Thursday, October 30, 2014

PiBoIdMo is here!

As a writer of children's picture books, this is exciting news! Picture Book Idea Month is the NaNoWriMo for picture book writers! The challenge, put forth by founder and picture book author, Tara Lazar, is to generate 30 picture book ideas in 30 days.

Just as with NaNoWriMo, the challenge is not to have something ready for publication in 30 days. I should hope not, as chances are 30 days would hardly give any writing a chance to ripen. The challenge is simply to have a rough draft, and in the picture book world, an rough idea is almost the same thing.

Now, to be fair, this sounds a whole lot easier than NaNoWriMo's challenge to write an entire novel in a month. Or at least, one would think so. But it’s not as simple as it sounds. Many picture book ideas have already been done ad nauseum so it can be challenging to say the least to come up with something new, fresh, fun and interesting to kids.

Picture books are short, naturally. They get to the point quickly. So an idea can often be the whole skeleton on which the meat of the story hangs. For a novel, an idea is just the first bone, or sometimes barely the ghost of a novel yet to be. Both still need "fleshing out", but one is a lot closer to the end result than the other. At least, there are fewer words to tinker with in the editing process. But you still need at least a bone to work with, and many bones have already been chewed down to the marrow!

Just like a novel, there has to be enough substance to write about. Unlike a novel, there can't be too much. With longer works, if there isn't enough material for a novel it may end up as a novella, short story or even flash fiction. You can scale back until it fits. If there isn't even enough for flash fiction, you haven't got a story. Picture books are flash fiction for the youngest of audiences. That said, an idea is an idea and that's all that counts for PiBoIdMo. The time will come, later, for participants to develop and explore the suitability of each. Some will bear fruit, some will wither on the vine. PiBoIdMo is all about planting seeds. In the end, the writer may end up with 3-10 concepts that will eventually become manuscripts. That's not too shabby for a month's work!

But now I face a dilemma. I write children’s books but I write in other genres as well. Last year was my first attempt at NaNoWriMo. I was not successful so I would like to try again this year, but since discovering PiBoIdMo, I have been dying to participate in this as well! Maybe I’ll get brave and bold and try both in the same month! Or maybe that's a bit too ambitious! I may have to alternate venues and just do PiBoIdMo.

 If you have ever wished to delve into the world of picture books, this might just be a way to dive on in! Registration is only open until Nov 3, so click on over and sign up!

Sign up for PiBoIdMo 2014! 

Catherine Warren (aka C.C. Monroe)

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Embracing the Critique

It is, pardon the phrasing, a critical skill for any profession. And it is a skill. It is not about toughening up, it is not about having no ego (or being all ego), it is a skill you can learn. Painfully, usually, but you can learn it.

Once you have it, the pain of critique dulls down to a bruise you keep poking from its initial screaming skin-peeling horror. After you hone the skill, you will start craving the critique, seeking out more and more sharp, incisive critiques across everything you create.

The key skill is being able to objectify the input so you can see the underlying truths in it instead of reacting to the tone, the person, or the ever-present internal monologue that says you're not a good writer.

Separate You From Your Work

In all cases, you have to divorce yourself rapidly from believing that a critique of your skills or writing is somehow a judgement on your value as a human being. This is by far the greatest hurdle you will have to overcome in order to develop the skill of embracing a critique. 

You are not your work. Your work, is, however, a part of you. So is your poop. And your snot. And the hairs that shed through the day. Your urine, and other excretions. Not everything you produce is awesome. You do not, I am certain, save every hair, every tear, every ejaculation (verbal or otherwise) and hold them sacred and untouchable, so do not hold every word that way either.

As you evaluate your poop to determine if your diet is balanced and health is good, so too should you evaluate your writing -- with clinical and objective distance. 

Understand the Source

Like in many things, the critique says more about the critique-er than you or your writing. Some people focus on the nitty-gritty, the details, the layout, the structure of your writing. Others, the arc, the meaning, the overall effect. Some get hung up on their own pet peeves (I would wager that is actually most, if not all of us), and some of those pet peeves come from years of valuable experience. 

Understand who is offering the critique, and you will know what the highest value will be within it.

Neutralize the Input

There is, of course, a world of difference between "I didn't like it" and "It sucks", and accepting that is one of the tougher parts of accepting a critique.

Like separating yourself from your work, separating what is said from what is meant is a vital skill. There will be people, possibly many people, who will not bother differentiating. If they don't like it, it therefore sucks. The question becomes how do you know whether they dislike it because of personal preference or because there is something wrong with the writing that you can fix?

Dig deeper! You're always seeking the underlying issue, and to see if it's something that you can adjust in your writing, a continual panning for critique gold. Ask what they feel sucks, where they didn't like it, where they fell out of the story.

You are looking for the truths, not how they are stated, no matter who offers you the critique.

Sometimes You Will Miss the Mark

It is an unfortunate truth; sometimes the writing misses the mark. Sometimes you don't communicate what you think you're communicating. Critiques, or feedback, help you see what is still stuck in your head, what isn't making it across that barrier clearly.

Accepting that missing the mark is just one moment in a long line of moments -- not a prediction of all futures, nor a measure of all pasts -- makes the whole process of writing and getting critiques easier to handle.

Keep Your Eye on the Prize

What do you want from the critique? Focus on that and let the rest of it fall away until you can use it. You may want to know:
  • Did you succeed in communicating what you intended to communicate?
  • What is the trend across all of the critique/feedback? 
  • What was hidden to you before the critiques about your writing?
  • Where do you need to focus your growth? 
  • Is the story arc clear?
  • Are the characters believable?
  • Is the format ready to send to a publisher?
Ready? Go get 'em!

(And in the spirit of bravely inviting critique, please let loose the feedback in the comments to let me know if this post met its goals of making critique less painful (more desirable). What could I fix? What did I get right? All types of critique are welcome!)

Sunday, October 05, 2014

Getting Unstuck: one approach to curing "writer's block"

It's early October and, for a teacher, that means getting down to the nitty-gritty of evaluation. Students get their first report card around the start of November, and that means lots of observation and marking.

If you're anything like me, there is nothing like a deadline in any other area of my life to get me to sit down at the computer and hammer something out; I am a dyed-in-the-wool procrastinator. Seriously. Like, my house only gets cleaned when someone is coming over. So call me and then come over.

Like many of my students, I tend to hit a wall when I finally have some time to sit down to tackle the outline, character exploration or chapter that I need to do. It seems that my brain has no interest in addressing the task at hand; it's like a hungry person who is determined not to shop or cook!

My tried and true "writer's block" banisher comes from Natalie Goldberg. I discovered this right after the tragedy of 9-11. I was teaching my Writer's Craft class in a computer lab at the time, and someone figured out how to access the live feed from a building adjacent to the twin towers. We struggled to breathe as, in three second bursts, we witnessed the second plane hit, and the two towers crumble.

Everyone was traumatized, and continuing with the curriculum seemed not only crass but impossible. For the first class after the event, we just talked. I was at a loss as to how to begin to work again, and turned to Goldberg's Writing Down the Bones for inspiration. In the second class, I had the kids do "automatic writing" for 30 minutes, and then we talked for the rest of the period. Goldberg's rules are simple:
1. Keep your hand moving. (Goldberg hand writes, but I have few students who still do. I suppose they could even do it on their phones.)
2. Don't correct anything.
3. Don't worry about spelling, punctuation, grammar.
4. Lose control.
5. Don't think. Don't get logical.
6. Go for the jugular. (If something comes up in your writing that is scary or naked, dive right into it. It probably has lots of energy.)

I described it to my high school class like this: "Automatic writing" is simple: it's really just a total brain barf. Write everything that comes into your head. No stopping, no editing, no looking at the screen if you can manage it - turn off the monitor if you have a tower, or cover the screen if you are on a laptop. GO!

I was worried that they would type for five minutes and then just stop. Instead, an amazing thing happened. As the first week passed, not only did the students write for the full 30 minutes, but they also began to move quickly to actual curricular discussion, rather than rehashing the continued agony that followed this trauma.

By the time November reports arrived, my students commented on the fact that their marks seemed to be significantly higher than their classmates - and higher than the marks they normally earned. No one was complaining, but it was obvious enough that we kept our eye on the trend as the rest of the year progressed. While the normal mark distribution began to reassert itself as the year progressed, my writing students kept up their increased productivity.

By the end of the year, all of the students in the class had averages 5% to 20% higher than they had ever had before.

I call the phenomenon "skimming" because it reminds me of my life-guard days. Each morning I spent the better part of an hour dipping a long-poled screen over the surface of the pool to remove all the detritus which had accumulated over the night. Leaves, pine needles, tiny dead toads, trash - everything was scooped up and dumped over the fence. The best moment of my day was when I got to dive into that cool oasis, cleaving the pristine surface in a perfect arc, torpedoing along the bottom to the other end.

Our brains collect detritus as well. The flotsam and jetsam of our lives can often be overwhelming. We cram info into our brains like hungry teachers at an end-of-the-day fruit and cookie buffet. It's no wonder things get lost: I recently realized that I have taught approximately 4,500 students in my 25 year career. If anyone knows how to erase that precious space filled with names (and the lyrics to every song from 1970-2010), please let me know.

In the meantime, transferring our bobbing bits of brilliance to some more permanent format - paper, sticky-notes, computer, phone - can free our working brain to deal with other issues. Creativity is hard when your brain is engaged with grocery lists, appointment times and places, people to call, email issues to address, or any of the other myriad things we ask it to do on a daily basis. Forcing myself to keep all of my notes and reminders in my phone (I started years ago with a PDA) was one of the best habits I have ever forged.

To get myself out of the doldrums, and because starting the project I want to do is feeling way too overwhelming, I am committing to 20-30 minutes of "automatic writing" every day for the next two weeks. It's a good warm-up for NaNoWriMo (which I am, insanely, going to try, and ALSO have my writing students do!) and I am betting that it will clear out all my negative potholes, and fill them with webs of words - so much easier to drive on!

Join me! I will write a follow up at the end of each week noting how my work life (teaching) and writing life (dribs and drabs at the moment) are affected.
I would also love to hear how this tool works for you.

Write on!