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I’m mucking around south-central Africa in the year 1873.
I’m navigating my way through the heart of a story that started out as a faux-memoir about a journey into the “heart of darkness.”
Just when I felt sure I had morphed into pure fiction, I meet Dr. David Livingstone. On his deathbed.
David Livingstone, explorer and not-so-evangelical missionary, desperately needs help penning a letter—a response to a dispatch from his patrons in Europe. They have long been worried about his health and now they’re begging him to pack it in.
Give it up! Enough is enough!
Livingstone has been years on the move in search of the source of the Nile. He’s so close he can smell it. And they want him to Come home!
“Tell them,” Livingstone says, “Tell them I’ll go anywhere…as long as it is forward.”
I’ll go anywhere, as long as it is forward.
There’s a mantra for a fictional protagonist.
My journey to Livingstone’s bedside begins with my literary slog up a tributary of the Congo River toward the heart of darkness. This is my work-in-progress, The Writer in Love. At the farthest reaches of this personal essay, the would-be protagonist (me), bogged down in a swamp-forest and despairing of not reaching the heart of his story, realizes he has “run out of geography.”
The protagonist runs out of geography.
I like the sound of that. It suggests the end of the plot within the realms of space and time. The story comes to a stop. Every good story grinds to a halt. Every worthy protagonist travels so far from home that he “runs out of geography.”
And yet the story is far from over. The major issues remain unresolved. So what happens? What happens to the most determined protagonists after their writer has (out of loving compassion) eroded the ground beneath their feet?
The hero moves forward in another realm.
Oh, really? Is that even possible? Does a study of fiction bear that out? More importantly, does it happen for real, in real life?
But it is a real-life story that presents the most compelling evidence of an adventurer running out of geography. Conveniently, the event took place not far beyond the headwaters of the Congo River basin. Only three pages of narrative away—that’s all it takes!—and here I am at Livingstone’s deathbed helping him write that letter.
I’ll go anywhere as long as it is forward.
“Forward” served Livingstone as an article of faith in a vocation rife with disappointments, disillusionments, and dead-ends. It pushed him past the point of no return. It pushed him until he was running on empty, and it kept pushing him until malarial dysentery dissolved his intestines and he could no longer walk. Even then he didn’t want sympathy, didn’t allow his expedition to stop. They carried him until that became unendurable.
Now he lies dying in a daub and wattle hut. There being nothing more he wants from me, it is time to leave him alone.
At the door of the hut I turn to wish him Godspeed or whatever one says to someone about whom it is written* that they will die before dawn. Incredulous, I see that he has mobilized himself off his deathbed to a kneeling position beside his cot. I suppose he’s praying but look again—his palms are open upward. He’s not begging for anything, no, he’s offering. Offering what? What’s he got left?
Livingstone’s credo, like an inner flywheel still spinning, animates him even at death’s door. Forward! But to where? Can you imagine the nature of such a movement?
The Writer in Love is my attempt to explore that movement in fiction.
It is a protagonist’s forward motion in the aftermath of running out of geography that marks him or her as heroic. And if heroic strikes you as grandiose, then I invite you to consider that this everyday miracle (more so than the story’s climax) is what ultimately nourishes a reader.
Rick Blaine nourishes us in Casablanca. Likewise, Charlie Allnut in The African Queen. And the baroness Karen Blixen in Out of Africa. Their plots deliver each of them to the bitter end of who they thought they were. And if the protagonist isn’t exactly dying, he/she wishes they were.
Only now does our investment in their story pay off. The heroic disposition kicks in. Here at the deathbed of David Livingstone I’m seeing it with my own two eyes.
Dr. Livingstone has been beating his way around this African bundu for thirty years in the name of God and the Royal Geographic Society. His mapmaking days are over, he has run out of rivers and waterfalls and mountains. He has run out of time.
And yet as I watch Livingstone on his knees I feel no sadness at all. He may have run out geography but that’s so yesterday. The body is dying, sure, okay, I may even shed a tear for him, but corporeal does death not a tragic story make. Especially not when the protagonist on his deathbed says:
I’ll go anywhere as long as it is forward.
Instinctively a reader understands that the protagonist who empties himself has escaped the prison of his small self.
Look at Livingstone—he is still emptying himself. At the heart of the story, the protagonist discovers it’s the only way to move forward.
We don’t entirely understand how it works or where he’s going. It certainly doesn’t serve a protagonist to know such things. It’s only after the fact that we learn our trajectory was never other than toward this blessed emptiness.
As a wrap up to this piece, I’ll leave you with an account of David Livingstone’s death, as reported by his African lieutenants when his body—minus his heart—was delivered up for transport back to England:
Dr. Livingstone was kneeling by the side of his bed, his body stretched forward, his head buried in his hands upon the pillow. For a minute they watched him: he did not stir, there was no sign of breathing; then one of them, Matthew, advanced softly to him and placed his hands to his cheeks. It was sufficient; life had been extinct some time, and the body was almost cold: Livingstone was dead.*
* from The Last Journals of David Livingstone (1869-1873).
Here is an example of a reply from a query to an agent.
Thank you for giving the XYC a chance to consider your work.
Unfortunately this is not right for us. We are replying as soon as possible to give you the best chance of finding the right agent. We specialise in commercial fiction tailor made for the mass market and therefore we have to be confident of substantial sales quantities before taking on a new project.
We receive over 300 manuscripts a week and can only take on a handful of new writers every year. The result is that we have to be incredibly selective so don’t be disheartened, another Agency may well feel differently.
We wish you the best of luck elsewhere. Due to the large volume of submissions we receive we regret that we cannot enter into any further correspondence about your work.
So how do I look at this negative response?
As a writer you cannot be deterred by the opinions of status quo agents. They must do what they believe in and so must I. Myself and my work.
I continue to rewrite and complete my novel. Send out a few more queries to selected agents and self-publish.
Over the years I have encountered a few creatures dwelling in my mind that can impede growth. Fortunately, these critters can be trained and kept in check. Below are my field notes from my experiences with the three most common species.
The Ego (Vanus Fragilis)
Habitat: Your mind Diet: Flattery and attention Habits: Strictly solitary
The Ego is a sensitive soul. It craves reassurance and takes failure quite personally. Desperate to convince itself that it is valuable, the Ego and will avoid situations where failure might occur. “Don’t enter the contest, don’t send the manuscript!” the Ego will plead, because it’s easier to say I didn’t try than I didn’t succeed.
Unfortunately for the Ego, failure is a necessary part of growth. We learn the most when we push ourselves out of our comfort zones and try new things. The best way to succeed is to increase our failure rate, and the best way to learn is to face our failures head on and look at what worked, what didn’t, and why.
Tips for Tempering an Ego:
Avoid overfeeding. Egos gorge themselves on attention.
Remember: The Ego is not you—it just lives in your mind.
Set up a nice little Ego-cage in the back of your mind where it can stay out of the way.
Stay away from junk foods like flattery, which lead to a bloated and irritable Ego.
The Critic (Incuso Virosa)
Habitat: Your Mind Diet: Negativity Habits: Venomous. Often nocturnal, brings up worries at bedtime.
A wild Critic can lash out at your work (or life in general) with potent venom. “You aren’t talented enough,” the Critic will whisper in your ear. “Look at this other person’s work. It’s so much better.” The Critic will dredge up your mistakes and mockingly parade them before your eyes at your moment of greatest weakness.
As terrible as it sounds, A Critic can be helpful if it is trained to come out only when needed. The Critic is handy when deciding which thumbnail composition is better and why, or editing that manuscript in the second draft. But if it starts telling you that everything you make is garbage or that you’re not nearly as good as so-and-so, it’s time to go back in the kennel.
Tips for Coping with a Critic:
Use a muzzle to keep it from biting
Feed it as little negativity as possible.
Don’t let the Critic’s words become your own.
It’s okay to tell it to settle down. (Yes, out loud. Try it, I dare you!)
Critics shy away from laughter and fun. Remember fun?
Surround yourself with positive, encouraging people.
The Sloth (Choloepus Languidus)
Habitat: Your Mind Diet: Inactivity Habits: None
The sloth really wants you to succeed. It does. But it would rather not give up its Netflix marathons and surfing Facebook on its phone.
The Sloth is the creature that will tell you that your first thumbnail is good enough. Why bother trying other compositions? It will discourage you from taking those figure drawing classes you need, because that sounds like a lot of work after all. If you have a feeling that you need to work on your craft but you never seem to get around to doing it, you might be contending with one of these creatures.
Not to worry! Sloths can be trained. When properly employed, a Sloth can stop you from becoming a perfectionist, particularly on the projects that just aren’t worth the time. If you’re getting paid a pittance for an illustration, it probably isn’t time to make the Mona Lisa. All it takes to train a Sloth is a little bit of priority shifting and the adoption of some new habits.
Tips for Training a Sloth:
Track your time and identify distractions.
If online distraction is a problem, you can use LeechBlock (Firefox) or StayFocused (Chrome) to limit the sites you can visit during specific times.
Put your phone out of reach and turn off notifications.
Force yourself to work on a project for just 20 minutes. Chances are good that the Sloth will slink away as you start to have fun with the project.
Work at a consistent time. Find a schedule that works for you.
In a Nutshell:
If you have a Critic, Ego or Sloth, don’t beat yourself up over it. It’s normal! Identify the species that is impeding your growth the most, and take a small step this week to help tackle it.
This post was also published on the Kidlit Artists blog.
The lovely and brilliant Melissa Wiley recently tagged me for this, and though I almost never blog, it seemed like a fun thing to do, in part because I’ve just finished a manuscript, and am thinking a lot about process, in retrospect.
But before I answer the tour questions, you should know that Melissa’s book, The Prairie Thief, would make a wonderful summer read for anyone who likes my books. (Melissa and I share a lot of the same literary loves). SLJ called it : “A charming, inventive tale that reads like a delightful mash-up of Little House on the Prairie and The Spiderwick Chronicles…Mystery and suspense keep the pages turning. [A] top-notch story.” Also, look how cute it is!
Okay, so, here are the questions, and my answers…
WHAT ARE YOU WORKING ON?
I always have a slew of open files on my laptop. So much so that it’s a little embarrassing. I also work on certain picture book manuscripts in hard copy, longhand– things I need to see laid out across the page. Currently I’m fiddling with a Choose-your-own-adventure book called Oh, Snap! as well as a followup book for Charlie and Mouse (2016, Chronicle), a little chapter book attempt called Tula Bloom Runs Away, (about a snarky fairy and an elderly unicorn named Bob), a collection of songs for neglected holidays, and some poems.
That said, I generally have one main project I’m focused on. This year it’s been a novel called The Orphan Island, which I just finished up a draft of. It’s a weird one. A story about 9 kids who live alone on a well-stocked (and slightly magical) island. Every year a boat arrives at the island, and carries away the oldest child, leaving a new toddler in his/her place…
HOW DOES YOUR WORK DIFFER FROM OTHERS IN ITS GENRE?
Oh, wow. I don’t know. My books are all in dialogue with classics, I think. My books are all stand-alones. My books are all just a little bit magical. My books rarely have villains in them. I don’t believe in villains, I don’t think.
WHY DO YOU WRITE WHAT YOU DO?
I don’t know how to answer that question.
I write what interests me. I write until I make myself cry, or laugh, or until I get stuck and confused.
Maybe I try write the books my child-self would have wanted to read? I write books that help me learn things about human nature, that teach me something about the world, that let me think about and wrestle with questions I find worthwhile.
I write a lot of books that can never be published. I also write a lot of adult poems nobody will ever see.
In a lot of ways, I’m very selfish. I don’t want to please the largest number of kids possible. I don’t think about reluctant readers. I don’t think about sales or the market, really. At least not when I’m drafting. I think about language and ideas. Writing is a puzzle for me. When the result is a book, that’s great! When it isn’t, that’s also pretty great.
HOW DOES YOUR WRITING PROCESS WORK?
I scribble. I write down ideas in a little notebook I carry with me, or a box of post-its I keep beside my bed. I often open up a blank document, type one sentence in it, and then forget I did that.
Eventually, if that scribble sticks in my brain enough that I remember it exists, I go back to it. I stare at it. I try to figure out if it might be worth keeping. Sometimes the scribble gets fit into a WIP, and sometimes the scribble becomes a first line or a title. Often with picture books, I sit down with the scribble, and the words tumble out, and in an hour I have a book. Usually, that book isn’t worth showing to anyone or revising. I have hundreds of “failed” projects like that.
With novels, I usually begin with a question. For Bread Box the question was, “What if a kid could wish for anything they wanted, but then they discovered they were stealing?” For Seven Stories Up, the question was, “Can one person ever really change another person?”
The hardest part with the novels, for me, is sitting down to start. Believing that the question I’m asking is worth spending a year on. I think about the question, develop the characters, sketch out an outline. And eventually there’s a day when I take a deep breath, and start typing. That’s the hardest part for me. The first paragraph can take weeks. And then, ALWAYS, I end up slicing the first page off the manuscript. After all that, it never sticks.
But I write. And I write. And eventually, I have a draft. I use an outline, but it always shifts and changes, as the book grows. As I write, I get to know the characters better, and I come to realize my outline was wrong. The characters are NOT people who can make the choices I wanted them to. The end is almost always entirely different from the end I had planned.
And then I rewrite the book 2 or 5 or 7 times. And then, maybe, if I’m lucky, it’s a book.
With my current manuscript, THE ORPHAN ISLAND, I actually did something new. I painted the island, and the characters. I found I was having trouble seeing the people and the place, and an artist friend suggested I try accessing the story in a visual way. It was amazing.
For this one I also began in longhand, on legal pads. I gave up after about 50 pages, because it hurt my hands (I have arthritis). But that was really important for me, I think. I felt like I was a kid again, scribbling, generating ideas, having fun thoughts. I needed to get away from the seriousness of writing as a job. I needed not to think about publishing.
I think that may be the most important part of my process. Remembering what it feels like to play. To be a kid alone with new ideas. To be excited by invention, engaged fully with my own imagination. To let the book be MINE.
Like I said, I’m selfish…
I feel totally uncomfortable tagging people for something like this. So I tag YOU! If you want to share your process, let me know, and I’ll post a bit about you and your books in the space below. How’s that?
Ancestry is a fundamental perplexity of life. We come from our parents, who came from their parents, who descended, as the Bible would put it, from their fathers and their fathers’ fathers, but we are separate beings. We begin with the sperm of one man and the egg of one woman, and then we enter the world and we become ourselves.
Beyond all that’s encoded in our twenty-three pairs of chromosomes—our hair, eyes, and skin of a certain shade, our frame and stature, our sensitivity to bitter tastes—we are bundles of opinions and ambitions, of shortcomings and talents. The alchemy between our genes and our individuality is a mystery we keep trying to solve.
The June issue of Harper’s – with my essay on America’s (and my) ancestry obsession — will be available on newsstands for about the next two to three weeks, if you were planning to pick up a copy. The paragraphs quoted above are a teeny excerpt.
Summer morning dawns softly with a low salty fog. A quietly rolling sea feels the misty clouds floating above its spirited waves.
Kilmore Quay, a small fishing village tucked away on the southeast corner of Ireland begins another day of sea life. Early risen fishermen move slowly down the pier, their mumbled words mixing melancholy in the morning air. They climb on board the sturdy trawler. Its decks still wet with drops of Irish dew.
Exhaust stacks billow thick clouds of unburnt fuel as Deidre’s big diesels cough to life and the day begins. Nets are readied on deck with orange buoys lined up like runners preparing for a race. The radios crackles into the still air and words break free, understood only by a chosen few native speakers. Yes, the southeast of Ireland still has some Irish left. The language of old, used to hinder competitive fishermen from France or Britain in their search for herring in European waters.
One by one the salty steeds glide slowly past the end of the breakwater out into the open sea. Looking southeast, the Great Saltee Island rears its rocky shape and below it the Little Saltee, with its tribes of puffins and avian divers preparing for another day of fishing.
Skipper Blake’s Deidre, steers northeast with diesels pounding in her belly. There are miles to go before the huge net will be dropped into the deep. A gas stove swinging in its gimbals springs to life as rashers hit a hot pan and eggs crack and sizzle, sending wafts of bacon scent throughout the boat. The crew settles down for an early meal together, as voices discuss the day stretching on before them.
Morning sun has burned away the fog as great sea birds wheel and squeal above the slowly moving swells. It is time to set the net. Blake charts the course, checks the depth and gives the order, “Let her go.”
Giant mounds of orange mesh roll like waves over the rounded transom and are sucked below the waves. Orange buoys line up on left and right. Well-worn otter boards fall out and take the strain. The creaking steel cables tighten and the net is set. Nothing to do now, but wait.
The twin diesels take the load and plough ahead. Deidre points northward up the Irish Sea, her well-worn props push towards fish and bigger seas. The waiting crew stands ready to man the winches and prepare the icy hold below. Some gaze north in anticipation of weather and wealth, while others go below to finish up some goey eggs with a piece of toasted soda bread.
Blake watches the sonar as he guides his big Norwegian vessel towards a blue cloud on his blurry screen. Twisted cables groan; black smoke pours out of the two blue stacks. The herring have hit. The orange net strains, capturing a shivering school and makes Deidre’s diesels earn their keep. Seagulls swarm aloft in the salty air crying for the haul to come aboard. The radio crackles. Other skippers have seen the bird-cloud. The chase begins. Keep the Frenchmen and the British out.
Deidre’s crew grabs the winch controls and the cables begin to turn. Otter boards are stowed, and the orange net crawls back over the stern. Orange buoys now form a circle on the heaving sea, as churning fish cut the surface with their sharp fins. Knotted net is hoisted high, dripping with silver wriggling shapes and black shiny eyes. The release is pulled and herring pour onto the deck to slither below into their icy tomb. The catch is huge. Skipper Blake shouts to his crew, “Let’s do it again lads!” Salty green water splashes on the scaly deck as the hustling crew sets the net back into the deep. The scope on the bridge reveals more clouds of herring and Deidre’s net hits the mother lode again. Her winches pull another load of wriggling life towards the surface and the waiting crew.
The late evening swells push Deidre, now laden with her load, southward past Tuskar Rock. Its lighthouse white and sentry-like, flashing twice to warn of rocky reefs below. The setting sun sinks over the great back of Ireland and lights snap on below deck. Blake steers his prize homeward, with tired crew and holds bursting with the silver haul.
White and red markers appear to starboard. The heading is set. Deidre makes her run over ancient reefs, past kelp weeds swinging languidly in the evening tide. The muffled sound of her diesels echoes between the walls as she rounds the tightly stacked stones to tie up at the waiting bollards. Blake snugs her next to the wall as guiding hands make fast the mooring lines.
Hercrew pumps the herring from her hold through a large tube, sending it down the pier to the holding tanks at the fish plant. The great hoard disappears as thehold is emptied and washed out ready for the next occupants.
In the dying light tired legs walk slowly down the pier and toward the lights of Sutton’s pub. Another Deidre’s day at sea makes for stories at the bar where salty hands wrap their day around some well-earned pints.
My Very Clever Friend Snazzy has dobbed me in for this. She writes amazing televisions, and the other day she got to be an extra in a TV show she created and wrote, wearing a medieval gown and holding an owl, so that’s really all you need to know about how excellent she is.
What am I working on?
Three main things: working on two novels, working on my PhD, gestating a tiny human.
I’m in the edit stages of a novel at the moment that will either be called Bewildering or Lobstergirl and Shopping Trolley Guy or something else entirely. It’s a YA agricultural environmental superhero rom-com. Sort of. It’s about two very different teenagers who live in a really, really ugly suburb called Valentine. They bond over comic books and activism, and begin a secret guerrilla gardening project to beautify their town and wake the citizens up to the possibility of positive environmental change. Also hopefully it will be funny and there will be kissing. Out with Allen & Unwin in 2015.
The second novel is something very, very different for me, and it won’t be out until 2016 at the earliest, so I don’t want to talk about it too much. But it is dark, and a bit thrillery, and has involved a lot of utterly fascinating research. At the moment it’s called The Subtle Body, but I’ve never published a book that kept its working title, so who knows what it’ll end up as.
The PhD is on the ways in which YA is making teen readers more politically engaged. It’s super-fun, and should be finished mid-2015.
The tiny human is due for release in mid-October.
How does my work differ from others in my genre?
The good thing about YA is that it can be pretty much whichever genre you choose. I’ve written historical fiction, magic realism, non-fiction, crime and romance. I like to write about smart, interesting, flawed girls who want things. One of my least favourite literary trends is the Dead Girl – girls dying so boys can have feelings, dead mothers, dead protagonists, and of course all the dead girls on YA book covers. So I’d like to think that my books feature girls who are decidedly alive.
Why do I write what I do?
Because I love it. Lots of people ask writers whether we write for an audience or for ourselves, and I think for the vast majority of us, the answer is ‘both’. I write the kinds of books I like to read, but I also hope that others will read and enjoy them too. Funny, romantic books tend to get overlooked – not by readers, but by the media and by awards judges (as do books with female protagonists). Romance is seen as something trashy – a Proper Literary Book has to have Death and Tragedy. I honestly don’t understand this – surely love is the most basic element of being a human being – don’t we all want to love, and to be loved? I also think it takes an enormous amount of skill to explore complicated themes and subjects with a humorous touch, but generally once a book is funny, it’s again considered to be somehow lowbrow.
So I suppose I write what I do because I want to make people laugh, and have squishy romantic feelings, and think about the world in new and different ways. Is that too much to ask?
How does my writing process work?
Generally, I come up with an idea for a new book, or sometimes a few ideas. I then sit down with my editor at Allen & Unwin and we have a chat, firm up the idea, and then I go away and write a proposal. This proposal is then taken to some sort of secret important board of superheroes and world leaders, and then a contract is drawn up. Then I go away and write the first draft.
I write using Scrivener, a piece of software designed for writers, as opposed to Microsoft Word, which is designed for talking paperclips. I sketch out a rough outline, and then create a list of chapters, with a sentence or two on what will happen in each chapter. I figure out how long I want the book to be (usually between 60-80,000 words), and space my chapters out accordingly, so the climax comes in the right place. I use a lot of techniques from the screenwriting world for this structuring process, to make sure that the story flows smoothly, without any boring bits.
I don’t write chronologically. Once I have my chapter plan, I write whichever bit I’m feeling the most excited about on a particular day. The story comes together in a piecemeal way, and I don’t get stuck or bored. It means though, that this early draft is utterly incomprehensible, as it is peppered with PUT FUNNY STORY HERE and FIGURE OUT HOW SHE ESCAPES and MORE FEELINGS IN THIS BIT. So once I have the bones, I go back over and polish it all up, fixing all the bits that I know are crap, and hoping I’m wrong about all the bits that I suspect are crap.
I then send to a few people. My editor, my mum, a screenwriter friend (usually the aforementioned Very Clever Sarah Dollard). After a few weeks, I get back my editorial letter. This letter usually goes something like this:
Dear Lili. We love this book. You are a genius. We would just like you to change one small thing – the words. Love, Your Editors.
Then begins the editorial process, which I actually quite enjoy, because it’s all about making the book better. And now I shall pass the torch of bloggy writing fire to three other excellent writers:
Myke Bartlett is a journalist and YA author. His debut novel, Fire in the Sea, won the 2011 Text Prize and was published to great acclaim in 2012.
Carole Wilkinson is the author of like a zillion books but is best known for her multi-award-winning Dragonkeeper series, and for being my mum.
AJ Betts is the author of Zac & Mia, which won the 2012 Text Prize and also just last week the Ethel Turner Prize at the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards. Hurrah!
In a letter I wrote last year for The Rumpus’ Letters in the Mail I mentioned that for a long time my approach to writing fiction was a little bit like strangling myself while trying to sing.
I finished writing the letter just as I was beginning the essay that’s just out in Harper’s, and a lot of what I said in it about spontaneity, truth, and excitement in writing stayed on my mind during the many, many months I was holed up in my apartment working on the piece.
As I really begin to delve into my book, I thought I’d post it here, both for myself and for anyone else who might like to see it.
Backstory can be essential to understanding a character and his/her journey. It can deepen conflict, reveal motivation and elicit sympathy for a hero or secondary character.
Nothing can kill pacing faster than an info-dump of backstory, especially in the first half of a novel. So when and how best to include it?
Here are 5 tips on how to artfully weave backstory into a middle grade or YA novel:
Hint at your character’s backstory early on, but hold off on revealing it until the information is crucial for readers – or characters – to know.
Reveal it piecemeal. Instead of an extended flashback, pick 2 or 3 key moments you can drop in here and there in small chunks – a sentence or two at a time, rather than paragraphs. This allows your reader to play detective and piece the clues together to form the whole picture.
Have it be activated by something sensory – a sight, smell, sound, taste or feeling. These are powerful memory triggers, and can connect a present experience to a past one, making the details of the backstory feel more germane.
Put it in a moment of interiority. (This only works if you are writing in 1st or close 3rd person, of course.)
Reveal it in as few words as possible, artfully chosen. How many of those lyrical details do you really need? Let go of the writerly padding, no matter how much you love the imagery, and focus on the details that move the story forward. Young readers are less interested in backstory than they are in forward moving action.
Here’s a sneak peek at what we are currently working on. Chester the lazy calico cat has suddenly lost his meow. He’s looking everywhere, but can’t seem to find his voice. When Chester puts himself in a frightening situation he not only finds his voice return, but he also finds his courage. This experience makes Chester appreciate things a little bit more than he had before.
Look for this colorful rhyming picture book to be released in June from 4EYESBOOKS.
“How fiction really works”—that’s pretty much the focus of my blog.
Last week I risked wandering off topic with a post about my mother’s 100th birthday. And this week I’m buying into a game of “blog tag.” My mission—should I wish to accept it—is to answer four questions about…
My writing process.
I’ll do my best to make this relevant not only to writers but anyone who wants to see how I arrive at a final statement that goes like this:
Utter failure is the portal through which everyone (fictional or real) finds freedom.
What am I working on?
Something called THE WRITER IN LOVE. It was meant to bolster ideas I introduced inStory Structure to Die For, namely that a writer must “love her protagonist to death.” The book begins as an imagined journey up the Congo River to the heart of darkness. There, deep in the jungle, unable to advance any further, and having abandoned all hope, I would jump ashore and plant my flag in the little understood “story heart.” Here, then, is an expedition into THE HEART OF A STORY.
Poets and mystics would support my claim that this heart lies beyond the story’s plot. The protagonist runs out of geography! Imagine that. The heart has nothing to do with time and space. It is a transcendental experience. To prove my point, I find it necessary orchestrate my own failure. I begin to question why a writer needs more story theory. I have to escape my own project. I abandon ship! And so what started out as a “how-to” book is looking more like a novel, and one with no boundary between past and present. I have no idea how to finish it.
How does my work differ from others of its genre?
Metafiction—is that a genre? Is there a genre where the protagonist discovers that his writer is also on board? And he becomes concerned that perhaps this writer doesn’t love him sufficiently or appropriately, and by that we mean she isn’t prepared to love him to death. But what kind of protagonist is it who wants to die? It makes no sense. It will make sense by the time it’s over. I wish it was over.
Why do I write what I do?
I wish it was over.
How does my writing process work?
Up at 6-ish o’clock. Two hours of writing before connecting to the wired world. Minutes removed from sleep and I’m back on that steamer heading up a jungle river. I love it. This discipline of jumping immediately into my work-in-progress is the best part of my writing life.
I often make the mistake of going over yesterday’s work to put a finer point on things. I probably shouldn’t. But I find it difficult to proceed if things don’t add up. Of course, I love rewriting. Endless drafts, that’s the name of my writing game. Without them what chance do I have of my writing becoming art? Rewriting, the weave becomes tighter. Subplots and motifs resound more deeply. Magic happens—I find out what it is I’m actually writing about.
As for my story-making process—yes I do practice what I preach. But what I preach is so simple—The protagonist will come undone. That’s it! That’s what readers anticipate. Beliefs systems will crash and burn. That’s what readers demand.
Utter failure is the portal through which every character finds freedom.
There, you see? I’ve just discovered why I write. #3 — Why do I write what I do? To spend my life vicariously escaping to freedom.
Now, it is my great pleasure to introduce you to S.K. CARNES, a writer living in Friday Harbour on San Juan Island off the coast of Washington State. Sue is the author and illustrator of an award-winning children’s book, My Champion, and of a masterfully written novel, The Way Back, newly available on Kindle.If you want to know what a natural wordsmith sounds like, read Sue Carnes. Soon, perhaps next week, Sue will offer her own unique insights into her writing process. Sue’s blog can be found at http://susancarnes.wordpress.com/.
It’s that time of year, when an author’s thoughts turn to…
ANd while I’ve tried to keep my travel down the last few years, this fall I don’t have a new book out, that I have to do promotional events for, which frees me up to visit more schools.
If you’ve never seen an author visit in action, I’m here to say that (whether or not the author is me) it’s something kids never forget.
My author visits fall into three basic types:
1. TRADITIONAL AUTHOR TALK(which to be honest, remains my favorite): DUring which I tell kids about how I started writing when I was 8 years old. I focus on how THOSE books were my true first books, even if they were made of wallpaper scraps. I show them artifacts from my writing life, and explain how I made my own childhood dreams come true. I stress things like THE IMPORTANCE OF BOREDOM AND FAILURE. I give them explicit instructions on HOW TO GET BORED. Seriously! And I promise, they love it!
2. WRITING WORKSHOP: usually for older kids, and smaller groups, I offer a workshop in how character and plot are interwoven. We create our own character, set them loose in a story, and see what paths they choose. We talk about precision of language, narrative structure, “going deep,” and all sorts of other awesome things. This is a ton of fun, and I always suggest that the class pick up where we leave off, and turn the story into a longer illustrated class project.
3. HISTORY ISN’T BORING: my most recent book, Seven Stories Up, is set in 1937 Baltimore, and it’s a lot of fun to walk the kids through the process of learning how to do historical research. I show them slides of images (from gross old fashioned candy to vintage underpants), and snippets of songs and films. I explain how we need to submerge ourselves not just in the facts, but in the feelings. We discuss the things THEY might like to research (ninjas, princesses, video games) if they were writing a book.
I’m also always willing to put together special events to meet the needs of any given school, and have developed programs about everything from Jewish picture books to poetry, both in-class and via skype. Let me know what you need!
SCHOOL VISITS ARE GREAT! But you don’t have to take my word for it. Here are a few of the teachers I’ve worked with!