Growing up, I was an imaginative kid. If you ask my husband, he'll tell you I still have an overly active imagination. (There are zombies--I kid you not!-- in the alley behind our house). To borrow an expression from a friend: I have a sweet-tooth for stories. I always have.
I don't know what it's like for kids growing up these days. It wasn't that long ago for me, but we didn't have the Internet until I was in, like, Junior High, and it took about twenty minutes to boot up. You knew you were close when you heard that BOO-BEEP-BOO-BEEEEEEP-KKKRRRRRRR... If someone was on the computer, using the Internet, I couldn't use the phone. I'd pick it up and get a bunch of static and would have to go see how much longer Dad or my sister was going to be online so I could call my friends or, you know, they could call me because we were giving a "busy" signal until they got off.
Cable was a thing in the 1990's, but my parents refused to pay for it. We had five channels: Fox 13, PBS Kids, Local News, ABC Family, and the Spanish Channel. Sometimes, when my sisters and I didn't feel like watching a VHS and there wasn't anything on TV, we'd watch the secret sixth station, which played the salt-and-pepper fight 24/7. It wasn't an actual station. It was just an in-between station that had a bunch of black and white dots. We'd cheer if it was an actual football game. Sometimes I was a "salt" fan. Other times, I cheered for "pepper."
When we were especially hyper, my sisters and I watched the Spanish channel. (It was best if it was a soap opera.) We'd "translate" for them. None of us spoke Spanish, of course. We just created dramatic scenarios and spoke for them. Maybe I'd translate for the girlfriend crying over her boyfriend's dying body, my sister would translate for the boyfriend in the hospital bed (if he happened to wake up and say something), and the second sister would translate for the doctor:
Girlfriend: I can't believe you ate the last piece of cake!
Boyfriend: (heart moderator) Beep. Beep...
Doctor: Did you know the cake was poisoned?
Girlfriend: Of course not! In fact, we'd fought over the last piece.
Doctor: Did you eat any of the cake?
Girlfriend: No. The jerk ran out of the house with it.
Boyfriend: (heart moderator) Beeeeeeep!
Doctor: I'm sorry. We lost him.
Girlfriend: Nooooooo!!!!!! *cries*
Forgot bath toys? No problem. Shampoo bottles and bars of soap were just as fun!
Heck, I didn't even need toys to make believe. I remember a game that I made up, and all you needed was your hands. I taught to my friends. One hand was a good-bird and the other was a bad-bird. We'd run around the backyard chasing and rescuing each others hands. This was my childhood.
Flash-forward twenty years. I'm all grown up now. No kids, yet, but that's okay. I have three college degrees, an adult job, and bills. About two years ago, I decided I wanted to fulfill my lifetime dream and (finally!) write a book that could be published. I'd written books when I was a kid, but in college I wrote reports, research papers, emails--- stuff like that. Nothing truly imaginative and creative. When I sat down on my own to write a story, I found it coming out in essay form and feared that I'd forgotten how to write creatively. So I did what I do best and went back to college. I took creative writing classes.
I'm about to graduate with my creative writing certificate. (Wahoo!) During my time as a creative writing student, I've learned a lot of things. Besides having a better understanding of the writing process and that the only way to get good at writing is to write a lot and read a lot, I also learned something else...
Writing is game of make-believe. It's telling yourself a story, creating dialogue, and just going with it. No matter how ridiculous it comes out!
With all the easy access to technology and its entertainment-- movies, social media, candy crush, and such-- it's getting harder and harder for us to just use our imagination.
I remember my sister (probably being cheeky) suggesting that I watch "channel off." Not realizing that it was a joke, I sat there in front of the TV's black screen and make up pictures in my head. Could I do that today? I don't know. But I find myself staring at a blank computer screen and typing one word after the other. It's a lot the same, isn't it? So maybe I can... But it's harder now than it used to be.
Of course, make believing a story doesn't mean it will be published. Once you've told yourself the story (aka written the first draft), you'll need to work on it some more. Not just editing. There's looking at it from different angles, filling in plot holes, working on subplots, etc. And then, of course, there's beta readers, editors and such... and a slew of other parts of the process.
But it all starts with imagination, with a bit of make believe.
My poetry teacher once said something like, "We naturally look for the easy way out." He said as a way to persuade us to change our passive voice sentences to active, to write descriptive verbs instead of falling back onto be verbs (and words like sees, looks, remembers, seems, etc.). But I think he also said it in his lesson on writing specific and engaging details in place of vagueness.
For example, instead of saying "his breath smelled like garbage," I'd say, "his breath was a mixture of rotten banana peels, moldy cheese, and month old lettuce." The latter is (hopefully) more descriptive.
It was also a lot harder to write.
We write in cliches because it's faster. But they aren't unique (that's what make them cliches), nor are they memorable or helpful to our stories. We write be verbs because they're easy. We don't want to be specific because it requires us to critically think and choose meaningful images and details. But those significant details are what make our stories vivid and alive.
It's a fight, then. As I'm writing (and/or revising) I have to catch myself when I've done something the "easy" way, the way that requires the least amount of effort. And I have to fight those urges. Because I do it without thinking.
So I've been pushing myself. You know, to "do the work." To think of non-cliche things, to be specific, to find the best verb, to write in active voice (etc). I haven't been perfect, but I've done pretty darn well. I shared some recent writing to that same poetry teacher I mentioned (whose class I took almost two years ago), and he said it was "solid writing." (Fist bump anyone?)
But here's the thing. I just discovered that I'm still taking the easy way out. Not on purpose, of course. I have a vision for my book, and I've been working really hard at it. But I'm scared.
My WIP has changed, as drafts often do. Over Christmas break, specifically, it went through a major makeover. I got rid of a stepmom, changed the age of the brother, killed off the mom, and added a sick grandma. I felt that these changes helped me focus on the MC and the "heart" of the story.
With these changes, I've had to take some steps backwards. I've had update and/or create characters profiles and personalities that fit this new cast of characters. I got back to work. I started another rewrite. I'm at about 17,000 words in this new draft and I suddenly feel like I'm at a stand still. Not in plot. A little in character. But mostly in writing these fears that I set out to write about.
Writing with my heart, I've discovered, makes me feel like I'm writing naked. I'm sure there are people out there who don't mind being in their birthday suit in front of the computer. (My husband, for example, plays video games in his undies.) But I'm not that person. I'd rather be wrapped up in a blanket, cover my head, put on a mask, and hide my true self and my fears.
But if I am to truly make something that makes my readers feel something, to have characters that mean something to my readers, I can't take the "easy" way out. I have to get to work. I have to put my heart into it.
I have to be brave.
All successful stories are personal in some way. He was able to, with his story, make it personal for each of us. He explained what it was like growing up with a sibling that picked on him. It was a story of retaliation, which even if we don't have siblings, we can relate to. In fact, even today, when his brother drives up to visit (it's like a four hour drive) the first thing Markus Zusak says to his brother is some snide remark about the egg.
"When are you going to let that go?" his brother will ask. And Markus Zusak will answer, "Never!"
His story had purpose. It was personal and meaningful. The stories we tell should be as well.
2) Specific details
In his story, he gave specific details. He told us about the color of his brother's lunch pail (blue) and how he sat on a paint bucket every day at lunch. These details are not only to make the story more vivid, but it made the story more believable.
He said that he once lost his jacket at an airport and when he told the security guard about it, the security guard asked him what color his jacket was. He told him "black" and added that there was a folded piece of paper in the right hand pocket. The security guard pulled out the jacket, reached his hand in the pocket, found the folded piece of paper, and handed it to Markus Zusak without any further questions. The specific detail proved that it was his.
3) Give the unexpected
Markus Zusak says that he always thought the part when his brother cracked the unboiled egg on his head would get the biggest laugh, but it never was. It was the part where his dad said, "That is brilliant!" It's because it was unexpected.
He said he has told that story "heaps" of times. And each time, he would add a bit that he remembered or a detail that will make it better. The first time he told the part about going to his dad, he got the best response. It's all about trial and error.
5) Know what has happened to each character before the story/ Dip back into backstory
Because he's told his story so many times, and he's edited it, he knew where to "dip back" into backstory. He didn't give it all at the forefront, but he told us the story, for example, about him painting himself in a corner and calling for help at the moment he was telling us about his dad because it helped us understand both characters better. Just like our family members, we need to know them inside and out. We need to know what experiences they had before the story takes place.
Read and re-read
He didn't list this as one of his five, but he talked about how some people read, like, 30 different books in a year or something while he will read the same book thirty times. One of his favorite books of all times (which made me smile) is The Outsiders by S.E Hinton. He's read it a thousand times and uses it as a model for his storytelling.
Of course, having read both authors, Markus Zusak has a very different writing style and story to tell than S.E Hinton. But I think what he meant is that he looks at the plot and "steals" ideas for telling a good story like character development, point of view, etc.
A fellow Aussie
The line to meet Markus Zusak was incredibly long, and it was already almost 9:30pm, but I'm glad I waited to get my books signed, both Bridge of Clay and The Book Thief. I made friends with the gal ahead of me, and we talked about how great it is that he came all the way to Arizona.
As we got closer to our turn, I noticed how everyone seemed to have something to say to him. I had no idea what I was going to say! I decided to let him know that I lived in Australia for a while (a year and a half), so I did. I figured he'd ask me why, and I prepared myself to tell him. But instead, he asked me what part of Perth. Oh, man! My mind went blank. But I finally blurted out Albany, which is true, but it's about as far away from the main city as you could get. I've lived in Girrawheen, Como, and Balcata as well.
He was super friendly, though, and said it was nice to meet someone who had experienced the "long" flight, which we agreed wasn't that bad. In my book, he wrote: "Love from Sydney." Not sure if he wrote that in all the books he was signing, but I think that means we're besties. Right?
I came home after the reading and said to my husband, "That was the best reading I've ever been to, and he only read from his book for about ten minutes..."
"Raise your hand," he had said, "if you're here because you read The Book Thief." All hands went up. "That's just great!" He talked a bit about that book and how he had it in his head for years and years. He grew up with his parents (who were immigrants from Germany and Austria), telling stories about Nazi Germany and what it was like growing up at that time. He figured that, someday, he'd share those stories with the world. Sometimes he'd be out and about and he'd see something and think, hey, maybe I can put that in that Holocaust book of mine.
He first wrote the story from the perspective of Liesel, the main character. "But what I got was a very Aussie sounding German girl...I don't have an imagination. I just have a lot of problems." And then, one day, he decided to try writing it from the perspective of death. So he started over. "It's never good the first time..." he said. "You have to be flexible." He rewrote that book several times, in fact, and even then it needed a lot of editing and more hard work.
"I never thought anyone would read that book," he said. "Frankly, I'm amazed at seeing you here. If you've ever told your friend about The Book Thief--- if you said, 'hey, there's this sad book about Nazi Germany. Hardly any of the characters live, and it's really depressing. You should read it...' Thank you!"
He went on to tell us that when he first started out, he did a reading in the Margret River Public Library in Western Australia. No one showed up. (We all groaned for him.) "That wasn't the worst part," he said. "...They still made me do the reading! It was just me and the librarians."
A Master Storyteller
He talked about being the youngest of four. His older brother, just above him, would punch him. For no reason. "What was that for?" he'd ask. "I don't know," and he'd punch him again for good measure.
He worked with his dad and older brother and they painted houses. I'm not able to give his story justice, I'm sorry, but he went on to tell us how his brother would always eat a boiled egg for lunch every day. He'd put it in his blue lunch pail. Every day at lunch, he'd sit on a paint bucket and peel the egg and eat it. One day, though, he decided to crack it on his head, just to be funny. He did it the next day, and then the next. Soon, it was routine. His brother would sit on the paint bucket, crack his egg on his head, peel it, and eat it.
After a few weeks, Markus Zusak said he was so mad at his brother, always picking on him all the time, so before they left for work, and when his brother was in the bathroom, he switched the boiled egg with a regular egg. Markus Zusak made sure the blue pail was just as his brother left it by the front door so he wouldn't notice he'd changed anything. And they went to work.
All day, Markus Zusak fought his guilt. Finally, he went to his dad to talk about what he'd done, so he called up to his dad who was on a ladder painting the side of a house. "Why aren't you working?" his dad asked. Markus said his dad always said that. He didn't like him or his brother goofing off.
"Just wanted to tell you something," Markus said.
"What'd you break?"
Markus Zusak told us that he was always breaking things or not thinking things through. Like the time he painted himself in a corner. When he yelled, no one came for him, so he had to wait the two hours for the paint to dry.
"What did you want to tell me?" his dad asked, and Markus Zusak chickened out. He told his dad that it was nothing, but his dad insisted that it was something and that he better tell him because he made him stop his work and climb down that ladder, so Markus Zusak spilled. He told his dad what he'd done, how he switched the eggs, and he prepared for his dad to get angry.
After a minute, his dad sighed, shook his head and said, "That is brilliant!" (We laughed so hard when Markus Zusak told us that part of the story!) "Tell you what," his dad told him. "Go back to work and I'll see you at lunch. And don't be late."
At lunch, his dad and Markus Zusak stared at his brother. His brother was all, "What's wrong with you?" But he cracked his egg over his head, and the yoke ran down his head, and his dad laughed so harder than anyone!
For those of you who were at the reading or heard that story before, I'm sorry that I didn't do it justice, but I really wanted to share that story. It's what made his reading so memorable and funny and important to me...
Read Part 2
On Saturday, I attended my first in-person NaNoWriMo write in. It was at the library and was pretty hilarious because there were four staff members (one librarian, one teen volunteer, and two NaNoWriMo reps) and me, the only participant. A half hour later, thank goodness, another participant showed up. But I got a lot of great advice and laughs from the reps and librarians.
And we did a word-war, which helped me move forward in my story.
One of the things they gave me was a little booklet of advice. It has some writing activities and whatnot as well, which has been fun to look through.
My favorite thing from them so far (besides, you know, M&Ms) was the quote from Ira Glass. It's something that I had never read before, but rang true to every bone in my writer body.
And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn't have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know it's normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I've ever met. It's gonna take a while. It's normal to take a while. you've just gotta fight your way through."
I read this quote and I thought, Gosh! That explains my writing process in a nut shell! It also explains why after I read a chunk of my draft to Hubby and he says it's good that I have this feeling of "thanks... but..." I always thought it was because I was too critical of myself, which I suppose (in a way is still true) but it's because I have, as Ira Glass says, "good taste." I have ambitions for my writing, and it's just not there, yet.
I have to say it's getting closer. But it's not there, yet. Ann Lamott explains that every good piece of writing went through a "shitty" draft, but she never explained why. This quote/thought explains why.
We're closing the gap.
"Hi!" Mrs. Ellsworth says as I enter the room. "I told them that when you got here I'd have you introduce yourself and let them ask you a few questions." I smile and the room full of fourth and fifth graders stare at me, expectingly.
"Well, I'm Kassie, and I'm a college student. I'm studying creative writing because I want to write books. I'm happy to answer your questions, but I was wondering what you like to read."
All hands shoot up in the air.
"Umm... so many hands," I say. "Why don't you in the pink ask the first question. Or tell me what you like to read."
The girl looks down at her shirt, smiles at the sight of pink and practically yells, "I like realistic fiction. You know, stories that are about kids like me."
I smile and point to the boy next to her. "Batman, go."
"I like historical fiction," he says. "Mixed with mystery."
"Okay," I say and point to a student near the back.
"You can questions, too, if you want," Mrs. Ellsworth reminds them.
"How long did it take you to get here?" the boy asks me.
"About 20 minutes. I'm next door neighbors with your teacher." The classroom erupts with No Way and Really?
"How long have you known our teacher?" the next one asks me. I look to my friend to see if she remembers.
"I like a lot of things," I answer. "Fantasy mixed with realistic fiction, for example. Yeah, I like it when genres are mixed. But mostly fiction."
"What are you writing right now?"
"I'm writing a book with a dragon in it," I say with grin. "Do you guys like dragons?"
"YEEEEEESSSSSS!!!!!!" they all scream, and one asks if I will make it a pop up book.
After a while, the questions are cut, Mrs. Ellsworth moves on with her lesson, and I settle into observation mode. I'm not the best with observations, mostly because I'm never sure about what I'm looking for, but I note how squirmy and fidgeting they are, how they talk to each other, ("Did you read the book, my dude?") and how they always raise their hands when they want to say something. This last one tells me that my friend and neighbor is a miracle worker. These kids LOVE to talk!
Anyway, she says I can come back, which I think I will, so there may be a part two to this blog. I'm hoping to interview a few of them, not only on what they like to read but also about their general interests. After all, the main character in my work in progress is their age. What better way to get ideas?
I'm taking Introduction to Fiction this semester, and my instructor gave us an interesting writing exercise to do. At first, I was hesitant to try it out, but I think it's now one of my favorite writing exercises ever!
Here are the instructions:
This writing prompt is to force you into thinking about and incorporating dialogue into your stories. First, read the small essay...about dialogue. [Attached below.] It should help significantly. Second, read "Hills Like White Elephants" by Ernest Hemmingway.
After reading the story, I want you to work on your own scene/story that is dialogue focused. You must put two characters into a setting and force them into communication. I want to see at least 20 lines of dialogue. Make sure you are following the crafting tips presented in the essay "On Dialogue."...This exercise should not be a full story, but only a scene of character exploration through dialogue...
It was easy to decide which two characters I wanted to use, but I wasn't sure about what situation would force them to talk to each other, so I asked Hubby for a suggestion.
"Seven minutes in heaven," he said.
"You mean, put them in a closet?" I asked.
I carried my laptop over to him and sat next to him on the couch. "But it says here at the bottom of the instructions: Allow the actions of the characters and the setting of their locale to help tell the story. That means I need to describe a closet."
Unexpected World Building
Using a closet was unexpectedly made me learn more about the world these characters live in. The stuff in the closet told me about the weather outside (flip flops, umbrellas versus skis and snow boots) and learn more about the person's home they were in. Yeah, I learned about a character that wasn't even part of the dialogue just by looking at what kind of stuff was in his closet. I didn't expect that! This made me think about what would be in my other character's closet. hmmm...
Long story short, Hubby and I went to LA a couple weeks ago as a last-minute-hurrah before school started back up. We went to Universal Studios, drank butter beer, rode the Jurassic Park ride (my first time! Hubby got soaked!), and just played around the park and had a lot of fun!
But... I also did some research for my book. Our hotel was two blocks from the LA Metro which takes you to not only Universal Studios, but also Chinatown, which is where a large part of my WIP takes place. Hubby was such a good sport, walking in humid 90 degree weather, letting me brainstorm and bounce ideas for my book with him. He even walked all the way to the Chinatown Branch Library (which is where the MC's dad works) with me, took pictures and did silly things like feel the walls of buildings, smell the air and observe people around us.
I didn't have a lot of time (only one afternoon), but I did the best I could. I'm so glad I was prepared this time (I was in Chinatown in January this year, but didn't have a clue what I wanted to look at), which brings me to my short list of on-location research tips. Some of these came from my awesome Scribophile group!
This blog post is more for me than anymore else right now. I just want to record some of my thoughts about being on-location, what I've learned and store some pictures that I took while I was there. I'm glad I did the following:
This year I did a couple different things. 1) I did the #MGSummer reading bingo, which you can see in the photo above that I finally got my bingo! 2) I gave myself a summer of re-reading. I was having a moment of why-do-I-write just before the summer, so I gave myself permission to kindle that fire for writing by reading some of my favorite books, so in my list below, I've mark the ones I re-read with a *.
I'll admit that I don't have a very diverse list this year. I like reading fantasy, YA and MG. Plus, who can say no to David Tennant reading the How to Train Your Dragon series, which I love! I don't usually listen to audiobooks, by the way. I don't have anything against them; I just don't have opportunities to listen to them like most people. My commute to work is actually really short; however, Hubby and I took a drive to California just at the end of the summer, so that's when we listened to the audiobooks together. He listens to a lot of audiobooks because he does travel a lot for work.
Without further ado, here is my Summer 2018 list of books (starting with most recently completed):
It's been a while since I've been able to attend a writer's in residence workshop at the library. Last time I attended one was almost a year ago with Marylee MacDonald! I've been doing a lot of teaching and grading so I haven't been able to attend any.
But last Saturday, I made it a priority to attend Sharon Skinner's workshop about Point of View (POV) and perspective.
There were three of us attending the workshop (a fourth came in late). Maybe because it was a Saturday? Maybe because it was a two-hour workshop? I'm not sure. But it was nice and personal!
Sharon asked me what "I write." Like I'm an author already. ha ha! I was flattered and told her that I'm currently working on a MG Fantasy book. (I suppose I could have been cheeky and said that I write lesson plans or I write blogs.) One of the other attendees was writing a YA Fantasy. I like it when a presenter takes the time to get to know us and what we're working on!
Once we got acquainted, Sharon talked a bit about the writing process. She said that writing processes vary like shirts. They come in all sizes, colors and styles. You may find a shirt that you really love, but it doesn't fit (or work) later in life, so writing processes can even vary from project to project. She then told us that she was going to talk about her processes and things that she's learned. "If it fits, keep it. But it doesn't, put it back." I loved this analogy!
Write from the heart
She encouraged us to "Know your Why," referring to Simon Sinek's Ted Talk, "How great leaders inspire action."
Why do you write?, she asked us. What's your motivation? She told us that she has a friend who doesn't write anything unless his agent tells him that it will sell. This ensures that he will be a success, he says.
But Sharon Skinner says she writes what's in her heart. She writes because she has characters inside her that have stories they want to tell, and she wants them to be heard.
When asked about exceptions to the rules, particularly in POV and perspectives, Sharon Skinner said, "Look. There's always room in the market for awesome!" As long as you do it well--- and with purpose--- the market will make room for it.
Hook 'em and book 'em!
As we dived into the topic of the workshop, Sharon told us that she's the kind of writer that wants to "hook 'em and book 'em!" A reader of hers told her that she read a chapter of her book before work. Before she knew it, she was sitting on the couch, still reading, and late for work. Parents blame her for their kids reading under the covers with a flashlight. (Wouldn't that be the dream?!)
One of the best ways, Sharon Skinner says, to hook 'em and book 'em is by having a consistent and well written POV. We need to consider:
Point of View (POV) versus Perspective
Sharon Skinner says these two terms are often interchanged or seen as the same thing, but she likes to define point of view as third person, second person, or first person, and perspective as the eyes we see the story. You could, for example, have third-person limited from different perspectives, even though they're the same POV.
This was nothing, necessarily, new for me, but I liked how she shared real examples from a pile of books she brought with her. Then, she put us to work.
The 'work' in workshop
After going through the various types of POV and perspectives, looking at examples (some classics, some just off the shelf of the library), Sharon Skinner put us to work. She had us write a scene with conflict between two characters. We wrote it in first person from one of the characters. We wrote for five minutes.
Then we wrote the same scene in first person from the other character. Great, I thought. That was really cool. That was good work. I learned some stuff about my two characters that I didn't know, just by being in their head for the same scene.
We weren't done.
Sharon Skinner had us write the same scene in the third-person omniscient and limited (for both characters), from the perspective of an onlooker (or someone outside the conflict) and in second-person (that was the weirdest!). We wrote that same scene over and over and over...
I defiantly got a good writer's workout! I can't wait for more writing workshops and learning from Sharon Skinner!
"There's nothing to writing. All you do is sit down... and bleed."
"Mongkok Street, Hong Kong"