Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Get Your (Ca)Reer in Gear

I'm pretty mild-mannered when it comes to advice, even when delivering "the bad news." One of my students called me "An iron fist in a velvet glove," which I found first startling, then complimentary, then -- pretty much true. The Keirsey Temperament Sorter, of which I am highly fond, affirms that my strongest category of intelligence is the diplomatic variety. I find myself paying a lot of attention to exactly how to word things to gain a certain impact on a particular listener or reader.

Diplomatic Disclaimer: Writing goals come in all types and stripes, and all of them are valid. You may have taken up writing because you've always wanted to give it a shot, because you just want to learn more about effective writing, because it's an outlet for expressing your feelings and/or creativity, because you want to write stories for the grandkids, because your family is bugging you to record their history and you want to do it as skillfully and entertainingly as possible, or for other reasons that are all your own. Any reason to want to write is legitimate (assuming you're not aiming to destroy the world), and I say dive in and have fun!

But, you say, you want to be a professional, publishing writer. (There's a deliberate order to that. Professionalism almost always precedes publication, unless you are paying a company to print anything you produce, in which case it may or may not.) Since you want to be a pro, and you want to get commercially published, let me offer my three-point overview to Get Your (Ca)Reer in Gear.

1. Get your writing into the middle of your life instead of on the fringe. Let's say your life is a city. Your job, family, home, church, and places you do business, pursue recreation, or serve your community are the downtown and residential areas of that city. Where's writing? On the outskirts? In a suburb? Scrabbling on the edge of a cliff hanging on by three fingernails? Leave it there for much longer, and it just might ker-splat into the gorge, glut itself on brats and beer and take a much-too-long nap, or stick out its thumb and hitch a ride on the Road to Elsewhere. Rescue the poor thing. Give it a home, a job, a time and place to function. You've got to. Even if something else (starting with the TV set) has to get run out of town on a rail to make room.

2. Read in the genre(s) in which you are writing. Yes, begin by reading, period. But move quickly to the specific types of material you want to write. Read them without ceasing. Know that field. You've got to. Even if something else (starting with the TV set) has to be ignored to make room.

3. Do the research. Study successful published books that are a lot like yours and notice everything: overall length; number of chapters; chapter lengths; how many main characters; frequently used ideas; cliches; how many different ways there are to start a story; how the beginning hooks the reader (or does it?); types of conflict (e.g., more outward conflicts for mid-grade, more inward conflicts for young adult); number of subplots; boy vs. girl characters; first-person, third-person, present tense, past tense; and on and on. The idea isn't to find the formula; it's to show you what's been done (and overdone), what's possible to do, what hasn't been tried yet, and what's truly different. Get up-to-date "how to write for kids" books from your library or bookstore. Study the writers' boards on the web. Go to a conference. Take a class. Visit publisher websites. Read their catalogs and guidelines. Do the research on today's school curriculum, sports, hobbies, geographical locations, how stuff works, and anything else you need to authenticate the background, details and action in your story. Don't assume fiction doesn't need research, and don't assume you can fudge because the story "is made up anyway." You can't. Do the research. You've got to.

Do these three things for a week, and you'll already notice a difference. Do them for a month, and your writing will be a vital component of your life. Let them be the iron foot in a velvet boot that gives you a welcome kick in the (ca)reer.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

A Blast From the Past

Don't we look like college girls?

That's me on the left, and the lady on the right is Anne, the girl I shared various dorm rooms with for three years. When she emailed me to say she'd be in Wisconsin and wanted to stop by, I jumped at the chance.

How long had it been? Well, suffice it to say we hadn't seen each other in XY years, where XY is a two-digit number, X is a positive integer, and Y a nonnegative integer. Didn't I tell you there'd be math in this blog sooner or later? What's more, XY+4=XZ, where XZ represents the number of years we've actually been out of college.

Relax, you don't have to solve the equation. In fact, you can't. You finally get to fill in the little circle next to "not enough information" and get the problem right! Nor is the answer in the back of the book. Sorry. :)

Did we talk about college? Only a little. Mostly, we talked about now. About our families, about writing, about her job which I will describe in layman's terms as "keeping tabs" on fires in the Sierra Nevadas near King's Canyon and Sequoia National Parks. "I don't even remember that much about college," she said. So much life has happened since then, we don't understand the first thing about each other's jobs, we live half a continent apart, and we've never inhabited the present together, yet we talked about it easily. I learned that friendships picked up from a long-ago season of life aren't necessarily frozen in time.

She says we should come visit her in California, on her eight acres of land where she gardens, turns wood, and renovates her house. "It'll be really cheap once you get here," she told me. "And you can even get into the park free if you take me with you!" Maybe we will get to go. Hopefully it won't take XY years to get there.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

The Perennial Question

What question do people curious about writing ask more than any other? Well, besides, "Where do you get your ideas?" (And besides, "How much money do you make?") I'd say that the #1 biggie question is: How do you find the time?

By now, I've juggled writing time every way there is to juggle it. When my kids were little, I wrote nightly from 9 to midnight. At times I tried writing before they got up in the morning. Glad to finally become a daytime writer when the youngest started school, I may have had the best of all worlds when I was "home with the kids" yet had most daytime hours to myself.

But then I began teaching, by correspondence. Still at home and able to devise my own schedule, I tried writing mornings and teaching afternoons; teaching mornings and writing afternoons; teaching three days and writing two, the particular days of the week shifting now and then; teaching during the week and writing weekends; writing evenings -- and sometimes just plain all of the above.

Writing is funny. Not funny ha-ha, but funny peculiar. People often expect their writing to live on the edges of their lives, yet it requires a fair amount of immersion. Regular writing, reading, and market study are the three basics, but most publishing writers also take classes, study writing books, attend conferences, join professional organizations, do considerable topic research, network, read and comment on blogs and message boards, maintain a website and blog, and continue to read, read, read. And when you finally publish, promotion and speaking engagements enter the picture, as does producing approximately a book a year. Few career writers put anything other than God, family and day job ahead of writing. Hobbies or an active social life, if there's room for them, come after.

So, you're saying, "Okay, I get that I have to make time, not find time. How?" Try thinking in terms of a balance between regularity and flexibility. Can't write on a regular schedule? What if, each weekend, you schedule the upcoming week's writing? JUST the coming week. Block out those times on your calendar. When the time slots arrive, WRITE. When the next weekend comes, again block out your writing times for the coming week. It doesn't matter if they bear any resemblance to last week's writing times. It only matters that they mesh with what's on your plate for the week in question. Regularity feeds your momentum, and though we may seem to be crawling forward at times, books get written.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Book of the Semi-Month Club

Like my first pick (see the July 1 post), The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Perilous Journey by Trenton Lee Stewart is our second visit with a group of four children. Best friends since their first adventure, three out of four are, or were, orphans, and all strikingly intelligent in their individual ways. Reynie has great insight into people. Sticky possesses a photographic memory and can quote endless passages after seeing them once. Kate can accomplish any physical feat with her amazing speed, strength, and well-stocked bucket, and Constance seems perhaps a step behind them all -- until we find out she is three. In the first volume, the kindly but odd Mr. Benedict called on them to help save the world from evil in the form of his own identical twin brother, and in the process each of the orphans found a home. The present story opens with the children eager to reunite with each other and Mr. Benedict after a well-deserved vacation. Mr. B has devised a world-wide scavenger hunt to entertain and challenge them. Trouble is, they barely make it to Mr. B's house before they find out he's been kidnapped, raising the stakes far beyond a mental exercise. Is the evil twin at it again? Can there be any doubt?

Some books with a rollicking plot skimp on character development. Not this one. Each character takes another step forward in growth. Reynie must decide if his accurate hunches about people's motives will turn him cynical. Sticky learns to rein in his tendency to show off by reciting way more than anyone wants to know. Kate struggles with the idea that the one person in the world who is a better spy than she is her father, and up to now she's always called her own shots. And Constance, not quite the eternal crabpatch she was since emerging from the terrible twos, begins to get along with people and even to love them -- and to find out she can somehow predict events before they happen. Another strength is this book's ability to be tongue-in-cheek, over the top -- for example, Mr. Benedict's faithful assistant is a pencil-thin woman with a tuft of reddish-brown hair who wears yellow clothes and is called Number Two -- yet our willingness to suspend disbelief is never in question.

Though the last third of the book slows down compared to the first two-thirds, the puzzles, feats, ingenuity, quirkiness, and good-old-fashioned adventure combine to make a rousing tale.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Like a Well-Watered Garden

At the heart of gardening there is a belief in the miraculous. Mirabel Osler
Early this morning found me at the flowerbeds, watering can in hand, nightgown teased by a fresh breeze, flawless blue canopy overhead. My thumb is only light-to-medium green, yet every time I round the corner of the house these beauties steal my breath a bit. Every time a seed takes root and sends up stem, foliage, flowers, fruit, seeds abundant, I see again how God brings life out of earth. And if I let God plant me where He chooses, even if that planting seems like death and burial, what might I become?

Thursday, July 10, 2008

On Character, Mine and My Characters'

Got a personality or temperament test for me? I'll probably take it. When the 4-temperament theory that labeled us sanguine, choleric, melancholy and phlegmatic was making the rounds, I identified myself as a phleg/mel. But then I met my favorite system, the Keirsey Temperament Sorter, which identifies me as INFJ, the Counselor Idealist, Idealist being the broader category and Counselor the specific type of Idealist. While only 7 or 8 percent of the population are Idealists, and INFJ's are really rare birds, as writers we abound! Keirsey's book, Please Understand Me II, which describes Idealists, Rationals, Artisans and Guardians, has been pivotal in my understanding of myself, those around me, and for creating realistic characters it's been a boon! When I read his detailed analysis of the INFJ -- and he spends just as much time on the other fifteen types (there are four main types with four variations in each category) -- I think "How do you KNOW my deep, dark secrets?" This is the system I've found to be "right on" about me, and as a whole it rings true to me. Among many other things, I learned from Keirsey that I'm the type who -- yes, the type who cares what type I am.

This very day the Ennegram Type Indicator came to my attention. I took the free online test that gives a tentative result (you can take the full test for a fee) and found that I'm likely Type 4, the Individualist. I read the description, and it sounds like these guys have my number, too: instrospective, romantic, self-aware, sensitive, reserved -- guilty as charged! And this SO nails it: "Withholding themselves from others due to feeling vulnerable and defective, they can also feel disdainful and exempt from ordinary ways of living." I love when they can capture the dichotomy so well. Heh-heh.

HOWEVER, my second-highest score was a tie between FOUR other categories (there are nine) -- the Reformer, the Helper, the Investigator, and the Peacemaker. They are all partly "me," too. And in the end, that's why I still prefer Keirsey. His system integrates me rather than scattering me hither and yon. That's why my favorite companion when creating characters is Please Understand Me II. It's a guide to what combinations of traits occur in real, live people.

Wanna play? Keirsey, Enneagram

Monday, July 7, 2008

Newbery Watch I

Anybody into Newbery predictions? I think I'm incurable. I have, I should say upfront, predicted the Newbery exactly ONE TIME ever, that being The Giver by Lois Lowry. So yeah, it's been a while since I got it right. But I did real well last year! And, had I read Good Masters, Sweet Ladies before the awards were given out, I'd like to think I'd have picked it for the gold. I love it! And that's the thing: the more books I read, the more books I realize I haven't read. When King Solomon lamented in the book of Ecclesiastes that "Of making many books there is no end," he wasn't kidding. Not that I'm complaining! So I know there are worthy contenders I won't read by next January, and that will skew my predictions.

Mostly, if we are considering MG books by US authors with a 2008 publication date, we will be considering eligible books, but if there's any doubt, the criteria for the major awards can be found here: http://www.ala.org/alsc.

If you want to talk about Printz awards too, fire away.

I will be naming books that have so far blown me away; I read voracious amounts, and the book has to be really memorable if I'm to list it.

My picks thus far:

The Underneath by Kathi Appelt. So far, this is my choice for the winner.
Waiting for Normal by Leslie Connor
Trouble by Gary Schmidt, although this might be on the fence with the Printz.

Sentimental favorite: The Penderwicks on Gardam Street by Jeanne Birdsall. I'm not sure I'm confident in picking it as a contender, but I was overjoyed when the first book won the National Book Award. I adore the Penderwicks!

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Queen of the Office

No, this won't turn into a major kitty-cat blog. I'm fond of the furry girl, but she's not the center of the universe. Despite the fact that she's sitting smack-dab in the middle of my desk, sunbathing in golden lamplight, the family pix mere peripherals, and my book-in-progress under her front paws. She's not the center of the universe. Not.

But she is a literary cat. She must always sit on paper, steal pens out of my hand, march across the keyboard, lie in wait with twitching tail in front of the printer as if at a mousehole, and would insert her entire self into that machine if she could. She thinks it's alive.

No, she's not the center of the universe. But maybe she's a kiddie-lit kitty? A kitty litter-ary?

Or maybe I should just get back to work?

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Book of the Semi-Month Club

On or about the 1st and 15th of each month, I'll try to post a blurb about a good book I've read recently. Calling it a "blurb" shall absolve me of pressure to write a proper review, but I'll do my best to stick to the usual review policy of no spoilers. I'll be featuring mostly MG and YA novels, but the occasional wildcard will no doubt appear.

Without further ado, let's lead off with THE PENDERWICKS ON GARDAM STREET, by Jeanne Birdsall, our second visit from the four Penderwick sisters: Responsible Rosalind, hot-tempered Skye, dreamy Jane, and shy Batty, and their attentive yet laid-back professor father. In this modern story with a gently old-fashioned tone, Dr. Penderwick's sister insists it's time her widowed brother begin dating again, to the consternation of all five Penderwicks. While the girls hatch a Save-Daddy-Plan (not to mention neighborhood spying, homework swap, and getting-rid-of-boys plans), their Latin-spouting, literature-loving father comes up with a Save-Daddy-Plan of his own. No one need bother fixing him up with women, he asserts, now that he's keeping company with one -- Marianne Dashwood.

Though at least one plot element is thoroughly predictable, this is a fun, uplifting visit to one of those fictional worlds readers hate to leave.