A Sense of Place: The Power of Observation

I don’t know exactly how it began, whether it was training for my goal to become an author or not, or due to journalism classes in which we focused on the 5 Ws (who, what, where, when, why), but I notice details everywhere. The pattern of tile in grocery store. The flap of wall covering coming down in the corner of a room. The cut design of crown molding or the texture of plastered walls. The color of front doors, or a burst of color in flowering shrubs in landscape.crown-molding

These are important to writing because one such detail can provide a clue about a character or situation. When I was a new writer, I carried around a notebook and recorded names of people and streets and towns. I recorded brief scenarios and and bits of dialogue because I was told to. As a writer it was important, but I didn’t really “get” how this was going to help. Then the little things I noticed of someone’s home (such as those listed above) just appeared in a draft. They were brief and,like using an analogy, helped paint an image in the reader’s mind.

big-shoes-to-fillSoon I began noticing the things people did that hinted at their emotions or personality. The nervous clicking of a ballpoint pen, or the jiggling of a leg. As I began to teach, it was fun to notice how people controlled personal space—clutching a backpack on their laps, spreading books across the table into the next seat’s space, parking rolling bags in the aisle so no other student can easily pass to the seats behind. While I’m sure some of these students did these things unconsciously, I found them curious and intriguing and they provided insight into the anxiety these students must have felt (I taught remedial English and pre-comp writing and after the first class at least one student nervously approached to inform me he or she was “mistakenly placed” at this level. Sadly, they were not.)

Such details for both a setting and a character SHOW a lot. All can be provided in few words. They enrich the story. Now I cannot seem to turn off this observation. I often look around at the people, decor, and objects in a restaurant even as I carry on a conversation with those I’m with. It’s filed in my mind, even if I don’t pull out my writer’s notebook to jot them down.

blackbird-amcr7Sometimes a detail I notice triggers the next scene for one of my WIPs or an entirely new story idea. For instance, as I sit at a café a cacophony of crows (or some such bird) is out of my line of sight but not my hearing. They sound as if they are having a discussion, an argument, with a back and forth volley of calls that sound like a gruff “haha-ha” punctuated with a single “awk-awk.” This might trigger a fanciful children’s story or suggest the cadence for dialogue in a current story. Since it’s beginning to get on my nerves, it’s gone on long enough, it reminds me that the back-and-forth of dialogue shouldn’t drag on the reader. It’s a reminder to limit and ensure the dialogue adds to the story.

What details do you notice that can slip into a story to make it feel more authentic? For some writers it’s easier to practice with people we know well. What mannerisms offer insight into their personalities? For other writers, the unknown is an easier place to begin noting details that help show both place and personality. Whichever type of writer you are, take this challenge: For 3-4 hours, note at least one detail about every person or place you encounter. Once you begin, it becomes easier. Expand the length of time and the number of details (2, 3, 5?), or at the end of the day make a list of each new place and person and include as many details about each as you can recall.

Soon, these observations will become second nature and filter into whatever you are writing. Feel free to leave comments about how this challenge has improved your writing.

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Learning Never Ends

journalPD (professional development) is a new buzz word, especially for educators. Yet, the idea of continuing to learn and develop in business has been around for decades and even longer for medical/health professionals (often called continuing education or credentialing to maintain licenses). For writers, and many creative types, it is part of the business and has been forever (though it was given no trendy label). To share and learn with others in the field, to keep up on latest trends, to continue developing and honing skills, writers and illustrators attend conferences, read industry journals (magazines about writing and illustrating), reading books, and meeting to network and share.

Take a clue from Rodin's The Thinker.

Take a clue from Rodin’s The Thinker.

When I taught at the local college, most of the professors were upset with a new mandate for annual teaching portfolios with a section on professional development. I was one of the few people complaining, so the faculty coordinator asked me why. I shrugged. “It’s not a big deal,” I said. Professional authors do this all the time, so it’s not a stretch to move from writing development to teaching of writing and meet the portfolio requirements.” Besides, I thought, I’m a lifelong learner which is why I wanted to teach at the college level. All the grumbling made me wonder about my colleagues though.

Why PD?
In a way, simply considering what it stands for answers this question: professional development = building on skills to improve performance; personal development = learning that aids growth. Both place you at a level higher than before the PD. For writers, learning really never stops. There is always more to learn and new trends or markets to keep up on.

Types of PD

Reading about writing craft in magazines, on websites and blogs IS part of a writing career.

Reading about writing craft in magazines, on websites and blogs IS part of a writing career.

Opportunities to continuing learning and developing are everywhere. For many occupations, not only writers, these might include:

  • Reading and/or individual study to increase knowledge and skill.
  • Video or audio recordings or presentations about specific topics to increase knowledge and skill.
  • Seminars or Webinars (online seminars) in which a lecturer shares expertise about a specific area/topic or skill set.
  • Conferences and workshops. In person opportunities to network with others and interact with attendees and presenters while building on knowledge and skill.

Where to Find PD Opportunities

  • Tune in for info and advice.

    Tune in for info and advice.

    Professinal Associations often sponsor workshops and/or conferences. Sometimes you must be a member or attend as a guest. I’m a member of SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) which hosts conferences plus numerous online (webinars). Local colleges, schools, churches, and community centers often offer personal enrichment classes. (Some gated communities or senior living facilities offer programs too, often opening them to the public for a fee.) Check newspaper listings for authors or presenters visiting bookstores or libraries, too.

  • Online programs and courses + Podcasts and internet radio. Look up favorite authors to see if they have websites, are affiliated with any learning programs or association (then check those). See what is mentioned on social media.
  • Newsletters, magazines, websites (books, both phsical and ebooks). Industry news, textbook publishers, magazines.
  • DVDs and video/audio recordings.
  • Associations and libraries/websites. Many writing conferences offer recordings of specific sessions. You do not usually need to be a member to purchase them. Check for options on Netflix or Amazon Prime (or your favorite streaming/rental service).
  • Some of my favorites. I’ve participated in webinars and podcasts this year sponsored by Publisher’s Weekly, Booklist, and Education Week. Check their websites or social media sites for announcements (or get on their email list). I found 3 webinars through email announcements/newsletters about using social media, Sciviner, and doing book promo and blogging. I’ve taken ecourses through Daily OM, online courses through Gotham Writers Workshops and Udemy, plus courses on DVD from Elephant Rock, Master Classes SCBWI, Teaching Company. Opportunities are out there, and many of the above I’ve taken for free or under $15.

In addition, I teach writing workshops through local adult learning/enrichment programs. News for these are on my website (see the “At the Podium” page), through course catalogs, plus on the web and in local newspapers. Explore, search, connect. You’ll be amazed at what you’ll find and what you’ll learn.

Writing is Like an Iceberg

icebergOnly the writer knows all that lies beneath the surface.

As northern weather begins to cool, the mention of icebergs may feel like hitting below the belt; however, it really is the best analogy for crafting a solid story or informational article.

For nonfiction, a great deal of research goes into every article, and more so for a book. The writer cannot possibly share every fact and thought about the topic, though. The goal is to share information and insight, not overwhelm the reader. When I research for a nonfiction book, perhaps 75 percent of the research ends up in the finished product, sometimes less. Yet the percent “unused” is not wasted; it is essential to my understanding of the topic and so it is “present” beneath the surface.

The same is true for fiction. Though the author may not need to conduct research (unless writing historical fiction or centering around a real event) there is still a great deal of information, planning, and thought that goes into a novel or even a short story. Everything the writer knows about the characters’ personalities, back stories, relationships (past and present), events that shaped the “person,” how the characters act and react (and why), and even their futures is important to the story. Yet only a small percentage of that information is provided to the reader. (In comparison to my nonfiction, when I write fiction, perhaps 25 percent of research and background goes into the story.) The majority of all the writer knows is below the waterline, providing a foundation for what appears above the water. The reader must become engaged with the small portion visible.

King-good-booksjpgThis is one of the hardest concepts for new writers to understand, especially when writing fiction. This is also where the “show; don’t tell” rule-of-thumb arises. Inexperienced writers want to provide every detail about a character, want to ensure the reader “gets” what they have created, and want to be recognized for being clever. As they gain more experience, they realize that writers can reveal a lot and hint at plenty of background without sharing every detail and nuance of a character’s history or personality.

Truly, holding something back and providing hints at a character’s past makes the story more engaging. If the foundation is there, the story will stay afloat. Keep icebergs in mind as you write–and trust your ability to reveal details as needed for the reader to understand each moment in the story (scene by scene).

After the Draft

Many new writers confuse editing with revision. Editing is one of the later stages and is focused on cleaning and polishing of your prose. During this stage you (try to) catch typos, misspellings, incorrect grammar, and ensure you have clean presentation (check formatting) and have carefully followed the guidelines for your submission. Editing is often completed by someone at the publishing house. But it should also be completed by the writer and is often possible in a single pass.

onestepattimeRevision, on the other hand, comes a bit earlier in the writing process than editing. It is also completed in numerous passes and/or various attempts. During writing workshops when someone asks, “How many times do you revise?” I tell them it depends. I revise as many times as it takes to ensure it’s clear and the best prose I’m capable of writing at this point in my career. This is never what the participants want to hear but it’s a reality of the writing world. If you want to publish, this is what you do.

It helps to think of revision as “rethinking” your story. Now that you have your draft–your story framework and basics–on paper, you can shape it, like clay; refine and rework it as you ask yourself questions about characterization, point of view, use of dialogue and detail. Perhaps you’ll even try a different approach in plotting or viewpoint for a scene or two. Revision is about refining but also developing and deepening the story so the reader has the best possible experience.

not-writejpgMost writers break revision into section or passes. How you approach it is up to you; it depends on your creative approach. Some writers draft and then revise a bit, draft and then revise, but eventually, they reach a point where they are focused on reshaping and rethinking (rather than adding chapters and pages to the manuscript). I’m in the camp of getting a complete draft on paper and then playing around with the writing elements, expanding and deleting scenes, rethinking, shaping, looking at the draft with fresh eyes: re-visioning.

REVISION CLASSES:
If you’re ready to learn more about “looking again” at your draft and revising, I have a revision class starting Wednesday, October 28 through ACE (Adult and Community Education) in Naples, Fla. Find details on my website workshops page.

Writing to Deadline: Theme lists and Contests

deadlineA great way to stay motivated to write regularly is to create deadlines. This gives you a goal or target to reach for in completing a manuscript. It also helps new writers develop the discipline to write regularly. I’ve never been able to fool myself with “false deadlines” but when I was starting out I often wrote to theme lists published by magazines.

Theme lists are exactly that—a list of upcoming themes by issue with a “wish list” of possible stories and articles that fit the theme. Along with the theme is a deadline for receiving queries (pitches) and/or completed manuscripts. Many children’s magazines provide theme lists, but alternatively following editors’ blogs can provide similar info. For example, Fun For Kidz, a popular magazine for children has scheduled a theme around water for the July 2016 issue. Pockets, a Christian children’s magazine published by The Upper Room includes an upcoming theme on friends for the June 2016 issue due 11/1/2015. Find theme lists (and guidelines) by entering a search string of publisher (or magazine) plus “theme list” or “guidelines” into your favorite browser.

writing-a-deadlineAn alternative is to enter contests. Again, the benefit is a goal and deadline to aim for and whether you win or not, you have a manuscript to submit to another market in the future. Many contests include an entry fee, which often includes either a subscription to the publication or a copy of the issue in which the contest winners are published. Still, a few contests are free. You can find upcoming contests for writers at Poet & Writers magazine, The Writer magazine, Ralan.com  and Writers-Editors.com  Please be sure to read and follow the guidelines.

When My Mother Dared to Let Me Choose My Own Books

“I do not believe that any book should be denied to the man who possesses the wisdom to understand it, Bruno, but that does not mean I am confused about where truth lies.”
~S.J. Parris, Heresy

The summer I turned 11 was a turning point for me. As an author who opposes censorship and advocates for our many freedoms, that summer is etched in my mind. It was the summer my mother trusted my decisions. It was the summer I experienced the positive outcome of a freedom to read what I chose. It was the summer that had a lasting impact on my life, values, and beliefs.

As we prepared to enter middle school, my friends all opted for a big summer camp finale which left me to a long and boring summer alone. Having read all my library books, I rummaged through the basement in search of books or games cast off by my sisters. They were 6, 8, and 11 years older. I found several that looked promising, but one was especially intriguing. When Debbie Dared. The hardback book had no dust jacket so there was no book summary. I read a few pages, as the school librarian had taught us, and it seemed interesting. A girl moves during the summer and hopes to make a few friends before she begins Jr. High.

DebbieDaredI took the book to my mother. “Is it okay for me to read this?” I asked.

She was preparing a cup of tea, something she’d done at this time of afternoon—our former nap time—for decades though we were all long out of preschool. Glancing at the book she said, “Looks like it belonged to one of your sisters.”

I nodded. “Found it in the basement. It’s called When Debbie Dared.” I paused. No reaction. “So, can I read it?”

She studied me for a moment and took a sip of tea. “Why couldn’t you? Did you read a few pages?”

“Yes. The girl in the story is a little older, going into Jr. High. What’s Jr. High?”

“It’s similar to middle school. Jr. High included grades 7-9. Grade 6 was still in elementary.” I wrinkled my nose thinking that I’d still be in elementary next year with this set-up. “Your eldest two sisters went to Jr. High, but then they restructured the grades.”

I thought about that and looked at the book, wondering what Debbie dares doing?

Mom calmly watched me, sipping her tea and unwinding. “So tell me, why do you think you shouldn’t read it?”

“Well, the title—When Debbie Dared. There’s no summary.” I showed her the blank back of the book. “I don’t really know what it’s about.”

“What do you think it’s about?”

I shrugged.

“What do you think the ‘dare’ is about?”

My throat tightened. Again I shrugged. “I don’t know. Do you remember?”

Mom laughed. “Honey, I probably never read that book. If I did, or if your sisters told me about it, it was so long ago, I don’t recall.” She patted my hand. “What do you think? Why are you worried about this?”

“I don’t know. What if . . . what if it’s about . . . about dating or . . . or sex?”

illustration by Stephanie Piro

illustration by Stephanie Piro

I could tell this was something she hadn’t considered. But, in hindsight, how would my sisters have read a book about such things? The book had to be about a decade old, give or take a few years.

“I see,” Mom said, then sipped her tea. “Why don’t we do this? You read the book and if you get to any parts where you think you shouldn’t read it, then stop. Or, if you get to parts you don’t understand, bring it to me and we can read it together and talk about it.”

“Really?”

“Really.” She patted my hand and I ran off to read, my conscience greatly unburdened.

During the next day or so I read and gave her the plot summary. Sure, the story was outdated but I enjoyed it. It turned out the big decision Debbie needed to make was about shoplifting. She wanted friends before school started and two popular girls befriended her. But, to prove her loyalty to them, she was supposed to steal a bracelet from a jewelry store in town. She agonized over it, but in the end stood up to her so-called friends.

Later Mom noticed I was sprawled on the couch reading a different book. “Did you get to a part in the other book and stop reading?”

“No. Finished it.”

“So, what was Debbie’s dare?”

“Shoplifting a bracelet. She didn’t.”

Mom moved my legs to make room for herself on the couch. “So, do you plan to shoplift now?”

I put my book down and scoffed. “No. Debbie stood up to her friend. I liked that. Now I know how I could do the same thing if someone tries to get me to do something I don’t want to do.”

Mom patted my leg as she got up. “You know, you can always come to me if you don’t understand something you read, or hear, or see somewhere.”

“I know. Thanks, Mom.” She kissed my forehead. “That title was pretty unfair, though. It wasn’t what I expected at all.”

She smiled. “But it got you to read it, didn’t it?”

She was right. And I learned something from that book that stayed with me until this day. And, itt did help me say “no” when pressured to smoke cigarettes or try drugs or whatever. And if my friends didn’t respect that, then I knew they weren’t really my friends.

We-should-have-the-right-to-think-for-ourselves-540x720

quote by ALA President Roberta Stevens

Most importantly, because my mother was brave enough to allow me to read that book—when neither of us knew what it was about—she gave me an opportunity to learn and to grow. She trusted me to choose. What if she had denied me that right? Worse, what if someone else—a stranger somewhere—had made that decision for me? And that’s why I advocate against censorship, against taking away such a right. We have no idea how and when our fellow readers are ready to deal with the ideas presented through the intellectual property of authors. Everyone should have the right to choose his or her own reading material. Stand up for this right.

Yes, children are impressionable but their parents—not any other parents or teachers or adults—are responsible for monitoring their child’s reading material. This idea is supported by the “Library Bill of Rights” (the American Library Association’s basic policy concerning access to information) which states that:

“Librarians and governing bodies should maintain that parents—and only parents—have the right and the responsibility to restrict the access of their children—and only their children—to library resources.” Censorship by librarians of constitutionally protected speech, whether for protection or for any other reason, violates the First Amendment.

Censorship by anybody, violates the First Amendment.

To learn more about challenged and banned books, visit the American Library Association’s Office of Intellectual Freedom page.

“Quiet Mind” Writing Days

Other types of creativity can help awaken story and get the words flowing.

Other types of creativity can help awaken story and get the words flowing.

I’ve created several creativity programs for writers within the past six months and I’ve noticed something interesting among the participants: they try to jump into the “words on paper” part. Sometimes we need to quiet the mind first to allow ideas to surface.

Why do writers think they aren’t writing if words are not flowing onto the paper? Sometimes we simply need to sit, think about our stories or projects, or even brainstorm with friends. If you’re a writer, it is okay to sit and stare off into the day and consider possibilities for your characters or plot. It’s okay to find the best events in a personal experience you plan to craft. In fact, current neuro-research suggests that quieting the mind is how we allow ideas from our subconscious to surface. (This is why you might get great ideas while you’re doing something monotonous such as washing dishes, gardening, or scrubbing the shower.)

Take a clue from Rodin's The Thinker.

Take a clue from Rodin’s The Thinker.

Where does this idea come from that writers shouldn’t think about our stories or craft in our heads before heading to the computer? (Even my college students jump to the drafting stage too quickly.) Pre-writing is important, and while students learning how to write are expected to show their pre-writing in the form of mind maps or outlines, professional writers often do all that planning in their heads. I think this idea that we should not sit quietly may come from a need to be taken seriously as writers. If we look busy and are clicking away on the keys, maybe our families will allow us to make progress on our novel or project. If we look busy, maybe life won’t get in the way. Or, perhaps staring into space and thinking about plot events for a work-in-progress doesn’t feel the same as having something to show for the time and so busy work keeps you from actually writing.

I know that my own life gets busy too quickly and then that frantic pace sets in. Sometimes it’s not even frantic action but simply frantic thoughts. I used to clear my mind every morning by dumping all my thoughts and worries every morning. Then I could focus on my project or making progress on contracted work. Some may recognize this as “morning pages” suggested by Julia Cameron in The Artist’s Way. I followed that advice when I worked full time and tried breaking into print part-time.

Now that I write full time I need to take breaks to recharge during the day. Sometimes I need to quiet my mind and I use painting or music or cooking, or what I call productive procrastination. People may think the character collages I create are simply a way to avoid writing but I’m making progress on a specific book project. In actuality, these “arts and crafts” activities help me clarify details for my story.

 

A sample character collage for a YA novel work-in-progress

A sample character collage for a YA novel work-in-progress

While I am actually making these collages, my mind is quieting and I have time to pre-write or plan plot details and so on in my mind. When I return to the keyboard, I’m mentally refreshed. The progress I make doing this is far exceeds the results when I force myself to sit in front of the computer screen until I reach my “word or page quota.” In the end it’s about making progress toward a completed manuscript. Some days our work is easier to show than on other days, than on the “quiet mind” days.

The next time you hit a wall with your writing, try sitting and quieting your mind. Think about options for your narrative, or how you might shape the story. If you can’t shake the feeling that you aren’t writing if you think about your project, consider it “pre-writing.” Since the writing process is recursive, remind yourself that you’re going back to “stage 1” to develop the idea and settle into the plan for the next chapters or scenes. Project do benefit from “quiet mind” days. You’re still working; you’re still writing.