Tags: guest post

The Wonder Cupboard of Brent Swartz, an occasional series

by Amber Keyser
Published on: December 17, 2014
Categories: Creativity
Comments: No Comments

Recently I attended the SCBWI-Western Washington Novel Retreat at Dumas Bay in Federal Way. There were crisp skies and sea smells and autumn leaves and all the good things a retreat entails. I blogged here about the kindness of book people at the retreat. In one presentation, Andrew Karre asked as to consider what was in our Wonder Cupboard. What have we as creative people secreted away for inspiration, for solace, for nourishment, for stories?

A small group of retreat participants and I (who call ourselves the mudflat heathens for reasons I can’t divulge) decided to start this occasional series, in which we open up our Wonder Cupboards. Today’s post is from Brent Swartz:

 

Why I Write, and the Wonder-Cupboard Run Down

They say the only pure moment of memory is the instant of an experience. Everything that follows is painted and altered by memory bias, expectation, and cognitive physiology.  As each memory drifts deeper into the past it is further muddled by how it fits into the broader experience, how the broader experience fits into the bigger picture of your life, and finally, it is completely jumbled as we attach meaning.  It is a process of distortion because, being human, we are not a catalogue of events.  We are rather a catalogue of poignant moments which we hang meaning upon like overburdened hooks and hangers.  We use our imagination to envision our own history, a process akin to writing, where we imagine memories that make up a story.

I did not arrange my wonder-cupboard with any particular theme in mind and I have no idea who put in the those tacky, chevron shelf-liners, but if they are tied together it’s that they represent the most intriguing stories I don’t know.

The Ship in my Living Room, sails tattered and drifting among the ice-flows and an otherworldly sky, makes me want to scream, ‘What the hell happened to you?’ Although I don’t have a precise understanding of ‘teeth gnashing’, I like to think of myself as gnashing teeth as I scream this.

The Calaveras of Jose Guadalupe Posada, the Mexican folk artist, are a satire of wealth, elegance, and life itself.  His art is both hopeful and sobering, and a reminder that life is fleeting.

The lyrics of Carmina Burana (you know the tune) capture a certain intensity to the waxing and waning of love, the seasons, and fortune… ‘O Fortune, empress of all’ (spoiler alert: Fortune’s a real bitch.)

If you’ve ever flown into the Denver International Airport, then you may be familiar with the Devil Horse From Denver, the blue mustang whose devilish, red eyes follow you as you drive by.  What you may not know is that this sculpture killed it’s own creator, a tragic if not parabolic story of intensity and art.

As with Cemeteries, an epilogue never feels like the continuation of a story.  At their best cemeteries and epilogues are sorts of echoes.  After spending Dia De Los Muertos in Mexico I have a new appreciation for cemeteries and the act of remembering the dead and their stories.  Dying is a drag and a lonely affair, and the tradition of Dia De Los Muertos is the kindest thing people can do for the living; a coat against the chill of loneliness.

Don Quijote is the original maniac, and his character honestly helps me to understand mental illness, the wild type that lands you in jail or the emergency department, where I come across these souls.

Now for Ducks: Wildflowers, birds of paradise, lake symphonies of croaking frogs, and dung beetles competing for mates by rolling up the biggest ball of shit.  If it has to do with sex, it’s probably awesome.  But when it comes to love, there’s nothing like a duck.  Remarkable little creatures who travel on the wind, the water, and the ground, crossing entire continents just to get laid.

Finally Tidal Zones, places I’ve always been infatuated with, made fucking magical by the mudflat heathens.

As the moments of our lives fall from the present they fall further into something like fiction.  For the life of me, I cannot remember what I had for breakfast yesterday, but on August 25th, 2013, I had pie and milk.  The historian and data analyst in me simply notates the dates and the facts of my life and they sink into a sea of forgetfulness.

But the storyteller knows what to hold on to, what is indelible.  Where time dispenses with the facts of life the storyteller is collecting the pieces, looking them over, and either setting them back adrift or burning them into memory.  What sticks and what drifts?  I don’t think it even matters why, but this question is what compels me to write and something that gives life a sense of mystery, constantly asking yourself: am I going to remember this?  And if so, how… and why?

Don’t Play It Safe, a guest post from editor Emma D. Dryden

by Amber Keyser
Published on: March 12, 2014
Categories: Craft, Other Topics
Comments: 3 Comments

Today the Scrivas are thrilled to have freelance editor Emma D. Dryden blogging about the risky business of writing.

(Originally posted here.)

Scriva Amber had the good fortune to work with Emma on THE HUNT FOR MARA LAYIL (Relium Media, 2014). She wishes Emma could edit all her books!

If you want to up your game, make sure to check out Emma’s website, blog, and twitter.

 

Why Playing It Safe May Be the Most Dangerous Game of All

I read some exchanges recently between picture book authors in which one posed the question (and I’m paraphrasing here) as to whether she could do whatever she wanted with her main character in her manuscript, or whether it was better to perhaps “play it safe.”

A few authors responded right away that it’s important to “play it safe” and they meant that it’s probably best to stay in familiar territory for picture book age readers who are too young to understand the dangers of certain activities, or too young to understand the difference between reality and fantasy.  I hastened to add my voice to the comments with a quick DON’T PLAY IT SAFE! message and this got me to thinking, if any authors are out there assuming they have to play it safe for picture book age readers, my position on how detrimental that way of thinking is deserves a bit more space than a Facebook comment box allows.

As someone who’s edited and published hundreds of picture books, my position has never flagged on one particular point about what makes a great picture book:  whether your characters are human, animal, or otherwise; whether your story is realistic or fantasy; whether your story is contemporary or historical; whether your approach is serious or funny; whether your story is practical or completely off the wall…anything goes as long as a very young child will be able to relate to your main character’s emotions, perspectives, and world view.

A story can open with our main character in a kitchen with mom and dad and dog all safely and soundly situated—to many readers, that’s familiar, but to other readers such a scene will be a fantasy and not familiar at all—not by a long shot. A story can open with our main character caped and masked and flying through the trees—to many readers, that will be familiar because it’s exactly how they think of themselves all the time, but to other readers it will be a brand new idea, maybe a little scary, but maybe a little fantastic, too.  As long as the trajectory of the picture book story taps into the emotions and feelings a very young child will find familiar, that’s as familiar and “safe” as a picture book needs to be. As long as the emotional needs, interests, and resolutions of the main character in a picture book resonate with the very young reader’s emotional knowledge and capacity, that’s as familiar and “safe” as a picture book needs to be. As long as that’s solid, the trappings and settings and structuring of the picture book can be whatever your imagination can conjure—and here’s the very place where I see most new picture book authors not pushing themselves enough.

Authors need to allow their imaginations to take them all over the place, particularly out of safety zones—if authors play it too safe, we end up doing a disservice to ourselves and a disservice to our young readers. Where but in stories can we allow our youngest readers to not play it safe, to try new things, to explore, to roam, to make mistakes and make amends, to reach higher, deeper, and further than we ever thought possible? And where but in stories can we allow ourselves the very same?  And if we don’t do all this in stories for children, I shudder at the cost that will take on our collective imaginations and creativity.

We wrap our children too tightly in bubble wrap sometimes—and sometimes, indeed, it’s completely necessary, but not in stories. Stories are where we must let our children play and dream and imagine roles and lives for themselves that they’ve never thought about before; that’s how stories help children explore their sense of empathy, sharpen their resolve, enrich their dreams, and expand their imaginations. There’s no harm in that at all as long as the stories we provide as the vehicle for this ride carry within them the emotional core young children will be able to understand as their own.

If we push ourselves out of the familiar to ask “what if?” and to find the magic in the world, think how much more interested our children will be in doing the same. The safest route is rarely the most scenic. So feel free to explore creatively and imaginatively in your stories so children can explore the world in the same way. And if you find yourself spinning your wheels in a safety zone, go listen to young children telling each other stories and have them tell stories to you. I promise, the emotions will be familiar, but the stories will be out of this world–and that’s a trip well worth taking.

(c) emma d dryden, drydenbks LLC

Let the Lady Scream: Showing vs. Telling Part III

by Amber Keyser
Published on: February 13, 2014
Categories: Craft, Other Topics
Comments: No Comments

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

Let the Lady Scream: Showing vs. Telling PART II

by Amber Keyser
Published on: January 14, 2014
Categories: Craft
Comments: 3 Comments

Guest blogger Mary Cronk Farrell continues our occasional series on “Showing vs. Telling,” the eternal bugaboo of the writer.  (Read PART I here).  Take it away, Mary!

 

This is from my biography of Fannie Sellins, a labor organizer. It’s a longer picture book for older readers.  It’s actually non-fiction, which presents a different challenge than fiction, in that you must comb the facts for the details to bring your scenes to life.

 

Telling

Fannie Sellins went on a national tour speaking about the garment worker’s strike and asking for donations. Everywhere she went, she saw people working long hours for low pay in unsafe conditions. Her message was always the same—If we stick together, we can make change.

 

Showing

"A little spinner in the Mollohan Mills, Newberry, S.C. " Photo by Lewis Hine, 1910

“A little spinner in the Mollohan Mills, Newberry, S.C. ” Photo by Lewis Hine, 1910

Fannie Sellins traveled from city to city by train. She saw girls in Chicago button factories cut their fingers on the jagged shells used to make buttons. There was no medicine to treat infection. Girls in New England cotton mills got hurt or even died when their hair or arms accidently caught in powerful weaving looms.

“Help us fight,” Fannie told coal miners in Illinois.  “We women go into factories among dangerous machinery and many of us get horribly injured or killed. Many of your brothers die in the mines.”

The miners stomped and shouted agreement. Some wiped tears from their eyes.

In Iowa, union carpenters listened to Fannie. “If we stick together, we can win,” she said. People jumped to their feet, clapping and whooping.

“Pass the hat,” someone hollered and it went hand to hand. Coins jingled and bills rustled. Fannie collected one thousand dollars to help striking garment workers feed their families.

Wherever she went, working people interrupted her speeches with cheering.

“You need new pants?” Fannie asked. “Don’t buy from Marx & Haas. Buy union label.”

People did. Orders for pants went down so much, Marx & Haas had to close one factory. With the money Fannie raised, strikers held out for two years until Marx & Haas agreed to re-hire union workers and raise wages.

 

Thanks, Mary!  Great example!

Sensory details are particularly important in bringing nonfiction to life.  Notice that Mary wasn’t there when the union carpenters passed the hat, but she knows that coins jingle and bills rustle when you throw them together.  Those sounds really put us in the scene.

Don’t forget to pre-order Mary’s newest book:

PURE GRIT: A STORY OF RESILIENCE & SURVIVAL


American forces on Corregidor Island surrendered under a hot sun at noon, May 4, 1942.
After five months of brutal combat nursing, 68 American women became Japanese prisoners of war.

The women had arrived in the Philippines unprepared for war and expecting a tropical play land. Rising to the occasion, they were driven to the limits of endurance nursing wounded and dying American soldiers. Now the woman faced the horrors of prison camp–disease, starvation, and humiliation by their guards.

With ingenuity and dedication to duty, the U.S. Army and Navy women set up a hospital for other prisoners, nursing as long as they had the strength to rise from their pallets. For three years behind barbed wire the women would turn suffering into humor, hope and the will to survive. Their pure grit testifies to the resilience of the human mind, body and spirit.

 

ABOUT MARY

She’s an award-winning author of children’s and YA books and former journalist with a passion for stories about people facing great adversity with courage. Her books have been named Notable Social Studies Book for Young People, SPUR Award for Best Juvenile Fiction about the American West, Bank Street College List of Best Children’s Books, and NY Public Library Best Books for Teens. Her journalistic work has received numerous awards for excellence from the Society of Professional Journalists and two Emmy nominations.  Find her at her website and on Twitter.

 

 

Let the Lady Scream: Showing vs. Telling PART I

by Amber Keyser
Published on: December 12, 2013
Categories: Craft
Comments: 7 Comments

mark-twain-author-dont-say-the-old-lady-screamed-bring-her-on-and-let-herIn the past few weeks, I’ve been doing a lot of YA manuscript critiques.  Multiple times in the margin of each manuscript I’ve scrawled, “Stay in the scene” or “Show me.”

Showing is hard.  It is so much easier to just tell the reader what you want him to know.  Both beginning and seasoned writers fall into the telling not showing trap.  Those with more experience fix it during revision.

But what does “showing not telling” really mean?

To me, it means staying in the scene.  Characters need to be doing and saying things that convey what the writer wants the reader to know.  Examples show this better than me blah, blah, blah-ing at you, so today I’m beginning an occasional series of posts that demonstrate showing vs. telling.  I’ve asked some writer friends to pony up before and after paragraphs over the next few months.

I’ll start with this example that one of the authors for whom I recently critiqued was kind enough to proffer before my revision knife.  (You know who you are.  THANK YOU!)

First, the original paragraph.  It is perfectly serviceable.  The writing is tight.  It tells the reader a lot about Tom and his dad.  I love the phrase “strict no-go territory,” which gives us some of Tom’s voice.

Dad was nothing if he wasn’t private.  From as soon as Tom was old enough to be held accountable for his actions, his dad made it clear that he was not to go poking around in his stuff.  Dad’s desk, his papers, and especially his briefcase were always off limits—a strict no-go territory Tom and never violated.

Now consider a rewrite that has turned this into a scene, which puts the reader smack-dab in the center of the action and Tom’s emotional state.

From the hallway, Tom saw the briefcase on top of Dad’s desk.  There might as well have been flashing neon arrows floating in the air.  The papers were there.  He knew it.  It would be so easy to walk across the office, to run his hands along the slick leather, to snap open the brass latches on the case.  

Tom shifted his weight from one foot to the other like a boxer getting ready to fight.  

A few seconds, that’s all he needed.  The papers could be swishing down the toilet before Dad got home.  Problem solved.  He flexed his fingers, balling his hands into fists.

Tom had been three years old the first time he’d gone into Dad’s office—his first spanking.  He’d risked it again at five and could still feel the belt.  The last time, he’d been ten, and Mom had sent him to Grandma’s for a week after.

Sweat soaked through the armpits of his Metallica t-shirt.  Tom smelled his own stink rising.  The desk was so close.  Like Antarctica close.  Which meant absolutely un-freaking-reachable.  God, I’m a pussy, Tom thought, turning away from the papers he needed to save his own life.

The rewrite still communicates the basic message that Tom knows better than to mess with his Dad’s stuff, but to explain why, I had to bring in backstory (his dad borders on abusive) and hint at the current conflict (Tom needs those papers).  I also added sensory details like the feel of leather and the smell of sweat and kept absolutely everything from Tom’s perspective.  The fringe benefit of the “showing” version is that you know more about Tom—a lot more.

Until the next installment of “Let the Lady Scream,” may we all stay in the scene.

 

 

 

 

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