Monthly Archives: March 2012

Back Flipping Cat

            When I began this journey of writing for children, oh so many years ago, I had no idea that one of the business aspects of the field included travel and speaking.  I had an image of me at my desk, with my cats and my children playing together within eyesight of my typewriter (yes, I used an electric Olympic typewriter back then). 

            I never dreamed that my work as a writer would take me to every single state in the Union (except for West Virginia and Maine), not to mention a handful of foreign countries, nor could I have imagined that I would stand in front of thousands of school children and talk about “my life as a writer.” 

            I estimate that I have now shared the multiple drafts of Watermelon Day at least a gazillion times over the past twenty years, maybe more.  In addition, I have a very dark and fuzzy seven-second video of a cat who jumps backwards that I show the kids right at the end. 

            Tell me, which do you think the kids remember?  The drafts or the cat?  That’s a no-brainer if there ever was one. 

            Why the back-flipping cat? The easy answer is that it’s just fun.  But that’s also the best answer.  What I want my young audience to know is that writing needn’t be the laborious task that we are so often told it has to be. In fact, I tell them, any task that is worthy, despite the inevitable frustrations, also includes moments of pure joy.  After showing them the 25 drafts that it took to get Watermelon Day to a point where a publisher would buy it, with its message of persistence, doggedness, all those –nesses that are part of the process of creating a story, I want to leave them with a feeling of exuberance.  What is more exuberant than a cat who throws himself backwards over his own head and lives to meow about it?  Well, finishing a story for one. 

            I could grumble for hours about school visits, and in fact I often do.  There is much to complain about.  But there is also much to enjoy, and one of them is watching the stupid cat. 

            Of course, I could watch the cat all by myself.  I don’t really need to pack my suitcase, get on yet another airplane and cross a time zone or two to do that.  I could watch it without staying at a hotel that looks like every other hotel in the universe and serves the same hardboiled eggs at the continental breakfast.  It would be easy enough to just open my computer and hit “play.” 

            But what would be lost?  I’ll tell you what.  The sound of surprise from a hundred second-graders when the cat hurls himself through space and time, and the peals of laughter that encircle every single one of us—writer, teachers, librarian, parents, second-graders—on the very split second that he lands.  Because for a brief moment, we’re all surprised, we’re all in the room together, all wrapped in the spontaneous joy of joy. 

            I do school visits for a number of reasons.  There’s the obvious income part of it.  I can’t deny that.  There’s also the obvious promotion of my books.  As well, there’s the obvious opportunity to be in a place I’ve never been before.  (Someday, I’m going to find myself in West Virginia and Maine.  I just know I will).  Also, because writing is a rather solitary act, getting out of the house and talking to others of my same species is obviously a healthy thing to do.  My tendency is to cocoon myself in my little nook of an office and stay there. Human interaction is good for the brain. 

            But more and more, I’ve begun to see that one of the reasons for taking a turn as a visiting author is to remind my readers to make room for surprise in our lives.  It turns out that I need that reminder too.  And none of us can get there by ourselves.  We need each other and our shared stories. We need back-flipping cats.   

            We need the joy of joy.


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Who, Me?

The work of the writer is to write. The work of the writer has not necessarily been—until recently– to blog, tweet, post, or travel about the world promoting the work of the writer (though even Dickens went on author tours–and I seem to be posting at this very second). We live in a culture driven by celebrity and personality. But why is it that we write? When I ask this question of writers I respect, the answers vary, but many reduce to something like this: we write because we can’t not write. We are driven by mysterious forces.

  It is, of course, wonderful to meet readers. Glorious, rewarding, and fun. When I was younger and first met the creators of the books I loved, I was too shy to open my mouth. Later, I stood in corners trying to get up the nerve to tell someone how much I loved a book of hers.I felt I had to do it—I owed it to the book. Now, on the occasion when a child or adult has approached me for a similar reason, I can’t actually believe it. Who, me? My book? Really? So let me impart this wisdom: no writer gets tired of hearing that her book has been loved.

 Nevertheless, the work of the writer is to write. I have never met or emailed or talked to the vast majority of my favorite writers. To begin with, lots of them are dead, which is a problem. Yet I continue to seek out their books. What I really want as a reader are superb books, and those don’t get written when writers are doing other things.

 Which brings me in a roundabout way to today’s topic: rules for writers. There are none for how to write a great book. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to be able to check off ingredients one by one and bake at 350 until done?  Lots of great writers have taken a stab at creating rules. For your general enjoyment, I’ve gathered a few from here and there that I found appealing.  I’m including links  to keep this post at a manageable size. At the end, I’ve added the one rule that I know has the greatest potential for actually working—for me, anyway.

 First are ten rules from Michael Morpurgo, who writes for children (most of the list-makers don’t) and was the Children’s Laureate of Great Britain:

 Next: ten rules from Elmore Leonard, which got wide attention. They are quite specific.

 Ten from Zadie Smith:

 Six from George Orwell (which are part of a longer essay well worth reading: )

1.      Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.

2.      Never use a long word where a short one will do.

3.      If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

4.      Never use the passive where you can use the active.

5.      Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

6.      Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

Six from John Steinbeck:

 And, while we might not look to Henry Miller for advice on writing books for children, he has his own helpful commandments:

1.      Work on one thing at a time until finished.

2.      Start no more new books.[… add no more new material to ‘Black Spring.’]

3.      Don’t be nervous. Work calmly, joyously, recklessly on whatever is in hand.

4.      Work according to Program and not according to mood. Stop at the appointed time!

5.      When you can’t create you can work.

6.      Cement a little every day, rather than add new fertilizers.

7.      Keep human! See people, go places, drink if you feel like it.

8.      Don’t be a draught-horse! Work with pleasure only.

9.      Discard the Program when you feel like it—but go back to it next day. Concentrate. Narrow down. Exclude.

10.  Forget the books you want to write. Think only of the book you are writing.

11.  Write first and always. Painting, music, friends, cinema, all these come afterwards.


And my own? I am slightly famous among a very small group of people (can I qualify this any more?) for this statement, originally applied to playing music. “The less you play, the less you play; the more you play, the more you play.” So for writing: do the work. The more you write, the more you write, and vice versa. Whatever it takes to get you to sit down in front of that blank screen or page, that’s what you need to do.

            Back to work.


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Yarns — Uma Krishnaswami

I will admit it. I am in love with stuff. Things. Objects. I envy visual artists for what they get to do with tactility and color. When I was a kid I could not bring myself to throw away the last sharpened-down stubs of my colored pencils, because, well, there they were. Things to have and hold. And now here I am in the business of putting words on a page, the ultimate abstraction, trying to create shadowplay out of ideas.

The other day someone asked me how I get through a draft. As in push through, even when I don’t know how things are going to turn out, which is, let’s face it, most of the time. Here’s how.


I knit. Because there is a kind of weird synergy between the yarn on the needles, and the yarn trying to spin itself out in my mind. When I get stuck with one, tangling with the other seems to help. It has to be a simple pattern, preferably one I’m making up as I go along, one in which I need to think ahead just a little, but not too far ahead. Which is, come to think of it, pretty much the way I write.

For many years I foolishly expected that writing would get easier. That if I could just find the perfect combination of tools and techniques, I’d be able to nail it every time. You know, by the third draft or so. No suffering, no panic, no rude midnight awakening by the Demon of Doubt. Kept waiting. It never happened.

I’ve come to the sad conclusion that No panic for me = No story.

So I pop my work in progress up on my screen, and in between nibbling away at the story, and scribbling notes to myself on the side, I knit. It doesn’t keep me from missteps and missed opportunities, from voices that jar or characters who fall off the page. But it does keep me working. And in the end, that’s the only sure-fire system I know.

  1. Keep working.
  2. Don’t rush the row or the scene.
  3. If you pick the right yarn, the flaws are part of the work.


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Books Matter


Our very own VCFA faculty member Matt de la Peña is featured in The New York Times today.  This article raises my spirits because it reminds me of the power of literature and writers to effect change, especially in children and teens, even in the face of racism and censorship — two very ugly words. 

Books are important.  They change lives.  They validate people’s experiences.

Here’s an excerpt:

Like the lead character, Danny, Ana is a Mexican-American whose family does not have much, is being raised by her mother and has a father who spent time in jail.

Like Sofia, the lead female character, Ana, a high school junior, is hoping to go to community college, where she wants to study accounting. “Most books I read, I don’t know the people,” Ana said. “This book is the truth.”

Read the rest of the article here.

Way to go, Matt!  



Photo by Joshua Lott from The New York Times


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I was Here I was here I was here

Last month, I did author visits in Abu Dhabi, and on my day off, I visited a sumptuous golden palace that has a machine in its lobby that dispenses gold.  (The amount one pays for an ounce of gold is updated every 60 seconds.)

Dignitaries from all over the region stay in some of the more elegant rooms, and we got to poke our plebian heads in and imagine what it would be like to be a guest.  Fresh flowers are arranged each day just in case someone does check in to the room–and their sad, wilted selves are taken out, unseen except by whomever did the arranging, most days.  No one loved their brief beauty.  No one knew they were there.

Our fellow visitor on the tour was from Kuwait.  She was eager to have her picture taken everywhere.  I got so fascinated with all this that I wanted to take pictures of her having her picture taken.

Is it one of the reasons we write?  Does something in us long to say I WAS HERE?



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A Matter of Altitude — Tom Birdseye

Last Wednesday, flying home after 2.5 weeks of school visits in Arkansas, Alabama, and North Carolina, it occurred to me that it had been months since I’d made any real progress with my writing. Sure, I’d spent time at the computer working on the new novel, but it had been in fits and starts, and the results were just so-so, at best. Crammed into row 20, seat C, I raked myself over the coals. What was it with me? Why the sluggish pace? Did I call that being a writer? Writers write, no matter what. Get with it, Birdseye! Or are you an impostor, a fake, conning yourself and others? Whack! Blam! It was beat-up-on-Tom time. 

Fortunately, at that moment the crackle of speakers overhead interrupted my self abuse. “We are now beginning our descent into Portland,” the pilot announced. “If you’ll look out the left side of the plane you’ll see Mt. Hood, elevation 11, 235 feet.” Sure enough, there was the crown jewel of the Oregon Cascades, its dramatic, snow covered summit jutting up out of the clouds. At the sight of the highest point in my home state, one I have climbed multiple times, I eased back in my seat and took a deep breath.

Mountain climbing is a complex combination of challenges — weather, altitude, snow and rock conditions, the route chosen — that must be met in order to achieve the goal of reaching the top. Sometimes it seems as if the mountain is throwing everything its got at you to get you to give up. It’s hard. You have to narrow your focus on the here and how — climber’s mind — and dig deep in order to push on. It’s in that process that you not only climb higher, but also learn and grow the most. 

So it is with writing. Life sometimes gets in the way, throwing complex challenges in the path of creative goals. In my case it was the cumulative weight of too much on my plate. I was overwhelmed, my popcorn mind flitting from this to that, trying desperately to keep up. Instead I’d fallen farther and farther behind, and finally ground to a halt, ironically at 35,000 feet and 500 miles per hour. It was time for climber’s mind. “Don’t obsess on finishing the novel,” I told myself. “Just the next step. And the step after that. And the step after that. Keep plodding away.”

Which is what I was up to this past weekend — plodding away. I’m happy to report that it paid off. No dramatic breakthroughs, no whirlwind rushes to the summit of a finished book. I’m still figuring out who my main character, Keats, really is, and how his complicated world view is going to drive the plot. And where my story settles on thematic, conceptual, and structural levels. Lots to do. But I’m moving steadily upward again, making progress one step at a time. And boy, does it feels good.

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March 6, 2012

Unhand me, thou churlish varlet!


As a fiction writer I sometimes find it refreshing to remind myself of the artificiality of what I do, to remind myself that I have as much in common with the conjurer pulling a rabbit out of a hat as with the farmer digging a potato out of the ground. ( ; I thought of this the other day when my friend and fellow writer Marthe Jocelyn ( alerted me to a piece by David Mitchell (Black Swan Green, Cloud Atlas, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet) on historical fiction.  In this piece he tackles the question of language in books set in the past.  This is a sticky issue, particularly in writing for the young.  On the one hand, we fear falling into anachronism.  On the other hand, we risk being obscure.  I’ve heard various theories on this challenge:  “Just write very plainly and clearly.” “Give a sense, through the cadence, of another time.”  Such theories are often expressed in hushed and respectful tones.  Have they been useful to me?  Not so much.  Mitchell cuts through it all.  He shows how an actual replication of the language of mid-eighteenth century Scotland, for example, “Eat on the nonce, My Boy, lest no later opportunity presents itself,” would be unreadable over the long run of a novel, and would seem phony.  (Or, as he puts it, “It smacks of Blackadder.”)  However, a phrase that sticks out as too modern (“not so much”) kicks the reader out of the narrative.  His solution?  Make it up!  He even has a name for this literary conjuring trick.  Bygone-ese.  It is inaccurate but plausible.  “Like a coat of antique-effect varnish on a new pine dresser, it is both synthetic and the least-worst solution.”  Phew.  It’s a magic trick and like all feats of conjuring it takes skill, practice, dexterity, confidence and charm, but at least we can admit what we’re doing.…


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God Bless You, Mr. Vonnegut…



Five years ago next month, one of my generation’s foremost spokesmen died. Often angry and sarcastic, always brilliant, Kurt Vonnegut wrote Cat’s Cradle, Slaughterhouse-Five, Breakfast of Champions, and a host of other novels that helped voice our post-war confusion and defiance. Like Mark Twain before him, Vonnegut captured the dilemna of finding ourselves in a world not made for us, a mad siren that woos us with its dazzling mix of delights, terrors, beauty and pain. 

So I’ll hug my signed copy of Bluebeard (which the Times obit didn’t even mention!) a bit closer on April 11. I haven’t told many people the story of its signing, because it’s not a moment I’m proud of. But now feels like the time to fess up: years ago, my teenage daughter and I took our respective favorite Vonnegut titles (she was clutching Cat’s Cradle) to his reading at the Ethical Culture Society in New York City. After he finished, we rushed toward the aisle to get our books signed, but Vonnegut (who’d looked and acted pretty inebriated during the reading) had vanished! 

We asked an elderly usher what was up, and he winked, pointing to the back of the huge, vaulted hall. “He snuck out the back,” he told us. So the two of us took off, in the opposite direction from the rest of the crowd exiting out the front.  We wandered through the dark bowels of the building, coming on a small back door. But when I pushed it open, the street was empty. No one moved on the sidewalk in front of us. We were about to turn back, when I heard a cough BEHIND the door I’d just swung wide. I peered around it, and there he was, rumpled and crumpled and HIDING. Vonnegut looked up sheepishly. “You caught me,” he said.

The aging writer we cornered so shamelessly that day was a good deal older, a great deal more “tender” than the man who wrote Cradle. Relentless celebrity hounds, we succeeded in getting our books signed  — albeit in a nearly illegible scrawl. I feel guilty about having mashed one of my idols behind that door, but I was young and so wanted Robin to have an extraordinary memory of the reading. Now she does. As for me? I rather wish I’d let cringing authors stay hidden.

You see, what drew me to Bluebeard in 1997 was the very thing I so conspicuously lacked in our encounter with Vonnegut in that secular cathedral: a large, wounded, but brave heart. This same heart is evident behind these words, quoted in the Times obit five years ago, from God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater:

“Hello, babies. Welcome to Earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. At the outside, babies, you’ve got about a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies — ‘God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.’ “

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