Sunday, August 31, 2008

Paint me a story!

I have worked for years as an artist--and I say the word "work" with legitimacy . . . I have actually been paid for my paintings.  I've had several solo exhibitions and I used to be represented by a groovy little gallery in SOHO.  I even landed a contract with Steve Wynn to do artwork for the casino that he built on the Mississippi Gulf Coast (I was commissioned to do several paintings for the resort and one of my paintings was featured on the room key cards--very cool!).  When I decided to make a major creative shift four years ago into the world of children's writing and illustration, I thought the illustration part would come easily.  Not quite . . .

My first children's book that I wrote and illustrated was a didactic, rhyming picture book.  I sent it everywhere, planning my Caldecott speech in my spare time.  Of course, the manuscript was awful--I made every newbie mistake in the book--but the illustrations?  Surely someone with my art background could spin out picture book illustrations.  

So, when I realized that my manuscript was going nowhere fast, I started sending my book dummy to art directors at various publishing houses.   Most of the art directors were kind enough to respond to me--I'm so thankful for that.  Many said that my work was lovely but "too fine art for the picture book market."  I was also told that I needed to work on my figure drawing a little more (after all, it has been twenty years since I spent a summer at Parsons in New York drawing nude models--I'm admittedly a little rusty).   But, the most common comment that I got was that my illustrations didn't tell a story in and of themselves.  

I had always thought that illustrations showed what was going on in the text--but the truth is, the illustrations in a picture book usually show what's NOT going on in the text.  They take the story to a new level and exist as a necessary part of the story.

At the SCBWI conference in L.A. this summer I heard Dilys Evans speak at a breakout session.  Dilys was the founder and president of Dilys Evans Fine Illustration which represented many of the finest illustrators in the history of children's books.  She talked about the first time she saw the work of David Wiesner, the three time winner of the Caldecott medal.  He had sent in an illustration sample which pictured  a city scene and one of the windows of the buildings in the scene had a giant catfish coming out of it.  Now, that's a story.

So, I'm going to spend some real time this year developing my style as an illustrator and a storyteller.  I plan to do lots of doodling and brainstorming and studying the works of illustrators I admire.  "Back to the drawing board," as they say.

Thursday, August 28, 2008


Since the Twilight series is all the rage, I decided that I would post some of my favorite things about the books... (And I have not finished Breaking Dawn yet - just so ya know). First of all, I am not claiming these books to be of high literary merit. However, I absolutely can NOT put them down. So today, I shall make some fairly shallow and probably non-brilliant observations...

Number One: The thing that has intrigued me most about these books is the insane amount of sexual tension that they create in the reader. I have been assured that this feeling is not just mine-ha! ha! (I was beginning to worry) -but I think it is interesting that Stephenie Meyer wrote a teen saga that involves almost NO sexual interaction at all. Perhaps, it is the lack of it that makes the reader desperate for some kind of physical contact. Even kissing is sparse in the first few books.
You know that the main characters are incredibly in love with each other, so you desperately want that kiss to happen. And, of course, there's also a love that is unrequited, which ratchets up the sexual tension even further. It's too bad this doesn't occur so much in books these days. . .or real life for that matter. Because--good night!--doesn't it heighten the expectation?!

Number Two: I like this theory of "imprinting" with the werewolves. Or the idea that in their world, it is possible to somehow come across one's soulmate and the two would both immediately know it...feel it...and bond for life. I think the hopeless romantic side of me thinks that this is a cool concept. It is like love at first sight - although it is literally soulmate at first sight.

Number Three: And then there were the cars... In my real life, I don't think I am impressed much by cars. In fact, I will likely drive my truck until the wheels fall off. But the fact that the hot vampires, as Tom Cruise said, "feel the need for speed," was rather exciting. I actually googled a Mercedes Guardian when I started book four (which does exist btw - although it's really called a Mercedes "Guard"). For those of you who are interested, Mrs. Meyer has photos of all the cars the bloodsuckers drive, on her website.

Therefore, if you are the hopeless romantic type who likes fantasy based in reality, then give 'em a try! I think you'll enjoy the read. Oh! and the movie has been moved up to Nov. 21st. Just in time for my birthday. (kinda :-)

P.S. I made the mistake of asking my husband to read this post and he became entranced by the car photos. Thirty minutes later, I said, "What on earth are you still looking at?" With a crazed fire in his eyes, he calmly said that he was calculating payments on a Ferarri!!! As if!!!! Ha! ha! I died laughing. And then I checked his eyes again to make sure he wasn't a Vampire.

Monday, August 25, 2008

My Own Private Idaho

Okay, today was my four-year-old's first day of pre-k. Did you hear me screaming "Free at last!!" out of my car window after I dropped her off? If you didn't, then you must have been wearing your earbuds because I was a happy, screamin' gal.  

Now, don't get me wrong, I've loved being home with my youngest these last few weeks--her older sisters started school three weeks ago--but I've been itching to get back to my writing ever since the SCBWI-LA conference. Having a significant block of time to really focus is vital (and has been rare, if not nonexistent, these past few weeks).  I really need my "own private Idaho" in which to work and brainstorm and kick things around inside my muddled-up brain.

I'm thankful that my four-year-old was just as excited as I was--she goes to the ULTIMATE nursery school and has a wacky, creative teacher.   After drop-off, I headed straight home, grabbed a latte' and beelined for my studio. I sunk down into my favorite writing chair pictured on the right--tah dah!, and I started hammering away on a middle grade novel that I began about six months ago. It was wonderful to finally get to flesh out scenes that had been stewing in my brain for months.   I even got the entire ending plotted out.

And all of this happened on the FIRST DAY OF FREEDOM! Who knows what Day 2 will bring?  Whoa . . . watch out world. I'm baaaaaaaaack!!!!!!!

Friday, August 22, 2008

I think I'm ADD...?

A few months ago, I had just finished my graphic novel and sent it on to a friend I met at SCBWI-LA for comments. Life went on and I wasn't in the mood to write. But then, STOP THE PRESSES, I GOT AN AMAZING IDEA!!!! Yep. You heard me. I suddenly had my first ever *novel* idea. Make that *YA novel* idea. Hmmm.....

I sat down and began to write. I must say, it was awesome. But then, after about 20 pages, I stopped. Nothing. Yikes! I quickly consulted Laini Taylor's blog 'cuz she is the Queen of writery advice. She assured me that this is normal and just to keep on keepin' on, and the story would come. A day or so went by and then, STOP THE PRESSES, I GOT ANOTHER AMAZING IDEA, for YA novel number two!!!!!! That's okay, right? So, I started on the first riveting 20 pages of said novel. And then, yep, you guessed it. Nothing.

Meanwhile, SF and I have written a really cool screenplay. . .think Bridget Jones going through life as a soccer mom with several funny sidekick friends. It's a coming of age in your 40's comedy. We are in the editing process on this one. (Does this post sound ADD? Stay with me people, stay with me.) Well, I was in Old Navy when SF called and right there, in between the flip-flops and tank-tops, we came up with ANOTHER INSANELY COOL SCREENPLAY IDEA that we were hot to work on! And on the way home, I thought of ONE MORE!!! (Although, I really can't remember that one.)

YIKES!! BRAIN OVERLOAD. Does anyone else do this??

P.S. Let me assure you that since the brain freeze, I sought help from the Wizard Laini and also the Discomermaids and discovered that one needs to, in Laini's words, "Develop a habit of completion."" So SF and I have tabled the new script idea for later, and I am back working on novel number one. Which, if you're wondering, is wicked cool!

But, I'm still tempted sometimes...

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Notes from Lisa Yee's "Revision, rEvision, reVISion . . ." Breakout Session at SCBWI LA

Okay, if you have never heard Lisa Yee speak, do yourself a favor and get yourself to one of the many conferences she attends.  She is smart, funny and down to earth--and she has wonderful practical advice about writing and the work it takes to write well.
Lisa began her discussion by introducing her friend "Peepy" (the picture to the right is an approximation of Peepy--the real Peepy is much more handsome and a sharp dresser to boot).  She asked someone from the class to change Peepy into a different outfit.  "This is revision,"
Lisa announced.  Looks easy, huh?  Hmmm. . . 
Lisa then talked about her book Millicent Min, Girl Genius which started out as an episodic novel.  She discussed the revisions of that book in which she pretty much threw the whole book away--only the character and her voice remained constant throughout the entire revision process.
 Lisa asked the class to do a writing project.  First, we were asked to list four things we might find in a child's room.  Next, she asked us to write a descriptive paragraph in third person.  She described this paragraph as a first draft which is essentially "barf on the page" that must be "hosed down and cleaned up."  Then, we wrote the same descriptive paragraph in first person from the child's point of view.  Finally, we were asked to write the paragraph in first person from the point of view of a mother whose child has died (the mother is describing her child's room after his death).  Whew . . .this was a tough one, and many people in the room became emotional while writing this paragraph.  At the end of this exercise, she had us go back and revise our last paragraph.  Try this, if you have a chance.  Emotions kicked up a notch with every exercise.
After our writing exercise, Lisa had tons of great tips for doing revisions:
*When revising, cut chunks from your manuscript and paste them into another document.  That way, you aren't deleting them, and those chunks still exist if you ever want to use them.  Remember though, if you don't miss the text you deleted, you didn't need it to begin with.
*Challenge yourself to cut your story by 20%.  What could go?  What would make the story tighter?  Lisa mentioned that she can pretty much always throw away her first three chapters.
*Retain the emotional touch every time you revise.
*Change the font and margins to make your manuscript look like something someone else has written.  This will force you to look at your manuscript in a different way.
*Read your book out loud!!
*Circle a section of your text that you really like, and that should be your standard.  Everything in your manuscript should be as good as that section.
*Follow the advice of Anne Lamott and write that "shitty first draft."
*Set your book aside for a while so that you can look at it with fresh eyes.  You really need to be able to turn it upside down and re-examine it 
*First time you read a draft, it is for the impression.  Revision is about detail.  It is like watching a movie twice--you notice so many more details the second time.
*Try to write to a schedule and set deadlines so that you don't overwork a story.  If you write a sentence five times--the best writing is rarely the first or the last sentence.
*Go to and listen to Tobias Wolfe's talk about writing--he keeps cutting down and is constantly asking himself "would the reader understand the story without this word?"
*Don't overexplain things--constantly move the story forward.
*Instead of saying "what am I going to cut?", say "what am I going to keep?"--look for the best and throw the rest away.
*You can revise as you go.  Revision doesn't always happen at the completion of a draft.
*Drafting is play.  Revision is the real work of writing.
*Lisa writes the ending of her novel first and works from an outline.
*Read plays to study how dialogue moves things forward.  Stephen King says that dialogue should be like gossip--something you want to overhear.
*Never overwrite for the sake of a higher word count.
*Go physically to a different place to revise.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Relax into the Prose...

I LOVE Yoga. I am literally a yoga nerd. (However, yoga chicks are definitely NOT nerds!) Recently I was thinking... Unlike most of the way I've lived my life, yoga teaches forgiveness. Of yourself. And the ability to tolerate our moments of failure. Although I am extremely good at yoga, I have realized that I NEVER expect to fail. So I rarely do. And when I do, I am frustrated. But it is fleeting. It doesn't get me down for the next five hours or days, like writer's block might do. I wrote this in my journal one night after yoga:
Friday: Went to yoga tonight and couldn't do a thing. My balance was off and I had a headache when inverted. My mind could not focus. Oddly, I did not feel at all like I could never do yoga again - or that I had failed, or anything other than I had a bad night. I wasn't worried that I wouldn't achieve my peak the next time or anything negative.
This made me realize that most of the time in real life, if I have a bad unproductive spell, I'm tempted to believe that I suck. And that I will never finish anything. I wonder why it's so easy not to do this when it comes to yoga?

In addition, I've noticed that in order to achieve the more complicated poses or twists and inversions, you must actually relax into the pose. You contort, and then relax and accept the pose. This made me think about life and how if I just relaxed into my crazy days, that I might find that they suit me better - I am not fighting against myself so much. And I am not judging myself, but allowing for growth and length by sinking in... The same goes for writing. If I can simply relax into a writing routine, forgiving myself for those days and weeks when nothing seems to come out, and believing that I literally can NOT fail, then I am sure to weave a glorious tale. And so will you! (If you follow my yogi-inspired advice :-)


Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Notes from Sara Pennypacker's Breakout Session . . .

In the Beginning:  How to Make Your First Pages Shine:

It is more important than ever to get your beginnings completely right.  Remember, the first word must make the reader want to read the second word (and the first sentence must make the reader want to read the next sentence, and so on with paragraph and chapter).  The good news is that the reader will be forgiving of a bad beginning (but the acquiring editor probably won't!)

Must appeal to the reader using psychology: (writer must appeal to these four human traits)
1.  Curious:  Humans are curious about things that are appealing even though they have nothing to do with our welfare.  It is the writer's job to use intrigue and suspense. Raise questions but don't answer all of them.
2.  Hedonistic:  Humans have pleasure receptacles.  Humor, thrill, beauty, voice--writer needs to elicit pleasure (be able to describe the pleasure of eating a piece of cake)
3.  Social:  Humans are pack animals looking for connection.  Writer must make the reader say "I do that, too" or "I feel that, too".  You are not trying to show how different you are, but how you are the same.
4.  Wired for Story:  Humans love the basic structure of story.  Writer's job is to be a confidant storyteller from the beginning.  Use bravado and go over-the-top ("have I got a story for you . . . ")

When Sara goes back and edits, she makes sure her opening appeals to all of these human traits.

Read the first paragraph of Sara Pennypacker's Clementine and you will see all of these elements illustrated.  Lots of "me too" moments for the child reader, and she is subtle in her descriptions so that the reader fills in the blanks and makes the joke--this makes the reader own the book.

Sara recommended reading the annotated version of Charlotte's Web to learn everything there is to learn about writing for children.

The opening has to do a lot of jobs--it must introduce:
1.  Character:  
*Think of the three most defining characteristics of your character and show one of them at the beginning.  
*The flaw is the most important part of your character and you need to show it early on.  Sara's Clementine character honestly exposes all her flaws.
*Why do we care about the character?
1) empathize with them
2) connect with them--"me too"
3) have a need to understand why they act the way they do--especially if they are different from you
*Methods for showing character:
1)  dialogue
2)  internal dialogue
3) action
4)  reaction
5)  other's reaction to
6)  habits
7)  appearance
8)  lies
9)  body language
10) choices
11)  summary
12)  bias
*Character exercise to try:  think of a scenario where a child and an adult both fail each other and have to lie (example--dad says that child can go to baseball game if he finishes school project.  Dad has a meeting come up and can't go.  Child doesn't finish project)  What do they say to each other to evade the truth?  The adult will be more adept at lying and the child will be more transparent.
*Try using many different approaches when creating your main character.  When Sara creates a character, and she'd take a bullet for him or her--she knows she's ready to begin writing.
*Try showing how the character behaves when he knows he's being watched and when he does not.
*Try showing the character when she's stressed (an eight-year-old can sometimes act like a two-year-old)
2.  Conflict / problem:  Must be introduced early.  What does the main character want most--is this thing symbolic of something kids really want.  This want should stand for a universal need--for example, a child really wants a tree house but what they need is an escape or to be alone or a need for control.
*Vogler's book The Writer's Journey outlines the basic structure of story (often all five of these happen at the beginning of a children's story).  Sara usually goes back and makes sure to include these elements after she's written a draft.
1) ordinary world
2) call to adventure
3) refusal of call
4) meeting with mentor
5) accepting of call
3.  Setting
*two types of setting--physical (actual surroundings--physical description of Harry Potter's home) and emotional (Harry Potter begins in a hostile home)
*Setting is not just background--can be a crucible (characters are ground together and can't get out), a catalyst, or a metaphor for your story
*Setting must be written on a child's scale--try writing from different people's eyes.   A child thinks about what he can see or touch right here and now.  It is a smaller world that's much more detailed.
*Setting includes all of your senses--glow of lamp, washed blanket, taste of toothpaste.  You don't have to say what state you are in--the scale is much smaller!
*To relate to the reader, make sure that a child can relate to your setting.  If you're writing about a different country use familiar things that all children can relate to (sleeping with a stuffed animal).
*Setting can be the entire story--emphasize the emotional feel of the place.   Remember that sometimes emotional reaction is based on past or present experiences.  A child who has never seen the beach before will respond differently from one who has--it depends on where your character is at that moment
4.  Foreshadowing:  Sara does this after she's written a draft.  She goes back and slides hints back into the story.  Sara loves it when the end of the book shakes hands with the beginning.  The beginning of the book is a promise, and the rest of the book delivers.
5.  Powerful Voice:  Dialogue is the most important skill to learn.
1)  What they don't say is much more important than what they do
2)  When they tell lies, something huge must be at stake (child is usually not good at lying)
3)  Get smooth with dialogue and summary (don't give play by play dialogue--say something like "then we talked for hours about cats")
4)  "said" is almost all that you need for a tag in a children's book (no "chortled")
5)  consider a silent scene before a heavy action scene or a dialogue-packed scene
6)  have a character observe a conversation between two other characters (can give great information about what other characters think of main character)

Theme of a book is what does your character want and why (emotional "why")--Sara needs and unfair situation which she writes symbolically.  She lets go of the "theme" as soon as she starts writing.

Sara constantly writes and revises--going back to the beginning of her book all the time.

Pacing: To get the story going faster--
*Have another character say "look how you've changed" to show growth

Stephen King says "the story is the boss" and this is more important than any rule.

Sara loves a BIG POW ending:
*try to end with a remarkable or satisfying visual because that is how a child will walk away from the book
*punchy scene
*Sara overwrites her ending and then cuts it down

Sara never worries about the language level in a picture book because the child will be sitting on the lap of his dictionary.

Sara writes in the zone and then acts as her own editor at the end of the process.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

I Am the Girl You Wanted to Get to Know in Chemistry Class . . .

Why?? Because I am an obsessive note-taker. And, I frantically covered every moment of the recent SCBWI Conference with court reporter accuracy. But, alas, I have discovered that I am not the only one. So . . . I'm going to hit some of my favorite sessions here, and for a more complete rundown of the entire conference, check out Alice Pope's CWIM blog and Paula Yoo's blog.

Here goes . . . .

Bruce Coville
Plotting: The Architecture of Story

When plot and character are done right, they are inextricably intertwined--so there's no either/or-- and neither is more important. A good story is well-told and expresses the basic desire of the human heart.

What is scary? When a character you love and with whom you identify gets into trouble.

Plot imposes discipline on the disorder of life, and good plot brings closure. The perfect ending is both a surprise and inevitable. The very best endings turn on a moral choice--this choice can be between two mutually exclusive goods or between two bad things (choosing the lesser of two evils). The choice is the crux of emotional plot.

What is a good story?
1) Ha! It makes you laugh--not a joke, but a down deep belly laugh rising from the story itself
2) Wah! It makes you cry--these can be tears of joy or relief, can be when things are so right that you cry anyway
3) Yikes! Surprise the reader

"EW" Catastrophe: this is an explosion of good writing. Things like a giant plot twist--think "Luke, I am your father." This twist must be carefully seeded so that your mind goes back over the entire story and makes it more true than its ever been.

Plot reveals who the characters are. How can you care about what happens if you don't care who it's happening to???

Character has to solve the problem by himself--the writing comes in choosing the right details. Think about when you have a conversation with a toddler. She will ask "why, why, why" after everything you say. Ask yourself this when you write--constantly.

Bruce introduced a story of a boy dropping a book in a puddle. How do you kick this up a notch??
*Give the book emotional appeal--what kind of book is it? Mother's high school yearbook full of signatures. Show mother reading back through the book--sentimentality. Crank up the emotional volume--mother says that two people who signed it have died. Mom notices that her son's high school principal is pictured in the yearbook wearing goofy shorts.
*Kid asks mom if he can take the book to school and she says "no"--too special. Kid has bragged to his friend about the picture of the principal. He disobeys and takes it anyway.
*Have child listening to rain on the roof (detail which prepares the reader for the puddle that the book will be dropped into). Plus, this makes the reader feel like he is in the room with the child.
*Don't just say there's a puddle in the road. Have a car drive through the puddle and describe the splash.
*How rotten can you make life for this kid? He drops the book in the puddle--what's the one thing he doesn't want? He doesn't want to see his mother. So, make her drive up. Describe her through the child's eyes. She's happy to see him. She doesn't know about the book.
*Tough moral choice--The kid could stand up and get in the car without his mother ever knowing about the book, but the yearbook would be ruined forever. OR, he could confess and they could run home and try to save what is left of the yearbook. Does he save his book or his butt???
*Kick up the stakes--how does the kid make the moral choice if his father is abusive? Think of all possibilities and explore them.

Plot is not incident, not complication, not idea. Plot happens when you work with the idea and mold it and explore it. If it becomes part of a larger story, it is plot, not incident.

Always be afraid of losing a kid's attention. Something must be at stake. "Who wants what and why can't he have it?"

Plot is a series of actions in the the thread of a story in a nonrandom way that is emotionally satisfying. Coincidence can happen to start a story, but it can't be used at the end. Fiction is held to a higher standard of believability than real life.

Plot is what happens when desire meets obstacle--the character must use the most conservative method to overcome it (don't use a pistol to kill a fly).

Drive your characters to desperate extremes so that they have to make choices under pressure. If there are no consequences, it wasn't really a choice. Be sure to think through every implication of the character's choice.

Plot Tricks:
1) Drive character to a moral choice--at the heart of a great story lies a great human action
2) Up the ante--make whatever is weighing on the choice have a broader impact, think through what would happen if the character fails
3) Ticking Clock--Must tick in the reader's mind. Use devices like carving a notch in a stick to show the ticking down of time--have the reader sense that time is closing in
4) Twist or reversal--The world tips on its head but still makes sense. A straight line story offers no surprise or intrigue
5) Subplots--Add texture and emotional resonance by indicating and building disruptiveness of truth
6) Braided plots--Two or more characters that have adventures that spiral around each other and come together at the end. We get to experience the characters through other characters
7) Plot loops--Side plot, not a subplot. This is only useful if you need to make a book longer or need to take care of something (give info)
8) Set ups and Pay offs--No pay off that isn't set up and vice versa. The reader pays attention to everything that's put in (if there's a gun on the wall, somebody better shoot it). When you have a pay off, go back in your story and write the set up. Can do things like cumulative humiliation where each put-down gets worse and then the character finally strikes back. When you put stuff in the subconscious, it sits and waits to come out.

Outlining: Important part of plotting (plus it keeps you from not finishing books--even though they rarely end the way you planned!) Outline is simply a guide that keeps you on the path.

Writing energy:
Male energy--action adventure
Female energy--relationship, interaction, character
The best stories partake equally of both types.

***Stay tuned.... my next post will feature the brilliant advice of Sara Pennypacker.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Today is what?!

SF and I have just returned from our second AMAZING SCBWI National Conference in Los Angeles. I am so tired, (from having too much fun) that I can't even find words to describe it yet. Luckily, SF is a world class note taker, so it's her job to actually describe it... and post all the important stuff you need to know about how to write more effectively. I volunteered for pure "fluff" posting :-)

On the flight home, we leisurely chatted about books and screenplays, and I was able to outline most of my YA novel. Woo Hoo! Thanks to Bruce Coville's amazing workshop on plotting, I have finally figured out how to braid my storylines. (SF will explain that later) BTW, did anyone else love Lisa Yee's recommendation to revise your draft in a different font with slightly different margins, to give it a fresh look? Brilliant!

Not long before we arrived back in sunny Mississippi where the temperature was 95 degrees at 9:00 p.m., we suddenly looked at each other and said, "HOLY MOLY OUR KIDS START SCHOOL TOMORROW!!!!" This realization sent panic through my body as I knew that today I had to leave thoughts of books and fun friends behind and wake up early to make school lunches, flat iron my pre-teens hair - (she requested this for day one of cuteness) go to the grocery store, do the laundry, fill out all of their school forms, and so much more I think my brain might explode.

They are kinda cute though, aren't they?

**SCBWI conference wrap-up coming soon...

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