Wednesday, April 27, 2016

On impulse

At YA Outside the Lines this month, we're blogging about foolish things. I reminisced about some foolish trips to the beach on April days.

That's the thing about being spontaneous; things don't always go as planned. But sometimes you gotta try. Sometimes just breaking the routine is worth it.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Yeah, I meant to do that

"Talking about art requires artists to sound purposeful and sure of themselves, but she'd never felt that way. Over the years she'd made up a lot of reasons because people didn't seem to like the arbitrariness of the reality."
--Still Life with Bread Crumbs, Anna Quindlen

I think most writers do have plans and purpose, but it may not always be what readers see, and readers may find connections we didn't (consciously) intend. But I like this quote because it speaks to the intuitive part of art-making. I don't find writing to be a wholly calculated, wholly intellectual exercise, but to include some of what Quindlen's character thinks of as "arbitrariness," which we may also call "inspiration."

Friday, April 22, 2016

Same character, different audience ages

A writing student asked me if it's possible to write a publishable story about a character at a young age, for young readers, and then write about the same character at an older phase of life for older readers. Several years ago, I would have said probably not, but by now I've seen a few examples--and of course, now self-publishing is a more viable option than it used to be.

I've heard it argued that the Harry Potter books advance from middle-grade through young-adult. Author Brent Hartinger has taken his YA character, Russel Middlebrook (of Geography Club and its three sequels) into some new-adult books featuring the character in early adulthood (The Thing I Didn't Know I Didn't Know and its sequels). Hartinger refers to the new-adult phase of the character's life as the "Futon Years." (For other characters, this phase of life might be referred to as the Dorm Years, the Studio Apartment Years, the Living with Roommates Years, or the Sleeping on Someone's Couch Years.)

Recently, thanks to a post on the Read is the New Black site, I was reminded of my affection for Marilyn Sachs's books, and I discovered she has a sequel to an old favorite of mine, A Pocket Full of Seeds. That book took its main character from early childhood through the age of thirteen, and the sequel takes her from age thirteen to seventeen. Even though the books are billed as being for the same age reader (grades 5 through 8), I suspect that the sequel, Lost in America, would appeal to somewhat older readers. I plan to check it out.

Anyway, the point is that the rigidity of expectations about audience and branding, and how older people won't read books for younger people and so on, is fading. You may know of even more examples than the ones I've been able to find. Even though it still might be unusual to take a character into different audience age ranges, it's not unthinkable. And the conventions that traditional publishing houses and booksellers still follow don't have to apply to anyone who self-publishes.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Ever shifting, ever elusive

Jeannine Atkins writes of the slow strange process of fiction writing, of groping for the story we want to write, mean to write, and must accept our imperfections in pursuing.

Natalie Whipple writes of each book's tendency to come out in its own way, of how the process differs from book to book. I too have been frustrated on occasion with each book's insistence on being a special snowflake in the way it arrives, but it really shouldn't be a surprise. We change, our lives change, and the things we need to write about change.

If each story came out perfectly, the same way each time, it would certainly be easier on us, but easy isn't the point. I won't go as far as John F. Kennedy did in his moon speech, saying that we do this because it is hard, either. It is just necessary--somehow, some way.

Friday, April 15, 2016

Look at this

Here's another quote I wanted to remember from Why We Write About Ourselves: Twenty Memoirists on Why They Expose Themselves (and Others) in the Name of Literature, ed. by Meredith Maran. This one is fromJames McBride:

"You don’t write it to show how smart you are or how dumb they are. You’re trying to share from a sense of humbleness."

It is in the same ballpark as this one from Darin Strauss in the same book:

"If nonfiction is any good, it has to be harder on the protagonist than on anybody else."

I think these quotes apply not only to memoir but to fiction as well, and they dovetail with the advice not to protect your characters too much. There's a vulnerability in sharing a story. Reading the written word is in some ways an intimate act; it's like a whisper in the ear. "Look what I discovered," the writer tells the reader, not in a boastful way, but in the way one person might call another to a window to see a rainbow, a tornado, a falling star. Look at this amazing world we live in; this scary, funny, perplexing, beautiful, horrifying, sweet, mysterious world.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

The joy

Here's an uplifting quote from Sue Monk Kidd: "Writing is an amazing way to spend your life. It helps to be grateful for that, to stand in awe of it a little."

It appears in Why We Write About Ourselves: Twenty Memoirists on Why They Expose Themselves (and Others) in the Name of Literature, ed. by Meredith Maran.

It's just a reminder that with all of the frustrations of writing--the second-guessing, the uncertainty, the plots and characters that won't behave, the wondering whether anyone will care--there is joy. The joy of finding meaning in life and conveying it somehow, of reaching out to others in the hope of sharing a vision, of informing or entertaining. The joy of connecting with those around us.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Secret projects

Sometimes it's nice to have a writing project that you don't talk about.
You don't discuss it with anyone, so all your writing energy goes into the story, into moving it forward and making it better.
It's just for you. Maybe someday others will get to read it, but in the beginning it's just the two of you.
There's immense freedom in that, in knowing that nobody else's expectations will sway it. Nobody's criticism matters; nobody's approval is necessary.
Nobody else is awaiting it, so even if you stop dead in the middle of a sentence and never touch it again, it's OK. If you write 5000 words a day on it, it's OK. If you do just one draft, it's OK. If you do 71 drafts, it's OK.
Everything's OK, which is the really marvelous part. You are not worried about selling it. You are not worried about anything, really.

I have had secret projects, and they were fun. Maybe they're not for everyone; some people like to talk through plotlines and characters as they write. But this post is for the ones who hug a work-in-progress close to the vest, maybe not even admitting that it exists. For a while, anyway.

Have you ever had a secret project?

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Procrastination, or rest?

I've long held that goofing off, time wasting, and procrastination may not be all bad. They may have a worthy purpose. There's something about those times when the mind is engaged in something light, frivolous, or easy that allows us to rest, or think, or plan. There's something about idle or semi-idle moments that kicks the creative mind into gear, behind the scenes.

Like anything, goofing off can be carried too far. But we're not robots who can fill every moment of every day with productive activity. Maybe the reason the brain often leads us down these distracting little side paths is that we need some distracting little side paths.

Saturday, April 2, 2016


Spring is a good time to try something new: in our writing, in our lives. April is the month that makes me feel that anything is possible. Have you any plans for new beginnings?