Blank Pages and a new Muse

There it is in all its blank glory. The only gift I asked Santa for. Well, that and a new car. Santa’s budget clearly looks alot like mine.

There’s something exciting, and invigorating, and, yes, a bit scary about having a stack of giant blank pages in front of me, ready for scribbles, and plots, and voices, and magic to spill forth like seeds in a garden. It’s bound to get messy, dirty, downright muddy at times. But, for 2012, my muse resolves to reveal white space as opportunity.  I’m confident that, if I tend to the words every day, something marvelous will blossom.

 

My Herb Garden Fairy by Mark Roberts

And, speaking of my muse, my sweet hubby surprised me with this Herb Fairy on Christmas day. We had recently spotted this little guy in a designer store and I was immediately smitten. He’s sparkly, whimsical, and cheery. But, don’t let his fairiness fool you. His eyes watch me with expectation. Though I’m not a “stuff” kind of gal, this cutie pie was destined for my desk.

I know the obvious name for the little guy would be Herb, but I don’t know if that fits him. What do you think? Any other ideas?

Happy 2012 to you all. May your own blank pages be filled with life, joy, and art.

Life Cycle of a Book

Ever wonder how a manuscript becomes a published book? Publishing Trendsetter, a site dedicated to publishing professionals,  not only put the process to a flow chart, they include video clips from professionals at every stage; writer, agent, editorial, production, digital, design, marketing, publicity, sales, distribution, and book buyer. They call it Life Cycle of a Book.  It’s worth a peek.

Then, for a bit of motivation, pop over to read my previous blog interview with Cynthia Leitich Smith.

Happy writing!

From Befuddled to Eureka- Clarifying my narrator’s lens-P.B. Biography

My currrent work-in-progress has had me befuddled. That’s a good word, isn’t it? Befuddled. My Webster’s Dictionary defines the word as, “To confuse or stupefy.” Yep, that sums it up.

Said manuscript is complete and it’s not half bad. Yay!  I’ve got a compelling story with suspenseful scenes and historical significance. But, my inner-editor has been nagging that something’s not working. My basic dilemma is varying the action of multiple scenes to avoid redundancy. I can’t disclose the specific subject of this picture book biography, but suffice it to say that the man’s claims to fame were earned in a grand, but physically limiting setting. So, now that I’m in polish mode, I realize I have too many scenes depicting my character somewhat like a bendable Gumby. Ugh!

After a great deal of therapeutic chocolate consumption, it occurred to me that the real problem isn’t my character’s limited setting. The issue is my narrator’s limited lens. Currently, there’s too much looking AT, and telling ABOUT my character. That can be boring, especially for young readers. Maybe it’s okay that his physical locale doesn’t change drastically, if the text propels the story forward. It turns out the nagging voice is telling me to get closer to the character, to walk in his shoes, and get into his head. Instead of the text and illustrations looking AT him, I’ll reposition my narrator lens to look through him. After all, I want my readers to see what my character sees, and feel what he feels. And, though it’s tricky, I want to show my character as others of the day saw him, too.

I’m reminded of the reality TV show, Survivor Man. He’s presumably all alone in some frighteningly remote place, simply surviving day to day. Sometimes the camera is aimed at him. When he eats those nasty bugs, we see the wince on his face. When he builds the temporary shelter, we watch him struggle and sweat.

Other times, he activates the small camera attached to his hat so that we see what he sees, as if we’re laced right into his hiking boots. When he climbs the tree, we hear the branches snap. When he crosses the river on a rickety bridge, we feel the danger in the tremors of the ropes, and his own breath as it catches. His view is sometimes close and sometimes distant, but it always adds texture to the story.

So, here’s my new word. Eureka!  Webster’s defines the term as, “used to express triumphant achievement.” I think it’s the perfect word for my new sense of clarity.

Eureka!

Who’s On First- “Showing” Lessons from The World Series

It’s the curse of a writer to always be in critique mode. Once the inner editor is brought to life, there’s no stopping it. When I go to movies, I subconsciously pick apart plot problems and character inconsistencies. When I pick up a magazine or journal, I zero in on structure and format. And, when I watch The World Series on television, I find metaphors for the writing process. You didn’t expect that, did you? Neither did I.

Back in the days before television, imagine how exhilarating it would be to gather around the RCA radio, anxious to hear the rip of a ball against a bat and the rising ruckus of the lucky crowd. The commentator offered a play by play of the game, sometimes with the speed of an auctioneer. Listeners needed this “narrator” to tell what he saw in great detail. At home,  radio listeners relied on two senses: Their hearing, and their imaginations. My, how times have changed.

Okay, non-baseball fans, stay with me here as I build up an important point that relates to writing… Last night was game six of the 2011 World Series between the Texas Rangers and the St. Louis Cardinals. (I obviously have a favorite in this game-it’s my birthright as a proud Texan.) At this point in the seven-game series, Texas had won three games. The Cardinals had won two. This game would either decide Texas as the World Series champions, or tie the teams’ tallies and move them both to the seventh game. For eleven innings, the game was a nail-biter with jockeying scores that remained mostly tied, right up until the last moment. And, yes, I was one of those folks who, long past my bedtime, leaned in ever closer with a racing heartrate. All that to say that there was a bit of tension in the air, on the field, in the stands, and at home.

Sports broadcasters don’t offer the same kind of play-by-play today, because they don’t have to. There are a bazillion cameras to show “who’s on first,” and “what’s on second.” We see every scowl, wince, anxiety, worry, frustration, and glee on the faces of players, coaches, managers, owners. Players must cover their mouths so that lip-readers don’t “hear” them, for goodness sakes. The “telling” mode of the radio commentator/narrator has evolved with the “showing” wonders of camera technology. And, thanks to instant replay, we viewers relive injuries and errors in slow-motion, until we feel like we’re there in the player’s cleats.
No doubt, people will gather around water coolers and school lockers, this morning, to retell the most exciting moments of the game in vivid detail.

That’s what writers aim for, too, isn’t it?

But, there’s one last observation I want to share. How many times did cameras span away from the field, zooming in on spectators? Our television narrators didn’t have to tell us it was cold-We knew by the coats, gloves, hats, scarves, misty breaths. They didn’t have to tell us how spectators were reacting, because we saw it on their faces. The same events elicited radically different emotional responses, depending on team loyalties. Folks in the stands were the emotional barometer for the game.
We felt that man’s elation as he waved the toy squirrel at the end of a stick (don’t go there;)
We felt that woman’s silent prayer, as she looked skyward;
Those young men with team logos tattooed on their faces? We felt their youthful anticipation;
We watched Nolan Ryan’s expression change from applause to glower;
We felt the anxiousness of the young ladies with linked arms and crossed fingers;
We watched that child’s fear melt into ear-to-ear grin when Beltre almost plowed over the railing and into his lap, stopping himself in time to pat the kid on the head;

We saw.
We felt.
We were there, but in the comfort of our homes, in a way radio could never deliver.

Thank you radio for evolving into a visual medium. And thank you Mr. Narrator for “telling” us just enough. Because nothing beats “showing” to reveal a more three-dimensional look at the human experience.

Where to Begin a Story

It’s the toughest initial decision for me when I set out to write something new. Where should the story begin? And, truly, it’s a dilemma for all genres, fiction and nonfiction. The latter is my current focus.

As we all know, biography is the story of a person’s life. Some people suggest that picture book biographies should remain chronological, beginning with birth or childhood and ending before the subject’s death. Having studied hundreds of titles, I don’t believe in hard and fast “rules.” There are as many styles as there are authors.

As a writer of picture book biographies, my openings are very different. I’ve started in the middle of a scene, at birth, and at mid-childhood. I think each of them works.

Ultimately, we have to try on different openings until we find the one that fits our story and compels a young reader to keep turning the page. It’s an organic decision tied to the overall theme, voice, and focus.

Remember that not all picture book biographies are aimed at the same audience. There are books for ages 4-8 which tend to be simpler. And those aimed at ages 9-11 which are most often longer, include more context and subtext, and a more creative literary style. AND, not all biographies for young readers cover a full life. Sometimes, it’s a set chunk of someone’s life.

Let’s not forget that writing is art and the author can and should think outside the box when appropriate.