Writing

The importance of revision

I’m working on a story now that I have burned to the ground at least 4 times and started over again. Sometimes you have to cut out things you like in order to make the story work, and sometimes you have to cut out EVERYTHING. It’s not fun going back to square one, but the hope is that it pays off eventually. I came across this post about Where The Wild Things Are earlier in the week, and it was nice to see that Maurice Sendak not only had to do the same thing, but that he obviously nailed it after ditching most of his earlier attempt. Sometimes you get it close to right the first time, sometimes you don’t, and not even being Maurice Sendak can save you from this. Thinking you’re going to get a Where The Wild Things Are out of the process each time is probably a stretch, but sometimes the best thing for a story is to ditch what you have, and start over.

 

Where_The_Wild_Things_Are_(book)_cover

 

(I was going to apologize to anyone who saw me post this on Facebook earlier, but you know what? I’M NOT SORRY.)

On “Shakey” Ground

I did a school visit at Shaker Lane Elementary in Littleton, MA today. (Shakey is the Shaker Lane mascot. See what I did there?) I talked to the kindergartners and transitional classes, and they were a super enthusiastic and receptive bunch.

school visit photo
“Sorry you guys don’t like funny stories, but that’s all I have.”

I tried to focus a bit on how much revision goes into writing, since one of the teachers had mentioned to me in an email that they were working on this idea in class. Luckily, I tend to revise like crazy, so I had a few things to say.

head changes
Pointing out how Lenny’s head changed from my first drawing of him to the final product. Mel’s head didn’t change as much. It’s always been a bit of a melon, just like my head.

When you say, “Well, that’s it, thanks everyone,” and someone loudly yells, “That was AWESOME!” it tends to be a sign of a successful visit. Thanks, Shaker Lane!

How to Start A Story

I like to tell my students that the more you critique other people’s stories, the better you’ll get at seeing areas of improvement in your own writing. I am a good example of this. Since I started teaching, I have picked up on things I see a lot of my students do, and then in turn I realized that these are often things I do myself. One thing I see a lot of is stories that start with a lot of description and telling you who the characters are and what they’re like. I understand the urge to do this. Starting a story is hard, so why not just get out who we’re dealing with here? I think that works when you’re writing an early draft. I say get as much out of your head as you can at once, so if you need to do a data dump as the opening, go for it. But when it’s time to revise, I think I can make a good argument to not open your story this way.

Let’s take a look at the opening of Charlotte’s Web, which many people (myself included) consider to be one of the great openings in literature.

“Where’s Papa going with that axe?” said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.

“Out to the hoghouse,” replied Mrs. Arable. “Some pigs were born last night.”

“I don’t see why he needs an axe,” continued Fern, who was only eight. 

“Well,” said her mother, “one of the pigs is a runt. It’s very small and weak, and will never amount to anything. So your father has decided to do away with it.”

Look at how much information we get from this. We know Fern lives on a farm, (and not only that, a farm which has pigs), she is eight, her last name is Arable, and as we’ll see in a paragraph or two, she is very determined when she puts her mind to something. Now look at how a first draft of this might sound.

Fern Arable was an eight year old girl with a mind of her own. She enjoyed living on the farm with her parents where they raised pigs, sheep, and geese. She didn’t like it when animals were killed, especially for what she considered to be unjust reasons. One day as she and her mother were setting the table for breakfast, Fern looked out the window and saw her father walking across the yard with an axe.

“Where’s Papa going with that axe?” Fern said to her mother.

Which one grabs your attention more? The one that puts you right into the action, right? Keep this in mind when revising. You only have so much time to grab a reader’s attention.

However, don’t worry about this when you’re writing. The problem I have run into with my well-developed critiquing muscles is that I recognize when I’m doing stuff I don’t want to be doing as I am doing it. Don’t get caught up in the urge to edit as you write. The ideas want out, let them get out. No one needs to see the early drafts. Then, when you go to revise, be like Papa with the axe, and do away with the words that get in the way.

Should a teacher do this?

One of my former Gotham Writers’ Workshop students got in touch with me recently about a problem she was having. She’d just started an MFA program, and was having problems right off the bat. When she was my student I had given her input on my experiences with MFA programs (I was in one bad one, which I left, then one excellent one). I knew she had gotten into a couple, and was weighing which one to go to.

The story she had worked on in class was about a girl who had been held captive in a basement, who then escapes. She is picked up by a truck driver, who realizes something is wrong. The truck driver takes the girl home with her to keep an eye on her, and during a discussion it’s mentioned that the truck driver is Navajo. In my class, we didn’t get too much farther than this, which is always the problem with my classes. I get invested in the story, and then class is over, and I never see how the story ends. But when she got back in touch with me, I remembered it. It was well-written and an interesting premise, so it stood out, even after months of having taught other classes. It also was what she submitted to get into the MFA programs, so the admissions people obviously thought highly of it too.

She chose her program, and began workshops. This is where the trouble began. When her teacher read the story, he refused to let her work on it. His reasoning was that since one character was Navajo, and the writer was not, she would never be able to transcend stereotypes, would be branded a racist, and the book would never get published. This is all based on the portion I had seen in my class, where the Navajo aspect is really mentioned in passing. I agree that there is reason to treat cautiously when dealing with cultures that aren’t your own, and she is aware of this also, doing extensive research, as well as pairing up with a professor who is a Navajo expert to help her get things right. My issue with this is telling someone that they can’t write a story no matter what. If there is a concern that the story may go in a bad direction, I feel you should address that when you see the story going in that direction, and then you address the aspect of it that goes bad. I don’t think it’s a writing teacher’s place to forbid someone to write a story. How is someone to grow as a writer if they don’t experiment, take chances, and maybe even fail? Say the story did end up dealing in stereotypes and coming off as racist. That’s when you say, “I really think you need to fix this,” and if it seems unfixable, then it’s the writer’s role to decide if the story should be abandoned. I would never tell a student they could not work on something. I’d tell them that I thought a story had major flaws that needed to be addressed, but they are free to work on what they want to work on. My job is to help them make it as good as it can be.

She had a meeting with the professor and the director of the program, but the professor wouldn’t argue anything beyond his initial points, and so it faltered. The irony is that another teacher in the program is a white woman who recently published a book about a Native American tribe, which basically sinks all of his points, but here we are.

I do understand the idea to “write what you know,” but if you’re doing research into a culture, doesn’t that help as knowing? (There’s also the “Brian Wilson didn’t surf” argument, which I feel sometimes comes off as glib, in spite of being a good point). But the larger question I have is, should a teacher ever forbid a student to not write a story? Particularly the story they hoped to finish by enrolling in the program? I’m curious to hear other people’s thoughts, and I hope I’m missing something.

The magic of tracking your rejections

On the one hand, you keep all the negativity in one place. On the other, seeing a whole list of “DENIED!” is kind of a bummer. Maybe I need to work on my phrasing. (See, you can put a positive spin on it! In any case, it seems poetry is a tough sell in general, mine especially so.)

list of rejections
DENIED!

Happy Poetry Month!

I’m going to have some exciting poetry news to share later in April, but for now, just get into it. Here’s my favorite William Carlos Williams poem to help you get started.

 

As the cat
climbed over
the top of

the jamcloset
first the right
forefoot

carefully
then the hind
stepped down
into the pit of
the empty
flowerpot

 

Somebody say jamcloset?
Somebody say jamcloset?

16 facts about me

I recently got an email from a student who needed to know 16 facts about me for a school project. He said the facts could be anything, so here is what I gave him, in case you find yourself faced with a similar project.

Erik P. Kraft . . .

1. Has 6 pet chickens (named Boss Chicken, Suzy Creamcheese, Henny Penny, and The Mandrell Sisters)

2. Has eaten a whole pie on his own on more than one occasion

3. Has been writing ever since he could hold a pencil

4. Is vegetarian

5. Has a son who thinks he is a weirdo (but who thinks being a weirdo is funny)

6. Once had gigantic Elvis sideburns

7. Often performs comedy (or what he thinks is comedy)

8. Can drive a stick shift

9. Went to UMass Amherst

10. Started writing children’s books after taking a class taught by Jack Gantos

11. Started illustrating his stories after having Chris Raschka as an advisor in grad school, who suggested he do it

12. Once convinced a friend in school that Impressionist art was when you carve pictures into potatoes and stamp them in ink

13. Is not superstitious about the number 13

14. Had a picture of Mr. Rogers in his high school locker

15. Was not himself called Miracle Wimp in school (they went more for the cheese names rather than mayonnaise) but knew someone who was.

16. Is colorblind and his outfits reflect his.

A teaching success story!

One of my former students recently published a book about raising chickens, and it’s really cool. I helped her with it in class, and I’m very impressed with the end result. Her story was even what pushed me from “should I get chickens?” into “I should get chickens!” Here’s what she has to say about it:

I still remember the moment I knew that I had to raise chickens. My two year old was feeding corn to some curious hens at a local pumpkin patch. I watched him giggle with delight as several beaks pecked corn from his hand, and I just knew that backyard chicken farming was in our future.

I had always been a city chic, and knew I had a lot to learn before I could bring home a batch of baby chicks. While my husband and my two little boys built a chicken coop in our garage, I purchased 5 different books about how to raise chickens, and conducted extensive research online. If you’ve ever looked for a “how to” guide for children, you know that my search for a resource to get my kids ready ended in frustration. I knew something had to be done about this void the day I found my six year old pretending to read my two-inch thick Storey’s Guide to Raising Chickens.

With the help of my family, I published Young Chicken Farmers: Tips for Kids Raising Backyard Chickens. It’s a 32-page hard cover book full of color photographs, educational tips, and egg-citing facts on every page. It’s designed for children ages 3-8 years old. The book has already received positive feedback from editors of Hobby Farms and Backyard Poultry magazines. And if you like what Erik likes, he has provided an outstanding review as well!

You can order a book from www.beaverspondbooks.com (you can search by author or title). For a 20% discount, use Coupon Code: chicken. If you’d like to follow our chicken adventures, visit my blog at www.mychickenadventure.com.

 

Click here to go right to the book page.

Character development

My friend Nicolle and I are working on a graphic novel/webcomic type thing. We have finally decided on how the characters should look. So, presenting Tabs and Dizzy.


 

We’re not quite there yet, but when we are, the comics will be posted at The Cats In The Alley Tumblr.

Lynda Barry creativity exercise

I got this one from Lynda Barry’s Tumblr, but I don’t remember if she invented or got it from one of her teachers. Basically (and I may be remembering this wrong, but this is how I do it) you spend two minutes writing down anything you remember from the day before. Then you spend two minutes writing down things you remember seeing the day before. Then you spend one minute writing down things you overheard the day before, then a minute and a half drawing something you saw. You’ll be amazed at first at how much of a blur your days can be, but it helps you to be more alert as to what’s going on around you, which is a good skill to have. I don’t do this nearly as often as I should. I haven’t worked it into a routine like I have with the morning pages, but maybe that means I should do it on the train also.

Things remembered, seen, and overheard