Posts Tagged ‘picture book’

The Post – How Do You Take Three Picture Books and Make a Novel?

February 22, 2008

In writing this post I feel the same amount of confusion and struggle as I did when I was trying to get my head around how to set up the novel. Where do I start? There’s too many thoughts and ideas, too much to wade through or convey. My brain feels overwhelmed and I want to give up and go have hot chocolate at Starbucks instead.

Back then, I was surrounded by papers…drowning actually. I had a binder full of hermit crab story versions from all the different submissions I’d sent out, as well as their rejection letters. I even filed each rejection letter neatly alongside the particular story version sent to that publisher, and the binder was organized in chronological order. That way I could see the not only the history of all the submissions, to whom, and the result, but also, the evolution of the story itself as it changed for each new submission. So in reality, for that one picture book, I had about 20 versions of that story as I tweaked, changed, revised, and resubmitted it.

I had another binder with the multitude of revisions (and rejection letters) for the Max and Jamie un-picture book. Then there was that third short story whose revisions and versions filled, first a folder, then a box. Climbing Mount Everest would have been easier. That journey of a thousand miles seemed shorter than whatever it was going to take to wade through all that stuff and find the story that needed telling. And worst of all, here I was, this very goal-oriented person who lived to finish things fast and cross them off the to-do list. The thought of what this job was going to take to start it, never mind finish it, seemed too daunting to face.

You can drive yourself crazy trying to find the exact perfect place to start or the exact perfect way to work. In fact, I don’t think either exists. As far as getting started, you just have to pick a nipple and get going. It’s like Billy Joel said about the songs in his dreams never matching what he created. Nothing will be as perfect as our dreams and visions. So you can either give up right then because you can’t have perfection, or you swallow your ego and create the best you can. Even the imperfect can move souls. But you still have to write it. Tabitha King, wife of novelist Stephen King, and a critically acclaimed author in her own right, noted in an interview in Writer’s Digest magazine that, “…fiction never turns out the way it’s imagined. Your expectations are never gonna jive. …But that doesn’t mean it’s not a success.” So you put your butt in the chair and start somewhere, working through it all, somehow.

This is where going through Stage 2 helped – you have to know yourself. If you do, you have at least 2 things going for you: 1) you have at least some idea of the questions in your heart that might need to be answered in a book; 2) you have a pretty good idea of how you work best.

How you work defines what your processes and tasks will be. Some writers just sit down and start writing. They write several hundred pages until they finally discover their story and characters. Then they throw away those pages and write the story. A few, like Isaac Asimov, can sit down and organically know where they’re going and just get it right the first time out. And then there’s us plodders. We think, percolate, plan, research ….plod.

Tabitha King said that she likes to research “the living crap out it” before entering the story. Jodi Picoult, best-selling author of 14 novels, said that often she spends more time on research than writing. Why? In her June 2007 column, “This Writer’s Life,” for Writer’s Digest magazine, she said, “…fiction’s a tightrope. I’m supposed to whisk the reader away from his everyday life, but to do that, I need to create characters and situations real enough to entice him to follow. To that end, I’ve found myself living the lives of dozens of people, all in the name of research.” She said that research allows you to write with authority so readers can trust you to get the facts straight, and it gives you the “chance to walk a mile in the shoes of a character that might have lived a life very different from your own.”

I knew I wasn’t Asimov. I also know that to meander aimlessly through hundreds of pages before knowing where I was going, would drive me crazy. I need order, organization, planning, research. You should see how I plan a road trip. After all, my natural tendency was to be General Patton. Generals assess what they’ve got, research their enemy, plan their strategy, then execute the battle. That’s me.

So, first I assessed what I had:

1) I knew now what kind of book it should be – novel.

2) I had LOTS of raw material. I knew the setting, the time of the story-current day – and had some ideas about characters and plot points because I had MANY versions of each story to choose from.

3) I finally knew about what age my own child was inside, 11 or 12. That sort of tells you what age the reader of your book might be. Also, knowing about what ages you and your readers are points you toward what kinds of story questions you can tackle.

At least for me, writing is all about questions and choices. As you ask, you learn something. As you learn, you make a choice about something in the story. Another question comes up, another choice. Before you know it, characters appear, setting, time, places, problems. Others are excluded. The story evolves. So at this point, the question for me became: What is my story about?

I came out of childhood with scars and resentments and issues. So has everyone else. If my own life has depth and there’s more to ME than meets the eye, the same is true of everyone else out there. This means there’s lots of potential for conflict and issues and depth of characters, quirks, oddities, and unexpected twists and turns. No need for clichés, stereotypes and superficial stories when you have some real meat to work with under the surface.

The very story you tell comes out of a choice when answering the questions – Do I write what I know? Or what I want to know about? Sometimes you choose a place or character or issue that you know personally. Sometimes you choose something you have no experience with. You could even choose something that repulses you, but you want to explore it so you can stretch yourself and grow. George C. Scott did that when he portrayed General George S. Patton, Jr. in the 1970 movie, Patton. In this quote from a special features documentary included on that movie’s DVD, one of the former executives at 20th Century Fox, David Brown, spoke of all the issues they had to deal with in making that movie. One was casting an actor for the lead role:

“…of all the critical decisions made for the project, perhaps none was more crucial than the casting of George C. Scott as Patton. George C. Scott was not very fond of General Patton. Why he accepted it was because it was a good script and it was a reach for him as an actor.”

Jodi Picoult noted that she’d grown up happy in the suburbs. Everyone in her family liked each other, there were no dark secrets in the family’s closet, and she worried that she was doomed as a writer before she even got started. “Frankly, I didn’t have enough trauma in my life to write about.” She came to the conclusion she had to alter that “write what you know” rule a bit to “write what could be learned.” Tabitha King said most people assume that “write what you know” means “tart up your autobiography.” Her feeling is you should “know what you write.” All of these things come back to…questions.

But which question do you start with to unlock the answer to “What is my story about?” For my money, if I was allowed only one question, it would be ‘why’? That’s the one I used most heavily in getting this novel going.

Why write this book? Why have these characters and not others? Why does someone do what they do? Buried in the answer to why, is the story of that whole character: flaws, strengths, wishes, dreams, disappointments, crimes, family background, personality traits, likes, dislikes. Ask “why” and you’ve opened the can of worms. Everything is folded into “why?”

People act a certain way. Pretty girls, tomboys, shy ones, party girls. They each have their personality and behaviors. Why? Were they born that way? Did something happen to cause them to act that way? Both? What was it that happened?

Why leads to more questions:

– Where do they live? What’s their environment like? Why are they living in that environment? Are they rich? Poor? Brilliant? Anti-social?

– Who do they live with? Why? Do they get along? Why or why not?

– What’s the story behind the people they live with? Work with? Go to school with? Why do THOSE people act like they do? Who is or isn’t in their lives? What happened to them if someone, say a parent or spouse, is missing?

It’s like spinning a web. You start with one thread, one character. Give that person one trait and ask why. The minute you do, other pieces of the puzzle pop up. You choose a few pieces. More questions come up. Add another trait. Exponentially, the character expands before your eyes. Things you didn’t even know about your character show up on the pages. And so far, you just have the one character.

Now. Want some real complications? Add in another character. The minute you add in another character, the possible choices for how they interact, what they are like, what’s going to happen when those two collide, expands. Then add in a third, a fourth. Add in the environment. Add in the weather, the teacher, the dog down the street, whatever. The minute you add ANYTHING to that one solitary person, you get a reaction. It’s like adding a second chemical into a solution with something else – chances are, you get a reaction. That reaction is based on the properties each chemical brings. And why does a particular chemical have those properties? Because of it’s structure, it’s formation process. So, mix two people together and based on their structure, formation, properties in the form of their birth, environment, personality, etc. you get a reaction.

If you haven’t had enough, add in the question “What if?” What if one character jumps off a bridge and the second one tries to save him and the first one lives but the second one dies? What does that do to the person who tried to kill themself in the first place? Questions multiply the possibilities.

With all these questions and answers, your story seems to be beyond your control, right? It’s not. It’s messy, but that’s good. For right now, you want your right brain to just explode with the possibilities and get it all down. This is still part of the “what have I got” stage. You want to have as many options as possible, as rich a palette of colors as possible, to choose from. Save controlling it for later. Right now just throw all the mosaic stones on the table and see what you’ve got.

You will have to reel in the storyline at some point. Your story will need a road map – the plot, and its soul – the premise. Premise is a one line summary of what the real heart and soul of your story is. Premise may take time but it is percolating in the background as you go through assessing, researching, and planning. It may even change after you put your first stage wild ideas through the research and planning process. But all of this can come later. Right now, just keep throwing things on the pile of “what have you got?”

So how do you do all this? I’ve thrown in all kinds of theoretical process information and questions. But you’re me sitting in that room with these folders and binders of pieces of stories all around you. You’re not sure how to put them together, if to put them together, which characters to keep, create, jettison . . .

I don’t know about anybody else, but the way through all of this for me, was to journal. I have a couple of binders of journaling. Maybe those journals were my “couple hundred pages to find the story” that other authors write then throw away.

I picked a version of each of those three stories and used that as my starting point. If there were scene variations, better wording, or different events in other story versions, I cut and pasted those into my journal or made a “list of possible things to add later” to the version I started with. The point is – I had to pick a version to begin with, then journal from there. I might in the end decide a particular version, scene, person didn’t work. In fact, I know I did. But at least, I had a starting point. You can always add, take away, or start over. But you have to pick that one nipple and just start journaling.

Every day I sat down and did a piece of a scene here, a character description there. I wrote up thoughts about what if you mix these two characters in that setting with this problem – how that might play out? I did sample plot lines. Again and again and again. Dialogue samples. Setting descriptions. List of things to check on. I wrote and wrote and wrote, and made to-do lists.

It’s a messy, imprecise process, but what I was doing was slowly working my way to the soul of the story and its characters. I was pruning. Refining ideas, discarding others. For me, it’s a gut, organic kind of process, like baking bread. You mix up this mess of ingredients, knead it, set it aside. It rises. You come back, push it down. It incubates some more, then you come back and roll it, stretch it, bake it. You eventually end up with a concrete product: a loaf of bread, that you can hold in your hands, see with your eyes, smell with your nose and taste. The same happens with your story and characters. By the end of the journaling, you have this concrete mass of information about the story structure, who’s in it, you may have even answered that one line premise question. The reality is, if you can’t describe your story in a sentence or two, you don’t know the story and need to go back to the journaling. At least I did. Once I could write that sentence or two, it was time to put up the scaffolding. It was time to run all of it through the concrete tests of research and planning. Construction was on the horizon.

Next: The scaffolding – index cards and binders. LOTS of them. And maps. And lists. And books and….

The Post – Okay, NOW Let’s Talk About Where Under the Pier Came From

February 20, 2008

As with most of my projects, my novel in progress, Under the Pier, started as a picture book. What a surprise, hmm? In fact, it started out as three of them – one animal, two human. Two were homework assignments for the Institute of Children’s Literature (ICL). One was a short story I wrote for myself. As picture books, all were rejected. Yes, I know. Another surprise.

The animal story was one of the homework assignments for ICL. It reflected my love for the sea – I flat out love the ocean, and really flat out love the rocky New England shores. It also reflected my love for all things ignored or overlooked. We used to go to Cape Cod when I was a kid. Forget sunbathing. I spent all my time with a face mask on, diving between waves to see what rolled around on the bottom. If I could have stayed down there forever I would have. Jacques Cousteau was my hero. I loved crawling all over the rocks at Newport, Rhode Island, sticking my face into blue mussel beds, poking into tide pools, and trailing periwinkles. I loved every creepy thing that slithered out from under a pile of seaweed or crawled out of the foamy surf.

Ironically, my animal picture book story started out set in North Carolina, not New England. We’d taken a day trip to Wrightsville Beach and ended up sitting under the pier because it was so crowded. I sat there looking up at the weathered rafters, watching seagulls roost. Then I noticed the pilings covered with snails, blue mussels, and algae. I knew there were all kinds of fish feeding in the surf around the pilings, and I could see dozens of jellyfish bobbing in the waves alongside them. I’d never realized how many things lived right around a pier.

Stuck in my picture book mindset I figured I could do a short nonfiction with the slant of who lives on and under the pier, maybe even give it a bloodthirsty twist – who eats who under the pier. After much struggle, and several rejections, it occurred to me that since my soul was in New England maybe the problem was location. So I changed it to a New England pier, though I kept it a picture book. Again, rejection letters piled in. Finally, busy with other things, I set it aside.

The two human stories – again, one was a homework assignment, the other something I wrote that drew on imagery of the blue-collar town I grew up in. Like I mentioned in my last post, stories reflect the questions in their writers’ hearts. My questions? I was one of those kids more likely to be in the shadows of a dark window at night watching the skunk nose through the garbage cans, than at a middle school dance. Even if you ignore the fact that I went to a Catholic school with nuns and I don’t think we had middle school dances, there were other places in town that did. No matter. I didn’t care, and even if I had gone, I’d have been overlooked. That’s who I was back then. So why bother?

I compensated by becoming very good in school. So good, I could stuff down my insecurity and look down my nose at all the popular girls and their snobby cliques. How many of them could tell a garnet from molybdenum? I could. Academics and books were my shield against the pain of being excluded. They were my place to shine.

The other half of it was, I truly LOVED all those books and studies. Frankly, I had a better time one summer climbing all over a rock quarry hunting minerals and gems than going shopping. Who else would, of their OWN CHOICE, with their own money, on summer vacation, go to the local tobacco and hobby store and buy a dissection kit and formaldehyde-preserved frogs, fish, and crayfish to cut up? And consider this fun? Of course, in this day and age, I don’t think you can get these things unless you’re an adult, a teacher, and you can order from a science supply house. And they don’t even use formaldehyde because I think it’s some kind of carcinogen. But, I survived. It was the mid-sixties, heck, you could also buy interesting chemistry sets. I had those too. And the prepared microscope slides to go with my microscope and my geology hammer and chisel.

I also loved playing baseball on the street behind our house with the neighborhood kids, loved climbing the fence into the cemetery with the boys, and doing anything that did not include makeup or dresses. The times I had been most bored were play dates at other girls’ houses when they wanted to play house, tea, dolls (now if they’d had that GI Joe doll maybe….) or hairdresser. That’s when I usually wished they’d had brothers. Brothers who had the neat aircraft carriers that launched planes, tow trucks with flashing lights, helicopters with winches, or those old metal yellow Tonka trucks. I spent hours with my friend across the street playing with those and digging in his dirt pile. We were trying to get to China. So. Is it any surprise I did not do well at dances? Still, nobody likes to be rejected. So I declared those girls enemy number 1, ignored them like they ignored me, and stuck to the things I loved

Given this background, I figured I could do a story with two girls, Max and Jamie, who were cousins. They were stuck with each other for the summer at their grandmother’s house in a blue-collar, coastal New England town. Of course one was the “neat character” – hated makeup and such. One was the snot – always putting her tomboy cousin down. Mix in a hefty dose of all of those animosities that creep up between two very different 12-14 year-old girls, add in a quiet, smart, 14-year-old boy to bring complications, and there was my picture book. Except it got rejected. Not to mention that what I just described is no more a picture book than a refrigerator is. And…not to mention that the story line is a bit simplistic, cliché, and maybe not totally honest?

Midlife brings humility in the form of gray hairs, wrinkles, and regrets. Life beats you up enough and somewhere along the line you start to realize, gee, maybe I’m not so right, and maybe they’re not so wrong. Odd ideas arise, such as maybe those snobby girls weren’t the only ones acting like a jerk? This was a scary thought. I always saw me as their victim. Though I didn’t like what I was feeling about how I’d acted, I investigated that line of reasoning a little deeper. I took a good look at who were those girls, really? Again, midlife does weird things to you. Suddenly I no longer saw demons, just girls as scared and vulnerable as I was. Where I used books or preserved frogs, they used clothes or makeup. They were girls with their own struggles, insecurities, and troubles. Maybe they were even, say it’s not so, living, breathing, 3-dimensional human beings with feelings?

I’d rationalized my behavior all those years by deciding they got what they deserved for looking down on me. Anais Nin said that we see life as we are, not as it is. In that moment all the defenses started crashing. When the dust settled, all I saw were a bunch of people, all very much alike, all just trying to get by. What I realized was that I could be that geeky uncool person just because that’s who I am and it’s what gives me joy in life and it doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks. I finally came to accept me. When you accept yourself, you are then free to accept everyone else. You no longer have to judge others to protect yourself. I could just enjoy being a geek and not wield it like a weapon against others. I could lay the weapon down because it wasn’t them vs. me anymore.

After I got over feeling like a jerk, it occurred to me I could add some entirely new layers and depth to that very superficial “picture book.” Also, about the same time, I finally started accepting 1) I don’t have a voice for picture books and 2) NONE of the stories I wanted to write were picture books. At the shortest, “maybe” chapter books, but frankly, I think most of what I wanted to write fit into middle-grade fiction. I finally accepted the fact that the child inside of me is about 11 or 12.

The final nail in the coffin of trying to stuff a novel into a picture book came in the mid-90s. I attended an SCBWI conference (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) and one of the published authors critiqued that third “picture book” I’d written for myself. Her feedback said “Great chapter. Where’s the rest of the book? I want to know what happens to your character before and after this chapter.”

My thought was, there IS no before and after. I only wanted to write that one segment. And what did she mean, “chapter?” It was a book, not a chapter.

Faced with a bunch of rejected picture books that weren’t picture books, I finally surrendered to the truth – I HAD to become a novel writer.

UP NEXT – How do you take three picture books and make a novel?

The Post – Stage Three: Coming Into My Own – Evolution TO a Novel

February 19, 2008

Initially, I was going to call this entry “Evolution of the Novel” thinking I would dig right in to the logistics of writing Under the Pier. But I realized before I could do that, I had to finish the process Uri Shulevitz outlined for the “Evolution of the WRITER.” From that it was clear that this entry’s title needed to be “Evolution TO a novel,” the final leg of coming into my own.

I have always struggled with the fact that others seem to do rings around me. My husband works in a job where not just every day, but every hour, the priorities change, the deadlines change, who he has working for him changes. It’s constant jumping. He has a quick, fast mind. My sisters and friends manage full-time jobs, more than one job, kids, house, pets, and other responsibilities. I thought maybe it’s a writer thing – writers just move at a slower pace. Yet I observe other writers producing novels, while writing articles, while chatting on the writers’ email lists, updating their web sites, promoting their books and doing school visits. It’s like trying to walk with someone who is always faster than you. The best you can do is maybe match them for a little while, but eventually, you always fall behind. For years it bothered me, and the competitive person inside kept trying to keep up or catch up. And I absolutely ABHORRED admitting to anyone, that I couldn’t keep up with them.

The title of last Thursday’s entry for Thich Nhat Hanh’s online course read: “Let Go.” The entry said: “Letting go gives us freedom, and freedom is the only condition for happiness. If, in our heart, we still cling to anything . . . we cannot be free.” That was the answer I’d finally come to in the last year or so. Just, let it go. Even playing racquetball – I always fought to win when I was younger. Now I never win, but I have grown to love the process of just playing my best. Coming into your own is the moment you finally choose to be free. You let go of the competition and comparisons and just accept who you are.

I am a plodder. Plodders do not have fast brains. While others are rushing around, plodders just stare at them from the sidelines with their mouths open. Instead of snap conclusions, plodders pull things apart, stare at the parts, put them back together differently, then stare some more. Confronted with a pile of seemingly useless, unrelated bits of information, plodders push them around for hours or days or years, until finally a whole picture emerges. The one thing about plodders is that they never quit. They just keep plodding until they find the big picture and make sense of things. They feel the questions and keep going until they have an answer to the question, “What is it?”

It’s like when I did bacteriology. You start out with a confusing mass of all different kinds of bacterial colonies on an agar plate. You look it over until you spot the one that’s probably the culprit of the infection. You stare at the colony on the plate. What color is it? What’s its size, texture, smell? How does it look on different types of agar? What does it look like under the microscope? You run a battery of 20 or more biochemical tests. You end up with this heap of separate, seemingly unrelated bits of data, and the question – what is it? The answer comes from how all those pieces are assembled by a person too stubborn to quit. Assemble the bits like a mosaic and you have Staphylococcus aureus, or Escherichia Coli, or Enterobacter aerogenes, or my favorite, Campylobacter. 🙂

Maybe the thing that plodders and at least this writer have in common is the place inside where we carry both the tools to recognize the patterns, as well as the questions that need to be stared at.

I think stories come from the places within us that hold the unanswered questions. Those places hold the deepest hurts, the places of anger, confusion, sadness, the disappointments, the unsettled business, the tangles we never unknotted, the humiliations we’d like to forget, or the ugly things we don’t want to look at. And the happy moments. There’s the ultimate confusion in life: Why are some times happy and others abysmal? Plodders seek answers by picking through all the tangles, like a bag person picking through the garbage can. If the plodders also happen to be writers, they make their moments of picking through the trash, public. They write a story to document their quest for truth.

The story may not even resemble anything from the writer’s life. Last time I checked, no author has lived in futuristic space or slain any dragons. The story doesn’t have to be autobiography. What it must contain at its core are the questions that that writer carries in their heart. Writers then journey through what they write, to the ultimate whole picture, hopefully, the answer to their question. Some writers can express this journey to find their truth in a 4-line poem or succeed in capturing God in five words or less. Some write picture books. And some, like me, need the panoramic expanse of a longer, more meandering path. That means, novels.

It means plots and subplots, woven like twisted threads. It means primary characters, secondary characters, and maybe a few cardboard characters. It means diverse settings and tweaky, idiosyncratic details. I know this now, because I know me, now. I am exhausted and weary of trying to be what I am not. I am what I am, take it or leave it. Some will relate to my stories, some will hate them. No matter. I write, for me.

I’ve spent many, many years trying all different things on for size. I’ve tried to be what others are. Do what they did. I’m tired of that. I’m ready to be me. So I just, let go.

“Better to write for yourself and have no public, than to write for the public and have no self.”

Cyril Connolly – 20th Century British literary critic.

UP NEXT: Okay, NOW Let’s Talk About Where Under the Pier Came From

The Post: Finally, I Graduate to Stage Two – Focusing the Lens

February 15, 2008

 

I knew Phase II had arrived. Its symptom was unmistakable. I was tired. The amount of work coming from the dictionary job ran up against the short-term deadlines and heavier workload from the ethics board. Family needs took up more time. The ethics board work increased even more. And then there was the point of it all, my writing projects. I realized that I not only couldn’t keep spinning 20 plates on sticks forever, but I didn’t want to. Where some people revel in that level of activity or that challenge, I did not. That, in itself, was telling.

Going back to Mr. Shulevitz’s advice: “You must listen to yourself from your own depths and become acquainted with your own true self . . . learn which is you and which is NOT you. You are what you truly love.” My husband’s reminder felt viscerally real: I wasn’t getting any younger and I needed to stop trying to be what I was not.

I let go of the dictionary work. While it was a good job, I wasn’t meant to be a lexicographer. I throttled back on the ethics board work. It was time for that directive: “Be alone with yourself . . . Achieve inner silence.” In my case that came partly from renewing my dormant practice of meditation and prayer, as well as just, being alone. You can’t run from yourself. To be a writer, if you’re going to have anything worth saying, you must learn your own truth. And it’s only in the quiet moments that the voice within can be heard.

For the first time, I stepped back from my work and took a look at the big picture. I listened to Mr. Shulevitz and sorted out the voices without and within, I looked to see what themes kept repeating themselves in me and my work. That’s when things started to come clear.

I love nature. I loved being 10 and climbing trees and fences and running free in the neighborhood – that time of childhood where you are most capable, where adventure and innocence are at their crest, before the trials and tribulations of adolescence set in. I love castles, the Revolutionary War, diners and the sixties and the blue collar, ethnic world I grew up in. And mythology.

I noticed that I collected, and still do, every silly, touching or factual story about nature, animals, and zoos. I kept a nature journal of our backyard bird feeder and the pond area and collected 3 years of information. I identified with creatures either too small or too much in the background to get noticed, and I was that nature-geek, driven to learn about every tiny sea creature that lived under the ocean pier.

I also knew I’d probably never draw comic strips, or write romance novels, science fiction, or true crime. Nothing against any of those genres, by the way. In fact I am fascinated by the genres of comics and romance novels – they are unique worlds and they seem cool and fun. They just aren’t my talent. And no, I will not try to write any more picture books. In truth, my husband has that voice.

I started to define the projects that were me:

A mid-grade novel set in Williamsburg Virginia during the Revolution. A mid-grade novel set in a 1960s blue collar ethnic New England town, of course, set in a diner. A historical fiction set in 1200s England on the Welsh Marches borderlands. A chapter-book of Greek mythology stories. A fantasy trilogy involving the world of a groundhog living at a highway rest stop, who faces the battle of ultimate evil, personal despair, loss, and emergence into wisdom. And a present day Tween novel of a girl above the pier, in another diner of course, and a hermit crab below the pier.

There is also a love of tweaky, short non-fiction articles about history and . . . nature. I rediscovered a love of and need for essays, which I will write about separately.

I started collecting reference books for all of these projects. Nature guides. Historical fiction. Topographical and historical maps of England and Wales. I made a plaster of paris model of the castle that my lord built, incorporating the latest high-tech gadgets of the early 1200s.

I pinned my project papers everywhere – the study walls were covered on one side with the pier story – maps of the fictitious town, topographical maps of Narragansett Bay, schematic of the diner of my dreams, the one I’d have if I had the money. The other side of the study has the groundhog world – map of the rest, deep woods, nearby farms. The hallway, spare room and stairwell have 1700s Williamsburg, while the den downstairs houses maps of England, schematics of the castle, and the castle model itself.

I even have two webcams up on my computer that allow me to step into 1700s Williamsburg whenever I want. I can see the view down Duke of Gloucester Street or watch the goings-on at the Raleigh Tavern any time day or night. I even had a lobster-cam until that one broke. So I had to settle for the DVD, Realm of the Lobster, that has footage of the undersea world of the lobster in the Gulf of Maine. I found that in this cool marine store store, Hamilton Marine, up in Searsport, Maine. Great website and catalog! Everything from diesel boat cabin heaters and EPIRBS, to cold-water rescue suits and ship’s bells. My next purchase from them will be a hand-crafted wind bell that sounds like a harbor buoy. They even give you the choice of 13 different bells – each one sounding like a buoy in a different place – Bar Harbor, Portland Head, Camden Reach, Outer Banks, etc. I use anything that puts me in the place of my stories.

I started painting again and even did one for the pier story. I bought a new digital camera and started shooting pictures . . . once I stopped being afraid of the thing. It only sat in a box for 2 years. In both painting and photography, I noticed the themes of nature, broken things and overlooked things.

And the words mosaics and broken bits, kept surfacing.

Finally, exhausted, I left the ethics board job. It had gotten to be so much work I was too drained to write. Besides, it was no longer who I was. Revisiting Stage One, I collected outside information as it applied to the projects I wanted to do, from sources like Writer’s Digest magazine, The Writer, countless writing newsletters, market guides and writing books.

All of this I did silently. Alone. Immersed in my own world. And I came to accept that I will work alone. Others can prepare you, teach you, assist you, but when you finally stand at the edge of that dark forest- your own inner world – you must face that one alone. It’s that line from the movie, The Empire Strikes Back. Luke Skywalker is about to enter an area of the swamp where evil lives. He asks Yoda what is in there. Yoda’s response: “Only what you take with you.”

All that was left now was to pick which project came up on deck first. My groundhog story was fairly well outlined. The 1700s Williamsburg novel had some drafts done, characters fleshed out, rejection slips collected. The Under the Pier story had an equal amount of journaling, drafts, and character work finished. The other projects were much further back in the data collection and journaling stages. One day in confused desperation I asked God to please “pick a nipple for me.” A few days later we stopped at Science Safari, a tweaky science store for kids. Sitting atop the discards pile on the sale table outside, was a stuffed hermit crab. My husband and son spotted it. I knew who sent it, so I bought it. The answer had been sent: Start with Under the Pier.

UP NEXT: A Sidetrip to Essays – But the Bus NEVER Came Up This Far on the Curb Before!

THEN: Phase Three: Coming Into My Own – The Evolution of a Novel.

 

The Post – Apprenticeship, Take 2: Getting a Grip – The Anal-Retentive Takes Over

February 14, 2008

As I mentioned, I had reached that place in my Phase I apprenticeship where I had grasped that it takes a long time to become an overnight success. There is no way around paying your dues and learning your craft. You can’t short-change apprenticeship. I knew I did not want to give up my dream to write, so that meant going back to the drawing board, taking classes, and starting at the bottom, all of which would take time. This also meant I had to find some way to bring in an income while pursuing my goal. The most marketable skill I had was that I was an extremely detail-oriented anal-retentive, par excellance. As it turns out, not such a bad skill to have.

I don’t think I was born with that skill. It became second nature from the 15 years I worked in a hospital lab. In a hospital, there is no acceptable margin of error. You have to be right. No matter what I did in the lab, whether it was a crossmatch for someone’s transfusion, a glucose level for a diabetic, a blood count for a leukemia patient, or a drug level for someone’s medication dosage – I knew that the results I reported would directly affect someone’s life. A doctor would base a decision to treat, or not treat, change a dosage or a medicine, based on what I reported. If I was wrong, their lives would pay the price. That training deepened when I worked in the pharmaceutical company. There I validated hundreds of thousands of pieces of data with an allowable error level something in the neighborhood of 0.01 %. The bottom line – details mattered – and in becoming a writer, that wasn’t such a bad place to start.

I decided with that kind of skill, perhaps I could find some editing jobs. Phase I was supposed to be about going “out there” and experiencing, experimenting, and trying new things. So I searched both locally and nationally. I cold-called countless managing editors in all of the publishing houses to let them know I was available for work. I was so terrified on each call, I had my “script” written in front of me while I talked. I sounded assured and confident, even as I sat there rapidly skimming every book on copy-editing, proofreading, content editing, and freelance editing that I could get my hands on. This was survival. I HAD to make this work or I had to find another 40-hour, 9-5 job. If I had to go back to that, I had to give up my writing dream. That, to me, would have been failure. I had given up good jobs, and good income. I just couldn’t give up the dream, too.

I did a few copy-editing jobs for major publishers. That was an interesting time, including the one publisher who didn’t like my work because the editor in charge of that project was a semi-retired person who liked stickies with notes in brown colored pencil . . . ONLY brown-colored pencil. I used the wrong color. No one told me about the colored pencil thing. They later acknowledged that that particular editor was a little “persnickety.” Whatever. I moved on.

A local vanity publisher hired me as their editor – copy-editor, substantive editor, press release writer, you name it, I did it. The money was terrible – flat rate no matter how long the job – but it was money, and it was training. I learned a LOT. After a while I could quote sections of the Chicago Manual of Style by heart and knew it inside and out. The trouble with that local publisher involved getting paid. When their cash-flow stopped, so did mine. It took an attorney to collect from them, so I vowed, no more small self-publishers.

In keeping with experimenting, I answered an online position announcement on the copyeditors email list, for a “native speaker of US English who had experience with other cultures.” It turns out that Bloomsbury, a publisher in the UK was doing a “Global English dictionary.” They needed someone to review all entries to make sure all definitions were there for each word, that they were culturally correct, and sounded “American.” I didn’t expect much but went ahead and sent a note indicating I grew up in a very multi-ethnic community and had just spent 4 years in a British drug company. They gave me an online-test and I passed, so my next title became “lexicographer.” I am listed as one of the lexicographers in the Encarta World English Dictionary, as well as in a thesaurus. They were GREAT to work with and I recommend the experience highly. It was all done by email and overnight overseas deliveries of work, and they paid well . . . and on time. Their Barclays Bank checks were so beautiful that if I hadn’t needed the income, I would have kept one just to frame.

During this time I also became associated with a medical ethics board that would be the mainstay of my freelance work for 10 years. I reviewed the research study documents, and edited, and often rewrote the consent forms that the research subjects would sign. This job spoke to my heart. It used every bit of my medical and pharmaceutical background and then some, REQUIRED someone picky and anal-retentive, and it tapped something else in me – the strong desire to protect. My job was to protect these people by making sure we gave them consent forms that told them fully, what the research might do to them, good and bad. I was well-suited for the work, well-paid, and the job did not require a large chunk of my time each week. That meant – I still had time to write.

I went ahead and did the other direction for Phase I: get outside knowledge. I took courses through the Duke University continuing education program. Classes in essay-writing, picture books, fiction, and how to run a freelance business. I also took and completed two children’s writing courses through the Institute of Children’s Literature. I joined the SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) and attended their conferences. I joined writing groups and paid authors to critique some of my work. And of course, collected more rejection letters.

I started to have a few successes in my writing efforts. I sold an essay to two parenting magazines about the heartbreak I felt every morning dropping my son at day care. I sold an essay to The Writer, and articles to Boys’ Life magazine. I even wrote two CliffsNotes – a result of one of the cold calls I’d made a year or two earlier – one for Dickens’ Great Expectations, and one for Michael Shaara’s, The Killer Angel. I still collected more rejection letters, but the quality of the rejections were getting better. 🙂 Busy editors took time to write personal notes on the form letters. Sometimes they even requested another revision or two before they said no. Overall, a good sign.

All in all, Phase I had taken a turn for the better, and I was learning a great deal very fast. My goal of seeing my name on the cover of a picture book, however, kept eluding me. Yes. Like many others, I had the idea that I should write picture books. They’re short, easy, quick to bang out, and besides, isn’t that what children’s writers write? I banged my head against the brick wall of the picture book writer idol for a long time before I finally surrendered to the truth that even my husband pointed out: I do NOT have a voice for picture books. He also noted I wasn’t getting any younger and maybe I should stop trying to be something I’m not, and focus on what my real strengths appeared to be . . . longer stories. When I finally accepted that truth, I also came to accept another set of truths: a good picture book writer, like a good poet, is rare. It takes special talent and voice, and writing a picture book is about the hardest, at least for me, of all children’s writing. Don’t let short deceive. Like the Tao Te Ching, those short entries are the hardest to do well.

UP NEXT: FINALLY, I GRADUATE TO PHASE II – FOCUSING THE LENS