Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Writing Advice from Madeleine L'Engle: Writing for Children is the Same as Writing for Adults



Madeleine L’Engle was a children’s writer who died in 2007. She is best known for A Wrinkle in Time and other children’s fantasies. The advice in this post is taken from Walking on Water, which combines writing advice with reflections on her life as a writer.

The passage below comes from a chapter called “Names and Labels,” where L’Engle tries to dispel the idea that writing for children is different than writing for adults.

Nancy Berkowitz, long a great friend of children’s books and their writers, told me last year that I’d given her the best definition of a children’s book that she’d heard. Having completely forgotten ever giving such a definition, I asked eagerly, “What was it?”

“A children’s book is any book a child will read.”

First my children and now my grandchildren are proof of this, moving from children’s books marketed for their own age range—the girls are ten and eleven years old—to any grown-up novel I think would appeal to them. All they require is a protagonist with whom they can identify (and they prefer the protagonist to be older than they are), an adventure to make them turn the pages, and the making of a decision on the part of the protagonist.

. . .

One summer I taught a class in techniques of fiction at a midwestern university. About half way through the course, one of the students came up to me after class and said, “I do hope you’re going to teach us something about writing for children. That’s really why I’m taking this course.”

“What have I been teaching you?”

“Well—writing.”

“Don’t you write when you write for children?”

“Well—but isn’t it different?”

No, it is not different. The techniques of fiction are the techniques of fiction. They hold as true for Beatrix Potter as they do for Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Characterization, style, theme, are as important in a children’s book as in a novel for grown-ups. Taste, as always, will differ. . . A child is not likely to identify with the characters in Faulkner’s Sanctuary. Books like A Wrinkle in Time may seem too difficult to some parents. But if a book is not good enough for a grown-up, it is not good enough for a child.

So what, then, are the differences?

Most of them are minor, and apparent. A child wants to read about another child, a child living in and having adventures in a world which can be recognized and accepted. As long as what the protagonist does is true, this world can be unlimited, for a child can identify with a hero in ancient Britain, darkest Africa, or the year two thousand and ninety-three.

When I was a child I browsed through my parents’ books when I had finished my own. What was not part of my own circumference of comprehension I simply skipped; sex scenes when I was eight or nine had little relevance for me, so I skipped over them. They didn’t hurt me because they had no meaning for me. In a book which is going to be marketed for children it is usually better to write within the child’s frame of reference, but there is no subject which should, in itself, be taboo. If it is essential for the development of the child protagonist, there is nothing which may not be included. It is how it is included which makes its presence permissible or impermissible. Some books about—for instance—child abuse, are important and deeply moving; others may be little more than a form of infant porno. [Emphasis in original.]

Later in this same section, L’Engle decries the practice of “writing down” to children, which she equates with substandard writing. Then she sums up this way:

So a children’s book must be, first and foremost, a good book, a book with a young protagonist with whom the reader can identify, and a book which says yes to life. [Emphasis in original.]

Walking on Water isn’t for everyone. Madeline L’Engle was a dedicated Christian, and the book is filled with religious and philosophical concepts. However, writers with the same beliefs may want to read it for insight into L’Engle’s view of her calling.

And we can all learn from her comments on writing for children.

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Writing Advice from Anne Lamott: Take It a Little at a Time


The second of our living authors is Anne Lamott, who writes both fiction and nonfiction. The advice in this post comes from her classic writing book, Bird by Bird.

Writing a novel is a huge job, and it can seem overwhelming. Lamott deals with this problem by viewing her task through a one-inch picture frame. As she describes it:

 [A]ll I have to do is to write down as much as I can see through a one-inch picture frame. This is all I have to bite off for the time being. All I am going to do right now, for example, is write that one paragraph that sets the story in my hometown, in the late fifties, when the trains were still running. I am going to paint a picture of it, in words, on my word processor. Or all I am going to do is to describe the main character the very first time we meet her, when she first walks out the front door and onto the porch. I am not even going to describe the expression on her face when she first notices the blind dog sitting behind the wheel of her car—just what I can see through the one-inch picture frame, just one paragraph describing this woman, in the town where I grew up, the first time we encounter her.

E. L. Doctorow once said that “writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” You don’t have to see where you’re going, you don’t have to see your destination or everything you will pass along the way. You just have to see two or three feet ahead of you. This is right up there with the best advice about writing, or life, I have ever heard.

In the next paragraph, Lamott tells the wonderful story that gave her the book’s title:

[T]hirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he’d had three months to write, which was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.”

As with King’s On Writing, there is much more to Bird by Bird than what is quoted in this post. For more of Lamott’s advice, pick up a copy of the book.

And take your writing bird by bird.

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

Writing Advice from Stephen King: Find Time to Read


Several years ago we did a series called "Writing with the Masters," which quoted advice from five well-known writers who lived during or before the Nineteenth Century. That series was well-received, so we are "updating" it this month. The May posts will provide advice from five successful Twentieth Century novelists, two of whom are alive and still active.

The first living author is Stephen King. The following advice comes from his On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft.

Some “writers” claim that they don’t have time to read. King disagrees. He even describes “read a lot, write a lot” as the Great Commandment. Here are some quotes about the importance of reading to the writing process.

If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There’s no way around these two things that I’m aware of, no shortcut.

I’m a slow reader, but I usually get through seventy or eighty books a year, mostly fiction. I don’t read in order to study the craft; I read because I like to read. It’s what I do at night, kicked back in my blue chair. Similarly, I don’t read fiction to study the art of fiction, but simply because I like stories. Yet there is a learning process going on. Every book you pick up has its own lesson or lessons, and quite often the bad books have more to teach than the good ones.

. . .

So we read to experience the mediocre and the outright rotten; such experience helps us to recognize those things when they begin to creep into our own work, and to steer clear of them. We also read in order to measure ourselves against the good and the great, to get a sense of all that can be done. And we read in order to experience different styles.

. . .

If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.

Reading is the creative center of a writer’s life.

This is just a sample of King’s excellent advice in On Writing. If you don’t own a copy, buy one.

But more importantly, find time to read.

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Still LIfe With Cigarettes and Hat: The Importance of Where and When We Write

by
Michael Poore

Registration will be opening soon for the 2018 Steel Pen Creative Writers’ Conference, and we wanted to give you a taste of the keynote speaker by reprinting this June 5, 2013 blog post he wrote for IWC. If his humor doesn’t entice you to register, nothing will.
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            I’m writing this article at the Grindhouse Café on Broad Street, in Griffith, Indiana.
That’s how I like to write. In a space with music. A friendly, social space, with people who are leaving me alone. That’s my ritual.
If you’re a writer, chances are you have a ritual, too.
Your ritual is your way of drawing a pagan circle, so the magic can happen. I used to make a little still life out of myself: me, my computer, cigarettes, a can of diet pop, hat-of-the-day either on my head or off to the side. In thirty-five years it hasn’t changed much.
I wonder how important the ritual really is. I mean, does it help me write better stories? Does it help me enjoy the process more? Is it nesting? (I’m not fond of monkeys. My family evolved from woodpeckers.)
Some people have a quiet writing space at home. Janine, for example, writes in her tiny, gloriously messy office, in the middle of the night. She’ll wake up at midnight, and write ten pages before going back to sleep. My friend Ted keeps a home office, and nothing but writing materials are ever allowed to touch his writing desk -- no bills, no misplaced happy meal toys or loose change. It’s like holy ground. Mark Twain had a whole mini-house built in his backyard. These are people who separate the muggle part of their lives from the art-making part of their lives. Hunter S. Thompson, on the other hand, wrote in his kitchen. He also ate there, paid bills there, made phone calls there, and shot himself there.
Other writers have a quiet space away from home. Maya Angelou keeps a tiny hotel room, containing a desk, a Bible, and some wine. Annie Dillard had Tinker Creek (I wish I had a creek. Don’t you?).
There are about ten million studies proving that timespace rituals like this are a big help in producing quality brainwork. It’s considered an important study skill for kids…set aside a ‘homework corner,’ and do your homework there at the same time every day. Grades go up, generally, when kids do this. So basically, if you sit down to write in the same place and time, every day, your brain will learn to flip the writing switch when you do this (“Oh, we’re at the handpainted desk with the cool, twisty lamp, and it’s six in the morning…better fire up the Magic Buddha neurons!”).
The problem here is that we live in a hypertopian age, and we don’t always have the luxury of choosing our writing timespace. Joyce Carol Oates recognizes this. I read an article once in which she said we basically have to be ready to take advantage of whatever chances come our way. Got 13 minutes between the laundry and Market Day pickup? Sit down and write. Don’t worry about the cigarettes and the lucky hat or whether there’s a happy meal toy on the desk. Just sit down and do it.
I have always struggled with finding some middle ground between these approaches.
I prefer to write in a café. I wrote a whole book at the café in Borders, in the Southlake Mall. But I don’t need that, necessarily. Last year, I wrote a whole chapter on a school bus going to a middle-school state championship basketball game, with kids screaming and throwing things all around me. A serious chapter, too, with people getting drunk in a hospital room where a child was dying of cancer.
What does that mean, that I can do some of my best work waaaaay outside of my ritual space?
I’m not the first writer to explore this, of course. Years ago, I read an interview with a successful young writer who said that she had tried writing in all sorts of places -- in cafes, at friends’ houses, in bus stations, in buses – and I was captivated by this quest of hers. What did it mean? Most writers go through this, trying to find their own particular way. Was she – are we – taking advantage of opportunity? Writing, more than almost any other task, can be done anywhere. But I also have to wonder if it isn’t something we use to accomplish that other task at which writers excel: putting off writing.
Sometimes, when I’m making a big deal out of my ritual, I realize that I’m focusing on the fun of being a writer, not so much on getting stories written. I realize that I have spent an hour or more getting coffee, getting a muffin, checking my messages, doing Facebook, getting coffee, doing Twitter. “Look at me!” I think to myself, forming little mental pictures of myself, in my café, doing writer stuff…except not writing.
Here’s what I’ve discovered about rituals and writing: rituals are nice and fun, and can be helpful. But real writing, the good stuff that happens when you are ‘in the zone,’ is its own ritual. I’m talking about the kind of writing that happens, for me, when I realize my coffee cup has been empty for an hour, when I forget to eat, when I have to be told that the place is closing. When I’m sitting at the table in my own home, surrounded by cats and dogs and happy meal toys, and don’t realize that the window is open and it’s raining in the dining room or that my stepdaughter is on fire.
Focus…writing itself…may be the only kind of ritual that really counts. Focus is, according to some article I read, the same thing as hypnosis. That’s all hypnosis is, apparently…an intense state of concentration. Kids do it when they play video games. Readers get that way when they read. Ulysses S. Grant was famous for this kind of thing; he’d be working on correspondence in his tent, get up to fetch something, perhaps an inkwell, and never straighten up, walking around his tent hunched over.
That’s ritual. That’s writing.   
It has its drawbacks, like any extreme. Like the time years ago, when I lived in a house with several other young writers, when I woke up with an idea, and raced straight for my keyboard and wrote and wrote. Eventually, I thought: “Man, I’ve missed breakfast! It’s almost lunchtime!” I got up long enough to rush downstairs to the fridge, saying ‘Hey’ to a couple of my housemates and their girlfriends, grabbing a slice of pizza and a cup of coffee, then climbing back to my upstairs loft, back to my computer. I was just getting started again, after one bite of pizza, when my buddy James climbed up and cleared his throat, and said, “Dude, you do realize you’re naked, right?”
* * * * *
Michael Poore is the author of the novels Reincarnation Blues (Del Rey, 2017) and Up Jumps the Devil (Ecco, 2012). His short work has appeared in Agni, Southern Review, Fiction, and Glimmer Train, and anthologies, including The Year’s Best Science Fiction and The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2012.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

When Contests Work


by
Joyce B. Hicks



My book One More Foxtrot, a tale of second chances placed first in the Books & Creative Writing category of the Woman’s Press Club of Indiana’s annual Communications Contest. First place entries will advance to the national level—the National Federation of Press Women’s Communications Contest.

I was thrilled to hear this news in April. It’s proof entering contests is worthwhile. You have to get past the feeling of self-promotion and the expenses that may be involved, such as the entry fee and the cost of printing and mailing several copies of the book.

Do some research before entering to be sure your book will meet reasonable competition. For example, if it is indie or small press published, you could look for a contest limited to these entries. Another avenue is to look for contests with regional or genre divisions. Also consider how winners will be publicized and whether the contest is merely a way to raise funds with little publicity for the winners. Many contests are meant to gain new subscribers or readers. This may be fine with you as long as winning or even entering may draw people to your book.

To find contests, simply do an Internet search for contests for indie and small press books.
­­­__________
Joyce B. Hicks is the author of Escape from Assisted Living, One More Foxtrot, and a number of short stories. You can learn more about Joyce at www.joycebhicks.com.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Thank a Librarian


Writers owe a great deal to libraries. If we are published, we are grateful to the libraries that have purchased our books for their collections. But it goes much farther than that.

Many of us fed our love of reading at libraries. Even if that love started when our parents read to us at home, it wasn’t long before we began craving the additional books our school and public libraries had to offer.

That’s true for our readers as well. Without libraries to encourage their early love, would they be reading our books now? Some might, but many probably would not.

These days it is easy to buy books off the Internet. If we are looking for older classics or new authors, we may even be able to download them for free. But libraries still provide valuable services. Not everyone owns a computer or an e-reader for those free Internet books, but almost everyone has access to a public library. The library offers books and movies and computers and Internet access for those who can’t afford to purchase them. Some writers even rely on that Internet access to research their books and to communicate with online critique partners. Librarians can also be invaluable sources for book recommendations. And there is much more.

Did you know that the second full week of April is National Library Week? Contact your local library for any special events it may be hosting. You can find information about national events at http://www.ala.org/news/mediapresscenter/factsheets/nationallibraryweek. If you read the State of America’s Libraries Report at http://www.ala.org/news/state-americas-libraries-report-2018 and click on “Issues and Trends,” you will discover the twelve most challenged books of 2018, including some that might surprise you.

And the next time you visit your local library, be sure to thank a librarian.

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The picture at the top of this page shows the Munster branch of the Lake County Library in Lake County, Indiana. It is © 2013 by Kathryn Page Camp and used here by permission.

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

A Poetry Classic for Baseball Fans


Since poetry month coincides with the start of baseball season, we are celebrating both by reprinting a classic baseball poem. “Casey at the Bat” was first published in The San Francisco Examiner on June 3, 1888 and was written Ernest Lawrence Thayer, who was the newspaper’s humor columnist. This poem shows that poetry comes in all shapes and sizes. Thayer was not a Walt Whitman or an Emily Dickinson, nor did he aspire to be. But judged against other comic ballads, “Casey at the Bat” is a classic.

The rhythm of the original version is ragged in a few places and was revised slightly by Thayer before being published in book form in 1912.

Here is the full text of the original version published in 1888. Read and enjoy.

The outlook wasn't brilliant for the Mudville nine that day;
the score stood four to two, with but one inning more to play.
And then when Cooney died at first, and Barrows did the same,
a sickly silence fell upon the patrons of the game.

A straggling few got up to go in deep despair. The rest
clung to that hope which springs eternal in the human breast;
they thought, if only Casey could get but a whack at that –
they'd put up even money, now, with Casey at the bat.

But Flynn preceded Casey, as did also Jimmy Blake,
and the former was a lulu and the latter was a cake,
so upon that stricken multitude grim melancholy sat,
for there seemed but little chance of Casey's getting to the bat.

But Flynn let drive a single, to the wonderment of all,
and Blake, the much despised, tore the cover off the ball;
and when the dust had lifted, and the men saw what had occurred,
there was Jimmy safe at second and Flynn a-hugging third.

Then from five thousand throats and more there rose a lusty yell;
it rumbled through the valley, it rattled in the dell;
it knocked upon the mountain and recoiled upon the flat,
for Casey, mighty Casey, was advancing to the bat.

There was ease in Casey's manner as he stepped into his place;
there was pride in Casey's bearing and a smile on Casey's face.
And when, responding to the cheers, he lightly doffed his hat,
no stranger in the crowd could doubt 'twas Casey at the bat.

Ten thousand eyes were on him as he rubbed his hands with dirt;
five thousand tongues applauded when he wiped them on his shirt.
Then while the writhing pitcher ground the ball into his hip,
defiance gleamed in Casey's eye, a sneer curled Casey's lip.

And now the leather-covered sphere came hurtling through the air,
and Casey stood a-watching it in haughty grandeur there.
Close by the sturdy batsman the ball unheeded sped—
"That ain't my style," said Casey. "Strike one," the umpire said.

From the benches, black with people, there went up a muffled roar,
like the beating of the storm-waves on a stern and distant shore.
"Kill him! Kill the umpire!" shouted someone on the stand;
and it's likely they'd have killed him had not Casey raised his hand.

With a smile of Christian charity great Casey's visage shone;
he stilled the rising tumult; he bade the game go on;
he signaled to the pitcher, and once more the spheroid flew;
but Casey still ignored it, and the umpire said: "Strike two."

"Fraud!" cried the maddened thousands, and echo answered fraud;
but one scornful look from Casey and the audience was awed.
They saw his face grow stern and cold, they saw his muscles strain,
and they knew that Casey wouldn't let that ball go by again.

The sneer is gone from Casey's lip, his teeth are clenched in hate;
he pounds with cruel violence his bat upon the plate.
And now the pitcher holds the ball, and now he lets it go,
and now the air is shattered by the force of Casey's blow.

Oh, somewhere in this favored land the sun is shining bright;
the band is playing somewhere, and somewhere hearts are light,
and somewhere men are laughing, and somewhere children shout;
but there is no joy in Mudville — mighty Casey has struck out.


__________

The picture at the top of this page is from the 1912 book version of the poem, which was illustrated by Dan Sayre Groesbeck. Both it and the poem are in the public domain because of their age.