Monthly Archives: February 2015

a little writing craft…

Funny little word that, craft. A dictionary might define it as ‘a skill involved in making things by hand.’ Or, ‘to make or construct (something) with care or ingenuity.’ A craftsman is a chooser–– of the raw material, the design of the material, even the final outcome of putting all that material together, what the combined material will be. A craftsman is skilled––’having or showing the knowledge, ability, or training to perform a certain activity or task well.’

I think about writing that way. Writing is choosing words strung together to become an idea. An idea needs a theme. A theme needs a character. A character needs a place to hang out and a place to go and so a description evolves. An evolving description needs a plot. A plot needs a compelling beginning, middle and end. A character needs a point of view. A point of view becomes a narrative. And then, wow, you have crafted a story!

My raw material is letters, letters put into an order that has meaning becoming a word. A word that is a thing or an action. How I place those nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, how I meld that raw material together is my craft. And while writing on the computer is most effective and efficient, I’ve found that  sitting, loose leaf paper in front of me, pen in hand, joining those letters into words, those words into action is a way to connect my brain and my story. I am constructing. I am choosing. I am making something by hand.

I thought of all of this listening to Jordan Brown give his Seven Rules for Writing Middle Grade Fiction. Why? Because no matter how many rules there are, there are never enough to identify, define, or assume craft. You can have all the check lists in the world, but they will never ‘provide’ craft. It wasn’t a checklist that designed the John Hancock Tower or the Myerson Symphony Center in Dallas, it was the craftsman I.M. Pei. It wasn’t a checklist that developed the process for open heart surgery, it was the craftsman Michael DeBakey. There were no rules, there was only the making or constructing with care or ingenuity. This is craft, yes in differing fields, still craft.

So I sort of translated, instead of saying the Seven Rules for Writing Middle Grade Fiction, perhaps it would be Think of These Seven Things When Writing Middle Grade Fiction. No not nearly as catchy. And if it was written out in long hand, it might just be ‘hit these marks, over and over. Practice them. Understand them. Be true to them. And then maybe, maybe you will have developed your craft enough to design a John Hancock Tower of Middle Grade Fiction, or performed the open heart surgery of Middle Grade Fiction.’

With apologies to Mr. Brown, he did say just that––there are no rules. What he gave us were the ingredients, the raw material beyond the words and the story idea, beyond the characters and the plot, beyond the point of view and the narrative. These are the things that elevate the story from looking like it was material slapped together, to something designed with care and ingenuity.

Seven ingredients. When you think of children’s literature do you think seven too many or too few? But it was his seventh ingredient that echoed Anthony Horowitz–Write Up To Your Readers. Twice in one conference. How could I refuse?

 

my kind of keynote…

SO. HERE IS TAKEAWAY NUMBER ONE!

A couple of years back I was advised that reading Alex Rider would be a good thing for my writing. To read like a writer and see an action novel unfold. Because of the source of the recommndation I found the first book, published in 2000, and gobbled it up. To be so cool! Here was a teen James Bond, reluctant, teenage-y, hot, and with a family member in the spy industry. Well, yes, why hadn’t I found these before? I would have killed for a book like this, Geeze, I would have killed for a life like this…apologies to my darling parents and their wonderful upbringing, but damn if I didn’t continually try to make life less sedate.

I had not focused on the conference agenda coming into NYC.I did focus on the two breakout sessions and the intensive [more on those later] and not for a minute on the speakers. So when Anthony, [oh, please can I call you Tony :-)] Horowitz was introduced by Lin Oliver, I sat up straight. I got out my note book [which I don’t do for the inspirational ones] and I was ready.

Mr. Horowitz did not disappoint. In his dapper black suit, skinny tie, and the Brit accent of the upper crust as we have been taught on BBCA, well, perhaps he could have recited the NYC phone book and I would have noted it down, but HE DID NOT.

Yes, he was inspirational. He started writing because maybe that was what he was best at of all the choices. He wanted to be Nero–set the world on fire and in the writing he knew it was a children’s book that would do it. He wrote a lot. He wrote TV shows, screenplays, and children’s books. Then came Alex!  Alex is a reluctant hero who is true to himself. Ah, to be a teenager and be true to your self. That is hard–wicked hard!

Mr. Horowitz asked for gleeful writing. Simple. Fun. And most important-True. And then he remarked that children today only experience real adventure in literature. He’s right! How many parents do let their children out to play from dawn to dusk. There is a cosseting, a cocooning, for their safety, for the parental peace of mind. And yet! What children don’t learn as a result of being tested is huge. According to Mr. Horowitz, there is not enough violence in kids books and children like violence. Life is full of violence and kids know that. That’s part of being true.

If I were in a discussion with Mr. Horowitz I would ask him about video games, and the Marvel Universe and the CGI in movies that take our breath away with their animation and their violence. About all the speculative fiction that is huge in middle grade and young adult. And, I wonder if he might say, ‘but those are not real. And kids know it.’ And he’d be right. Alex Rider is now, present, with some fantastical toys but still, now!

He said that we have a responsibility to treat this writing as an upbeat thing. To that I say, a winning thing; success, extraordinary, yes, even heroic. Write up to children, he said. Not about the ordinary, but to show the POWER OF STORYTELLING. Oh, yes!

Reflections: SCBWI NYC 2015

The NYC conference is a mash-up of greeting friends, meeting new people, get-togethers with regional members and the scheduled events. I always hope there is something I can take from the presentations be they keynotes or breakouts sessions or even intensives. Last year it was Jack Gantos who stayed with me for long after the keynote was given. The organization, the dedication, the determination was so present, not because he told us about all of that, but because he SHOWED US. He had a power point of his notebook, what his desk looked like [at a private library no less–wow] and how he plotted and planned his stories. Now that I liked, process. I can do process.

I admit to not being huge on inspirational speakers. I think just about anyone can be an inspirational speaker if the topic is themselves, talking about how they got to where they were, how much it took, what made them keep on going. And I love those speakers and speeches, they just do little for me.

When we work on our regional conferences our goal is to have solid, practical, relatable notes that can be translated into the writing or art of all participants.

The NYC conference is not based on craft for the most part. It is a series of keynotes surrounding breakout sessions with agents and editors based in New York and what they are interested in. Some, like Jordan Brown gave a craft-based presentation along with submission guidelines. Others may just tell what they want, how they want it and give submission guidelines.

So, stay tuned for takeaway number one—Anthony Horowitz.