May 12, 2014
I have the pleasure of following Janice Steinberg in this blogging process wherein various writers have “tagged” each other, creating an impromptu blog tour. Janice is a member of my critique group which we sometimes refer to as The Flaming Tulips. While Janice wrote and published several competent and interesting mysteries in the 90s, (more…)
March 12, 2013
When I was thirteen the movie 10,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA came to town. I was so taken by it that I wrote my own sci fi that took place not on a submarine, but on a space ship, not in the ocean, but on Mars. My adult writing career ended up taking me in a totally different direction-- into realistic, multicultural, historical fiction. About two years ago, I had a hankering to return to the sci fi genre. For two years I struggled! It seems easy to write about a world where anything can happen, but it's actually quite tough. So a couple of months ago, I invited Andrea Zimmerman, fellow critique group member and picture book author and illustrator, to collaborate with me. Even with two brains at work, the challenges of plotting this story have felt tricky and overwhelming at times. We have begun the writing!
April 23, 2011
MY WRITING PROCESS
I used to get story ideas from the school experiences of my own two daughters. Because they’re half Thai, I embarked on a journey into the world of multicultural writing. Now that Maleeka and Preeya are older, I often get ideas from people who’ve lived fascinating childhoods in other countries. Whenever I open my ears to a person from somewhere else, I’m almost guaranteed a story.
My openness has led me to work with a variety of collaborators. These include a Vietnamese Buddhist monk, my Chinese-American teaching colleague, my cousin who grew up in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), an Italian friend who was raised in an orphanage, a Czechoslovakian surgeon, and my own Thai husband.
Collaboration brings joys and challenges. The joyful part is not having to invent everything myself. A wealth of beautiful detail and enchanting anecdotes spreads before me like a feast. Through books, films, and travel I supplement what my collaborator brings to me. My learning curve is usually steep.
The downside of the bounty of rich material is that it can make the story hard to plot. For example, one of the stories my Italian collaborator told me was that of Bambolina. When a baby so small it fit in the nun’s pocket arrived at the orphanage, the nun told the girls to take care of it “like a living doll.” Bambolina never grew to be more than about two feet tall and died at age fourteen. For months, this fascinating tidbit distracted me from the true story.
Working closely with others can be fun. I love the long discussions over a pot of coffee. I love the camaraderie, unusual in a profession as solitary as writing. I love the mutual brainstorming, love sharing the highs of publication.
Working with others can also be tricky. Often people have been recounting their special story for decades, usually at parties. They’ve been assured that this is indeed material for a blockbuster adult novel, if not a movie. They’ll consent to work with me, a children’s author, because no other writer has shown up. (children’s literature is, after all, often considered an inferior form!) Even after the book comes out, they may be waiting for the real writer—the writer for adults—to come along.
Non-writers may not understand that real life, however intriguing, doesn’t follow the kind of trajectory necessary for good fiction. They may not understand about making changes to the “truth.” But it is fiction I write, not memoir, definitely not biography.
When people tell a story for decades, they have a formulaic way of telling. The story is recounted in broad strokes, and often the details that make for authenticity are buried deep.
I’ve never gotten any flak for writing outside my culture. I try to always listen carefully, putting aside my preconceptions and prejudices. I try to channel the culture. I focus on character and relationships, looking to balance differences with universality.
I have the ability to focusing simultaneously on several projects that take place in varied parts of the world, and in several different historical eras. For example, in this last year, I worked on novels in places and times as disparate as 1966 Czechoslovakia (YA novel coming out with Candlewick in 2012); contemporary Baghdad (The White Zone, with Carolrhoda in 2012); the jungles of Chiapas, Mexico in both 2011 and also the 7th century (Starfields, to be published by Candlewick this fall); and 16th century Thailand (still homeless!)
April 14, 2011
MY WRITING PROCESS
My favorite place to write is the Goldfish Point Café in La Jolla. I usually go there in the morning after an early swim or dance class. For sheer loveliness, the Goldfish rivals any café I’ve been to, including those in Paris and San Francisco. It’s set above the cliffs close to a cave, with a view across a small bay to a long beach beyond. Hillsides dotted with houses rise in the background. Sea lions bark. Kayakers scoot. Although it’s a unique seascape, it’s at the same time universal.
The Goldfish is open air, so I always bundle up. Mariano serves up my large decaf with a splash of caffeine and I head for the high table in the back. Only by sitting high do I have mastery over my work. One time I arrived and my high table was gone. I couldn’t write. Mariano retrieved it from the shed next door, along with a promise to never remove it again!
Sitting up, with the ocean a glance away, I push hard on the manuscript for one hour. Using a decent pen, I edit in longhand. Sometimes there are fabulous aha! moments, but mostly I poke around.
Whenever there are annoying conversations around me, I get out my IPOD and listen to someone like the Stones or Talking Heads or the Black-Eyed Peas. It’s raucous writing for my relatively delicate prose. But it works. In fact, the strong energy forces my brain to take risks, to go out on precariously thin limbs.
After this hour, I return to the trailer and input what I’ve done into the computer. Google stuff I have to know about. Print out a fresh copy, ready for the next day.
I go back and forth between café and trailer, back and forth, back and forth. At first this process is propelled by me alone. Eventually, I show the material to members of my two critique groups—The Flaming Tulips and The Snail Society. Every week I meet with one group or the other. It becomes their comments which propels the movement. Then the comments of my agent. Then those of my editor.
No matter how daunted I feel, I’ve learned to trust the process. As I work, the material comes into its own like a Polaroid coming into its color.
NEXT TIME: The thrills and spills of multicultural writing
April 9, 2011
MY WRITING PROCESS
When I enjoy a book, I want to know how the writer pulled it off. I’m endlessly curious. How did the idea arise? How was the initial draft written? How did the writer revise?
My own small, spare books look deceptively simple. However, the process of creating them is complex and involves much hard work.
To grab me, an idea has to have an emotional link to my own life. For example, Take Me With You is set in Italy with a cast of orphans. I’m not Italian, haven’t visited Italy since I was two years old, and am not an orphan. However, I did go to Catholic school. That connection reverberated strongly enough for me. If there’s no connection, I won’t have enough passion to go through the long process of completing the novel.
I usually do my brainstorming with a journal. Here I jot down anecdotes, possible character names, random thoughts, connections I want to make. I draw maps of the territory. All the while, under the surface, I trust that the story is coalescing.
When I’m ready to write, I sit down at my computer in my 1959 Airstream trailer. I type up a rough outline fairly quickly. The first draft terrifies me. There are literally infinite paths the story could take and I don’t want to waste time going down too many wrong ones. Nor do I want to completely miss the right one. I breeze through the whole novel, making brief notes in places I’m still unsure of.
I three-hole punch the brand new manuscript, put it into a binder, and set off into the world. Long ago, I learned to tear my stories down to their foundations a couple of weeks before copy editing. I got used to working literally anywhere and any time: in dentist’s chairs, at red lights, in lines, on cruises, camping, in the moments before the start of a movie. I learned concentration. I learned how to fall into the story instantly.
NEXT TIME: The Goldfish Café and beyond
April 5, 2011
THE TUCSON CHAPTER
I came to Tucson at age twenty-five, already thinking of myself as a writer. I’d been writing since I penned my first sci-fi story at thirteen after falling in love with the movie, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. Upon arriving in Tucson, I began to take fiction classes at the University of Arizona.
Gradually, I found my way to poetry and studied with the poet Steve Orlen. I consider Steve, who sadly passed away in November 2010, to be my most influential teacher. He was a lyrical, imagistic poet who transmitted those qualities to many of his students.
During that time, Steve fostered a marvelous community of poets studying for their MFAs. We had poetry potlucks and parties, critiqued each other’s work, bought and shared the latest poetry books.
I led an idyllic, though rather financially-impoverished writerly life, living far out in the desert. I spent the mornings at my typewriter and afternoons in dance classes. For income, I taught children’s poetry through Arizona Poets in the Schools and taught dance in two mining towns north of Tucson.
I temporarily left Tucson to live in Santa Fe, Santa Barbara, and Baja California. I returned in 1989 with a Thai husband and pregnant with the first of our two children.
For about seven years, I didn’t write a thing. I had virtually no ideas or passion for writing. All my creativity went into making our two daughters and caring for them. Not writing was very hard for me, causing me to question my identity. My only reprieve was making up bedtime stories. The girls’ favorite was about a rabbit with a green car. The rabbit liked to drive that green car FAST! Reading picture books to my daughters, I began to familiarize myself with children’s literature.
I’d lost interest in writing poetry, but an idea began to take root. Through writing for children, I could utilize the skills I’d learned as a poet—compressed language, lyricism, musicality. I decided to whip out a few of those seemingly simple picture books.
In the meanwhile, a close friend had seen an ad for a low-residency MFA in writing for children at Vermont College, the only one of its kind at the time. Instantly I knew I had to go. I needed to learn the craft. I needed a community of writers.
Before my first retreat, I received a list of suggested reading. I realized I’d never really explored children’s literature—not even as a child. Education back then concentrated on basal readers. I submerged myself in the delights of picture books and novels.
Among my classmates, I found the community of writers I was searching for. Our class (called the Hive) graduated in 2000, but we’re still very connected online. We’re in daily communication, not only about writing and publishing, but about our lives in general.
Meanwhile, I also joined the Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. Through that organization, I attended workshops and conferences, and joined a critique group. My Tucson group was invaluable to my work, providing peer feedback and a writing community.
I have never whipped out a picture book. All of my books have turned out to be multicultural/historical chapter books and novels. My daughters were my inspiration for my earliest books, and not surprisingly, those stories are set in Tucson.
Next Time: Part 1 of my writing process: Getting Started
March 25, 2011
TUCSON FESTIVAL OF BOOKS
I just had the good fortune to participate in the third annual Tucson Festival of Books. I arrived at the University of Arizona early on Sunday morning to a warm blue sky and a mall blooming with white tents inhabited by 240 local groups, schools, and businesses. In this haven for writers and book lovers, the young festival has grown amazingly quickly. 450 authors participated and the event was reportedly attended by about 100,000 people.
My first talk was entitled: BECOMING A CHILDREN’S WRITER: THE TUCSON CHAPTER. It was in Tucson that I got my start as a children’s writer. In a separate blog entry I’ll summarize that talk.
As with all the author talks, my room was jammed with people. Some even stood. It was a delight to have many dear friends in the audience. I was also honored by the presence of U of A professor, Kathy Short, and Karen Hoyle of the Kerlan Collection at the University of Minnesota.
In the afternoon I presented on a panel entitled GO GLOBAL: CONNECTING THE WORLD THROUGH WRITING, along with multicultural picture book writer, Monica Brown. Among other things, we talked about how we came to be multicultural children’s writers, the kind of research it takes, and what we hope children will gain from reading our books. I wasn’t familiar with Monica’s books, but they look fantastic. I plan to read every one.
Tucson has always been a city of vibrant festivals. This newest has been enthusiastically embraced and supported by the community. If you’re an author, this is a great place to present. Of if you just want to attend the festival, the trip to Tucson is well worth it.
NEXT: The Tucson Chapter