Saturday, November 24, 2012

Now a Message From Our Sponsor

We interrupt our regularly scheduled program of weekly blog posts about the writing craft for some shameless, celebratory self-promotion.  I normally eschew such behavior, but since I shared my goal of 100 rejections with you, I thought it only fair to share the welcome failure of that goal.  You see, I'm unlikely to reach 100 rejections because I've now had not one, but TWO acceptances within the past month.  Kaleidotrope has purchased my short story "Bread of Life" for online publication in 2014 and The Saturday Evening Post has purchased "The Battle of the Pewhasset Pie Palace" for publication in their online issue for Jan/Feb of 2013.  This feels really good.

About a year or so ago, I made the decision to build my arsenal of short stories as a means of building my writing platform.  You see, as you may know from other posts, the whole marketing thing is not one of my strong suits.  I have a website.  I have two blogs.  I have an author's page on Facebook.  I even finally signed up for Twitter.  But I am not a master at using those tools for self-promotion.  However, I noticed that many writers of books I was reading and admiring, such as Karen Russell, had gotten their feet in the door through the short story market.  And the digital age has been a boon to that market. So I decided maybe that was one way I could seek to build my platform, visibility and credentials - writing short stories and submitting them consistently.  This strategy has been slowly but surely yielding results, sometimes in the form of placing at a high level in a contest, sometimes in the form of almost-made-it and "please try again with another."  And now, at last, in the form of actual sales.

So, besides my own personal celebratory yee-haw, I guess this blogpost is also an example of an alternative method of marketing and building your platform for writers, like me, who struggle with the promotional side of things.  Best of luck, and keep on trucking!

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Reading with a Purpose

It's funny how often the lessons I teach my third graders find their way into my writing life.  Case in point.  This week in third grade, we were learning that good readers often ask questions while they read and then read to find the answers.  This gives your reading focus and purpose, which can help you get more out of it.  After teaching this lesson, I realized I was watching it in action in my own writer-as-reader life.

For example, when I read MOBY DICK in high school, I read it because I had to, and, while I often enjoyed books that I read because I had to, the pressure of assigned reading just as often meant powering through a book without deep understanding, leaving me with vague, fuzzy impressions and an overall sense of the book as a "tough read."  MOBY DICK is the latest book in my process of re-reading the classics as a grown-up, only this time, I'm reading with a very specific purpose related to a character I want to write about (the character demanding to be heard, see my recent post).  Reading MOBY DICK at my own pace as my own self-imposed assignment, I find myself gleaning more out of all of it than I did the first time, even the lengthy digressions about the craft or history of whaling, the types of whales and the parts of the whale.  I'm getting more out of it because I'm reading with a purpose, a self-assigned purpose.

As an adult, with a demanding job and lots of other things going on in my life, I've noticed a tendency for my attention to drift when I read.  But when I'm reading with a purpose, that doesn't happen.  Whether it's reading short stories to build my skills as a short story writer, or reading a book about AIDS with highlighter in hand to add to my knowledge base as research for a new project, if I'm reading with a deep and specific purpose, I sit up and pay attention.

Too often, as teachers, we fail to train our students in setting themselves a purpose before they read.  Watching this lesson unfold in my own brain has given focus and purpose to the process of teaching this lesson to my students.  Do I detect a pattern?

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Novel vs Picture Book Throw-down!

November is National Novel Writing Month.  Wait.  No.  November is Picture Book Month.  I'm so confused!!!!!!  Apparently, November just plain loves to read, so it can't decide whether it's novel month or picture book month.

How shall I honor this identity-challenged writing celebration?  Write a novel and read a picture book?  Read a novel and write a picture book?  Curl up under the covers with one of each?

I spend a lot of time with picture books, being a third grade teacher.  In this visual age, they definitely call to readers.  For writers, that can be a siren call.  "I started with a picture book because I thought it would be easier."  Fighting words!  Picture books force you to focus on the essence of good story structure and word choice.  One false step can throw the whole thing off.  In picture books, every word counts.  That's the worst possible thinking when you're trying to pound out 50,000 words in one month for NaNoWriMo.  Polishing can be your enemy there.  In picture books, less is more.  What is unsaid gives the illustrator the freedom essential to their role.  In novels, the words ARE the illustrations, and the reader's experience depends on those rich textural details that envelop them in another world.

Some folks have made NaNoWriMo and Picture Book Month (PiBoMo????) into a hybrid challenge by setting a goal to brainstorm a certain number of picture book concepts by the end of the month.  I guess you can morph NaNoWriMo to meet your own goals.   Hell, why not set a goal of writing an epic poem, or an entire collection of short stories centered on a given theme?  I can't help wondering if it's right to cram an endless list of genres into one month, but it's meant to provide the external kick-in-the-pants to jumpstart your work if you're stalled.  Maybe it should be renamed "Kick-in-the-pants Month" or "Break Your Writer's Block Month."  No?  Okay.

So, why November?  Is it the cold, gray days that make our brains and spirits go into hybernation?  We definitely need something to energize us in the face of that desire to curl up and hide.  I confess, Picture Book Month appeals to the hibernating bear cub in me.  Get me a cup of hot cocoa, my jammies, a snuggly comforter and a big overstuffed chair.  Load me up with picture books and let me while away the dark and dismal winter like a dormant rose bush.  Then, come spring, all that stored up energy can burst forth in a flurry of 50,000 words.

In the end, I can't choose.  Writing or reading, I love a good picture book and I love a good novel.  Don't they each deserve their own month????

Friday, November 02, 2012

A Character Demanding to be Heard

After a recent writing retreat, a character came to me with his story and I'm afraid to tell it.  I'm afraid that I'm the wrong person because there's a lot I don't really know about this character's world and I'm afraid to find out.  He's challenging me, challenging my own belief in my open mindedness, challenging my willingness to step outside my comfort zone, challenging my confidence.

The character is a gay teen in the 1980s who moves to the Castro District of San Francisco and experiences the devastation of the AIDS epidemic.  He's brought a book title with him, an incredibly strong voice, a compulsion to tell his story and even a plot structure.  He's also brought an in-your-face challenge:  "Are you, Cindy, willing to learn what you need to learn to tell my story?  Are you willing to really get to know me and my world?"  And I don't know the answer.

He was so insistent that I pulled my car over to the side of the road while I was driving back from this writing retreat and wrote 500 words in his voice, 500 words that appears to be the opening of a YA novel.  Then, when I got home, I started a Scrivener file for this project.  If you know anything about Scrivener, you know that step represents a certain level of commitment.  I even started an outline.

It's clear this kid has pull, this kid who won't tell me his real name but simply says "Call me Ishmael."  This kid who believes the story of the fight against AIDS is the gay community's epic struggle, on a par with GILGAMESH or the ILIAD, or MOBY DICK.

I remember the AIDS epidemic.  I know this kid's big feelings about that epidemic come from a deep place inside me and from my own experience and my conviction that this story needs to be told for a YA audience.  It's a part of history that isn't making it into the history books young adults encounter.  But my experience was not as deep as this kid's.  I was more of an outsider, a straight woman in the theater community with gay friends and relatives who died.  I've tried telling the story from a POV character closer to me.  It's not working.  Then along comes this kid saying, "Hey!  This is my story, damn it!  You need to tell it my way."  What am I supposed to do with this?

 Perhaps this is a time to apply my own advice from one of my recent posts and say "Yes, and ..."

Have you ever had a character grab you with this level of insistence, a character whose story you feel you have no right to tell, might not even be able to tell, but the character has other ideas?

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