Friday, December 31, 2010

Poetry Friday - Poetic Prophecies

Tomorrow is New Year’s day, and what would the new year be without New Year’s predictions? Business analysts will predict the rise or fall of the stock market and the economy. Nutrition gurus will give us the skinny on the miracle foods of the coming year. Psychics will prognosticate on the futures of celebrities, and astrologers will turn to the stars for a peek at the future. And let’s not forget the Mayanists who will be telling us that no matter what the predictors predict, none of it will matter because we’re all going to die in 2012 anyway.

Prophets have been around since Biblical times, and one I've found pretty interesting is Mother Shipton, not particularly for her prophecies, but because her story is such an interesting one. She lived during the reign of Henry VII and was supposedly born in a cave in England, the daughter of a good English woman, and the devil. She was born grossly misshapen with an enormously large crooked nose, a hunched back, and one leg longer than the other. But she was good and kind and went out of her way to help people, especially with her predictions.

It's said she predicted the downfall of Cardinal Wolsey, the end of the Catholic Church in England, and her own death, and made predictions for several monarchs and a pope. She was so well known, they even named a moth after her.

Below are a few of her predictions first published in 1641, eighty years after her death. Make of them what you will.

Carriages without horses shall go,
And accidents fill the world with woe.
Around the world thoughts shall fly
In the twinkling of an eye.
The world upside down shall be
And gold be found at the root of a tree.
Through hills man shall ride,
And no horse be at his side.
Under water men shall walk,
Shall ride, shall sleep, shall talk.
In the air men shall be seen,
In white, in black, in green;
Iron in the water shall float,
As easily as a wooden boat.
Gold shall be found and shown
In a land that's now not known.
Fire and water shall wonders do,
England shall at last admit a foe.
The world to an end shall come,
In eighteen hundred and eighty one."

She obviously got that last bit wrong, buy hey, nobody's perfect.

My New Year's prediction for you is that you will head on over to Carol's Corner and enjoy a plethora of poetry.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Women of Wednesday - Virginia O'Hanlon

The story of Virginia O’Hanlon, I think, is the closest thing we have in America to an original fairy tale, and yet, the story is true. If you think her name sounds familiar but can’t place her, it may be because you always knew her as a child. Virginia O’Hanlon was the little girl who wrote to the New York Sun in 1897, asking if there was a Santa Claus.

Virginia was born at the end of the 19th century on July 20, 1889. She lived in Manhattan, on the Upper West Side. When she was eight years old, she encountered a problem most American kids still face today. She was told there was no Santa Claus.

Virginia was shocked. No Santa Claus? How could that be? Didn’t Santa bring her presents every Christmas? She rushed home to ask her father. Mr. O’Hanlon, being a doctor and a very practical man, told her to write to the New York Sun and ask them. The Sun was one of New York’s most conservative newspapers, and if it was in the Sun, he said, then it had to be so.

So Virginia wrote her letter, but the Sun did not reply. Not right away. Virginia’s question was not the kind they liked to answer. They preferred questions that could be looked up in books or answered with a bit of wit. Virginia’s question was a question of the heart, a question of faith. It was passed along to the Editorial Department, to Francis Pharcellus Church, the underachieving brother of the overachieving William Conant Church, publisher of the Sun, as well as a founding member of the NRA and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, to mention just a few of his achievements.

Now, it wasn’t really that Francis was an underachiever. He was a war correspondent and had helped his brother in two other publishing ventures before the New York Sun. But in this world there are doers and there are thinkers, and Francis was a thinker (a much nicer label than underachiever) and since we cannot see or measure thoughts and ideas, it appeared he wasn't doing a heck of a lot. It was left to him to deal with Virginia’s unorthodox question.

Francis took Virginia’s letter seriously and gave it a lot of thought, as thinkers are known to do, and he replied to her letter in a thoughtful and philosophical way, in a way that made Santa Claus real for Virginia and millions of other kids, in a way that touched millions of people for over a hundred years. He gave Virginia an answer she could carry around with her forever. “Yes, Virginia. There is a Santa Claus.”

But Virginia already knew that. Deep down inside, she already believed. Her faith had simply wavered a bit so she sought out confirmation. If she hadn’t believed, she never would have asked. We don’t look for things that we believe don’t exist. So when Francis confirmed what she already knew in her heart, she was overjoyed.

Virginia eventually grew up and married a man named Edward Douglas. He abandoned her just before their daughter was born. Virginia raised her daughter by herself at a time when there were few opportunities for women. She may also have had to face the stigma and shame of being ‘that woman whose husband abandoned her.’

Despite that, Virginia thrived. She was a believer, after all, and if you believe in fairies and the unseen and unknown, it’s really easy to believe everything will turn out all right. And the fact that she acquired a BA, a Master’s in Education, and a Doctorate didn’t hurt her prospects either. She became a New York City school teacher and retired in 1959 after forty-seven years of service, twenty-five of them as a junior principal. Church’s editorial, she said, shaped the direction of her life in a positive way, and the older she got, the more it meant to her. She died in 1971.

Now, you may be asking why this makes Virginia notable. It wasn’t her question that intrigued people. It was Church’s reply.

True. But there would have been no answer if the question had never been asked, if an eight year-old girl had not had the courage to ask. Think about it. The answer could have gone the other way and everything Virginia believed in could have been crushed easily. Imagine if practical, overachieving William had responded to her letter. What might that have done to Virginia’s psyche?

But William didn’t reply. Francis did. And that made all the difference.

And because Virginia asked, an underachieving man garnered more fame than his overachieving brother. Because Virginia asked, millions of people from all over the world are filled with hope and joy and love every year when that article is reprinted in newspapers everywhere. Their beliefs and faith, in whatever it is that they have faith in, are affirmed, allowing them to go on in spite of the things life throws at them. And most importantly, Virginia’s question brought about the proof that there really is a Santa Claus because, after all, it said so in the Sun, and if it’s in the Sun, it must be so.

A 1963 Christmas Eve interview with Virginia
Be sure your volume is turned up.
Click newspaper clipping to read.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Mentor Monday - What's It All About, Alphie?

As writers, we spend a lot of time with our stories. Between the research, the plotting and planning, the first few drafts and the countless revisions, it might take a year of more to get that baby where it needs to be. You’d think after spending so much time on it, explaining what it is about would be easy. But for some of us, it’s not. At least, not in a limited amount of space or time.

When submitting to editors and agents, we have the synopsis and query letter, which give us at least one page, and sometimes a few more, to explain our stories. But what happens when we actually meet an agent or editor face to face?

Imagine yourself at a writers' conference. You've spent the morning attending some great workshops, now you're sitting down to lunch with your fellow writers. An agent or editor joins you at the table. The conversation turns to - So, what are you working on?

The question goes around the table, and then it's your turn. Well, you say, I’ve just finished a novel about this pig and this spider, and the pig’s the runt of the litter and the farm people want to kill it, but their daughter wants to keep it, and her parents give in, blah, blah, blah.

You might go on and on, monopolizing the conversation, which probably won’t endear you to anyone, especially not the person after you waiting to share their story. And because you’re touching on more than the major plot points, you may be boring everyone as well. You’ve wasted your moment - a moment that doesn’t come all that often for writers.

That’s where the log line comes in. It’s a few sentences, generally two or three, that give a quick summation of your story while creating tension, suspense, mood and/or tone. It may even reflect a bit of your personality - a lot of work for a few sentences. But how do we do all that? How do we condense an entire novel into two or three sentences? It's hard enough writing a synopsis and query.

Pull six main elements from your story.


Going back to our Charlotte’s Web example, our six elements would be --

Character = Wilbur
Setting = Zuckerman Farm
Dilemma = He’s going to be killed at Christmas
Goal = To prevent his death with Charlotte’s help
Motivation = He doesn’t want to die
Hook = His and Charlotte’s possible deaths

Wilbur, a pig (Character) on the Zuckerman farm (Setting) learns he is to be killed at Christmas. (Dilemma) Not wanting to become ham and bacon, (Motivation) he teams up with Charlotte, a friendly spider, who spins words into her webs declaring Wilbur ‘terrific,’ ‘humble,’ and ‘some pig,’ which turns him into a bit of a celebrity. (Goal) But can her silky words save him from slaughter? And when he discovers she is dying, will he be able to save her? (Hook)

I used four sentences, but I could condense it to two.

When Wilbur, a pig (Character) on the Zuckerman farm (Setting) learns he is to be killed at Christmas, (Dilemma) he teams up with Charlotte, a friendly spider, who spins words into her webs declaring him ‘terrific,’ ‘humble,’ and ‘some pig,’ hoping to save him from becoming ham and bacon. (Motivation) As her silky words turn Wilbur into a celebrity, (Goal) he discovers she is dying, and now he must do what he can to save her. (Hook)

While I personally like the first example better, it would only work on paper, perhaps as part of a query. The reason? I’ve asked questions, and they’d sound silly in conversation. The second example would be a better choice to present orally. It provides the same information and makes sense when spoken.

Try it with your own work and see what you can come up with. Play around with it until you have something short, clear and interesting, something you can recite in about thirty seconds, (although you don’t want to sound like you’re reciting it.) If you have it ready before your next conference, all you’ll have to do is brush up. And while there’s no guarantee you’ll ever to get to use it, (only offer it if you’re asked) it’s good to be prepared. You never know who you’ll be standing next to in the elevator.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Poetry Friday: Christmas poems

Ok, so The Christmas Poem by which All Others Shall be Measured is, obviously, Clement Moore's The Night Before Christmas (even if he didn't write it). Although Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas may be about to knock ol' Clement out of first place.

But Christmas isn't just about kids, and it isn't just about presents, or even roast beast. Sometimes, Christmas is about missing people.

So to show that this bittersweet view of Christmas is not a function of our "modern" society, a poem by Frances Ridley Havergal, published in 1882 (in an illustrated book which you can enjoy in all it's nineteenth century dramatic effect thanks to Google Books Bells Across the Snow

O Christmas, merry Christmas!

Is it really come again,
With its memories and greetings,
With its joy and with its pain?
There's a minor in the carol,
And a shadow in the light,
And a spray of cypress twining
With the holly wreath to-night.
And the hush is never broken
By laughter light and low,
As we listen in the starlight
To the "bells across the snow."

O Christmas, merry Christmas!
'Tis not so very long
Since other voices blended
With the carol and the song!
If we could but hear them singing
As they are singing now,
If we could but see the radiance
Of the crown on each dear brow;
There would be no sigh to smother,
No hidden tear to flow,
As we listen in the starlight
To the "bells across the snow."

O Christmas, merry Christmas!
This never more can be;
We cannot bring again the days
Of our unshadowed glee.
But Christmas, happy Christmas,
Sweet herald of good-will,
With holy songs of glory
Brings holy gladness still.
For peace and hope may brighten,
And patient love may glow,
As we listen in the starlight
To the "bells across the snow."

Poetry Friday is at A Year of Reading this week.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Women of Wednesday: The two Mrs. Seuss

I wasn’t inspired to do a Women of Wednesday blog post, until I heard a piece on NPR about Dr. Seuss. His step-daughter said when he was in a happy mood he was the Cat in the Hat and when he was feeling curmudgeonly he was the Grinch. This got me thinking about Mrs. Seuss, so I did a little checking.

There were, as it turns out, two Mrs. Seuss (or Mrs. Geisel, actually).

The first Mrs. Seuss was Helen Palmer, an American whom Ted Geisel met when they were both at Oxford. They were married in 1927. She convinced him to become an artist and writer instead of a professor, for which the world is, I’m sure, very grateful. She was an editor and helped him with his manuscripts. She was also a children’s writer, her most famous book being Do You Know What I'm Going To Do Next Saturday, published in 1963. They were married 40 years, until Helen died tragically in 1967. They did not have any children.

The next year, Dr. Seuss married again, a long-time friend named Audrey Stone Dimond (which is a remarkable name, when you consider it). Audrey had two daughters, named Lea and Lark, who were 9 and 14 at the time. She is, I believe, still the head of Dr. Seuss Enterprises.

There turns out to be a lot of sadness around the stories of the two Mrs. Seuss, but each of them contributed to the work of a man who brought a great deal of happiness to many, many children – and adults. So cheers to both of them, and thank yous.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Mentor Monday: Getting Going

Thomas Alva Edison,
punching in to work on his 74th birthday
Thomas Edison is credited with saying “genius is 1 % inspiration, and 99 % perspiration.” Woody Allen said “Eighty percent of success in life is just showing up.” A common expression used by working writers is b-i-c. It stands, inelegantly, for one of the most important factors of successful writing: applying the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair.

New writers often find that they start out with a great idea, write furiously for a few pages or a few days, and then, unexpectedly, the well goes dry. Inspiration is gone. The muse seems to have fled, and the project is never finished. Other times a writer will find herself simply void of ideas, or unable to figure out what comes next. We’ve all heard the term: writer’s block.

Those who rely on their writing to pay the bills don’t have the option of waiting for inspiration to strike. Hence, b-i-c.

Even (perhaps especially) for those of us who have the luxury of not relying on our writing checks for our mortgage payments, procrastination can be a chronic, and costly, problem.

Procrastination can take many subtle forms. It can be the need to set up the perfect writing area, find just the right software, arrange the lighting, the chairs, and the bookcases just so.

It can present itself as an obsession with form: how many words to a line, how far should the first line be indented, what font should I use?

It can masquerade as concern about what rights to sell, or whether to use a pen name. It can hide behind a need for a little more research, or that long-awaited writing class.

It can, of course, be a an inbox full of email.

There’s a great irony here, of course. Procrastination is usually a problem we associate with tasks we don’t want to do. We procrastinate about paying our bills, shoveling our walkways, cleaning our toilets. We put off confronting an unpleasant co-worker or an uncooperative spouse. Why do we put off writing? We enjoy writing, after all, or we wouldn’t do it. No one forced us to become writers instead of coal miners or third-grade teachers or brain surgeons.

Procrastination may grow out of fear (of success, or failure), rebellion, burnout, or any number of other sources. But whatever its origins, its effect is the same. It robs us of accomplishment.

Fortunately, the cure for procrastination is supremely simple. In the immortal words of a corporate giant, “Just do it.” B-I-C! Most of the time, once we begin, we keep going. Because, after all, we LIKE writing. Or we’d go do something else.

So how to get started? Everyone develops their own routine. Here are a few tricks you can try:

Just type anything (what you had for dinner last night, a letter to the President, an itinerary for your next vacation). After a couple of minutes, or a couple of paragraphs, sidle into writing about your subject. (Don’t forget to delete the “pump-priming material” when you’re done!) A variation on this approach is the “copy someone else’s writing” method, where you actually transcribe a published book (one in the same style/grade level you’re working in) until your inner barrier against writing fades.

Start in the middle. It’s frequently difficult to figure out how to begin a piece, even when you know what it is you are going to write. So give yourself permission to start in the middle – the middle of the story, or the middle of the first chapter, or even the middle of the first paragraph. Begin at whatever point you feel comfortable with, and just go. You’ll find the opening eventually. Often it will come to you while you’re busy writing something else.

Some authors swear by the “stop in the middle of a sentence” method. The theory is that you stop writing in the middle of a great bit of action or dialog, so the next morning when you open the file, you can pick up where you left off. Some of us would never remember what we thought we were about to say, and would waste half the morning trying to figure it out. But for some people, this is reportedly a good method. A slightly-less risky variation is to go back and read (maybe even revise) the last chapter or page you wrote, and then keep going from there.

For a non-fiction piece, a review of your research materials will frequently get the juices flowing. Or pretend you’re writing an email to someone, explaining the subject or describing your writing project. For fiction you can make that an email about your story (but don’t deplete your creative energy talking about/around the work!)

Other tips many writers rely upon:

“Work clothes.” Get dressed as if you were going to the office. Maybe even go out to the car, and then come back in and go straight to your desk. The contrary approach says “don’t get dressed until you’ve written five pages” (or more drastically, variations on “I can’t eat until I write 1000 words.”)

“Mood music.” Many writers have particular songs, or particular kinds of music, that they find conducive to working. Have that music cued up and ready to play – and don’t listen to it at other times. You want a Pavlovian response - when you hear the opening bars, your fingers should start moving (on the keyboard, not air-directing!)

Accountability/buddies: Before you start in the morning you tell your buddy (via phone or email) what your goal is for the day. At lunch you check in with a progress report. When you achieve your goal, you report again. Psychological studies confirm that we are far more likely to complete a task when we’ve told someone else about it.

(With credit to Annie Lamott) Give yourself permission to write “shitty first drafts” or, as many of us call them for school groups, “sloppy copies”). Lock your mental critic into a mental closet and do a brain-dump on paper. You can clean it up later.

In the end, overcoming procrastination is getting started. B-I-C, sitting down and putting pen to paper or fingers to keyboard, actually setting one word after another. Frequently the first words we write will be awful. They are like the sputtering of an unprimed pump, or the flickering of a lamp that needs trimming.

Sometimes, you’ll just slog along, sputtering and flickering all day, until you meet your word-count or the kids get off the bus or you have to leave for your “real job.” Other days, your artificially-rigged beginning will melt away and you’ll move into the work, sometimes even losing track of time. Psychologists call this experience “flow,” or “being in the zone.” But either way, you’ll have more done at the end of the day than you did at the beginning. And that, ultimately, is the “secret.”

Friday, December 17, 2010

Poetry Friday: Willa Cather's O Pioneers!

The entrance to the novel welcomes you with this poem by Cather:

Prairie Spring

Evening and the flat land,
Rich and sombre and always silent;
The miles of fresh-plowed soil,
Heavy and black, full of strength and harshness;
The growing wheat, the growing weeds,
The toiling horses, the tired men;
The long empty roads,
Sullen fires of sunset, fading,
The eternal, unresponsive sky.
Against all this, Youth,
Flaming like the wild roses,
Singing like the larks over the plowed fields,
Flashing like a star out of the twilight;
Youth with its insupportable sweetness,
Its fierce necessity,
Its sharp desire,
Singing and singing,
Out of the lips of silence,
Out of the earthy dusk.

and then, exquisitely, rolls into this --

"One January day, thirty years ago, the little town of Hanover, anchored on a windy Nebraska tableland, was trying not to be blown away. A mist of fine snowflakes was curling and eddying about the cluster of low drab buildings huddled on the gray prairie, under a gray sky. The dwelling-houses were set about haphazard on the tough prairie sod; some of them looked as if they had been moved in overnight, and others as if they were straying off by themselves, headed straight for the open plain. None of them had any appearance of permanence, and the howling wind blew under them as well as over them.”

You can read more about Willa Cather, and efforts to restore the prairie here at The Willa Cather Foundation.

Over at 100 Scope Notes, Travis Jonkers, along with fellow school librarian John Schumacher, have announced their top twenty children's books for 2010. As they guys say, 

"The list contains books for the Kindergarten through sixth grade reader, but other than that, anything goes. You’ll see picture books mingling with graphic novels and chapter books elbowing nonfiction. Five titles a day, presented in countdown fashion". Check it out here at 100 Scope Notes.

So much good stuff from Travis at his site. I especially like his project to redesign all the unfortunately-covered Newbery Winners. You'll find the explanation and examples here at Covering the Newbery.

Fittingly enough, Amy over at the Poem Farm is hosting Poetry Friday today. Grab a milking stool or hay bale and set a spell.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Mentor Monday: The Phone Interview

If you write nonfiction for kids, it's likely you'll be interviewing an expert on your topic. In most cases, it will be unavoidable. It is, in fact, mandatory in most cases.

Unless you can afford to fly or drive to your expert, you'll need to conduct your interview on the phone or via Skype. Some folks find this prospect absolutely terrifying. But, if you want to have a career as a children's writer, you must put these feelings aside. Editors expect nonfiction writers to use primary sources. Including talks with real experts as part of your primary source research could make the difference between you getting the assignment or not getting it.

Besides, talking directly to an expert opens doors for interesting, kid-friendly (and editor-friendly) side material you may not find by reading an article.

To me, the most surprising thing about doing phone interviews is how much easier it becomes once you've done one. You realize that people are not ogres. Most are, in fact, delighted to talk about their chosen field of expertise. In my experience, experts love talking to children's writers because it means introducing kids to a topic that has fascinated them for many, many years – in some cases it's a passion they developed during their childhood.

Here are some tips to make your phone interview experience much more enjoyable.

  • First, find your experts. As you research your topic, take note of the names that come up. Also note where you first found that person's name. If you're unable to locate the expert, you can contact the original author of the article or blog where you discovered this expert's name. He or she may have the expert's contact information.
  • When you have an expert's name, do an internet search to find out more about that person. You'll likely find other references and, most likely, contact information. If a search offers no direct way to contact your expert, keep digging. If you can find what entity the person works for, a call to the switchboard can get you started. I've been known to find people just by knowing their home town and then doing a search through
  • Be aware that you may encounter the gate-keepers – people who feel it's their duty to protect their bosses or colleagues from talking to you. You must persist. I once needed to interview a well-known politician in my state. It practically took an act of Congress to get to her. I kept trying. She was none to happy to find her 'people' had made it so difficult to gain access.
  • My preferred first contact is via email. I write so much better than I talk. In an email, I can take my time to introduce myself and tell the expert why I want to talk to her. On the rare occasions when I had to make a cold call, I had a loose script prepared that outlined the same things – the reason I want to talk.
  • Tell the expert the age level you're writing for, and the general direction your manuscript is headed. I avoid giving specific questions ahead of time. I find that some experts will stick solely to the questions asked ahead of time. I prefer a more open conversation.
  • Tell the interview subject that you will probably need no more than fifteen minutes for the initial conversation. Fifteen minutes seems to be reasonably do-able for even the busiest expert.
  • If you do have to make a call, never expert to conduct the interview right then and there. I always find it best to set up the interview for a time in the not-to-distant future. That said, if your first contact is through a phone call, the expert might be ready for you right then and there. Be prepared!
  • Being prepared means learning all you can about your subject. It is not the expert's job to give you a basic education on the topic you're writing about. An educated interviewer can speak with confidence about a subject.
  • By the time you're talking to your expert, you should have made a list questions to ask – just five or six should do at this point. On your notepad, suggest to yourself possible follow-up questions, but be flexible. If you don't get to all your questions, you can arrange for a follow-up questions at a later date.
  • I usually start the conversation with general house-keeping questions that lead me into the heart of the matter. These are simple things like the correct spelling of the person's name, his or her title, the name of the institution/department he or she works for. I also ask for the person's physical mailing address so I can send a copy of the work when it's finally published. This opening gambit seems to quiet my racing heart so I can just ease into my first real question.
  • Once the person starts talking, be sure to listen. It's easy for your mind to be anticipating the next question, but you may miss something important if you do. This is the case even if you're recording the conversation. You need to be ready to ask a follow-up question if you hear something interesting or unusual from your expert. Also, don't be afraid to ask for clarification if you don't understand something.The expert is going to want you to get it right.
  • I sometimes find little gems when I ask the expert what surprising information they know that may have not made it into print. It's yielded some great stuff that I've used – including an interesting power struggle between archaeologists and cops I chronicled in Bog Bodies. The expert was delighted that I was so interested in that aspect of the story. It was one that no other writer or journalist had felt important enough to cover. It made fascinating fodder for a kids' book.
  • If your expert veers too far off on a tangent, be prepared to bring her back. Its tempting to let the expert ramble, but your time is valuable, too. Think ahead to some polite and gentle ways you can get her back on track.
  • Try to end the conversation at the agreed-upon time, unless your subject is still giving you fascinating information. Also, be aware of your interview subject's energy level -- don't drag the conversation along when she's clearly ready to quit talking.
  • End the conversation by asking if you can contact your expert again, and her preferred form of contact. You may also want to consider asking if she can suggest someone else you should talk to. She may be able to put you in touch with other experts. Networking is a great writers' tool.
  • Some people like to record their conversations. I find it helpful, but not absolutely necessary. Transcribing a whole conversation is very tedious. My preferred method is to write while the expert is talking. I explain that I am handwriting my notes, and will sometimes ask the person to be patient while I write. I find this helpful, because it tends to slow down the conversation, and gives time for the expert to think as I finish writing. Silence can be golden!
  • If you do choose to tape record, you must ask your subject if it's okay to do so. Most folks say yes. 
  • Should you send your subject a copy of your manuscript to see if you got the facts right? Some of your experts may ask for this. I try to avoid it, but in some cases, I've sent it. For Ice Maiden of the Andes the expert got back to me with his (minor) corrections after the book had gone to print. I saved those corrections for a future reprinting.
  • Be sure to follow up with a note of thanks. And don't forget to send a copy of the published book or article to your expert if it's appropriate.
Phone interviews are a piece of cake!

Friday, December 10, 2010

Poetry Friday: A News Junkie's Lament

Apparently some things never change.

Everybody Tells Me Everything
by Ogden Nash

I find it very difficult to enthuse
Over the current news.
Just when you think that at least the outlook is so black 
that it can grow no blacker,
it worsens,
And that is why I do not like the news, 

because there has never been an era when
so many things were going
so right for so many of the wrong persons.

I've been thinking of John Lennon who is 30 years dead this week. A Day in the Life, in my opinion, is among his greatest works. "I read the news today. Oh, boy." 

For all the poetry fit to print (sorry New York Times), go to Alphabet Soup, where Jama is hosting Poetry Friday. 

Monday, December 6, 2010

Mentor Monday: Speak Up!

Sooner or later, most authors are called upon to speak publicly. Whether doing a reading at a local bookstore, or presenting workshops to other writers, you'll face a room filled with people prepared to make snap judgments about your abilities. It's not that they're expecting to be harsh critics. On the contrary, they wouldn't have chosen to be in the audience if they didn't have positive expectations. Those positive expectations can change before you even open your mouth, however, if you project an uncertain demeanor.

Amy J.C. Cuddy, an assistant professor at Harvard Business School, has researched and written extensively on the messages conveyed through body language. Cuddy says that how you say what you say is more important than what you actually say. People judge your abilities by measuring your posture and stance. The larger and more expansive your physical presence (think peacock with fully displayed tail feathers) the more seriously you are taken. Fold your arms across your chest and tilt your chin down and you're practically begging to be ignored.

This video clip is a perfect example of what Cuddy talks about. Audra McDonald reeks of confidence and competence as she sings Rodgers and Hammerstein's I Have Confidence. Her body language is filled with large, sweeping gestures until she reaches 3:06, the point in the song where she says, "Oh, help." Her flagging confidence is reflected in her body language as she pulls her hands up to her chest and crosses them over her heart. As she regains her confidence, the large gestures return and she finishes the song with the intestinal fortitude she needs to face a captain with seven children.

For more visuals of master public speakers, check out the speakers at TED. Read more about Cuddy and her work here at the Harvard Business School site. And stand up straight!

Friday, December 3, 2010

Poetry Friday: The Hunt for the Perfect Tree

Over the years, I've done it all: Shopped for a tree at a fund-raiser's lot; bought from the local farm stand; tramped through the tree farm with the kids.

Now I put up a fake tree. The lights are pre-installed. The kids help me drag it up from the basement. When they are unable to do that, I will follow my parents' lead and put the top of the fake tree on a little table in our sun room. It'll be just enough to acknowledge the season.

This poem spoke to me about the tradition of having a Christmas tree:

Christmas Tree Lots
by Chris Green

Christmas trees lined like war refugees,
a fallen army made to stand in their greens.
Cut down at the foot, on their last leg,

they pull themselves up, arms raised.
We drop them like wood;
tied, they are driven through the streets,

dragged through the door, cornered
in a room, given a single blanket,
only water to drink, surrounded by joy.

Forced to wear a gaudy gold star,
to surrender their pride,
they do their best to look alive.
Join the Poetry Friday participants at The Miss Rumphius Effect hosted byTricia!

Monday, November 29, 2010

Mentor Monday: The Power of a Single Word

When I was about to have my first novel published, the editor asked me to cut 30 pages from the manuscript. The book was about 220 pages long, and it would be included in a series of historical novels. Each book in the series would be about 180 pages.

When I tell school children that story, they gasp. For most of them, putting words on paper is difficult enough. They can’t imagine having to remove the words after such a struggle. But, I explain, cutting words can be fun. It’s like a puzzle. How can I say the same thing using fewer words? I like the challenge.

As professional writers, we deal with this dilemma all the time. If you’ve been writing for any length of time, you notice that publishers are looking for shorter and shorter stories. Magazines that wanted 1,000 word pieces now request 900 words or 500 words. They pay by the word, quite often, so it’s a cost cutting thing. The attention span of today’s reader isn’t what it used to be either. Basically readers want us to say what we have to say and move on.

While cutting words is an important skill for a writer, I was thinking the other day about how careful we have to be to keep in just the right word(s). I’ve had personal experience with how important one word can be.

Some years ago, I served on a jury that heard the case of a man and woman accused of plotting the murder of the man’s wife. I’m a true-crime junky and the trial was better than anything I’d seen on TV. The accused man was a former parole officer who had fallen in love with his parolee—the female defendant.

We heard all the sordid details of their affair. (The phrase “stranger than fiction” was invented for these two). We heard testimony about the murder plot. The female defendant had been jailed. The police wired a fellow inmate and told her to get the defendant to talk about the death threat on the man’s wife. The prosecutor entered the taped conversation into evidence and we listened to the tape during the trial.

After closing arguments, we, the jury, reviewed the testimony and evidence. We listened again to the conversation taped by the wired inmate. Here, in the jury room, we had time to listen more carefully and pick out each word. The two women discussed the defendant’s case and the defendant demanded a favor from the wired inmate. Suddenly in the middle of the conversation, I heard the defendant say:

“Do I have to try to kill you, too?”

I asked to have that portion re-played. I HAD heard it: a three-letter word that sealed the defendant’s fate.

As well.

Meaning, the defendant had tried this before. She’d just admitted it.

I couldn’t have written it better if I’d have made up this story.

Can one word make a difference? Sometimes one word can turn a story’s trajectory. It can provide the clue that helps the protagonist find true love or solve a mystery.

It can turn a hero into a villain. It can be the difference between guilt and innocence.

For this defendant, three letters, one word, became the difference between freedom and 10 to 20 years of incarceration.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Poetry Friday--"Winter"

I expect the first snows to arrive any day now. Once Thanksgiving has passed, it seems that winter comes blowing in with a vengeance. Here's "Winter" by Robert Louis Stevenson:
In rigorous hours, when down the iron lane
The redbreast looks in vain
For hips and haws,
Lo, shining flowers upon my window-pane
The silver pencil of the winter draws.

When all the snowy hill
And the bare woods are still;
When snipes are silent in the frozen bogs,
And all the garden garth is whelmed in mire,
Lo, by the hearth, the laughter of the logs --
More fair than roses, lo, the flowers of fire!

"The silver pencil of the winter draws." Great line!

LibriVox has multiple recordings of the poem, click here and give a listen.

The Poetry Friday Round-Up is being hosted by Jone, on this "Black Friday," at Check It Out.

Photo by Paul J. Morris


Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Women of Wednesday--Women on the Mayflower

Currier and Ives print from the Library of Congress collection

In July 1620, just over 100 men, women, and children boarded the Speedwell, a ship which soon proved unseaworthy. On September 6, after abandoning the Speedwell for the Mayflower, they headed off to the land that was later to become the United States of America.

Of those passengers, 30 were female. They were (all ages are approximate):

Mary Allerton (30)
      Mary Allerton (6)
      Remember Allerton (5)

Eleanor Billington (38)

Dorothy Bradford (23)

Mary Brewster (51)

Katherine Carver (unknown, perhaps 40-50)

Mrs. Chilton (60s)
      Mary Chilton (13)

Humility Cooper (1)

Dorothy [servant girl] (unknown)

Sarah Eaton (20)

Mrs. Fuller (unknown)

Elizabeth Hopkins (35)
      Constance Hopkins (14)
      Damaris Hopkins (1)

Mary Martin (35)

Desire Minter (3)

Ellen More (8)
Mary More (3)

Alice Mullins (45)
      Pricilla Mullins (18)

Alice Rigsdale (unknown)

Rose Standish (unknown)

Agnes Tilley (35)

Joan Tilley (54)
      Elizabeth Tilley (13)

Mrs. Tinker (unknown)

Susanna White (unknown)

Elizabeth Winslow (unknown)

The Pilgrims spotted land two months later on November 9. Most people probably think that once land was spotted everyone disembarked and started building Plymouth Plantation. Not so. It wasn't until late December that the men decided to take over an abandoned Wampanoag village. The Mayflower spent four months in Plymouth harbor, finally leaving for England in April 1621. While the men did a bit of exploring, clearing and building, the women were confined to the Mayflower--the cold, dank, stinking, 'tween deck. In December, Dorothy Bradford, accidentally fell off the Mayflower and drowned in the harbor.

Imagine maintaining a "home" on the Mayflower. Keeping the family fed, dressed, spiritually sound, and healthy. Some women even cared for the children of others--several children traveled as wards of other families.

When Sarah Eaton boarded the Mayflower, she was still nursing her infant son, Samuel. At least three women were pregnant on the voyage. Elizabeth Hopkins gave birth enroute, to a son who was named Oceanus. Mary Allerton, also gave birth to a son, in December. The child was stillborn.

Life probably seemed unbearable for most, if not all, the women on board. After her baby's stillbirth, Mary didn't survive long.

Neither did most of the women. Look at the list above. All those in purple died during the first winter. When the first Thanksgiving was celebrated in September or October 1621, only four adult women remained.


Monday, November 22, 2010

Mentor Monday--Magazine Samples (And a Raving Librarian)

There was a discussion recently on the "Nonfiction for Kids" listserv, about where to get sample copies of magazines. I thought that perhaps, there are those who don't write nonfiction, who would also be interested in this information.

I work in the library and we have a fairly good collection of magazines for adults, children, and YAs. I'd say probably about 150 titles all together. The library is well-supported, so, for our size we have a nice selection. My knee jerk reaction was--"duh, check your local library." [Editorial note: you'd be amazed how many writers, not to mention normal people, never walk through the front door of their local public libraries. Preposterous!]

In our current economic situation, though, with magazines ceasing publication, and library budgets being slashed, the number of magazines found on library shelves may be diminishing. So then what?

Interlibrary loan (ILL). Again, this requires actually visiting your library, or at least talking to a librarian on the phone. [Note: we don't generally bite.] Even in the state of New Hampshire, where our population is a little over 1.3 million, an active ILL system has been in service for decades.

Ask your librarian if she would get a number of issues of Fill-in-the-Blank Magazine for you to study. I would suggest: ask for a reasonable number, say no more than five; request one or two titles at a time (you can go back again), don't ask for the current issue.

I'm going to go out on a limb here, but if no public library within your library's ILL service area carries the title you are looking for, then perhaps you should rethink asking for it. Is the reason no library carries the title because the quality is poor? Is the topic, and by extension the audience, too narrow? You may need to ask yourself, "Do I really want to write for this particular magazine?"

So, where else do you go to find magazines to study? How about large chain bookstores? They may sell children's titles, but be aware, many of these titles are strictly commercial ventures driven by licensed characters to lure children into tv viewing.

Check a magazine's website, you won't get whole issues, but you will get a feel for the quality of the magazine. Save yourself a little work by going to the commercial site, AllYouCanRead, which lists the Top 10 Kids Magazines and includes links. Click around the site of Highlights and you'll find selections from the latest issue. [Note: writing for the web is probably in your future if you want to remain relevant in the world of kids, so, take a look at as many magazine, and kid-centric websites, as you can.]

It's nearly impossible to get into a public school nowadays, if you're not a parent, but, call the school and ask to speak with the librarian/media or information specialist/whatever-your-state's-current-term is for what we used to call "school librarian." She may be able to get permission for you to visit the library and review its magazines.

Do you have a college or university in your area that has a teacher preparation program? Plan to spend an afternoon at the library there. Or, if you are an alumni of a college or university, find out if you have access to online databases that may carry teacher prep information, including magazines for kids.

Which leads me to online databases. Many public libraries also have online magazine databases such as EBSCO and InfoTrac, and, they can be accessed from your home computer, but, you will probably have to visit the library to obtain passwords. Once you have a password, you can look at individual issues of magazines, but even better, you can put in a subject that you're considering writing about and see if the topic has already been covered, and from what angles. There are two major disadvantages to online databases: there is a lot of clicking involved ☺, and you don't get all the illustrations.

Sadly, online database subscriptions are wildly expensive, and thus, individual libraries, and library systems, have been cutting back. Lack of use is often given for choosing to eliminate a database over cutting book money.

You're paying taxes and you're not even using this fabulous resource in your own town? Hurry on down to the library before it starts cutting hours, or even, horror of horrors, closing its door completely. Wow, and this started off as a simple posting about magazine samples!


Friday, November 19, 2010

Poetry Friday

Years ago, when I first started writing for kids, I attended my first SCBW (no I back then) conference. At the end, after the last keynote speaker had spoken, there was a sudden rush of questioning. Where was Jane Yolen?

I sat up in my seat. I knew Jane Yolen. I had been reading her for years in Fantasy and SF magazines. What was she doing here?

Well, it turned out she was giving a market report, something she was known to do at these conferences, and I discovered that Jane not only wrote SF/F but she wrote for kids, too. Heck, she was (and still is) the Queen of Children’s Writing. After the conference, I went home and checked out her books. Boy, was I surprised.

The same thing happened with Margaret Atwood. I’ve read her SF/F books, I knew she was a big name author, but I had no clue she wrote poetry, too, until I accidentally stumbled across the below poem. Seems she is as big in poetry as she in SF/F, perhaps even more so. Actually, she’s big all over the writing world. Heck, she’s the Queen of Canadian Writers!

So here it is, A Photograph of Me by Margaret Atwood. And while you read, I shall be googling a few more of the authors I read. Who knows what’ll turn up?

This Is A Photograph Of Me
by Margaret Atwood

It was taken some time ago.
At first it seems to be
a smeared
print: blurred lines and grey flecks
blended with the paper;

then, as you scan
it, you see in the left-hand corner
a thing that is like a branch: part of a tree
(balsam or spruce) emerging
and, to the right, halfway up
what ought to be a gentle
slope, a small frame house.

In the background there is a lake,
and beyond that, some low hills.
(The photograph was taken
the day after I drowned.

I am in the lake, in the center
of the picture, just under the surface.

It is difficult to say where
precisely, or to say
how large or small I am:
the effect of water
on light is a distortion

but if you look long enough,
you will be able to see me.)

For more of Margaret Atwood's poetry go here.
And for more great poetry of all sorts, check out the round up at Random Noodling, hosted by Diane Mayr.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Mentor Monday - Know Your Market

Finally, it’s finished! The novel, picture book, poem or nonfiction piece is done. It’s been critiqued and revised a hundred times and is as polished as it can be. It’s time to submit. So how do you increase your chances of receiving an acceptance rather than a rejection?

The fact is, acceptance depends on many variables, and a lot of them are variables writers have no control over. An editor or agent in a bad mood the day she picks up your manuscript can be the death of your baby. An editor or agent who just hates first person stories may not even look past the first “I” in yours. Your submission may fall into the hands of a first reader who rejects something the editor would have loved.

As writers, we have no control over those things. But there are many things we can control and staying on top of them can make all the difference in the world. Before submitting anything, consider the following:

What Are You Submitting?

Define your work. It’s not enough to define it as a middle grade novel. What genre does it fall into? Historical, fantasy, contemporary? Now go a level or two deeper. Is it a humorous fantasy, an adventurous fantasy, an alternate history fantasy? Is it written for upper middle grade or lower middle grade? Is it commercial (usually plot-driven) or literary (usually character-driven?) Let’s say you wrote a commercial humorous historical fantasy for upper middle grade readers. This information is for you, not an editor or agent.

Where Are You Submitting?

The next step is to find someone who wants a commercial humorous historical fantasy written for upper middle-graders. No one is going to list that in their blurb of needs and wants, which is why it’s necessary to study the market. As you research publishing houses, editors and agents, you might list everyone interested in middle grade books then whittle that down to middle grade fantasy. Once you get to that point, start looking at the publishers left on your list.

Head to your local book store or library, or check out for the latest middle-grade fantasies put out by the publishing houses on your list. What kind of fantasy are they? Wizards and dragons? Time travel? Alternate histories? Cross off the publishers who only do wizards and dragons. Now reexamine the list and eliminate anyone who does only lower middle grade books. Of those left, who publishes humorous alternate histories and time travel books? By now, your list is probably down to perhaps ten or so publishers. These are the ideal candidates for your story.

Who Are You Submitting To?

At this point, start checking out individual editors at each house. Choose the books you’ve liked best of those you’ve researched, or those most like your own, and find out who edited them. You can also check out editors on line. Some may have their bios and wish lists posted on their publishing house’s web site. Some may have their own web site or blog. Learn what you can about what they like and don’t like, and give them a ranking on your list.

Why Are You Choosing Her?

Consider your reasons for ranking the editors as you did. Is she number one on your list because her tastes and interests line up with what you have written, or because she looks and sounds like a friendly person on her bio? Does she often purchase the type of book you wrote, or is she just your dream editor or agent? At this point, you may want to change the ranking of the editors or agents you’ve chosen.

And now you’re ready to submit to the ten or so best editors or agents for your book. My suggestion would be to submit to 4-5 at a time. If for some reason you don’t get any nibbles, you have the opportunity to revise before submitting to the next group. If you submit to everyone at once, you immediately use up all opportunities at once.

For most of us, it’s a long road to publication. If you take the proven, well-traveled road, you’ll reach your destination. The shortcuts might get you there, too, but there’s a big difference between ‘might’ and ‘will.’



2011 Children’s Writers and Illustrators’ Market (CWIM)
2011 Writer’s Market
2011 Guide to Literary Agents

On the web - publishers

SCBWI Marketing List Members only access.
Children’s Book Council (CBC)
Colossal Directory of Children’s Publishers Top Left hand column

Query Tracker

And because not everyone can be trusted, be sure to check the Science Fiction Writers of America, Writer Beware site for a list of publishers and agents you should not do business with. In fact, the whole SFWA site is filled with all sorts of goodies that are useful to any writer, whether you write SF/F or not.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Poetry Friday (late): Elegy for walls

All over town, the road crews are busy destroying our stone walls. Well, they would tell you they are improving drainage on the roads (the stone walls are protected by a couple of laws). But the ditching involves backhoes and the walls are scarred by being whacked and nicked with heavy, unfeeling steel. In many places they've covered the walls with 6-8 inches of dirt, which means the poison ivy will grow up and over and through the walls, hastening their downfall. In other places they've dug the ditch right to the base of the wall, which means next spring's frost heaves will topple them forward. It makes me angry to see the hard labor of our ancestors carelessly undermined. But it also puts me in mind of someone else who, although working to repair the old stone walls, did so with less than enthusiastic intent. So today, New England's bard, Robert Frost:

Mending Wall

Something there is that doesn't love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun;
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.

The work of hunters is another thing:
I have come after them and made repair
Where they have left not one stone on a stone,
But they would have the rabbit out of hiding,
To please the yelping dogs. The gaps I mean,

No one has seen them made or heard them made,
But at spring mending-time we find them there.
I let my neighbour know beyond the hill;
And on a day we meet to walk the line
And set the wall between us once again.

We keep the wall between us as we go.
To each the boulders that have fallen to each.
And some are loaves and some so nearly balls
We have to use a spell to make them balance:
"Stay where you are until our backs are turned!"

We wear our fingers rough with handling them.
Oh, just another kind of out-door game,
One on a side. It comes to little more:
There where it is we do not need the wall:
He is all pine and I am apple orchard.

My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.
He only says, "Good fences make good neighbours."
Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:

Why do they make good neighbours? Isn't it
Where there are cows? But here there are no cows.
Before I built a wall I'd ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.

Something there is that doesn't love a wall,
That wants it down." I could say "Elves" to him,
But it's not elves exactly, and I'd rather
He said it for himself. I see him there
Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top
In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed.

He moves in darkness as it seems to me,
Not of woods only and the shade of trees.
He will not go behind his father's saying,
And he likes having thought of it so well
He says again, "Good fences make good neighbours."

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Women of Wednesday: Transition Generation

I’m using today’s post to offer a tribute to my mother, who died last summer. I hope this is appropriate, not because she was my mother, but because she epitomized a whole generation of American women.

Nancy Elsa Grant was born in the dark early years of the Great Depression. Her mother was the daughter of Swedish immigrants who had grown up in Boston, sharing a bed with her brothers and sisters (seriously – when they were little her mother put the girls in at one end and the boys at the other) and repeatedly moving house in the middle of the night when they couldn’t pay the rent. Her father had been a student a Boston University, on his way to being the first person in his family to earn a college degree, until the economy collapsed.

That first college degree in the family would be earned by my mother, although her original intent was a career in the theater! She earned a scholarship to an acting school in New York City, but the city proved overwhelming to the 17 year old girl from Melrose. The next year she enrolled at Jackson College and graduated as a member of the first coed class at Tufts University. While there she met my father (he had put up a card on a bulletin board, offering rides to campus. Mom always said she only paid for her rides for the first semester.) Like so many women of her generation, Nancy married quickly after graduation, and was pregnant before my father left for his 6 month deployment to the Mediterranean on the U.S.S. Rankin, although they didn’t know it when they said goodbye. The story is that my father befriended the ship’s doctor, and whenever they were in port he would ask “show me someone who is 5, or 6, or however many months pregnant” – so that when he got off the ship in Newport he wouldn’t be shocked by my mother’s (and my) appearance.

Nancy did the whole June Cleaver mom-in-a-housedress thing, making our home a haven for my father and a launch pad for her three children. Her theater background and English Literature major was expressed in a rich environment of books and stories and creative play which is without a doubt why I am a writer today. Then, as the fabric of American suburban culture unwound in the 1960s, my mother joined the Women’s Liberation movement – not the bra-burning protesting part, but the quiet, determined “I am more than just a housewife” part. This was not without some drama in our home, and in her heart. I recall some struggles in the adjusting of expectation, some guilt and some uncertainty: was she being fair to her kids, to her husband? What did she owe to herself? What was she teaching her children, especially her daughters?

Finally Mom went back to school to update her credentials, got her teaching certificate, and started her professional career. It was a very traditional profession, indeed – early childhood education – but it was who she was and she thrived in it. As her own fledglings left the next, Nancy was passing on her love of literature to a couple of dozen children every year and providing a stable and loving space for the children of younger women who did not, or could not, choose to take a decade or more out of their careers to raise their kids. She rode the waves of educational fads, from Look-Say reading to learning-by-osmosis to phonics and back, but all her teaching was “literature-based.” No child should grow up without Goodnight Moon or Bread and Jam for Frances, Mom believed. So many great books, so few story circles!

After 25 years Mom left the classroom. My dad had died, and she felt she wasn’t a safe driver anymore. (We didn’t know yet that she had Parkinsons.) For another ten years she shared my home, cheering me on and encouraging me with my work, reading my manuscripts and my kids’ college essays. Scrabble games were her great joy, especially when we could coerce one of the grandchildren to join us. Always interested in public affairs and current events, she followed the American scene with fascination and exasperation, and was thrilled to cast her vote for President Obama.

As her body failed her, Nancy filled her days with books – old favorites and new, and classic movies, Shakespeare and Gilbert and Sullivan on dvd. The week before she died, she and I enjoyed an afternoon at the New London Barn theater with an outstanding performance of the Pirates of Penzance.  

So here’s to you, Mom, and to the many like you, who grew up in an old world and retired in a new one, who paved the way so your daughters would have more choices than you had, and then helped provide stability to our daughters in a world where change has become the norm! And here’s to the love of words, of books and plays and hymns and all the richness of human experience they bring to our lives.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Mentor Monday: Back to Basics

I'm dragging something out of my old stash today, because I've got this book deadline . . . . but the selection is not entirely random. Over the weekend I was involved in the same basic discussion in several very different contexts. The subject was, essentially, kick-starting. How do I get back to and/or improve my [fill in the blank - writing, decluttering, diet, exercise regimen  etc, etc]?

So when I found this piece about "practicing the fundamentals," it seemed particularly appropriate. Plus it's dreary, wet and cold outside, so thinking about baseball and spring is a pleasant distraction.

And so, without further ado, we bring you back to . . . . February 16, 2005:

The Red Sox just won the World Series (oh my, doesn’t that sound lovely?). Now they’re in Fort Myers, stretching and running, tossing and catching, hitting off a tee, scooping grounders and shagging flies. They’re doing exactly what high school players and little leaguers are doing. Why? Surely they already know how to do all those things?

Spring training is all about conditioning and fundamentals. Like baseball players, writers need to stay in shape, keep our skills sharp, and practice. Here, then, are some recommendations for your Spring Training regimen:

Training camp: Working in a different environment focuses your brain and triggers new thought patterns. Change-of-scenery plans range from taking your notebook (spiral or computer) to a coffee shop or the library to renting a room at a business-friendly hotel (with real desks) for a weekend. If you live near a college, you may be able to reserve a study carrel after exams are over. Packing yourself up and going somewhere for the express purpose of working on your writing is a great stimulus.

Conditioning: There are exercises and stretches we should all be doing to prevent carpal tunnel and swan neck, but the conditioning I’m talking about here is of your mental writing muscles and heart. Writing exercises include the Morning Pages made famous by The Artist’s Way and the writing prompts of the Stop, Look, Write! books. [Note from 2010: Since I wrote this in 2005 I have taught a class using Ursula Le Guin's Steering the Craft, which I highly recommend.] Most familiar of all is the journal. Some people swear that exercises only work if the writer knows they’re not going to be read by anyone. Some go so far as to ceremoniously burn their morning pages every day. Others think writing letters or even emails qualifies as an exercise.

I think the key ingredient in an exercise is that you are writing just for the sake of writing: not for an editor, not for a sale, not to finish your poem or make your deadline. I heard a wise editor compare writing exercises to a musician’s scales: you do it because it’s how you warm up, and because you can never over-practice the basics. With that in mind, the exercise can be a discipline that requires you to write a set number of minutes or pages, regardless of content. Or it can be writing that serves some other purpose (letters or journals) so long as their main function is to prime your writing pump.

A different kind of exercise is the writing equivalent of those fielding drills and batting practice. These are assignments you design (or adapt from books or classes) to teach yourself something: Write a devotional that uses no “religious” language. Write a conversation among three people whose voices are distinct enough that you don’t need speaker tags to tell them apart. Describe a sunrise to a blind person. Others provide editing and revising practice: take a manuscript you think is finished, and cut it by 20%. Retell your story from a different character’s point of view. Convert your poem to prose. Each of these artificial projects forces us to use consciously the skills we want to be using unconsciously whenever we write. The practice will pay off when we make that double-play look effortless, or knock one out of the park come play-off time.

Spring Training is in full swing. Opening day is just a month away. Will you be ready?

Now, if you'll excuse me, I have some revising to get to!

Friday, November 5, 2010

Poetry Friday: The Hay Rake

The Hay Rake

One evening I stopped by the field to watch the hay rake
drawn toward me by two black, tall, ponderous horses
who stepped like conquerors over the fallen oat stalks,
light-shot dust at their heels, long shadows before them.
At the ditch the driver turned back in a wide arc,
the off-horse scrambling, the near-horse pivoting neatly.
The big side-delivery rake came about with a shriek—
its tines were crashing, the iron-bound tongue groaned aloud—
then, Hup, Diamond! Hup, Duke! and they set off west,
trace-deep in dust, going straight into the low sun.

The clangor grew faint, distance and light consumed them;
a fiery chariot rolled away in a cloud of gold
and faded slowly, brightness dying into brightness.
The groaning iron, the prophesying wheels,
the mighty horses with their necks like storms—
all disappeared; nothing was left but a track
of dust that climbed like smoke up the evening wind. 

                     -- Kate Barnes

Today, everyone's hanging out, reciting poetry, and drinking coffee over at Teaching Authors. Stop on by!

I found the photo above over at Marona Photography. Check out their other awesome images here.