Sunday, October 25, 2009

Writing Process (Part 3) -- Communing With Carrots

It was during a family reunion at a cabin in Oregon--I was stuck on the plot for Sammy Keyes and the Sisters of Mercy and it was driving me crazy. It was like the pig incident, but this one involved a carrot. Now, let me state right off that the carrot was innocent of any wrongdoing--it was, in fact, all my fault. I'd let it pop into the story for sentimental reasons. You see, my older brother (Mark) had a dog (Bear)who was a fan of carrots, so when I gave the priest (Fr. Mayhew) in Sammy Keyes and the Sisters of Mercy a dog (Gregory), that dog soon adopted a lot Bear's personality traits. For you writers, it falls under the write-what-you-know umbrella. Bear really was part of the family. He was my brother's constant companion. From the day Mark brought him home inside the folds of his motorcycle jacket, to the day they died together in a car accident, those two were best of friends. So yeah. Sentiment played a big part in my giving Gregory Bear's carrot-chomping habit, and as I neared the end of the book, sentiment was what made me battle the glaring need to remove it. I mean, this carrot-chomping business was in every scene that Gregory appeared. The carrot was slimy and slobbery and Gregory was constantly nudging his little carrot-gnawing nose into Sammy's leg, trying to get her to quit sleuthing and start throwing (because Gregory likes to play fetch with his gnawed-down, slobbered-on carrot). It had become like the proverbial gun. Conventional writing wisdom: If you introduce a gun in your story, you must fire it before the end of the story. Otherwise why have a gun? I mean, guns are not toys. You don't play with them. And in writing, if you bring it out, you've got to shoot it. Anyway, the carrot had become like a gun. I'd mentioned it over and over and over, but why? I knew I had no compelling reason, and it had gone way beyond giving Gregory a personality trait. Sentiment did not justify my having made such a big deal out of a stupid carrot. The carrot had to either lead up to something or I needed to get rid of it. But, see, I was attached to the carrot on several levels and I didn't want to tone it down. It reminded me of Bear. And my brother. I wanted it to stay. Now, maybe I was feeling so attached to the carrot because realizing the carrot had to either be a plot device or be gone occurred in the midst of a family reunion. My husband and our kids, my siblings, their spouses, their kids and our mother were all under one roof in a cabin in Oregon. I missed my brother Mark. I missed his carrot-chomping dog. So I redoubled my efforts to find a reason for Gregory to hold onto his carrot habit. I thought and thought and thought and drove my husband nuts discussing the potential uses of carrots in my story. I spent four solid days thinking about carrots. And then, finally, I decided I should hold one. It was sheer desperation. I thought that maybe hanging out with a carrot would help me. Maybe the veggie would find a way to talk to me. And the funny thing is, it did. Now, maybe you don't know of any carrot-chomping dogs. Maybe you've never tossed a slobbery orange root just because a perky-eared canine gave you his best puppy-dog look. But if you ever have you know that a carrot that's been mauled all day by a dog is (besides being utterly gross) at dog-breath temperature. It's warm. The instant I retrieved a carrot from our Oregon cabin's icebox, I had my clue. It was (of course) cold. And with that clue came the plot device and the purpose for the Gregory's carrot-chomping habit. I was overjoyed. The carrot stayed! It seems obvious now, but at the time I'd been looking for ways to use the carrot. Ways to have it be a tool for Sammy. And all the thinking in the world wouldn't yield a solution. It was actually holding the carrot that did it. So the moral of the story is, you can't always move forward with just your imagination. It helps to feel the earth, climb the tree, absorb the sounds and smells and temperatures of your story. In other words, commune with carrots. Whatever your carrots may be.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Writing Process (Part 2) or...The Key to My Writing Universe

I'm afraid that my last entry might have given the impression that my process consists of eating and sleeping. What I was actually building up to was what I believe is at the core of my success as a writer. Actually, I think it's at the core of any successful person's process, and it's probably the single most valuable tip I could give you. And it is... Learn to program the default mode of your brain to your story. Our brains are always working on something. The trick is to train your brain to work on your story even when you're not physically writing it. I believe that humans are born problem solvers and our brains crave having something to chew on, to solve. If there's nothing meaty around, it'll find some small problem and stew on it until it becomes meaty. If we have no drama in our lives, we'll soak up the drama of others and apply our problem-solving skills where needed. This can be with a real-life situation, or (I think more insidiously) a fabricated one that you follow on television. We get sucked into the drama, real or fabricated, and wind up turning over our mental programming to others. It's not just the time it takes to watch the program, it's the time we spend thinking about it afterwards. Our brain is on a problem-solving quest, so it wants to figure out who's doing what on the island, or what's going to happen next with the love triangle in the emergency room, or who's going to get the kids--the Doofus or the Money Grubber. We spend WAY too much time chewing on fabricated problems, and where does that get us? Nowhere. What you need to do is switch the station back to your story, your book, your life. This is actually way easier said than done, because years and years of bad habits and preconditioning interfere. Still, once you get the hang of it, you'll find an amazing improvement in what you accomplish. For starters: turn off the television, the radio, the phone if you have to, and your casual Internet use. They are all distractions; ways your brain can get a quick fix of something that has nothing to do with what you need to be working on, yet give you the false sense that you're working on something. Next, force your brain to focus on what you want it to work on. In this case, this means think about your story--an upcoming scene that you're planning to write, a character that you're developing. When you're first attempting this, it helps to choose something small and build up from there. Start with a line of dialog and let it blossom into a whole conversation. Go back and fix it, redo it, take a different path until you love it and can really feel it. Or start with a physical trait and let it help you better define a character. Or visualize a place. First the tree, then the leaves, then the wind and the flowers and the smell of the earth. See it in your mind's eye, hear it in your...mind's ear? Let the characters and their words roam around in your head. Make your brain stew on that. You'll find whole scenes will develop, ideas will drop into your brain from nowhere, or you'll get goosebumps because you finally know the theme that will tie your subplots together. It takes time, and it takes discipline, but it's what makes your imaginary world real to you, and in the end that's what makes your world come alive to your readers. What helps: White noise--the car, the shower, the vacuum cleaner. I find it also helps to do a menial task while story-stewing. Sweeping, folding laundry, washing windows, mowing the's like part of my brain is tied up with the menial task and can no longer interfere with the part that's attending to my story. If a task is both menial and creates white noise it seems to work the best for me. (And by the way, not only does this work much better than just staring at the computer screen as you try to come up with what to write next, it also makes for a clean and tidy home--multi-tasking at its best.) Now, your brain will not want to mind you. It enjoys roaming around. And it expects to be allowed to, seeing how you've probably always let it. So it's time for some tough love. When you realize that you're thinking about something else, get that bad boy back in line and start again. The more you do this, the better you'll get at it, and the more productive you'll be, to the point where some part of your brain will be thinking about your story 24/7. When I had a full time job teaching school and two little kids I would answer the (very common) question "Do you get writer's block?" with the quip, "I don't have time for writer's block!" But the fact is that while I was away from the writing desk, my brain was stewing in the background--my subconscious was puzzling out what would happen next in my story. It was a quiet hum back there, going all the time, and each morning when I got up at 5:00 to write, I had a good idea about where I was going. So there you go--the key to my writing universe. I hope it works as well for you as it has for me.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

The Writing Process (Part 1)

Adults often ask me how I write--they want to know what the process is. Kids just want to know, "How do you think up this stuff?" That's probably because inside every adult is a story wanting to be written, and inside every kid is an assignment having to be written. My process is probably very normal, but it still feels a little odd to me. Like I'm always about to run off the rails. It's a little like getting in a car of questionable reliability and saying, I think I'll drive across the country. I know there'll be breakdowns (both mechanical and emotional), but I leave the driveway with a good dose of optimism (and a prayer for good luck) that I'll be able to dig through the trunk for appropriate tools when things go wrong. Anyway, depending on its length, since a novel takes between six months and a year of solid commitment to research, write and re-re-re-re-rewrite, I have to be really smitten by the idea of the story to embark on the journey. It's not something I enter into lightly, and once I begin I am determined to make it to my destination. There's no turning back for me, or quitting. Usually the idea for a story comes to me all at once. BAM! I blink a bunch out the plane window, or sit straight up in bed, or drop the laundry basket in the middle of the hallway. Sometimes, as in the case of Runaway or Swear to Howdy or the project I've just finished, I tell myself, cannot write that story. You don't know enough about the will take up WAY too much have other commitments...there's too much else going on. But the thought persists and I finally give in and say, Well maybe...let me think about it. Then I spend shower time, drive time, running time, vacuum time, floor-scrubbing time, plant-watering time, (well, you get the idea) thinking about this story idea; forming characters; locations; plot threads; sub-plot threads. And when I'm fully obsessed with the idea (which, obviously, at this point has won the battle), I sit down and write the first few scenes. At this point it's all over--I'm hooked. And completely obsessed. I play through scenes in my head, then type them at the computer. (If I had to write longhand I would definitely not be a novelist.) When I had a full time job teaching high school, I'd get up at 5:00 AM to write for an hour before beginning my day. Now that I'm a full time writer, I have the luxury of sleeping in until 6:00. I get the kids to school, and once I'm home, I'm at my desk, writing. Now, I can't write for a solid 8 hours. I need think time. Stew time. Because once a scene is typed, it's always a little different than I'd expect. Things happen. Like, pigs appear. Who knew the little old lady walking down the road would be walking a pig? And that the pig would be wearing a big black bow tie? Not me. But suddenly there's the pig. And I say to myself, A pig? Why? But the pig insists it's needed and necessary and before long the pig is named Penny. Now, it may very well be that this pig will cause me nothing but trouble; that it doesn't really need to be in the story; that it does nothing to further the plot or contribute to character development. Which means that I'll have to get rid of the pig later on. But for now, I go with the pig. Especially since the pig makes me laugh. But back to the process: Since a pig has appeared in the story, I must stew some more, considering the new twists and turns caused by the pork-bellied intruder. And, of course, a little old lady that has a pet pig is a different woman than the one I'd originally envisioned, so I need to spend some more mental time with my character, getting to the bottom of why she owns the pig in the first place. This is where the refrigerator comes in. Such a handy appliance. I open it up, gaze upon it's varied contents, and think about my story. Maybe I'm hungry, but for what, I'm not quite sure. All I know is there's a comfort to hanging one arm on the open door and gazing inside this box of coolness. Sometimes I don't even rummage. I just hang there, looking. And sometimes I'll get a brilliant idea for what to do next with the story, close the door and leave the kitchen without taking a bite. The refrigerator really works for me. You should try it. The couch does too. I'll lie back on the couch, close my eyes, and play through the scene in my mind. I go different directions with it--sort of like trying on different outfits. Of course, sometimes I just fall asleep. When he sees me on the couch with my eyes closed, my husband will whisper, "Are you plotting or napping?" Good question. Sometimes it's something somewhere in between. The alpha state, where your mind is freed from the box of restrictive thought. The alpha state is an awesome place to plot. Wow. This is already long. And all I've done, really, is tell you to check out your fridge (only don't eat anything) and take a quasi-nap. But I need to stop, so practice the fridge thing and the couch thing. Really. Consider it homework. Then come back next week--I'll see if I can't get us a little farther down this writing road.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Fargo? You Betcha!

"You're going to Fargo?" people asked me. "Why?" And yeah, my initial reaction to an invitation to do school visits in Fargo, ND was lukewarm at best. That's not because of the movie Fargo or because Judy, the LMS inviting me, said "Oh, ya" and "You betcha!" (as I haven't seen the movie, and she did not). It was because after years of traveling to do school visits, I've learned that getting there is the hard part, and I knew that getting to Fargo would not be easy. Besides, isn't it flat? And cold? And...what's to see? But then Judy told me the plan. The three middle schools in Fargo would all do the Exercise the Right to Read program and time it so that it ended the weekend of the Fargo Marathon. Each student who completed the program would receive an ETRTR t-shirt (in their school’s color) and they wanted me to give presentations at each of the schools during the week and then run the 5K portion of the marathon-day programming with kids from all the schools on Saturday. Suddenly Fargo seemed like an awesome place to visit. So after some intense planning, the event went off last May without a hitch. What an amazing sight to see an MPR full of yellow ETRTR shirts one day, blue the next, and gray on the third. And on Saturday morning students and staff (and even the superintendent!) from all the schools came out in their ETRTR t-shirts and made a BIG statement as we trucked through the 5K together, ending up in the Fargo Dome alongside runners from all over the world. Everyone had a great time, and felt a real sense of accomplishment. One boy told me he “never finishes stuff like this” but was so glad he did. I get the feeling he’ll be “a finisher” from here on. Budgets across the country are in crisis – if you want to do the ETRTR program as a fundraiser for your school, that’s how it’s designed. But if you just want to do it to get your kids reading and running, that’s fine, too. All the content on the website ( ) is free—it’s there because we want to help, so adapt it any way that helps you and your school. And remember, I’m not the only running author – if you like the idea of tying the program to an author visit and your town’s local run, by all means invite your favorite local author. Our goal is to get kids running and reading and anyone who wants to help is welcome! As for my new friends in Fargo, we've stayed in touch and I'm delighted to tell you that Judy--who was pretty much a a "non runner" a couple of years ago -- ran her very first marathon today. Am I proud of her? You betcha! Would I go back to Fargo? Oh, ya!