Want versus Want

One of the standard questions writers ask ourselves is: What does my character want?

As we design our plots, we come up with answers: A friend to trust. The elimination of a disease. Equality. Healing from loss. Parental approval.
what every kid wants photo

Asking my characters what they want, and finding the answer has been in my author toolkit for a long time. But I’ve gotten predictable results, which has made me decide to look at the idea from a different angle.

First, let’s start with precision of language. When I say I “want” a cookie, I am really saying that I desire a cookie. To go deeper with our characters, many writers have learned to ask: What is her heart’s desire?

Hearts desire many things. Most of them are intangible. The kid who wants a friend to trust desires safety and companionship. The teen that wants the disease to go away desires physical wellness and the ability to be “normal.” And so on.

These kinds of desires drive much of kid lit plotting, including my own. But today I am thinking of wanting from the point of view of lacking, rather than desiring. And I am seeing it from behind a longer lens.

The main character in my work-in-progress is really different from most everyone in his backward little village. He wants to belong, to be accepted for who he is. So what does he lack, other than a sense of belonging and acceptance? If I think more deeply, I find that he lacks skill in adapting to his village’s prejudices. He lacks the strength required to be different, to be rejected. These lacks are driving my plotting. I need to give him opportunities to try to adapt (and fail, of course). I need to put him in circumstances in which he can learn (painfully, of course) strength in the face of rejection. He may or may not get what he desires, which is acceptance. But if I give him enough opportunities, he will evolve into someone who can live through that.

Looking at characters from the point of view of what they lack, rather than what they desire, can help writers go deeper and help their characters evolve in unpredictable ways. If you plot this way, or want to try, I’d love to hear from you.

daydreaming-girl 2

Unremembrance

The following is the introduction to a longer piece that I wrote in 2011.  I’ve never had an outlet for it, nor have I been ready to share it, but I think it may be important for the people of my generation to know they’re not alone.  We were on the brink – somewhere between child and adult -, and what happened on September 11th, 2001, kept us there.

September 11, 2011

The media has forgotten us.

We’re not the babies born to those lost in the tragedy. We’re not the family, the friends, the heroes. We didn’t grow up thinking of Osama Bin Laden as a monster – we were barely even aware of who he was.  Ten years ago, we were old enough to understand why people hate the country we live in. We didn’t condone the attacks, but we didn’t think war was the answer, either.

Ten years ago, I had just started my last semester of college.  I don’t think people realize the impact the attack had on those of us about to leave childhood and enter into a scary, new world. Everything we had hoped for, for ourselves and our futures, had to be reevaluated.

We had many questions that no one could answer. What would it mean to enter a world where terrorism was tangible? How could we seriously think of careers when our worlds had fallen apart? Was what we were deciding to do with our lives meaningful? And if there was another, even greater tragedy in the world, would the careers we chose be vital?

Many of us wandered aimlessly after graduation. We stayed at part time jobs we hated. We went to grad school because we weren’t ready to enter this world yet. We lived like we had in college – with roommates and cheap rent and spending weekends in oblivion – because we couldn’t be part of the grown-up world yet. In a way, we still can’t.

Sure, we’ve got real jobs now, and real apartments. Some of us are married. Some of us have kids, cars, mortgages. But in our heads, I can guarantee, we’re all having a hard time accepting this grown-up thing. We don’t feel like real adults, and we don’t want to.  We don’t want to own this world the way it is.

Why are some of us still wandering aimlessly? Where’s the report on that? Where’s the news article on the stifling of lives, lives that were just about to begin, as planes crashed into our safe, little world?

Everyone wants to remember, but I wish I could forget. Just for one brief minute. I want a moment where the heaviness that sits on my chest, the anxiety that courses through my system, and the panic that has made it self a constant just isn’t there inside of me.

I want to unremember the moment that has shaped the last 10 years of my life more than anything. But I can’t.

None of us can.

Dance Like Olivia

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In Ian Falconer’s Olivia and the Fairy Princesses (Atheneum, 2012), Olivia spurns being a fairy princess ballerina because everyone wants to be one. She says she is “trying to develop a more stark, modern style.”

Olivia

I love this page with a deep and abiding passion because Olivia’s stretching limbs and contorted face mirror how I have felt being a writer at home with small children. Martha Graham, the dancer whose “Lamentation” Olivia tries to emulate, did not dance for beauty but to challenge and reveal the parts of us that cannot be communicated in words, the angular and pin-sharp feelings that have no clear expression.

The world of writing at home with small children has no clear expression, except to say that it is not unlike dancing inside a large sleeve of stretchy material that moves with you and against you at all times, often starkly. One can hope for modern. 

My youngest started preschool full-time last week. I kissed her and hugged her and loved her. After drop-off I sat in my car for a long time. I danced a little in my seat.

A happier dance by Martha Graham is called, “Every Soul Is a Circus,” which feels completely true.

Livestock

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IMG_6287Farming is not for the faint of heart.

We leapt in to the farming life last year, building a chicken coop and purchasing eight hens. Our plan was to teach the gingerbread boys responsibility and business acumen, letting them sell the dozens of eggs that we envisioned they’d collect. We counseled them not to name the chickens so as to prevent emotional attachment. These were livestock, not pets.

Then one pullet died out of the blue, leaving us with seven.

That’s alright, we said. Chickens die.

Another sickened and died. Then another. We borrowed a dog crate from a friend to quarantine the next sick one. She died, too.

Every time we put a hen into the crate, she would die. We began calling it the Dog Crate of Death.

Gone were the dreams of dozens of eggs. Most of the chickens died before they even started laying. A couple of them had coccidiosis. One died from external parasites. One had the big daddy of all poultry diseases: Marek’s.

By early winter, we were down to three hens, one who has never laid an egg in her life and doesn’t appear to want to start any time soon, and two reliable layers.

Our plans of teaching our boys responsibility and business acumen dwindled. We were lucky if we got three eggs every two days. The coop my husband built seemed like an empty castle with its six nesting boxes and repurposed stained glass window.

In February, we ordered sixteen female chicks. One of them died en route to us. Another of them got pecked to death. For the most part, they grew into sturdy, healthy hens. One laid a tiny egg at 10 weeks. Another lays eggs with double yolks.

The gingerbread boys began selling eggs to neighbors. This was where the tide was going to turn, we thought. Soon we’d be getting about a dozen eggs a day, more if that one wyandotte would ever decide to earn her keep and start laying.

But then one turned into a big-combed, large-wattled, loud-crowing rooster. No eggs from him.

Days ago, our oldest layer, a Barred Plymouth Rock, began sleeping in the nesting box instead of roosting. We realized she had grown thin. We saw how walking was difficult for her. We suspected blindness in one of her eyes. Marek’s disease. Usually fatal.

Farming is not for the faint of heart. IMG_6249

The Measure of Little Smiles

I had a baby four months ago. Since then, I have read half of a long book and all of a short one. I have binge watched my way through Game of Thrones, Downton Abbey, and Band of Brothers. (Did you know that it takes roughly 8 hours a day to feed a newborn? I didn’t. That’s a lot of sitting around.) I have walked out of a restaurant because my child was screaming – the purple, choking kind. (I ate my dinner out of a to-go box on a park bench while my child sat smiling at me.) Grocery shopping alone while my husband watches the baby is a peaceful release. (Long line? No problem.)

Being a mom is the hardest job I’ve ever had. It’s exhausting and the work never ends. Little smiles are the only measure of a job well done, and some days the smiles are outnumbered by tears. Even so, being a mom is my most favorite job. (And I’ve had a lot of jobs.)

Very often in life, the hardest things yield the greatest rewards. So it goes with writing. I’ve been working on the same book baby for years, telling myself the story over and over again. With each telling, I’m a little closer to the core of what I want to say, what needs to be shared. Like being a mom, it’s hard to measure the success of writing. It’s hard to say “job well done” when it’s not done. But in small ways – a book map completed – a new path defined – a character deleted, two others combined – in those ways, I see little smiles. I know that I’ve done something right. I know that I’m moving forward, that this hard thing will one day yield a reward. Until then, I’ll keep doing what I do with my son. I’ll keep trying. I’ll give it my all. I’ll try to enjoy every moment, even the ones that have me unexpectedly eating on a park bench.

New York, New York!

It’s massive tourist season in New York. Friends who grew up elsewhere have relatives visiting, and those relatives demand the experience of NEW YORK! I’ve lived in New York City my entire life, and I’ve taken in my fair share of exciting things that New York has to offer.

Growing up, I experienced a lot of what most tourists (and websites) would consider MUSTS. By the end of high school, school trips had taken me to The Museum of Natural History multiple times, the Bronx Zoo, the Brooklyn and New York Botanical Gardens, Prospect Park, the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the New York Aquarium, Ellis Island, the Statue of Liberty, the Met, MOMA, the Frick, the Metropolitan Opera House, and many other destinations, including a Broadway show or two. With my family and friends, I’d seen the Radio City Christmas Spectacular, visited St. Patrick’s Cathedral, seen the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree and gone ice skating, wandered through the East and West Village, seen other Broadway shows, visited the World Trade Center, and window-shopped at Bloomingdale’s.

There are still many things considered must-dos in New York that I haven’t done, and visitors are always shocked at this, but as an adult, the last thing I want to do is take a crowded elevator to the top of the Empire State Building. I don’t want to battle the tourists waiting in line at TKTS or for tickets to see Shakespeare in the Park. I’m not about to be corralled like livestock while waiting to watch the ball drop on New Year’s Eve in Times Square. And I don’t want to ride the Staten Island Ferry because I’ll wind up in, well, Staten Island.

There are some nice, quiet things I’ve done in New York City that most tourists would probably never even think to do. I’ve walked the Salt Marsh Trail in Marine Park. I’ve collected old bottles at Dead Horse Bay. I’ve gotten lost in the ravine at Prospect Park. I’ve kayaked off of Valentino Pier in Red Hook. I’ve taken my bike for a ride downtown and returned via Furman St, a quiet artery that runs under the BQE along the water, before there was a new park right alongside it. I’ve also climbed the Alpine Tower at Floyd Bennett Field, strolled the Highline, and viewed the Bronx from Inwood Hill Park. I’ve even spent many afternoons strolling through Green-Wood Cemetery.

You’ll find some of these things on “Best Things to Do in NYC” lists, but the ones you don’t find on those lists are the ones you should definitely do if you ever visit.

 

 

 

 

Book Review: SIGNED, SKYE HARPER by Carol Lynch Williams

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skye harperWhen fifteen-year old Winston and her nanny receive a letter from Winston’s absent mother, Skye Harper (formerly known as Judith Lee Fletcher), they know that something is afoot. Winston’s momma ran off eleven years ago to become a star, leaving Winston in the care of her grandmother, Nanny, and though postcards have been few, letters have been even more scarce.

Winston’s momma writes that she has “run aground” in Vegas after having danced and sung and done a few bit acting parts. She is out of cash and out of steam and asks Nanny and Winston to come get her. Winston has little but disdain for her mother, but Nanny misses her daughter and makes plans to bring her home — plans that include a “borrowed” RV. Nanny, Winston, Thelma the dog, and Denny the one-legged rooster head toward Vegas, but they don’t count on the RV containing a stowaway in it: Winston’s crush, Steve.

What ensues is a charming 1970’s young adult road-trip novel with character, romance, expectations, and a careful negotiation of family relationships. Carol Lynch Williams delivers in Signed, Skye Harper.

NOTE: For the sensitive, there are a few swear words in the text.

BOOK GIVEAWAY: To be entered in a drawing for an advanced reader copy of Signed, Skye Harper by Carol Lynch Williams, tell me where you would go in an RV on a road trip with your grandmother, a cute boy, and a one-legged rooster. Winner will be notified on Friday, July 25th.

10 HIGHLIGHTS FROM THE VCFA AMR July 2014

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Sarah Ellis, the S3Q2 graduation speaker, reading in the Cafe Anna.

Sarah Ellis, the S3Q2 graduation speaker, reading in the Cafe Anna.

Thirty-two MFA alumni from the VCFA Writing for Children & Young Adults Writing Program were once again warmly welcomed by faculty, students, and the administration this past weekend. While my fellow S3Q2 classmates were sorely missed for what would have been our 5th reunion, it was nice to see a good alumni showing celebrating their 10th anniversary under picture perfect blue skies and zero humidity.

 

Deb Gonzales

Deb Gonzales

Deb Gonzales (Cliffhangers ’08) and Kelley Lamb, Director of Development and Alumni Affairs whipped up a stellar line-up of speakers: Marion Dane Bauer, Nikki Grimes, Margaret Bechard, and A.S. King. The dynamic duo also put together panels of editors, agents and publicists including: Jessica Echeverria (Lee & Low), Heather Alexander (Pippin), John Cusick (Greenhouse), Alexandra Penfold (Upstart), Rubin Pfeffer (Rubin Pfeffer Content), and Blue Slip Media publicity gurus, Barbara Fisch and Sarah Shealy.

The Table at the VCFA Bookstore

The Table at the VCFA Bookstor

 

What a lovely surprise it was to see LARA’S GIFT featured on The Table at the VCFA bookstore alongside some of my favorite writers! It was also displayed cover open in another prominent spot. Thank you, VCFA Bookstore!!

AOB with LG

 

Highlight # 1 – Friends

I’ve been making the long haul from California to Vermont every year since I graduated in 2009 to visit with old friends and meet new ones. Cyber hugs can’t beat the real thing and this girl likes to get her yearly fix.

Thai Dinner with Marion Dane Bauer

Thai Dinner with Marion Dane Bauer

With Kathi Appelt

With Kathi Appelt

With Jaqui Lipton, my former student, now a first semester resident

With Jaqui Lipton, my former student, now a first semester resident

 Highlight # 2 – Nikki Grimes Lecture

Nikki Grimes - AMR 2014

Nikki Grimes – AMR 2014

Nikki Grimes delivered a Master Class on voice, poetry, and metaphor that inspired all of us. Some quotes I culled from her lecture include:

“If a reader loves a character, he will follow that character almost anywhere.”

“Do a good job creating your characters and readers will talk about them like they are real people.”

Highlight # 3 – Author Introductions

Nowhere in the world, but at VCFA, can you get an introduction worthy of a beloved King. Rita Williams-Garcia and Louise Hawes lived up to the VCFA tradition when they had the honor to introduce Nikki Grimes and Marion Dane Bauer, respectively.

Rita

Rita Williams-Garcia

Louise Hawes

Louise Hawes

Highlight # 4 – Reading by Marion Dane Bauer

 Marion Big SmileMarion Dane Bauer dazzled us with a reading of a Sure-To-Become-World-Classic-Picture Book titled THE STUFF OF STARS recently acquired by Candlewick. Her agent, Rubin Pfeffer thought it was so good, he bought a dozen designer cupcakes and presented it in person to Editorial Director, Elizabeth Bicknell and her staff.

Highlight # 5 – Nikki Grimes Word Play Exercise

If the first words that come to you are cliché and you struggle to find something fresh to describe your characters or setting, what do you do? Look no further. Nikki Grimes, poet extraordinaire and award-winning author, offered a Word-Play Exercise to help you study a word from the inside out.

Close your eyes and think of a word. Hold it closely, but give yourself permission to play with it and as you do sift that word through your senses, and think about all of the possibilities of that word. What does that word taste like, sound like, look like, feel like, and smell like? When you’re done, open your eyes, and write a poem about that word using poetic tools like metaphor, similes, alliteration, repetition and/or formats like haiku, cinquain, or rhyme to describe that word for someone who has never experienced that word.

Highlight # 6 – Lisa Doan’s Reading

Lisa Doan, author of the BERENSON SERIES had all of us laughing during her alumni reading from her next book.

Highlight # 6 – Margaret Bechard’s Lecture

Margaret Bechard

Margaret Bechard

Margaret Bechard gave a lecture on Questions and Answers and How it Relates to Tension in Typical-Witty-Brilliant-Margaret fashion. Her lecture was based largely on Will Dunne’s book, THE DRAMATIC WRITER’S COMPANION—a book every serious writer should have in their library.

Some of Margaret’s quotes include:

“The function of a story is to make the reader worry. Questions keep the reader in two places at once and engage your reader by what’s happening in the now, as well as what’s going to happen.”

images“When you have answered one question, you must immediately pose a new one. Furthermore, as you are in the process of answering a question, you should be setting up a new question.”

“Music is not in the notes but in the silence between them. This kind of gap in your writing is the tension in your story.”

“The million-dollar question for writers is: When do you pose and answer the questions in your story? The quick answer in building tension lies in the Goldilocks Rule: not too early, not too late, but at the just right moment.”

Highlight # 7 – Nikki Grimes Metaphor Tip

Metaphor comes best from the images and words of your character, setting, or world. Be sure to use words and images related to the environment and the time-period of your own story.

Highlight # 8 – Café Anna

Cafe Anna

Cafe Anna

Café Ana was a pleasant surprise on campus and where most of us had an Earthy-Crunchy-Organic-Vermont-Breakfast each morning to start the day.

Highlight # 9 – Noble Lounge

At the podium talking about Content Marketing

At the podium talking about Content Marketing

VCFA has grown so big that the current students now meet in the Chapel leaving alumni with Noble Lounge. What a treat it was to go back in time to where we heard our first lectures and delivered our graduate lectures! Here I am at the podium lecturing on Content Marketing.

 

Highlight # 10 – Catherine Linka’s Talk

IMG_0527 Last, but certainly not least was the time we had with Catherine Linka, bookseller and author of A GIRL CALLED FEARLESS. She shared some tips on working with bookstores. She highlighted the important role that Edelweiss Above the Treeline plays in educating booksellers about our books and stressed that we must all take the marketing questionnaire that our publisher sends us seriously.

The 2014 AMR ended for me at Morse Farms in Christine Dowd’s company with a soft serve maple ice cream cone. Delish!

Morse FarmMark your calendar! The next AMR will NOT be held during the residency. It will be held from June 18-21, 2015 and the featured authors will be M.T. Anderson and Katherine Paterson!

And be sure to share your highlights in the comment section for VCFA alumni unable to make the trip home.

We Mourn

Last week, the world received the news of the death of Walter Dean Myers.

In the summer of 2011, I had the privilege of meeting and assisting him when he visited the Vermont College of Fine Arts.  I wrote about it here.

I’m finding it hard to put into words how I’m feeling.  As a reader, as a writer, and as a teacher, I have been profoundly influenced by Mr. Myers’ writing and I have seen first hand what his books do for children.  As a Graduate Assistant at VCFA, I had the opportunity to actually get to know him a bit, and the person he proved to be was just as kind and wonderful as I had imagined.

Since I’m having trouble writing about Mr. Myers (perhaps because I still refuse to believe he is no longer with us), I’m going to point you to two my favorite pieces about him so far.  Read Lyn Miller-Lachmann’s post here.  See what Felicia R. Lee of the New York Times wrote here. I love the photo of Mr. Myers included with that one.

Please add your thoughts and favorite links about Walter Dean Myers in the comments section.

 

Speech, Speech!

Although I don’t watch the Emmys, Oscars, Tonys, etc; I understand the fascination with these award shows. The glitz. The tears. The surprises. And the speeches.

I’m a junkie for speeches as well, especially author acceptance speeches (especially when I’m struggling with my own writing). Whether it’s for the Newbery, Printz, Boston Globe-Horn, or whatever, I love hearing authors talk about their process, or why they were drawn to write a book, or how, even with past success, each new book has its own traps and pitfalls. And since I just so happen to be stuck on yet another manuscript, I figured I’d share excerpts from some of my favorite author’s acceptance speeches.

Tim Wynne-Jones (from his acceptance speech for the 2011 Boston Globe-Horn Book Award for Fiction for Blink & Caution)Tim Wynne-Jones:

The part about being a writer I like best is the time between books. It’s when you allow yourself to imagine that the next book will really be good; the next book will be the one you were meant to write. No story is as full of promise as the one that’s in your head. You get over this heady sensation soon enough, once you actually start writing, but the time before writing is…well, it’s rather like being in love. Or I should say being in love with love. You are open to anything.

 

Rebecca Stead (from her acceptance speech for the 2010 Boston Globe-Horn Book Award for Fiction for When You rebeccasteadReach Me):

[S]everal years ago, I didn’t even admit to most people that I was trying to write. When I did talk about it, I sometimes referred to my own work as “stupid.” I probably thought I was protecting myself from disappointment, calling my work stupid before anybody else could do it. But it turns out not to work that way. There is no protecting yourself.

 

E. Lockhart (from her acceptance speech for the 2009 Printz-Honor winning book, The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks):ELockhartBlueLowRes

All too often, I think, both well‐meaning and nefarious adults treat YA novels as if they are billboards. As if the books are moral lessons cloaked as entertainments, and the youth of today should read these novels in order to learn to have hope, stay strong, or speak out. We also fear they’ll read the wrong things and lust for bad boys, embark on disordered eating patterns or experiment with drugs.

“But books are not billboards. They are meant for complicated responses. They are ambiguous. They are meant to be argued over, unpacked, disagreed with, loved and hated simultaneously, and reread at different times of life for different meanings. That is the wonder of this art form, the way it invites multiple interpretations.

 

Melina Marchetta (from her acceptance speech for the 2009 Printz award-winning book, Jellicoe Road):melina-marchetta3

I know some people have a thirty page rule (for when they give up on a novel). I wish they didn’t. I’d like to think there are so many wonderful surprises on page 31 of someone’s story. I’d like to think that the first line of a novel doesn’t make sense if you haven’t read the last.

And

It’s a privileged place we hold in (young readers’) lives. We have access to places that most people don’t. We’re in those bedrooms late at night; we’re in the very dark place of a young person who feels rage at the world; we’ve been told we make black holes a bit smaller. We try to make sense of a world that stopped making sense to even their parents.

“I don’t think for one moment, that’s our responsibility as writers, but I’m glad that it’s our reality.

What about you? Are you an acceptance award speech junkie, too?

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