Saturday, July 17, 2010

Being Neil Gaiman

Sometimes I read books that have won stars, awards and widespread praise and think, "Why can't I write like that?" But I've just read two books that fall into that category which left me with a completely different reaction: "I could never write like that!"

The books in question are The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman and The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly. You'll notice the Newbery seals on both covers. They're both extremely well-written and original books that have won over readers across a broad spectrum.

But I don't aspire to write books like either one. 

The Graveyard Book (which had to overcome my resistance to having received so very much attention) is a perfect example of a book that breaks rules and still succeeds. If you'd told me a book that begins with a multiple murder would win the Newbery, I'd have laughed at you. (In the category of great first sentences you'd have to include this one: "There was a hand in the darkness, and it held a knife.") Nobody does eerie better than Neil Gaiman, and his mastery works here. I admit to having to push through a slow patch in the middle, but I cared about all these characters, most of them dead. I also have to admit -- though I hate to, because I'm usually good at spotting a twist on the way -- I fell for one involving the main villain.

 The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate is an entirely different book. In the tradition of the Little House books or Caddie Woodlawn, it's the story of a spunky girl struggling against the restrictions of her particular historic era (in this case, the turn of the 20th century). It gives insight into its time as well as tells the story of an interesting girl and her large family. Using Origin of the Species as a linchpin was a brilliant strategy for illuminating the thinking and conflicts of the time.

So why don't I aspire to write books like these? Because these aren't my styles or subject matters. I couldn't write these books, even working at the top of my game. I don't know ghoul gates or wind machines; I don't do creepy and I don't do period.

It's important to know that about yourself as a writer. To know what genres, styles and subject matter work for you. I've ventured outside my comfort zone occasionally -- I even have a science fiction novel tucked away in the proverbial drawer of unsold manuscripts -- and those expeditions have been valuable. But my most successful writing happens when I explore territory closer to home.

I admire writers who are able to cross genres and styles easily (who would think that The Giver and Gooney Bird came from the same pen, for instance). But I think I'll concentrate on mastering one area before trying my hand at becoming the next Neil Gaiman.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Parting ways with your writing group

Can there come a time when even a good writing group isn't good for your writing life?

I've been wondering if any other writers ask themselves that. Whether and how others decide to part ways with their writing groups.

But first I need to say I love my writing group. Both the group as a whole and the individuals in it. Without them, I would never have made it to publication. They took me in as a newbie, taught me about writing for children and about the children's publishing world. Believed in me, supported me. And, more important, became my friends. They've been there through hundreds of rejections and were there at my first signing.

Ours is a particularly special group -- I wrote about the seriousness and professionalism of the group in this post last fall -- and one that functions well. It's not by chance that we call ourselves a writing group, not a crit group, because while we offer each other very helpful insights, we go well beyond that to share our writing and personal lives.

So why have I been only an occasional participant over the last few years? Why do I struggle every month with a decision about whether to attend or not?

The answer is complicated. Or, more accurately, there are many answers.

Tick, tock
One is the simple issue of time. The time I have available for reading, writing, revising and managing the business of submitting is limited. And being a responsible member of a writing group takes a substantial investment of time. To critique other people's writing and do it justice, I have to read a manuscript carefully and repeatedly. I have to be thoughtful about what to say and how to say it. While I learn from other people's writing and my reaction to it, I came to the point where I wondered if that was the best way to spend the little bit of time I had available.

Another issue is attitude. My attitude. I've been through several bouts of serious doubt and discouragement -- about my writing in particular, but about the publishing industry overall. So often, all the good effort and craft that goes into our writing seems in vain. That feeling taints my response to manuscripts and isn't one I want to affect others in the group. While they're realistic about the state of children's literature and their odds, my writing friends mostly manage to be hopeful in the face of long odds. So I don't want to be a kind of Typhoid Mary, infecting others with my publishing cynicism.

Multiplication factor
A third difficulty for me, an offshoot of my attitude issue, is that I find my friends' stories of being underappreciated or even mistreated by editors and agents very discouraging. Yes, I love and am buoyed by the successes of my friends -- and there have been many. But reading so many manuscripts that deserve to reach readers' hands and never will is disheartening. It's like having your own rejections multiplied tenfold.

Familiarity breeds... ineffectiveness
Then there's the question of how well writing friends can help each other. After a while -- and I've known most of these writers 10 years or so -- you come to know each other's stories and styles so thoroughly that you can't always see them clearly.  For example, one friend in the group pulls from the personalities and experiences of her extended family for many of her stories. By now, I've met almost all of them and know some of their history. So when a manuscript makes an assumption about what a reader understands, I might not catch it. Because I share those assumptions now. Sadly, knowing each other so well makes us less useful to each other.

Playing solitaire
There's one other thing. Lately, I've felt the need to not share my writing with many people. I've been trying to focus on writing for myself, enjoying the process and not thinking about publication. It's the only way I've been able to survive the doubts and cynicism. To keep writing in the face of all that's ugly about the publishing business. Once, knowing I would have the chance to share my writing with the group motivated me. That's not the case now.

But how do you break up with your writing group? Should you even try?

I offered to leave the group to make room for someone else (our group is large enough that we've agreed  expanding it would make it unwieldy), but my friends declined my resignation. They hold a spot for me to participate at whatever level and frequency works for me. (See? I told you they're wonderful people.) So I attend when my schedule and level of hopefulness allow, responding to manuscripts on the fly and sharing in news of triumph, failure and everything in between.

I'm grateful my writing friends take me as I am, but I also feel guilty for not contributing equally. It leaves me feeling uncomfortable even when I do take part.

Does anyone else have experiences with writing groups to share? I've seen a good bit of information about how to form and organize writing groups, but not much on being part of one over the long term. It seems a topic worth discussing.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

I write like... him?

The website I Write Like measures your prose against famous writers. You paste in a sample of your writing and it tells you which writer you write like. It's been distracting all kinds of writers this week, so I thought I'd play along too.

My fiction apparently reads like Stephen King.

My blog registers as HP Lovecraft.

Professional writing I did for a client's website came up as Dan Brown.

And my personal journaling was judged to be like Isaac Asimov.

Interesting. Also, completely invalid.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

I changed the look

What do you think? I'm having trouble with elements fitting into the column widths in this template but it's kind of fun to change things around.

Especially since I'm not allowed to rearrange furniture or paint rooms at home. The rest of the family likes things the way they are.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Stay with me

First, an indulgence: Today is the one-year anniversary of this blog. I've had fun doing it and learned a lot, but it's been lots of work too. I don't know how long I'll keep it up, but it seems like a good time to remember Why I did this.

Thank you to everyone who's read my rambles, and an extra thanks to those who have commented on them. The conversations my posts have sparked are my favorite part of blogging.

Now, back to business. I just finished reading Stay with Me by Garret Freymann-Weyr. Freymann-Weyr is the author of My Heartbeat, a Printz Honor book that beautifully portrays the intricacies of first love, a book I've admired for quite some time.

Stay with Me also delves into emotional complexities. The synopsis:
Sixteen-year-old Leila Abranel loves her older half-sisters--from her father's first marriage--but does not know them well. When her sister Rebecca commits suicide, Leila wants to know why and begins navigating her family's breakdown.
The result is a complex story that slowly and carefully moves through difficult emotional terrain. Leila is an acute observer, and her struggles to overcome dyslexia have given her the right tools for dissecting complicated family relationships. As she says, "Dyslexia has taught me that clarity comes only through effort, patience, and help from those who know how to give it."

I'm tempted to say this feels more like an adult novel than YA. Which makes me feel awful -- like I'm shortchanging young adult readers. It also says something about our expectations of YA literature, which Freymann-Weyr successfully avoids succumbing to. Clearly, some teenagers are intrigued by the same psychological mysteries that captivate some adult readers. So I'll restrain myself from classifying it and just note that very little "happens" in the plotting of this book, and even the suicide that propels it doesn't feel immediate in some ways. Instead of action, the book mines the intricate interior lives of a modern family.

Both Stay with Me and My Heartbeat approach young people's sexuality with the same directness as any other part of their lives, so perhaps that also contributes to the adult feeling.

While Leila learns a lot about the adult world over the course of the novel, she doesn't find a simple answer as to why her sister killed herself. It's to the author's credit that she make this realistic resolution satisfying. It's also to her credit that the book sometimes made me feel awkward and uncomfortable -- just the way Leila felt in situations a bit beyond her experience.

Freymann-Weyr's books might not find a home on many school library shelves. So it's up to adults who aren't squeamish about strong emotions and unorthodox situations to put them in the hands of the right readers. If you're one of those adults, I recommend checking her out. She also has two other YA titles I haven't yet read.

(By the way, you might note the similarity in the covers of it and Once Was Lost, which I discussed a couple of posts ago.)

Saturday, July 3, 2010

The freedom of restrictions

I find the question of how the discipline of a tight structure can be freeing for your writing an interesting one. Nothing I've read lately brings that issue into focus better than Crossing Stones by Helen Frost.

The story of two families navigating change during World War I, Crossing Stones is written in both free verse and what the author describes as cupped-hand sonnets, a carefully structured form with distinct rhyming patterns. The poems are shaped, some as the free-flowing stream and others as the stepping stones across it, and they reflect the characters of the three narrators as well as the overall theme of the book. The book has received lots of major awards and is even an Oprah pick.

What fascinates me is how Frost manages to succeed so well at the basic elements of storytelling -- her plotting and characterization are both very strong -- while working within such a confining framework. Nowhere did I feel the language strain to make the form work, or the movement of the story contort to fit its needs.

While it is far, far beyond me to imagine writing in such a tight structure, I have found that restrictions can sometimes be freeing. They can force creativity by eliminating easy solutions and can enhance your focus by narrowing the range of possibilities.

For my current novel, I began with a concept that each section would fit on a single book page to emphasize the narrator's disjointed and fragmentary perceptions. I abandoned the page limit halfway through the first draft, allowing some scenes to expand beyond that length, but kept the underlying idea. I found it useful for helping me be more disciplined in trimming my writing to only the bare essentials. In the end, I created a novel without chapters but rather short (sometimes very short) vignettes. Almost every one of them has its own arc or pace.

Is it successful? I think so, but I'm just finishing revisions in preparation for sending it out into the world, so I don't know yet what others will think.

In a Montessori preschool, children often are given meaningful restrictions like this. At the art easel, for instance, they may have a huge pad of paper but only two colors of paint. Limiting them to two colors allows them to explore how those two colors mix and contrast or complement each other. The results are often truly beautiful studies of color. They're very different from the brownish gray that usually comes from children with a lot of paint colors to mix.

Anyone else experiment with self-imposed limitations as a way to push creativity?