Thursday, January 29, 2009

Poetry Friday: Tales From Outer Suburbia

Tales from Outer Suburbia by Shaun Tan is one of those books you wander through and marvel at the sights along the way.  What IS it? one is tempted to say. Nominally, it's a collection of short stories and poems, but it reminds me more than anything else of the cantina scene in the original Star Wars. Perfectly weird in every way.  Characters with depth of story behind them and a sense of humor around them. And you can't take it all in on the first viewing.

My favorite discovery was his story/poem, "Distant Rain," which he says was done in "pencil, acrylic, oil & paper collage, using other people’s handwriting." In it, abandoned words gather, form a semi-cognizant mass, and then rain from the sky, transforming the world below. If that's not a description of the poetry-making process, I don't know what is.

The poem begins like this:

Have you ever wondered
what happens to all the poems
people write?

the poems they never
let anyone else read?

and continues later with...

naturally many poems 
are immediately destroyed
flushed away
occasionally they are folded
into little squares
and wedged under the corner of
an unstable piece of furniture

The poem then rolls on over six pages (two of them wordless) before concluding with:

No one will be able to explain the
strange feeling of weightlessness
or the private smile 
that remains
after the street sweepers 
have come and gone. 

But what I'm leaving out (and you'll have to see the book to appreciate) is how these words are placed on the page. The poem itself is a collage of word scraps, which makes the whole thing read like you're piecing it together in the aftermath of a paper storm.

Here's the last page of the poem.

Spread from Tales From Outer Suburbia © 2008 by Shaun Tan. Published by Arthur A. Levine Books. Posted with permission of illustrator. All rights reserved.

Shaun Tan also says on his site:
"This idea began when I was thinking about Jewish stories of the Golem, an artificial being made of clay that could be animated by spoken or written words (‘golem’ in Hebrew means ‘shapeless mass’, also ‘unformed’ or ‘imperfect’). This lead to the idea of a being made out of words – particularly those written on scraps of paper, thrown away or lost. Eventually the story evolved into something a little like the narrative of a wildlife-documentary, and the ‘paper being’ simply became a large ball with some kind of vague consciousness."
 (More thoughts from him are here. Click on the book and then the comments link.)

Do I Know What's Going to Happen?

Whenever I tell people that I'm a writer, one of the things they want to know is: do I know what's going to happen in my books as I'm writing them?  

I think it's an excellent question, but I wonder why so many people think to ask it. It may be because Stephen King said some place some time that he doesn't. Doesn't know. Doesn't outline. (Can someone confirm that?) So perhaps it's a little mojo test when they ask me. 

Test or not, I always tell people when they ask the outline question: No. No, I like to be surprised. I should outline, but I don't. I can't. No, really. I couldn't possibly.

Except that this week, I'm outlining my WIP.  What I'm hoping is this: If I have all the sequencing stuff that drives me crazy out of the way,  I can go wild with the language and the other juicy stuff.  It'll be like the poetry forms I've been playing with lately, sonnets and sestinas. You have the end rhymes or words, you have the patterns, and then you take advantage of that structural safety net to be daring in your content.

If that doesn't work, I'm back to banging words together and seeing what happens. 

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

A not very thorough but personal look at the ALA awards

Congratulations to all the winning and honor ALA books. I'm sure someone will blog a detailed and unbiased analysis of the results, but here's my utterly personal view of some of yesterday's choice moments.

1) My editor, Cheryl Klein, edited TWO of the winning books:

A Curse as Dark as Gold by Elizabeth C. Bunce took the William C. Morris award for a debut YA novel

and Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit by Nahoko Uehashi and translated by Cathy Hirano took the Mildred Batchelder award for the "most outstanding children’s book originally published in a language other than English in a country other than the United States, and subsequently translated into English for publication in the United States."

I love it that Cheryl and Arthur A. Levine Books seek out translations and first time authors.

2) Last year, I psychically blogged about the Newbery winner, Neil Gaiman, after I heard him read from The Graveyard Book at the National Book Festival last fall. Unfortunately and non-psychically, the Festival's bookstore had long lines and thus I have no book. Here's what I said:

The session with Neil Gaiman was underway when I found the Children and Teens Pavilion, but I could've told you who was speaking without even entering, because the audience overflowing the venue was....20-somethings in funky hats and cool clothes. They absolutely didn't mind that he wasn't promoting an adult read like American Gods, but The Graveyard Book, his novel with a 14-year-old protagonist. He read a funny excerpt in which the boy seeks the help of a long-dead but still highly verbose poet. Gaiman is a natural dramatic reader. He never veers into camp, he never shortchanges a word or a pause, and he has complete confidence in his material. He took questions, and his answers were perfectly encapsulated stories, one of them involving an ancient human elbow bone. My favorite line: when talking about why he doesn't outline, he says he loves to find out what happens, except that three-quarters of the way in, he sometimes feels like "he's jumped from a plane and must knit himself a parachute on the way down."

3) I'm tickled that Marla Frazee, who is illustrating my friend Liz's next book, took a well-deserved Caldecott Honor for A Couple of Boys Have the Best Week Ever. I got to hear her speak about its creation at the SCBWI conference in L.A. last August and have been a fan ever since.

4) My book club, DC Kidlit, chose to read honored books We are the Ship and The Underneath this past year. Because of them, I don't feel like quite such a loser in the "have I read it yet?" department. We're meeting this Sunday to discuss all the books and I can't wait to hear everyone else's personal take on everything.

Because it is, isn't it? Personal. That's what makes this business great and what makes people tear their hair out. I, for one, love the excitement.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

At Wordswimmer

Everyone, including me, is going to be glued to the Newbery/Caldecott announcements tomorrow morning. I doubt it will be like last year, where miracle of miracles, I had not only read the Newbery, Caldecott and Printz winners, but owned copies of all of them. Since the 2008 choices were all quite unexpected, I'm afraid I was (and still am) a bit smug about it. If it happens this year, I'm opening up shop as a bookie.

Meanwhile, if you have some time to fill up while waiting..

I was interviewed by Bruce Black at Wordswimmer.

He asked me some thoughtful questions about staying afloat as a writer.

Thank you, Bruce!

Friday, January 23, 2009

Poetry Friday: Defining Poetry As It Pleases Me

"What is poetry? Not quite getting what you want, and thereby getting something better..."
~Robert Peake, explaining The Pleasures of Frustration in Poetry

"If you want a definition of poetry, say: "Poetry is what makes me laugh or cry or yawn, what makes my toenails twinkle, what makes me want to do this or that or nothing!"" ~Dylan Thomas

"Out of the quarrel with others we make rhetoric; out of the quarrel with ourselves we make poetry. "~W.B. Yeats

Today, I'm defining poetry as Rev. Joseph Lowrey's benediction, given this past Tuesday at the Inauguration:
God of our weary years, god of our silent tears, thou, who has brought us thus far along the way, thou, who has by thy might led us into the light, keep us forever in the path we pray, lest our feet stray from the places, our god, where we met thee, lest our hearts, drunk with the wine of the world, we forget thee.

Shadowed beneath thy hand, may we forever stand true to thee, oh God, and true to our native land.

Poetry Friday is with Laura Salas today.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Answering the Questions That We Can

I'm enjoying these two looks inside a writer's head:

She talks about her new book coming out in May, Mouse Was Mad. People, I have inside knowledge, and this book is GREAT. I haven't seen the illustrations, but I've heard the text, and it's madly wonderful. 

What every writer wonders: what the heck am I writing about? Am I repeating myself?  What's in our writerly DNA that must be expressed? I make a stab at answering this about my own work sometimes by making word clouds of my obsessions.  What I find is that, yes, the same themes crop up over and over, but for each project, something comes to the forefront, asking to be more fully explored. 

What hit home for me more were her thoughts about putting writerly envy aside, and embracing our own stature.  I read certain writer's books (or even blog posts) and I think: I wish I could do that.  But I can't. More precisely, I won't.  Because I'll be too busy writing about what I must and getting as good at it as I possibly can. 

Edited to add: I also adore what Viviane Schwarz has to say about drawing at 7-Imps today.  
"I think a lot of illustrators see very clear pictures in their mind when they work -– I don’t. I just see movement. So I pick a colour I like and try and capture that movement, and then I work out the line drawing from that."

And that is answering the question the way that she can.  Go look at her work. It's fabulous.

Also, more great insights on writerly DNA: Kirby Larson on A Writer's Fingerprints

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Marcelo in the Real World

How many YA novels have you read with a voice that comforts you? 

I just finished reading Marcelo in the Real World, by Francisco X. Stork, and frankly, I don't want to talk about it.  I don't want to dissect it or review it or analyze it. I just want to tell you to read it. 

But I'll try to say a tiny bit more than that, because some of you might need convincing.

In the opening chapter, Marcelo talks to his doctor about hearing "internal music" and like the doctor with his carefully worded questions, I struggled to understand what Marcelo meant, to imagine such music, because...well, because I liked Marcelo. And I wanted to believe in such a beautiful thing as music that can be "remembered" and dwelt in and that is always with us. But I didn't really get it.

Meanwhile, I fully enjoyed the story as it unfolded, not in doctor's visits or dissertations on music, but in Marcelo's matter-of-fact telling of his summer in the "real world" of his father's law firm. Nothing there happened exactly as I thought it would, and I often laughed.  Best of all, the characters were built layer by layer through Marcelo's considered observations of them and their behavior.  When he says that he doesn't know how to "read" people's reactions, and that he has to train himself to make the right responses, I knew it was his self-described Asperger's-like syndrome manifesting, but it never felt like a literary artifice. More like I was abiding with him, in the sense of "dwelling or sojourning."

Then, in almost the last chapter, Marcelo talks about the internal music again, and I suddenly realized that not only did I know what he was talking about, but I had experienced it! Not by reading this book; I don't mean that. I mean that I recognized the state of being he was describing even though our language for it was different.

Spirituality is an extraordinarily difficult thing to write about. But if a story can help you access what you already know...can help you remember...well, you should read it. 

Told you.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

A Certain Day

Variation on a Theme by Rilke
by Denise Levertov

A certain day became a presence to me;
there it was, confronting me--a sky, air, light:
a being. And before it started to descend
from the height of noon, it leaned over
and struck my shoulder as if with
the flat of a sword, granting me
honor and a task. The day's blow
rang out, metallic--or it was I, a bell awakened,
and what I heard was my whole self
saying and singing what it knew: I can.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Day of Service: Where Does Writing Fit In?

How can writing be of service?

I'm still working on answers to that question, but I love what Francisco Stork has to say about where we should begin:

Why write if not to give and to give your best? The thing about writing from a spirit of generosity that is not so obvious is that if the spirit of giving is not in your writing, your writing will not be as good as it could be. It will be superficial and you will not give the reader what he or she most desires. And the reader will not give the work his or her full devotion. There is a connection between “why” you write and “how” you write. If giving is the reason why you write you will reach a depth in your writing that will not be reached if you are motivated by anything else other than the desire to give. Writing that is born out of a desire to give is the writing that lasts.

Here is the rest of his gently provocative post, The Six Perfections of Writing.

What do you think? Is writing service? If so, you have to admit that it's not what immediately comes to mind on these sorts of occasions. How can we get better at that?

Note: Francisco Stork is the author of Marcelo in the Real World (March 09, Arthur A. Levine Books.) I have a proof of the book beside me now that I've just begun to read. I only meant to read one chapter and then go to bed, but somehow, I'm deep into Chapter 5. More about it later, I promise.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Poetry Friday: Somewhere to Paris

The sole cause of a man's unhappiness is that he does not know how to stay quietly in his room---French mathematician Blaise Pascal, Pensées

As you'll see when you click through to read the whole short poem, my choice for Poetry Friday opens with that Pascal quote, which I profoundly disagree with, unless Pascal (or Blanco, who is quoting him) is being ironic.

This one's for my daughter, who did NOT stay quietly in her room, and is, at this moment, in Paris attending the opening ceremony for the International Year of Astronomy.  

Somewhere to Paris
by Richard Blanco

The vias of Italy turn to memory with each turn
and clack of the train’s wheels, with every stitch
of track we leave behind, the duomos return again
to my imagination, already imagining Paris—
a fantasy of lights and marble that may end
when the train stops at Gare de l’Est and I step
into the daylight. In this space between cities,
between the dreamed and the dreaming, there is
no map—no legend, no ancient street names
or arrows to follow, no red dot assuring me:
you are here—and no place else. If I don’t know

the rest here

Poetry Friday is hosted by Karen Edmisten who is also sharing one of my favorite poems, The Writer

Bonus video: Little Dream of Stars 

Thursday, January 15, 2009

No one tells you this but...

...laughter should be a part of revision. 

This past weekend, I spent hours and hours pouring over the copy-edits for Operation Yes, dealing with em dashes and line spacing and even re-writing two key scenes. 

Part of it was exhilarating: it's going to be a real book! 

Part of it was terrifying: it's going to be a real book!

Part of it was tedious:  Who wants to consider every last comma placement? Not me.

Part of it was embarrassing: I had spelled "gray" as "grey" over and over and over as if I were secretly British. Although my daughter made me feel better by saying that "grey" looks more "gray-ish," if you can follow that.

Part of it was annoying: why does the Chicago Manual of Style not want air force to be capitalized except for when referred to as the U.S. Air Force?  I understand the logic of it, but aesthetically, it bugs me. But if I tweaked each instance of capitalization, then the manuscript as a whole appeared inconsistent. I guess that's why style manuals exist. Sigh. 

But the whole process, as exhilarating, terrifying, embarrassing, and annoying as it was, started with laughter because my editor had tucked into the package a Captain Underpants eraser. Nothing like a flying guy in undies to make you lighten up a bit.

I used that eraser a lot as I changed my mind on various issues. But it always reminded me to smile.  As did my editor's occasional non-editorial notes like: mmmm, pudding!  (Sorry, Cheryl, but that makes me think of  you as Homer Simpson. Which is so ridiculous that it makes me laugh. Again.) 

P.S. After I had mailed off the copy-edit package to the land of Will-Be-A-Real-Book-Soon, I decided to check out a new gym in the area: L.A. Boxing.  Every muscle in my upper body hurts today, two days later. But what I remember most was that as I tried to follow the instructor's combo drills, flailing at the mitts on his hands, ducking when I should've been hooking, crossing when I should've been jabbing, weaving when I should've been punching, I laughed. Several times. It really felt good.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

What I'm Reading: The Magician's Book

From the introduction: 

"A lot of people remember the bliss of their earliest reading with a pang; their current encounters with books offer no more than faint echoes of what they once felt. I've heard friends and strangers talk about the days when they, too, would submerge themselves in a story, surfacing only to eat and deal with the minimal daily business of childhood. They wonder why they don't get as much out of books now. If you dig deep to the roots of what makes someone a reader, you'll usually find the desire to recapture that old spell."

Maybe that's what makes a writer, too. I admit that it's hard to completely lose myself in a book these days--I'm either admiring or critiquing or learning from it. As a child, I read so deeply that my mother once had to sprinkle my head with her watering can. But when I write, and it's going well, I do feel under that spell. I also realize that I've always told myself stories---elaborate sagas in which I released Spock's inner emotional life and natural passion (I must really, really trust you guys), or terrifying tales about that loose bedroom window screen or yes, how I would meet Tumnus the Faun and have mercy on his Witch-tortured soul. I just didn't always write those stories down. (Thank God!)

Like Lucy, I have no idea whether I'm going to find the back of the wardrobe or the snowy branches of Narnia each time I sit down to work. But who can resist looking? 

You can win a signed author's copy of The Magician's Book from Laura's official site if you share a photo of a Narnia-like place. How perfect.

Friday, January 9, 2009

RIF Launches Book Drive for the Inauguration

Did you guys know about this?

From Jan 8-Jan 20, Reading is Fundamental is hosting a book drive to celebrate the Inauguration.

Their site says: "A $5 donation provides one new book to a D.C. student. Help us reach our goal of bringing 44,000 books to the Nation's Capital."

Will you? 

Poetry Friday: Hinged Double Sonnet for the Luna Moths

My theme for 2009 is "Stay in the Moment." Which makes me think: what will happen if I do?

But...I know I'm not supposed to ask such future-oriented questions (ye gods of January, I've blown it already!), but maybe I'm allowed to speculate that the following image-laden poem was written by someone who did:

Hinged Double Sonnet for the Luna Moths
by Sean Nevin

For ten days now, two luna moths remain
silk-winged and lavish as a double broach
pinned beneath the porch light of my cabin.
Two of them, patinaed that sea-glass green
of copper weather vanes nosing the wind,
the sun-lit green of rockweed, the lichen’s
green scabbing-over of the bouldered shore,
the plush green peat that carpets the island,
that hushes, sinks then holds a boot print
for days, and the sapling-green of new pines
sprouting through it. The miraculous green
origami of their wings—false eyes, doomed
and sensual as the mermaid’s long green fins:
a green siren calling from the moonlight.

the second (and gorgeous) half of the double sonnet here

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Finders, Keepers

I found a title for my next book. No, I can't tell you what it is, because it's so awesome the world might stop spinning to gawk at the brilliance of it.

Okay, so my title is probably not a state secret or even that amazing, but it IS important to me. I'm one of those "title first" authors, and I've been working on this story without one, or more accurately, with a series of unsatisfactory ones.

It's amazing how finding a few right words can make your whole writing week.

P.S. I did Google it, and it's not taken. Nor will it be. I'm certain. Mwhahahahaha!

P.P.S. So what's your favorite novel title of all time?

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Come and Get Your Love


I was at the gym, working out by hitting the heavy bag as I do in the winter when the outside world is grey and nasty. As I pummeled, what should come up on my iPod shuffle but the song "Come and Get Your Love." 

 Yeah, bag, come and get your love. Pow! Wham! 

It was the perfect comic book dialogue.  My face broke into a big smirk, like a goon.  If anyone saw, they probably thought:  What is wrong with her?

Then, of course, I had to relate it to writing.  What we hear in our heads makes us do the things we do, and when no one else can hear that, we appear out of sync.  We're happy when we should be sad, or calm when others expect furious. 

What are the emotional soundtracks we play to accompany our own lives?

What is your character hearing that no one else does? 

Both interesting ways to enter into a novel.

P.S.  I also inherited my daughter's hand-me down iPod mini, which I can now use to invent alter-egos in the car.  I'm dangerous. 

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

So That's What Time Looks Like

One of my presents this year was high-tech:

Flip Mino HD

One was low-tech:

Retro-hip Magnetic Kitchen Timer***

Together, I used them to make this micro-movie, a reminder that time is, in fact, finite and comes to me in discrete, usable bits. (But you'll notice that in the movie, I'm still trying to manipulate it instead of patiently waiting. Grrr.)

My theme for 2009 is: Stay in the Moment.

I plan to use this little timer to be more productive in my writing life. To focus on doing a planned task well and with my full attention. To not only acknowledge that structure has a place in my life, but that it can be freeing as well.

To those of you far more accomplished at this than I, and indeed, looking for the opposite, i.e. less structure (Laura: Do nothing! Jama: Break Free!) I wish you well and hope you'll send your spare organized impulses my way. I also plan to crib these resolutions from Liz because she's wickedly inspiring in a non-judgmental way.

***Notice that this timer clearly bills itself as a "55 minute timer." I would not love it so much without that tiny rebellion against a world structured by the hour.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Poetry Friday: Reprint

I'm not up to full blogging speed, but I hate to miss Poetry Friday.  I hope you'll forgive me if I re-post a January-themed poem here. I first shared this one in July, which was wildly seasonally inappropriate.  A link to it is there in my sidebar, under "This is why I write" (referring to my inaugural post.) Jama also blogged about it last December, so it's not like the poem has been under-exposed.  

It's just that as the new year begins, I need to see the corners of my room again. 

The Bones of January

I love the plainness of January

when I have taken down my Christmas

finery, and in the shock

of my home stripped bare, I see

the corners of my rooms

again. And outside, all is

stark, gray, glorious

with no false beauty to help me

pretend that I am satisfied.

In January, I kneel beside my children’s

sleeping faces, and let them break

the leafless branches

that cage my chest.

And outside, all is

undone. Roots rend

the earth like bones.

How did this happen?

That all should be taken


and that love,

love should be plain

as January?

---Sara Lewis Holmes (all rights reserved)