Lessons Learned From Illustrators

Last weekend, as SCBWI Regional Advisor, I attended our illustrator conference. The tips on lighting and body proportions did’t really apply to writing, although I suppose if I tried, I could work out a complicated metaphor… But I won’t. Here’s what struck me:

Midway through her talk, Sherry Meidell said, “Deadlines and time constraints can stifle creativity. Relearn how to play like a child. You have to daydream–take the time to sit and think. Visualize, look at your sketches, and daydream some more.” She advised us to go for a walk or a run, letting our stories play through our heads, as we ask if we’ve approached the illustration from the best angle.

Stories need to be told through the right angles too. Are we putting our characters in the best situations to move the story forward? Could we find a more interesting setting for this scene? Would our characters really do that–or is it merely a quick way to move the story along (and maybe avoid working through a tricky scene)?

As writers, we value butt-in-chair time, often racing through scenes to meet daily word count goals. As a NaNoWriMo fan, I’m guilty of stacking up word count without taking time to pause. Go on that walk. Stare out the window with my cat. Think.

I know that my writing could benefit from taking the time to daydream some more. So move over Minnie, let’s hang out on the sofa & think through my plot together… Okay, I know you’re only thinking about snacking on birds.

Setting Aside a Work-in-Progress

I’ve decided to do something I’ve never done in my writing life. I’m setting aside my WIP to start something new. Why?

I scrubbed my refrigerator instead of writing on Tuesday.
Yesterday I spent my writing time filling my notebook with poorly-written poems.
Characters sparked by reading a newspaper article a few weeks ago won’t stop chattering at me.
I’ve been trying too hard to write a book with a BIG GIANT SKY HIGH concept. And it’s just not me.

Part of me feels like a quitter, putting aside something that I thoroughly researched & outlined with the fast-paced precision of the 4th sequel in an action movie franchise. I pounded out 50,000 words during NaNoWriMo. But I have to acknowledge that the story is not working. And I’m not working. Even my family is growing suspicious about the cleanliness of the house. Matched up socks? What?!?!?!

Maybe the marketplace wants novels that can be decorated with dark, doom and gloom covers with pessimistic views of the future. Someone else can write those books. I’ve got to stay true to myself & tell this new story about real people with real problems, not that having vampires in my backyard wouldn’t be a problem…

I’m excited!

The Outline Advantage

My task this week: plan and plot my new WIP. I know, I know, outlining is not cool, not artistic, it hampers inspiration… Tony Hillerman says, “Usually the book is finished long before the outline is. Go with the flow. Sometimes plots don’t make sense, but it avoids that awful problem of outlining.” Anne Lamott (Bird By Bird) is against outlining. So is Stephen King (On Writing).

But I still love it. I’m not talking about one of those big I, little i nightmares from school research papers, but rather creating a plan for the work I plan to write, or as Strunk and White say, “a suitable design.” Having an outline gives me an advantage as I draft a new novel.
Advantage #1: Plot. Outlining allows me to work out the structure of the novel. I like to see everything visually and puzzle out questions. If this happens, then what will happen next? I can see the pacing, story arc, etc. 
Advantage #2: Avoid Meandering, Wandering, Getting Lost. An outline helps me keep to the story I intended to tell. I won’t write hundreds of unnecessary words, or pages, that don’t actually contribute to my main character’s journey. Sometimes it’s hard to cut clever or pretty sentences that sound good–even if they don’t belong. 
A good outline also gives me a map through the middle. Knowing where I’m going prevents those panicky moments, “Eek! I’ve written 100 pages, but I don’t know what happens next, and, maybe the whole thing is bad, bad, bad.”
But–it is important to be flexible. I’m always adding and deleting things from my outline.
Advantage #3: Tracking Subplots, Minor Characters, Themes. To make outlining even more fun, I’ll use color for each aspect of the story. At a glance I can see if I’m ignoring a subplot for too long, or leaving out a minor character who will confuse my readers if she all of a sudden pops back into the story 75 pages later. 
Advantage #4: Remembering The Good Stuff. I do a lot of research before I write, and I’d probably forget about some of my most interesting tidbits if I simply dove into the story and started wandering about. Outlining forces me to really think about my story and figure out how to fit all of my ideas into my plot in an exciting, relevant manner.
Advantage #5: Fast, Smooth, Writing. I rarely sit and stare at my blank computer screen wondering what the &#*!@  happens next. I’ve been letting my subconscious mind go to work. I always look at which scene I’m going to work on the next day, and think about it while I’m cooking dinner, driving carpool, walking the dogs, etc. I’m not worried about what will happen next, I’m focused on how to make it happen. 
Advantage #6: Cleaner First Draft. My outline serves as a first draft of sorts. And that makes revision easier. Oh, I still have things to fix, but I usually don’t need a bulldozer during revision.
So what if Stephen King thinks I’m a dork?

Writing A Pitch

Today my goal is to create a pitch for my next YA novel idea–something so intriguing that people will say, “I’ve got to read that. Write fast!”

I’ve been researching my idea for months, reading like crazy, thinking like crazy, watching YouTube videos, picking up random bits on NPR, steering dinner party conversations in unusual directions… My brain is STUFFED with information. But now I have to explain it to people. Um…

I’m a rambling mess!

Lucky for me, I discovered Save The Cat by Blake Snyder. It’s a book about screenwriting, but who better to teach me how to pitch than a Hollywood movie guy?

According to Snyder, a pitch answers this basic question: what is it?

(And it’s not Snakes On A Plane meets Three Men And A Baby–although who wouldn’t want to see that?!?!?)

A good pitch gives a clear sense of what the story promises to deliver (action, love, mystery). You want your audience to immediately form a compelling mental picture of your story. Better yet–you want to elicit an emotional response. A good pitch also includes a good title. Hunger Games? Yeah, I want to know what that’s about!

People also want to know who the story is about. Short and sweet, a good pitch characterizes both the main character and the antagonist. Is your character’s goal enthralling? The best way to hook someone with your pitch is to make sure that your character’s mission involves primal needs: survival, love, protection. Snyder asks: would a caveman understand your character’s needs?

Reducing all my research into a pitch only a few sentences long will probably be the hardest part to write. But I know that figuring out these basic elements will make the next 250 pages flow.

I’m excited and I want to write this story fast!

Still Collecting Characters…

One of my favorite neighborhood “characters” is a man who walks three little dogs every morning. With his dark shoulder-length hair, bushy beard, and old-fashioned coat, he looks like someone from another era. He should be wandering cobblestone streets in the mist, not dodging early morning sprinklers watering manicured lawns in a dry climate.

Seeing him, I sometimes wonder if there’s a time travel portal hidden among the white vinyl fences in my neighborhood…

But today I saw him walking his three little dogs, wearing shorts–Richard Simmons shorts. Oh, no! It turns out he’s a man from another era alright, but that time is 1980!

Well, at least he can still be a time-traveling nomad in my imagination.

Things I’ve Learned So Far

I enjoyed the challenge of coming up with seven things I’ve learned about writing and publishing for Chuck Sambuchino’s Guide to Literary Agents blog. Now if only life would stop teaching me SO many lessons! Here’s the first one:
It’s not always about you. When my first novel hit the shelves, I came across a surprisingly violent review: a blogger, upset with a particular passage, threw my book against her wall! Shocked and dismayed, I showed my mother, a psychologist, the review. She simply nodded and said, “Wow. That sure says a lot about her.” Oh, right. Readers filter stories through their own experiences, values, and expectations. Sometimes our work simply won’t connect—with anything other than a wall. 

To read the rest of my guest column, please go to the Guide To Literary Agents blog. Leave a comment for a chance to win a copy of Jungle Crossing.

Other Kinds of Creativity

I’m just home from a jaunt through the Northwest. I brought books, notebooks, and my laptop, but I didn’t do any writing work. I simply appreciated other people’s creativity.

With sand:

Latte foam:

Salty soccer chants:

And lyrics. (Our marriage entered its last year as a teenager, so we took it to a My Morning Jacket concert.)

Watching others exercise their creativity always inspires me. So now I’m home with my notebook, adding characters like this cat who does fundraising for an animal shelter at Pike Place Market in Seattle.

Collecting Characters

Summer vacation is here and that means a break from big chunks of quiet writing time. But that’s okay because I plan to spend the next few weeks researching my next story; it’s easier to squeeze reading between fun activities. But I’m still writing every day.

My challenge: collect 50 characters before school starts.

So far I’ve imagined a Starbuck’s employee’s tumultuous breakup, written a voicy piece about a rebellious teenage couple who actually have a really good relationship, and I stretched myself by seeing things from a too-curious Seeing-Eye puppy-in-training’s point of view (I wish I had a photo of that cutie!). Last week I found a grocery list on the floor of my supermarket and wrote about the woman behind the ingredients. Here’s the list so you can try it too:

Today I plan to write about the teen who wore her zebra snuggie to the pharmacy.

Is it wrong to take sneaky photos of strangers? Maybe. But I guess my friend gave me a “Careful, or I’ll put you in my novel…” tote bag for a reason!

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.