Monday, November 9, 2009

Christine: The Movement You Need Is On Your Shoulder

When I worked on the copy desk of a daily newspaper several years ago, one of my favorite tasks was headline-writing.

Criteria included maximum impact, active voice and strict adherence to length. For instance, a headline may require three decks in a single column with a point size of 24. Or one deck spanning six columns with a point size of 48. Headlines couldn’t run short or long. You couldn’t skimp on the point size, for instance by shaving off two points to squeeze in an extra word. You couldn’t split a compound modifier, with one word being on one deck and the other on the next.

Such strict parameters have brought many a copy editor to their knees, but I loved the challenge. It was like completing a crossword puzzle, only I was both creating and solving it simultaneously.

Likewise, I've written lots of children’s stories in verse and am an amateur songwriter, priding myself on exacting standards. No weak rhymes. No flubbed rhythms. No skewed scansion. (Substitute the word “fellow” for “man” in the familiar Nantucket limerick, and you’ll see what I mean.)

I just love the “no cheating” requirement of such writing. It’s the sublime precision, the muscular economy, of crafting just the right thing.

And you know what? That just right thing always seems to exist. Think hard enough, rearrange your words enough, bolster your vocabulary enough, be willing to start from scratch enough, and you’ll eventually complete such an exacting writing task by feeling not that you’ve created something new, but that you’ve plucked an existing, exquisite star right out of the heavens. I love that feeling.

Of course, fiction-writing is all about no rules, no parameters. I love that process, too, but there’s something very satisfying about marrying imagination and creativity with structure and discipline. In fact, the first children’s story I ever wrote in verse came at the behest of my then-six-year-old son, Greg. We were waiting for our meal at a restaurant when he said, “Let’s write a story. And let’s call it I Can Read Books Upside Down.”

Ahhhh! I was in heaven as I grabbed a pen and a napkin. I’d never started a story with a title before, and certainly not a title as unwieldy and inscrutable as that one. Game on!

A few minutes later, with my son’s considerable help, we’d crafted twenty verses about a little boy’s topsy-turvy, inside-out, upside-down day. The bus took him to school in reverse. Kids ran the bases backward at recess. His ice cream cone was served bottoms up. And of course, he could read books upside down. I love our story, and it never would’ve been written unless I’d been open to a new set of rules.

Indeed, sometimes strict parameters produce the greatest poetry. I read once that Paul McCartney struggled for hours to complete the lyrics of his classic Hey Jude. He finally “settled” on one line as a throwaway lyric, a placeholder until he thought of something better. But Lennon told him that the throwaway line was the one the song was meant to have. Fittingly, the line is, “The movement you need is on your shoulder.”

Nothing is more transcendent than realizing the movement you need is on your shoulder … and was there all along, just waiting to be discovered.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Kristen: My Comfort Zone (it’s actually very tiny)

I am a freakishly private person. I like corners, dimly lit rooms, and my cat (I don’t even want to write down my cat’s name, because I consider that a privacy issue). As a writer, being freakishly private is not ideal. People often tell me that I need to suck it up and get out there and start promoting myself. Okay. But that is not how I am built. This year, my first middle-grade novel came out, Camille McPhee Fell Under the Bus. Next year, my third teen novel will be published, A Field Guide for Heartbreakers, along with another middle-grade novel, Bessica Lefter Sweats Her Pants Off. This means that I am pretty busy writing. Every day. Even though I have a tough time with it, I understand that promotion is important too. Below is a list of all the promotion-type things I did this year that took me out of my comfort zone. I don’t know if they benefited me or my books in any way, though I’m pretty sure that my traveling caused great suffering for my cat.

I made a podcast about my latest book and put it on my website. My friend Mark who is a reporter interviewed me. He asked me questions about my life, which I hated answering, and he asked me to elaborate on the time I fell underneath my own school bus. I sort of freaked out when I heard my own voice. I didn’t sound like me at all.

I participated in a writing panel at the San Francisco Public Library for LitQuake. I didn’t really talk about my book though. I gave a demonstration on bear safety, and my friend Rachel wore mock bear paws (that my mother sewed for me) and pretended to attack me using a variety of paws: black, grizzly, polar and pizzly. This was really outside of my comfort zone. But I know a lot about bear safety, and it’s in my first book, so it seemed like a reasonable thing to do. Sadly, I recently found out that Rachel has photos of this event and that she posted them on Facebook (something I find myself emotionally unable to join). Upon learning about these photos, I freaked out and demanded that Rachel take them down. And she agreed. Even though she is currently using one of the photos as her profile picture.

I read at a Barnes & Noble. My friends came to support me. They are adults and had to sit in little chairs. I read from Camille McPhee. Afterward, I answered questions. One girl asked me what I wanted my children to be when they grew up. I told her that I didn’t have children. She insisted that I answer the question anyway. Tough crowd. Tough crowd.

I won a fellowship for poetry and attended the Writers@Work conference in Park City and instead of requesting a single room and avoiding people, I tried to build some community. I lived in a condo with a cool roommate named Sue and mingled and met a lot of talented writers. Also, I ventured into the wilderness and hiked. And got lost on a mountain. And was repeatedly lied to by mountain bikers who told me I was twenty minutes away from the nearest operating ski lift. Jerks. (I joke. I joke. I guess they measure distance in bike-time. Full throttle.)

I contacted media in my hometown in Idaho. My book is set there. And now I will be on a television morning show when I go home for Christmas. This sort of makes me want to avoid going home for Christmas. Also, I am probably going to have to buy new pants. I told a friend this and she told me that nobody will see my pants, because I will be sitting down. But I always see people’s pants, even when they sit down, so I don’t really understand what my friend meant.

I drove to my alma mater, Loyola Marymount University, and read to a room filled with college students and chilled shrimp appetizers. I read from my upcoming teen novel, A Field Guide for Heartbreakers. The rest of the lineup read poetry. It was an intimidating venue. And when an attendee tried to take my picture, I actually stopped reading and pointed at him and said, “No! You need to stop doing that!” And then I kept reading and stayed in my allotted time limit. Good times. Good times.

I served as a faculty member for a children’s writer’s conference at Book Passages in Corte Madera. I had to give a three-hour talk about something. Three hours is a really long time, even with a generous bathroom break. I talked about dialogue. Afterward, I ate the best cucumber sandwich of my life. Yum.

I am really surprised that I did any of these things. (I’m even surprised that I wrote this blog entry.) I’ll probably do a little bit more next year. But not a lot. And that’s okay. Because I don’t want to give myself an aneurism worrying about promotion. I think I’m one of those people who will always keep my focus on the writing. This might not be everybody’s formula. I know some people who are promotion machines (they’re pretty fierce tweeters, too). I’ll do what I can. And that’s okay.