Archive for the writing process

INSPIRATION: When Trees and Haiku Meet — Robert Bly, A Pine Tree, and Basho

 

I try to spend some time each day thinking in haiku. Often I find that space while walking the dog in the woods or by the river or an open field. It’s a quiet, interior time without earbuds or podcasts. My haiku is almost always written in the traditional three-line, 5-7-5 form, with a focus on nature. I usually try to include a kigo word (a reference to the season of the year) and a division, breath, or caesura (often in the form of a colon or a dash that both separates and connects). There are endless variations, and that’s the beauty of haiku. Sometimes a lighthearted one might come, more senryu than serious haiku, and that’s what gets written. It’s something I started doing with more intention a few years ago. I’m not saying that I’m great at this. My focus is on process, not product. Basho’s great line, “The journey itself is home.” I accept that most of the ones that come to me aren’t going to be exemplary.

Thinking in haiku has given me an outlet for calm reflection, a brief time for thinking outside myself and the endless, grim news feed of our troubled world. This morning I wrote this one:

 

This pine has a life             

Of its own: there is nothing

It requires of me.

 

However, I’m not posting today to show one haiku. Mostly I was eager to share one of the sources of my inspiration, taken from the introduction to Robert Bly’s book of prose poems, The Morning Glory

I love this passage so much, as if it were written precisely for me, bringing together in one page my growing enthusiasms for trees and haiku and poetry and, importantly, this essential idea of getting “the self” out of the way. I hope you like it. Maybe Bly’s passage here, along with Basho’s haiku, will inspire thoughts and feelings in you, too. Embrace the process. Forget thoughts of “good” or “bad.” And see what happens. 

 

While we’re gathered here, I might as well tack on a few others . . . I’ve got hundreds of them.

I have failed to learn

The name of the bird that calls

From the high poplar.

Three twisted sisters

Beneath the great canopy,

Roots and arms entwined.

The soft grasp of dusk

Upon the winter shore: black-

Hooded plover waits.

Steel-gray buckets tapped

Into maples; the crows watch

From snow-covered limbs.

January rain –-

The old cat stretches, circles,

Eyes slant shut again.

The beech holds its leaves

Shimmering like winter moons

Papery and light.

 

FAN MAIL WEDNESDAY #295: When Joseph Basically Asks Me to Do His Homework

 

It happens often enough that just about every middle grade and YA author has experienced it. The ever-so-brief fan mail from a student that turns out to be an indirect request to do their homework. On one level: Resourceful! On another: Hey, you’re not fooling me, I see what you are doing, think for yourself

Over the years I’ve responded differently, depending on my mood. For this one, I felt chatty and gave an honest answer. Yes, I wanted a good grade! When I received Joseph’s response, I realized I probably let him down. Oh well! You’ll see.  

Here’s the first note from Joseph:

Hello, James. I am a fellow student who’s in high school in my sophomore year, I was curious to ask some questions about your book, THE FALL. I wanted to know what type of rhetoric device fits well in this story?

Thank you!

Joseph

 

I replied: 

Ha, Joseph, I am so glad I’m not in high school anymore. I would have failed this assignment!

There are a lot of different rhetorical devices in the world, most of them I’m not ever consciously employing. Asterismos and eutrepismus, hypophora and parallelism, procatalepsis and tmesis.

Oh boy, good times.

Can you tell I had to look all those up? I mean, I’m pretty sure I’ve used them at different points in my career, but not quite knowingly.

I think a lot of what we do as writers becomes instinctive, based on years and years of reading. You kind of eat it. Digest it. Absorb it and internalize all those storytelling strategies. So when you are telling your own story — trying to communicate — you just reach for whatever tool seems handy at the time.

The biggest conceit to The Fall, the Big Device, is that it’s presented as if it were Sam’s journal entries. He’s recounting the events to himself as a way to understand this really big and terrible thing that happened. He’s processing and, in turn, owning responsibility for his role in Morgan’s tragedy. As readers, we are looking over Sam’s shoulder, going through that experience with him.

Another device that comes to mind, which I used in one spot of the book, the “Not Me” chapter, is that Sam writes as if he’s on trial, addressing the jury. And you, the reader, of course, are on that jury. I didn’t carry that device throughout the book — I think it would have felt forced — but it seemed right at the time. And as readers, we are making those judgments of each character. Sam is acutely aware of being on trial.

Sam includes a few of his own poems, the way someone like Sam might. Maybe there’s a name for that, maybe it’s a rhetorical device, I don’t know. I just wanted to show Sam’s depth of feeling, how this stuff was pouring out of him, how he thought and felt, and the simple poems, again, seemed right for this journal format. It’s what I did as a kid in my journals, anyway.

Hey, Joseph: You forgot to tell me how much you loved the book! Don’t you know that’s how you are supposed to begin these letters? It’s a rhetorical device called “blowing smoke up someone’s butt.” Writers love that stuff. It gets our attention! And we immediately think, “What a smart young fellow!”

Next time: 1) Begin with a compliment; then 2) Ask me to do your homework!

(By the way, the above numbering technique is an example of eutrepismus, separating speech into numbered parts. We all do it, but 99% of us have never heard the name before. That’s writing, I think.)

All good things,

James Preller

Joseph politely replied the next day:

Thank you so much! So sorry, but this book was inspiring though haha! Its just I had include one Rhetorical Devices. those are 1. Repetition 2. Parallelism 3. Slogan and saws 4. Rhetorical questions

I had to choose one of them and explain why I chose it and how you used it in this book.

Oh well, I tried!

On Dialogue and “Harriet the Spy”: A Further Conversation with Author Kurtis Scaletta

 

Back in November I posted about reading Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh. I was struck by the crisp dialogue in that book, and ended up focusing my post on that aspect of her writing. I even included a PRO TIP! free of charge. That led to a comment from my friend, Kurtis Scaletta, who told me that he uses Fitzhugh to teach dialogue. I decided to invite Kurtis, who is an accomplished author, for a further chat on the subject.

        

Greetings, Kurtis. What is it that you admire about Fitzhugh’s dialogue? 

When I was re-reading her books as an adult, I realized how dialogue-heavy they are, and how much of the character and even the plot is revealed through dialogue. I don’t think it was clear to me as a kid, but I really noticed it as an adult. I mean, I guess good writing is like that–you don’t notice what the author is doing.

That’s what I say on school visits when asked to give advice. Read like a writer. Try to notice what the author is doing. If you feel excited, if you strongly dislike a character, or even if you grow bored. What is the author doing to create that effect in you?

I’ll try to remember that answer because it’s better than mine. 😉

You mentioned that you use Fitzhugh’s work to teach dialogue. Could you give us a mini-lesson?

I have used the first chapter of Sport, which is about two pages and almost completely dialogue. It’s an emotionally devastating passage because the mother is really a terrible person. But in her little harangue you learn everything you need to know about the premise, a sketch of the three main characters (Sport, his mom, and his dad) and their personalities. I would just have people read it and then take a few minutes to write what they know about the characters and their situations. It actually helps here that not nearly as many people have read Sport as Harriet, because they had to draw only on that chapter instead of their memory.

That’s a heartbreaking scene. What a way to open the book.

It is, and I’ve learned that “unlikeable mother” is one of the hardest things to slip past the gatekeepers of middle grade, right up there with killing an animal. Fitzhugh could do what she wanted to because she was Louise Fitzhugh.

Why do you think dialogue is important?

It helps creates a scene from something that’s just. . . a passage, if that makes sense.

For example, I’ll have written something that’s all expository then think, oh, I could have this kid talking to another kid and give people all this info while also introducing the other character. And then I can show their personality and crack a few jokes at the same time. And even then, once I’ve revised, I find it all happens in fewer words and is more fun to read.

It’s definitely faster to read. And, of course, it gets us away from too much interior monologue. In dialogue, the presence of “the writer” really falls away and the characters step forward.

I also pull up a scene in Harriet with three friends chatting — Harriet, Sport, and Janie — which is less expository but the interactions, the way the characters talk to each other, is very revealing of character. I love the scene where she and another girl are talking about the best way to get away with murder–like literally, how they could kill someone and get away with it. Girls are allowed to be so human in her books.

There are parts of Harriet’s personality that are shocking by today’s standards. Fitzhugh allows Harriet’s flaws to shine through. She thinks awful things. Even better, Harriet goes right on without always learning the easy lessons. There isn’t a big group hug at the end of the book –- and I love that.

The scene I actually use in class was from chapter two, where Harriet and Sport and Janie meet up before the first day of school and size up the other kids. They are being pretty mean to the other kids, but it really reveals their own insecurities. And even with the meanness there’s some empathy there. I feel like the topic of bullying has become very cut and dried; there are victims and bullies. This scene shows it as more complicated. But as I’ve told you before, I think your book Bystander is special for the same reason, it shows that the same kids can be bullies one day and victims the next.

Thanks, I appreciate that — and, hey, I agree! But let me ask: Where are you teaching? I thought you were a fancy children’s book author, sitting on soft cushions, looking down from some high tower?

Well, cushion dry cleaning isn’t cheap. I teach (and work full time) at the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis. I’ve run a middle grade fiction class every couple of years, sometimes online and sometimes in person. 

When I was in college, I spent a summer recording conversations with friends. We’d just hang out and I’d roll tape. Then I’d type up all the spoken words –- the pauses and ums, the wrong turns and overlaps and abandoned thoughts — eventually adopting a free verse style of spacing and line breaks. I was such an English major! It taught me a lot about how people really talk. But books are artifice, even realistic fiction, so I also learned that you can’t often do that in a written work. You have to veer away from “real talk” in order to tell a more realistic story.

Yeah, people don’t talk in dialogue do they? Even Sam Shepard and David Mamet with all their incomplete sentences and non-sequiturs and interruptions are making something a bit tidier than real dialogue. So dialogue is an artifice, sounding realistic but still artifice.

Are there common mistakes that you see in students when they are writing dialogue?

I think in middle grade with dialogue or first-person narratives writers can try too hard to “sound like a kid,” and it generally means a lot of sarcasm, self-deprecating remarks, and slang. That’s probably the most common problem. I think it’s OK to do that in a draft, then dial it back. But it really comes down to getting a feel for your characters and not making them cookie-cutter “kids,” but real people.

Tell us a little about your next book?

I have a book coming out this year about a video game competition now called Lukezilla Beats the Game. It’s entirely inspired by my own gamer son, his interests and ambitions, so that made it a lot of fun to write. It’s probably not going to win any Newbery awards or get starred reviews describing it as “beautiful and important,” but when I tell kids about it they get really excited. 

That’s how I feel about my “Scary Tales” series. The enthusiastic readers are out there – it’s just a matter of getting through the gatekeepers who may not, you know, really dig the scary thing. Or, in your case, approve of video games. 

My son was an enthusiastic reader of those books, in fact. Especially the one with the swamp monster and the twins.

What a great kid! But again, as an author, you are able to watch your (obviously amazingly intelligent) son, Byron, interact with books –- and also NOT interact with books. He’s not the biggest reader in the world. How has it changed your perspective on children’s literature?

He’s nuts about Dav Pilkey, and so are all his buddies. He loves Phoebe and her Unicorn by Dana Simpson. He met her in person and she was incredible. And he likes the Dragon Master series by Tracey West. Those are about the only books he’ll drop what he’s doing for. Like mom comes home with a new book and he quits his video game or turns off the TV to read it.

It’s great to see kids get as excited about a new book as they are about a video game or a toy. He’s a very different kid than I was. I was a pretty quiet and solitary kid, and write books like the ones I loved reading as a kid. He’s very social and hates to be alone. His favorite books are the kind Ramona calls “noisy.”

Right. We sometimes forget that when we ask children to read, we are asking them to be quiet, and solitary, and passive. For many boys, that’s the direct opposite of what they love to do — to be active and boisterous with a gang of friends.

I think that’s the big difference in this new book, which was written more for him than the kid I used to be. It’s noisier. But there’s still some quiet stuff.

That’s really interesting. And I relate. There’s long been a literary conversation about audience, the ideal reader, this question of who we’re writing for: to try make the general reader happy, or a specific person, or maybe write for the child we used to be. With this book, you are clearly writing primarily for one specific reader. Did it clarify the task for you?

Very much, I didn’t have all these other critics in my head saying different things. I just had one real kid who’s the target audience actually reading it with me as I went.

Yeah, you weren’t trying to please the librarians on the awards committee. You wanted to write a book that Byron would actually read and enjoy. I love that.

He wants the next book — the one I haven’t even started writing — to be about cats. He loves cats and there aren’t as many cat books as dog books. I think he’s imagining something like Dogman but with cats. We’ll see where that goes.

Ha, it sounds like the perfect Hollywood elevator pitch: “It’s Dogman – but with CATS! We’ll get Julia Roberts to play the lead!”

Or Taylor Swift, since she has experience. Hmm . . .

Thank you for your time, Kurtis. It’s always a great pleasure talking with you, because you are a real book person and it comes through in everything you do and say and ponder. I wish you the best of the luck with Lukezilla Beats the Game. Sounds like a winner to me.

 

 

Kurtis Scaletta lives in Minneapolis with his wife, nine-year-old son, and five (!) cats. His website is kurtisscaletta.com and not-always-child-appropriate twitter is @kurtisscaletta. You can get occasional essays by email at tinyletter.com/skutir.

 

 

 

 

The Wood Wide Web: About Those “Talking” Trees In BLOOD MOUNTAIN

“The boy half hears below consciousness
the sounds of the trees —
those feral, nighttime communications
of the wood makers,
the carbon eaters,
the sunseekers,
the water gulpers.”

 

Blood Mountain, p. 104

There’s a short video, under two minutes, that’s been shared around the internet lately, largely because it was featured on The Kids Should See This website. Produced by BBC News, the video is titled “How trees secretly talk to each other.”

I’m glad to see this tree conversation shared in an easy-to-digest format. A quick clip we can watch and pass along to friends and family and Facebook weirdos. I’m moved by the scientific reality of an underground social network of fungi that shares and communicates and feels and interconnects.

Of course, anyone who’s read The Lord of the Rings (Tolkien was a tree man! Treebeard at Isengard!) or even watched “The Wizard of Oz” knows that artists have long imagined trees as being dynamic, living forces of nature — with more to them than meets the eye. In the past these “magical” trees have been in the domain of fantasy, so I was eager to reclaim the accuracy of that fact-based perception in a book that was realistic fiction.

The past few years I’ve increased my love affair with trees, mostly by learning more about them. Reading books, yes. And a lot of long walks: looking, noticing, seeing the details I’d missed before.

One book was particularly important, though there were others that informed and inspired my writing, too. Here’s some that fed me . . .

               

 

In The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate by Peter Wohlleben, I first encountered the phrase “the wood wide web.” This book, by the way, surely inspired aspects of The Overstory by Richard Powers, which stands as one of my favorite novels of the past decade. I knowingly borrowed Wohlleben’s phrase in my middle-grade adventure novel, Blood Mountain. But I hope, on a deeper level, the book expresses some of that tree-perception and otherness-appreciation throughout. Those magnificent creatures that — or who? — live amongst us.

Here’s a bit from Chapter 32, pages 103-104. To set this up: Carter is alone, lost and hungry, suffering from early stages of hypothermia, collapsed beneath a weeping willow after wandering through a lowland bog. Things are teetering on the edge . . .

That night, the trees of the forest began talking.

Carter overhears their murmuring.

Of course, he knows little of trees and nothing of their primordial tongue. To his ears it is only wind through moonlit, shimmering leaves. He doesn’t comprehend that roots intermingle, that electrical impulses pass from root tip to root tip, tree to tree, in a vast unfathomable social network of interconnected forest. How all trees of the forest are one tree continuous. A community, an underground wood-wide web. Carter hears the moan of a heavy branch, the groan of another, and the sporadic signals of tree parts dropped to the ground: sticks, stems, detritus falling all around him, delivering messages in a complex code. If these sounds were translated into words from the human world, Carter still could not grasp their meaning, as foreign to him as the tongue of a lost tribe. No boy can talk to trees.

Time is different for trees and rocks and the human species. Trees live for decades, centuries: generations pass through in a continuous ecosystem through the ages. Trees have existed on the planet since long before the first hominids walked upright, and trees will remain long after humankind is wiped off the earth’s surface. A smudge on a windowpane. The great trees persist, and wait, and watch, and whisper. 

Alone and cold and closing in on hypothermia in the wild unknown, the boy half hears below consciousness the sounds of the trees — those feral, nighttime communications of the wood makers, the carbon eaters, the sunseekers, the water gulpers. From the beginning, roots have turned toward the things they desired: water, nutrient-rich soil, a firmer grip. Beneath Carter, below the understory, the roots of the forest send out messages to one another. 

The trees are talking about the boy.

It is time.

Long limbs reach toward him.

Author Interview: Celebrating Kathy Blasi’s Picture Book Debut, “HOSEA PLAYS ON”

 

“Fourteen years of writing,
revision, submission,
rejections, more revisions,
setting projects aside and starting new ones.
And boatloads of self-doubt.
But glimmers of hope, too.”

— Kathy Blasi

 

JP: Kathy, I am so happy to be holding your DEBUT PICTURE BOOK in my hands. You’ve traveled a long, hard road to reach this point. Now here we are: this beautiful book with your name on the cover. How does it feel?

KB: Ahh, to finally get an acceptance after years of stories not quite getting there, through getting close via an agent only to have that relationship end.
Now, with my new book, I have a sense of complete joy in seeing my words brought to life — through an astute editor, Ada Zhang, who championed the piece, a publishing house which embraced it, and through stunning illustration. I feel a sense of accomplishment and validation in not giving up over the course of years of ups and downs. I feel humbled and honored to bring to readers this particular story of a beautiful, everyday person, and I’m thrilled Sterling felt there was a place for it on bookshelves.

 

Before we get to the book itself, can you give us some background on your writing journey?

My first book, A Name of Honor, was released in 2006 through Mondo, an educational publisher. That was quickly followed by a nonfiction book about sports, also with Mondo. Not-so-fast forward to 2016, with the acceptance of Hosea Plays On, my third published book (though not the third I’ve written), due out in January 2020. Yes, that is 14 years. Fourteen years of writing, revision, submission, rejections, more revisions, setting projects aside and starting new ones. And boatloads of self-doubt. But glimmers of hope, too.

 

What in particular helped keep you hopeful?

Good rejections! It’s not easy for those outside of this business to grasp the concept of a “good rejection.” Early on, I received “Dear Author” responses to my work. Then, the “Dear Ms. Blasi” variety. Oh, and the ones with my name and pointed feedback. I knew I was getting somewhere. That if this is a continuum, I cannot give up. I could be embarrassed by that span of 14 years. But giving up would have been more embarrassing. I look at that span as a testament to always learning, to building bridges through respecting the business and the process, and above all, not giving up.

 

Do you participate in a writer’s group?

I have writing colleagues with whom I exchange manuscripts. We critique each other’s work online, via phone, and/or in person. They all make me a better writer. One writing friend, Elizabeth Falk, and I frequently meet at local libraries or at one of our houses. We spend the day plugging away and taking breaks to discuss about what we are working on. There’s something magical about working away and being able to look up and say, “When you have a second, I’d like to bounce something off of you.”

 

What helped you keep going, when at times it must have felt like you were running into a brick wall?

My writing peeps, absolutely. Brick walls have a way of propagating self-doubt. The external voice of rejection that suggests you’re just not good enough. But the voice of my discerning readers, holding the bar high, urging me on — is louder in the end. And for that, I’m so grateful. Another thing that keeps me going is after the sting of a rejection, over which one has no control, is to send it (or something else) again. The only person who is in control over sending out your work — is you.

 

What inspired you to write this particular story?

I credit my inspiration to insomnia and the magical hour of 3AM when in an effort to distract myself from the runaway thoughts in my head, I turned to reading the news. I read an article about Hosea Taylor’s passing, and his story tugged at my heartstrings. I had to learn more. I started with the reporter, Sarah Taddeo of the Democrat & Chronicle, who wrote the story, the beginning of a trail of breadcrumbs. When I learned of what Hosea did with the money folks placed in his saxophone case, I knew I had found the heart of a story I wanted to write for young readers.

 

You have a poet’s eye for detail and lyrical language, all told with directness and economy. “Fingers fluttered. Keys clicked. Smoky notes lifted through the air, treading along to waiting ears.” There’s a musicality to your language. Is that the result of endless revision?

What a lovely thing to say! Once my early draft took shape, part of my revision process was to focus on word choice that could carry a tune, so to speak. To build a cadence for the read-aloud experience. Similarly, I incorporated sound wherever I could, such as coins dropping and the sound of a truck passing over a bridge.

Your illustrator, Shane Evans, did an amazing job bringing Hosea and his music to life. Do you have a favorite spread or moment in the book?

Shane did a beautiful job, indeed. I love the whimsical element he brought to the story. My favorite spread is that of Hosea playing his saxophone in the rain. When I wrote the story, I saw the three words “Hosea played on” standing alone, precipitated by the drum roll of the page turn. I wanted the reader to pause and take that in. With a leap of faith, the author must let the illustrator, editor, and art director do their jobs. Shane nailed it. 

Actually, Kathy, you and I have a funny connection with Shane. Back in the previous century, in 1999, I ghost wrote a book for Shaquille O’Neal, titled Shaq and the Beanstalk and Other Very Tall Tales. It’s actually a pretty entertaining story of six fractured folktales, all featuring Shaq (“Little Red Riding Shaq,” and so on). Shane illustrated the book and his name is included on the cover. My role went uncredited, of course — ghosts are invisible, that’s the agreement — and such is life when you ghost a book for a celebrity. I’ve been quietly rooting for Shane, whom I’ve never met, all these years. 

What an interesting connection! I like to believe that your quiet rooting led us all right here. Here’s another interesting connection. Shane lived in Rochester during his high school years and visited the market where the story takes place.

What’s the best writing advice you ever got?

Two things stand out. First (I will credit Elizabeth Gilbert and Jane Yolen): show up. Talking about writing and wanting to be a writer are not actually writing. Show up to the blank page, or the messy page, because the status of those pages will not change on their own. Work hard, so that eventually that and opportunity will intersect. This often, as is the case with me, requires balancing family life and another career.

Second: Once you are writing, focus on what’s in front of you (Kate Messner). You have no control over how long it takes editors and agents to read your work. You have no control over their decisions on your work. And you have no control over the schedules of others in the process, once you are under contract. Focus on the new piece. Or the one that needs revising. Have multiple projects going at once.

 

Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?

Begin by writing for you and the story you want to tell. That’s where the bones come from — from your excitement, interest, and passion for the story. That’s what will sustain you.

Surround yourself with those with similar interest and ambition. Join a writers and illustrators group. Join SCBWI and/or one of its regional chapters. There is a treasure trove of information and inspiration waiting for you. Learn all you can. Read all you can. Write. A lot!

Kathleen M. Blasi is active in the children’s literature community. She has long served as an organizer for the Rochester Children’s Book Festival. Readers may visit her online at kmblasi.com and on Twitter @kmblasi.