Ah, the Internet

Do you remember when there was no Internet?

Part of me enjoys asking that kind of question. Sure, it dates me. It dates all of us, depending on how you answer it. And at the risk of sounding romantic, I miss that simple world, before telnet (first user group and email I used), before Netscape (my first browser), and certainly before Google (my current search engine).

I started writing two years ago, well after our computer became an electronic family member.  And I’ve been curious lately as to how different the process of writing, and finding an agent, and generally trying to make a living out of this art would be if I had started this ten years ago.

I couldn’t just pop over to Wikipedia and check on some fact about 17th century Suriname nor could I learn of new agents and their interests so promptly. Often times I am thankful that this abstract web of connections exists—it can be very helpful.

But I wonder:

Does the Internet suck my energy?

Many writers could no doubt claim the Internet or something that they read online to be the inspiration for their amazing debut novel coming next fall.  Accomplished writers might say the same for the success of their 15th manuscript. But what is the flip side to having something amounting to an edgeless universe as a distraction?

I admit that when I’m writing I will occasionally (wink, wink) check email or Facebook or YouTube or whatever, really. Is that better than staring at the point where the wall hits the ceiling in search of inspiration? I don’t think so. More often than not, it pulls me away from my characters and their stories. But I haven’t found a way yet to work around this. Anyone have a typewriter they can lend me?

Have you been a writer since the Internet became ubiquitous? How did that shift affect your writing and career? Do you have tips on how to effectively turn off access to this kind of distraction?

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Telling a Good Story

In addition to reading and writing, I also love to watch movies. I enjoy many different types of movies, but I have the best experience with movies when I can watch them with my husband. He prefers action and suspense movies (with a little horror or questionable 70’s movie thrown in) and I prefer intelligent comedies and independent films (with a little romance or animated movie thrown in).

Often it is difficult for us to agree on a movie to watch. Most of the time, we take turns choosing the movie. He is willing to try my recommendations from Filmspotting, the movie podcast I listen to. I am willing to try the movies that peak his interest after searching the OnDemand or Netflix listings.

So as you can imagine, some movies I like, some he likes, some neither of us like, and some we both like. For the movies that we both like, the commonality seems to be one thing: a good story. And how do we appreciate a good story? Good storytelling.

Whether it be movies or books, what engages me most is how the story is told. Is it suspenseful? Is it funny? Are there engaging characters? Does it show me a compelling situation/location/condition that I have never seen? Or does it resonate within me… something I have experienced myself?

So assuming the critical elements are there to capture my interest, the next key is to KEEP my interest. The story needs to keep me engaged throughout. After all, I do have the option to turn it off (or walk out of the theater) at any time. The often short attention span of a viewer demands that something happen. Frequently.

Cover of

Cover of Meet the Robinsons

Follow all that? Let me use one of my family’s favorite movies as an example. Meet the Robinsons (2007) is on frequent rotation in our house. It is the story of Cornelius (or Lewis, as he prefers), an orphan with a brilliant mind. IMDB describes the story as:

Lewis is a brilliant inventor who meets mysterious stranger named Wilbur Robinson, whisking Lewis away in a time machine and together they team up to track down Bowler Hat Guy in a showdown that ends with an unexpected twist of fate.

So what makes the telling of this story so interesting? With a close look, the elements of the story are clear. Lewis wants to be a part of a family. Everything else in the story drives towards that. His creativity and inventing brings him closer to finding a family that is the right fit for him. He is challenged to fix a time machine to save the day, gaining confidence in himself. Lewis is forced to confront the Bowler Hat Guy and the role he has played in his life. All of these actions happen to drive the story forward.

As writers, we can look for examples of excellent storytelling all around us. Great stories told well can be found in movies, in books, in short stories, even in the family tales told by Aunt Eleanor every year at Thanksgiving.

For more thoughts on storytelling and pacing, check out this article about how Pixar approaches the development of its stories.

What captures you when hearing/reading/watching a story? What makes you want to hear/read/watch them again and again?

The Journey

As a stay-at-home mom who moonlights as a writer, I’ve experimented with various ways to make time to write. I’ve managed over two years to write three and a half novel-length manuscripts and three picture books. When I look at it that way, I have to say I’m proud. But here’s the disclaimer, in the form of a question:

How was the journey?

I’m sure you’ve heard the quip “It’s not the journey—it’s the destination.” And I’m guessing you’ll agree that when you’re looking for a paycheck, the destination becomes a little more important. Though I’ve yet to receive compensation for anything I’ve written, I’m right there with you.

But I’ve had a couple of experiences where the journey was so rocky I just about stopped writing altogether. A few months back, I spread myself too thin by, among other things, working on three manuscripts at once—two in revision and one first draft. I was extremely excited about each project, but my head was spinning with all the plot strands to rework, characters to make more dimensional, and endings to tighten up (or write at all). I managed to make myself physically sick.

Last June I started to work on a fourth manuscript, hoping to complete it with Camp NaNoWriMo (see previous post). The nausea picked up again, and I did not want a repeat attack. Writing—my creative outlet that I enjoy and crave—would have to lay low for a while. I just completed that manuscript, but barely.

Summer can feel over the top—there are way too many hikes to do, family trips to take, and honey-do-lists to complete.  So I’ve learned that it might not be the best time for me to write. Winter, when I can hunker down, turn inward, and actually have “work “ days, may just be a better time. This winter, I’m going to pace myself, work on one manuscript at a time, and generally try to make choices that don’t result in me screaming for more time to write or send me to bed to calm my frenetic mind. I do find it ironic that shorter days might be a more effective and rewarding time to write.

How do you make time to write? What pitfalls have you faced when working on—and balancing—multiple projects? Is there a time of year that suits your creative self?

The Common Experience

1930, 1939, 1947.

The respective years that children’s classics The Little Engine That Could (Watty Piper), Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel (Virginia Lee Burton), and Goodnight Moon (Margaret Wise Brown) were published.

Wow. I sit here and read these books (and others) to my children today, and they were written over half a century ago.

So what is it about these books that continue to charm new generations of children? What is it that makes my children smile, and ask to read them again and again?

As I mentioned in a previous post, I have been reading Leonard S. Marcus’s biography of Margaret Wise Brown, called Awakened by the Moon. I have now finished it. It is part biography, and part history lesson on the beginnings of the picture book market. I borrowed the book from the library to learn more about Margaret Wise Brown. I not only now know more about this creative, eccentric, and talented woman, but it has also given me pause to consider what is at the core of great picture books, old or new.

At the SCBWI Conference in New York in January of this year, several speakers encouraged the participants to find the commonalities of the childhood experience. The idea is that regardless of background, culture, gender, ethnicity, or education, all children share certain common feelings and experiences in their development.

The desire to be independent, while still feeling safe.

Forging his/her own individual identity

Figuring out how the world works

Fear of the unknown

Feelings/Emotions (for example, love)

Interaction with their environment (urban/rural, natural/man-made)

Imagination and dreams

Looking up to someone else

Needing and giving help

Caring for others

Feeling wanted/needed

Trying new things

Wonder

This is just a list I started brainstorming. What else do you think are universal experiences in childhood?

So our goal as children’s writers should be to tap into these experiences. We should attempt to create a story that a child will identify with. That will make them laugh. That will make them want to be that character (or glad they are not!).

As those classic books demonstrate, if you can effectively reach a child at a fundamental level, perhaps your book has a good chance to be around to delight children for many years to come.

Sounds aspirational, yes? I hope so. I’m off to work on a new picture book idea!