Archive for November, 2012

Growing a story: The art of doing nothing

How much time do you spend doing nothing? Nothing as in being by yourself without the TV on, without your phone or computer or even a book. If you want to write, learning to do nothing is an important skill to develop.

In her book If You Want to Write, Author Brenda Ueland calls this “moodling” time. Moodling is letting your mind wander and explore without distraction, allowing it to work out problems and find ideas.

I was moodling one day a few years ago in my house in Iowa. There was a picture on the wall of my great-grandparents on a rickety porch with chickens running around in the yard. I looked at that picture and let my mind wander for a long while.

I let one thought lead to another and then another, from that photo to a tombstone in a prairie cemetery with the name I’d misread as “Tugs Button,” to my grandmother and her long gangly arms and something her father had said to her once about not getting a swell head.

The thoughts piled one on top of another until an idea sprouted. I took that idea for a walk in the woods and let it grow a little taller. I sat again in front of the picture until the idea bloomed, then I picked up a pen and started scrawling loose sentences.

All the time that may have looked to an observer like I was being unproductive, I was actually growing a story that turned into three books about the comically unlucky Button family: The Luck of the Buttons, Button Down, and a third that I’m writing and moodling over now.

Do you want to write? Put down your pen, turn off the TV and radio and computer and phone. It’s time to do nothing!

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Of Pie and Poetry

Tomorrow (today for you) is the Thanksgiving holiday in America. Families and friends gather for turkey dinner with stuffing, cranberries, mashed potatoes, gravy, candied sweet potatoes, green bean casserole, dinner rolls, corn bread, jello salad, green salad…

And after all that? Pie. Pumpkin pie, pecan pie, mincemeat pie, chess pie, apple pie. You get the idea. A feast.

I have a particular fondness for pie, as anyone who’s read my books may have noticed. Pie appears in all four of my published novels as well as the novel I’m working on now. I didn’t set out to write about pie, but clearly it’s on my mind a lot. Look back at stories you’ve written. Do your favorite things make frequent appearances?

Pie takes front stage in The Luck of the Buttons when we discover that the comically unlucky Button family gathers for pie whenever there’s trouble. And the Buttons find themselves in trouble a lot. The pie eating (and trouble) continue in Button Down.

Pie in my life is nothing but good luck, and I’ll be baking my a pumpkin pie tomorrow, my favorite. I will give thanks for readers like you who make me want to write books.

Because every celebration deserves a poem, I’ll share with you one of my favorite poems of thanks from childhood.

The Sun by John Drinkwater

I told the Sun that I was glad,

I’m sure I don’t know why;

Somehow the pleasant way he had

Of shining in the sky,

Just put a notion in my head

That wouldn’t it be fun

If, walking on the hill, I said

“I’m happy” to the Sun.

Happy Thanksgiving!

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Wings & Co: Operation Bunny by Sally Gardner

Emily Vole makes headline news in the first weeks of her life, when she is found in an abandoned hatbox in Stansted Airport. Then, only a few years later, her neighbour Mrs String dies leaving Emily a mysterious inheritance: an old shop, a small bunch of golden keys and a cat called Fidget. It’s the beginning of an adventure of a lifetime as the old Fairy Detective Agency comes back to life. It is up to Emily to reopen the shop, and recall the fairies to duty. Together they must embark on their first mystery and do battle with their great fairy-snatching enemy, Harpella.

Operation Bunny is a magical story, filled with a cast of wonderful characters, plenty of mystery, and a sprinkling of humour.  It’s the sort of book that you sit down to read a few chapters and end up gobbling up the whole book because you’re enchanted by Sally Gardner’s storytelling and David Roberts’ hilarious illustrations.

I fell in love with the characters straight away and I wanted to be friends with Miss String and Fidget the talking cat.  Emily is a Cinderella-type character because she gets locked away and made to do all the housework for her horrible adopted parents.  Not only are they horrible, they’re also quite stupid.  Emily’s adopted mother lets a strange lady into their house who turns her triplets into zombies, and Emily’s adopted father is a slimy wee man who’s hiding a secret and always calls his wife ‘Smoochikins.’ However, Emily is much smarter and braver than these horrible people give her credit for, and with the help of her rather unusual neighbours she escapes and starts her new life as a detective.  Fidget is my favourite character because he is always happy to help and he has the best lines (which usually involve fish of some sort), like ‘Search my sardine tin, I don’t know,’ and ‘Twiddle my whiskers and call me tuna.’  I love the way that Fidget calls Emily ‘my little ducks’ too.  Even though she doesn’t have parents that love her, she has a giant talking cat that is looking out for her always.    There are lots of other interesting characters in the story, including a mischievous bunch of keys, zombie babies, a fairy policeman, a shop with legs, a magic lamp that talks, and lots and lots of bunnies.

David Roberts illustrations are wonderful as always and help set the tone of the story.  They’re both hilarious and a little dark, and they bring Sally’s characters alive.  I especially like the personalities that David has given each of the rabbits and the suave, charming look that he’s given Fidget.

I’m so pleased that we have more adventures with Emily, Fidget and the Fairy Detective Agency, Wings & Co. to look forward to.  I can’t wait to read the next book, The Three Pickled Herrings.

5 out of 5 stars

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Tiny Collections

I am a collector of small things. One of the great things about being a writer is that even a hobby like collecting can be part of the job. Do you like to write? Here are a three collections you could start for yourself.

I’ve been collecting postcards and photographs since my great aunt started sending me art postcards before I could read or write. Hundreds of postcards and photographs fit nicely in a shoebox. Read my last post to discover how collecting images inspires my writing.

In elementary school I started collecting names. The smallest notebook has space for dozens of names. Characters like LeRoy Pence (Dear Papa), Harold Sylvester George Klein (Little Klein), and Verlon Leek (Button Down) were inspired by names I collected as far back as 3rd grade. Whenever you hear a name that you like the sound of, or is interesting to you, write it down.

And my favorite tiny collection? Words. I keep my words on small slips of paper in an ordinary jar. Sometimes a word just strikes my fancy and I’ll write it down: labyrinth. If I’m feeling verb-y, I’ll go to a cookbook and write down all the action words: mix, stir, whisk, sift… Sometimes I start thinking of a group of words and add a bunch at once. Recently I added words I like saying out loud: Iowa, Ohio, Maori, autumn, iota, swift, oriel, oleo.

I started collecting words with my writers group several years ago. We drew words from our word jars each time we met, then each of us would write something using the same four words for our next meeting.

Every chapter in Little Klein was written using those word jar words. Harold turns out to be sickly so I could  have his mother warm a teakettle day and night. A storm arose when I had to use the word wind. 

If you like to write, I think you’ll have as much fun as I do collecting pictures, names, and words. Better yet, grab a friend and start collecting together. Then watch your writing soar!

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Dear Papa by Anne Ylvisaker

Dear Papa by Anne Ylvisaker is about a family who live during the Second World War. Isabelle Anderson is nine years old when she begins writing to her father, who died a year ago.

The Anderson family has changed since her father’s death; Isabelle’s two older sisters have got boyfriends, her little sister Ida doesn’t seem to remember their Papa, and her Mama has sold Papa’s gas station to the next-door-neighbours. Everyone is beginning to move on after the tragedy, but Isabelle is confused. Why are her family trying to forget Papa? She writes to her father constantly, keeping him up to date with the changes that are occurring.

As the months go by, the family starts to be dragged apart even more. Mama insists on sending Isabelle to her religious aunt and uncle in the country. Isabelle yearns for her family, and writes to Papa for comfort, plotting to escape from her prison and find her way home.

The war has altered Mama to the point that she is unrecognisable. She has got a job, has moved into the home of a man called Frank, and gets cross with Isabelle if she mentions Papa. Will Isabelle ever be able to say goodbye to Papa and accept her new life?

Dear Papa is a wonderful book. Something that I found interesting was how it was written in the form of a collection of letters from Isabelle to her mother, siblings, aunt, and of course Papa. I think this was a fantastic way to write the book, because by reading the letters you learn about various characters from Isabelle’s point of view.

When Isabelle moves to live with her aunt and uncle, I almost feel sorry for Aunt Jaye and Uncle Bernard when Isabelle decides that if she misbehaves, she will be sent back home. She then misbehaves as much as she can, while her aunt and uncle despair. It’s interesting reading a story from a nine-year-old’s point of view; everything seems so bizarre to her.

This book is an awesome historical fiction novel. I give it a 9 out of 10. It’s funny, fascinating, happy and sad at the same time; a curious mix that means you have no idea what will happen next. I loved Dear Papa, I know that you will too!

Reviewed by Tierney Reardon.

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Picture Your Story

DEAR PAPA is fiction, but it was inspired by family photographs, three of which appear on the cover of the book.

Say two writers get this assignment: Write about an elephant.

One writer thinks: What happens to the elephant? 

The other thinks: Who is the elephant? 

One writer starts by considering story, the other by considering character.

I am the second kind of writer. I can’t start writing a story until I know my main character.

So where do characters come from? For me, it all begins with pictures. After my first post, commenter Ella shared that she’d read Dear Papa, so I’ll use Dear Papa as an example.

My grandpa died when my mom and her siblings were young so I never met him. I asked my aunt once what he was like. She started by telling me that she wrote a letter to him before he died when she was in fifth grade. I asked to see the letter but we couldn’t find it. What we found instead were boxes of old family photographs.

I was particularly taken with a picture of my aunt as a child. This looks like a girl who could have an adventure, I thought. As is my way, I misremembered the facts and thought she’d told me that she had written her father a letter after he died.

I couldn’t stop thinking about that girl and her letter. So, with the photo taped on my computer screen in front of me, I wrote a letter like I thought she might have written, made up a name for her, then invented an adventure for her and just kept writing.

Here’s a writing game for you:

Look for a childhood picture of one of your parents or grandparents, aunts or uncles. Spend some time imagining what they might have been like as a child.

Study the picture and ask yourself, what could have been happening right before the picture was taken, what might have happened afterwards? Then set your timer (see last post) and see where your imagination takes you!

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Trick and Treat

Hello from Monterey, California! I’m writing to you from yesterday. Christchurch is twenty hours ahead of Monterey, so you’ve reached November before me. How is it so far? I am thrilled to be on a virtual visit to New Zealand this month as your November Star Author.

Since it is Halloween in California, I’ll begin with a writing trick and a reading treat.

Do you ever have trouble getting started writing? Maybe it’s an essay for school and you just can’t come up with the first line, or a story that is fantastic in your imagination, but you can’t seem to get it onto the page. Getting started is my number one writing challenge.

The next time you’re stuck, try the timer trick:

Grab the kitchen timer. Get paper and pen or open a new document on your computer.

Ready? Now set the timer for 15 minutes and press start. Write as fast as you can, without stopping, without erasing, until that timer buzzes.

Don’t worry about spelling. Don’t worry about getting the facts right. Perfection is not the goal. This is a draft. Just write. You’ll be surprised what tumbles out of your head and onto the page. If 15 minutes feels daunting, start with 5.

Look for more writing tips this month, as well as the story of where my stories come from, and maybe even a word game or two.

For now I’ll leave with you with a treat. The sweetest reading treat of all: a poem.

Like Christchurch, Monterey is bordered by hills and the Pacific Ocean. Fog hovers out my morning window as I write, so here is a fog poem by Carl Sandburg:

FOG
 
The fog comes
on little cat feet
 
It sits looking
over harbor and city
on silent haunches
and then moves on.

 

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