Recently, I’ve been writing short books for an educational publisher. There are no advances or royalties for this kind of writing. It’s flat-fee, work-for-hire writing and the writer gets a lot of input from the editors and series “authors” who, in this case, are big-name educators. This kind of writing can be an amazing teacher. Today’s lesson is worth sharing: there’s always another story. As writers, many of us bite onto our original ideas like Pit Bulls. We get that idea in our teeth and we will shake the darned thing to death before we’ll let it go. When you write “for” an editor, rather than “for” yourself, you have to be willing to let go of your original story. If you’re willing, you’ll be given a gift: another story. First comes the disappointment. What? My perfect idea wasn’t perfect for her? Next comes the reread. This stuff is good! Why didn’t she find it perfect? Then the tinkering: If I move this part here, what will happen? What if I cut this part? Change this personality trait? Figure out this character’s motivation? There are so many questions to ask of a story, but if you ask them, if you actually cut that part or move that other part or figure out what’s motivating that character, you will always find another story to be told. And another. And another. Stories are like kaleidoscopes. If you turn them just a bit, you’ll see a whole new picture, one that’s just as mesmerizing as the first, or maybe even more so!
For more than a month, I’ve been sucking down smoke in Ashland, Oregon. The whole state seems to be on fire. Admittedly, I haven’t seen any actual flames, but the Rogue Valley, where I live, is surrounded by wildfires. No matter which way the wind blows, we get smoke. More than 200,000 acres are on fire in southern Oregon. At this point, it’s not healthy to be outside, much less taking a long walk which is my usual way to stimulate the brain and come up with new writing ideas. That leaves my brain in the fuzz zone. It’s hard to think straight. I’ve even had vertigo from all this smoke and spent an entire morning wobbling around the house. We take clear air for granted here in Oregon. We love our trees and rain. Here’s to doing everything we can to protect them from climate change which is oh-so-real here in Oregon and in Houston and in Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan, and soon to be slamming into the Caribbean and perhaps Florida. Wake up calls all around. For those who have eyes to see and noses to sniff…it’s time to wake up and smell the smoke.
I’ve been writing stories lately for a work-for-hire project that requires the writer to outline a number of very important things about the tale…before it’s been written. The editors want a synopsis that describes the character and the plot with as many juicy pertinent details as possible. That way of crafting a story goes against my nature. It seems, my writing process is more like Neil Gaiman’s. (I seriously wonder why I’m not getting the same results. Hmmm….) In his 2009 Newbery acceptance speech for The Graveyard Book, Gaiman said he writes stories because there “is a maggot in [his] head, a small squirming idea that [he needs] to pin to the paper and inspect, in order to find out what [he thinks] about it.” That’s me. I haven’t a clue beyond the very basic brain-worms of a character who interests me and a possible problem and an intriguing setting before I sit down to write. I discover the story as I write, with all the deadends, U-turns, and hidden byways that entails. Characters morph on the page telling me their hidden secrets and motivations bit by bit. They do unexpected things for unanticipated reasons. Discovering what I think about something, what I have to say about something is really the “why” behind my desire to write. And I can’t make more than a superficial stab at how a story might unfold in a synopsis. I’m grateful for editors who are willing to see the story morph, offer guidance along the way, and still say “yes” in the end. And I’m learning the value of knowing a few more things about where the story might go before I begin so that I don’t have to face a blank screen. But—as one of the brilliant students I get to coach is currently sharing in a story of her own—”the journey is part of the gift.” It’s a gift to have time to write. It’s a gift to enter someone’s story and try to make sense of it and learn from it. The journey into the story and the discoveries I make along the way teach me every day about what I value enough about the human experience to try to transmit it in story form to the next generations. The learning that I do when I write is what motivates me to write. If there’s nothing to discover in a story, for me…it’s not worth writing.
I took this photo outside the window of my tiny home (AKA RV) early this morning. I live in a small tree-encircled park within an Ashland neighborhood, just a few blocks from Main Street and the quaint downtown area. Deer outside my window are a common sight. I find it both beautiful and tragic. Beautiful because–well, just look at them! It amazes me that nature still dares to thrive where roads and sidewalks crisscross every few yards. I feel closer to Earth for their presence. Tragic because over time these deer will probably end up limping through their final days, one, two, or three more casualties of the unending “game” of car versus deer played out in our roadways. Over time, the coats of these gorgeous fawns will become mangey and scuffed. They will lose their sheen as they have already begun to lose their wariness around humans. In fact, someone was outside, working just a few feet from where they stand in this picture. The loss of wildness disturbs me. The fact that these “urban” deer will not bolt free through the forests and drink from clear streams makes my heart ache for them. Sure, there are dangers in the wild as well, as evidenced by the mountain lions that sometimes venture into Lithia Park to freak out tourists and locals alike. But the long fleet legs of deer weren’t made for meandering through backyards (although they work quite well for leaping over the fences people put up to try to keep them out). They were made to wander in places without borders—fences, walls, buildings, Interstate highways. Today, I will think about what constrains me, what confines me, what keeps my own wildness from breaking free. Especially in my writing. Because we must write as if we are wild, as if we are free. Nothing else will gives us words to express the beauty and tragedy that life on this incredible planet offers each day.
This morning, I posted a review on Goodreads about Laini Taylor’s latest book, Strange the Dreamer. I love the book (read it!), but the review led to a really funny moment, thanks to my ex-boss and primo editor-in-chief of Highlights, Christine French Cully.
“Kim,” she wrote, “In your most recent post, I think you meant to say he spent his days in the ‘bowels of a library,’ not ‘bowels of a librarian.’ Ewwww.”
Here’s the original sentence from the review: This book features a classic underdog hero who spends his days in the bowels of a librarian and scribbling notes into a book to try to understand a mysterious lost realm. What’s not to love?
I’m sure you can see the problem. I corrected the sentence (thank goodness for “edit” features), and added a “Thank you” to Chris at the bottom so that other readers could have fun with my abominable abdominal slip. Suffice it to say that this is proof of what I always tell my writing students: every word matters…a lot!
By now most people have heard that there’s a rare event happening across a swath of North America on August 21. It’s a big big deal and my friend writer/illustrator Nancy Coffelt has created a fantastic kids’ guide to the big event called The Big Eclipse. From Amazon, here’s the scoop: “Readers will learn what causes eclipses, about strange eclipse effects, eclipse myths and even learn what hippos do when day turns to night. The book tells why it’s important to protect your eyes when viewing the sun, especially during an eclipse – and how to do so safely. Each book comes with a safe solar eclipse viewer.” Holy cannolis! It’s worth the price just for the solar safe viewer. And when you add Nancy’s vivid art and fun characters, it’s a must-have for anyone with kids who might be prepping for the big day…or just wanting to know more about what’s about to happen.