Michele Regenold, Writing for Kids from the Boondocks

A blog about writing for children and the quest for publication.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Two-mile race results

Sad but true--Trent beat me. He ran it in 15:25. I ran it in a pathetic 16:30.

I know I can run faster than that because I do so in training. But some days and some races just don't work out the way I'd like. The 12 miles I ran the day before yesterday probably took more out of me than I realized. C'est la vie. It was good training at least.

Page ran too and was happy with her time. She said she had fun, so I'm glad we did it.

Perhaps in the winter we'll organize a fun run/jog. I imagine the track will be buried under snow, but we could run on the streets.

Page was surprised that more people didn't join us since I announced it to the whole student body and faculty. I wasn't too surprised though. I think quite a few other students run, but they may not run races.

To me and Page, signing up for a race is motivating. That's one of the main reasons I run--to train for a race. I like to have goals to shoot for.

Same with writing. Short forms are not my specialty and neither are short races. I'm more comfortable with the longer forms and the longer races--the ones that take lots of planning/training.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Figuring out a semester plan

It feels like I've been away from home for a month. It's tough to keep track of what day it is.

My brain is stuffed with more things to try in my writing.

Until today, I assumed that next semester I would just work on finishing a first draft of my YA mystery. Now I'm wondering if I should also start another project so I can have something else to work on if I get stuck on my mystery. I'm deep in the murky middle, and sometimes it's hard to keep plowing forward. Working on something else sometimes might be nice.

The something else I'm thinking of is a character-based YA novel, which would be very different for me. But it would be based on a brief memoir I've already written. It would be fun to try a more formal planning process with this new novel.

I'll run this by my new advisor tomorrow and see what she thinks.

In the past I've found it difficult to work on two novels at once. Maybe it won't work. But maybe it will.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Advisor lottery

I felt happy about the possibilities for an advisor for my second semester. For one thing, now that I'm a second-semester student, I only had to select four people compared to seven during my first term. Also, my advisor from last semester was able to give me advice about who might be a good fit based on the work I'm doing.

About half the faculty is new this semester. The new people include David Gifaldi (VC alum), Brent Hartinger, Uma Krishnaswami, Jane Kurtz, Julie Larios, Leda Schubert (VC alum), and Deborah Wiles (VC alum). Returning faculty include Kathi Appelt, Marion Dane Bauer, Margaret Bechard, Sharon Darrow, Cynthia Leitich Smith, Rita Williams-Garcia, Jacqueline Woodson, and Tim Wynne-Jones.

Sharon Darrow described the advisor selection process. First, the forms are separated into four different piles, one for each class. They're not put in any kind of order beyond that.

Next, starting with the post grad and then the fourth-semester students and on down the line to the first-semester students, the advisory committee starts making new piles, one for each faculty member. The committee makes sure that no advisor has all fourth-semester students, for example, while also ensuring that each student gets a person s/he checked on the form.

The forms were due at 12:30 yesterday. By 10:30 last night, the results were in.

I chose three new people and one of the returning faculty on my form and am delighted to say I got Uma Krishnaswami.

Friday, July 21, 2006

Two-mile race

I'm fairly regimented about sticking to my running schedule. I'm thinking seriously about running a marathon (it would be my third) this fall in Des Moines, so I run a decent amount.

On Tuesdays I do speedwork. So last Tuesday I drove down to the high school track in Montpelier to run quarter-mile laps. (I drove so I wouldn't have to run or walk back up the long, steep hill to Vermont College.) I invited Trent, my Iowa to Vermont travel companion and fellow veteran, to go along.

While I ran quarters, Trent ran two miles. This is the standard distance for the Army physical fitness test that all soldiers take every year. Since Trent doesn't like to run, running two miles is an easy distance for him.

He told me he ran his two miles that morning in 16-something. I told him I could beat that. He insisted he could run much faster than that.

The challenge was on. So at 6 a.m. on Tuesday, July 25, he and I, two of our classmates, and any other students and faculty who care to join us, will be racing two miles on the high school track.

Stay tuned for the thrilling results.

The two-cookies-a-day diet

I am not the cookie fiend my husband is, but during this residency, I'm sure I'm averaging close to two cookies per day. The cookies are some of the most reliable items on the New England Culinary Institute's (NECI) menu. Except last night I inadvertently grabbed a cookie with coconut and raisins in it.

Raisins I can live with, but the combination was not my thing. So my roommate Margaret swapped her chocolate chip with me. Then she went inside for another chocolate chip because she didn't like the coconut raisin cookie either.

Overall I think the food is pretty good. Some meals are better than others. Have you ever heard of laarb? I'm not making that up. I think it was a seasoned turkey salad. Different but edible.

Breakfast is consistently reliable, which is great for me since it's my favorite meal. One thing I have not yet tried is the oatmeal with maple syrup.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

God is in the details

Jane Kurtz (who is white) was raised in Ethiopia and has written many books about it. One reason those books come alive is through the unexpected but just right details, she said.

She is an excellent speaker and spoke extemporaneously while clicking through a visually rich slide presentation.

She described being an outsider in Ethiopia and how that gave her a keen eye and helped her develop her observation skills. It's tougher to see what's interesting in our own familiar locations, she said.

Jane also warned us not to let details overwhelm the story and to make sure that details are revealing what the author intends. Readers infer like crazy, she said.

For finding the right details, she suggested using your own memory, observation, and research.

Find the right details contributes to voice. I think this is one of the most compelling reasons to seek out the right details. Voice is so often what elevates a manuscript above the mundane.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Playing hookie

We had no workshop scheduled this afternoon (workshops are mandatory), so several of my classmates and I hopped in the car and headed to the Ben & Jerry's factory up the road a few miles.

First, we were subjected to some silly cow-related puns (let's moooove this along). We watched a short film about the history of the company, which was bought by Unilever several years ago. One interesting thing about the film is that there are no interviews with Ben or Jerry, just with employees who tell the audience things Ben and Jerry did or said. Makes me wonder why.

Next came the tour. We had a view of the factory floor where conveyor belts slid pints of ice cream, two by two, down the line, and turned them upside down. Our guide narrated another short video while we stood there, simultaneously watching people on the floor and the video that showed how the ice cream is made.

Then came the tasting. Unlike brewery tours, we only got to taste one flavor of ice cream. Today's flavor was apple pie. It had bits of apple pie and crust in vanilla ice cream. It was quite tasty, but a little bit went a long way for me.

After the tasting, we headed up the hill to the ice cream flavor graveyard. This is a small plot with tombstones that list the flavors, silly poems about why they failed, and their dates of "life."

The six of us (Mari, Christen, Page, Margaret, Barbara) relaxed on some Adirondack chairs in the shade for a while. It was a very relaxing afternoon.

Overall this residency is much more fun than the last one.

Playing with poetry

Poetry is not my thing, though I am known to write the occasional limerick (like a four-stanza one I read at my sister's wedding). Nevertheless, in the spirit of experimentation, and despite the fact that I really wanted a nap, I attended Julie Larios's seminar called "How to Play Like a Kid With Poetry."

She had some really interesting things to say about poetry. For one thing, she said that "poetry's job is to slow us down and make us think how strange language is." She also said that "the essential component of poetry is sound."

So as a reader/listener of poetry, I should go first for sound, then for sense. She said that no one who privileges sense over sound is going to appreciate poetry.

She also urged us to rethink the idea that poetry is about deep feeling.

Well, then, if I don't have to go excavating for some deeper meaning, like I was taught in my intro to literary analysis class at Grinnell College, where I learned to despise poetry because it made no sense, maybe I'll be a little more open to it.

Once at an SCBWI meeting in central Iowa, we all went around the room sharing our favorite words. Most people said things like love and peace. When my turn came around, I said, "Pickle."

I love the sound of the word. The "puh" sound plus the "ickle" just tickles me for some reason. Plus I love the taste of dill pickles.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Critical writing in the MFA

Marion Dane Bauer and Cynthia Leitich Smith gave an overview of the faculty's expectations of student critical writing during the program. There are two basic types of essays students write:
  1. Essays on the discovery of craft. A student may have an issue from her own work about an element of craft. She sees how others handle it in published work and/or in craft books and then brings the discussion back to her own work.
  2. Essays with an arguable thesis. A student needs to support this with textual evidence and "move the conversation forward" in some way.
First-semester students typically write two short essays for each of their five packets and second-semester students usually write one longer essay per packet. The critical thesis done by third-semester students is a minimum of 20 pages (not including quoted passages).

Marion and Cynthia also talked about the benefits of writing critical essays for students' creative work. They also noted that there are opportunities to publish critical work in professional journals like Horn Book. Cynthia said that she's published quite a bit in this field and has received requests to speak because of it. It gets your name out there and shows that you're a professional.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Katherine Paterson reading

To kick off our residency, Katherine Paterson read several selections from her novels, including a novel that's coming out in September.

The first selection was from Come Sing, Jimmy Jo, a novel I'm not familiar with. It was quite funny and Ms. Paterson is a fabulous reader. I'll definitely give that one a look. She described it as one of her under appreciated babies.

But before Ms. Paterson began to read, she was introduced by Trent (see yesterday's post). He did some of the typical introduction stuff, mentioning her awards and some of her book titles. Then he explained how he'd gotten to know her through letters while he served in Afghanistan.

He brought the intro full circle by coming back to one of her books, Bridge to Terabithia, which was the one glimpse of beauty he had when he was so far from home and not knowing if he would make it home.

It was an excellent speech, full of emotion, but he reined it in and made a quick exit.

Ms. Paterson was so choked up by it that her voice was a bit raspy at first, but she assured us it would be fine in a bit, and she was right.

To learn more about Katherine Paterson, see her website: www.terabithia.com.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Meeting Katherine Paterson

Last night my classmate, Trent, and I were Katherine Paterson's guests at a showing of The Tale of the Mandarin Ducks, adapted from her picture book, at the Lost Nation Theater in downtown Montpelier. The play wove in music, dance, and puppetry and was lovely.

The theater itself is also charming. It's in a building with a central clock tower. Comfortable new seats are arranged on three sides, rising up, so that everyone has a good view.

Mrs. Paterson had reserved seats in the middle section, second row. Four seats had white paper attached with the name "Paterson" typed in big bold font. At the end of the show, a member of the cast alerted the audience to her presence. Everyone clapped and she stood and waved and quickly sat back down.

When we entered the theater, she greeted quite a few people and introduced several to Trent and me. She's so down to earth she could easily be from Iowa.

Earlier this year she won the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award, the richest prize in children's literature (about $700,000). My friend, Phyllis, recently alerted our critique group to the website about the award and Mrs. Paterson's gracious speech.

She's giving the opening address this evening to kick off this residency. Trent will be introducing her.

He got to know her after he read Bridge to Terabithia while on active duty with the National Guard in Afghanistan. He wrote to her from there. I imagine she doesn't get too many fan letters from soldiers in a war zone.

Saturday, July 08, 2006

Finding the right day job

The percentage of fiction writers who can actually make a living at writing is pretty small, I'd guess less than five percent. So I have no illusions/delusions that I will someday make my living writing YA novels.

For me that means that I must have a day job. I currently work full-time as a writer/editor/webmaster at a university research center. It's a pretty good job. I have the best possible boss someone like me could have. The compensation and benefits are good.

So what's the problem? For one thing, the subject of the center's research is dry. I have no interest in it whatsoever, but generally I've been able to ignore this and do a good job anyway.

Lately, however, the issue of whether my work even matters has popped up. I don't really help people. I push words around, organize information, yadda, yadda, yadda. I'm good at it, but I could stop doing it tomorrow and I wouldn't miss it.

For years I thought I just needed to work in a different location on a different topic. This drove a sort of neverending job search.

But finally I realized that if my work doesn't matter to me anymore, perhaps I need to do something else.

Unfortunately I'm not one of those people who can work at something she doesn't care about and go home and write, write, write.

The not caring really wears me down. I feel like I'm wasting my time and my employer's time.

I want to know what it's like to care about my work, to be invested in it, to make a difference in someone's life.

Is that asking too much?

I'm acting on the premise that it's not.

Monday, July 03, 2006

First person, opposite gender

Some of my favorite reading when it comes to adult novels is female detective fiction. I mean specifically those novels that are narrated by a woman who earns her living as a private detective. Sara Paretsky is my favorite. I think she writes smart, literary mysteries that also have a lot of action and suspense.

Those are hard shoes to fill. Nevertheless I'm always scouting for more.

Robert B. Parker, who's known for his Spenser mysteries, started writing a female detective series several years ago. I just stumbled on to it. It's in first person. The character is fairly believable, although the narrator's voice doesn't engage me.

There's nothing particularly off about the first-person narrator. But I couldn't stop remembering that "Sunny" was really Parker in disguise. For one thing his author photo fills the back cover.

Sunny describes herself as a feminist. Interesting then that this single, childless woman gets involved with taking care of a teenage runaway/missing person in the first book of the series. I wonder why Parker put her in a mommy role for the first novel in this series. And why, at the climax, when bad guys are chasing her in their Lexus, does Parker send Sunny running to a restaurant filled with men to defend her?

This seems similar to having adults solve the problems in a children's novel.

I'm constantly amazed at how differently men and women think about things. If you know your characters well enough, I suppose it shouldn't matter if you're writing from the opposite gender. And if you grew up with siblings of the opposite gender and/or have kids, maybe that's enough to give you insight.

There's an awful lot of ways you can mess that up.