Tag Archives: Bonny Becker

When the Work Becomes a Slog

 

Do you know the feeling? The dread of sitting down at the computer or going to the drawing board? Bored of your own story? It’s pulling teeth! It’s torture! Creating is hell!

I’ve felt it, especially with my most recent work, a middle-grade novel that I’ve been struggling with for a number of years. So I was intrigued by Eliza Wheeler’s talk at the SCBWI Annual Summer Conference this August. Wheeler is an author-illustrator of Miss Maple’s Seeds which debuted on the New York Times bestseller list. She’s illustrated many other picture books, was a Sendak Fellowship Recipient in 2017 and won the SCBWI National Grand Prize Award for best portfolio in 2011.

Somewhere in there Eliza realized she wasn’t always enjoying her work and she eventually figured out what to do about it.  Lisa outlined a 7 1/2 step process for keeping herself inspired and energized. It makes sense to me. (I like the 1/2 step best of all.)

The cure for boredom is curiosity. There is no cure for curiosity. Dorothy Parker

1. First you dig. Go to that well that we pull ideas and inspiration from. Childhood passions, current interests, life experiences. Explore that inner landscape to feel what you connect with on a deep level and let that be the source of your next project.

2. Inspire yourself. Gather similar works. Study the masters of what you want to do. And create a bulletin board of inspiration and interests. When research starts to feel like a slog move on.

3. Collage. Wheeler is a big believer in hands-on inspiration. She creates literal collages of bits of inspiration, sketches and ideas shuffling things about to see what might connect. This is the stage to feel safe to openly fail. To not be afraid of laying out what turns out to be a false start or an idea that goes no where. There is no editor at this point. Just lay it out. Turn off the analyzing brain, instead give yourself free reign. You’re playing. Don’t judge, don’t think and, most importantly, don’t skip this phase thinking you need to get to the actual work.

Chance favors the prepared mind. Louis Pasteur

4. Simmer. Now step back. Take a break, put down your work and let your subconscious take over. This is the stage where I often take a walk, run errands, dither around on social media. The thing is you’ve fed your mind the fuel it needs—ideas, models, research—now let the subconscious do its thing.

5. Ignite. Be ready for those flashes of inspiration, be ready to capture a few moments or a few hours of inspired work.

Create with the heart; build with the mind. Criss Jami

6. Refine. Finally, it’s time to bring out the analytical mind, to organize, hone and edit. Wheeler biggest caution here: don’t refine too soon. Don’t shortchange the process where the fire and fun comes from.

7. Assess what you’ve done. You have a “finished” product, so step back and take a clear look at it. Be objective. Get feedback. Now it’s time for your critique groups and your internal editor to join in. We all know it’s going to take many drafts to finally get there.

1/2. What’s the half step? It’s a step you take at every stage of the process. Ask yourself how are you feeling? If the process is feeling sloggy, if you feel you’re pushing to do the work, you are trying to refine too soon. Are you bored? Then you’re judging too soon.

Wheeler say to take time every day to ask yourself what’s your level of enjoyment and inspiration. If it’s low, if boredom and dread are slipping in, then slow down. Let things simmer more, do more writing, do more sketching, mull, muse. Go back to the well.

The truth is on most days we’re probably doing versions of all these steps–maybe some research, trolling the web for an image that sparks something, jotting down an idea, writing something, letting things simmer. But even so, it’s easy to cut short the musing, stewing, noodling, “I’m just wasting time!” phase all throughout the process.

So it seems like a good idea to ask yourself often how inspired you are; how much fun you’re having? Sure, not every day is great, but if the project has become a slog, maybe it’s time to recognize that, slow down, go back to the well and remind yourself why you care.

The world always seems brighter when you’ve just made something that wasn’t there before. Neil Gaiman

 

 

 

 

 

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Sometimes Telling Does the Trick

A couple blog posts ago, I talked about how important is to create an emotional experience for your reader. Donald Maass lays out some strategies for how you can do that in his book The Emotional Craft of Fiction. Maass says the reader is the one creating the emotional experience. We writers are giving them the triggers:  “(Readers) don’t so much read as respond,” says Maass

There are three main paths to creating an emotional response. Outer Mode: showing. (see my earlier post on that one.) Inner Mode: telling. And something Maass calls Other Mode: a combination of showing and telling and other techniques to create something that is emotionally “chewable” for the reader.

Let’s take a look at Inner Mode and that forbidden art of telling.

Here’s an example that Maass uses from Daphne Du Maurier’s My Cousin Rachel. It’s about a young man named Philip Ashley who’s been raised by his older cousin Ambrose. Ambrose leaves on a trip and Philip is miserable without him. Then he gets a letter from Ambrose announcing his marriage to a woman named Rachel.

The letter came about half-past five, just after I had dined. Luckily, I was alone. Seecombe had brought in the post-bag, and left it with me. I put the letter in my pocket and walked out across the fields down to the sea. Seecombe’s nephew, who had the mill cottage on the beach, said good-day to me. He had his nets spread on the stone wall, drying in the last of the sun. I barely answered him, and he must have thought me curt. I climbed over the rocks to a narrow ledge, jutting into the little bay, where I used to swim in summer. Ambrose would anchor some fifty yards out in his boat, and I would swim to him. I sat down, and taking the letter from my pocket read it again. If I could have felt one spark of sympathy, of gladness, one single ray of warmth towards those two who were sharing happiness together down in Naples, it would have eased my conscience. Ashamed of myself, bitterly angry at my selfishness, I could raise no feeling in my heart at all. I sat there, numb with misery, staring at the flat calm, sea. I had just turned twenty-three, and yet I felt as lonely and as lost as I had done years before, sitting on a bench in Fourth Form, at Harrow, with no one to befriend me, and nothing before me, only a new world of strange experience that I did not want.

Du Maurier is doing several things here. First of all, she makes you, the reader, wait to learn what’s in that letter. You know the news isn’t good (Luckily, I was alone.) And, the wait builds up your own sense of dread. And, even if she isn’t showing Philip’s reaction through describing him, she is putting you through the character’s experience as he focuses on the mundane details of his walk to the beach. Isn’t that what we all do when we’re in something of emotional shock. We narrow our focus; we delay the feelings until we’re somewhere where we can deal with them.

And, as Maass notes, once we get to the place were Philip can unpack his feelings, she uses the setting, alone on a rocky shore, as a metaphor for his inner state. She also juxtaposes his earlier, trusting time with Ambrose learning to swim with this current feeling of separation.

Maass also likes that she runs the reader through the emotions that Philip believes he should be feeling versus what he actually feels. Maass calls this getting down to third level feelings. Getting past the obvious, immediate feelings that a character might be expected to have and surprising the reader with what is actually going on inside.

One of the more iconic examples of creating an analogy for a feeling. Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr in From Here to Eternity.

He offers an exercise for how to create scenes like this in your own writing.

– Select a moment from your story when your main character feels strongly. Identify the feeling and ask your character: “What else are you feeling at this moment?” Write that down and ask again. Get to the third-level of feeling for this moment.

– Now examine that third-level feeling is four ways. 1) Create an analogy for it. 2) Make a moral judgement about it. Is it good or bad to feel this way? 3) Create an alternative: What would a better person be feeling  instead? 4) Justify this feeling. Why is it appropriate for your character to feel this way?

– Look around your scene and setting. What is your character seeing that might be unique here. Add this one detail to the list you’re making.

– Now write as new scene for this moment using the third-level emotion.

According to Maass, if you plunge right into the third-level feelings—spite, envy, bitterness—underneath something like good news for a friend, your character will be unappealing. So have your character give a nod to their own failure to be generous. And then, let them be complexly human like all the rest of us.

 

 

 

 

Scary But Not Too Scary

 

Writing a scary book for young readers is a tricky business. Where is that line between fun scary and scary scary?

With my latest book, The Frightful Ride of Michael McMichael, I’m hoping I found that line. It certainly was fun to write, even though it took forever. I really can’t remember when I jotted down the first few lines:

It was the thirteenth of November, a stormy night
When the Thirteen bus hove into sight.
Something about it didn’t seem right
But Michael McMichael boarded.

It might have been as long as 20 years ago. Long enough that the first drafts are somewhere on a discarded hard disc drive.  It was just a bit of doggerel that kept stumping me because I’d boxed myself into a corner with my rhyme scheme. The story had to make sense and have a satisfying arc, yet the first three lines of every stanza needed to end in perfect rhyme and the last line had to rhyme or near rhyme with “boarded.”

The first three lines rule wasn’t hard. It was that darn “boarded.” I think I managed to find just about every word that rhymes or near rhymes with “boarded”, from the sensible “hoarded” to the desperate and untenable “sore head.”

Years would go by as I worked on other things; The Frightful Ride forgotten only to be rediscovered once in awhile in my files and noodled with a bit more. Finally it occurred to me that I had a complete story and this might be a picture book. Luckily Sarah Ketchersid at Candlewick agreed—with a few changes.

Back to the drawing board for a few more years. Then the completed manuscript went to the marvelous Mark Fearing for illustrations. (Where I suddenly realized that a word I’d used years ago when banishing the villainous bus driver–deported–needed to be changed to “exported.” Deported had become too loaded of a word.) Then a year for printing and distribution. And finally, it is here! The official release date is July 10, 2018.

But all along it was geared to younger readers, so, of course, the scary thing is defeated in the end. But the real key to me between scary but not too scary is humor. And that was my instinct from the get-go. What was really rattling around in my mind was my memory of the macabre, rhyming tall tales of Robert Service, especially his poem The Cremation of Sam McGee.

My father read that to us when I was a kid and I loved its wonderful “chewy” language.

There are strange things done in the midnight sun
By the men who moil for gold;
The Arctic trails have their secret tales
That would make your blood run cold;
The Northern Lights have seen queer sights,
But the queerest they ever did see
Was that night on the marge of Lake Lebarge
I cremated Sam McGee.

 “The men who moil for gold” or “That night on the marge of Lake Lebarge,” who can beat that?

There’s that kind of juicy language throughout Service’s poem. At the same time it’s a complicated story, but Service doesn’t cheat with easy or obvious rhymes. He reaches for the great instead of the good. (I’ve always wondered if “moil” was made up, but it’s a real word as is “marge.” There’s even a Lake Laberge in the Yukon. Service definitely isn’t a cheater.)

I can’t claim I achieved a “Robert Service” but his macabre humor, his love of words and tall tale format were my inspiration. In these tense times with voices of concern all around us, it’s nice to know that sometimes our stories, even scary ones, can just be for the fun and the love of it.

Here are some more samples of Fearing’s wonderful illustrations. Thanks, Mark and Sarah and all of Candlewick for making this book possible.

 

 

 

So, How Does that Make You Feel?

It took me awhile to understand that creating an emotional experience for the reader is really what my job as a writer is about. And that this is what we all are after when we sit down with a book. Sure we want a good story with clever plots turns. We want language we can relish. We want an intellectual challenge or an exploration of a social issue or of a person or world different from our own.

But bottom line to all of that is the hope/expectation that this will take us on an emotional journey. Books that do this are the ones that we recommend to our friends, that our kids ask us to read over and over, that stay with us sometimes for a lifetime.

Recently I picked up The Emotional Craft of Fiction by Donald Maass. He makes the same point. Even better, he talks about how you, the writer, can create an emotional journey. Because, as he notes, not every published novel does that. “The sad truth,” he says, “is that television commercials can stir more feelings in thirty seconds than many manuscripts can do in a three hundred pages.”

So how can we best a Charmin ad? Maass offers some ideas and techniques that I thought would be fun to share over my next couple of blog posts.

I strongly agree with Maass’s first point: the reader is the one creating the emotional experience. We writers are giving them the triggers:  “(Readers) don’t so much read as respond. They do not automatically adopt your outlook and outrage. They formulate their own. You are not the author of what readers feel, just the provocateur of those feelings.”

But what those feelings are won’t be universally agreed upon, as anyone who has been in a book club can tell you. Everyone is unique. So, Maass suggests that, “The most useful question is not how can I get across what characters are going through? The better question is how can I get readers to go on emotional journeys of their own?”

 Maass says there are three primary paths to creating an emotional response from the reader. Outer Mode: showing. Inner Mode: telling. And something he calls Other Mode: a combination of showing and telling and other techniques to create something that is emotionally “chewable” for the reader.

So let’s talk about Outer Mode in this post.

Outer Mode is good old showing–showing what the character is feeling through their behavior, dialog and visible responses, rather than the character (or the narrator) telling us what they are feeling.

Most of us pretty much know about telling and showing. It’s the difference between “I was terrified” and “My heart beat a staccato rhythm that said run, run, run, but I couldn’t move. I could only scream.”

Of course, there are a lot of techniques involved in using show or tell well, but the most important trick here, says Maass, is not so much in knowing how to use show. But knowing when to use show. He says showing works best when the character’s feelings are highly painful, including highly painful or difficult for the reader.

I love the example he uses from The Silver Linings Playbook by Matthew Quick. Quick’s main character, Pat Peoples, is mentally ill. He’s just been released from a mental health facility to the care of his mother, but he is convinced he will soon be reuniting with his estranged wife, Nikki.

When I finally come out of the basement, I notice that all the pictures of Nikki and me have been removed from the walls and the mantel over the fireplace.

I ask my mother where these pictures went. She tells me our house was burglarized a few weeks before I came home and the pictures were stolen. I ask why a burglar would want pictures of Nikki and me, and my mother says she puts all of her pictures in very expensive frames. Why didn’t the burglar steal the rest of the family pictures? I ask. Mom says the burglar stole all the expensive frames, but she had the negatives for the family portraits and had them replaced. Why didn’t you replace the pictures of Nikki and me? I ask. Mom says she did not have the negatives for the pictures of Nikki and me, especially because Nikki’s parents had paid for the wedding pictures and had only given my mother copies of the photos she liked. Nikki had given Mom the other non-wedding pictures of us, and well, we aren’t in touch with Nikki or her family right now because its apart time.

We know what’s going on even if Pat doesn’t. We don’t have to be inside Pat’s head to feel emotional about this scene. In fact, it might be too painful to be inside Pat’s poor demented head and his determined belief he and his wife are still a thing. Instead, the reader gets a different experience. Not only do we feel Pat’s sad blindness, we feel his mother’s desperate efforts to spare his feelings. And it’s all made more poignant by the fact that it’s funny in a horrible way.

A key ingredient in effective showing of emotion says Maass is “subtext.” When there’s a feeling we’re not being told, but that we can sense. “It’s the unspoken emotional truth. When we discern it, it’s a surprise.”  And a pleasure.

Maass says there’s even a way to describe a character’s inner states without actually telling the emotion. It’s still “showing.” Here’s his example from Ernest Hemingway’s short story, “Now I Lay Me.”

That night we lay on the floor in the room and I listened to the silk-worms eating. The silk-worms fed in racks of mulberry leaves and all night you could hear them eating and a dropping sound in the leaves. I myself did not want to sleep because I had been living for a long time with the knowledge that if I ever shut my eyes in the dark and let myself go, my soul would go out of my body. I had been that way for a long time, ever since I had been blown up at night and felt it go out of me and go off and then come back. I tried never to think about it, but it had started to go since, in the nights, just at the moment of going off to sleep, and I could only stop it by a very great effort. So while now I am fairly sure that it would not really have gone out, yet then, that summer, I was unwilling to make the experiment.

Without even knowing context (this character is a victim of wartime post traumatic stress disorder) we can feel his suffering. Maass says writing with a lot of subtext works especially well for the big feelings—death, deep fear, deep loss, love.

Maass offers a writer’s exercise if you want to bring effective showing into your work. Basically he suggests that you:

– Pick a moment in your story when your main character is moved, unsettled, disturbed. Maybe a moment of choice, of needing something badly, having learned something shocking, feeling overwhelmed. Now write down all the emotions you can think of for this moment—obvious and hidden.

– Now write how your character would behave, act. What’s the biggest, most explosive thing your character could do? What would be symbolic? “Go sideways, underneath or ahead,” Maass advises. “How can your protagonist show us a feeling we don’t expect…?”

– Add a detail in the setting that only your main character might notice or notice in a unique way. (I particularly like this technique. It’s very powerful. Not only can the detail be symbolic, but it replicates the odd disassociation we can feel in an emotionally powerful moment. The funeral is NOT the time to notice the dandruff on the corpse’s shoulders, but, of course, you do.)

– Finally, Maass says to delete all the emotions you wrote down in the beginning and let the actions and dialog do the work. Of the emotions you evoke, he asks, “Do they feel too big, dangerous, or over-the top? Use them anyway. Others will tell you if you’ve gone too far, but more likely, you haven’t gone far enough.” (The italics are mine, because this is what I have to battle time and time again! I have a fear of getting melodramatic, she said between lips trembling like the young leaves of the aspen.)

In the future, I’ll talk about Maass’s ideas about Inner Mode and Other Mode and other techniques for evoking emotion. As Maass says, “I want to feel more as I read. Don’t you?…I don’t care about what you write, how you write it, your choices in publishing, or what you want out of your career. What I want is to feel deeply as I read your work.”

As a writer that’s exactly what I hope to do. Maass’s book is a good start.

 

 

How Well Do You Know Books in Art?

In my collection of images of books in art, there are a number of pieces by famous artists. Although, not always their best works, its fun to see how artists from Matisse to Magritte have portrayed the books in our lives.

Each artist is somehow unmistakably themselves (well, except one) despite a common theme. I bet you can guess most of them. Scroll to the bottom to see if you’re right. Enjoy!

 

 

In order from the top, we have Henri Matisse, Roy Lichtenstein, Renee Magritte, Thomas Hart Benton, El Greco (if you got that one, I’m impressed), Albrecht Durer, Arthur Rackham, Wayne Thiebaud (my favorite. All his paintings look edible to me) and, of course, Norman Rockwell. How’d you do?

 

Why Hadn’t I Done This Before?

I attended Western Washington University’s Children’s Literature Conference for the first time a few weekends ago. And I’m rather chagrined that I’d never attended this 15-year-old event before.

The conference is a gathering of some of the top creators in children’s literature right here in my own backyard—or close enough, anyway. It started relatively small 15 years ago and now it draws a sell-out crowd of over 600 teachers, students, writers, illustrators and children’s lit aficionados to Bellingham, WA.

This year’s speakers were Sophie Blackall, Pam Muñoz Ryan, Benjamin Alire Sáenz and Kevin Henkes. I won’t even try to list all their awards and accomplishments—but the poster for the event will give you some idea. I think you’ll recognize the books, even you don’t always recognize the name.

I have this thing. Whenever I hear a speaker, I end up kind of wanting to be them. Or, at least, thinking maybe I should talk that way. Maybe that’s how I should present myself. Although, the most heartening thing about it all is that everyone presents themselves differently (scholarly, anecdotally, ad lib, prepared, humorous, philosophically), but if they do it with honesty and care, it works.

Sophie Blackall

Author/illustrator Sophie Blackall shared the things she loves, including six books that were important in her life and she used these as a springboard to anecdotes about herself and her writing. I was intrigued by her fun, idiosyncratic selection: Winnie the Pooh by A. A. Milne and E. H. Shepard , The Country Bunny and the Little Gold Shoes by DuBose Heyward and Marjorie Flack, The Unstrung Harp by Edward Gorey , The Principle of Uncertainty by Maira Kalman , Here We Are by Oliver Jeffers and Moby Dick by Herman Melville. The nicest touch of all? She gave her copy of each book to six members of the audience who shared the titles of books that had been important to them.

The give-away seemed to fit into Blackall’s overall approach to life and work. She’s generous. She’s a giver. Check out this project she’s starting for other writers and artists: https://www.milkwoodfarm.org/

Poet and writer of young adult novels, Benajmin Alire Sáenz gave an almost stream-of-consciousness incantation of a talk. Sáenz, who starts his own day with a “word of the day,” repeated the phrase “the word of the day is” throughout his talk. Each time invoking a new word and new idea. “The word of the day is” became something of a catchphrase for the rest of the day.

For Sáenz, in general, the word of the day would have to be “words of the day” including Latino, gay, philosopher, survivor, award-winner, role model and maybe even life-saver. On his Twitter feed are comments like this:

i’m a gay transgender man and i can’t even begin to tell you how grateful i am for this story; it saved my life. thank you so much.

8:02 PM – 8 Mar 2018

And photos like this:

Benjamin Alire Sáenz and a fan

The word of the day for author Pam Muñoz Ryan was clearly serendipity, in particular when it came her latest book Echo. Researching a story that was going to be about segregation Ryan ran across a photo of a classroom of children each holding a harmonica. When she asked about it she was told it was a 1931 photo of the school’s harmonica band, something that apparently was common at the time.

Harmonica bands! What was not to like? Ryan reasoned. As Ryan followed that trail, her story changed completely, turning quite unexpectedly into a tale about a magical harmonica and how it connected three different children in three different times and places but all somewhat connected to WWII and Nazi Germany.

Pam Muñoz Ryan

Pam seems to be one of those people who can turn the every-day events of their lives into stories. Funny stories. Like the time she joined band, decided to play violin, broke said violin, tried to super glue it back together, got ejected from band, but ended up in chorus, then was asked to write an article about being in chorus, which led to her doing more writing, which led to her, of course, becoming a famous author. Isn’t joining band in the 4th grade how everyone’s life stitches together?

Author/illustrator Kevin Henkes word of the day was “waiting.” A common theme in his work and his life. He waits, he said, for ideas. Then he has to wait to see if the idea proves good and solid. His characters wait, like the characters in his book Waiting. And this feels apt, he says because children themselves are always waiting.

A particular creative quirk of his that struck me: he likes to have a title from the very beginning of writing. It helps him know and remember what the book is about. What I liked about Henkes’ presentation was his awareness of and respect for the creative process and for his readers.

It showed in his talk and it shows up in his work. Lily’s Purple Plastic Purse was one of the texts I pored over when I was trying to figure out how to write picture books. The only bad part: it gave me the notion that picture books could be over 1,000 words. Well, if they’re by Kevin Henkes, maybe.

Keep your eyes open for the 2019 WWU Children’s Literature Conference with an equally impressive line-up of speakers: Barbara O’Connor, Candace Fleming and Eric Rohmann, Neal and Jarrod Shusterman, and Jerry Pinkney.

Another major children’s lit event that WWU is hosting this year is the May Hill Arbuthnot Lecture on April 28, 2018. This free, annual event features an author, critic, librarian, historian or teacher of children’s literature, of any country, who prepares and presents paper considered to be a significant contribution to the field of children’s literature. This year’s speaker is Naomi Shihab Nye who has received four Pushcart Prizes, was a National Book Award finalist, and has been named a Guggenheim Fellow, among other honors.

Books and bad weather

Illustration by Karen Hollingsworth

Books and bad weather just seem to go together. It’s so enticing to settle in with a book in hand and snow, wind and rain at the window.

Illustration by Lorenzo Mattotti

It can be a moment of solitude…

Illustration by Samantha Dodge

or a moment that unites us.

Illustration by Vincent Mahe

Illustration by Adrian Tomine

Sometimes you can create your own shelter.

Illustration by Iker Ayestaran

Illustration by Michelle Riche

In my collection of images of books in art, reading in a time of cold and dark is almost always a warm, safe moment.

Illustration by Sasha Ivoylova

But not always.

Illustration by AJ Frena

But let’s not end on this chilling note. Here’s the perfect image for cozy holiday reading.

Illustration by Raija Nokkal

Merry Christmas! Happy holidays! Season’s readings!

What Writers Really Do

Author George Saunders

“What does an artist mostly do? She tweaks that which she’s already done.” So says George Saunders in his brilliant essay on writing published March 2017 in The Guardian newspaper. For me, it captures the process of writing, the feeling of writing, like no other essay I’ve read.*

Saunders discusses many wonderful things in “What writers really do when they write,” including how he developed his acclaimed first novel, Lincoln in the Bardo. (Saunders usually writes short stories.)

One thing that jumped out at me is his description of how he revises his work; what he does mentally.

Write-or-wrong-o-meter

“I imagine a meter mounted in my forehead, with ‘P’ on this side (‘Positive’) and ‘N’ on this side (‘Negative’). I try to read what I’ve written uninflectedly, the way a first-time reader might (‘without hope and without despair’). Where’s the needle? Accept the results without whining. Then edit, so as to move the needle into the ‘P’ zone.”

I do something similar, but I have never made it as concrete as a forehead meter. It’s a gut thing for me. But I think we all know what Saunders is talking about. That knowing that we like it, that it works, or that niggle that we desperately want to ignore that tells us “this could be better.”

It did take me awhile to recognize that gut feeling–to trust that this did need changing or that this really did make the story better. So, if you find it hard to tell where the meter is, other than perhaps permanently stuck in “this is crap,” focus on the niggle part. The thing that catches at you but that makes you want to say, “Maybe this doesn’t matter” or “Maybe the reader won’t notice.”

In other words, start with what you don’t want to be true.

Still I like that he asks only that the needle move into the ‘P’ zone. Not that it top the charts. At least, my zones would not be one fixed point of ‘P’ or ‘N’, but rather exactly that—zones. A band. Of course, you would want to move the needle as far into “Positive” as possible but I’m not sure you could hit the top of the zone with every sentence, every passage.

In fact, I worry that the work would become stilted and brittle if you attempted that. I don’t think perfection is a good standard to set for art.

And that’s not the standard that Saunders sets, although I think he thinks that you’ll get close if you just do this: “Enact a repetitive, obsessive, iterative application of preference: watch the needle, adjust the prose, watch the needle, adjust the prose… through (sometimes) hundreds of drafts. Like a cruise ship slowly turning, the story will start to alter course via those thousands of incremental adjustments.”

I also love what he has to say about how this process respects the reader.

“We often think that the empathetic function in fiction is accomplished via the writer’s relation to his characters, but it’s also accomplished via the writer’s relation to his reader.”

The changes Saunders makes are based on the idea that “if it’s better for me over here, now, it will be better for you, later, over there, when you read it. When I pull on this rope here, you lurch forward over there.”

But rather than a clumsy place where you pull ropes and your reader lurches, Saunders says you’ll end up in a “rarefied place. (rarefied in language, in form; perfected in many inarticulable beauties—the way two scenes abut; a certain formal device that self-escalates; the perfect place at which a chapter cuts off)…”

Oh, don’t we all have those bits of craft and serendipity in our writing that so please the artist in us? And according to Saunders they will be pleasing to the reader, too.

Illustration by Noemi Villamuza

“She can’t believe that you believe in her that much… This mode of revision, then, is ultimately about imagining that your reader is as humane, bright, witty, experienced and well intentioned as you… you revise your reader up…with every pass… ’No, she’s smarter than that. Don’t dishonour her with that lazy prose of easy notion.’

And in revising your reader up, you revise yourself up, too.”

There is a lot more in Saunders’ essay worth mulling over for any artist. You can check it out here:

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/mar/04/what-writers-really-do-when-they-write

And if you haven’t read Saunder’s short stories—get yourself to a library or bookstore soon. I think you’ll find your reader’s needle is well into the “P” zone.

*Thanks to Wendy Wahlman for handing me a copy recently. It was just what I needed at that moment.

 

 

A Christmas for Bear: Writing a Holiday Book

The sixth book in the Mouse and Bear series, A Christmas for Bear, came out this September.

Holidays are a sure fire subject for a kid’s picture book. These days there’s a book for just about any special day you can name: Arbor Day, Halloween, Easter, Passover, Kwanzaa, Fourth of July… in fact, if you’re looking for a book idea, go through the calendar, pick a marked day, and write. There’s probably an editor looking for one of those.

Christmas is, of course, the granddaddy of all the holidays in the U.S. My Amazon search for “picture books Christmas” netted 6,782 results.

I’ve written two holiday books, both about Christmas. My first was A Christmas Crocodile illustrated by David Small, reissued last fall by Two Lions Press. My latest just came out, A Christmas for Bear, the sixth book in my Mouse and Bear series. It’s getting great reviews, including a star from Kirkus!

As with any familiar topic–bedtime stories, first day of school, a new sibling, a major holiday–part of the trick to getting published is finding a fresh way to talk about it.

With my first Christmas book, The Christmas Crocodile, the idea simply came to me–a crocodile who eats up Christmas. It took years to work it into its published form, but I was pretty confident that there weren’t many books out there featuring crocodiles and Christmas.

My latest, A Christmas for Bear, also had an easy genesis. Christmas was, of course, a natural topic for this very Western-culture-based book series that featured a joyous, celebratory Mouse and an always reluctant Bear. My bigger challenge was how to ring up something new about Mouse and Bear themselves.

Sharp-eyed readers might notice a hint that maybe Bear has presents after all.

I decided to flip things on their head a bit. I wanted Bear to be the one offering celebration. I felt that Bear should be the party guy this time around, so he’s eager to throw his first Christmas party ever. But not being very well versed in  holidays, Bear decides Christmas is all about food, mostly pickles, and a nice Christmas poem (The Night Before Christmas, of course). No presents necessary.

Mouse, naturally, finds the “no presents allowed” idea not so great. And the story centers on Mouse’s attempts to find the present he is sure must be there.

Mouse searches for a present all over Bear’s house.

In today’s world, it’s not that common for commercial picture books to work with the true meaning of Christmas, the birth of Christ. So if you’re not going to celebrate the religious significance of the festival, you substitute other things: love, togetherness, friendship, family, bounty, kindness. Christmas stories are almost always sentimental in one way or another—in fact, it’s one of the few times you can pretty shamelessly lay on the sweet if you want. But I’ve always wanted to avoid getting too saccharine. So for me, humor is the way out. But, even so, I want to say something.

What I remember most about Christmas as a child was how safe I would feel. I didn’t put it that way in my mind. But I knew I would eat well, I would laugh a lot, I would feel close to my family, I would nap in front of the living room fireplace, my father would read The Night Before Christmas, I would have trouble falling asleep. I would get at least one thing the next day that was unexpected and special.

Even though I’m not Christian, I was raised as one. And it’s a little sad to me that we don’t have some shared sense of the numinous, a shared acknowledgment of wonder and awe. But I, and most people I know, are not that comfortable with an established creed. So we really have nothing that calls us collectively to the deep and the mysterious.

So what could I do to evoke some of the values this holiday was supposed to celebrate?

I thought about what the two friends could give each other. Bear gives Mouse a telescope. In my mind, it was a way to evoke that “big thing” that was there in the original meaning of Christmas. For Mouse and Bear (and for me, too) that something big and mysterious can be found under the night sky.

Mouse gives Bear a shiny, red sled. A call to adventure and fun and a time to acknowledge where this series has been going all along—the deep friendship of these two very different characters. This is the real gift of Bear’s Christmas. But I did want to get actual presents in! Good luck making the child reader happy with a pious lesson instead of presents on Christmas morning!

 

 

 

 

 

The Top Four Lists of Writing Tips

 

Okay, I lied. These are great tips, but not necessarily the top four, but numbered lists are pretty irresistible. For some reason we love them—Top Six Beauty Tips, the Ten Best Eats in Portland, Eight New Looks for You, 13 Reasons Why.

Maybe we like the promise of something simple, definitive, brief—condensed wisdom. The other day I started browsing through a compilation of writing advice put together by the amazing Maria Popova, who writes the blog Brain Pickings. It’s a guide to 117 columns she’s written over the years on authors and their advice to other writers.

It’s well worth checking out all 117 essays for inspiration and entertainment, but I focused on the ones that promised to be simple lists, like Henry Miller’s 11 Commandments of Writing or Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing.

And then I rather randomly picked four that I liked because it was fun to see them all together. It’s interesting how practical most of the tips are. Writers, it seems, do not want to talk high-faluting artsy stuff when it comes to advice to other writers. Even Henry Miller’s list was surprising mundane, mostly counsel to himself bordering on “don’t forget to buy milk.”

I suspect as writers we know that we only hope to catch lightning in a bottle—it’s not something we have much control over. So the best we can offer is “here’s my bottle.”

KURT VONNEGUT

Kurt Vonnegut

  1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
  2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
  3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
  4. Every sentence must do one of two things — reveal character or advance the action.
  5. Start as close to the end as possible.
  6. Be a Sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them-in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
  7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
  8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To hell with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.

JOHN STEINBECK

John Steinbeck

  1. Abandon the idea that you are ever going to finish. Lose track of the 400 pages and write just one page for each day, it helps. Then when it gets finished, you are always surprised.
  2. Write freely and as rapidly as possible and throw the whole thing on paper. Never correct or rewrite until the whole thing is down. Rewrite in process is usually found to be an excuse for not going on. It also interferes with flow and rhythm which can only come from a kind of unconscious association with the material.
  3. Forget your generalized audience. In the first place, the nameless, faceless audience will scare you to death and in the second place, unlike the theater, it doesn’t exist. In writing, your audience is one single reader. I have found that sometimes it helps to pick out one person—a real person you know, or an imagined person and write to that one.
  4. If a scene or a section gets the better of you and you still think you want it—bypass it and go on. When you have finished the whole you can come back to it and then you may find that the reason it gave trouble is because it didn’t belong there.
  5. Beware of a scene that becomes too dear to you, dearer than the rest. It will usually be found that it is out of drawing.
  6. If you are using dialogue—say it aloud as you write it. Only then will it have the sound of speech.

MARGARET ATWOOD

Margaret Atwood

  1. Take a pencil to write with on aeroplanes. Pens leak. But if the pencil breaks, you can’t sharpen it on the plane, because you can’t take knives with you. Therefore: take two pencils.
  2. If both pencils break, you can do a rough sharpening job with a nail file of the metal or glass type.
  3. Take something to write on. Paper is good. In a pinch, pieces of wood or your arm will do.
  4. If you’re using a computer, always safeguard new text with a ­memory stick.
  5. Do back exercises. Pain is distracting.
  6. Hold the reader’s attention. (This is likely to work better if you can hold your own.) But you don’t know who the reader is, so it’s like shooting fish with a slingshot in the dark. What ­fascinates A will bore the pants off B.
  7. You most likely need a thesaurus, a rudimentary grammar book, and a grip on reality. This latter means: there’s no free lunch. Writing is work. It’s also gambling. You don’t get a pension plan. Other people can help you a bit, but ­essentially you’re on your own. ­Nobody is making you do this: you chose it, so don’t whine.
  8. You can never read your own book with the innocent anticipation that comes with that first delicious page of a new book, because you wrote the thing. You’ve been backstage. You’ve seen how the rabbits were smuggled into the hat. Therefore ask a reading friend or two to look at it before you give it to anyone in the publishing business. This friend should not be someone with whom you have a ­romantic relationship, unless you want to break up.
  9. Don’t sit down in the middle of the woods. If you’re lost in the plot or blocked, retrace your steps to where you went wrong. Then take the other road. And/or change the person. Change the tense. Change the opening page.
  10. Prayer might work. Or reading ­something else. Or a constant visual­ization of the holy grail that is the finished, published version of your resplendent book.

JOYCE CAROL OATES

Joyce Carol Oates

  1. Write your heart out.
  2. The first sentence can be written only after the last sentence has been written. FIRST DRAFTS ARE HELL. FINAL DRAFTS, PARADISE.
  3. You are writing for your contemporaries — not for Posterity. If you are lucky, your contemporaries will become Posterity.
  4. Keep in mind Oscar Wilde: “A little sincerity is a dangerous thing, and a great deal of it is absolutely fatal.”
  5. When in doubt how to end a chapter, bring in a man with a gun. (This is Raymond Chandler’s advice, not mine. I would not try this.)
  6. Unless you are experimenting with form — gnarled, snarled & obscure — be alert for possibilities of paragraphing.
  7. Be your own editor/critic. Sympathetic but merciless!
  8. Don’t try to anticipate an ideal reader — or any reader. He/she might exist — but is reading someone else.
  9. Read, observe, listen intensely! — as if your life depended upon it.
  10. Write your heart out.

I was thinking, as I wrote this, that I might comment on some of the advice—maybe something from my own experience or somesuch. But as I looked over the lists, I realized the other thing that maybe we like about lists–they don’t offer a lot of context. Instead, you, the reader, bring the context. You fill in the blanks with your own experience and decide if it rings true for you or not.

I’d love to know: did any of these tips strike you?