Monday, September 29, 2014

Gifts from John Bemis- Part II

If you missed last week's post, I shared ten things I learned In John Claude Bemis's writing class at Table Rock Writers retreat. John also spoke to the entire group on, “What Creative People Can Learn From Children.” After quoting Picasso: “Every child is an artist.  The problem is to remain an artist once we grow up,” John shared ten ways writers should emulate children. In this post you’ll read his first five points with pictures and videos illustrating his points, courtesy of my grandchildren. Next week this series concludes with John’s last five points and the giveaway of his book, The Prince Who Fell From the Sky. 

First of all, kids love to play—it’s basically their job! Children make up games on the playground and in their own backyards. Their dolls and trucks act out fascinating stories as children “disappear into their imaginations through play.”

Libbie & Caitlin Kasten as princesses.

In the same way, adults also need time to play. Companies like 3M and Google have found that giving their employees time to pursue individual interests, take a walk, or even play pinball leads to more innovative work. “Google claims that 50% of their new products come from ‘Innovative Time Off,” John noted.

Play also increases problem-solving ability. A study found that preschoolers were more apt to figure out an unfamiliar gadget than college students because they played with it.

What does this mean to us as writers? Make sure you do something fun each day. Don’t be afraid to play with your work. “Don’t stick to your first pass at the story….Have fun making your writing better.”

Secondly, everything is brand new to a child. These years are a “time of great wonder and stimulation.” When we’re running down an idea for the first time, the newness “sparks our curiosity and creativity.” John explained that from a neuroscience perspective, our brains are building synapses, which boosts creativity and makes our brains function better. John recommended playing a new game, learning a new instrument, or traveling to a foreign country. Citing his own recent trip to Rwanda, John said travel “gets you out of your normal rules and challenges you to be flexible.” He experienced a huge creative bump when he returned home—and wrote like a maniac!

Third, kids embrace ambiguity. To them a pen can be a wand, a sword, a dragon bone, or a bridge. We’ve all seen kids playing with a box rather than the toy that was inside. 
Ebby and Mason Clark having
fun in their  box-train.
Why? The toy has a specific purpose—but the box can be anything. John said this was the type of creative thinking that allowed Picasso to pick up bicycle handles and see a bull’s horn.

John recommended that writers should embrace ambiguity as a source of discovery. Perhaps a typo on a page can lead you to a new idea. Flipping through magazines or pictures in the Apples to Apples game may stimulate a new path for your writing. The ambiguity loving part of our brain can make wildly original connections if we just let it.” 
Mason as a Ninja
with his two swords.
Fourth, kids have unlimited interests.  Mason created a story in which he starred as a super-hero. His cousin Caitlin (pictured below) described herself as a scientist with a telescope but also imagines herself as a ballerina, likes to cook in her kitchen, and fix things with her own set of tools.

Young kids think they’re good at everything, leading them to explore a wide variety of interests.

Unfortunately, when kids hit middle school, they begin to form a sense of identity based on what they think they are and aren’t good at.  They say things like, “I’m not an athlete. I’m no good at math.” As we age, our interests tend to narrow, constricting our choices. As writers, we need to keep expanding our horizons.

Fifth, kids are less self-critical. They think they’re great artists, writers, athletes, musicians and we wouldn’t dare contradict them! 
Caitlin describing her artwork

 This type of blind confidence makes a person keep doing something over and over again. Some writers dream of becoming NY Times Bestsellers. This confidence helps them work hard and push through discouragements during their early years.

When you hear that self-critical voice whisper in your ear, “You’ll never get published,” remember the self-confidence and stamina you had as a child. To be successful, you have to be persistent.  And to be persistent, you have to manage the negative thoughts that want to keep us from continuing to try.”

Monday, September 22, 2014

Gifts from John Bemis-- Part I

Congratulations to Linda Andersen who won a copy of Steering Toward Normal by Rebecca Petruck.

Two weeks ago I attended the Table Rock Writers Retreat in Wildacres, NC and participated in John Claude Bemis' class on Writing for Children and Young Adults. It was an inspriational week that left me excited and raring to dig into draft #4 of Half-Truths. In this post I share some of what I learned in John's class.  Next week I'll share highlights from a talk he gave to the whole group, "What Creative People Can Learn from Children" as well as a chance to win an autographed copy of The Prince Who Fell from the Sky.

 John surrounded by his appreciative students. 
#1. It takes a lot of drafts and revision before a book is published. Of course I knew this already, but when I looked at John's brainstorming notes for The Nine Pound Hammer and the editorial letter he received outlining the work he needed to do on the manuscript PLUS the marked up manuscript--I was encouraged. Here was a man who has successfully published four books and his first novel needed a lot of work. A light clicked on. If he could do it, so could I.

#2. Lillie's opening chapter needed to start by showing her doing an important action that grips the reader.

#3. Make sure that there will be consequences for both Lillie and Kate that will make my readers worry about them and care for them. 

#4. Give action and bold choices to dramatize the girls' journeys. 

#5. Think about how the universal desires and anxieties that all children/young adults experience will speak to my readers.

#6. Always think: "Why will readers care about my story?"

#7. Identify what I love in a story. These are elements I will want to include in my own book.

#8. List qualities about my two protagonists which my readers will find appealing. Incorporating these qualities into my story will create sympathetic characters. 

#9. Insert tension by creating stakes for the characters throughout the book.

#10. Play Apples to Apples when you get stuck and need to find out more about your character. (NOTE: It really works!)

There are TONS more that I learned but you'll have to excuse me. Draft #4's outline is tapping her foot and waiting for me to return to work.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Two Chances to Win Books + Three Writing Classes

To thank Rebecca Petruck for her support and writing instruction, I'm offering a copy of her debut novel, Steering Toward Normal as a giveaway on this blog. You'll find my review of this middle grade book for boys and girls here and directions for entering the giveaway below.

In addition, Joyce Hostetter and I are giving away another copy of Steering Toward Normal in Talking Story, as well as an ARC of Linda Phillips' debut novel-in-verse, CRAZY. You will find my review of this young adult book for girls here. By the way, Linda's book received a Junior Library Guild Selection award--pre-release!

If you live in Charlotte and you want to learn some of the tricks of plotting your novel that I learned from Rebecca, she is giving a workshop in Charlotte on October 13 entitled, "Plot Your Novel and Other acts of Joy and Heartbreak." Click here for more information.

Rebecca is joining Kami Kinard to teach an online class on writing a middle grade or young adult novel. Their class, "Crafting the Kidlit Novel" is sure to be jam-packed with information. As a participant in Kami's popular Kidlit Summer School (co-directed by Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen I can vouch that these instructors know their stuff!

And finally, I'm starting my Intermediate Fiction Writing class at Central Piedmont Community College next week. There are still a few spaces left if you are interested in developing your children's or adult novel. 
If you want to win Steering Toward Normal, leave me a comment by Monday, September 22 at 9 AM. Please leave me your email address if I don't already have it.

Monday, September 15, 2014

A Stab at Internalization: Lillie's POV

In last week's blog I shared the writing exercise which Rebecca Petruck, my writing coach, gave me. She instructed me to think about, "the difference between rote description, and description that reveals something about the character. When you describe the external world around them, it has to be in order to reflect how they interpret it, what it means to them and how it feels."
Rebecca also said I needed to infuse Lillie's love for science into my story. Here is my first stab at addressing these issues. 

This is the original text from Lillie's opening chapter:
I tackle the breakfast dishes taking special care with Big Momma’s china cup. I trace my finger around the blue doves flying over the pagoda. Big Momma used to tell me the legend of the young Chinese lovers. They turned into doves when they eloped against the girl’s Daddy’s wishes. A girl loving a boy when her Daddy didn’t think he was good enough for his daughter?  You can’t get more romantic than that!
There’s a chip along the rim and the handle’s broken off a bunch of times. Daddy teases Big Momma saying he’s going to buy a new cup for her birthday, but she says her coffee wouldn’t taste right. The way she prizes that cup, you’d think a boyfriend gave it to her.  
   Here is my re-write:

    I fill up the kitchen sink with water and sprinkle the soap flakes over the breakfast dishes. I wash Bigmomma’s blue willow china teacup first, taking my time, letting my fingers linger over the blue doves flying over the pagoda.
There’s a chip along the rim and the handle’s broken off a bunch of times. Daddy teases Big Momma saying he’s going to buy a new cup for her birthday, but she says her coffee wouldn’t taste right. The way she prizes that cup, you’d think a boyfriend gave it to her.
    I can hear Bigmomma’s rich velvety voice catch as she tells me one more time-because when I was little I demanded it every night before going to bed- the legend of the young Chinese lovers. They were turned into doves when they eloped against the girl’s Daddy’s wishes. Swells of anger still push up inside as I remember the part where the father banishes the couple from his palace. It was so unfair! The boy and girl were young and in love. Her father had no right to stop them!
    Bigmomma said the boy wasn’t good enough for the girl. My heart aches for that boy. I know precisely what it feels like not to be good enough. Not because my boyfriend’s father tells me I’m not good enough for Walter, my boyfriend. In fact, it’s the exact opposite. In his book, Mr. Johnson thinks I’m as smart as Mr. Albert Einstein himself! He always shakes his head and wonders about Walter and I being sweet on each other. I just smile and say we’re like electrons and protons: opposites attract.
    No, I’m not good enough because I’m a girl. And colored.  But when Daddy says that since I like science so much I should study nursing, I tune him out.
   Who wants to spend the rest of her life emptying bedpans and wiping up vomit all day long? Not me! I want to do more than that with my life. I want to be like Madame Curie. She discovered two elements! Or maybe George Washington Carver who figured out more than a hundred ways to use peanuts.  Their lives mattered.
   But will mine?  I can’t change my sex. And I’m no chameleon who can change the color of his skin. So, I’m stuck. As stuck as that blue willow Chinese girl.
    Except in her story there was magic. Maybe it was the magic of their love that changed them. Or maybe some sort of good fairy who waved her magic wand and turned them into doves.
   Those two Chinese lovers found a solution to their problem by becoming somebody different. No, modify that. They became something different in order to stay together.
   Do I want to change in order to get what I want? And even if I wanted to, could I?
    Everyone knows that when you put two atoms of hydrogen and one atom of oxygen together, you get water.  Never ammonia or salt or zinc. You can boil it and change it into steam, or freeze it into an ice cube, but it’s still water.
     I rinse Bigmomma’s teacup one more time, dry it, and put it up on the shelf, next to Momma and Pop’s.
    Yes. No matter what, I’m a colored girl who’s not happy becoming a nurse like every other girl at Second Ward High. Since I don’t believe in magic wands or fairies. I have to figure out a different way to get what I want.
So, how did I do? I look forward to hearing your comments!

To celebrate Rebecca's fantastic input into my story, this week I'll be giving away two copies of her debut novel, Steering Toward Normal. I'll have an additional post on Thursday to tell you how you can enter to win one.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Learning Character Internalization

Congratulations to Lindsay Fouts, my new blog follower, who won James Scott Bell's book, Plot and Structure.

As I begin the fourth major draft of Half-Truths, I need to attack some of my writing weaknesses. According to my writing coach Rebecca Petruck, I have to work on my "internal-life writing muscles." To do this, she assigned me this task:
Type several dialogue-free passages from books you would like to emulate. Type at least three pages to get the rhythm. Then, type at least five dialogue-free pages from Kate’s POV and then again from Lillie’s POV.... Think about the difference between rote description, and description that reveals something about the character. When you describe the external world around them, it has to be in order to reflect how they interpret it, what it means to them and how it feels.
I'm beginning this assignment by sharing a dialogue-free passage from the latest book I listened to, Dodger, by Terry Pratchett. An historical fantasy spin-off of Charles Dickens' character, the Artful Dodger, it is an entertaining and funny book--albeit at times irreverent. Here is a brief blurb from Pratchett's website for context: 
A storm. Rain-lashed city streets. A flash of lightning. A scruffy lad sees a girl leap desperately from a horse drawn carriage in a vain attempt to escape her captors. Can the lad stand by and let her be caught again? Of course not, because he's….Dodger….Dodger's encounter with the mad barber Sweeney Todd to his meetings with the great writer Charles Dickens and the calculating politician Benjamin Disreali, history and fantasy intertwine in a breathtaking account of adventure and mystery.

The following excerpt occurs after Dodger rescues the girl and "Charlie" Dickens and Henry Mayhew take them both to the Mayhew household. 
Twenty minutes later Dodger was sitting close to the fire in the kitchen of a house, not a grand house as such, but nevertheless much grander than most buildings he went into legally; there were much grander buildings that he had been into illegally, but he never spent very much time in them, often leaving with a  considerable amount of haste. Honestly, the number of dogs people had these days was a damn scandal, so it was, and they would set them on a body without warning, so he had always been speedy. But here, oh yes, there was meat and potatoes, carrots too, but not, alas, any beer. In the kitchen he had been given a glass of warm milk that was nearly fresh. Mrs. Quickly the cook was watching him like a hawk and half already locked away the cutlery, but apart from that it seemed to be a pretty decent crib, although there had been a certain amount of what you might call words from the missus of Mister Henry to her husband on the subject of bringing home waifs and strays at this time of night. It seemed to Dodger, who paid a great deal of forensic attention to all he could see and hear, that this was by no means the first time that she had cause for complaint; she sounded like someone trying to hard to conceal that they were really fed up and trying to put a brave face on it. But nevertheless, Dodger had certainly had his meal (and that was the important thing), the wife and a maid had bustled off with the girl, and now…someone was coming down the stairs to the kitchen. 
It was Charlie, and Charlie bothered Dodger. Henry seemed like one of them do-gooders who felt guilty about having money and food when other people did not; Dodger knew the type. He, personally was not bothered about having money when other people didn't, but when you lived a life like his, Dodger found that being generous when in funds, and being a cheerful giver, was a definite insurance. You needed friends--friends were the kind of people who would say: "Dodger? Never heard of 'I'm, ever clapped eyes on 'im, guv'nor! You must be thinking of some other cove"--because you had to live as best you could in the city and you had to be sharp and wary and on your toes every moment of the day if you wanted to stay alive. 
He stayed alive because he was the Dodger, smart and fast. He knew everybody and everybody knew him. He had never, ever, been before the beak, he could outrun the fastest Bow Street runner, and now that they had all been found out and replaced, he could outrun every peeler as well. They couldn't arrest you unless they put a hand on you, and nobody ever managed to touch Dodger.  
No, Henry was no problem, but Charlie--now, oh yes Charlie--he looked the type who would look at a body and see right inside of you, Charlie, Dodger considered, might well be a dangerous cove, a gentleman who knew the ins and outs of the world and could see through flannel and soft words to what you were thinking, which was dangerous indeed. Here he was now, the man himself, coming downstairs escorted by the jingling of coins. (pp. 6-7)
Rebecca encouraged me to figure out where my characters are coming from. In this excerpt, narrated by the omniscient narrator, but in Dodgers' close POV, I learn that Dodger is coming from a place where:

  1. He doesn't always get a whole meal.
  2. He's prone to illegal activity that is Dodger's normal; a fact of his life. 
  3. He is street smart and has friends on the street who cover for him (and the reader assumes, he does the same for them).
  4. He looks suspicious to the cook who has to "hide the cutlery".
  5. He is very observant. Notices the cook's mistrust, perfectly assesses Mr. Mayhew's character, communicates his own distrust of Charlie Dickens and why. 
  6. He's "bothered" by people who can read him, as well he can read others.
  7. He's proud of his abilities to outsmart the police. 
In other words, Dodger sees the world of London through a lens of "I have less money than the rich, but that doesn't bother me, because by my wits and speed, I get what I need." The reader meets a character who feels confidant about himself and moves with ease--unless he is up against another person who is equally good at reading people and their motivations as he is.

Pratchett has portrayed a character who I want to find out more about and who I want to root for-- as he goes from being a tosher (one who scavenges London's sewers) to a…wait, I don't want to spoil this book for you!

This week I'll be attending the Table Rock Writer's retreat where I'll be studying with John Bemis and Dawn Shamp. I'm hoping to strengthen my "internal-life muscles." 

So, watch out Kate and Lillie! You're about to grow deeper, inner lives. 

Monday, September 1, 2014

Digging for Clay and a Giveaway!

Congratulations to Linda Phillips, for winning Words with Wings on last week's blog. As some of you know, Linda is a close writing buddy but I can assure you--there was no hanky panky in her winning this book. As far as I can tell, does not keep track of previous winners!
Let's start with a multiple choice question. How would you complete this comparison:

Pottery is to clay as books are to _______. 

a) words
b) drafts
c) paragraphs
d) all of the above

In ancient times, the hard work of digging up clay to make pottery was often considered slave labor. Potters throughout the centuries, and even today, still dig to find the perfect clay. It is messy, hard work.

Men Digging Clay for Pottery Making, Pamunkey Reservation, King William County, Virginia
Over the last few years, I haven't been a slave--but digging out the clay of my story, inspecting it, throwing some out, and digging deeper for more--has definitely been labor.

Years ago when I first dreamed up Half-Truths, I knew it would be about a white girl and a light-skinned black girl in Charlotte in 1960 who discovered they were second cousins. But, I didn't know much else. 

I spent months researching the time period and the place and found many interesting, historic facts. All of which I wanted to include. 

For example, I was thrilled when I found this article about the National Guard Engineers who left for Korea from Charlotte in 1950. I spent a lot of time digging around for information about Kate's father and how he could have been an engineer in Korea, where he went to school and how the family ended up in Charlotte. 

It took me a long time to figure out that Kate's story didn't start with her father leaving for the Korean conflict--even though that was the inciting event that brings her to Myers Park where she meets Lillie. Clay got discarded. Draft #1 was written totally from Kate's POV and completed in December, 2010.

At the SCBWI-Carolinas conference in 2011 I met Mary Cate Castellani who recommended writing the book from both Kate and Lillie's perspectives. New clay had to be dug for the second draft

Once again, I got interested (some might say side-tracked) into interesting historic details. Wanting to show the inequality of the Jim Crow era and hearing that every good novel should have a romance and a death, I decided Lillie's brother would die as a result of a racial incident and unequal treatment at the "Coloreds Only" hospital, Good Samaritan.

I had placed a scene when the girls discover a piece of china belonging to both families at the end of the book. 

At a plot workshop last fall, Rebecca Petruck, my writing coach, pointed out that the beautifully researched and tearfully written scenes about Lillie's brother's death were tangential to the story. And the china teacup scene belonged in the middle of the book where it would provoke a crisis between the girls. I needed to focus more on Kate and Lillie's story. 

I needed to dig more clay.

Five-time New York Times bestselling author Wally Lamb referred to this stage in a recent Writer's Digest interview. He was asked, "At what point do you usually know your ending?" and answered,

"Usually, just before the ending. And I'm talking about first draft. Of course, after you get the whole lump of clay, then you being to shape it and mold it and cut away stuff and everything. But, first draft--what happens is that I find characters that I both love and worry about. And then I have to keep writing to see if they're going to be OK or not. And there's no guarantee in my process that they are going to be OK. So that's my motivation. It's certainly more motivation than finishing a book so that I can get a royalty check. (Writer's Digest, "Wally Lam: The Weight of Words" by Suzy Spencer. March/April 2014)

Lamb uses his clay-making time to find out who his characters are and what trouble they're going to get into. Some authors call this a discovery draft. A time of finding out what their story is. 

Since last October when I took a plot workshop with Rebecca, I wrote just to get the story out. For example, I didn't obsess over the type of material in the dress Kate wears to the charity ball. I realized there was a good chance the scene would be cut or changed.  The third draft was full of questions, comments, and phrases highlighted in yellow. 

Here is a sample of two paragraphs from Chapter 19 from Kate's POV:

She gives a funny laugh. “What can you do? You’ve got everything you want/the world at your fingertips. You got grandparents who are so rich that all you got to do is point to a picture of a dress in a catalog and they’ll have it ordered by the next day. (HOW TO SAY THAT WHAT SHE WANTS ARE THE OPPORTUNITIES/POSSIBLITIES THAT L. HAS.)
I pull my hand back as if a hornet just stung me. It must have shown on my face because she says, “I shouldn’t have said that, Miss Anna Katherine. I’m sorry. I guess there’s something about this place,” she waves her hand to take in the gardens and pathways[describe better], “that just makes me feel like I can say whatever I want to say. It just feels…” her voice trails off.

When I sent the draft to Rebecca a month ago, it was rough but it was done. Linda Phillips and other writer friends told me to celebrate the completion of this draft. Everyone said I'd reached a milestone. But I wasn't ready to celebrate. Not until I received Rebecca's affirmation, "Yes, now I think you have the clay," was I ready to celebrate. 

I have five pages of notes to work through, serious thinking about deepening my characters and Kate's plot line to strengthen--but I'm thrilled. My hands are itching to get dirty-I can't wait to prod, tweak, sculpt, and shape it.
I once heard to put each draft of your book into a notebook.
It makes it feel real! 
I'm celebrating this stage in my novel's journey by giving away a copy of James Scott Bell's top-selling book, Plot and Structure Leave me a comment with your answer to my opening question or your experience with "clay-digging" and I'll enter your name to win: 

Leave me a comment by 7PM on September 5 with your name and contact information. If you post this on social media or become a new follower of my blog, I'll enter your name twice!



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