For Librarians

Filling the Well: on growing as a writer

About eight months ago I finished the author note and copy edits for Written in Stone which will be out in June of this year. I had worked on that book off and on for 15 years. In many ways it’s the book that made me a writer. So it was a real career milestone to put the final touches on it for publication. Once it was gone and I faced the prospect of starting something new I felt like I needed to grow as a writer and push my work to a higher level and explore things I hadn’t tried yet. The authors I admire the most are the ones that are always trying something new. Ursula LeGuin, for example, decided that if anyone was going to tell the story of Lavinia from The Aeneid, it was probably going to be her, and since she was already in her eighties she might as well begin at once. She began by re-reading The Aeneid. In Latin. Her award winning novel Lavinia resulted. Wow! This is the woman I want to be when I’m in my 80s!

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So how do I get there? I’ve spent a lot of afternoons and evenings in bookstores listening to authors over the years and here are a few things I’ve learned about, not just enjoying longevity in a fickle profession, but continuing to grow and thrive as a writer and a person.

1. Everybody says read, and everybody is right about that. But I’ve come to see that it’s not volume of text swallowed that matters. Real growth comes from reading thoughtfully. For example, this year’s Newbery winner got quite a lot of buzz online before the announcement in January. I was curious, particularly since The One and Only Ivan’s biggest fans seemed to be teachers. So I read it slowly and reflected on why it was working so well for many people. I am going to confess here that it was not my favorite book of the year. But I could see from a slow and careful examination of Applegate’s craft that she’d created a genuinely appealing voice in the gorilla Ivan. It was spare and wry and consistent. Three things that are very hard to do. Also the layout of each page was roomy and inviting, and Casteleo’s illustrations were lovely in their simplicity. I could have read this quickly, decided it’s not my thing, and dismissed it, but I’m glad I took a closer look. It’s still not my favorite, but I’ve learned something about creating an appealing voice, and I’m certainly going to give page layout some thought in future projects.
If you are looking for good commentary on reading I highly recommend the Heavy Medal Blog over at the School Library Journal which is moderated by the very thoughtful and articulate duo Nina Lindsey and Jonathan Hunt. I seldom comment but I’m always learning from the discussions there.

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2. I have always found the company of my fellow writers both a comfort and an inspiration. I recently got together for lunch with five women who have inspired me for decades. We talked about ordinary things–the care of aging parents, our dreams for a perfect garden. We talked about decidedly writerly things–the difficulty in finding reliable research about the Danish resistance in WWII, how corporate fundraising is it’s own kind of storytelling. We toasted Deborah Hopkinson’s recent Sibert Honor and commiserated over the bumpy spot someone else was going through. It was great to know I’m not alone in the vicissitudes of the business, and even greater to hear from writers I really respect that they never regretted pushing their work to a higher level.

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So if you’ve got a writer or two in your town or an upcoming SCBWI schmooze or an author event at a local bookstore, reach out! Make some connections for yourself. It’s a long lonely road without companions and a grand adventure with friends.

3. I think its also important to do things outside of strictly literary pursuits. One of the great pleasures of working on my book Second Fiddle was playing the violin again after many years away from my instrument and discovering how many people in the book world are also musicians. Don’t neglect other hobbies. Paint. Hike. Dance. Travel. Meet people. Engage your own family as deeply as you can. Your writing will be richer for it.

I will be responding to comments sporadically on this post because I’m out of town with my family is doing stuff that may some day work its way into books. My son is competing in the World Championships of Irish Dance in Boston on Saturday. I’m sure I’ll never write about competitive contemporary Irish dance but I’d love to write about an immigrant Irish kid who loves to dance. I’ll be taking mental notes all week and meeting musicians and talking to dancers from all over the world. I might not write that book for a decade but I’m storing up ideas now.

4. Much of what I’ve learned about the craft of writing has come from listening to authors in bookstores. If you are fortunate enough to live near a bookstore with a visiting author program, take advantage of it. You’ll meet fellow book lovers, make a connection with local book sellers and get excellent mentoring all for the price of a signed book. The woman at the microphone below is the amazing Ursula LeGuin from whom I’ve learned volumes. Her Steering the Craft is one of the most practical and useful writing books I’ve ever worked with. I never  quite understood the subtle distinction between close third person narration and first person narration until I listened to her discuss it in a Q & A at Powells.
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There are many great writing conferences around the country. SCBWI hosts many. The ABLA Big Sur Conference has an outstanding reputation. In Portland the Willamette Writers hold a very good conference every August. I’d love to have people recommend a favorite conference or writing class in the comments. Don’t overlook your local community college. Some of the best teaching is done at community colleges. Sometimes when you are ready to take your work to the next level the investment in a regular class with good instructor feedback is what it takes to get you there.

5. And I’ve found one of the best ways to really master an aspect of the craft of writing is to teach a class on that topic. Teaching forces you to think through problems in a way you tend to resist when you are just having a conversation with yourself in your own writing space. When I was really stuck on differentiating the three characters in Second Fiddle who are all the same age, same gender, and play classical music, I decided to teach a class on deeper character development and came up with a workshop I call Character and the Seven Deadly Sins. I don’t think I could have finished that book without developing the workshop. Whether or not you actually teach the workshop, thinking through a story problem in terms of teaching it to others is often helpful. Local SCBWI conferences are always in need of new presenters with fresh material, so don’t be shy about applying to be a presenter . If the exercise helped you finish a book, odds are it will help other people too.

And speaking of teaching, we’ve come to the shameless self-promotion portion of this blog post.

I’ll be teaching a course for beginning writers of MG and YA fiction called Vampire Free Fiction: writing real world novels for young readers. It is an online class sponsored by The Loft Literary Center and it’s running from June 17th to August 11th. I chose this time slot specifically so that it will be easier for a full time teacher or librarian to take the class over summer break and there is a scholarship available to one lucky teacher who applies, so if you are looking for a way to get started on the novel of your dreams or finally finish a project you’ve been nibbling at for years, I hope you’ll give this class or another like it a try. More information about that at the Loft Literary Center

How about you? What do you do to fill the well of your creative life? Do you have a favorite class, workshop or conference to recommend? How about a good book about the craft of writing? Shout outs in the comments please!

Wisdom from the Second Grade: Writers’ Tools

One of the things I love about school visits is that I get to go to classrooms all over the country and meet wonderful students and teachers. There are some comforting universals to a grade school classroom: a certain amount of clutter, a map, the alphabet along the wall. And then there are delightful surprises: a pet iguana, a stunning view of the wilderness, a reading loft, a tank of salmon fry to be released in a local stream, a flag flown by a student’s father over his army camp in Afghanistan. It’s a window into the thoughts and values of the community I’m visiting.

I recently visited a second grade classroom where I saw two student made posters on the wall. The first was titled Writer’s Tools in the Hand. Underneath was an illustrated list: paper, pencil, eraser, dictionary, word list, and illustration tools. It was a good reminder to take a moment before I begin my writing session of the day to have all the tools I need at hand. I especially liked the word list idea. I know many teachers help their students brainstorm a list of likely words before they start a writing assignment. Though I don’t need that technique, I have used a variation of it. Every writer has word habits, words or phrases that pop up more often than they should. I have about a half dozen that I lean on more than I should, so I make a word list of them and post it over my workspace to remind me to make stronger word choices and not lean over much on the familiar.

It was the second poster that really struck me though. It was titled: Writers’ Tools in the Head and Heart. The list included: thinking, good ideas, awareness, fun attitude, information, concentration, quiet or silence.

There are so many things to love about that list, and perhaps most importantly that writing well engages both the head and the heart. I love it that thinking comes before good ideas, an excellent reminder. Sometimes I have to think about a scene for days, even months, before I have a good idea about how to fix it.

Awareness is a tricky idea, I asked a group of the 2nd graders who had made the poster what they thought awareness meant. They said that it meant you should pay attention to all your ideas about a story not just the shiny, easy ideas that were in the last story you read. Excellent advice!

Fun attitude might just be the best advice of all though. If my writing isn’t going well, it’s almost always because I’ve lost the joy of it. Loss of joy may not be the cause of bad writing, but it is at least the reliable companion of bad writing. And when I change to a more positive and playful outlook, the writing reliably improves.

Information and concentration are ideas I’ve been learning to use as a pair. I love research so much, I could spend all my time chasing the next dazzling fact and completely lose track of my story in my zeal to fill it up with the amazing details I’ve learned. But sometimes what I need is not more information but concentration on the research I’ve already done.

Finally I love it that quiet and silence are not the same thing. Sometimes I need absolute silence for a particular task. Reminding myself to turn off the music for the duration of the task helps. Other times I just need the quiet of my brain focusing on just one thing, not email, not social networks, not housework or snacks but simply the quiet of letting myself be a writer and nothing else for a few hours–a true gift!

So how about you? Do you have a favorite tool of the hand, head, or heart? I’d love to hear about them in the comments.

Ruff Ruff READ!

We love to watch middle-graders emerge as fluent readers. No longer focused on decoding and sounding out every syllable, a strong reader basks in the glory of a great story.

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But reading doesn’t come easy for everyone– it was a huge struggle for me and look at me now! (Okay you can’t REALLY look at me but I’m a true blue book lover and an author.)

Many non-readers must break through two barriers to become book lovers- Confidence and Practice. But practice… that old try and try again… can lead to frustration instead of success. And confidence? How can emergent readers build that? These days an amazing reading scheme is spreading across the country, one I wish had been around when I was consigned to the Sparrow reading group. Known by various names including RUFF, BARK, Puppy Dog Tales, Reading With Rover and R.E.A.D. it all comes down to reading to a dog!

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Cute, right? Reading aloud to a dog takes reading anxiety away… and replaces it with cuddles. Gentle reading dogs can boost a fearful child’s social skills, too, as he or she interacts with a friendly, engaged animal often for the first time.

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But these programs are MUCH more than cute. They really work and their effectiveness has been clinically proven. Corrine Serra Smith wrote her doctoral dissertation analyzing a Sit Stay Read program in urban Chicago and found “students in the program group… gaining 8 words per minute more on average, but up to 14 words per minute more in some cases, than students in a comparison group. This represents a 20 percent improvement in the program group over the comparison group in oral reading fluency gain.”  A twenty percent fluency improvement- from reading to a dog! This can be life changing, transforming a child who avoids books and stumbles over words to a confident reading expert, ready to take on other classroom challenges and excel in language arts, history and even math lessons. Research has also been conducted at the University of California at Davis where in only ten weeks they found a thirty percent reading fluency improvement among home schooled students. Kids there said “I feel relaxed when I am reading to a dog because I am having fun” and “I felt like I was reading out loud faster and better.”

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What sort of dogs can participate? In some communities certified therapy animals who’ve undergone extensive obedience and other training are preferred but other places welcome any calm, well behaved (and clean!) pet. The point is a safe non-judgmental audience.

What sort of kids can participate? Obviously not every person is a dog lover but any child who’s not allergic or exceptionally fearful can benefit from reading to a dog. You need not be a struggling reader to enjoy sharing a story with a man’s best friend. This is definitely an “all join in” activity. School and libraries across the country are inviting dogs to join their reading lessons. The question isn’t whether reading to a dog is a good idea. It’s where’s the program nearest you– or how can you form a new program for your middle-grade readers.

Ready to start? The Reading With Rover site has some great tips for founding your own dog reading program. In the Washington, DC area, where I live, you can contact People Animals Love. They operate a successful pet therapy programs, including reading to dogs, all over the metro DC area. The New York Public Library supports the R.E.A.D. program. Reading to a dog has even gone international with a fantastic program in Staffordshire, England! In fact there are too many independent programs to list. To find an existing program near you I’d recommend you do a Google search with “read to a dog” and the name of your own community.

From the Mixed-Up Files can even help, with a list of our favorite “no dogs die” dog books. What canine companion can resist Because Of Winn-Dixie?

Arf! Arf! What are you waiting for? Hook up that leash, crack open your favorite book, and get reading!

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What book would you read to a dog?

Tami Lewis Brown is a big book and dog lover. Her three Cavalier King Charles Spaniels love hearing her read from her works in progress and aspire to be profession reading therapy dogs themselves.