Monday, November 30, 2009

It’s a small world at Mid-Atlantic SCBWI Fall Conference

The conference has a very homey, small world feel. The fact you’re jammed into a church assembly hall doesn’t detract from the warm, friendly atmosphere. Everyone is so friendly, like we all came from the same hometown. You could strike up a conversation with anyone – a fellow aspiring author or illustrator, an agent or even a famous writer. The organizers go out of their way to assure you are as comfortable as possible, like you are an invited houseguest.

But for me it was a small world in many other ways.

I met the local chair for SBWI. A new position, our area has finally gotten enough members to warrant a chairperson. Turns out I had met her before at the school where I teach. I am her daughter’s art teacher. Small world.

Ran into my old friend Caroline who lives just 45 minutes down the road from me. I have known her for twenty plus years but we seldom see each other. I had been expecting to see her there. Only recently had we discovered we both were writing for children. Small world.

Caroline introduced me to one of her critique group members. Christa is a scratchboard artist and lives in my hometown of Williamsburg. I mentioned to her I was about to do some scratchboard art with my fifth graders. I asked her if she might be interested in coming to do a workshop for us. Small world.

As a volunteer for the book signing committee I was assigned to help Patricia R. Giff. This Newberry Honor Award author is one of the most personable people I have ever met. We had barely gotten started when I explained to her that I had never done anything like this before. She assured me I was doing fine. After switching seats, turns out she is left-handed, we got into a groove. It wasn’t long before she said to me, “Are you sure you’ve never done this before?” Each and every person who came up to the table got her undivided attention. She took her time and made you feel like she was ready to sit down and have tea with you. A wonderful experience, one I’m not likely to forget. Again, it left me feeling like it was a small world.

By the end of the conference I felt like part of a community who shared aspirations, triumphs and low points. I highly recommend this conference for the feeling of camaraderie, the injection of inspiration and for the great contacts you make.

I never expected that the children’s writing community would have such a small world feel.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

What a difference a day makes

I woke up this morning feeling better than I had in three days. I showered. I put on my brand-new NaNoWriMo Writing Machine t-shirt. I put my butt in the chair. And I made myself stay there. Mostly.

I worked on my novel. I talked to Alison on the phone. I wrote a thousand words. I read and sent some emails. (Thanks, Lisa, for the cheerleading!) Another eight hundred. I took a lunch break. I wrote twelve hundred more words. I took a half hour to walk the dog and meet the new neighbor, because I cannot sit in a chair all day and the weather was beautiful. But I kept coming back to the chair. I kept forcing myself to close the Internet windows and open the Word document titled, "NaNoWriMo 2009." I just wanted to be done already.

And I finished! I pushed through, so I could finish today and actually enjoy some of what's left of my weekend. And let me tell you, the joy of seeing the "winner" screen was so worth it. Jumping up and down and shouting worth it.

If I can do it, you can do it. Any of you who are still pushing to finish, you can do it! And thanks, everyone, for all the support. I couldn't have gotten here without you.

Let the editing begin! (Well, not right away. I need to actually finish the story and then let it percolate. You know. But trust me. There will be editing.)

Friday, November 27, 2009

This is really bad

The NaNoWriMo, I mean. I've been kind of sick the past two days. I slept through most of Thanksgiving. Fortunately we had already planned a quiet dinner at home, so my being sick didn't affect anyone's holiday outside of mine and my husband's.

But I didn't get anything written yesterday. And I want to finish. Or die trying. So today, in between naps, I wrote 3000 words. And they suck. I tried changing POV to another character, but that's not really working. I haven't thought enough about her to make her sound any different from the MC most of the time. So I switched back. Thank goodness no one is going to read this draft!

So now, I have to write at least 2107 words a day for the next three days. Two weeks ago that would have been a lot easier. I'm running out of scenes in my head. The editor in me wants to go back and flesh out scenes that already exist, but I'm not sure I can rack up the word count that way. My ten year old MC has a love interest, so there's some potential there, but have you ever had a conversation with a ten year old boy? They don't say much.

All right, I'm done venting. Just wanted to leave a progress report. Anyone else care to share how they're doing on this last weekend of NaNoWriMo?

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

And one for the picture book people

On our way from the airport to Concord we took a couple of hours to walk around Boston. We stopped by the Public Garden long enough to visit the famous sculpture based on Robert McCloskey's Make Way For Ducklings.

I checked the book out of the library today, because it had been such a long time since I read it. I had forgotten the illustrations of the pond and bridge. They look a lot like my own photo. How cool is that? We saw plenty of real ducks and geese too, which were the original inspiration for the story.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Concord as inspiration

I was in Concord, Massachusetts over the weekend attending my cousin's wedding. All month I've been trying to stay ahead on NaNoWriMo so that I didn't have to worry about it on the trip. I brought my computer anyway, just in case I had some time to write. I wrote about 600 words in all the five days we were there.

In Concord, however, you can't help but think about writing. It smacks you in the face pretty much everywhere you go. One of the things I most wanted to do during our non-family time there was visit Orchard House, where Louisa May Alcott lived while she wrote Little Women, and where the story is set. It is plainer than many of the nearby houses, but boy, you can see where the inspiration came from. The Alcott family moved around a lot, and didn't live there until Louisa was an adult. Her sister Elizabeth, on whom the character of Beth was based, had already died. But Louisa's room, full of light and books and a writing desk her father built, was just as you'd imagine it to be. And her sister May, on whom Amy is based, had a room decorated with her drawings and paintings. In fact, they adorn the whole house. She even drew sketches on the walls, which are still there today. It was a pleasure to hear about the real lives on which that book was based, and the tour guide had a passion for telling us about every detail.

I was commenting to my husband that I should consider Little Women for the girls' book group at the library. After all, I said, we try to do some classics, and we are going to read The Secret Garden this spring. The guide overheard and showed me a group photo of a women's luncheon that Louisa May Alcott attended. Also in the photo: Frances Hodgson Burnett. I had no idea they knew one another!

After the tour, we visited the local library, which was just about the most beautiful public library I've seen. The librarian I met was very friendly and welcoming, and showed me all the drawings they've received from children's illustrators. I stared up in wonder at the two levels of balconies surrounding the largest room in the center of the library. The special collections room, with its rare editions of local authors Thoreau and Emerson, as well as Alcott, made me feel a reverence, like stepping into a church.

On Sunday, after all the family festivities were over, we took a walk around Walden Pond. It's larger than I'd imagined. And while we were there, even my husband said that it inspired him to write. So now, I've recharged my imagination and am ready to revisit my NaNo.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

I love it when this happens

Yes, I will get down to working on NaNo soon. It's been a busy week, and though I haven't written as much as I should, I have written, which is good. Yay, me!

So, I picked up a YA book at the library this week. I'd read the author's previous book- a retelling of a fairy tale I adore- and hadn't been entirely pleased with it. She had re-imagined it beautifully, bringing out so many wonderful aspects of the story. She added a culture and history and way cool stuff. (Note my precise language, there.)

But the tone was wonky- to me, at least. The dialog seemed modern, the cadence of the narration choppy.

I was not happy.

Now, don't get me wrong. I never threw the book down and wondered why it got published when I here I was with a fairy tale novel that was half re-written, with it's own blotchy tone, and a still-to-be-resolved plot line... hey, wait.... I mean, brilliant book of my own.

I was disappointed, though. Her re-imagining had captured me, and I was peeved that the tone (in my opinion) didn't serve that re-imagining.

But her new book? The book about another one of my favorite fairy tales? Lovely! It read like a fairy tale. A few rough patches, but still great.

I was so jazzed for her. Can't wait to read the next one.

Now since I'm hijacking the blog to write about improving authors (when I should share conference notes- just remembered that), please join me. I'd rather not feel alone and self conscious. Are there any authors that you've seen grow? Or any that- like Athena springing fully grown from Zeus' head- seem marvelous from the very begining?

I'd love to know.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Happy Birthday! Or Anniversary. Or something.

Today we are one year old. The Slushbusters blog, that is. The Slushbusters as the group we now have are roughly a year older than that, although some of us have been part of this critique group for even longer. And we came up with our name in April of 2008, immediately following our first group road trip to an SCBWI event.

Anyway, it's the birthday of the blog. And I wanted to acknowledge it. Imagine me typing this while wearing a party hat and blowing on one of those horn things that unroll the crazy paper tube. (What are those called anyway?)

I propose a toast. To our friends, both the ones we started this journey with, and the many of you we've met out here in the blogosphere. We've been lucky to find you. Thanks for coming to the party.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Tension Headache Rx

Presentation at the Mid-Atlantic SCBWI Fall Conference

Getting up a 4:30 in the morning on the weekend for me is akin to jumping into cold water. You don’t much like it at first but you can acclimate. I did that this past weekend in order to attend the SCBWI conference in the D.C. area for the day. Well worth it! Inspirational speakers, excellent presenters and panel discussions one right after another. Here is a sampling of one of the presentations.

Linda Pratt, a literary agent with Sheldon Fogelman, spoke about tension in children’s literature. She informed us that current market conditions prescribe tension. Her recommendations were individualized for picture books and novels.

Trying to implicitly teach is the biggest pitfall an author can make with a picture book. The learning must be disguised as fun. Not having a beginning, middle and end, especially if there is not something at stake, is another pitfall. Her prescription for adding tension was two-fold. One, less text is more. The illustrations and text should NOT be able to stand-alone. Second, master the art of the page-turner. This can highlight the tension.

She also pointed out a few pitfalls in novels concerning tension. Don’t overprotect your characters. Look for opportunities for them to get hurt, either physically or emotionally. Another is not to confuse action with tension. Driving down the road is not tension. She added that the reader must be emotionally invested in the characters to feel tension. Her recommendations for creating more tension are: chart your character arcs and embrace character flaws. On the first point, you want to be sure each of your characters changes over the course of the novel. If he or she doesn’t change, play the “what if” game. Throw out different scenarios and see what comes of it. As far as character flaws go she suggests that you give them flaws you personally don’t like. Make a list of things you like and dislike about your characters.

What I found made a lot of sense was to not overprotect your characters. It makes sense that a little pain would create tension. The idea of giving flaws to your characters seems like it would add conflict to your story too.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Halfway there

It's been a productive week. On Monday I went to the YA committee meeting for the library and heard about a whole bunch of wonderful books I now want to read.

Tuesday was Fran's author visit. If anyone out there is thinking about inviting Fran to your school or library, she's wonderful. She has the rare ability to engage an audience of adults and children, keeping everyone interested in what she has to say. Lots of the girls from our book group came, and it was a big deal for them to talk to a real author and find out that she was once a kid who equated being an author with being a superhero.

I spent Wednesday in the company of the entire staff of the regional library system, learning ways the library can better serve the community.

Yesterday I hit the halfway mark of my NaNoWriMo word count.

Today I hit a wall. I was so tired that I overslept, and probably need to eat something and go straight to work after I finish this post. I won't be writing 2000 words this morning.

NaNoWriMo saw that wall coming. They periodically send out emails from well-known authors. This morning I had an email from Maureen Johnson. If you haven't read her, and you're a YA author, give her a try. I loved 13 Little Blue Envelopes. She addressed the issue of middles, and the vast wilderness that exists there. I feel better. And I have a whole weekend to wander that wilderness.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

More is Less

Since Sarah started it, I'm happy to continue the discussion about REVISION. (Somehow, it merits all caps.)

I am deep into revisions right now and it seems the more I write, the more I cut. And the characters and story get stronger the more I carve away from them. The funny thing is, whenever I cut entire pages or multiple paragraphs from a chapter, replacing them with one or two sentences, the Slushies always comment about how they like that I've included MORE description or explaination or history in this version of the chapter.

I look back at the earlier version and find that yes, indeed, I have taken three paragraphs and reduced them to one sentence, and lo and behold, my critiquers tell me I've added something.

What that tells me is that I've clarified. I've eliminated what doesn't need to be there and reduced the important stuff to its very essence. It tells me that my writing is getting better.

Good, because I don't know how many more revisions I can do. This is tough stuff.

Monday, November 9, 2009

An author visit, a new friend, and art

Local 2k9 author Fran Cannon Slayton is coming to our library tomorrow evening. You can get more information on the library website. We talked to Fran about her middle grade novel, When the Whistle Blows back in August. Her discussion will be family-friendly, so definitely come by if you can, and bring your kids.

Meanwhile, in NaNoWriMo land, things are rolling right along. Sarah, Bridget and I met for coffee Friday afternoon. Bridget hasn't been as active in the Slushbusters lately, due to her other commitments, but we wanted to catch up with her. While we were filling her in on our latest writing adventures, a young woman came over to us from the next table.

She said she'd overheard us talking about writing. I immediately noticed she was wearing a NaNoWriMo t-shirt! She was working on her novel right there in the coffeehouse. We invited her to join us, and continued talking about the writing process, NaNo, critique groups, and the like. Before we left, we swapped email information. You never know where you're going to meet a new writing buddy.

I gave myself a day off writing yesterday, since I've been doing well staying ahead on my word count. My friend and I went to the Workhouse Arts Center. It was a refreshing change to talk to artists who aren't writers. I'm the first person to notice sensory information in a story, or if it is missing and needs to be there. It had been a while since I spent time in a space where I could see the colors of the paintings, touch glass and wool and wire, smell clay and watch a glass blower manipulate shapes with a flame. After all this writing, what a relief not have to imagine the sensory information in my head!

Sunday, November 8, 2009

The scenes we leave out

I figure it's time for a break from all things NaNoWriMo (Especially since I'm behind in my word count- don't worry, I'll catch up.)

Since NaNoWriMo is all about just getting words on the page, I'm going discuss

drum roll please


A very specific form of revision, actually.

Several months ago, I wrote a great scene for my WIP. It established aspects of my MC's character I hadn't ironed out, introduced us to people in her past, and solidified the life she had before the story begins.

Great scene. I love writing it. I loved reading it. So did the Slushies.

But the consensus was that it didn't need to go at the beginning of the story, because it's not really part of the story. It was also too big to be a flashback, and too involved to be split into tiny flashbacks.

It took me a while to realize that I shouldn't do anything with it.

And not in the this-is-gorgeous-and-insightful-prose-and-no-unhallowed-hands-shall-cut-it-from-this-manuscript sense. Nothing, as in the-readers-will-never-see-it sense.

Here's why: it wasn't part of my story. It set the stage for the story.

So why didn't I sob silently as I cut this really cool bit from my MS?

Because it will be in everything I write. It will show up because I know it. And because I know it, the reader will, too. That scene shaped the way I viewed my story; it informs the way I'm crafting it.

A professor of mine once told me that everything we cut from a MS haunts it. The weight and sense and soul of what we cut lingers in our work, even if it isn't visible on the page.

It doesn't mean readers won't feel the effects of my special scene. It just means it that a reader won't be able to turn to such-and-such page to find it.

How about you? Any really good parts that you've cut, that you realized you needed more than your readers? I can't be the only one.

Meanwhile, I have some serious catching up to do with NaNo...

Friday, November 6, 2009

The widgets are working!

It turns out the NaNoWriMo site has gotten so much unexpected traffic that they hesitated to get the widgets up and running until things were running smoothly. But now you can follow along with Sarah's and my progress as we go. Encouragement and cheerleading is much appreciated.

In my own week, the process has gotten a bit more difficult as I've gone along. Some of it was due to more limited time in my day, like yesterday when I had to take the dog to the vet before work, and therefore had less writing time. (He's fine. It was just a checkup and shots.) More often it's my old problem of second-guessing myself. I'm writing middle grade, so 50,000 words is a lot. I know I'll end up cutting out a lot of what I write this month. But even as I'm writing, I'm asking myself, "Is this conversation necessary? Is it boring?" Then I shrug and write it anyway, because this is first draft territory.

I'm amazed at how many people are participating, and how many words are being written. Of course I realize that doesn't mean they're good words. Some of the publishers and agents are a bit concerned about that, including the guys over at Pimp My Novel and Upstart Crow. Not that they're unsupportive, just cautious. I'd be cautious too if an event might lead to my inbox filling up with garbage.

So keep noveling, people. But don't forget to go back later and revise, revise, revise! And no December submissions on those novels!

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

We interrupt this WriMo

to let you know we've just become members of Kidlitosphere Central. It's a kind of all-in-one place resource for bloggers of children's and young adult literature.

If you're looking for author and illustrator blogs, publisher and editor blogs, or just all around children's literature blogs, check them out. We're listed under the group blogs.

OK, back to our regularly scheduled noveling. My word count to date: 7403. The widgets still don't appear to be working.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

NaNoWriMo: Day 1

So it's 8:51 am on Sunday. I just finished breakfast. (Thank you, Husband!) I had a word count of 864 this morning before breakfast. I know, I know, I need to stop blogging and start noveling again. I will in a minute.

I wanted to let you know that the word count widgets don't appear to be working yet. So if you want to track my progress at this point, you'll have to join NaNoWriMo and become a writing buddy of mine! I'm michellebe on there, by the way. So far, Sarah is my only buddy, but that's mostly because I don't want to spend a lot of time looking for people.

I'll try to keep my word count current on the NaNoWriMo site, and cross my fingers that the widget starts working soon here.