Monthly Archives: August 2011

White Space

White space.
The visual equivalent of silence.

Lately, I’ve been dwelling on Coe’s post on creative procrastination and Julie’s on porch sitting and stillness, and that lead me to nothing, as in the “nothing” mentioned twice in the final line of “The Snowman” by Wallace Stevens (“… ¦behold/Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is”) and so, here I am, pondering a few questions:

As writers, how do we each see white space? Both before our words and around them? How do we hear it? Shape it?

For white space is more than the absence of words, greater than emptiness. It seems alive. Waiting.

Suspended breath is not the absence of breath.

A few years ago I became busy with a project, busy-busy as a squirrel seeking nuts. I researched, wrote, revised. Sentences accrued, pages amassed, the thing morphed into a novel and so I typed “The End” and sent it off and then realized–ah ha!–what I had written was no novel but a very …wordy … picture book.

Did I need to write all those words to come to that realization? To be able to truly revise? Maybe. I don’t know. My process at the time did seem the equivalent of growing a glacier to harvest an ice cube.

But I think what really happened was that I had desperately gathered words and knit them into a blanket, a heavy security blanket, to guard against the nothing, the no thing. The waiting. I was busy-busy; therefore, something–some thing–had to happen. I forced it into being.

Generous margin. Long pause. White door not yet open.

White space can also be communal. We can be quiet together in a shared place. No one voice dominating, taking the floor. Perhaps in the silent moment at the end of this sentence, we might send a prayer or warm thought to Vermonters (and those in other states) wrestling with the after-effects of the hurricane.

~Mary Quattlebaum


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      I am the new kid at school. Again. After lunch at this new school, we third graders have to sit on benches under the basketball nets while the older kids finish eating.
      I sit next to Joanie who has a cool Roy Rogers and Dale Evans lunchbox. How can I make myself interesting so that she’ll want to play with me at recess?
      “My whole family used to work in the circus,” I tell her. “My cousins flew on the flying trapeze and my aunt danced with a bear.”
      That seems to get her attention. And the attention of a few other kids sitting nearby.
      “Really?” asks a wispy-haired girl in front of us. I think her name is Rene. The others lean in.
      “We had a pet baby elephant,” I continue. “She was an orphan so I had to feed her from a bottle. I named her Mimi.”
      Now the boys behind us are listening, too.
      “Right. You had a pet elephant,” jeers a boy named John who has been sent to the principal’s office twice in the three days I’ve been at this school.
      But the other kids are starting to doubt me, too. I can see it in their faces. How can I get out of this jam?
      “And then I woke up,” I say.
      “You were dreaming all that?” asks Joanie.
      She doesn’t play with me at recess.

       I was a big liar in my early years. When my mom thought I had lied, she made me stick out my tongue to prove it had not turned black. Of course I would not open my mouth for fear of being caught. I was so young that I did not realize Mom was lying in this matter of the black tongue. Such innocence. Such irony.

      I was ashamed of the whoppers I told when I was a little kid until I read a post on from… about children and lying:
     “Researchers have found that the ability to tell fibs at the age of two is a sign of a fast developing brain and means the liars are more likely to have successful lives. Scientists found that the more plausible the lie, the more quick witted the liars will be in later years and the better their ability to think on their feet. It also means that they have developed ‘executive function’ – the ability to invent a convincing lie by keeping the truth at the back of their minds.”
     The article goes on to suggest such child liars would make good bankers as adults – but it seems to me lying is good practice for a later life in fiction writing, as well.

      To craft a believable story, we are called upon to create a believable lie. We must invent it all: dialogue that rings true, plausible events, realistic challenges for our characters’ lives. Like good liars, we freely mix in actual factual details from the real world to lend credence. We fabricate to reveal a bigger Truth.

     But back to my black-tongued childhood. I wonder how many of you writers out there were also child liars?

Contributed by Laura Kvasnosky, no lie.



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Out Takes

            Last year, my webmaster finally convinced me that I really should have a blog.  For years I’ve resisted because let’s face it, there are millions of wonderful blogs out there, and what did I have to add to the conversation?  He just said, “it should be fun.” 

            Fun?  The prospect of posting something worth reading on a somewhat regular basis made my eyes cross.  It didn’t sound fun.  And besides, wouldn’t I just be repeating things that were better said by others?  That’s when I found my Flip Cam. Now, I’m no videographer, or even a photographer.  To be honest, I don’t really have an eye for either.  But there was something so unintrusive about my little camera that it called to me.

           It was easy to use, small enough to carry in my pocket, and the price was right.  The love affair began. 

            What I’ve discovered in my year as video maven is that I’ve learned to see stories in a new way, a more visual way.  It seems trite to say it, but I’ve learned something about “seeing.”  While it’s a different type of storytelling, it’s storytelling nonetheless.

            Indeed, there are many ways that the process of putting together a video resembles the writing of a story.  I recently finished a draft of a novel, and in this particular revision, the major key I hit was “delete.”  And that is true for most of my work.  I tend to overwrite, to write “long and wide” as one of my mentors once suggested.  So, the work of revision is a lot about deleting. 

            It’s hard because often the things that need to be omitted are the small moments of wonder that I just love, but that really do not contribute to the story, and in fact can drag a story down.  It’s not so different with film clips.  A video requires a lot of takes and retakes, and usually there is far more material than anyone can possibly use.  But to quote Jane Yolen, “don’t throw anything away.”  She believes that there is worth in everything and you never know when you might need a particular character or passage or scene in some other story.  So, “kill the darlings,” yes, but hang onto the notion of reincarnation. 

            It’s no different with video.  Thus, I have created a montage for you from some of my favorite small clips taken this past year, just for your viewing. 

            What’s the moral here?  Well, once in a while, it’s not a bad idea to sift through those old pieces of writing that you’ve taken a pair of scissors to, and see if there’s any value there.  You might be able to string them into a poem.  You might be able to figure out the story you couldn’t see at first glance.  Who knows?  You might have fun.

Kathi Appelt



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Picture Books About Grownups?


Advice for writing picture books often includes this: your protagonist should be a child. Yet many of my favorites quite blatantly ignore this received wisdom. In fact, several of my own picture books star grownups. I am a questioning sort of person, so for my first VCFA blog post, let us investigate the topic.[1]

Some of my ponderings:

*I am not, in fact, a child. On the other hand, I do know quite a bit about what it is to be a child. On the other hand (I have three hands), I am interested in the lives of all ages. Old, young, in between. Why shouldn’t children have similar interests? Don’t children want and need to read about something other than themselves? Aren’t they fascinated by the things people do? *Aren’t children, like adults, fascinated by the greater world?

*Lots of picture books feature animals (‘people in fur’), some of whom are not identifiable by age. Yes, two of the three bears are parents and one is a baby. But frog and toad? And so many others? They’re grownups.

*Then there is the idea of courage, of breaking the rules, of ignoring the prevailing wisdom, of taking risks as a writer.

*And of following one’s own passions and writing from one’s own heart. Obviously the picture book writer’s heart often involves children. But sometimes it does not. In my BALLET OF THE ELEPHANTS, for example, there are no children, but it was a book I simply had to write; a story that obsessed me for months.

The challenge, as I see it, is to make any picture book, whether about inanimate objects, actual children, or grownups, brilliant on its own terms and enticing enough that it demands rereading. That’s all. Simple.

So here is a list (title and author, no bibliographic info) of some of my favorites that are NOT centered around the lives of children. There are many, many more. Is there anything wrong with any of them? Not in my humble opinion. Are they all picture book biographies, which are often about adults? No. Do they have intriguing characters who face problems and take action, just like many picture books about children? Yes. And I didn’t include hundreds of eligible folktale retellings.

Agee, Jon. Milo’s Hat Trick and Terrific

Allard, Harry. Miss Nelson is Missing (yes, I know there are children here)

Blake, Quentin. Mrs. Armitage and the Big Wave and Cockatoos

Blos, Joan. Old Henry

Bodecker, N. M. Hurry, Hurry, Mary Dear

Burton, Virginia Lee. Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel

Christelow, Eileen. Five Dog Night

Cole, Brock. Buttons

Coleridge, Ann. The Friends of Emily Culpepper (a very weird and wonderful book, OP)

Cooney, Barbara. Miss Rumphius

Cronin, Doreen. Click, Clack, Moo: Cows That Type (Animals, but I’m sneaking this in)

DePaola, Tomie. Strega Nona

Dunrea, Olivier. The Painter Who Loved Chickens

Ernst, Lisa Campbell. Sam Johnson and the Blue Ribbon Quilt

Fleischman, Sid. The Scarebird

Gag, Wanda. Millions of Cats

Goffstein, M.B. A Little Schubert

Hall, Donald. Ox Cart Man

Hurst, Carol. Rocks in His Head

Jackson, Shelley.  The Old Woman and the Wave

Macaulay, David. Angelo

Martin, Jacqueline Briggs. Snowflake Bentley (a picture book bio, but it’s got to be here)

Gerstein, Mordicai. The Man Who Walked Between the Towers and Sparrow Jack

Pinkwater, Daniel. Aunt Lulu

Rathmann, Peggy.  Officer Buckle and Gloria and Goodnight, Gorilla

Root, Phyllis. The Aunt Nancy books

Rylant, Cynthia. Mr. Putter and Tabby series; The Old Woman Who Named Things

Schubert, Leda. Here Comes Darrell (Tricked you. I wrote it.)

Slobodkina, Esphyr. Caps for Sale

Stead, Philip C. A Sick Day for Amos McGee

Stewart, Sarah. The Library

Taback, Simms. Joseph Had a Little Overcoat

Thurber, James. The Great Quillow (I named one of my dogs Quillow)

Timberlake, Amy. The Dirty Cowboy

Wagner, Jenny. John Brown, Rose, and the Midnight Cat

Yorinks, Arthur. Company’s Coming (one of the funniest books ever written); Louis the Fish

AND SO MANY MORE. What are some of your favorites? And what do you think?


Posted by Leda Schubert

[1] I had already written this post when I opened up the May/June Horn Book and discovered that Leonard Marcus wrote on the same topic. Too late for me to revise! But please check out his article, which is excellent.


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Creative Procrastination


When it comes to writing, I’m usually the jump-in-with-both-feet type. But this time around, for some reason, I’ve been spending a lot of time dipping my toes in the water first. Maybe it’s because I’m working on something so different — my first middle-grade novel. Or maybe it’s just that I want to take more time getting to know who this character is a lot better first. I want to hear his voice before I start counting words on a page and setting deadlines.

Here are some of the things I’ve been doing while I sit with my toes dangling into the pool. (And yes, I’ve decided to call it creative procrastination, well, so I won’t feel so bad for not having that many pages written yet!)

Journaling: I love notebooks and fountain pens, so naturally I like keeping a journal. But when I’m trying to learn about new characters (the main and secondary characters), I try journaling from each of their points of view. I might have my characters write about a day in the story where I’m feeling a little stuck, as a way to figure out what’s going on in each character’s head that day. Or I’ll have them write more generic journal entries where they reveal their happiest day; an event that made them realize things would never be the same again; a day they wish they could have a do-over; a time when they felt left out, etc. Ask your characters what they would like you to know about them!

Researching: Procrastinating by researching is a great way to look like you’re working! I’ve been reading psychology and sociology books lately, just to give myself a frame of reference for some of the issues my character will be experiencing — you know, if I ever actually write the novel! Reading books, watching films, talking to people with first-hand knowledge of the topics you’re writing about, and traveling to settings in your novel are all great ways to understand your characters and the world they live in a little better.

Daydreaming: Sometimes it’s helpful to put the pen down or turn off the computer and just stare off into space and try to see your characters and hear how they sound. At times the clakity clak of the keyboard can be distracting. Don’t be afraid to do nothing in the name of creativity!

Acting: Go out in the world as your character! Notice what she would notice, do the things she would do, etc. I know, I know, this can be kind of strange, so you have to be careful, especially if your character is an animal or something! You don’t want the neighbors to talk about you after you crawl down the street on your hands and knees! The goal here is to try to experience the world as your character for short periods of time. Go to the mall and try to see it all from your character’s point of view. Follow where she’d want to go and look at the things she’d want to buy. When you come home ask yourself, “How would my character view my neighborhood? My home? What would she notice in my house? What would she want to do first? How would she feel here?”

Eavesdropping: If you’re feeling out of touch with your characters and his world, maybe you need to reacquaint yourself with kids who are the same age as your character. Find out where the kids hang out and watch and listen to them. Watch their gestures and how they say things. Record their dialogue. Yes, I realize this might appear kind of, um, creepy to other people. You don’t want to be arrested for being that weirdo adult who stares at kids! So be subtle about your eavesdropping. Do something else while you’re stalking, um, I mean, eavesdropping. Write in your notebook, or read, or act like you’re listening to your iPod. Pretend you’re an anthropologist studying kids in the wild!

These are just a few ways to feel like you’re writing while not actually getting anything accomplished. But seriously, I find this kind of pre-writing invaluable. And with enough of this kind of preparation, you’ll be in much better shape when you’re finally ready to dive in!

What other creative procrastination techniques do you have?




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Falling Hard for an Old Poem, and an Old Poet

I’m scared of poetry. Sometimes because I don’t understand it, and feel stupid, sometimes because it feels annoyingly cloying. But when I hear or read a poem I like, I’m struck by lightening. It lodges somewhere in me and keeps reverberating.

When Philip Levine was announced as our new Poet Laureate on August 10th, I heard his poetry for the first time. I fell, and fell hard, for his poem, “What Work Is.”

In just a few lines, it has everything I try for in my writing. A character caught in tough times, an evocative setting, and an unexpected leap to intense, complex emotions.


(Men waiting outside city mission. Iowa, 1940, Library of Congress.)

Here’s a short interview on Fresh Air which includes his reading the poem:

And the Library of Congress has set up a terrific website if you want more info.

Posted by Elizabeth Partridge




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Reading to Find Out What Happens?

A little Friday appetizer from Time Newslink:

A recent study shows that people enjoy movies, books and other stories when they know the ending ahead of time.

Nicholas Christenfeld, a University of California, San Diego professor of social psychology, along with Jonathan Leavitt, a PhD candidate at UC San Diego studying psychology, organized an experiment where volunteers were given three stories of different genres, written by well-known authors such as John Updike and Anton Chekhov. One of those stories had a spoiler in a separate paragraph, another had the spoiler worked into the opening paragraph and a last one did not have any hint of the ending. Participants typically enjoyed the stories with the spoiler at the very beginning the most, even when the story had an unexpected twist ending or was a murder mystery.

Apparently we’re going to get the full scoop in September’s Psychological Science but in the meantime, is this good news for the plot-challenged among us?

-Sarah Ellis



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