how we write

Revision time for Hugging the Rock

Right on schedule, my revision letter for Hugging the Rock arrived in my in-box yesterday afternoon. I read the subject line, opened it quickly to confirm that it was all about the revision process, and promptly closed it again. This was crazy. I already knew that my editor loved the book. I mean she bought the  book so she must love it, right? But this was going to be all about changes, about changes that I might not agree with, about making my book a part of the Tricycle family, about taking it (I hope) to the next level from good to great.

What if I didn’t agree with her? What if I couldn’t do what she asked me to do? And, of course because I am paranoid worry-wart at times, what if they changed their mind and canceled the whole thing? Go ahead, laugh with me. All together now.

All those thoughts went through my head in a matter of seconds, but they were there just the same. More and more as I go through the publication process with this novel I realize the very obvious fact, a picture book is nothing like a novel. I’ve sold books before, to the trade market and to the educational market. I’ve been edited before. I feel like I’ve been in the business long enough to call myself a professional. I’ve sold 23 books between the trade and educational market and hundreds of articles. But this novel,  (put your coffee down so you don’t spill it) this makes me feel like a REAL writer.

I’ve tried to pinpoint the various reasons I feel this way. Some of it is the fact that it is a novel and while I have sold novels before, it was nearly 20 years ago and the scenario was nothing like this one. Some of it is that the story is the most emotional that I have ever written. A lot of it is the editing. I have been lucky in that my picture books have been only lightly edited. My educational books less so, except for the last one on Robert Smalls. But there we didn’t really edit for plot because it was a true story based on a true event. We edited for content and to fit the structure of the series. My articles are edited but I have no input in it. I write them, send them in and they are edited and fact checked and I don’t see them again until they appear in print. But this is going to be very different. My editor and I really are a team working to create the best book possible. I understand now why writers extol their editors on the acknowledgments page of their books. I understand now when friends talk about how they had a great editor for such and such a book but a not so great editor for the next one. Because a good editor makes you think and guides your way to a better book.

Once I got past the initial apprehension I opened her email and read her comments. That she started off the mail praising me and the book went a long way toward helping me relax. (Hey, I’m very susceptible to praise, chocolate, a good margarita, and a foot massage.) Then I opened the attachment and scanned the first few pages. Okay. I can do this. I think. I printed out the whole book, curled up in the middle of the bed and read through. There were comments on just about every page but some of them were just kind words on the text. At the end of a 147 page book of poems there were 135 comments. Gulp. I have a little over 5 weeks to get the first revision done if we are going to keep to our somewhat aggressive schedule. On a first pass I have to say that I understood most of her comments. Not necesarily how to fix things, but I think I understand what what wants done. And I agree with her. I had to check in with myself several times to make sure that I wasn’t just agreeing for the sake of agreeing but I think I’m okay with things.

There are some changes that aren’t worth fighting for. Example, in one scene the grandmother comes to visit and when the MC won’t eat her peas, the grandmother won’t pass her any more roast beef and eventually sends the MC to her room. My editor didn’t think that rang true or that anyone would withhold protein from a child. I’m okay with redoing the scene and getting my point across a different way (not sure how yet) even though I spent many a night staring at peas I wouldn’t eat on my plate and wishing for another helping of meat that my own grandmother wouldn’t give me until I ate the damn peas (which I never did). We all know that just because it really happened doesn’t mean it belongs in a book or will work in a book. Many of the changes are subtle, the sorts of things that writers miss because we are so close to the words and the story in the midst of writing it. There are things she asked for that will, I am sure, deepen the relationships in the book and thereby strengthen the story. There are some changes that scare me only because I don’t know how I will do it. Mostly the beginning where I knew there would be changes because it was one of those things that had been on my mind ever since she bought the book. So while I can agree with what she thinks needs to be done, at the moment I can’t see how to do it. That’s okay. There needs to be sufficient moodling around time with the ideas before I sit down to actually write.

There are some things where I slap my head and go, “duh!” but I realize that this is the editor’s gift, the ability to pull out individual story threads and ask me to restitch them between the pages, making a story that is not only stronger, and more authentic, but even more resembles the story I wanted to tell.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005|Categories: Writing Process|Tags: , , |19 Comments

Turnaround Tuesday

Today is going to be better than yesterday. I so deem it or is that supposed to be I deem it so? Lack of sleep notwithstanding, of course. Yawn.

In non-writing news we went to go visit my brother-in-law’s brand new 6 week old puppy (German Shepherd). Poor guy had ordered one from a breeder back east who, at the last minute, decided to sell the pup to someone else. Luckily he found a more local breeder and picked his new baby (still nameless) up this weekend. She’s adorable but I’m reminded of how much work a new puppy is (kinda like a new baby). Before we went over there I thought I would come home with puppy envy and want to get another pup right away (which is silly because Chelsie, the current dog in residence – would not tolerate another dog in the house at all and she still has many years with us.) Anyway, it was good to know that neither my husband nor I had any desire for a pup. More dogs, yes, but when Chelsie is gone we both prefer the idea of a rescue dog or two.

I can link this to writing, really, because I am trying to figure out what kind of dog Max might be. I thought I knew but now I’m not so sure. I will have to go look at rescue dogs online and try and figure it out. I started mapping out Frankie’s neighborhood yesterday, figuring out what streets would be normal for him to run around on. Since this is based in a real town I went looking for landmarks and got all excited when I found a low-income housing project right in the area. It was perfect. But then the more I read about it the more I learned how much trouble the area was having with gangs and now I don’t know if I want or should use it. This book is writing itself in a completely different way than anything else. I’ve never done so much thinking ahead of time, I’ve usually just plunged in and wrote but I am still in that limbo-land knowing I have to do the Hugging the Rock revisions soon. (The revision letter is due today – we’ll see.) But the thinking is good. I’ve been able to discard a bunch of stuff plot-wise that either doesn’t work or doesn’t interest me and hopefully I have primed the subconscious pump to be working in the background. Time will tell.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005|Categories: Writing Process|Tags: , , , |0 Comments

Does your writing scare you?

Because the topic of my current WIP is less than pleasant and deals with some not very nice things happening to some pretty nice kids, well, it’s hard to write. I’ve always had a difficult time putting my characters into peril for a scene or two but this story feels like I am on a runaway train. I don’t even know anyone that has had these sorts of things happen to them so I don’t know where Frankie and his story comes from. I worry, as many writers do, that people (non-writers) will think the story is about my life. I worry, as many writers also do, that I won’t do the story justice.

To pump myself up I’ve been rereading some of my past writings about fear and emotional honesty in our writing. For me at least the two seem to go hand in hand. When I do it right – when I dismiss the editor on my shoulder and silence the critical voices in my head, when I shut my eyes, open my heart and let myself feel EVERYTHING, when I peel back the skin of the story and write with emotional honesty -writing scares the hell out of me. Everything I think and feel is right out there in the open for the world to see and that’s a terrifying and often paralyzing thought. But that’s what good writing does, splits you wide open and spills you into the world covered in nothing but guts and raw emotion.

I have to remind myself of this all the time, that my voice comes from honest emotion. But it’s hard. Excruciatingly hard. Because once the words are out there for the world to see people will make judgements about the person behind the words. They can’t help it and that fact intimidates a lot of writers (like me) to the point that much of what they write comes out sounding unbelievable.

So how does a writer do it? How do you move beyond playing it safe with your writing and move to new ground? Is it a matter of guts? Of instinct? Of a writing group with a really good cattle prod? Do you tie yourself in the chair and not let your spouse untie you until you’ve completed a certain number of pages? Lately it seems the more I try NOT to do it the more the fear and emotion come gushing forth. I wake up in the middle of the night, my heart pounding, and I realize it is because I saw Frankie and I knew what was going to happen to him, and knew there wasn’t a thing I could do to help him.

When I teach, I encourage my students to tap into their own emotional experiences and then channel that emotion into their stories. I try to do the same with my own work. My middle grade novel, Hugging the Rock, didn’t really come to life until I let myself feel the true depth of negative emotions I still carry about growing up without a father. The novel isn’t about that, it’s about a girl who stays with her father after a divorce and how the two of them build a new relationship together. But I allowed the pain of not having a father during those growing-up years to surface and then poured that emotion into the main character’s feelings about her mother during the divorce. I relived the longing for a father and the uncertainty of what having a father meant and used those emotions to fuel my character as she worked through her own new relationship with her father. The result? A character you can care about. A story that makes people cry because of the honest emotion. A book that people tell me rings true. Was it easy? No way. Was it worth it? Absolutely.

What can I tap into this time? The same pain, yes, but Frankie’s pain is different. His pain comes from a pain of only wanted to be loved and not understanding why the people who were supposed to love him hurt him instead. His pain comes from a feeling of helplessness that he doesn’t have the power to change his life. His pain comes from the belief that somehow he deserves all the bad things that are happening for him. When I see it listed out like that of course I know just what I have to tap into to tell the story but boy, I don’t want to go back to that dark place. It’s like standing outside the door to a cage and you know the monster is in the cage and you know you have to get into the cage and face the monster.

All creating, writing or music or art, all creative work demands courage from the creator. In order to write believable fiction we often have to be willing to bleed on paper. Go ahead and let yourself be scared. Let yourself feel every emotion – the pain, the anger, the longing, the laughter, the love. Let it bubble up until it boils over and then pour it into your writing. Rollo May, in his book Courage to Create, says, “If you do not express your own original ideas, if you do not listen to your own being, you will have betrayed yourself. Also, you will have betrayed your community in failing to make your contribution.” Because of who you are and what you have experience, there are stories only you can tell. Feel the fear, dig deep and start writing.

Here I go – into the cage.

Wednesday, September 14, 2005|Categories: Writing Process|Tags: , , , , , , , |12 Comments

Writing from life, even when you don't want to

Maybe it seems wrong in the face of all that is going on in the wake of Katrina to even think about writing and the writing business but that’s what I am doing, trying to find a path to normalcy because the alternative is nearly too much too bear.

I’ve been silent for a week for a variety of reasons. Busy? Yes. Major overhaul on the office is still going on which in turn puts a major overhaul on the rest of the house. Day-job? Sure. After a 6-day weekend my workload is a tad overwhelming at the moment. I’ve also been working on publicity for my picture book coming out next month (Oliver’s Must-Do List) and will probably spend a lot of time across the long weekend working on that sort of thing.

But mostly it has been a thinking time. I’m thinking a lot about my new book project which has a lot, well, icky stuff going on in it. Bad stuff happening to a good kid. I’m doing some writing but mostly jotting down thoughts and thinking about plot and structure and having to research things a bit. But the icky stuff has to come first. It’s the day that is different. It sets the story in motion. And I don’t want to write it. Instead I clean house and putz and play with the dog.

And, this week, I watch TV for news of Katrina’s devastation, most especially to the city of New Orleans, a place I once lived but never called home.

New Orleans was never a part of my master plan. I landed there due to a series of poor choices on my part. Looking back, remembering, reliving the pain of those three years in New Orleans is not pretty. It’s not something I want to do, especially right now, but every news report triggers a memory. Every photograph I see online is replaced with an image in my mind of my time in the Big Easy (which was anything but.)  As a result, many emotions I have been trying not to feel about a time I want to forget from a place that is unforgettable, are pouring out of me. I am writing it all down, letting myself remember everything about New Orleans, the good and the bad, though it is much too long to post here.

I hope there is a catharsis at the end of it all. One never knows when you cut yourself open on purpose, if the bleeding will ever stop or if it will just keep on flowing and become something else you just learn to live with.

Friday, September 2, 2005|Categories: Writing Life|Tags: , , , , |10 Comments

Dreaming our writing

One of the things I believe is most important in our writing is to write with emotional honesty. For me that means finding something in my own life that somehow will connect itself with the main character so I can use my emotion to fuel the character emotion. I’m not talking about an exact match in the event that causes the emotion but a matching emotion that can drive more events. So far it’s missing in Frankie’s story which means I think about it a lot. For me the emotional connection between my life and my character’s life makes the difference between a book with voice and just a bunch of words on the page.

I read a recent interview with Deborah Wiles that she did for The Institute of Children’s Literature. In it she said, “When I say I start with a voice, I think I’m also saying that I start with a feeling. And that’s how it works for me that I get my life into stories. It’s a voice, yes, but it’s really a feeling that I want to make manifest, if that makes any sense. I don’t even understand it myself all that well. I just know that when something is bothering me, or making me particularly joyful, it can find a voice in story.”

That resonates with me, most especially with Frankie. I know he is in pain and I know he hasn’t had an easy life. I don’t know the details but I know that he doesn’t believe his life can be anything different than what it is right now and that somehow it is my job to help him think differently. I try to use my dreams as a way to help me with my writing. I often give myself a sleep suggestion to let my subconscious work while I rest. Of late it has been the same suggestion: “tell me more about Frankie and his story.” Most mornings I wake up and remember very few dreams but sometimes they are vivid like one I had just the other night.

In my dream I went to answer the front door and there was a man there, kind of old, his short beard was gray but he had some black hair on his head. He wore a bit a suit that had seen better days. He handed me a box, a white box, like one you might get clothes in or a little bigger. It was tied with string, not a ribbon. I asked him what was in the box. He shook his head. I asked him again to please tell me what was in the box. Nothing. I don’t know why I didn’t just open it myself but I didn’t. Then he walked away. I asked him to wait. He kept walking.  Then I asked him who he was. He turned around and said, “I am your father.” And then I woke up. And I have NO idea what was in the box.

No, this is not a Star Wars connection. I haven’t seen that movie since it came out and am not a big fan. And here’s the thing, I don’t know my own father. I’ve never met my dad or anyone in his family. In my 47 years I’ve only seen the few wedding pictures of him from when he was a gawky 18-year-old in a white suite. He was gone before I was born and I have heard little about him. What little I did hear wasn’t good. In fact, it was so bad that back in elementary school when someone asked me if I was Tommy Webb’s daughter I automatically said no, so conditioned was I to hiding the truth.

So it is odd and maybe a bit scary to think that my father, who never paid a dime of child support, might give me a gift, perhaps even what I need. And it is sad to think I don’t know what is in the box.

Saturday, August 20, 2005|Categories: Writing Life|Tags: , , , , , , |10 Comments

The doubting writer

You’d think that by now I would be used to the fact that my writing path is always filled with doubts of one kind or another, but no, each time I hit a hill of doubt I’m caught off-guard. Once I am deep into a project the doubt usually (but not always) fades away. In the early stages of a project the doubts attack me like highwaymen hidden in the dark woods waiting to steal my treasures. I think the hardest part of it all for me is trusting myself enough to know when I am on the right path, the mostly right path, the path likely to lead to the right path or the path headed directly for a dead-end. It should come as no great surprise that I have the same issues in many other areas of my life but it is the writing doubt that bothers me most of all, perhaps because the writing, because BEING a writer, matters so much to me. Whenever I do something that my “inner me” considers wrong or a bad choice, I hear a lengthy diatribe that starts with something like “I told you so” and ends with something along the lines of “why don’t you just give up now.”  Sigh. Not that I intend to give up or give in to the “inner me” at all. This whole inner lecture can take place in a minute or two but boy, the impact can last quite a while.

My current doubt centers around my choice of project to work on. I’m still waiting for the revision letter for Hugging the Rock so I have time to get to work on something new. It shouldn’t be a problem as I have many projects in various stages all waiting for my attention. And even if one of those didn’t appeal to me, ideas are not usually an issue for me.

There was an interesting post which was an offshoot of another post from about the concept that every writer starts off being able to do one thing well, one free card you don’t have to work for. I won’t repeat the whole conversation here here since you can go read their posts for all the juicy details but I decided that ideas was my free card. I’m working on characters and voice, plot still eludes me, and theme always has to tap me on the shoulder when I am done to remind me that it needs to be included. But ideas, they are constant for me. So I took at look at 7 of my projects in various stages and picked another verse novel to work on. It was the least together of them all, only a handful of poems, a hurting character, a setting, and not much more. Nothing recognizable as plot. I was drawn to the character, wanting to save him or at least point him in the right direction away from the pain. But now . . .

It’s going nowhere. I mean nowhere. I can deal with a crummy first draft (second and third drafts even) but I don’t think I’m feeling Frankie as strongly as I THINK I should. I don’t know if I have his voice or if what I have IS his voice or if his voice is even one worth listening to. I don’t know what happens next, but that’s okay, to be expected even. Most of all, I don’t know if this is the right time to tell this story or if I should just force myself to keep going even when I feel like I am driving with a flat tire. I could pick up my YA instead. I know the story. It’s all written and “just” needs to be revised for about the 20th time. I could pick up any one of several MG novels that I have started and then stopped somewhere after chapter 4 or 5. I am not feeling obsessed by any one story more than another at the moment which is what makes it most difficult. The obsession phase is important to my creative process but it is difficult to attain when there are so many other non-writing things that want my time, like the darned day job, cleaning house, and sleep, just to name a few.

I am filled with doubts so I will probably do nothing for a while (which then inspires great guilt) and hope for the best. Sigh.

Wednesday, August 17, 2005|Categories: Writing Life|Tags: , , , , |5 Comments

Ideas come at the darndest times

I worked late, again, which meant I was driving home later than usual, which means traffic. While I drove I let my mind wander, knowing that I needed some good thinking time to figure out what is going on with MTLB (my WIP). I’m trying to figure out where a good thinking place would be because other than the drives through the backroads on the way to Santa Cruz, I’m fresh out of thinking spots. The doctor told me no walking the dog until my knee heals. I don’t think my husband, as supportive as he is, would agree to just drive back and forth through the woods for a few hours every night so I could think. But this book is new. It needs lots of thinking time. Traffic got worse. Cars slowed down. Slower still. I inched along waiting to merge into the metering lane which would merge into another metering lane and then it happened. One idea popped into my head. Then another. I couldn’t reach for a pen, not in that traffic. I couldn’t reach my phone to call home and leave a message for myself (yes, I do this sometimes if I’m afraid I might forget). So I started repeating the few lines to myself over and over again, like I wanted to remember them for a play. I didn’t want to forget a single word.

Frankie (my MC) tells me this is VERY IMPORTANT STUFF. I mutter to myself. I merge. I keep muttering. Merge again. Add a couple more sentences. Mutter louder. Harder to remember them all now. I never was any good in drama class. 4 lane freeway, at last. I drive faster. Frankie talks faster, like he’s afraid he won’t have enough time to get it all out. I accidentally hit my horn and tick off the guy in the white truck next to me. My heart is beating like crazy so I know this is good. I can’t wait to get home and write. I can see the entire scene unfolding and Frankie is screaming  “no no no” in my ear. I miss my turnoff so I have to get off at the next exit and make a U-turn. Frankie is still yammering at me but I don’t want to tell him to slow down because he might run away again. He does that a lot. Finally I pull into the driveway and shoo the squirrels out of my way as I race into the house, throw open the back door for the dog and grab a pen and my tablet.

As fast as I can I write it all down. Every single word. I reread it once then twice. Suddenly I’m the one screaming “no no no” in my own head because Frankie is nowhere around and he left out a few important pieces of information.

Was it the little girl or the dog?

Thursday, August 11, 2005|Categories: Writing Process|Tags: , , , , |0 Comments

What you "give" to your book

Each time I start a new book I am a bit amazed that, a) I ever completed one in the first place  and b) that I will ever be able to do it again. Before I pick the next project I dance around my ideas for days, weeks (okay months) and I worry because a character isn’t talking to me or I don’t know what will happen next or I don’t even know how to start. That’s where I am now. I know the form is another middle grade verse novel. I have a character but he keeps things locked up inside of himself pretty well. I don’t blame him. He hasn’t had an easy time of it lately. I did some research about some of the things I think the book will deal with, waiting for ideas to surface but mostly what I know now is what not to use. So I am drifting in that in-between time being obsessed with the story and not-knowing what to write. And then I remembered that in the beginning I really AM in charge and I can give things to my characters, give things to the story. They might throw them out later but that’s okay. As the author it’s my duty to give the first gift. If the gift is rejected, the character will usually offer something to me in exchange. And so it begins.

Wednesday, August 10, 2005|Categories: Writing Process|Tags: , , , |8 Comments

Exhausted – the pattern of three

Writers should not have to do math. Ever. Today was a 12 hour work day of wrestling with numbers and the goofy computer program and everyone who is sure that whatever the problem is is really someone else’s fault. Tomorrow is more of the same. And the next. Because it is that horrible time in the corporate world called “end of the quarter.” Any time I had a chance to catch my breath today I tried to find a way to link something I was doing to writing. It was tough. I was dealing with money. Money to the writer-me meant it was still three months until my next royalty statement. I tried to think about the WIP but instead I had to calculate the extended prices of pogo blocks and wonder why three different reports gave me three different answers. I tried to come up with a name for a character in another WIP and all I managed was to confirm the name needed three syllables.

Aha! And I remembered the pattern of three. That basic core patten that goes back to the Three Little Pigs, The Three Bears, Three Blind Mice. I’m sure you can go on and name some more. Kids like the pattern of three. They like the feeling of knowing what is coming next or THAT something should come next. It makes them feel like they are reading even before they can read. The predictability is comforting to them.

As for me, I’ll take comfort that back at work tomorrow, 2+2 will still make four. I hope.

Monday, August 1, 2005|Categories: Writing Process|Tags: , |5 Comments