Sunday, November 30, 2014

Keep or let go?

In weeding my (overabundant) possessions, I've had to make decisions about reading material. For most of my life, I held on to almost any book or magazine that came my way. I've always been a big re-reader, so this made sense. It wasn't until I was an adult with means that my ability to acquire books outpaced my ability to store them.

For the past few years, I have been donating or trading books, and discarding magazines. I didn't have many books that were easy to let go of; chances are, if I disliked a book that much, I never brought it into my house to begin with. Most of the books that are here, I deliberately chose to bring in.

At this point, reverting to an electronic library isn't an option for me. I own a few ebooks, but I've discovered that I vastly prefer reading print on paper. Maybe that will change someday, but I must deal with the reality of the moment.

It's getting easier to let go of things in general. And as my friend Kelly Fineman points out, if you pass along something you don't really need, you enable someone who really wants or needs it to find it. Still, I hang on to a lot.

Today, I realized that perhaps I can simplify book weeding with this question: Do I ever want to read this again?

It seems rather self-evident, but I haven't been quite so simple and direct with my weeding criteria before. I would look at a book, thinking how much I liked it, how much I learned from it, who gave it to me or when/where I bought it, etc., and then I would try to summon a gut feeling for "keep or give away." I would try to anticipate how regretful I might be if I let it go. I never identified a specific rule for what would make me keep something.

There are a few books I hold onto for sentimental reasons (special gifts, mostly). But my new goal is for almost every book or magazine in my house to meet this criterion: I want to read it again.

That question has already helped me pack up a donation box today.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Peaceful times

Thanksgiving is a time when I like to be contemplative, to slow down and think.

A few things that aid me in this:

1. The cat. There's something about the pace with which he moves when he is grooming himself that seems to slow down time. He gives full attention to each paw, each ear. He never hurries. He is completely calm.

2. The woods. I've always found trees to be wonderful companions. They are silent, or maybe their leaves rustle a bit; they provide shade. They filter light. The provide carpets of leaves or needles. Some of them flower or fruit. They have a sturdiness, a solidity.

3. The ocean. Immense, salty, with waves as regular as breathing. I never tire of watching it or listening to it.

4. Waking up slowly. It's such a blessing not to have to jump out of bed at the blare of the alarm clock. To come out of sleep gradually, to file away the night's dreams and set my waking thoughts in order.

5. Walking. My general practice is to walk at least a mile a day, farther on weekends and other days when I don't have to work my day job. Walking is meditative. I don't bring cell phones, music, or any gadgets with me, so that I can fully engage with my own thoughts or the world around me.

What helps you slow down, relax, be fully present?

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Out of order

Writing is, among other things, an attempt to make sense of the world. To find meaning, or at least patterns.

Our storytelling may be less about what happened, or when, than about why and how. How did we get here? What does it mean?

On chronology, Beth Kephart says this:

"How many times, in class, to students, to writers, have I said: Don't tell me the story in a straight line. Break the grid. Steer your way toward wisdom by scrambling the sequence of facts."

She goes on to quote Abigail Thomas on the pitfalls of chronology, in a blog post worth reading.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Getting to know characters

Today I wrote more than a thousand words for a work in progress. None of which will appear in the manuscript itself.

I was working on a draft and realized that I was having a hard time getting a grip on an important character. I had trouble writing her end of the dialogue because I wasn't sure what she was thinking and feeling. I also didn't know much about her talents, goals, and fears.

I could keep plunging forward with the point-of-view character, could keep running with the plot, but this secondary character influences the story so strongly that that just seemed like a waste of time. Everything I learn about this character could provide new opportunities to send the story in different directions. Not to mention deepening every scene she's in, and giving my main character more to work with in relating to her.

It was time to break away from the main manuscript and do a side exercise, one I've used before. I did a character sketch of her, in her first-person POV. And as I did, she became more likeable. Her feelings about the main character became clearer. She now has more of a personality.

I still have more work to do on her, but it was a good start. And a reminder that not every word I need to write ends up going directly into the book.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Whatever works

This post from Kimberly Sabatini was a good reminder not to let the process get in the way of the product. Or, as she puts it, "the tool I’m using to write should never have more power than the actual writing."

Tuesday, November 18, 2014


I was intrigued by this piece by Susan Lanigan on restraint in writing. She focuses especially on Irish literature, but I think her ideas apply more widely--about not pulling punches, about not shying away from the emotional. I especially love what she says about scenes of physical intimacy, because it has long made me uncomfortable when people assume that the cut-away or fade-to-black is always the right choice for such a scene. Intimate scenes can be extremely important for both character and plot. It's when characters are especially vulnerable, and when they can't help but interact and react, and when emotional stakes are high.

I like Susan Lanigan's definition of restraint, and why it can work when it does work: "Writerly restraint is no more or less than affording the reader the courtesy of space to experience the impact of the scene for herself. It’s about pulling back and allowing the reader to infer, rather than constantly poking at her with countless authorial interjections." Yes. And what it isn't, as she notes, is unnecessary distance, the draining of juice and life from a scene, the distrust of emotion.

This is also what I think Walter Kerr was on about in his book How Not to Write a Play, when he lamented, "We are now embarrassed by the dramatic gesture. We do not wish to be thought capable of so gross and unliterary a lapse." And, "In general, we distrust scale nowadays. Certainly we distrust spectacle. We know that the audience yearns for extravagant event; but we are inclined to think of the yearning as one of the least attractive of the audience's characteristics. It is a superficial desire for thrill ... a fairly shoddy form of escape ... [but] I'm not sure that we understand this passion for excitement correctly. It may be a passion for reality, especially that reality which cannot be grasped in any other way."

Sometimes, when we think we are exhibiting proper restraint, we are really just holding back.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Imaginary worlds

Reading this interview with Martin Wilson at One Teen Story, I was struck by this part of his answers: "I had binders full of these [imaginary] movies—plot descriptions, casting choices ... But it didn’t stop at movies. I played (and still play) tennis, so back then I created an entirely fake professional tennis circuit, with hundreds of tennis players, complete with tournaments, rankings, matches, all of which I kept meticulous track of. I know that might sound crazy, but these things kept me sane and happy, I guess, and sowed the seeds for my future creative endeavors."

And I thought: Oh, no, Martin Wilson, it doesn't sound crazy at all. I know whereof you speak.

I've seen this sort of thing described in fiction: the game called "Town" that Harriet the Spy plays, in which she invents a town and lists all its imaginary residents and then gives them stories to play out. There are also the imaginary baseball games played by Jack Kerouac's characters (and, I have heard, by Kerouac himself).

I wonder how many other writers have done this: create worlds that are not quite stories, not in the traditional narrative sense, but which may be seen either as play, or as exercises along the way to becoming a storyteller.

Like Martin Wilson, I created an imaginary tennis tournament with fictional players and results. I also had imaginary schools full of fictional students (for which I even created yearbooks), imaginary towns (for which I drew maps and created directories), and my own imaginary soap opera for which I outlined ten years' worth of episodes. I created my own Scholastic-style book catalog with book covers drawn by me, and wrote my own synopses for these non-existent books. Similarly, I wrote my own version of TV Guide with shows I invented myself. I created magazines complete with ads for fictional products, drew album covers for imaginary musicians, and created an employee roster and bulletin board for a fictional company. I invented summer camps and competitions. (And once again, I must thank my grandfather for supplying a vast quantity of discount notebooks to feed all this imaginative output!)

Not only were these endeavors highly enjoyable, but I think they also served as a springboard for my writing. They taught me about world-building and character development; they were creative outlets and sparked further creativity. I thought of them as "games," and much later as "writing exercises."

And now I'm curious as to how many other writers out there have ever done something similar.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

What we try to do

I'm still poring over the words Jeannine Atkins blogged the other day. She was writing about poetry, but her thoughts could apply as easily to other forms of writing. For example: "We want readers or onlookers to feel a bit off-balanced, because that means they’re awake." Also: "The end of a poem may be found in its beginning, with its inspiration and uncertainty." Well, I recommend just reading the whole thing.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Lessons? Stories?

Lessons are often a part of the discussion about children's and YA literature. What lessons are we teaching? Which characters are role models? What's the moral of the story?

Not everyone agrees that this literature must be lesson-driven. Sarah Ockler writes: "... the purpose of young adult fiction is singular: to tell a story. Period. Learning lessons and adjusting moral compasses might be an outcome of the reading, but that’s entirely up to the reader." Also, "We create to share stories and make real human connections to universal truths and experiences, not to teach finger-wagging lessons."

I've been getting more and more uncomfortable with the "role-model" school of thought. My characters are not paragons of virtue; nor are they villains who are duly punished. They are not always likable or admirable. They make mistakes, they suffer, they learn things. Not every character receives a reward or punishment for every action. The "good" guys have flaws and the "bad" guys have saving graces. In these respects, I try to create fictional worlds that resemble the real one.

So what am I doing, if not trying to teach lessons? I think I am just trying to express something that rings true to me, that I hope will ring true for many readers. I'm highlighting some part of human experience, trying to bring it into sharper focus, to show it from certain angles. To encourage people to think about it. I've long said that I'm more of a descriptive writer ("this is the way things often are") than a prescriptive writer ("this is the way things should be").

This is a crazy world we live in. I'm just trying to make some sense of it, in my own small way.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Just you and the book

Sometimes, it's just you and the book. Nobody else has seen it. Nobody has weighed in on it. Nobody has pointed out what it lacks, what else it could be, what else it could have been. Nobody has asked you to change it; nobody has told you what they wish you had written instead.

Nobody else has stepped into this world yet. You long for visitors, for others to discover this world. And yet you also savor it, this precious time when it is all yours, unspoiled. When everything is possible, when the magic is undiluted and intact.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Fear, overwriting, and cuteness

A few treats from 'round the internet, for your edification, amusement, etc.:

I interviewed Delilah S. Dawson over at YA Outside the Lines, where we talked about the future, fear, and the dark side of amusement parks, among other topics. Feel free to check it out. A sample: "If I sought fear on purpose, then it made me feel stronger, more in control. Better the nightmares that you've chosen than the ones you can't avoid."

Laurel Garver gives tips on critiquing an overwriter. A sample: "Especially encourage her to trust the reader more, and to strive for clarity and simplicity."

And in the land of unbridled cuteness, Carrie Jones describes what happens when your dog falls in love with part of your Halloween costume. Complete with pictures!

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Something to do this week

I'll be doing two author events this week, my last events for a while. If you're in the Philadelphia area, why not drop by one or both? Details are below.

Wednesday, November 5, 7-8:30 PM: Author discussion and Q&A in Warminster, PA. Appearing with I.W. Gregorio as part of Pennsylvania "Speak Up for Libraries." Warminster Twp Free Library, large meeting room. 1076 Emma Lane, Warminster, PA 18974.

Friday, November 7, 8-9 PM: Author/illustrator night at Children's Book World, Haverford, PA. Dozens of authors and illustrators; books; refreshments. 17 Haverford Station Rd., Haverford, PA 19041.

Also, on Tuesday, don't forget to VOTE!