Archive for the ‘Craft’ Category

Ooo! Sparkly!

October 17, 2010

Writers are magpies.  We can’t help ourselves.  If we see something interesting, we want to twist it into our plots, our settings, our characterizations.  Weaving these things into story can often be safe.  My extended family can’t help but notice little scraps of our lives turning up here and there in my books.  In SUSPECT, for example, I obtained permission from one of my daughters to use her prom dress as a model for Jen’s.  The basic uniforms at the Schoenhaus bear a close resemblance to the ones my other daughter wore when working at an upscale ski resort. But the comparatively skimpy maid costume came from my experiences of serving at a few weddings when they were short-handed at the college banquet hall where my brother worked.  Those skirts really were so short that I didn’t even want to think about bending over. Those skirts were definitely designed for much shorter legs than mine.  I’m just over six feet tall.

All of these examples are fairly harmless.  But what happens when you want to model some of your antagonist’s qualities on people you know?  The characteristic in question is so wonderfully sparkly. It would fit so beautifully with the plot.  Well, then it really behooves the writer to give that character some extremely strong quirks or a much different set of circumstances so that your unwitting model would never recongize himself or herself.


“O Light the Heart that Lingers in Merano”

August 30, 2010

I first heard the songs from the musical CHESS back in college.  One of the guys in my Douglas Houghton Hall dorm at Michigan Tech was demonstrating the astonishing clarity that his new CD player brought to the music.  (And yes, this was the latest thing back in the early 80’s.)  He started with the radio hit “One Night in Bangkok” but then went back to the first disc that opened with a full operatic chorus singing: 

“O light the heart
That lingers in Merano
Merano! The spa no
Connoisseur of spas would miss.”

My friend promised to make me a tape  of the CDs.  I wrote out all the names of the songs in my less than stellar handwriting.  Eventually, I switched over to CDs myself and didn’t play the tape too much.  It did move around with my husband and me to six states.  I could still sing many of the songs on the album, but I confess that the repeating words Merano in the song were  eventually replaced by “La, LA, la. La, LA, la.”  Yes, the tape did lack the clarity of the CD.

When my husband was offered a job in Merano, I read up on it and learned that it was a spa town.  I wrote to a friend and wondered if  “the Tyrolean spa with the chess boards in it” could be where I’d be living for the next three years.  My friend emailed back with the opening lyrics to Merano.  

That song started playing in my head this morning while working on a section of description for Calyn’s story.  I decided that it would be easier to describe the entrance to the walled town of Grissian if I modeled it on Merano. 

It was.      

I used my own description trick of working off of photographs of real places instead of trying to build and design all the sets myself.  While the words didn’t write themselves, I had a much easier time with developing the sense of place. 

I went back and forth between two websites.  At the end of a row of photos, you’ll find the Porta Passiria.  The neighborhood of Steinach was especially helpful in the photo album of Merano site.  Any readers of Defending Irene might find the shots of the Portici and Passagiata to be interesting.  That’s where Irene went shopping and had ice cream with her strict Italian grandmother.


April 28, 2010

I spent last weekend at a revision retreat sponsored by the Missouri SCBWI (Society of Book Writers and Illustrators) at the YMCA’s Trout Lodge.  Randi Rivers of Charlesbridge was the guest editor.  An incredibly nice aspect of this retreat was that she met with each participant twice.  Writers sent in a manuscript back in February. Randi marked up the manuscripts and wrote a revision letter. Plenty of writing time was built into the weekend so that writers could bring back a section to get some feedback on their changes.    

In order to make this work, the organizers knew that they couldn’t have Randi give the normal number of presentations that guest editors have in the past at this event.  I’ve been attending these retreats since 2003. In fact, I set up the first one.  So when the Missouri Assistant Regional Adviser asked me to consider being on the faculty, I had to say yes. 

I gave two talks: The Art of the Query Letter and Here’s the Pitch.  The first shared my biased view of what a query letter should be based on presentations by National Book Award Finalist Kathleen Duey and Philomel’s editorial director Michael Green not to mention reading various blogs and websites.   (Randi sat in.  She confirmed my theories  and answered questions. Nice!)   I also collected a bunch of queries and cover letters that helped writers either sell projects or receive offers of representation from agents to use as examples.   

 The second session on pitching projects was more of a workshop.  Each writer prepared a one-sentence pitch and a three-sentence pitch as the building blocks for a successful query letter.  And since this was a small group of talented wordsmiths, everyone had the opportunity and the willingness to read their pitches out loud.   Working together, we all helped sharpen each other’s pitches to capture the essence of the works in progress. 

I really feel like everyone emerged from the retreat with an improved project and the means to market it effectively.

I Second that Emotion

August 9, 2009

Just over ten years ago, I attended a SCBWI France Retreat at an old  abbey north and east of Paris.  I was living in northern Italy at the time, so it was the closest thing to a local conference even though I had to take a night train there and back.  All writers who attended had a critique session with an author or editor.  Mine was with Lynne Reid Banks, who wrote THE INDIAN IN THE CUPBOARD books and many others.  She gave me a great piece of advice: “Feel what your characters are feeling, Kristin!  Don’t treat them like marionettes.” 

Abbaye Royaumont

I’ve definitely taken that advice to heart, but last week it hit me again.  I was panicking right along with my main character when she dealt with something frightening.  But as she retraced her steps through the maze of tunnels underneath the opera house, I found myself tucking in some information that the reader needed to know.  I was seeing things through my main character’s eyes, but I wasn’t feeling them with her gut.    

And that brings me forward to another SCBWI France retreat.  It was no longer a comparatively local event to attend, but the three wonderful friends I made back in 1999 were all going to be there. 


Dinner at Royaumont: The location provided atmosphere, but the people provided inspiration.

Dinner at Royaumont: The location provided atmosphere, but the people provided inspiration.

I brought back words of wisdom from Sharon Darrow, who was then an instructor in Vermont College’s MFA in children’s writing.  In her lecture  Emotion and Revision: How to get to the Emotional Core, she stressed choosing details that the character responds to and sharing emotional and physical responses.   And I do take heart from this advice: “Keep the imagination going.  Don’t expect too much too soon.”

Note: These photos were provided by my friend Sondy Eklund, who blogs about books at Sonderbooks.

Letting Go For Awhile

July 9, 2009

I’ve been struggling with a new first chapter for a novel revision.  It’s been a process of arranging and rearranging words instead of adding to the plot.   But it can be really difficult to draw the reader into the world of your character especially if it’s a fantasy.  It’s important to throw out clues about the setting while appearing to follow the thoughts of your characters who really don’t care about making sure that the audience gets it.  

As a way to pretend that the beginning is set for the moment, I’m sending it off to a few readers. 

I’m might just have to imitate my friend Lynnea, who is having a personal NoWriMo (Novel writing month.)   I like seeing word counts pile up.  It might help me move forward.   I now have 42,084 words.  I don’t imagine that I’ll get much done while in Chicago this weekend for the ALA National Conference, but inspiration can strike at any time.

Researching Craft

March 16, 2009

Why on earth would I place lessons learned on the writing craft under the researching category instead of the section on writing?  For me, studying the writing process really is separate from actually sitting down and doing it.  Naturally, there will be some crossover.  Character, plotting, and voice are also inextricably linked, but editors will try to tease apart the threads when discussing them.  Batting coaches will break down different parts of the swing.  And I have to make some choices on sorting things.

Toads and Diamonds

March 16, 2009

Last weekend, I attended a SCBWI Missouri retreat with editor Cheryl Klein. I might come to think of it as the “Toads and Diamonds” retreat. Word gems dropped from Cheryl’s mouth almost every time she opened it during her critiques and presentations.  

My notebook is filled with her observations on characterizations, plotting and voice.  Many writers and editors become inarticulate when they try to pinpoint what makes a great voice although they know it when they see it.   Cheryl was able to break down how voice needs to be consistent, suitable to the scenes, and believable.  She also discussed the various enemies of voice.   

I’m going to be revising some old projects in the next few weeks or months as I spend some time researching the setting for a new novel.  I’ll be keeping her presentations in mind as I work on refining the aesthetic and emotional points of my projects.