R is for Reading – in Paris

 

Nikki Reads Shakespeare Co ext
Mecca for readers and writers alike – Shakespeare and Company in Paris

 

It always surprises me when students say they don’t like to read in a genre similar to their current work in progress. I’m the opposite. Writing a memoir about walking the Camino? Step one is to read every memoir I can get my hands on written by other people who have walked the Camino. Want to write a fantasy novel for kids? Now there’s an excellent excuse to immediately run out and procure an armload of fantasy novels for kids.

I don’t worry about accidentally stealing ideas – I have plenty of my own. I don’t worry about imitating someone else’s style – I try to find the widest possible range of voices and approaches when I’m reading. That pretty much eliminates any worry that I’ll find myself adopting another author’s writing style. Besides, by now I sure hope I have a style or voice I can call my own!

Nikki reading apartment 3

When I read books and articles by other people I analyze them to death. It’s the only way I can think of to see what works and what doesn’t. Do I find myself completely engaged in one account of a Camino trip and utterly bored by another? Why? What makes some writing so compelling and other writing so meh? I enjoy it when an author’s personality shines through, especially if the writer has a sense of humour. I like lots of anecdotes mixed in with my doses of hard facts. But, I do like those facts to be there as well. Does the author use sidebars to pull out the factual bits or roll everything into some kind of overarching narrative? As I read, I hold my observations up against what I’m trying in my own writing. Then, when I’m writing, I try different techniques, modifying to suit my own story and what I’m trying to accomplish. In recent years, I’ve found I’ve started reading almost exclusively non-fiction, but the range of approaches to non-fiction is almost as broad as the range of subjects covered. On one hand, that’s very liberating – there is no ‘right’ way to come at a project. On the other hand, all those choices mean it can be pretty overwhelming to figure out what the best approach might be.

What about you? When you start a new writing project do you shy away from reading related material? Or do you seek it out and immerse yourself in the works of others who have explored similar paths before?

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C is for Children’s Books

“You have to write the book that wants to be written. And if the book will be too difficult for grown-ups, then you write it for children.”
Madeleine L’Engle

“No book is really worth reading at the age of ten which is not equally – and often far more – worth reading at the age of fifty and beyond.”

C.S. Lewis

child reads 02 andrew-branch-180244Those are two of my favourite quotes about writing books for younger readers. There’s nothing easy about writing for kids and it’s been my experience that the fewer words one has to work with, the more challenging things become. My two picture books (Grandparents Day – now out of print – and a forthcoming title with Holiday House) were the two manuscripts with the most iterations. Both stories went through draft after draft after draft, first on my own and then, after acceptance by the publisher, working with editors to further revise the manuscripts.

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In the space of a few hundred words, characters need to be established and a story developed. Editors want to hear a unique voice (that’s a tough one to explain – it’s one of those things you recognize immediately when it’s working, but is almost impossible to pin down how it happens or what’s lacking when it doesn’t). Plot, pacing, and precise use of language are needed as with any other type of writing. Though we need to be aware that children don’t always have the same background knowledge an adult reader brings to a book, one of the cardinal sins of writing for children is to talk down to the audience – there’s no need to be pedantic and overexplain. Kids are smart, intuitive, and curious readers. They love cool words and big ideas. Their agile young minds can follow whatever plot twists and turns you’d care to throw at them. Even young children can have well-developed senses of humour that are surprisingly subtle.

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In recent years there has been a trend toward adults reading books for young adults and there are plenty of adults I know who read children’s books and thoroughly enjoy them. C. S. Lewis was right on when he said that a good book for kids is worth revisiting as an adult. Do you like reading books for kids? Do you have a favourite? There are so many I love I don’t think I could pick one favourite, though The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman is right up there on the list. Which brings me to one last thought. It has always surprised me that when I ask students in my workshops what children’s books they enjoy, there are always some who give me a blank look and confess they can’t remember the last time they read any books for kids. If you don’t enjoy reading books for children you probably shouldn’t be writing them.

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This post is part of the A to Z Blogging Challenge in which bloggers from all over the world write a blog post every day in April. There are a LOT of other bloggers taking part. Visit the A to Z Challenge blog to see who is posting what each day.

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Enjoy the blog? Consider becoming a patron to support the creation of these blog posts, photo essays, and short videos. In return, you’ll have my undying appreciation, but you’ll also get access to Patron-only content, advance peeks at works in progress, and more – all for as little as a buck a month! It’s easy – head on over to Patreon to have a look at how it all works.

B is for the Beauty of Barf (AtoZChallenge)

With apologies to anyone emetophobic who may be reading
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There are some writers who agonize over their first drafts. As I understand it, their process goes something like this:
1. Write an opening clause
2. Reconsider
3. Rework the opening clause, add a comma and consider how to continue. For half an hour. Tentatively write the second part of the first sentence and realize that there was a much better way to write the first half.
4. Rework the first half of the sentence. Fiddle about with word choice for another 20 minutes. The chosen words seem ok, but the order isn’t quite right. Rearrange.
5. The first part of the sentence is sounding pretty good but now it doesn’t flow well into the second half.
6. Rewrite the second half.
7. Read both halves together and realize perhaps the opening would be stronger with two sentences.
8. Remove comma, period and capital letter.
9. Both sentences are now too short. The opening is definitely choppy.
10. Enhance both sentences. This takes up the better part of an hour.
11. At the end of all that (and a bit of final tweaking) the opening sounds pretty damned fine. It’s lunchtime but half a paragraph is better than none.
I imagine this meticulous ‘edit-as-you-go’ strategy is why some writers take a decade to get to the end of their first draft. For those who manage to stay the course and actually get to the end of anything by writing this way, wow. Hats off to you! (And please, if you are a writer who works this way, please leave a comment and share how on earth you motivate yourself to keep going and also, how do you cope when an editor makes a suggestion? Or, does this method work so well for you that no further rewriting is necessary?)

Farting Around As I Go is Not For Me

You don’t have to be a genius to figure out I don’t work this way.  I am firmly camped in the school of barf. Now there’s a sentence that might not get past a writer who insists on perfection at every step of the way. Mixed metaphors, images that make little sense, a spare adverb. A certain ‘huh? I think I get what she’s trying to say’ response quite likely to be elicited in the reader. Nevertheless, for the sake of this example, I will press on with this messy first draft and try to describe what my puking on the page process looks like.
1. Even though I’m not exactly sure what I want to say I start writing anyway. No outline. No list of key points. Today, there’s not much more than a vague idea that I want to a) use a keyword that starts with B and, b) write about something to do with writing.
B AtoZ
2. I write the letter b. Book comes to mind. Yep. That’s how bland things looked when I started out. Boring.
3. Stare out the window.
4. Make tea.
5. Stare at the word book on the screen.
6. Delete all but the b.
7. Realize this is so bad it’s making me want to puke. I don’t have forever to write this. Too bad puke doesn’t start with B. But Barf does! Beautiful!
8. I have a title! And from there, I just begin to spew – everything I can think of to do with heaving stuff onto the page with little regard for how it will all hang together.
9. One thought leads to another. I can’t write fast enough to keep up.
10. Stray words slip into the margin to remind me to come back and explore related thoughts later
11. I write without stopping for perhaps ten or fifteen minutes and the basic content of the post is there.
12. I take a moment to reread. Divide the post into two sections. Expand the bit where I imagine how a more meticulous first drafter might handle this challenge.
13. I take out the terrible vomit joke.
14. And that’s it. A sloppy, kinda stinky not quite right draft.
It’s only then that I sit back and reconsider. Sitting back and reconsidering is immediately part of the revise, rewrite, edit, chew over, regurgitate (to stay with my theme) part of the writing process. At this point, the barfing slows down unless I need to add a fresh chunk to the mix.
What’s the advantage to this method? I always have something to work with. I don’t tend to get stuck. I don’t limit my ideas. I allow my writing to be terrible. I don’t worry that the phrasing isn’t quite right or even if I’ve made my point. That all takes place after I have finished with my initial projectile blathering.
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I know that there will be lots and lots of time between spewing out that first draft and the day anyone (even my editor) will get to have a look. I’ll talk about the revision, rewriting process elsewhere (perhaps for the letter R), but what I do know about puking my ideas all over the page is that at least then I have a starting place.
It may be messy and inadequate and confused and incomplete, but it’s somewhere to begin. It’s like having a glorious damp lump of clay sitting on the table in front of me, all bulgy and misshapen. Somewhere inside that lump may be an elegant sculpture waiting for my tools to reveal its hidden form. That’s how the messy first draft feels. Like a voluminous blob of potential
What about you? Are you a spewer like me? Or someone who likes to coax each word, each phrase, each image into being in its most perfect form as you move from sentence to paragraph to chapter to book? Hey – waddya know? Book found its way into this blog post all on its own!
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This post is part of the A to Z Blogging Challenge in which bloggers from all over the world write a blog post every day in April. There are a LOT of other bloggers taking part. Visit the A to Z Challenge blog to see who is posting what each day.

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Enjoy the blog? Consider becoming a patron to support the creation of these blog posts, photo essays, and short videos. In return, you’ll have my undying appreciation, but you’ll also get access to Patron-only content, advance peeks at works in progress, and more – all for as little as a buck a month! It’s easy – head on over to Patreon to have a look at how it all works.

A is for Authorly Angst (#AtoZChallenge)

“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”
Maya Angelou, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

As writers, we choose our subjects in many ways. As a working author (I don’t have another job other than putting words to paper) sometimes my topic selections are very practical. I’ve written several books in the Orca Footprints series, for example (Deep Roots: How Trees Sustain Our Planet, Down to Earth: How Kids Help Feed the World and Take Shelter: At Home Around the World). I love the concept of the series (non-fiction titles looking at complex environmental issues and asking the question, what are the things we need to live and thrive on our planet?) so it isn’t a stretch to want to dive into the research and then write books that are meaningful but also attractive and engaging. But truth be told, choosing to write another Footprints title is also very practical. The books have an audience and that means I will receive a royalty cheque and that means I will live to eat another day. Ok, I don’t eat days, but you get my meaning.

Though the process of writing any book is challenging for many reasons (this series of blog posts over the next month will touch on some of them), books like the Footprints titles, or novels for which I have a reasonable idea and a solid plot or a character I like, don’t keep me up at night agonizing over whether I should proceed with the project.

But there are other kinds of stories to tell, those that gnaw holes in your insides until you let them out.

But there are other kinds of stories to tell, those that gnaw holes in your insides until you let them out. Those are the stories that reveal things about you and your life, your beliefs, your fears. They are the stories that weigh heavy, that you agonize over how best to share or whether sharing is even appropriate.

Many years ago I heard an author speaking about stories like that (I sure wish I could remember who it was!) who said that keeping those most powerful of stories inside because we are afraid of revealing too much or because we are afraid that readers ‘won’t get it’ is a kind of narcissism. We imagine that our stories are so out there, so unique that nobody else will be able to relate. The opposite is true. We don’t need to have shared an exact experience with someone else to be moved, to learn, to understand, to appreciate the emotional truth that lies at the heart of the story.

Those are the stories we remember: they are the narratives that have the power to change the way we see the world.

If the story is written with integrity, with emotional honesty, we tap into the deeper emotional truths that make us human. And if we are brave enough to go there, those deeper emotional truths are what make the most profound impression on our readers. It doesn’t matter if one person has survived a bombing and another an attack by a dog and someone else a car accident – the raw underpinnings are the same – fear, coming face to face with our mortality, loss of control, and the randomness of unexpected events are experiences we all share at some point. We connect to these stories at that very basic level. We ask ourselves, what would I have done? We empathize. We imagine ourselves in similar circumstances. We weep. We laugh. We are inspired. Those are the stories we remember: they are the narratives that have the power to change the way we see the world.

For many years I have been careful about revealing too much of my own story or the stories of those closest to me. When I have tackled difficult subjects (suicide, poverty, racism) it has been done in the context of fiction. Now, though, things are changing. I’m getting older (nothing like being on the far side of fifty to make you realize there are a finite number of books left to be written) and I have stories untold inside me. As Maya Angelou says, it’s an agony not to let them out.

The big writing projects on my desk are all non-fiction and they are all causing me a whole new level of grief. I’m working hard in ways I’ve never worked hard before. I’m struggling to find the balance between digging deep and spinning a readable yarn. I’m writing about loss and failure, challenge and adversity, hope and bearing down. These are my family stories, my own struggles, and subjects that have remained tucked away and waiting for later for too long.

These manuscripts wake me up in the middle of the night. But they are also manuscripts that feel really good to finally, finally be getting my full attention.

Do you have a story inside you need to tell? What’s stopping you? Be brave. Let it out. Start today.

A atozchallenge

This post is part of the A to Z Blogging Challenge in which bloggers from all over the world write a blog post every day in April. There are a LOT of other bloggers taking part. Visit the A to Z Challenge blog to see who is posting what each day.

 

patreon-logo

Enjoy the blog? Consider becoming a patron to support the creation of these blog posts, photo essays, and short videos. In return, you’ll have my undying appreciation, but you’ll also get access to Patron-only content, advance peeks at works in progress, and more – all for as little as a buck a month! It’s easy – head on over to Patreon to have a look at how it all works.