Tortoises

Last weekend the weather finally warmed enough for our pet tortoises to play outside.

As I sat outside reading & watching Sunny and Sandy, I thought about my favorite tortoise quote:

“Turtles have everything a writer needs: tough shells to deal with criticism; soft, sensitive insides; the need to stick their necks out if they want to move forward; and the slow-and-steady patience to keep slogging away, day after day.” –Martha Beck, Finding Your Own North Star


I’ve been collecting turtle figurines on my travels for many years, but none are as charming as the real thing!

The Benefit of Small Conferences

I spent last weekend speaking and critiquing at the SCBWI Canada East conference in Niagara Falls–and it got me thinking about how much I love small conferences.

I’m standing just above the waterfall. 

We all slept, ate, workshopped, and socialized (the best part) at the Mount Caramel monastery and retreat center.

My roomie Fran Cannon Slayton and I could hear the waterfall from our room.

Before the conference, SCBWI volunteer extraordinaire, Jackie Garlick-Pynaert, took the faculty members on a tour of the falls. We got really close to all that thundering water.

Getting soaked with author Terri Farley.

But we also grew close to the attendees. By the end of the weekend, I’d had the chance to talk to nearly everyone. Small events allow the faculty to get to know you as a person–you’re not just a face in the crowd or 5 critique pages. You’re the person with school-aged kids (like me), or the one who tells hilarious bear stories.

Post-workshop Q&A time. I talked about character development.

Small workshops create a cozy, intimate atmosphere. Even a shy writer (and aren’t we all a little bit shy) won’t feel intimidated about asking questions. I also had the chance to talk to people about their work after my workshops. We chatted about stories, writing, and balancing writing with family over lunch, dinner, and during evening socializing. Only a small conference offers so many of those moments.

During our sight-seeing tour, I wondered if the American Falls, which would be a truly impressive waterfall in any other location, felt like the sidekick to a much more beautiful, impressive friend.

American Falls is downstream from the huge horseshoe-shaped Niagara Falls.

I used to feel overwhelmed by all the writers filling the ballroom at big conferences. I’d think, all of these people share my dream? Yikes! And I’ve never been good at squeezing myself into a group of professional schmoozers to chat with faculty. Small conferences allow me to be my quieter self. And I’ve made friends who’ve allowed me to connect with even more friends at bigger conferences. (I’m learning to schmooze.)

Veronica Rossi, Terri Farley, Hilary Breed Van Dusen, Josh Adams, me, and Fran Cannon Slayton.

So, if you’ve been thinking about attending a conference, but aren’t sure if you’re ready, try a small conference. I know Jackie already has a great lineup for Niagara Falls next year!

Much thanks to Jackie Garlick-Pynaert, Lizann Flatt, and Alma Fullerton for a wonderful weekend.

Riding The Bus With 5th Graders

Yesterday I squished onto a big yellow school bus with a few dozen 5th graders to chaperone a field trip. The bus smelled like wet socks. The girls across the aisle nibbled bits of neon green paper. The kid behind me kept jamming his knee into my back. One girl wore a cluster of key chains on her eye glasses–and my daughter informed me that the one that said “I *heart* Justin Bieber” was meant to be ironic.

I scribbled notes about all these potential characters in my little notebook.

But my biggest writing lesson happened during the play we went to see: Honest Abe Lincoln. The actors were fun to watch, but I couldn’t imagine anyone except a school group watching this message-driven play. Abe was honest. Abe loved to read. Abe was honest. Abe loved to read. Abe was honest. Oh, and he loved to read.

Bam. Bam. Bam. 

The writer hammered the message into almost every bit of dialogue, as well as dumping information into conversation, “As you know, Abe, [insert facts that no one really says in dialogue].”

I watched the sparkly-ballet flat-wearing girls, slumped in their seats, fuchsia-encased iphones resting on their laps. Earlier these girls showed off impressive dialogue skills as they flirted with the boys sitting behind them.

Kids are sophisticated these days. And smart. Even 5th graders deserve our best storytelling skills. Plus, they’re at an age when most people talk down to them. And they hate that!

If the play had focused on an interesting anecdote in Abe Lincoln’s life, it would’ve had more impact than constantly telling the audience that he loved to read and that he was *gasp* honest.

Tonight most of those 5th graders will be putting on a production of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The kids have embraced the challenge of learning new vocabulary, memorizing lines, puzzling out the meaning of each scene… Because they’re smart.

Remember that in your own writing. Your readers are intelligent and sophisticated, even the ones who chew neon green paper on the school bus.

A Few Books on Writing Craft

I’m always surprised when I encounter one of those writers who thinks the struggle to master craft stops with publication. Learning is my favorite thing about writing and I’m always stretching myself to improve my craft.

April is Poetry Month so I’m working through Writing The Life Poetic by Sage Cohen and filling my practice notebook with a lot of mediocre verse. Poetry has always intimidated me (I never understood all the significance my high school teachers found in poems), but it’s something I want to learn. So I’m practicing every day. The short chapters and exercises in this book are, for lack of a more poetic word, fun.

Here are some other books that have helped me along the way:





Writing Down The Bones by Natalie Goldberg. This book gave me permission to practice. Until I found this book I thought that becoming an author required some elusive mixture of alcoholism and magical talent that I didn’t seem to possess. Twenty-three spiral notebooks later, I will always be grateful to Natalie Goldberg for showing me the first steps to becoming a writer.



The Write-Brain Workbook by Bonnie Neubauer. The gorgeous graphic design in this notebook has me looking forward to the next exercise. These short exercises are a great way to jump-start creativity, silence that annoying internal editor, and feel a sense of accomplishment no matter what else gets written that day. I meet a lot of writers who “just don’t have the time.” Everyone has the daily ten minutes needed for these quick prompts. No excuses!!!





If You Want To Write by Brenda Ueland. Published in 1938 this book provides timeless nuggets of advice as well as inspiration. Ueland writes, “Everybody is talented, original and has something to say…” After you’ve read Anne Lamott’s Bird By Bird and Stephen King’s On Writing try this one.





The Fire In Fiction by Donald Maass. I read this one so vigorously the pages came loose! I’ve got high-lighted sections, sticky note markers, notes jotted… I especially love the Practical Tools sections at the end of each chapter. I find myself returning to this craft-intensive book again and again.



Self-Editing For Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King. I bought this book when I first started revising Jungle Crossing, but I’ve returned to it every manuscript since. It’s also the gift I give to all my friends who complete their first novel.

One last note: Take the time to do the writing exercises listed in craft books. It’s often too tempting, too easy, to think, Yup. Did that. Mmm-hmm. Did that too. I’m obviously brilliant–no need to revise. YAY!

You’re not really stretching your abilities unless you dig in and do the difficult work.

So You Want To Grow Up And Be A Writer?

Last week I spoke at Two Rivers High School’s Career Day, presenting with writer friend, Wendy Toliver, about being an author. When I was a teenager I thought writers needed to be as troubled as Hemingway, possess grammatical super powers, or have something… something I certainly didn’t have.

I wish someone had given me a few tips about things I could do as a teenager to prepare for a career in writing. You don’t need to learn to leap run-on sentences in a single bound, but doing these things will help your writing: 
Practice. Allow yourself to experiment, learn, grow, and write some not-so-good stuff. Fill up pages and pages with your practice writing. Try all kinds of writing!
     Keep a diary or journal about your own life. You may think your life is boring, but it’s not. Write about your observations of other people, your dreams, the sucky things that happen, the exciting things… Your diary will help you develop your unique writing voice. (And you might turn some things into stories later.)
3.     Publish your writing. Work on the school paper or yearbook. Submit poems and stories to magazines. Enter contests. Create a blog. Review books.
4.     Read, read, read. Reading will teach you how to craft your own stories—you’ll naturally learn what elements make good writing.
5.     Learn. Take writing classes, attend teen writing workshops. Don’t worry if you’re the star student, or not (I’ve never been the shining storytelling student *sigh*). Your own passion for writing is what matters in the end! 
6.     Believe in yourself & follow your dream. Writing is a learned craft—and you can do what it takes to be published!
Websites:
Cicada Magazine: http://www.cicadamag.com/
Teen Book Blogger: http://www.booknerdblog.com
Teen Book Review site: http://www.teensreadtoo.com

Overdoing Dialogue Quirks

“Hey, girl,” the new receptionist at the salon greeted me as I pulled my wallet out to pay for my haircut. “You look great, girl,” she said as I handed her my credit card. “Can I help you with any product, girl?”

I almost wanted her to call me “ma’am.” I am old enough to be her mother–without having made poor choices in high school, or even college. And the term “girl” reminds me too much of all the terrible jobs I worked after being a college “woman” for four years.

One of the stylists walked behind the front desk and the receptionist immediately said, “What can I do for you, girl?” As I walked down the stairs, she called out, “See ya later, girl!”

That receptionist reminded me of a first draft character: too much of a good thing.

I often give my characters dialogue quirks to differentiate them from others in the story, to make them unique, to show personality, to create voice. Inevitably when I read through my rough draft, I realize that I’ve overdone those quirks. I find the snowboarder saying “dude” every time he speaks. “OMG!” exclaims the BFF on every single page. And then there’s the word “like” — Oh, I, like, use that word, like, all the time in my first draft dialogue.

Dialogue quirks are best used sparingly–a sprinkle here, a sprinkle there, as in ten pages later. I have to admit the first time the receptionist used the word “girl,” I thought, Ooh. Interesting dialogue quirk, I’m going to write that down when I get to my car. But after the third mention, I only wanted to revise her speech like overdone first draft dialogue!

Synopsis or Root Canal?

With SCBWI Work-In-Progress Grant applications due soon, my writing group has been preoccupied with synopsis writing. How to sum up 50,000+ words in fewer than 750? One member joked that she’d rather have a root canal than write her novel synopsis. 
Last year, I had a root canal. On my birthday. I’d rather write a synopsis. In fact, I usually begin the writing process by crafting a detailed synopsis. Things always change during the creative process of drafting a novel, but I like the security blanket my synopsis provides.
So I figured if I’m going to talk about *almost* enjoying synopsis writing, I better give you some hints to make the process less daunting:
The Basics:
  • Write in present tense.
  • Write in the 3rd person POV, even if your story is told in 1st person POV.
  • Give away the ending. 
To Begin:
  • Think of your synopsis like a sales pitch—like a book jacket blurb. Keep it short, fast & exciting.
  • Establish the hook right away (this can also be your 30 second elevator pitch, you know, to avoid those long-winded explanations: oh, and then this happens, but wait, I have to explain so-and-so, oh, and then there’s this other character who, but let me back up and say… Snooze!).
  • Introduce the main character and the main conflict.
  • What’s important about the main character? Include motivation, goals, conflict, but not physical description (unless vital to the plot).
The Middle:
  • Highlight the plot points (scenes) that move the story forward. Give the reader a clear idea of what the book is about.
  • Write your synopsis in chronological order. Do NOT make lists.
  • Weave everything together like you’re telling a story. Try to capture your main character’s voice, even if you’re writing in a different POV.
  • Focus on the main character and the main plot. Touch on the subplots and minor characters. Do not include every character or every subplot. A short synopsis shows things that reflect on the MC’s journey.
  • Show increasing tension, increasing conflict.
  • Think: action, reaction, decision.
The Ending:
  • Tell the reader how the main plot resolves.
  • Try to make the ending of your synopsis evoke the emotional response you hope a reader will feel upon finishing your story.
The Picky Stuff:
  • Does your synopsis reflect the style, tone, and voice of your story? If it’s funny, show humor in the synopsis. Writing something literary? Your synopsis should shine with gorgeous sentences.
  • Does the reader know which characters to care about? What’s at stake? How it will turn out?
  • Have you woven together your character’s external and internal journeys?
  • Did you select the best plot points–the ones that affect your MC’s emotional arc?
  • Did you make every word count? Use strong adjectives and verbs (avoid adverbs).
  • Did you select the most telling details to use? Don’t weigh down your synopsis with extraneous or confusing details.
  • Did you format your synopsis properly? Double-spaced, 12-point font, 1″ margins. 
Online resources:
http://misssnark.blogspot.com check out the “crapometer” archives
http://blog.nathanbransford.com great writing advice straight from an agent
http://kathycarmichael.com/articles-and-seminars  good advice about synopsis writing
If you’re still struggling to write an effective synopsis take a critical look at your story. Are you missing some key scenes? Does your main character lack internal motivation? Could you use an intriguing subplot to increase tension? 
Really, it isn’t that bad–you can still eat birthday cake after writing a synopsis. Not the case with root canals! 

Goofing Around is Good For the Brain–So Is Housework!

I’ve completely ignored my blog this week. Instead I’ve been lounging on my sofa, reading until the patch of morning sunshine moves. I de-cluttered my basement, giving boxes of unused stuff to charity. I’ve written, but it’s all silly stuff–like a poem in the shape of Justin Bieber’s hair. Let’s just say I have more appreciation for his hair-stylist, and less appreciation for my poetry skills.

And I’ve felt a wee bit guilty and more than a bit unproductive. But–

Then I went to my monthly SCBWI meeting and learned that all that goofing around is actually good for my brain!

Kim Justesen, author of My Brother The Dog, explained that our brains constantly form new neural pathways. Trying new things–like Bieber hair poems–creates new pathways! (Kim asked us to write something with our non-dominant hand as a brain-enhancing exercise.)

Following old pathways, well-worn roads that form with routine actions like housework, frees our brains to think of creative ideas. That’s why we often have great insights in the shower. So I guess I really should do more housework… I did spend my basement-cleaning time musing about my new WIP.

The bottom line: break out of your routine every now and then. Try new foods, go new places, write something wacky, or better yet write somewhere wacky… And then fold the laundry.

It’s good for your brain.

Developing A New Idea

My WIP is off with its first readers, so I’ve allowed myself a few lazy days of lounging. But now it’s time to think about developing my next idea.

My new idea came to me through random chance encounters…

Teen in bookstore cafe + a joke made during a dinner party = my cool new idea.

(I chose this idea because the challenge of pulling it off kind of scares me.)

But it’s just an idea–an unformed blob. How do I give it shape? The idea sparked on June 13th last summer, so since then I’ve been collecting more information.

An essay in Men’s Journal gave me a hint of voice, attitude… so I asked my hairdresser if I could keep the magazine. I’ve found a few more clippings–photos of the kinds of characters I plan to create, stuff that might interest my characters…

I’ve been gathering a stack of research books too. Some deal with my main topic, but others only relate to the themes a little bit. I plan to read a wide variety of stuff that will allow my mind to make unusual connections that will–hopefully–deepen my original spark of an idea. And add lots and lots of layers.

I won’t be ready to write for several weeks, but I’ll start playing with my characters’ voices during my writing exercises. Let them talk without the pressure of creating WIP word count.

I’m also asking myself lots of “What If” questions about plot–jotting them down in the notebook I’ve set aside just for this story. Once I finish the bulk of my research I’ll sit down with a thick yellow pad and list possible scenes, plot points, figure out each character’s motivation, etc. For me, plot works like a puzzle.

Now I just have to find all the pieces…

Fictional Characters Showing Up In Real Life…

 I always tuck a small notebook into my purse so I can record story ideas, interesting tidbits, strange human behaviors, cupcake places I’d like to try… But I especially collect potential characters.

(You can see why I did not pursue illustration!)

A cute grocery checker turned into a love interest in one of my stories, so did a teenager sipping a strawberry frappuccino that matched her hair… My next WIP idea sparked after a few random encounters with intriguing strangers (but I have to finish my current novel first!).

And it’s no secret that a neighborhood skateboarding hottie inspired the character of Xander Cooper in Swoon At Your Own Risk.

But I was a little surprised when he showed up at my daughter’s soccer game on Saturday. I did know that his little sister played on my daughter’s team, but he’s away at college now, and no longer skateboards down the street.

No one in his family knows that I’ve written him into a novel, and I really only borrowed his mop of curly hair and graceful skateboarding. Xander Cooper is a completely fictional character. Still–it felt so strange to sit close to someone who looks so much like the character I created…

But it was nice to see him cheer so sweetly for his little sister. (Nice guys DO live outside of books!)