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Of Short Circuits and the Creative Process

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This past week was a tricky one.

A holiday weekend.

A workshop piece due May 31.

A packet due June 4.

A locally-sourced freelance piece due June 4.

It didn't help that four days of torrential or near-torrential rains started late last Wednesday. (I'm ignoring the snow that hit the higher elevations over the actual holiday weekend.)

Aside from one interview for the freelance piece, I couldn't get myself to work. While it was true that the weather made me uneasy, and for good reason--there were washed out roads and water across main highways between us and points west--there was another reason for my inability to work. My creative mind was being pulled in so many directions it was short-circuiting.

I kept sitting down to work on my workshop piece, thinking I could pound out eight rough pages in a morning, and finishing with two or three. It was torture, of the slow drip kind. Sure, I was making progress, but not fast enough. It wasn't until Monday afternoon, when I sat down and realized I only had four pages to go, that I knew I could do it.

Once that was done, it was as if order had been restored. Yesterday's work on the packet went smoothly. I made some progress on the freelance piece.

This is why I am not a last-minute person. Even without panic, too much pressure inhibits my ability to work well.

What about you? How do you respond to multiple, close deadlines?

P.S. It didn't hurt that we took time out for Star Trek Into Darkness.


Discovery Award Night

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Last night was the PEN New England 2013 Discovery Award Night, at which Anna Boll and I received the 2013 Susan P. Bloom Discovery Award.

I was nervous--as nervous as I was two years ago when I made my stand-up debut. It helped that we got lost on our way to the auditorium, and I mean that in all sincerity. Having to look for missing street signs (Boston suburbs are apparently notorious) and listen as Bianca (all our GPS voices are known as Bianca) "recalculated," kept me focused on the moment rather than what lay ahead.

We arrived in time (barely), and met those of the selection committee who could attend: Kim Ablon Whitney, Lisa Jahn-Clough, Liza Ketchum, and Mitali Perkins. (Susan P. Bloom, Pat Lowery Collins, Susan Goodman, Robie Harris, and Leslie Sills were the other committee members.) Mitali was the only member of the committee I knew at all, but everyone made us feel so welcome and at home that I relaxed immediately.

Liza Ketchum introduced me, and that was a particular honor, because Liza has a home in Vermont and knows this state and therefore something about my story's setting. It was also an honor because both Liza and Lisa taught at VCFA with Norma Fox Mazer, in whose honor I received an award in January. All these connections make me feel as if my story is supported by a web.

I read, and I have to say, it was so gratifying to be able to make eye contact with people I knew: Anna. My fellow Magic Ifs, Jim Hill and Jenn Barnes. VCFA faculty member Sarah Ellis, who happened to be in Boston that weekend and was there on her birthday! And my husband Greg. It was good to hear people laugh when I hoped they would, too.

The other gratifying thing about reading--and the reason I'd like to add my voice to those who call for reading aloud--is that when it works--as it did last night--I feel like I'm channeling the character. The vocal chords may be mine, but the voice is not. When the character takes over, the feeling is glorious.

And then I was done and could sit down and relax while Mitali introduced Anna. It was a delight listening to Anna read. I realized I had heard the very first pages at this March's Novel Writing Retreat, when they had left me wanting to know more. Last night, I got to hear that more, but that, in turn, only made me want more still. I can't wait until this book is published!

I knew that the Discovery Award had been around for a while, but I didn't realize until last night that this was the 15th year. Nor did I realize how many people who received this award have gone on to have their winning title published. That list includes Sara Pinto, current committee member Kim Ablon Whitney, Janet Ruth Young, Jo Knowles, M.P. Barker, Erin Dionne (bostonerin), Ammi-Joan Paquette, Jame Richards, and last year's co-winner and current VCFA student Helen Demetrios.

After our reading, the audience had some excellent questions about our process, research, and our reading. What was fascinating to me was where those things overlap and where they diverge. One thing that Anna and I turn out to have in common--at least for these works--is reading widely. I don't think either of us can imagine doing otherwise. One place where we diverge--Anna is spinning many more plates than I. She also writes curricula for books and does things like mini triathlons. I don't know how she has time for it all!

These are called the Discovery Awards and I am so grateful to be discovered. I, too, have also made a discovery: it is worth taking a creative risk. I went into this project, Three Minutes Thirty, feeling not like I was going out on a limb, but like I was stepping onto a high wire, weak in the knees and trembling. There was a lot of breath-holding and wobbling and uncertainty, because I didn't know if what I was trying would work. If it didn't, I was going to fall a long way and I didn't know what I would do if I did. But it was the only way I could see that might possibly work and I had a couple of people I could trust cheering me on. So I crept slowly on.

Take the creative risk--that was my discovery. But, in the process, I was reminded of something I discovered in the book before this: You've got to believe--in your story, in yourself, in what Tim Wynne-Jones has called "your inner genius," that bit of you that puts things in the story for you to find when you need them.

I still have this on my computer to remind me:

But now I also have this lovely award, created by the multi-talented Lisa Jahn-Clough, to remind me to take those creative risks:

Writing YA and Gendered Covers

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PW's Q & A with Paul Rudnick contains some interesting nuggets.

Nugget #1:

I could not agree more with Rudnick about why it's exciting to write YA:

"I love the storytelling aspect of YA books; I wanted the book to be carefully plotted with twists and turns and surprises, and that’s something that’s only available in novels, especially YA novels. It almost seems that in adult novels, there’s so much latitude that it sometimes becomes laziness, and writers can forget about entertaining the reader. Reading YA books is so pleasurable; they really deliver."

The one thing I would add is that YA also seems to matter more. Even when we're telling the stories and entertaining readers, it feels like we are sharing something with them that we want them to know. I don't mean "life lessons," but something more like, "Yeah, life can be like that sometimes. See? Someone else has been there. You aren't alone."

Nuggest #2:

Check out the cover of Rudnick's novel, Gorgeous:

Does this not look like a "girl cover"?

I saw this not long after I read about Maureen Johnson's coverflip challenge. It puts an interesting twist on that concept. Here we have a male author whose novel has a "girly" cover that, given what I've read of the book, suits it perfectly. So maybe the issue isn't so much the author's gender, but the perceived gender of the novel.

And, to get back up on a soapbox I've been on (far too) many times before--why shouldn't a guy read a book written for girls? Why should that be a problem? Shouldn't he be given points for doing some research into how girls work and what they like? Or a book that is simply a good story, with a girl as the main character? Why oh why should anybody think there's anything wrong with that?

Off the soapbox now. But--

What do you think about the Paul Rudnick's cover and Maureen Johnson's coverflip challenge? And book covers in general?


Why do you write for teens? Or, if you don't, why don't you?

Top Three Commencement Speeches

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Because it is commencement season and because I teach seniors, the things they are told has been on my mind lately. The funny thing is, I don't remember what the speakers said at either my husband's commencement in 1978 or mine in 1979, although I do remember who they were: Doris Kearns Goodwin, a Colby grad whose biography of Lyndon Johnson had been making a splash, and Robert E.L. Strider III, the outgoing college president. I do seem to have some sense that RELS, as he was known to us, said something about joining us in a new adventure and wishing us well in it, but that's about it.

On the other hand, these three commencement speeches resonate with me and all three say things I want to tell those seniors.

  • "I hope you fail." Failing means you have tried, you have reached for something just beyond your grasp. But, as Samuel Beckett, that bucket of cheerfulness, said, "Try again. Fail better." If you fail and still want it, you have to be willing to try, to work, to dedicate yourself to whatever it is you want to do, until someday you won't fail. This isn't supposed to be easy. It's supposed to be worth doing. If you think it is worth doing, stick with it.

  • "Hold onto your art. It may be a lifeline." There have been days when the only thing that got me through was the idea that "nothing is wasted on an artist." Even when I didn't have the emotional wherewithal to "make good art," I knew that whatever the experience, it was making me the person who could, just maybe, make good art, could try something she wasn't at all sure about and find that other people thought it was worth recognizing.

  • "Choose how you will approach life and the world." A friend of mine, who worked with John Cage, said that one thing he learned from Cage was that you can't control the world, you can only control your own reactions to the world.

But here those speeches are, in their own words.

(Here's the text of David Foster Wallace's speech.)

New England SCBWI Wrap-Up

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A major shout-out to Joyce Shor Johnson and Kristine Asselin, the co-directors of this year's conference. Thanks, too, to all the volunteers who made things run, driving speakers, made sure we were all in the right room, and ran all the evening activities, too.

(The view from my hotel window)

One of the reasons I continue to attend this conference is that I always learn something new, and that was no less the case this year.

From jeannineatkins and Laurie Calkhoven, I not only learned new things about setting and scene structure, but I generated some ideas and mini-scenes that will be a big help when I start working on my next workshop piece.

The keynote speakers were absolutely fabulous. Sharon Creech--well, Sharon Creech! As she pointed out, it is all about "the words we choose to say." But what I will remember most is this: "It's a matter of discovering what is already in you--finding the words for those things" or finding the words and exploring the words until the story arrives." If I'd had those words thirty years ago, things might have been different. I'm not saying better, because I'm in a very good place right now, but they would have been different.

Those words also resonated with the other keynote speaker, Grace Lin. As Grace shared the story of how she grew from being a girl who loved to draw into a classically trained artist who had to return to her family's roots in Asia before she found an artistic home, I recognized my own long journey through academia until now, I am writing about what I have known all along.

I also did a fun workshop on graphic novels with Ed Briant. Tip: The latest version of Scrivener has a graphic novel format. This is something I want to play with more, sometime down the road.

The weekend closed for me with an amazing workshop on identifying the right agents for you. Lynda Mullaly Hunt seriously rocks, people. I now feel well-prepared to look for the right agent. Major take-away: "How many books do you read 15 times a year?" That's how many times an editor will read your book and why it's so important that they love it as much as you do.

I didn't participate in as many workshops as I have in the past, because I've learned to pace myself (and, okay, because I had some revisions to make on my CT), but I did have time for meals with old friends and new. There was lots of catching up.

One of the reasons I am most glad I went to this conference this year is that joknowles was presented with her Crystal Kite award at lunch on Saturday. I'm glad because, not only do I know and admire Jo, but her acceptance speech caught what happens at NE-SCBWI, and why we go, year after year. The first year I attended, I'm not sure I knew anyone. But people were welcoming, and now, it feels like I know so many people.

(Jeannine & Jo post-Crystal Kite Award)

This is a place I go to fill the creative and craft well, but also to be reminded once more what a supportive and generous group writers and illustrators for children are.

Thankful Thursday

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This week, even as I'm devastated by what happened in Boston, I do have much to be thankful for.

My daughter is now a paid intern at Skyhorse Publishing. She interviewed a couple weeks ago and received the good news Monday morning.

My daughter's BFF from middle & high school, who lived with us for over a year, has been accepted at the local state college. She also received that good news Monday.

I heard from both of them within the space of an hour. I could not have been happier.

I would have been thrilled anyway, but for both of them, these successes came at the end of a long process. My daughter has been in New York, applying for jobs, since last summer. Her friend has been trying to get back into college for at least three years and has been thwarted largely by bureaucratic stipulations that didn't take her personal situation into consideration.

So I am extra thrilled for Lydia and Kiki because of the persistence they demonstrated. They kept faith with their dreams and goals. They are remarkable for that and I am so glad I know them.

They remind me of this post:

It does come down to desire, deep desire that gives us the faith to keep on trying.

What are you grateful for this week, difficult as it has been?

Posted via LiveJournal app for iPhone.


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Oh wow, oh wow, oh wow!

Hugs to everyone who posted congratulations here. , olmue, robinellen, stephanieburgis, kellyrfineman, and Lisa Papademetriou, that means you.

I know I've neglected this journal since I started the MFA. It hasn't been intentional, but as you all now, sometimes life gets crazy, even when it's crazy good. Thanks for sticking with me.

I am so deeply grateful for the recognition this manuscript has received, particularly since Stefan is a guy who isn't always seen, either in literature or in the world as a whole.

More Wonderful News!

I am thrilled and honored and jumping up and down to announce that I am one of two winners of this year's Susan P. Bloom Discovery Award, sponsored by PEN-New England.

I am equally thrilled and honored and jumping up and down that the other winner is none other than Anna Boll, a VCFA alum, who was one of my fellow Novel Writing Retreat attendees this past year.

We will be celebrating with a reading of our work at the Discovery Evening at Lesley University in Cambridge, Mass. If you want details on how to attend, leave a message in the comments and I'll send details.

Most of all, I am thrilled that THREE MINUTES THIRTY is getting such attention. This is the same novel I received the Norma Fox Mazer for, and to have such recognition for this story is so affirming. I took risks that at times felt like stepping onto a high wire (not that I ever have done that) and I held my breath for fear of falling as I inched my way along, but now that I've reached the other platform--Whahoo!!!

              Like the man said, "you've got to

As I have learned at VCFA, you also have to
I am so grateful I was able to do both for this project, and I am so grateful that others have seen something in it they worth this kind of attention.


A Revision Trick - and the Diversions

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The revisions continue. Last Thursday afternoon, knowing that I would not have time to write again until this afternoon (Monday), I came up with a new revision trick, one I hoped would save me time getting back into the the work. It worked, so not only am I going to continue using it, but I'm going to share it with you.

It's a variation on the tried-and-true stopping work in the middle of a sentence or after writing the first sentence of the next chapter.

I read through the scene I would be revising next, thought about how it needed to relate to theme and character and all those things we think about when we are revising, and then I made notes, telling myself what the point of the scene was and indicating places where, for example, the topic of a conversation had to be changed. In one or two places, I wrote the start of possible dialogue, so that I would remember what I was thinking. In total, I had maybe five or six lines of directions for a five-page scene.

I walked away knowing more or less what I was going to do today. When I returned today, those notes were a huge help, as were the fragments of dialogue. It still took me a while to get into things, because three days is a long time to be away from a manuscript, but it didn't take as long as it would have without those notes. The scene is revised, and is much stronger than the original, and in the process I discovered a way to make a sub-plot make more sense (character motivation was key).

As for the diversion--this past weekend was the Vermont State Odyssey of the Mind Tournament. Friday afternoon we set up for Saturday's tournament. The tournament itself is always great fun--the students are enthusiastic, creative, and in many cases deeply talented and it's always interesting to see the variety of solutions they come up with for their chosen problem. This year, for the second year in a row, I was working the theatrical problem, which is one of my favorites (tied with the classical problem). If you want to see exactly what the challenge was, go to Problem 5 here. The judging team this year was about half parents and half college students earning credit toward a developmental psychology course.

There was one amusing incident, when we were talking with one team after their performance. They had used a lot of social media jargon, (BTW, hashtag), and had even made up an internet acronym of their own that might catch on(WAYAWAYD=Who are You and What Are You Doing). They said to the college students, "We are so glad there are young people here, because we were afraid the judges would be too old to know stuff like BTW and hashtag." Me=ROFL.

But as much fun as it is, it is also exhausting. It usually takes me a full day to recover, and yesterday was no exception. On the other hand, I am as inspired as I am exhausted. After all, these kids are my future audience.

What's your favorite revision trick? Or should I say WYFRT?

Visions and Revisions

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This past weekend was the annual Novel Writing Retreat at Vermont College. The theme was revisions. The timing could not have been better. All thanks to the amazing Cindy Faughnan and Sarah Aronson, who have been organizing this retreat for the past ten years.

I have just started to revise. My first draft was finished in November, which means it has been in hibernation for a few months.

Over the weekend, between listening to wonderful talks by authors Julie Berry, Cynthia Leitich Smith, and Lauren Myracle, and editor Andrea Tompa, I dug in and just about met my goals. That I didn't quite meet them says more about my continuing struggle to set realistic goals--I always, always, always think I should be able to do that ten-percent-ish more than I can actually, realistically do.

But I did make great progress, and much of that has to do with the synergy that happened over the weekend.

Thanks to Julie Berry's advice, I quieted my mind and looked for ways to visualize each scene, even as I thought about its purpose.

Thanks to Cynthia Leitich Smith, I have extended my understanding of Andrew Stanton's concept of 2+2, thinking about the ways that having to work for understanding can be attractive on multiple levels.

Thanks to Lauren Myracle--and her writer friend Jen Lynn Barnes--I have a concrete way to understand reivision: "Taking the book to the next level. And there is always a next level."

And thanks to Andrea Tompa, I know I am not the only one who thinks of writing and revision as a sculptural process. She used woodcarving as an analogy, but I use marble--hence the icon. I choose marble, because of what Michelangelo said about revealing the sculpture trapped in the block of marble.

For me, the rough draft is the process of making that block.

Now it's time to do some sculpting.

Marble block

Latest Month

March 2014

Reading Raves

Nation (Terry Pratchett), Men of Salt (Michael Benanav), Paper Towns (John Green), Lavinia (Ursula K. LeGuin), Weight (Jeanette Winterson), The Wizard, the Witch & Two Girls from Jersey (Lisa Papademetriou), Beastly (Alex Flinn), Hogfather (Terry Pratchett), London Calling (Edward Bloor), Before I Die (Jenny Downham), My Mother the Cheerleader (Robert Sharenow), Antsy Does Time (Neal Shuesterman), Against Medical Advice (James Patterson & Hal Friedman), Wait for Me (An Na), Doppelganger (David Stahler), The Year We Disappeared (Cylin Busby, John Busby); Little Brother (Cory Doctorow); King of Screwups (K.L. Going), Tyrell (Coe Booth), Goth Girl Rising (Barry Lyga), Bad Apple (Laura Ruby), The Sky is Everywhere (Jandy Nelson), Hold Still (Nina LaCour), Will Grayson, Will Grayson (John Green & David Levitahn), Seth Baumgartner's Love Manifesto (Eric Luper), Ostrich Boys (Keith Gray), Front & Center (Catherine Gilbert Murdock), Twenty Boy Summer (Sarah Ockler), I Shall Wear Midnight (Terry Pratchett), Tales of the Madman Underground (John Barnes), Please Ignore Vera Dietz (A.S. King), Sex: A Book for Teens (Nikol Hasler), The Girl Who Became a Beatle (Greg Taylor), Crazy (Han Nolan), Pull (B.A. Binns), Pearl (Jo Knowles)


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