Archive for May, 2009

Thinking with a Pencil

May 29, 2009

A few days ago, I sat down with piece of paper to outline a note to my agent about how I just didn’t have any  ideas at all for revising one of my novels . She had sent me a very thoughtful email about my project before leaving on a three-week trip to Greece.  I knew that she was back in the U.S., and I hadn’t come up with any solutions.  As I started writing, the ideas started flowing.  Within twenty minutes, I had hit upon a way to up the stakes for my character.  I had also come up with a new character, who would help me expand the universe of my fantasy and serve as an apparent ally to my protagonist.  Mmmm.  Lots of possibilities.

I’m confident that my subconcious had been working on the problem.  But I’d also been actively thinking and discussing the issues of making this story work.  Why did answers pop out when I picked up a pencil? 

I do believe in the brain/hand connection when it comes to writing first drafts.  (Check out WRITING DOWN THE BONES by Natalie Goldberg.)  Maybe writing utensils serve as peripherals for human beings.  I know that the next time I’m stuck that I’ll probably reach for a pencil to see if it works again.  Then again, I’ve had some of my best ideas when sweeping the floor and shoveling snow….

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Finding the First Chapter

May 13, 2009

While writers are supposed to avoid cliches in their work, they often use them when coaching each other.  Here’s one of the classics about openings: Grab the reader by the throat and don’t let go. 

Writers slave over their first pages.  It’s not easy to pull the reader into a world.  But I suggest that you don’t worry as much about the first words that you write in that first rough draft.  I’ve heard of writers arriving at their third or fourth chapter and realizing that they’ve just found their opening chapter. 

I like scribbling my first drafts in books of blank pages. In fact, I have more than ten of these books stowed away in my filing cabinet.  For some reason, I was paging through one of them.  I ran across the following from the rough draft of SAVING THE GRIFFIN.  It came after I’d been scribbling for three or four pages in my absolutely atrocious handwriting:

   “What was that?” Michael asked, pointing at the bushes with his plastic yellow bat. 
   Kate looked. “I don’t see anything.  Maybe it was a cat.”
   “Do cats have wings?”
   “Maybe it was a bird.”
   “Do birds have fur? And ears?”
   Kate shook her head. “Forget about it. It’s probably some strange monster native to Italy.”
   “Really?”
   Michael, who had just turned five, would believe any story she told him.

It was a bit of a shock that my first draft would be so close to my final one.  Here are the opening lines of the published version:

   “What was that?” Michael pointed at the laurel hedge with his yellow plastic bat.
   Kate squinted into the shadows under the large, shiny, evergreen leaves. “I don’t see anything,” she told her younger brother. “Maybe it was a cat.”
   “Do cats have wings?”
   “Okay, maybe it was a bird,” Kate said.
   “Do birds have fur?” Michael asked.  “And ears?”
   Kate grinned. “Nope. It must be one of those shy Italian monsters, then,” she teased. “There’s a warning about them in Mom’s guidebook.”
   “Really?” Michael asked.

The dialogue in my first draft is practically identical to the dialogue in my final draft.   The tricky part for me was slipping in knowledge for the reader.  This scene took place in a Tuscan garden, so I wanted to establish that fairly quickly.  Moreover, laurel hedges were fairly important to my plot, so I wanted the reader to have an idea about what they looked like.  That’s why I described the leaves. Peachtree’s art director, Loraine Joyner, must have agreed that the shrubbery was important because here’s the cover of SAVING THE GRIFFIN:

Yoshiko Jaeggi's gorgeous artwork. If readers start by judging this book by its cover, I'm a very lucky woman!

Yoshiko Jaeggi's gorgeous artwork. If readers start by judging this book by its cover, I'm a very lucky woman!

What else did I need to do in the opening?  I wanted to let the readers know that Kate was the older sister and that my two characters were visiting Italy.  It was harder than you might think to find just the right spot to put in these details.  I’ll talk more about first chapters in the coming days.

Another Pressing Problem

May 5, 2009

I had only  made it to the top of page four in my new novel when my character wound up pressing his lips together.  But I’m not going to dither around and find a better way to put it for now.  I’d really like to try moving more quickly through a first draft.   So I’ll use my own personal cliche as a signpost for later.  

I know that there are some writers out there who can push through the entire first draft of a novel without doing much editing at all.  One of the reasons that I produce a semi-polished rough draft is that I belong to this wonderful on-line critique group, The Dreamweavers.  We have a rotation system such that we take turns submitting on the weekends.  (A discussion of our structure can be found on my website.) Three out of the six have been together for about twelve years.   That practically makes us the dinosaurs of the electronic critiquing world.    I value their input at all stages of a project, but I want their first exposure to my story to be positive, so my prose has to be up to a certain level. 

My main character is pressing his lips together in a place that has several things in common with what you see in the picture below. But imagine white paint on the walls, which has faded due to centuries of sandstorms and neglect.  

Luxor Temple as seen from the avenue of sphinxes.

Luxor Temple as seen from the avenue of sphinxes.

Favorite Fantasy Series for Kids and Young Adults

May 1, 2009

I’m not frighteningly original in my choices for favorite fantasy  series either as a kid, teen or now.  I do have a habit of reading and rereading my favorites in order to spend time with the characters.  But I think that this rereading taught me a lot about plotting, creating characters and inserting the clues that whisper. 

Old Favorites:

The Chronicles of Narnia
The Lord of the Rings
The Dark is Rising
The Harper Hall Trilogy
Engdahl’s Enchantress from the Stars
The Chronicles of Prydain
Edward Eager’s books/so alike in style that they really count
The Interlocking L’Engle books

Newer Fantasy

The Attlolia books
The Hollow Kingdom
Tiffany Aching (Disc World for juveniles)
Harry Potter (especially the first three)