Saturday, July 31, 2010

Reading and Writing Yourself

I'm at the SCBWI (Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators) conference in Los Angeles. Not only is it a great chance to learn and reconnect with friends, there is a room downstairs full of books. I can't wait to have some time to go down and buy five or six - my reading for the rest of the summer. Some will be written by friends and some will be totally new to me. I'm excited. Some of the best advice I have for writers is to read. Read what you love and read what you'd like to write. Are they different? Is there a reason for that? Reading is the receptive language of writing. If you read, you will learn the rhythm of the language. You'll learn the structure of dialogue. Read enough and the sequences of dialogue, action, description, scene will begin to seem natural. It's a great place to start. Go to your library. Head to a bookstore. What are you reading? Seriously, post it here!

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Allowing Your Gifts and Dreams

OK, so this may take some time to swing around to the writing, but our writing really does reflect our own unique stories. We have to be willing to know ourselves and decide how much of that we will share. I generally stay away from religion and politics on my blog and Facebook although I have strong convictions about both. But today, to understand what I'm going to say, you have to come with me on my morning walk. This is something I love to do, once I get in the swing of it (I am now) and my big old black lab, Ralph, loves it too.

But this morning I was grumpy. I wasn't enjoying the birds or the horses or the sunrise. I was complaining to myself and reviewing the stuff I was annoyed with in my life. So I stopped and took a drink of water (thanks to a speaker's gift from Western Washington SCBWI - thanks for the water bottle guys), and wondered how to cut off all the negativity that was washing over me. I turned to the Lord's Prayer which I memorized when I was four. Then I did something new. Instead of reciting it, maybe over and over, I meditated on each line until it felt right. That exercise engulfed me and Ralph and we covered a lot of ground.What an amazing set of words.

So where's the writing, you ask? Coming, hold on. The line that took about 1/2 mile to get through was Thy kingdom come. I'm pretty familiar with the fact that God's will is not mine and that I need to be forgiven and that it would certainly be fine of me if I would forgive others. But, Thy kingdom come? That means I would like to live with peace and happiness. I would like to relax in a wonderful idyllic space. I would accept gifts beyond my imagination. I'm not sure exactly how to handle that. I'm a worker and a fighter. I'm an honest observer and a seeker of justice. Asking to experience God's kingdom? Hmmm.

Ralph and I kept walking. And then I realized that much of it is already here. In the gifts around me that others offer every day. In my own abilities. In the lack of pain in this moment. In my dreams. I knew I needed to let go of the complaints and the "debts" and accept new possibilities. This is part of God's kingdom that I can understand. So, writers, let's dream, let's be thankful for what we have and might do. Let's explore the possibility of the shared word.

Take a minute and write down two or three things you really dream of. They can be writing related, places you want to visit, changes in your life. Go ahead, write down your dreams. Now watch this video. I promise to make it all make sense.

So what do you think those miners dreamed? What would their idea of a divine space be? How would their dreams be different from yours? What if you could sit down with one of those miners, with one of their kids and talk about what you both want? What would you say? What would the miner's child say? What happens when we are too tired or hurt to dream? Does anyone believe in your dreams? Take a minute and sit quietly with your thoughts. Now write. Write about anything you think of. Don't be afraid to write what you are really feeling. Create a new character. Write about yourself. Just write. That is a gift. Accept it.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Losing My Mind, or Maybe Just My Thoughts

Yesterday I was walking my dog and I had the very best idea ever for this blog. And then I got inspired by the sun and the mountains, and the bachelors buttons and cotton tails and, well gee, I totally forgot it before I got home. I told myself I would remember it soon and then I could share my great idea with all of you. But I spent today doing all kinds of officy catch up things for a writers' group I belong to and the idea did not reappear. This is not what I planned. So, I have no stellar thoughts.

Ideas come from photos too. Take lots of them. Don't lose them. This is in the Sculpture Garden in Minneapolis. What does it make you think of? Any good ideas?

Here's the lesson - be sure to write down your ideas when they come to you. They can seem stupid later in the day or tomorrow. That's fine. You can always crumple up the paper and throw it away. But if you forget your ideas, they are gone. Some people like to keep a journal. Some blog their ideas. I know writers who have old fashioned file card boxes stuffed with notes for characters, settings, story ideas. Any one of these can be just what you need when you are developing a new story or stuck on an old one. So my suggestion today is that you start keeping your ideas. Get a notebook, or a card file, or a drawer, or a Word Document. Don't be shy. Write them down. Then they'll be there when you need them.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Cow Tipping and Other Story Starters

So a friend just wrote me an e-mail that said "writing tips" reminded her of cow tipping and that reminded me of a T-shirt I got for my 3 year old grandson from a trip to the Oklahoma Library Associations' Encyclomedia that said "Junior Cow Tipper, Oklahoma" or something like that. He totally loves it. I just had to get it for him. In fact, I try to get a little something for him when I travel. From Arkansas, he's getting a pig nose. Best I could do with my time and budget in the airport store and they didn't have a razorback T-shirt that would fit him. Don't tell, the nose is still in my closet.

So this brings me to a story idea. A kid with a collection of crazy stuff his grandma brings him. How old is he? Maybe ten or twelve. Old enough to have memories and maybe not to use the junk so often any more. What does he do with the stuff? What is his conflict? Has grandma died? Is mom demanding he junk this stuff? Does it have magical powers? I have no idea, but this is how I might start a story or develop a character. What can you do with this collection of information and questions? Oh, and that's the photo of the cows from my hotel room in Wisconsin - go back a few entries if you missed that story. Happy writing.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

That Crazy Bear Loves Fruit Loops

So about two years ago I was able to watch a black bear, who had been hanging around some houses, be trapped and tagged. It was an amazing experience and I used a lot of that information in my work in progress (WIP), Face Off. What I didn't do was touch the bear. The people who were tagging him were working and I felt lucky just to be there to observe. I wasn't going to ask if I could pet the tranquilized, 200 pound bear.

Then, last week, when we were in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, we found a brochure for the Oswald Bear Ranch. They rescue bear cubs from all over the country and currently are the permanent home for about 42 bears. In order to support that (and maybe themselves) they charge a small admission, sell souveneirs, and for $5 you can have your picture taken with one of the youngest cubs. I couldn't resist. Off to Oswald's we went. You can watch me and some of my family in this video. That's my son feeding the bear Fruit Loops. Now the nature lover part of me says this is exploitation of the bears and definitely not the healthiest of treats. But the practical part of me says that if the cub eats fruit loops for three months (until he's too big to pet) that will go a long way toward paying for his future keep. The older bears eat apples.

And, aaah, and the writer part - now I know how a brown bear feels. THAT will be in a book. And the little guy was so cute.

Try this: Write down three adjectives you think describe the bear. Now write five words about what you think he was feeling, tasting, smelling etc. Next, write a paragraph - five or six sentences - about this scene from the bear's point of view. If he could talk, what would he say? What would he like more than anything? Re-read your paragraph. Does it give you an idea for a story? Your idea doesn't have to be from the bear's point of view, although it can be. It might be totally different. Sometimes one experience (like watching a crazy bear video) triggers an entirely different idea. Our minds are wonderful things. Honor your ideas. Now go write!

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Computer Cat

I'll be uploading photos and videos and some writing challenges from the Midwest trip soon. There are a couple I'm really anxious to share. But today is catch up day. I've worked on the mentor program that Nevada SCBWI runs and on our new e-list system to communicate with our members. I've cut flowers and assessed our weeds (pulled only a very few, I'm afraid.) My cat is stretched out behind my computer key board. He's very happy. I am too. I'm completely in catch up mode.

And I'm so ready to get working on one of my current projects. What's in the pipeline? China's Daughters, a non-fiction book of short biographies of 17 (I think) Chinese women and how their lives illuminate their particular historic time will be published, probably in early 2011 - that's a guess - by Pacific View Press in San Francisco. It's done. YAY! Sierra Blue, the story of a teen aged girl who saves a race horse and couple of her friends along the way, is out on submission. Face Off, set in the Arctic is about a boy who, abandoned by his birth father, works through his anger on the ice hockey rink and on the sea ice when he faces a rogue polar bear. That one is in the process. I'm holding myself back from starting another project - too many voices to keep in my head - but am anxious to get to writing regularly again soon.

Here's a tip from my process - and every writer's process is different. When I have an idea for a book - a setting and some sense of the plot - then I spend quite a while exploring my characters. I may write 20 pages about my main character, maybe 50 pages, before I start my first chapter. I want to know that person very well. I want to think like he or she does and know how she sounds.

Try this exercise: Choose two people who talk differently - say your best friend and your grandfather. Maybe those two people grew up in different places, or maybe you have a friend who is always trying out the latest cool words and phrases. Imagine a scene - make it dramatic - maybe an auto accident of the last minute of a football game and the home team fumbles the ball. Write it out twice - the way each of your people would describe it. Their words should be different, maybe their reactions are different, even though they are talking about the exact same thing. This is the basis of voice and point of view. If you don't get how this works the first time, try again. Writing well takes practice and it's ok if your first pages aren't very good. Professional writers almost always start with lousy paragraphs and make them better. That's the key.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Snippets for Stories

So at my presentation I spoke of how we authors (or at least this author) piece together bits of reality, both physical and emotional, to create our fiction. We finished the talk and tornado sirens went off. The whole group tromped down several flights of stairs to the Loft basement where I signed books and the organizers served the cake that they had carried downstairs with them. I thought of the old brick building above us and hoped that if a tornado hit it would be strong enough to lift the bricks up and away and not just dump them in on top of us. After a prudent wait, we all went back upstairs where the signing continued as though nothing had happened. Welcome to the midwest, Dorothy.

Signing books during the tornado warning!

Afterwards a few of us donned garbage bag ponchos (no kidding guys - that mountain training is useful) and ran half a block through the rain to a little club to visit. Wonderful talk and soaked pants and shoes, dry from the waist up, thanks to the silly plastic bags. I've never seen that much rain fall from the sky. All of this, will one day, end up in a book. You can look for it. Cheers for now from Minneapolis.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Writer's Life

In Minneapolis today. Meeting a friend for lunch. He helped me greatly in writing my book The Ojibwe (Heinemann 2003) and has remained a friend. It is one of the great perks of being a writer. Then dinner with the people from the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis and author Gary Schmidt (Wednesday Wars, Trouble etc.) Hopefully I'll make new friends. Then a presentation with Gary at the Loft Center. I've been looking forward to this for a while. And I'll get to see a little of Minneapolis. I have to say though, that I'm really looking forward to my days at home. . .

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

A Sense of Place

So my father told me stories about growing up in far northern Wisconsin and I wrote that novel from his descriptions. When I got here, there was little that I didn't already know. The only thing I added to the novel was the look of the eastern white pine trees. Nothing prepares you for those spreading arms if you are from the West. Two thoughts here: Listen when people tell you stories. You not only learn about them, but you will know things beyond your own experience. These pieces of truth you can tuck into your own stories like calico into a quilt. Second, pay attention to details. The small things about a place make a story sing. If I have someone walking on Grant Avenue in San Francisco, I should know the view they will see, or the smells they will smell, or the difference between Grant and Stockton Street. At least if I want to impress a San Franciscan - and if I write about their town I should. For a great YA read that takes place in San Francisco read Cory Doctorow's Little Brother.

Now, think about how you would get that kind of detail if you haven't been to a place. There are ways to do it. And for an exercize, try this. Think of a spot you know well - your backyard or the block your school is on, maybe a favorite camping place or your grandmother's kitchen. Write down everything you remember about it. Are they mostly things you see? What do you hear? Smell? Touch? Now pick a sound or smell from that place and write about how it makes you feel. This is the beginning of giving your story a sense of place. It may even give you an idea for your writing.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

It's Tuesday and I'm on the south shore of Lake Superior where my father grew up. I saw my grandmother's grave and I didn't have any particular feeling after all that looking - the nice lady in Wisconsin had sent a picture so that surprise was over. I left flowers, and it started to drip rain. Just then I thought of the scene in the novel that I had written, with John Wesley Morgan (my character) watching his mother be buried. It was a very different place that I'd imaginined than the one I was standing in. But suddenly I felt my father, six years old, in the same real place that I was, watching his real mother be buried. I thought of my six year old father and that loss and I cried. Stories connect us to our past and to what our future can be. They are so very powerful. You have your own stories.

I've uploaded a video of me at Grandma Jensen/Morgan's grave. I'm not a movie star. This will be the first of I hope many videos to help you think about stories. And teachers, I thought about starting this in the fall, but so many of you teach year round I'm just picking up now, where I am. I hope the rest of you will read the blog from the beginning and find some prompts and questions that will help you.

So, after watching the video, think about the grave stone. Why do people make gravestones? What kinds of things do people write on them? Imagine a story with a character who has lost someone. It can be a dog, a relative, an enemy. What would they write on the gravestone? What does this say about them? About the person or pet who has died? Now make a list of what the person/pet was like when it was alive. Try writing a scene between your character and the one who died. What happens, what do they say? Does this give you an idea for a story? If you try this, let me know - post a comment. Til next time. . .

Sunday, July 11, 2010

There's a Cow in My Bedroom and Other Changes

I'm in a motel in Wisconsin on my way to what is my first, almost vacation only travel in a few years. After being in the room for a couple of hours last night I looked up and there is a huge photo of two cows hanging above the desk. How did I miss that for two whole hours? They are very cute.

So that's the way I sometimes feel about ideas and stories. The most obvious things can be right in front of you and you never notice.Forty eight hours ago I was in Arkansas and a very savvy reading professor, Ken Stamatis, asked about my blog. I told him I had one but that lately (or mostly) I'm a very bad blogger. Bad blogger (slaps hand). I hadn't blogged for months. He pretty much made me promise to start up again, and here's where the cows come in, promise. He directed me toward a new audience - student readers and writers. Cows in my bedroom. No, I'm not saying students or teachers are cows, but that as a former teacher and professional writer, I hadn't thought of blogging for you. Now I am. So to my friends and professional writer friends, come along. Comment all you want. We are going to share tips, and daily insight (or not - ahem) and just what I'm doing to work on books and career with readers and writers. We are going to start a discussion on our own unique experiences and the stories they produce.

So today, my husband and I are driving to the Upper Penninsula of Michigan. My sister is excited because that's where Ernest Hemmingway spent many summers. I'm excited to meet up with our son. And today, after years of searching for it, we are going to visit my grandmother's grave. She died when my father was six and he had few memories of her. Only her name really. My grandfather, her husband suffered from dementia by the time I was old enough to remember him. I got no information from him. So after years of looking in old records and crawling around a few cemetaries in Wisconsin five years ago, last Tuesday I got an e-mail from a lovely woman in Oneida County with the location of the grave. Today, I'm taking flowers. I'm pretty sure no one has visited in at least thirty years - maybe in almost a hundred. What does this have to do with readers and writers?

The Point: My story ideas come from lots and lots of places, but the best ones are ideas that won't leave me alone - like finding some piece of this grandmother's life to hold onto. I've never seen a photo - they all burned in a fire a couple years after she died. With only her name, and this desire to know about her, I wrote a whole novel that started with the day she was buried (I didn't know where then) and I made the rest of it up. That novel isn't published but I hope someday a version of it will be. It's a story I love. It isn't true but it started with a little truth and an idea that I couldn't let go.

INVITATION: Teachers - if you are working on writing this year, why not have your class follow and comment on this blog? I'll try to include tips and ideas and a peek into the writers life and I'd love to hear from you and your class. Let the discussion begin!!