writing advice

How this writing thing works

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cake
The Cake of Voices
(It was delicious.)

I’m in the kitchen icing a cake.

This happens, like, never. I’m a notoriously bad cook. When my kids see me making dinner they cry and run away. Baking is better, but I do it so infrequently no one ever really remembers I can, including myself.

So I’m icing this cake. It’s a zucchini blueberry cake with lemon buttercream frosting. (Kinda weird, right? But also maybe yum.) My hair is a mess. So is my face. Not to mention the kitchen. In fifteen minutes a group of friends will show up at my door for book club (aka, wine club). The knife slides along the surface of the cake, forming tiny wakes of buttercream, when suddenly a voice says, “Most of the time I feel miserable and alone.”

The knife stops mid-swipe and I listen. Not with my ears, though, because the voice is in my head.

The call is coming from inside the house.

I don’t know who this character is talking to me (yet), but in my mind I can see her walking through a crowded high school hallway and in my chest I can feel what she’s feeling. It’s like I’m some kind of medium for fictional people.

I put down the knife, pick up a pen and start writing her down. The cake can wait. So can my hair and my face and the clock and my friends showing up at my door with wine. There’s a voice in my head with a story to tell.

And that’s how this writing thing works.

For me, at least.

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On Not Getting It Right the First Time

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This post is dedicated to a couple of young people I know who struggle with the idea of having to get things right the first time.

file000947770525I’ve been taking a ceramics class for fun and to explore another creative outlet. For the last few weeks, we’ve been hand building different kinds of vessels and forms. But on Monday, we switched to throwing on a pottery wheel. My instructor made it look so easy, demonstrating how to center the clay and pull the sides up into a cylinder.

Then it was our turn.

We sat at our wheels and tried to coax cylinders out of our own lumps of clay.

And we tried.

And tried.

To be fair, a couple of people did quite well. But most of us…well, it took several attempts before we got anything not wobbly, let alone cylindrical.

It was frustrating. Humbling. More than once I thought, There’s no way I’m going to be able to do this.

But each time my walls grew too thin or my cylinder lost its center, I crumpled the clay back into a lump, scraped the excess from the wheel and started again.

It took a few tries, but finally, working slowly, I threw a cylinder.

Will I be able to do it again next time? I don’t know. But I’m willing to keep trying until I learn.

That’s what it’s like for starting any project. Writing a first draft of a story. Starting a new painting. Sculpting clay by hand or on the wheel.

You don’t have to get it right the first time. Few people do. The magic happens in the revisions and later attempts.

So go easy on yourself. Give yourself the freedom to try and grace when you fail.

And never, ever stop learning.

Enjoying the Art of Editing

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Between the head colds and kidney stones, it’s been a hectic month at our house, leaving me with little time left for blogging.

A couple of weeks ago, however, I was able to get away for a reading and Q&A with Michael Ondaatje. The evening was a part of the Distinguished Visiting Writers Series sponsored by the Virginia G. Piper Center or Creative Writing at ASU .

A couple of years ago I read Coming Through Slaughter, and just recently read The Cat’s Table. Both books are fascinating, not to mention beautifully written. If you haven’t read his work yet, I highly recommend you do. His most well-known work is probably The English Patient. (I confess I haven’t read that one, yet, though I have seen the movie.)

My favorite part of the reading was when Mr. Ondaatje read the storm passage from The Cat’s Table, one of my favorite scenes in the book. If you’re familiar with the scene, you can imagine what an experience it would be to hear it in the author’s voice. Really cool.

During the Q&A session, the moderator asked Mr. Ondaatje, “What is your best advice for a writer?” I found his answer interesting, and encouraging.

“Enjoy the art of editing,” he said. “Edit wildly. Don’t be defensive about drafts. Test the work.”

Like many writers, I know editing is essential to getting a story headed in the right direction. But editing is hard work. Necessary, but hard, work.

I’ve never set out to edit with a sense I’d enjoy the process. And yet, having said that, while revising my novel, I did come to a point where pieces starting falling into place and the work began to hang together as a whole. For a time, it felt almost magical. I enjoyed it.

Mr. Ondaatje offered that advice with such conviction, it really made me think twice about my own process. What more I can be doing with my work at the editing stage? Am I editing wildly? Am I testing the work?

I would love one day to write as beautifully and as compelling as Michael Ondaatje. Perhaps taking this advice is the first step.

SCBWI Summer Conference Recap, Part 6

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It’s hard to believe the SCBWI Summer Conference is already two weeks behind us. What an incredible experience.

If you’ve missed my previous recap posts, here you go:

  • Part 1 (Bruce Coville, Publisher’s Panel, Libba Bray)
  • Part 2 (Laure Halse Anderson, Emma Dryden)
  • Part 3 (Judy Blume, Oceanhouse Media, Jon Scieszka)
  • Part 4 (Norton Juster, Beverly Horowitz, Mary Pope Osborne)
  • Part 5 (Agent’s Panel, Gary Paulsen)

Here are the final two sessions I’ll be recapping. As always, thanks for reading. 🙂

From Bruce Coville’s “At the Intersection of Plot and Character: The Place Where Stories Happen”:

How awesome to get to hear Bruce Coville speak twice at this year’s conference. I took more notes during this session than any other. He had so many practical and inspiring things to say. Here are some of the gems:

  • The sweet spot for a book is in this center between plot and character; compelling characters in amazing plots
  • Every generation wants a good story well told
  • The perfect ending is both a surprise and inevitable, but never a coincidence
  • Character is plot and plot reveals character; how can you care what happens if you don’t who it happens to?
  • Good plotting is the art of choosing details, asking why-why-why until you get to the fresh ideas
  • Ask how rotten you can make life for the character
  • Answer by writing scenes
  • Make your character face a tough choice, moral decision; readers identify with someone forced to make a difficult choice
  • Characters must have an agenda, inconsistencies and exist in a matrix of relationships
  • Plot is weaving a series of actions to bring threads of the story together in a non-random and most satisfactory way; who wants what and why can’t he have it?

Bruce’s advice to writers is to take risks. If you aren’t risking, you’re not writing. Gamble every time you write. If you aren’t at risk of crashing, you haven’t jumped.

From Laurie Halse Anderson’s “Daring the Universe”:

Laurie started off her keynote quoting T.S. Eliot’s Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock. “Do I dare disturb the universe?” Art, she said, disturbs the universe, and living our dreams is revolutionary.

She could have stopped right there. I was sold. But she had so much more to say:

  • The artist’s job is to disturb
  • We are world shakers
  • The seed of art in your soul spins and keeps you discontent until you submit
  • If you don’t jump, the wings never come
  • The creative life demands discipline; it’s hard
  • Writing forces you to be alive and being alive can hurt
  • To stop writing is to succumb to despair, death of the spirit
  • Exercise control over self; discipline creates order
  • Be kind to your muse; she deserves love and care

Laurie ended her speech — and the conference — with a call to action: Take the revolution to the next place. Our children need us to tell the story of truth.

Thank you, SCBWI, for another amazing conference. And thank you for all you do to support those of us who create stories for children. Congratulations on 40 years. I wish you 40+ more.

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SCBWI Summer Conference Recap, Part 5

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If you’ve been reading my SCBWI Summer Conference recap posts, thank you. If you haven’t, here’s the fine print: out of respect for the SCBWI, I’m only sharing the highlights from my notes. You can read the previous recap posts here.

From “4 Agents View the Current State of Children’s Books”:

Tracey Adams, Barry Goldblatt, Marcia Wernick and Tina Wexler gave the agents’ perspective on the industry to a group of groggy writers who’d been partying into the wee hours Saturday night. Somehow I managed to take some decent notes.

  • Sometimes they love a book but have to put it on the back burner and sell something else first
  • Don’t be focused on one project; when you finish one, get busy on the next
  • Think long-term
  • You should be getting better with every book
  • To get to the next level, write at the next level
  • Don’t compete with anyone but yourself

From Gary Paulsen’s “A Writer’s Upside-Down Life”:

When Gary Paulsen started giving his keynote address, I thought what he was telling us was too incredible to be true. But as I listened, I realized what he was telling us was too incredible not to be true. And many times while hearing him speak, I wanted nothing more than to give him a hug. The man has had an unbelievable life. And it was a privilege to hear him speak.

My favorite quote from his talk was this, in regard to moose:

“They’re just mean. They’re the Charles Manson of the animal family.”

Mr. Paulsen has had not one, but two teeth kicked out by moose. Unbelievable.

Toward the end of his talk, he gave rapid-fire advice for writing and for life in general. Here’s what he said:

  • Do your best ideas
  • Don’t write down to your audience
  • Kill your television
  • Read like a wolf eats
  • Read what they tell you not to read
  • Read all of the time
  • There’s a need for more stories, especially for kids

Read like the wolf eats. I love that.

Final recap post on Friday. Thanks for reading.