Saturday, February 28, 2009

Writers and Imaginations

As a writer, I find possible plot ideas in everything from crazy dreams to news articles to childhood memories to things that occur in my own children's lives. It may be a a really cool setting I stumble upon while traveling or some oddball character I run into, even a song on the radio - anything and everything can trigger an idea for me. Something really tragic can have occurred, and my writer's voice is busy weaving it into a plot. I know this is true for most writers, but I thought I was the only one in my immediate family who thought this way until last week:

As I do every day, I met my two youngest kids at the bus stop after school. As soon as my son got off the bus, he launches into a story about the creepy substitute bus driver. My son tells me how this guy kept staring at him and his friends; how, once the driver realized he'd been caught staring, he donned a baseball cap and pulled it down, but the kids still knew he was staring, etc.

Now, the mom in me starts thinking : Should I be concerned? Is this guy a pervert? Does he have a criminal record?

While the writer in me is thinking: Maybe he's an alien come to earth to study humankind? Maybe he's an operative trying to get some govt. secret from one of the kids' parents? Maybe he is an escaped convict planning on taking kids hostage to clear his name . . .

These two different lines of thought are streaming through my mind all while my son is telling me his story. My daughter, who has also been listening to my son's story (and who, BTW, was also on the bus but must have been oblivious to the incident) suddenly stops walking and cries: "That's it! That's how the Bettys' can be murdered! On the bus!" and with that, she takes off flying down the sidewalk, backpack slamming against her little legs, rushing to get in the house to write down her new plot idea in her notebook.

What can I say? She is so like me . . .

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

The Books of my Childhood

Today my youngest daughter (sick home from school) snuggled up on the couch to read Ruth McNally Barshaw's Ellie McDoodle: Have Pen Will Travel for about the millionth time. I had the thought that when she is an adult, that book, and its follow-up Ellie McDoodle: New Kid in School which she has read just as many times, will definitely be on the list of books she remembers as influencing her life. It made me think about my own long list of influential books - not the books that are toted on listservs and in children's lit classes as the 'classics' (although many of mine may very well be on those lists too) - but the books that I remember so vividly it could have been yesterday that I read them.

Here's my list in a timeline of sorts:

My earliest memories of books include Julius Lester's retelling of the Uncle Remus'/Adventures of Brer Rabbit, Margaret Wise Brown's Goodnight Moon, and a book with squirrels in a tree that I can't remember the title of, but can still see the illustrations in my mind.

As I moved into being a reader, I enjoyed books like E. L. Konigsburg's From The Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler (which I also couldn't remember the title of for the longest time, but the images I had created in my mind when reading this were so vivid; when I described to a friend a few years ago how I'd read this book about running away and hiding out in a museum, she knew exactly what book I was referring too!), Betty MacDonald's Miss Piggle Wiggle books, Laura Ingalls Wilder's The Little House Books, Hitchcock's Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Series, Carolyn Keene's Nancy Drew Mysteries, Frank Dixon's Hardy Boys Mysteries ( and the TV show too; who couldn't resist Shaun Cassidy as Joe Hardy?) and Eleanor Cameron's Mushroom Planet series. The Mushroom Planet books introduced me to sci-fi fantasy and I remember reading Madeline L'Engle's Wrinkle in Time soon afterwards, followed by A Wind in the Door and A Swiftly Tilting Planet.

The first 'big' novel I read was Louisa May Alcott's Little Women when I was in fourth grade. My mom had a bookshelf full of classics and I still remember the beautiful binding on this book. It was around this time that I also started pilfering my grandparents' bookshelf when we'd spend summers at their house on Hoods Canal in Union, WA. My grandma read mysteries and gothics and I think I read every single Dorothy Daniels book and Phyllis A Whitney book out there.

As a teen, YA wasn't real marketable like it is now, so I had few teen books to choose from. I read some Judy Blume and stuff like Goodbye Paper Doll by Anne Snyder and Blind Sunday by Jessica Evans, but mostly I was reading 'adult' books by now. I remember Christmas in fifth grade we were at my aunt's house in Arcadia, CA. She gave me a Stephen King box set with Night Shift, The Shining, Salem's Lot and I think Carrie. I of course started with Salem's Lot late one night while sleeping on her couch in the living room. Her radiator hissed like a vampire every time it came on, freaked me out so bad I could not sleep, but I didn't put that book down. I finished it by the next night and started right in on The Shining!

Around seventh grade, I began reading classics like George Eliot's The Mill on the Floss, Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights, Thomas Hardy's Tess of the D'urbervilles and Nathaniel Hawthorne's Scarlet Letter. Around the same time I discovered Jane Austen, reading everything she wrote over and over (still do!), and Mark Twain, as well as Salinger's Catcher in the Rye, Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, Golding's Lord of the Flies, and Knowles' A Separate Peace.

This list could go on forever - I read non-stop growing up, and there are thousands of authors and probably a million books and short stories I've left out. But what I have listed represents what always comes to mind first when I think about growing up. I can't wait to fast-forward twenty years and hear what my kids list off as their literary repertoire.

In the meantime, what's yours?

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Ode to Sisterhood

I've had one of those weeks - you know the type - when everyone is telling you what to do and what you're doing wrong? Except, I'm an adult, so I'm supposed to be thinking for myself. Anyway, I was about ready to retreat into a hole, when my younger sister Michele emailed me. She'd read my blog bio and was commenting on how she too loves Don McLean's American Pie, and shares that impressive party skill of knowing lyrics and artists of any song that comes on the radio.

It got me thinking about all the things we used to do as kids, and I was lifted from my reality for a while. I decided to share a few of those memories here as a sort of Ode to My Sisters (only without the lyrical poetic format that Keats would write.)

We grew up way out in the rural outskirts of Fairbanks, Alaska in Musk Ox subdivision (seriously, that 's what it was called). Now it is sprawling with houses, but then it was sparsely populated. We had nothing but wilderness and a few neighbors for miles. So, what could three girls possibly do to keep busy out in the boonies?

- took turns being Wonder Woman, pushing down the dead but still standing trees with our awesome super hero strength. We did the same when we played "Oh Mighty Isis" with an old silver Buddha medallion my mom had in her jewelry box.

- searched for fairies and gnomes under the big orange toadstools that grew wild all over our property. One of us always spotted a gnome or pixie, but we could never quite catch it!
- played Little House On The Prairie for hours outside. My sister Marianne was Mary, and I of course with the appropriate name and birth order was always Laura. Michele was Carrie.
- would try to scare each other by making up things we'd seen. We fooled Michele once into believing we'd gone through a time warp while walking along the power line. We actually had just turned our watches ahead, but she believed us and freaked. Another time I soaked a ripped rag in red food coloring and got everyone thinking there was a mass murderer in the woods somewhere. That mystery lasted for weeks!
- played chemist, mixing any liquids we could find. Luckily for us, we never actually mixed anything that caused a chemical reaction!
- played astronauts (well Michele and I did anyway) with our big winter 'moon' boots every morning while waiting for the school bus.
- played radio station. We would record ourselves being the DJ and playing records. We even recorded our own music. My niece Nikki (Michele's daughter) still has a recording of my infamous original "Here Come the Mosquitoes" - one of these days I will confiscate that tape!
- made sno-cones, or I should say, 'snow' cones, with snow and Coke, sometimes maple syrup. It was good.
- dug a pool for our Barbies. It didn't work though. The dolls ended up taking mud baths.
- used to sled using a huge piece of clear plastic from the top of our property where our house was, down the cliff, across the road, and into the deep ditch on the other side. It's a really good thing there were few cars around!
- somersaulted off the top of the kitchen counter onto our bean bag - well until Marianne missed and smacked her head.
- played jail in the unfinished workroom next to Marianne's bedroom. There was a hole at the top of the ceiling where we could fit a pail attached to a rope. We locked Michele in the room and lowered food and dolls and such down to her - the game ended when she had to go to the bathroom and we discovered the lock was broken. We couldn't unlock the door. A friend of my mom's had to come all the way out and take the door off just to get her out. OOOPS! (I think she had to pee in that bucket too while she waited)
- pretended we were Olympic badminton players. That actually carried over to several years later when we sold the house and moved into the city. There was an annoying girl that MIchele tried to avoid, so when we heard her coming down the street, we'd pick up our racquets and say we were practicing for the Olympics.
I could go on and on - but I won't. I just wanted to say that it wasn't just books and radio that kept me occupied and fueled my imagination growing up - my sisters had a huge hand in that as well. And someday, when I do get published, readers will see a lot of these things in the books I write - sorry Michele and Marianne, there's just too much good stuff to let it go to waste!

Monday, February 2, 2009

I've Been To Jarrett's . . . and other thoughts on the 2009 SCBWI NYC Conference

Not the jewelry store, but still a gem, I was really inspired (once again) by Jarrett Krosoczka's speech at the SCBWI mid-winter conference in NYC this weekend. He has a way of capturing the peaks and valleys that writers feel, putting them out there for all to see, and then giving us the chance to laugh at ourselves. His film at the SCBWI conference in LA a few years ago was hilarious, and he topped it this weekend. (I think you can see the films on his blogsite

I was also really inspired by Bruce Hale's speech. He is an awesome speaker, always getting the laughs, but still cutting through to the heart of what writing for children means. He mapped out 8 ways to make your writing shine: hook, beauty, humor, holding up a mirror, making kids squirm, truth, going the extra yard, and write what you love. I may actually type them up and post them on my desk along with the quote, "Where's the Heart?" (which he quoted from Michael Stearns) as a reminder when I'm stuck.

Besides being inspired by all the speakers, what did I take away from this conference?

I bought four books 13 Reasons Why, Prince of Underwhere, The Teacher's Funeral, and I am Not Joey Pigza (I will read all of them after I have finished The Lightning Thief which my son has been begging me to read - he even checked it out at his school library for me so I'd read it next!)

Also, I came away with a perspective on my writing and how agents and editors fit into that perspective. When I go to conferences and critiques, I often feel like I am on some reality show - a cross between American Idol and the Bachelor, perhaps with a little Survivor thrown into the mix. The editors are the Simons, the Randys, the Karas, and the Paulas, the agents are the Bachelor/Bachelorettes, while myself and a billion other writers just like me are the Idol hopefuls and throng of women screaming "pick me, pick me!" Sometimes I worry that I am one of those poor misled contestants who think they can sing, belting out Muddy Waters in an off-key opera voice while dressed like Mary Poppins. Do people read my stuff and say "what the . ." just as we all do about these poor fools?

Okay, I trust my writing and my critique group and writing friends enough to know that, no, I am not one of those poor misled fools. I am a good writer. So sure, let's say I would be in amongst the lucky lot who are chosen to go to Hollywood or chosen to woo the Bachelor. But then what? Would I stand out amongst all the other good writers?

The truth? I don't know. I get to the point where I am so used to my own writing, it doesn't look fresh and shiny anymore. But, I believe that if I put all I have into it, somebody will notice it . . eventually.

This weekend I watched an agent get moderately mauled as he left the ballroom after his speech. Writers shoved manuscripts and business cards at him while pitching their stories. As he politely untangled himself from them and moved on, I was truly reminded of the Bachelor (okay, yes, sadly I do watch it - I could lie and tell you that it is because he is from Seattle and Seattle is like a second home to me so I feel compelled to watch, or that I am character-gathering for my books, but really I just find it fascinating that women could go on television and compete for a guy like that.)

Anyway, while I watched this agent peel himself away from the masses, I was reminded of the Bachelor because the girls on that show throw themselves on the Bachelor in the same manner, doing anything they can think of to get his attention. But I have to wonder, once the Bachelor has sent the others home and he is dating those girls who pulled out all the gimmicks to get themselves noticed - are they happy with him? Or do they find themselves thinking - "wow, what have I gotten myself into?" Or even, "I don't even like this guy!"

Now I must add a disclaimer here, because this particular agent I am referring to is awesome and I don't want to imply otherwise. My point is that whether the agent or the bachelor, we tend to throw ourselves at the idea rather than the person. I have often heard that finding an agent is kind of like dating. You have to find the right one for you - but in the same breath, it is so hard to get anyone to look at your stuff, so maybe like those girls on the bachelor, any agent who will look will do, right?

I don't think so. Many times while listening to an agent talk I've mentally crossed him or her off my list, saying "no, not for me" - my husband thinks this is the wrong way to go about getting an agent. He feels I should get anyone that is willing to represent me. And yeah, in this day and age, I suppose I shouldn't be picky, but I am.

After attending years of conferences and listening to editors and agents speak, I have realized that:

a) if I can get an editor or agent to critique my work, I want a Simon, not a Paula, because inflated praise won't help me get published

and therefore

b) If I can get an agent to represent my work, I don't want someone just because he/she thinks my work is marketable. I want someone I whole-heartedly trust and respect, who I can share my vision with and he/she will not only understand that vision, but will work with me until it is perfect.

So, where does that leave me? Will I become like Jane Hayes in Shannon Hale's Austenland who keeps turning away relationships because she thinks Mr. Darcy will come through her door? Will I waste away to nothing, turning away agents and editors because they don't fit the bill?

Truthfully? No!

Let's face it, if someone said "hey this is awesome," I'd say "Yes, let's do it!" After all, I would hate to look like Harriet in Emma, turning away a suitable suitor because my sights are set too high, but I can tell you that I will send out my queries with a discerning eye, avoiding those I know just aren't the right fit. And I am an optimist. I know my Mr. Darcy of the agent or editor world is out there. Until then, I have nothing to do but write - oh, and clean. My Mr. Darcy of my romantic world was kind enough to hold the fort down while I was off to NYC for four days, but the fort needs some definite cleaning!

Wow, sorry this is so long! I didn't write for four days - I must be in withdrawals!