Tuesday, November 14, 2017

How to Get Readers to Invest in Your Characters

Our thriving local community of children's book writers has frequent "Boulder Connect" gatherings under the auspices of the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators. They are a chance for us to hear craft-focused talks by our members, share our writing goals and dreams, and socialize with people who share our passion for writing for children.

This past Saturday I was the speaker at one of these get-togethers. My topic: "Getting Readers to Invest in Your Characters." As always, I signed up to do this before I had a clear vision in mind of what I would actually say about the topic. It was a chance for me to explore this question, thoughtfully and mindfully, for myself. How DO writers get readers to invest in our characters? Especially given that our characters have to be flawed in some way, so there is room for them to grow and change in the course of the story? How can we make our characters initially flawed in a way that isn't a turn-off for readers, so that we root for them on their journey rather than being impatient with them for having to be on that journey in the first place?

Luckily for me, I could pose this question to the attendees and learn as much from them as they would learn from me. We started by talking about what draws us to people in real life. When we meet someone new, what makes us think we want to pursue a friendship with this person? (And note that few of us want to pursue friendships with people who are perfect, so a wide range of flaws are not deal-breakers here).

Here are some of the answers we shared.
We want to be be friends with people:
1. who are funny, interesting, and kind - preferably all three
2. who have some point of connection with us, large or small
3. who share themselves honestly with us, unmasking even "the ugly parts"
4. who may be at different stages of life experiences from us, so that we can learn from them.

We don't want to be friends with people:
1. who are jerks to others
2. who are arrogant or selfish
3. who are pessimists with negative energy (oh, but what about Eeyore? we decided that negative energy is okay if it comes in small doses, redeemed with humor)
4. whose deepest moral and political values are opposed to ours
5. who drive nice cars and brag about them!

Those seemed like pretty good lists to me.

We then looked at opening pages of a whole bunch of books I had brought with me to study how their authors created characters who immediately appeared as funny, interesting, and kind - and established some point of connection with us - and revealed themselves to us with refreshing candor - and gave us the hope that going along on their journey would illuminate some truths about the human experience that might be valuable to us as well.

My favorite was Jeannie Mobley's brand-new middle-grade novel, Bobby Lee Claremont and the Criminal Element, where we fall in love with Bobby Lee even as he announces his plan to move to Chicago to get a good start on his planned life of crime. How does she do this? By giving Bobby Lee a fresh, funny voice - and a startling goal we hadn't expected - and showing his vulnerability as an orphan who has just buried his mother - and even letting us share his impatience at being behind someone in line who is taking forever to count out change to buy her railway ticket, as the clock is ticking down for the departure of Bobby Lee's train.

Thanks to the brilliant and beautiful Kim Tomsic for hosting us, and to everyone who joined in the discussion, and to Jeannie Mobley for writing such a terrific book, from which we could learn so much.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

The Biography Tea - Ten Years Later

Ten years ago I published a chapter book called Being Teddy Roosevelt.
In the book, Riley summons the can-do spirit of Teddy Roosevelt to pursue his own dreams when he is assigned the 26th president of the United States as his subject for his classroom's "biography tea." As Riley writes his report on Teddy and impersonates him at a fancy tea party (along with classmates taking on the roles of Helen Keller, Queen Elizabeth I, and Mahatma Gandhi), he figures out how to get a saxophone and convince his mother to allow him to sign up for instrumental music.

The biography tea in the book was modeled on the wonderful program created by my older son's award-winning teacher at Mesa Elementary in Boulder: Devira Chartrand. And, yes, he chose to dress up that year as Teddy Roosevelt. I dedicated the book to her, with my deepest gratitude.

Now, ten years later, I am writing this from Fredericksburg, Virginia, where I am here to attend the tenth-anniversary biography tea at Tree of Life Christian Preparatory School. Their award-winning teacher, Rebecca Durichek, was inspired by my book to create an even more extensive biography tea with every child from kindergarten to eighth grade participating each year.

When I walked into the school, I was greeted by a display representing my early morning writing ritual:
A poster of my book flanked a bulletin board of all the famous people, past and present, who would be "attending" this year's tea - with my own photo there at the very bottom.
Tonight is the gala event of the tea itself. The students, in their costumes, will parade in on a red carpet laid down for the occasion, in the order of the historical timeline, with me in the slot for 1954. I hope I can hold back the tears. Oh, Mrs. Chartrand, what a gift you gave me as a parent and as an author, and now this gift is making magic in Fredericksburg, Virginia, a decade later. And Mrs. Durichek, what an amazing event you have made of what was begun ten years ago so far away.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

A Story of Two Best Friends

I'm back from my "Grand European Tour," a fourteen-day Viking River Cruise from Amsterdam to Budapest, with a two-day extension in Amsterdam first. I traveled with my best friend Rachel, who has been the dearest of friends since we worked together at the Institute for Philosophy and Public Policy at the University of Maryland in the early 1980s. We then went our separate ways: Rachel moved to Roanoke, Virginia, with her husband, to become an award-winning high school theater teacher; I finished my Ph.D. in philosophy and moved to Boulder to become a professor in the philosophy department at the University of  Colorado. But through it all, we stayed best friends, first writing long handwritten or typed letters to each other, then emails, and phone calls for those times we needed each other most. When I got married to my husband, our wedding was very small, with just parents, siblings, and one friend each. Rachel was my "one friend."

She had planned to go on this Viking River Cruise with her husband to celebrate her retirement after 30 years in the classroom, but he died, unexpectedly, two years ago. I offered to go with her instead. Hey, it's not too painful a duty of friendship to embark on a tour along the world's most scenic rivers past the world's most picturesque towns.

Here we are, on board the Viking Lif together.
We turned out to be ridiculously compatible, both of us loving to go to bed early (so forgoing the ship's late-night festivities) and to get up early, chatting and reading companionably in our two little beds.
I took too many pictures to share, but for a few glimpses. . .

One of the dozens of castles we passed while cruising on the Middle Rhine:
One of the dozens of churches we passed while cruising on the Danube:
And one of the dozens of charming byways we wandered together on shore:
Our final day was spent in Budapest, where we arrived at sunrise:
We had a walking tour in the morning, Rachel and I choosing (for both Vienna and Budapest) the option of the "Up Close" walking tour where we walked in a smaller group, led by a local guide, taking public transportation instead of being herded on a tour bus. We chose to spend our free afternoon in one of Budapest's famed thermal baths. 

At the very start of our friendship, we knew we would be friends forever and that we would grow old together. And sadly, we knew that our husbands might not be in the picture, because of age (mine was ten years older) or disability (hers had health challenges, and now mine does, too). But we had a prophetic vision of us being side by side in a pool, standing in the shallow end, two older ladies cheerfully splashing water up onto our veiny thighs.

We just didn't know it would be at the Gellert baths in Budapest. . . 
But it was!

Monday, October 2, 2017

Off on "The Grand European Tour"

I leave in a few hours to get the bus to the airport, to fly to Minneapolis, and then on to Amsterdam, for my first-ever Viking River Cruise with my beloved friend Rachel: fourteen days on the Rhine and the Danube, from Amsterdam to Budapest, passing some of the most scenic castles and cathedrals on this earth.

It should be fun! 

But it all feels a bit strange, too. Rachel and I planned this trip a year ago, as a celebration for her upcoming retirement from thirty years of being a high school drama teacher. We wanted to have a whole twelve months to look forward to these two glorious weeks together, which would also be a celebration of our thirty-five years of friendship; we met when we worked together at the University of Maryland in the early 1980s. 

Between then and now, though, a lot of painful family changes have taken place, so that it's hard for me to think of abandoning those who need me, following on the heels of my six weeks teaching at Hollins University in Roanoke this past summer, and an upcoming teaching stint in January for DePauw University: a reprise of the study-abroad class my friend Tiffany and I taught two years ago, "Enchanted Spaces: Children's Literature Sites in London and Paris." 

I'm still going to go, and not berate myself for going - but after these travel commitments, I've pledged to my family not to sign up for any jaunts, paid or unpaid, that will take me away from home for longer than a week - at least for now, when I'm so needed here.

My challenge for myself: If I'm going to go on this trip - TODAY! - which I am, I should try to relinquish guilt and go with my whole heart, with radical openness to the beauty that awaits me, to savor as fully as I can every moment shared with Rachel - every stunning vista that unfolds before me - every tasty morsel I can swallow. I'm not going to try to get work done on the trip - just to write a poem or two - or ten - and scribble faithfully in my trip journal - and welcome joy.

My mantra will be this line from E. B. White: "All that I hope to say in books, all that I can hope to say, is that I love the world."

Off to love this new-to-me stretch of the world as hard as I can.

Friday, September 22, 2017

Not What I Planned

This week I had planned to: write my paper submission (on child poet Hilda Conkling) for next year's Children's Literature Association conference (due October 1 to my panel organizer); read the most recent installment of my Hollins graduate student's creative thesis (a novel in verse); and generate nonstop fun for my visiting granddaughters.

I did none of these things.

Instead I went to the emergency room at 4:30 a.m. on Tuesday with excruciating lower back pain and constant vomiting, discovered I had a kidney stone large enough to require surgery, and spent the next 36-plus hours lying in a hospital bed awaiting my turn in the operating room. I came home yesterday afternoon without a kidney stone - yay! - but also without much of my usual perkiness and pep.

Some things I learned:

1. Just about anything you have to do can be canceled, and the world will still keep on turning.

2. There are worse ways to spend a day than lying in a comfortable hospital bed, drowsy, dopey, and drugged, cared for by someone else.

3. Nurses are the kindest people in the world, except for church friends, who are even kinder, and kindest of all? Church friends who are nurses. On the second day of waiting, I was lying in the dreary little pre-op room waiting for the surgical procedure that had been postponed a day, and was now delayed again. It was 5 p.m., and I was hungry, with no food or drink since midnight and almost no food the day before; I was bored, tired, restless, and scared. Then Louise from my church, a retired nurse, appeared as a welcome surprise to sit with me: cheering, consoling, a visiting angel.

4. It's better to focus on all the ways in which you are lucky than on all the ways you're not. I was unlucky to lose half a week of my life to this medical ordeal (though it's hardly an uncommon one). But, oh, I was lucky that this wasn't the week of my upcoming Viking River Cruise from Amsterdam to Budapest with my beloved friend Rachel - and that the hospital could fit me into the surgical schedule, however late in the day my slot fell - and that I was even able to arrange the appointment to remove my temporary stent for next week, before I head off for a quick jaunt to Indiana. I continue to be what I call "a lucky unlucky person."

5. Drink water! Lots of it! Every day! Always!

I'm home now, feeling grateful more than anything: to the wonderful medical staff of the Boulder Community Hospital Foothills campus (a beautiful new facility); to my St. Paul's UMC pastor and church family for their unfailing support (and other friends who offered child care, food, rides, company); to the son who took off work to drive me to the ER hours before dawn, losing a day of work (and pay) for my sake; and to the hundreds of Facebook friends, some of whom I've never met in "real life," who answered my anguished cry for help in the middle of a long night of pain with advice, shared stories, insight, and compassion.

So I'm not really a "lucky unlucky person." Just a lucky one. And lucky enough to know it, too.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

"Nothing Surely Is So Potent as a Law that May Not Be Disobeyed"

This is what my hero, Victoria novelist Anthony Trollope, wrote in his inspirational autobiography. He was talking about his practice of writing for a short, fixed span of time early every morning, and thereby producing dozens of sprawling novels while working full-time for the British Post Office.

For me this year, my law that may not be disobeyed is my commitment to myself to submit something somewhere every single month: creative or scholarly, long or short, old or new. The only rule is that twelve different things have to be submitted, one per month. That's all. Submitted, not accepted. Period.

It's now September. I've met this goal for nine months so far, and I'm track to meet it for the rest of the year. Each time I send something off into the universe, on this schedule, I get that lovely tingly feeling of anticipation that something nice could happen. And quite a few nice things have.

Here is my record of submissions/verdicts so far. (Here, too, I borrow from Trollope, who included in his autobiography a record of every pound and shilling earned on every book.)

January - grant proposal to the Kerlan Collection at the University of Minnesota to do archival research on Maud Hart Lovelace

February - submission of a philosophy paper, "Artistic Integrity" to the Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, my swan song as a professional philosopher

March - submission of a children's literature paper on Ginger Pye and Pinky Pye by Eleanor Estes to the Children's Literature Association Quarterly, a revised and resubmitted version of a paper sent there last year

April - submission of a poem to the children's magazine Highlights

May - submission of a children's literature paper titled "Trying to Be Good (with Bad Results): The Wouldbegoods, Betsy, Tacy, and Tib, and Ivy and Bean: Bound to Be Bad" to Children's Literature
VERDICT (JUST ARRIVED  YESTERDAY): "Revise and resubmit"

June - short article to the SCBWI newsletter, Kite Tales, called "The Most Underrated Line of Your Book"

July - re-submission of the massively edited "Artistic Integrity" paper (enough changed to count as a new submission according to my self-imposed rule)

August - story ideas sent to an educational publisher interested in working with me, and one full-fledged story pitch

September - my new chapter book, tentatively titled Cooking All-Stars, to my editor at Holiday House

Plan for October: submit my paper abstract for the June 2018 Children's Literature Association conference in San Antonio

Plan for November: submit another idea or two to the educational publisher

Plan for December: revise and resubmit my "Trying to Be Good (with Bad Results)" paper

And then that will be a full year of faithful obedience to this law I have given myself.

For 2018 I'm already planning to try something completely different, to impose some other not-yet-determined-but-unbreakable law upon myself, and wait for what I expect to be dazzling results. For, nothing surely IS more potent than a law that may not be disobeyed.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Worries: Short Term, Medium Term, Long Term

I have a lot of worries these days, so I've been thinking a lot about how best to do my worrying. Of course, the very best way to worry is not to worry at all, as worry itself - as opposed to concerted, strategic planning - is one of the most pointless activities on earth. The Gospel of Matthew quotes Jesus as asking, "Can any of you add a single hour to your life by worrying?" Mark Twain quipped,"I've had a lot of worries in my life, most of which never happened." And yet, most of us are addicted to worry. We just can't stop doing it.

So I sat down recently and sorted my worries into the categories of short term, medium term, and long term. Here's what I figured out.

In the very short term - such as, right this minute - all is actually well with my life. I have a roof over my head, good health, money to pay my immediate bills, work I adore, and loved ones safe and cared for. This actual minute - actually, all of today - is pretty good. I do have stuff to do today: get an oil change for my car, see a dentist for a second opinion regarding the three pricey crowns I've been told I need, write for an hour on my chapter-book-in-progress, read a friend's manuscript, and work with my son to make a dent in the overwhelming volume of paperwork for his impending, very sad divorce. But I can get all of that done. Today is okay!!

In the long term, say, more than a year or two away from now, all bets are off. I have no idea what will happen to me, because anything could: a terrible medical diagnosis, tragedy befalling my family and friends, evaporation of my writing career. Five hundred hideous things could happen. Or not. I have no way of knowing. So here, instead of worrying, I need to focus my energies on maintaining resources that will stand me in good stead whatever happens. I call these the five dimensions of health: physical, mental, emotional, financial, and spiritual. There is no downside to keeping myself fit on all those five dimensions. For me this means walking 10,000 steps a day and watching my weight, keeping intellectually alive through challenging creative and scholarly work, fostering a network of close friends, spending less than I earn, and being an active member of my faith community.

It's the medium term that's the problem. This is where I'm consumed with fears about all of these divorce decisions and paperwork - plus two trips abroad that I committed myself to before my family's need for me intensified so greatly - plus a book to finish, a paper to write for an upcoming conference, and a bunch of other life challenges ranging from pesky to profound. But here what I really need is not to spend my time on worry, but instead to spend it on work - actually getting done what I need to do - and getting it done day by day by day.

That is to say, the medium term is just made up of a bunch of short terms. Each day I need to wake up, express gratitude for the basic okay-ness of my life right now, and take small, regular, manageable steps to do what I need to do. Instead of agonizing about all of my middle-term worries, I'm going to focus on short-term gratitude and small concrete accomplishments, and long-term maintenance of my health on all dimensions.

Worry, begone!