Saturday, January 21, 2012

10,000 Hours

My book club is reading The Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell.  I'm not quite sure how I feel about the book as a whole yet.  I think he tries too hard to simplify and quantify that which cannot be simplified or quantified, but he certainly raises some interesting points.

One of the points he raises is that you cannot truly become a master of something until you have spent 10,000 hours doing it.  And that "it" can be anything, from becoming a phenomenal rock band (the example he gives is The Beatles) to making yourself a top-notch computer programmer (a la Bill Joy, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs) or to (you know it was coming) being a superb writer.

Wow.  10,000 hours.  That puts a lot into perspective.  When I first started writing, I heard various people give me estimates of how long one needs to write in order to have something come of it (publication I assume they meant).  I heard 5 years.  Some said longer.  Gladwell estimates that 10,000 hours is about 10 years of your life, assuming you eat and carry on as normal a life as possible in the middle of all that practicing.  Considering I came into writing late in my life, that puts me way behind the eight ball.  Plus, I am in a job that no ways honors my creative need to express myself in writing -- like many other writers out there, I bet. least I'm not trying to be a professional tennis player.  I think I missed that boat already.  Or so my knees tell me so.  My posterior tells me it is completely fine with a few more years in the seat!

Sunday, December 4, 2011

A Novel-Writer in Sheep's Clothing

I did it.  I came up with 30 ideas in 30 days, and boy, some of them are stinkers!  A few, if held up to the light, have a glittery sheen (and they have nothing to do with vampires), but many will never see the light of day.

It was harder this year, without a doubt, because I am at a crossroads with my writing.  I seriously do not know what kind of writer I am.  Actually, I think I do know what kind of writer I am, and it scares me.

I have been writing short stories and picture books for these last few years, not because they are easy (see many previous posts about how hard writing a picture book really is), but because they are, in a word, short.

A couple months ago I attended the KS-SCBWI conference and had a critique session with Diane Muldrow of Golden Books.  I had sent her a picture book manuscript.  It was a very unusual picture book story.  I was, in fact, not entirely sure anyone would consider it a picture book.  It was more along the lines of Bink and Gollie, a picture book/chapter book hybrid.  But I wanted an industry person's perspective.  Being a publisher of books for the very young, Ms. Muldrow very professionally and very politely questioned it's characterization as a picture book.  She even went one step further: "You're obviously a good writer [whew!].  Have you ever tried writing in different genres?"

Oh no...she spotted me, I thought.  She thinks I'm a novelist masquerading as a picture book author.  I should have brought my dog PB instead! 

Novels are so darn long!  How in the world do you finish one?  Do I have what it takes to birth pages in the hundreds, not dozens?  I stew over it to this day--afraid to take the plunge in the pool that is writing a novel.  How do you know?  Is it a gut thing?  Should I just do it?  Huh?  Huh?  I'm open to guidance...

Friday, November 4, 2011

Back to My Roots

I am participating in a little venture called PiBoIdMo (for my non-writing friends, it stands for Picture Book Idea Month).  Basically for the month of November, I have to come up with 30 picture book ideas.

Last year (my first), the ideas practically oozed from my pores.  But this year is different, and I reluctantly confess I know why.  I am going through one of those dark periods.  It pertains mostly to my writing, but it seeps into my otherlife as well.  You know the questions:  Who am I?  What am I doing with my life?  Is all this work worth it?  What the heck do I write for anyway?  Do I really write picture books, or do I write something else?  (This last question haunts me the most lately.  I sense an existential crisis in the making!)

But today as I walked out of Barnes & Noble in a desperate attempt for inspiration (okay, maybe my real intention was to buy that issue of Entertainment Weekly that I missed because my subscription lapsed), my next idea literally hit me in the face, or rather, my nose.  In the cool misty air of autumn, I smelled the early morning aroma guessed it (probably not) -- barbeque. 

The olfactory blessing wafting out of the gas-station dive blasted me back to my childhood.  I grew up on pit-cooked barbeque from the little town of Lexington, NC (look it up non-NC's nearly famous), and I immediately felt a longing for my home and my roots.  Then some "what if" questions followed, followed by the fleshing-out of a character, an imagined friend, and then yowza!  An idea came quickly on the heels of an unexpected whiff of roasted pork.  (Please note that no pigs will come to harm in this picture book).

So if you are feeling lost in life (or ideas) this morning, remember your roots.  Return to your childhood, when the world was filled with familiar sights, sounds and smells.  You might just find your best you waiting for you there.


Saturday, October 29, 2011

Totally in Love with DOC MARTIN

This post is as far as it can be from children's literature, but I am so enamored with the BBC show, Doc Martin, that I had to blog about it.  I owe my writing friend, Davika, a HUGE thank-you for introducing me to the show.  I wouldn't have given it a second glance without her recommendation.  If you haven't seen it, and I'm betting you haven't, I'll tell you why you should...

If you like good -- no, great -- characters, you should watch this show.  I have hardly ever in my passive-viewer life been so engrossed with a character as I am with Martin Ellingham.  He is grumpy, brutally honest, a perfectionist to a fault, and completely rude in almost every social situation.  But what keeps me coming back again and again to watch his painful ineptitude in dealing with the residents of the provencial sea-side town to which he has been banished, is the hint of goodness bubbling just below his furrowed brow.  And I know of this goodness not because of a huge scene in which I am bombastically told why Doc Martin is inherently good, but because the writers and Martin Clunes (who plays the Doctor) have gently guided me to that conclusion by his actions and unforgettable facial expressions.

Good writers (which I hope to be when I grow up!) know that character is nearly everything in a story.  Plot can sizzle and setting can be bedazzle, but without a great character you want to grow old with, a story is not more than words on a page.  Martin Ellingham is a character that completely fascinates me.  He is good.  He is bad.  He is kind.  He is mean.  He is, well, normal.

So pardon me for leaving you.  I have another episode to watch. 

Monday, October 3, 2011

A Winner!

Thanks to everyone who commented on my "39 and Counting" blog entry.  I entered everyone's name into my Magic Hat (literally, that is the computer program I use!), and entered your name again if you are a follower, and so the winner is....


You'll be getting your copy of THE MIRACULOUS JOURNEY OF EDWARD TULANE.  You may want to stock up on tissues now...

Saturday, September 17, 2011

39 and Counting: My First Contest!

No, it's not my age, although it's pretty darn close to that number, too -- I turn the illustrious 39 this year

It is in fact the official number of rejection letters that I have racked up.  Over the years, I've gotten the:
  • run-of-the-mill signature-only letters, (a lot of these from the first year or so, when I fully deserved the standard rejection because my writing was yuck-o and I didn't know enough to know it);
  • the letters that rejected the enclosed submission but came with a really nice personalized note (even the occassional advice on how to improve the manuscript -- yeah!);
  • and the ONE letter from an editor who loved my manuscript but discovered that her publisher just bought another one like it (DOH!).
Maybe I should be sad about so many rejections, but I'm not.  In addition to all the rejection letters, I have two acceptance letters (for magazine contracts), and that's something worth being happy about. 

But mainly, I like to think the next rejection letter brings me closer to the big one -- the submission that breaks through the postal service and gets a phone call or email response (ah, heaven!).   One of my favorite authors, Kate DiCamillo, says she got nearly 400 rejection letters before getting a contract!

So if I hang in there and give just 10 times more effort than what I have done so far, then maybe, just maybe, I can break through!

Writer friends,  if you dare, tell me how many rejections you've collected so far.  Let's celebrate how close we are to the one that counts...

In honor of persistent authors everywhere, every comment to this blog entry will go into a random drawing for a copy of Kate DiCamillo's The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane.  Followers of my blog get one extra entry.   The drawing will be held October 2, so spread the word!

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

The Complete Picture Book Experience

For those of you writing picture book manuscripts, you know the answer to the following question before I even ask it.  Which is harder to write: picture books or novels (or novellas, or short stories, etc.)?

Yep.  Picture books.  The only thing harder perhaps is poetry.  Why?  Because picture books are poetry.  Not because they rhyme (because some of the best picture books don't as well as some of the best poetry), but because they are concise and beautiful.  Every word counts, and the words have to create pictures in your mind.  And if your picture book doesn't rhyme, your words have to have a built-in rhythm that pulls you through the story and makes you want to read it the twentieth time to your adoring preschooler.

Sooooooo, after many years of trying to write great picture books, I'm now considering the whole picture book experience.  When I first started writing, I was all about the story and the plot.  A great story will always produce a great picture book, right?  Well, not quite.  A great story needs a great main character, and a great main character needs a great voice, and a great voice needs a beautiful rendering that melts like butter on the tongue.  All that, plus, the picture book needs to flow from page to page. 

To mimic this experience, I now dummy book all my picture books before submitting.  I don't necessarily do it in the early stages, to which my patient critique partners will attest, but somewhere along the line it happens.  My story gets cut and pasted (yes, this is tedious) onto 28 pages (32 standard pages minus 4 for front and end matter), and it gets read aloud, just like a picture book.  If each page has a wonderful pause, and if a picture is brought to mind for every single page, then it passes my test and gets submitted.  If not, then back it goes to the drawing board.

Be warned....most editors don't like you to build in these page breaks in the manuscript.  Take out the breaks before submitting.  But definitely make sure you have an idea what your picture book feels like before you submit.  Know the whole experience of your book, not just the story on the page.