Scaredy Cat walked into the forest.

Brave Cat went to the forest. It was dark. Brave Cat walked into the forest.

Hungry Cat went to the forest. It was dark. Hungry Cat walked into the forest.

Just one word  suggests a different character and a different story line. And, if I’m really doing my job, that trait starts to drive all my word choices.

Scaredy Cat went to the forest. It was so dark. Scaredy Cat shivered and slunk into the forest.

Brave Cat went to the forest. It was dark. So what? Brave Cat sauntered into the forest.

Hungry Cat went to the forest. It was dark. Just right. Hungry Cat crept into the forest.

And the story starts to unfold. That’s the power of finding a simple trait for your character.

 

 

 

LISTEN

I spent a lot of time playing the ukulele in 2015, including ukulele camp at Fort Worden where one of my teachers was Aaron Keim. Aaron and his wife Nicole form the duo The Quiet American, picking and singing their way through the folk Americana songbook. He’s a gifted teacher, too. While leading us through his transcription of John Fahey’s Sunflower River Blues, he advised: “By the time you start working on a piece, you should listen to it so much that it is already living in you.”

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The duo called The Quiet American: Nicole and Aaron Keim of Hood River, OR

I like that idea: listen until it is living in you. I know how that feels for a song and also for a story. In fact, I think songs and stories dwell in the same heartful place.

It is a mysterious process, bringing a story into the world. You head out with a few phrases, a character maybe, a situation. You tell yourself your story, imagine it into the world scene by scene. Pretty soon, if you listen closely, that story you are making begins to make itself, you meet anew the story that has been living in you.

I know I am not alone in this way of looking at the writing process. Back in the early 2000s when I was teaching at Vermont College of Fine Arts, Katherine Paterson often came by. She told us that after a certain point in drafting a novel, she feels her attention switch from generating characters and plot etc. to listening to the story that is already on the page, and shaping the book as that material dictates.

My sister Kate McGee, who is a pastel painter in Philomath, OR, is collaborating with me on illustrations for LITTLE WOLF’S FIRST HOWLING. I ran this listening idea by her. She said she comes to a point in every painting where, if she pays attention, it starts bossing her around in its effort to become what it is meant to be.

We talked about this while looking at the black and white layer I’d just painted for one of the spreads. We were both listening and paying attention to what the piece still needs. I will make the changes digitally, then email that layer to Kate so she can add the color. We are new to using Photoshop for our artwork and are swimming upstream – but how fun to work together on a project!

And it’s great to have another pair of ears to listen as we find our way through the woods.

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Final spread for Little Wolf’s First Howling, due out from Candlewick Press in 2017.

(to hear The Quiet American play Sunflower River blues on the ukulele click here)

 

 

 

 

 

Young Readers and Young Writers

BBC YWA Clare at balcony

Last Spring my youngest daughter submitted a short story to the inaugural Young Writers Award competition, hosted by BBC and Booktrust. Young people aged 14 to 18 who live in the UK were invited to submit short stories of up to 1000 words on any topic. A panel of three judges selected the shortlist of stories demonstrating original and exciting writing that “captures the reader.”

It was recently announced that Clare’s story was one of five to make it on the shortlist,  from over 1,000 submissions. I was thrilled. I was also incredibly pleased and impressed that she had the confidence to submit her story in the first place. It is so easy to talk oneself out of trying.

On October 6th, the five young authors were given a tour of the BBC studios. As mother/chaperone, I got to tag along. It was exciting to see the BBC hive buzzing, and I enjoyed meeting the other kids and chatting with their parents. There were some notable artefacts on display as well.

BBC Dalek

In the evening, we attended the exclusive live broadcast event at the BBC Radio Theatre.

BBC YWA screen

We were joined there by my husband and two special friends – Julie Paschkis and her husband Joe Max Emminger! – who had just flown in from Seattle for a visit. Brennig Davies won the Young Authors award (the prize is mentoring sessions with Matt Haig, one of the judges). The winner of the Adult Short Story Award, Jonathan Buckley, was also announced. There was a reception afterwards, where authors young and old,  publishers, agents, broadcasters, and proud parents, mingled. It was all pretty cool.

The evening was a celebration of stories and writing, but it was one event of many in a country where writing, and reading, are highly valued and celebrated.

I see people reading books everywhere I go here in London. On the train or sitting in the park. The mere fact that over a thousand teenagers submitted stories to this new competition is noteworthy. I also learned from the other parents that there are a number of writing competitions around the U.K. every year. While I don’t like the idea of writing as a competitive sport, I still think that this indicates an appreciation for the skills involved. British culture seems to recognise that young readers are also valuable as young writers, encouraging them at an early stage to put themselves forward.

BBC National Short Story Awards 2015, New Broadcasting House, London

If you would like to read Clare’s submission along with the other runners-up, and hear Sir Ian McKellen read “Skinning”, the winning story by Brennig Davies, go here. And here is the shortlist of the adult entries which include stories by Mark Haddon and Hilary Mantel.

Even though Clare’s story didn’t win, the experience got her thinking more seriously about her writing. I am encouraging her to keep honing her skills, not for the purpose of entering more writing competitions, but to enjoy the success of making good stories even better.

Julie and Margaret in Fosters

And it’s been great showing Julie around London!

LESS IS MORE

Short messages – say 140 characters or less – launched via bird. Sound like Twitter? Well, something like that.

I grew up in Sonora, a small town tucked into the California foothills. My friend Boots Oller raised pigeons. Some were rollers, trained to soar upward until Boots clapped sharply and they fell from the sky, tumbling over and over, only righting themselves at the last moment to land atop their lofts. Spectacular.

rollers

Boots also raised homing pigeons that competed in long-distance contests. His favorite homer, Jack, had won a 200-mile race. Boots was always looking for opportunities to stretch the homers’ distances. When he heard I was heading to college in Los Angeles, 350 miles down California’s Central valley and over the Tehachapies, he asked if I’d help.

californiamap

I packed my old VW bug for the trip, cramming in clothes, cowboy boots, psychedelic posters, guitar, flute, and a box of dried prom corsages. I left the back seat clear for the slatted wooden pigeon cage I picked up at Boots’ on my way out of town. It was filled with six of his finest homers, including Jack. My instructions were to stop every 50 miles or so and set one free.

Between launchings, I composed an ongoing story for the pigeons to carry. At each stop, I wrote the latest snippet with my spidery Rapidograph .000 pen onto a slip of paper the size of the fortune in a fortune cookie, then rolled it into a small capsule that attached to a bird’s leg. I already fancied myself a writer and my notes comprised a story of leaving home, traveling, and the birds themselves.

Following Boots’ instructions, I launched Jack last, setting him free along I-5 south of Bakersfield, about 250 miles from home.

jackflying

When I got settled in my new dorm at Occidental College, I called Boots to see if the birds had made it. All had arrived except Jack. He’s still out there someplace with that last piece of my story.

How many words does it take to tell a story? The six small “chapters” that flew via homing pigeon back to Boots suggest one answer. Ernest Hemingway had another. He was said to have won a bar bet by writing a whole novel with only six words: “For sale: baby shoes. Never worn.”

ernesthem

There is a novel’s worth of meaning when you line those words up in that order. More recently, these six words launched a fad of six-word memoirs, but that’s a longer story.

Compression is what we’re going for when we write picture books. In the early 1990’s, we writers were advised to keep picture book manuscripts to less than 1,000 words. These days, it’s 500 words, edging down to 400. We strive to say the most we can with the fewest words. (I remember the flood of joy when I first turned from picture book writing to a middle grade novel project and realized I could use all the words I wanted.)

Less is more is what I’m thinking about today, stories whose meanings shine between the lines, stories where every word pulls its weight.

I think my shortest published story is one I wrote for the University Bookstore’s 100th anniversary book of 100-word stories, a tale that also involves birds:

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TWO CHICKENS, A LOVE STORY

“Someday,” declared Jane. “Someday I will cross the road.”
“Why?” said Mavis. “We have everything we need right here.”

“I heard the nests are softer over there,” said Jane.
“But the pavement is hot,” said Mavis. “You could burn your feet.”

“And grubs are tastier.”
“Remember Norman Stottlemyer? He never returned.”

“And dustbaths utterly splendid.”
“Go,” said Mavis. “Just go.”

“Okay,” said Jane. “See? I’m putting a foot on the pavement.”

“Why’d you stop?” said Mavis.
“The other side’s so far away,” said Jane.

“Oh, all right then,” said Mavis. “I’ll come with you.”
“Thanks,” said Jane.

Mavis nodded. “Did you really think I’d let you go alone?”

Persevere

Sorry. No pictures this time. Just a little story:

There was once this girl.

She had many strengths and quite a few weaknesses.
She was shy, emotional, stubborn. She could draw and she liked to make things.
It turned out her weaknesses were also her strengths and vice versa,
but she wouldn’t learn that until she was much, much older.

Not the end.

I recently had to put together a curriculum vitae, or CV, of my work. As a freelance illustrator I don’t have the need to do this very often. Thank heavens.

I have a problem. When I have to list everything I have done that someone might want to know about professionally, my head freezes up. It’s like when someone asks you what your favorite song is, and all you can think of is the tune you liked best in 7th grade.

If you are confident in yourself, with never any doubts about your abilities or self-worth, then you can stop reading at this point and go do something else today. I don’t want to bore you.

But if you have difficulty putting yourself forward because of what you haven’t done, then I counsel you to stop, and look instead at what you have accomplished.

If you think all of us who have published books, received awards and recognition, and generally produced some very cool work, don’t shake in our boots when we look at the next level of expectations we have set for ourselves, you are wrong. Every potential success is also a potential failure. And rejection hurts. Yes it does.

Take me, for example: I tend to focus on my failures; my inadequacies; the thing I want to do before I die, but haven’t managed yet. I don’t also see my accomplishments and what I am capable of. Sometimes I have to be reminded by someone who is not myself.

A number of years ago I went to a book-signing event for David Small and his wife and collaborator Sarah Stewart. I had published two children’s books of my own at that point, and was trying to figure out how to write my next book. I spoke with David and Sarah about the insecurity I felt about writing. Before she left, Sarah gave me a card on which she had written “persevere,” along with a sprig of rosemary from her garden.

I have kept that card with its now brittle, little sprig. It reminds me that stubbornness can be a good thing. When you grow up it can become determination. And being emotional can provide you with the empathy necessary to tell good stories and work well with others. Being shy, well, being shy won’t stop you from writing a blog or even giving a speech, and maybe it will keep you from boring others by going on and on about yourself. Maybe.

Unless you are in preschool and have yet to learn to tie your shoes, then you must have done something that took determination and effort. Think about it. What are you proud of having done, and why? Now remember those achievements. Put them into your CV notes before you forget again. When it is time to move forward to the next opportunity, hold your head up, even if you are nervous. Rejection hurts but you move on. You have faced down challenges before and done some impressive things. I am here to remind you.

And this too: Persevere.

Rosemary sprig

Shaw, pshaw

Thems that can do. Thems that can’st teach.

Shaw

George Bernard Shaw

 

 

 

That’s the folksy version I learned of that sentiment. (Apparently first penned by George Bernard Shaw.) There was a time when I thought it was true, especially observing those who taught creative writing. In my youthful certainty, I figured if they were good enough writers, they’d be out doing that, not stuck at the front of a classroom full of people eager to compete with them in the writing world.

But an old man once told me, “Life will humble you.” And while I’ve been not totally humbled, I have learned that most maxims have a grain of truth, not the whole saltshaker.

Many outstanding writers also teach and, in fact, enjoy passing on their hard-earned skills. Two of them will be teaching this summer at the Northwest Institute of Literary Arts where I teach writing for children (which brings up another Shaw quote: The moment we want to believe something, we suddenly see all the arguments for it, and become blind to the arguments against it. But we’ll leave that for another day.

Gary Schmidt and Matt De la Peña will be guest faculty at NILA’s annual summer Residency. Up to six children’s writers will be allowed to attend the Residency without being students in the program itself. I want to let as many writers as possible know about this special chance to learn from these writers, up close and personal.

gary-schmidt

As many of you know, Schmidt is the author of two Newbery Honor books–Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy and The Wednesday Wars and was a National Book Award finalist for Okay for Now.  He teaches the writing of fiction, children’s literature, and medieval literature at Calvin College, and is a member of the MFA in Children’s Literature at Hamline University.

matt_de la pena

Peña is the New York Times Bestselling author of six critically-acclaimed young adult novels (including Mexican WhiteBoy, The Living and The Hunted) and two award-winning picture books (A Nations Hope and Last Stop on Market Street). He likes to say he entered college as a basketball player and left as a writer.

The NILA program is small. In total it’s limited to 50 students in four different genres: fiction, poetry, non-fiction and children’s/young adult. It’s in a unique, intimate setting–the Captain Whidbey Inn on Whidbey Island, which is a few hours north of Seattle.

 

captain whidbey inn

Captain Whidbey Inn

 

mfa_roundtable

Students meeting for morning class.

 

 

 

We’ve had all kinds of guest faculty come in over the years ranging from the poet Tess Gallagher (widow of Raymond Carver) to Pulitzer Prize–winning New York Times journalist and author Timothy Egan to children’s authors like Linda Urban and Newbery-honor winner Kirby Larson (in fact, Kirby helped found the NILA program.)

It’s a low-residency program. We meet once each semester in person on Whidbey Island for 10 days. And the rest of the semester is handled on-line. The summer session this year will be from August 2 to August 11.

One of the interesting things about the NILA program is although you specialize in one of the four genre tracks students take classes in other genre and during the Residencies hear from speakers in all the different genres. There’s a nice cross-fertilization that goes on with a system like that. (Nothing like learning a bit about poetry for a picture-book writer.)

Schmidt and Peña will be speaking on a range of subjects from getting out of the way of your readers and letting them experience the novel more directly to getting more out of your minor characters.

Along with Schmidt and Peña, there will be other visiting faculty in children’s/young adult and the other genres, as well as daily classes with full-time faculty (myself and poet, picture book writer and novel writer Carmen Bernier-Grand.)

You can learn more about them and the NILA Residency program at:

http://www.nila.edu/www_mfa/residency/

I hope I see some of you there this summer! And I’ll be blogging about what Matt and Gary have to say in August.

Which brings to me to one of my favorite Shaw quotes:

Life isn’t about finding yourself. Life is about creating yourself.