Saturday, May 31, 2008

Weary Writer

I'm going to chat about weariness.

One reason I'm weary is because, I'm smack in the middle of big fat sci-fi epic. I have half a book. I'm digging deep to find that other half. I've worked on this manuscript for almost a year and half, and I'm nowhere neared finished. It's a huge investment of my time, and truthfully, I'm tired.

The other thing bringing me down is the fact that I've been at this novel writing for a long time. Ten years. I've written 6 middle grade and YA novels (Jimmer, Fractals, Tornado Allie, Plumber Gal, Crying For the Moon and What I Wrote Instead of My Fourth Grade Journal.) in that time with no sales. A while back Jay Asher posted on Verla Kay's Children's Writer message board -- his "Ready to Quit Post." This post brings much joy and hope to many authors. For me it's another brick in the insurmountable 'publish a novel' wall.

Many people posted answers to Jay's post, and I did too. I really went on about stuff because his feeling of being on the "verge" hit this deep chord within me. I posted a big answer to his post. Here it is:

I write novels. I have personal letters from every major publishing house. This includes -- Hyperion, Random House, Scholastic, Little Brown, Candlewick, Viking, most of the Penguin imprints, Walker, FSG. OK, you get the idea. Might I note, no sales. Ouch. I add on to this an inability to break into the magazine market. Painful. I've noted something at the many conferences I've attended (30+) something similar about the many overnight successes who would trot out and tell their story. 1. They already worked and were successful in some other part of the publishing industry (Music, TV, Greeting card writing, editor, something - this is the most common story.) 2. They were related to someone in the publishing industry (Aunt, Uncle, sister-in-law, something, semi-rare.) 3. Had a masters or doctorate in English, Art History or similar field and were current professors at a university (common). 4. Were well published in the magazine market (common). 5. Served on the board and ran writing organizations (common). 6. Got a Children's Writer MFA (semi-rare - I think because few people do this.). I also was given some good advice from Libba Bray. Get work, any work. An illustrator friend backed this up with -- "if the checks don't bounce, it's all good". At this time I began to build a personal business plan. I went to a business seminar. I found out what it takes to make a business. I take any work I can get. I volunteered for SCBWI for three years (I've resigned now). I've edited manuals for local businesses. I've taught classes. I've written writing articles. And little over a year ago, I started to write for the educational market -- I've written 18 (it's 25 now and a picture book) work-for-hire books. No, I haven't received that "big" contract, yet. But I'm a working writer now and all the work has made me a more professional writer. It's all been good. So my thought is to look sideways and see if there is direction you can try that will help your business. I'm not going to kid you; I've felt down in the dumps, but using that thinking to work "smarter" is the way to go.

I really wish I could go and delete this post. I've run out of "smart" ideas and I'm at new low. Jay was about to land a big fat publishing contact right after the post. I was not. I'm still moving along inch by inch. I've not given-up. I haven't quit writing. I'd write even if no one ever payed me a penny. I write plucky stories, full of thoughtful questions and lots of heart. My novels languish in drawers, on desks, and in stacks -- unread. This is sort the heart of my weariness.

This quote rings true for me on so many levels.

In the middle of the journey of our life, I came to myself within a dark wood where the straight way was lost.

Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy

I'm not sure that "men of genuis" is what I am, but I do feel like a person who has "gone up the mountain". I'm stuggling to persevere.

In each age men of genius undertake the ascent. From below, the world follows them with their eyes. These men go up the mountain, enter the clouds, disappear, reappear, People watch them, mark them. They walk by the side of precipices. They daringly pursue their road. See them aloft, see them in the distance; they are but black specks. On they go. The road is uneven, its difficulties constant. At each step a wall, at each step a trap. As they rise the cold increases. They must make their ladder, cut the ice and walk on it., hewing the steps in haste. A storm is raging. Nevertheless they go forward in their madness. The air becomes difficult to breath. The abyss yawns below them. Some fall. Others stop and retrace their steps; there is a sad weariness. The bold ones continue. They are eyed by the eagles; the lightning plays about them: the hurricane is furious. No matter, they persevere.

Victor Hugo

Last is my doodle for the week:

©Molly Blaisdell, all rights reserved. If you want to use my cool doodles ask permission first. It is so wrong to take people's doodles without permisison!

Friday, May 23, 2008

Novel Writing: Kaizen

I'm taking a few posts to discuss novel writing. This is again a nuts and bolts week for my blog. I will focus on personal experience with an eye on the universal. This week I'm discussing my methodology of writing. I came across a Japanese efficiency method called Kaizen that calls for gradual incremental changes. The heart of this philosophy is that every area of life can be improved. This philosophy absolutely mirrors how I write books. The Kaizen philosophy embraces five foundational elements: team work, personal discipline, improved morale, quality circle, suggestions for improvement. I find these elements are essential to writing a book.

First team work, this is the reason why building writing clips is so necessary to your writing life. You need the experience of working on a team, even if it's just you and your editor. Writing a book is not something I want to do in an ivory tower which I descend from every 10 years with one of the great masterpieces of the world. My mojo is born out of teamwork. A vibrant team environment is the star nursery of greatness.

The next element is personal discipline. You must write every day. I have found that I can lean on the experience of discipline in other areas of my life to help me become a more disciplined writer. I especially like to think about the mountains of laundry I have folded, the large concrete floors I have busted out, the many chemical reactions I have balanced, and the thousands of diapers I've dealt with -- obviously the spark for personal discipline can come from many places. Without building on a project in a daily incremental way the piece will lack focus and cohesion.

Another element is improved morale. You've got to have a positive attitude to write books. Listen, I'm cup half empty sort of person, so I find this a personal challenge. Thankfully, over time, I have learned how to keep myself up at least part of the time. I take time to celebrate every success. When I write a query, I give myself props. If I write a page, I then take time to experience the pleasure of having added to my project. If no big stuff is on the horizon, I pick a little thing that I'm sure I can achieve and then go for it. I let myself laugh with glee and cry with joy when I achieve a new milestone: a started story, a completed story, a submitted story -- I take time to improve my morale.

Quality is a piece of the writing equation that I long avoided but now embrace. I've found many writers focus on the big picture but neglect the details. You must become a person with finesse when it comes to grammar and vocabulary. For me this has meant worksheet after worksheet of grammar related exercises. It means taking the time to go through each manuscript with a thesaurus and doing whatever I can to punch up the language. This is technical stuff, folks. Every word shades your meaning. Words must be chosen with great care. Grammar also shades your meaning. My best advice: invest in the quality of your writing.

The last piece of this: seeking suggestions for improvement or critique. I have found that to create top notch work you need to listen to the sensibility of your readers. Open yourself to the opinion of others. Listen to them and revise with their thoughts in mind. Expect to have more critique in the end than the length of the novel. Expect for each novel to go through two or more critiques. Try to keep a balance. Your intent should be twined together with the advice of your peers. There is excellence to be achieved by relating to the critiques of others.

I hope that you have found something useful here. Happy writing.

Constant dripping hallows out a stone. Lucretius

By request of Janet Lee Carey, I'm adding a little feature to my weekly blog.

I'm a lifelong doodler. So...

From the imagination of Molly Blaisdell: Doodle of the Week

©Molly Blaisdell, all rights reserved. If you want to use my cool doodles ask permission first. It is so wrong to take people's doodles without permisison!

Friday, May 16, 2008

Novel Writing: Willing

I'm taking a few posts to share some thoughts about novel writing. This week, these thoughts are going to come up close and personal. I've been fearful of moving forward with my current project. I'm writing a big fat sci-fi epic. I'm on schedule with my plan but a certain terror has formed in me. This story has turned a dark corner, and that is not a welcome surprise. I find that my character is in more trouble that I thought she was. I think someone close to her is going to die. Someone I really love.

It's awful. I'm at the place where I have to be willing to follow my character. I have to be willing to follow my story. A novel gains momentum at some point. The impetus for the story is like a reservoir of water that grew and grew and then broke the dam. I thought about so many what ifs and what might bes. The writing is letting the water flood move forward across the plain, but unusual consequences are resulting. Things are getting uncovered that I did not expect.

I had a good conversation about floods this week with Janet Lee Carey. Yes, part of the process is discussing the ins and out of what you are doing with other writers. It's an absorbing, wonderful thing to me. Non-writers would probably find it boring. I also had an online chat with Pink (guess who?) and then Judy Gregerson. All their thoughts are swirling inside me and helping me embrace the true shape of my story. I must be willing. Oh, brave new world.

I have to do a shout out here at the end. The talented Mr. Kevan Atteberry is a member of my picture book critique group and he has been honored. He is the illustrator of the 2008 Children's Book Council's Children's Choice Award, K-2, "Frankie Stein" written by Lola Schafer.

Courage is the first of human qualities because it is the quality which guarantees the others.

Saturday, May 03, 2008

Novel Writing: Snags

I'm back to talking about novel writing. Have you ever been humming along with the current manuscript and then everything stops? You stop producing pages. You toss 100 words for every 50 you write. You begin to wander aimlessly. It's hard to get a word count of 500 a day going. You've hit a snag. The manuscript production stalls.

This post is all about how to get out the doldrums. It might just be a simple matter of going to the beginning and reading what you have as a whole so far. The problem may be bigger than that. Take a look at the back story of the book. Sometimes when I can't move forward, it's because I don't have enough foundation under-pinning the manuscript. I have to go create histories for the events and people of my story. This back story work can get me on track again.

Another thing that stalls a book is "stage stuff". Take some time, make maps of various rooms, and gather visual references of images needed to dress the setting. You can stall because the setting is complex and you have not taken the time to think it through.

Sometimes when you hit a snag, it's because it's time to commit to major themes. Take some time to ask yourself what exactly are you talking about in this story. Is this about love, death, renewal, hope? What is the core and heart of your story? It's not always what you thought. I will take a whole day and just think. I read all kinds of stuff that relates to my theme. I check out books and study till my head aches. Taking time to examine what is happening thematically in a book can pull it out of stall.

Another problem can be wandering in the plot. You got all dressed up but did not go anywhere. Even if you have a outline, it might be time to revisit it-- add all the new twisty changes that you have made. This might help you get a clearer understanding of the shape of the book. Re-outline the tail end of the book. This is like squaring the building. This makes a plot sturdy and eliminates holes. This kind of revisit can help a manuscript that has stalled.

Sometimes, the only thing you can do is just stop working. Let the thing go. Start another project. You need to let the subconscious have a chance to digest what you have done so far. If you have passion, you will return to the work. A second wind will come. If not, you might find that this lost hulk will become an organ donor for a new vital story.

Enjoy the journey. Keep moving forward.

"Whatever we learn has a purpose and whatever we do affects everything and everyone else, if even in the tiniest way. Why, when a housefly flaps his wings, a breeze goes round the world; when a speck of dust falls to the ground, the entire planet weighs a little more; and when you stamp your foot, the earth moves slightly off its course. Whenever you laugh, gladness spreads like the ripples in a pond; and whenever you're sad, no one anywhere can be really happy. And it's much the same thing with knowledge, for whenever you learn something new, the whole world becomes that much richer." -Norton Juster, The Phantom Tollbooth

Friday, May 02, 2008

SCBWI Western Washington Conference Notes

Welcome to my blog. This week I continue to interrupt my series on novel writing for conference notes. Last week I went to the SCBWI Western Washington annual conference, and because I'm scoring "the not to be named" test, I've decided to jump in here with conference ramblings on the many agents and editors at this conference. I will get back to the process next week.

Here is my disclaimer: my notes are just a small part of the story. I've noticed everyone hears something different at these conferences, so what ever you find here is my slant on the universe. Just want to keep it real, folks.

Stephen Barbara, Literary Agent, Donald Maas Literary Agency

* only represents novelists.
* a real taste for high concept stories
* track record of launching new novelists on a regular basis.
* likes a book that plays to the heart.

Marcia Wernick, Literary Agent, Sheldon Fogelman Agency

* wants a deep connection with the work
* looks for fresh talent
* hopes for versatile authors
* seeks excellence

KT Scahefer, Literary Agent

* middle grade and YA fiction
* no picture books
* check out her website and blog

Laurent Linn, Art Director, Simon and Schuster BFYR

* educate yourself on the style of the house
* believes there is room for everyone
* thinks you should get out there and read

Jessica Garrison, Dial BFYR

* character driven stories
* write from you heart, but use your brain
* find a new way to tell a universal story

Arthur Levine, Arthur Levine Books

* a writer, too.
* publishes a range of books connected by an emotional core
* delves into the mythic questions: Who are we? What do we want?

Randi Rivers, Editor, Charlesbridge

* loves comedy
* likes to cry, too
* interested in the story of science and math

Nina Hess, Mirrorstone, Wizards of the Coast

* interested in stuff that will turn conventional stories upside down

Gary Luke, Sasquatch Publishing

* love of natural history
* seeks stories with a regional connection

Lisa Abrams, Editor, Aladdin

* note the reorg, this imprint now has hardcovers
* focus on high concept
* likes books that push the limits

Well, I hope something here has been helpful for you.

On another note the final cover for Rembrandt has shown up. Yay:

Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.