My Writing Process Blog Tour

My friend and colleague, Melanie Fishbane, invited me to be a part of a “My Writing Process” blog tour. I’ve been out of the blogging habit, so I’m thrilled to get a bit of a jumpstart! Thanks, Mel!

Melanie’s YA novel based on the teen life of L.M. Montgomery will be published under the Razorbill imprint in 2015. She has 17 years of experience in publishing, specializing in children’s and teen lit, and an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts. She loves talking about writing, books, old movies, classic women’s lit and anything that amuses her. Melanie blogs at http://melaniefishbane.wordpress.com/

Without further ado – here we go!

 

What are you working on?

I have a few projects that are incubating at the moment, taking their own sweet time to form:

A picture book about a boy who projects his desires (both good and bad) onto his stuffed animals… and then they act them out. (I am trying my hand at some drawing, too! New to me…)

Tipps

An early reader about a misunderstood dog named Bud who lives with two supercilious cats.

A magical realism novel about a girl who draws birds that keep flying away…

 

How does your work differ from others of its genre?

What an odd question! As the late, exceptional Canadian writer Alistair MacLeod said, “Nobody has your literary fingerprints.” I believe that my work differs because it is my own. Give the same premise to five different people and you will get five vastly different stories… which is why I feel 100% ok with sharing the premises I have above.

What my characters think, feel, and do are of utmost concern at all times. And, since my characters are little random bits of me stuck together, with little bits of my own experiences, snippets of overheard conversations, and my understanding of the world combined, they are unique. Thus, the stories are unique.

But perhaps this question is more after style. I am enchanted with sound and rhythm, and I tend to write in a very close third person voice – that is how the characters come to me. I also tend to write emotionally detached characters who take their sweet time letting me know what’s going on with them! (Argh!)

 

Why do you write what you do?

 I was moved recently by Amanda Palmer’s TED talk (“The Art of Asking”) in which she describes the beautiful exchanges she had with lonely people when she performed on the streets as “the Eight-Foot Bride.” She stood on a milk crate in a long white gown and handed flowers to passersby. Palmer said she had some profound encounters: through prolonged eye contact she communicated, “Thank you. I see you,” and the eyes of the stranger seemed to say, “Nobody ever sees me. Thank you.”

Writing for me is like giving out flowers. There is so much power in being seen – I write because I hope that readers feel seen when they connect with a character, situation, or emotion I have written about. The beauty is that when that happens, readers are also saying, “I see you,” back to me.

And the other part of this is that I write because I am always working things out. I am answering my own questions. I am learning. I am exploring. I write whatever comes to me because that’s what I need to do at that moment.

 

How does your writing process work?

Incubate, incubate, incubate.

Freewrite, freewrite, freewrite.

Put it all into scenes.

Recognize when what I have written is “not true” (i.e. I have overridden my characters!)

Delete. Delete. Delete.

Repeat until finished.

Then smooth and preen it.

 

Thanks for reading and joining in on the blog tour! Please check in next week with Stella Papadopoulos and Silverleaf. Here’s a little taste:

 

Silverleaf   http://www.silverleafjournal.wordpress.com

silverleafI started my blog as a journal for my thoughts on mid-life stress – everything from careers to parenting to anxiety. In the process, I rediscovered my love of writing and the blog morphed a bit. It is now also my writing journal; a way to share the poetry and short fiction that blogging has re-inspired in me.

 

Stella Papadopoulos http://www.inspirationsbystella.blogspot.ca/

Stella Papadopoulos

As a late bloomer, I’ve done many things late, marriage, children, art school, and writing picture books. My circuitous path of life has given me paintings and something to say. I’m passionate about creating art and hopefully one day writing for children.

 

 

free… writing?

Day one: Getting back into the habit of daily writing after 8 months of teaching.

This is what happened when I timed myself doing 20 minutes of freewriting today, in the spirit of Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones. At first there was a great disconnect between my head and my hand – one I did not remember – with thoughts slowed, filtered, edited. Then the two linked up, the writing became illegible, and I think I may have fallen asleep. Since writing is likened to dreaming, I will count that as a good thing.

Process: MY story. THE story.

It is an unmatched thing of beauty to have people in my life who are writers. I can talk honestly with them about my characters and they aren’t concerned for my mental wellbeing. I can share with them in the ups and downs of productivity, fears, passion. There is, however, one thing I have found that is hard to talk about – that’s process. Perhaps it’s because I’m a new writer, and I don’t have “a process” to speak of. Perhaps it’s because I fear restricting myself in that way: “this is my process…” when it may just be my process for this particular story.  Perhaps it’s because I fear that I should have a process, and don’t want to admit that really, I have no idea what the heck I’m doing. Just when I think I have my story nailed down, I’m back in the thick of it again.

Process is the way in which a story is birthed. We all do different things in order to conceive of a story: Sharon Darrow wrote about hearing a voice that comes from a specific place and how those are inseparable; Ingrid Sundberg is a proponent of method writing and inhabits her character, even dying her hair if need be. L. Marie is also doing a series about writers’ processes, and so I think it’s safe to say that we all do things differently. I have made origami birds, surrounded myself with bird photos, poems. Taken long walks in the forest. This has been helpful to me in terms of story conception, but birthing – birthing is a different matter.

Last week I wrote very little. But what I did write was fierce, and it was resonant. And after I wrote it, I felt a sense of relief and closure. I even said to a writing friend, “I think I have it now! I think I have a full arc!” What I realized, though, was that while I do now have a full arc, it is not my character’s arc. It is my arc. I have figured out where this story comes from in me. But now I have to move this thing from MY story to THE story.

And so I wonder – when we’re muddling through our works in progress, do we need to find our own closure before we can shift and find closure for our character? Most of all I wonder – am I now in a place to surrender to my character? I feel like I’ve been in a tug of war, and I think I’m dropping my end of the rope. But, I’ve said that before 🙂

I hope she takes that rope and runs. Who knows, this time I might pick up my pen and follow her.

Picture books, protagonists, and the wonder that is Kevin Henkes – Part 3

In parts 1 and 2, I shared the beginning of an essay about the apparent lapse Kevin Henkes had in keeping to the cardinal rule of letting the protagonist solve his or her own problem. I was perplexed by the emotional resonance of his stories, and wondered how this was achieved. Here’s the last part of my essay:

 

Robert McKee identifies a variation of the typical protagonist structure that he calls the plural-protagonist.  Here, “all individuals in the group share the same desire, [and] in the struggle to achieve this desire, they mutually suffer and benefit.  If one has a success, all benefit.  If one has a setback, all suffer . . . motivation, action, and consequence are communal” (McKee 136).  It appears that Owen and his parents may be plural-protagonists – they both have the desire for the happiness and security of Owen, and this can be achieved when Owen gets to keep his blanket.  We see through the pictures that the parents are just as distressed as Owen at each of the attempts to rid him of the blanket, thus the suffering is communal.  And when the mother solves the problem, they all benefit.  The story is empowering, and resonates with the reader because of this plural-protagonist set-up.

In Sheila Rae, The Brave, Louise and Sheila Rae may act as plural-protagonists.  While Louise does not appear in the text for six pages, we see from the way Henkes draws her eyes and positions her body that she is truly frightened while Sheila Rae performs her brave feats.  We can tell right away that Sheila Rae’s desire is to always be brave.  But when Sheila Rae calls Louise a scaredy cat, Louise whispered, “Am not,” thereby showing the reader that her desire, too, is to be brave.  What is not so clear is how success and setbacks are communal in this work.  It almost seems that when Sheila Rae is brave, Louise doesn’t have to be, but when Sheila Rae can’t be brave, Louise can be.  At the end Louise states that they are both brave and fearless, and they fearlessly walk backward into their home together.  It’s as though at first there is not room enough for both to be brave, but in the end there is.

While initially all three of Henkes stories appeared to have protagonists who were short-changed of their own empowering ending, it is clear that Henkes tweaked the typical protagonist norms to achieve reader satisfaction in both Owen, and Sheila Rae, The Brave.  He did this by linking two sets of characters together in a way that allowed them all to benefit.  The beauty of this technique comes from the fact that Henkes eludes to an interconnectedness and sense of community in his work – and this resonates with the reader.

Image

There you have it – my essay in three parts. To me, the idea of plural-protagonists opens up a world of possibilities. I believe in community and connectedness, and am excited to explore how emotional resonance can be achieved when characters work in tandem rather than alone. What thoughts, questions, or possibilities has it opened up to you?

BTW – check out Ingrid’s Notes on the idea of working with connection – it’s a great post!

 

Essay References:

Henkes, Kevin. Chrysanthemum. New York: Greenwillow Books, 1991. Print.

Henkes, Kevin. Owen. New York: Greenwillow Books, 1993. Print.

Henkes, Kevin. Sheila Rae, the Brave. New York: Greenwillow Books, 1987. Print.

Lamb, Nancy. The Writers Guide to Crafting Stories for Children. Cincinnati, OH: Writer’s Digest Books, 2001. Print.

McKee, Robert. Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting. New York: ItBooks, 1997. Print.

Paul, Ann W. Writing Picture Books: A Hands-on Guide from Story Creation to Publication. Cincinnati, Ohio: Writer’s Digest Books, 2009. Print.

Picture books, protagonists, and the wonder that is Kevin Henkes – Part 2

In part 1 I introduced Chrysanthemum, Owen, and Sheila Rae – three of Henkes’ creations. It appears as though, in each of these stories, he breaks one of the cardinal rules of writing for children: that the protagonist should solve his or her own problem. But there is still emotional resonance in them – how did he do this? Perhaps the protagonist is not who we think they are…

Conventionally, the protagonist of the story is introduced first.  His or her desire is shown to us upfront along with a concrete

Owen

Owen

problem they have to solve.  They overcome obstacles that stand in their way, and they resolve the problem.  In Owen, the reader sees how important the blanket is to him through text and pictures.  We see that the parents don’t mind that he carries around this blanket, judging by their neutral expressions on the third page.  The parents are introduced into the text on the fourth page, along with Mrs. Tweezers, and suddenly Owen has a problem, but so do the parents.  Could they be the protagonists of this story?

Like typical protagonists, the parents try to resolve the problem, and each attempt fails.  Then the mother gets the idea to cut up the blanket.  She solves the problem.  And so it seems that two possibilities exist:  1) Owen is not the true protagonist.  This story is about the adults and how they are influenced by Mrs. Tweezers, but how they care enough for Owen to find a creative solution to the problem, or 2) there are two protagonists, and as long as one of them solves the problem the ending is satisfying.

Sheila Rae, The Brave

Sheila Rae, The Brave

It seems that Henkes did a similar thing with the story of Sheila Rae.  The sister, Louise, isn’t mentioned in the text until the sixth page, but the reader can see her astonishment at the bravery of Sheila Rae in the illustrations from the first page.  Louise has her own story that is only visible from the pictures – she wishes she could be as brave as Sheila Rae.  When Sheila Rae needs her, she’s there, and she shows that she really is brave by leading the way home.  Again, the possibilities are that 1) Sheila Rae is not the true protagonist, Louise is, or 2) there are two protagonists and the resolution by one of them results in a satisfying ending.  As Owen and Sheila Rae both have their own set of desires and are introduced early in the story, as is the norm for the protagonist, the second possibility deserves further investigation.

In tomorrow’s final instalment, we’ll look more closely at that second possibility, and at what Robert McKee calls “plural protagonists.

Picture books, protagonists, and the wonder that is Kevin Henkes – Part 1

Owen

Owen

Sheila Rae, The Brave

Sheila Rae, The Brave

Chrysanthemum

Chrysanthemum

I’ve been looking at picture books again lately, and I dug up this essay I wrote while at VCFA. As it’s somewhat long, I thought it best to split it up into instalments posted throughout the week (I’ll provide references at the end). Part 1 looks at the way in which Henkes appears to break one of the cardinal rules of writing for children:

One of the cardinal rules of children’s literature is that in order for our stories to have satisfying endings, the protagonist must solve his or her own problems.  Unfortunately, as Ann Whitford Paul explains,  “Too often in writing for children, a wise and well-meaning adult steps in to show the way ” (Paul 111).  Kevin Henkes appears to break this rule in his books Chrysanthemum, Owen, and Sheila Rae, The Brave, yet Chrysanthemum is the only of the three that truly falls flat in terms of a satisfying, empowering ending.  How does Henkes pull it off in the other two stories?  He does it with a twist: the protagonist is not who you think they are.  This essay will first closely examine the breaking of the above rule, and then pinpoint the way in which Henkes managed to deliver a satisfying ending in both Owen and Sheila Rae, The Brave.

The story of Chrysanthemum is about a young mouse who is given the perfect name by her parents.  She fully believes this until she goes to school where she is teased and taunted because her name is too long and too flowery.  Each day she comes home, downtrodden.  Her parents build her up with hugs, kisses, food, and Parcheesi, but each night she has a dream that shows she isn’t quite over it.  Finally a new, beloved, pregnant teacher comes to the school and reveals that she has a flower name, too.  In fact, if she has a girl she is considering naming her Chrysanthemum.  Suddenly, everyone wants a long flower name too, and Chrysanthemum’s problem goes away.  Chrysanthemum is a passive observer in this story and does nothing at all to solve the problem of the teasing and taunting.  The only thing that can be said is that Chrysanthemum simply “was” Chrysanthemum, and everything turned out all right in the end.  Although this speaks to empowering children to be who they are, Mrs. Twinkles still came in and saved the day.  Without her, the taunting would have continued.

In the story, Owen, Owen has a blanket that he loves and carries around with him everywhere.  No one seems to think this is a problem until the neighbor, Mrs. Tweezers, alerts the parents that this isn’t appropriate.  The parents try three strategies to get the blanket away from Owen.  First, Owen reacts overtly:  he stuffs the blanket under his shirt at night when the “Blanket Fairy” is supposed to come and replace it with a big boy toy.  His parents could not get rid of the blanket as a result.  Then, he ignores the vinegar-dousing trick by sticking the corner of his blanket in the garden and in his sandbox.  But in the end, when Owen’s parents say “no,” Owen just cries.  He has no other way around the problem.  Who takes over?  The mother does.  She cuts up the blanket into handkerchief-like pieces, and Owen continues to carry the blanket around thanks to her great idea.  Mrs. Tweezers thinks this is an acceptable alternative.  Perhaps one could argue that Owen’s crying was an active way to get what he wanted, but this is not the case.  Henkes is extremely gifted at showing the reader the underlying emotions with cleverly drawn eyes and mouths, and the eyes Owen has when comforted by his parents are sad, not sneaky or triumphant.  Here, crying equates to giving up, not manipulation.  And so, the mother solved the problem for Owen in this story.  For some reason, though, we don’t care.

Finally, in the story Sheila Rae, The Brave, Sheila Rae is depicted as extremely brave and not frightened of anything.  Her little sister Louise is shown in the pictures following Sheila Rae around but she is only introduced to the reader in the text on the sixth page of the book.  Sheila Rae does not encounter any problem until she decides to take a different route home and gets lost.  Then, she has three responses to the problem:  first she tries to convince herself that she is brave.  Next, she tries to call for help, and then, she cries.  Enter Louise, who knows the way home and leads her there, doing all the things Sheila Rae used to do to show her bravery along the way.  When they get home, Sheila Rae tells Louise that she is brave and fearless, and Louise says that they both are.  Here, Sheila Rae encounters a situation in which she is frightened, and after two attempts to solve her own problem, she gives up, cries, and is saved by Louise.  Not an empowering ending, but somehow this book makes the reader feel good.

To reiterate, “the hero must be the instrument of his own salvation” (Lamb 140).  This is not the case with any of these books, yet still we find satisfaction in two of them.  Henkes must have done something different that flew in the face of “norms” in order to achieve this.  What he did appears to relate to the identity of the protagonist.

More to follow…

(illustrations from http://www.kevinhenkes.com/)

A poem for your day

In keeping with my belief that immersing yourself in good poetry will help make poetic language appear more instinctually in your prose, here is a poem for your day. Enjoy, and, as always, write fiercely.

Hurricane

It didn’t behave

like anything you had

ever imagined. The wind

tore at the trees, the rain

fell for days slant and hard.

The back of the hand

to everything. I watched

the trees bow and their leaves fall

and crawl back into the earth.

As though, that was that.

This was one hurricane

I lived through, the other one

was of a different sort, and

lasted longer. Then

I felt my own leaves giving up and

falling. The back of the hand to

everything. But listen now to what happened

to the actual trees;

toward the end of that summer they

pushed new leaves from their stubbed limbs.

It was the wrong season, yes,

but they couldn’t stop. They

looked like telephone poles and didn’t

care. And after the leaves came

blossoms. For some things

there are no wrong seasons.

Which is what I dream of for me.

– Mary Oliver, A Thousand Mornings

Engaging the Heart: Poetic Tools for Writing Emotion (Part 1)

Here is the first of 2 blog posts I wrote for Ingrid’s March Dystropian Madness series. These posts are based on material from my January 2013 graduate lecture at Vermont College of Fine Arts. Enjoy!

Ingrid's Notes

March Dystropia Madnessby Jen Bailey

As writers who are true to our characters, we allow them to express themselves as they are able. We typically rely on actions, dialogue, physical reactions, and thoughts to do this, but what’s a writer to do when the character in question is emotionally detached, that is, unaware of his or her emotions?

Writing emotionally unaware characters can be challenging because they are unable to communicate their feelings about what would normally be viewed as emotionally-charged incidents. This kind of detachment can be all-encompassing (e.g. a result of psychological trauma: abuse, neglect, abandonment), or transient (e.g. hearing very jarring news). The character may also have a highly intellectual and logical personality and not be attuned to their own emotion. No matter what the source of detachment, if not handled carefully, there is a great chance of losing your reader if they can’t become, or stay, emotionally engaged…

View original post 556 more words

I am not my character.

In Tristan Poehlmann’s February 25th blog post (http://figurings.wordpress.com/2013/02/25/whose-story-are-you-telling/), he said:

. . . If we aren’t honest with ourselves and with our audience, our characters don’t matter. They become stand-ins for our own beliefs, fantasies, and realities. They don’t exist on their own terms. They don’t feel their emotions or achieve their goals–they feel our emotions and achieve our goals. Who they are, or might have been, ceases to exist. Characters come to us with stories to tell. If we don’t write these stories around the truths of these characters, then we aren’t honestly telling their stories.

In this insightful post Tristan discussed Tarantino’s inability to inhabit his character (Django) and do him justice, and cautioned writers against doing the same. Sometimes after I read hearty stuff like this and take in the key points, my mind starts spinning off in all sorts of  directions, making a whole bunch of other applications. This time, my mind spun off into a variation I see a lot of in my own writing, especially in the early draft stages. It is a conundrum that locks me right up and is no good at all for my creative output: where do I end, and my characters begin?

It seems to me that writing fiercely is all about being incredibly open to anything that might appear on the page. All the raw emotions, all the crazy sidetracks and detours your brain takes when you are trying to tell that story. Some of what appears on the page is real and true to your character. And some of it – let’s face it – is your own crap. And when you’re being open like that, you might need to do some sorting: what, on that page, is your crap, and what actually belongs to your character?

My writer-friend Mary Pleiss and I were griping about the perception some non-writers have of our characters – that they must be us in some form, be venting our baggage, be stand-ins for our own histories. We looked at each other and said, in unison, “I am not my character!” and it quickly became our inside joke. The thing is, sometimes I need to say this line to myself not because it’s true. Sometimes I need to say it to myself because there’s a danger that it ISN’T true. Because my own stuff does get thrown on to the page. Sometimes I do let my own crap take over my characters.

When Tristan cautioned writers about this very thing, he concluded,

It’s OK if that happens, but then we need to figure out whose story we are actually telling. Is it a character we thought was secondary? Is it our perception of what we would do if we were that character? If so, we need to be honest about that. We need to rethink. We need to rewrite.

If we can’t live inside a character’s head, then we are not doing them a favor in trying to write their story.

Bottom line: I think it’s inevitable that our own stuff is going to get thrown in with our characters, especially in the early stages of our writing. We need to be honest with ourselves about that, but not let it hold us back or lock us up. Instead, we need to get to know our characters better.

How can we go about this? I am reminded of some direction my writer-friend Graeme Burk gave me when I was having this crisis a few months back.* He said (and I quote him loosely here), “What about your character is different from you? Where does she live? Who is in her family? What does she like? What doesn’t she like? Think of all the ways she is not you.” What Graeme was suggesting was pretty much the same thing Tristan concluded: you’ve got to live inside your character’s head in order to write their story.

So I’m going to stop worrying about that conundrum of where I end and where my character begins. Instead, Mary, let me suggest an addendum to our mantra:

I am not my character. I will develop her so fully that I couldn’t possibly be.

If I keep my focus on that, it will be her story and not mine on the page.

* writer-friends are indispensible. They’ll pull you in off the ledge. A shout out to Tristan, Mary, Graeme, Ingrid (my most-recent ledge-puller-inner) and all my Dystropians!

Reading like a Writer – Part 3

Here’s another example of reading like a writer. I was reading Quaking by Kathryn Erskine, and I got to a scene where there protagonist, Matt, cowers in the presence of a bully (“the Rat”):

The quaking begins. I look down at my notes. World Civilization is trembling in my hands. Do not make eye contact!  I look away. Hide! I drop to my knees, shaking. I scrounge. Around the bottom of my locker. To hide my arms. Which are flailing, jumping. Pray! In case there is a God.

I see a tattooed arm. It grabs the lock on his locker. I flinch. Waiting for his other arm to attack. Tuck your neck in! I crouch. Brace your shoulders! I do. But they are still jumping. Like an electrified frog. Even after it is decapitated.

The Rat does a war whoop. I am sure it is The End.

“Hey!” his oily voice booms in my ear.

I jump. I see his greasy black hair. Close your eyes! Do not look into the blackness! I hold my breath. My head will burst. My body will explode.

I hear the crash and jangle of metal. A body slammed against a locker.

It is not mine.

But I still jump.

I hear a groan.

It is also not mine.

As I explained in previous blog posts, in order to read like a writer I first determine what I am feeling, and where that started happening. (Here, the entire passage was one that evoked emotion in me, so I won’t go over the “where” in my explanation.) Then, I dig deeper to figure out what in the text has contributed to this reader response.

In the very first sentence, Matt describes herself as “quaking,” and that’s pretty much how I feel as I read. Grounded, then off-balance, over and over again.

Why? What in the text contributed to this? I think that Erskine’s use of short, action-centered sentences, contrasted with the italicized portions of this passage, had this effect on me. The short sentences I am referring to have a repetitive structure: I + action (e.g. I look down… I drop to my knees… I scrounge… I flinch… I crouch… I jump…), which seem to ground me. The italicized exclamations feel like they are coming from outside of Matt. These words are literally leaning, off-balance, and this is the same sense I have as I read them. When I move between these two types of sentences, I go from feeling grounded to feeling off-balance.

When I got to the sentence “I hear the crash and jangle of metal. A body slammed against a locker,” I really began to feel invaded. I think the words crash, jangle, and slammed did this to me here.

Why? What in the text contributed to this? Erskine relied on Matt’s sense of hearing to describe this experience, and it turns out that the words she chose are onomatopoetic – they sound like their meaning. If you were to compare it to this sentence: “I hear the sound of metal. A body hit against a locker.” – the one Erskine wrote is much more vivid, isn’t it? You can almost hear the metal when those onomatopoetic words are used, and I believe this intensified the scene for me.

Finally, I felt jumpy as I read the last sentences. Flighty, overwhelmed:

It is not mine.

But I still jump.

I hear a groan.

It is also not mine.

Why? What in the text contributed to this? I believe that here my experience as a reader is physically matching the experience of the protagonist: my eye physically jumps from one line to the next. I start reading, then have to stop. Repeat. Repeat. I don’t know what is coming next. The sentences are short and punchy, and the paragraphing urges me to keep moving down the page. I feel like I’m cowering along with Matt, and I believe Erskine’s use of short sentences and paragraphing contributed to this.

I love it when writers evoke the emotion of their characters through the physical structure of their text and their word choices. Whether they do this organically or work at it in revision, it helps draw me in to the story world, and that’s exactly where I want and need to stay as a reader.

How about you? What books have you read that drew you in like this? Take a closer look and see what it was about the text that helped to engage you. Read like a writer, and let it help you to write fiercely.