Category Archives: writing

Deconstructing

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IMG_1918Recently, I’ve been tearing down hundreds of soccer pictures  from my son’s room. I’ve left them up for years because I’m sentimental. He is the inspiration for my not-yet-published novel about a soccer-obsessed kid, and these walls are a visual reminder of how obsessed he was (and still is).

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Yes, those are players on the ceiling…

But now my son is coaching university boys. And in a few weeks he’ll be a father of his own (he hopes) soccer player. So it’s time for the room to transform.

It feels like I’m ripping down his childhood.

Sometimes it feels like this when I’m revising a story. My carefully cut and pasted words get torn down so the fresh future can be realized.

Not easy to do.

But easier when there’s a baby on the way.

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Chilling your darlings

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I recently went to a weekend-long SCBWI conference (Wild Wild Midwest) that smacked my should’ve-had-a-V8 forehead. You can hear writing advice over and over sometimes before it really sinks in. This time it has sunk. It made me realize what was wrong with the beginning of my sisters novel (finally), and now that I’ve fixed that, I’m working on cleaning up the rest.

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The main smacker was Lisa Cron of Wired for Story fame. You can get a glimpse of her charisma in this TED talk. She has a new book coming out in August, but I couldn’t wait for that. I got her old one so I could get straight to work.

One of the things I’ve relearned is that if there’s something in the story that isn’t necessary, it needs to be cut ruthlessly.

I found an entire scene that I’ve kept in up until now just because I liked the mood of it. But it is not moving the story ahead at all, so it must be cut. And since it’s hard to accept that it will never see the light of day, I’m putting it up here (even though you have no idea who these characters are or what’s happening in the story). That’s how hard it is to throw out writing.

And now for your viewing pleasure (or not), here’s the cut scene from Home Is Where:

Rain has left the air fresh.

I’m so tired from my sleepless night, that I drift off to the swaying of the car.

When I wake up, something smells different. We’re not in town anymore. The house we’re approaching is tall and thin and it sticks up out of the landscape like Luna Lovegood’s house, only not so crookedly.

There are two old ladies inside who belong to us somehow. Sisters to each other. Maybe cousins to Grandma. Or maybe aunts. I search my memory for the odd names and finally remember–Lulujean and Maydell.

We don’t stay long. We enter the house in a museum-going way. Mom is acting like she found a lost locket, drinking in the faces of the live portraits before her. Stroking the old ladies’ hands like they’re bunny-soft.

One sister pats my shoulder. The other lifts Zoë’s hair with wonder, like it’s strands of golden necklaces.

Zoë stands still for once in her life.

            Remember? the sister says to the one near me right before we leave. Remember when we had hair like this?

 

Setting is key

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I’ve started work on a new book. With this one, the setting is so important to the story that I had to understand it well before I could begin writing the book.

I knew the story was going to take place in a Victorian house. As I researched, I learned that I was thinking more specifically of a Queen Anne style house. I searched the web for a house I could use as a touchstone. This one fulfilled the requirements of what I needed:

Victorian house sketch

The bottom floor of the tower will be my heroine’s bedroom.

I searched Pinterest to find floor plans that would work with the house so I had a clearer idea of how the interior might look to the characters…and how it might help develop the plot.

For additional building space on the property, what popped into my brain was a unique setting I had visited myself. The chauffeur’s quarters of the garage of a house museum will be the apartment of the heroine’s new friend.

I love old houses. I live in one.

house from river cropped

(The trees that are hiding my neighbors’ houses in this picture are no longer there, and we’ve added windows to the second story.)

Because this book will depend so much on the character of an old house, it will be even more of a joy to write.

 

 

The boy who never grew up

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From Peter Pan, by J.M. Barrie, illustrated by Flora White (Oxford University Press, 1914)

This summer I spent a couple of weeks visiting at my parents’ house. It’s the same one I grew up in from the time I was four. My mother has been trying to weed out books for the last few years, so it was finally time to decide which books we could bear to give away and which books were coming home in my suitcase.

This “Big Golden Book” of Disney’s version of Peter Pan was one that came home with me. Not because it’s a version I’ll spend time reading again, but because it’s a writing memento.

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Writers bring all their experiences in life to their work. I didn’t remember this particular book when I was writing Serendipity and Me, but my heart recognized it when I saw it again.

And I had to wonder about the influence it had on my novel that I didn’t even realize. My narrator, Sara, is supposed to play Wendy in her class’s production of Peter Pan. Throughout my book, there are references to this iconic story. It’s such a rich buffet to choose from. (Spoiler alert. The excerpt below gives something away. Scroll down quickly if you don’t want to know….)

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Illustration by Alice B. Woodward, from The Peter Pan Picture Book, 1907

The Big Golden Book was one of my first introductions to Peter Pan. Along with the Disney movie, there was the original Peter Pan in library hardback (with that evocative library smell) that I read when I was about 10. And I can’t count how many other references to Peter Pan I’ve experienced throughout my life. Hook is a special movie shared with my kids. Just last night, I saw a preview for a new Pan movie.

When I was finishing up copy edits of Serendipity, I searched for and found two copies of Peter Pan to buy. One was just a normal edition. One was an anniversary edition, illustrated by Michael Hague. The 100 year anniversary! That came out several years ago. Oh, to be like J.M. Barrie and write a book that lasts so well….IMG_1322

 

 

Playing while writing

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Writing can often feel like hard work. That’s because it is. But you can batter the joy out of your writing if you can’t also bring to it a sense of play.

"You need this pen, right? Here, let me help...."

“You need this pen, right? Here you go, I’ll just…oops.”

If you’ve followed this blog, you’ll know I’ve brought many revisions to a novel manuscript called Three Prayers. Sometimes I let it sit like a naughty child in the corner. Maybe an abandoned toy in the backyard would be a better metaphor, because I let it sit for months at a time. Sometimes I think I will give up and stop trying to rework it because selling it seems hopeless. But then I get drawn back.

I decided to play with it again last month.

"This is the best part!"

               “This is the best part!”

For some reason (who knows how my mind works), I thought I’d mess around with the point of view. Instead of having three different POV’s writing in third person past tense, what if I changed only one of the three to first person? And then I went further and changed that POV to first person present tense.

It seemed to be working, so I kept on. Although the story stayed the same, Liezel began to speak up in ways she hadn’t when she didn’t get to tell her own story. So even if this POV has to be changed back, I’ll have some new ways to write about Liezel.

Before I got too far with this new POV, I had others read several pages to see if it worked for them. Most weren’t bothered by the odd shift. And I was liking it. So I revised the whole novel with this new perspective. I’m still waiting to hear what my agent thinks of this revision. It was a lot of hard work. But it was still play time. And that’s always good.

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Simmering

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I’m starting to write a funny, slightly-romantic MG novel. It occurs to me that since my first two novels (unpublished) were also supposed to be funny and sort-of romantic, maybe this is a bad idea.

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On the island of Murano.

But it’s an idea that started a year and a half ago, was half-tried, discarded, and has come back around, fully formed. I take this to mean it’s an idea that wants to be written. And it’s an idea that’s been simmering, working itself out beneath my conscious mind.

It’s an idea whose time has come. I hope.

An idea that arose because of circumstance.

I just got back with my husband from a trip celebrating our 35th wedding anniversary. I took a similar trip with my little sister a year and a half ago, celebrating her new life. The first trip sparked the idea, the second trip fulfilled all the necessary research.

The first trip spawned a first page whose voice was–awful. Right before the second trip, I tried another voice. And suddenly, the book seemed like a do-able thing.

It’s nice to know my mind can work on it’s own without me bossing it around. And sometimes (always?), that’s the best way to write.

Writing update

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A writer's historical journey

A writer’s historical journey

In 2012, I wrote a post asking what I should work on next. I listed three possibilities of novels I’d already started. Two and a half years later, I’ve written 2 out of 3 of those novels. (By “written” I mean in a substantial enough form to send to publishers. I don’t mean they’re published. Or finished. Because once an editor has accepted one, there will be plenty of revision. Because I’m not Roald Dahl. Or whoever that writer is who manages to send in perfect manuscripts. I’m sure I heard there was one.)

I started with the historical novel. Managed to fix the middle and workshopped it with four of my writing friends. Rewrote it. Took it to a revision conference in California. Rewrote it. Meanwhile my agent sent it out in both forms. I got lots of interesting comments, including a publisher who wanted me to revise, but who has been silent since receiving the revision. An editor who’d shown interest at the California retreat decided the revision had too many coincidences. She didn’t say what those were. So THREE PRAYERS is back on the shelf, awaiting inspiration for another rewrite.

A shelf inside Liezel's house.

A shelf inside Liezel’s house.

I developed the soccer novel-in-verse into an entirely new book. It continued to get looks in this form, but several times was rejected because no one could believe that a boy who liked soccer would read poetry. I kept resisting the suggestion that I change it to prose. But with this last suggestion, the editor took the time to take out the line breaks and show what the first five pages would look like if the words stayed the same but the spacing was different.

Keyboard to screen, the beautiful game.

Keyboard to screen, the beautiful game.

Maybe if it had been the first time this suggestion was made, it wouldn’t have swayed me. But seeing the prose version on the page like that was helpful. And I was worn down. And finally convinced.

So I tried it. And I continued on, revising using her five single-space pages of suggestions for more development. And I’m happy to report that, barring a few tweaks after my final readers’ comments come in, I’ll soon be ready to hand this off to my agent.

Number one on that old list, THE OTHER JESSAMY, is languishing. I look at it and love it and have no idea where to go with it. Someday….

Meanwhile, I’m working on another novel-in-verse that began as a picture book. If this doesn’t sound familiar, I haven’t talked about this trend yet. (Note to self: post on this subject.)

This new MG novel-in-verse is tentatively titled, ZOE, HERSELF. It’s a story about sisters. Stay tuned….

 

 

Want to get published? Get to know this word: Persistence

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I’ve just gotten back from a wonderful children’s writers conference on Mackinac Island in Michigan. It’s magical there…my friend got her first glimpse of it after we walked onto Main Street from the ferry, and she said, “It’s just like downtown Disneyland.” And I said, “Except it’s real.” There are no cars on the streets. You travel by foot, or by bicycle, or by some kind of horse transportation. (Although in winter, I hear they use snowmobiles.) It’s a step back in time.

Mackinac Island shuttle

Mackinac Island shuttle

The conference was also a step back in time as I realized I was once again learning my craft and back to the wishing-and-waiting time of getting published. It’s been over three years since I had a book accepted for publication, and not for lack of submitting. I have two novels going the rounds, along with numerous picture books. It feels like an impossible road to travel with no idea what will come next. With no idea whether publication is once again an impossible dream.

Road along Mackinac Island shoreline

Road along Mackinac Island shoreline

But I didn’t get where I am for lack of trying. It took about 25 years of submissions before I finally broke into the world of fiction publishing. Not a drop in the bucket. So I’m well-versed in how to do this wishing-and-waiting thing. Fortunately, I have a longer lifespan than a butterfly’s.

In the Butterfly House on Mackinac Island

In the Butterfly House on Mackinac Island

Hopefully, I still have enough time to wait. And it’s not going to break me to keep trying. Not like some thiings might.

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The problem with getting a novel published…

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The problem with getting a novel published, finally, is you can’t revise it anymore. There comes a time when the editor says, “Okay, that’s it. Off to the printer.” And everything you might want to change that you haven’t thought of yet will never get changed. That’s it, baby. You are finished.

 

Serendipity & Me, Viking, 2013

Serendipity & Me, Viking, 2013

The kitten that arrived months after my kitten novel was released really brings home this point. I wrote that novel based on many memories of ghosts of Cats-mas past, plus the ones that lived with me at the time. But it had been a few years since any of them were kittens.

Three of the four cats at the time...

Three of the four cats at the time…

This new kitten not only brought the essence of kitten-ness much closer, but she is such a wild child that the kitten in the book could have been so much more….I hesitate to fill in that blank. Because I love my fictional kitten Serendipity. But my new kitten (now almost a cat) Katniss, well. Let me give you an example.

If I can just squeeze in here...

If I can just squeeze in here…

...a little more...

…a little more…

Ta dah!

Ta dah!

What are YOU lookin' at?

What are YOU lookin’ at?

This isn’t even a very good example. It’s just the only one I was able to get semi-action pictures of. (Although you can see a video of Katniss rescuing her stuffed mammoth from the top of a dresser on my Facebook page here.)

Katniss is like no other cat I’ve ever known. She carries stuffed animals half her size around in her mouth, drags them upstairs and down. She has this strange motion when she’s drinking water from a cup–left paw to the right lower side of the cup, batting at who knows what. She’s quite adept at catching flies between her two paws. And apparently her dream is to fly, evidenced by the height to which she jumps whenever the mood takes her.

So now I have the perfect cat to base an intriguing cat character on.  But unfortunately, that novel ship has already sailed.

Or maybe another novel about a cat isn’t too much…?

You talkin' about me?

You talkin’ about me?

 

 

 

 

Beyond the novel-in-verse: Other ways to use poetry in fiction

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Writing a novel-in-verse is easier for me than writing straight prose simply because poetry is the natural way I express myself. It’s my go-to form. It’s where I feel most comfortable. So it makes sense that the first novel I got published was a novel-in-verse, even though I’d written several “normal” novels before that.

But verse novels are just one way to use poetry to help tell a story. There are other ways.

One is by using a poem you’ve written as a prompt. This is how I came to write my first picture book.

Published in Moody Monthly, July/August 1989

Published in Moody Monthly, July/August 1989

I changed the age of the narrator of this poem, expanded the moment into a day, and came up with an entirely different telling of the same story. That’s how Cups Held Out was born.

Another way to use poetry to help tell the story is by interspersing it with the prose. Elizabeth Wein did this in her novel, Rose under Fire. She is such an amazing writer of prose that, for some reason, I wasn’t expecting her to be equally as amazing in her poetry. Shouldn’t there be some kind of trade-off? But no, her poetry floored me as well.

Often a poem that captures the essence of the story is put in front of the novel. This is what I’m attempting to do with the sonnet at the beginning of my novel-in-progress, Three Prayers.

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Using poetic elements (such as metaphors, similes, alliteration, repetition) in a story almost always makes the prose better. Here’s an example from Goodnight, Dragons.

similes, repetition, rhythm

similes, repetition, rhythm

Many years ago, I wrote a novel with a narrator’s voice some readers found unlikeable. Trying to fix the voice, I used the exercise of writing the novel in verse instead. It changed the voice entirely, made the narrator not only more likeable, but touching. And in changing the voice, it has changed the story. Unfortunately, I no longer know how the story ends, but I’ll get there eventually.

Poetry will take me there.