Archive for the ‘writing’ Category

INGREDIENTS

Monday, October 21st, 2013

Internal Editor: Try writing about the creative process. Maybe about how words and sentences are bent to our use at the same time they shape the story? You could start with a music analogy – something about how the instrument shapes the musician – or vice versa? Get started.

ukewallThe walls in Dusty Strings’ music store remind me I am a ukulele. There are rows upon rows of beautiful instruments on those walls, each with a carved sound box and new strings. Each instrument has its own voice according to how it was made and how it is played. Each awaits the talents of a musician to make music.

I.E.: That’s crap. Try a new direction. Maybe something about finding out what you are writing while you are writing it? Would a recipe analogy work? Begin again.

Our Books Around The Table group met around Margaret’s table this week. The discussion was as delicious as the lunch. She made this black bean soup: http://smittenkitchen.com/blog/2010/01/black-bean-soup-toasted-cumin-seed-crema/

When you have a recipe, you know what you’re making. With this list of ingredients, the result will be always be black bean soup, not cherries jubilee or chocolate mousse.

Not so with writing.

Often when I begin to mix story ingredients on the page, I am not so sure where it will lead. A poem, a short story, an early reader?

 I.E.: That’s crap. Maybe try something seasonal. A parallel with nature, perhaps? Try again.

IMG_3178As I sit to write my blog post this month, my eyes are drawn outside to the hazelnut tree where a fat grey squirrel makes his way along the branches. He balances out on the spindley twigs, where the nuts are ripe. Sometimes he stops and chows down. Sometimes he scampers away with a nut in his mouth; I guess to bury it. And I think how I gather story ideas. Sometimes to immediately crunch into a story, more often to squirrel away for a hungrier season.

I.E.: Stop looking out the window and get focused. You are supposed to post this today. You need an idea that will go someplace. This is crap. Crap. Crap. Oh. That reminds me of what Kate says. Maybe start with that?

khmcommutekhmBLUEDAWNMy sister Kate McGee is part of an open studio tour in the Willamette Valley near Corvallis at the end of this month, www.PhilomathOpenStudios.com.  She’s been getting ready, sifting through her work for the most successful paintings. She always says you have to be willing to try lots of paintings that don’t work to get to the ones that do. Our mother would object to my use of this word, ‘crap,’ (sorry, Mom), but what Kate’s saying is: you have to make lots of crap to get to the good stuff.

Unfortunately, that’s the way it is with writing, too. Seems like I have to write lots of unsuccessful pieces to get to a story that has the juice.

I.E.: Who doesn’t know that? You need a new idea. And hurry up about it. Izzi’s waiting for her walk.

IMG_3171

I.E. Maybe you could check email. Oh, here’s something that is definitely not crap. Begin again.

My Uncle Bo, who celebrated his 90th birthday this week, is an avid disseminator of internet stuff. He sent along this flashmob performance of the chorale from Beethoven’s Ninth and last symphony, written after Beethoven had become completely deaf. http://www.youtube.com/watch_popup?v=GBaHPND2QJg&feature=youtu.be

ide to joyLike a good novel, this performance of the familiar anthem builds in a satisfying way: the orchestra assembles player by player, then the choir fills in behind. It is filmed so we can see the crowd’s pleasure as well as the musicians’. There’s that quality of shared warmth and welcome that gives it soul.

I remember singing this chorale with the Occidental College Glee Club, first in German, then in English. I think in this YouTube performance it is sung in Spanish. It is traditionally sung on New Year’s Day in Japan. Wikipedia says it’s considered by some to be the best song ever written. Over eleven million people have viewed this performance on YouTube – that’s technology at it’s best, bringing people together through music.

Was it at the last Olympics opening ceremonies that this was sung around the world simultaneously? Another coup for techonology. In any case, this performance is very moving. Which is what we want from the creative process, right?

I.E.: “Let us sing a song of joy for love and understanding…”

Yes. That has some juice.

A Tale of Two Foxes

Friday, May 31st, 2013

My fox sisters celebrated a new edition in May and it seems like a good time to tell their story.

The first, eponymous, Zelda and Ivy book was published by Candlewick Press in 1998: three short stories about two fox sisters in one picture book format. Both the text and illustrations seemed to drop into my lap: gifts. But with further thought, I realized this material had been trying to become a book for a long time.

We all experience moments when life is larger than usual, moments full of emotion and humor that we recognize as the stuff of story. I gathered a critical mass of such times from childhood home movies and conversations with my sibs. I wanted to make a picture book that carried our growing-up experience: our neighborhood parades, and fairy dust and, maybe most importantly, our relationships. I am the middle of five children. I know what it is to be a bossy, imaginative big sister and an adoring, gullible little sister. I was pretty sure sibling rivalry could fuel the drama.

I first worked with this material in a project called Summer Shorts. Here’s the dummy.

It included four short stories about a family with five human children. It made the rounds at publishers and was roundly rejected. Years passed while I sold other projects and got started in the picture book world.

Meanwhile, Pierr Morgan, a NW illustrator, showed me this cool medium called gouache resist (directions: http://www.lmkbooks.com/fun/gouache.php). I liked how the reds popped. Why not revisit that sibling rivalry material – only with fox characters? I simplified, reducing the cast to two.

From their debut at critique group, these characters seemed to have the juice. When Zelda and Ivy was published, it received lots of starred reviews and SCBWI’s Golden Kite honors in illustration and text.

I was invited to do a sequel. Then a third.

When the fourth book, Zelda and Ivy The Runaways, came out in 2007, it had a leaner look. Candlewick’s marketing department had advised these stories belong in the early reader canon – thus we downsized to the standard 6 x 9-inch ledger size. That year ALA chose it for the Geisel Award. It was the same year my friend Kirby Larson won the Newbery for Hattie Big Sky. We were both in the ballroom in downtown Seattle when our awards were announced. Pretty exciting.

Two more Zelda and Ivy titles have followed, and the earlier ones were reformatted from picture book to ledger.

By the time I got to the sixth book, I knew Zelda and Ivy’s world as well as my own.

As of May, all six titles are officially part of Candlewick’s Sparks series for early readers; each published as a slim paperback that fits easily into the backpack of a young reader.


INVENTION

Monday, February 25th, 2013

ONE OF THE most interesting people at our neighborhood gatherings is Jim Lea. He’s in his 90s now and sits in a wheel chair and he’s great to talk to. He is an inventor – his most famous invention being the Therm-a-rest mattress, beloved by backpackers everywhere.

thermarest

Jim started out as a Boeing engineer, one of 50,000 employees laid off in a scary downturn in 1971. Being out of work gave him more time for backpacking. But he was tired of waking up in the woods on a cold, flat air mattress. His inspiration came when he was kneeling on a gardening cushion. He realized the open-cell foam had a memory. He and fellow out-of-work engineer Neil Anderson rigged a sandwich maker to melt airtight fabric to the foam. They added a valve, and the prototype that birthed a multi-million dollar business was created.

jimlea

I asked Jim how he decides what to invent. He answered, “What do you need?”

SINCE THEN, my friends and I have come up with a few needs:

• A website called “MeetYouHalfway.com” into which you enter two locations and find the best meeting place and activities between you and your friend. I googled this idea. Someone is already working on it.

• A slimline Kleenex box with opening on the side for easy dispensing from the car sidepocket.

• A Lift Chair that not only lifts a sitter to standing but pinches her toosh and says, “You’re still hot.” I would hire Denzel Washington to do the voiceover.

I THINK ABOUT INVENTION in terms of writing, too, of course. Jim’s question, “What do you need?” can be a challenging one to answer.

Is there a story I need to tell? All these years of composting life into story have established my writing habit as a way of thinking. I write to find out what I think, thereby identifying need?

Perhaps it’s easier to consider what any particular story needs. What combination of character, voice, emotion, tension, pacing, metaphor, revelation, etc. are necessary to invent a story? I scratch around, trying one thing or another. Maybe for me, like Jim, some time in the garden will lead to inspiration.

Want to get inventive? Ask yourself: What do I need? Then share here your ideas for inventions — as well as the stories that are evoked by how you answer this question.

My Sister’s Novel Ideas

Monday, January 14th, 2013
First posted January 11, 2013 on our critique group blog, BooksAroundTheTable.

When I was growing up, I always looked to my oldest sister, Susan, to see what was ahead. Because she played the guitar, I was sure I would someday. Because she went to Prom in a dress with a boned bodice, I was planning on that, too.

sue dance

I am lucky to have her example in this matter of writing as well.

Years ago when I began drafting my present work-in-progress, she sent me a list of ideas about writing a novel. I read it every so often for its distilled wisdom, and want to share it with you, verbatim:

Dear L –

Here’s what helps me most, spewed out in not any order at all:

1. See the story like a movie in your head. Write down what you see, even in a broken way, fast. (Fix later.)

2. See the story like a movie in your head with the sound turned off. Then where is the story? Edit to make the story powerful even with the sound off. This is a way to heal the talking head syndrome.

3. Think: What can I do to raise the stakes?

4. Not everything a writers’ workshop says about your story is right. After being workshopped, put your story away for a time, maybe a month. Reflect. Only then tackle again.

5. Choose concrete words, words that cause the reader to imagine as exactly as possible what you imagine. Look for words which create accurate images which are value-loaded.

6. Leave out everything the reader already knows.

7. The story is in the telling.

8. Run all details through the backpack test. (The idea is from my wonderful teacher Sands Hall: Remember that when you give a significant-feeling detail, the reader packs it into her memory and carries it through the whole story expecting her labor to pay off at some point. You must make sure there is a pay off.)

9. Staying in the same pov, you can roll the ‘camera’ in and out. It’s easier by far to start far out and roll camera in — at beginning of chapter or scene.

10. The end is in the beginning. The seeds of the conflict in the story must be present in the beginning. The beginning is often the last thing you know. Drop into the beginning advertisements for the future — foreshadowing.

11. Tense spots are a good place to dump in necessary history.

12. Dialog should never be people agreeing with each other. If they agree, use indirect discourse.

13. The tone of the story establishes it, creates expectations in the reader, as much as anything else — plot, genre, etc.

14. Henry James: “We only care about people in proportion to how well we know them.”

15. When a character walks into a place, how they see it establishes their character. They walk in with a bag of metaphor.

16. Beginnings: have to give the look of things early, or the reader fills in, and then is unpleasantly surprised to have to repaint the picture. Have to foreshadow the major plot strands, so reader can sense them unconsciously.

17. The end is often the reverse of the initial situation. The best endings are implicit, not explicit. They force the reader back into the story and themselves, looking for meaning.

18. Madeliene L’Engle in Walking on Water, Reflections on Faith and Art: “All they (children) require is a protagonist with whom they can identify (and they prefer a protagonist to be older than they are), an adventure to make them turn the pages, and the making of a decision on the part of the protagonist. We name ourselves by the choices we make, and we help in our own naming by living through the choices, right or wrong, of the heroes and heroines whose stories we read.”

19. There should be something in the near and in the far distance that the protagonist wants (long and short plot strands).

Do you have a copy of Hans Christian Anderson’s fairytales? There is this wonderful fairytale about storytelling, The Elder Tree Mother. Among much else, the Elder Tree Mother, sitting in her elder tree which grows from a teapot says, “For out of the truth grow the most wonderful stories, just as my beautiful elder bush has sprung out of the teapot.” and later, “The little boy lay on his bed and did not know whether he had been dreaming or listening to a story.”

Love,  Susan

 The Treekeepers by Susan McGee Britton, published by Dutton Children’s Books in 2003, is now available electronically: http://www.amazon.com/The-Treekeepers-ebook/dp/B00ANX0TSW/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1357792592&sr=8-2&keywords=treekeepers  It is a wonderful fantasy novel about a fierce heroine, Bird, whose life-or-death quest sparkles with ingenuity and wit. And I’m not just saying that because the author is my sister.

Image

Here’s a more recent photo of Susan in her role as Granny Skeeter to Max, Benn and Jake.

This weekend I will be speaking at the Whidbey Island MFA in Writing residency. I plan to share my sister’s wisdom.

Bit by Bit Putting it Together

Monday, January 14th, 2013

First posted December 14, 2012 on our critique group blog, BooksAroundTheTable.

“What’s the story?” my dad used to ask if I was having a hard time pulling together an article for his newspaper.

It’s a question I am still, always, asking.

Being a writer means sifting through memories, experiences and observations for the material that is charged, for the pieces that line up to tell the story. Usually it is the emotional component – humor, anger, fear, grief – that signals an event is story-worthy and has the juice that will hold a reader’s interest as you tell the story.

MINING FOR DRAMATIC TENSION

For instance, last week we discovered both of our kids had chosen the same date for their summer weddings. Unbeknownst to each other, plans were moving ahead for June 8 festivities in Palm Springs and Seattle. Throw in the fact that the six of us are getting together soon to celebrate John’s and my 40th anniversary, and the tension ratcheted up to find a solution.

This is the stuff of story. I put on my writer’s hat for the six-person phone discussion. A story-gathering perspective offers helpful objectivity. Like any good reporter, I tried to gather information. I also noted tones of voice and scraps of dialogue. I considered which words would best describe the weight in my chest – or was it my stomach? Churning? Tightening? And I imagined our way forward. Oh, I am lucky to be a writer. I could see myself dancing at two beautiful weddings.

Mostly it’s unplanned experiences like this that offer fodder for stories, but we could be more intentional. Peter Sagal on NPR’s Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me said he actively chooses life experiences for their anecdotal value. I think the guy we saw on Nature who gave over his every waking minute to raising a clutch of wild turkeys is this kind of storyteller. An amazing story resulted. http://www.pbs.org/wnet/nature/episodes/my-life-as-a-turkey/full-episode/7378/.  Now he’s off to live a year with mule deer in Montana.

trapeze550

I, too, have a commitment to going after a good story, but the voucher for trapeze lessons that my husband gave me last January for my last birthday still waits on the shelf.

We writers live in a continual process of noting and sifting, weighing and arranging, looking for the potent pieces that add up to the bigger thing. In a heartrending story about her mother, former student at Vermont College, Melissa Chandler, talked about this process. “If we try to act as archeologists of those who gave us life,” she wrote, “what are the artifacts we uncover and keep? Objects? Words?” http://thehairpin.com/user/9639/Melissa%20Chandler.

MAKING CONNECTIONS

Building a story is more than finding the charged bits. It’s about assembling, too. I once mistakenly listened to an audio book on “shuffle.” I enjoy stories with skewed chronology, so it took awhile to figure out what was going on, but it turns out what piece of story rubs up against the next matters.

tree

After I strung the lights on our Christmas tree last weekend, I decided my result was a lot like the plotline of the middle grade novel I am revising. The lights are carefully placed at the top where I began, winding in and out of the branches, but they get sparser and loose toward the bottom, covering bigger and bigger expanses with a single strand. When an LED bulb went out, the rest of the string went dark. It is not a big reach to recognize I need to go back into my novel and add more lights, to twist the plot more carefully around all of the branches, all the way through.

I look forward to that – and to two weddings — in the new year. Happy holidays to you all!

Writing the Beach

Thursday, August 9th, 2012

First posted July 26, 2012, on the blog of the faculty of Vermont College’s Writing for Children and Young Adults, WriteatYourOwnRisk on posterous.

Who better than Julie Larios to serve up a writing prompt? I have often admired the wide-reaching content of her poetry and I got a little insight into her process when our northwest contingent of the faculty of VCFA MFA WC-YA gathered in June at Cannon Beach, Oregon.

(L. to r.: Marion Dane Bauer, Margaret Bechard, Jane Kurtz, Tom Birdseye, Julie Larios, Susan Fletcher, Ellen Howard.)

Julie suggested we each come up with ten strange facts, trade our lists, then choose two items to address some way in a poem. This makes sense with what I know about creativity, how the pairing of disparate things can lead to new thinking. As I worked I felt a tiny shift from writing with intention to writing to see what I might discover. An interesting turn.

The list Julie handed me oozed with possibilities:

  • Seahorses swallow their food through their snouts.
  • The eyes of the seahorse move independently (helps them see predators – compensating for slow movement.)
  • Newborn babies take 30-40 breaths per minute. Adults over 18 average 8 – 20 breaths per minute.
  • When flying, the blue-throated hummingbird’s heart rate can reach about 1250 beats/minute. When perching, 500-600 beats per minute. At night, resting, as low as 40 beats per minute.
  • The hummingbird is the only bird that can fly backward.
  • Birds have many bones which are hollow.
  • One sentence in Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables is 823 words long.
  • Stress can cause your hair to “turn white overnight” by causing the darker hair to fall out, (alopecia areata), leaving only naturally de-pigmented (white) hair.

One item seemed to be a found poem:

The home of the Collyer Brothers,

famous Manhattan hoarders, was

emptied of 19 tons of junk after

they died – that was only the first floor.

Eighty-four more tons of rubbish were removed

from the second and third floors during the second

attempt. In total, 130 tons of garbage

were removed. Included:

1. bowling balls, 2. three dressmaking models,

3. 25,000 books, 4. kerosene stove, 5. top of

a horse-drawn carriage, 6. 14 pianos,

7. two organs, 8. eight live cats, 9. rusted bicycles,

10. hundreds of yards of silk and fabric, 11. bugles,

banjos, violins, accordions, 12. decades of

newspapers.

The younger brother saved decades of

newspapers because he thought his brother

might like to “catch up on the news” if his vision

ever improved.

 

I ended up going with only one fact:

  • “four-eyed” fish (anableps) actually have two eyes, the half above water sees one world, the divided half below water level sees the underwater world. Vision is simultaneous.

It was a lovely retreat. I learned that gathering quirky facts can inspire and buoy my writing. I reveled in early morning, mist-shrouded walks down the beach almost as much as my dog, Izzi. And I loved being with my wonderful colleagues.

Perhaps you, too, might be inspired by Julie’s list. See where your wandering takes you.

 

 

 

Pay Attention, Report Back

Thursday, August 9th, 2012

Originally appeared July 20, 2012 on our critique group blog, BooksAroundtheTable on WordPress.com.

It seems my monthly turn at this blog comes around too quickly. Then I think of my Dad. For 25 years, he wrote a three-times-a-week column that ran on the front page of his newspaper, the Sonora Union Democrat. Three times a week.

A precursor to blogging, Dad’s Sierra Lookout column was a forum for his take on the life and times of his beloved “poison-oakers” in California’s Mother Lode. Dad wrote about his childhood, family, local issues, world news, and rural life, all from the perspective of a self-described “country editor.”

Harvey McGee, 1990

The following column seemed to raise its hand to be included on our Books Around the Table blog because it was written on July 19, 1977. That’s 35 years ago, almost to the day. I think of it as an ode to the Sierra.

WHEN THE insides of your knees are chafed all the way up to the end of your spine.
When anything you sit in seems to lurch and shake.
When the backs of your hands and ears are chapped and sunburned.

WHEN YOU can’t get the smell of fish out from under your fingernails and the smell of smoke out of your clothes.
When the porch railing is draped with an open sleeping bag.
When the air mattress that stayed puffed up only long enough to lure you onto it is on the way to the dump.

WHEN YOU’VE said thanks to Mr. Cutter and his magic mosquito repellant and drained the pollywogs from a glass of Tang for the last time.
When you can smile again without your lips cracking.
When old “Mac” is again munching hay in Willy Ritts’ Kennedy Meadows corral.

WHEN ALL these things are done you lie on that bed that never deflates and remember –
The gentle plunk of the lure on the long cast.
The dart of a shadow from a deep pool, the splash and flash of silver – then nothing.
Or maybe a solid tug – too soft for a snag, too firm for anything but a lunker.

OR VAST ranges of granite pocked by blue jewels with revered names – Black Bear, Bigelow, Emigrant, Dorothy, Maxwell.
And in the folds of rock: lush meadows, green groves, clear streams. Far beyond and below, the grey-brown air trapped in the simmering valley.

SOON forgotten are the lurching chafing and burning of the sometimes rider. Even the memory of Pear Ripple, wet clothes and gin rummy defeats begins to fade.
What remains as clear as the night sky over Bigelow Peak are the steaks, shishkebob and basted eggs by an expert volunteer cook, the sweet meat of camp-smoked trout and the fellowship of others who share an unspoken appreciation of the remote magnificence.

VISITORS to the wilderness are apt to feel some guilt about the privilege, but that’s the paradox of the place. If it were easily available to more, it would soon be enjoyed by none.         –Harvey C. McGee

Emigrant Basin. Photo courtesy of Susan McGee Britton.

As writers and artists it’s our calling to pay attention and report back. No one sees the world quite the same way. I’m lucky to have my Dad’s columns – his keen observations and amused take on the human condition, his personal stories and opinions – to guide me. Not to mention the gold mine of over 2,500 columns that will come in handy when I’m looking down the trail for a blogpost idea.

Riding into the high country, 1968. L to r: Marny Gorgas, Kate McGee, Laura McGee.

Doozying Up Vocabulary

Thursday, August 9th, 2012

Originally posted May 25, 2012, on our critique group blog, BooksAroundtheTable, at WordPress.com.

I expect that every tribe over the years develops a few useful words or phrases that make up its unique lexicon. Here are a few from my tribe that you, too, may find useful.

GMAZEL – an extra stop or errand. This recalls our friend LeRoy Gmazel and the winter day he drove us to the ski slopes. On the way, he made not one, not two, but three side trips: picking up skis, dropping off a bag of potatoes, returning a friend’s chainsaw. Thus in our family when you ask for an extra stop along the way, you request a gmazel.

WOLVERINE! – the opposite of crying wolf. Wolverines are serious, fierce animals. When you call “wolverine,” you really mean it. A family member will rush to your aid. Especially useful if the tp has run out.

MIMI HAIR – hair that sticks up in every direction. My friend Emilee Birrell’s childhood doll Mimi had the most unmanageable of unmanageable hair. Emilee’s mom bought Mimi a new wig– and still the wild hair persists. (Thanks for the photo, Em.)

“IS THERE A DAY YOU DON’T DISAPPOINT ME?” – a smart alec phrase used to get family members moving. We encountered this one on the Greek island of Kea. The innkeeper came by early one morning with maps and advice and helped us plan out the day’s hike. Two hours later, we were still sitting on the porch when he strolled by again. He called to us, “Is there a day you don’t disappoint me?”

Eventually we hiked to the ancient city of Karthaia and the ruins of a 6th century BC temple to Athena above this beach. Beautiful.
Zelda doozied up Ivy’s tail.

When you are creating the world of a story, you may find that words and phrases particular to that world begin to emerge. In my own Zelda and Ivy stories, the sisters  “punch paws” in solidarity, “woozy-weasel promise” to seal a deal, and “doozy up their tails.” These turns of phrase are part of their fox-tribal lexicon.

Now it’s your turn. What words and phrases are unique to your tribe?


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