Friday, May 29, 2020

Keeping Calm and Writing On

First, a reminder that today, May 29th,  is the last day to enter to win an author-and-illustrator-autographed copy of Amy Alznauer's book, The Boy Who Dreamed of InfinityThe book has received starred reviews from Booklist, Kirkus and Publishers Weekly! Go to Esther's post and scroll to the end for directions on how to enter.

As April reminded us, Teaching Authors  posts Writing Workouts on Wednesdays, but we figure everyone is blurry-eyed and zoomhausted. Some of you may be desperately looking for a ready-to-go writing exercise for yourself, your kids or your classroom, offering GRAB 'N GO WRITING EXERCISES. 

But I’m still too blurry-eyed. Try as I might, I’ve been having a hard time getting into the mood myself. It’s hard to settle my thoughts, and keep my butt in chair, to concentrate on my writing. You know what I mean.

So, I did the next best thing. I’ve long sang the praises of my favorite workshops offered by my honored friend, the Gandalf-esque Harold Underdown (in partnership with another master-editor, Eileen Robinson), including their KBR Webinars and Workshops.  I’m currently taking their Graduate Novel Revision Workshop. Their exercises and discussions, now more than ever, keep my head in the game.

And this week, I indulged in taking another webinar, this one hosted by Writing Blueprints, a creation of Children's Book Insider. 

This class, it turns out, was exactly what I needed at this very moment. HOW TO GRAB & HOLD THE ATTENTION OF AN AGENT OR EDITOR, a webinar by the indomitable, legendary editor Emma D. Dryden, owner of drydenbks. Everyone knows about her thirty-year career in publishing, working with Margaret K. McElderry, becoming Vice President/Editorial Director then Vice President/ Publisher of Atheneum Books for Young Readers and Margaret K. McElderry Books, imprints of Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing. She brings all of that experience to each and every one of her workshops.

I was a longtime admirer (who isn't?) of Emma before I became her client some years ago. As her client, I called her Dumbledore, because she always said what I needed to hear at the moment I needed to hear it. I didn’t always want to hear it, true enough, but in listening to her wisdoms, I became a much better writer, and much better informed in navigating the business of writing. And now, I am privileged to call her a friend.

 This webinar is available as a recording, and includes the best handouts ever! While the focus is on YA and younger audiences, the information is applicable to every genre, and to every writer. Eleven handouts filled with resources and exercises will keep your head in the game, too.

I include this little exercise from the workshop, in which Emma helped us to clarify the important elements of our story -- the heart of the story --  in preparation for writing our agent query. We filled in the blanks using only a couple of sentences: 

  1. My manuscript is about (external plot):
  2. Underneath that, my manuscript is really about (internal plot):
  3. I have to write this story because:

"Words are, in my not-so-humble opinion, our most inexhaustible source of magic." says Dumbledore, in J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.

So, how do you find your magical words?

“Keep going,” says Emma D. Dryden.

Keeping calm and writing on. Safe journeys!

--Bobbi Miller

Friday, May 22, 2020

A New Poetry Form ~ IN ONE WORD

Howdy, Campers ~ Happy Poetry Friday! (my poems and the link to today's host are below)

But first: May 29th is the last day to enter to win an author-and-illustrator-autographed copy of Amy Alznauer's book, THE BOY WHO DREAMED OF INFINITY, which has gotten starred reviews from Booklist, Kirkus and Publishers Weekly! Go to Esther's post and scroll to the end for directions on how to enter.

We TeachingAuthors generally post Writing Workouts on Wednesdays, but we figure you're blurry-eyed and zoomhausted. Some of you may be desperately looking for a ready-to-go writing exercise for yourself, your kids or your classroom.

Or, you've had two cups of strong coffee, read the whole newspaper including the real estate ads, weeded your entire yard, vacuumed, run 10 miles, made two loaves of sourdough, finished the 1000-piece puzzle and are now looking for something fun to do.

Either way, this round we're offering you GRAB 'N GO WRITING EXERCISES

And today, we're going to learn a new poetry form.

drawing (c) 2020 April Halprin Wayland all rights reserved
Or maybe it's a form I hadn't heard of if you're familiar with it, I'm all ears!

First I'll show you my poem, using this form, then I'll tell you its backstory.

The poem:

by April Halprin Wayland
"I feel we've been duped,"
he began, "our world's been upended,
you crept
into our lives so deep
we must prune
you, denude
you. And though we've been reduced,
we have also endured.
But I can no longer pretend.
This is unprecedented."

poem © 2020 April Halprin Wayland. All rights reserved

The backstory:

The word UNPRECEDENTED is in almost every sentence of every answer, every op-ed, every comment, every excuse right now. And frankly, I'm freaking tired of it.

And in the poem above, every word at the end of each line can be found in the word unprecedented.

The site Wordmaker finds all the words hidden within a longer word. It found 321 words in Unprecedented. 321! Of those, I choose 31 one to play with. And of the 31, I used 10 in the final poem.

How to write an IN ONE WORD poem:
1) Think of a word. Any word--one you've always loved, one that enrages you, that peaks your interest, or speaks to you.
2) Look it up in Wordmaker (to make it more challenging, don't look it up...find the words yourself)
3) Choose some words on that list...then use or toss them, one by one.
4) Write the poem as prose--in one paragraph.
5) Break the paragraph up into a poem so that each line ends with one of the words from your list.
6) NOTE: in 2021 I began to break rule #5 in one of two ways:
a) These days, the lines of my IN ONE WORD poems do NOT end with the words from my list. I bury the words within the poem so it makes more sense and reads better.
b) OR: I simply scoop up a bucket of words from those within my word. Not more than 20, usually less. I let myself play with those words any way I want to, in any order. SO MUCH FUN!

Okay, here's one's today's very rough draft:
POEM-MAKING (title is from the book of the same name by Myra Cohn Livingston)
by April Halprin Wayland
It's a kind of art—
lit by air
and light. Kept in a vault,

it can only chase it's own tail.
So blow on it, gently—this is vital.
It's yours; invent your own ritual.

poem © 2020 April Halprin Wayland. All rights reserved==========================

The backstory:

For this poem, I choose another word that's used so often it's driving me bonkers: VIRTUAL.

Below are the 18 words I decided to play with from the 65 words offered by Wordmaker.
I used the six that I've crossed out: 
it, lit, air, art, rut, rail, tail, liar, vial, vail, rival, trial, vault, viral, vital, trail, ultra, ritual

One of the wonders of this form is that I can take a word that makes me sick and come up with a poem that's kind or glowing. 

I think I've invented a new poetry form! An IN ONE WORD poem.  What do you think?

update: Mary Lee, from the A Year of Reading blog, wrote a wonderful IN ONE WORD poem to "do the internal work of anti-racism"...and here it is...WOW
drawing (c) 2020 April Halprin Wayland all rights reserved

It sure is fun to play with. Try it!  And if you're feeling brave, share it with us!
Thank you, Carol, for hosting Poetry Friday today at Beyond Literary!

posted by April Halprin Wayland with a hug she wishes weren't virtual or unprecedented
drawing (c) 2020 April Halprin Wayland all rights reserved

Friday, May 15, 2020

A Mentee Success Story – PLUS – Book Giveaway!

after waiting almost five whole years,
I can officially introduce our TeachingAuthors readers to debut children’s book author Amy Alznauer!
She’s a Mentee Success Story if ever there was one.
And, one lucky reader gets to win a copy of Amy’s first published book, THE BOY WHO DREAMED OF INFINITY: A TALE OF THE GENIUS RAMANUJAN (Candlewick), beautifully illustrated by Daniel Miyares, just by entering our Book Giveaway at the end of Amy’s interview.

I’d briefly mentioned in my recent Silver Linings post how lucky I was in 2015 when my SCBWI-Illinois Chapter gifted me with the opportunity to mentor a “picture book writer ready to cross the publishing threshold” via the Laura Crawford Memorial Mentorship. Amy’s Artist Statement and draft of her Ramanujan biography proved she more than met the bill. And little surprise.  It took but one lunch meet-up for both Amy and Ramanujan to claim my heart.  As the South Indian mathematician Ramanujan was destined to share his genius with the world, Amy was destined to tell his story to children.

Amy lives in Chicago with her husband, two children, a dog, a parakeet, sometimes chicks, and a part-time fish, but, as of today, no elephants or peacocks. (She advises we check back.) Her writing has won the Annie Dillard Award for Creative Nonfiction as well as the Christopher Award for LOVE AND SALT (Loyola Press, 2013). Her essays and poetry have appeared in collections and literary journals including The Bellingham Review, Creative Nonfiction and River Teeth. She has an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from the University of Pittsburgh. She teaches calculus and number theory classes at Northwestern University. She is the managing editor for SCBWI-Illinois’ online newsletter. And, if that weren’t enough, she serves as the writer-in-residence at St. Gregory the Great, where she has a little office in a big building with a bad internet connection, so she actually gets some work done – in theory, she adds.

Everything about Amy shines.  There’s her writing, of course. There’s her expertise on a whole host of subjects. And in everything she tackles, personally and professionally, and always passionately, she commits herself to excellence. Her gratitude and generosity abound.

But see for yourself! In response to Covid-19’s challenging impact on her debut book’s promotion, Amy has keenly utilized social media to share key elements of her deeply personal connection to Ramanujan’s story, helpful insights into the mentorship process, her thoughts on creative nonfiction, especially the picture book biography, and how the author-illustrator relationship worked. Click on the links. Amy’s spirit is contagious.

Laura Crawford, whom Amy’s mentorship memorializes, shared a similar spirit. In one of Life’s delicious ironies, the very last picture book Laura had been working on had a mathematical theme, too.  So many facets of this mentorship gladden my heart.

Thank you, Amy, for so thoughtfully answering a few more questions not already addressed in the above referenced videos and interviews.
I remain infinitely thankful for all our mentorship process continues to bring us.
Both you and Ramanujan – finally and officially – now reside, not just in my heart, but in our Children’s Book World, too.

Esther Hershenhorn
Thanks to Jama’s Alphabet Soup for hosting today’s Poetry Friday
Be sure to enter our Book Giveaway at the end of Amy’s interview to win an author-and-illustrator-autographed copy of THE BOY WHO DREAMED OF INFINITY: A TALE OF THE GENIUS RAMANUJAN.

. . . . . . . .

You’ve waited five whole years since Candlewick’s purchase of your manuscript in the summer of 2015 for the debut of your very first published children’s book, the picture book biography THE BOY WHO DREAMED OF INFINITY: A TALE OF THE GENIUS RAMANUJAN. And you’ve been waiting since you were five to tell Ramanujan’s story to the world. How goes it? 😊 And how has Covid-19 forced you to tweak your publishing vision?
Remember: Ramanujan considered the big – and – the small.

Yes, this book has been a long time in the making. I have a box full of hundreds of index cards, a collection of interviews on mini-cassette tapes (yes, my research stretches all the way back to the analog age), and travel journals. But even much earlier, ever since my father found Ramanujan’s Lost Notebook when I was only five-years-old, this story has been a constant presence in my life.

I remember one funny incident in particular. It was my father’s birthday, and since my mother loves surprises, she designed a birthday hunt which ended in my sister’s bedroom, my father crawling on the carpet around to the hidden space under the back of her high bed, and finding there an oddly shaped object covered in a child’s printed quilt. He pulled off the unlikely drape to unveil an exquisitely carved bust of Ramanujan, brilliantly scowling in bronze.

So again, yes, this book has been percolating in my imagination for a very long time. And now, as you said, after that long lead-up, suddenly Covid-19.  But the shut-down has been so cataclysmic, so total, that it’s hard to take it personally. And on the positive side, I’ve found that there is a simultaneous intimacy and reach in virtual events that in-person events might never have achieved. I love seeing people in their homes. Conversation and presentations are necessarily less formal, with the tech snafus and invariable interruptions by children and pets. There is a pervasive sense of connection through hardship and gratitude for the chance to connect. And as the world reinvents itself, I find that instead of having a planned launch, I am making it up as I go, along with everyone else. There’s been a freedom in that I never could have anticipated.

When we first began working together, I shared E.B. White’s so-true words: “All writers are revisers.” Can you share a few insights you gleaned from working with your award-winning Candlewick editor Hilary Van Dusen to make this the best story it could be told the best way possible? Were there any surprises?

Well, before we get to Hilary, I want to back up and say that the most significant revision happened when I started working with you, when I put away all the old drafts and began with a blank page. This taught me that such a radial thing is in fact possible and can be transformative. In some sense I already had the story, the arc of it, the moments, but I didn’t have the voice or orientation. I was writing at a great distance from the central character and looking back from the vantage of history. I needed to move in close, where a reader could feel the joy and movement of the quest, and I needed the narrative gaze of the story to be forwards not backwards.

But then, Hilary was so attentive to the details and wanted every scene to be accurate and full. So, we combed over every page, filling out various moments. There were two surprises through this process. First, we ended up adding over 500 words, which seems quite counter to the advice given at conferences about keeping picture book word-count low. And we amplified the presence of divinity. Maybe this shouldn’t have surprised me, but I somehow imagined the publishing industry wanting to focus on the facts and the mathematics and to minimize something as subjective as felt religious experience. But Hilary wanted authenticity, and for Ramanujan mathematical inspiration came, he believed, through a goddess, who placed her thoughts on his tongue. To me it gives tangible, illustrated form to the most mysterious aspect of creativity: its source. And beautifully, we see mathematics coming not in a masculine form, as it’s so often depicted, but through the mind of a non-western female figure.

2020 marks the pub date of not one, not two, but three picture book biographies authored by Amy Alznauer!  Candlewick released THE BOY WHO KNEW OF INFINITY in April; Enchanted Lions publishes THE STRANGE BIRDS OF FLANNERY O’CONNOR: A LIFE in June; and in September, Candlewick releases FLYING PAINTINGS, THE ZHOU BROTHERS: A STORY OF REVOLUTION AND ART. Readers can link to your most glorious conversation with SLJ editor Betsy Bird about creative nonfiction, especially in children’s literature. What do you now know that you didn’t know in 2015 about this singular format – the picture book biography, and the kind of story it accommodates?

People approach picture book biographies, just like all forms of literature, in vastly different ways. But here is what I’ve come to know about my particular approach to this genre. For me there is a single, imaginative task at the core of a biography – and that is locating the child within the adult. Nobody springs fully formed into their adult, celebrated self. From the very beginning of every person’s life there are some questions that seem more pressing than others, some aspects of the world that shine more brightly and call out to be noticed. There’s a path that beckons, although it might only be clear in retrospect.

My job as a biographer is to imagine the child who will someday be the adult and forge a continuity between these two provinces of being. And even more it is to bring the reader into that younger self first, so they can imagine growing up with the child in the story.

There were two early questions written down in the family record that Ramanujan asked as a little boy. Who was the first man in the world? And, what is the distance between clouds? Why did these questions in particular catch his attention? To me, these questions about small and big have a continuity with the mathematics that will later captivate him. And Flannery as a girl had a passion for birds, especially strange chickens and other fowl. What was it about this fascination that played into and really became her literary imagination?

So, to begin writing I ask myself: how do I connect the boy’s questions with the man’s pursuits? How does the little girl obsessed with birds become the woman sitting a typewriter? Answering these questions will not only suggest plot but also metaphor, which will become the mechanism for forging that connection between child and adult.

One of our earliest conversations, and in my mind, one of our most important, focused on your personal connection to and passion for Ramanujan’s story – and – the important Universal Truths his story offers young readers.  In your Everywhere Bookfest presentation with the illustrator Daniel Miyares, you each addressed both those elements. What was it about the adult author Flannery O’Connor’s life story that grabbed your heart and demanded it be shared with children?  What was it about the internationally-renown Zhou Brothers that made you fall in love and write their story for young readers? What do you hope is the take-away of each of these picture books?

For Flannery I was first inspired by her essay King of the Birds, in which she details her early search to find the strangest, most beautiful bird. Her quest eventually culminated in her raising peafowl. But then when I visited the archives at Emory University and discovered stacks and stacks of her early drawings and stories about birds and people, I was all in. Her fierce, funny, dark imagination was in full bloom when she was five, ten, fifteen years old. To me her fascination with birds was a perfect metaphor for the types of strange and beautiful stories she would someday write. So, the plot, the metaphor, the woman within the girl were all there.

For the Zhou Brothers it was a single moment in a café that set me off. I was at the Zhou B Art Center for the first time, for one of their open-studio third Fridays, which they run throughout the year. I sat down to give my eyes and mind a break from taking in so much art and started leafing through their gorgeous catalogue. In an opening essay, the younger brother DaHuang talks about the nature of collaboration, and I’ll paraphrase: People think collaboration is about harmony, he said, but that’s wrong. It’s more like this. You make something beautiful and then someone comes along and destroys it, and you have to find a way to go on together. To me this seemed to be about everything all at once – about loving another person, a brother, about loving a nation even when it hurts you, about making art even in the face of oppression. So, I thought that if I could write a book that wove those three strands from childhood all the way through to their first adult achievement, I would have a powerful story about art, revolution, and love.

Finally, in the Artist’s Statement you submitted for the Laura Crawford Memorial Mentorship, you wrote: “I want to write not only about children, but for children.”  You did just that and instantly became a full-blooded, full-hearted member of the Children’s Book World, generously returning so much of your time and expertise to our SCBWI-Illinois Chapter. What do you think distinguishes our Children’s Book World from others?

To me it is a kinder, more creative, more expansive world than any other world of letters I’ve ever experienced. I wonder about this difference all the time. Why shouldn’t the children’s book world be just as competitive, back-biting, and petty as other circles of writers? It might have something to do with our readers being children. We are aware always that we are writing for young people and so also aware that our words and images matter. We are less likely to write to impress our peers when we know such sincere readers await. It might also have to do with the intrinsic collaborative nature of our art.  Our words are so often illustrated. Even in longer books, art often plays a significant role, not only on the covers but at chapter headings and throughout. So, we are in that collaborative position that DaHuang Zhou described. We always have to find a way to go on together.  That really is the position of all human beings with respect to one other and to the world at large, but often this reality is hidden from us. Maybe as children’s book writers, we feel it more viscerally in the level gaze of our readers and in the work we do with each other.

. . . . . . . .


To enter our drawing, use the Rafflecopter widget below.  You may enter via 1, 2, or all 3 options.  (Note: if the widget doesn’t appear, click on the link at the end of this post that says “a Rafflecopter giveaway” to enter.)

If you choose option 2, you MUST leave a comment on TODAY’S blog post or on our TeachingAuthors Facebook page.  If you haven’t already “liked” our Facebook page, please do so today!

If you prefer, you may submit your comment via email to: teachingauthors [at] gmail [dot] com.

Note: if you submit your comments via email or Facebook, YOU MUST STILL ENTER THE DRAWING VIA RAFFLECOPTER BELOW.  The giveaway ends May 29, 2020, and is open to U.S. residents only.

If you’ve never entered a Rafflecopter giveaway, here’s info on how to enter a Rafflecopter giveaway and the difference between signing in with Facebook vs. with an email address.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Friday, May 8, 2020

3 Aids for Creativity in the Time of the Coronavirus

Today, I'm wrapping up our series on "Creativity in the Time of the Coronavirus." As April mentioned in her post, the topic is a take-off on the title, Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez, which neither she nor I have read. We just like the title.

April also shared that the inspiration for this series came from a Tweet thread posted by Cynthia Leitich Smith back in March. (The link April shared didn't work for some reason, but I think this one does.) Cynthia also posted the following graphic on her Facebook author page summarizing the Tweet thread. (If you can't read the following, April typed up the Tweets in her post.)

I love how Cynthia's post acknowledges that individual writers and illustrators (and really, creatives of any kind) can respond so differently to the same situation. One thing I've learned in my many years of teaching and writing is that no one way is right for everyone. While some writers work best by having a regular, daily writing time, others feel that creates too much pressure. Some writers thrive when they set word-count goals while others despise them. Similarly, we each have our own way of dealing with the stress of the coronavirus pandemic.

One of my goals for this group blog has been for the six TeachingAuthors to share our own unique approaches to being teachers and writers, even if those approaches are wildly different. For this series, Bobbi kicked us off by discussing examples of writers, illustrators, and storytellers who have been sharing their art and become "candles of light amid the dark night." In her post, Mary Ann confessed to being stalled in her writing and shared some of the books and articles helping her to be okay with that. April admitted that she finds the shower of online resources tiring. Her coping mechanism is to continue her habit of writing one poem a day, and she shared a powerful poem in her post (along with a video of a newborn pond turtle 😍). Esther's indomitable spirit shines through in her post on how "Unexpected Kodak Moments" (and her favorite ice cream) are helping her get through this crisis. Gwendolyn extolled the soothing quality of jazz and shared that "Just giving myself permission to write without worrying about the result makes me feel extra creative."

My fellow TeachingAuthors have already provided so many marvelous tips and resources. And yet, I still have something to add--I'd like to share the three things that are most helping my creativity during this time.

1) Nature
     As I mentioned in my last TeachingAuthors' post, walking outside gives me a mental health boost, especially now. I've been taking regular walks around the neighborhood (practicing social distancing when I encounter anyone). I find paying attention to all the changing signs of spring--sights, sounds, and smells--very uplifting.

I encountered this just-starting-to-bloom lilac on a recent walk
      On days when the weather keeps me indoors, I sometimes go online for my nature fix, checking out the latest videos or photos on the Morton Arboretum Instagram account or the Illinois Birding Network Facebook group. (I never knew Illinois had so many bird varieties!)

2) My critique group deadlines
     The critique group I'd participated in for many, many years disbanded some time ago after several members moved out of state and others simply stopped writing. I missed the group, but not the problem of having to fit those meetings into an already meeting-filled schedule. But in January of this year, I was fortunate to connect with a group that critiques each other virtually, via email, twice a month. Having that regular deadline has really helped me stay on task, especially since the shelter-at-home order. I know deadlines don't help everyone, but they're terrific motivators for people like me who are what Gretchen Rubin calls "Obligers." In her bestselling book, The Four Tendencies (Harmony), Rubin describes how Obligers need outer accountability to meet their own expectations. (If you're interested, check out her website for more info and take a quiz to find out your own tendency.) During this crisis, I've felt too distracted to do much reading, even for pleasure. But thanks to my regular critique group deadlines, I've been making slow and steady progress on my work-in-process. 
3) Jigsaw puzzles 
     Even before the pandemic started, I'd been thinking about pulling out some old jigsaw puzzles stored in our basement. Inspired by social media posts of others doing jigsaw puzzles, I finally did so. When the news gets overwhelming, working on the puzzle really calms me.

I hope this TeachingAuthors' series has brought comfort and inspiration to you, our readers. I'd like to end with Cynthia Leitich Smith's words:
You take care. Wash your hands. Do what you need
to do. Really, it’s okay.
Posted by Carmela

Friday, May 1, 2020

Where Is My Creative Mind?

I keep telling myself, “Come on Gwendolyn. Show your creative side. Rewrite that last paragraph. Show some pizazz!  Pizazz? I let out a deep breath. My pizazz floats away disappearing in the warm April breeze along with any cool thoughts I might have had about my current work-in-progress.

I keep watching the news for updates. I think about my writing project. I watch the news. I think about my project.

What now? I need to finish this project. The deadline is somersaulting toward me with no brakes in sight.

I don’t turn off my TV. Instead, I tune in my favorite music station. It plays jazz music all day and all night. No voices. No commercials. Just soothing jazz. I get some of my best ideas while listening to jazz.

I talk to my writer friends who are extremely generous during regular times and even more so now with COVID-19 AND lockdowns on our minds.  We read each other’s work, offer comments that are on point. You ask yourself, “Why didn’t I think of that?” They bring out more of my creative self.
Pull out a manuscript in your “Not Quite Ready” file. With a new perspective, you may be able to zero in on what could turn it into a sale. Relax. Take deep breaths. Close your eyes and type or write with your favorite pen. Don’t judge your work. Don’t even read it. Just keep going. As I write this, I’m thinking to myself, “Gwendolyn, you need to follow your own advice.”

While Hubby fishes, I write  by the calming
waters of  Lake Draper in Oklahoma City.
I am one of those who stops typing more often than I should and reread, delete and add as I write. Maybe it is time I follow my own advice. After all, it seems as if I’ll have plenty of time for revisions. WOW! Just giving myself permission to write without worrying about the result makes me feel extra creative. Maybe I’ll try a different point of view. There is an old manuscript I want to bring to life.

Is there an idea or character you visit from time to time, but never seriously follow through with your plans for it? Then maybe this is your moment. You won’t know until you explore it fully.

Fill your computer screen with stories only you can write. Your creative mind is within you. Use it. I promise to do the same.

Posted by Gwendolyn Hooks