Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Craft Issue: Gray Space

Recently I gave a couple of presentations at New England SCBWI. One was a discussion of plot, and the other a discussion of the topic of my master’s thesis for Vermont College of Fine Arts, the concept of elision. Over the next few blog posts, I’m going to recap some of the ideas I presented.

Let’s start with elision – and if you’re scratching your head, that’s just what I did when I heard the term for the first time at Vermont. Elision refers to the gaps in writing, to what is not said, to what is left out. I made it the subject of my thesis so that I could get a grasp of what it means and how to use it.

My exploration of the term took me to books like Proust and the Squid, in which author Maryanne Wolf makes a thorough exploration of the relationship between readers and writers and what happens within the reader’s brain during reading. From that study I coined the term “gray space,” by which I meant that place where readers and writers meet that is outside the words on the page. I like to think of it as the writer’s equivalent to the artist’s concept of “white space,” and my own definition of gray space is the shadowy landscape of dreams where writers and readers meet.

Gray space can be created, can be manipulated by writers. It’s something we may not consciously do during first drafting, but certainly can be added/enhanced during revision. Creating gray space is important to increasing tension in writing (adding a layer of mystery and nuance) and is critical in evoking a reader’s emotional response.

In traditional text, gray space is formed by how we use the following rhetorical devices: repetition, word choice, and sentence structure. Dialogue techniques employing gray space include dropped sentences, beats, reversals, and interruptions. In subtext, gray space is created through the use of metaphor, slant telling, and gesture. And writers craft gray space “between the lines” as revealed by the choice of theme, or as Thomas McCormick in The Fiction Editor, the Novel, and the Novelist calls it, the novel’s “master-effect.”

This topic is the subject of an article currently available in the online journal Hunger Mountain, and there I explore it in much greater detail, in case you are curious.

Next time – a bit about plot.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Debut Authors of the Class of 2k11: Amy Fellner Dominy

What a treat for readers. The Class of 2k11 has churned out so many fabulous books this year - and here's another. Today I'm featuring an interview with Amy Fellner Dominy about her debut novel OyMG.
Congratulations, Amy, on the publication of your novel, OyMG. Can you tell us a bit about the story and what inspired it?
OyMG is about fourteen-year-old Ellie Taylor who goes to a summer speech and performing arts camp determined to win a private scholarship—and discovers she’ll have to hide that she’s Jewish if she wants to win.
You know how people always say, “Write what you know?”  Well, I always take that to mean, “Write about the feelings you know.”  And growing up as one of the only Jewish kids in my community and school, I knew how it felt to be different.  I was proud of my faith, but at times (especially Christmas!) it was just plain hard.  I wanted to be like everyone else.
The question is how far will we go to conform and fit in?  What part of ourselves are we willing to hide?   From that question, Ellie Taylor and OyMG came to life.
I love the premise! How long have you been writing for children/teens? Have you written other books or is this your first effort?
If I could have held a pencil in the crib, I’d have been scrawling notes on the wooden bars.  I submitted my first short story at the ripe old age of thirteen. It was rejected by American Girl magazine—I still have the form letter.  I took a break to have a steady job (and paycheck) but even then I found a job where I could write; I was an advertising copywriter. I got serious about writing for kids again in 2004. In 2006, I started OyMG.
Can you describe your path to the publication of OyMG?
It began with a first page.  Literally.
It was November 2006.  My local SCBWI chapter was having a conference with agents and editors, and I wanted to submit something for the first page panel. (This is a program where the panel of editors and agents read out loud the first page of a book and then offer comments.)
I submitted a first page and the audience loved it—including Caryn Wiseman, an agent with the Andrea Brown Literary Agency.  Partly because of that first page, I signed with Caryn less than a month later.
Unfortunately, writing the rest of the book was much trickier.  I stopped and started it for over a year.  Finally, in January of 2008, I figured out where I’d gone wrong.  I deleted about 25,000 words and dove back in.  And finally, I had a completed manuscript.
With the same first page. :)
The book finally went out to editors, summer 2008. I had interest from two editors who asked if I’d revise and resubmit.  I did, but for various reasons, those situations didn’t pan out. 
The book went out again, summer 2009.  This time, it landed in the perfect hands:  Stacy Cantor Abrams at Walker Books. I got an offer in August 2009.  Nearly 3 years from the time I’d written the first page!
What a great story - I love that you started with the first page only! Do you have any advice for beginning writers?
Most “overnight successes” are many years in the making.  Be patient with yourself and the process.  The trick is to keep writing.  Get a critique partner and set up monthly deadlines so you’ll write new pages.  Or sign up for a conference and commit to submitting pages.  Anything to keep you moving forward.  The more you write, the more you learn—about craft and voice and what stories you’re meant to tell.
Such perfect advice. Can you tell us something about your personal life – inspirations, plans for the future, goals, etc.?
I love quotes.  I always keep a couple of them stuck to my desk for inspiration.  Right now, I have two favorites.
#1 In a world where you can be anything, be yourself.  I love this quote because it reminds me that the best, most special thing I can be is myself.
#2  My inner voice hates me.  This is my own quote and it’s a reminder not to listen to self-doubts and negativity.  I tend to worry and think the worst.  This quote helps me to stay positive.  
Do you have any new writing ventures underway?
I’m excited to announce the sale of a second novel to Walker Books!
Audition and Subtraction is the story of fourteen-year old Tatum who faces competition in her school band from the new boy who just moved to town.  Soon, she’s at risk of losing her spot in District Honor Band—and maybe her best friend—in a story of shifting friendships, divided loyalties and unexpected romance. Audition and Subtraction will hit the shelves Fall 2012.
Do you have a website where readers can learn more about OyMG
Yes!  Please visit me at www.amyfellnerdominy.com.  There’s more info about myself and the book, including a reader’s guide.  You can also watch my book trailer on YouTube.
Thanks for having me Janet!
Thanks for coming, Amy!

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Podcast from New England SCBWI and Katie Davis

Author Katie Davis has been producing podcasts for some time now. I didn't truly appreciate the value of a podcast until I met Katie at this weekend's New England SCBWI conference (which was amazing in every way). Katie invited me and Tami Lewis Brown to join her in her "studio" - an astonishing mobile recording area in her hotel room - for the following Q&A with Katie's listeners:


Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Debut Authors of the Class of 2k11: Alissa Grosso

Today on the blog I'm delighted to introduce another of the awesome Class of 2k11, Alissa Grosso, whose debut YA is POPULAR, which sounds like a ton of fun and which sports another of the appealing covers that are hallmarks of this class.

Congratulations on the publication of your novel, POPULAR. Can you tell us a bit about the story and what inspired it?

Thank you. POPULAR tells the story of a high school clique with a dark secret that brings about their downfall. I'm not entirely sure what inspired it. I think there's a lot more to people than what we see on
the surface. I've also been drawn to quirky books and movies, and the classic high school movie HEATHERS is one of my favorites. So, somehow out of that idea that people aren't always who they seem and my love of quirky movies, POPULAR was born.

How long have you been writing for children/teens? Have you written other books or is this your first effort?

I never really consciously set out to write for teens. I just wanted to write a book that I would want to read. I do read a lot of YA and children's books, so I guess it only made sense that what I would write would be a YA book. This may not be my first effort, but it's definitely my first publishable effort.

Can you describe your path to the publication of POPULAR?

I wrote POPULAR over a series of several years, while working on other stuff as well. Then, I found myself with a finished manuscript, and didn't know what to do with it. On a whim, I sent it to a publisher, and lo and behold Flux wanted to publish my book. This sort of makes it sound like I had instant success as a writer, but I had been writing and submitting stuff for years, and had built up a very
large collection of rejection letters. So, even though this particular manuscript didn't get a lot of rejections, I was already something of a writing veteran at this point.

Good for you for sticking with it! Do you have any other advice for beginning writers?

Learn how to revise. Writing can be hard work, but writing is the easy part. Join a critique group or find some beta readers whose opinions you value.

Can you tell us something about your personal life – inspirations, plans for the future, goals, etc.?

I think my goal has always been to spend more time doing what I want to do whether it is writing or just relaxing and enjoying life. I think every day I take another small step in this direction.

That is such a sane approach to life. Do you have any new writing ventures underway?

I always have a new writing venture underway. Right now, I am continuing to work on some young adult novels, no sequels, just new stuff.

Do you have a website where readers can learn more about POPULAR?

Thanks, Alissa!

Sunday, May 8, 2011

What My Mom Gave Me

Security. Love. A passion for words. A passion for helping those who are helpless.

My mom was a soft-spoken and generous lady (yes, she really was) whose gentle exterior hid a tenacious and passionate Irish soul. Much of her passion was directed at helping others - her family first, and then those around her. If she were alive today, she'd be on the bandwagon for the cause I write about here. That is why this post isn't the usual hearts and flowers Mother's Day wish: instead it is my wish that all children could experience the kind of childhood I did, in the arms of loving parents, without pain or suffering of any kind.

This picture of my mom and dad and son Kevin was taken a month before my mom died suddenly and unexpectedly.

This is a post I wrote for Mod Podge Bookshelf's Month of Forgiveness. For each comment to this post, I'll donate an additional dollar to The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. Please help spread the word.

I want to warn you right now: this blog post contains information that is deeply disturbing. But please bear with me.

When I set out to write my second YA novel, FORGIVEN, I began my research knowing a little about San Francisco in the early 1900s. I’d heard about the Barbary Coast; and of course I knew Chinatown. But I didn’t expect to uncover a dark world of child trafficking, and what I learned broke my heart.

From the mid-1800s on, girls as young as six were sold by their impoverished families in China to dealers who then transported them across the Pacific to San Francisco, a wild seaport and hub of the gold rush. Sometimes the girls were deluded into thinking they were bound for marriage, but those notions were dispelled once the children arrived and were sold to slave holders for as little as $100 (for a one-year-old girl) or as much as $2800 for a fourteen-year-old (this transaction took place in 1898). Most of the slaves were confined to “cribs” – tiny kennel-size enclosures just below street level – and then sold for 25 cents a visit. Few lived longer than six years; many were tortured; many were left to die of starvation if they were sick or pregnant.

We’ll never know how many were buried or burned alive in the San Francisco earthquake. They had no voice.

As I write these words, my hands are shaking. They shake because I cannot imagine the horror that these girls must have experienced in their short and miserable lives. They shake because this kind of abuse still exists worldwide.

As many as 1.2 million children are trafficked every year. Mexican agencies report that more than 16,000 children work as prostitutes. In southeast Asia, 35% of prostitutes are children.

What can we do?

There are a number of agencies that actively fight the exploitation and trafficking of children. I urge you to check them out and become involved. Some seek volunteer help; some sponsor awareness campaigns; some need donations.

But please don’t close your eyes.

Here are three agencies I recommend:

Thank you, Mom. I wish you were still here.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Debut Authors of the Class of 2k11: Sheila O'Connor

May is truly blooming with fabulous new books!

I will be posting soon on the Month of Forgiveness being hosted over at The Mod Podge Bookshelf (in the meantime, please visit Gabrielle's site to comment for donations to the Center for Missing and Exploited Children.)

But there are so many new books to welcome into the world, and today I'm delighted to have Sheila O'Connor, here to talk about her middle grade debut, SPARROW ROAD.

Congratulations on the publication of your novel, SPARROW ROAD. What a fabulous, inventive cover! Can you tell us a bit about the story and what inspired it?

Well this is always tough as inspiration comes from so many sources.  I guess the short answer would be that the inspiration came from two places—first, a fabulous month I spent at The Anderson Center, an artist colony in Red Wing, Minnesota.  One day, looking out my window I thought--What if a child could live in a place like this?  What if a child could spend the summer with a group of wonderful artists?  How amazing would that be?   Then, several years later, I was coming to the end of a very long career of teaching poetry to kids in schools (I teach college too, so I ran out of time to do it all), and  wanted to write a book I could leave to the young people as a kind of gift.  So that summer, as soon as my teaching ended, I started SPARROW ROAD, the story of a girl who spends one incredible summer in an artist colony beyond my wildest dreams. 

How long have you been writing for children/teens? Have you written other books or is this your first effort?

I have written two other novels WHERE NO GODS CAME and TOKENS OF GRACE.  While both of those novels were for adults readers, they were the stories of young people—kids struggling on the fringe for different reasons.  Anyone who has followed my work knows my primary subject as a writer has been young people—their trials and triumphs—the ways they find to navigate the world.   SPARROW ROAD is the first book I’ve written that can be read by readers the same age as my central characters and I’m so delighted to have it in the world.  

You are an experienced writer, then. Can you describe your path to the publication of SPARROW ROAD?

I spent several years writing and revising SPARROW ROAD and when I believed it was finally ready for outside eyes, I found a fabulous agent, Rosemary Stimola, to represent it.  From there, it landed with my wonderful editor at Putnam, Stacey Barney, who has been such an amazing supporter and guide. 

Do you have any advice for beginning writers? 

I teach in a MFA program, so I’m always full of advice, some of it my students heed, much of it they disregard, as they should.  The most important lessons writers teach themselves.  But the thing I say to every writer—regardless of age--is simply: Write what you love.  Write work that feels important and true to you, because that’s the only way you’ll be able to stay with it over the long haul.   

Excellent advice. Can you tell us something about your personal life – inspirations, plans for the future, goals, etc.?

Well these days I’m terribly busy.  I try to balance writing, teaching, family, friendships and the hours of the day seem to disappear too quickly.   I have a fabulous little writer’s room in my backyard where I’m able to work, and I am looking forward to a summer spent there dreaming and putting words on paper.  

Oh, I'm so jealous! I want a writer's room in my back yard. Do you have any new writing ventures underway?

I’m just in the later revision stage for KEEPING SAFE THE STARS, my second middle grade novel, which is scheduled for fall 2012 with Putnam.  When that work ends, I’m back at the blank page wondering what story will ask to enter the world next.  I love that mystery, I love watching a book come to life. 

Do you have a website or other contact where readers can learn more about you and SPARROW ROAD

Yes, I love web visitors and welcome e-mail from readers.  You can find me at my website www.sheilaoconnor.com or visit my author page on facebook where I post my latest news, what I’m reading, thoughts on writing, etc.  Stop by and say hello.