Sunday, December 6, 2009

Character v. Plot

I had a great discussion with my critique group this week. We started talking about writing styles, mainly writing with character in mind versus writing with plot in mind.

In some of my previous blogs, I discussed how I was trying to focus more on character in my picture books. I took it a step further to develop some character worksheets and to create a couple of kids I thought would make great picture book material. It wasn't until I actually tried to write some stories around them that I discovered something about myself. I don't write that least not naturally.

So I'm a plot kind of gal. Who knew? And is that okay? I read Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird a few years ago and remembered her description of her own writing style. She says she creates a character she likes and follows them around for a day to see what they will do (I paraphrase wildly, of course).

I mentioned this to the group, and one of the ladies said she heard the exact opposite from Barbara Kingsolver, another one of my favorites. When asked if she would keep a character that "would not let her write" in a certain way (i.e., would not follow the plot line), Kingsolver replied, "then I would fire that character and find a new one!"

I take from this discussion the fact that you can be either type of writer and be successful. The most reassuring thing I've read in awhile comes from a book called Writing Picture Books by Ann Whitford Paul. She says yes, you must do a character study for each character in your book, but you don't need to do it right away. Go ahead and write that first draft, but do it at some point.

That's good news for plot people like me, who have a good idea for a story and need to get it down. Character then comes into the story like an audition. We find someone who can play the role rather than writing the role specifically for them. There's probably different schools of thought on this, but for now, it works for me.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Letting Go

I've gone through an unusual phase of writing recently (although probably not too unusual for beginning writers). I have become stuck. And it's not just writer's block. It's more like writer's panic. I have read in numerous places that you have to "let go" and just write. Don't worry about how it sounds, how it reads, whether it's good or not...just write, just write, just write.

Ironically, though, the more I learn about writing, and what makes something good, the more I panic and freeze when I try to put a story down. That's happened just this week on my Meg story. I started, got halfway through and said to myself, "Yuck, self. What are you doing? This is so not where you wanted this to go, self. Go sit in a corner and think about what you have done. Shame!"

I've got to work on subverting the perfectionist within and just letting my mind wander. I know it can be wrangled back together in revisions, so why is it so hard to let go?

I think part of my problem is patience. I'm at the point where I want to see some concrete reward for all my work up to this point. My rational side tells me I will probably have to wait longer. "But if I come up with that one humdinger, you may just get noticed!" my irrational side shouts. So I freeze. I sit at the computer and freeze...hoping the humdinger will ooze from my veins through the keyboard.

And it's even harder for picture books, I think. There's a tightness to picture books that sometimes stifles my shifts at the computer. In my mind, I'm wanting this story to be narrow of focus, filled with images, easy to read. Instead, I get this long narrative that meanders. How do I get this to 32 pages????

I think I'll go back to my corner and think it over.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

With Kids Like Mine, How Come I Don't Have a Book a Day?

I try not to pull all of my story ideas from my children's lives. I was a child once, too (in the dark ages). And I was a pretty funny kid if I say so myself. But my kids take the cake. I realized after a conversation with a fellow writer recently, just how marketable my children are. Evidently in Amato's Riot Brothers books, the two boys have an underwear scene (what mg boy book doesn't?) in which they put multiple layers of underwear on their head. If only I had been paying attention to my own son, who in the not-too-distant past, came waltzing into our dining room with at least 10 undershirts and as many pairs of underwear pulled tautly over his body. To top it off, he had on elbow and knee pads. It was a sort of fruit-of-the-loom armor, if you will.

But my daughter, at the tender age of 5 (going on 16), has been my most recent inspiration. At the doctor's office a few weeks ago to get her influenza vaccination, she was offered the mist or the shot. Mind you, I and her bigger brother had already received the shot form. Not to be outdone, my daughter insisted on getting the shot, too, and even rolled up her sleeves to get ready. Yikes! As you can imagine, she is one tough lady. So a character was born. Mighty Meg Galooley. It's my latest story, and hopefully will be done before Maggie turns 16, which should be any day now.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

More Thoughts on Character

Can you tell I'm in the mood to blog today? One more note on character. I took the character advice to heart from the conference and rewrote my Grandpa Bill story. While Grandpa Bill was awesome (if you read the story you would agree, of course!), he was an adult and stealing all the thunder away from Abe, my kiddo. (Good advice, Mr. Greg Ferguson of Egmont USA). So I decided to rework the story, focusing on Abe. I did my character web/sketch. I figured out all sorts of things about him, but still the story was akin to birthing my children. Painful. Suddenly, I realized Abe could not be Abe anymore. The name just did not fit once he was the focus. So I hit a couple of baby name sites (there are others of you out there who do this, right?) to see if the right name would hit me. A couple of searches on names that mean clever brought up 'Wylie.' Boom. Once I renamed the boy, the story came out. Wylie was perfect. Clever, sneaky, but sincere at heart. What a revelation that a simple name change can open up a character for you.

MO-SCBWI Conference

I did not get as much out of the conference this year as last, but after a year of writing, I know a little more. So stuff was more repetitive. I guess that's a good sign that I'm learning my ropes. There were a few overarching themes, however, and a piece of good news that had me leaving thoughtful and even a little uplifted:

1. Get an agent. This is a new idea for me. I'd heard over and over again it is as hard (if not harder) to find an agent than a publisher, so you might as well send to publishers. This time, the editor, agent, and a few other presenters were pushing for agents. Okay, this makes sense to me, but it's an education in selling yourself. My impression is that it is easier to get an agent if you have at least been writing for awhile, because they want to see someone who has more than one work to sell. So that's my goal. Get 5 good stories together (I have at least three now), send the best out to some great agents, turn three times, kiss my left toe, and hope for the best.

2. Focus on character. Okay. This is hard for me. I'm not an English major, so talk of character, plot, sub-character, narration, pov, and so on, scare me. I can't help it. But I can understand the appeal of a great character. Looking back on my own childhood, my fondest books all revolve around a really great character: Curious George, Amelia Bedelia (my absolute fav), and Raggedy Ann. And the books my children love now have strong characters: Olivia, Duck, Franklin, Percy Jackson. I get the message. Character-driven books are a slam dunk. (It shouldn't be too hard to pull one of those out of my hat, right???)

3. Picture books are coming back. Hallelujah. After years of hearing the picture book is dead, Jennifer Mattson predicts a comeback. Thank you and thank you. I love the picture book. I'm almost embarrassed to raise my hand at conferences when asked, "Who writes picture books?" Because I know there are a lot of people out there writing a lot of mediocre picture books about puppies and frogs and jumping over logs, etc., etc. But I think picture books can be one of the most beautiful forms of literature around. A perfect blend of text of pictures is an awe-inspiring thing (insert my audible yearning for being someone who can pull this off). So Ms. Mattson has inspired me to stand up among the proud and admit I write picture books.

On Seeing Mary Amato in Jeff City

Mary Amato, author of 10 children's books, visited our fair city this past week. She did a great job with the children present in the room. You can tell she loves kids and hearing what they have to say. I especially appreciated her words of encouragement for all would-be writers in the room. She admitted that as a child, she hated to write! She would sit before a blank sheet of paper and freeze.

I had this preconceived notion that all writers were born that way. Pen to paper as soon as they could hold a pen upright, so to speak. I was one of those, too, who found it intimidating to write. There were just too many ideas swimming in my head to commit one over another to paper. (There still should see my notebook!) I would journal occassionally, but even that became laborious and too introspective. Now that I'm writing some fiction, I actually feel liberated in a way. I can let my imagination fly, with no personal repercussions. It's still hard to wrangle all those thoughts in a cohesive story, but it sure is fun to try.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Conference Time

I'll be heading to the MO-SCBWI conference in a few days, and I am really excited. Last year, I was a newbie and totally freaked out, thinking, "What am I doing here?" But a year later, I have learned so much and want to know more. I'm learning to take the rejections more as challenges than injuries. I feel the right story is somewhere deep inside, and if I keep digging, I may just be able to unearth it!

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Makeover Time

October has been busy, but I have found time to work on a few things. Most recently, I have started revising one of the very first stories I wrote, "Wobblejohn." It's been pulled out and dusted off for possible submission to the annual Highlights fiction contest.

The theme this year is a real experience from your family. Wobblejohn was a goose that lived with our family for a summer. He was a Canadian goose born with a lot of problems. One eye was missing; one leg was shorter than the other; and most curiously, his head was cocked to the side, like he was thinking about something all the time. Believe it or not, we (meaning my mom and I) taught Wobblejohn how to fly that summer. And it wasn't that hard. All we had to do was run through the yard flapping our "wings." (Okay, embarrassing, but not hard!) Amazingly, he learned to fly. He left us to go on the yearly migration with his brothers and sisters, so we thought we would never see him again. But he did come back, and his spunk has stuck with me all these years. I hope I can do him justice in the story (although I doubt I will...he was a pretty special little guy).

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Grandpa Bill Gets "Dummied"

This week I wrote out my "Grandpa Bill" story in dummy-book form. This means that I placed the text of the manuscript into a 32-page format (typical for most picture books). And I don't just divide the text on my manuscript page. I actually put the text onto 32 separate pages of a real book that I can "read." I always learn a ton from doing this. For instance, I'm better able to visualize the pictures that might appear on each page, and I can see where I've provided too much description, or not enough visual interest. I can also get a feel for the rhythm of the book, which is key to a great picture book writing. Even if a book doesn't rhyme (and most of mine don't), they need to have a lilting, easy speech. Or a parent will never want to read it again! We have a few of those at my house...hidden somewhere!

Sunday, September 27, 2009

"The Talking Potato"

Today I finished a draft of a short story titled "The Talking Potato." It is a westernized adaptation of a West-African short story about a yam that spoke to a farmer and nearly scared him out of his wits. Once it's done, it will be a submission to Children's Writer's October contest. It's my first attempt to rewrite a folk story, and I must admit it was more fun than I expected. The plot is already there, but the fun comes in making the characters come alive as you see them. Now just 70 words to cut out to make the 500-word limit!

Saturday, September 26, 2009

A Year of Writing

This October marks my one-year anniversary as a member of the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) and as a serious children's book author. By serious, I mean that I have committed myself to working on (definitely!) and improving (hopefully!) my craft. Here's a list of my serious efforts:

  • I've joined a children's lit critique group in Columbia, MO,
  • I've attended at least one local conference of SCBWI and hope to work my way up to a national,
  • I've developed a semi-long list of picture book and short story manuscripts, and
  • I've gathered my first few (dozen) rejection letters, (some of which actually came back with a personal reply or inked note in the margin!).

So to commemorate my one-year anniversary, I've started my official blog site, Monkey Patch Books. The name, Monkey Patch, actually comes from our family blog. It's a combination of a lot of abbreviations and initials you don't need to know about here, but I think it represents my writing quite well. In my stories, I try to harness the spirit of humor and fun that bubbles at the surface of all children, regardless of their circumstances or situation.

May you take your humor and fun very seriously!