As the essential element of music is rhythm, the essential element of the novel is yearning.
“You can not control what you do not measure.” It’s a phrase in business with murky origins. Someone is said to have coined it, but it seems that he was misquoted or a poorly paraphrased. Whatever the phrase’s beginnings, its meaning is profound.
There is a time to be unaware of one’s position: a dream, a moment of creation, a walk with the one you love. But I have discovered that if I do not gauge my progress, I am likely to make little of it. I count my pages now. I focus on milestones and personal deadlines. It’s made a huge difference in my writing. Everything counts, not with the same level of importance, but it matters nonetheless.
Eighth-grade Critique Group
This was the second round of criticism for these students. They read a very early version of The Inventors’ Daughter – so early, in fact, that it was called Erin Isabelle and the Wicked Uncle. All of those who read the first draft were invited by their teacher Brian to read the second. I don’t know if one can draw a strong conclusion from this, but only girls volunteered to critique the rewrite.
As you can tell from the photograph, they are a wonderful and spirited group, and they were very generous in their opinions and support. Though their comments were somewhat more detailed, they agreed with the assessment of the fifth-grade group entirely. (See next post above.) Those points were exactly what I was looking for. I tend to ignore a single person’s comments, unless they resonate with my own feelings. But I take the unanimous enthusiasm for the work and the pinpoint critiques of sixteen middle-grade readers very seriously indeed.
One thing that inspired me about this group is how close they are. Obviously they know one another well after at least three years together, but there is something else. The very fact that they volunteered to re-read a manuscript demonstrates a shared intellectual curiosity and enthusiasm for exchanging ideas that is a credit to their school, their teacher and most especially to themselves.
I finished my outline for the new story today. It took me a couple of weeks, but I’m satisfied that writing it was a good idea.
I have mixed feelings, not about the outline itself, but about knowing so much about the plot. The less you know about your journey the more exciting it is. But, as any veteran traveller can tell you, there is a danger in not knowing what’s ahead.
There are two good things about this outline:
Firstly, I won’t end up retreating from blind alleys having forgotten important aspects that must be brought forward. No stranger to this behavior, I’ve spent many days reworking the messes I’ve gotten myself into.
Secondly, with plot in hand, I can concentrate on the richer characters that a solid story can support. Hopefully I will be able delve deeper into the circumstance, behavior and dialog of each. Laborious and difficult as a writing an outline can be, these three-thousand words may save this writer the frustration and indignation of the dreaded page-one rewrite.
Last week the outline to my new novel was a mare’s nest of plot threads. Or perhaps a bridge to nowhere would be a better metaphor. The SCBWI conference., notably Steven Malk’s talk, has energized me to do a better job.
One problem I’ve had historically with this process is my anxiety over the word outline. The term denotes an empty shape. A hollow thing. It connotes the tedious list my dreary teachers and professors forced me to write.
My process in this past week was to simplify and focus the plot. It was drowning in recursive complications. After ripping out the unwanted text, the storyline now has loads of room to roll out an organic sequence of events with believable character development.
Then I began to write, not a list, but a warm narrative of the action. Though I laid the plot points out in chronological order, I composed them from the edges toward the center, leaving open spaces to be filled in as a write the text itself. From this narrative I should be able to create a bulleted list to make even the most stern professor proud.
This is an excellent SCBWI Washington event with over 400 attendees. The highlight for me is six breakout sessions on writing, editing and publishing. These are very helpful, as is the chance to meet editors, agents and a host of local and nationally known writers. Mostly, though I’m in it for what I can learn.
The weekend is beautiful. No rain. Sunny and 75. Seattle really is one of the best places to be in the world in the summer.
I’ve learned a great deal about writing from reading. You are what you read. Everyone says it. Stephen King in his On Writing, for one. John Lennon became the songwriter he was by listening to stacks and stacks of pop 45’s.
And yet, good writing doesn’t just come from reading, nor education by itself. Satisfactory writing, for me at least, comes through quite a lot of unsatisfactory writing. It’s easy to beat yourself up about it. Indeed, I’ve gone to the school of self-flagellation wearing my sack cloth and ashes. By in large, that time was wasted. Vanity and modesty are both illusory.
Good writing comes in the effort of making your imagination clear. Clarity informs everything. It tells you what is overstated, ommited and overdramatized. To be clear is to tell a tale or sing a song without deviation, and isn’t that what we all look for in art?
And patience can’t be underestimated, for it implies two qualities one brings to a piece: First, the dignity of labor. To be patient means you will show up on time with a willingness to work for as long as it takes. Patience further suggests that you will leave your negative nature behind and not infect the words with it.
The photograph, by the way, is of my granddaughter Erin who at three-years-old exhibits a remarkable degree of clarity and patience in so much that she does – especially her storytelling. As an example when she was barely two, she created an imaginary sister named Wall. Her hands and feet are mermaids and such. Each has a name and a set of traits. She has stories about them all, and talks to them regularly. The remarkable thing is how clearly she remembers each vignette and how consistent are the properties of each character. I know this because when I confuse them, she corrects me with an all but imperciptible show of exasperation. She is my inspiration.
Here is a quote from The Inventors’ Daughter series website in which I describe my collaboration with famed Dream City writer S. E. Hunt. (S. E. is a very close relation. In fact we could hardly be closer.)
Every night – very, very late – I fly high above the clouded moonlit ocean from Seattle to Dream City, never quite sure whether Professor Spotworth’s buzzing, sputtering Astral Phaeton will stay aloft for the entire frigid, buffeted journey. Once there, I join S. E. in a gloomy, back-alley coffee shop where we scribble, shout and toss notes at one another from opposite ends of a long, battered table.
Why have a collaborator? Don’t get me wrong. I’m used to working alone, and I tried my best to research Dream City and write the book by myself. I was shown the shark-shaped Aquarium. I joined the Jupiter Space Museum, a five-story glass ball resembling the striped planet with the hurricane-eye riding on its equator. I even travailed up to the Tripod observation deck where I could look down seven-hundred feet onto the three Dream Islands below.
But it was no use. I could tell the stories alright, but the pages were as dry as a Pharaoh’s mummy. No, I needed a partner who was not only a good writer, but a resident of Dream City and someone who actually knew the brave and clever Erin Isabelle Becker-Spotsworth. I believe our collaboration, though quite stormy, has yielded far richer tales than I myself could have ever told alone, or he by himself for that matter.
I recommend to all writers that they occassionally take the opportunity to join a fellow scribbler and see if one plus one does not equal … well, who knows what?
I suppose not knowing is rather the point, wouldn’t you say?
I’m a Seattle writer currently working on The Inventors’ Daughter series, a collection of children’s books for middle readers ages 8-12. I’ve completed the first book, The Inventors’ Daughter, and am now working on the Timearang Pirates*.
Erin Isabelle, my protagonist, is an eleven-year-old girl whose rather difficult job it is to protect her inventor parents from the world – and the world from their unpredictable inventions. Neither genius nor superhero, she is a good hearted kid who, like any other, has homework and friends and lots of problems with her parents. The series is for young readers who enjoy science fiction, action, villains, amazing inventions, friendship, pirates and … well, lots more I can’t talk about yet.
More about the series can be found at www.TheInventorsDaughter.com
My writer’s website is at www.SperryHunt.com
* Timearang Pirates is a working title for the second in the Inventors’ Daughter Series.