Interstitial Moment:

I have spoken about this before, but as I am wallowing in the middle of it right now, am going to once again talk about plot. Of which I know very little.

There are basically two kinds of writers, those who think about their plots ahead of time, make timelines, understand in a billiards-like manner how one thing said or done creates motion. Three of my co-writers on various projects–Robert J. Harris, Bruce Coville, and my son Adam Stemple–are all masters of this modality.

The other king of plotters simply fly into the mist. Yes, Dear Friends, that’s me. I need to watch my characters moving about, listen to how they speak, and follow along after them, waving a manuscript and shouting, “Wait for me!” I am in essence a reader before I am a writer and want to be surprised by where a plot twists next.

But let me tell you, it makes for some singularly scary nail-biting along the way.

Right now I am smack in the middle of a novel based on a published short story of mine–The Thirteenth Fey. It’s meant to be a short novel, a fairy tale redaction about Sleeping Beauty, from the point of view of the fairy who comes late to the princess’ christening and makes the wish about the princess dying on her sixteenth birthday after being pricked by a spindle. Only this fairy (a thirteen year old) is the hero of this telling, the youngest child of thirteen in the Shouting Fey clan.  Contractually the book is supposed to be between 40-50,000 words. (Most YA novels are 65,000 and up.) A companion to the about-to-be-published Snow in Summer which is an Applachian Snow White.

I am at 27,000 words, and in the middle of the real expansion part of the book. And that means plot, plot, plot.

Have I mentioned I don’t know a lot about plot. Yeah, that’s a problem.

There are three places I usually find a bit of plot: in the shower, at night while falling asleep, or in the car. Yesterday, on my way to the dentist, in the car, I found the next bit of plot. Now, there are a lot of things anyone else can find in my car–empty bottles,  books, an umbrella, reusable carrier bags, opened envelopes sans the letters, two pairs of sunglasses, etc. But trust me, that plot was there waiting for me once I’d gotten out of town and on the familiar road.

Why this works almost every time, I don’t know. It has something to do with the lizard brain, the hind brain, the subconscious, the being-prepared for serendipty. All of the above. But once again, the magic kicked in. And by the time I returned home, my teeth cleaner than they’d been on my way there, I had the next few scenes in my head, plus some characters who’d gotten lost along the way and needed resurrecting, a couple of twists, a dynamite couple of lines from the villain, and. . .plenty to do over the next few weeks before it’s time to try the magic car/shower/bedtime trick again.

This may not help you as a writer (or teacher) at all. But there you have it.

February 10-13, 2011:

This being my birthday weekend, I had a few presents, did some clothes (and shoe) shopping, had some lovely meals, a night of jazz, an evening of art gallery, and a lot of family time. Wrote a poem about turning 72.

Being me, it also meant I did a fair bit of other writing as well, mostly revision on The Thirteenth Fey, starting from the beginning so as to get back into the story and the voice before heading off onto the rest of the plot (which I don’t yet have.) I have asked the plot gods for help, but they have been mum. One dear friend has been shaking the plot gourd towards the sky, but as yet to no results. I am 25,000 words into the book, over halfway there and my main character is deeply and truly mired in the muck. So you’d think I’d know by now how she’s getting out. But no. . .in typical fashion, I am once again “flying into the mist” (as a different friend has described my method of working, if one can call it a method). This means I will find out how and where Layla is going as she does. In fact, I think she’s a great deal smarter than I am, so she will find out even sooner. I just hope she tells me in time!

So there you have a mini-lecture on Plot As I Know It. Yeah, it scares me, too!

Otherwise, Rebecca Kai Dotlich and I have been beavering away on a big revision of the poems in Grumbles from the Forest, which may have to be renamed if my new monster book is called Grumbly Monsters, Tumbly Monsters as I hope it will. I have been vigorously writing my new poem-a-day project. (Not a book. It will be nice if after the year is up I have three or four good poems.)

And I joined Netflix. More time wasting. But better than sitting in front of the tv just clicking through a series of shows I am not interested in. In the two days I have been a member, I have watched “Creation” and wept through it, “Dr. Parnassus” which was mildly disappointing since I am a huge Terry Gilliam fan and expect more of him, and enjoyed but was not blown away by “The Duchess.” They were all movies I’d missed in the theaters and was glad to have caught up with.

Am reading a Bernard Cromwell Sharpe novel I somehow never got to before.

And did I mention part of my (uninsured) barn fell down because of the enormous amount of snow on the roof? Yeah–there goes my kitchen renovation.

More anon.

Interstitial Moment:

C asked: “One difficulty I have in being the best, most whole person I can be is that I sometimes get bogged down in the whole \”real life\” thing. I find that creativity is much akin to a muscle and if I don\’t work at it, I can lose it. Do you have any suggestions for how to connect to creativity even while dealing with the doldrums of every-day life?”

Well, C–I have written often about writing-as-muscle. Just as we take time for physical exercise BY MAKING A SPECIFIC TIME OF DAY FOR IT, we need to do that with writing as well.

Sometimes the best time to do this is when everyone else is asleep and no one is going to phone you or make demands on your time or your emotions. That may mean working on your writing early in the morning (the way I do it) or late at night. (I am usually fast asleep by then.) But mark the time into your actual schedule. Start by giving yourself fifteen minutes or a half hour and up that by increments as you work into it, just as you would do with a physical exercise regimen.

If you are trying to sneak in bits of writing between life crises, it’s simply not going to happen. But if the writing becomes an immovable part of your day, you will find yourself energized by the very act of going to your desk when that time of day rolls around.

It may take some while getting yourself acclimated, but trust me–it’s worth the hard graft of getting there.

February 4-9, 2011:

The biggest news of the five days has been that the snow brought down a wing of my one uninsured barn. It was a portion of the barn that had a long history (probably about 70 years worth) of compromise. Two roofs at angles that proved to be an excellent conduit for water, snow, ice backup. Lots of leaks. But as it was not where we lived, we let it go. And now it all came tumbling down because of the weight of snow on an ever shaky roof, which means it has to be attended to ASAP. And that mean my kitchen renovation, the front hall paint job, the outside repainting of the house, and the repainting and tidying up of granddaughter Glendon’s room–now that she’s officially moved out–are all on hold. My mantra is, of course, “It’s only money.” Alas, it was money I’d earmarked for a variety of other projects in the house.

My prayers to the publishing gods–themselves vastly under seige–have remained unanswered!

Speaking of publishing: received copies of my newest book with son Jason: BIRDS OF A FEATHER, the third book of poems about birds that we have done for Boyds Mills. It is gorgeous looking, with (for the first time) endpapers and an additional intro by a birding expert. The expert is none other than Professor Don Kroodsma, one of David’s old birding buddies and a world-renowned writer on birdsong.

Also, sent off the revision to Adam of B.U.G. so he can add his 20 cents.

Sent off the revision of Warty Monsters, Sporty Monsters, now called Grumbling Monsters, Tumbling Monsters since it’s not about sports so much as children’s games , and the editor loves. it. Huzzah!

Been working with Rebecca Dotlich on a re-invention of our book of fairy tale poems for the new editor assigned to it.

Patrick Lewis and I put together a proposal for a sequel to our poetry collection: Last Laughs, Animal Epitaphs called Last Laughs, Too: African Animal Epitaphs. Sent it off.

And I have started re-reading and editing the first half of my fairy tale novel: The Thirteenth Fey. Trying to get back up to speed so I can move forward on it. It’s due this summer.

Jason is an Everglades National Park Artist in Residence this month and sending back gorgeous photos on his blog: http://charlestonscphotoblog.com/

And my 72nd birthday is this week–February 11.

January 26-February 3, 2011:

This long week was filled with snow (lots of it) revisions (lots of it) and conversations with children’s book writers and illustrators (lots of it).

As for the snow, we had approximately three feet of white stuff falling at various times, weighing down my deck, icicles dangerously hanging from the eves. We had ice storms, snow storms, wind storms, hail. It’s been brutal out there, folks.

Revisions: a small revision but important one on a picture book called WARTY MONSTERS, SPORTY MONSTERS which we have renamed (for now)) GRUMBLY MONSTERS, TUMBLY MONSTERS  since there is little sport and more kid outdoor play. It’s a sequel to CREEPY MONSTERS, SLEEPY MONSTERS which will be out this year. The editor got right back to me saying she loved what I’d done. An even smaller revision on HOW DO DINOSAURS GET MAD? A much longer revision which took me several months (actually began it end of October) on B.U.G. now with co-author Adam (my son.) And began a first pass on a revision of GRUMBLES FROM THE FOREST, a book of poems with Rebecca Kai Dotlich. Yes, there are two “GRUMBLES” here and one will have to be changed.

I did not work on these at the same time, but serially. But it meant a lot of revision and no new stuff. Well, some new stuff within the revisions of course. But I am seriously ready to get back to the new. I miss the white hot speed and surprise of the new. Revisions are much more deliberate act.

On the  27th, I headed into New York for the long weekend for SCBWI‘s big winter conference at the Grand Hyatt at Grand Central Station. The weather had been so bad, trains were being canceled right and left. The train I was on was canceled on the internet, by phone, but when I talked Heidi into bringing me there just in case and leaving me there till the trains started up again, it turned out that 1 minute!!!! before I arrived, they had decided to let the train go to New Haven. Very slow, of course, because of all the snow on the rails, but we got to NY only 2 hours late.

Had dinner with a friend, and went to see “Wicked” which was a great deal of fun, though not a patch on the actual book.

The next day SCBWI began. I had great conversations with all sorts of folks–editors, art directors, agents, old students, and drinks with an agent buddy (though not mine), as well as  chatting with truly old friends like Beth Fleischer, wife of X-Men creator Chris Clairmont. Heidi arrived in time for lunch and then the cocktail party and we had a grand time.

Saturday morning I was on a panel with Mark Teague and Patricia Gauch which went over well. Other speakers included the ever wonderful Lois Lowry, R. L Stine, and break-out sessions with editors and agents. We had a long and exhausting autograph session. Then Heidi and I had dinner with Beth Fleischer and Chris and had a ball.

Sunday we listened to Sara Zarr give a stunning talk, and a laugh-a-minute panel on humor with Mo Willems, Lenore Look, and Marvin Turban with moderator Leonard Marcus. And finishing with a rouser by Linda Sue Park. After that we signed books and then had a Board Meeting. I went out to dinner with a friend.

In the morning, Heidi and I drove home, stopping for an IKEA hour.

Came home to find a box of HOW DO DINOSAURS PLAY ALL DAY sticker book.

A good eight days in all, despite the snow.

 

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