Thankful Thursday: friendship + sunshine edition

Today I am thankful for my friend, mentor, and critique partner Claudia Mills who is spontaneous and responded in the affirmative to my last-minute invitation to get together. We spent an hour and a half this afternoon strolling around Viele Lake in Boulder. The sun shone brightly the entire time we walked and talked. Tanky-the-dog mostly listened, although he interjected a few yips at other mostly-larger dogs on the path.

Claudia and Tanky after our final lap around the lake.

It’s the last day of January (don’t let the door hit you on the way out!) and I’m grateful for the revitalization that comes from friendship and sunshine.

Post-kidlit conference: weary yet invigorated

I’ve been at the Letters & Lines Conference which is the annual conference of the Rocky Mountain Chapter of SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators). I didn’t attend the conference for the past four years and so it was very nice to catch up with old friends while also making new connections. Highlights of the weekend were inspirational keynote speeches by Laurie Halse Anderson who opened the conference and critique partner Claudia Mills who gave the closing speech. Those two women inspired me, challenged me, made me laugh*, and brought me to tears. I’m invigorated and ready to get back to my creative life. Well, probably not today. This introvert is worn out after playing extrovert for so many hours.

But tomorrow? I’m back to my stories.

* I received so many rejections and I earned them the old-fashioned way: by turning in books that sucked. ~ Laurie Halse Anderson

Thankful Thursday: Writing Roosters edition

Last night I met with my critique group, The Writing Roosters. (Yes, we’re aware that it’s funny for a membership of six women and zero men to be roosters.)

Our mascot that oversees every meeting.

It was my turn to receive a critique and the group didn’t disappoint. I’m grateful for their willingness to point out holes and weak characterization and plotting improbabilities in my novel, and also to let me know what they felt I’d done well. It was my first draft and I now have a pretty firm grasp on how to revise.

I received lots of guidance last night, but want to give a special shout-out to Claudia Mills for using Track Changes/Comments a whopping 429 times! Thank you for getting down and dirty with my manuscript, friend!

 

Thankful Thursday: The Encouragement Edition

Al Jolson once said, “A responsive audience is the best encouragement an actor can have.” Well, the same goes for writers. This morning I received an email from a writing friend that was not only incredibly generous, but also kind and encouraging. Her words have buoyed me all day, and I believe they’ll keep me afloat for quite some time.

I’m hoping I get the chance to do the same for someone else very soon.

relay-baton

 

 

 

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Hello, It’s Another Week

             
               

Saturday was the official end-of-Mentor-Program picnic in the mountains.
I gave my mentor, Claudia Mills, a little plaque that included this:

                        CLAWDIA

 

This morning I ran on the trails and fell.
But it was the best fall, ever.
When I told Zebu that, he asked "Did you stick it on the dismount?"
I did!

Today I start my new plan for BIRD BRAIN,
which is to rewrite chapters from scratch.
I’ve been working on voice/characterization but it feels as if I’m
nickel and diming the story.
So….time to get serious and write it anew.
Zoinks.

I hope everyone’s Monday is off to a stellar start, and that the week just keeps getting
better and better.
            

Mentor Monday: The Final Scenes

            

I’m in the home stretch on my revisions.
When I last met with Claudia, we decided my final chapter would be
a kaleidoscope of three small scenes.
So that’s what I’m working on this week.

I want my scenes to convey this kind of intricacy and balance:


(image from http://www.morguefile.com)

But if I don’t immediately get the scenes just right,
I can treat them like a kaleidoscope and make a slight adjustment,
and maybe that new view will be just what I’m looking for.
              

Building Tension and the Big O

              

I met with Claudia yesterday to go over revisions.
The take-home quote of the day?

You’ve done an excellent job building tension in the story; it builds and builds and builds. 
Like an orgasm.

That’s right, ladies and gentlemen, I create orgasm-worthy middle-grade fiction. 
But I don’t think I’ll mention that as a selling point when it comes time to schedule school visits.

             

Focus, Tracy!

               

I meet with Claudia on Thursday to go over revisions.
You may remember my glee at the progress I was making.
At that point in time, I was confident I’d fly through the rest of the revisions.
I told Claudia we were going to celebrate Earth Day together by reviewing all remaining chapters.
As in, every single chapter through The End!

Well, soon after shooting off my mouth I slammed right into a Wall of Doubt.

There is no way I’ll have the revisions finished by the day after tomorrow.
There’s only thing left to do:  Get as much done as possible and hope Claudia isn’t overly disappointed.


                

Mentor Monday: Trusting My Gut

    

I heard back from Claudia yesterday on the two chapters I sent last week.
She had much good to say about the stuff that worked,
and offered a couple excellent points about places I needed to lay a little groundwork.

She also had some thoughts on how to handle a certain plot point.
I’m mulling over her suggestion, taking notes in my trusty notebook as I unravel my thoughts.
So far I’m thinking I need/want to go with my initial idea for this story line
but am mindful that part of me might be rebelling against outside influence.

The thing is, Claudia has had lots and lots of good ideas during this revision process.
I’ll have an idea and she’ll tweak it just a tiny bit to make it an even better idea.
I’m thrilled that my story is so much stronger than before
but I’ve also had a few insecure moments in which I wonder if the improvements are because of her or me.

I’ve never worked one-on-one before to revise an entire manuscript
and am wondering if anyone else has experienced any of these feelings.
Have you ever worried your story is better only because of someone’s input?
Or have I just gone out and invented a whole new brand of writerly neurosis?
               

Mentor Monday: Looking back in order to move ahead

             

I’ve revised about two-thirds of my manuscript
and when I met with Claudia last week,
she cautioned me that in the final third
I must deliver on the tension developed thus far.

She’s right, of course.

But when you’ve ripped up your story’s floorboards
and knocked down a bunch of its walls,
it’s a bit overwhelming to figure out how to construct the remaining pieces.
Especially when you’re not entirely sure what pieces will be there.

But Claudia has a great method for writing the second half of your book:
Go back to the first half to see what’s there,and then use those elements in the latter part.

Stuff like:

  • The nosy neighbor down the street
  • The red and white twirly skirt
  • The dripping faucet
  • The neglected lawn
  • Best friend’s activist Grandma
  • The tiny photo album

These final chapters will require lots of new writing,
but at this point I’m only taking notes.
Lots of notes.

My middle mind had me include those elements for a reason,
and I trust that in time I will see how to construct a satisfying ending.

But sometimes you have to look back in order to move ahead.
                 

Everybody Needs a Mentor

          

I’m back home after my fourth meeting
with my mentor, Claudia Mills.
And I just want to say,
if you ever have the opportunity to participate
in a SCBWI-sponsored mentor program,
do it!

Claudia isn’t just an ace at pacing and tension,
unafraid to tell me when I’ve struck the wrong note,
but also a mentor who is generous with her praise.

I practically float home after sessions with her.
She not only makes me feel good about what I’ve accomplished
but also fills me with a steely determination to meet her expections.
I never, ever want her to regret the compliments she’s given me and my writing.

And because so much of this journey is spent alone, in my head,
I’m going to be bold and link to Claudia’s blog post from today
in which she said insanely nice things about my writing.

You know, for those days when I’m feeling delusional.

Check out your local SCBWI chapter to see if you have a mentor program.
If not, maybe you can get one started.

Because every writer needs a Claudia in her corner.
                 

Mentor Monday: Storytelling

           

My revisions are due to Claudia in two days
and I’ve still got lots to do.
I’m cutting some stuff I hope to use later,
adding new material to make the story flow,
and moving scenes around.

Claudia said during our last meeting,
"I think I’m better at structure [than you]."

I had to laugh because this revision process
has proved something I already suspected:
while I’m a very good writer (meaning, I use words well),
I have to work harder to be a good storyteller.

I have to consciously think about structure and pace
so that I do my characters justice in the way I let their stories unfold.

However.

I am learning.
All this work with Claudia is helping me think 
about my writing in a whole new way,
and I’m confident the lessons I’m learning while
revising CLOSE TO HOME
are lessons I will carry with me on every book to come.

And that’s what being a writer is all about:
bringing your always-improving game with you to each and every story.
                 

Mentor Monday: De-Blurring a Story/Picture

    


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So I’m at about the halfway mark in my revisions
and am very pleased with the changes I’ve made.
I met with Claudia the day before I left for Florida
and went over the chapters I’d revised plus
mapped out a strategy for the next chapters.

Claudia said many nice things about my work
and pumped up my enthusiasm for pushing ahead.

I took my trusty notebook and pages on the plane the next day,
and worked and worked from those notes
(plus had a delicious margarita with my pb & j sandwich).

And I realized something:
I wasn’t wrong to love CLOSE TO HOME as it was written before;
it’s a great story with complex characters.
I really had created a good picture.
The problem was, the picture was slightly off.
Blurry and confusing in places.
But with Claudia’s help, I’m bringing the picture/story into focus.

So my big epiphany is that we should never say our manuscripts suck
(I’ve said that and other awful things, and am going to try hard to never say such things again).
The truth is, when you write a book, you’ve created a unique word picture.
A picture that no one else in the whole wide world could paint.
And while it is possibly true that you could have employed better word choice,
or maybe used those same words in a different order,
or given more thought to how and when your characters speak their words,
that stuff is all fixable.

Writing novels isn’t like photography.
If part of our stories seem out of focus,
we can go back in there to bring clarity.

I’m really, really glad I didn’t give up on CLOSE TO HOME.
          

She’s baaack . . .

     

I checked the thermometer and it read 51 degrees.
So I stopped work on CLOSE TO HOME
and changed into my hooping togs.

There on my dry-concrete patio,
surrounded by snow piles,
beneath the blue sky,
bathed in sunshine,
I hooped.

As I gazed up into the sky,
I saw a red-tailed hawk soaring and gliding.

Instead of thinking "Oh no, it’s Claudia!  She knows I’m not working on my chapters,"
I smiled and watched her until she was out of sight.
Then I finished my thirty minutes of hooping.

Now I’m ready to get back to those chapters.
            

Mentor Monday: Deadlines

           

As I revise CLOSE TO HOME with Claudia’s help,
I’m grateful for her insights and  encouragement,
But I’ve realized something else this mentor program gives me:
deadlines.

I’ve mentioned my aversion to adding new scenes.
My natural inclination in these situations is to
delay,
dawdle,
and defer.

I can be a world-class procrastinator.

But procrastination isn’t a great game plan for the mentor program.
I’m now accountable to Claudia Mills.
I’m not saying Claudia gives off this vibe:

                                                          © 2010 Tracy Abell

However, I did make an agreement with her to turn in a certain number
of chapters by this Wednesday.
And I don’t want to disappoint her.
Or ruffle her feathers.

She’s kind
but she’s also determined.

It’s best to honor our agreement.

                                                      © 2010 Tracy Abell

Mentor Monday: Characterization

     

After my initial meeting with my mentor, Claudia Mills,
I had to make a decision about my main character.
I needed to decide how "mean and rotten" I wanted her to be.

Claudia pointed out that as long as the reader
has a sense of the character’s pain,
they will accept less-than-loving attitudes and behaviors.

Some of the actions I brainstormed for my main character
were really and truly rotten.
Those actions would undoubtedly ramp up the story’s conflict
and create huge potential for dramatic pay-off.

I thought and thought about this girl and what she was about.

Then I read a middle-grade novel that’s received lots of buzz and an award.
The main character is mean.
Really mean.
And even though the author did reveal the main character’s pain,
the emotional scale felt way out of balance.
That character’s pain wasn’t enough for me
and I had no sympathy for her.
In fact, I was a wee bit pissed off when I finished that book.

Obviously, there are many, many people who love it.
I’m just one reader.
But that book helped me decide:
I do not want CLOSE TO HOME told in the voice of a mean and rotten character.

Will my main character be perfect?
Absolutely not.
Will she say and do some bad things?
Absolutely.

My job is to to do right by this character,
and I’m going to work hard to find the perfect balance for the emotional scale.
               

Mentor Monday: Emotional Ping-Pong

       

Last week I promised to share some insights
from my mentor, Claudia Mills.

Claudia is helping me revise a middle-grade novel
about two girls, one homeless and the other, not.

The first time I met with Claudia, she praised my
"wonderful sense of the shifting terrain of interpersonal
dynamics and psychological nuance."

But, it turns out my sensitivity and attunement to my characters
is also the main stumbling block in my story.

Claudia went on to write in her comments:
"It’s that you are SO good at psychological nuance that I sometimes
felt as if I were watching a ping-pong match . . . feelings were shifting
back and forth with such frequency that I lost sense of where
we were in the overall shape of the story."

She was absolutely right.
And I have a feeling some of my earlier readers had that same issue
(whether or not they were able to articulate it that way).

So that’s what I worked on in my opening chapters
(plus some other issues regarding initial conflict).
I focused on the psychological dynamics in each scene,
watching for the ping-pong effect.
I wanted to build tension in each of my story’s relationships.

I worked and worked.
Last week I met with Claudia to discuss the revisions.

While I nailed the revisions of the initial conflicts,
it turns out I’d written some more emotional ping-pong.

I was frustrated with myself,
and as we talked, I wondered if I’d ever fully grasp what she was saying.
I mean, I’m a hyper-sensitive person and I feel lots of emotions all the time;
I wasn’t sure if I could write characters any other way.

And then Claudia said this:
Your task is to give yourself room to build.

Cue the epiphany music!

I cannot write scenes in which characters’ feelings
jump all over the spectrum from one moment to the next.
Even though they might feel that way inside,
I can only allow their emotions to move incrementally within each scene
so that there’s somewhere for them to go as the story progresses.

For example, if I write a character expressing full-blown anger
toward another character in the opening chapters,
there’s not a lot of room to maneuver the emotions of their relationship.

I need room to build.
It’s as simple as that.
            

(This was taken yesterday afternoon and somehow the imagery feels right for this post). © 2010 Tracy Abell
                         

Two on a Tuesday

             

ONE:
Heading off this morning to meet for the first time
with my new mentor, Claudia Mills.

She’ll be working with me to revise CLOSE TO HOME,
a MG I love and want to see published.

I’m grateful to the Rocky Mountain Chapter of SCBWI
for instituting this new mentor program.

TWO:
Zippy convinced me to buy hot meats bird seed.
Huh?!

Sunflower Meats, hot chili peppers, and safflower oil.
Supposedly, birds don’t mind the heat but squirrels do.

Zippy thought we’d get a greater variety of birds
if we offered hot meats rather than plain old safflower seeds.

But so far….
no takers.

On the plus side, I haven’t seen any squirrels with pained expressions, either.

(And so you don’t think we’re completely heartless,
we have one of those squirrel corn-cob-thingies available for gnawing).