Monday, January 28, 2013

It's a Truth Universally Acknowledged...

that one should celebrate great books. A very happy 200th birthday to Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, which was first published in London on 28 January, 1813.

I posted this as my Facebook status earlier today (or something very similar) but I had to share it here as well. I think this wonderful novel is still looking marvelous on its bicentennial!

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Writing Exericise: Fun With First Lines

This week during our morning writing time, the sweet girl and I have been looking at first lines. She’s been fascinated to realize how many different ways there are for writers to begin stories, and how that first line shapes so much that comes after it. We’ve looked at a number of books she loves and talked about how the writer’s choice affects the story that comes after, and how it hooks us into wanting to read more. We’ve also talked about how the story would be shaped differently if a different first line had been written.

We explored several kinds of “first lines” today – traditional storytelling lines; short lines that tell us just enough to keep us going; setting lines that put us immediately in a definitely described place; voice lines that grab us, sometimes with an exclamation and sometimes with a question, but that definitely give us a real sense of a narrator or character’s voice (depending on whether or not the story is told in third or first person).

As an exercise in writing different kinds of first lines, we picked the story of Cinderella. Here are some we came up with – first lines that invite you into a retelling of Cinderella in all kinds of creative ways:

“Once upon a time, there was a girl named Cinderella.” (We agreed that this was about as traditional and simple as we could get.)

“Cinderella! Wash the dishes!” (The sweet girl loved coming up with this one. An exclamation that probably would come from stepmother or stepsisters.)

“A young girl slept with her head pillowed on the cold stones of a sooty hearth.” (A line that gives a definite sense of place, and that presents some important details that could come in useful quite soon.)

“Cinderella always had to work hard because her stepmother mistreated her.” (A line the sweet girl came up with, one that presents a lot of information packed in right upfront.)

“Oh, how tired I am of all these chores!” (Cinderella’s voice the first one we hear.)

“Why is it that my stepsisters get to lie in bed all morning, when I have to get up at the crack of dawn to work?” sighed Cinderella as she climbed wearily out of bed. (A question to get things rolling, and one that sets a contrast and drops us right into conflict. Cinderella’s voice, but also establishing third person perspective.)

“The old woman was annoyed with her lazy stepdaughter.” (Stepmother’s perspective, one that will be challenged by the reality that Cinderella is not lazy at all, but working as hard as she can for an unreasonable and overly demanding taskmaster.)

“There once was a prince who longed to find a princess to marry.” (What if we started the story not with Cinderella, but with the prince? A whole different way into the telling.)

Playing with first lines is a fun writing exercise, one that gets you thinking about the many creative ways that writers and readers can climb inside a story – whether a familiar one you’re retelling, or a new story. 

It may be easiest to give it a try with a familiar tale. Choose a fairy-tale, folk tale, Bible story, or story passed down in your family – something you know really well – and then see if you can come up with at least seven unique ways to begin it. Sometimes you might want to spring a surprise to keep your reader going. Sometimes you might want to try a quiet, traditional line that almost lulls the reader (and then you can grab them quickly with the second line). Think about how you want to establish a character, a voice, a setting. Think long and hard about who is telling the story. It might be a narrator or your  main character, but then again, maybe not.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Estes Tops Booklist

 My non-fiction work in progress deals with about ten American writers for children, most of whom were at work in the mid-20th century. As I continue to research into the lives and work of these writers, it's always wonderful to see them appear on current day booklists.

Today that happened with School Library Journal's post on the 25 best books for children's social and emotional learning. 

A lot of writers and books I admire here (and some I don't know) but I was very happy to see Eleanor Estes, one of the writers I am working with, topping the list with her lovely The Hundred Dresses. I love that the book has had such staying power. It is certainly a book that has stayed with me for most of my life.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Revising Poetry

I've been working on my advent poetry collection, pulling together twenty-one years of poems: collating, arranging, reflecting, revising.

A few thoughts on the art and effort of revising poetry came to me this morning. I thought I'd share.

1) Sometimes you have to remember a poem is your's. I've been working with a poem I wrote seventeen years ago and it took me a while to move back into ownership of it. At first, I felt so distant ("did I write that?") that it almost felt as though I was doing a writing exercise with someone else's poem. A few minutes in, and it finally dawned on me that it really was mine...mostly when I came across a line that really needed help. I made the quick incision with such confidence that I suddenly realized, yes, this is really my work, and nobody can make these kinds of decisive cuts but me.

2) Line breaks make or break a piece. I think I have always been far more at home writing prose than poetry, though I've always hoped at least some of my prose has lines that sing. So many of my early poems, especially of the non-rhyming variety, are really big chunks of prose that I attempted to line break into poetry, and it shows. Although I've gotten more seasoned with line-breaks, I still struggle with them -- especially knowing if I should utilize them more for the eye than the ear or vice versa (I think it depends on the poem). These days I am finding myself drawn to writing more spare poems, or ones that impose some of limitations in form. Working up against the limitations keeps me from the excesses I'm prone to fall into.

3) Adjectives aren't always necessary.  Many times when I stumble onto a line that needs work, I discover I have lost the mystery of the poem somewhere along the way by piling up adjectives. I think I tend to hide behind them when I'm not sure what I want to say. So I say it two or three ways, or I try to give too much away to the reader, piling those adjectives on.  Sometimes I end up leaving more of them in than I should. Again, I am feeling more drawn to precision these days, not that I'm always wise about how to get there.

4) The line that didn't work when you first wrote the poem probably still isn't going to work years later. I discovered this recently in a poem I originally wrote three or four years ago. There was a line that always bothered me -- its meter was off, and every time I read the poem again, no matter how many times I drafted it, I always stumbled when I got there. For some reason, despite that, I left the line in -- probably because at the time I couldn't see my way around it, or didn't want to cut whatever particular image I'd crammed into the small space. I think I figured that, over the years, the line would somehow wear its way into the poem and just magically work. But then I picked it up and read anew for the first time in ages, and guess what? I got to that line and tripped on it again (like Dick Van Dyke tripping on his ottoman). I've been reworking it to make it sing instead of squawk, and I'm discovering that a few years distance actually helps -- I am not so wedded to whatever it was I couldn't seem to bear to give up when I first wrote it.

Revising is a whole different art than original drafting, but there is something uniquely satisfying about it, especially when it gives you the opportunity to sharpen a poem's focus. I hope that's what I'm doing with some of these poems, especially the older ones.

Wednesday, January 09, 2013

Patchwork Post: Epiphany, Les Mis, Books & Writing Life

Epiphany began on Sunday, which means the Wise Men have settled in at the creche. The sweet girl takes them on a long trek around the living room, up and down various pieces of furniture, before they land at the stable. (Not historically accurate, no, but it's still a delight to have them there worshiping the newborn king along with the shepherds and townspeople and various animals who have been there for weeks.)

We still have our Christmas tree up. In recent years, we've begun leaving it up longer and longer -- now that we're not putting up a cut tree, that's possible -- mostly because we all agree we need the lights. January can be dark and cold, and a little extra light is just fine by me. This year I've been especially blessed by our glass angel topper. D and S decorated the tree while I was down with the flu, and they put her right on top of a green light (green is my favorite color) so she glows from within with a lovely green luminosity. We will likely do our "breakin' down Christmas" traditions this coming weekend, unless family pleas (it won't take much) press me to go even a week longer.

D. and I had a date night last Friday, the first in quite a while. We decided to go to a movie (it had been a very long time indeed since we'd done that!) and took in "Les Miserables." We love the musical, having seen it twice over the years, once in Philadelphia and once in Pittsburgh. We also had the London cast album for a while (though it was stolen from us several years ago...yes, I know, such irony...if the thief is ever dragged before me, I promise I will be forgiving). D. got me a lovely 3-disc version of the entire libretto for Christmas, which he found used. It highlights performers from stage versions all around the world. So I'd been humming for a couple of days before we made it to the theater, where I was blown away by the grace and beauty of the film. My review of it can be found at the link here. I think the most important conclusion I reached in the review was this:

What I think the filmmakers do best here, however, is not to make the film “bigger” than the stage version, but to make it “smaller.” Drawing on the strength of the story’s characters, the film provides us with up-close, intimate moments with them, closer than we’re able to get to them on stage. That makes some of the singing performances especially powerful and poignant.
And oh my....Hugh Jackman's performance is amazing. As is Anne Hathaway's. Lots of tears shed before I left the theater, and they were cathartic tears.

I'm re-reading Leonard Marcus' introduction in Listening for Madeleine and am drafting my review of the book, which left me feeling such a mixture of feelings I'm having a hard time putting my response into words. I suppose the best thing it did for me was to make me realize anew how important Madeleine's work has been in my life and how much I miss her.

I'm enjoying Prayers for the Writer, compiled by Gary D. Schmidt and Elizabeth Stickney. While looking for Schmidt books recently, I came across a used copy of a textbook on children's literature he co-authored a decade or so ago, and picked it up for almost nothing. (I subscribe to the school of thought that if Gary Schmidt has anything to do with a book, it will be good. Sort of the same school of thought that says if Alan Rickman read the phone book, I'd sit there and listen.) Though I'm not usually a fan of text books, this is one is lively and about a topic near and dear to my heart, and each chapter (on different genres in children's lit) also includes reflections and exercises for those teaching and writing literature for children. It's helping me think through some things for my non-fiction WIP, which at the moment feels more front-burnerish than my fiction, though that's definitely still simmering too.

Thursday, January 03, 2013

Jumping Back Into Story: Beginning With the End

On this third day of the new year, I’ve been cleaning, organizing, lesson planning, enjoying time with the sweet girl, and generally trying to get well (still congested, still coughing). Now that end of term grading is done, I’m also trying to get back into the writing groove, but it’s taking a little longer than I anticipated.

What is it that makes jumping back into something creative so hard sometimes? Writing is the thing I love to do beyond all else, and yet when it’s been a while since I’ve regularly written – especially fiction – I can find all manner of things to put off the jump.

I used to think it was because my writing muscles weren’t well exercised. That may still be true, but it’s less true than it used to be since I do other kinds of writing regularly even when I’m not actively writing stories. Still, there is a different part of the brain (and hands) involved in writing non-fiction and even poems, so lack of regular exercise may still be part of it.

For me, I think it’s more often the realization that my jump can never be as deep as I’d like it to be. Although I’ve gotten better at writing in small spurts, out of necessity, I still write stories best when I can dive and dive deep for long, long stretches of time. That time is scarce at best and non-existent at worst some days. Knowing that I can’t give the time or attention needed makes me feel like I'm always “holding back” when I start. When you know there is a good chance you will be interrupted seven minutes in (and twelve, and sixteen, and nineteen) it’s just harder to leap with abandon.

Some of my hesitation may also come from the simple fact that I cannot shut a door. My writing space is in a corner of our living room. Even late at night, often my best writing time, when everyone else is in bed, there is still something that feels not private enough about the space. Add in that my crowded desk is cluttered with books and papers connected to all the different hats I wear in family and ministry, and it sometimes just doesn’t feel like the writerly space I need.

But enough whining. I am here to say, on the third day of the new year, that I need to dive back into story soon. And today I found a fascinating blog that provided me with some creative ideas to jumpstart my WIP. One of the most audacious ideas I found there was the suggestion that I write my story's final chapter now. Yes, now, when I am nowhere near writing the actual end, and when I don't know everything I need to know yet. The mere idea of doing this scares me in a delightful way.  I think I must feel a little bit like my ten year old did when she recently managed a 25 foot rock climb in a gym. When she landed on her feet at the bottom again, she clutched at her heart and announced "That was terrifying...AND awesome!" I suspect writing my last chapter now would feel just like that.

But the idea is resonating with me. Perhaps because a couple of weeks ago, my husband and I sat down and worked on plot points for my WIP -- moving from the end to the beginning. So I already feel as though I've been building from that perspective in my mind.

Wednesday, January 02, 2013

Snowdays: Links We Love

This morning the sweet girl and I decided to snip some snowflakes, and I went looking online for some easy patterns to follow. I've never been a very confident snowflake cutter, but I had a feeling today would be a good day to experiment.

The sweet girl has been on a very long paper creating kick. Well, she's always loved crafting with paper, but this particular folding kick started months ago when she made her first paper airplane. Numerous books from the library and packs of paper later, and she's become a pretty adept folder, so I had a feeling learning a snowflake fold would be easy and fun. It turns out it was. I found a pattern for a six point flake, she gave me some good tips, and away we went.

We found two great sites I'd like to pass on. You'll find them at the links. There's Snow Crystals, which has some great science as well as other fun activities, and Snowdays, a super creative site where you can virtually cut snowflakes of all sorts. You add your name and location, they assign your snowflake a number (so you can search for and find it again) and then it gets added to the constantly falling snow on their homepage. You can email flakes to friends, print pictures of the flakes you create, and more. So much fun!

Tuesday, January 01, 2013

Responding to God in the New Year

I pray that anyone reading this is having a blessed new year's day, a refreshing time to look back with gratitude on the past year (even if it was a difficult one) and to reflect on hopes and goals for the new year. Here we are at 2013!

 When I began this blog in 2006, almost exactly seven years ago, I had no idea that I would still be posting my thoughts here this far down the road. Although I do not always post as often as I used to, it's still a place where I enjoy coming to share creativity, struggles, prayers, inspiration, and of course lots and lots of good book recommendations.

One thing I hope to do this year is both a writing/creativity goal and a spiritual one (so often those two come bundled together). I have been thinking about the many things that often "come my way" in the course of each day, be it a lovely photograph on Facebook, something I've read online, in a book, or in the Scriptures, or just the ordinary thoughtful moments of family life and friendship. I'm hoping to maintain the discipline of writing something small each day, usually a poem or prayer, in response to whatever God opens my eyes to that particular day...whatever it may be. I hope to share bits of that "day book" here in the coming year.

I also plan to compile my list of favorite books from 2012 sometime this month, once I get past the sinus infection I'm recovering from -- and get back into some semblance of school and work routine following the holidays.

Whatever your goals and hopes are for the coming year, I pray that your eyes will be opened more and more to the riches of God's grace, goodness and mercy. The year is still like a day of new fallen snow...hardly any tracks yet, and so many beautiful miles to go.