Monday, September 26, 2011

Mentor Monday: Writing Exercises 2 - Analyzing forms

After a long hiatus, we return to the subject of writing exercises. As you may recall, I suggested that just a musician continues to do exercises long after achieving mastery of their instrument, we as writers should not overlook the value of writing for the purpose of practicing specific skills.

The first part of today’s exercise also lends itself to the category of “warm-up exercise,” the writer’s equivalent of the scales and flourishes that a pianist runs through at the beginning of a session.

Functionally, we will be exploring the different forms that children’s stories can take. We will be both learning from the masters and developing our own voices.

To begin, choose a favorite narrative picture book. The book should be one you love, as you’re going to be spending a lot of time with it, and one that has a clear plot (Goodnight Moon would not be a good choice!)

First round: transcribe the text of the book in manuscript form. That’s right, just copy it. (If you do your own writing in longhand, copy the book in longhand.) Copying the words changes the way you see them, making you very aware of the choices the author made. Pay attention to word length, sentence length, and paragraph length. Add an extra space for each page turn.

When you are finished, take the “manuscript” and look it over. What does the manuscript look like? How many pages, how many lines to a page and words to a paragraph are there? Chances are, if you have never done this before, that you will be surprised to see how short the complete text is! You may also discover the writer used techniques such as alliteration or internal rhyming that you never noticed when just reading the book.

Now, if you have a picture book manuscript in a drawer somewhere (don’t we all?) take it out and compare it, not in content but in form. You may want to overhaul your picture book, using the copy of the old favorite as a kind of template – at this point your exercise is, of course, no longer just an exercise.

Second round: choose another favorite from different story form. This could be a storybook, a fairy tale, a narrative poem or even a magazine story. If you know of one that has a similar plot line to the picture book you did first, so much the better. Go through the same exercise as you did with the picture book: transcribe the text, then analyze it.

When you have finished, compare the new “manuscript” with the picture book manuscript from the first round. Notice the differences in the shape of the text, the word choices and sentence lengths and those other details. Highlight or circle the ways the author included details which would have been carried by the illustrations in a picture book.  Again, if you have written in this form, compare one of your manuscripts with the manuscript you have created from the published book.

Repeat this process several times, until you have created “manuscripts” for three or four different short narrative forms. For the last exercise of this part, transcribe a chapter from a middle-grade or YA novel, or a YA short-story. Do the same analysis of the text that you did for the others – shape, length, word choices, literary devices or techniques.
Third round:

By now you have created a small collection of “templates” for various narrative forms. You have developed some awareness of how they differ from one another at a very foundational level. Hopefully some of what you have learned is already informing your own work! You can, of course, repeat this process endlessly, working your way through your own shelf of favorite books or authors. No doubt we can always learn something new from each story we dissect.

The next stage of this exercise, should you choose to venture into it, is to re-write your chosen picture book in the various forms you have now explored. Write it as a storybook. Write it as a poem. Write it as an easy-reader, a magazine story, or a play. Write it as a chapter in a middle-grade novel or a scene in a YA. (You will need to add details to replace the pictures, probably add characters and actions and emotions as the age of the reader rises.) This is a lot of work; it makes the most sense to spend your time practicing on the forms of narrative that you actually write.

Reversing this process is the fourth stage of this exercise, and it’s even more challenging – take a favorite middle grade or YA book, choose a chapter and rewrite it as a storybook, then a picture book. What do you have to strip away to make the narrative simple enough for the picture book form? What would you need to trust to the illustrator’s muse?

Remember, these are intended as exercises. You COULD sit and do them, one after another, for days on end, but they’re intended to be something you work in around your own writing! By copying the work of accomplished writers, you can train your mind, not to imitate them, but to strengthen and develop your own unique style.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Poetry Friday: The Kama Sutra of Kindness: Position Number 3

It's easy to love
through a cold spring
when the poles
of the willows
turn green
pollen falls like
a yellow curtain
and the scent of
Paper Whites
the air

but to love for a lifetime

takes talent

you have to mix yourself

with the strange
beauty of someone
wake each morning
for 72,000
mornings in
a row so
breathed and
bound and
that you can hardly
sort out
your arms

you have to

find forgiveness
in everything
even ink stains
and broken

you have to be willing to move through

the way the long
grasses move
in a field
when you careen
blindly toward
the other

there's never going to be anything

straight or predictable
about your path
except the
and the springing

you just go on walking for years

hand in hand
waist deep in the weeds
bent slightly forward
like two question
and all the while it


my dear
it burns beautifully above
and goes on
like a relentless

"The Kama Sutra of Kindness: Position Number 3" by Mary Mackey, from Breaking the Fever. © Marsh Hawk Press, 2006.

 Anastasia is hosting Poetry Friday over at Picture Book of the Day. Be relentless in your pursuit of poetry.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Mentor Monday: Keeping up the Pace

I read Kathryn Stockett’s The Help while on vacation recently. I couldn’t put it down. I started to think about what that phrase, “couldn’t put it down,” means. Why is it that some books keep us up at night turning pages and preventing sleep while other books are sleep-inducing?

I believe part of the reason lies with the pacing of the novel. The story grabs you right from the start and takes you along much like the hook grabbing the front cart of a roller coaster. A good story won’t let go and just when you get to the top of the first rise, it drops you. The tension repeats and repeats until you can hardly stand it and then…the writer gives you a break. The next section you read is quieter, perhaps descriptive, giving your imagination time to catch its breath. But the ride’s not over. Soon you’re climbing another hill. You hold on, refusing to let go because you don’t want to miss a minute.

Jordan E. Rosenfeld, in a 2007 article for The Writer (February) called pacing (or the action of a story) “The Heartbeat of Fiction.” He suggested that “Scenes should be created in a physical setting that feels real, and should contain action, new information for the reader, and dramatic tension all of which is usually accomplished by putting the characters in some kind of conflict or danger.”

Beware of excess exposition. Don’t worry about telling your reader, right from the beginning, what your character looks like, sounds like, is wearing, what time it is, which room he’s in, etc. Get into the action right away. Your reader won’t care about the who as much as the who + the what. That is, what’s happening to the protagonist.

Rosenfeld states that action is “comprised of all the elements a reader can ‘witness’ taking place. From physical movement to spoken dialogue, action transports your readers into your writing and brings your writing to life.”

As you revise, check the pacing of your story. Give your readers the ride of their life. Check for:

√ A hook on the very first page

√ Well-constructed scenes

√ Revealing dialogue

√ Occasional flashbacks (don’t have your character say “Remember the time…” Put your character in the scene. Describing a memory creates a passive, boring scene.

√ Pay attention to the character’s body language. A hand that trembles while the character is writing her name, for example, tells the reader more than the phrase “She was nervous.” And it ups the tension.

√ Leave the last scene in the chapter open. Make your reader need to turn the page.

√ Occasionally give your reader a break. Use a little humor or a little exposition to slow the pace after a particularly tension-filled scene. But don’t linger too long. Your reader wants to get caught up in the action again.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Poetry Friday: Heaven

I usually like to wait for a while to post a poem I've read on Writers Almanac. I just can't with this one . . .

It will be the past
and we'll live there together.

Not as it was
to live
but as it is remembered.

It will be the past.

We'll all go back together.

Everyone we ever loved,

and lost, and must remember.

It will be the past.

And it will last forever. 

"Heaven" by Patrick Phillips, from Boy. © The University of Georgia Press, 2008.

Today, Poetry Friday is being hosted by Amy over at The Poem Farm.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Women of Wednesday: Mildred J. and Patty S. Hill

So you’re sitting in your favorite chain restaurant and suddenly the wait staff gathers and begins to follow an employee holding a brownie sundae with a candle in it. They surround a nearby table and begin to sing a little ditty that proclaims that it’s somebody’s birthday. The tune is unfamiliar. Sometimes it’s not a tune at all but sounds instead like a junior high cheer. What gives? Why don’t these people just sing the Happy Birthday song?

Here’s why:

Two sisters, Mildred and Patty Hill are responsible for our traditional birthday song. Mildred was the oldest, born June 27th, 1859. Patty came along almost 9 years later on March 27th, 1868. (There’s a 3rd sister in the story but we’ll get to Jessica later).

The Hill sisters grew up in Kentucky. Their parents encouraged education and both girls were college graduates. Mildred did some pre-school and Sunday school teaching but her real love was music. She composed songs, played the organ, and was a musical scholar. She was especially interested in Negro spirituals.

Patty was a preschool teacher but is best known as one of the founders of the Progressive movement in education. She also was one of the creators of the Institute of Child Welfare Research at Columbia University.

In 1893, the two women were working at the Louisville Experimental Kindergarten School where Patty was the principal. That year Mildred composed a little tune for the teachers to use. Patty came up with some lyrics. The song was called “Good Morning to All” and first was meant to be used as a greeting for teachers to sing at the beginning of the day:

Good morning to you
Good morning to you
Good morning, dear children
Good morning to all.

After a while, teachers figured it would be a lot nicer if the kids sang to them and the third and fourth lines were changed:

Good morning, dear teacher,
Good morning to you.

The title of the tune was altered as well to “Good Morning to You.”

In 1924, songbook editor Robert H. Coleman published the music and lyrics but also included the Happy Birthday words we know today. No one knows who came up with the birthday variation, however. Within a decade the birthday song was sung on the radio and then in movies.

Here’s where the third sister comes in. Jessica Hill believed her older sisters were getting cheated. In 1935 Jessica worked with a Chicago music publisher to print and copyright the birthday song. From then on, every time the song was performed in a public place, the Hills were due some revenue. (Mildred was already dead but Patty got a few good years of royalties).

According to the laws of the time, the copyright would exist for 28 years. It could be renewed for an additional 28 years. Theoretically, we should have been able to start singing the song for free in 1991. But the new copyright laws of 1976 gave the owners protection for 75 years from its pub date. Another new law in 1998 added an additional 20 years. Which brings us to 2030. The laws permit the song to be sung in private homes, etc. but not in public places.

So, that’s why you have to put up with the restaurant variations.

Happy birthday week to Elise Dubois and Becky Herrick. I’d sing to you, but…

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Bras Across the River

Yesterday, in Manchester, NH, one of bridges crossing the Merrimack River was closed to traffic and opened to BRAS! It was for Bras Across the River, a celebration of life for survivors, support for those continuing the fight against breast cancer, and a remembrance of those who succumbed to the disease that strikes 1 in 8 women.

The Write Sisters have skewed those statistics--there are seven of us, and of the seven, three of us have had breast cancer! So, celebrations of life are important!

I attended Bras Across the River, and a few of the photos I took are posted below.

A pink ribbon on which survivors signed their names:

Some of the fabulous sponsors:

Awesome tee-shirts:

Her shirt reads, "Fight like a girl."

Lots of street art by NH Institute of Art students:

And bras, bras, and more bras!


If you'd like to see more photos, I'll be posting additional ones on my library blog, Kurious Kitty's Kurio Kabinet, tomorrow.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Poetry Friday--"Poet's work"

This week I've been posting about workers and this poem by Lorine Niedecker is about a job that one never need fear losing!
Poet’s work

   advised me:
          Learn a trade

I learned
   to sit at desk
          and condense

No layoff
   from this
I know nothing about Niedecker, so I was happy to find a slideshow of her life here.

Head over to Secrets and Sharing Soda for this week's Round-Up. Isn't that a great name for a blog?

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Women of Wednesday--Danger--Women at Work

More today about working women. Here's bit of propaganda from World War II when women were actively encouraged to go out and work. Of course, when the war ended, they were expected to rush back to their lives as housewives, and leave the jobs for the men.

But, while they were allowed to work, the women did a man's job, and everyone worked together to defeat "our enemies."

Film courtesy Internet Archive.

Oooo, I love hearing the line, "Don't be afraid to eat what's good for you," and seeing a huge chunk of cake that would choke a horse!


Monday, September 5, 2011

Mentor Monday--Happy Labor Day!

Happy Labor Day! Especially to all the working women of the United States.

Today, in Mentor Monday's post, I'm going through a few of the steps I took to learn more about Lilly Ledbetter (for a imaginary "Women of" profile assignment).

You know never to cite Wikipedia as a source in your bibliography, right? But, Wikipedia is a place to begin for an overview of the subject. A quick read-through and I find that Lilly Ledbetter is the woman who gave her name to the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009.

Next I head straight to the bottom of the article for the "References" and "External Links" sections, which are the real starting points.

A simple Google search is all I need to find a ton of explanatory information related to the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act that was signed by President Obama on Janaury 29, 2009. [I come across a little item of note, that I squirrel away for use as a sidebar if I need it: the Lilly Ledbetter Act was the first major bill that President Obama signed after he took office.]

Generally, I then do a search on one of the book sites, Barnes & Noble, or Amazon, or sometimes I go to the New York Public Library's catalog looking for materials published on the subject. In this case I'm looking for Ledbetter and also the topics of pay discrimination or women in management. I give particular attention to books for children since I will need a "read more about" section at the end of my profile.

Much to my dismay, I find that Ledbetter has an autobiography, Grace and Grit: My Fight for Equal Pay and Fairness at Goodyear and Beyond, but it's not due out until the end of February, 2012!

A search of my public library's on-line databases comes next. Never fail to check your local library's offerings. My library has the EBSCO, Newsbank, and Biography in Context databases to explore.

Speaking of libraries, Ledbetter hails from Alabama, so the Alabama State Library and Alabama Department of Archives and History may be good places to explore virtually. I take a quick look, and find nothing! Ledbetter's not in the Alabama Women's History Hall of Fame since she is still living, nor is she in the Alabama Academy of Honor:
To bestow honor and recognition upon living Alabamians for their outstanding accomplishments and services, the Alabama Academy of Honor was created by the State Legislature on October 29, 1965. Each person elected to membership is a distinguished citizen of Alabama, chosen for accomplishment or service greatly benefitting or reflecting great credit on the State.
One thing I'd particularly like to mention is videos. Don't overlook YouTube and Internet Archive! And, remember that Google has a search category exclusively for videos. Especially for a living subject, videos are a treat. You get to hear the voice of your subject, see what she looks like, and how she carries herself. A lot can be learned!

Even if your subject is long dead, short videos may be available interpreting her work or role in history. For Lilly Ledbetter, I found a great video from Annenberg Classroom, A Call to Act: Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire and Rubber Co. It explains the process that Ledbetter went through in her struggle with pay discrimation, and how all three branches of the U.S. government became involved.

Here's a video of Ledbetter's appearance at a Congressional hearing in 2007:

Lilly Ledbetter's a woman I'm glad to have explored a little more! If I were to write a real profile, I'd spend a lot of time watching/reading through the sources I uncovered. Then, the real work would begin--condensing all the information into 550 words that are both interesting and provide the key points in a life well-lived.


Friday, September 2, 2011

Poetry Friday - A Dollop of Dahl

There's nothing like a little Roald Dahl to start off your day and get you in the right frame of mind for the challenges ahead.

Little Red Riding Hood and the Wolf
by Roald Dahl

As soon as Wolf began to feel
That he would like a decent meal,
He went and knocked on Grandma's door.
When Grandma opened it, she saw
The sharp white teeth, the horrid grin,
And Wolfie said, 'May I come in?'
Poor Grandmamma was terrified,
'He's going to eat me up!' she cried.
And she was absolutely right.
He ate her up in one big bite.

But Grandmamma was small and tough,
And Wolfie wailed, 'That's not enough!
I haven't yet begun to feel
That I have had a decent meal!'
He ran around the kitchen yelping,
'I've got to have a second helping!'
Then added with a frightful leer,
'I'm therefore going to wait right here
Till Little Miss Red Riding Hood
Comes home from walking in the wood.'

He quickly put on Grandma's clothes,
(Of course he hadn't eaten those).
He dressed himself in coat and hat.
He put on shoes, and after that,
He even brushed and curled his hair,
Then sat himself in Grandma's chair.
In came the little girl in red.
She stopped. She stared. And then she said,

'What great big ears you have, Grandma.'

'All the better to hear you with,'
the Wolf replied.

'What great big eyes you have, Grandma.'
said Little Red Riding Hood.

'All the better to see you with,'
the Wolf replied.

He sat there watching her and smiled.
He thought, I'm going to eat this child.
Compared with her old Grandmamma,
She's going to taste like caviar.

Then Little Red Riding Hood said, '
But Grandma, what a lovely great big
furry coat you have on.'

'That's wrong!' cried Wolf. 'Have you forgot
To tell me what BIG TEETH I've got?
Ah well, no matter what you say,
I'm going to eat you anyway.'

The small girl smiles. One eyelid flickers.
She whips a pistol from her knickers.
She aims it at the creature's head,
And bang bang bang, she shoots him dead.

A few weeks later, in the wood,
I came across Miss Riding Hood.
But what a change! No cloak of red,
No silly hood upon her head.
She said, 'Hello, and do please note
My lovely furry wolfskin coat.'

This week's Poetry Friday is over at The Miss Rumpius Effect where you can gobble up more wonderful goodies.

Art by korann