Thursday, October 30, 2008

The Flotsam File

I have one. A file full of the flotsam that clogs my brain at night when I'm trying to fall asleep or that distracts me to dangerous ends when I'm driving. Those little nuggets of gold that may (or may not) someday make it into one of my books. (Yes, I plan to write a lot!) It could be a piece of dialogue overheard somewhere. Perhaps a completely incongruous image that popped up on the road along the way. Even a name that cries out for attention. Lots of little pieces of nothing that might become something.

So I'm on my way to the store the other day, and here comes one of those bits of flotsam, jaunting up the road, oblivious to the world. An RV. Not just any RV. An RV boldly branded with the words, "THE INTRUDER". As if Winnebago isn't nerdy enough. So my brain went to a teenager, forced to spend his vacation traveling with Grandma and Grandpa in an RV emblazoned with that unforgivable moniker. A true and glorious king of nerd-dom might embrace it and revel in the irony. But most teens would be mortified.

Of course, I could always add in that fabulous image of a giant head of Eddie Murphy traveling down the road in front of them (or even in tow behind them!)!


Sunday, October 19, 2008

What It's About...

First, a big shout out to Linda Bozzo, who generously opened her home to me this weekend and to Lisa Mullarkey and all the blue boarders for a fabulous party!

As I return from a tremendous Rutgers One-on-One experience, I'm a bit introspective about how I got started on this road.  

I've been at this for 7 years—writing, attending conferences and workshops, honing my skills, submitting manuscripts—and the evolution of my perception of things has been unexpected and surprisingly sneaky.  

Let's start with the big question, "What am I all about?"  I'm not sure anyone can answer that in the space of a blog, at least not one anyone would read, but I'll narrow it down.  First and foremost, I'm a lover of books.  But connected to that is my desire to teach, to share my own violent passion for stories with teenagers.  And as a high school teacher, I stoked the fires everyday, and even, I think, made a difference in at least few lives.  But truth be told, they fed my soul as much as I led them to the feast.  

Always in the back of my mind were my own stories that must be told.  So I finally began to give them their voice in 2001.  I started with a few picture books, not because I thought those were easier—I was never that naive—but because that was the sort of story I had brewing in my brain.  I even submitted a few for publication.  It didn't take long to figure out that PBs are not my gig. I was far too sentimental.   So what to do?  Of course! Go back to that piece of my soul that I had shared for so many years and the people I shared it with—teenagers.  

Ah, these were the stories that really screamed to be told.  I'm still a little too sentimental, and I tend to use far too many adverbs, but the stories are authentic.  And my perspective on my own writing continues to sharpen as I speak to editors, agents, and other writers.  Yes, I want to get published, to share something with young adults, to give them another voice, to imagine. 

So often the keynote message at conferences is the same—persistence and good writing.  Well, I've got that, right?  I'll say yes to the persistence part, but the writing is still in process and as far as I'm concerned, it always will be.  

However, I've also learned that just because one editor, or even ten, doesn't like your work, it doesn't mean that you suck.  And you should want more than instant editorial approval.  You also have to be willing to be guided, inspired.  It's easy to presume that you know what your doing and everybody else just has to be convinced that you're right. I'm not saying you should abandon your own opinion, but if twenty editors tell you that your first two sentences just don't work, perhaps you should consider trying a different approach.  

I have a least one editor who has inspired me to keep at it until I get it right, even if she's a little slow in the response on my final manuscript.  And this weekend, a wonderful agent took real time with me to talk about my ideas and my approach to the story.  Some of it she likes, some of it she would do differently.  Again, it's an opinion, an educated, thoughtful opinion, and my thanks go to the Rutgers Council for such a good match.  I'm looking forward to talking to her more.    

When it's all said and done, my new perspective is as much about me as it is about my writing.  I value my craft more than I used to.  It's not just the desire to get a story out there, but to craft it well.  But even more, I value myself as a writer, (not as a wannabe) and walk in with a little more confidence, however hard-won it has been.  I've accepted that I'm on a journey, one of my own choosing.  And every student I ever taught, every text I've written or read—published or otherwise—is part of what I am all about.

Monday, October 06, 2008

Growing Up Ghost Girl

*This was originally posted on my LiveJournal, but since the season has arrived, thought I'd bring it up here. 

So why “Ghost Girl”? Perhaps it’s time to explain. Could be my fascination with ghost stories. Yes. My mad desire to write about the spirits. Uh huh. But where did that come from? Growing up in a haunted house might have something to do with it:

In 1973, my family moved into a brand new house, built on the edge of a small river valley in rural Northeastern Indiana. I was 9 years old and the quiet country life was something new to me. But as I would discover in the next several years, it was anything but quiet.
It started with a feeling. This huge house full of new, interesting rooms, even a shadowy, unfinished basement where we could walk through the walls and play hopscotch on the floor. But that feeling only fluttered through my guts in one room. The brightest, cheeriest space in the house.

My older sister’s bedroom was in the far corner at the top of the house, plastered with flowery wallpaper and grass-green carpet and banked by a solid wall of windows. It was a meadow all its own, full of light and bright colors. But the moment I stepped into that room, something, some indescribable thing dragged my spirits down and seemed to smother all the vibrance in the room. We never could explain it.

We had lived there for a few years before anything significant happened, but happen it did. It’s hard to say which came first, but I think it was the three fingers. Three tentative, questioning fingers. You see, my sister had awakened in the middle of the night. She couldn’t say why. She just suddenly woke up to a silent, moonlit room. So she rolled over on her back and waited for sleep to return. But something else arrived first. As she lay there, patiently waiting, she felt something lean on the bed, as if a cat had crawled up on the mattress and was walking towards her.

Her breath caught heavy in her chest and her heart pounded so loudly in her ears that she was sure it would wake up the house. And then, it touched her. It felt like three fingers pressing gently on her thigh, as if to see if she was real. And then it was gone. And so was sleep for the rest of the night...

Pop back in for more details of my haunted childhood home. And believe me…they get more interesting, especially by the time I go to college.

Friday, October 03, 2008

Come As You Are

Wednesday Night, I had a first speaking engagement as a writer.  No, I'm not published, yet.  No, I'm not even remotely famous—or infamous—yet.  And quite frankly, there is no real reason anyone should care what I have to say about anything.  But I am a writer.  

Yep, there it is.  I AM A WRITER.  

It began with an unexpected phone call from a new acquaintance who is certainly now a friend—for a host of reasons.  She has a book club comprised of a variety of women, most of whom are mothers in their 30s.  Many of them are artists.  All of them are book lovers.  So, they had decided that instead of choosing a book for the group to read, each member would bring her favorite children's book and share why they love it so much.  But there was a bonus—at least that's how my friend saw it, and to my surprise, so did the ladies of the book club.  I was the bonus.  A real, live writer.  

My assignment:  talk about my life as a writer.  That's it!  They don't care that I'm not published, yet.  

So what did I have to say to these intelligent, thoughtful, accomplished women?  More than I expected.  It started with a brief description of how I began, but it quickly evolved into some bits of advice for claiming your dream.  Here are the basics:

  • Own Your Passion — Write because you simply can't not do it and never make excuses or apologies.  When someone asks you what you do, say "I'm a writer" and mean it.  Don't look away, launch a nervous giggle, and meekly offer, "Well, I'm trying to be a writer." Does an athlete say, "I'm trying to exercise?"  Just because you're not published yet does not mean you're a hack or a fake.  Just because a runner hasn't won the Boston marathon yet, does that mean he's not an athlete?  By the way, no one ever asks you if you are a good writer or a bad one...well, almost never!

  • Claim Your Space — This can be a tough one.  I know I'm not alone as a reigning queen of the clutter zone.  Yes, my space is in the playroom, surrounded by piles of toys and discarded art projects, and far too often, noisy kids.  But it is my space.  There is an invisible force field around my desk, and the kids know that penetrating that barrier carries serious jail time.  And now that they are both in school all day (2 sighs here, one of relief and one of wistful longing), my space is peaceful, momentarily less cluttered, and all mine.  

  • Make Time for Your Craft — No matter how hectic it gets, with lacrosse practice, doctor's appointments, the dentist, the vet—the 1001 things we always have going on—carve out time for your work, even if it's only 20 minutes a week.  You'll find that once you actually give yourself even the tiniest window of time, you'll guard it ferociously and crave more.  Let your hubby handle dinner or run the schpunts to sports practice or heaven-forbid clean the house!  And when necessary, take yourself to the cafe or the bookstore, where you can choose which voice bounces around in your head.  

  • Take Yourself Seriously — If you don't, nobody will.  

  • Find a Community — Writing is a very solitary pursuit, as is most creative activity.  Maybe that's why so many creative geniuses are stark raving mad—too much isolation!  This is one advantage to the technological explosion of the modern age.  You can find supportive cyber communities many places.  One of my favorites, of course, is Verla Kay's fabulous message board. The SCBWI also has a discussion board for its registered members. And there are others for more precise niches, like YA Fiction.   There are many more, and you can often find critique groups or just a whole new set of friends who "get" you.  

  • Feed Your Writer's Soul — As a writer, I have a million ideas flying around my brain and all kinds of theories as to the best way to splatter them onto paper.  But you know what they say about theories.  Allow yourself to attend a conference or workshop from time to time.  Not only do you get some surprising illumination about the craft of writing (despite the fact that you know it all already) and the business side of things, but you meet more people like you, and you network and make contacts that could potentially lead you to that next goal, whether it's publication or a critique group or a new knitting circle!  

  • And finally, Come As You Are — You carry within you entire worlds.  You see with eyes that no one else can look through unless you bring them behind the curtain.  It's not the package they will want to see.  Sure, it's nice when its pretty and tied up with a fabulous glittery bow.  But folks, writing ain't pretty!  Don't be afraid to open that package and see the bare naked truth.  All those little worries and insecurities and failures make a promise to the writer that you will become.  And need to make a promise to the writer you are.  Just come as you are and pour yourself into a pot of ink and spill it all over.  Dance in.  Make a mess.  Love it.  You are a writer. 
Okay, so that's the gist of my little chat.  Oh, I shared some tidbits of my books, which will be published any day now (wink), and my WIP and other elements of my journey, too.  And I got to recommend a host of kids books, some written by people I know, to all these eager readers.  It was amazing to see all those faces looking at me as if I actually know something exceedingly cool.  

...hey, I guess I really do.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

A Little More about YA

I just returned from a great weekend at the SCBWI Eastern PA Fall Philly conference, where Lin Oliver shared her wisdom and the hilarious story of how SCBWI actually came to be.  Matt Phelan gave a fabulous talk on his own journey into the world of illustrating for children's books, in spite of our technical difficulties which left his beautiful illustrations in the laptop instead of on the projector screen for all to see.  (There's more irony here that I'll share later)

And a panel of class of 2K8 authors shared their wisdom and their amazing books with us.  Out of that forum came several brilliant observations, but I'm going to share one.  The question came up about how do we define YA.  (Imagine that!).  Everyone had great comments on this topic, but I really liked what Laurel Snyder had to say.  

In a Middle Grade book, the main character is looking out at the world, trying to figure it out. In a Young Adult book, he is trying to figure himself out, looking inward and trying to find his place or identity.

I think that is brilliant!  If you are struggling to decide if your approach is cutting it as a MG or YA story, take a minute to consider what your MC is going through.  How does he see the world?  Where is his deepest struggle?  Against the world or against himself? (maybe a little of both)

That's not to say that YA novels don't question the world and try to figure out what the hell's going on, but if you look at your hero's journey, ask yourself where did it start?  What was the original purpose of his quest.  And what answers did he find?  Did they all lay outside him or deep within?