Archives: February 2014

When Writing Time is Precious

by Addie Boswell
Published on: February 24, 2014
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Christopher Paul Curtis

Christopher Paul Curtis

It was years ago when I heard Christopher Paul Curtis speak, soon after The Watsons Go to Birmingham – 1963 was published to much acclaim. I have always remembered what he said, how he wrote most of the book while working on an assembly line in Flint, MI. As I remember, he learned to do his job twice as fast as the line, so that he would have a few minutes to write in his notebook every hour. (Find the full details here, better than my memory.) I remember because I was awed and inspired by the initiative that seemed almost super-human. But over the years, I’ve met authors who wake up at 4 a.m. to write their pages before they go teach school, who write deep into the night in the laundry room after the kids go to bed, who write in their cars during soccer practice, during fifteen minute breaks at the grocery store.

Sometimes, I have a hard time saying I’m a “real” author because I don’t write every day, as some venerated (albeit male) authors say you must do.  Sometimes I don’t feel like a “real” author because I’m not willing to sacrifice kids, husband, and social time for my craft. (As Jane Austen may have done. Thoreau, of course, went one step further and gave up society completely.) Sometimes I need to reconsider what a “real” author is. Christopher Paul Curtis seems like a better model for me, and for many wives, parents, career-women and otherwise modern writers. You can write when time is precious. It’s not as romantic as being in your own attic garret and neglecting the rest of life (as Jo March liked to do.) But it may even be more efficient and productive; you may surprise yourself by writing more. What’s more important, you can write good stuff, as Christopher Paul Curtis goes to show. And the good stuff is what convinces everybody, in the end, that you are a real author. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Gas and Brakes

How long does it take you to write a book? How fast do you work? I get asked these questions a lot, especially the first one by school-aged kids.  The answer is that it varies – dramatically.

My fastest book was a school library title on tennis (draft in a month, final in a few months) because that was how long the publisher gave me.  Next fastest was The Planet Hunter: The Story behind What Happened to Pluto which went from proposal to final approved manuscript ready to be illustrated in a handful of months. (My editor and I wanted to get that book out as fast as possible to explain the fascinating story behind why Pluto was no longer considered a planet.)

Typically, my books take much longer. I am working on a book now called Mario and the Hole in the Sky that will be published by Charlesbridge in 2016. I started working on it in 2007. That’s nine years for a picture book.  My graphic novel Muddy Max: The Mystery of Marsh Creek which comes out this year (YAY!) began as a middle grade novel in 2006. That’s eight years. My book The Mighty Mars Rovers took a similar amount of time. I’m working on picture book now that I literally started a decade ago.

The reasons for these long periods of time can vary. Many times, I am writing multiple, completely different drafts of the same book – and that takes a long time. (Thank you Scrivas, for reading version after version after version!) Other times I get discouraged after submitting something that doesn’t sell and I put it aside for a while.

In fact, it would be misleading to suggest that I was working on all these projects all the time in those years. What is much more typical is that there are times in the life of project when I put on the gas and other times I put on the brakes.

A current project in development on the inventor of the piano is a good example. When I got the idea in 2010, I start researching furiously (gas). I worked on it off and on through summer of 2012 (little pumps of gas), when I took a research trip to Florence, Italy (gas, gas, gas). When I got back, I did some writing and thinking (gas). Then I got stuck and I got busy with some other deadlines (SCREEECH! Brakes).

I have to be careful because brakes are easier to sustain than gas (things at rest like to stay at rest.) I didn’t touch this project for almost a year. And that really bothered me because I really loved the idea. So I started to put on the gas – writing, rewriting, problem-solving, polishing. I heard that an editor I wanted to share it with would be going on maternity leave. So I put on the gas big time, getting the book ready to submit.

Alas, she turned it down.

I was disappointed but also a little relieved. I just felt like I need a little more time with the project – to do a few more drafts and try to get it just right. So instead of submitting it elsewhere, I put on the brakes. But only gently. I want to slow down but not stop.

In driving you’re not supposed to put your foot on the gas and brakes at the same time. But for writing, I’m going to try it. I need the gas to keep momentum. But I need the brakes, too, to give me time to get it right.

Elizabeth Rusch

Let the Lady Scream: Showing vs. Telling Part III

by Amber Keyser
Published on: February 13, 2014
Categories: Craft, Other Topics
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Meet Kristi Wallace Knight, our lovely contributor to this occasional series (Part I, Part II) on how we can use revision to activate our writing.  Take it away, Kristi…

My own writing process is one of fits and starts.  I may go days or weeks without writing more than a sentence or two, and I can really struggle to get back into a story when I finally have time to sit down and write again. My preferred process is to grab a pen and a cheap spiral notebook (I buy them at Target at the beginning of the school year when they’re ten for a dollar), set a timer, and make myself write for 12-15 minutes. Nothing is off-limits, anything goes, and I have to keep my hand moving the whole time. After two or three sessions like this I’m usually on a roll and don’t need the timer anymore, I’m just going, telling myself the story, and the good and the bad are all swirled up together.

My next step is to type my pages into the computer. This is usually re-drafting, teasing apart the story from the places I’m telling myself the story. Sometimes the difference between the two is obvious, but sometimes subsequent read-throughs reveal more places to increase the action on the page and decrease the distance between the character and the reader.

 

Stella opened the door to the office her dad was in. He was writing furiously at his desk. He glanced up, nodded to her and stuck his left index finger in the air, then looked back down to finish his writing. When he was done he looked up and said, “hello, dear. How have your studies been?”

“Mrs. Bennett is seeing to my studies, why are you asking me something she can answer?”

Mr. Blackwood gazed over his glasses at his daughter, “my dear,” he began, “I had nearly forgotten who I was speaking to.”

“And just where have you been, anyway? You were due back three days ago.”

Mr. Blackwood got up and closed the door to his office. “I had an unexpected meeting in Pennsylvania, and was advised to have another in New York. So I extended my travel.”

This is boring.

Stella leaves her friend, Lana, and goes to her father’s office. The door is mostly closed. A frosted glass window keeps her from seeing who is inside, but the conversation she hears is heated. She approaches the door and hears: “two, three days at the most,” her father’s voice.

“You’ve already overextended your leave, Blackwood.”

“And more than doubled our success by doing so. The legend around this other piece…” the other man cut him off

“The piece itself is legendary, we can’t put a legend in the museum. These artifacts are spectacular, I’ll grant you, but will be years of study before they go on public display. Now I need you here, teaching and writing up your finds. Publish or perish, Blackwood.”

The conversation seemed to be over, and the door opened to reveal _________, the President of the University.

“Miss Blackwood, I presume.” Stella was acutely aware that she was one of few thirteen-year-olds seen on campus. “Do us a favor and try to keep your father in town through the semester, would you?”

 

And here is how I typed up the scene later:

 

            Dr. Blackwood’s office door was slightly ajar. As Stella approached she heard her father and another man having a heated discussion inside.

            “…a week, ten days at the most,” her father said.

            “You’ve already overextended your leave, Blackwood,” the other voice said.

            “And more than doubled our success by doing so. This piece is exactly as the legends describe, and the companion piece…”

            “The companion piece is legendary. The research is firm that legend was added hundreds of years later with the intent of creating a wild goose chase. We can’t put a legend in a museum, Gunter. The pieces you have are spectacular, but they’ll be two years of study at least before we can display them. I need you here for the rest of the year, teaching and putting your work in writing. Publish or perish, Blackwood.”

The door opened and the president of the university passed Stella and headed down the hall.

In his office, Gunter Blackwood was staring at a collection of objects spread out on a black museum cloth on his desk.

“You’re three weeks late,” Stella said to the top of his head.

Her father looked up. His face was deeply brown, but his eyebrows had more white in them than Stella remembered. He had been away more than five months, on expedition with a small group of students in Mesopotamia, collecting artifacts.

            “My dear Stella,” he said, “how you’ve grown.” He stood and quickly embraced Stella. His shirt smelled of cloves and sunlight, she thought.

            “I will not be left behind again,” she said. Her father met her gaze, and Stella felt an uncomfortable lightness in her chest. She was glad to see him, and afraid she might cry.  Stella blinked. She looked at the objects on his desk. “What are those?” she asked.

            There appeared to be several rocks scattered about with two gold rings, a gold coin, a black box, and a statue that looked like the torso of a woman, without limbs or a head. The gold objects were beautiful but the statue was freakish and bizarre. Stella reached for one of the stones and picked it up.

 

So, what did I change? Most obviously, I moved the conflict between Gunter and the University president to the front. I cut down the description of Gunter at his desk, because it doesn’t move the story. I got bored writing it, so I know you’ll be bored reading it. As I read over this, though, I still see verbs that I’ll revisit in future revisions in order to bring Stella and her experience closer to the reader. For example, I expect to delete “she thought” after “cloves and sunlight,” because without “she thought” we’re just there in Stella’s experience of smelling the shirt, and that is where, as the writer, I want the reader to be. I make a habit of looking for what I think of as “distancing verbs” – “thought,” “noticed,” “observed,” “saw,” “heard,” and verb phrases like “could see,” “could hear,” — in my work, and I cut, cut, cut them to the best of my ability.  I also notice three adverbs in the typed version above – “slightly,” “deeply,” and “quickly,”  two of them preceded by “was.”  Adverbs are a sort of shorthand that is effective for moving the story along in a first draft, but usually can be eliminated or unpacked into more specific description in later drafts.

I skipped the description of the door – all we need to know is that Stella can hear what’s happening on the other side, we don’t need to know what the door looks like. But I had to write it that way at first because I was visualizing it and writing that down helped me into the story.  At the time that I’m finding it, details like the color of the hallway walls, the glass in the door, and the hardware are part of the story. Knowing when to keep those details in to inform the reader, and when to get them out of the way because the story is actually elsewhere – in this case, in the relationships between Gunter and the University president, and Gunter and his daughter – is an ongoing part of my process. The objects on Gunter’s desk, that Stella is about to pick up and hear the stories of, are objects that Stella and Gunter’s story will be built around, so they stay in. The brass door handles and frosted glass window can go.

Already I’m looking at places where I can further tighten the scene. The second sentence – “As Stella approached she heard her father and another man having a heated discussion inside,” contains two verbs: approached, heard; and a gerund: having.  Are they all necessary? Maybe. Or will the same information be conveyed even if they aren’t there?  Maybe. Here are other options:

A)    “Dr. Blackwood’s office door was slightly ajar. Stella heard her father and another man having a heated discussion inside.”

B)   “Dr. Blackwood’s office door was slightly ajar. Stella’s father and another man were having a heated discussion inside.”

What’s the difference?   In (A), Stella is the one the verb refers to, and (B), the verb phrase “were having” refers to Stella’s father, and is a weak verb form at that. I want my reader to experience the story from Stella’s point of view, and I want the verbs to keep the story moving, so I’m going to choose (A). The reader is still aware that Stella is approaching her father’s office door, but that approach is happening invisibly by moving with Stella, and thus the reader, through the experience.

In my fiction, letting the lady scream is all about getting the right verbs in the right places, but even more so it’s about getting the wrong verbs out of the way of the action.

 

Kristi Wallace Knight has been writing Dangerously in Portland, Oregon since 2000. She has been published in Stealing Time Magazine, where she was the founding Fiction Editor in 2012. She is currently writing a Young Adult adventure series and does freelance editing. She has been a member of SCBWI since 2011 and can be found online at https://www.facebook.com/KWallaceKnightEditor

A Change of Scenery

by Ruth Tenzer Feldman
Published on: February 4, 2014
Categories: Basics, Craft, Creativity
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goats-cropThis is a closeup of the view from my bedroom window last weekend, when I was on another Viva Scriva writer’s retreat. With just three of us this time, we barely outnumbered the goats.

As some of you know, I live and write in a condo in downtown Portland. My usual hit of nature is the occasional heron at Tanner Springs Park. These goats and the farm wedged into the valley under a big, wide sky were more than a relaxing environment. They were a means to shake awake my creativity.

I had been to this farm outside Hood River once before, which made things perfect. No need to use brainpower to get familiar with nuisance details, such as where the extra toilet paper was hiding, or how to set the thermostat. I could devote all my waking hours to making the most of a change of scenery.

Here’s the deal, at least for me, and maybe for you, too. For a project as long a writing a book, I need routine in both time and place. I put my butt in a familiar chair in one of several writing spots at home or in the library, and my brain is ready to work. But after several months or so, a change of scenery seems to boost my creativity. I find solutions to problems that are plaguing my plot or keeping my characters from feeling fully formed. I “see” things differently in my imagination in part because of the difference in my real world environment.

Bottom line? Strive for a balance between the time and place that generates the predictable, let’s-get-to-work spark for you and the time and place that regenerates the freshness and wonder that nourishes creativity. Get your bottom there, and get going.

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