Wednesday, April 24, 2013

My Love Affair with Writing Conferences

by Kelley Lindberg

This weekend, I’m headed off to the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) regional conference in surprisingly vibrant Boise, Idaho, with two wonderful writing friends. I’m attending this conference as a participant rather than as a presenter, which means I get to focus on enjoying myself. What a treat!

I’ve been involved with planning, running, and speaking at many writing conferences over the years, and I’ve become a big fan of them. I absolutely believe that attending writing conferences can be one of the best things a writer can do for his or her writing life and career. Every conference is different, but most offer a gamut of panels, presentations, and workshops that cover craft, inspiration, and the publishing industry itself. At a writing conference, you can:
  • Hone your writing craft and advance your writing skills in specific areas (such as dialogue, plot, conflict, character development, or humor)
  • Get inspired and energized
  • Learn tips for getting your work noticed by agents or editors
  • Hear what’s working for other writers
  • Experience “a-ha!” moments as you consider your work-in-progress in light of what you hear in the sessions
  • Identify weaknesses and strengths in your work-in-progress, which can help you find direction in your revision phase
  • Realize you’re not the only loony person who thinks agonizing over a particular verb is a productive way to spend an hour.
  • Add new titles to your “must-read-soon” list
  • Pay for a publishing professional, usually an editor, agent, or successful author, to give you a 15-minute manuscript consultation, which seldom leads to a sale, but almost always gives you an unbiased opinion on how your writing is coming together in that piece. (And yes, every once in a while, the stars align, and a writer and agent find each other and it’s a match made in heaven.)
  • Meet editors and agents
  • Meet other writers or illustrators
Those last two bullets are some of the most important. The chance to meet other writers, editors, and agents is one of the most important opportunities of a writing conference. Even though the editors and agents at a particular conference may not be right for your work (or vice versa), you can still learn insider tips from them, and they may become part of your network that eventually leads to someone who is. And meeting other writers can be the best part of all – at a minimum, you may find a fun lunch companion for a day or two during the conference. Even better, you might find someone to join you in a critique group, or a kindred spirit who eventually becomes a dear friend, or a networking contact who can put you in touch with professionals who may someday boost your career.

Confession time: I admit that every once in a while, I’ll return from a conference a little discouraged. Being around so many good writers and so much information can be overwhelming, and it’s tempting to give into the “I’ll never be good enough” mindset. But I’ve found that if I give it a few days, little ideas will start to spark in my head when I least expect them: “Maybe I could make my character try this,” or “I wonder what would happen if I changed that.” And pretty soon, I’m back in the saddle and tackling my writing not only with renewed energy, but with new ideas for strengthening it that I’d have never thought of if I hadn’t gone to the conference.

One of my New Year’s resolutions this year was to attend a writing conference as a participant instead of as a speaker, because I feel the need to reconnect with my own energy and enthusiasm as a writer. (I’ve signed up for two so far!) Life has a tendency to pull us in many stressful directions, and it’s appallingly easy to become focused on anything and everything but our creative life. So for me, spending a couple of days surrounded by other wonderfully maladjusted writers seems like the perfect tonic for my creative spirit.

Do you gain something from writing conferences that I haven’t thought of? If so, share it with us in the Comments.

And I’ll see you in Boise.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Top 10 Ways Not to Start a Story

by Kelley Lindberg

I’ve done a fair amount of judging for various writing contests. After a while, it becomes clear that there are some default ways that writers sometimes introduce their stories. Maybe they read one like it and got it caught in their brain as being “the way to write a story,” or they tried it once in a writing course as an exercise, or they just couldn’t think of anything better.

I thought I’d jot down some of the story beginnings that I have seen far too many times, and let you know that if you’re using one of these openings, you might want to look for a fresh beginning to your story instead.

These ways to introduce a story might have worked once, but either they lose our interest immediately, or they have been overdone to the point of cliché. Avoid them like the plague. Ha. (Cliché, get it?)

1. In a dream

2. Looking at someone in a photograph

3. In the main character’s backstory (we can learn his history later, if it matters, but don’t start with a history lesson!)

4. On an ordinary day, when nothing unusual is happening, and things aren’t about to change

5. Someone looking at him/herself in a mirror

6. With a long description that might show us the setting, but doesn’t introduce us to the character or his/her problem (this used to work, but modern readers don’t have the patience for it now)

7. With the focus on a character who turns out not to be the main character

8. Right after something interesting has happened (“I can’t believe I survived that train wreck…”)

9. With a cliché

10. “Once upon a time…” or “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…”

UPDATE (4/24/13): Here are some more pet peeves:

11. (From Kaylie): Waking up.

12. (From Kaylie): In the middle of a car chase.

13. (From Danelle): Describing the weather in detail.

Do you have some other “Intro Pet Peeves”? If so, share them with us in a Comment!

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Why Handwriting and Cursive Still Matter

by Kelley Lindberg

Last Friday, the Utah State Board of Education voted unanimously to recommend that handwriting and cursive should continue to be taught in our Utah public schools. That instruction has been required in the state up until now, but under the new Common Core curriculum, it is no longer required. (“Utah Education Leaders Move to Keep Cursive in Schools," Salt Lake Tribune, April 5, 2013.)

In the “why teach a dying art form” debate, I say “because to lose it will be a much deeper loss than is apparent on the surface.”

The debate generally centers on this idea: no one uses handwriting for much these days besides a signature on legal forms and maybe grocery lists. We all use technology to communicate now, instead. So what’s the point in teaching handwriting in general, and cursive specifically?

There are lots of practical reasons why teaching cursive could be eliminated:
  • Few people write anything really long (like a manuscript, say) by hand anymore. Those of us who do are mostly older generation, and we won’t be around much longer. Keyboarding, especially for the younger generation, is much faster.
  • For short writing tasks, like quick notes or to-do lists, we can print just as fast as we can write in cursive.
  • There are too many other newer, more relevant subjects that need to be taught in schools nowadays; there’s no time for an antiquated skill like cursive.
  • Most people print anyway. According to Kitty Burns Florey in Script & Scribble (a surprisingly engaging book on the history and future of handwriting, and it’s a fast read, so check it out), in 2006 only 15% of students wrote their SAT essays in cursive; the other 85% printed theirs.
But I think there are some pretty important downsides that those arguments ignore. Here are some ideas I think we should strongly consider:

The handwriting form we call “printing” (the non-cursive writing most of us seem to prefer) was invented less than a hundred years ago. (Marjorie Wise introduced it into New York City schools in the 1920s.) Surprised? Me, too. But that means that the entire history of humankind up until one century ago was written in something other than printing. For those of us primarily concerned/affected/influenced by the western world, we’re talking about centuries of history being recorded in cursive (some of it was printed on presses into book or pamphlet form, but the vast majority of personal, business, legal, and political communication was by hand).
Yes, that cursive has evolved over the years, and it can be difficult to read the really old stuff, but most of us can still pick up a copy of an old family diary and read at least most of it. If we suddenly stop teaching how to read cursive, all of that history soon will be shut off to all but a handful of “artisans” who specialize in cursive, in the same way that a handful of folks now specialize in deciphering cuneiform tablets or Mayan hieroglyphics.

Knowing the next generation of your family won’t be able to understand a word of your grandparent’s diaries, letters, or even their marriage license should give you pause. Now consider all the literature, genealogy, and local history that will be trapped forever inside codes that may never again be deciphered.

That scares me.

Another problem with losing handwriting instruction is that we’ve already reduced or eliminated most of the arts from public school education. In the push to accommodate shrinking budgets, an ever-increasing slate of new subjects, a strong emphasis on vocational readiness and a corresponding disdain for the liberal arts (and the well-rounded, rational, and deep-thinking abilities those liberal arts develop), art and music education is often the first casualty. This, despite an overwhelming amount of research showing that a basic foundation in art and music greatly enhance a student’s reasoning skills in math and language – the very skills we’re trying as a nation to strengthen.

Mastering handwriting, whether cursive or legible print, is similar to mastering other forms of art. It involves fine motor skills, patterning, angle, weight, intent, joining individual components into a larger whole, and control. Then you combine all those specific techniques in a personal way to express yourself. Sounds like drawing, painting, guitar playing, singing, dancing, or sculpting, doesn’t it? So maybe continuing to teach cursive not only preserves our access to the mountains of written history we still need, but it also exercises the artistic portion of our children’s minds that are rapidly becoming atrophied (without having to hire a new teacher).

In fact, plenty of evidence proves that when students study handwriting and learn to form their own letters, it focuses their attention and reinforces the concepts of how those letters become words that mean something. In other words, the act of writing makes reading make more sense, and reading comprehension scores improve in students who have studied handwriting.

Reading comprehension is essential for every other academic subject, every application that student will ever fill out, and his or her eventual career success. Period.

Perhaps the answer isn’t to eliminate cursive. Perhaps a better solution would be to teach it sooner. In many European countries, cursive is taught in kindergarten when the children are first learning their letters. A Spanish teacher I used to know couldn’t understand why we were waiting until third grade to teach it here. She said that seemed rather laborious (not to mention frustrating) to let children learn it one way, then change it three years later.

Another solution might be to look at the types of cursive we teach. There are, believe it or not, a wide range of cursive styles currently being taught. European cursive looks very different from American cursive, for example (European cursive is vertical, while American is slanted). The old Palmer method many of us learned may not be the best (Q like a 2, really?). Script & Scribble has some really interesting examples of newer styles that might be more palatable, yet still leave our history accessible and our reading comprehension enhanced.

So before we abandon handwriting instruction, we need to understand what we’re really leaving behind. So thank you, Utah State Board of Education, for recognizing that it’s not a simple throw-away skill and recommending that we continue teaching handwriting to our next generation of thinkers.
What are your thoughts on this debate? Share a comment and let us know. It's not going to be an easy decision.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Springing into Revision Mode

by Kelley Lindberg

Seems like every writer I know is in revision mode right now. Must be something to do with spring – renewal, rebirth, re-emergence of optimism… After a long, cold winter, we’re all ready for some fresh ideas, so we’ve dragged out our dormant novels and are attacking them with budding optimism.

I’m on the last legs of my (current) revision. I’m going back through every scene to make sure my main character is growing the way I want him to. First he was a little too stand-off-ish. Now I’m worried he’s too whiney. Or maybe he’s too decisive. Or possibly not decisive enough. Or maybe he should be more demonstrative. Or less so. But wait – perhaps he should be more optimistic, or less optimistic, or stronger, or more willing to show his weakness, or…

Sheesh. Second-guessing oneself is a constant hazard of writing. Because there has never, ever, in the history of writing ever been an absolutely correct way to write anything, we authors can quibble ourselves to a total standstill in less time than it takes to say “The quick brown fox jumped—no, wait, let’s change that to pounced—over the lazy—wait, are we sure the dog is lazy? Maybe he’s just dozing contentedly in the spring sun….Oh, never mind.”

On the other hand, without all that revision, our stories would be as flat as a pancake (no wait, that’s a cliché—let’s go with “flat as a sundried frog on a freeway at rush-hour”), lifeless (isn’t a dead frog already lifeless?), and inadequate subpar second-rate.

So as an author, I sometimes find myself walking that very blurry line between “not quite good enough” and “stop messing with it,” between over-writing and under-thinking, between “I’ve finally got it” and “I’ve blown it all to bits.”

This week, when I’m not having futile little heart-to-heart talks with my main character, I’m also reading a friend’s novel. I’ve lost track of which revision she’s on, but it’s amazing how far her character and story have developed. I’m thoroughly enjoying this version of her book, and it feels to me like this is probably the version she can start submitting. And that is the perfect reminder I needed that revision is, indeed, a beautiful thing, and that there is a reason for all that self-analytical anguish that comes with being in revision mode.

Despite our misgivings, second-guessing, and love-hate relationship with the Delete key, the revision process is almost always a slow but steady progress towards something better. Something fresher. Something tinged with the intoxicatingly green hope of spring.

Bring it on.