Wednesday, May 30, 2012

When the Best Writing Happens

For the last few days, I’ve been working on a video to accompany a book coming out next spring. Why am I filming a whole year in advance? Because I need to get footage of wild roses in bloom, and that only happens one a year—now.

In some ways, structuring a video is a lot like organizing a book. It requires the same set of skills. But filming is completely different. There are so many things to think about—weather, lighting, sound.

When I write, I control every word on the page. But with filming (especially outdoors), so much is out of my control. Sometimes that’s incredibly frustrating, but it can also lead to unexpected miracles.

As I tried to capture footage of wild roses on a windy day, I focused hard on how the plants swayed and how the quality of light cast upon them changed as they moved. And suddenly, I had an a-ha moment.

Changing light. Flickering light. That was it—the perfect way to enrich the beginning and transition to the second section of a manuscript that had me stumped. In fact, I’d abandoned it months ago, thinking it was a lost cause.  

But in that moment, my hope was rekindled. I knew exactly what the manuscript needed. I didn’t even finish filming. I packed up, hurried home, pulled out that old manuscript, and began revising.

Sometimes the best writing happens when you aren’t even trying.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Saguaro by the Numbers. Maybe

I’m going to install a little window in my mind so you can see how it works. At least how it is working at this moment. It may not work in quite the same way at any future time. Here’s my promise: other than having decided on the overall idea, I have not planned the specifics of what I’m about to write. Instead, I will record my thought processes (if there are any) as they occur, to see if something interesting, useful or otherwise worthwhile happens. And if not, you’ll get to see that, too. Ready?

Here’s the context. It happened earlier this month. I was in Phoenix for school visits, and I had a free afternoon so I went to the Desert Botanical Garden. Great place! I was looking at an exhibit on saguaro cacti, the Sonoran Desert’s quintessential plant. A mental image of this charismatic cactus with upcurving arms may be the first association many people have with the word "desert," although saguaros grow only in this relatively small desert of southern Arizona, northwestern Mexico and a sliver of southesastern California. I knew these are very cool plants from a very hot place, but of course I was eager to know more.

So I read the interpretive signs and I was bowled over… with numbers. That is to say, numerical facts about saguaros. Being a numbers guy and a math author, the hairs on the back of my neck stuck up like cactus thorns. Here are a few of those numbers:

 — a single saguaro plant releases up to 40 million seeds in its lifetime
 — saguraros grow incredibly slowly: about ½ inch in the first year and one foot in the first 15 years. Then they start cruising: in 40 or 50 years, they may reach ten feet and it is not until they are 50-100 years old that they begin to sprout arm buds. Some live up to 300. Their maximum height is 40-60 feet. When a cactus poacher (oh yes, they do exist) digs up a six-foot saguaro to plant in front of his house, a replacement in the wild will take about 30 years reach the size of the poached plant (which will probably die).
 — one mature saguaro can store 1,500 gallons of water (that’s 6 tons) in its spongy pulp  — enough to last several months. It can lose 2/3 of its stored water and survive.

There were many other numbers but that’s enough for now.

So here’s what happened. I thought to myself, “Hey, how about a book about saguaros and their numbers?” Saguro Numbers or Saguaros by the Numbers or Number the Saguaros or something like that. Or maybe not like that. But let’s not get hung up on the title. The thought did not evade me that if I could pull it off, sequel possibilities would be countless:  Elephants by the Numbers, Great White Sharks, Dinosaurs ... even Oceans, Earth, The Solar System, etc.

So what about it? Having an idea for a book (or a series) is the easy part. Figuring out a way to execute the idea is another matter. It’s kind of like the business plan for a book. Without it, all you've got is something to talk about at cocktail parties. With it, you're in business. Maybe. So what should I do with this inchoate idea of saguaros and numbers? Let’s see…

First thought out of the gate: like Harper’s Index. You know, “Rank of Portland, Oregon, of all cities in per capita consumption of Grape-Nuts: 1” or “Number of incidents worldwide last Christmas (2005) of ‘Santanarchy,’ which involves roving mobs of unruly Santas: 29”

So, instead we could have, “Number of seeds a saguaro cactus produces in its lifetime: 40,000,000.”

OK. Possible. But a bit dry, and it seems a bit too much like, well, Harper’s Index. A derivative work. Heaven forbid. And it might get tedious. But with additional text to explain and fill out the saguaro's story, it could work. 
So, maybe this instead: I’ll build the book around a number line. One gargantuan number line could extend across all the pages. Number lines are an important way for children to understand number concepts, and along the number line I could mark numbers of importance in understanding saguaros. At the number 10, there could be an arrow or an indicator that you can follow to an explanation that in 10 years, if all goes well, the saguaro will reach a height of one foot. (I suppose I could just as well put the marker at the number 1 and say that one foot is the height of the saguaro after ten years.) At 1,500, you’d have the number of gallons of water a plant can store. (Or it could be 6 for 6 tons.) And at 40,000,000 the number of seeds produced in a lifetime. Of course there would be many opportunities to add supplemental information to fill out the picture. (Let me not discuss right now the question of whether to use metric units of American units or both. We'll save that for another day. We're just brainstormin' here.)

OK, but a few problems with my number line idea come to mind. For one, how can I set up a number line on a scale that shows 1 and 6 as well as 1,500 and 40,000,000 and plenty of points in between? I guess there are ways. I could leave out sections (showing jagged lines to indicate discontinuities). Yeah, that’s possible. Or how about this: multiple number lines on different scales. One for growth. That would work. Another for production of things like seeds. Forty million. But what else could go on that number line? Maybe nothing else. Does it make sense to create a number line with only one point on it? Maybe not.

But wait a minute, suppose I created a bunch of number lines, on different scales, and I showed not only the saguaro-relevant numbers (example: 1,500 gallons of water stored) but other values that could put it into perspective, such as how much water is found in a large watermelon, in the body of a human, in an Olympic-size swimming pool. 

That could work. But let’s think about it. Do I really want a book of number lines to tell the story of a saguaro cactus? Maybe. Maybe not.

How about a book of math problems related to saguaros? "It has rained for 30 hours in the Sonoran Desert. A 40-foot saguaro's roots spread 40 feet in all directions, and in the area above the roots, 100 gallons of water fall each hour. The saguaro can absorb half of that water. How much water can this giant cactus absorbed?” (Do you need the Teachers Edition? The answer is 1,500 gallons.) Then some narrative can explain that these plants really do this, how amazing they are, etc., etc. Nah, too much like a math textbook.

OK, how about a book with chapters that are numbered in an odd way. Instead of Chapters 1, 2, 3, etc., we can number the chapters according to the number being discussed. So it could start with Chapter 1 in which we feature the number 1. All the things about saguaros that come in ones. Or just one thing: in one year it grows half an inch. But then we might skip to chapter 10. That's how many years it takes for the saguaro to grow to a height of one foot. And I would talk about water absorption in Chapter 1,500.  Chapter 40,000,000 is for the seeds. (Hey, I could start with Chapter ½ because it grows half an inch in the first year.)

Hmmm. Not bad. Original (I think). Maybe I could pull it off. Maybe not. That’s all I’m coming up with right now: lots of maybes and maybe nots. 

And maybe, since the great horned owl of my bird clock just hooted (as the clock’s little hand reached the number 12), I’ll sleep on it. Tomorrow is another day for a few more maybes. And then maybe I’ll start writing to see which of these maybes I like best. Or maybe I’ll think of a better one. (In the meantime, feel free to vote for your favorite or suggest your own maybe.)

Friday, May 25, 2012

Author Presentation - All Tied Up

Last month, I wrote a somewhat tongue-in-cheek post titled Lessons Learned - Author Presentations. The comments and suggestions from readers of that post were fantastic and very helpful. Today, I thought that I’d share a little about my recent Author Visit -mixing it up with knowledge I learned and information I shared, all wrapped up with some very touching and creative thank you cards.

 During my Introduction while described my childhood, I explained that I liked to read, make stuffed toys for my brother, and secretly write and illustrate stories in my closet. And, I liked cotton candy. These elements were woven throughout my presentation.

Of course, cotton candy got a huge reaction.

During my Writing portion, I showed them how I feel some days, while I am writing.

I think all the students could relate.
(Also, I shared, "The fact that I'm talking to you instead of writing is yet another way that I'm procrastinating.")

The only problem I had was my throat became dry while talking for all that time. I brought my trusty water bottle with me. But, like I shared to a friend, “When I stopped to take a drink, I had 60 pairs of eyes glued on me.” There’s got to be a secret to being able to speak and not get a dry throat.

Though I’ve done classes and presentations, this was my first go at a Powerpoint presentation. The previous week during a sold out show at a large, local theater, the speaker’s Powerpoint presentation continually got the “spinning ball of death”. I was so scared that was going to happen to me. The teacher and I tried to match our schedules so I could to go in a day or two early and check to see if the presentation ran okay. But, in the end, I had to cross my fingers and arrive at the school 45 minutes early to get everything working. Let’s just say that the presentation finally got on the screen five minutes before the students came in. Lesson learned: buy a projector!

The teacher told me later that the students were talking about my presentation and writing the entire rest of the day. She said, “The students were so excited about your visit and now inspired to write their own stories!”

Here’s a few nuggets from the cards and letters:
“You inspired me to draw and write.”
“I will probably buy your book it sounds really good.”
“I want your book so badly.”
“You rock, Mrs. Lewis.”
“I think your presentation was awesome.”
“You have inspired me to become an author! I’m sure The House that Jill Built will be awesome.”
“I will read the book right when it comes out.”

Would love to share all 60 wonderful comments. But, I’ll stop at those. Gotta love 'em.

The one thing that strikes me while I’m rereading all these cards is they are all extremely creative and unique. Our schools are truly filled with some amazing talented and creative students. They are the creators of our future.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Exuberant Days

Sometimes life is so beautiful it’s almost hard to live it. At times, the work, too. In Spring, there are days when I actually live the life that people imagine children’s book authors do every day of the year. 
Yesterday, I had a big plan for serious checking things off my list. (Respond to book proposal from editor who wants me to write to go with a photographer’s photographs, write endmatter on current nutty main project, update website, respond to someone about changing a talk description, sort three weeks of photographs from marshes in Ohio, file bills, make travel decisions, book necessary travel, set up house repairs, etc.) 
Chickadees interrupted me with flurry, alarm calls, and general fuss, and before I knew it, I was out in the yard with my camera.  What could I do but witness and somewhat photograph what was going on? 

Chickadees cleaning out the next box. 
Chickadees leaving the nest box for the first time...and predators threatening the chicks. 
Three species of woodpeckers feeding babies high up on the oak trees. 
Squirrels being squirrels. (Three species of those, too.)
An indigo bunting popping in and out of the scene.

I did eventually manage to get back to my computer to announce the release of my new book Go, Go, Grapes: a Fruit Chant. Then I got to work on my current work, the sequel, Let’s Go Nuts: Seeds We Eat. 
I needed to chase down some coconuts for the next photo. So in the mid-afternoon lull of bird activity I traveled the world in our small town. I spent time talking to Saigon market grocers about how soy beans are used in Asian cuisine, and the many forms of mung beans, shelled and otherwise.  Gave them my fruit chant book, in which their durian fruit, dragonfruit, and mangosteen star.  
Stopped by the farmer’s market to coordinate Go, Go, Grapes signing.
At El Paraiso, a wonderful Mexican market, I found (finally) some young coconuts and some purple varieties of corn for an upcoming photograph. I also got permission to photograph beans in their store.
Then, all afternoon, I photographed and fussed over various beans and seeds. Perhaps the neighbors thought I was slightly nuts, walking around the yard photographing trays of nuts in various colors of full and dappled light with an assortment of flashes. I was also picking off cottonwood fluff falling from the trees, brushing aside errant ants, and waving away a few flies that kept hopping into the picture. Nothing worse than taking the perfect picture and then finding out when you see it on large screen that the star player is an ant you did not know was there.
At one point I was sitting in the grass test photographing a tray when six feet from me, in the now empty chickadee house, a bird emerged. A wren was already stuffing the house with sticks and emptying the earlier tenants’ contents from inside!
Spring is like that. It’s at times almost too exuberant to manage. I know my friends, celebrating childrens’ proms and graduations from high school and college, feel that way. Here, in the world of nature and writing, there’s that wild sweetness, too. 

For me, enjoying this peak time, this immersion, came with some work. I could not have done it six weeks ago. After two years of glorious but goofy overwork, some of the most challenging, stretching, and joyful of my life, I could not breathe properly or even speak about writing. I still had school visits but I cut back my writing schedule and expectations for a few weeks. I had to literally not get excited about new projects. In other years my school visit/deadline schedule has been so heavy that I have been fried by the time that the bird migration began and unable to actually settle in and enjoy it. 
Animal migration has been my main study subject for the last twenty years although I haven’t published extensively about it. (Once had an eight book series contract on it; editors were laid off in a reorganization.) We plan all our travel around migratory events. Jeff and I love migration so much that bird migration time is blocked off on our calendar. This is sacrosanct nature vacation time. Over the years I’ve gotten better and better at saying “no” to deadlines and talks during these weeks. Because a birder has only so many wildflower blooms and migrations to see in her lifetime. 
This year my only transgression was to pop into Chicago for IRA for two days. Mistake. I was in the halls at IRA in Chicago and Jeff called me to tell me the winds and storms were in the right spots for a possible fallout of birds. A deep feeling came over me: THIS IS NOT WHERE I NEED TO BE. As I hailed a taxi, dashed back to my lodgings for my suitcase, and caught a train home, I made the necessary calls to cancel dinner and meeting plans. 
Such a surge of choice and freedom. This was what I needed to do. Had to do. A day later, we were watching warblers and photographing them. Step-by-step, my brain began to settle and joys and new ideas began to arise. With lots of warblers and walks, my peace and balance returned.  Now nature time and projects are particularly sweet because I can deeply experience them, not just flutter about in over-revved spaz.
In between writing some of these sentences, I have paused to photograph an oriole at the oranges we put out for it, woodpeckers feeding again, and a butterfly up on the lilac. I just saw and photographed a flicker feeding in an anthill. In between, I am trying not to allow the sun onto the light focusing lens  I have attached to my camera flash because it can catch things on fire. A chipmunk is now under my chair. That’s Spring. Here comes a downy! Chattering and chirping. 
This time of year, I keep thinking of things I want to share/post but then, the Spring is so packed full with life and lovely interruptions that most days, I do not post a thing. I wish I could bottle this time, keep it potent and powerful, for  darker seasons of life and year. Oh, twell! I have the photographs to help me remember. 

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Report from London: 3

I’m into my third month on a home exchange in London and time has raced by with breathtaking speed, even during the rainiest April in 100 years. I brought a lot of work-in-progress with me, but there is too much to do here! And in the midst of new places and culture blitzes creeps the question – is there a book here?

Searching For That Next Book

I drove north to Yorkshire for a school visit at the Driffield Infant School (ages 4-7, preK-2) and met adorable children, who acted out Katje the Windmill Cat in Yorkshire accents. On the drive home, listening to BBC Radio (great stuff!) I heard a documentary about an Elizabethan composer who could possibly feature in a sequel to my Shakespeare novel…. Long shot, that.

David Hockney’s stupendous show of landscapes at the Royal Academy – what about a biography? Thankfully he’s still alive and kicking and reinventing himself every few years.  His mother lived to be 101, and so he’s a mere stripling at 75, and we’ve got time for a few more Hockney incarnations. A biography would be out of date before it was published.

Dickens is 200 this year.  I heard a wonderful lecture by his great great granddaughter and biographer, Lucinda Hawksley.  Too late for me to cash in on the bicentenary.

I’ve spent lots of time and money attending Chelsea football matches, leaving no time to research the history of women’s football. BTW, Chelsea are the Champions of Europe!

Then a holiday from my vacation. I just returned from eleven days in Turkey.  Days filled with shopping, visiting ancient mosques, one blissful evening lolling about at a hamam (traditional Turkish bath,) as well as eating three delicious vegetarian meals a day. But no story ideas until we visited the ancient ruins at Ephesus where I remembered a story I wrote many years ago…. Time for its resurrection?

Then there was a television documentary (love that BBC!), with related material seen a few days later at a nearby palace, and a library search for relevant books.  A day-trip to Oxford and lunch with a colleague who suggested a visit to the Royal Archives. And I may just have a story. An upstairs/downstairs sort of story with conflict, pathos, and humor. I’m onto it.

Meanwhile my works-in-progress are languishing over in the corner, buried in a pile of books, so I won’t hear them crying for attention.  Many writers would agree, I think, that new projects are ever-so-much more fun than old ones. This condition is called Research Rapture.

Talking About the Weather
During that rainiest-April-in-a-hundred-years, it didn’t just rain all day.  Each day began in brilliant sunshine with glorious white clouds, which grew grayer and gathered thickly as the hours passed, then emptied onto the city streets, followed by clearing skies until the sun shone brilliantly again. Then the clouds gathered again…. repeating the cycle two or three times every day!

And I thought, isn’t that just like the weather of our writing lives – from sunshine, to gloom, to downpour and back again, sometimes on a daily basis. At  the moment, the sun is shining!

PS: Here's a wall seen on a major shopping promenade in Istanbul.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Sometimes Known As Bunk

       "History is more or less bunk. It's tradition. We don't want tradition. We want to live in the present, and the only history that is worth a tinker's damn is the history that we make today." Inventor/Industrialist Henry Ford, as quoted in the Chicago Tribune, in 1916.
         On the other hand:
        "To me history ought to be a source of pleasure. It isn't just part of our civic responsibility. To me it's an enlargement of the experience of being alive, just the way literature or art or music is..."You can't be a full participant in our democracy if you don't know our history."  David McCullough, who, I suspect, would still find pleasure in history even IF he had not found a way to make a handsome living from studying and writing it.  
       But it has appeared to me that those who administer our schools stand in closer agreement with Mr. Ford if one is to judge by the content of many a mandatory test. I came across a provocative essay, Teaching for Historical Literacy, written by Anne Goudvis and Stephanie Harvey.   It begins: 
       "At the very moment when calls for a rigorous, content-rich curriculum reverberate from coast to coast in the United States, many elementary schools have put history and social studies on the back burner. Increasingly, these disciplines are being squeezed into an ever smaller corner of the school day or, astonishingly, abandoned altogether. No Child Left  Behind (NCLB) has morphed into MCLB - Much Curriculum Left the face of high-stakes tests in math and reading."
     In response, Montana teacher Greg Timmons wrote an eloquent essay, in which he enlarges upon the educators' suggestions for encouraging students' historical thinking, for implementing such study - especially in a time when teachers' instructional time is so limited.  Here's the line that lifted my eyebrows and gladdened my heart: 
     "Historical fiction and non-fiction illustrated books are great resource for immersing students into the past. With strong writing, vivid language, and striking images, they allow students to better imagine a different place and time. Because these books are usually short, students can review several sources and engage in critical thinking about different points of view."

      All of this brings me to what I really wished to offer you all today: My recent conversation with Vermont author, Natalie Kinsey-Warnock.  
      CH: Are you not just knocked out and disgusted that history is getting such short shrift in America's classrooms? I mean, what kind of cockamamie attitude is that? What is it you were telling me about the other day – Story Keepers?
     NKW: My idea for the Story Keepers Humanities Curriculum probably began when I was a young child, when my father, mother, sister and brothers, instilled in me a love of history.  It was my sister’s genealogical research that led me to begin writing books, most of which are based on family history.  I strongly believe that the way to get children excited about history is to make it personal and relevant, and I believe this is best done by connecting historical events to family history.
         CH: You must be like a genius!
         NKW:   I don't know about that - 
         CH: I do!

        NKW: Yeah, well, after telling the story of my great-great-grandfather, who fought in the Civil War, and survived the Sultana disaster (this little-known tragedy is our country’s worst ship disaster), I have seen classrooms of students, grades 3-6, storm the school’s library, strip every Civil War book off the shelves to search through them, while the astonished librarian told me that she’d never had a book go off that shelf before.  Reluctant readers and writers have told me, after doing projects on family stories, that they never knew writing could be so much fun, and that they wanted to become writers.   I’ve seen students who had never written more than a paragraph before, suddenly write five pages about a family story that they’d found, and beg to take it home over the weekend so they can keep working on it.  
       CH: Now see, THAT is what I just love about this history business - it's not just a boatload of factoids. It's stories,  genuine stories about real people. It's like David McCullough said: "Nobody ever lived in the past, only in the present. The difference is it was their present."
     NKW: Exactly! What I wanted to do was  to start a  kind of history revolution in this country, for students to see that history could be exciting, interesting, and relevant, and to nurture in them a passion for history that would last a lifetime.  So I talked it over with teachers hereabouts and we started the StoryKeepers pilot program with the fourth graders at Glover Elementary [ Glover, VT].
       They bring in family artifacts and stories. Some of the lower level students, who struggle with reading, comprehension, and writing, are shining with this curriculum---they are excited, enthusiastic, eager to share and participate, and are enjoying  success

    CH: I can't help but think that as a kid puts names, faces, time & place intersections with of his or her ancestors - puts them at the scenes, in the smack-middle with historical events and movements, that history will come alive and bust out of its irrelevant, boring drudge-reputation, that the dead will come alive and not in some creepy zombie way.

      NKW:  There was a study done by Emory University in Atlanta, GA; it found that children who know their family stories have higher self-esteem, suffer less from depression, and are better able to handle peer pressure.  We believe this curriculum will not only benefit individual students but will also enhance the partnership between schools and communities, and will nurture the relationship between schools and local and state historical societies and museums, as students, in striving to find their family stories, also discover their community’s stories. 
      CH: So what happens from here? How's your revolution progressing?

     NKW: There's going to be a graduate course offered here in my part of the world, at Lyndon State College.    The idea is that these grad students will wrap their heads around the power of family stories in teaching history. Learn the ways of tracking them down and implementing these within the course content.  

    CH: It sounds to me as if this curriculum, this way of going about teaching social studies would have to enhance the students' reading and writing skills. Really, it's not as if we're trying to bring up a generation of authors - golly, what an idea! - it's that we want citizens who can knowledgeably participate in the republic –

     NKW; Take part in our civilization's conversation. And shoot,  without some sense of who we are and what we humans have been about, what are we going to read and write about?

       CH: Couldn't have said it better myself!


Friday, May 18, 2012

Little and Big Detail

Springtime is my favorite season, and wildflowers are a major attraction here in beautiful western Montana.  The parade has begun, starting with buttercups in March and continuing through a roadside trio of larkspur, star flower, and biscuit root—purple, white, and yellow, a combo that would make a beautiful flag.
I’m celebrating the season by taking a class in wildflower journalling, both because I love the flowers and because I am not fundamentally a detail person.  A class like this, where I’m sketching the plants to document them, forces me to switch into the often neglected detail mode.  And I know, as a writer, that details are critical in bringing my writing to life.  Details help the reader ‘see’ what you’re writing about and can jump start a movie in the brain that will carry your reader seamlessly through your work.  This principle can be used to lead a reader through a sequence of ideas or information to a conclusion every bit as well as to carry the reader along through an exciting fiction story.

While pondering these thoughts as I climbed a trail up the mountain we live on, I noticed delicate yellow-flowered Arnica plants blooming in the dappled shade I leaned over and focused in on a single plant with my camera to document it for my wildflower project.  Further up the slope, I saw an image that epitomized Arnica’s habitat preference—an oval of tall pines created a shady spot decorated by a patch of Arnica, its borders sketched by the shade of the trees.  I suddenly realized that two kinds of detail exist, small detail and big detail.  Small detail would encompass the minute features of each plant, while big detail consisted of larger but still specific features such as the way the plants are growing in the shady patch among the pines.

When we writers wish to create images for our readers, we may move from small detail to big detail, or vice versa, depending on where we’re going with our words.  Here’s the masterful nonfiction introduction from my friend Jeanette Ingold’s Montana Book Award Honor Book novel, “The Big Burn” that moves through many small details, then widens to the big picture:

The wildfires had been burning for weeks.
They’d been born of sparks thrown from steam-driven trains and from the machinery of backcountry logging.  They’d started in the working fires of homesteaders and miners and in the campfires of hobos and in the trash-burning fires of construction camps and saloon towns.  They’d begun when lightning had coursed down from an uneasy summer sky to ignite the towering snags of dry forests.
The wildfires lay behind a brown haze that was beginning to shroud mountaintops and drift like dirty fog through the forests of the Idaho panhandle.  Though no one then knew it, they were fires that would join ranks and run in a vast wall of flame.
When they did, it would be called the big blowup, the great burn, the Big Burn.

At this point, we know we have to read on—we couldn’t stop.

  We know that detail can draw us into a piece of writing, but it can do more.  Here’s an example of how simple detail can inspire the reader’s imagination, from another award winner by a friend, Peggy Christian’s “If You Find a Rock:”

Then again,
you might find a rock
with a stripe running
all the way around it.
Trace the line
with your finger—
it must circle all the way.
you have a wishing rock,
and you whisper
what you want
before you throw it.

If you get stuck in your writing and feel you’re not drawing your readers in with your prose, think about finding a way to use a telling detail to start that inner ‘movie’ going and widen your perspective from there.  Or, if the goal is to have your readers focus on the small details, start with the big and gradually work down to the small.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Wrapping It Up

There is a time to begin finishing every book. Sometimes it feels as though that phase may never come. But it does. And there is work to be done. Careful, meticulous, try-not-to-miss-any-detail kind of work. That is what I am doing now for my forthcoming COURAGE HAS NO COLOR. The process for a nonfiction book includes a lot of details that may surprise some people. Here are some of the things I do as the author to tie up any loose ends as we head into this final phase:

Make sure I have ordered every photo at a high-enough resolution to reproduce well in the book (tricky with archival WWII photos, and I do this with the help of the brill designer on the book).

Write the photo credits, making sure to check them against the most final layouts so all page references are credit, and cross-reference them against my photo source charts that I create.

Tally up my photo costs and make sure I haven’t gone over budget. And if I have, come up with a solution as to how to deal with this issue.

Compile all the source notes for any quote in the book. (This is a biggie—I think the source notes in Courage are ten manuscript pages, single spaced!)

Make sure that the Bibliography I created while writing the book is complete and up-to-date (i.e. I haven’t forgotten to include any books or articles or documentaries I may have used in the last few months).

Check all the captions I have written against the information in the text to make sure I haven’t inadvertently contradicted myself with any facts; in other words, check and re-check my research. Do this process again, checking any official information I may or may not have received with each photo. Note: sometimes my research turns up errors in official information and I get to correct it--very satisfying!

Re-read the acknowledgments and make sure I haven’t left any out. These omissions generally fall into two categories—people who have contributed something in the last stretch of the process so it’s new information and people who deserve such a big thank-you I assumed they were already in there!

Go over the layout issues with my editor and designer for tweaking of things like half and full title page, dedication, headers or footers, and any back matter issues that arise.

And last but not least—read through the text again in hopes of catching a glaring typo that has been hiding in plain sight this whole time! (Note: I just found one of those, so this is a really important step.)

All of these things actually come before I will have a chance to carefully read the final layouts—these steps are to ensure that everything MAKES it into the final layouts! There is a certain satisfaction that comes from tying up all the loose ends and seeing a manuscript transform into a BOOK.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

The topic of my next book…

…can be found within this photograph:
Artist rendering of Milky Way Galaxy, credit NASA/JPL-Caltech
In case you were wondering if the setting is the past, present, or future…
Google Image search, click image for results page
…it's set in the present, kind of. Well, it's in an imaginary land, but it applies to now, and to the future, too.

Will there be puppies!?!
Click image to view more puppies. Note non-puppy stowaway above.
Sadly, no.

Does it have anything to do with you?
Tag Galaxy search on People, click image to visit site
You do it every day, and so does everyone else.

Oops, looks like our time is up. I'll have to finish this up in a future post.
Thanks for playing!

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Telling Truths

I was on a short writing retreat last week--a time and place away from news and social networking and daily obligations. Yes, heaven. But two news items snuck into the idyll: the death of Maurice Sendak and President Obama's announcement coming out in favor of gay marriage. I cried and sighed and smiled;  both of these events revolve around children and telling truths.

Maurice Sendak, though he wrote fiction, was a master truth-teller. I would like to take out that "though" because of course we tell truth when we write fiction as well as non-fiction, but sometimes the "outside" world forgets that. But when I say he was a master Truth-Teller, I mean Truth with a capital T. And Teller with a capital T.  He was not afraid to hit the tough subjects when he was writing and drawing for kids--death, AIDS, fear, anger, homosexuality, the Holocaust, love. Because he knew that kids want and crave and need the truth. About everything.

On this little retreat one night as we cooked dinner, the talk turned to sex (education), as it often does when five mothers are together, especially mothers whose kids span the ages--twenties to teens to twos. When did you tell, how did you tell, what should I say? And the overwhelming answer was: tell the truth. And also, get Robie Harris to help you.

People who write for children are devotees of telling the truth, and we learned from people like Robie and Maurice Sendak. I was so sad that Sendak died, but so happy that he lived. And wrote and drew. And told the truth. His books made a huge impression on our sons and lines from all of them are part of our family lexicon. "I don't care."  "Let the wild rumpus begin!" And for some reason, especially, "Milk for the morning cake." (Why don't we have cake for breakfast, though?!)  If you haven't read the obituary in the New York Times, treat yourself to it. Margalit Fox wrote one of the most wonderful obituaries I've ever read. I think Sendak would be pleased. I understand his NPR interview is great, too.  I haven't listened to it yet. I hear one needs a lot of tissues.

When I read that President Obama finally came out in favor of gay marriage, I sighed, "Oh good." My friend in the room below me said, "I know." (Thin walls.) That was all we said at that moment (we were writing) but she knew what I was talking about and I knew what her reaction was.   

President Obama finally came out in favor of gay marriage, it is said, not because of his Veep's declaration or because of the North Carolina embarrassment, but because of his daughters. Apparently they told him that love between two people is love between two people. They should be able to get married. Who knows? Maybe they had been telling him that for a long time. Maybe he had been telling them that. (We can only hope.) But it's the truth and it seems they told him it was time to Tell the Truth. It so often takes children to lead the way to the truth. Because they just seem to be unafraid of it.  Up to a certain age they don't have the defenses and the filters and the biases that adults have. We who write for and teach children know this.

In 1969, E.B. White told George Plimpton and Frank H. Crowther in a  Paris Review interview, "Anyone who writes down to children is simply wasting his time. You have to write up, not down. Children are demanding. They are the most attentive, curious, eager, observant, sensitive, quick, and generally congenial readers on earth. They accept, almost without question, anything you present them with, as long as it is presented honestly, fearlessly, and clearly."

He goes on to say that "Some writers for children deliberately avoid using words they think a child doesn't know. This emasculates the prose and, I suspect, bores the reader. Children are game for anything. I throw them hard words, and they backhand them over the net. They love words that give them a hard time, provided they are in a context that absorbs their attention."

Master Truth Tellers deserve all the respect, adulation and thanks we can give them. Most of the great ones, like White and Sendak, were actually humble. Maurice Sendak knew that children often ate his work. He loved that. They read it, they loved it, they ate it. Fine with him. But those who write for children are also proud of it. Sendak did not love when people disrespected him or the genre. And yet he didn't think he was changing the world (I disagree). He told Vanity Fair in an interview last August,  “A woman came up to me the other day and said, ‘You’re the kiddie-book man!’ I wanted to kill her.”

E.B. White said in that same Paris Review interview,  back in 1969, "A writer must reflect and interpret his society, his world. He must also provide inspiration and guidance and challenge." 

I would say that goes double and triple for those of us who write for kids. Because kids demand and deserve the truth. Give it to them and they will lead the way. 

Monday, May 14, 2012

Five Finger Frustration

What is the sound of one hand typing? 
Plunk, plunk…plunk……………plunk…oops, backspace.

What is the sound of two hands typing?
In my case, it’s been:  Ouch!  Ouch!  Ouch! Then, after a while, a retreat downstairs to the couch.

About six weeks ago, I had a bad car accident and broke all the bones in my left forearm and carpel (I guess I now have my own version of carpel tunnel syndrome). I feel lucky I wasn’t hurt more severely and that I’m right handed.  Two operations and several casts later, I’m slowly on the mend.

So how has this affected my writing?  Well, I’m glad I could confine what little writing I did in the early days to email.  Back then, painkillers and only one useful hand made the keyboard feel like a wilderness to be conquered. I am a touch typist and have found that using one hunt-and-peck forefinger means a lot more hunting and less pecking than I imagined. My fingers know the keys much better than my visual memory does.  It doesn’t help that my emotional attachment to a decade-old keyboard means many of the letter symbols have worn off the keys.

Yes, I know that I can just compose longhand, the way I used to hammer out all my articles when I first started my career as a magazine writer.  But technology changed a long time ago.  I made the switch and my brain has too.  I am so used to my hands being able to keep up with my thoughts that I’m no longer trained to hold the upcoming words --long phrases or a word picture--in my mind for that length of time.  Tap, tap, tapping of the forefinger creates the same problem.  

Dragon, the voice recognition software?  Thought about it, bought it, returned it unwrapped.  Maybe it would have been a godsend for email.  But, for me, there are essential components to thoughtful writing it just wouldn’t satisfy.  The process isn’t all that different, but dictation feels distracting, moor less, as if the words I really want, their order and the meaning I want to make of them could just float away. When typing, words and ideas go from the mind through the hands, then via the eyes back to the brain to continue the process.  Mind, hands, eyes—three parts, each with its own job to do, which includes freeing the others to do theirs.

I know Steven Hawking has managed just fine using a different system.  And, he’s hardly the only one.  If my injury had been worse or permanent, I would work to rewire my creative circuitry.  Seems a little daunting, though.  So, even though I’ve given serious thought to a book I’m gearing up to refashion, something tells me it will stay on simmer until my cast comes off.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Julia Child for Kids - Serious AND Funny

"True stuff doesn't have to be all solemn and serious and sedate," wrote Roz in her post last week about humor in nonfiction picture books. If ever there was a biographical subject who was NOT solemn and sedate, it was Julia Child, who would have turned 100 this year. Serious is another matter, however.
Fun in the kitchen
On TV, Julia had a natural, relaxed attitude that belied her seriousness about French cooking. Of crucial importance were fresh, high-quality ingredients, prepared with classic techniques that had been developed over centuries. Fortunately, Julia's serious approach was always tempered by an earthy sense of humor. At heart an educator, she knew that learning goes down easiest when you're having fun. Above all, she would say, are the pleasures of sharing a delicious meal with family and friends. For Julia, relationships came first.

In my new picture book, Minette's Feast: The Delicious Story of Julia Child and Her Cat (Abrams), all these facets of America's most beloved chef and cookbook author are on the table. The challenge for me as an author was to find the right balance of seriousness and playfulness, and to do it in a way that kids would enjoy.

Flowers for Julia Child's
80th birthday party,
complete with kitchen whisk.
A Julia fan since childhood, I'd wanted to write a book about her ever since we met when I designed the flowers for her 80th birthday party, at the Rainbow Room in New York. But I struggled to find a way to make the subject child-friendly. Would six-year-olds really be interested in fancy French food?

Then I learned that Julia got her first cat, Minette, when she and her husband Paul lived in Paris in the late 1940's. This fortunate French feline ate meals lovingly prepared by the future Queen of Cuisine. In return, Minette brought Julia little tokens of affection—in the form of fresh-caught mice!

This contrast in taste provides tension in the plot of Minette's Feast. As Julia's studies at the Cordon Bleu progressed, she whipped up ever-more enticing meals for Minette. The question is, could Julia's concoctions ever compete with live mouse?

Julia Child famously loved to eat, and her cat did, too. But they had different ideas about what kind of food was most appealing. Since Julia wrote about Minette in her letters and memoir, I was able to find plenty of primary source material and luscious quotes for my picture book. Then I played with language as Julia played with ingredients, mixing and experimenting until I had just the right recipe of words. And Amy Bates' scrumptious illustrations bring Julia, Paul and Minette to vibrant life.
"And so Julia and Paul adopted Minette, a mischievous, energetic poussiequette with a lovely, speckled coat.
Or, shall we say, Minette adopted Julia and Paul." Illustration © Amy Bates 2012. 

"She frisked and flounced, darted and batted.
She tiptoed and hopped, danced and pranced.
She jumped and rolled, curled and stretched, raced
and ran, gurgled and purred.
And then she licked herself all over and took a nice long nap."
  Illustration © Amy Bates 2012.  

After the kitchen shortcuts of the 1950's (casserole with canned cream of mushroom soup, anyone?), Julia Child was a breath of fresh air. As we celebrate the 100th anniversary of her birth in this era of fast food, it's important to share with kids the serious things Julia taught us about food, as well as the humor she brought to all her endeavors.
Julia and Paul Child in the tub.
Valentine's Day card, 1956.
Teachers can use Minette's Feast to introduce students to Julia Child, for units on picture book biography and nonfiction writing, and also to spark classroom discussion and activities around food and cooking.