Mailbox Pages, Pressure, and the Writing Seesaw

listeningI try to be a disciplined writer. That is to say, I try to write something daily.  Something on a story page. Blog posts don’t count.

That part works most of the time. When I’m in danger of falling off the discipline wagon is when I’m near the middle of a large project and my self-doubt is reaching tsunami proportions. In recognition of this seemingly inevitable stage, a colleague and I agreed to serve as each other’s “mailboxes” for pages from a work in progress.

We decided on an arbitrary deadline (the 5th of each month) by which to send each other approximately 30 pages apiece. If we didn’t receive pages in any given month, we’d send gently nagging emails.

When a mailbox sender’s working draft got completed, we agreed, it was completely optional for the mailbox recipient to  read it and offer comments. No pressure at all, right?

Six months later, my colleague, who is obviously more disciplined than I am, completed her draft. I read it. It was wonderful. Not finished but filled with good energy and story and brimming with character. I wrote my comments, sent them off and got back to work. She said I was right on track–she might not necessarily agree with all my suggestions but my reading of the draft gave her lots to work with, which is the whole point. I felt validated as a reader which is always good for my writing confidence.

As for my draft, travel intervened. And teaching. I went to Kindling Words East, which kindled the fire for my novel right back up. I longed to get back to this work. What I didn’t have were enough hours in the day. Then, predictably, the doubts began to creep in. Had I packed too much into the novel? Should I go back and take out a subplot or two? Was it even a middle grade? This is a slippery slope.

My semester began. The picture book intensive kicked in. My reading started piling up. I’d sent in my February 5 mailbox pages in January, anticipating the crunch, but March 5 now loomed. It felt impossible.

I wrote a picture book draft. That’s always a nice break from a novel.  But somehow, I couldn’t go back to my mailbox pages.

I asked my kindly mailbox for a hiatus. A couple of months, I said. I’ll have to set the novel aside. How about I resume in May? She agreed. This is a no-pressure agreement, right? All about mutual support and respect for our work.

Then something odd happened. Right after I’d hung up the phone, I fired up Scrivener and got right back into the novel. Right into the messy middle. That evening, I wrote a couple of new scenes. Not 30 pages, granted. More like 10. But I was off and running again. Just the thought of not having to meet this (completely flexible, erasable, voluntary) deadline unfettered my creative impulse and allowed me to move ahead. And so the seesaw goes.

Building a Personal Reading List

faqsSome time ago, I got an email from reader Maxwell Shea who came across my FAQ lists and had additional questions. I’m posting my replies here, since they may be of interest to others as well.

Admittedly those FAQ lists are old and in need of updating, but that will have to wait until I have time on hand. Me and time, we’re constantly at odds.

Anyway, here we go:

MS: You said to try to read mostly newer books when getting a feel for how to write for children, but I don’t quite understand why you might say that, other than to say don’t try to copy other famous books.

UK: Well, here’s the deal. If you are submitting to today’s publishers, you’re just going to have to read a representative number of today’s books, to see where your voice is going to fit into the conversation. It’s not about copying someone else’s work, but rather understanding the range of subjects and sensibilities currently found in publishing catalogs, so you can figure out where the gaps exist that you and only you might be able to fill. Aside from gauging the field for submission purposes, I think a writer for young readers should read widely and deeply, across the age ranges, across the decades and also across borders of geography and culture. I tell my students that in each month’s bibliography they should read at least one book published before they were born, and one or two books published outside North America.

Nothing can replenish a writer’s wordbag like reading, so read generously. Learn to read critically. Write an annotation for every book you read, looking not for what you like and dislike but what you can learn from that book. If you want to write in a particular form (picture books, chapter books, middle grade novels), start reading now. Read 50 books before you try to write one. Read to see how others do the work you are seeking to do.

MS:Wouldn’t a voice with fresh ideas and some skill be equally at home finding inspiration in the richness of the early 70s as well as what’s on the bookshelf today? In fact, I actually am disappointed in a great deal of the new books I read when I go to a bookstore. There must be an insatiable demand for cuteness. I know there must be many more good books being published than I see at bookstores. I just can’t see how reading new books, whether as an adult would-be writer or as a child would be an improvement over a similarly rich bench of books from 40-50 years ago.

UK: We do have an amazing artistic history in our field, so sure, draw on whatever inspires you but remember that you can’t compete with books that are deemed classics, for one good reason. Those books are still around. Unlike in adult literary writing, where today’s writers aren’t competing with the giants of decades past, the nostalgia factor in the sale of children’s books is huge. I also think it’s a paradox of the art we work in that if we want to write something that endures, we must write the stories that matter to us and will resonate with children in a world that is vastly different from that of the 1970s. The word, in Paulo Freire’s terms, must connect the reader and the world.

Finally, don’t be too quick to write off today’s writers based on the overflow of cuteness on shelf at your local bookstore. If you can’t find indie bookstores with informed children’s/YA staff (and I know they’re scarce in many communities) scour library shelves instead. Get to know your local children’s and YA librarians. Read review journals and the many blogs that offer information and opinions on current books. Start making your own lists of books that speak to you, books that extend your thinking, books that make you want to read more, and books that make you want to write.

What I Learned from TeachingBooks.net

teachingbooks-logo-bookmark-smallTeachingBooks.net is a terrific resource for teachers, offering all kinds of information on books for young readers and the authors and illustrators who create them. They’ve been doing this for years. They started when the Internet was new and relatively uncluttered. One of the really useful tools they provide is a set of audio-recordings by authors and illustrators on how to pronounce their names. As someone with a long last name, one that may seem like an obstacle course to someone unfamiliar with it, I’ve been grateful for years to have my own little audio pronunciation guide on TeachingBooks.net.

And now I have new reason to be grateful to the good people at TeachingBooks.net, for inviting me to record brief audio about some of my books.  Listen! Here I am talking about Step Up to the Plate, Maria Singh, Book Uncle and Me, and Out of the Way! Out of the Way!

Sure it’s nice promotion for my books. But there’s more to my gratitude that this. I expected I’d just take this on as a promo task, one of things you do because you know it’s good for your books but really, you’d rather be working on your new favorite book, the next one! But in preparing for the recordings, I found out something about writing and reading.

I’ve known for years how to write so that a book sounds credible when it’s read out loud. But in my mind, reading out loud has usually meant reading an entire picture book or a chapter or two of a novel. It’s easy to pick out passages from novels that work well for, say, a bookstore  reading or a reading at a VCFA residency, where I have anywhere from 10 minutes to half an hour.

But TeachingBooks requested me to talk a little about a book, and read an excerpt–all within three minutes.  That meant the excerpt needed to be no more than 2 minutes long.

The picture book, naturally, posed no problem. The chapter book and the novel were another matter. All the passages I considered were either too long, or depended on the reader already knowing the background and context, or didn’t have a balance of dialogue and narrative, or didn’t have enough of a narrative arc. I realized that I needed all that for a reading of under two minutes. The opening scenes of both books came in at a little over three minutes so that wouldn’t do either.

I did manage to find a few passages that worked and was happy with the ones I ended up picking, but it made me think about how limitations of time and words can really push a writer not only to pick the best, strongest words possible but also to bring the underlying strength of a story to the surface.

The next time I revise a draft, I’ll keep this two-minute challenge in mind. I suspect it will help me spot and delete my more self-indulgent passages more efficiently.  Not that every scene needs to make the two-minute cut. But the prospect of reading a passage out loud within a limited amount of time isn’t a bad way to remain aware of the need for energy in a work in progress.

 

 

 

Hannah Moderow on writing Lily’s Mountain

 

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All photos courtesy of the author

When Hannah Moderow was my student at VCFA, she worked on a novel about a girl, a missing father, and a mountain. Not just any mountain but the iconic Denali, the tallest in North America. Her early draft contained striking elements of truth and beauty. It was difficult and moving. It is always hard to use a novel close to your heart as the vehicle for learning how to write a novel, but Hannah was one of those students you dream of, the kind who never flinches from hard work.

author photo-smallerI asked Hannah to write a guest post on the writing and publication of Lily’s Mountain. Thank you and congratulations, Hannah!

My dream to publish a middle grade novel began when I was a middle grade reader. In elementary school, I fell hard in love with books like Charlotte’s Web, Summer of the Monkeys, and Tuck Everlasting.

I knew then that I wanted to be able to create this kind of magic: words on pages that had the power to take readers into an imaginary world that could hold them and captivate them, if only for a few enjoyable hours.

Brilliant teachers throughout my life told me to keep writing… that I could become a published writer someday.

Thankfully they didn’t tell me just how hard it is to get a book published.

Flash forward to my early 20s. I’d finished my undergraduate degree in English and I had a big fat middle grade manuscript sitting on my desk. I went to a few writing conferences, and editors encouraged me to submit work.

This was back in the early 2000s when you still had to mail manuscripts to publishing houses.

LilysmountainAfter a few rejections that took months to arrive, I decided on a very cold day in Denali that if this dream to publish a book would come true, I needed to know more. I could read books and revise my manuscript a million times, but I felt like I needed more instruction… more feedback, more lessons, or more of something.

That’s why I applied to Vermont College of Fine Arts to get an MFA in Writing for Children & Young Adults.

I’d always known there was magic in middle grade novels, but I never could have imagined how much magic I’d find at Vermont College of Fine Arts.

For two years while pursuing my MFA, I was given the rare opportunity to indulge in the magic of writing. I worked with four different advisors over that time—including Uma!—and I read dozens of books each month while writing dozens of pages.

This was the one time in life where I was being told to play with words, play with stories, and revise, rewrite, and re-envision. Sometimes, my teachers told me my work was brilliant. Sometimes they told me to throw away everything I had just written and start over.

The best part was feeling that everyone in the program—teachers and students alike—seemed just as captivated by stories as I had always been, since those early days as an avid reader.

IMG_2154I started Lily’s Mountain while studying at Vermont College of Fine Arts (VCFA). From first draft to publication, the book took eight years to write.

Eight years spanning crazy milestones in my life. When I started the novel, I lived with two girlfriends in a house—our first attempt at being grown-ups after college. Midway through my MFA, I met Erik, the man I would later marry. Not too long after that, Erik suffered a spinal cord injury throwing a major mountain in our life.

We pressed on, and Lily was a constant companion while we were living in Seattle for a few months when Erik was in the hospital. For me, Lily became not just an imaginary girl in my imaginary story. She was a fellow traveler in this journey called life. Lily’s character morphed over eight years, and so did I.

VCFA did not save me from rejections. Lily’s Mountain was rejected by 47 editors. 47! There’s no magic in that. But I pressed on, buoyed by the wisdom of VCFA, and the friendships and mentorships that I received there. I remained hopeful that someday this story about a girl and her missing father, and the mountain that stood between them, might offer a little magic to young readers.

47 editors might have rejected Lily, but the 48th said “yes.” That “yes” made the dream to have a published book a reality.

I always thought life would feel different once I had a published book. It’s not as different as you might think. I love writing just as much, and I love reading just as much.

For me, the best part of being a published writer is imagining kids out there, even if it’s just a few of them, who open the pages of Lily’s Mountain and get to experience a few hours of magic that made me so sure that I had to grow up to become a writer.

I’m forever grateful to my teachers and fellow writers at Vermont College of Fine Arts for telling me and showing me that it’s worth it to keep on writing…and bringing magical stories to life.

 

 

 

The Tenderness of a New Draft

I’ve often wondered at my ambivalence about giving new work to someone else to read. I mean, I’ve done this for years. I do want to know what’s wrong with my draft. I know there’s always something wrong. I know I don’t have the judgment to see it yet. But sometimes, especially with something that’s really new and just developing, I really just want to be acknowledged. Let’s face it. I just want to be told what’s right.

So this post on Brevity’s nonfiction blog really spoke to me.  L. Roger Owens frames the whole complicated business of asking for feedback in terms that finally made sense. He begins with an anecdote about his 8-year-old daughter:

“You’re a writer, Dad,” she said. “You can give me some pointers, if you want.” In other words: Here, Dad, take the bait. This could be the last time I ever ask for your feedback.

How easy it would have been for me to declaim on showing versus telling, the importance of eliminating adverbs, writing with specific details (“Did he fall out of a tree or was it an oak?”). And then end my craft talk with a kicker-quote by Annie Dillard or Natalie Goldberg.

But I didn’t.

He goes on to talk about how to think through what you need at different times when you might ask for feedback, so you don’t need to end up shutting down your inner child. Instead, you just learn to shield her tactically.

I’ve discovered there is an art to asking for feedback, and if you learn it, you can get the kind of feedback you need, when you need it.

It’s good to remember that the self who makes me long for praise is the very one whose boundless energy throws up the best ideas for me in the first place. I don’t need to outgrow her, just channel her energy where it serves me best, and acknowledge that sometimes we all just need a little praise.

When Conceptual=Tiny

Picture book writer and VCFA graduate Kate Hosford sent me a link to this video from conceptual artist and miniature knitter Althea Crome:

Among her creations are the sweater and mittens that the title character wears in the 2009 animated film Coraline based on the book by Neil Gaiman.

Crome has pioneered knitting at the incredibly tiny scale of 1:12. She holds the title of fellow at the International Guild of Miniature Artisans (IGMA), and her process of creating her extreme art requires an incredible level of precision and skill.

What does it do to the subject you are looking at, to shrink it down on such a tiny scale? I tried it in my preferred medium, that is to say, words. I wrote notes for a story, setting no word limits. I read my notes, taking in the spirit that stirred the idea in my mind, made me rush to put it down.

I put the notes away.

Then I wrote the story, imagining it all taking place on a tiny scale, everything reduced, shrunk down to a miniature mental diorama. It ended up short and sharp and pointed, with very few wasted words. Not tiny, but definitely denser and tighter than it would have been otherwise. I ended the day feeling a little dizzy from the exercise. It sharpened my perceptions, allowed me to get closer to the heart of the story. Most of all, it allowed me to gain necessary distance from the initial words in my notebook.

 

Unraveling, That is to Say, Revising

IMG_2145Sometimes when you start to knit something, say a sweater, you think you know how. And maybe in a way, you do. You follow a pattern.  You choose the right needles. You try to do it right but for some reason it doesn’t quite work. The pattern, you find out along the way, is all wrong. It’s too boxy. The neckline will look misshapen. It’s longer than it should be. And you can’t see all this until you have knitted two-thirds of it. The yarn is still good. And you still have that vision of what you’re after. But you need a different pattern. Maybe no one’s actually got that template all ready for you. You need to make it up.

Welcome to the work of unraveling. That is to say, revising.

My work in progress is similarly two-thirds done, and today it needed unraveling. Not completely, I’m happy to say, but in at least two large chunks. It takes nerve to pull out that first thread but once I did, it was magical. I could see what was left behind so much more clearly. The shiny yarn, the heft of it in my hands, the feel of those rows of stitches waiting once more to be formed. All the stuff that drew me to knitting in the first place.

Loving the work is what makes it possible to yank it off the needles and pull that yarn loose. If you’re afraid of revising, maybe you don’t love the work enough.

Only unraveling it lets you see the qualities of the yarn, the potential that made you  dream of working with it.

Karen Rivers on A Possibility of Whales

IMG_2134Karen Rivers writes:

When I began writing A Possibility of Whales, I had an idea that I wanted to write an Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret for a new generation of kids, taking into consideration both all that is different about being twelve-going-on-thirteen in 2017 and all that is, in fact, still the same.

Nat loves her mother. Well, okay, she loves some tenuous idea of her mother. The truth is that her mother left Nat and Nat’s famous superstar dad, soon after Nat was born.

Yes. It’s complicated.

A Possibility of Whales (see my ARC, festooned with sticky notes) is a complicated book, its beautifully drawn young protagonist a collector of words in multiple languages, with deep interior longings and a generous, surging heart. I asked Karen to tell me more about how this book grew in her mind and on the page.

[Uma] Nat’s facility with words, her lively imagery, the synesthetic quality to her perception—these are delightfully eccentric traits and they make her entirely memorable. How did Nat grow into her particular kind of quirkiness?

[Karen] Nat’s childhood is unusual.   Her dad is famous and also very particular about what he believes – not owning “things” is a big part of that, he follows an experiences-not-stuff philosophy.  Nat is naturally synesthetic – something I also have but didn’t know had a label until very recently – but I also think her upbringing lends itself to a heightened interest in the intangible.   Her “collection” of words, for example.

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Photo courtesy of the author

[Uma] I was struck by how much you normalize the trans character, Harry. You pull the reader along so that after a while the issue of gender becomes secondary to the growth of the friendship. Talk about how where and how Harry’s character emerged and grew.

[Karen] I know a young man who is trans and I’ve been observing from a distance how his journey has unfolded.  One thing that I noticed in particular was that amongst his group of friends — from the time they were really young — he was just who he was, a boy like them, without question.  There were some decisions on the part of his school at the time that I still question profoundly, which must have been terrible for him, which were traumatizing even from an arms’ length.   But afterwards, the kids just moved on.   They didn’t give the fire (started by misguided adults) any air.  It gives me hope for a future where people are simply able to be who they are, period.

[Uma] I was fascinated by the sheer wackiness of Nat’s phone calls to The Bird, and how they turn into something tender and important in ways we can’t understand until the end. No plot spoilers here, but tell me how you made the entirely improbably scenario of an impulse/prank call feel so plausible?
[Karen] I think the call in the book works because The Bird can tell that Nat is nervous and that she isn’t setting her up as a punch line for a laugh. As an adult who happens to not be in a hurry, The Bird behaves in a compassionate way – she pauses, she listens, she waits to discover what the call is really about.  (What would it be like, I wonder, if everyone were to be like that all the time?  We’re always in such a hurry, always angling away from situations that feel as though they might demand something of us. I think the fact of listening–the impulse to NOT hang up, to not avoid someone else’s needs–that’s when we are the most human, when instead of rushing away from something uncomfortable or awkward, we pause and give it space.) The Bird listens, listening is a form of love, and love is all that Nat needs, that all of us fundamentally need, don’t you think?

[Uma] Listening is a form of love. There’s a thought for the impatient among us–that would, I must confess, sometimes be me–whose first instinct is to make the connections, complete the thought, move on with the conversation. Thank you for this book, which tells me instead to stop, to breathe, to listen. 

 

Kazuo Ishiguro on Not Taking On a Creative Project Lightly

IMG_2140As the year comes to an end, and those of us who live by words take stock of our own, why not also take advice from the very best? Emily Temple gathers up a nice stash of writing advice from Kazuo Ishiguro, beloved author of The Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go and our most recent Nobel Laureate in Literature.

Excerpt from Temple’s post on  LitHub:

Everything is built on the early part of the process. It’s important to be careful about what projects you take on, in the same way that you should examine someone you want to get married to. It’s different for everyone: should it be based on your experience, or do you write better at greatest distance, do you write best in a genre? Don’t take on a creative project lightly. —from an interview with Richard Beard.

That is up there with the best advice I’ve ever heard! Everyone always asks where writers get their ideas from. The truth is, ideas are cheap. Not every project that wafts through the mind will turn out to have staying power. Choose carefully.

I read The Remains of the Day in one big gulp years ago, and I still go back to it every now and then. It’s a beguiling dream that takes the reader through the narrator’s sad and lonely life. At the same time, it’s a critique of an unjust society that at once demands and ridicules his servility. And in the end, it connects the domestic world to the state of the larger world, to evils perpetrated there and to unwitting collusion with those evils. It’s a book that raises more questions than it answers and isn’t that the whole point? I also love that every book of Ishiguro’s is different. Each one is an experiment. Each one leaves its traces in my mind long after I’ve put it down.

This Globe and Mail interview offers a more personal view of a writer whose books I’ve long admired. Excerpt:

“I apologize to Margaret Atwood that it’s not her getting this prize. I genuinely thought she would win it very soon. I never for a moment thought I would. I always thought it would be Margaret Atwood very soon; and I still think that, I still hope that.”

And how about this? Ishiguro had been invited to attend the opening night of legendary Japanese director Yukio Ninagawa’s acclaimed production of Macbeth after the Nobel news broke, but decided not to go.

“We just had to cancel that because there will be Japanese press there and we just thought it might pull focus,” he says. “I thought it wouldn’t be right if people were trying to interview me about the Nobel Prize when they should be remembering the great Ninagawa.”

Isn’t that generous, courteous, humble, self-effacing, kind? Traits that are all in danger of going extinct in our time. Choosing carefully may be good advice for life as well.

Following the Story Trail at Highlights

I had a half day to myself at the end of a delightful Highlights Foundation workshop with my co-leader Cynthia Leitich Smith and our amazing TA, Sean Petrie, with visiting wonder-agents Ginger Knowlton and Elizabeth Harding of Curtis Brown, Ltd. I was left exhausted but my mind kept on buzzing. A hike seemed in order. The trails on the Highlights map beckoned. The sun came out. The birds chirped. The universe seemed to be urging me to step into the wilderness and find myself.

My two hour hike turned out to be a kind of living metaphor for the writing of any large work–a novel, a nonfiction book–where you can’t see the forest for the trees.IMG_2108

I got lost more than once. I followed the blazes on the trail.

The well-marked trail I was blazing with enthusiasm branched off into an unmarked ramble. There was a trail but it didn’t quite sync with the map.

The leaves crunched pleasantly under my feet.

I passed the same tree three times and each time I noticed something new about it.

I was uneasily aware that this was tick country.

A flock of blue jays diverted and distracted me so I lost track of time.

A major signpost pointed firmly to the last stretch–but was upside down.

Yup. All in a day’s work. Highly recommended. What’s the point of writing (or hiking) if you don’t take risks?