Catherine Stine's IDEA CITY

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Friday, January 28, 2011

Water from the Magical Well

I slogged through mountains of snow last night to hear Alice Hoffman read and talk about writing. I almost didn’t make it uptown, worrying that leaping over filthy pools of slush in my leaking UGGs was too treacherous. But a voice inside me kept saying, “Go, go, go. You have to go.” I’m so glad I listened! Why, you ask? First, let me backtrack.

I used to inhale Hoffman books. Here on Earth, her homage to Wuthering Heights was a favorite. And Fortune’s Daughter, examining pregnancy, birth and loss through two sisters: one a fortuneteller who lost her only child, the other, awaiting the birth of her first child, was another treat. Practical Magic, which was made into a film, involves the Owens girls, two orphaned women whose aunts were witches. The girls are blamed for every freaky incident in their small town.

When I got older and went back to get my MFA in creative writing, and I started to write for children, I noticed a phenomenon. Authors of adult fiction, who already had big careers, like Joyce Carol Oates, and, oh no, my old fave, Alice Hoffman, were publishing YAs. The MFA buzz was that this was almost as suspect as celebrities who assume they can pen a picture book and get published immediately because they're already famous. Publishers know, therefore, they’ll have an automatic bestseller.

The YA market was already reaching a glut. In MFA programs, there was additional snobbery. Anyone who made it into Oprah’s book Club, or had their book commissioned into a film, was selling out their raw talent. So, so misguided, I say now.
For one thing, MFA programs should not neglect to teach the importance of the market. I teach my students not to be a slave to it, but to be aware of it. Number two, any club or society that pushes books and literacy is gold, what with the distractions of the Net. So, more power to Oprah and her Book Club. Even Lord Franzen has capitulated with his newest novel, Freedom.

Okay, getting back to why seeing and hearing Ms. Hoffman was so auspicious for me, My work-in-progress is magical realism. And Ms. Magic herself, the amazing Alice, has been exploring this for years—before there was ever a girl named Stephanie Meyers, before the zillion vampire paranormalists bit the public’s fancy. Hey, did I just make up the word paranormalists, or what? I also learned, last night that she was writing books for kids all along, in between her other work. So, I stand chastened.

Hoffman’s early influences were Grimms, and Singer, and that master of prose poetry, the impish sideshow gremlin, Ray Bradbury.

Ray Bradbury was one of my earliest inspirations. His words dive-bombed off the page and straight into my stunned synapses. Dandelion Wine and Something Wicked This Way Comes and just about any novel the man wrote had this effect on me. Phillip K Dick might be the master of sci-fi plot. But Bradbury is still, at 90-something, King Poet of weird. The guy can draw too!

So, hearing Alice Hoffman read from her latest creation, The Red Garden, I was smitten all over again—a garden where only red things sprout. Imagine! She's not a flash in the pan. She’s been spinning gold for a good 30-something years. Now, that’s true magic. I’m reading her again, even those YA, tween and picture books.

I can’t wait to learn more from the master.
Who's your great inspiration?

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Mark up Your Books, Kids!

My eleventh grade English teacher not only had a film star vibe: emerald eyes, smoky, tortured expression; thick, black hair brushed back in a tousled mess; he was also whip smart about books and writers. I was hooked in by both factors. We went deep into The Moviegoer by Walker Percy, Great Gatsby by Scott Fitzgerald, Animal Farm by Orwell and The Ballad of the Sad Café by Carson McCullers. This one was probably my favorite at the time.

“Mark up your books!” he insisted, and he meant business. He came around the room and showed us how he marked up his own book. There were all kinds of notes scrawled in the side margins, underlined sections and circled words.
I did what I was told. It worked! It helped draw me into the stories and get up close and personal with them. It helped me remember important themes, lines and transitions. I think of the experience now, of marking up those pristine pages with scribbled explanations, and circled passages that highlighted breathtaking prose, as the equivalent of getting sand in your fingernails from playing in the sandbox as a kid. An essential, organic, down and dirty tryst with fine literature.

As a reader, I jot down words I’m not sure of, right inside the front page of a book, to look up later. As an author, I’ve done the exercise that another writing teacher recommended: Take a children’s book that you admire. Highlight all of the exposition with one color, the dialog with another color, the character descriptions with a third color. You can also do a separate color for each character. And then, examine the results. How much text is devoted to dialog, how much to summary, and so on? Great way to parse out how writers craft their scenes.

As a teacher, I tell my students, “Mark up your books! Note the transformative lines, the most poetic and powerful lines. Do a close, close reading, always holding a pen! Circle the passages where the hero or heroine steps fully into her fate. Highlight the symbolic elements—the coral paperweight in 1984, the descriptions of the Lake in The Seagull. What do these symbols really represent? Why did the author place those descriptions where he did? Compare them. Don’t let me see a pure white book! Let me see your thinking on the pages, your organic process.”

You can see, from my pictures above, that I’ve even been known to jot down a Tarot reading (I don't take these seriously, it's just for fun) on the inside cover of a book. I’ve also started novels on the inside back covers.

Do you mark up your books? Or are you one of those readers, who believe that one should, and must keep a book in its pristine state? If so, why? What’s your surefire method of getting a book under your skin? How do you study a writer’s craft? Do you take notes on a separate piece of paper? How do you truly digest a book?

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Writing Contests & Competitions! Winter to Spring 2011

Last year I participated in the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award Competition or simply ABNA. There are two fiction categories: adult fiction and YA, and the prize is a pub contract, including a $15,000 advance from Penguin—not too shabby! The panelists for the young adult fiction contest are Gayle Forman, journalist and author of the New York Times bestseller If I Stay, literary agent Julie Just of Janklow & Nesbit and Jennifer Besser, Vice President and Publisher, G.P. Putnam's Sons Books for Young Readers.

It’s a great chance to have lots of readers read and review an excerpt of your work. In fact, it’s also super-fun to download your fellow competitors’ excerpts and review them. You’d think it would get very competitive, but not so much. It becomes more of a great big writing community where everyone is egging each other on. And there are constant threads with lively chatter. Think Nano with a prize. The competition launches on January 24th. Here’s the link:

Another contest already ramping up is “Dear Lucky Agent”, sponsored by Writers Digest. The top three winners get the first 10 pages of their mss read by agent Lindsay Clemons of the Larsen-Pomada Literary Agency in San Francisco. This contest is up and running from January 9th through the 23. They are looking for any literary fiction (no genre fiction). Here are the details on the Guide to Literary Agent blog:

Have you heard of other good contests for authors of middle-grade and YA fiction? Share them here! What about great winter or spring writing retreats? I’ve attended the SCBWI winter conference in NYC for years. (There’s also a summer one in LA. Lots of fun, with good swimming pools and spas during downtime!) Tell us which retreats take the snowy chill off of you and inspire you to write.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Kindle’s Sweet Compulsions

There’s been much discussion on blogs about the kindle—whether it will destroy the print market, whether one should feel guilty for purchasing a kindle. Should you confess to owning one or keep it your dirty little secret? And then, there’s the curiosity over which eBooks people choose to buy on it.

I got my first kindle last year—a big DX—because I thought it’d be easier to read on it without reading glasses. For the holidays this year, I got my second--the newest, slimmest one around. Now I’m selling my kindle DX—well, my brand new sealed DX that amazon graced me with after the battery fizzled on the first one. Any bids? I promise to undersell all of those hawkers on eBay.

The first thing I read on the old DX was a colleague’s manuscript. It was perfect. I could read at night, lying down, without flipping through almost 400 pages of unwieldy manuscript. A little awkward too, as the kindle didn’t show page numbers then. The next thing I used it for, was to download lots and lots of free excerpts from the Amazon Breakthrough Contest (ABNA). This was big, big fun. They were free, they were quite varied, and not all good, but a few were brilliant—a total smorgasbord. The ones I liked, I could review, without having to read someone’s entire mss. This experience primed me for my next activity, and the one I still do most of all: sample novels as if I’m wine-tasting, or channel surfing.

First of all, one can download a short sample free from Amazon to test out a novel in order to see if you want to buy the eBook. Secondly, you can get trial freebies with newspapers, as I did with the Shanghai Daily.
What’s so great about this you ask? It begs adventure, experimentation, in a way that going into a traditional bookstore does not. Remember how you dreaded taking a chance on a CD before they had listening stations, or iTune sampling? Back then, you never wanted to take a chance on buying a dud CD. Too much money shelled out, too disappointing.

On any given day, I have at least 65 things on my kindle, and with the touch of a button, I can download another eBook or two, or three, within seconds! It’s positively addictive. I can easily see how eBooks, despite the fact that they are about half the price of their print equivalent, could outsell print. Mass sales vs. handselling. Right now, I have 3 adult novels on it, 1 sci-fi, 5 YAs, 1 middle-grade, 1 nonfiction, and 6 ABNA excerpts. That’s not including the 42 ABNA excerpts on my archive! I have everything from Rayo Casablanca’s hilarious novel, 6 Sick Hipsters, about twenty-somethings in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, to Melissa Marr’s YA paranormal, Wicked Lovely, to Tamim Ansary’s nonfiction, Destiny Disrupted, about growing up in Afghanistan.

I don’t normally read romance. But I read recently, in the New York Times, that romance eBooks are the hottest market online. Reason being, no one has to see the maudlin, steamy cover in the subway and stifle a snicker. It will be fascinating to see which other eMarkets heat up next. And being an illustrator as well as a writer, I can’t wait for the day that kindle goes color. The nook just doesn’t cut it. Okay, amazon, where’s my residual? Just kidding. I do believe illustration will remain alive and well, even on eBooks.

What’s you eBook experience? Kindle protester, virgin, newbie, its biggest supporter? Do you sample like me, or always read through each entire eBook? What’s your weirdest eBook purchase so far? Your guilty little eSecret?