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.

What writers need to hear

In drawing class, our instructor was talking about how professional artists could create using a toothbrush, if they wanted. The tools don’t matter, he said; what matters is how you use the tools. The only difference between us students and the professionals, he said, is that they kept drawing.

It’s fascinating how much of what he says also applies to writing. The tools and methods don’t matter—you can reserve early mornings for writing time at your computer or (like me) stick tiny notebooks in your purse for use during the kids’ swim classes or long car trips. The point is that you’re writing, not that you’re writing in some official approved manner.

And I think writers look for that official approval because they want that validation. They want someone to tell them they’re a writer, that they belong, and they’re not being pretentious, especially if they haven’t written professionally before. They want proof to wave around, like a certificate, to show that they’re legitimate.

You don’t need it. If you write, you’re a writer. If you’re serious about learning and improving your craft, it will show. You need no seal of approval from anyone.

A while back, our drawing instructor went around the room and asked everyone why they were taking his class. Now, I have no expectation of becoming a professional artist. I’m too much of a beginner to plan on gallery shows or book illustrations. So when he asked me why I draw, I said, “Because I can.” It was the most honest answer I could think of, and I still think it’s the right answer. It’s also why I write.

You don’t need to prove that you deserve to create. You just need to create. Everything else flows from that.

Using the insider’s perspective

We were in synagogue over the weekend, attending a cousin’s bar mitzvah (and mazel tov to him!), and I thought I’d properly prepped my interfaith kids for the experience: Use the transliteration to pronounce the Hebrew words, turn the siddur pages from the left, stand when the Torah scrolls come out, don’t talk when everyone is praying silently. Afterward, my daughter asked why people had been bowing during the service, and I realized I’d left that out of my prep talk. Jews bow while reciting specific lines in certain prayers, I explained.

It’s a little more tricky than the standing and sitting, when you can just do what everyone else is doing to blend in. There’s no advance notice on when to bow, it doesn’t say “bow here” in the siddur, and by the time you notice other people bowing, the moment’s probably passed; you need to know when to do it from experience. Oh, and the details are likely to vary by synagogue.

Confused yet? (If so, here’s a pretty good overview on the subject.)

The conversation reminded me why firsthand knowledge is important, in life and in writing. If you wanted to write about a synagogue service, you’d probably know about the Hebrew chanting and the Torah scrolls, but unless you’d sat through a service yourself, you might not know to include the bowing.

That insider’s perspective can make all the difference in the authenticity of your work. When researching a topic, don’t stop at the surface level; try to figure out what an insider would know, someone who’s an expert or part of the community being written about, and look at the topic through that person’s point of view. Then you’ll know the details that are important to explain for the reader, and the details your characters would so take for granted as part of the landscape that they might not remember to notice for more than half a sentence. 

Or if your characters aren’t meant to be insiders in the world you’ve created, make them as observant as my daughter, who caught the one detail I’d forgotten to tell her about in advance and got me to give her the insider’s perspective.

Don’t bring this to the writers’ conference

A fellow writer on Twitter last week was looking for advice on how to make the most of  their first SCBWI conference. Plenty of folks had good suggestions. My contribution: Bring a shawl, it’s cold in hotel conference rooms. Because I focus on the logistics of things. And seriously, it’s cold in those conference rooms (even in June!).

But the question got me thinking, especially since registration for NJSCBWI’s conference is coming up this weekend. There are plenty of lists and tips out there about the many things you should bring to a conference (business cards, printout of your workshop schedule, notepads, money for the inevitable book-buying spree), so I thought I’d focus on what not to bring. Here’s what to leave at home:

  • Heels. Unless you’ve found the one miraculously comfortable pair of them in existence. You’ll be speed-walking from workshop to workshop to critique session to group critique session to roundtable to the book sales area to lunch to dinner to whew. Ditch the fancy unwalkable shoes.
  • Adorable small bag. It will adorably fail you. You’ll be toting around notepads, your schedule, manuscripts, workshop handouts, books, business cards, phone, possibly a laptop or tablet, definitely at least five pens, and—as I mentioned—a scarf, sweater, or shawl, in addition to whatever things you normally carry around with you. Which is why you need a tote. But even a tote can’t accommodate the following baggage …
  • Preconceived notions. You don’t know ahead of time how the weekend is going to go. You might get a manuscript request from an agent or editor, but you might not; there are no guarantees. You might see some familiar faces, or you might make some new writer and illustrator friends. You might find the inspiration you’ve been seeking to finish your work-in-progress, or you might inspire someone else to finish theirs. Be prepared for anything.
  • Unhelpful comments. You know the ones. “Oh, I’ve got a great idea for a children’s book! I’m just going to sit down and write it some weekend.” “So you ever going to make any money at this?” “That’s cute you write for kids! But when are you going to write a real book?” “But writing is just your hobby, right?” They’re not useful, they’re not true, you don’t need them. Leave them home, in the trash.
  • Imposter syndrome. Writers, artists, all manner of creative people—no matter their level of experience—play this awful mind trick on themselves: I’ve never done this before, I don’t have an MFA, everyone else has been published or they’ve been writing/drawing longer than me, I’m such a newbie, I’m not successful enough, I don’t belong here. Stop. If you’re taking your craft seriously enough to want to work on it and improve it and connect with other people working on their craft, you belong. Grab your tote and get in there.

If you’re attending a conference this year, I hope you have a wonderful experience and learn many things. And if you’re attending one with me, say hello.

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.

Working big to small

Between two book editing projects, a few smaller editing projects, my usual newspaper gig, and a case study, August was unexpectedly busy. But here I am, and I’m looking forward to more busy-ness in September (as well as a break from all the heat advisories).

In the meantime, I’ve been revising a few stories of my own as well as working on the next story, and beginning research for the story after that. And I keep relying on advice from my drawing teacher.

Nope, I am not a professional artist. I have just enough talent to know how much more I would need to be a professional artist. But I love art in all its forms, from gallery paintings to comics, and I take art classes for fun. My teacher for the past few sessions is an excellent artist, helpful in all aspects of technique, and there are a few things he says regularly. One is that you have to study an object pretty thoroughly before you can draw it, instead of just glancing at it and rushing your pencil into action. Another is that you need to work “big to small”—that is, sketch in the big shapes first, figure out where all pieces are in relation to each other, then start to add in the details.

Turns out his advice works pretty well for writing, too. Even pantsers—and I am definitely a pantser—have to know a few basics before they start writing in earnest. Be a reporter: Know the who, what, when, where, why, and how. In other words, study before you draw.

And work out the character arcs, plot, beginning, and ending before you stress about the color of the curtains in the living room, or whether you’re using the right word to describe the sound of your protagonist’s voice in one scene. Sketch in the most important things first, and swing back later for the details. Work big to small.

I didn’t expect to get good writing advice from art class, but I’m calling it an extra-credit lesson, and will use it to the fullest.

Happy reading and writing this month.

On being a generalist

I’ve attended the occasional business networking event where other attendees have taken it upon themselves to critique my business model. “You’re too all over the place,” they say. “You should specialize in something.”

Those other attendees, of course, weren’t writers.

As a journalist and assigning editor, I’ve had to become knowledgeable about a lot of different topics pretty quickly. This means I have 1. ferocious focus, 2. strong research skills, and 3. a constant sense of curiosity about practically everything.

Just in the past few years, I’ve written about real estate and home design, agriculture, health care, hearing issues, wine production, art, computer theft, and the Caldecott/Newbery awards. (And that’s just the day job/nonfiction side of my work.) I like the variety because I like learning new things and hearing such a wide variety of stories, because that knowledge will make my fiction writing and editing even richer.

There absolutely are writers and editors who specialize in a particular industry or a specific topic, and that’s fine. I may eventually decide to go that route. But being a generalist is also a valid choice and can lead you down any manner of interesting pathways.

And those networking events? I haven’t attended any lately. I’ve been a little busy.