Monday, August 31, 2015

I can’t not write. And yes, the double negative is intentional. I have to write.

Writing is hard work. It can also be frustrating. I may go through weeks in a row when the words won’t come but the rejections do. So it’s nice to get some affirmation now and then.

That’s what happened this last week. The words flowed and I didn’t get a single rejection. (No acceptances, either, but those are rare in any writer’s life, and at least I have manuscripts out that may lead there.)

Each book I write is better than the one before, but the one I am working on now has far more tension and a much stronger character arc than any of the others. And as I finish the first draft, my mind is teaming with ideas to improve the story in the second draft. So I was already on a writing high.

Then I took one of those Facebook quizzes. I never play the games, but I will take an occasional quiz if it looks interesting. This one asked, “What career were you meant for?” The result? Author!

For me, the three Rs are reading, research, and [w]riting. I love them all. Especially during weeks like the one I just had.

All writers—and all people—need affirmation now and then. It lifts us up and affirms our decision to write. Still, I’m not sure how much difference the past week will make in the long run.

Because I can’t not write.


The picture at the head of this post was drawn by Frank T. Merrill for the original edition of Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. First published in 1868, the illustration is in the public domain because of its age.

Books as Vaccines

Monday, August 24, 2015

My current work-in-progress is the darkest one I have written—and it’s for a middle grade audience.

I had a short e-mail conversation with my online critique partner about whether Creating Esther was too dark for the age group. She thought it would be fine for public school students but felt that some home-schooled children are more sheltered. The conversation was short because she agreed with my response, and it’s hard to have a long discussion when everyone is in sync.

So what was my response? First, I’ve read other dark books written for middle graders, and I think mine will fit in. Second, I plan on submitting Creating Esther to secular publishers. The book is not being written for the home-school audience, although I hope they will read it. But third and most importantly, all children, including those who are home-schooled, need to understand the real world or they won’t be able to handle adversity when it comes.

I think of these darker middle grade books as a vaccine. Vaccines give you low-grade (often dead) disease germs to build up an immunity so that the disease will not harm you when the live germs come on full-force. In the same way, reading realistic fiction helps immunize children against harmful emotional responses to real world tragedies and heartbreak.

As in real life, every ending doesn’t have to be happy, but it should have hope. That’s what happens in Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson. The protagonist’s best friend dies in an accident when he’s not there to save her, and he takes it hard. But then he realizes that his younger sister needs him, and he finds he can go on living by helping her.

Life isn’t all sweetness and light, and children need to know that.

So don’t shy away from reality when writing middle grade fiction.


The photograph at the head of this post shows Japanese American children getting vaccinated at the Santa Anita Assembly Center in Arcadia, California on April 6, 1942. Clem Albers took the picture as part of his official duties as an employee of the United States government. Because it is a government document, the photo is in the public domain.

Writing as Art

Monday, August 17, 2015

It is clich├ęd but true that art is in the eye of the beholder. You will never create a manuscript or paint a picture or even take a photograph that everyone loves. But you can increase the number of people who see it as art.

That’s why creative artists learn technique.

When I first got interested in photography, I bought a nice camera. I’m tech-savvy enough that I probably could have figured out the camera and taken decent pictures on my own—pictures like the touristy shot of Maus Castle at the head of this post. But decent wasn’t good enough, so I took a multi-week class.

One of the techniques I learned is called the Rule of Thirds. When composing (or cropping) a picture, you draw an imaginary tic-tac-toe board on the image and place the subject where two lines intersect. The picture above is nice, but the viewer’s eye is actually drawn more to the tower, which sits at one of those intersections, than to the castle as a whole.

By placing the subject at the upper right intersection, the castle becomes more noticeable as a unit. Even better, you see it in context at the top of a mountain.

Or do you? This next picture puts the subject at the upper left intersection and shows that it isn’t all the way up. Castles were actually placed high enough to look out over the Rhine River but low enough to take advantage of the rainwater running down the mountain.

I could also have put Maus Castle in one of the lower quadrants, which would have enhanced the feeling of isolation.

See how your creative choices—and the different messages you can convey—have increased by using the Rule of Thirds?

As with most creative techniques, the Rule of Thirds isn’t a law that must always be followed. Maybe the background is ugly or the subject is so beautiful that it deserves the entire frame. Or maybe following the rule is simply impractical because you can’t get far enough away from your subject to include the context—a common problem when photographing cathedrals in crowded European cities. But knowing the technique opens up your creative choices.

Here’s another example. Sports photographers often use a very fast shutter speed to freeze the action. That’s what happened in this picture I took at a volleyball game.

But what if I wanted to create the feeling of movement or isolate one player by blurring out the background? A much slower shutter speed can create this effect.

Good technique can turn an ordinary photograph into art.

Creative writing is also art. You will never write a book that the whole world wants to read. Not even the Bible can claim that distinction. But even though you won’t satisfy everyone, you can increase your audience by learning—and then using—good technique.

How does a writer learn it? I attend at least two conferences a year and own a number of books about the craft of writing. I also use a third—and much cheaper—classroom. I belong to a good writers’ group with people who know technique and are willing to point out where my work lacks it.

Now it’s your turn to increase your audience by improving your technique.

How Important is Genre?

Monday, August 10, 2015

Most writers choose a genre or two and write within them. There is a practical reason for this: it’s easier to sell genre works to publishers, who have to sell to bookstores. And even online bookstores are more likely to buy books if they know where to “shelve” them.

But what if you want to write something that doesn’t seem to fit?

To use an example from another art form, consider the photograph at the head of this post, which I took on vacation in July. The picture shows the River Aure running through Bayeux, France. I like this photograph, and maybe I’ll want to enter it at the Lake County Fair next year. But it doesn’t quite fit any of the categories for this year’s entries. Nature scenic? Yes, the river and the trees and the flowers are nature, but the buildings help make the picture. So maybe it should be entered as architecture? Although the buildings would make a nice picture on their own, it wouldn’t be the same one.

Since there is no perfect match, maybe I should just forget it. The rules allow only one entry in each category, so if I enter it in the wrong one and it is disqualified, I will have given up the opportunity to enter a photograph that does qualify. But I like this picture better than other options. So should I risk it?

That’s the same question writers face when drawn to an idea or plot that doesn’t fit neatly into a particular genre. Should we follow our hearts or make the “practical” choice?

Fortunately, I’ve never faced this question with my own writing. My manuscripts (published and unpublished) have always fallen within the genre lines. Not on purpose or because of any particular effort on my part—it just happened. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t creative. Many of the great composers, including Bach and Mozart, worked within the musical formulas of their time but still managed to show their genius. Obviously, I’m not comparing myself with Bach or Mozart, but the point is that there are plenty of opportunities for creativity while writing within a genre.

Still, sometimes we just can’t make an idea fit. So do we abandon it and move on, or do we follow our heart?

That’s a question only the writer can answer.

What Does Your Writing Celebrate?

Monday, August 3, 2015

Roland and I just returned from a European vacation. One of the places we visited was Nuremburg, Germany, where we took a tour of the major World War II historical sites. The picture above shows a typical Nazi building. The Nazis used classical Greek and Roman structures but without any ornamentation, and they made them larger than the buildings they were modeled after so they would be even more imposing. The purpose was to make people feel insignificant—the state was everything and the individual was nothing.
This particular building is now a “documentation center” showing the history of Hitler and the Nazi party. As our guide explained, it is not a “museum” because museums celebrate their subject matter and the center did not celebrate Hitler or the Nazis—quite the contrary. But Germany believes people should know the evil of history as well as the good.

After visiting the documentation center, we went to the Nuremburg courtroom where the Nazis were put on trial after the war ended. Although we didn’t have time to see it, the courthouse had a museum about the trial. The guide explained that it was a museum because it celebrated justice. True justice, that is, not the Nazi type of justice where you were presumed guilty and judged by a kangaroo court. There were even some acquittals among the Nuremburg defendants.

So what does this have to do with writing? It made me realize how important it is to ensure that fiction—and especially historical fiction—does not celebrate wrong. I’ve heard it said that every antagonist should have at least one likeable characteristic, and that may be true for individual human antagonists. But the historical setting can be an antagonist, too, and evil never has a positive side.

The distinction isn’t always easy, though. Take my recently completed middle-grade novel, Desert Jewels. There were some good things that came out of the Japanese incarceration. For example, Japanese high school students in California were integrated with Caucasians and other races, and they never got the chance to be sports stars or school leaders because those roles always went to the white students. In the camps, the Japanese American students came into their own because they didn’t have to compete with people who believed they were a “superior” race. It’s tempting to celebrate this outcome as a result of the incarceration, but that would turn an injustice into something good. It’s better to celebrate the spirit of the Japanese youths who took advantage of the opportunity when it came.

That may seem like a small distinction, but it’s an important one. And I hope it’s a lesson I never forget.

What about you?