Friday, February 28, 2020

Leaping into the Deep End

I don't know how to swim. Years of Learn-to-Swim classes, and I still can't do anything resembling a crawl. I can't coordinate my arms and legs and breathing, but I can make from one end of a pool to the other. I'm not afraid of water. I know I can save myself. I just don't look pretty doing it.

It's the same way with me and picture book writing. I never meant to be a picture book writer. My comfort zone has always been middle grade and YA fiction. I can remember what it was like to be those ages. Those genres allow me to explore side roads in plot, take deep dives into characters' heads.

Picture book writing doesn't allow for meandering or deep diving.

Picture book writing used to terrify me. A set number of words, which has shrunk considerably over the years.  Every word chosen for maximum impact. Connecting with a young child's world in language they can understand. Words that are read aloud, so they must flow in a rhythm that is easy, yet interesting. Terrifying!

So why do I have seven published picture books, with number eight arriving fall of 2021?

I took the leap into picture books by accident.

I've told the story behind My Best Friend before, but if you missed it the first time, here is the synopsis.  I got really mad over some pre-school "mean girls" picking on my four-year-old daughter at the neighborhood pool. A Jack Daniels-and-Coke later, I had written a story meant to cheer her up. She couldn't have cared less. Due to circumstances beyond my control, that was the only new writing I had done in six months (I was revising Yankee Girl at the time. ) As a result, My Best Friend became my workshop piece at Vermont College's MFA in Writing for Children Program that summer. My lovely workshop leader, Eric Kimmel, was the only one who showed any enthusiasm for it, and told me I needed to submit it "somewhere." Seventeen rejection letters later, it sold. Won some awards. Is still selling well fifteen years later.

I was more surprised than anyone. I still am. All I did was write a happy ending story for my unhappy child. Picture books were supposed to be hard... and here I'd hammered out this story in two hours, with next to no revisions between my computer and the published book. How did I do that?

I'm still asking myself that, twenty years after the hot, sticky afternoon Mr. Jack Daniels and I sat down and banged out that story about little girls, friendships and swimming pools. Faced with the expectation that I would write more picture books, I set about learning how to write them. My Best Friend was a gift from God. I wrote because I had no expectation that anyone other than my daughter would ever hear the story. Now I was supposed to do it again. Terrifying!

I hear stories in my head, rather than see them. I knew how picture books sound because I read endless picture books to my daughter. I absorbed their language and rhythm into my bones. I understood the "rules" for picture book writing. So I wrote picture books...ten of them over two years.

They were all awful. So awful I never even printed them off.

You can have a million ideas...but how do you know which ones are worth writing? What makes one book good and another least favorite adjective..."slight" I didn't know. I still don't. All I could do was write what I wanted in the moment, put it away and look at it again in a couple of months.

It took two years and another crisis with my daughter, before I came up with First Grade Stinks! Two years to find a "story seed" that truly had potential. Then came another year of writing and rejecting stories that came from that seed. Thank goodness for good writing friends who can read objectively and make suggestions. They wouldn't let me give up, no matter how many times I chased the story "into the weeds."

If you are reading this post, hoping to find the magic formula for picture book writing...surprise! I don't possess it. I am still chasing story seeds that float away like dandelion fluff. I am still writing "slight" books that never make it to manuscript status.

The real "leap" was in allowing my self to jump into the deeper water of picture book writing, while only sort of knowing how to do it. Swimming the length of a pool and back takes me a long time. Sometimes I have to tread water to catch my breath. But allowing myself to do something in my own clumsy, klutzy way, without expecting to look confidant and coordinated...that's a leap! I've learned to feel the same way about picture book writing. Coordinated or klutzy, automatic or trial-and-error writing...both can end in the same result, something that children want to hear over and over.

It's worth the effort!

Posted by Mary Ann Rodman

Friday, February 21, 2020

Taking Leaps in Historical Fiction

Sebel's gravestone in Patterson, NY

As we begin our new series in “taking leaps,” I’m focusing on the leaps that historical fiction needs to take in order to be a complete story. I’ve discussed elsewhere how challenging a task it can be. Historical fiction is the coming together of two opposing elements: fact and fiction. The controversy is grounded in conveying the ‘truth’ of history. Other popular genres have distinct rules that govern basic premises. Dystopian fiction, for example, features a futuristic universe in which the illusion of a perfect society is maintained through corporate, technologic, or totalitarian control. Using an exaggerate worse-case scenario, the dystopian story becomes a commentary about social norms and trends.

But nothing about history is obvious and facts are often open to interpretation. Once upon a time, it was considered fact that blood-letting was the proper way of treating disease. It was considered a fact that women were emotionally and physically incapable of rational thought. It was illegal for women to be soldiers and to vote. In 1492, Christopher Columbus sailed the ocean blue, but he didn’t discover America. In fact, some would say he was less an explorer and more of a conqueror. History tends to be written by those who survived it. As such, no history is without its bias. The meaning of history, just as it is for the novel, lays “not in the chain of events themselves, but on the historian’s [and writer’s] interpretation of it,” as Jill Paton Walsh once noted.

So it is with my newest project, in which I explore the events surrounding Sybil Ludington’s midnight ride.

Listen, my children, and you shall hear
Of a lovely feminine Paul Revere
Who rode an equally famous ride
Through a different part of the countryside,
Where Sybil Ludington's name recalls
A ride as daring as that of Paul's.
--Berton Braley, Sybil Ludington’s Ride. Published in The Sunday Star: This Week's Magazine. Washington D.C. April 14, 1940. Sybil Ludington; The Call to Arms, by V.A. Dacquino. 2000, Purple Mountain Press.

The trouble is, not every historian believes that this event happened. There’s no reliable historical evidence that suggests Sybil made her midnight ride, according to one study in the New England Quarterly. Nor is this ride referenced in any contemporaneous writing of the era, nor in books about women’s contributions to the Revolutionary effort. Still, since her story first appeared in the 1880 History of New York City by Martha Lamb, Sybil has become an iconic figure. In the 1950s, as the decade was engulfed by Communist scares, Sybil became the symbol of a pro-American youth. She was the ahead-of-her-time feminist icon of the 1960s and 1970s. Sybil Ludington, the lone teenager riding for freedom, became the symbol of courage and individuality that is appealing to young readers.

But who was Sybil Ludington? That’s the million-dollar question.

Her father, Henry Ludington is quite the historical figure. He began his military career as a royalist. Eventually he became a Colonel for the continental army. He was an aide-de-camp to George Washington.  His good friend was John Jay, the founding father who was also instrumental in developing Washington’s spy network. Much of what is known about Sybil comes from Ludington's memoir, published by his grandchildren in 1907. We know, for example, Sybil is the eldest of 12. They lived on a relatively successful farm and gristmill in what is now Putnam County, New York, not far from the Connecticut border. Beyond that, there are many inconsistencies in her story. As a result,  I had to make lots of leaps in order to re-create her story.

For example, in a 1838 letter to her brother, she signs her name as Sebel. The census report of 1810 uses Sibel. The pension record she filed in 1837 refers to Cybal, which is then crossed out, and replaced with Sebal. Lamb, in her 1880 text, uses Sibyl. In 1907, the Connecticut Magazine called her Sibbel. Her gravestone in Patterson, NY, erected by her sisters, uses Sibbel.

For my story, I opted to use the name she signed herself: Sebel.

In order to understand her life, I had to explore the larger contexts of her story: as the daughter of a royal military officer, living on the (then) frontier, during the time of a profoundly changing political and social upheaval that ultimately led the revolutionary war. Some facts, such as dates of specific events and troop movements (and so on), are fixed points in time. Much of what happened has been glossed over, reduced to dates in a textbook. Other facts have been ignored. But history is more than dates. History is people, too. In the best of historical fiction, as with any story, a child becomes a hero who gains power over her situation, a theme that contemporary readers appreciate. In my story, The Young Rebels, Sebel's ride is only part of the story.

Many historical figures are attached to the story. Besides John Jay, the founding father who helped establish George Washington’s spy ring, Enoch Crosby was another family friend, and one of Washington’s first spies. Ichabod Prosser was a notorious Tory. I had to make leaps of imagination to develop these historical figures into fully realized characters.

Staying true to the times and the people, I did imagine discussions, often extrapolating from their own writings if I could find them. Lucky for me, John Jay and his cohorts are particularly long-winded about their ideas. Also, I didn’t want to oversimplify the contradictions of a war that focused on independence for some, but not for others. And here, the record is even more sparse. Women and the enslaved were not often included in revolutionary records. For this information, I read the records that explored the history of slavery in Connecticut and New England. I read Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia, the Slave Narrative Collection, and the poetry of Phillis Wheatley (1753-1784).

Some of my research.

“Historical fiction helps young readers develop a feeling for a living past, illustrating the continuity of life,” says Karen Cushman, the master writer of historical fiction. Historical fiction, “like all good history, demonstrates how history is made up of the decisions and actions of individuals and that the future will be made up of our decisions and actions.”

My interpretation of the famous unknown ride features two perspectives -- Sebel and her sister Rebby -- who struggled to make sense of these up-ending contradictions surrounding them. The plot weaves together the fates of these sisters, their friends, in a tapestry that reflects their humanity, heartache and heroism in a war that ultimately defined a nation.

It's still a work in progress.

-- Bobbi Miller

Friday, February 14, 2020

3 Poems: Revise, Change, Break the Rules!

Howdy, Campers, and Happy Poetry Friday! (see link at the end)

Before I forget, if you live near Los Angeles, author/illustrator Barney Saltzberg, author Alexis O'Neill and I are once again teaching our one day class at UCLA, Writing a Picture Book and Getting it Published on March 7, 2020.
This class is always a kick and a half.  I hope to see some of you there!

Today is TeachingAuthors final post on "Revisioning 20/20"...and, as usual, we're all looking at this through a different pair of glasses. Bobbi introduces the topic in a post called Unsinkable, Carmela's brings in author Shirin Shamsi for A Wednesday Writing Workout called Befriending the  Revision Monster,  Mary Ann's is Revision: Re-learning to See, Esther's is One Writer's Rx for Achieving 20/20 Vision in 2020!, Gwendolyn's is Revising My Writing Life, Carmela's is called Celebrating Post #1300 and Revision as Re-Seeing, and Esther brings us debut author Mary Sandford in A Wednesday Writing Workout called Seven Ways to Beat Writer's Block.

Today, for your listening pleasure, I will post three poems.

Please give a warm welcome to Poem #1, on REVISION (previously posted here in 2009):

by April Halprin Wayland

I push open
the heavy door.
I take out the cleaver, the machete,
the switchblade, the scalpel, the penknife,
the X-acto knife.

I plunge my arm into the oily black pile of drafts
and haul one out.
And though it screams a thousand deaths,
I stab it over and over and over with the cleaver,
hacking it in two.

Then I amputate.
I sever. I cut.
I carve.  I slice.
I mince words.

I take a breath and step back to admire my bloody work.
Then…I drop it back into the oily depths,
pack away the knives,
wipe the black spots off my desk
and leave.

I close the heavy door.
I will come back.
To do it all

Egad! That's a grim one. If my poems have been edited (that poem needs to be even shorter!), I've changed, too. Though it still scares the bejeebers out of me, I don't see revision as quite as grisly these days. My writing (my life) will never be perfect. 

And speaking of being scared, Poem #2, a poem about working with Play Doh, is about the fear of being edited. (For a nonfiction poem and my Play Doh related editing exercise, click here):

by April Halprin Wayland

I pinch a pink pig,
gash a green grape,
coil a coral curl,
roll a red rope,
bend a blue bow,
swerve a cyan swan,
then share what I make!

hey, don't change that!
No pig wears a hat!
No swan puts rouge on!
Oh, wait—that's a squid.
I like
what you did.

In proposing this topic, Carmela brought a thread of tweets from Debbie Ridpath Ohi to our attention. One says: “I'm a big believer in stepping out of one's comfort zone on a regular basis to avoid complacency & getting into a rut. I may fail spectacularly (& have) but picking myself up & persevering makes me stronger. If I succeed, my comfort zone's a wee bit bigger.”

Well!  That sounds good!  To me, getting out of a rut means breaking the rules! This year I am becoming aware of all the rules I lock into my life...and I'm ditching some of them.

photo by stevesphar from pixabay

And so we come to our final poem, Poem #3:

by April Halprin Wayland

She wants one of those adorable gardens
with straight mounds of earth labeled
carrots, radishes, peas.

She wishes her grandmother had made a video
explaining how, exactly, you're supposed to tamp down
all these leaves, sticks, clods, roots flat as a tabletop.

Who knows the garden rules?
What ifshe does it wrong?

drawings and poems © 2020 April Halprin Wayland. All rights reserved

posted with love and a little help from Eli (my dog), Penny and Gin (our son and soon-to-be-daughter-in-law's dogs), shown here:

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

WWW: Seven Ways to Beat Writer’s Block!

In my last post, I shared ways to achieve 20/20 vision in 2020. So I’m especially grateful today’s Wednesday Writing Workout allows me to look back – to the 90’s, when SCBWI-Illinois connected me to terrific writer and friend Mary Sandford, next consider the present – the celebration of Mary’s debut middle grade novel UNWANTED (Ambassador International, 2019), and finally, eye the future - a world with lots of Mary Sandford books on my shelf.

Both Mary and UNWANTED deserve the best and biggest of celebrations.  Mary truly kept her eye on the prize as she did everything she could to ready this particular story for readers.  Everything, as in: participate in long-standing Writers Groups; attend classes and conferences; learn from critiques; enter and win contests; connect with fellow SCBWI children’s book creators across the Chicago area, Illinois, the Midwest, Tennessee and now Hickory Creek, Texas (though I still consider her my Illinois kin.); and of course, read, write and revisereviserevise. Her writer’s antennae were and remain always on alert for learning opportunities. She’s published more than 50 articles and stories along the way.

Mary’s historical middle grade novel UNWANTED takes place in Chicago in 1958 and is inspired by true events – the unfortunate December 1 fire at Our Lady of the Angels parochial school that took the lives of 100 students. UNWANTED tells the story of Debbie Spencer who is like most twelve-year-old girls.  She loves her friends, loves to laugh, and she’s not afraid to pray.  Debbie is an average seventh grader…except she lives at an orphanage…even though she’s not an orphan.  Convinced her family is damaged beyond repair, Debbie longs for a new one.  And she’s going to find one.  When the Our Lady of the Angels fire tragically takes the lives of her roommate Noreen’s friends, Debbie puts aside her own desires to help her friend.  Things, it turns out, aren’t always what they seem and forgiveness is always the best choice.

Thank you, Mary, for sharing your novel, your writing smarts, insights and terrific self with our TeachingAuthors readers. Just about all of us are familiar with Writer’s Block.  I especially like #6 in your tips.

Good Luck Beating Writer’s Block!

Esther Hershenhorn

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .


I know it’s strange, but I’ve never struggled with writer’s block. So, it may seem like I’m the last person to write about how to avoid it. You may be thinking, “Write what you know.” How many times have we heard that? Or you may wonder, "How can I  have any idea about  something I can't possibly understand?" But I do understand. It’s just that my writing struggles were different. When I stared writing, my seven children were still young. So, I spent several years longing for time to write. I found myself creating paragraphs in my head about the things that filled up all my time. Paragraphs like this:

     Mary pulled the last shirt out of the dryer, folded it in the air and laid it on top of the stack for Terianne. Picking up four stacks of shirts, she checked on the kids who were making yet another tent  in the family room and headed upstairs. On her way through the kitchen she spotted Michael standing in front of the open refrigerator staring inside. “Aren’t you going to be late for work?” she asked.

And then, as usual, a real conversation kept me from finishing my mental paragraphs without any time at all to revise. And I really wanted to change that character’s name to Olivia or Cynthia or something more creative.

When my youngest, Jeff, started sleeping through the night and not waking up before six am, I started getting up at about five in the morning, so I could tiptoe downstairs and write for maybe an hour and a half before the craziness started. I even managed to write a few devotionals, children’s programs, and puppet performance scripts. But my children were always my priority. I loved playing with them and reading to them and just hanging out.

When Jeff started school, I had more time to spend on writing. That’s when I joined the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators and started to attend conferences and writing workshops. In the summer when my tribe grew older, I was the “good mom” who took her kids to the community pool every day because I discovered it was a great place to write and still respond to “Watch this, Mom!”

Now, the nest is empty, but all those years I spent focusing on my children filled my head with stories and taught me how to avoid writer’s block. So, here are my Seven Ways to Beat Writers Block.

1. Think. 
I imagine every writer does a lot of thinking before writing a new story. But I intentionally think about what I want to write and then I keep on thinking about what should happen next before I ever sit down at my computer. I think about what I want to write while I’m making breakfast or waiting in a check-out line at a store or walking on my treadmill or in my neighborhood. Even driving or commuting anywhere that takes more than five minutes is a great time to spend thinking and planning what to write next. My favorite time is when I can’t sleep. It might be when I first get in bed or maybe in the middle of the night when I wake up and can’t get back to sleep. I have learned, the hard way, to write a few notes on my phone so I won’t forget.

2. Reread what you wrote yesterday.
I confess I’ve never written the Lousy First Draft suggested by most successful writers and now that my first book is out I feel at least a little justified to admit it here. Every writer has a different process, right? Mine includes rereading and revising whatever I wrote the last time I sat down to write. Now that my life is my own most of the time, I’ve realized I am a very organized person. (I confess I like that my spices are in order alphabetically. Come on, it doesn’t take much time to keep them that way and it makes cooking much faster.) For me revision is just organizing what I’ve written. And I like to do it. Plus, it gets me completely back into my story making it easy to continue creating it.

3. Stop with a cliff hanger.

Here’s an excerpt from Unwanted:

     Noreen buried her face in her brother's chest, a fresh wave of sobs engulfing them both.
     “Shhh . . . ” I tried to quiet her. It was a small miracle that we’d made it all the way to the infirmary without anyone seeing us.
     Silently, I thanked God for the miracle and begged to know what to do next.
     That's when the door swung open. 

That’s a perfect place to stop writing. I know exactly what to write next – Patricia Olsen stepped into the infirmary – and what she says and what she does. Sometimes I stop in the middle of a scene. That’s usually because my phone reminds me I have an appointment I’ve forgotten. While I’m driving to my appointment I’m using technique number one.

4. Stop writing mid-sentence or mid-paragraph.
Like technique #3, this is easy to do when my writing time is interrupted, but sometimes I just make myself stop so I won’t struggle to start again. I know what’s coming next and just stop writing before I put it on paper; if I think I might forget I put down a few words as a reminder. This isn’t something I do often, but sometimes I know I need to stop. I know I haven’t done enough thinking to get much farther.

5. Read books in your genre.
This technique works great when I’ve used #4 or before I sit down to write when I’ll have several hours of uninterrupted time. Good writers are great readers, right? I usually read at least two or three middle grade books every week. Reading good books in your genre is a great way to improve your craft. I love reading middle grade, so it works for me. I always say I’m working when I’m reading and it makes me laugh. I have a wonderful “job.”

6. Work on something related to your Work-in-Progress.
When I know I am not ready to work on my manuscript, working on my synopsis or a query letter helps me see my story in different way. The concise format can trigger ideas of where to go with the story next. I might realize the need for a scene earlier in the story to make my reader keep reading or begin to wonder about something I plan to add later.

7. Keep your (saved) document on your desktop.
I’ll admit: sometimes my computer desktop is so full of documents and photos or whatever, I might not even notice my Work-in-Progress. But I know it’s there. When I’m reminded about my WIP, I remember technique #1 and I’m thinking about what I want to write next and so it goes.

I personally don’t struggle with Writer’s Block, but maybe using some of these techniques will help those of you who do to stop struggling and BIC -get your butt in your chair and write.

Friday, February 7, 2020

Celebrating Post #1300 and Revision as Re-Seeing

Before I share my thoughts on our current TeachingAuthors' theme, I want to note that this is post #1300 for our blog!

Wow! Who would have thought we'd be at this for 10+ years?! I hope all of our readers, whether newcomers or long-standing, are still finding this blog helpful. I'd LOVE if you'd share your thoughts and suggestions in the comments or email us at teachingauthors [at] gmail dot com.

Personally, I really appreciate what my fellow TeachingAuthors have shared so far on the theme of re-visioning the new year, 2020. Each post has left me with much to ponder and apply. I particularly love Gwendolyn's idea of taking a train ride (or simply "changing your environment") to gain a new perspective.

But Esther's chock-full post is the one I relate to most right now. In it, she talks of "RE-visioning" our work. That reminds me of something one of my first writing teachers, Sharon Darrow, said many years ago--that revision is about seeing with "fresh eyes,"  or what I call "re-seeing."

Image by chiplanay from Pixabay
 (Don't you love this image? It not only fits the theme, but it's SO perfect with Valentine's Day only 1 week away!)

In Esther's post, the suggestion that most hit home for me was to "look backward:"
"Return to your very first draft to take a second look at the story you were telling yourself. Then reread the subsequent drafts to see the choices you considered and the choices you made to tell that story to your intended readers."  
This is what I've been doing with my current work-in-progress (WIP), a project I started many years ago. My initial vision for it was as a series of poems. But after writing only 3-4 poems, I got cold feet. I thought the approach too unusual to be marketable. And, to be honest, I wasn't very confident in my abilities as a poet. So I switched to a more conventional approach. I've gone through many, many drafts of the straight prose version only to receive rejection after rejection. Some of the responses were encouraging, but they were rejections none the less.

Then an agent casually mentioned that the project needed a unique angle to set it apart. That's when I remembered my initial vision to write it as a series of poems. And that is the approach I'm working on now as I "press forward," as Esther says. I don't know if this will be the format that will finally sell, but for now I'm having lots of fun working on it. I'm currently experimenting with writing a poem in terza rima form. (If you're interested, you can read more about that in my latest Creativity Newsletter.)

Meanwhile, I want to remind you of a post I wrote back in 2010 that included a Wednesday Writing Workout to help you re-see a WIP in need of revision.

Don't forget to check out this week's Poetry Friday round-up hosted by former TeachingAuthor, Laura Purdie Salas.

Remember to always Write with Joy!