Saturday, July 31, 2010

Easing back in

My draft and I are nearing the end of our self-imposed separation. We've missed each other's company, but this time has been good for us, I think.

The past few days' writing time has been devoted to prep work for diving back into revision. I've read revision tips, added to my list of things I plan to consider about the novel, and played with the chart I use as a calendar and chapter tracker for the plot's events.

Yes, this is a dragged-out process, perhaps unnecessarily so for a novel that's going to end up fairly short (rather like its intended readers). But I think that's wise. By the time I finish, I'll probably be a different person from when I started; I'll certainly be a different writer. If you want to serve as a beta reader for your own work, you'd best do some growing during the process.

I'll be away until Tuesday, enjoying my family's company and celebrating my grandparents' sixtieth (yeah, sixtieth!) anniversary. My writing for those days will consist of personal journaling and probably lots of unbidden thoughts about my WIP. When I get back, it's revision time!

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Interview with poet Marilyn Singer

One of my happy surprises at BEA two months ago was to find myself in front of poet Marilyn Singer in a signing line (for James Howe's wonderful Brontorina). Marilyn is a prolific writer of varied children's poetry, and I'd already posted here about how impressed I was at her work with reversos, or poems that say one thing when read forwards and another when read backwards, in Mirror Mirror: A Book of Reversible Verse. I was delighted to strike up a conversation with her, and even more delighted when she agreed to an interview.

What came first, the idea of reversible verse or the idea to write a poetry collection about fairy tales? Is there something about fairy tales that makes them lend themselves to reversible verse for you? Do you think it would work for all stories? For topics other than stories?
The idea for MIRROR, MIRROR started with the reversos.  I wrote a poem about my cat, which is in the back matter of the book, and then I wondered if I could do more reversible verse.  I wrote a bunch of poems.  Not all of them were based on fairy tales, but quite a few were.  An editor who saw the poems suggested that I do a whole book of fairy tale reversos.  I thought that was a great idea because of the there is generally more than one POV in a fairy tale and also because these stories are known and loved by lots of people.  I also thought that the book would encourage folks to read the original tales and maybe come up their unique ways of interpreting them.
I think that many fairy tales, fables, myths, novels, plays, etc. are good fodder for reversos, and, yes, I think that other topics as well can also work.  The trick is that when you reverse the verse, the second poem has to say something different.  I've read some very good attempts at reversos, but many fail to have say something in that second poem which is different from the first. 
Your bibliography includes poetry on a pretty wide range of topics, from a contemporary school year to various elements of nature. What makes you decide to write about a particular topic?
I'm interested in a lot of stuff, so if I get REALLY , REALLY interested, then I often want to write about that topic.  It's pretty much as simple--or as complicated--as that.  I especially love animals and nature, so I write about those things a lot.  But people and their foibles also interest me, as do monsters, school, travel, dancing, the moon, and a host of other things. 
When you write a collection of poems, how detailed are your plans for the collection before you get started? Do you know everything it will include, or do ideas develop as you go along? (Or is it some combination?)
Oh, my!  I NEVER know everything a collection will include.  These days, it's hard to sell a poetry manuscript that's not thematic.  Sometimes I come up with the theme first.  Other times, I start writing poems and see if a theme emerges.  I don't feel comfortable believing that I have the makings of a collection unless I've written a minimum of five or six poems.  Once I do come up with a theme, I write poems on it.  Then once the collection has been accepted for publication, I write MORE poems (usually to replace ones that don't really work).  So, by that time, I do know what the book is about, but I still don't necessarily know all the poems that will make the final cut or that have yet to be written. 

What's next? You've mentioned a second Mirror, Mirror-style volume using more fairy tales. How's that going, and have you come up with a second title as perfect as Mirror, Mirror? (I'm really curious!) Any other projects in the works?
Yes, I'm hard at work on another collection of reversos based on more fairy tales.  I think it's going well.  I hope my editor agrees.  ;-)  No title yet.  The title MIRROR, MIRROR was the very last thing that we came up with (I say "we" because titles are generally agreed on by author, editor, marketing, and other folks), after all the poems were finished.  The title is often the last thing that the author and publisher come up with.
I am working on many other projects, including more poetry, nonfiction, and picture books.  In the next few years, I have a slew of coming out, including three picture books about Tallulah, a little girl in ballet class; another picture book called WHAT IS YOUR DOG DOING?; a nonfiction book, CATERPILLARS; and several more poetry books, such as TWOSOMES:  Love Poems from the Animal Kingdom;  A FULL MOON IS RISING (a lyrical trip around the world following the full moon);  A STICK IS AN EXCELLENT THING (poems about everyday play); THE BOY WHO CRIED ALIEN (a science fiction story in poems); HOLIDAYS FOR DOGS (real and made-up holidays that dogs celebrate); THE SUPERHEROES EMPLOYMENT AGENCY (made-up superheroes).  Time to take a vacation!

Thanks, Marilyn! I can't wait to read your upcoming works, titled and untitled alike.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

When I don't scratch

I always forget about this phenomenon in between instances. But when I have a brief period with less creative work than usual, the writing itch really does get stronger.

I'm leaving the draft of my novel alone for a week or so, and I finished another creative project the same night as that draft (details after that project is revealed to its intended audience). I'm doing other types of writing, but nothing that involves creating characters or telling stories. In the past hour, I have done the following:

-read the name Abby in a book and started imagining what type of character I would create if I ever created an Abby
-overheard a conversation between strangers and started wondering what kind of voice one of the participants would have in a novel

I've thought that way before, of course, but to have it happen constantly and unconsciously tells me that my brain is in a fertile mood. When I get back to my own characters in a few days, I'll be super-prepared to imagine new things about them.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Draft in the drawer

I've heard wise writers say that after they finish a draft, they put it in a drawer for a month to separate themselves from it before they start revisions. The deadlines on my last two projects ruled out such a hiatus, and I was relieved not to have to decide whether to take one. I've mentioned before that keeping my head in my novel's world is an important part of my writing process, enough so that even on super-busy days, I try to freewrite or edit a page or something. There's a little part of me that worries I'll forget the particulars of the story if I step away from it. What if I forget what happens? What if I forget the main character's middle name and give her a new one?

But still, I stepped away yesterday, and I'm considering staying away for a week or so. There are plenty of opportunities for writing in the meantime. I don't think it would make sense to start a new novel at this point, but there's freelance work, and there are friends who challenge me out of the blue to write fairy tales about sisters named Anhedonia, Euthymia, and Euphoria. (This should tell you something about my friends.) But am I allowed to read articles about revision and Making Your Manuscript Better? Or am I supposed to turn off all WIP-related thoughts? (I know, I know, I make the rules.)

At least if I only give myself a week, then if Laurie Halse Anderson gives us an August challenge like last year, I can still potentially do it. LHA, you are the Oprah of the writing-for-children-and-young-adults world.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Getting kids hooked

Making reading attractive to all kids, whatever their interests, has always been important to me, and I know I'm far from alone. You like pictures better than words? Here, have a graphic novel. Your favorite characters are the ones you know from TV and movies? Here are some books about them. Potty humor is what gets your attention? That's cool, too. Here's Sir Fartsalot Hunts the Booger. Maybe if this one hooks you, you'll find yourself pulling more books off the shelf.

This is a basic question, but why? Why is it so important to hook kids, practically even trick them, into reading? Why is reading so great that I want everyone to do it? There are practical reasons, of course; I'm a children's bookseller and a writer, after all. But I wouldn't be in this business if it weren't genuinely important to me to help kids want to read, and I don't think my passion stems entirely from a hope that they'll be able to read textbooks and then road signs (though both are unquestionably important).

I interrogated myself about this. I asked myself what picture is in the back of my mind as the ultimate goal. To my relief, I found that the picture was of a kid having the same kind of reading experience I have with the best of books: that personal experience where it feels like I'm the only one being let into the characters' world.

If it takes a little potty humor to get kids there, then bring on the poopoo jokes.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

I have a draft!

I just typed the last line, or at least the first last line, of my early chapter book. This is my first post-Simmons novel, and it was nice to take what I learned in the Writing for Children program and use it to write a novel in more than a semester. I even had the luxury of deliberately slowing production at one point. I've gotten to savor the composing phase on this one for about a year, and these characters have been great company for that year.

They will continue to entertain me for a while. I did some revising as I went along, but the list of things to change or check is currently more than three pages long, and I'll keep finding new considerations. I'll probably do some asking for feedback soon, and that'll make me see new possibilities. In other words, this isn't an ending; it's a Phase II.

Still, arriving at and then constructing the last page feels good, even though I suspect it's cheesy and will need changes. So this is what one does with an MFA. One writes novels.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Great A, little a, bouncing B...

For months now, I've been reading from this Mother Goose collection with S, now aged four and three quarters (and five days!). When we started, I wasn't sure how much she was getting out of it, besides appealing animal illustrations and fun rhythms. "Half a pound of tuppenny rice, half a pound of treacle?" What could these words mean to an American child born in 2005? But she kept listening, so I kept reading.

She still doesn't understand every word, and occasionally she stops me with a question, but it's definitely been a worthwhile reading venture. S now has favorite rhymes that she recites herself, often in abridged versions that include the lines she understands and therefore remembers. Quotes from the rhymes appear in conversation; she loves the idea of "a secret never to be told" from "One for Sorrow, Two for Joy."

Better yet, she's learning to search for her favorites, and we spent one morning looking together for their first letters in the index. Even better, she started this week to use what she remembered of the rhymes to point to the words and "read" them.

But really, nothing beats her giggles at "From Wibbleton to Wobbleton is Fifteen Miles." Except maybe her singing along to the last line of that "Half a pound of tuppenny rice" business, which happens to be "POP! goes the weasel."

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Just the beginning. See, it even sounds hopeful.

Kristin Cashore said it at the Simmons College Summer Institute last year, in a speech later adapted for The Horn Book:

Those little things [decisions about characters' quirks and backstories] are essential to every action, every interaction, every line — and you can’t proceed without them. When you start a book, you’re trying to make something out of nothing, and you need it to grow fast. And so, at the beginning of a book, practically every word can cause the writer growing pains.

At the time, I'd just started my current WIP, and though my realistic early chapter book looks and sounds nothing like Graceling, I knew exactly what Kristin was talking about. Getting the first few scenes down meant constantly stopping and asking myself, "Who should talk first? Which of these characters is the type to start the conversation? Would she start with 'hi,' 'hey,' or 'hello,' or just jump right in? Should she pause to take a bite of her sandwich? What kind of sandwich should it be?" (Food plays a major role in my WIP, so that last one was more important than it sounds.) I kept having to wonder, "Should I figure this out now? Or should I just go and fix it later?"

That's what having a new computer feels like. For the past couple of days, every quick task has meant thinking about registering this and installing that. Do I want Firefox to remember this password? Do I want AIM to sign me on whenever Windows opens? (That one's a no.)

There's no official End of the Beginning moment, but there will come a point when I realize the computer doesn't feel new anymore, when opening a document just means opening a document. I know it's coming... at least if real life is anything like writing a novel.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

The end is near. See, it even sounds dramatic.

There's something almost ceremonial about the last chapter of a draft, isn't there? The first of the hundred or so times you write the beginning, everything's experimental. You try it this way, you try it that way, you make the main character older, you give her a wacky classmate-who-might-just-become-a-friend. You know that everything you know right now may change.

What you write when you write the ending may also change, of course. But it's a lot more planned. Chances are, you've had some of the lines in your head since the novel's early stages. Finally reaching the point when you get to type them (if you're a linear writer... and a typer...) feels like an achievement.

I'm not at that last line yet, and I'm enjoying this part enough to drag it out and do some revision in between. But I'm getting there, and the frenetic nights of freewriting before I knew the characters' names feels like a long time ago.

Monday, July 12, 2010

You can always find a different way to say it

My soon-to-be-replaced-for-many-reasons computer lost an important ability last week. A certain letter, existing between G and I, stopped working on my keyboard. I can still type said letter by copying and pasting, of course, and since I didn't foresee my current deficiency in naming my novel's personages, I often need to do so. But in informal correspondence, it's more fun to tell people to 'ave a 'appy b-- I mean, a 'appy anniversary of entrance into our world. Or I can say I'm going sopping, and immediately wonder if I've cursed (or blessed) us all to endure a rainstorm. (If yesterday's "sopping trip" is any indication, you'll be relieved to know I lack sufficient power to control our climate.)

I've also found myself marveling at our language's varied offerings. I can begin emails "Dear" instead of using less formal greetings requiring Letter #8 (and if you've received an overly formal-looking missive from me, now you understand). Words almost always possess synonyms, and one can even manage to avoid an article one generally uses in almost every sentence.

I suddenly crave a game of Taboo.

And a new computer.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

A zine for Diana Wynne Jones

To know my friend Penina is to witness a sincere, lifelong love for the work of author Diana Wynne Jones. The recent news that Diana is seriously ill has prompted Penina to start a zine with the goal of letting her know what she's meant to her fans. Penina is asking for tributes, essays, drawings, personal stories, or pretty much anything else related to Diana and her work (other than fanfic, for copyright reasons).

If you're interested in contributing to the project or know anyone who might be, this is the place to go.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Move over, Mysterious Benedicts. There's a new St author on the shelves.

I learned a lot about writing from Anna Staniszewski when I took a workshop with her at Simmons. I learned a lot about teaching from her as the teaching assistant in her children's literature survey course. And when Sourcebooks Jabberwocky releases My Un-Fairy Tale Life, I'll get to learn a lot from her about bloodthirsty unicorns, manic clowns, and useless gnome sidekicks.

Congratulations, Anna!! You can expect to see me at a future children's lit event with the book in one hand and a pen in the other.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Let's start at the very beginning. Again.

Lately, I've been revising the first page or two of my novel. The main character's voice needs to come through hrough earlier, but too much exposition on the first page would slow things down, but this main character isn't a big talker, and certain information needs to be explained early on to avoid confusion among the fairly early readers who are its intended audience. You know, the usual balancing act.

I've read my beginning many, many times. That makes it easy to look at a sentence and think it is the only way it can be. A realization that there's a quicker, clearer, or more interesting way to say something that page has been saying for months feels like a whoa sort of discovery. Of course, if I move sentence A, I have to remember that readers no longer know the necessary background information for sentence B, even though they do in the parallel universe where that page reads the way it used to.

It's a fun game. I just can't do what I did while playing Anomia by the river last night and keep getting distracted by the sunset.