Monday, March 26, 2012

Connections: Is There Such a Thing as Writer's Block?

On the South Asian lit blog Suprose, Thrity Umrigar talks about writing fiction. Snippet:
...I think fiction enables a writer to come closer to describing the truth...lets you explore unknown worlds...
Umrigar says she refuses to believe in writer's block.

Here are responses from Mira Kamdar, Padma Viswanathan and me.

Illustration source: Listening at the Gate 
More on refusing to believe in writer's block, this time from The Plot Whisperer. Martha Alderson suggests that "writer's block is more aptly described as a writer who does not know her story well enough." She suggests advance plotting and research as solutions. I myself tend to write questions over and over again in multi-colored pens until the answers begin to break out in random clumps. But whatever, it's a gap that needs to be filled, and it will suck you in if you let it exist.

And then there's life, the thing that sparks all story. Betsy James walks on frogs. What a great metaphor for getting over whatever this thing is--call it block or emptiness or not-knowing--that sometimes stops us in our tracks and threatens to stall the work. Just think of all those thousands of eggs, waiting for moisture beneath the dry crusted soil. Who needs writer's block when there are frog eggs to be hatched?

Thursday, March 22, 2012


[This post published simultaneously on Write At Your Own Risk, a blog by the faculty of the VCFA MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults]

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.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Process Talk: Greg Leitich Smith on Chronal Engine (Culture, Humor, and Time))

More from Greg Leitich Smith on his new middle grade time travel adventure, Chronal Engine.

[Uma] This book has cultural nuances but they're planted with a light touch. E.g., Japanese-American identity reveals itself in Mom's name (or is it her married name?). It's all very much offstage and written in with deliberate ambiguity. Plus it's all on par with the jargon of paleontology and classic sci-fi movies and TV. Tell me what choices you made in locating cultural context in this story, and why.

[Greg] I decided to make the protagonist Max, and his siblings, hapa (half Japanese, half Caucasian) in part because of the juxtaposition between the time of the invention of the Chronal Engine (very early 20th century) and the present (very early 21st century).  Back when the Chronal Engine was invented, Max’s parents’ marriage would’ve been illegal in many states.  Today, of course, identifying as mixed race is increasingly common.  But that isn’t Max’s story, so it didn’t need to be explicitly addressed.  Sure, he’s Japanese and Caucasian but he’s also a dinosaur fan and a brother, etc.

More than that, though, I think it added texture to the family.  As written, the Piersons are an old Texas bunch (they even own a ranch) and the Takahashis probably aren’t.  Although I suppose they could’ve come over in the late 19th century.  Hmm…

For similar reasons, Max’s friend Petra -- the daughter of Grandpa Pierson’s nurse/major domo -- is of German and Mexican descent.  Texas is well-known for having a large Hispanic population, but what’s less well-known outside the state is that central Texas in particular has a large German population, descendants from those who left Europe after the failed revolutions of 1848.

In each of them, I wanted to provide a character who was in some ways representative or reflective of the diversity of Texas cultures today, but not make the story about that.

Of course, the fact that I am of German and Japanese descent might have had something to do with it, as well. 

[Uma] Your first person narrator, Max, is a geek with an eye for the ridiculous, a social commentator, a dinosaur enthusiast who's learning a thing or two about people on this trip to the Cretaceous. The others too have clear roles in how they advance the story. Talk about how the characters in this book grew for you.

[Greg] The very first draft of the manuscript started out as something along the lines of Breakfast Club meets classic Land of the Lost (but without Sleestaks), with a group of disparate teens who are sent (against their will) back in time.  Max was the geeky kid whose geekiness turns out to be particularly helpful, but none of the characters really resonated.

Finally, I decided to rework the thing as a family story and that’s when Max clicked.  He became real, not just “the geek,” and he interacts with his siblings in a way that’s much better grounded and much better informed by the family history.  It also let me grow his companions – his brother and sister -- making them into real people with real dynamics and, sometimes, attitudes and backstory that Max isn’t necessarily familiar with himself.   

[Uma] There are elements in the book that range from gently funny to laugh-out-loud. No spoilers, I promise, but I can't resist mentioning that there is a chocolate eating baby dromaeosaur that anyone would want as a pet. Tell me more about the humor in this book.

[Greg] Thank you.  My first two novels were basically character-driven comedies, in which my goal as a writer was to make the reader laugh (as well as think, but mostly laugh).  With Chronal Engine, I started out wanting it to be a sort of character-based action-and-adventure, getting the reader caught up in the danger and excitement.  I wanted to play it straight, though, because of the sort of slapstick cheesiness that you sometimes see in treatments of dinosaurs (think: the Will Farrell Land of the Lost).  But very early on, I realized that what I objected to in, say, the Farrell treatment wasn’t the humor per se, it was the fact that the audience is laughing at the characters, not with them and that there is nothing wrong with having the occasional humorous moments in a drama/action adventure, so long as they naturally arise from who and what the characters are (as they do for most of us all the time, and as they did in my first books).  Plus, I now had a sibling story and I think it’s required that siblings don’t necessarily take everything each other does seriously.  

Greg and a toothy Deinosuchus skull at the Dallas Natural History Museum
[Uma] Time travel is a tricky business, isn't it, what with needing to figure out the passage of time in the real world and the alternate universe? And then too you have to deal with the effects of people blundering about outside their time. How did you keep track of the passage of time as you wrote this story? Any surprises? Any lessons learned?

[Greg] Yes, the problem with time travel is that it raises a lot of issues that need to be at least considered if not actually plotted out – the butterfly effect; the grandfather paradox and whether you can change the past; the possibility that a character at a point in time could be dealing with something that he or someone else did in the past but that person has not yet gone back into the past to do; the possibility that someone in the past could go back to another time in the past and meet someone from the future in the past, etc. – and keeping it all consistent.

And Chronal Engine is a multi-generational story.  So, not only is there the possibility that the protagonist will at some future point go back to one or more times in the past, but also the ramifications of his Great-great-grandfather doing (or having done) so as well.      

Also, I don’t know if it was a surprise, but it added to the complexity that what would otherwise have been for Max and his siblings just backstory (Mad Jack Pierson building the time machine in the early 20th Century) really isn’t just backstory.  They’re dealing with some of the “real time” consequences of what happened in 1919 (or so), which means that I had to develop that somewhat more than I otherwise would’ve.

The biggest question, of course, is whether you’re allowed to change things that happened to you in the past, and do you remember such changes.   I decided to leave the answer to that question a bit ambiguous…   

I ended up sketching out a number of rather timelines with a lot of loops and cutbacks showing both “real” time from the perspective of each of the characters, as well as “objective” time, mixing them all together.

Now that I think about it, the most surprising thing was realizing that my wife and I are about the right age to be Max’s and Kyle and Emma’s parents :-).

[Uma] Ha! Well, Greg Leitich Smith may be discovering the implications of the passage of time in real life, but his characters slip-slide their way through it with drama in Chronal Engine. Congratulations!

Monday, March 12, 2012

Process Talk: Greg Leitich Smith on Chronal Engine (Setting, Genre, Audience)

Greg Leitich Smith's previous middle grade novels were pretty firmly located in contemporary school settings, but in his author's note to his new book, Chronal Engine, he says he's always loved survival stories and dinosaurs. That love shows, and so does a sympathy for his young teen characters. They find themselves in a setting where Jurassic Park meets, oh, maybe Jules Verne,  with echoes of Conan Doyle's Lost World and possibly a touch of Robinson Crusoe, all of it pulled together with an adventure story sensibility that is squarely and effectively aimed at the middle grade reader. I had great fun talking to Greg about Chronal Engine. Here's Part 1 of a two-part conversation.

[Uma] How did your interest in sci-fi, Robinsonades, and dinosaurs evolve into the "wholly unfamiliar earth" as setting for this book?

[Greg] My first two novels are set in a fictional Peshtigo School in Chicago and are essentially contemporary comedies.  With Chronal Engine, I wanted to try something more of an action and adventure and had always had an interest in dinosaurs, so I figured that would be a good place to start.

As to the actual setting, well, as soon as you decide to write fiction involving a dinosaur, you’re faced with a couple questions. 

First, do you go to them or do you bring them to you?  That is, is the story set in the Mesozoic or is it a “lost world” type story, where in some remote corner of the world dinosaurs have survived or otherwise still exist (Conan Doyle’s Lost World and Crichton’s Jurassic Park fall into this latter category).  I knew immediately that I wanted to send my characters back to the past.  There’s some evocative about “pristine wilderness” (although the term is clichéd J), but in this case it’s true: no human ever set foot in the Cretaceous, so for any of us, it would almost be like going to Middle Earth or Narnia.  A strange world with creatures and rules both familiar and unfamiliar, that they would have to sort out…

Greg and Ceratopsian at the Dallas Natural History Museum
Second, do you encounter them from a position of strength or weakness?  Now, in some ways, plunking a human down in the age of dinosaurs is automatically a position of weakness.  But there’s the possibility that the characters could go well-equipped, with all kinds of modern technology and guns and armored personnel carriers and whatnot.  But in that case, you have to make the technology somehow fail, anyway…

Now, I’ve always been interested in this idea of what would happen to people without their modern amenities.  Part of this is that I grew up on family stories of my parents and grandparents living without indoor plumbing, electricity, air conditioning.  And my father and a lot of friends of the family were refugees during World War II, so I also heard some rather harrowing stories about scrabbling for survival.

So when I first read Swiss Family Robinson, I absolutely loved it. (My parents always did most of the household, appliance, and automobile repairs and renovations themselves; they also made their own soap and my mom canned a lot of fruits and vegetables and is an expert at wielding a filet knife, so the idea of the father who seems to know everything about engineering and animal husbandry and plumbing didn’t really bother me J).  And my parents also had a small rustic place up in Michigan we’d go to on weekends and we’d go on long walks in the country and see everything from eagles’ nests to the salmon spawning, so it was easy to appreciate the enormity of the wild.  I also knew that most peoples’ parents weren’t like that (neither was I, for that matter), so the idea of “what would I do trapped in the wild” resonated.

Consequently, when I first conceived of Chronal Engine, there was really no doubt in my mind that the protagonists were going to be cut off from civilization and have to survive on their own. It actually evolved into something slightly different than a robinsonade, per se, but the roots are still there and it’s still a survival story.   

[Uma] You write very naturally for the middle grades. Is there something special about that age for you, either in your own life and memory, or in the place that tweens and young teens occupy in our world today, or both?

[Greg] Thank you.  I think part of it is that middle grade/tween fiction is some of the first fiction I really gravitated to as an independent reader and that those middle grade/tween protagonists are among the first I really identified with.

Looking back, too, I think the middle grade/junior high years are among the most awkward, yet are also in some ways the most interesting, which makes it very ripe for story.  You’ve mastered grade school and being a “kid,” etc., and you’re now approaching the teenager thing and the first steps toward being a full-blown adult.  It’s sort of a transitional, neither “fish nor fowl” phase and that’s always interesting.

[Uma] It is--it's a place of instability, and that always implies conflict. Thanks, Greg!

More next week from Greg Leitich Smith on this satisfying page-turner. Chronal Engine will be released by Clarion Books on March 20.

Thursday, March 08, 2012

Process Talk: Fred Bortz on Meltdown!

Dr. Fred Bortz is the author of a timely new nonfiction book from Twenty-First Century Books/Lerner, Meltdown: The Nuclear Disaster in Japan and Our Energy Future (a Junior Library Guild Selection). This week and beyond, Fred is on a blog tour with this book--I'm happy to host him on today's stop.

Other stops on the tour include:

Spellbinders  Monday March 5, 2012 plus giveaway Monday March 19.

Simply Science  Wednesday March 7.

USA Science and Engineering Festival Blog Wednesday  March 7.

Liz Jones  Friday March 9.

TFCB Blog Lerner Books Blog  Monday March 12.

Cynsations  Giveaway Monday March 12.

[UK] You've dedicated this book to your grandchildren. With that in mind, why is Meltdown! important, in your opinion, to the conversation of books for young readers?

[FB] Thank you for starting with that question! The first thing I do when I start a book manuscript is to write the title and the dedication. That motivates me to produce a book worthy of the people I am dedicating it to.

In this case, those people include more than just my grandchildren (twins in seventh grade and a second grader). The full dedication is "To my grandchildren, Elon, Eliana, and Alex, and all young readers whose work and votes will shape our energy future."

Few people stop to think about how important nuclear power plants are, so let me start with a few facts that are not in the book but are background for it. Nuclear power produces about 14% of the world's electricity. In the United States, it accounts for more than 20%, and in Japan nearly 30%. In most European countries, the percentage is much larger with France topping the list at 75%. China and India, countries where by far the greatest growth in electrical consumption is taking place, have ambitious plans to increase the share of nuclear power to well above the present 2-3%.

Those numbers tell us that phasing out nuclear power plants would be exceptionally difficult and probably economically destabilizing. Renewables, especially solar and wind, have great promise for the long term, but they also have technological and practical limitations. We just don't know how much we can expect from them. Furthermore, we need to replace fossil fuels with renewables before we can think about phasing out nuclear power. Otherwise, the world risks an even more serious set of problems that could arise from global warming.

As the dedication notes, today's young readers are the people whose votes and work will shape our energy future. They will have to take all those factors into account. Their energy policy decisions will be complex, requiring an understanding of how science, technology, and societal factors are intertwined. Choosing wisely in the future will require an ability to pose the right questions and to address them in the context of a very different world.

[UK]  Beyond the facts and details contained in your book, this is a story with many subplots and the history of energy development itself as its backstory. Do you see nonfiction as story? Talk about why.

[FB] When asked to characterize my writing, I usually call myself "a teller of true tales." Professional handbooks are reference books containing organized collections of facts, data, and procedures. But other forms of nonfiction serve broader human purposes. And the best way to engage the readers is by including at least a little bit of story.

I did that in first two books for young readers without realizing it. I wrote both as informational books intended to introduce particular scientific fields that the readers may never have heard about. Superstuff! was about the technologically critical field of materials science and engineering. Mind Tools was about artificial intelligence.

I looked back on them and found storytelling only after Carolyn Angus reviewed my third book, Catastrophe! Great Engineering Failure--and Success, in School Library Journal. She closed her review with a sentence that made me see my writing in a whole new way: "This fascinating, thought-provoking book on the role of failure in successful design reads like an adventure story from the first to the last page."

That was 1995. Ever since then, I have deliberately included storytelling even when a publisher asked me to write a set of informational books about subatomic particles. The scientific history and the human history went hand-in-hand.

[UK] Why isthis book written in the present tense? It's effective, certainly, but can you shed some light on that choice?

[FB] It's not all in the present tense.

[UK] Excuse me, you're right of course. It's not. But when you are describing critical events...

[FB]  When I describe the historical background of nuclear power and the meltdowns at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, I write in the past tense. I use present tense in the parts of the book where I describe the Great Tohoku Earthquake, the tsunami that followed, and the progression of events that culminated in the meltdowns, explosions, and other crises at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant.

Present tense writing places my readers on the scene, viewing it as it is happening. It engages them viscerally as well as intellectually. It also suggests—correctly—that they are reading about an ongoing story. I don't want them to put down the book and think the story is over. I want them to keep following the cleanup and the news stories that I am regularly adding to my Meltdown! Links and Updates web page. I want them to follow developments as Japan, France, Germany, China, India, Canada, and the United States grapple with their own energy futures.

I want them to be aware that the cleanup in Japan is only beginning and that some people may never be able to return to their abandoned homes. I want them to read newspaper articles critically, recognizing that the technological failures at Fukushima could have been averted by a different political and regulatory approach. When the time comes for them to participate in political decisions about nuclear power, I want their present-tense engagement with the events at Fukushima to leave them haunted by this past-tense paragraph in the book's closing chapter:

Nuclear power plant technology can be safe. Yet the Fukushima Daiichi power plant suffered three meltdowns, two major explosions, and several fires that sent radioactivity into the environment. None of these failures should have happened.
[UK] I'm sure you have masses of research that you could not include in this book. Talk about the process of revision. How do you decide what to keep in the book, what to save for school talks and blogs posts, and what needs to be discarded altogether?

[FB] Revision is my favorite part of writing a book like this, especially when I have an editor who is fully engaged with both the subject matter and the book's audience. I count on the editor to tell me when I am going into too much detail, but I don't necessarily accept everything she says. Sometimes we tussle and annoy each other, but it's never personal. We both have the same aim: to make this book the best it can be for its audience.

We finally reached the point when I declared there was no more technical material to cut. I had just removed a section that went into detail on how power companies develop a mix of energy sources. I really wanted my readers to know about that.

The section discussed the difference between baseline power plants that operate steadily to make sure the customers' basic demands are met and other plants that fill in the additional demand. It noted that nuclear plants are usually part of the baseline; but solar and wind power is intermittent, sometimes producing no energy and sometimes delivering more than the power company can use. That section also discussed energy storage devices that can help smooth out the production of intermittent sources and the interconnections (the power grid) that allow power companies to buy and sell from each other.

The ideas in that deleted section will be important for any energy policy-maker to know. So rather than merely discarding it, I modified it as supplemental information that teachers could download as "eSource" material from the Meltdown! page at the publisher's website. I also worked with the publisher to create a classroom activity that challenges the class to develop two opposite nuclear energy policies for a future presidential candidate to consider.

I hope that many schools will accept that challenge. I'd be thrilled to get an invitation to come in not only to speak to the students, but also to sit in on their final deliberations. That would be a memorable day for me and, I hope, for the young readers whose work and votes will shape our energy future.

[UK] Thank you Fred! I hope the blog tour brings many new readers to your work.

Thursday, March 01, 2012

Freedom to Read Week in Ottawa and Boxing Books in Tuscon

From the Frozen North (okay, from Ottawa), my VCFA faculty colleague Alan Cumyn reports that he is participating in Freedom to Read Week. To observe the week against book censorship, banning, and challenge, the Ottawa Citizen asked several Ottawa writers to read from works that have been censored, banned or challenged. Videos of those readings are posted on the Ottawa Citizen web site.

Alan's reading from a YA novel, Mexican WhiteBoy by Matt de la Peña, a book that ran into a little trouble in Tucson Arizona some time ago. So was it banned? Challenged? Censored? Come on, that's so 90's. With the recent events in Tucson, a new word entered the banned-books lexicon: boxing.

Yes, that is correct. Matt's book is one of many that were "boxed" and taken off shelves in the Tucson Unified School District. Apparently Arizona has banned ethnic studies programs in its schools. As if that were not enough (heavens! Those people might just learn the truth about their own histories!) the district sent out a list of books to be removed from classroom shelves. Here's the list. It includes works by Leslie Marmon Silko, Paulo Freire, and Shakespeare.

Is this bizarre enough already? Shakespeare? Wait. I thought he was part of the Dead White Guys' Canon! If you're as confused as I am, check out Debbie Reese's comprehensive series of posts on the developments in this ongoing saga over at American Indians in Children's Literature.

In this video, teacher Chris Acosta talks about the now dismantled Mexican American Studies Program.

Read the American Library Association Resolution Opposing Restriction of Access to Materials and Open Inquiry in Ethnic and Cultural Studies Programs in Arizona.