Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The Book, or the Blog?

So I've been writing this week, staying true to the book. And feeling guilty, I have to admit, about not blogging. After all, everywhere I look, all the advice I read, what I hear is: Platform. Platform. PLATFORM.

That's right: blog; facebook; twitter. I really enjoy all of them, to tell the truth, although not as much when they become my duty. After all, I'm a writer first, and there's this book I'm writing, right? And I'm a part time book reviewer for a magazine that has deadlines. True, there are books I want to review on my blog, as well, and author interviews I look forward to.

But, this week my muse said, "Look, here: just how serious is this relationship, anyway?"

Reader, I wrote. And I'll be writing on the book next week as well. I'll be writing on the book, in fact, until I finish this draft!

What would you do?

Monday, August 23, 2010

A Week-end of Art Refills the Well

Being art lovers as well as well as John Steinbeck lovers, my husband and I love to go to the Carmel-Monterrey-Pacific Grove area and drink in the refreshment of walks by the ocean and visits to art galleries. So early Saturday morning we set off with a change of clothes, a one night booking in PG at a motel that accepts dogs, and a basket full of picnic snacks for the evening meal and lunch on the way home Sunday. (We had Saturday's lunch at a wonderful, inexpensive seafood restaurant called Sea Harvest on Foam St. and Hoffman.)

Along with the art, of course, we love to walk along the ocean front and enjoy the shush-shush of the waves and the damp, salty air. We expected foggy cold weather and came prepared, but actually both days were bright and sunny with just the right amount of soft, cool breeze to make us grateful, given that Sacramento summers are hot and crisp.

Art friends in the foothills told us about the Monterrey Museum of Art, which we had never visited, so this became number one on our list of things to see. We found out the MMA actually has two locations, one on Pacific Avenue in the heart of Monterrey, and one on the outer edges on La Mirada, both with beautiful gardens. The building on Pacific Avenue was exhibiting paintings by American artists, mostly Impressionists, and primarily those that had an art relationship with Monterrey, including Armin Hansen and William Ritchell. We both love Impressionism, and have enjoyed the California Impressionist and American Impressionist exhibits at Crocker Art Gallery in the past. This was a joyful discovery for us.

Then we learned that the building on La Mirada has an exhibit of Ansel Adams's photographs. Ansel Adams is (was, as he is gone now) our favorite photographer. My husband does black and white photography as a hobby, and Adams has been his guru! The exhibit at La Mirada was of 72 photos Adams himself selected out of his hundreds of photos and gave to his daughter with the request that they be made available to the general public. The current exhibit is running until October 3rd. (You can learn more about it on MMA's website: www.monterreyart.org ) Many of these we had seen bfore, and loved, but many were also new to us. All were exquisite!

Sunday, then, we did our usual art-gallery trek into Carmel and visited three galleries we especially liked: American Galleries on San Carlos, Jones & Terwilliger Galleries on Sixth Avenue, and Classic Art Gallery that, in addition to lovely work by contemporary artists, has a collection by renowned artists of the 19th and early 20th centuries, like Cortes, Laloue, Loir, among others, as well as the American Impressionist Guy Rose.

We headed home a little after noon, stopping in the sleepy town of San Juan Bautista to have lunch in a small park (where we usually walk our dog on the return trip). Then we browsed some of the antique stores. It was about 6:00 when we finally got home, where, sitting on our patio in the Sacramento heat, we savored our collage of art moments, as we will for some time to come.
How about you? Do you have a special place you go to refuel and "fill the well"? Do you have special interests that affect you that way?

Friday, August 20, 2010

Milagros, a Miracle of a Story

When I was at the LA conference, I had the pleasure of meeting Meg Medina, author of the middle grade novel, Milagros, Girl from Away.

Milagros means "miracle" in Spanish, and this is a story where the protagonist must make her own miracles. When the story opens, Milagros de le Torre lives on the island of Las Brisas in the Caribbean, an island so small it doesn't show on any map. People on Las Brisas are happy; life is abundant. Milagros's only sorrow is that her father left when she was an infant to become a pirate and has never been seen since.

Then one day, envious people of a neighboring island come during Carnival, and, hidden behind masks, attack all the villagers. Milagros's last sees her mother urgently telling her to flee, while she falls during their attempt to escape. Milagros drifts for days in a small boat. Rescued at first by her father, the pirate, she rejects a chance to join him in the pirate life and swims out to the boat again. After drifting northward, she is rescued again by fisherman from an island called Holly Pointe, off the coast of Maine. An artist and her family take Milagros in, and the story deepens.

Life outside the island of Holly Pointe is simply referred to as "away", and thus, Milagros becomes "the girl from away". Holly Pointe is cold and forbidding. The daughter of the artist who shelters Milagros is jealous and hostile. Unlike the islanders Milagros left behind, Holly Pointe residents are chilly and take a long time to know. Yet this new island is where life unfolds for Milagros and where she comes into her own after much inner struggle.

The writing is lyrical and mystical, bordering at times on the eerie. Imbedded in the narrative are wonderful bits of wisdom imparted by the elderly Mexican woman with whom Milagros becomes friends. In her heart, Milagros remembers her mother's way with plants and her mysterious relationship with stingrays. But it is her own determination to be true to herself that give Milagros the inner strength to meet the challenges of her new life.

This is a wonderful read for tweens and teens alike. The book is permeated with deep insight and understanding -- understanding of what it's like to be young and confronted with loss, and understanding of what it takes to overcome life's unexpected difficulties. One can only look forward to future novels from this gifted writer.

You can read more about Meg Medina and her books at: http://megmedina.com/

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Read to Write? The Best Homework!

One piece of advice to writers I read over and over is that to write, you must read. Make that read, read, READ! At the conference someone even quoted "For every book you write, read a thousand; for every word you write, read a thousand. Read everything: Read your genre. Read every genre. Read good books. Read bad books. But READ."

To use a cliche, I'm an avid reader. So I loved that advice! I've often quipped to my husband, who sees me lounging around the house with a book, "I'm a writer; this is really research. It looks like I'm just having fun, but I'm actually doing homework."

But it's true: the best homework for a writer is to read. Not just read through a book quickly: Savor whole lines. Savor whole paragraphs. When I read, I find myself noticing how the author plunged me into a scene; how he or she made me feel I knew that character; how hidden clues were laced hidden throughout, so that the resolution felt surprising yet expected, and deeply satisfying. I read for the hidden wisdom inherent in some stories. And always, yes, it's just the way it looks: I am having fun.

Some writing friends and I who critiqued each other's novels through multiple re-writes finally got to the point we knew each other's work too well to critique further. So we decided to read novels in our genres (at this point, historical fiction and fantasy) -- preferably award winners -- and analyze what is working instead of what isn't: What do good writers do right? That's what we want to know. It's a wonderful experience to study these books that way -- quite different from the usual book club. Experts in our chosen art have become our writing teachers. And, of course, it's a great excuse to read yet another book!

We all know we can count on the others to read one of our manuscripts if we request it. But for now, this is how we use our critique sessions. How about you? What are some of the ways you get writing tips and pointers besides the usual critique group?

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

The World of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators

I'm still feeling the resonance of the LA Conference. I've been to smaller regional conferences and always get a lot out of them. But for me, the LA conference was life changing, the way that U.C. Berkeley was life changing after I had attended a small junior college. In L.A. the air was charged with energy emitted by world famous writers and illustrators, by top agents and publishers -- and a sea of attendees (1,139, according to co-host Lin Oliver, who is also a co-founder of SCBW&I.) Lin Oliver referred to the speakers (80 of them) as "faculty". And so they were -- an incredible faculty taking time to not just impart their knowledge and wisdom, but to inspire and urge us on.

One hears about how competitive the writing market is, which can be discouraging. By temperament, most writers and artists aren't particularly "competitive". (After all, trying imagine a new world faster and better than others can is an impossible goal! That isn't how creative people approach their work.) And I noticed that even those who have won awards in the field seemed more interested in mentoring others than elbowing for a top-dog status. There was a genuine warmth between these experts. At times the conference almost seemed like a family reunion. It was a hugging faculty. Maybe this is just the world of children's writers and illustrators. And all who work with them -- the agents and editors seemed quite approachable, too (although I was still too shy this time around). For all the cautions about thousands of manuscripts flooding the market, they seemed on the side of aspiring writers and illustrators. I often read of how an agent or editor has become a particular author's friend. It's a helping-hand profession all around.

It's also true of aspiring writers I know: Those of us who create for children tend to be team players rather than competitors. We cheer each other on, and sincerely hope the best for others as well as ourselves. I count a lot on my writing buddies for realistic assessment of my work and for encouragement to keep on keeping on. I try to do the same for them. And I've received so much help from people I've met online, like Lia Keyes and Rachna Chhabria, who have guided me through the mysteries of navigating the blogosphere and have supported me in other ways as well.

Children's book writers and illustrators live in a kind and kindly world. Despite the daunting numbers out there, I think it's a lovely time to be writing for children. What do you think?

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Dazzled, Daunted, and...Determined

Dazzled: That's how I felt at the SCBW&I Conference in LA this week-end. I took a picture of the overhead ceiling chandelier in the main auditorium where all the keynote speeches were given; but the photo didn't do justice either to the chandelier or to the luminaries that distilled such wonderful inspiration and wisdom from the stage about writing, illustrating, and the book industry in general. (So -- no photo for this post.)

I can't begin to condense into one post the richness of these keynote speeches and panel discussions. Instead, I will probably be pulling out snippets from my notes from time to time and blogging in terms of what the conference meant to me. There were professional bloggers who blogged about every address and every session, including those I missed. (Interested persons can go to: http://scbwiconference.blogspot.com/ to get the highlights.) In the meantime, one insight was much repeated, whether from an illustrator like Loren Long, who advised "readers must feel the book; search for your own emotional hit", or a fiction author like Marion Dane Bauer, who advised that "stories begin where the heart beats, where your heart beats," or the advice of biographer, Deborah Heiligman, who wrote, Charles and Emma, that you have to be passionately involved in your project: The key to any work of art is the true and honest emotion that drives it. Illustrator, E. B. Lewis said it another way: You recognize that first mark that captures what the right picture will be.

Daunted: So... the emotion. Advice I heard over and over again in various sessions as well as keynotes was that if you want to know what will resonate with kids, tap into the kid you were, and how you felt. Hah. Well, the kid I once was felt a lot of misery. My family moved a lot, for erratic reasons, and my childhood memories are full of pain: the pain of loss, of uprootedness, of abandonment. And in a life that turned out well (I have a happy adulthood), I notice that I try to wiggle out of painful scenes in my writing. I tend to over-protect my characters. You might say I run interference for them, and sometimes glide past where the real power of a scene might lie. Sometimes tip-toe past. But, as they say, "no pain, no gain." So I came back from the conference

Determined: I'm determined to be a braver writer than I've been in the past. I know from real life outside of story pages, that tracing a nerve of pain can turn it into a vein of gold. Young readers are coping with pain of their own. It's a good lesson for them to stumble on when reading a story that matters to them. They don't identify with the character who has it too easy, who has no worry or fear or ache. To be human is to experience the dark as well as the light and to turn the encounter into some lasting wisdom, something that made the journey worthwhile.

So... no more running interference for my characters. It's time for them to learn their own lessons and make it on their own. With a supporting nudge from me, of course.

How about you? Do you avoid the more difficult emotions and try to slide your characters by them? Or are you already brave enough to let them learn what only they can learn?