Monday, January 28, 2008

Kindling Words 2008

I’m leaving Vermont at the end of another Kindling Words. The hugs and kisses have been exchanged, the promises made, the connections that lie between us as writers reinforced, spun into tensile strength. It’s a web that extends from Tucson to Texas to New York City, from Iowa and Chicago to Florida and Atlanta. One of the blessings of the Internet is that we can find our kindred, wherever they are. But sometimes we just have to meet face to face.
For those of you who don’t know, Kindling Words is a conference/retreat for published writers, illustrators, and editors, where the focus is on craft and renewal. It’s a kind of cult ritual, an orgy of fellowship, a revival meeting (complete with spirituals sung about a bonfire) that heals and energizes. And lest you think we spent the whole time singing “Kumbaya,” our goddess presenters were Laurie Halse Anderson, (writers) Vera Williams (illustrators) and Cecile Goyette (editors).
Laurie spoke about the smack-down match between character and plot. We concluded that the relationship between character and plot is less a battle than an erotic, tangled embrace that births story (author fans self rapidly).
Laurie also hosted a lunchtime “white space” session on her “five-year plan,” subtitled (by me) Beyond Romance—How to Keep Body and Soul Together as a Full time Writer. It was practical advice for anyone who wants to make a living as a writer. I was especially impressed by her inclusion of volunteering and what she called “family drama” time in her plan for living.
I’m such a fan girl, and participants in the conference are so generous with their time. I attended Jane Yolen’s informal session on whether and how to find an agent, not because I am looking for an agent (hi, Christopher!), but because I just wanted to hang out in Jane’s room. Of course, I couldn’t help learning a lot from the plain-spoken Jane.
As important as the formal presentations is the opportunity to learn from true peers. They’ve often already solved the problems I’m wrestling with—even something as simple as how to resist the siren call of the Internet when you’re on deadline. Probably one of the most important lessons of KW is that there is no one right way to do things.
Some writers begin the writing process with character. Others with plot. Usually we start with the element we’re most comfortable with.
Some of us revise as we go along. Others of us vomit on the page, writing in a white heat until the bones of the story are down. Some of us love revision. Newbury-winner and keynote speaker Linda Sue Park said that writing is revision.
Speaking of Linda Sue, emblematic of this diversity of technique was the smack-down battle between Laurie and Linda. They disagreed on almost everything—and both are gifted, productive, genius writers.
On Saturday afternoon, the nine editors attending (including my own Arianne Lewin!) graciously answered our questions in a roundtable. More plain speech. As in any kind of therapy, first we have to be honest with each other.
That night, twenty geniuses shared their souls in five-minute increments during the candlelight readings. Themes ranged from incest to faeries to badger parenthood. Formats ranged from brilliant picture book rhymes to Green poetry to YA novel. At one point a choir of dissonant frogs emerged from the audience. It was that kind of night.
And, finally, the bonfire of wishes and dreams. We sang camp songs, folk songs, antiwar ballads, and show tunes. There is something elemental and primitive about assembling around a fire. It forges a connection that can carry us as missionaries into a world that sometimes seems bent on stomping on our souls.
I mean, I sang harmony with Gregory Maguire and actually felt in context.
Finally, we cast our prayers and dreams into the fire, watching the flames exhale them toward the stars, hoping to catch the ear of God.

I could write a whole blog of thank yous. Thank you to the mystic healer Alison James, who streams magic, to the wise Tanya Lee Stone, to Marnie Brooks, who called down blessings from the top of the stairs, to the always generous Nancy Werlin, to wise counselors Martha Levine, Mikki Knudsen, Laurie Calkhoven, and many others unnamed. Thanks to everyone who helped this happen.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Making My Peace with Winter

The Ranger at the Rocky Mountain National Park visitor center seemed out of place with her North Carolina drawl. “You only have a few hours, you say? Well, Trail Ridge Road is closed, you know, but the drive up to Bear Lake is real pretty,” she said. “Only we’ve had a few cars slide off the road this morning. The sand trucks just went out, so you may want to give it an hour or two before you set out.”
“That’s all right,” my husband said when we got back to the car. “An hour more or less won’t make any difference. I’ll just drive slow.”
That’s my husband. To him, weather is irrelevant. Me, I’ve never liked winter. Too many clothes, too much hassle.
So we drove up Bear Lake Road, creeping around the curves and tip-toeing over areas of black ice.
In Northeastern Ohio, where I live, we have what’s called lake effect. The weather can vary dramatically depending on the wind direction and whether you’re east or west of the lake. In RMNP, they have…mountain effect? We drove through several mini climates on our way up the road. In some places, the pavement was showing, and in others, there was solid snowpack and three foot walls of snow to either side, left there by the plows.
I knew I was in trouble when I saw the other hikers in the Bear Lake parking lot squirming into gaiters and snow pants. My husband and I were among the few people who were not strapping on snowshoes.
I’d thought I was prepared. I’d put on my brand new Spyder Thinsulate ski jacket and hat and toasty warm gloves. I wore my hiking boots and wool socks. But the brand of the day seemed to be The North Face, and with the temperature in the teens, the wind bit through my jeans with such force I looked down several times to make sure I hadn’t forgotten to put them on.
Sigh. Whether its formal dinners and weddings to hiking in Rocky Mountain National Park—I’m always underdressed.
The sign said, “Bear Lake, 250 Feet.” Even I thought I could make it that far. The path to the lake overlook had been packed down by many snowshoes. Once there, we noticed that people were snowshoeing around the lake. “Bear Lake Trail, .5 mile.” Half a mile? Hah! No problem. I walked three miles regularly at home.
At first, we seemed to be doing better in our hiking boots than our friends in their snowshoes. But the further we went, the less traffic there’d been before us, and the looser the snow. Soon, I was struggling, between the knee-deep snow and the climb. We decided to take our chances down on the ice. Surely the snow wouldn’t be as deep down there.
Wrong! The far end of the lake was piled in deep drifts over a seventeen-inch base. It was like swimming waist-deep in quicksand--for vertically-challenged me, anyway. “I can’t do this!” I gasped, and we headed back for the overlook.
From there, we took another groomed trail to Nymph Lake. I’d been there in summer, and was amazed at how different it looked. The stark skeletons of trees cast blue shadows over the snow. Pines brushed by the wind sifted snow like glitter onto the trails. Although there were a lot of people there, the sounds seemed muffled and muted, the woods robed in a cathedral hush.
On the way back down, we were swooshed several times by cross country skiers who were having way too good a time. And I thought, maybe I’ll get myself some long underwear and pull out those cross-country skis.

Maybe I’ll even get myself a pair of gaiters.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Author Visit to Newton Middle School

Here’s a shout out to the students and staff of Isaac Newton Middle School in Littleton, Colorado. Super-librarian Jennifer Colmenero planned a great day for my recent author visit: three “assemblies” ( a term used only in schools, for some reason) for 6th, 7th, and 8th grades, and a writing workshop.

The assemblies were in the gym. There’s something about a gym that encourages enthusiasm. Maybe it’s because that’s where the pep rallies are held (something else that goes on only in schools!) But there’s always lots of bleacher-stomping and hallooing in a gym. And no sleeping at all. That’s a refreshing change from my over-scheduled and sleep-deprived college students. But there’s also the unsettling sense that one has a bull by the tail that might run amok at any moment.

The writing workshop was held in the library: thirty-five students plus teachers and forty minutes in which to put magic on the page. We zipped along at a blistering pace, but we had fun.

Things have changed since I was in school. For one thing, students and staff are allowed to wear street shoes in the gym these days. The custodians were apprehensive but resigned. Another thing that’s changed is that the custodians were very capable women. Lady custodians. What a concept.

My favorite part of author presentations is the Q & A session, particularly if the students have read the work and/or are primed to arrive with questions. Here are some questions from Newton Middle School:

Where do you get your ideas?
I use a quote from JRR Tolkien, where he says “One writes stories…from the leafmold of the mind.” Ideas are all around us, it’s what we do with them that counts. Ideas can totally be recycled, too!!

How long does it take you to write a book?
The students were appalled to find out it takes me a year or more. I could tell they thought I was one of those lazy-butt authors who putzed around while they waited for the next installment in a series. I found myself apologizing, saying I had a day job, a family, after all.

How much do you make?
For me, that’s still like asking about my sex life. Used to be, I’d just mumble something about “less than you think, but I don’t do it for the money.” Now I talk about royalties, how authors might get royalties of 10% or 12% on a hardcover book, so if they pay $18.00 for a book, the author gets $1.80 of that. That satisfies most of them.

What’s your favorite book you wrote?
Sheesh. That’s like asking me to choose between my children! I usually say it’s the book I’m writing right now, because I get so totally tangled in my characters’ lives.

What would you do if you weren’t an author?
See day job. Well, I say, I’d watch TV, clean my house, read more books, and live my life in a series of vivid daydreams, further enhancing my reputation for weirdness.

What’s the hardest part about being an author?
Well, I love to write, and I even enjoy revision, because that’s when I make the words sing. I’d have to say it’s the constant rejection, or fear of rejection. Even well-published authors get rejected. It still stinks.

What’s your advice for young writers?
Lie down until the feeling goes away. Or go work out. Or something. Seriously, I tell young writers to focus on craft. Take classes. Read voraciously. Reading great fiction is like taking a workshop from a master craftsperson. Find colleagues who are serious about their writing, too and form a critique group. Learn to live with revision. One of the greatest things I learned from completely rewriting my third novel is that it didn’t break. It was actually better at the end of it.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Dragon Heir Cover -- Woo-Hoo!

I’m so excited! We finally have a galley cover for Dragon Heir (Hyperion, 9/2008). The illustrator is the genius Larry Rostant, and the book designer is Elizabeth Clark. It may be tweaked a bit more for the final book jacket, but IMHO it’s gorgeous!! What do you think?