Friday, June 15, 2018

This is Not a Pasta Spoon: Repurposing Tools of the Trade to Get the Job Done (a post for writers… no, seriously)

Top shelves of kitchen cabinets were not located with short cooks in mind. I can’t reach the top shelves, but I need the storage space, so those top shelves are full of stuff anyway. I’m too independent to rely on the taller members of my family, too stubborn to haul a chair or step-stool across the room every time I need to reach something, and so…the pasta spoon. 

I don’t believe I’ve ever once used it to serve spaghetti, but gosh, it makes an excellent reacher! Those slightly-curved prongs tuck around all manner of packages on my top shelf so I can easily nudge them to the front and let them drop into my waiting hand. Repurposing the pasta spoon is efficient and effective for me.

I’ve repurposed tools of the trade in writing, too, and today I want to share one of those with you, in the hopes you’ll also find it efficient and effective.

The pitch. We writers often don’t consider pitching our story until…well, until we’re pitching it. We write, revise, and polish our manuscript, and then suddenly it’s time to send it out into the world in search of a home, and we realize we need a query letter – which of course is basically a pitch, designed to make the recipient need to read our story. But there’s much to be gained from repurposing the pitch.

What if, instead of using the pitch as a query tool, you use it as a guide. What if, instead of writing the pitch after your manuscript is finished, you write it before. Write it when you’re in that heart-pounding yes, this! stage of discovering your story, to bring focus and clarity to your awesome-but-probably-a-tad-vague idea. Write it then, and use it to keep you on track. Use it to guide you, to keep one hand on the through-line of your story as you work your way toward the end. Odds are, you’ll want to tweak the pitch when you finally get to the query stage, but that’s okay—the time you spend writing a pitch now will save you a ton of time in revisions later.

Depending where you are on the plotter—pantser spectrum, the idea of writing the pitch before writing the story may or may not seem comfortable, easy, or even feasible. Plotters, maybe you already write the pitch first. Maybe you’re saying, hey, I’ve always used the pasta spoon for that. But pantsers, I know it doesn’t feel natural. I know you’re probably thinking but I don’t know until I write the story! I understand…I’m with you. But try it. Really.

If you’ll allow me to throw in a completely different metaphor here... *tosses culinary tools back in the drawer, because who am I kidding, I’m no chef* Imagine you’re driving on the prairies. You can see your destination a long while before you’ll get there. You can drive straight for it, of course, but what if you’re a pantser? What if you want to wander through wheat fields and explore dusty backroads along the way? Keeping your pitch in mind as you write is like glancing up regularly at that grain-elevator goal in the distance, shimmering on the horizon, so whatever route you take, you’re moving steadily toward where you want to be.

Have you repurposed your pitch this way before? Are there other writing tools of the trade you’ve repurposed? I’d love to hear what you’ve found to be effective and efficient for you in your writing. Please share!

Monday, June 11, 2018

Introducing: The Frame-Up and a Giveaway!

My second book, The Frame-Up, is now out in the world!

I'm so proud of this book and the love it has been receiving:

“This chapter book’s most memorable element is also its most unusual: the imaginative conviction that art is alive.” Booklist, starred review

If I am being truly honest, I always assumed that the second book I'd publish would be a sequel to It's a Mystery, Pig Face!

But the publishing gods are wiser and had different plans.

They decided my second book would be a fantastical adventure set in a real-life art gallery, and filled with lovable and interesting characters.

I wrote the first sentence of the first draft of The Frame-Up on November 1, 2015.

It is a NaNoWriMo baby, and at times it seemed as if it were writing itself.

In her book Big Magic, author Elizabeth Gilbert talks about the mysterious grace that sometimes assists writers in their work.

The writing process certainly felt like grace to me, although I have often wondered if it wasn't guided by the creative energy of the paintings who live at the Beaverbrook Art Gallery.

They had stories to tell, and I am fortunate that they decided to share them with me.

And I am even more fortunate that my readers will get to not only engage with those paintings in my novel (and perhaps someday in real life), but also with paintings in their own local art galleries or museums.

The inherent conceit of The Frame-Up is that all original art work is alive.

I have believed that since I was a young child.

The idea that the things we infuse with our creative selves have lives separate and apart from ourselves, is not a new idea, but it is a profound one, which, in my opinion, can't be repeated too often. How many of us see a sculpture and it seems alive to us or hear a song that speaks to our souls?

Dickens characters have long outlived him, and they are as alive as the day he first put ink to paper.

In The Frame-Up, my main character, Mona Dunn, interacts with other residents who in some cases, have lived almost five hundred years behind the frame.  Imagine the things they have seen, the tales they could tell!

Mona Dunn, William Orpen, 1915, Oil on Canvas

In my own small way, I hope that The Frame-Up conveys that magic. It asks us to look again at the art on our walls, to see beyond the one-dimensional surface until we reach the miracle of its creation in our mind's eye.

As the tagline for the book says: Look beyond what you think you see.

Every lover of art, in whatever form, can understand that sentiment.

And so to honour my wild ride since I wrote the very first line: Mona Dunn was late two and a half years ago, I am thrilled to finally be able to share the book with you.

I hope you'll buy a copy of your own or borrow one from the library, but as a thank-you, I'm giving away an autographed copy!

Simply leave me a comment below, telling me what's inspired YOUR creativity lately, and you're automatically entered to win!

Good luck! And I hope you love the world of the Beaverbrook Art Gallery as much as I do!



a Rafflecopter giveaway

Monday, June 4, 2018

Comparing Your Writing... to Yourself

As writers, we are constantly comparing our work to others despite being told time and time again to not do it. Comparing an early draft to someone's published book probably isn't the best ego boost, especially considering the amount of edits a published book has been through.
So when I jokingly said to a writing buddy that I was going to open up a first draft and take a look, I never expected it to be a great experience. I honestly didn't know what I would find. But what I ended up with was shocking... the biggest ego boost I didn't know that I needed.

While comparing your work to others usually has a negative impact, there is one comparison that I highly recommend you make... a comparison to yourself.
And why did this comparison work? It's a good measure of how things are going, how you're progressing as a writer. Go ahead and look back at old manuscripts or even first drafts of your current work in progress and see how things have changed. Some things you can look for:
  • Have you learned something?
  • How has your writing grown and evolved?
  • How is your worldbuilding?
  • How is your voice?
  • How's your grammar?
  • How's your plot?
  • How's your character development?
Looking at all of these items with respect to prior works can really show you how far you've come as a writer.

Take for example my first draft of the project I'm currently editing.
Note: This dates all the way back to February 2012, so try not to cringe too hard.

“Come on Kaya. Ladies first.” Troy grinned and held out the radio wave generator to me.

I rolled my eyes. “I’ll just watch for now.” Harlow’s friends are such idiots. I can’t believe they are doing this. If it weren’t for Lydia and her crush on Troy, I never would have agreed to come into the woods with my boyfriend and the goons he calls friends. The things I do for my best friend.

“You sure Kaya? It’s such a rush!” Troy waved the small box my face.

I shivered despite the blazing bonfire in front of us. “No I’m good thanks.” Ghosting was the dumbest thing kids did — the ultimate game of chicken. Harlow and his friends liked to see how long they could disrupt their tracker signal before they freaked out. If your tracker goes offline for more than five minutes, they dispatch the authorities to your last known location to check it out, hence the rush.
All right I'll spare you more than a couple paragraphs, because let's be honest, this is a complete mess. But it's a first draft so that's okay. Let's spot the issues.

  1. I started with dialogue. This isn't always bad, but can be problematic because we don't know who is speaking or what their voice is.
  2. There's a verb tense change.
  3. The voice needs some work.
  4. We don't know much about the main character off the bat or why we should follow her. Even worse we seem to know more about her friends than her.
  5. The world is a little confusing
  6. And holy info dump batman!
I'm sure I could go on and on about all the issues in this first draft, but that's why we edit.
Now let's take a look at my current draft.

Note: This is 11 major drafts and 6 years later.

    We were going to get caught. No question about it. Masking your tracker signal got you a date with the authorities at best, and at worst… I didn’t want to think about it. I wasn’t lucky enough to get away with this. I was never that lucky.

    Troy grinned and held out the radio wave generator. “Come on, Kaya. You know you want to.” The black box flirted with me like a bad boy, half thrill ride, half arrest warrant.

    I shook my head. The buzz from falling off the tracker grid—pure silence and vision devoid of popups and apps—wasn’t worth the risk of losing control. If the authorities showed up, brain probing us to check our chips for glitches would be the least of our problems.

    Troy waved the box in my face. “You sure? It’s such a rush!”

    I shivered despite the bonfire blazing in front of us. “I’m good. I don’t need a record.”

    “Wasn’t it just Yom Kippur or something? You should be good on the sin front for a while.”

    “That’s not how it works, jackass.”

    That little box was trouble. Worse than Pandora’s. My muscles tensed. At least if I refused to disrupt my tracker signal, I wouldn’t have to lie about breaking the law.

    Trekking into the woods at the edge of town to watch everyone attempt to beat the record for longest signal disruption was insanity. Why couldn’t we hang out at the fly-in theater instead? Anything other than pursuing a one-way ticket to tracker juvie.

    But they loved the thrill of tempting fate—the ultimate game of chicken. At best, they had about five minutes of interrupted tracker signals before the network alerted the authorities.

    I leaned into Harlow, and he put his arm around me. He’d never ditch me. But most of his friends wouldn’t hesitate to use me as authority bait if the agents showed up. Not if—when.

Let's dive into this draft a little deeper. The first thing you'll notice is the  core of the scene has stayed very much the same, but so much has improved around the outer shell. And the coverage of what is there has greatly expanded.

  1. There's no more random verb tense changes
  2. The language is so much stronger and more engaging.
  3. Information is sprinkled throughout in an interesting way rather than dumped in one or two paragraphs.
  4. We get a sense of who the main character is, what she wants/fears and what's at stake.
  5. We get a sneak peek into this world, but it's not fully flushed out yet (there's more to come as the reader continues on)
  6. And the voice? Well I'd say it's vastly improved. What do you think?

At any rate, I think you can see between the drafts that I've grown as a writer. And this exercise made me realize how far I've come. So if you have some time, I highly recommend you pull out an old first draft and compare it to a more recent one and see how far you've come. It might just be the writing boost you've been looking for.

And if you do this exercise let me know how it goes. Hopefully it helped you as much as it helped me.

Happy Writing!

Monday, May 28, 2018

Kids Need Books

While following activity on Book Twitter this spring, I saw the hashtag #KidsNeedBooks appearing more and more frequently. This movement, in a nutshell, came from a number of authors and educators trying to get books in the hands of kids to give them something to read during summer break.

When I was in elementary school, summer reading was one of the greatest things about the break. The local library had a program that tracked your reading throughout those months, with little prizes along the way and a party of sorts at the end. Even so many years later, I can clearly remember walking through that overpoweringly air-conditioned building and exploring the shelves each week, and the anticipation that would build with each title I would add to my growing “To Be Read” pile.

Unfortunately, this isn’t an experience widely shared by many of my own students. Too many of them don’t see summer break as a chance to dive into reading and fill their heads with new adventures, but instead a time that brings a lot of instability and insecurity into their daily lives. Wouldn’t it be great if all kids, from the ones who frequent the bookstores or libraries to the ones taking their summer break one day at a time, had at least one book they could escape into for part of their day?

As the last day of school gets closer for my students and me, I’m taking gradual steps to close down my classroom. In doing so I’m reminded how my classroom library is so much more extensive than what I have displayed on the limited space I have available for my bookshelves. I keep most of the library boxed up during much of the year, rotating the titles with each academic term to keep them fresh and keep the kids interested. As I see these boxes and boxes stuffed full with books — novels, nonfiction, picture books, graphic novels, hardcovers, paperbacks, even a few galleys, you name it — it occurs to me a lot of the books I’ve collected over the years aren’t living up to their potential being packed away.

I think I’m going to do something about that this year. In the spirit of the #KidsNeedBooks movement, which I would encourage everyone to learn about, I’m going to sort through the pile before packing them away for the year and make them available for my students. Book ownership really comes to pass when you read a book, but it’s a powerful thing at that age to be able to hold a book you love in your hands and know that copy is yours, and that you can re-read it as many times as you want.

One book can change how a kid might think about the world. The summer gives them plenty of time to do that thinking. Anyone interested in learning more about this movement should look up the hashtag, and see what kinds of exciting things have happened after a few people following through on a simple idea.


Friday, May 25, 2018

Summer Inspiration for Writers

The lazy days of summer are now upon us, complete with ice-cold lemonade and hours spent lounging in the hammock, reading for pleasure and writerly research, of course. No deadlines, no screaming children, no pressure or stress of any kind.

Well, we can always dream. Our summers are typically packed with ball games, lake trips, family activities, reunions. Tons of fun where we meet ourselves coming and going. On top of all this, we writers work other jobs. We raise our families. We volunteer in the community. We seek out adventure. We live. Because if all we did was hide in our writing holes and dream, we'd end up small-minded with nothing real to write about. Unless of course, we're Thoreau and are exploring philosophy.

Fortunately, the hectic moments of summer provide unique and energizing writing inspiration. Here's a few focus points to help you capture those fleeting moments when genius strikes (or can be finessed into existence with just the right touch):
  1. Relationships: In summer, we make extra time for friends and family. That means there's more opportunities for laughter, conflict, and exploring new ideas. Take note of the things that build connections in your relationships. What weakens them? How can laughter strengthen a relationship? When can it damage it? Are there people you interact with who tend to speak less than others? Or to dominate attention, either purposefully or by nature of their personality? Why? Are there simmering resentments that should be addressed or joys and gratitude that should be expressed? As you explore these issues, you will find your deepened understanding will enhance your relationships as well as your writing. 
  2. Emotions: Summer is often a time when we clean house, literally and figuratively. We shake off the dust and stillness of winter, throw off our coats, and seek out a little freedom. Consider how you feel in the transition time between winter doldrums and summer liberty. How does the hot sun on your skin or the cool wind through your hair make you feel? Are you emotionally affected by increased or decreased social interaction? What about your family and friends? What changes do you note in their moods? Do you see anyone becoming "hangry" when the BBQ is taking longer than expected (darn slow charcoal!)? How can you capture similar emotions in your writing? Take a few minutes at the end of the day and write a feeling, something you've felt that day or some emotion you've witnessed. How could your characters deal with feelings that push them a bit too far?
  3. Sensations: Summer is a wonderful time to contemplate and explore sensations. The weather has changed. We spend more time outside. What do you hear when you are out at the lake or on a morning run? Even sitting at home inside, the sounds can be different. Do you hear the drone of lawnmowers or the revving engines of motorcyclists? What about the birds chirping outside your window? Or the overpowering buzz of cicadas or songs of crickets? Depending on where you story takes place, some of these sounds may be absent or their could be other noises, like the call of children playing in the streets. Are the sounds in your stories sinister or commonplace? The tastes of summer again provide astonishing variety - the sweet tang of smoothies, the hot spices of salsa, or the flaky warmth of pastries at a bistro. Notice what stands out to you as the summer days pass, taking care to explore all five senses and incorporate them in your writing.
  4. Physical Movement: Summer is a time of movement. We hop on the bicycle a little more often or take wandering walks through the woods, dips in the pool, or hikes to and from various picnic places and ballfields. Being active makes our bodies feel different and, usually, work a little better. Note the soreness of your muscles as you become more active. Note the scrapes and bumps that we collect over the course of the summer. How long do they take to heal? How much does a sprain or a bruise actually limit activity? What does it feel like to ice a sore joint? How does it feel when our bodies are strong and healthy? All of these insights will making your writing more realistic and compelling to readers.
  5. Try Something New: This is some of the best advice writers can take. Try something new. Step out of your comfort zone and pick up a dance class. Or go parasailing. Or try walking across a fallen log. Opportunities to experience something new are all around us, if we are looking, and if we choose to be brave. They don't have to cost money or take a ton of time. It could be something as simple as cooking a new meal. Notice how you feel when trying new things. Nervous? Frustrated? Excited? How could this new experience fit into your current work-in-progress? If it doesn't, write a vignette or even a summary of what you did, how you felt, and what you thought. Then save it for later.
    Whatever your situation, summertime can be a springboard for your creativity. Enjoy!