A Writer’s (non) Drought

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My area of the country has been experiencing the most depressing heat wave and drought.  And the hot dry weather has been affecting my creativity. I feel tired and lethargic and uninspired. Drought or no, this happens to every writer, I know.  But I can’t afford to let myself settle into writing inactivity. “Drought begets drought,” the local meteorologist said during a broadcast this week.  This old adage is true for writing droughts, as well.  Once a writing drought begins,  the writer moves farther and farther away from his or her creative self.  The words dry up like the crunchy petunias in the neglected pot outside my back door.

And I can’t let that happen.

So, I write.  I journal every morning on my train ride into Chicago–at least one page.  It isn’t always pretty writing.  Some mornings I write the most inane drivel:  what I watched on television the night before, how grumpy all of the other commuters are, how hot and horrible the weather is, etc. Some mornings each word is sooooo painful.  I just can’t get anything flowing.  Then I write about not being able to write and how my creative soul is empty and how I’m going to expire here with all the other mindless herd animals–“mooing” my way back and forth to my office every day.

Stop!  Enough of that kind of thinking.

Even in this drought, there are some mornings–some bright shining dawns–when I forget the heat and the dead plants and the grumbling of others and the words begin to flow.  Some small thing wakes my creative self–that bird hopping on the metal train rails watching me with a twinkle in his knowing eye or that boy with his cap on sideways reading Salinger as he waits for the train or the streaks of red-orange morning light emerging between the elusive clouds over Lake Michigan.  Before I know it, the page is filled with funny creative writing and my morning train ride has barely begun.  I put my journal away and take out my notebook and work on my novel.  The words and ideas push against each other to emerge on the page.  The story unfolds, the mystery reveals itself, the characters clamor for recognition.  Me, no me, no ME!!

Tap! Tap! Tap!  “Ticket please,” the grumpy conductor says.

“So sorry,” I answer, scrambling to pull it out.  I’d forgotten I was on the train, you see.  I was in the midst of another place, another time, another story.  I was writing. 

Reaping the Field of Dreams:

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Only once have I used my actual nighttime dreams as an inspiration for my writing.  A few years ago we adopted a border collie/Australian shepherd mix puppy that we named Took.  He was a mischievous, fuzzy little guy with an oddly curled tail and a number of curious habits.  Not only did Took watch television (and I do mean watch—he growled at villains and suspenseful music, got excited by wolves howling and horses running, and whimpered if women or children wept) but he also seemed to have certain cat-like traits.  He licked his paws to wash his face, stretched in a very un-doglike way, and had that decidedly feline manner of batting with his paw at toys, people, and flies.

A couple of weeks after Took joined our family, I fell asleep on the couch watching a James Bond movie—I believe it was “The Man with the Golden Gun”–and proceeded to dream about an everyday working dog who had a secret life as a spy….cat.  Yes, an international cat spy who was actually a dog.

Crazy?  Maybe…no, wait—definitley! But, crazy or not, when I woke up I was so inspired with the idea that I began a new project—Spy Cat!  I loved writing it. I felt alive and full of fire! It fairly flew from my mind to my fingers. Within a couple of months I had a complete project.  I see it as a kind of illustrated chapter book for the middle grade reader—a new kind of graphic novel.

It’s in a drawer now—my agent is working on selling a couple of other projects first.  I read it over once in a while—it still makes my heart pound and my laughter burst out uncontrollably.

Thinking about it now makes me hope for some new dream tonight.  Took is still here—still the smartest, oddest animal I’ve ever owned, and I’ve been watching the Food Network quite a bit lately….what about a picture book about a vegetarian dog who wants his own cooking show????

Number Seven

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Last week I had the good fortune to attend an incredible one day conference offered by the Illinois chapter of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators—“Spring Thaw: Branch Out”.  The presenters were Lin Oliver and Steve Mooser, original founders of the SCBWI.  Of the many pearls of wisdom and insightful tips and practical knowledge given out to those sharing the room, one particular point keeps entering my writing thoughts—number seven of Lin Oliver’s “Best of the Best Advice in Writing for Children: a Baker’s Dozen (or Fourteen)”

7.  Be emotional but not sentimental.  Don’t reminisce. Give them childhood re-experienced—not recollected.

Then Lin went on to speak of Maurice Sendak’s “Where the Wild Things Are.”  How it was rough and tough and REAL.  Max was a bad boy.  He never apologized to his mother for his behavior.  And his mother…she sent him to bed without any supper!  Very cruel and non-PC.  I mean—depriving your child of food as a punishment?  Doesn’t really make for a cozy bedtime story, does it?

Lin’s words keep ringing and resonating inside of me.  I can’t stop thinking of that glorious, enduring, true book!  It has been a favorite in my house and—I dare say—millions of others since its first publication in 1963. That is what I want to write—what all writers should aspire to—not simpering prose that makes us smile and say “Awww…”, but true words that reach underneath the ribcage and grasp the heart with a desperate fist causing us to gasp for air as we recognize the veracity of the tale being told.  Yes!  Yes, this is emotional fact.  This is story anchored in reality.

Thank you, Mr. Sendak. We will miss you.

I’ll leave you with Maurice Sendak’s own words from a 2011 interview on NPR:

“There are so many beautiful things in the world which I will have to leave when I die, but I’m ready, I’m ready, I’m ready.”

The Secret of the (Writer’s) Garden

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Because of our freakishly warm Illinois weather this spring, I’ve already had to get out and yank a few pernicious weeds from around my faithful perennials.
The spring activities of clearing out the winter debris, planting, and weeding (not to mention nursing my aching gardening muscles that haven’t been used in six-or-so months) never fail to remind me of the processes of writing.
Early in the season (writing process) we gardeners (authors) are full of excitement! As soon as the weather is warm enough (we get inspired) we go to work with gusto—digging and planting (writing and more writing!) After all, the sooner we get the plants in the ground (the book written), the sooner we will have our little miniature of the Biltmore Gardens (bestseller!).
But it isn’t that simple, is it? For one thing, we’ve planted the flowers too close together—not believing that they would grow to fill the space promised in the gardening manual. And we’ve done this in our novels, too. We’ve added character after character until our poor readers’ heads would be spinning trying to keep all the names straight. So, we’re forced to move plants and cut characters (saving them for another story, perhaps).
Yes, we didn’t really do a thorough job of planning (plotting). The gosh-darned towering butterfly bush has blocked the sunlight from the poor, struggling roses. Not to mention that our halfway-finished, next-great-literary-idea novel has been stricken by plot-rot. Wait a minute….plotting a novel…garden plot…I’m getting confused!
I could go on with my “flowery” ramblings, but the warm wind outside is calling to me, and if I go on writing this post, my metaphors may over-mix and…well, let’s just conclude with some friendly advice.
“Avoid plot-rot.”

Spring Name Training

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Today, while watching spring training baseball (featuring my team—those perennial non-World Series-winning baby bears), a player named Welington Castillo stepped up to bat. What a really great name, I thought. Cool, interesting, and—somehow—it made me curious about him.

That’s precisely the kind of name I want for the main character of the story I’m currently working on.

And, that’s just the kind of name that has eluded me, so far.

I hope I’m not making an incorrect statement when I say that most writers struggle in searching for the right names for their characters. After all, a character’s name shouldn’t be boring or passe. It should reflect something about the character’s history or personality. It should be important, but not more important than the story itself. It should be unique—but not ridiculous, memorable—but not totally un-name-like. It seems to take forever to find the right one and then, just when the fit is perfect—some other author, or playwright, or pop-star has emerged on the scene using the very same name! Or, even worse (in my opinion), when you read your writing out loud the perfect name is somehow impossibly cumbersome on the tongue/or annoying to the ear. So very frustrating…

The name of a beloved book character stays with you forever. I’ll never hear the name “Anne” without thinking of my beloved “Anne with an ‘e’ Shirley” or see the old-fashioned name “Josephine” without remembering how “Jo March” cut off her hair. My collie “Ranger” (on his AKC registration, “Aragorn Ranger of the North”) definitely lived up to the loyalty and kingliness of his namesake. And my pound-puppy “Took” has proved as mischievous as the troublesome hobbit he was named after. I’m not the only one affected—there are already troops of youngsters named “Harry” and “Lily” and “James” and—although I’ve yet to hear of it—I’m sure some poor child has been named “Serverus.” And I’m predicting that we will see a few little girls named “Katniss” (and maybe even a “Hugo” or two) beginning kindergarten in a few years.

So, I’ll keep on searching. *sigh*

For Love of the Limerick

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This is the time of year when I sometimes find my creative energies dwindling. In order to fend off the specter of the dreaded Writer’s Block looming around every dreary February corner, I often turn to writing poems.

Just to clarify–I am NOT a skilled poet. But somehow, getting a few very meaningful creative words down on paper or up on the screen can help me to throw off any writer’s funk–even a late-winter case.

The last time I needed a boost, I tried writing lyrical free verse character sketches of some of the personalities appearing in my latest novel.

This year I’ve done something different—limericks!

You can’t help but laugh whenever you read (or write!) a limerick. The lilting rhythm lifts your spirit and opens up your mind to creative joy! Try it–you never know…

Here are some sites with examples to help you on your merry way!

http://www.teachingideas.co.uk/english/limerick.htm

http://www.here-be-limerick-poems.com/#axzz1no7KXYyV

Publishing News!

Chicken Soup for the Soul: O Canada is now available online and in stores. Two of my stories: “What We’ll Do for Hockey” and “Fish ‘n Fries” are featured in the collection. I am very pleased and proud to be among many exceptional authors and storytellers. Every single story in Chicken Soup for the Soul: O Canada makes me a little homesick for the land where I was born. But whether you are Canadian by birth or by inclination—or are just fascinated by the unique Northern lifestyle, you are sure to appreciate the varied voices in these heartfelt and true tales.

Order your copy today!