Saturday, November 29, 2008

"And that's really the most important part of the reservation. . ."

Watch this video and substitute the word "car" with "turkey". This is what happened when my husband and I went to the grocery store Thanksgiving morning to pick up the fresh turkey we'd reserved the week before.



There is a happy ending to the story because they ended up giving us a free (frozen) turkey to make up for their mistake. Despite the turkey mishap, it was a very enjoyable Thanksgiving holiday. Hope it was for everyone else too!

Monday, November 24, 2008

David Wroblewski Event

Saturday night I went to see David Wroblewski speak at an event hosted by Lighthouse Writers Workshop. Lighthouse Writers is a great writing organization located here in Denver. Along with hosting writer events like this one on a regular basis, they also offer a wide range of classes and workshops. I’ve taken three workshops from them in the past (two short story and one novel) and highly recommend them. They are run essentially the same way as my MFA program workshops and the creative writing workshops I took as an undergrad. Lighthouse Writers' classes are first come first served until they fill up. (There are prerequisites for the advanced classes.) And as with any workshop, it’s going to vary a bit depending on the instructor and the people who make up the class.

David Wroblewski is the author of The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, a book that has been getting a lot of praise and recognition from booksellers, prominent authors like Richard Russo and Stephen King, the New York Times bestseller list, and this lady named Oprah. And this is his first novel too, which is just mind-boggling. To have the New York Times and Oprah greet you with open arms on the other side of publishing your book? That is an incredibly rare occurrence for well-seasoned authors, let alone a debut novelist.

So David Wroblewski is a local author and when I heard the Lighthouse Writers were sponsoring an event with him, I couldn’t pass that up. I really wanted to have the book finished beforehand because they warned there might be spoilers, but I didn’t get enough of a head start on my reading. And there were spoilers too—a fairly significant one in fact. Even though I was forewarned, I was irritated about that spoiler in particular because it came when a woman in the audience was asking David Wroblewski a question and the spoiler-part was 100% unnecessary in the question she was asking. She even posed her question first and then blurted out the bit of information after she stated her question. It was like this (completely made up example, not a spoiler): Why did you decide to set this story in Wisconsin? Edgar turns into a werewolf!

I’m guessing she was one of those kids in school that was always blurting out answers just to make sure everyone else knew that she knew them.

Even though I’m griping here, it really was a wonderful event. David Wroblewski is great. He was humble and gracious, insightful and funny, and seemed truly passionate about his work—both writing and his work as a software engineer. I suppose it shouldn’t matter, but so few writers rise to the ranks of bestselling, award-winning success, and I’m one of those people who always wants the nice guys to come out on top, so it really was an extra bonus for me that I liked him as much as I did, in addition to liking his book.

He read aloud the scene in the book that is written in second person. It’s the only scene written in second person and he said when he sent the first draft to his editor he thought for sure that scene would be cut because it was such a risk, craft-wise. But the editor didn’t have a problem with it.

Another interesting tidbit about that particular scene is that it was at that point in writing the first draft that he got blocked on the book for a year and a half. Part of the reason for his getting blocked was that he had started a new job. But creatively (he realized this after the year and a half had gone by) he was struggling because he’d initially written the book in first person and was finding himself really limited by it. So he went back to the beginning and rewrote the book in third person and was able to move on.

In responding to a question about craft—I believe it was someone asking why he decided to write that scene in second—his answer was in part, “You know, I’m a first timer at this. I don’t necessarily know what I’m doing.” Which I just loved because it’s so honest. He’s in a position where he could probably get away with putting on airs about his writing. But the honesty is a lot more helpful to a fellow writer. It resonates. It’s encouraging to hear someone who’s reached this high point in their career say that they don’t know what they’re doing. Clearly he does, his book demonstrates that, but it’s a feeling that I think is quite common among writers when we’re sitting by ourselves day after day, translating this story from our imagination to paper (or computer screen) not knowing if we’re headed toward Oprah and the New York Times, or a stack of rejection letters that reaches our nose, or someplace in the middle. I think it’s common for us writers to feel in over our heads and to ask ourselves over and over and over: What the heck am I doing? Will I ever pull this off? And that tiny obnoxious voice whispers to you, “If you’re worried you can’t do this, you probably can’t.” The trick is to flick that obnoxious speaker back to the dark recesses of your mind, because worrying that you can’t accomplish something is a whole lot different than actually not being able to accomplish something. But it’s a long and lonely road writing a book, so there’s plenty of time for that obnoxious speaker to claw their way out of the dark recesses of your mind into the forefront and try to derail you once again.

So it’s incredibly gratifying to hear someone who’s come out on the other side successfully echo your same writing experiences and concerns. He went on to say writing is often intuitive, and he also made a point of talking about how he thinks any creative endeavor has to be in part exploratory and experimental, and there were a lot of ideas or things that he had tried throughout the ten years of writing this book that had fallen by the wayside and he’d since forgotten about them.

I could go on with more thoughts on David Wroblewski and what he had to say about writing, but thinking about his presentation has me itching to get back to my own novel-in-progress now. Happy writing!

Friday, November 21, 2008

Big Sur Writing Workshop Comes to Boulder, CO

Halloween weekend I attended the Big Sur in the Rockies writing workshop organized by Andrea Brown of the Andrea Brown Literary Agency and our local SCBWI. It was fantastic. Fantastic! And exactly what I needed for my writing at this moment in time. It was a weekend of total immersion in my work-in-progress. I got so lost in thinking about my story and characters that at one point, in casual conversation, someone referenced a big current event that was going on and I drew a complete blank about what they could be talking about (rhymes with “residential detection”).

The weekend workshop was modeled after the annual one that Andrea Brown runs in Big Sur, California. They keep it small so there is a good ratio of attendees to faculty. On the faculty were: Marilyn Mark, editor with Marshall Cavendish; Lyron Bennett, editor with Sourcebooks Jabberwocky; and local children’s/YA authors Lynda Sandoval, Laura Backes, Linda Arms White, Claudia Mills, Phyllis Perry, Hilari Bell, and Paul Hindman. The conference began Friday night, went from 9-9 on Saturday, and ended Sunday around 1.

The way the Big Sur conference works is you are assigned two different critique groups that each meet twice. The critique group is led by one of the faculty members. You have twenty minutes in the group to read about 5 pages of your writing and have everyone discuss it. You also are assigned a one-on-one meeting with one of the faculty members to discuss the first page of work you submitted. There’s a chunk of time set aside for revising Saturday afternoon. I also went home Friday night and wrote until 1am, then got up at 6am to write some more. By Saturday night I was pooped but I still managed to write for an extra hour once I got home.

I had the good fortune of being placed in groups with Marilyn Mark and Andrea Brown. I found it to be incredibly valuable to be able to listen to both an editor and an agent’s take on a variety of writing samples. If you think about it, these groupings of writers are a good sampling of the slush pile (I’m assuming we were all unagented—could be wrong about that) so sitting there listening to an editor and agent’s off-the-cuff feedback on not just my writing but a wide range of writing is probably about as close as you can get to being a fly on the wall of their office as they filter through the slush. Actually, it’s probably much better since in reality I would guess a fly on their wall would only hear the rustling of paper and the occasional mutter. Unless they’re in the habit of elucidating their thoughts to flies. Which seems kind of appropriate for a children’s book editor, doesn’t it? Charlotte’s Web but instead of Fern and Wilbur it’s the editor and the fly?

Andrea mentioned to our group that one negative trend she was noticing in the writing she was hearing that weekend was too many adults in the storylines. The stories were too adult-centric and her point was that kids and teens want to read about kids and teens, not adults. The funny part here was that she told us this before anyone shared their writing, and as we went around the circle we all had adults as secondary characters in the excerpts we were sharing. (Well, one person’s characters were elves and a cat so that was an exception.) I personally cringed when she talked about this trend because the chapter I had brought to share featured my 13-year-old main character and . . . three adults. Gulp. Way to make a first impression, right? But this led to a really interesting discussion about adult characters in children’s fiction, one that I continue to ponder because my story does have a lot of supporting adult characters.

Andrea referred to Harry Potter as an excellent example of a child-centered story. I agree with her because Harry, Ron, and Hermione are certainly the stars. They move the plot forward by the choices they make and the actions they take, they find their own way in and out of predicaments, and they are the ones that ultimately uncover and solve the mysteries and save the day. Not to mention the books are chock full of delicious details that would intrigue young (and older) readers--and not just the details of the magical world they inhabit, but also details about activities that resonate in most children's lives like school life, a competitive sport, and relationships with classmates. But! There are adult characters in Harry Potter. There are A LOT of adult characters in Harry Potter. (There are a lot of characters, period.) And furthermore, if you removed the adult characters from the story, the story completely falls apart. Also, some of the characters that many kids love best (Hagrid, for example) are adults.

Based on our discussion, this is how I would summarize her advice: If you can tell your story without any adult characters, do it. If your story won't work without them, keep the focus as much as you can on the children and make sure they solve all the problems themselves.

I would also add to that, just from my own thinking about this, the adults in Harry Potter work in having kid appeal in part because they are some combination of A) an obstacle to Harry and it's easy for children to identify with adults being an obstacle B) they're humorous, like the Dursleys C) they are quite childlike themselves, like Hagrid and his love for animals that often gets him into trouble, or Mr. Weasly and his childlike fascination with muggles. And then in the case of Voldemort, having the ultimate villain be an adult only increases Harry's stature as a hero. That he is the only one capable of defeating this powerful and evil leader—something not even the great Dumbledore could do--is pretty empowering to a child reader.