Friday, February 25, 2011

Children: Natural Born Storytellers

Anyone who has ever watched children play knows they are not merely building with blocks, squishing clay, or coloring with crayons. They are telling themselves a story the whole time, building a world and creating characters as they “play”. Because of that natural born love of a good story, it often doesn't take much to nudge a kid into a full scale writing geek.

I am often invited to schools to do presentations or author visits, usually with the hope that meeting an author will help get kids fired up about their own writing. Whenever I do these visits, I always ask the students the same question: Who likes to write? Around 50% of the kids raise their hands. When I ask the question again, this time adding, Who likes to write if you get to ignore all the rules,” 98% of the kids raise their hands. Hugely different response!

The following tips are designed to help remind your child—and yourself—that writing can also be a form of play; to help turn them into a story geek rather than a writing robot suffocating under too many rules. The goal is to reinforce those parts of writing that equal play in your child’s eyes and ignore the rest.
  1. Let them give rein to their natural enthusiasm and sense of play by ignoring the writing rules that make it feel like work. You want them to get in touch with that intuitive part of themselves that recognizes that writing and creating can be play. Rules can always be taught later, but a sense of joy, once lost, is very hard to recapture.
  2. Invest in nice quality notebooks and pens. It’s easy to dismiss the very kinesthetic pleasures of writing—the feel of a silky pen flowing across thick, smooth paper. High quality pens and notebooks can bring that extra pleasure to the act of writing. Plus it signals to them that this is a valued activity, one that can feel good physically and one that the adults in their lives value enough to indulge them in.
  3. Give them permission to not show anyone their work if they so choose (even you!). Some people need absolute privacy in which to experiment and risk failure, especially children who are used to doing exceptionally well at things.
  4. Do not critique their writing, even if they beg you. If they are dying for feedback, let them know what they did really well. Or better yet, ask them which part they had the most fun doing.
  5. As hard as it is for us adults, do not weigh down your child's writing with your desires, dreams, and ambitions. If you child loves to write and spends hours writing, do not begin pushing them to become a writer or enter writing contests or in any way burden their writing with expectations of careers or publication. Let writing be one area of their lives that is process oriented rather than result oriented.

[Originally posted at

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Bag of Tricks

I talked the other day about my handy dandy back of tricks that I use to coax my characters and stories to reveal themselves to me. As promised, I’m going to detail some of those in this post.

One of those is the brilliant old faithful by Debra Dixon, Goal, Motivation, and Conflict.

It’s a simple concept, one that is often overlooked due to its very simplicity. If you haven’t read Deb’s book, do try to find a copy to check it out because the depth with which she explains the concepts are very worth it.

Basically, Goal, Motivation, and Conflict (GMC) is making sure you know your characters EXTERNAL goal (what she wants) MOTIVATION (why she wants it) and CONFLICT (what’s standing in her way). IN ADDITION to knowing and understanding her INTERNAL goal, motivation, and conflict. The thing is, lots of us might want to be writers or senators or nurses, but chances are we all have very real, very unique, very private reasons we want those things. Doing this exercise ensures that you know what makes your character tick.

When thinking of an INTERNAL goal, it helps me to reframe that as the question, What is lacking in my character's life? What does she need to be fulfilled as a person? What Life Lesson does she need to learn?

I think of the internal motivation as the reason she needs to learn this lesson or the reason she has this great, gaping emotional hole in her life. What bad messages or poor choices she’s made in the past that have kept her from achieving fulfillment. And lastly, the internal conflict can be a couple of things: It can be what is compelling her to hang on to those old messages/lessons that keep her from moving forward, or what event/catalyst has to occur in order to move her forward emotionally.

Make a grid on a piece of paper and see if you can fill in those elements for your character. Even if you think you know them, oftentimes they change or solidify or evolve over the course of the story.

The second tool I use to suss out my characters is a cheat sheet I made from Donald Maass’s book, WRITING THE BREAKOUT NOVEL. He poses some great questions in that book, questions that really help me grow my plot from the seeds of my main character. One of the questions I work with in the beginning is: Define what truly matters to my character. Does she have a tortuous need, consuming fear, aching regret, passionate longing, burning desire, inner lack? (You can probably see that this ties directly into the INTERNAL goal from the above GMC.)

And next I begin character journaling. I begin writing about that character’s emotional scars and wounds. I poke around in her distant past to find out what might have caused them, how they developed, why they didn’t heal. The truth is, often two different people can experience a similar event--or the same event--and only one person is affected or traumatized by them. Because we all have different emotional baggage we're carrying around. I try to get at the heart of why THIS problem is so cataclysmic for THIS character that it tilts their world (either their inner world or their external world) on it's axis.

I try to become that character and see what my subconscious sends up in the way of character memories—often very surprising things bubble up—things that I did not consciously plan or think of, but are perfect nonetheless. Some questions I use to get started are:

When did things begin to go wrong for her? In what way? What were things like just before they went wrong? How did she try to fix things--if she tried at all? 

Another big benefit to journaling is that it helps me get familiar with the character’s voice. It’s like warm up drills on the piano keys before busting out into Rachmaninoff.

But for the last few books, I’ve been using other resources besides writing and plotting tools; I’ve added psychology books into the process and boy, is this helpful when I’m flailing around, trying to define my characters and their problems and their ultimate arcs. As I mentioned a few months ago, THE HERO WITHIN was invaluable as I wrestled with Ismae’s story in medievalteenassassin#1. This time around, it is Clair Pinkola Estes WOMEN WHO RUN WITH WOLVES that is saving my bacon for this second assassin book. Having said that, I think WWRWW works especially well for me since I write fantasy. Not sure how much help it would be if I wrote contemporary, realistic fiction.

As I leafed through WWRWW, I found invaluable clues to my character and not only what is at the root of who she is and why she behaves how she does, but what she will need in order to heal and grow. One thing I stumbled on this time around that I don’t remember reading before was the author’s descansos exercise. The book—and the exercise—is intended for individuals but I’m going to do it for my character. And that is, to make a timeline of all the little deaths of spirit and psyche my character has suffered (and she’s had a LOT—her past is very, very dark). Note each huge heartbreak and betrayal—whether actual or emotional, pay attention to where she felt abandoned or ignored, where she was forced to do things that were totally against her nature. Because all of those things that happened in her past inform who she is in the NOW of the story. They will give me the knowledge I need in order to understand how she will behave and react during the events of the story.

So now I’ve got all the subconscious juices flowing—and in the direction I want them to be flowing—and words and pages are accumulating at a satisfying pace. However, lest I end up with too sprawling or shapeless first draft ( I need something to let them flow into. That’s where the SAVE THE CAT template that I talked about a couple of weeks ago comes in. And I’m going to talk about how I marry those two together next week. But while you’re waiting, go and try a couple of these exercises and see how they work for you. Especially if you’re stuck or having a hard time bringing a character to life. Or if any have a similar types of exercises you use to help bring your character to life, I’d love to hear about them! I am crazy for writing exercises and processes. ☺

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Thinking, Stewing, Fermenting, and Percolating and the Joys Therein

For the past week I’vebeen cogitating on what an active part thinking plays in the writing process—or at least MY writing process. And then a few days ago I came across a blog post where someone was talking about how what people NEEDED to do to be a productive/professional writer was to sit down and write one page in an hour. They had done the math, you see. They figured out how long it takes to write an email and computed that into how long it would take to write a page, and if you did that three times during the day, voila! You would have a book—or three—by the end of a year. Mind you, this was a professional writer who made his/her living at writing. They firmly believed that all this thinking and researching and note-taking were simply procrastination measures and by and large useless and not-necessary.

It was all I could do not to pull my hair out by the roots and scream at the computer screen.

It would be one thing if this person had made it clear that it was THEIR process—but to extrapolate it out to the writing public at large was, at best irresponsible, at worst egotistical.

I have written over twenty books, and published thirteen of those. The longer I am involved in this writing gig the more convinced I become that the actual writing—putting pen to paper or fingers to keyboard—is sometimes only 20-30% of the writing process. Not because I’m avoiding anything or letting myself be sidetracked, but because good pages don’t just happen. They are thought about and pondered over. They stew and ferment and percolate. This is especially true as my books become longer and more complex. Depth and nuance doesn’t (usually!) just fall from the sky in a burst of inspiration while I happen to be pounding out my 250 words per hour. It can, but it doesn’t always. Most often, you have to go out and hunt depth and layers and subtext and club it over the head, drag it home, and then finesse it into your WIP.

Their point was that fast writers were much better and more likely to be true professionals that slow writers. Gah. Of course, that doesn’t even address the issue of those of us who write some books slowly and others quickly…

The funny thing is, I was wrestling with this very issue before I even stumbled upon this blog post. I had set my Start Date for the medievalteenassassin#2 as Feb. 1. As I said, I’d been gathering research materials and making notes and blocking out the big picture plot things. But try as hard as I might, the story egg was NOT ready to crack yet. Was. Not. Now sure, I wrote a couple of pages. And I could very easily have forced myself to stay there and write X number of pages until I have five pages each day. But what sort of pages would they be? The wrong ones, ones leading into a story I didn’t want to tell. Now sure, you can always fix a bad page—but sometimes committing too early to the wrong story is not helpful. Besides, I could have blindly put words on paper that had no depth, no nuance, no layered meaning, and no subtext, but whatever is the point?

So instead, I pulled out my bag of tricks that I fall back on time and time again to help dig around until I find my character and story. (My next post will detail those tricks—I pinkie swear!) Some, like the above referenced blog poster, would call that procrastination. I call it assembling the material from which I plan to craft my story. Sure, one can build something using any old materials one has on hand. Or. One can look long and carefully for the right materials, the ones that compliment and contrast, provide shadows as well as illumination, and are the best quality—the strongest and most aesthetically pleasing materials one can find.

All this ruminating and mulling bore rich fruit. I quickly realized I had started in the wrong place. Once I made the adjustment and backed up, the pages came much, much more easily. Where I had been eking out two painful pages a day, when I backed up and did the necessary story and character work, I was able to write 20 pages in three days. Not a record, by any means, but much more free flowing when they came from the right place. They are still first draft pages, but they have the bones and sinew of the story I am trying to tell, rather than no relation to anything I’m trying to convey.

So the point I am trying to make is that, no, there is no one formula or approach one has to take in order to be a professional working writer who can support themselves with their writing. Ignore anyone who tells you otherwise.

Saturday, February 05, 2011

The Speech Heard Round The Kid Lit World

Last week at SCBWI’s New York conference, Sara Zarr gave a speech that resounded powerfully with writers everywhere. The crux of the speech was about reclaiming our creative life from the demands of the market and the business side of publishing. There is a great recap of the speech here and here. It was a hugely important speech, and one that I think many, many writers needed—and wanted—to hear. To be given permission to put creativity front and center in their careers again.

I actually feel that I have done a fairly good job of arranging a creative life that sustains me. However, a couple things she said really resonated.

Most of us need to stop doing half of what we’re doing and start doing the other half well.

Yeah, I’m doing too much. I know it. I had hoped by giving myself a month off before starting a new book, I could get caught up and maybe even get ahead. And I did in a couple of areas, but not others. Some days, I am pulled in so many different directions, I hardly know where to start. I don’t think I can quite give up half of what I’m doing, but I can pare way down.

I’m going to cut way back on Twitter and, I think, give up Tweet Chats. Not that I’ve participated in all that many, but it is a bit of a mental pull, and that part I can eliminate. I’ll still pop on there occasionally, but I won’t try to catch up with everyone all the time.

I’m reducing my blog reading by 2/3. Out with all the industry and publishing news, the declarations of the death of the printed book, and the age of the E-Reader. I will keep up with one particular online series, because I think as an author I need to be informed, but not assaulted, which is how I feel sometimes with so much news. And is, now that I think about it, one of the downsides to Twitter—we are absolutely assaulted with news and links.

And yeah, thinking about doing a year long writing workshop here on the blog was a tad overambitious, especially with my Shrinking Violet and GeekMom commitments. Even more difficult though, was I can’t use samples from my work in progress, but the time required to figure out new examples was too much, and even worse, created a second story running through my head, crowding out the work. So I am going to give that up. I will still post craft stuff as I deal with it, but it won’t be quite as structured as I had hoped. Also? I will quit beating myself up when I don’t manage to get a new blog entry posted every week.

A creative life must be sustainable.

And frankly, as I get older my wrists and shoulders are barking at me to spend way less time on the computer. Not just on the computer, but writing in general. I get thumb sprain and index finger strain from writing so much with a pen. My wrists begin flirting with carpel tunnel when I spend too much time on the keyboard, and my shoulders are sick of mousing. So even though I don’t battle the M&M bowl, my current set up is not sustainable, at least not as far as my body is concerned.

It is hard, because I do so much research on the computer. Not just for the books, but for everything—colleges, health issues, politics, current events. Every little fact that crosses my path I usually feel compelled to research. Clearly I need to give some of that up and step away from the computer. So I’ll be doing a lot of that in the next few weeks as well as hiring an ergonomics person to come in and help me set up the most ideal environment for my aging joints.

A creative life should be engaging, expanding, not reduce you to word count and computer.

I have written three books a year for three years, and while I knew that was a sort of hyper-accelerated push, it is also important to realize it was not, nor was ever meant to be sustainable. I am feeling a huge need to step back into real life. It is so, so easy to default to the relationships I have online. I’m an introverted hermit, after all. But I want to do more walking and hiking and have weekly artists dates outside the house, spend more time with my parents and friends. Maybe do some volunteer work. Being so deeply in my writing cave for so long was exactly what I—and my career—needed. But now the need has passed and it’s time to expand my world once again.

So those are the thing that Sara Zarr’s speech gave me permission to do. What about you? Did her speech inspire you to shift things in any way for yourself?

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Announcing the Nathaniel Fludd Website

I'm so thrilled to finally be able to announce this news I've been sitting on for a couple of weeks. We have a brand, spanking new Nathaniel Fludd, Beastologist website!

Thanks to the brilliance of illustrator Kelly Murphy and her equally brilliant and talented husband, Antoine Revoy, Nate now has a home on the web! Please check it out when you get a chance. There is a bunch of cool extra content such as Nate's 'sketchbook' and a copy of the actual Book of Beasts, as well as the Fludd Family Tree, which shares some of the unique Fludd history.

It is meant to be explored by kids, and we will be adding new content regularly for their reading pleasure. Plus! There is a gallery of kid's fan art, so if your child is an artist, we'd be happy to feature their art.