Sunday, February 28, 2010

Post-Breezy Bits

I had a lovely time at the Southern Breeze SCBWI conference this past weekend. For anyone who might be visiting this blog after being at the conference, here are a few more resources:

  • The Annotated Query Letter That Worked that I mentioned in the Q&A this morning (a companion to the Annotated Query Letter from Hell)
  • "The Art of Detection" goes into more depth on and provides concrete examples of some of the "Twenty-Two Revision Techniques" described in the talk of that name.
  • On the way to the airport today, I realized I should have mentioned "Make a dummy" or "Fit your manuscript into a 32-page framework" for the picture-book writers at the Revision Techniques talk; both of those techniques are discussed in this picture-book speech.
  • I sort of muddled through a paragraph from Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince in talking about establishing shots, topic sentences, and conclusions in paragraph structure; the paragraph I was trying to quote is used in full about halfway through this talk, "A Few Things Writers Can Learn from Harry Potter," if you'd like to see it for yourself.
  • I included on my handout at that talk, and will praise again for anyone who wasn't there, Anita Nolan's excellent article "'The End' Is Only the Beginning," which is full of useful revision tips.
I also said one thing that was, in retrospect, rather stupid, and though I worry I'm compounding the stupidity by commenting on it, it is important enough that I wanted to say something about it here. I gave my "Dimensions of Character" talk on Saturday, which includes this character-creation exercise, and after the character's ethnicity was decided as "Italian," I noted that not once when I've done that exercise has anyone suggested "White" for the ethnicity, which I thought was interesting because --

And here I said something like "We're mostly white here," which was to some extent true; the room was probably eighty percent white people, as the rooms are at most SCBWI conferences I attend. (And I often think that if we want to diversify the writers and illustrators publishing books for children, it would be a positive first step to get more people of color into SCBWI, since the organization is so immensely useful in teaching the basics of the business and connecting new writers with agents and editors.) But I absolutely did not mean to exclude or diminish the writers and illustrators of color who WERE in the room with that remark, and I very much apologize if it came off that way.

Finally, Francisco X. Stork's The Last Summer of the Death Warriors -- the next book by the author of Marcelo in the Real World, and the book I mentioned where I-the-generally-pacifist-reader learned on p. 5 that the main character wanted to kill someone, and by p. 10, in some feat of narrative and character alchemy, I was one hundred percent on board with that murder -- is out TOMORROW, March 1, so you can experience that same bloodthirsty transformation for yourself. (As well as all the wonderful transformations that happen after that.) Enjoy!

Monday, February 22, 2010

Metaphysical Monday: Preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray

The Tino Seghal experibit at the Guggenheim that I referenced in last week's post put me in the mood for lighthearted but serious-minded philosophical discussion; and the audience-participation exercise at the beginning of this month was so fascinating and fun, I thought it could be fun to try something like that again. So I'm going to post below one of my favorite manifestos -- Oscar Wilde's preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray -- choose a line, and comment upon it in the comments; and I hope you too will pick out a line, mull it over a bit, and say whether you agree or disagree with it and why. Again, there are no right or wrong answers, just interesting human responses.

And for the record, when I say this is one of my favorite manifestos, that's because to me it is the perfect match of form and content, completely embodying itself: It is clever, and beautiful (it sounds good, especially when read aloud), and delightful, and conscience-free, because its only interest is in its own cleverness, beauty, and delight. But I am not sure it is right or true, because I don't think Wilde was necessarily interested in right or truth; or, at least, they were lower on his priority list than the clever and the beautiful. . . . And lord, I have already begun my comment! So here's the manifesto. The italics on the last line are Wilde's.


Preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray
by Oscar Wilde


The artist is the creator of beautiful things. To reveal art and conceal the artist is art's aim. The critic is he who can translate into another manner or a new material his impression of beautiful things.

The highest as the lowest form of criticism is a mode of autobiography. Those who find ugly meanings in beautiful things are corrupt without being charming. This is a fault.

Those who find beautiful meanings in beautiful things are the cultivated. For these there is hope. They are the elect to whom beautiful things mean only beauty.

There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.

The nineteenth century dislike of realism is the rage of Caliban seeing his own face in a glass.

The nineteenth century dislike of romanticism is the rage of Caliban not seeing his own face in a glass. The moral life of man forms part of the subject-matter of the artist, but the morality of art consists in the perfect use of an imperfect medium.

No artist desires to prove anything. Even things that are true can be proved. No artist has ethical sympathies. An ethical sympathy in an artist is an unpardonable mannerism of style. No artist is ever morbid. The artist can express everything.

Thought and language are to the artist instruments of an art. Vice and virtue are to the artist materials for an art. From the point of view of form, the type of all the arts is the art of the musician. From the point of view of feeling, the actor's craft is the type. All art is at once surface and symbol. Those who go beneath the surface do so at their peril.

Those who read the symbol do so at their peril. It is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors. Diversity of opinion about a work of art shows that the work is new, complex, and vital. When critics disagree, the artist is in accord with himself. We can forgive a man for making a useful thing as long as he does not admire it. The only excuse for making a useless thing is that one admires it intensely.

All art is quite useless.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Amazing, Marvelous, Splendiferous Book Sale! + Another NYC Recommendation

This Saturday is my wonderful church's unbelievably wonderful BOOK SALE. I use a lot of positive adjectives on this blog, but I could spend all my favorite ones on this sale and still not say enough good things: The books are cheap -- $2 hardcovers, $1.50 trade paperbacks, $.50 mass-market paperbacks; the selection is awesome -- our entire church basement, filled to bursting with every form of media, books fiction and nonfiction, DVDs & CDs & tapes, children's, YA, and adult; and the money all goes to a good cause -- said wonderful church, Park Slope United Methodist.

The sale runs from 8:30 to 5:30 on Saturday the 20th, 12:30-4:30 on Sunday the 21st. The church is located at the corner of 6th Ave. and 8th Street in Park Slope; take the the F to 7th Ave. or the R to 9th St. for subway access. If you live in Brooklyn and want to clear out your shelves, you can donate books at the church on the following schedule:

  • February 15 (today) from 12 p.m.-7 p.m.
  • February 18 (Thursday) from 7 p.m.-10 p.m.
  • February 19 (Friday) from 10 a.m.-9 p.m.
If you'd like to arrange a car pickup in the Park Slope vicinity, call Rick at (347) 538-7604. And if you need any more information, you can click here, but really, you should just COME. You will not regret it.


Once you've bought books at the Book Sale on Saturday, you should go home and drop them off so you don't have to carry them around all day; and then promptly hie thee to the Guggenheim Museum for the Tino Sehgal show currently running there. James and I saw this on Saturday; I went into it knowing what we were going to see, but he didn't, and I think his experience was the richer for it, so I won't say any more. Suffice it to say, it made me laugh with delight, and think, and have really good conversations, and there are few greater things you can ask of a piece of art. Enjoy!

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Time Warp for a Tradition!

On Tuesday I thought, Hey, it's February 9.

That means February 4 has passed.

Shoot, I missed my own blogiversary.

And since this was my fifth blogiversary, and I've done a blogiversary post every year since 2006, this seemed a pity. I decided to wait until February 11, so I'd have a one-year anniversary plus a week exactly; and if you will all now read the rest of this paragraph, close your eyes, and say, "Dee-dill-ee-boop! Dee-dill-ee-boop! Dee-dill-ee-boop!" . . .

~~ a time warp happens and ~~

It is now February 4 again. Happy blogiversary to me! And thanks to you all for visiting, reading, and commenting as always -- a one-sided conversation is really boring, and I sincerely appreciate your input. Also, I regret that I can only hold the warp open for so long, so time will revert to its February 11 flow once you leave this page. Have a wonderful last Thursday!

Spelling Out the Specification Experiment

Last week I posted an extremely goofy video of myself performing a series of actions, and then I invited readers to write a sentence describing what happened in the video, and to post that sentence in the comments. This is the online version of an exercise I do as part of my Voice talk at writers' retreats: I go through those actions in person (the sequence has been different every time, but it's always included at least one bizarre facial expression), then invite attendees to write a sentence and share it.

And the rationale for it? Everyone is looking at the same object, or in this case, series of objects--the objects being my actions and facial expressions. But everyone describes the objects differently. (I would have said, for instance, "Cheryl blinked twice, put her hand to her head, turned to the right, tilted back to blow a kiss, then suddenly snarled at the screen," which is not a sentence you'll find anywhere in the comments--though AJ, who posted his/her entry after I drafted my own version for this post, came very close.) My original idea in including this exercise in the talk had been that everyone would use essentially the same words in the sentence (because, I thought, there are only so many synonyms for "blinked"), but we'd all have different rhythms and combinations of those words, and it would be interesting to hear the variance. And once everyone had heard all the different ways one thing could be described, we could go on and talk about the different strengths of each approach, and which one was most appropriate for which kind of story.

So I was surprised--quite foolishly, in retrospect--the first time I did the talk, when, in a roomful of ten writers, only two of them specifically described the series of actions that I completed. Instead, the other eight created narratives that provided context for those actions: that I turned into a robot (since that sequence involved "boop-booping," rather than snarling), that there was something psychedelic in the tea I sipped. This sort of defeated the point of the exercise as I'd envisioned it, since all eight writers were in different narrative universes, each one equally valid but none of them particularly comparable. But that ended up being interesting in another way, for what it revealed about their individual imaginations and how they'd spin a world out of a scene. I intended this exercise to show the rhythm and word choice aspects of voice; instead, it highlighted the subject and form bits, which directions an individual writer's brain might naturally run and how he or she would shape those directions into a story.

So, looking through the sixty-odd responses to that post at the time I'm writing this, the narrative answers seem to be beating the observational or literal ones three to one. The patterns in the common narrative responses fascinate me. . . . Quite a few people identify me as an editor and create narratives that involve my responding to manuscripts -- which makes perfect sense, of course; most of you readers know me solely as an editor, and as such, my responding-to-manuscripts function might loom large in your brains. (Those answers startled me a bit, though, just because I don't personally look at a picture of myself and think "editor" first thing; it's odd to hear myself named as that foremost.) Many of you thought of vampires, which is also understandable; I wonder if ten years ago, when the fanged ones weren't so omnipresent in pop culture, more of you would have described my final snarl as a wildcat's or a rabid dog's or something instead. A couple of people mentioned princesses, which I imagine reflects the children's literature world in which most of us live; writers for adults aren't usually so close to fairy tales. My authors' answers are especially intriguing to me: Vicky Alvear Schecter, who, I think, lives half her waking life in the ancient world, tells a story about a gladiator and her emperor; Lisa Yee, who is waiting for line-edits from Arthur and me, thinks of the movie as a reaction to her manuscript.

And the observational answers? Again all equally valid, as long as they get the actions right -- but much harder to analyze, because they reveal the writers' prose styles much more than their imaginations. And prose style is, or ought to be, an infinitely adaptable thing, depending on the story and the circumstances; the more styles and voices an author can master, the more I admire their achievement. I have to say, I do think the observational impulse is as important to fiction as the narrative one, if not more so. . . . No matter how imaginative the world you create is, a reader won't connect with it unless it bears a strong resemblance to recognizable human reality, especially in the way its characters behave. And reality is both the hardest thing to do well, and the most useful thing to be able to create. I think often about this Flaubert quote:

"It is so easy to chatter about the Beautiful. But it takes more genius to say, in proper style, 'close the door,' or 'he wanted to sleep,' than to give all the literature courses in the world."
If you can master a scene in which your character gets ready for bed -- brushing his teeth, putting on his pajamas, crawling under the covers, whatever he does next, and what he's thinking all this time -- and make that scene coherent, compelling, and characterful, you can do anything. Because then you just have to find the right scenes to put together the story of how and why he changes over a certain period of time; and once you've written those, you've written a novel.

Thanks again to you all for participating!

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

A Silly Specification Experiment

As an antidote to the February blahs, here's a fun little writing experiment I hope you all might help me out with.

Step 1: Watch the extremely goofy 10-second video below.

Step 2:
Without looking at any of the comments on this post, write a sentence describing what happens in the video. You may rewatch the video if you like.

Step 3: Post your own sentence in the comments.

The hypothesis and rationale for this experiment will be given at a near-future date; in the meantime, rest assured there are no wrong answers here. And thank you to all who participate!