Tuesday, October 31, 2017

On Writing Time and Mushrooms, from J.K. Rowling

on October walk 2017

"Be ruthless about protecting writing days, i.e., do not cave in to endless requests to have 'essential' and 'long overdue' meetings on those days. The funny thing is that, although writing has been my actual job for several years now, I still seem to have to fight for time in which to do it. Some people do not seem to grasp that I still have to sit down in peace and write the books, apparently believing that they pop up like mushrooms without my connivance. I must therefore guard the time allotted to writing as a Hungarian Horntail guards its firstborn egg." --J. K. Rowling

We are fully aware that books don't pop up like mushrooms, aren't we? But while I have a great support system and those who understand the effort that goes into writing, I fight my own battles for time. Do I really protect my writing days? Do I not cave into distractions and other self-imposed interruptions? Am I lax in guarding my allotted writing time from...myself?

Thank you, Ms. Rowling for giving us food (or mushrooms?) for thought. For these are good questions to ponder as the month comes to a close and another beckons.

How I do sometimes wish, though, that my ideas for books would materialize easier on the page like popping mushrooms. Oh, how much easier that would be!

How about you? Do you struggle with outside pulls on your writing time or with your own habits and proclivities?
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Sunday, October 15, 2017

On the Passion That Drives Our Writing

October 2017
"I do not believe you have to have children or be around children or act like a child to write for children. But I do believe that good children's writers share two characteristics with their readers: curiosity and enthusiasm. These qualities are what make books for young people such a joyful challenge to write and read: the ardent desire to learn more about the world, and the passion which that knowledge is received and shared." --Linda Sue Park, 2002 Newbery Award Acceptance speech for her book, A Single Shard.

Curiosity and enthusiasm. Ardent desire to learn. Passion. What wonderful words to define characteristics of a children's writer. I was inspired to look into advice from award-winning author, Linda Sue Park, when I realized I missed a great opportunity to actually hear her speak earlier this year at the SCBWI Northern Ohio Annual Conference. Oh, dear, maybe another time? But I was able to do the next best thing: check in with my friend, Peggy Harkins, herself author of a great fantasy book, The WindSinger (harkinsbooks.com), who did attend.

The theme of the conference, which was held this past September, was "Blazing a Trail: Your Creative Journey." Ms. Park, author of (among other titles) A Single Shard, A Long Walk to Water, and Kite Fighters, was the keynote speaker. She spoke on: "It Had to Be You: The Importance of Writing the Story That Only You Can Write."

Passion, it seems, is a big part of the answer to writing the story that only we can write.

Thoughts that Peggy shared from Ms. Park's message:

"A writer's passion must include a love for the written word, both writing and reading."--Linda Sue Park

"It's a big thing that you be passionate about the details of life. Everyone has some things they are passionate about. Those are the details that should go into our stories...(and) we are responsible to write the best stories we can. The formula? Passion + craft = 'magic.'" --Linda Sue Park

"Write about your passion and come back to your passion when you get stuck." --Linda Sue Park

All of this left me with a desire to discover what additional advice I might glean from such a talented author. A bit of research brought me to the following:

On the Fun in Writing: "What I like most: Reading well-written sources that take me to another world for hours at a time--and being able to call that 'work'! Also, of course, finding a gem of information that is either exactly what I was looking for, or else fits perfectly into the story in some way." --Linda Sue Park (Brainy Quote)

On Making Progress in Writing: "When I'm writing, I try not to think things like, 'Gosh, I have to finish writing this book.' Books are very long and it's easy to get discouraged. Instead I think to myself, 'Wow, I have this great story idea, and today I'm going to write two pages of it. That's all--just two pages.'" --Linda Sue Park (Brainy Quote)

On Vision in Writing: "I want all my books to provoke some kind of response in the reader, to make them think something or feel something or both, and for that to become a part of them and work into their own lives." --Linda Sue Park (Brainy Quote)

On Making Connections in the Writing Process: "Making connections has always been the most important element of story to me. Connections to another time and place and to my own ethnic background in historical fiction; connections to a character within the text; connections to people around us because of a text." --Linda Sue Park (2002 Newbery Award Acceptance Speech)

According to Peggy, Ms. Park mentioned some of her passions in her conference speech. They include baseball, gardening, and Korea. Based on my reading, I would suggest that libraries and librarians are a passion of hers as well. Check this out:

On Libraries and Librarians: "What people truly desire is access to the knowledge and information that ultimately lead to a better life--the collected wisdom of the ages found only in one place: a well-stocked library...To the teachers and librarians and everyone on the frontlines of bringing literature to young people: I know you have days when your work seems humdrum, or unappreciated, or embattled, and I hope on those days you will take a few moments to reflect with pride on the importance of the work you do. For it is indeed of enormous importance--the job of safeguarding and sharing the world's wisdom...The ability to read and access information isn't just a power--it's a superpower. Which means that you aren't just heroes--you're superheroes. I  believe that with all my heart." --Linda Sue Park (GoodReads)

And this passion seems to stem from a special link to her childhood. In Ms. Park's Newbery Award acceptance speech, she also said, in part: "Once upon a time there was a young Korean couple. They had been in America for only a few years, and their English was not very good...The young woman cut out...cartoons (ones that taught the alphabet phonetically, published in the city newspaper) and glued them onto the pages of one of her old college textbooks. In this way she made an alphabet book for her four-year old daughter...That was how my life as a reader began--like so many stories, with a mother. Mine continues with a father who took me to the library. He took me to the library. Every two weeks without fail..."

Wonderful, how varied and unique those things that lay the groundwork for our passions in writing.

Thanks to Peggy, I was inspired to look into not only the wisdom of a great author, but into my own space to see where my writing comes from, the passions that fuel the words I want to write. I've also pulled Ms. Park's book, A Single Shard, from its place on my shelf to re-read it and be inspired by her style and her passion. I may not have been able to attend the SCBWI conference this time, but the inspiring seeds sown there are still bearing fruit!

What about you? What words by Ms. Parks resonate with you? What are some of the passions that drive your writing?
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Thursday, September 28, 2017

September: Bridge Between Summer and Autumn

on late September walk 2017
Along the river's summer walk,
The withered tufts of asters nod;
And trembles on its arid stalk
the hoar plumb of the golden-rod. 
--John Greeleaf Whittier, American poet (1807-1892)

I don't think I ever really noticed the true colors of September before. If red and green are December's colors and orange and black speak October, I suggest that September claims purple and yellow as her signature. The goldenrod blooming wildly next to purple asters have been beautiful on this month's walks. Interestingly, the colors are complementary, sitting opposite each other on the color wheel. As one source says: combining complementary colors "creates a vivid and energizing effect." I think so!

September: a bridge between summer and autumn, decorated so brightly. What a pretty picture. Maybe we should tuck the colors in our hair and step sprightly across that bridge as we skip into the last quarter of the year? 

What complementary colors stir your energy bank?


"With daffodils mad footnotes for the spring,
And asters purple asterisks for autumn."
 --Conrad Aiken, American writer/poet (1889-1973) 
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Thursday, August 31, 2017

Charlie Brown, Summer's End, and Slowing Down Time

August 2017
"Sigh...there goes another summer, Snoopy!" --Charlie Brown

Seems like our family's littlest one might have been thinking the same thing at the playground the other day...

And so, with the thought of how fast the calendar year is speeding by, I was especially interested in an article posted by Elizabeth Spann Craig, Bestselling Cozy Mystery Author titled, "How to Slow Time for More Relaxed Creative Writing Sessions" by Colleen M. Story, author of Overwhelmed Writer Rescue. In the article, Story gives tips to "help you slow your perception of time so that when you do get a moment to write, you can approach it with a calm, relaxed state of mind."

Good stuff here. I appreciated her suggestions, especially "slow down your movements." Story continues, "When you purposely slow your physical motions down, you signal your brain that you have plenty of time, which helps you to feel more relaxed." Other tips are equally valuable. If you find yourself feeling stressed over not having enough time to write, you might check out this post. Conceivably the advice could help in other areas of life's time management challenges as well.

Except maybe the speed of passing summer days. Increasingly, they seem to be on speed dial :-)

Any advice on how to get a handle on time--in writing or otherwise?
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Monday, August 21, 2017

A Poetry Day, In Pictures

What a day made for poetry! An historic solar eclipse first of all--itself an amazing phenomenon. Though only a partial in our neck of the woods, we still felt its impact. But prior to that was a morning walk in which roadside flowers put on their own stylish display, albeit less dramatic. It's as if I'd been invited to one of Nature's poetry readings, filled with resonance, heart-lifts, smiles...

Although I have no personal snapshots of the eclipse, here are samples from my 'poetry' walk among the flowers (with quotes): 

"The poet doesn't invent. He listens." 
--Jean Cocteau, French writer (1889-1963)

"The poetry of earth is never dead." 
--John Keats, English poet (1795-1821)

"Poetry is the language of surprises." 
--Steven Taylor Goldsberry, The Writer's Book of Wisdom

"It is the job of poetry to clean up our world-clogged reality by creating silences around things." 
--Steven Mallarme, French poet (1842-1898)

"Poetry is not always words." 
--Terri Guillemets, quotations collector and founder of The Quote Garden

"Poetry begins in delight and ends in wisdom." 
--Robert Frost, American poet (1874-1963)

Poetry: a moment, a tug, an echo, an awakening. An experience, a discovery, a dance, a flight. A glimpse, a hint, a mystery, hope. 

poetry speaks in
heartprints but like fingerprints
no two are alike
                                    --Kenda Turner

Have any poetic moments spoken to you lately?
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Monday, July 31, 2017

Echoes in Our Own Backyards

John Rankin House, Ripley OH, Summer 2017
"The great eventful Present hides the Past; but through the din of its loud life, hints and echoes from the life behind steal in." --John Greenleaf Whittier

Ah, what a chance for the hints and echoes of the past to break through the walls of the present! We recently took a mini-road trip, hubby and I, to historical sites relatively close to our backyard. In all the years we've lived near them, this would be our first visit to each. We traveled just up the Ohio River from us and into eastern Ohio, branching off on seemingly back roads. Back roads to us now, but major points of activity over 175 years ago for the people back then. And what a group of people they were, as we were soon to find out.

John Rankin house
John Rankin House, Ripley, OH. The story of abolitionist John Rankin (1793-1886) and his family is amazing. I had already begun reading Ann Hagedorn's Beyond the River, the Untold Story of the Heroes of the Underground Railroad, and was fascinated with the in-depth account Hagedorn presented. I knew of the 'house on the hill,' and how a lighted candle would be lit night after night as a beacon for escaping slaves across the river in Kentucky. What I didn't truly comprehend, though, was the depth of compassion John Rankin--and others in this small town of Ripley--had for these shackled, oppressed people until I actually stepped into that house on the hill.
view of Ohio River from hilltop
These weren't just people you read about. These were real people whose stories stir our hearts, risking their lives to free others. Their children were also involved, often escorting fleeing slaves to the next 'station.' There were the beds they slept in, the kitchen fireplace where they cooked their food.  In a Cincinnati Enquirer interview (March 16, 2003), just after her book came out, Hagedorn was quoted as saying, "I was drawn to the people in the book because as a reporter I had covered crime for years...But after years on the crime, grime and slime beat, I really wanted to write about people with good values, people who did something bigger than themselves. People here were on the front line of the war against slavery simply because they wanted to do the right thing." It is estimated that over 2000 slaves passed through Rankin's care to freedom between 1829-1865. I echo Hagedorn's words, again from the interview: "And I learned things. I learned that the Underground Railroad was really about choices--the choice of slaves to escape, the choice of a free black (see J. P. Parker, below) to risk helping them and losing his or her freedom, the choice of white people to believe in racial equality enough to risk life and livelihood to help. There's a lot to be learned from people who made those incredible choices." Walk the original wood floors where these people walked, climb steps to upstairs rooms where Rankin's 13 children slept, look out over the wide river where desperate people risked everything to cross, and you'll feel the same way.

John P. Parker House
John P. Parker House, Ripley, OH. The Underground Railroad network in Ripley included a man born into slavery, John P. Parker (1827-1900). His story includes being sold at the age of eight and made to walk ragged and barefoot from his original home in Virginia to Mobile, AL, chained to other slaves. In Mobile he was sold to a doctor where the doctor's sons taught him (illegally) to read. Eventually he purchased his freedom and moved to Cincinnati. By 1849 he settled in Ripley. His story is also fascinating. He owned a foundry, working there during the day and helping fugitive slaves escape at night. During the Civil War, he was a recruiter for the 27th Ohio Volunteer Infantry (Colored) Regiment. He was a successful entrepreneur and inventor with at least three patents to his credit for agricultural inventions. Though we didn't get to tour this home (it was closed the day we were there), it stands as a testament to courage, determination, and vision. Parker's book, His Promised Land, the Autobiography of John P. Parker, Former Salve and Conductor on the Underground Railroad now sits on the top of my reading pile, close to Hagedorn's.


U.S. Grant Boyhood home
Boyhood Home of Ulysses. S. Grant. Ulysses S. Grant (1822-1885), 18th president of the United States, was born in Point Pleasant, OH and grew up in Georgetown, OH, just up the road from his birthplace. I've read some about President Grant, even did a post about him a couple of years ago (see  Moving Rocks, and Historical Figures) where I shared about a humongous rock that Grant, when 15 years old, moved into town from the local creek when none of the men could complete the task. I always thought I wanted to see that rock and now I can say I did! I also learned more about the man who became Commander of the Union troops and later President of the United States. More than that, I got insight into his childhood and the acquaintances and close associates that influenced him and his family. Many were deeply involved in the Underground Railroad in the area, a fact chronicled in a book I discovered while there:  Ulysses Underground, The Unexplored Roots of U.S. Grant and the Underground Railroad, by G. L. Corum. Another incredible book I scooped up!
rock moved by Grant, 2540 pounds

Oh, the whispers and echoes of that time that continue to resonate.

We also visited Kentucky Gateway Museum in Maysville, KY, and had supper at The Olde Wayside Inn, a restaurant on the historical stagecoach route called Zane's Trace. This old-time building at one time hosted such dignitaries as Andrew Jackson, Henry Clay, and General Santa Anna after his defeat in TX by Sam Houston following the Battle of the Alamo. The location and owners of the time also played a significant role in the Underground Railroad network.

All in all, it was a significant trip, effective in pulling back the curtain and letting the hints of the past filter into the mind, settle and percolate. I'm sure some of the threads will show up in my writing. For sure people I only once read about have become alive in my mind.

Are there places in your 'backyard' you always thought you'd visit one day but haven't? What are some of the local places of interest where you live that you would recommend others visit?
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Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Happy 4th, with an Erma Bombeck Smile

image courtesy Pixabay
"You have to love a nation that celebrates its independence every July 4, not with a parade of guns, tanks, and soldiers who file by the White House in a show of strength and muscle, but with family picnics where kids throw Frisbees, the potato salad gets iffy, and the flies die from happiness." --Erma Bombeck, 1927-1996, writer and columnist

Happy 4th to all! Hope your celebration is special and your potato salad stays fresh :-)

Familiar with Erma Bombeck?  She could sure offer up great humor, especially some of her takes on parenthood. Many times she managed to be funny and profound at the same time. She also was a prolific writer. Some of her titles include: If Life is a Bowl of Cherries, What Am I Doing in the Pits?; The Grass is Always Green Over the Septic Tank; When You Look Like Your Passport Photo, It's Time to Go Home; and At Wit's End.

Samples of her quips:

"Never go to a doctor whose office plants have died."--Erma Bombeck

"All of us have moments in our lives that test our courage. Taking children into a house with a white carpet is one of them."--Erma Bombeck

"Housework, if you do it right, will kill you."--Erma Bombeck

"I have a theory about the human mind. A brain is a lot like a computer. It will only take so many facts, and then it will go on overload and blow up." --Erma Bombeck

Hope you enjoy the holiday. What's your favorite picnic food or Fourth of July tradition? Do you have a favorite Erma Bombeck quip or story?
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Saturday, June 24, 2017

A Word from Washington Irving

June 2017

"There are certain half-dreaming moods of mind, in which we naturally steal away from noise and glare, and seek some quiet haunt, where we may indulge our reveries and build our air castles undisturbed." --Washington Irving

I've never done an official tally of the types of reading I do in a week, but selections often range from children's books to historical fiction, nonfiction, YA, inspirational, classics, history, poetry, devotionals, books at the library that catch my eye, and titles others suggest...it's no wonder I'm all over the map when I sit down with a book. This time it was a quote, particularly the one above, that sent me reading. All I knew about Washington Irving (1783-1859) was from my high school days when we had to read The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Rip Van Winkle. So who was this man? He speaks of things we can identify with: a writer's affinity for quiet moments and our need for space in which to build our stories. What else might he have added to the discussion?

Well, it turns out, quite a lot...

courtesy google images
1. Contributions. Washington Irving first and foremost is credited for perfecting the American short story. That's why his Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Rip Van Winkle (found in his widely popular The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon) have endured. If you have not read them in a while, you might want to--in retrospect they are quite a hoot. Ichabod Crane, the schoolmaster in Sleepy Hollow, infatuated with the local beauty, finds himself up against his rival for her hand, the reckless Brom Bones, and then...well, if you remember, there's a headless horseman who throws his head at Ichabod, the disappearance of the schoolmaster, and the later discovery of the man's horse, saddle, and...a smashed pumpkin. And Rip Van Winkle is the rather feckless and ne'er-do-well henpecked husband who disappears for twenty years. The humor in the situation is summed up in the story's final lines: "Even to this day they never hear a thunderstorm of a summer afternoon about the Kaatskill but they say Hendrick Hudson and his crew are at their game of ninepins; and it is a common wish of all henpecked husbands in the neighborhood, when life hangs heavy on their hands, that they might have a quieting draught out of Rip Van Winkle's flagon." You have to read the story to capture the picture in full!

"For my part," Irving once wrote, "I consider a story merely as a frame on which to stretch my materials. It is the play of thought, and sentiment and language; the weaving in of characters, lightly yet expressively delineated; the familiar and faithful exhibition of scenes in common life; and the half concealed vein of humor that is often playing through the whole--these are among what I aim at."

The Alhambra, courtesy google images
2. Travels and Positions. Irving was born to a merchant family in New York City. Later he traveled widely, especially throughout England and Europe, and eventually served in a variety of diplomatic positions including a term as U.S. Minister to Spain. There he had access to the American consul's extensive library of Spanish history which he drew upon to write A History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus. It was published in 1828. He also lived for a time in Granada, Spain in the famous Spanish castle, the Alhambra, built by the Moors in the 15th century and later home of Catholic monarchs. From this experience he wrote the book The Alhambra. It's a place of particular pull for me since I had the privilege of visiting there a few years back the first time my son and his family lived in Spain and with the fact that his family just recently relocated there again. Later, back in America, Irving wrote a number of books based on his travels to America's frontier.

3. Name and Other Associations. Yes, Washington Irving was named for George Washington. He was born on April 3, 1783, the week of the British ceasefire that ended the American Revolution. So his mother named him after the the war's hero, General Washington. When he was six, the two actually met when Irving's Scottish nanny approached the now first-president of the United States, who at this time resided in NYC, and said, "Please, your honor, here's a bairn named after you."

Irving later became friends with Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, won the admiration of Sir Walter Scott in Britain and Nathaniel Hawthorne in America, and also hosted Charles Dickens and his wife at his home during Dickens's American tour in 1842.

4. Marketing. Is it possible that Washington Irving pioneered the art of marketing a book? Well, his approach to selling one of his first books falls either into the category of marketer--or schemer. He wrote A History of New York from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty under the pseudonym of Diedrich Knickerbocker. It was a satire on local history, poking fun at the city's "Dutch elite" as it has been described. Prior to the book's publication, Irving set up his hoax. He placed a series of missing-person advertisements in New York newspapers, suggesting that Diedrich Knickerbocker, forthcoming author, had gone missing. Irving's ruse apparently generated a lot of interest. Sales of the book took off when it came out.

5. Stamp on Culture. And speaking of Diedrich Knickerbocker, think of the influence this one fictional character had on the culture then--and now: "In his attempts to embody the traditions of his city in an amusing form, Irving met with a success which must have astonished himself. Within forty years after The History was published, Knickerbocker insurance companies, Knickerbocker steamboats, omnibuses, bakeries, ice factories, and magazines were all profiting by the fame of an Old Dutch historian who had never lived at all, except in the imagination of Washington Irving. The Knickerbocker legend had become part of the national heritage" (source: American Poetry and Prose, Norman Foerster, Ed, Houghton Mifflin, 1960). Today we see the name associated with New York's professional basketball team. Another cultural vestige? In 1807, while collaborating with his brother William on the literary magazine Salmagundi, Irving ascribed the nickname Gotham ("Goat's Town") to the city of New York. This was way before Batman came along.

6. Encourager and Crusader. It has been said that Washington Irving was quite willing to help aspiring authors, including Edgar Allan Poe. "There is not a young literary aspirant in the country," a George William Curtis once noted, "who, if he ever personally met Irving, did not hear from him the kindest words of sympathy, regard, and encouragement." Also, because he himself struggled against literary "bootleggers," Irving championed for stronger copyright laws.

Maybe this is more than one wants to know about Washington Irving, but I found myself fascinated with this 19th century writer. His influence continued for generations. It's also been said that he had the attitude of a gentleman, "solidity of character, honor, courtesy, and kindliness," and a love of both the Old World and the New. Hmmm, maybe he's someone I'd liked to have met. At any rate, I sure identify with his words above. These may be what we used to call the "lazy-hazy" days of summer, but they haven't been so lazy around here. Seeking those quiet moments where air castles--or word pictures for us writers--is an ongoing quest. The swing above looks inviting. Anyone for a push?

Any special places that you seek out to find those quiet writing moments? What author, past or present, would you like to meet?
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Friday, May 19, 2017

Happy Moments in the Little Things

Tybee Island, GA 2017
"Perfect happiness is a beautiful sunset, the giggle of a grandchild, the first snowfall. It's the little things that make happy moments, not the grand events. Joy comes in sips, not gulps." --Sharon Draper

This time last week we experienced two out of the three 'little things' mentioned in the above quote: beautiful sunsets and giggling grandkids. Thankfully there was no snow!  It all came about when our whole clan (parents/grandparents, kids, kids-in-law, grandkids) gathered at Tybee Island Beach off the coast of Savannah, GA. There we enjoyed happy moments in the little things and tucked them away: collecting shells, jumping waves, morning and evening walks, climbing to the top of a lighthouse, exploring an historical city. Not to speak of the bedtime stories and meals shared together. All good stuff. We stored moments up, sipped and savored. Sharing a few of those moments in snapshots...

"People forget years and remember moments." --Ann Beattie

"We can only be said to be alive in those moments when our hearts 
are conscious of our treasures." --Thornton Wilder


"Well, that's what life is--this collection of extraordinarily ordinary moments. We just need to pay attention to them all. Wake up and pay attention to how beautiful it all is." 
--Alexander Payne


 
    "I always did something I was a little not ready to do. I think that's how you grow. When there's that moment of 'Wow, I'm not really sure I can do this,' and you push through those moments, that's when you have a breakthrough." --Marissa Mayer


"Do not the most moving moments of our lives find us without words? " --Marcel Marceau

Part of the reason for this trip and its collection of special moments came about because members of our family--our son and his family--are soon to embark on a move to Spain. There they will be afforded many new opportunities as they engage in work in the mission field, and so they will be blessed with their own very special moments as they establish their lives there. (They were there for a period of time a few years ago. I blogged about that here.) And so this one is for you, Keith, from one of your childhood favorites:

"It's a magical world, Hobbes, ol' buddy...Let's go exploring!"--Calvin from Calvin and Hobbes

What special moments have you tucked away in your heart recently? Ever been to Savannah, or to Tybee Island? Any special celebrations in your family coming up?
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Sunday, April 30, 2017

On Walks, Metaphors for Writing, and Mile Markers

on nature walk April, 2017
"When you're writing a book, it's rather like going on a very long walk, across valleys and mountains and things, and you get the first view of what you see and you write it down. Then you walk a bit further, maybe up onto the top of a hill, and you see something else. Then you write that and you go on like that, day after day, getting different views of the same landscape really. The highest mountain on the walk is obviously the end of the book, because it's got to be the best view of all, when everything comes together and you can look back and see that everything you've done all ties up. But it is a very, very long, slow process." --Roald Dahl

A long walk as a metaphor for writing a book? Perfect--especially for a those of us who thrive on walks and writing. Thanks, Mr. Dahl for the analogy.

Blogging is a bit like taking that long walk, too--all those steps (posts), vantage points (exploring so many subjects), rewards (friends and encouragement), and results (accumulated writings you wouldn't have otherwise). And then one day you look back and say: wow, look how far I've walked! 

This just happened to me. I blinked and realized my last post was number 400. How did that mile marker almost slip past? Sure didn't know starting out where this hike would take me :-) 

Any mile markers come along for you recently? What metaphor would you use for writing a book?
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Thursday, April 13, 2017

Latest, Most Favorite Feathered Friend: Carolina Wren

Carolina Wren April 2017
"A Carolina Wren stands on the neighbor's deck, belting out his song, repeated, repeated, repeated. His whole body stretches and bulges with the effort, and I wonder as I have many times before: How can so much sound come from such a tiny blot of keratin and muscle?...I still remember the scene vividly: the loud, pealing notes that drew me to a woodpile where a cinnamon-colored bird stood in the late-evening sun, quivering with life and an alien language. I was totally hooked." --David J. Ringer, audubon.org

I'm hooked now, too. The day stands out in my mind: out on my walk, going up the hill, and suddenly I'm hearing the prettiest song from a bird I'd ever heard. Distinct enough from the usual birdsong of the morning to tell me there must be a new feathered friend in the neighborhood.

Startled by the tune, I looked up into the trees at the side of the road and discovered this little guy, pictured above. I'd never seen a bird like this before and was glad I had my camera along in order to capture the moment. A truly serendipitous moment. It was as if he was posing just for me.

What is uncommon to some, of course, is common to others. On my return home, I immediately sought out information, first finding out the bird's name--the Carolina Wren--and then discovering that it is the state bird of South Carolina. Obviously more common there than here in Ohio, it generally prefers warmer climates. But, as I learned, this species of bird will extend its range further north if winters there are mild--which was the case for us this year. 

And I was right to be surprised by its song. The bird's music volume far outweighs its size. This wren has even been described as the "terrier of birds"--acting and sounding like it's 5Xs bigger than it is. It also has a repertoire of dozens of different song variations. Samples: twee-dle, twee-dle, twee-dle; jul-ee, jul-ee, jul-ee; and ger-man-ee, ger-man-ee, ger-man-ee.

Fun, flighty, fascinating. A most favorite encounter for me this week...

Are sightings of the Carolina Wren common in your neck of the woods? What rare sightings of bird have you ever seen? Any fun, flighty, fascinating or favorite encounters (feathered or otherwise) in your life recently? I hope so. We certainly can all use a lift!

Bird Food for Thought:
"The very idea of a bird is a symbol and a suggestion to the poet. A bird seems to be at the top of the scale, so vehement and intense is his life, large-brained, large-lunged, hot, ecstatic, his frame charged with buoyancy and his heart with song." --John Burroughs

"There are joys which long to be ours. God sends ten thousands truths, which come about us like birds seeking inlet; but we are shut up to them, and so they bring us nothing, but sit and sing awhile upon the roof, and then fly away." --Henry Ward Beecher

"The author O. Henry taught me about the value of the unexpected. He once wrote about the noise of flowers and the smell of birds--the birds were chickens and the flowers dried sunflowers rattling against a wall." --Chuck Jones

"When we 'lose our mind' and 'come to our senses' in the fullest possible way, the chattering, texting, e-mailing, twittering mind will eventually quiet down and almost silence itself. This is a sacred and connected silence...It's like a deep, still pond reflecting the stars of the night sky. I believe this is the baseline for human consciousness, and I'm convinced that the birds are the best mentors in the natural world for bringing us to it." --Jon Young, What the Robin Knows: How Birds Reveal the Secrets of the Natural World
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Monday, March 27, 2017

On Creeks, Mucking Around, and the Writing Process

March 2017
"People sometimes ask me to quantify how much time I spend in the different stages of the writing process. That's a tough question. If you held my favorite teddy bear hostage and forced me to answer, I'd say roughly 5% goes to Pondering and Mucking Around, 15% is spent Scribbling, 70% is Boiling Down the Bones, and 10% is figure out how to Craft Chords and Singing." --Laurie Halse Anderson, madwomanintheforest

Adventures in the creek happen occasionally around here when hubby takes grandkids exploring. This was the case recently (kids ages 8, 6, and 4). They think it quite a lark--at least this time of year when the mosquitoes haven't come out yet.  There are stones to overturn, salamanders to find (they call them geckos), elusive crawdads to search for, splashings, rock skippings,  and balancing acts on tipping rocks. Although they did bring usable footing for the occasion (rubber boots, crocs, and flipflops), they still came in the house with wet pantlegs and dirty feet--and of course stories to share. But that's par for the course when mucking around in the creek on a Sunday afternoon. (photo sans kids: an after-the-fact re-creation since neither I nor my camera accompanied the original exploring party)

Laurie Halse Anderson (above quote) divides her writing process into percentages, saying that  5% of her process is spent "pondering and mucking around." Doesn't that tell it like it is in the first stages of writing? I love her creative way of describing her practices and found these treasures when I visited her blog at madwomanintheforest. And what prompted me to go there? I just finished reading her fantastic Seeds of America Trilogy (Chains, Forge, and Ashes), was moved and inspired by the stories, and wanted to learn more about the author.

About the Seeds of America Trilogy, from Amazon:
"What would you risk to be free? It’s 1776 and Isabel, Curzon, and Ruth have only ever known life as slaves. But now the young country of America is in turmoil—there are whisperings, then cries, of freedom from England spreading like fire, and with it is a whole new type of danger. For freedom being fought for one isn’t necessarily freedom being fought for all…especially if you are a slave. But if an entire nation can seek its freedom, why can’t they? As war breaks out, sides must be chosen, death is at every turn, and one question forever rings in their ears: Would you risk everything to be free? As battles rage up and down the Eastern seaboard, Isabel, Curzon, and Ruth flee, separate, fight, face unparalleled heartbreak and, just like war, they must depend on their allies—and each other—if they are to survive..." 

Loved this series. Ms. Anderson is also the author of the award-winning YA contemporary novels Wintergirls, Twisted, and Speak, along with numerous other books.

She is an engaging writer. And it's always a treat to get a glimpse into a successful author's life. She elaborates on her methods in her post, "The Bones of the Writing Process--Part 1", where she describes the stages of her writing process as:
  • Pondering
  • Mucking Around
  • Scribbling
  • Abandonment
  • Boiling Down the Bones
  • Chords
  • Singing
  • Storytelling

Of Mucking Around, she says: "When the idea takes solid shape--I know a bit about the character and I think I know a couple of the book's important moments of conflict--I start jotting things down. I play a lot of 'What if' games and start exploring the relationships..." (note the word exploring!Of Scribbling she means the first draftOf Boiling Down the Bones and Crafting Chords: "Let me explain that last 80%. It's rather important. Other people call it Revision."

And Singing? "You've got chords now so you can sing! With your imagery in place, with your plot and character development in place, now you can really plunge into the vast ocean of language and come up with precisely the right words to elevate your prose to a new level."

I don't suppose she had creek beds and salamanders in mind when she visualized this imagery (though maybe she did!). But her words help us traverse the rocky streams of writing and come out of it with a sense of discovery, and with our own stories to share. I've done my share of mucking around in this latest project, but that's okay. I'm like a kid making discoveries in the creek. Although I am looking forward to hearing those chords sing.

How about you? What stage are you in? Have you read any of Ms. Anderson's books? Do you have a favorite series of books you would recommend?

And if you want to see one amazing writer's cabin, check out the youtube video: Mad Woman in the Forest Gets a Cottage. Custom built for Ms. Anderson, it's a place to dream of. It even has a magic window. You'll wish you could put your boots on and truck over to a place like that for all your writing needs. 
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Saturday, March 11, 2017

March Classics

March 2017
"It was one of those March days when the sun shines hot and the wind blows cold: when it is summer in the light, and winter in the shade." --Charles Dickens, Great Expectations

It was one of those kind of March days around here today. Mr. Dickens (1812-1870) hit it right on the mark from where he wrote all those years ago. His description makes me want to revisit his books. It's been many years since I've read either Great Expectations or A Tale of Two Cities. I'm thinking maybe it's time?

Opening words to whet the appetite:

Great Expectations: "My Father's family name being Pirrip, and my christian name Phillip, my infant tongue could make of both names nothing longer or more explicit than Pip. So, I called myself Pip, and came to be called Pip."

A Tale of Two Cities: "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair..."

If you were to revisit a classic, which title would you choose? What about the classics is special to you? How are the opening lines of your books (short stories, poetry, memoirs) coming along?
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Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Revisiting the Basics: Antagonist

photo courtesy pixabay
"Protagonist drives the plot forward. Antagonist tries to stop him." --Melanie Anne Phillips

I've been crafting character sketches lately as I draft my WIP and am finding it helpful to continue a review of story-writing basics (my previous revisit was on scene, here). This time? The antagonist! My first stop was to tap into Laura DiSilverio's article, "6 Ways to Write Better Bad Guys." Ms. DiSilverio introduces her topic with a tongue-in-cheek take from the antagonist's point-of-view: "Dear Author, we antagonists, villains, bad guys, femme fatales--call us what you will--don't get no respect. We're overlooked, underdeveloped and squeezed into a space that would cramp your average gerbil. When we get short shrift, your books aren't nearly as good as they could be. They lack tension and depth. They're forgettable. Not that I'm one for pointing fingers, but I've got to tell you, it's your fault...Sincerely, Eva N. Carnate"

*Smile* This fun intro sent me on a quest to return to, re-evaluate, and re-establish the roots of my story's antagonist. Some points I've gathered along the way:

1. First, Just Who is the Antagonist? From Literary Devices: "In literature, an antagonist is a character or a group of characters which stand in opposition to the protagonist or the main character. The term antagonist comes from the Greek word 'antagonistes' that means opponent, competitor or rival. It is common to refer to an antagonist as a villain (the bad guy) against whom a hero (the good guy) fights in order to relieve himself or others...The antagonist opposes the protagonist in his endeavors and thus the conflict ensues."

2. How Important is the Antagonist? In Ms. DiSilverio's article (above), she follows up on her fictional correspondence with her antagonist by saying, "I don't know how the above email got into my inbox, but it caught my attention immediately. Did Eva have a point? It didn't take me long to review my work-in-progress, analyze some novels I'd read recently and realize that she did. Many authors are guilty of discriminating against their antagonists. Yet, they're just as important to good stories as the protagonists are. If your antagonist is not fully realized, lacks depth or is a caricature of evil, your story will suffer." She follows up with six great points toward making your antagonist more compelling--helpful reading for sure.

3. Understanding the Role of the Antagonist. The antagonist not only sets the tone, but also sets the stakes and defines the hero, this according to Danyelle Leafty in her article A Case for Villains. It's a tall order, but Ms. Leafty gets to the essence of the subject with this story-equation: "no villain=no conflict=no plot=no point."

4. What Should We Know About Antagonists? This from Chuck Wendig's article 25 Things You Should Know About Antagonists: Opposition is key. "Character is the driver. Plot is the getaway car. Character drives plot; plot does not drive character. The antagonist isn't just here as a rock in the stream diverting the plot-churned waters--he does not exist in service to a sequence of events, but rather, he exists to change them, sway them, turn them to a sequence he wants--a sequence that stands in opposition to the protagonist. For opposition is key."

5. What Makes a Strong Antagonist? Janice Hardy spells out ten traits in her article, 10 Traits of a Strong Antagonist. Highlights include "...a strong antagonist is trying to accomplish something"..."is hiding things"..."is in the path of the protagonist's goal." She concludes, "An antagonist who never crosses path with the protagonist isn't much of an obstacle. She needs to cause the protagonist hardship and trouble over the course of the novel, even if she's not doing it deliberately. Her plan and actions can cause trouble even if she's not yet aware the protagonist is fighting her. But at some point, these two will come face to face and only one will win."

6. The Antagonist's Position. Melanie Anne Phillips writes about this in her article, The Archetypal Characters: Protagonist and Antagonist: "The Protagonist represents our Initiative, the motivation to change the status quo. The Antagonist embodies our Reticence to change the status quo. These are perhaps our two most obvious human traits--the drive to alter our environment and the drive to keep things the way they are...The important thing is that the Antagonist must be in a position in the plot to place obstacles in the path of the Protagonist. Since the drive of the Protagonist is measured by the size of the obstacle he or she must overcome, it is usually a good idea to pick the character who can bring to bear the greatest obstacles."

Every hero, as they say, needs a challenge. The antagonist provides that challenge by way of opposition, conflict, obstacles, hardship and trouble. He or she is a competitor, a rival, the antagonistes. The one who creates the tension that keeps a reader reading.

How do you define antagonist? How does a compelling antagonist hold your attention and keep you reading? What tips do you have for creating such an antagonist--and for keeping Eva N. Carnate from writing to us?!
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Thursday, February 9, 2017

A February Writing Tip

image (rotated) courtesy pixabay
"Here is a trick that painters know. They will often turn a picture upside-down to see if it works. Upside-down the painter cannot count on reading the actual figures, only the composition. Well, we can't read a story or poem upside down, but we can do the equivalent..." --Jane Yolen

My favorite writing tip of the month comes from the website of the amazing author and poet, Jane Yolen, on the subject of revisions. The above quote continues: 

"...Take a story or chapter and break it up into breath spaces (emphasis mine, I like this concept) as if it's a poem. Write it down that way. You will very quickly see where you have overwritten a piece, where your repetition is not helpful but just a mistake. When you see a cliche on a single line, it leaps out, grabs you by the throat, threatening to silence you. This is also true with poetry. Break the lines down into the smallest groupings possible. Suddenly the errors are appallingly clear. They wink at you like neon lights."

I'm tucking this piece of advice into my notebook of revision tips. How about you, any tips you turn to in order to see your manuscript through fresh eyes?
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