In the Beginning: Where and How to Start Your Story.

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The End of the Affair (1951)

 

In last month’s post, I explored the essentials of a satisfying story ending—“surprising yet inevitable”.  The opening of a story, however, is not inevitable, though it can be surprising.

 Just like on a new date or job interview, the writer has one chance to make a good first impression. Whether it’s an essay, short story, memoir, or novel—the opening sentence, paragraph, and page is the first impression.

A strong beginning can seduce the reader. A long-winded or boring opening can have the opposite effect. The reader (or editor/agent) loses interest. There will be no second date.

 Let’s look at ways to help you get your story off to the best start.

Arouse Curiosity

Consider this example.

“Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet.”

This is the opening lines of Celeste Ng’s debut novel, Everything I Never Told You (2014)

This simple opening sparks several questions. Who is Lydia? How did she die? Who are they and why don’t they know? Whose point-of-view are we in?  The entire novel unfolds from these two sentences.

Here’s another example from Waiting (1999) by Ha Jin that evokes surprise.

“Every summer Lin Kong returned to Goose Village to divorce his wife, Shuyu.”

And: ‘It was a pleasure to burn.”  from Ray Bradbury’s , Fahrenheit 451

Begin as close to the inciting incident as possible.

The inciting incident is the event which turns your protagonist’s life upside down in either a good or bad way.  The inciting incident launches your character into the main conflict of the story.  It’s the engine of your story that sets events in motion building to the climax.

Let’s say your story is about a woman who wins the lottery but doesn’t want to tell her husband about this sudden windfall. 

The inciting incident would be when the woman realizes she has the winning ticket. Instead of starting the story with her marital history, or her love of gambling, you might start at the moment when she realizes she’s finally hit the jackpot.  This is the tactic I took in my published short story, “The Ticket”.

There were only six numbers to check, but, just to be sure, Dolores put on her reading glasses.  On the kitchen table, the newspaper was opened to the all-important page.  Dolores lined up her ticket with the newspaper numbers, and compared them with such deliberation that one would have thought she was half-blind. Dolores read the numbers aloud, slowly, succinctly, like she did when calling for Bingo.  “9…14…21…24…26…30.

 

100 Years of Solitude The opening of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s novel One Hundred Years of Solitude makes quite a first impression. It includes hints of two inciting incidents.

“Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.”

And how about this one?

                Paradise_Toni_Morrison

“They shoot the white girl first.” 

Begin with the End in Mind

Writer/entrepreneur Stephen Covey’s sage advice works well when crafting your story beginning. In his 7 Habits of Effective of Effective People, he explains:

Begin with the End in Mind means to begin each day, task, or project with a clear vision of your desired direction and destination, and then continue by flexing your proactive muscles to make things happen.

When writing fiction, the opening is your where you plant the seeds for your plot to grow.  Knowing your destination can help you build a strong beginning. 

The meaning behind Harper Lee’s understated opening in To Kill A Mockingbird is not realized until the climax of the book. The author masterfully weaves the end into the beginning.

When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow. When it healed, and Jem’s fears of never being able to play football were assuaged, he was seldom self-conscious about his injury…When enough years had gone by to enable us to look back on them, we sometimes discussed the events leading to his accident.

To emphasize this expert plotting device when teaching the novel, I have my students reread the opening after they finish the last chapter. They are always amazed by the cyclical structure of this classic novel.

Pick the right POV

Try to establish a distinct voice or tone, especially if you are using first-person point-of-view.  Charles Dickens does it matter-of-factly in David Copperfield by confiding to the reader.

Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.

My YA novel, One Is Not A Lonely Number, opens with a statement from the 13-year-old narrator, Talia.

Eight is my favorite number. I think it’s a beautiful number; it has two-way symmetry, it’s an even number, it’s in my birth date (September 18th) and it’s the color of a blue sky.

More examples of openings with a unique voice or tone.

“I lived with the same cat for nineteen years–by far the longest relationship of my adult life.” 

A Man and His Cat” by Tim Kreider (The New York Times 2015)

My name was Salmon, like the fish; first name Susie. I was fourteen when I was murdered on December 6, 1973.

Alice Sebold, The Lovely Bones

Limit Backstory

A common mistake in first pages is including too much backstory.

Backstory is exposition as opposed to action. It’s info that the reader needs to know which happened prior to the story.

Don’t overload your reader with background details that could easily be put in later on (or not at all). Use exposition only at the point in the story when the reader absolutely needs the information. Otherwise, every line in the opening should move the plot forward.

It’s helpful to get reader/editorial feedback on your story draft. You may find out that your opening really happens on Page 3…or 10, as I did with my first novel and a recent one in progress.

Begin with the Introduction of an Interesting Character

catcher-rye

All these examples immediately make me want to find out more about the character.

“Miss Brooke had that kind of beauty which seems to be thrown into relief by poor dress.”     

George Eliot,  Middlemarch 

“He had jumped a radio tower and a cliff in Norway, but never a bridge. He chose a Wednesday morning when the fog was expected to burn off early and called in sick to work.”                                                                                                              The Casual Car Poll” by Katherine Bell (Ploughshares 2006)

“Mr. Jones, of the Manor Farm, had locked the hen-houses for the night, but was too drunk to remember to shut the pop-holes.”   

George Orwell, Animal Farm

“There was once a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb and he almost deserved it.”  C.S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.

When my brother Fish turned thirteen, we moved to the deepest part inland because of the hurricane and, of course, the fact that he’d caused it.                        Ingrid Law, Savvy

“Check me out. The top two knuckles of my left hand look as if I’d been worked over by the KGB.”                                                                                                                        “This Old Man” by Roger Angell, essay from The New Yorker (2015)

“He was born with a gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad.”          Rafael Sabatini, Scaramouche (1921)

 

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While an intriguing first line may hook the reader, you still need to sustain attention. So consider this checklist for your first page.

  • Introduces a compelling protagonist
  • Introduces setting
  • Introduces conflict
  • Conveys tone or mood
  • Raises questions in the reader’s mind
  • Involves some action

You can learn a lot from studying the masters. Pick an anthology of stories and read just the first paragraph of each one. Which stories pull you in?

Poets & Writers Magazine just published noteworthy beginnings from 12 hot-off-the-press books.

Some of my Favorites Opening Lines

“Not every thirteen-year-old girl is accused of murder, brought to trial, and found guilty. But I was such a girl and my story is worth relating even if it did happen years ago. ”      The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle by Avi.

What’s your favorite opening line?

 

How to Write a Great Ending: (Why Endings Matter in Fiction and Life)

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Why is it we can forgive a book’s slow start, a meandering middle, but not a bad ending?

Some endings leave you feeling cheated. Or disappointed. Or plain confused.

You’ve invested your time, money, and heart and you want a payoff at the end.  Endings matter to readers and movie-goers. A lot.  The highly ambiguous ending to the 2014 movie Birdman ignited an intense online debate about what actually happened. Some loved the ending, others hated it.

For years after publishing Gone with the Wind, author Margaret Mitchell was deluged with reader requests for a sequel. Mitchell adamantly refused, saying she purposely left the ending ambiguous because she had no idea whether or not Scarlet and Rhett would be reunited.

Gone_With_The_Wind

So what makes a bad ending? 

I asked my friends and family. Their answers aligned with the advice you’d get in a basic writing workshop.

-Confusing

-Based on coincidence

-It was all a dream

-Contrived

-Too many loose ends

-The hero dies without achieving or seeing his goal/dream

-Manipulative

-Unrealistic

-Too Sad

There’s a great scene in the movie The Silver Lining Playbook when the main character Pat, upon finishing Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, throws the book out the window. Pat then wakes his sleeping parents and launches into a rant over the love story’s bleak ending.

“…She dies, Dad! I mean, the world’s hard enough as it is, guys…Can’t somebody say, “Hey, let’s be positive? Let’s have a good ending to the story?”

Turns out, Hemingway considered at least 40 possible endings to the classic 1928 novel. If your curious, a 2012 Library Edition exists containing these alternative endings. 

This brings to mind the wacky physics theory of “parallel universes.   I won’t get into the scientific details behind the controversial concept, but basically, it explores the possibility that other versions of ourselves, our histories, and our outcomes exist simultaneously in multiple universes. (A premise portrayed many a time in science fiction tales.) 

So, let’s say you’re feeling sad and regretful about letting a lover go. Perhaps you can take comfort in the idea that somewhere out there your replica is enjoying life with this missed love.

In the 1980s and 90s, the widely popular children series, Choose Your Own Adventure, allowed readers to assume the role of the protagonist.  Every few pages,  the reader gets to make choices that determine the outcome. The fun part is getting the chance to explore several possible endings.

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                            Choose_Your_Own_Treasur_Diver

 

Each book’s introduction affirms the power the reader holds. 

“There are dangers, choices, adventures, and consequences…but don’t despair at anytime YOU can go back and alter the path of your story, and change its results. 

If only real life were like that.

 

How do writers craft the perfect ending to their story?

Some decide on the ending at the very beginning and fill in the rest. Others follow a detailed outline which builds to a specified ending. Others writers like to journey with their characters and allow the ending to unfold. The process becomes an exciting discovery.

Best-selling thriller writers Lee Child and Lisa Scottoline described this process in a recent NYT podcast. After getting a feel for the tone of the book, Lee Child just sits down to write and sees what happens.  Lisa Scottoline knows only the beginning when she starts writing a novel. As she reaches each new point, Lisa asks herself, “Okay, now what?”  The prolific author says this process mirrors life.

I rarely know the ending of a story before I write. Even if I have a sense of the story’s conclusion, I often change my mind or consider alternatives. In my novel, One Is Not A Lonely Number, one of the characters reveals a secret toward the end.  I didn’t even know what it was until I got there. 

In my new short story, “When We Were Bad”, I knew one of the characters would end up in the wrong place at the right time but wasn’t sure if she’d get out alive. Making that decision ultimately changed the final paragraph which I rewrote several times.

But even when you decide on the ending of your story, how do you know it works?

What makes a good ending?

This is a trickier question than what makes a bad ending. According to the character Holden Caufield in Catcher in the Rye,

“What really knocks me out is a book that, when you’re all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it.”

I love this quote and have experienced the feeling myself.

The answers my friends gave me regarding a good ending were more about emotion–how a story ending left them feeling.

-Happy(ish)

-Enlightened

-Moved

-Astonished

-Transformed

-Curious

-Wishing it never ended

The most common answer was satisfied.  Hmm. Makes me think of a good meal. What is satisfying to one reader may cause another to toss the book out the window.

. If-you-want-a-happy-ending-that-depends-of-course-on-where-you-stop-your-story.-Orson-Welles

So how does a writer choose?

A while back, I came across an answer. 

A good ending to a plot must be both inevitable yet surprising. 

I’ve been pondering this paradoxical advice since ever since.

Thriller writer, Meg Gardiner, (also interviewed in the NYT Podcast) summed up the above axiom in her 2015 blog post as: 

Amazing! Not what I expected, but exactly what I expected.

Try putting your favorite books and movies to this test.

For me, this played out in the novel Me Before You by Jojo Moyes(Don’t bother with the movie version.) It’s a contemporary romance between an unlikely pair who seem to hate each other at first then fall deeply in love. At the end of the book, one of the characters makes a choice that made me cry.  I thought about it for days. At first, I was sure it was the wrong ending. But as I reflected  (and debated with a friend), I could see the author had planted the seeds for what was to come. The reader doesn’t want this ending, is hoping until the last page that it won’t happen, but it does.  The conclusion is unsettling, thought-provoking and, indeed, “inevitable, yet unexpected.”

Few endings, in fiction or life, are perfect.

Story endings can leave us sad and still be a good ending. Or, perhaps, the right ending.

What are your favorite or worst book/movie endings? 

If you’re a writer, do you plan the ending ahead of time?

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Turning Darkness to Light

 

Happy_Children

“One of the luckiest things that can happen to you in life, I think, is to have a happy childhood.”  ~ Agatha Christie

“Childhood is a very, very tricky business of surviving it.”  ~Maurice Sendak

What first comes to mind when you hear the word “childhood”?

I’m guessing you might answer: innocence, joy, play, fun, laughter, silliness, or wonder.

What about the word “depression”?

Childhood depression should be an oxymoron. But it is a reality for too many children and the parents who love them.

One of the special characteristics of children is that, unlike grownups, they don’t stay mad or sad very long. But some children are born with a brain chemistry, genetic makeup, or nature that make it difficult to experience the lightness and joy of childhood, no matter how loving and stable their home.

“We naturally want and expect children to be happy,” my writer friend Irene says, “and when they’re not, we try to do something about it. We buy them a new toy, do a fun activity, talk, give hugs. But sometimes we can’t fix the unhappiness, and this feels awful.”

Depressed_Child

Irene knows a lot about childhood depression. Her only son, now a young adult, showed symptoms of rage, frustration, sadness, and suicidal thinking by age eight. 

When other parents complained about their children’s everyday woes— not being picked for the travel team, not getting the lead in a play, having a squabble with a friend, being too shy—Irene was struggling to keep her child from despair. “I couldn’t relate to these parents. I felt alienated,” she said. “My son and I lived in a bubble of silence outside the norm.”  Irene’s parenting world revolved around psychiatrists, therapy appointments, hospitalizations, and various medications. She fought to protect her son in public school where he was often mistreated and misunderstood. “While some teachers were invested in him, others lost patience.”  Irene advocated tirelessly on her son’s behalf to keep him safe. “There were times,” she told me tearfully, “when I honestly didn’t know if I was going to lose him.” 

I met Irene a year and a half ago at a local meet-up of SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrator).  She’s a petite powerhouse who radiates energy and warmth. We immediately connected.  As we got to know one and other, we shared, not only our writing goals but our personal journeys of struggle and growth. Listening to Irene’s story, I marveled at her ability to exude such a love for life.

Irene has turned her painful experience into a passion project to help others. She wants to shed light on childhood depression, to open the uncomfortable discussion, and to let other parents and children know they are not alone. 


She translated this desire into action by writing and illustrating a small book with a big message. Celia and the Little Boy is the story of two children trapped in the darkness, and what it took for them to find their way out.”  Illustrated with child-like pencil drawings, this timeless tale is for readers ages 8 to 98. img_69311.jpg

Last week, I attended Irene’s book launch at the Canton Public Library. Speaking to a room full of supporters, Irene shared the story’s journey from inspiration to draft to published book. Irene’s son, now an adult, fully approved of her sharing his story, which is also his mother’s story.  Irene read the Celia and the Little Boy aloud while the pages were projected on a large screen.  I could just feel the overwhelming emotion of the audience as Irene read the last, hopeful sentence. 

The next step in Irene’s passion project is to connect with parents, teachers, pediatricians, and therapists.  Irene wants to offer, not only hope but information on this devastating illness that impacts families and communities at both the personal and national level.

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We can all learn from people like Irene who, rather than allowing themselves to be pulled under, reach toward the light. They turn pain into healing and meaning. They become activists, mentors, volunteers, writers, and spokespersons driven by a sense of purpose. They use the lessons gleaned from their loss, grief, or struggle to help ease another’s burden.

Now I think I know how Irene maintains her inner joy. Like her book character, Celia, Irene feels the struggle, yet is still able to see the world as a “truly wondrous place”.  As she so eloquently writes in her dedication:  For all the children who dwell alone in the darkness and those who can see them.”

happychild2

For more information on Celia and the Little Boy Irenebuchine.com

 

 

Finding Inspiration in 2018

Inspiration_2018

 

“There were so many frightful times when I was totally “unilluminated” and feared that I could never write again.”   

                     ~Carson McCullers, Illumination and Night Glare

 

Where do you find inspiration when the well is dry, the light dim?  How do you engage in creative work amidst the onslaught of headlines of terror attacks, mass shootings, natural disasters, and White House insanity?  As you attend to the relentless demands of everyday life, how do you carve space for illumination?

Here are some of my ideas and those gleaned from other writers and artists.

l.  Start the day with beauty.

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Do you start the day with the news report? Is your phone screen the first image your eyes take in?  This is a hard habit to break but doing so can do wonders for your mood and muse. I know it’s hard to think about beauty when you’re getting ready for work or trying to get the kids off to school. But taking a moment to notice beauty, rather than the news headlines, can lift your spirit.

Instead of checking your Twitter feed, try feeding your soul.  Take in scenes of nature.  Research studies have demonstrated that just looking at nature scenes can reduce stress and increase pleasant feelings. This alone may open the door to inspiration. 

The beauty of language soothes and inspires me. Every morning at breakfast, I try to read a poem. This warms up my brain for creative work which, for me, is usually done early in the day. 

2.  Take A Walk

Walking has long been considered a way to open the mind. Naturalist, writer, and avid walker Henry David Thoreau wrote in his journal,  “Methinks that the moment my legs begin to move, my thoughts begin to flow.”  Walking is especially helpful for me when I’m about to begin a new writing project. Walking engages our senses, clears our mind of clutter, and gets the blood flowing—all helpful for finding that creative spark. (If you’re interested in learning more about the cognitive benefits of walking, check out Why Walking Helps Us Think, New Yorker, 9/3/14.) 

3.  Create a Playlist

It goes without saying that music can inspire.  Music can also serve as an anchor to a specific time in your life and take you right back to the associated emotions and memories. I’ve created mood playlists—melancholy, tense, romantic, happy—to help me get into a specific scene. Some writers use a specific playlist while working on a novel. Young adult author Rainbow Rowell’s main characters bond over 1980’s music. The author listened to these songs while drafting her novel, Eleanor & Park. (Rainbow shared the playlist with her fans on Spotify and YouTube.) 

4.  Learn from the Masters

StephenKing

All art is about craft, so learn your craft. Read wisdom from the masters–Virginia Wolfe, Anne Lamott, Stephen King, Chekov, Ursula Le Guin, John Gardner. Take solace that even the greats lose their muse (and sometimes their minds).  The successful artists you admire all doubt themselves, muddle through the middle, give up on manuscripts, have dry spells, and get rejected—just like you!   I keep several craft books near my desk. One of my favorites is Stein on Writing by Sol Stein.  When I sit down to write, I open one book to a random page and absorb the lesson at hand.  I also turn to my collection of inspiring quotes from writers and other creative thinkers.

And as imagination bodies forth

The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen

Turns them to shapes and give to airy nothing

A local habitation and a name.

  ~William Shakespeare (A Midsummer Night’s Dream)

5.  Try Pen and Paper

If you always plan, outline, and compose on a computer, try paper and pen for a change. This not only removes the distraction of the internet, but also the delete button. (How many times have you deleted a sentence or idea 5 seconds after typing it?) Writing by hand forces you to slow down, to more closely consider your thoughts and feelings. And just by engaging a different process for creative inspiration, your brain is primed for novelty. You’re ready to brainstorm. Jot down every idea, question, and connection that pops into your head. Don’t censor. Explore all possibilities.

Nabokov_Quote

 

7.  Stay Curious

 Keep asking questions. Ask: What If? Read widely. Wonder. Talk to people who are very different from you. Jot down snippets of interesting conversation. Visit new places. Collect things. I like buying old postcards and photographs in antique shops and then imagining the stories behind them. 

7.  Show Up

Sometimes its best to just get started. Make art a daily companion, not an occasional visitor. Instead of saying “someday”, choose someday—like today.  Or as Stephen King bluntly states: “Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration, the rest of us just get up and go to work.” 

Exercise the writing muscle every day, even if it is only a letter, notes, a title list, a character sketch, a journal entry. Writers are like dancers, like athletes. Without that exercise, the muscles seize up.      ~Jane Yolen

8.  Trust the process.

If you’ve ever suffered from insomnia, you know how the anxiety of waiting for sleep and worrying that it won’t come actually delays its arrival. I think the same can be true for inspiration.  Instead of fretting that you don’t have the idea, the words, the vision, the melody—you may just need to surrender. Be patient. Wait a while. Some ideas arrive banging on your door, others gestate for years. Keep listening.

 “The statue in the stone. How does the artist find that, see it, before it’s visible?”

                     ~Ursula K. Le Guin

And sometimes in order to go forward, you have to first meet the place where you are stuck and grapple with it on the blank page.

A_Place_of_Darkeness

 When my father was killed, I felt a part of me die with him. Afterward, I could barely speak, let alone write. Inspiration eluded me. Only after braving the demon, could I begin to create again. I didn’t want to write about the experience; I needed to.  Inspiration isn’t always rosy and warm. Inspiration can come from a place of darkness. And by entering this place with courage and vulnerability, you can create something that illuminates.

My latest writing is published in the December issue of Hippocampus Magazine.  It’s the hardest essay I’ve ever written.

How do you capture inspiration?

POETRY WILL SAVE YOUR LIFE

Poetry_Will_Save_Your_Life_Cover

“Poems are made from the lives lived, borne out of experiences and shaped by solitary thought.” ~ Jill Bialosky

I just finished reading a wonderful new book that I picked up solely because of its intriguing title: Poetry Will Save Your Life by Jill Bialosky (Atria Books 2017). The  Kirkus Review sums it up well: “An emotional, sometimes-wrenching account of how lines of poetry can be lifelines.” 

This short memoir is centered on specific poems that have brought the author comfort, meaning, inspiration, or understanding during pivotal moments in her life. Bialosky organizes the book by themes such as Shame, Memory, Escape, Passion, First Love, and Mortality. A brief bio for each poet is included which deepens our awareness of the poem’s meaning. Each poignant chapter could stand alone. 

Throughout the book, Bialosky reflects on the profound lessons and meaning poetry can offer us. “Poems are composed of our own language disordered, reconfigured, reimagined, and compressed in ways that offer a heightened sense of reality and embrace a common humanity.”

Whether you are a poetry lover or haven’t read a poem since high school, there is something in this book for everyone. 

Ms. Bialosky, an award-winning poet, novelist, and book editor, never veers off into English professor mode when reflecting on the poems. Rather, she selects key phrases or themes that connect with her experience. Here she examines a stanza of E.E. Cummings poem, somewhere i have never traveled, gladly beyond.                

(i do not know what it is about you that closes
and opens;only something in me understands
the voice of your eyes is deeper than all roses)
nobody,not even the rain,has such small hands
                 

Bialosky explains that the “use of the word voice as a modifier for eyes allows the reader to experience how much the speaker of this poem “sees” into his subject. Then she intuits the poet’s question:  How is it that one person can unlock something private within us? Or awaken things in us we fear?” 

Bialosky writes about the death of her first child shortly after birth. She shares the never-ending pain of her beloved young sister’s suicide.  In the chapter of grief, Bialosky comments on Auden’s poem, Musee Des Beaux Arts.  “W.H. Auden documents the otherworldly state of grief and tragedy; how it strikes families while others are doing the dishes or taking the dog for a walk. Even dogs continue on their doggy life.” 

Anyone who has experienced the death of a loved one can connect to this paradoxical state of being: How can everyone else just go about their business when my beloved is gone? 

Bialosky says, “I will spend years trying to capture the experience of suicide in a prose work…Poems remain a sustaining source of comfort.

Like Jill Bialowsky, words, too, have been an integral part of my healing after losing my father—words shared with a therapist, words of comfort from family and friends, words I have written, and words of those who have crawled through the tunnel of trauma and grief and come out the other side.

It has been exactly two years since my father’s tragic death. In some ways, this is unfathomable.  How could two years have passed?  This disbelief has me thinking more about the elusive nature of time. If time is constant, why do our brains perceive it so differently? Why does time slow down when we grieve and speed up when we are happy?  Why when we are waiting excitedly for a special event, do the days not move fast enough?          

passing-the-time

For centuries, poets have pondered time’s mystery. Consider Henry Van Dyke’s poem, Time Is.

Time is
Too Slow for those who Wait,
Too Swift for those who Fear,
Too Long for those who Grieve,
Too Short for those who Rejoice;
But for those who Love,
Time is eternity.

Emily Dickinson expresses this idea of expectation and waiting in her poem, If You Were Coming In The Fall.  Although the agoraphobic poet spent most of her life inside her Amherst, MA home, Dickinson enjoyed her share of romantic interests. The following poem is thought to be attributed to a family friend, Judge Otis Phillips Lord, who died 2 years before Emily.

                          EmilyDickinsonSmall

If you were coming in the Fall,

I’d brush the Summer by

With half a smile, and half a spurn,

As Housewives do, a Fly.

If I could see you in a year,

I’d wind the months in balls—

And put them each in separate Drawers,

For fear the numbers fuse—

If only Centuries, delayed,

I’d count them on my Hand,

Subtracting, till my fingers dropped

Into Van Dieman’s Land,

If certain, when this life was out—

That yours and mine, should be

I’d toss it yonder, like a Rind,

And take Eternity—

But, now, uncertain of the length

Of this, that is between,

It goads me, like the Goblin Bee—

That will not state— its sting.

                                            ~

Jill Bialowsy concludes that “poetry gives shape to those empty spaces within us that we have no words for until we find them in a poem.”  

Do you have a favorite poem or one that holds special meaning?

Summer Reading for Teens 2013

It’s Book Bucket time again!

My daughter is just finishing up her homeschooling projects, so I haven’t yet presented her summer book bucket. Meanwhile, my Writing Workshop students have asked for summer reading recommendations.  So here you are:

Wonder

by R. J. Palacio

Knoph

Wonder

I fell in love with this book.  I listened to the audio version which was fantastic.  This story has heart, humor, and wit. It is the kind of book you want to talk to someone about after reading.  The story is told in multiple perspectives–from the main character, August, a fifth grader, his classmates, and  his sister in tenth grade.  So there is a wide range of interest here. Auggie has struggled all his life with a facial deformity which prevented him from attending school.  When he begins Beecher Prep, he hopes to be treated like a normal kid and to make friends. The story deals with friendship, bullying, empathy, teachers, and how a family copes with adversity and illness.  The author called her debut book, “a mediation in kindness”. I’d recommend it for both girl and boys ages 10-14, but adults will love it, too.  Wonder has been on many top ten lists this year. Don’t miss it.

Summer and Bird

by Katherine Catmull

Dutton 2012

summer and bird

A beautifully written fairy-tale about two sisters, Summer and Bird, who awake one morning to find their parents missing. They embark on a mysterious quest through a forest to find them.  The girls are then pulled into a fantastical bird world called Down, where birds speak and connect with humans.  The sisters alternate chapters in telling the story.  This is a great book for girls who enjoy fantasy, nature, and relationship stories. It has emotional intensity and dangerous situations. Ages 12 and up.

The Agency, Book 1

 Y.S. Lee

Candlewick Press, 2011

the agency

It is the 1850‘s London and twelve-year-old Mary Quinn is sentenced to hang for stealing. In the nick of time, she is secretly rescued by a member of the covert spy group called The Agency.  Working under the guise of Miss Scrimshaw’s Academy for Girls, the all female agency trains young females to be spies. Mary’s first assignment is to disguise herself as a lady’s companion and infiltrate a rich merachant’s home in order to uncover the mystery of some disappearing cargo ships. This is a great book for more sophisticated readers who enjoy historical fiction with romance and suspense. The lush details will transport you back to Victorian-era London.  Recommended for ages 12-18.

Code Name Verity

by Elizabeth Wein

Hyperian 2012

Code name verity

This Printz Honor book has made a number of top ten lists. It will keep you hooked to the very end. After surviving a plane crash, “Verity”, a young female spy, is captured in  Nazi-occupied France. In exchange for a lesser form a torture and a stay of execution, Verity agrees to write her confessions about her espionage work. We learn the story of how she crossed paths with Maddie, the young pilot of the plane and why Verity abandoned her after the crash. Will trading secrets with the enemy save Verity’s life? This multi-layered adventure story is quite a grown-up one, so I recommend it for 14 to adult.

Close to Famous

by Joan Baur

Viking 2011

almost famous

Twelve-year-old Foster dreams of growing up to become a celebrity chef despite her reading disability. Set in a rural town of West Virginia, where Foster and her mother move to escape an abusive boyfriend, the story is full of odd and memorable characters. You’ll fall in love with Foster, the narrator, with her big heart and pillowcase full of secrets. Can the quirky townsfolk of tiny Culpepper help Foster realize her delicious dreams?  Ages 10 and up.

The Great Wall of Lucy Wu

by Wendy Wan-Lon Shang

Scholastic 2011

great wall of lucy wu

Lucy Wu is a sixth-grade girl with a strong will and great ambition. This girl has plans for her future which include becoming a basketball player  and an interior decorator. Alas, everything seems to get in the way, from having to share her room with Yi Po, her grandmother’s sister, to dealing with the school bully. Then there is the dreaded Chinese school her parents force her to attend. Lucy will make you laugh as she navigates her bi-cultural life with flair. Ages 9-12.

Legend

By Marie Lu

Putnam, 2011

legend What would a summer reading list be with out a dystopian thriller? Seems like some young readers can’t get enough.  If that’s the case, Legend, first in a trilogy set in futuristic Los Angeles, should satisfy.  It’s a roller coaster ride that doesn’t stop. Though predictable and familiar at many points, it has emotion and compelling characters. The story alternates between fifteen-year-old June, a prodigy from the wealthy district, and fifteen-year-old Day, a wanted criminal born into the slums. This highly-visual book seems destined for the big screen. For boys and girls ages 12 and up.

Has your child you enjoyed any of these titles? What are you reading this summer?  

A Great Teacher Gift

Looking for a last-minute gift for that special teacher? A gift that she/he probably doesn’t already have?

I recommend the beautiful picture book , Dream: A Tale of Wonder, Wisdom & Wishes by Susan V. Bosak.  Published in 2004, this gem has received numerous awards.  The book poetically explores hopes and dreamsthroughout the arc of one’s lifetime.

Dreams cover

The story is multi-layered and can be appreciated by young children and older teens as well.  Aspiring artists will appreciate the full-color illustrations by 15 top world illustrators.  Each page has an inspirational quote and a hidden star for the reader to find.

The narrator not only encourages young people to dream but to to action: “You need the Believe of childhood, the Do of youth, and the Think of experience.”

As a teacher, this is just the kind of gift book I’d love to receive.  It works for multi-age groups and can be used in a variety of ways in the classroom. Dream was published as a part of the Legacy Project’s LifeDreams program. The website offers terrific ideas for literacy and cross-curricular activities.

I discovered  Dream a few years ago when I began searching for projects to inspire kids to set goals and imagine their future. Now I use the book as part of my writing workshops and presentations. At my latest educational workshop: Raising Girls to Dream Big, a young couple showed up with their newborn daughter. I was thrilled to have these first-time parents in attendance.  I congratulated them for getting an early start on raising a child with hopes and dreams.

So now I’ve adding Dreams to my list of meaningful baby gifts, as well as teacher gifts.

Happy Holidays!

Recovering from Perfectionism

This book may save my life!

I have always been a perfectionist, but it wasn’t until about 6 years ago, that I really understood how this mental malady was wreaking havoc on my life.  Still,  awareness alone wasn’t enough to turn me into an easy-going, go-with-the-flow, realistic goal-setter, mistake-forgiver type of person.  I felt powerless to overcome perfectionism’s relentless hold on me.

Eventually, I came to view my perfectionism as a chronic condition in need of management and care.  It might go into “remission” for a while, then flare-up. Occasionally, I will an experience acute episode and really have to take therapeutic measures.  I now consider myself “in recovery”, a state that requires vigilance, self-care, and self-awareness.

Buy I can’t do it alone.

That is why I was so excited to discover a terrific book called, The Seven Secrets of the Prolific: The Definitive Guide to Overcoming Procrastination, Perfectionism, and Writer’s Block by Hillary Rettig.  Hillary shows how perfectionism is more than a “destructive habit or way of thinking”.  Her book demonstrates perfectionism’s toxic effects on your view of “yourself, your work, and the world.”

As soon as the author began describing the characteristics and behaviors of perfectionists, my eyes popped.  Hey, this woman really knows me!   I downloaded the 182 -page book in the summer and still haven’t finished it (and that is okay!).  Rettig’s book is not meant to be read in one sitting.  It is a step-by-step guide and you don’t go to the next step until you have made progress. There are clear steps to take, exercises to do, behaviors to practice, and practical changes to make. I was going to wait until I finished to blog about this wonderful book, but every page of her book just keeps getting better. So, I thought I’d share it with you today, and then write about my progress in future blogs.

By the way, this book is aimed at writers, but anyone who is trying to finish a major project or has difficulty with output due to procrastination will benefit.  And speaking of procrastination…did you know that Perfectionism is at its root?

I will leave you with one defining characteristic from Secrets of the Prolific:

“Perfectionists hold unrealistic definitions of success and punish themselves harshly for the inevitable failures.”

Yup, that’s me.

Are you a perfectionist?  What tactics have you taken to tame this unruly condition?  What guides or programs have you found helpful? 

Summer Reading

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I live for summer.

As a sufferer of SAD,(seasonal affective disorder) the spring clock change kicks me into gear.  By June, I’m ready to fly. The summer break from my teaching job allows for more intense writing time.  These long stretches of time bring its own challenges and pressures.  Produce! Publish!

My self-imposed writing regimen also conflicts with another desire: to read a ton of books. In my world, one of the small pleasures in life  is coming home from the library on a Friday afternoon with a bag full of new books.  I’ve heard some writers say that they don’t read fiction while working on their novels.  This would be a hard practice for me to follow.  I find that reading certain authors inspire my own work.

When I was working on my YA novel, One Is Not A Lonely Number, I read  children’s novels with female narrators, like in my own story.  If I am working on a short story, I turn to my favorite writers for inspiration in language and voice. One of my favorite collections is Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout.  The plotting, dialogue, insights, and language just blows me away.

When I get stuck, I reread my writing bibles: Bird by Bird by Anne Lamont, On Writing by Stephen King, and Stein on Writing by Sol Stein. As for those beach books–they are my reward for putting in chair time, for typing those 1000 words.  So this summer I hope to read:  Binocular Vision by Edith Pearlman, Delirium by Lauren Oliver, More Cake and Lots of Candles by Anna Quindlen, Canada by Richard Ford, and Creating Innovators by Tony Wagner.

What’s on your list?