By Kellye Crocker
Memorial Day has always struck me as a bit odd. It’s a national holiday honoring the US military men and women who gave their lives for our freedom. Their sacrifice—and that of their families, friends and communities—is unfathomable. At the same time, it’s a three-day weekend (for many) that unofficially kicks off summer. Even as an adult, I feel giddy anticipation. Summer is the quintessential season to play.
Recently, I’ve given serious thought to play, including how it can help me reach my writing goals. That may sound counterintuitive, but I’ve come to believe play is integral to the creative process—and not just for feral first drafts.
For me, play means ditching my Inner Critic, stripping off the pantyhose of perfectionism, and, as literary agent Holly Root advises, keeping my eyes on my own test paper. (It doesn’t have to be about mixed metaphors, but it can be. Loosen up! Break some rules! No one is going to die if you add another exclamation point! Or another!)
It’s about embracing your weird, as Alexander Lumans advised in an excellent talk at Denver’s Lighthouse Writers Workshop this spring. Because that weird stuff that pops into your head—say, the naughty fairy who flies into your Serious Literary Art—can breathe energy into your writing if you let it stay and play.
Disclaimer 1: I’m not saying you should throw the rules away, write badly and then try to traditionally publish that dreck or put it out yourself. Unless, you know, it works for readers. On the other hand, maybe allowing yourself to write awfully badly (!!) might propel your writing into cool, new places you couldn’t have imagined before you became a playful rule-breaker. For me, play means taking my work seriously, but approaching it with a lighter, more joyful, grateful heart.
Let me tell you about my play role model, my dear friend and Vermont College of Fine Arts roommate, Sarah Aronson, who has published a picture book, a middle grade novel and two young adult novels. I know a lot of hard-working, talented, successful and generous authors, and Sarah is one. But I have never met someone more willing to try things with her writing, more willing to start over without ego, than Sarah. In a keynote lecture at the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrator’s Wild Wild Midwest conference this spring, Sarah shared how she’d played herself out of a dark place. Although many editors admired her latest YA manuscript—an edgy project she’d worked on for two years and considered her best work—they couldn’t get it past their acquisitions committees. Sarah, of course, is far from alone.
This was fall 2014, and Sarah’s response was to give herself six months to focus on creativity or, as she put it, to live like David Bowie, who not only wrote songs and stories, but also painted. “I had one rule and one rule only,” Sarah said. “I was going to write without any expectations.”
She would write what she’d somehow convinced herself she couldn’t or shouldn’t: Picture books, humor, essays, an adult novel, poetry, and most important, a light-and-delicious project she thought of as “peach sorbet,” a chapter book about a very bad fairy godmother. She also took long walks along Lake Michigan, read books about creativity, doodled, worked with clay and read poetry aloud. She played with writing exercises.
She let go of fear, shrugged off mistakes, and relaxed. And, happily, Scholastic plans to publish that “peach sorbet”—“The Worst Fairy Godmother Ever!”—in 2017, and Beach Lane Books bought Sarah’s picture book biography “Just Like Rube Goldberg.”
I started my current project—a young middle grade novel—after a phone call with Sarah. I was new to Colorado and feeling down about my writing. Give yourself three months to play, she said. I did and still am. I’m having more fun writing than I have in years.
Disclaimer 2: I’m not a paid promoter for Sarah Aronson. She’s just awesome. Her Monday Motivation newsletter is a quick, thought-provoking read with tips and prompts that help me start my writing week right. (Sign up is at the bottom of the tips page.) She also writes about play and “eating dessert first” in this guest post at The Greenhouse Literary Agency blog.
When you think about it, the opportunity to play is a gift, a luxury that many people in the world don’t share. I’m grateful to those who serve and have served in our military, as well as for their family members. How do you plan to celebrate the holiday and make the most of your summer? How do you want to play with your creativity and writing? I’d love to hear your thoughts.
Share and Enjoy
By Bobbi Shupe
Just when you think you have control of life you’re asked to coordinate a major art show. “A nice chunk of change,” you’re offered for very little work since the show has been running smoothly for a number of years. “Too good to be true.” “No such thing as a free lunch.” Quotes like these run through your mind, particularly as you say yes. . .yes, you will be the 2016 coordinator for the Arapahoe Community College Community Education Student/Instructor Art Show.
Logistics are in place, however, there are always those little details that, if an event runs smoothly, no one outside of the conscientious coordinator is aware of.
How hard can this be. . .you send out letters to students and instructors inviting them to show current work and giving them dates for 1) Art Check-in 2) Hanging Art 3) Judging Art 4) Opening Reception and 5) Art Pick-up. You can follow the previous coordinator’s timeline, just tweak the dates a bit. How hard can this be? Another letter needs to go to art instructors asking them to solicit volunteers from their classes to assist with invitation check-in, hanging, reception and pick-up at the end of the show.
It is the middle of February and you feel very confident as you develop a folder to house “The Com Ed Student and Instructor Art Show.” You compose your invitation letter to students and instructors and enlist the help of the Community Ed office to email as many as possible and snail mail letters to those without email. This should be completed by the end of March, however, when you check with the Com Ed office, you realize that they have gotten so used to the previous coordinator accomplishing everything without their knowledge that many of your emails, carefully copied to everyone have gone unread. Pat yourself on the back for checking on whether or not letters had been sent.
It is now the end of March. Time to prepare the announcement poster, post card and press release. You create these in PhotoShop, not being comfortable with InDesign. Again, how hard can this be? In tandem with these items you email the caterer using the same one from previous years and the musical group, which has performed in the past. Your email to the caterer bounces back. You check the web site and discover there is a new owner. You send out another email, which also bounces back. You can handle this. You have a phone number. What’s wrong with old school? You actually talk to a nice young lady who takes your order and promises to email a proposed menu with costs. The musical group responds to your email. They are available and would love to play all they need are chairs without arms; folding chairs are fine. You note that you need to discuss chairs with the Gallery Director. Buoyed by these two successes, you return to the poster and post card. All goes well until you realize you don’t have a clue how to get the “scan thingie” (you later learn this is a QR). You contact the ACC marketing department, which was only planning to do a final approval. After numerous back and forth emails it is determined that Community Ed now falls under the guidelines of the college so, therefore, marketing should handle the design of the poster and post card so all requirements are met. Makes sense to me. Take a breath. You supply marketing with all the necessary information and the image of last year’s award winning painting. They will create, design and get your approval. In the meantime, you supply the Promotion Department with the same information and image and they create a fabulous press release which will be posted on numerous forms of Social Media. Take two breaths. You secure a juror, order ribbons and set up a meeting with the Gallery Director to learn the protocol of the Gallery. It is closing in on the end of April. You’re not exhaling yet but breathe a little easier after you give final approval for poster and postcards and know the designs have been sent to the printing department. It is now the first of May.
The music group lets you know they’ve been rehearsing and are ready to go. You receive the juror’s bio to be posted with her art. You hear from the instructors that they have a few student volunteers. Dates are confirmed: 1) Check-in, May 18th 2) Hanging, May 19th 3) Judging, May 20th 4) Opening Reception, May 26th 5) End of show and pick-up, June 27th. You’re still sweating a little bit when you discover that the ribbons won’t be mailed till May 20th so you pray that US mail comes through for you. You pick up the finished posters and post cards, admire them and let out half a breath. This week is D-Day.
Share and Enjoy
by Whiney Writer
Writing about teens is hard. I’m doing character profiles for my contemporary prequel to my YA SF/zombie/romance/mystery/thriller, and that means I’ve got teen pre-zombie backstories to build. But not having been a teen for a while (and I wasn’t even that good at it when I was one) I needed a way to know how they think, talk, dress, and behave today. I mean, I took notes after I talked with my teen bagger at the grocery store, but I got the distinct impression she was trying real hard not to act like a real teen. I mean she wasn’t wearing gobs of makeup, didn’t have a piercing anywhere but through her ears, and she called me “Ma’am” and asked if she could help carry my bag of ice cream and potato chips to the car. That is NOT normal teen behavior based on every show currently on TV!
So speaking of TV shows, that night I watched a National Geographic channel special about lions while eating my ice cream and potato chips. The wildlife researchers installed a special blind that blended in with the grasslands. Then they observed lions in their natural habitat. They filmed them and took notes on everything from the pride hunting zebras as a team to caring for cubs to … well, you know, that stuff that lions do to make cubs. Every wildlife special has to show that! Then it dawned on me how I could see and hear the real-life world of teenagerdom. I would observe them in their natural habitat!
I didn’t try to be sneaky at first. I simply lied to the assistant high school principal that my niece was moving to the district and asked if I could sit in on a couple classes. I went to sophomore English and social studies. And guess what? I got to see lessons in sophomore English and social studies—and remember how much I’d forgotten. Then I went to the cafeteria with my Hello Kitty lunch box and tried to blend in, though my handheld parabolic microphone might have been more noticeable than I’d have liked. Groups of kids seemed to get nervous when I pointed it at them. But how else was I supposed to learn how many times a teen uses “like” in a sentence? Or find out what the latest teen slang is? (I mean do teens even say “Holy Smokes!” anymore? Or call each other “Doofus”? Or yell “Far out!”? Those kinds of details can clue kids in that an author doesn’t have a clue about what’s really going on in their lives!) Anyway, I could tell that my presence was keeping them from doing the stuff I know teens do when they aren’t being observed by a barely noticeable stranger with a notebook who’s sneaking up behind them to see what snacks they like to eat. You know, that stuff teenagers do.
I had to try another tack. So after promising to fill up the gas tank, I borrowed my friend’s rusty white van with the windows tinted so dark no one can peek in. I parked it across the street from the school grounds where some kids ate their lunch. I rented a video camera with a powerful zoom lens. I mounted the parabolic microphone on the roof so it looked kind of like a satellite dish. Then I tuned in to observe teens in their natural habitat! I heard two real-life teens talk about a science project! And I got great video of several real-life teens sending real teen texts!
I know I would have gotten a whole lot more and written the most well-researched YA SF/zombie/romance/mystery/thriller ever! But then someone pounded on the side of the van. And someone said “Police! Open up!”
It’s kinds of sad how suspicious people are these days.
Share and Enjoy
Claudia Cangilla McAdam
I was recently in the car, driving a three-year-old passenger. A conversation we had got me thinking about what’s important in the books she reads, in the ones I read . . . and in the ones I write.
Here’s a recap of the conversation that sprang up out of the blue:
HER: “I have big girl books now.”
I read with her frequently, and I’m familiar with her books. So, what exactly was she talking about? I wondered what constitutes a “big girl book” to a three-year-old. Do they have more pages? Are they larger in dimension? Just what did she mean?
“But they’re kind of scary,” she added.
Hmmm. That confused me even more. She can’t read, so I was left trying to imagine what kind of books her parents might be reading to her. Mysteries? Suspense? Horror stories? Oh, the horror of such a thought!
ME: “What’s scary about them?”
HER: “They don’t have any pictures.”
ME: “Oh. With books like that, you need to use your imagination and make up your own pictures in your head.”
In the weeks that followed that conversation, her comment about books without pictures being “scary,” got me thinking on a number of different planes:
Why Pictures Matter in Picture Books
When I read picture books to young children, I enjoy watching their eyes roam over the page, taking in all the illustrations. A good illustrator tells his or her own story on the page, apart from what the writer pens. And good illustrations can bring the reader (or listener) even deeper into the story. Examples:
Jon Klassen’s I Want My Hat Back has a bear searching for his missing red hat. Astute young eyes can spot the hat before the bear does, and kids love knowing something the main character doesn’t.
Wendy Silvano’s Turkey Trouble follows a turkey on the farm who disguises himself in order to avoid winding up on the Thanksgiving table. He dresses as other animals, and his disguises work . . . almost. The illustrations provide a wonderful opportunity to have the kids verbalize what the turkey put on to look like another animal, and why that disguise didn’t work.
There’s much more to a picture book than the words and the illustrations. There’s the discussion that ensues. And when it comes to books that aren’t illustrated, such as novels, engaging the imagination is critical.
Importance (for the reader) of Creating Pictures in Non-illustrated Books
A book that brings the scenes to life in the reader’s mind should do so beautifully and unobtrusively. I love it when I read a scene, and I’m there! But when a book fails to do that, it seems like such a waste of time . . . mine and the author’s.
I’m currently in the middle of such a work (title and author will go nameless). I’m only still with the book because I’m listening to it in the car, and I have a modicum of interest in finding out “who done it.” But the author’s writing doesn’t allow me to picture the settings, the characters, their movements, etc. There’s plenty of “telling,” but very little “showing.”
In order to have the best experience possible with a book, I believe the reader needs to be able to enter into the story, to visualize the surroundings, to sympathize with the characters, to wonder, to worry, to wrestle with the same emotions the characters experience.
Importance (for the author) of Creating Pictures in Non-illustrated Books
There are books galore on “showing vs. telling,” so I’m not even going to go there. I’m just going to try to remind myself constantly that as an author, it’s my responsibility to paint pictures with words. I’m going to try to take every adverb I’m tempted to use (angrily, happily, sadly, etc.) and find a way to express that same emotion through what the characters do or say. And adjectives such as “beautiful,” “ugly,” “boring,” etc., that are used to describe scenes absolutely need to go. As an author, my job is to create a picture in my reader’s mind that enables that person to realize the scene is “beautiful,” “ugly,” “boring,” or whatever, without ever using those words.
Therefore, as I write, I try to remember the wisdom of a three-year-old who knows that books without pictures can be scary. And unless I’m intentionally trying to keep my readers on the edge of their seats, that’s something I don’t want to shoot for in my writing.
I want collaboration with my readers: my writing and their imaginations should join together to create a story that is vividly illustrated . . . without one single picture in the book. It’s only “scary” when I don’t do that.
Share and Enjoy