Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Motivating Yourself - Just Try!

(from Turbo Monkey Tales archives)

"The aim, if reached or not, makes great the life." -Robert Browning

In a writers' workshop a few years ago, the leader asked us to stand up and twist around as far as we could, and then note how far we had turned. Then we did it again, but this time before we twisted we chose a spot farther than we'd reached the first time. You know what? The second time, everyone reached their farther point. The difference was that for the second time, we set a goal and were motivated to reach it.

Chances are, many of us have set goals for 2014. Now here we are, nearing the end of summer, and we may be having trouble reaching those goals--or we're wondering how to go about reaching them. 

A few years ago I read a story about Beverly Cleary that inspired me to try new things. When Beverly Cleary was a young girl, she entered an essay contest because her mother had always encouraged her to try new things. She won the contest, and learned from that experience always to try, regardless of the certainty of the outcome.

After reading that, I adopted the "Just Try" method for doing many things that seemed impossible to accomplish. And it worked! I found that just trying frees me from the paralysis of fear and self-doubt; it allows me to explore, to play with ideas and directions, and to go beyond what makes me feel comfortable. "Just Try" includes the possibility--and acceptance--of failure and looking foolish, thereby dissolving their power over me. I've danced more, sketched more, sung more, traveled more, written more, explored more, experienced more--accomplished more--than I would have by wishing or dreaming about them.

Here are 4 simple steps for trying anything:

1. Write down what you want to try.
2. Imagine yourself doing it. What does that look like? How will you feel?
3. Imagine yourself accomplishing it. What does that look like? What rewards come with it? How will you feel?
4. Try doing it. You don't have to do it perfectly or be the best at it, or even finish it--you just have to try doing it.

You'll find that whether or not #3 comes true, you will have done #2--which has its own rewards and is a lot further than #1.

What do you do to motivate or inspire yourself?

Friday, August 15, 2014

Awakening Memories for Authentic Writing

(from Turbo Monkey Tales archives)
Memories are practical and efficient things, serving us when we want them. We don't lose them; they just go to sleep until something pokes them awake. Recently I read the memoir of a writer who had grown up in New England, as I did, at about the same time as I did. Her experiences of being in college, listening to the music, watching the TV shows, wearing the clothing and hairstyles, knowing the weather, and the smells and sounds all felt so familiar. And as I recalled from her text how the mosquitoes came out at dusk and how fresh-cut hay smelled in summer, and how the frigid winter air dried your nose the moment you inhaled, and the sound of music wafting across a college quad once spring blossoms, other memories emerged which were uniquely mine.

I also remembered that when I was four or five, I'd slip into bed beside my mother every morning and slide my arm under her neck. I remembered sitting on the back stoop of my grandmother's house after supper, lingering over a Pepperidge Farm cherry turnover while crickets sang in the field across the road. I remembered the places in the arms of my grandfather's chair where the varnish had worn away, the flavor of water drunk from a garden hose, and that I used to imagine our neighborhood, which was laid out in an oval, was one giant merry-go-round.

Whether we write for kids or adults, whether our stories are set in reality or a different world, the present or the past, details like these are what infuse our stories with authenticity and personality. But how can we coax those sleeping memories awake, especially if they've been snoozing for years? Here are some ideas:
  • Listen to music from that time in your life.
  • Look at magazines or catalogs from that time. Paging through old Sears catalogs, which I buy on ebay, often trigger my memories.
  • Find smells from that time. Old Spice reminds me of my dad, and the original Avon face cream reminds me of my mom.
  • Ask someone who was with you then, like your sister or brother or cousin or best friend, what they remember.
  • Sit with a notebook and pen and write a list, or draw a bubble diagram as fast as you can of a particular place or person or event.
  • Read a diary or journal you kept, or letters you or someone else wrote at that time.
  • Read your favorite book from then. Recently I reread A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, which a teacher had recommended to me. Although reading it as an adult gave me a different perspective from when I was young, I also remembered how particular parts of the book had impressed the young me.
  • Visit a place you lived in or visited often. It's astounding how much you'll remember--details will fight each other for your attention.

As your memories awaken from their deep sleep, you'll discover this very cool thing that happens--they appear as fresh and new as when they first happened, without the tarnish of use.

What do you do to spark memories for your stories?

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Happy Birthday to Found Things!

Today my middle-grade novel Found Things goes out into the world.
Although at times it felt like a long gestation, all the time it was a labor of love.

Happy Birthday, little book of my heart!


Friday, July 04, 2014

The Genesis of a Novel

A few days ago, my publisher asked me to write a few paragraphs describing the beginnings of Found Things, my debut middle-grade novel. We all know that stories don't appear out of thin air; they don't materialize from nothing. I knew that too, but I felt honestly tongue-tied--or, for a writer, finger-tied--to describe how or why this story began in a way that would sound interesting to other people.

Over the next five days, I tried and tried, but after filling five single-spaced pages, everything I wrote sounded hollow. I had promised my publisher something, though, and when I promise something, I deliver. Then, one afternoon as I drove home from work, I began talking to myself in the car, answering the question "Why did I write this book?" And something about being alone and steering and braking and accelerating helped me remember the seed of Found Things, its genesis, and why I love this story as I do.

Here's what I sent to my publisher:

I began writing Found Things during a break in writing another novel. For quite a while I'd been thinking about the idea of miracles--why some people call everyday occurrences miracles, and other people do not. For example, why did people of only the Catholic faith see Mary in things like rock formations and food, while others saw only a pile of rocks or a piece of bread? Then it dawned on me that those who find miracles are looking for them--and expecting them--and so they recognize miracles when they see them. (In Found Things, Mama says something like that: you won’t find it unless you know what you’re looking for.)

As I thought about all this, a character appeared to me--a girl who talked like she was from the South (U.S.), though I knew she didn't live there--and the image of her emerging from a river. I didn't know why she had been in the river or why she talked the way she did, but I began writing what she had to say just as she said it, and trusted that the story would reveal itself if I listened carefully.

Eventually I knew more about this girl: her brother had recently disappeared, which tore her family apart; she felt different from everyone else at school; although she was afraid of water, she collected broken things that washed up on the riverbanks and made beautiful collages from them; she wished she had a best friend; she wanted to believe in miracles. And her name was River.

I was raised in Massachusetts but spent a lot of my childhood in Henniker, New Hampshire, the small town where my grandparents lived. The Contoocook River runs through the town, and a covered bridge crosses the river. As I wrote Found Things, I pictured Henniker, heard the gentle voices there, and remembered the magic of being eleven, when miracles happen all the time.

If you're writing a novel, or have finished writing your book, or are in the middle of writing it and have come to resent it, remembering why you began writing it--those first glimmers, the first seeds--may help you fall in love with the story all over again.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Planning a Book Launch Party - Part 1

My debut middle-grade novel, Found Things, is done. Drafting is done, revisions are done, copyediting is done, proofreading is done. The beautiful jacket is done, the interior is designed. The pages are printed and the books are bound. What was once the glimmer of an idea in my mind is now a book I can hold in my hands or on my iPad. And the hands and minds and hearts of so many people went into making this idea a book. Whenever I think of that, it amazes and humbles me again and again.

So now that the book is done, and about to be launched into the world (on July 15), it's time to plan a party. But I've never done this before, and I have so many questions!

  • Where? Bookstore, library, restaurant, hotel, private home...?
  • When? Weekday, weekend, evening, afternoon, morning...?
  • Who? That's easy--everyone :) But, will I ask someone to take photos? Take care of other duties that I'll be too preoccupied to handle? 
  • What? I mean, what do you do at a book launch party? What can I do that will be interesting and fun?
  • How? Do I want refreshments? (I definitely want a cake) Prizes? (yes) Favors? (if they're ready on time) 
At this moment, all I know is Why--to celebrate my book and all the hard work that so many people put into making it come to life. The rest I'll figure out over the next few weeks.