Tuesday, December 1, 2020

The Unexpected Difference Our Words Can Make

Writers write for many reasons. Surely one of the most important is to connect with readers: to have our words make a difference to some reader, sometime, somewhere. 

Here is a story of how words I wrote for the most ephemeral of audiences, to be heard for three or four brief minutes and then forgotten forever, ended up having, a decade later, an impact I could never have imagined.

The University of Colorado Philosophy Department hosts a fabulous conference every summer, the Rocky Mountain Ethics Congress (RoME), billed as "an international conference geared to offer the highest quality, highest altitude discussion of ethics, broadly conceived." Each conference features dozens of submitted papers as well as three keynote addresses by the most prominent figures in the field of philosophical ethics. In 2009, one of these was Prof. Judith Jarvis Thomson of MIT, who happened to have been my teacher when I was an undergraduate in the early 1970s at Wellesley College; Wellesley and MIIT had a partnership, which continues to this day, where students at one institution could take courses at the other.

I asked if I could give the introduction for Prof. Thomson. I had wonderful material in the notebook I still had from that course, as she was such a charismatic teacher that every sentence she uttered was one I wanted to preserve for posterity. 

In the notebook I even preserved her advice to us for our paper on utilitarianism:

If you can read my tiny writing, you'll see that the main instruction to us was "No eloquence!" Prof. Thomson valued crystalline clarity in writing and despised flowery prose. I also remembered many other pithy pieces of writing criticism she gave me during the time of our acquaintance as well as bracing advice from her mentoring as I applied to graduate school.

So I wrote a page and a half of introductory remarks and delivered them one summer day in 2009 to the RoME audience. I was stunned by the impact of that three-minute speech. One colleague, not known for effusive compliments, called it "the introduction greater than which no introduction can be conceived." At RoME conferences years later, strangers would approach me and say, "You're the one who gave that introduction for Judy Thomson!" Of course, the introduction was so wonderful only because Judy Thomson was so wonderful; it was the details about this unforgettable women that were the unforgettable part of my speech.

This past month, on November 20, Judith Jarvis Thomson died. The chair of the CU Philosophy Department asked if I could send him a copy of my introduction for wider sharing, and it was posted here, on the leading blog of the philosophy profession, the Daily Nous.

I started to get emails: from a University of Maryland colleague from decades ago; from a children's literature colleague who attended the same high school as Judith Jarvis Thomson and had seen my post quoted on their website; from a friend who said my post was the subject of their Thanksgiving dinner conversation, as her son had also benefitted from Prof. Thomson's wisdom; and from Judy Thomson's nephew.

I would never have guessed that a three-minute introduction of a speaker would be widely circulated eleven years later. Oh, writers, little do we know what unexpected power our words may have. And, oh teachers, little do you know how much every utterance from your lips may be cherished by hundreds of students a generation later. 

Monday, November 16, 2020

Sparking a Book Idea: Part IV


I had my idea fairly well worked out on many pages of handwritten notes. (By the time I was done with the entire draft, I had accumulated 28 closely written pages of dialogue with myself.) I had decided on the form for the book before I even began thinking of an idea. It was to be a verse novel, my second attempt at this enormously pleasing literary challenge. For those of you unfamiliar with the verse novel: it's a novel with all the usual requirements of plot, character, setting, theme, etc., told entirely in free verse. Most of the poems in mine aren't longer than a single page; some are just a line of two - a fragment of thought, a single image, a moment captured.

Now I had to write the book.

I write for only one hour a day, timed with my cherished cherry-wood hourglass.

Because I adore writing verse novels so much, when I am writing one I call this my "hour of bliss." On my to-do list for the day, it appears simply as "bliss." My typical daily harvest of words produced for this latest verse novel (written by hand) was three or four poems - some longer, some shorter. Some days, I produced just one poem; other days, perhaps five or six. Then (and this did take an additional untimed half hour or so), I typed them up (doing quite a bit of editing as I typed) and printed them out.

The next day my hour would begin with reading over yesterday's poems and making more edits and corrections. Then I'd write the new poems. With this system, I never lose momentum on a book and also never suffer burnout from overly intense productivity. Slowly, steadily, the pages pile up. 

On some days, I realized that I needed to think more before I could proceed. I NEVER think thoughts about my writing in my head. NEVER! I think them ONLY on paper, with pen in hand. Sometimes it seems to me that I have no inner life at all because I do all my thinking about my life - wrestling with various life challenges - on the page as well. 

I started this new book (working title, The Silent Stars) with notes made on August 14. I see in my calendar records that I spent five more hours on the gathering and groping process before writing the first page of the actual text for the book on Friday, August 28. I wrote the final page of the full first draft on Monday, November 9. There were numerous days I didn't work on it because other projects demanded my attention, such as revisions for my editor on the previous verse novel (working title, The Lost Language). But I logged my hours of bliss with considerable regularity. Toward the very end, I have to confess there were a couple of days when the story was so gripping to me, its author, that I allowed myself TWO hours of writing bliss. But I'm reluctant to tamper with a system that has worked so well for me for decades: an hour a day day, no more, no less, pretty much every day. This first draft ended up at 227 pages and 27, 210 words (a novel not in verse would have more than double that word count for the same number of pages - one reason that verse novels are popular with reluctant readers, as well as with readers who value their more literary style).

Reading it through when the full draft was done, I made only a few changes at this stage, because I rely so heavily on feedback from my writing group. Mainly I pruned early mentions of story elements that ended up not not materializing as significant later on. For example, Clover can't have a dog of her own because of her father's allergies; this is why her relationship with the dog who has a tragic accident in the story is so important to her. In one poem Clover started to have some resentment toward her father for this reason, but this just didn't fit the way their relationship unfolded, so I dropped that poem. Clover's language arts teacher begins every class with a poem, which always resonates uncannily with what is going on in Clover's heart at the time. But I decided to limit myself to mentioning in detail only one of these poems, because it's too expensive and cumbersome to get permission to publish quotations from poems that aren't in the published domain, and I didn't want this teacher to share only familiar chestnuts from the past, so a couple more poems got the axe. Clover and her father are stargazers; now was the time for me to research which constellations would be viewable in the early evening in October and November. 

My writing group will read this tweaked draft at their December meeting. Then I'll make changes accordingly, perhaps a lot of changes (my writing group is loving but TOUGH!!!) before sending the book to my agent to see what he thinks.

It's been a week now since I finished the full draft, and I have considerable post-partum depression. My days feel so empty without my hour of bliss. I have plenty of other work tasks to do, including an overdue academic project; these provide their own satisfaction once completed, but they aren't blissful, and it's bliss I crave. 

So I need to start groping toward my next book. I feel daunted by the task, but I will re-read these four blog posts to remind myself exactly how I did this before and encourage myself to believe I can do this again. 
Off to start a new round of musings now....

Sunday, November 15, 2020

Sparking a Book Idea: Part III


At this point in the process of planning out my book, I had begun with the idea-spark of writing a book about a girl whose family is involved in some way with a Museum of Losers, based on a real-life museum of this name I had discovered in Kansas on a road trip. But as I probed further, the project became a book about a girl who idolizes her father and then learns some dark secret from his past, with the Museum of Losers totally dropped from the story. 

I don't think I can bear to tell you what the dark secret is, because this is truly the only time in my forty-year career that I have ever had such a big OMG moment in one of my books, or really any OMG moment at all. Even though there is close to a zero chance that a single reader of this post will (a) go on to read the book when it's published years from now; and (b) remember details from this post, it seems a shame to give away my one big thrilling plot turn, so here I will just give dark little hints....

I knew the book had to have some fun in it - some lightheartedness and laughter. I knew that my protagonist, Clover, had to DO SOMETHING to drive the story. In the course of DOING this thing (the emphasis here courtesy of editor Cheryl Klein, who in her book The Magic Words insists that characters have to DO THINGS, all-caps), she will discover the dark secret about her dad. I was also wedded to the idea that this girl would have some very confident opinion that she would have to rethink. Another brilliant guru for writing advice, the incomparable Kathi Appelt, calls this the protagonist's "controlling belief," which will be tested at the moment of climax in what Appelt calls "a crisis of faith." 

I decided that this would be what Clover DOES: she starts a dog-walking business with her two best friends, Quinn and Adalee. Adalee is a chronic complainer, a gloom-and-doom Cassandra whose many dire predictions add humor to the book, but also a sense of (I hope!) delicious foreboding. Quinn is a quiet, capable, somewhat nerdy boy, whom I didn't know much about yet; I figured I'd get to know him better when he would emerge on the page. I knew something bad would happen to one of the dogs on one of the walks, and Clover would respond with rage against the person responsible; she would express this rage in a letter to the newspaper, and the publication of this letter would trigger the revelation about her dad. 

I had a plan! I loved this plan!! I loved it so much! 

I followed my usual practice of writing the first page of a new book somewhere special, by sitting with my pad of paper and favorite pen on this bench at the Denver Botanic Gardens. 

But as I wrote the first twenty or thirty pages, I kept wondering what real purpose Quinn served in the story. I had a good sense of Adalee (I think she ended up being my favorite character), but why did I even need quiet, fairly unobtrusive Quinn? Should I just get rid of him? My choice as an author was: either eliminate Quinn or have him play a more significant role in the unfolding events. I rejected the first option: I didn't want to eliminate Quinn because I wanted a boy character in the book, plus a more positive friend to balance Adalee's comic negativity. Hmmm.... what should I do with Quinn?? 

So I sat down, pen in hand, to add to my growing stack of musings, in the form of notes to myself: "What is Quinn's role? in the [dog-walking business] and in the book?"

It was in trying to find an important role for Quinn to play that I came up with an additional plot twist that became, in my view, the best element of the book. This element of the story, which I introduced ONLY to give this secondary character more of a role, ended up giving my protagonist so much more depth, because now (it turns out) SHE herself is in part responsible for what happens to the dog, and she has painful questions about her own wrongdoing to address.

I love how attention to some structural requirement of a book - here, ensuring that every character actually plays a significant role in the story - can lead to uncovering a powerful and deep truth for the story to convey to readers. Oh, Quinn, if I hadn't realized how badly I was neglecting you, how much poorer this story have been!

Of course, however we spark ideas, and however those sparks catch fire in our feverish plotting brains, we still have to WRITE THE BOOK. In the final installment of this blog-post series, I will share the hour-a-day system that led to my writing a full draft of this book from first line on Friday, August 28, to last line on Monday, November 9.


Saturday, November 14, 2020

Sparking a Book Idea: Part II


So I had the teensiest spark of a book idea: I would write a book, a verse novel, about a girl whose family is in some way connected with a Museum of Losers like the one I had discovered in a tiny town along Route 36, which traverses the northern edge of Kansas. I knew that I couldn't write a book about a Museum of Losers without thinking hard about the back story of someone who would create such a museum. What had that person lost that might lead them to empathize with losers?

But before I tackled those questions directly, I started thinking about what my protagonist was like. Because my previous book had been a verse novel, and I was already repeating myself by choosing that same form two books in a row, I wanted to make sure that the girl in this book was very different from the girl in the previous one. That girl was introspective and reflective (qualities that work well for the narrator of a novel in verse), but she was also very passive: dominated by her charismatic but controlling best friend and her charismatic but controlling mother. The book is the story of how she comes into her own. 

I decided that the heroine of this new book, by contrast, would drive most of the plot, something that is widely viewed as essential in a book for young readers, in any case. In her wonderful book on writing for children and young adults, The Magic Words, editor Cheryl Klein uses all-caps each time she reminds aspiring authors that their main character needs to DO THINGS. The character in my new book was going to DO lots of things. Of course, the girl in the previous book DID THINGS, too, but the things she did were small... small but deeply significant... which is actually my favorite kind of thing for a character to do. But this new character would be much more strong and assertive. On my pad of notes, I scribbled as a possible aspect of her character: "someone confident in her opinions who learns to problematize them." 

Also, as the previous book focused on Betsy's relationship with her mother, this book would focus on Clover's relationship with her father, and one of her confident but reevaluated opinions would have to do with him. Maybe Clover would idolize her father and then learn something dark about his past. Ooh! 

But then I needed to figure out: What would that thing be? Hmm.....

Also, where is the mother? Why didn't she tell Clover about whatever-this-thing-is? Is she dead? Are the parents divorced? Did the mother abandon the family (perhaps because of this thing)? Or is she alive and present, but just fiercely protective of her husband? 

And what is the girl herself going to be DOING, this girl who is NOT going to be passive and dominated? What does SHE want, and why does she want it? And how does her pursuit of this thing, whatever it is, lead her to discover the dark secret about her dad? 

I ended up with a sizeable sheaf of narrow-ruled pages of handwritten notes in my tiny, cramped writing.

I kept asking more questions; I kept offering more answers. By the time the full shape of the story had begun to emerge - this is the crucial part - I HAD DROPPED THE WHOLE IDEA OF THE MUSEUM OF LOSERS!

I dropped it partly because I was uneasy that there was a real-life Museum of Losers, and my fictional museum couldn't be held hostage to the actual facts about the museum off Route 36 in Kansas, though I supposed I could include an author's note saying that my fiction museum was "inspired" by the real one. But I just felt guilty about lifting the idea of this real-life museum into my book. I had also gotten discouraged when I started looking up all the losing presidential candidates, thinking I might pepper the story with facts about this gallery of failed presidential hopefuls. They all seemed so boring! Would kids really want to read about why Lewis Cass lost to Zachary Taylor? Or why Samuel J. Tilden lost to Rutherford B. Hayes? 

The original snippet-of-an-idea that had sparked the story was snuffed out entirely! But it had done what I needed it to do. The musings it launched took their own form and led to their own story - a story that would prove to have further surprises in store for me, its creator. 


Friday, November 13, 2020

Sparking a Book Idea: Part I

I have published sixty books for young readers. This pandemic year I wrote two more - both verse novels, a form I am now enraptured with. Those who have read these two newest manuscripts think they are the best books I have ever written, and I think so, too.

But each time I sit down to start a new book I find myself paralyzed by possibility. How does one select an idea out of all the ideas floating around IN THE UNIVERSE? I also find EVERY SINGLE TIME that I've completely forgotten how I wrote the previous dozens of books. After settling on an idea, how does anybody WRITE a book? How does one DO it?

So here is how I wrote the last one, so that I can read over this post when I get ready to start the next one. Maybe this record of my gropings will be helpful for you, too.

First I look for a spark  - some little tingling something that tantalizes me as a possible spark for a story. Many authors keep notebooks of ideas. I have done this only fitfully, but I wish I had done it steadily. When I was searching for an idea for this latest book, I dragged out an old idea notebook. 

The ideas are mainly itty-bitty snippets that don't even deserve to be called ideas - some just popped into my head unbidden, but most came from somewhere: a newspaper clipping, an overheard conversation, a child I'd encountered, a memorable name, a fragment of experience. Here are a few that I bothered to write down: 

a girl named Sonnet

being rejected for something you didn't even apply for

persimmon pudding

a cookie-cutter collectors convention

newspaper clipping: "Russia regenerates 30,000-year-old flower"

the Museum of Losers on Route 36 in Kansas

Egg Farm Road

little girl giving a tour of the Old Jail Inn

Leap Year Day - an extra day as a gift from the universe

The best idea-spark is quirky but compelling, something a bit offbeat, but that makes me want to get out my clipboard, pad of paper, and trusty Pilot pen and start scribbling some questions. For this most recent book, the idea that most tantalized me was the Museum of Losers that I discovered on one of my long trips back and forth from Colorado to Indiana when I was teaching there for several years. It turned out to be just a wall in a bank on the dusty main street, covered with write-ups of each losing presidential candidate. 

Could I write a book where the kid - it would be a girl - I sensed that it would be a girl - would live in a small Kansas town with a museum like that?

I started scribbling notes....

I asked myself: did her parents create this museum? was it her mother? or her father? had they lost something in the past that would motivate them to do this? what would that be? how would my protagonist find this out? or was she the one who created the museum? if so, what would draw her to this project? what might she lose in the course of the story.... and then perhaps find again.....?

And I started scribbling answers...


Monday, November 2, 2020

The Sweetest Story from My Forty-Year Career as a Children's Book Author

A long time ago - maybe twenty years ago? - I received a letter in the mail from a young reader named Erika who lived near Burlington, Vermont. At the time I kept a standard reply-to-fan-letter template on my computer, which I personalized for each kid.

Well, Erika wrote back, thanking me for my letter, but explaining politely that her best friend had told her this was just a computerized letter and probably the same thing I sent to everybody. (Busted!) She asked if I would write her a handwritten note to silence her friend.

So I did, and she wrote back sending me her school photo and a bracelet she had made, and I wrote back (another handwritten note, of course!), and then she wrote saying how much she would love it if I would come to her school. "I love to go to schools!" I replied. "Why don't you see if your school has a budget for an author visit?"

Naturally, a girl who was persistent enough to hold out for a handwritten letter from her favorite author was also enterprising enough to make this inquiry of her principal. Yes, her school DID have a literacy grant with surplus funds in it. And yes, they would most happy to fly me in for a visit. 

Then the ever-plucky Erika emailed me (we were emailing back and forth by now) and told me I should stay at her house when I came to Vermont: "It's much nicer than a motel, and cheaper, too." At this point I suggested bringing her mother into the conversation; her mother said they would love to host me. Now, everything I had read about author visits advised NOT doing exactly what I was about to do, but I said, "Thank you! I would love to stay at your home!"

The three days spent in Vermont with Erika and her family were wonderful. I spoke at several schools, as well as at the public library, with Erika introducing me at each event and her older sister serving as my chauffeur. I fell in love with her parents, too, over evening wine and laughter. 

In the years following, Erika and I stayed in touch, at first frequently, then fitfully, and via Facebook. Erika is now all grown up and lives with her husband and their four children in Melbourne, Australia. She messaged me last week: her fifth grader, Zoe, loves my books. Might be it be possible for me to ZOOM with Zoe and her sister?


So that's what I'm doing this afternoon at 4:00 p.m. Colorado time, which is 10:00 a.m. tomorrow morning in Australia. 

I'm actually tearing up as I'm writing this. Erika says she still has my old address memorized: 2575 Briarwood Drive. She says she's sure Zoe would send me a handwritten note if I send her my address! I feel like Peter Pan, at the end of Barrie's beautiful book, when he comes back to take Wendy with him for spring housecleaning, but she is all grown up, so he takes her daughter Jane with him to Neverland instead. 

Dearest Erika, thank you for insisting on that handwritten letter all those years ago. Thank you for so many years of sharing our enchanted world as author and reader, and thank you for our continuing friendship that spans years, continents, and seventeen hours of time zones.

Thank you. 

Friday, October 23, 2020

It's All Right Just to Be the Same Old (Adequately Wonderful) Person That You Are

This weekend I'm speaking at a children's book writers' conference jointly hosted by the Mid-Atlantic chapter of the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) and the Graduate Programs in Children's Literature at Hollins University in Roanoke, Virginia, where I am a faculty member. I'm giving a keynote address on my favorite topic - "How to Have a Joyous Creative Career in an Hour a Day" - and an afternoon breakout session on my other favorite topic - "Structure and Sparkle: Writing the Transitional Chapter Book."

I love to speak at conferences, and I've given both of these talks before to appreciative audiences, but this time the conference is via ZOOM. It feels very different to sit all alone at your desk speaking to your computer screen than to stand up in front of a live audience in a chandelier-hung ballroom. And nowadays everybody - as in EVERYBODY - has a PowerPoint to go along with their presentations, and: 1) I barely know how to make a PowerPoint (I did all my decades of teaching via chalk and chalkboard); 2) technology makes me tense and jittery; and 3) I'm already tense and jittery enough presenting via the weird ZOOM format with tight time constraints for each session.

So my dilemma was this. Should I accept that audiences nowadays (especially ZOOM audiences) expect to have some appealing visuals and not just my big round head talking on their screen? Should I face the fact that it is time for me (quite belatedly) to join the 21st century and start making PowerPoints like the rest of the world? Or should I just stick with being my old-fashioned, tried-and-true, Claudia self? Put another way: Would it be good for this old dog to rise to the challenge of learning some new tricks? Or should I just do what I've always done, in the way I've always done it? 

I was bravely leaning toward the first option, but feeling knots in my stomach about the whole thing: not just figuring how to make the PowerPoint, but fiddling with the technology during the presentation itself, struggling to share my screen, having the slides not advance... oh, so many horrors to foresee! But somehow everyone else manages to do it (though not without a good number of snafus). Perhaps the time had come for me leap into these turbulent modern-day waters and hope I would somehow, miraculously, transform from desperate dog paddler to Olympic champion swimmer?

I asked my brilliant and wise friend Lisa, one of the conference organizers, what she thought I should do. Within minutes she emailed back what I was hoping, in my heart of hearts, to hear: "Be your tried and true Claudia Self. There is no question about it." 


So now, instead of spending today churning my innards with dread about tomorrow's terrors, I can be pleasurably excited, with just the usual rush of energizing adrenaline.

 I can just BE WHO I AM, which is, I've decided, adequately wonderful.

Maybe one of these days I'll have a surge of courage and try out a PowerPoint presentation in a lower-stakes setting, one more suitable for trial-and-error. 

But tomorrow, I'll just be my Claudia Self. 

After all, that's who the conference organizers invited. It might as well be who they get.