Thursday, March 25, 2010

Another Reason I Love What I Do

After a school visit today, I received the following thank you from the teacher in charge:

"Thank you so much for your informative, inspiring, and motivating talk--I don't recall a recent concert or assembly where at least one of the kids didn't need to go to the bathroom in the course of an hour :) That's a great middle school compliment!"

On a day when one of my sons got his picture in the paper for his starring role in the school play, my other son was elected captain of his volleyball team, and my daughter found out she made the varsity softball team, I was proud to say I kept 70 seventh graders from wanting to use the bathroom for an entire hour!

It was a banner day for the Ferber family!

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Best Musicals

Last weekend my husband and I took our three kids to see Billy Elliot, which is billed as "The Best Musical Ever." I loved Billy Elliot the movie, so I was really looking forward to the play. Before the show started, the director came on stage to tell the audience that the boy who was playing Billy that night was making his professional debut. So exciting! This kid, J.P. Viernes, only 13 years old, had more talent in his big toe than I have in my entire body. He commanded the stage like a seasoned pro. He sang. He acted. And he danced. Boy did he dance! After one number, the audience applauded for so long the play actually came to a stop. We almost gave him a standing ovation in the middle of the show.

But was it the Best Musical Ever? I don't think so. Though I laughed and cried and LOVED the dancing, I can't remember one song from it, not even one tune. And the story, though powerful, was told better in the movie version.

Which got me thinking about my favorite musicals of all time.
These are shows I would see again if given the opportunity. Shows I love to listen to on my iPod. Shows that made me laugh, cry, and walk out of the theater singing and smiling.
1. Les Miserables
2. Rent
3. Mary Poppins
4. Wicked
5. Avenue Q
6. Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat

I wish I had a top ten list, but really, top six is all I can come up with. Perhaps that's a good thing. It means there are more shows for me to see and fall in love with in the future.

There is one more play I'd put on this list if I could, but it's not a musical. It's August, Osage County. Best non-musical play I've ever seen. Brilliant. See it if you have the chance.

So, what are your favorite musicals?

Monday, March 22, 2010

How To Revise a Novel: Step #2

I've been so busy doing Step #1 in my revision process (which is to do nothing), that I haven't had a chance to blog about Step #2. Here, finally, it is...


Are you a writer who finds it's easier to make your writing shine than it is to deeply examine your story? Do you craft the perfect scene, compose beautiful sentences, search for exquisite words? Is that what you think of as "revising?" If so, I've got a different approach for you to consider.

All that polishing has its place in the revision process, but it comes much later. Right now, any time spent focused on your writing is wasted time. Instead, you should focus on your story.

In other words, rather than asking yourself, "Have I told my story in the best way possible?" you should ask, "Have I told the best possible story?"

Don't be afraid of the answer. It might not be pretty. You might realize there are giant holes in the logic, or that the stakes aren't high enough, or a million other things. But you've got to face reality and make your story shine before you can make the writing shine. You've got to look at the big picture.

Here are five important things you should have in your story:

1. A character with a problem. Not just an interesting character. Not just a situation. But a believable, sympathetic character with an interesting and difficult problem.
2. A beginning, middle, climax, and end. Make sure your beginning quickly sets up the main character and his or her problem. The middle should show the m.c. working to solve the problem but only making things worse. The climax should be a moment where it seems the m.c. simply can't succeed. And in the end, the m.c. should either solve the problem or not, depending on what kind of story you're writing. Either way, though, the main character has grown and changed because of the story.
3. Big stakes for your main character. What happens if the m.c. doesn't succeed? Why should the reader care if it's not the biggest deal in the world? Make the reader care!
4. A well-developed setting. Ground your story in a time and place. Readers want to know where they are.
5. An inner and outer conflict. In the best stories, the main character solves the inner conflict in order to solve the outer conflict. Think about the outer conflict as the story, the plot, the excitement. Think about the inner conflict as the depth, the growth, the meaning. You need both.

This is a lot to consider (and it's really just the beginning). You've written a big novel. So how do you go about "seeing" it all?

Here are some things that work for me:
I like to make Post-it maps of my novel. Each Post-it summarizes one scene in the story. The smaller Post-its are changes I need to make.

I always make a calendar and summarize what happens on which day. This helps with logic problems and timing questions.

I list all my chapters and describe the action in each one. This is a good way to see the action of the story in one or two pages. It also helps me see when I have left a story-line or character for too long.

Inner conflict and growth is important in my stories. So I like to outline that change as well. For example, in Julia's Kitchen, Cara goes from believing God is a sort of Superhero to seeing him more as a compassionate friend. But that belief can't change in an instant. There are small steps along the way, heading in that direction. I had to be very conscious of her belief and craft every scene appropriately. By outlining these changes, I was able to keep track of what she was believing and when.

All these things help me look at and think about the big picture. Fixing it all is pretty major surgery. But it's vital.

Coming soon is Step #3!

Thursday, March 18, 2010

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Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Thank You, Sherwood School!

Yesterday I visited Sherwood School, in Highland Park, Illinois. It was such a lovely afternoon, and I was bummed that my camera was out of battery power. Hopefully the wonderful media specialist there, Helen Weiss, will send me some pictures soon. But here are a few highlights:

1. What a location! Sherwood is just five minutes from my house, so there was no way for me to get lost. That's always a plus.

2. When I checked in at the school office, there was a sign there welcoming me, and the receptionist greeted me warmly. You may think that's no big deal, but I've been to schools where the words "visiting author" are met with confused stares.

3. There was another cute sign made for me in the library. And the projector and sound system worked perfectly right off the bat. Hallelujah!

4. I spoke in a cozy library to about 60 kids at a time. The kids AND teachers paid attention, and some of the teachers even took notes.

5. One student, Sydney, won a raffle prize of a backstage pass to my visit. Sydney got to wear a special VIP pass, she introduced me to the students, and she had a front row seat. She also won two autographed books. This was all coordinated by the media specialist. What a great idea!

6. The students were prepared. They had visited my website beforehand and were familiar with me and my books. What a difference this makes!

7. The students were engaged. They laughed, and oohed and ahhed, and applauded at all the right moments. You could hear a pin drop when I told them the true story that inspired Julia's Kitchen. They asked good questions, and they answered all my questions with enthusiasm.

8. The students were funny. When I asked how many kids thought they might grow up to be writers, one boy said he would if his basketball career didn't pan out. There were lots more funny comments and questions. I swear, I love fourth and fifth graders so much!

9. The students were inspired. It was cool to speak to kids from my hometown. I think they've got to be thinking, "Wow, if someone from Highland Park can make her dreams come true, maybe I can, too." I loved seeing all their eager and excited faces. I also loved seeing children of some friends of mine!

10. I loved watching the kids choose which giveaway to take at the end of my presentation. Most popular item was the Camper Extraordinaire bracelet. I must admit, it's pretty cool.

And I can't ignore the fact that at the end of this wonderful afternoon, the media specialist handed me a check. Some people think if you write a book, you've hit the big time... you're rich. It's unfortunately not true. I don't know many authors who can make a living off of royalties alone. We make our living by writing lots of books, doing school visits, teaching, etc. So yes, we get paid for our presentations. But the  biggest pay off of all is knowing that I've written books that are touching kids' hearts and minds. You can't put a price on that.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

How To Revise a Novel: Step #1

(This is the first in a five part series on Revising a Novel. These steps are helpful for after you've finished a complete draft.)

The first step in my revision process is the easiest and the hardest. It's:
After spending a year thinking and writing about these characters and their stories, it's practically impossible to know if what I've written is any good because I'm way too close to it. So I do three things:

1. Give myself plenty of time away from the project.
Easy because, hello, I'm not doing any work! Hard for two reasons. First, it's quite a challenge to stop thinking about these characters. It's like when you break up with someone and try not to think about him. It just doesn't work. Also, I feel sort of ungrounded and purposeless. I might do something crazy like volunteer to bake cookies for a bake sale or paint sets for the school play or do other time-sucking things I've trained myself to say no to recently. I must remember to do the things I want to do during this monthlong hiatus. I have a stack of books I've been waiting to read. I can work out every day to get in shape for our trip to Greece this summer. My daughter is on spring break now, and my sons will be on spring break at the end of the month, so I can spend quality time with them doing whatever they want.

2. Read the work aloud.
I have to wait until my monthlong break is over, but then, when I come back to the book, I'll read the whole thing aloud. Easy because it's just reading. Hard because I'll hear all the parts that suck, and I'll think I'm a hack (for a moment anyway). In my critique group, we submit ten pages at a time, and someone else reads our work aloud. That's even better because when they stumble over a sentence I wrote, I know I've got work to do. And when I happen to get someone who is an excellent reader, and she laughs and sighs at all the right times, and my words simply sing, I think I might be a genius (for a moment anyway).

3. Ask a friend (or two) for help.
Easy if you ask the right friends. Hard if you don't. There are two different kinds of "right friends" for this task. My critique group will give me the most helpful responses. A month from now, I will no doubt walk out of critique feeling like I have a ton of work to do, but I'll know that I can do it. The other people I let read my book at this stage of completion are people who love me and love my writing and will love whatever I give them to read. I'm talking about my sister, my daughter, and my niece. This doesn't mean they won't be able to point out an area or two I can improve. But in general, I know they are my go-to girls for stroking my ego. After all, I worked on this thing for over a year. I need someone to tell me right now that it was not a waste of time. Even better is a comment like the one I got from my sister. "It's the best thing you've ever written, Bren!" Or the text I got from my daughter in all caps with a bunch of exclamation marks letting me know she finished it and can't wait to talk to me about it. Or the look of complete surprise and excitement in my niece's eyes when I handed her the manuscript and offered it to her to read. I've learned the hard way not to give my manuscripts to my mother, husband, or sons. At least not at this stage of the game. I love them, but I don't need to hear, "I'm not really your audience." Or, "It's good." Or worst of all, "I liked it. No really, I did."

So this is where I'm at with IVY IN LIKE. Step #2: See the Big Picture, is coming next. Stay tuned!

Monday, March 01, 2010

Make Something Happen.

Don't you love when you turn great ideas into actual things? I do. An idea is just an abstract, cloud-like substance, and it takes a bit of determination to turn that idea into something solid. Lately I've had three wonderful experiences of seeing that happen.

1. My new novel. Ivy in Like had been an idea floating and simmering and taking lots of different shapes for years. But now it's a finished draft. Whew! What an accomplishment! What a feeling! True, this novel will continue to change shape for the next couple of years until it's an actual book on an actual bookshelf, but it's more solid now than it's ever been.

2. This past weekend's writing retreat. Last year during one of our critique group meetings, we talked about how fun it would be to rent a house for a weekend and just write. It would be easy, we said. We should totally do it, we said. And then we actually did it! We found a great place in Michigan, invited some friends, and spent the weekend writing, talking, eating, drinking, and laughing. And how's this for karma? The room I stayed in was called Ivy, the name of my main character!

3. My Neighborhood Book Club. One day in January, as I was walking my dog and waving to a neighbor who drove past, I had a moment of inspiration. It went something like this: I wish I felt a sense of community here. Wait! Why can't I have that? I had just finished reading the book The Help by Kathryn Stockett (such a fantastic book!!) and I was thinking it would be nice to read more books for grownups (not that I'll ever stop reading fabulous books for kids!). A Bookclub, I thought! A Neighborhood Bookclub! I came home and sent an e-mail proposing my idea to a few of my friends who lived walking distance from me. They loved the idea and invited some of their friends. Tonight is our first meeting. We read Mudbound by Hillary Jordan. Another fantastic book! I am really looking forward to getting to know my neighbors on a deeper level. After a year of feeling completely disconnected from my community for a bunch of ridiculous reasons, I'm searching out and creating the change I desire.

A new book, a writing retreat, and a neighborhood book club. All were just ideas. They could have stayed that way. But with a little bit of effort (okay, a ton of effort when it came to writing a new book) and help from friends, I turned those ideas into solid things.

Do you have an idea floating around in your brain? Take the first step today. Make it happen!