The gift of time

I had a novel to revise (and also type up) and a noisy house. So I drove to a cabin in the woods.

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You can also be inspired by nature.

 

The Highlights Foundation offers year-round workshops for kidlit writers and illustrators on its campus, the former home of the founders of Highlights magazine. It also offers Unworkshops: You can stay there a few days without registering for a formal workshop, so you can get some creative work done, and they’ll provide meals and snacks. 

The last time I tried to do a DIY writing retreat, I ran into two problems. One, at some point you have to flee the hotel room so the staff can clean. And two, you end up eating alone in restaurants. I don’t mind bringing a book to dinner, but it did look a little weird when I was surrounded by couples on dates. An Unworkshop solved both problems, because no one bothers you. You don’t even have to socialize with other people during meals, if you’re feeling especially introverted or time-crunched (although I did end up socializing after all). You can stay in your little cabin and get work done.

The cabin was quiet, the scenery outside was gorgeous, I had a desk and constant coffee. And now I have a manuscript.

Some notes on the experience, if a cabin creativity retreat interests you:

  • You will be driving up country roads to get there. Several will be gravel. Drive carefully.
  • Beware of bears (didn’t see any), and also ticks (didn’t see them either).
  • The staff is incredibly nice and will introduce you around to whoever’s there.
  • The internet is spotty. Hey, you’re in the country.
  • Seriously, it’s pretty outside. Take a walk.

But the best thing the campus offers is quiet free time to get things done. Never feel like you need to earn that, or you’re not at a point in your career where you ”deserve” it. Camp out at the library, find a diner booth, DIY it like I did and get a hotel room somewhere. But take the time. You’ll be a better writer or artist for it.

Lining up dominoes

I recently finished another round of revisions on one of my middle grade manuscripts. I extended a few scenes, cut a few others, and changed small but significant details about the protagonist’s background. Going through the process was a good reminder: the key to revising is revising consistently, throughout the story.

Changing where my protagonist lived, for instance, meant checking every reference to his childhood home to make sure it was still accurate. And it meant thinking through the repercussions of that change. How would this have affected his childhood? How did this change the dynamic between his parents? Did this change mean other changes were needed, too?

It’s the domino effect of storytelling. (Or the butterfly effect, if you like that better.) Every action impacts other actions, ultimately changing the story overall. The hard part about revising isn’t making changes; it’s keeping those changes consistent with each other, and with what was already on the page.

In the middle of revising something? Not sure how to go about it? Think of a line of dominoes. If everything is properly aligned, all the details will fall into place, and so will the story.

Sharing creativity

My kids know I carry tiny purse-sized notebooks around to scribble out my rough drafts. (Moleskines are perfect—they’re the right size and they have built-in bookmarks and elastic closures—though WritersBlok notebooks are nice too.) This means they also know my works-in-progress are available if they get bored in a restaurant, waiting for their entree. Then they’re happy to provide feedback: “I like this. You should publish it.” “I read this part. Didn’t you finish it yet?” “WHAT. Why did you change it? I liked it before!”

Most recently—and yep, at a restaurant—my daughter flipped through the notebook to find a picture book idea I’d never finished. Because sometimes you start working through an idea, only to discover it isn’t working on the page as well as it did in your head. At that point you can 1. start over or 2. ditch it and focus your energies elsewhere, and that particular idea had been ditched. My daughter disagreed with my conclusion. In fact, she thought she knew how to end it, and could she write the ending? I said sure.

So she borrowed my pen and wrote the rest of the story. She got exactly the idea I’d been going for, too. And now I have written proof that she thinks highly enough of my work to want to be part of it.

Of course, she’s already appointed herself editor of all my work and has offered to illustrate it. So she’s a little ambitious.

The other day, I needed to bring my son with me to the coffee shop; he had his magazine and a muffin, I had a scone and revising to do. Once he realized what I was working on, he craned his head to see my screen. Then he moved to my other side to read my notes before I’d even gotten them typed in. Then when I was done, he asked to read something else. At which point I ceded control of my laptop and let him read my novel till it was time to go.

Sharing my work with them has been one of the best things about writing kidlit, not just because they like reading it but because they’re pretty creative in their own right. Both of them create their own comics. Both of them make art, everything from paper sculpture to pottery. It’s such a pleasure to see them expressing themselves. And maybe, possibly, they’re encouraged by watching me.

I don’t know where this creative path is going to land us, but I’m enjoying the journey.

Kidlit wisdom

So it’s been a horrible couple of weeks to cap off a horrible year. There are plenty of sites to check out if you want to help those in need this summer:

http://kidlitsaysnokidsincages.com/

https://www.unidosporpuertorico.com/en/

http://www.feedingamerica.org/

And since it’s technically already hurricane season, let’s preemptively add:

redcross.org

hands.org

americares.org

 

Just to start.

The thing I keep thinking of, at a moment when caring about other people seems to be seen as some sort of liability, is my favorite passage from “A Wrinkle in Time.”

“But that’s exactly what we have on Camazotz. Complete equality. Everybody exactly alike.” 

For a moment her brain reeled with confusion. Then came a moment of blazing truth. “No!” she cried triumphantly. “Like and equal are not the same thing at all!”

When I first read that, years ago, it struck me as a true thing, one of the truest things in the book. It’s still true. Like and equal are not the same thing. We don’t have to be alike. But we are still equal. And we, all of us, should be treated that way and should treat others that way.

Enjoy the sunshine, and be safe.

 

Write/edit/revise/repeat

First of all, May the Fourth be with you!

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Yes, my droid wears a top hat. He is fancy.

Second, it’s been a busy month.

I wanted to revise my MG novel-in-progress so that I could submit the revised version for a critique at the upcoming NJSCBWI conference. My beta readers had given me great feedback, I’d done some more research, and I knew a whole lot of things I needed to add. Meantime, I also had my usual daily and weekly deadlines for the various editing and writing projects that make up my day job. So I worked on those projects during the day, then revised the novel at night. All month.

This was a fairly doable thing. It was a matter of mindset, and minding the time. I’d spend mornings on one article or editing gig, break for lunch, switch gears to another project, then switch gears again at night and work on the novel. Working on one thing continuously for all that time might have gotten exasperating, but flipping to different projects kept me sharp.

I don’t think multitasking actually exists, at least the way people think of when they use the term. But I think you can finish anything if you work on it an hour (or two) at a time.

I made all my deadlines, including the submission date for SCBWI, and then I spent a day remembering what TV looks like.

And then I flipped back to the first draft of another novel-in-progress. But now I get to take my time a little more.

Let them read comics

A family member was waiting out the storm with us last week (two snow days, ugh) and noticed how voraciously the kids were reading comics. Before he left, the family member said to them, “Make sure you read books sometimes and not just comics.”

I said, “They can read what they want at home. Also, their grades are good and they both score well on standardized tests, so I’m not too worried.”

He conceded, “I used to read comics when I was their age.”

“I read comics now,” I said. Which ended the conversation.

Listen, I’m all in favor of book-nerdery. But I don’t like snobbery. Reading comics and graphic novels is still reading. It absolutely counts. And the kids and I have read so many good comics over the past couple of years—smart writing, beautiful illustrations, full of heart—that I can’t see why anyone would say that reading them is somehow less valuable than reading a text-only book. (Last graphic novel to make me tear up: “Ghosts” by Raina Telgemeier. Last comics to make me laugh out loud: “Ms. Marvel” and “The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl.” On repeated occasions.)

In fact, I might argue that teaching kids to appreciate good artwork is just as important as teaching them to appreciate good writing, and conveniently, picture books and comics have both.

When I was a kid, I read whatever I wanted, mostly because it would have been impossible for my parents to stop me. Shakespeare. World mythology. My dad’s science fiction and fantasy novels. And yes, comics. None of it hurt me. In fact, given I was a gifted student, on the honor roll, and graduated college on the Dean’s List, I’d say all of it helped me. (True story: I once used an issue of “Sandman” for a paper in my Greek mythology class. So helpful, that Neil Gaiman.)

So my kids can read what they want, too. I think it’s all to the good.

Vacation and idea generation

The family went on vacation last week to … let’s say it was warmer there, with lots of mouse ears? It was a fine time. But January is also StoryStorm, the annual story idea marathon hosted by Tara Lazar that features inspirational posts plus a few prizes (see here for details), which I’ve been participating in for several years. No worries, I thought. I’ll bring my notebook with me, along with my manuscript-in-progress. I’ll get work done on the plane. I’ll think creative thoughts while waiting on line for rides. It’ll be a productive, fabulous time.

Except not.

Turns out I’d underestimated the buildup of mental noise after a day full of lines/rides/crowds/shopping/keeping wandering kids from disappearing/shows/way too much food. At the end of the day, the only thing I was capable of was zoning out at the hotel while watching “Star vs. the Forces of Evil.”

I had no story ideas. My brain was blank for a week.

I’d forgotten the most essential element of creativity: the quiet calm space to escape into your own head for a while. If you’re running around, your mind can’t wander.

On the other hand, sometimes a break from creativity is what you need to recharge. Now that we’re back, I’m steadily catching up and about to cross the finish line.

And I did get some work done on my manuscript. So that’s a win!