Monday, October 30, 2006

Stroopwafels, the Writer's Life, and Laying About Eating Bon-bons

P returned home Saturday night bearing gifts after a business trip overseas. To S he gave the gift of fairies, for E princesses, for L squares of gourmet chocolate, and for me bon-bons and stroopwafels.

Stroopwafels, a traditional Dutch treat, are so sinfully delicious I plan to use use them as rewards for sitting butt in chair. As for bon-bons, I'd heard about them for years, but, until yesterday, have never had the pleasure of laying about eating one.

Imagine a foil-wrapped chocolate orb as large as a good-sized cherry tomato. Listen to the wrapper crinkle as you scrunch it and set it aside. Bite into chocolate so smooth and rich that Hershey's will never taste the same. Imagine wanting nothing more than to make that chocolately goodness last forever, and you suddenly understand how that old joke about eating bon-bons might have originated.

In recent years, my version of the joke has evolved into something like this:
"What does she do all day while pretending to write books, sit around and eat bon-bons?"

Taking a break from kid lit to read: Dates from Hell, featuring four otherworldly tales of paranormal trysts. The book has its moments, and vampires. Just in time for Halloween.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Explore the Forest

The new Edge of the Forest online children's literature journal is ready to explore. Here's what Forest editor Kelly Herold had to say about it in her post yesterday.

The current issue includes exciting features, interviews, reviews, and more. Contributions by yours truly include an interview with library associate Barbara Crispin (Crofton Branch of the Anne Arundel County Public Library, Crofton, Maryland for What's in their Backpacks, and a chat with children's writer, Patricia Malone, for A Day in the Life.

Regular readers will also want to know that a new Subscribe feature's been added to the site. Just enter your name and e-mail address and you'll receive notification when each new issue is published.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Pumpkins, Haunted Houses, and Funky Gold Frogs

Some writers complain that they need to scrounge for ideas for their next project. I often struggle with the opposite problem...a brain that won't turn off.

Here are just a few of the people and events that fed my muse last week:

1. The Gently Used Clothing Sale at Church--While sorting and folding clothes last week in preparation for the sale, I couldn't help but wonder about the stories behind each item. Who wore the red patent leather shoes? Who owned the faux fur vintage swing coat? And what's the story behind the pioneer dress with matching bonnet? The dress was a lovely pink rose print, fitted to the waist, and trimmed in lace. Who used the dress before it found its way to our sale? Did the donor realize a gold pin encrusted with crystals still graced the collar? And what about the funky gold frog earrings with emerald eyes? Who donated those? Did they signify something special to the owner? Or did they languish in someone's jewelry box, treasured, but never worn?

2. Pumpkin Fest--P, the girls and I attended this free annual event Saturday. Festival goers received free pumpkins, face painting, entry into kids carnival type games (including pumpkin buckets), hot dogs, popcorn and more. With the sun shining, the trees turning and the leaves crispy beneath our feet, the day was a perfect reminder of why fall is my favorite time of year.

3. Fall Gardening--I trimmed and covered the last of my rose bushes last week. The bush was a late addition to the garden outside my kitchen door. Thanks to a couple of warm days over the last few weeks, I managed to coax five more roses out of the plant before the weather turned too cold. The buds are on my dining room table, displayed in a squat white bud vase hand-painted with pansies and trimmed in gold. One of the buds has opened. With any luck the others will, too.

4. Late Season Tomato Harvest--Since E and I are big cherry tomato fans, we grew them this year in containers outside our front door. Saturday, E and I harvested the last of our crop. Siamese tomatoes. E did the honors, prying the two apart and sharing one with me. Nothing beats the taste of a homegrown tomato. Yum.

5. Wiffle Ball--Played wiffle ball with my youngest S, cringing each time she wacked the wiffle ball my way. Did you ever get hit by a wiffle ball? Y-ouch! But I was willing to take it if only to hear her belly laugh each time I ducked.

6. Painting--Late Saturday afternoon, I set up the dining room table with paints so E and S could decorate the pumpkins they picked at the pumpkin fest. After decking out her pumpkin, S stayed at the table for an hour or more painting one picture after another. Our kitchen door is now a gallery dedicated to S.

7. Three-Alarm Chili--I made a big pot of chili for Sunday's Haunted House set-up at church. Yes, our church does a haunted house. Cool, huh? Anyway, the youth group sets up the entire thing in less than a week's time, transforming all three floors of the education building into a tour that gives me the heebie-jeebies when I walk through it. My younger two girls have yet to make it through the entire thing, even during one of the lights-on tours. But this fact doesn't seem to bother them. They're content to help with the free face painting we offer patrons waiting in line on the first floor. The doors open Friday. Wahahaha.

8. Camper--This weekend we packed up the pop up for the winter, returning it to its resting spot beneath the red maple tree. Feels so good that we actually used it this year. Gives me hope we'll double our outings next year. Camping out under the stars with no phones, TV's or computers did us all good.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Where I Write, How I Write, and Other Musings

Although I have an upstairs office, my best creative time comes while writing at my dining room table. I hadn't given much thought as to why I prefer this set-up until we began a discussion today in the "Writing YA for Girls" class about writing routines.

E is probably the biggest reason I work downstairs these days. In the month's following her first surgery and homecoming, writing in the dining room was a lot more convenient than running downstairs and back up every time she needed help in the bathroom, getting dressed, or getting into and out of bed. Along the way, I invested in a laptop which allowed me even greater flexibility in where I worked. P, my resident computer geek, even set me up so I was networked with our printer and totally wireless anywhere in the house.

Now that E's back at school full-time, and doing so well healthwise (knock on wood), my muse still prefers the dining room.

A typical writing day begins after I drop off the girls at school. First I wake up my writer's brain by working out. Then I return home, steep a pot of green tea or break out a trusty can of Diet Coke, and spread out my notes and post its, many of them scribbled while in the car. Before diving into KM, I read a chapter from a craft book and write my Morning Pages ala Julia Cameron. Then after checking email for anything that needs immediate attention, I review my work on KM from the previous day and forge ahead with new creative.

Some days I write in circles before I get into the flow of things. Other days my characters talk faster than I can type. If I'm able to put in three solid hours of writing I consider the day a success.

My goal at the end of that time is a modest one. Two pages. Some days those pages are crap. Other days my writing sings. Without fail, I need to wade through a lot of crap before I get to the good stuff.

Another reason I prefer the dining room these days is that the table's centered in front of a picture window. Our property is wooded, and the slope of the yard out back leaves the impression that I'm all alone in the big woods. The leaves are beginning to turn. Soon the yard will be ablaze with color, and now and again a fox wanders by. Being this close to nature does my muse good.

Most recent read: Adele Griffin's My Almost Epic Summer.

Current read: Doppelganger by David Stahler, Jr.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Writing Breakthroughs, Deadlines, and Catching Up

Ten pages are due tomorrow for Lauren's class. Ten.

And how many do I have completed? Less than half. But it's only 3-ish the day before deadline...

I had good intentions to be further along by now. Really, I did. But here's the thing. Monday was a holiday, which made putting in any good uninterrupted writing time next to impossible with both girls home. And I'm just too tired to write at night, so I don't even attempt working on creative in the evenings anymore. So, I thought, okay Tuesday I'll get started and still have a solid four days to revise my second chapter. But then E caught whatever cold everyone's passing around. And unfortunately, everyone else's 24-hour bug is a 36- or 48-hour one for E. So, you can probably guess how that turned out.

One good thing that came out of the beginning of the week: I made a major breakthrough on my KM manuscript. Finally. I've written and rewritten this novel so many times from so many points of view that I swear I could probably generate at least six books out of the various versions.

A clear path forward on whose story to tell, and, more importantly, how to quilt the pieces of his/her story together has eluded me until this week. I'm so happy to finally be in this place. Whenever people ask me how KM is coming along, I joke that I'm on the Tolkien 15-year plan of writing the fantasy novel. After making this week's breakthrough, I'm hopeful I'll have a completed manuscript in hand a lot sooner.

Other work I'm trying to catch up on (but feel woefully behind):

*crit group crits
*K's manuscript (which I've had forever)
*T's manuscript
*T's thesis
*follow-up letter re SCBWI Illinois PR plan

Current read: Adele Griffin's National Book Award Finalist, My Almost Epic Summer. Delightful.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Mini Writer's Workshop: A New Way to Look at Emotional Throughlines

My favorite lesson learned to date in Lauren Barnholdt's Writing the YA class comes courtesy of one of my classmates. In a recent post, she recalled advice gleaned from a Romance Writers of America session not too long ago. In the workshop, the leader described a unique way of keeping track a main character's emotional throughline from beginning to end.

To ensure each thread is carried through an entire book, the MC should carry the equivalent of a literary suitcase from one scene to the next. Each decision, worry, reaction, etc., that comes as a result of a scene or chapter, should be packed away into that suitcase, never to leave the MC's side.

Seems to me that a story with a weave this tight would allow a careful reader to explore any chapter, and come away with insights into the MC's emotional journey.

Very intriguing way to look at this concept.

Monday, October 09, 2006

Teens Speak: Holden Caufield Out, Harry Potter In

According to Anita Silvey, editor of the Essential Guide to Children's Books and Their Creators and author of the soon-to-be-released 500 Great Books for Teens (Houghton 2006), Holden Caufield's teen hero days are over.

In the most recent issue of School Library Journal, Silvey writes of "amazing shift in teens’ reading habits in the last five years."

According to Silvey:

1. Holden Caufield is out, and Harry Potter is in. Today's teens prefer fantasy, suspense and mystery to the problem novels made popular by J.D. Salinger's Catcher in the Rye.

2. Today's teens crave books that feature "characters thrown into extreme circumstances and exhibit amazing heroism" like Harry in J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series, or Eragon in Christopher Paolini's novel by the same name.

Silvey's findings affirm much of what I've observed about the reading preferences of my two teen daughters and their friends, but have been unable to quantify. Silvey also gives me hope that one day soon, more book award committees will give scifi/fantasy novels a nod.

Friday, October 06, 2006

Seventh Carnival of Children's Literature

I've been meaning to post this link for some time now. The Seventh Carnival of Children's literature has rolled into Wands and Worlds. Surf on over for a bountiful harvest of all things kid lit.

Feeling Writerly Today

Finalized and sent 10 pages recently to Lauren for the critique portion of her Writing the YA novel class. Next up final prep for my writing workshop tomorrow, including a handout for those in attendance so they don't need to worry about taking notes.

On the publishing front, some interesting news. Turns out the book I'm a part of-- Special Gifts: Women Writers on the Heartache, the Happiness and the Hope of Raising a Special Needs Child--is getting an even bigger buzz than the publisher anticipated. The news translates into a bigger initial press run, and wider distribution when the book's released next year. Very cool.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

The Hard Work of Writing and Other Necessities of Making It

Over the years, I've been fortunate to converse with some of my favorite authors about what makes or breaks a writer. One such dialogue occured with Vermont College faculty member Margaret Bechard during pursuit of my MFA in writing for children and young adults.

On the dark day in question, I sat in front of my computer in tears. My packet was due in less than a week. I was 10 pages short. And my muse was running me in circles. Then Margaret's email arrived.

"How are you doing?" she wrote. "Are you getting excited about next semester?"

The exchange went on from there, until we found ourselves on the subject of writing, specifically the hard work of writing day-in day-out, especially when life conspired. Feeling particularly gloomy that day (probably because E was home for something like the third week in a row), I shared an insight I'd had about the hard work of writing.

"This business," I wrote, "feels less about talent and more about persistence."

Her reply went something like this: "Writers need to know how to write, but in order to succeed they need something more: patience and persistence."

Margaret then shared a story about a writer she knew who was phenomenal at her craft, but for whatever reason never published. Reading Margaret's email between the lines, I could hear her regret that the writer's voice had never been heard publicly.

The story struck a chord with me, so much so that I've made connections between it and my own process ever since. Writing is hard work. Keeping it a priority is often more difficult than anything else I'm asked to do. So why do I stick with it? Certainly not for the money.

1. I write because if I didn't do so my characters wouldn't shut up.

2. I write for the high that comes from crafting a scene that sings.

3. I write for the rush I get after completing a piece, and knowing it feels right.

4. I write because doing so gives me insights into my own hopes and fears.

5. I write with the dream that someday one of my young readers will love my story so much they'll get yelled at for trying to read it at the dinner table.

Current read: Bras and Broomsticks by Sarah Mlynowski.