Archive for the writing process

Reading “Harriet the Spy” — and One Tip About Writing Dialogue

I wasn’t a big reader as a kid. I don’t have memories of reading any “literature” or novels. It was mostly the sports pages in the newspaper — those were the first writers I loved — Dick Young, Phil Pepe — the guys who covered the Mets, Jets, Knicks. And I read random sports biographies here and there, but not often. 

When I became more of a reader, it was a direct jump into adult writers: Vonnegut, Bradbury, Brautigan. So as you might imagine, I
have these huge gaps in the field of children’s literature. From time to time, I play catch up, tossing a shovelful of dirt into a gaping crater. 

Which is to say that now, at age 58, I’m reading Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh. 

I liked this exchange between Sport and Harriet early on in the book:

Sport tucked the football under his arm and walked over to her. “That’s nothing but an old tree root. Whaddya mean, a mountain?”

“That’s a mountain. From now on that’s a mountain. Got it?” Harriet looked up to his face.

Sport moved back a pace. “Looks like an old tree root,” he muttered.

Harriet pushed her hair back and looked at him seriously. “Sport, what are you going to be when you grow up?”

“You know what. You know I’m going to be a ball player.”

“Well, I’m going to be a writer. And when I say that’s a mountain, that’s a mountain.” Satisfied, she turned back to her town.

There’s much to admire in this little bit of dialogue. The wit, the charm, the realistic cadences. You know what. But something I try to show young writers — a lesson that took me years to learn in my own work — is the simple effectiveness of all those brief descriptive tags that make the conversation come alive. 

The bulk of most books, of most writing, is made up of characters talking. Conversations floating in space. The trick is to ground those conversations in a concrete reality. They are playing putt-putt golf. Fishing on a boat. Hiking up a mountain. Sitting on a park bench. Running from zombies. Or, in the example above, squatting by a big tree, with Harriet bending over her notebook. Sport is tossing a football in the air. The scene is set.

Let’s read it again without those very simple descriptive sentences. That is, all dialogue:

“That’s nothing but an old tree root. Whaddya mean, a mountain?”

“That’s a mountain. From now on that’s a mountain. Got it?” 

“Looks like an old tree root.” 

“Sport, what are you going to be when you grow up?”

“You know what. You know I’m going to be a ball player.”

“Well, I’m going to be a writer. And when I say that’s a mountain, that’s a mountain.” 

 

I find that when I’m inspired, I’ll often begin this way in my notebook. Hearing the voices, scribbling down the conversation. Writing only what is said. But how does a reader see what’s going on? It’s those simple little sentences that I’ve come to admire so much. He set the hat on the table. He flicked a pebble with his thumb. She leaned forward. Whatever.

One more time, highlighting what Fitzhugh does here to help us see the people in this conversation:

Sport tucked the football under his arm and walked over to her. “That’s nothing but an old tree root. Whaddya mean, a mountain?”

“That’s a mountain. From now on that’s a mountain. Got it?” Harriet looked up to his face.

Sport moved back a pace. “Looks like an old tree root,” he muttered.

Harriet pushed her hair back and looked at him seriously. “Sport, what are you going to be when you grow up?”

“You know what. You know I’m going to be a ball player.”

“Well, I’m going to be a writer. And when I say that’s a mountain, that’s a mountain.” Satisfied, she turned back to her town.

 

There’s nothing fancy about those sentences. They don’t get in the way, don’t draw attention to themselves. Harriet looked up to his face. Anybody can write that. All you have to do is imagine it. The writer has to see it and, here’s the trick, recognize that the reader doesn’t. Or can’t. Or won’t — not without help. 

One other sidenote: Fitzhugh doesn’t use much standard attribution here. Only once, with “he muttered.” The way she indicates who is talking, and it’s never confusing, is through these simple descriptive sentences.

Mrs. Garcia shook her head. “I do the best I can.” [from Jigsaw Jones: The Case of the Hat Burglar]

A writer doesn’t need to add, she said, because after you’ve included that descriptive sentence, it’s already obvious who is speaking.

Anyway, I didn’t intend to turn this into a writing lesson when I began this post. Just wanted to share a line from the book, one that resonated with me: I’m going to be a writer. And when I say that’s a mountain, that’s a mountain.

No reader can argue with that.

And this, Dear Reader, is the end.

Two Quick Excerpts from BLOOD MOUNTAIN, Plus Words of Advice from Kurt Vonnegut

This year, I’ve been using an idea lifted from Kurt Vonnegut as an opening point in my middle-grade presentations. In his “Rules for Writers,” Vonnegut advises, “No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them in order that the reader may see what they are made of.”

Most books follow that dictum consciously or not. I know that I certainly put it into practice in Blood Mountain. I do terrible things to those kids.

In these two short excerpts, we’ll meet Carter and Grace as they get a little deeper into the story (for a previous excerpt, click here). In “Bog,” taken from the end of Chapter 30, we find Carter traveling alone. Rangers advise hikers of three cardinal rules should they find themselves lost in the wilderness: “Stay put, stay dry, stay warm.” In this scene, Carter is failing, and fighting, spectacularly. He doesn’t have much choice.

In the next excerpt, we briefly visit with Grace, injured and alone on DAY 4, and get a glimpse into her spirit and toughness.

 

 

from chapter

30

 

[Bog]

Plowing forward, Carter takes a hard hit from an overhanging branch. The blow staggers him, knocks him to his knees. He stays on all fours, woozy. He touches his head, his fingers come back wet and red. He sits back, resting on one arm, dazed, holding the shirtsleeve of his outer wrist against the wound. The shirt becomes wet with blood. Streaks trickle down the left side of his face. He gathers himself, continues the descent. He trips on roots, skidders on slick surfaces and falls against jagged rocks, slicing his fingers. Carter finds that his legs no longer work properly. A bloody gash forms on his left knee, bleeding into his boot. Each blow, each misstep drains something vital out of him. Slowly his energy leaks away, deflated like a forgotten birthday balloon.

Despite all this, Carter remains determined to plunge forward. He walks unquestioningly into a wall of dense vegetation. The summer-tangle of branches grope like sinister arms. Hellish snags claw at his flesh, rip his shirt.

Carter keeps fighting, keeps moving forward.

Bog all around him.

He longs for firm footing, a dry fire.

Twilight drops down like a quivering leaf. The bugs gather in swarms. For the first half hour, Carter slaps at them, waves his hands, rubs his arms and legs, scratches furiously, even howls out loud; mosquitoes, gorged with his blood, explode when slapped on his forearms and legs. Reinforcements come to take their place. In desperation, Carter smears black ooze all over his skin and face, gets it in his mouth and ears. Eventually, he surrenders. His tender face reduced to a swollen welt, blistered and raw. Black flies take turns tormenting him. They dive and bite and veer away. His eyelids swell, his left eye nearly shut.

He weaves, falls, despairs, rises again.

He cannot stop here.

He cannot die.

Carter Taylor is eleven years old and he feels his life wavering on some great precipice.

Grace, his feverish mind recalls.

In the relative openness of the bog, he easily sees the stars in the velvet sky. When did it become night? When in the world have there ever been so many pinpricks of light?

He feels cold to the core.

Shivering, wet, bone-tired.

He keeps walking, staggering, reeling through the reeds, bumping into dead, bare, nutrient-starved trees.

His boots fill with water. He finds himself leaning against a dead tree. He pauses to rest for a moment, a minute, an hour. He doesn’t remember. His mind blank, a void. Fear slaps him awake. Instinct yanks at his collar, shakes him. If he stays in this grievous bog, he won’t live to see the morning. It is the one clear thought in his muddled mind. Can’t stay here.

The temperature drops.

He blunders into the black.

He steps and his foot does not sink.

Another step. The ground holds.

Another, and another.

Carter hangs his head, drops to his knees, begins to crawl, feels the firm earth under his hands.

He’s made it through.

So tired, so tired.

Carter stumbles another 75 yards, losing his hat in the process. He collapses, curls into a ball beneath a weeping willow that has taken root in the rot. He does not wonder at the way the graceful giant’s branches sweep downward, or how its long, slender leaves resemble tears of tree-sorrow and tree-remorse. How did it come to grow so sad? He does not wonder at all. Just knows in his bones. The cold presses against him. He shivers in anguish. His body begins to shake convulsively. He rolls and looks to the sky.

I am not lost, he thinks. The world is lost.

I am right here. I am right here. And there is the moon, right where it is supposed to be.

 

 

from chapter

35

 

[Grace]

 

Light is coming and with it a new day.

Grace watches unmoving as the dark woods gradually take on space, contour, color, dimension. The shapes of tree trunks, movement in the branches, squirrels chittering and birds with their insistent, I’m here, I’m here, I’m here!

The trees come alive with birds and their words.

Today springs from yesterday, the dream of tomorrow becomes the new now, and inside Grace’s chest an ember still glows. Call it hope. Call it fierce will. Grace is determined to live. Somehow. Some way. She is alone and injured, her infection blackening, one girl in the vastness of a mountain wilderness. Somewhere, she hopes, Carter is okay. He never should have left. A terrible decision. Grace begins to feel that tug of negativity, her thoughts going down a dark path, but she fights against them in the same way a falling figure claws against gravity. She senses that negative thinking will not sustain her here. Carter will find a way, she resolves. My job is to survive.

Grace closes her eyes and prays. It has never seemed to do much good in the past. She isn’t, honestly, all that sure. But prayer is a meeting of soul and intention. Her prayer does not require answers. Grace has never understood how some people claim to talk with God, or how He answered their prayers. This new morning, Grace does not expect a reply. It is enough to think the words, to bring unity of spirit and mind, the meeting of wish and desire –- like a corked bottle with a rolled up note inside, floating in a great, unpeopled sea.

Sending the note is enough.

I am here.

I have survived so far.

I would love with all my heart to see another day.

Interview Highlights: About BLOOD MOUNTAIN, and Introducing Ranger McCone

I was recently interviewed by Caroline Starr Rose over at her outstanding website, brimming with fascinating resources. Caroline is a gifted author and a generous spirit. A kind person, you know? She’s all about books and classroom connections and finding ways to make a difference. Please check out her space over there. And her books. Meanwhile, let’s please get back to me, please!

          

Here’s a sampling of my interview with Caroline, who blogged it a couple of weeks back. For the full interview, and a shortcut to Caroline’s world, just jump up and down on this link here.

 

 

What inspired you to write this story?

I published my first book in 1986. Over that period, more than half my life, I’ve discovered that what first inspires a story often gets left in the dust as the research and the writing begins in earnest. New inspirations take hold. Unimagined pathways open up, as long as the writer is still open to the unexpected.

Early on I had the basic setup of siblings lost in the wilderness, along with a vague idea of a hermit, possibly a veteran with PTSD, lurking nearby. At the time, I wasn’t sure what his story would be. I wanted the book to be tense, scary in parts, tightly plotted, riveting, and beautifully written. I held onto the idea that the person who saves you, might turn out to be your worst nightmare. Somewhere along the line my editor suggested a dog. Um, okay! And around this point it dawned on me that I had an awful lot to learn in order to do justice to this story. So I read books. About trees. About survival. About the psychology of getting lost. About veterans with PTSD. About dogs and how they think (I was determined to avoid the Disney-dog cliché; I wanted my dog, Sitka, to be authentic as a dog.) I learned about mountain lions.

Along the way, I told my editor, Liz Szabla, that I might maybe miss the deadline. And I did miss it — by a full year. Liz was cool with it. When it comes to publishing, I believe that all anyone cares about in the end is the finished book. No one reads a disappointing book and thinks, “Well, at least she hit her deadlines!” It just happened that Blood Mountain required extra time for me to think and learn and daydream. I filled a journal with notes, became overwhelmed with ideas and strategies, lost my way, fumbled in thickets. Along the way, I contacted a Forest Ranger, Megan McCone, who proved enormously helpful in terms of making the actions and thoughts of the ranger appropriate and accurate. All of those inspirations fed directly into the final book. Best writing experience ever.

Could you share with readers how you conducted your research or share a few interesting tidbits you learned while researching?

I simply had so much learn. Because “kind of knowing” isn’t good enough. For example, I wanted to introduce the hermit, John, in a powerful and unsettling way. So readers first encounter him with a large knife in his hand, field dressing a squirrel. I had to learn about slingshots and hypothermia and

 

New York Ranger Megan McCone served both as inspiration and valuable source of information. I owe her so much.

aviation extractions. And about how people who get lost behave –- the mistakes they make, the thought processes they typically go through, and the things they do that determine whether they live or die.

Most interesting, for me, was when I reached out to Eric Lahr at the Department of Environmental Conservation, who put me in contact with Forest Ranger Megan McCone. Megan was enormously helpful across several long phone conversations. She graciously volunteered to read the first draft of the book, making comments throughout. To me, this was not only a great pleasure, Megan helped me bring truth, the verisimilitude of small details, to this made-up story.

 

Things I Kind of Hate: “You Guys Are Like Rock Stars!”

Maybe “hate” is too strong. I know so many terrific people — usually librarians and teachers — my peeps! — we’re talking the best people — who mean it as the highest compliment. Heck, my sister said it just the other day. She was trying to be nice. Who am I to complain?

Just the curmudgeon I’ve always been, I suppose. A prickly pear. Hey, you kids, get off the lawn!

But, come on, rock stars? Is that all you’ve got?

Children’s authors and illustrators are way cooler than rock stars.

Okay, most rock stars. Almost all of them, actually.

Patti Smith would be tough to top, granted, but I’m trying to make a point here.

I mean, who really cares about rock stars anymore? We’re more interested in chefs and Youtubers these days. Have you looked around at our world? Who are we talking about anyway? Jon Bon Jovi and his spray tan? 

I admit there’s still enthusiasm among the masses for a certain sort of media-hyped “pop” star: Taylor Swift, Ariana Grande, I suppose. Kendrick is cool. Rhianna, I like her.

So maybe that would be okay. I visit a school — there’s a pulse of anticipation in the building — and a kind librarian might smile and explain, “You’re like Beyonce to them.”

Oh yeah, I am. #iwokeuplikethis.

I suppose that wouldn’t be exactly true. Can’t quite match those Instagram views. Apples, oranges, old prunes.

Sidenote #1: My friend Susan is a pediatric oncological nurse. She works with kids who have cancer. It’s probably the hardest, most rewarding job I can imagine. My oldest child is a two-time cancer survivor. I tear up just thinking about those nurses. True fact! Today a friend commented that pediatric oncological nurses are like — you guessed it — rock stars! Oh, please. They are light years cooler and braver and and stronger and more loving than any rock star on the planet.

We need to stop giving rock stars so much credit.

Let’s come up with a better cliche.

We’re writers and artists who have dedicated our work to young readers. That’s what we do. Doesn’t make us heroes or worthy of putting up on a platform. Hopefully we do good work, inspire young minds, make a small difference in the world. Not really better than anybody else. Except, of course, lawyers, because they’re the worst.

We haven’t written “Louie, Louie” or “Satisfaction,” but we did come up with The Giver and Chicka Chicka Boom Boom and Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus and Ghost and Hello, Universe and Wonder and Coraline and The Tale of Desperaux and Go, Dog, Go and Wolf in the Snow and P.S. Be Eleven and Last Stop on Market Street and They All Saw a Cat and on and on and on.

Let’s see rock stars compete with that greatest hits package. Maybe someday in the future a band will get a standing ovation in Madison Square Garden. Just bring down the house. The place totally bananas. And somebody will rush up to say, intending the highest compliment, “You’re like Lois Lowry to them!”

 

My newest novel, Blood Mountain, is due out October 10th where fine books are sold. And, sure, it’s okay if you want to compare me to a rock star. I know what you mean. Thanks.

 

Checking In with Ralph Fletcher: On Writing & Photography

Ralph Fletcher needs no introduction.

[Pause.]

[Whistles softly, drums fingers on desktop.]

[Really, people?]

Okay, fine: Ralph Fletcher has not only published 20 books for young readers, he’s also established himself as one of the foremost mentors to classroom teachers, helping to exhort, instruct and inspire effective methods of teaching writing. 

Simply put, Ralph is one of the most respected voices in children’s literature today, and it’s an honor to have him as my guest.

But that’s not why, humble readers, we’re gathered here today.

I wanted to ask Ralph about his photography, and how that practice might be connected to writing.

Here he comes now.

Greetings, Ralph. Thanks for stopping by.
   
You’re welcome. Funny that we have so much in common—both write books for young readers, and both have worked with the same editor—but we have never met. It makes me wonder….are you perchance avoiding me? ☺
   
I don’t think we get invited to the same parties. We have another connection: I believe we also both come from large families. I’m the youngest of seven.
   
I am the oldest of nine. A big family can be a cauldron for great stories.
            
It’s a cauldron all right. I’m a longtime admirer of your writing, and your work as a teacher of writing. Through Facebook, I’ve learned that you are an avid and accomplished photographer. Is this a longtime hobby or something relatively new for you?


   
Mostly, I’d say it’s a passion that has taken hold in the last 5-6 years. I don’t quite call it a hobby, but I’m certainly not Richard Avedon, either. I’m not sure what it is.
   
A photo buff — or a buff photographer? I’m confused. What were we saying?
       
I choose “buff photographer.” Seriously, there’s this prevalent idea in our culture that unless you’re making money doing something you can’t be serious about it. That’s flawed thinking.
          
Excellent point. It occurred to me that there are similarities between photography and writing. 
   
Yes. And I have been thinking a great deal about this subject. I’m writing a book for teachers about the links between photography and writing. Focus Lessons will be published by Heinemann this fall.
   
That’s great news –- and proof that I’m on the right track. Certainly, some links between writing and photography are fairly apparent. Both begin with noticing things, an appreciation and an awareness of the world around you.
          
That’s true. Like  many people I spend a lot of time in my head. Taking pictures certainly pulls me out of myself. It has given me a door into the tangible, visual world. That’s not a bad place to live.


   
I mess around with haiku for the very same reason. Do you think that taking photos has helped you as a writer?
   
I think so. For most of my career I’ve been a language guy.  The items in my tool box are words. I write books (for kids and for teachers), and I speak at educational conferences. Photography draws on a different part of my brain (the non-language part) that I’ve rarely used. It’s fun flexing these new muscles! But to get back to your question….I do believe that photography has helped hone my powers of observation. When you’re trying to get a really good photo of wild creature you find yourself paying close attention to your subject. You can’t help it.  And aren’t writers (like photographers) involved in the business of creating engaging images?


   
Patience is important, too. You can’t blast through it. And all the while, your antenna is up. Waiting and ready.
   
To borrow a sports metaphor: photography has taught me that you have to let the game come to you. You’re right: there is a lot of sitting and waiting. But suddenly it happens: a merganser followed by a string of swimming chicks. And I’m there, sometimes so close we’re practically breathing the same air. That’s special.   

You’ve shared some incredible photographs of birds in flight. But recently you made a comment about practicing your “street photography.” In what way do they require something different from you?


   
I do think there’s a lot of overlap. Whether you’re photographing a heron or a couple of people chatting on a park bench, certain principles apply. You try to make yourself invisible so “they” (your subjects) are not aware of you. It’s not because you’re trying to spy or stalk but you want them to act naturally, to be themselves. If you do that you might be able to enter their world  and see them as they truly are.
   
I often think of writing as the art of getting out of the way. That is, not intruding as the writer, “look at me!” — and instead letting the characters step forward.

Well said. You try to make yourself disappear so the focus of the reader/viewer is on the story you’re trying to tell.


       
Technical question: What kind of equipment do you use?
   
Can you picture me smiling? Because this question fingers a running joke amongst my group of friends. Many people have seen my photos and said: “Your camera takes great pictures!” And I’m thinking, well, ah, no, actually I take the pictures. I think there’s a mistaken notion that all you need to do is get an expensive camera. There’s a lot of craft involved, no matter what camera you used.
       
But hasn’t that been the issue with photography as an art form all along? Because it is so accessible, where even Uncle Bill can take a “decent” snap, people tend to think anyone can do it. 
   
Yes, we’ve definitely seen a remarkable democratization of photography in the last few decades. It used to be a rarified skill practiced by few. Now almost every middle school kid gets a smart phone with a powerful camera in it. Here comes everybody.


   
I will acknowledge that having decent equipment does help. I shoot with a Canon 7D Mark II. I use various lens. It’s great to use a telephoto lens when shooting birds, but a telephoto is impractical when you’re walking around the street. Plus those lens can be heavy.
   
Ah, that explains your buffness. Thank you, Ralph. I respect and enjoy your work -– in any medium. And I look forward to your upcoming book, Focus Lessons, that brings photos and writing together. Do you have a cover we can share? A publication date?

 


        

     


September 2019 (I think). No cover yet. The book will feature about 60-70 of my photos, and explore connections between photography and writing, especially in regards to teaching writing.


Good luck with it, Ralph. I wish you the best.