For quite a while now I've said that I don't write fiction, I write friction. I love this cartoon by Jan Eliot because it illustrates my theory. Writing as well as life is all about conflict, and it's about taking "the truth" and all of the rawness and ugliness and grating it like a beet on a razor's edge until you have the bloody ingredients for a soup of story- satisfying and staining.
I'm not saying that you have to torture yourself in order to write, but I must admit that having a difficult childhood, or going through trauma, or living on that roller coaster- not that merry-go-round makes for much better fodder for books. If everything went well, if things were always sliding smoothly in teflon-coated protective barriers- there would be nothing interesting to report. We learn by our mistakes and our failures, and we love to learn from others' mistakes and failures. It's like watching that train wreck from the safety of your living room.
I have taken Robert McKee's "Story Seminar, " which takes place in three ten-hour days. Your butt will hate you, but your brain will thank you for surviving it. Yes, this lecture is aimed at screenwriters, but it will help anyone who wants to write, as will the book, "Story," that basically is the seminar in book form. One of the many things that stuck with me- (no teflon here) is the concept of ever-increasing conflict in story structure. Your main character must continuously surmount levels of conflict that get worse and worse, and challenge the character more and more, until the ultimate climax, and swift resolution.
That is friction, my friends. And that is life. I don't know about you, but when things quiet down for me- in those very rare moments, I don't breathe a sigh of relief. I sit on pins and needles. I look down the tunnel. I wonder when that next train is coming. Will I get to watch it go by, or is it coming for me? Imbue your writing with that kind of anxiety, and you'll keep your readers turning pages. When the book sells, then you can coat yourself with teflon, or sun screen and go lie on a beach for a couple of weeks.
And don't forget to change the names.
Ann Denial (that's my name in anagram form.)
Tools. Everyone needs tools. Most tools are tangible objects, and lord knows, I love objects. I think I horde art and office supplies. Send me to a conference and I'll come home with more post-it note pads than I can ever use in a lifetime. Pens, too.
Tools can also be objects like books. I horde those too. I have stacks, piles, teetering towers of books. There is no method of organization, but one rainy day I attempted to round up a large swarm of books on writing. Those are excellent tools to have, to hold, to use, to recommend. I like to visit the section of those books in my living room. They make me feel confident in my abilities. They have provided comfort and help in, around and during my journey through publication.
This is the result of me using my tools. These sixteen books represent twenty-two years of my life. I've been published for almost seventeen years now. I've learned a lot over the years and over the books, in them, and around them.
The other tool I use is not tangible. I can't stack it. I can't hold it. But I sure can recommend it. That tool is: workshops. Whether you attend the wonderful conferences held by the SCBWI, (Society of Children's Book Writers & Illustrators for those uninitiated.) or go to other inspiring writers and/or illustrators conferences- for example: The Chuckanut Writers Conference in Bellingham, WA. (Yes, that was a shameless plug. I'm teaching at that conference.)
Workshops give you tools. Tools to expand your thinking and understanding of the medium. Workshops give you confidence in your abilities, or help you see where you need to work on things. Workshops get you out of your head and help you see the whole picture. They give you perspective. Folks seem to think it is easy to write children's picture books. It is not. Amazing author/illustrator Adam Rex did a funny blog post about this the other day. You can read it here.
These are very competitive times in children's publishing and you must arm yourself for the journey if you want to see your story make it all the way to the shelves and the tottering towers of books in my house, or other houses.
So, that said, I offer a remedy. A carrot. And a very inexpensive one at that. (Some workshops can be quite pricey, but I still do not regret the money I spent to take Robert McKee's Story Seminar in LA years ago.) I will be teaching a very intense full-day workshop titled, "Creating Children's Picture Books" next Saturday, May 21st from 9am - 4pm at Whatcom Community College in beautiful Bellingham, Washington. The cost for six hours, plus a working lunch if you so desire (I'll do short critiques during the one hour lunch break- as long as you let me chew and swallow my sandwich.)- this whole deal costs $75. You can read more about the class by going here and scrolling down to my class title. You can register here. My workshop is number S8104.
I don't do these workshops very often. At this point it's been once a year. I do have stacks and teetering piles of unfinished book project of my own that I'm constantly working on, polishing, revising and that keeps me from teaching more... but I do love to share my knowledge, so if you are at all interested, come and join me next Saturday. We'll have fun, and I'll make sure you go home with new tools to use.
To be a writer and/or illustrator means you have to develop a thick skin. Sort of the thickness of a wet suit. You also have to be loose in the hips, and ready to brace yourself at any given moment.
Just like kayaking. That's me in my Current Designs caribou kayak. I've had peaceful paddles and I've had scary ones, but so far I haven't capsized. (at least accidentally- I've capsized on purpose to practice wet exits and entries.) The beauty of kayaking is that if you are prepared and smart, you can experience the beauty and exhilaration of life on the edge of the world of water. You can go places you can't go in a motor boat or a sailboat. You become one with the surface, drafting only mere inches. Seals and otters check you out. Fish jump next to you. Eagles cast shadows on your deck.
...and you can land on tiny islands and explore the nooks and crannies of low tide wonders, and the far away corners of your imagination.
But in order to get there, you may have some mighty nervous moments. Winds can pick up and change directions. Giant tankers, or tug boats and barges the size of a mall can churn past, welling up a wake that would be good surf in Hawaii. There are tide rips that sound like waterfalls- and they are- just under the surface. There can be tricky eddy lines, boils, even whirlpools. Deception Pass has all of this and more. Just go stand on the bridge and watch that water moving. Sea lions play in it. Humans have drowned.
The concept here is that if you do your homework, and if you paddle wisely, you will arrive at your destination, perhaps a bit tense, but happier for having had the experience.
This is exactly how I feel about submitting books to agents and publishers. (you knew there was an analogy somewhere here, didn't you?) I feel like a cat in a kayak when I send out my work to my agent and even more so when she sends my work out to publishers.
Like kayaking, I have prepared. I've tried my best to pick the best route, to read the charts, to listen to the weather... and then you just have to shove off. I'm a bunch of jangling nerves trying to stay loose and trying not to guess what the outcome will be... but I'm sure you have felt this way: there are two little spirits that ride on my shoulders, whispering in my ears. The bad spirit says, "what if nobody wants it?" (doom and gloom and you go down with your little boat) and the good spirit says, "what will you wear on Oprah?" (not the wet suit, although it may come in handy)
Submitting your work is a yin and yang experience. Good and bad. Joyful and painful. It is a journey, not a destination, and you have to learn to enjoy the journey.
So what do you do while you are treading water wondering if anyone will read your work, let alone like it? How do you stay grounded? I don't have the ultimate answers here- but I know what works for me:
Exercise- whether it is walking or something more vigorous- will quell and calm those nerves.
Reading- escape into the work of others- others who have successfully navigated those waters.
Writing/Illustrating/Journaling- get back on that horse, or in that kayak and start the next journey.
You can, of course, sip cocktails with your significant other and watch the sunset- and realize that life is good because you are here and able to say that you did the work, you deserve a rest, and you can congratulate yourself just for getting that far.
That said, my YA novel, "Jacked" is going out to publishers today. I'm going to put on my wet suit and start paddling, but I've packed my journal and my camera, and some lovely wine. I hope I'll land somewhere safe and sound in a few weeks or so.
How do you deal with submissions? I'd love some good stories to keep me company as I try to stay afloat...
I didn't want to write about this now. Not at a point when everything is in bloom. There is a sense of birth, of newness, of growth, as spring has finally arrived in the cold, wet northwest. Our Gravenstein apple tree has been woken up from a winter's rest. Yet there has also been a lot of death lately. Today's news of Osama bin Laden's death brought things to a head.
No, I'm not grieving over his death, nor am I celebrating it. I am a New Yorker by birth, born in Manhattan. I also went through personal hell because of him, and was put on the "no-fly list" for years because of my last name, which is Polish in origin. (It used to be Ladinski, but my great-grandfather, Louis changed it to Laden- pronounced "Lay-den," to be "more American.") I know my problems are infinitesimal compared to so many who have grieved for their family losses because of September 11th. Also those who grieve for family lost to the war that keeps going. Now the current news will make them feel that pain even more so.
Honestly, I am writing this for close friends who are grieving. My friends Shauna James Ahern and husband Danny Ahern, as well as friend, Tara, are grieving for the loss of Kim Ricketts this past week because of multiple myeloma. She was 53. My mom died of the same blood cancer just weeks after she turned 54. That was twenty-five years ago.
Of course it makes me think of my mom. The grieving never really stops. You just find ways to deal with it.
My friend Bobbi lost her dad this past Wednesday. It was to be expected, he had been ill for some time, and he had a long and good life. Lou got to die at home with his wife, Dee holding his hand. But on May 22nd, it will be one year since Bobbi lost her beloved husband, Skip, who was my husband's best friend. Skip was only 56, and they didn't know he had a congenital heart defect. He died of a heart attack. Fortunately Bobbi was there. They were at Skip's favorite place: their cabin on a lake.
We all try to do our best. To offer condolences. To make meals. We bring flowers and hugs. It's an awkward thing to try to help those who grieve. Almost six years ago one of my neighbors lost her husband. He was only 36 and had two very young children. I just couldn't comprehend the tragedy. He was out jogging, in perfect health. The coroner ruled it "sudden death." So I did the only thing I knew I could do. I wrote Annie a poem.
I have given this poem to many, many friends since then. It has been read at memorials and provided comfort. I know "Poetry Month" is over, but I believe that poems are for any time. I'd like to share this with you, and I hope you will feel like sharing it with those you know who are grieving. Writing through the pain helps me. So does sharing.
When people die
It's good to cry.
Crying is watering your heart so love can bloom.
Crying is feeding your roots so you can grow strong and tall and give others shelter.
Crying is a magic healing emotion potion.
When people die
It's good to share.
Share your memories, thoughts and dreams in pictures, words, song and dance.
Share your time with friends who will hug you like a feather bed.
Share your pain so everyone can take a little piece and help make it better.
When people die
It's good to grieve.
Grieving takes you to places deep inside where you can touch your inner beauty.
Grieving lets you know that someone special gave you a gift, and though
the person is gone, the gift won't go away.
Grieving is happiness disguised as a rainbow at night- you may not see it, but it is still there.
When people die
It's good to live.
Live richly because you carry that person with you like a vein of gold.
Live sweetly like a flower that gives its' nectar so others can live, too.
Live without fear because love will catch you if you fall.
©Nina Laden 6/05
I promise something more uplifting next post!