Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Fiction is the lie that tells the truth

I'm recovering from knee surgery six days ago–my third operation in 25 months. I often joke that I should just find those scientists who gave Wolverine his adamantine skeleton and get one myself! And check out what I call my Transformer crutches: much easier to use than the axillary crutches they give you in physical therapy, even if they do make people stop and stare at me when I hobble down the street.

I'm up and limping around, feeling fairly good, all things considered. But surgery takes something out of you, mentally as well as physically, so I'm finding it difficult to concentrate on my writing, teaching, or editing at the moment. As a three-time veteran, I was prepared for that this time. So I'm logging lots of hours on my Kindle, catching up on seventy—yes, seventy—books in my " find time to read someday" pile. It's heaven, but I have to work hard not to feel guilty about "goofing" off this way.

A few days before my surgery I came across this link in the Guardian to a speech that fantasy writer Neil Gaiman gave in London earlier this month. I want to write something profound in response, but I'm reduced to saying, "Oh wow oh wow oh wow." Gaiman plucked every word I might ever think to set down about this glorious craft of fiction writing and said it so much better than I ever could. So please, please–if you love books, either as a reader or a writer, do yourself a favor and read his speech. I'd quote my favorite parts, but by the time I was done, I'd have reproduced the entire thing.

What exploded in my heart most of all was when Gaiman said that fiction writers—especially those of us who write for children—have an obligation to daydream, to entertain, and most of all, to tell the truth. Gaiman didn't mean that writers should teach or moralize: far from it. He specifically lists as one of our obligations that we should avoid preaching at all costs.

So what did he mean? I'll let him explain.

,,,truth is not in what happens but what it tells us about who we are.

To me, that is another way of saying that truth in fiction isn't a simple regurgitation of facts. There is an alchemy that happens when you enter a book, a combustible reaction between word and reader that can forever change the way you see life, the world—even yourself. That I think is what Gaiman meant when he said

Fiction is the lie that tells the truth, after all.

Now if that doesn't get you to read his speech, I don't know what will!

Monday, October 14, 2013

Couldn't have said it better myself: kick the adults out of your stories for kids

Can I hear an amen? This quote from my friend Mary Scarbrough's article over at Quick and Dirty Tips says it so well: get those Buttinskys out of the books and stories you write for kids. 

"Real kids get told what to do, how to do it, and what not to do all the time. Parents, teachers, older siblings, coaches, music instructors – kids have to listen to adults blathering all the livelong day. Think of a child you know and start enumerating how many adults/authority figures that child interacts with on a daily or weekly basis. Sure, a lot of this instruction from one’s elders is necessary in real life, but it doesn’t make for good literature, not for a young reader, and not if you are the adult reading to a youngster. Ugh. It gets old fast. Give kids a break!"
Resisting the urge to insert a wise older adult into stories for kids seems to be difficult for a lot of my writing students and freelance clients. I think this is because as adults ourselves, we are hard-wired with a strong instinct to protect the children under our care—even the fictional ones. But as writers we have to step back; we have to set the young heroes and heroines of our books free and allow them to take wrong turns down dark and even dangerous alleys. Because this is what makes stories interesting, whether that means scary, dramatic, funny, or sad.

I wish Mary had written this article a long time ago, so I could have been recommending it to my students for the past fifteen years! But I'm glad it's there now. Take a look at the entire article, and also at Mary's other columns about the crazy craft of writing for kids while you're there. She manages to dispense a lot of wisdom in a candy-coated wrapping of zany humor.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

My neurotic need for redundancy finally pays off

I apologize for the long silence. After a summer tsunami of work—culminating in a four-book project for educational publisher Amplify—I needed a break. So I snuck off for a week-long sabbatical.

Upon my return, look what I found!

This is the title of an article I wrote on computer backups that was just published in the October 2013 edition of the electronic magazine Children's Writer. Seeing my name in print again is great inspiration to shift back into full work mode again.

And it tickles me because my husband has long teased  that my obsession with backing up everything I write, not just to one place but to several, amounts to a "neurotic need for redundancy." At long last my neurosis had paid off—in an article sale.

Friday, August 23, 2013

A snail's pace: better than no pace at all!

It's been another crazy week in a summer full of them—which is good news for my bank account, but bad news for my middle grade novel. I've been busy with teaching and manuscript critiques, and this week I had a book deadline Tuesday, with two more next week—and I just got the specs three days ago. Yikes! [Lest I mislead you into thinking that I can leap tall buildings in a single bound, these are very short books for second and third graders that I am doing on a work-for-hire basis for an educational publisher.]

I like being busy, but I had hoped to have my usually lazy summer so I could finish up my middle grade novel. No such luck. It doesn't help that although I can write non-fiction any time, anywhere, and do it in a flash, when it comes to fiction, I am glacially slow. I am beginning to feel a little desperate, not only about ever finding time to do this, but also about ever finding the peace and quiet I need to concentrate.

Then I saw this little guy on my walk yesterday morning, and I remembered—in writing, speed doesn't count. What matters is that you keep adding to your story, one line, one word, even one syllable at a time.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Confessions of a Single-POV Puritan

Note: This is the second in a series of articles on demystifying viewpoint. The originals will appear first as posts here on my Spontaneous Combustion blog, then be archived on my website as downloadable PDFs.

I'm beginning to think that I’m obsessed with viewpoint, to the point where I’ve turned into a POV prima donna. Or what novelist and writing teacher Alicia Rasley called a “single-POV Puritan” in a 2009 blog post on the subject.

Me, a Puritan? Heaven forfend.

It didn’t used to be that way. Before I started writing fiction, I didn’t pay any attention to whether an author used omniscient or first person narration, multiple POV or the tight single perspective of one character. All that mattered to me was whether the book gripped my imagination. I didn’t care how the wizard behind the curtain created that story magic; I just wanted to be swept up in it.

But after many years on the other side of the page, as a writer, I’m definitely aware of viewpoint in everything I read, to the point where it’s difficult for me to shut off the Inner Editor in my brain long enough to simply enjoy a book. And it drives me mad when an author skips blithely from one character’s POV to another. Perhaps I’ve developed a kind of empathy deficit disorder in my later years, but how am I supposed to care about anything that happens to these characters when I don’t get the chance to spend more than a few paragraphs at a time with them?

Yes, yes—I’ve read the sage advice that it doesn’t matter which viewpoint you use, so long as you do it intentionally, as a tool to accomplish a specific effect in your novel. And although I agree with that, it doesn’t shake my almost visceral aversion to both multiple POV and omniscient narration.

Maybe part of the reason for my “puritanism” is that children’s writers like myself are forced to use viewpoint more cautiously than do writers for adults. The standard advice I give to my writing students is that whether they use first-person or limited third-person narration, they should zoom in on one young character in the book and tell the entire story through that child’s eyes and ears, her heart and mind. Why? For one thing, the younger the reader, the less experienced they are with narrative techniques. So using a more “sophisticated” POV technique such as multiple viewpoint might confuse them.

Also, developmentally-speaking, kids have a more egocentric view of the world. Since each child sees herself as the center of the solar system of her life, it’s easier for her to comprehend a book in which the young main character occupies a similar position.

I go beyond that. Use a tight single viewpoint, I advise my students, to help readers slip inside the skin of the protagonist, to the point where kids can no longer tell where their identity stops and that of the hero begins. This total immersion into the viewpoint of the main character is very similar to Deep POV, about which I will write later in this series. It enables kids to bond so closely to the hero or heroine that young readers experience and react to the events of the plot as if they were happening to them.

Hypocrite that I am, I violated this single POV rule in my first novel, Cheshire Moon. I wrote from the perspective of a secondary character for a few chapters, which I felt was necessary to show how the protagonist, a young deaf girl, was [unbeknownst to her] sharing the same series of dreams with a boy she had just met.

But I used limited third person and stayed mainly in the head of my young hero in my second novel, The Door in the Lake. Is it a coincidence that this book has been much more successful than the first, earning an ALA Quick Pick and a Scholastic Book Club selection? I don’t think so. I believe that my use of a single POV enabled kids to connect in a deeper, more immediate way with the protagonist, a boy who had mysteriously disappeared for two years and returned to his family with amnesia.

The middle grade novel on which I am working now has an even tighter focus on the eccentric young main character. It didn’t start out that way. In the first two iterations of the manuscript, I was actually brazen enough to think that I could get away with seven—count ‘em, seven—different main characters. Yikes! Fortunately, my critique group cured me of that particular delusion.

And they were right. When I allowed a young boy whom I had initially conceived of as a minor character to take center stage, the entire book came to life in a way it never had before. By focusing on his POV, and his alone, I found my way into the novel.

When children’s writers decide what viewpoint to use, we don’t just consider the needs of the story—we also stop to think how our choice of POV will affect readers. It’s that perspective—the viewpoint of readers—that I think gets lost sometimes when writers discuss POV.

I think we need to realize that viewpoint is more than just a literary tool, a way to shape a book and showcase our virtuosity; we need to recognize how it’s going to affect readers on an emotional level. It isn’t just about us, in other words, and what we need as writers; it’s about readers, too. And whenever we use the more distant forms of viewpoint, whether that be a shifting, multiple POV or omniscient narration, we increase the odds that readers won’t be able to form a deep connection with our characters—and thus with our books.

At least, that’s been my experience—not just as a writer, but as a reader. Perhaps it’s all my years in children’s literature, but I find myself increasingly impatient with novels where the author skips from the POV of one character to another.

Maybe that’s just me. I posted this question about multiple POV on my Facebook page, and got a thoughtful response from someone who said that when done well, she was eager to get inside the heads of different characters to see how each one responded to plot events. This added to her enjoyment of the story. This is an adult reader, talking about a specific adult novel, and she did note that she got confused when a writer changed POV without warning, especially within a chapter or scene.

So perhaps that’s my real problem. It’s not multiple POV itself that I dislike; it’s poorly-done multiple POV.

I just finished Reckless, by Cornelia Funke. She changes POV with each chapter, rotating between several characters, including two brothers, their respective love interests, and two of the villains. Though I appreciated the artistry of Funke’s prose, and the subtle way she explored themes in this first installment of a new fantasy trilogy, the multiple POV left me cold. It was far too easy for me to put the book down, forget about the characters and the travails they were enduring, and decide I’d rather be reading another book instead. By the closing pages, I finally did start  to care—but not about the heroes. I found myself actually feeling more sympathy for the villains instead, which I don’t think is what Funke intended.

Based on the book reviews that I see on Amazon, I’m not the only reader who feels this lack of connection with the POV techniques used today in so many novels. Readers today are more savvy about viewpoint—and about all the various scaffolding tricks we writers use to structure our tales. And they respond to this in their reviews, complaining when they feel an author has jerked them around too much with a constantly-shifting point of view.

I’m not saying that we should pander to readers. As writers, we have stories to tell, and I believe that we need to do that in whatever way seems right and best to us.

However, I think we would be wise to stop for at least a moment to consider the repercussions our literary choices have on the aesthetic experience of our once-and-future readers. There is a balance we ought to consider, a trade-off between the artistic effect of a particular viewpoint technique and the impact it has on readers. If a POV technique succeeds in either a literary or structural sense, and yet fails to capture the imagination of our readers, is it worth it?

“Only connect,” EM Forster famously wrote. In my view, that should be the measure we employ to gauge whether all this distant, peripatetic point of view is worthwhile. Remember what readers want—to get caught up in the story world we are creating—and use POV in a more controlled, purposeful way to help them do that. 

Maybe I’m not a single-POV Puritan after all. What I am is fascinated and perplexed by the eternal mystery of viewpoint.

Next time: Multiple POV gets the chance to defend itself in Fight Club: Multiple POV Claws Back.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Who Gets the Glasses? An Easy Way to Understand POV

Note: This is the first in a series of articles on demystifying viewpoint. The originals will appear first as posts here on my Spontaneous Combustion blog, then be archived on my website as downloadable PDFs.

New writers may be forgiven for being utterly lost when confronted with decisions about how to employ viewpoint in their stories and books. There is a bewildering array of variations. How does distant third-person POV differ from omniscient narration? When does dipping become head-hopping; and what the !@#$% do those two terms even mean?

The difficulty with understanding viewpoint is compounded when you realize that not every “expert” analyzes it the same way. Although I think Alicia Rasley does an excellent job of explaining viewpoint in her book The Power of POV, I don’t parse the different kinds of viewpoint in the same way that she does.

The nuances of viewpoint require an entire book to explain; no one can cover it all in just one 1500-word article or blog post. But I’m going to try to demystify viewpoint here anyway, adding other posts later in an entire series on the subject. So let’s get started with this valiant attempt.

Viewpoint is often called point of view, which is where the acronym POV comes from. I will use all three terms interchangeably in this article. At its most basic, viewpoint means the character through whose eyes and ears, thoughts and feelings, a reader experiences a scene or event in the plot.

Think of viewpoint as if it were a pair of glasses. You as the author have the power to give these glasses to any character you want. Whichever character happens to be wearing those glasses at any moment in your book is your POV character. For however long that character wears those glasses—a sentence, a paragraph, a page, a scene, a chapter, or even the entire book—then you can write ONLY what that character can see through those glasses. The moment you switch from what the character is seeing, hearing, feeling, or thinking to someone else, even for just a moment, you have yanked the POV glasses off his face.

Here’s an example.

Laughing at the TV screen, Ben crammed another salty handful of popcorn into his mouth. This show was so funny.

In these lines, the POV glasses are sitting invisibly on Ben’s face. We know this because we can taste the salt on the popcorn along with him, and share his thoughts about why he was laughing. The line “This show was so funny” dips into his thoughts.

Now let’s look at this next paragraph.

His father came into the room and scowled because the TV was so loud. “Turn it down, would you?” he barked.

The first eight words of the second paragraph are still in Ben’s point of view. Through his POV glasses, he is seeing his father walk into the room with a scowl on his face. However, those glasses are yanked off Ben’s face in the last six words of the sentence [colored in yellow]. The moment I wrote the reason why Ben’s father was scowling—because the TV was too loud—I left Ben’s mind and jumped into that of his father, just for a moment.

It’s subtle, but look at it closely. Unless this is a Stephen King novel and Ben is telepathic, he can’t know why his dad looks so grouchy. When I wrote “because the TV was so loud,” I jumped from Ben’s mind to his father’s. I changed POV, just for half a sentence. And that’s what we call head-hopping, switching POV from one character to another too often, too quickly, or for too short a time.

Note: as soon as I quoted the actual words his father said, I jumped back into Ben’s mind, because that was dialogue that Ben heard.

So how do you avoid the POV error? It’s easier than you might think. All you have to do is rewrite the second paragraph like this.

His father came into the room and scowled.
Uh oh, Ben thought. The TV was too loud again.
“Turn it down, would you?” his father barked.

Instead of reading the father’s mind, I stayed in Ben’s head instead. From past experience—apparently Ben has been scolded repeatedly about the volume on the TV—Ben deduces that his dad must be angry about the noise, which is confirmed by the dialogue a moment later. But since I never left Ben’s mind, writing only what he saw (his dad’s scowl), what he thought (Dad’s mad about the noise), and what he heard (Dad’s command to turn the TV down), I’ve gotten rid of the head hopping. The POV glasses stayed firmly on Ben’s face for the entire scene. The only way we find out for certain why Dad is upset is because he says so out loud, in a line of dialogue.


When you keep the POV glasses with one character for an entire scene or longer, that is called single viewpoint. That is the first of the three fundamental groups of point of view.

Note that in writing for kids, remaining in single viewpoint for the entire book is the norm, especially in easy readers, chapter books, and middle grade novels. There are variations with single viewpoint; you can choose to do it in first person (I) narration or third person (he/she) narration. But we’ll talk about that in a later article.

The second fundamental kind of POV is multiple viewpoint. This is when you transfer the POV glasses from one character to another.

This is where Rasley and I disagree. To me, any book in which there is more than one viewpoint character is multiple POV. If you are telling the book from the perspective of more than one character, then to my mind, you’re using multiple POV.

Rasley sees it differently.  To her, it’s only multiple POV if you change viewpoint within a single scene. Everything else is single POV—even a book where every chapter is told from the viewpoint of someone new. I guess she sees that as a kind of serial monogamy! :D

When multiple POV is defined as Rasley does, however, I don’t see the difference between it and head-hopping. I’ve read her book twice now trying to figure that out, and all I came away with is the vague sense that multiple POV only gets labeled—or libeled—as head-hopping when it’s done badly.

But in this series of articles on viewpoint, when I say multiple POV, I mean any book in which more than one character is used as a viewpoint character. 

Multiple POV isn’t recommended for children’s books, though you do see it sometimes, especially in YA novels. I think there are two reasons why single POV is preferable. First, it’s less confusing. Remember, your readers are young. This means that they aren’t just inexperienced with written language—they are also inexperienced with narrative techniques in fiction, so it’s easy to confuse them.

What you hope to do in your book is bring your viewpoint character to life so vividly that readers start identifying with him or her closely—to the point where kids actually feel as if they are slipping inside the skin of the viewpoint character and experiencing every moment of the story with her. So every time you jump into a different character’s POV, you forcibly eject kids from this character they’ve been inhabiting. And that poses the danger not only of confusing readers, but of alienating them as well. They might even put the book down and not come back when you evict them from a character they’ve come to know and love.

The second reason I think multiple POV is not the best choice is that it’s very difficult to pull off, especially for a new writer attempting his or her first novel. It’s a challenge even for experienced authors to do multiple POV smoothly and well. When you are first starting out, I think it’s better to stick with single POV. [True confession time, however; in my first novel, Cheshire Moon, I did use an alternating viewpoint. But I had a good reason for doing so, I promise. I’ll write about that later in the series.]

Which brings us to the third fundamental group of viewpoint, omniscient narration. Rasley breaks this down into several different types, but let’s keep it simple. Omniscient narration is when none of the characters in your book gets to wear the POV glasses: you keep them for yourself. Or for some invisible narrator who, in a god-like manner, knows all the characters inside and out. The omniscient narrator hovers above the entire book, knowing everything about both the characters and the plot.

The various forms of omniscient narration are less popular today than they used to be, though you still see it in fairy tales, fantasy epics, and in some picture books.

So there you have it. Later in this series we’ll get down and dirty with more of the subtle intricacies of viewpoint. But you won’t go wrong if you think about the three fundamental kinds of POV in terms of who has the viewpoint glasses.

  1. Single POV: One person has the glasses
Multiple POV: Two or more people have the glasses
Omniscient POV: Zero people have the glasses; a floating, invisible, all-knowing, all-seeing narrator’s got ‘em

Next time: Confessions of a Single-POV Puritan

Saturday, July 20, 2013

The smell of hope: falling in and out of love with Madeleine L'Engle

When I was ten years old, I fell in love—twice. First it was with my fifth grade teacher at Indian Hills Middle School in Cincinnati, a woman named Nancy Browning, who was the first person ever to tell me, “One day you will be a writer.”

Mrs. Browning introduced me to my second love—Madeleine L’Engle, the writer who more than any other inspired me to weave stories of my own. But this summer I fell out of love with L’Engle—and was surprised at what a profound loss that was.

Let me tell you the story, and fair warning—L’Engle fans may get angry with me before it’s done. Though as she once said in an interview, there is a “smell of hope” at the end.

Back in fifth grade, it wasn’t L’Engle’s most famous work, the Newbery Medal-winning A Wrinkle in Time, that captured my heart, it was another book called The Arm of the Starfish. To a young girl growing up in the Midwest, that book was intoxicating. It transported me into a world where teenagers were sophisticated and urbane, speaking several languages, drinking coffee, and getting on jets by themselves to fly to Lisbon and Madrid. That’s what I remember—that and the extraordinarily loving, erudite, and over-achieving family of Calvin and Meg O’Keefe. He was a marine biologist working on a remote island off the coast of Portugal; and since I wanted to be a astronomer at that point, the scientific aspect of the book enthralled me.

Having read Starfish, I wanted more. That’s the way I’ve always been: when I find a writer I love, I read everything he or she has ever written. That’s how I discovered that Meg O’Keefe was far more than the stunningly beautiful yet self-effacing mother of seven [yes, seven!] kids in Starfish—she was the awkward, ugly-duckling Meg Murry of A Wrinkle in Time. Wrinkle became my favorite book of my entire childhood, but I always kept a special place in my heart for Starfish, and later for the cozy family drama, Meet the Austins.

I grew up, and in the way of things I left L’Engle’s books behind. Though I must have talked about her a lot, because my college roommate made a point of stopping in a bookstore in Chicago one day when she saw that L’Engle was there, and sent me a signed copy of Wrinkle.

To this day, that autographed Dell Yearling paperback is still one of my greatest treasures.

L’Engle was an important part of my childhood, and in a variation of the six-degrees-of-separation game, she is part of my identity as a writer as well. My editor, Stephen Roxburgh, was L’Engle’s editor at Farrar, Straus & Giroux for sixteen years. I had no idea of that when I sent him the manuscript for my first novel, Cheshire Moon. He let that fact slip over the phone when he called to offer me a contract. I raced to the library afterwards, and found that L’Engle had dedicated one of the books in her Time Quintet, Many Waters, to Stephen. The mere two degrees of separation from her—from a woman who in a significant way felt like a literary mother to me—meant so much. I felt as if Madeleine herself was anointing me, sealing my worthiness as a writer with a vicarious benediction.

 But even then I was unaware of all the many books she had written since Starfish and Wrinkle. L’Engle was a prolific writer, both for children and adults, in fiction and non-fiction. I did stumble across some of the novels she wrote for adults, and found them dated and a bit off-putting, to be honest. That was okay, I rationalized. Those books weren’t the reason I loved her.

I liked her non-fiction better: the memoirs she wrote collectively called the Crosswick journals. They gave me the same warm, cozy feeling as had Meet the Austins—a feeling that it was possible to find meaning, purpose, and even an island of serenity when adulthood wasn’t the perfect idyll you had imagined it would be as a child.

Then for some reason this summer I was filled with an explosion of nostalgia. Maybe it was my father’s death in February, sparking a need to go back in my memories and relive the happy moments of my childhood. Whatever the cause, I found myself wanting to re-read Wrinkle, Starfish, and Meet the Austins. I wanted to try some of the many other children’s books L’Engle had written as well. Chronos and Kairos, she called them: books set in quotidian time, and books set in a kind of timelessness that is as close as humans can come to eternity. There are five books about the Murrys in the Time Quintet, four books about the O’Keefes, and seven or more books about the Austins, many of which intersect. L’Engle’s galaxy of characters have a way of popping up in books where you least expect them.

I sat down with A Wrinkle In Time first. “It was a dark and stormy night,” it begins, in a sly literary joke. And I settled in happily with Meg under the quilt in her noisy attic bedroom, waiting for Charles Wallace and Fortinbras the Labrador; for hot cocoa made over a Bunsen burner by her scientist-mother; and of course for Mrs Who, Mrs Which, and Mrs Whatsit to blow in on a gust of wind, quoting literature and speaking in two dozens languages. This was going to be good, I thought.

Only it wasn’t.

As I turned the pages of each chapter, I kept asking myself what had gone wrong. Did some literary gremlin sneak in when I wasn’t looking and substitute another writer’s words for L’Engle’s? I couldn’t find the luminosity that I remembered being there as a girl. Now the book seemed clunky and awkward, as if L’Engle were a novice trying too hard to be literary and deep and meaningful.

Starting to panic a little, I read the sequel, A Wind in the Door. I started to breathe easier when I read the first four chapters; they seemed more fluid and lyrical, just like the L’Engle I remembered. But then I slammed up against that same sense of falseness. The way L’Engle was writing about her characters and plot events didn’t seem authentic or organic to me. OK, I thought. After years of writing and editing and teaching, I had just gotten jaded.

A bit more desperate now, I kept trying. I re-read Arm of the Starfish and Meet the Austins, and sadly I had the same negative reaction. Though I did find things in both books that I enjoyed, I kept stumbling over one thing: a disturbing sense of artificiality, almost pretentiousness. Neither her characters nor her plots seemed at all realistic to me, not even within the story world she was weaving. I gave it one more try, with the second book in the O’Keefe family series, Dragons in the Waters—and it was awful, one of the worst books I have ever read.

That was it. I was done. And I was heart-broken. What had happened? What had changed—L’Engle, or me?

Perhaps, as L’Engle herself writes in her books, I had lost my willingness to believe, and so I had lost the fundamental ability to appreciate the special kind of truth with which fiction writers work.

Except I knew that I had not lost that belief. I am a fiction writer, too, and I know deep in my bones what L’Engle meant about truth, how it differs from fact, and where it is to be found. I write fantasy, and I read fantasy, and I am still able to get deliriously and ecstatically lost in such books by other authors. The fault wasn’t in me.

But I’m not sure the fault was in L’Engle either; in fact, I’m not sure fault is the appropriate word to use here at all. I think the wrenching sense of disillusionment I was experiencing with L’Engle as a writer may be a natural process: a kind of literary growing up. All children have to grow away from their parents, to a certain extent, as they claim their identity as adults. I think perhaps that is what has happened with me and Madeleine. I have grown away, both as a reader and a writer. I don’t shape my books the way she shaped hers, and that’s fine. It doesn’t make her wrong and me right, or me right and her wrong. It just is.

From what I’ve read about L’Engle, both in her own nonfiction works and in articles and books about her, theme was deeply important to her. She dismissed J.K. Rowling’s Potter books with a sniff. “"It's a nice story but there's nothing underneath it."

L’Engle was dead wrong about that, in my view; there is a great deal beneath the Potter books. In fact, Rowling mines many of the same thematic veins as does L’Engle: friends and family, good and evil, love and sacrifice. It’s just that Rowling does so in a less obvious way, whereas L’Engle wears her thematic heart right out there on her sleeve.

And that I think is the problem I am having with L’Engle’s books now as an adult. Every writer had something they are burning to say; that’s not the issue. But with L’Engle, it’s too obvious what her burning issues are. I think theme should appear to readers to arise almost indirectly from a book. If the book is working—if the writer has allowed the characters to take on lives of their own and act like independent people, not puppets; and if the writer is allowing the plot to arise out of the interaction between characters and the situation in which she has set them—then readers will be able to tease out for themselves what the theme is.

That is almost the exact opposite of how L’Engle wrote. She can be quite preachy, especially about love, faith, and belief. Somehow I didn't see that as a child, but today, it’s all too obvious when I sit down with one of her novels what her thematic goals are. And in case I missed that, she feels free to let some of her characters deliver sermonettes about it. And a novel should never be a sermon.

On top of that didactism, her child characters all seem almost preternaturally mature to me: intelligent, highly-educated, with sophisticated tastes in music and books, and with psychological and spiritual insights well beyond their years. And I’m not just talking about the prodigy Charles Wallace in Wrinkle either: all her young characters in all her books seem this way to me, like idealized and shrunken adults. I grew up in the Midwest and have spent most of my adult life in the rural South, so maybe I’m missing something. Are kids in New York and Connecticut, where L’Engle lived, like this? Do they listen to Brahms and Bach and Schubert? Can they hold their own in discussions about higher order math and physics with Nobel laureates?

So last month I closed the door on L’Engle, and in some way on my childhood as well. No more, I thought. I wasn’t reading any more of her books.

I felt empty.

Then I happened upon two things: an infamous 2004 New Yorker profile of L’Engle by Yale English professor Cynthia Zarin, and an unusual biography of L’Engle by the literary critic Leonard S. Marcus, Listening for Madeleine. The latter is not a traditional biography; rather, it is an anthology of brief recollections about Madeleine from fifty people who knew her—including my own Stephen Roxburgh. That alone was enough to get me to read the Marcus book, which I just finished yesterday.

And though neither the profile nor the biography are always flattering to L’Engle, I came away from them with a profound sense of relief. L’Engle had a lonely childhood, and her adult life was like everybody else’s—a mix of joys and burdens, triumphs and sorrows. Her family both adored her and were exasperated with her. Her children and grandchildren said that for Madeleine, truth was always what she decided it would be, regardless of the facts. Her fiction was based too closely on their real lives for the family’s comfort, and her non-fiction was so heavily fictionalized that they didn’t even recognize what she was writing about. She remained in denial about the alcoholism of her father and son, even when it killed them both. Apparently her marriage wasn’t as close as she said either. Her ex-son-in-law, an Episcopal priest, said the "invention" part of the title of her memoir about her marriage,Two-Part Invention, was ironically apt.

Many of L’Engle’s friends and fans were upset by these revelations, feeling that they undeservedly tarnished her image. For me, however, it had the opposite effect. It was paradoxically liberating. Discovering that my childhood idol had feet of clay, just the like rest of us, didn’t diminish my respect for her one whit. Rather, it renewed the love I had lost. I’m not sure I understand fully why this is so, but I think it helped me to stop expecting perfection—either from her, or from her books. There are no masterpieces. I don’t care who your literary idols are—from classical writers such as Shakespeare and Austen to contemporary bestsellers such as Rowling or John Green. You can find flaws in every book, even those by the masters. But this doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy their books, nor does it mean that you can’t find deep meaning and beauty—and yes, even truth in them.

I should have known that. My books are certainly imperfect, and as a writing instructor and book editor, I’ve read enough manuscripts to know that nobody else’s books are perfect either. They can’t be; that’s an unrealistic expectation. What matters is not the perfection of the book—much less of its author—but the story. Does it have heart? Does it grip you? If so, then it is a success.

When I step back now and look at L’Engle’s body of work, what I can’t believe I missed before is how hard she worked at trying to create through her books the world she wanted to live in—a world where families were always large and close-knit, where mothers were always beautiful and brilliant and still had endless time for their brood of children, where people burst into hymns and quoted Frost and Shakespeare and obscure Orthodox saints while they were scraping carrots,  where tesseracts and mitochondria and cherubim and unicorns were dinner table conversation, where deep lasting friendships were forged and sustained over cosmic struggles of love and evil. L’Engle’s life work as a writer was not just to invent that within the pages of a book; I believe she was in a very real sense trying to incarnate that, to bring it to life within the ordinary, day-to-day world of Chronos.

Maybe my story has a happy ending after all. As children always do, I had grown up and discovered that the writer I idolized was just a human being: neither magician nor saint nor sage, but still worthy of admiration and respect nonetheless. Perhaps now I can relax and slip under the quilt again with Meg in her drafty garret, and follow her and Charles Wallace from Connecticut to Camazotz with a new kind of joy.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

For kids, there is no contest between print and e-books

My fellow wizards and I—meaning those of who write for middle graders and teens—were recently talking on a listserv about e-books, and just what role they are playing now in the lives of our once-and-future readers. This study by Scholastic is illuminating. E-books do seem to be a factor in kids' belief that reading is fun, especially among boys, though kids still prefer print for certain reasons.

Often when this subject is broached among adults, whether they are parents, teachers, media specialists, or children's writers, the discussion is framed in binary terms—as if it were some kind of contest between print and e-books to see which one is "better." But if this Scholastic study is accurate, young readers don't see it that way at all. For them, it's not either/or—it's both. Sometimes they like to read print books, sometimes they like to read e-books.

Here are two interesting statistics pulled from the report about this.

“Fifty-eight percent of kids age 9–17 say they will always want to read books printed on paper even though there are ebooks available.

“Half of children age 9–17 say they would read more books for fun if they had greater access to ebooks.”

One part of this study asked kids about how often they read, and about their attitudes towards reading. This was the part that both reassured and alarmed me.

  • Among girls, there has been a decline since 2010 in frequent readers (42% vs. 36%), reading enjoyment (71% vs. 66%), and the importance of reading books for fun (62% vs. 56%).
  • Compared to 2010, boys are more likely to think reading books for fun is important (39% in 2010 vs. 47% in 2012), but they still lag girls on this measure (47% for boys in 2012 vs. 56% for girls in 2012).
  • Frequency of reading books for fun is significantly lower for kids age 12–17 than for children age 6–11; frequency of reading books for school is also lower for kids age 12–17 than for kids age 6–11.
We are finally reaching boys, but losing girls. I wonder why that is?

I know that teachers need to be concerned about print vs. e-books in terms of how the two different reading modalities affect comprehension and retention; the Scholastic study doesn't address that.

But as a writer, what I get from the study is this—it shouldn't matter to those of who create books for kids how they end up reading them, on paper or on-screen. Our focus needs to be on creating stories so mesmerizing that kids would rather read them than do anything else.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Building the dream

When I first started this blog back in March, I felt as if I were throwing words into a black hole. Yes, I studied up on SEO tips and got the word out to my family, friends, and fellow writing wizards. But still I wondered: would anyone ever find me here?

This week I received proof that at least one person did. Check out this post by blogger Andrew Grant, "I Used to Be a Perfectionist, But I'm Better Now." I think you'll recognize little old moi. He quotes my post from the first of this month on the same topic—and even says my title is brilliant! Well, naturally. Thank you, Andrew, not just for the shout out, but also for the post itself, especially these words that I keep reading over and over.

"...the antidote for our perfectionist procrastination is to simply do something.  Do something that’s good enough and then do something else and something else and keep on doing something else until, before you know it, you have built the dream."

Another gift this week came from writer Kristi Holl.

I reviewed her excellent book Boundaries for Writers here last month; I keep hearing echoes of it in my head as I face the daily struggle to clear time and "headspace" so I can work on my middle grade novel.

This morning I awoke to find that she'd chosen to write about my book, Spontaneous Combustion, on her aptly-named Writer's First Aid blog. What moved me most about her post, "Nourish Your Soul with Spontaneous Combustion," was when she revealed that she reads part of my book every day before she starts work on her her own novel. That gives me goosebumps, literally, to know that I can help another writer in that way. And it's just what I hoped my book would do when I wrote it. Thank you so much for sharing that, Kristi. It means a great deal to me.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Entertain, enchant, enthrall: the three E's of fiction


The irony of the sermon I’m about to give is not lost on me—the teacher preaching the literary commandment, “Thou shalt not teach or preach in your fiction.” And I’ve written about this before on my website.

But it bears repeating. I don’t know what it is, but working in the field of children’s literature for lo these many years, I’ve encountered a lot of didacticism, also known by the more pejorative term preachiness. I suspect it has something to do with the fact that so many people who want to write for children are teachers, who can’t get out of the habit of writing lessons. Many of my writing students and manuscript clients are classroom teachers, either in the public or parochial schools. [Note: by parochial, I mean any religious school, not just Roman Catholic. I’ve had students who taught in evangelical Christian schools, Lutheran schools, Anglican schools, and even Hare Krishna schools. I’ve also had a few preachers as students, as well as students who taught as part-time volunteers in Sunday or Hebrew school. Why, I once had a student who led weekly devotional programs for Wiccan children.]

Many children’s writers come to their desks with a passion to convey either information or life lessons to their young readers—and let me stress that there is nothing wrong with that. All writers write because they are burning to share something that is important and meaningful to them.

However, when it comes to crafting fiction, anyone who is a teacher or preacher needs to set that particular hat down outside the door. Forget about writing those sermons or lesson plans that feel like second nature to you. You need to remember that when it comes to writing fiction you are first, last, and always a storyteller—which is an ancient and noble discipline with strong traditions of its own.

One of those traditions involves a prohibition against the three E’s. Fiction is most emphatically not about educating, exhorting, or even empowering readers. [See what Harry Potter’s US editor Arthur K. Levine has to say about empowerment in the companion article on my website.]

If there is some topic about which you want to either teach or preach, you can do that in non-fiction. But if you choose fiction as your genre, then it is all about another trinity of E’s. At every moment, what we as fiction writers must do is  entertain, enchant, and enthrall. That’s the goal in every line, every scene, every chapter. Along the way our readers may pick up some information that they didn’t have before, but if so, that’s simply a bonus. And if they are inspired, well, that’s even better.

But if you sit down to write your novel with the express purpose of informing readers, you will bore them. And if you sit down with the express purpose of inspiring them, I can almost guarantee you will fail.

Your task as a storyteller, a writer of fiction, is singular, if not simple. It is to make your story world so real, so compelling, that readers want to crawl inside and experience it right alongside your characters. And then you need to stand back and allow readers to discover for themselves any meaning that there is to be found. You can’t force feed them your passions; you can only cook the food, lay the table, and hope that they like what you've given them to eat.

Think of a novel that inspired you—and then read it again, to see how the author managed that. I’ll wager that he or she didn’t try to inspire you, not directly. One book that springs to mind is Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, a book which I’ve clutched like a life preserver as an Ohio Buckeye struggling to keep my head above the backwaters in the rural Georgia town where I have made my home for years. Though Lee’s novel has many strong themes about racial equality, sexual violence, and standing up for what is right, even when it’s unpopular or dangerous, she doesn’t try to teach a history lesson or preach a sermon about any of that. Instead, she lets us experience all this through Scout and her father Atticus Finch as they struggle through their day-to-day lives in a 1930’s Alabama town.

It’s true that there are many novels for young people that do impart information along the way. Take historical fiction; I’m dating myself here, but how many of us learned about the American Revolution by reading Johnny Tremaine in school?

To take a more contemporary example, look at any one of the many wonderful historical novels written by two-time Newbery medalist Karen Cushman. The author has often been praised for her well-researched, authentic historical detail, so kids can certainly learn a lot about time periods from the Middle Ages to the McCarthy Era from her books. But not a single page in any of her novels reads like a lesson from a history textbook. Instead, Cushman brings the time period to life through lively writing in chapters where her characters don’t act like they know they’re living in the past, because to them, they’re not! This is just ordinary life for them, so any history readers pick up is almost by osmosis, as they are caught up in Cushman’s plots.

Inspiration doesn’t always come in the form you expect either. Look at the Harry Potter books by J.K. Rowling. [SPOILER ALERT: do not read further if you haven’t finished all seven books.]

When these books first came out, they were a lightning rod for debate in the Bible Belt where I live because they center around magic. However, I think there are also strong religious elements in the books, especially in the final installment. Rowling wasn’t trying to preach or to teach in the closing chapters of the seventh novel, The Deathly Hallows. Her primary purpose at the end was to tell a gripping, emotionally-charged story in the scene where Harry walks to his death—a death he freely though painfully chooses, in order to defeat Voldemort and save Harry’s family, his friends, Hogwarts, and indeed, the entire world, Muggle and magic alike. Rowling didn’t try to explicitly teach a message here on the power of love and sacrifice, though that is implicit in every line. She could even have quoted John 15:13: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” (NRSV translation)

But Rowling left the teaching of ethics and the quoting of scripture to others whose job that is. She is a novelist, and her charge is different. Her task—and that of all of us who write fiction—is to put our characters in situations where they are forced to make often impossible choices and then deal with the consequences. It is up to readers to decide what to glean from those consequences. Are they "just" messy, funny, sobering, joyous, or heart-breaking? Or is there any redemptive, transformative meaning to be found therein?

Our job as writers is only this: tell a damn good story. Beyond that, we must trust readers to get the rest.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Catching up on the summer solstice

Yesterday was the summer solstice, and it was an unexpectedly fresh, luminous day here after what seems like weeks of nonstop rain. I ran around like a headless chicken doing chores and errands, catching up after two busy months. That's the reason I haven't posted much here on the blog. I'm sorry for that, but I had a sudden influx of manuscript clients. It's always like that for a writer—feast or famine—so I'm grateful for the busy times, though they are stressful. It's a lot more stressful when there is no work coming in though!

So I used my so-called down time yesterday to drive out to the produce stand at The Rock—though it's the fanciest produce stand of all time. It's set on a working cattle ranch amidst shade trees and lovingly-tended flower and herb beds. I went to get some blueberries, blackberries, and raspberries, grown right there on pick-your-own bushes. Later in the summer they will have kiwis and pomegranates as well. Yesterday they also had farm-fresh eggs and all kinds of vegetables. Normally when I go I treat myself to some strawberry ice cream, but even for this ice cream-aholic, it was a wee bit early in the morning for that, so I passed.

I took along my trusty Panasonic LX5 camera with a new optical viewfinder. I needed a break from words for a while, to refresh myself and change gears so I can get back to work on my own middle grade novel. I love this little camera, which has full manual controls and a fast Leica lens, but I've never been able to get used to composing shots using the LCD screen on the back. Besides, it's invisible in bright sunlight. So I found a vintage Voigtlander viewfinder on eBay and yesterday I broke in it. I think it worked pretty well, but judge for yourself.

Today is another gift of a lovely summer day, so I'm going to take my iPad Mini and my wireless keyboard outside and dive into chapter 11! May you find some time today to write, too.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Goodreads giveaway was a rousing success!

I woke up this morning to a cheery email from someone named Cynthia at Goodreads: my month-long giveaway for Spontaneous Combustion is over. Congratulations to the five winners, who are scattered everywhere from Brooklyn to Detroit, from Florida to Kansas to Colorado.

I'm delighted it was such a phenomenal success: 466 people entered, and 216 people put the book on their "to-read" list. What a great way to get the word out!

Now to think of how I want to sign each copy, then wrap them up in bright orange tissue paper, and send them on their way. I hope the book inspires each winner and helps them find joy in writing again.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Seven days left on Goodreads giveaway

Just a quick reminder that there are seven days left on the Goodreads giveaway for Spontaneous Combustion. There is still time to sign up!

Goodreads Book Giveaway

Spontaneous Combustion by Nancy Butts

Spontaneous Combustion

by Nancy Butts

Giveaway ends June 11, 2013.
See the giveaway details at Goodreads.
Enter to win

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Perfection: the graveyard of ideas

When I opened an app on my iPhone this morning to check my to-do list for the day, this quote by Voltaire popped up.

“The perfect is the enemy of the good.”

Yes, it’s a smartphone, but how did it know what I needed to hear today?

Writers should chant this line from Voltaire every time they sit down at their desks. I don’t know about the rest of you, but there is this harpy in my head who is always nagging, “Don’t you dare write that sentence down until you’re 100 percent absolutely positively certain that it’s the most perfect sentence anyone has ever written in the entire history of literature.”

And since perfection does not exist—not for me, not for you, not even for Shakespeare or the entire winners’ list of the Nobel, Pulitzer, and Newbery awards combined—when I make the mistake of listening to that harpy, nothing gets written.

Old Calton Cemetery in Edinburgh, Scotland
(c) Infrared photo by Nancy Butts

The poet Sylvia Plath wrote this in her poem “The Munich Mannequins.”

Perfection is terrible, it cannot have children.
Cold as snow breath, it tamps the womb...

The quixotic quest for perfection in our work does indeed “tamp the womb,” keeping us from writing stories that may not be perfect, but are good enough nonetheless to inspire, delight, and transport readers.

The cure? Give yourself permission to write dreck, at least on that crucial first draft. What’s important is that you get the ideas out of you and safely onto the page. Those words and ideas are going to be far from perfect, but you’ll have plenty of time to make them better during revision. And that’s where most of the real work of writing gets done anyway.

So go write something awful today. 

[PS: I got so carried away with this topic that I couldn't keep from writing a longer article on this topic, with some suggestions for how to work around it. Jump over to my website for a peek.]

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Poverty of ideas: the fifth kind of creative block

My friend Kristi Holl, whose book Boundaries for Writers I recently reviewed here, shared a fantastic article on her Facebook page about creative block.

Since I just spent three frustrating hours yesterday staring blankly at my keyboard, this couldn't have come at a better time. 

The author, Mark McGuiness, talks about seven different kinds of block. As a solitary writer, only six of them concern me, but I confess that at one time or another, all six have been a factor. Sigh!

It's Block #5 that intrigues me the most. McGuiness writes:

5. Poverty.

I’m not just talking about money, although a lack of cash is a perennial problem for creatives. You could also be time-poor, knowledge-poor [italics my emphasis], have a threadbare network, or be short of equipment or other things you need to get the job done.

I had never thought of poverty in these terms before, but I like that way of looking at creative block. I think it was my problem yesterday. When the roofers working next door started playing insanely loud, insanely obnoxious radio music yesterday, I had to flee. I  packed up my portable office and sought out the cool peace of the stacks in the college library. It was the first day of the summer session, and I swear I was the only patron in the entire library. It should have been writer heaven, right?

Wrong! I sat there for nearly three hours and didn't get a thing done. Well, not true. I revised the last chapter I had written in my middle grade novel, but I couldn't make any headway in the new chapter. I couldn't see what the characters were doing. I had poverty of ideas.

I think perhaps the problem for me is that I was in a space where I felt constrained physically. Is there such a thing as a kinesthetic writer? That seems to be what I am, because my daily walks always seem to kick my mind into gear. This morning on my walk, the first line of the chapter came to me, whole and complete. And I suddenly had a clear visual image of where my characters were. Of course, I've got a stack of manuscripts coming in this morning to be edited, so no writing for me, not today.

But I'll jot down that line, and maybe storyboard the chapter on some index cards. It's like depositing money in the bank, so that when I am able to sit down to write, I won't be idea-poor again.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Flying the flag for my nephew

Memorial Day means a lot more to me this year since my nephew Andy enlisted in the Army. He just turned 21 two days ago, but he already bears the scars, both physical and emotional, of his harrowing service in Afghanistan last year.

So I remember him and all the other men and women who truly do make a sacrifice to serve. Their families sacrifice  as well, and also deserve our thoughts and care and concern.

I also remember my dad, who died in February but who served in Army intelligence during the Korean conflict; my brother-in-law Brian, a retired Navy captain, who spent a year in the Green Zone in Baghdad; and all the men in my husband's family who fought during World War II. Some of them didn't make it home; some suffered in prisoner of war camps and on the Bataan Death March.

The words "thank you" don't seem like nearly enough.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Goodreads giveaway still open!

Just a reminder as we head into this holiday weekend that you can still enter the Goodreads giveaway for my book, Spontaneous Combustion. I'm really excited by the response so far! You can enter until June 11th; five winners will get signed copies from me.

Goodreads Book Giveaway

Spontaneous Combustion by Nancy Butts

Spontaneous Combustion

by Nancy Butts

Giveaway ends June 11, 2013.
See the giveaway details at Goodreads.
Enter to win

Friday, May 17, 2013

Lawsuit v. Penguin: self-publishing as a servant's entrance?

The publishing industry is undergoing a metamorphosis that is painful and confusing for all parties involved—especially writers. E-books, the dominance of Amazon as an online bookseller, the concentration of so-called "traditional" publishing power in the hands of the Big Six houses, and the rise of independent or self-publishing are all mutating the business of books—and no one, not even the alleged experts, can predict with any degree of certainty what the final outcome will be. What publishing will look like in ten years—or even in two—is a mystery that keeps many of us running to the medicine cabinet for daily doses of Prilosec.

Since my own foray into indie publishing last month, I promised a blog post on the ups and downs of my experience. But that will have to wait. Today I think it's more important to publish four links about the new class action lawsuit filed April 26, 2013, against Penguin and Author Services Inc., which it owns. Under that Penguin umbrella are a host of other self-publishing services, such as AuthorHouse, iUniverse, Trafford Publishing, Xlibris, Palibrio, and Booktango. ASI is also the force behind self-publishing imprints with traditional book publishers like Simon & Schuster (Archway Publishing), Thomas Nelson (WestBow Press), Hay House (Balboa Press), Guideposts (Inspiring Voices) and Writer's Digest (Abbott Press).

I've had students and manuscript clients who have published books with some of the services listed above, and who said they were satisfied with what they got for their money. I've also had clients who were so traumatized by their experiences with these same services that they couldn't even bring themselves to share the details with me. They seemed to take the blame onto their own shoulders, and were too ashamed to talk about it. 

Well, one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit isn't ashamed. In Emily Seuss' blog, Jodi Foster (no, not the Oscar-winning actress) is more than willing to talk about her experience with iUniverse.

I have not researched this particular lawsuit thoroughly, though this Mick Rooney blog post at TIPM takes a balanced look at it. Also, Victoria Strauss at the excellent Writer Beware blog reports on it as well. 

Until I can write more intelligently about the lawsuit, I'll withhold comment on that. What I will say now is this: it has always made me deeply uneasy that major publishers such as Simon & Schuster—even Christian publishers such as Thomas Nelson—should offer two separate paths to publication. If you aren't lucky enough to get an actual contract where they pay you to publish your book—and give you all the editorial and promotional services that go along with that, for free—there is a back door, a kind of servant's entrance. You can still have that affiliation with S&S or Nelson, sort of—as long as you are willing to pay them for the privilege. But does that buy you the same careful editing, the book design, the cover art, or the promotion that a contracted author receives? Somehow I doubt it.

Now that may not be a fair representation of how these self-publishing imprints of traditional publishers work, but that's how it comes across to me. If any reader has published a book with one of these imprints, I'd love to hear about your experience.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Boundaries for Writers: review of a new e-book by Kristi Holl

My husband and adult son are on vacation; I am not. Now it’s true that they are spending the precious days of their vacation painting the front porch, and I thank them for that. It’s a wonderful albeit belated Mother’s Day gift. But the other day, as we all took advantage of the glorious spring weather to be outside—them scraping and painting, me sitting outside with my iPad Mini and notebook—they couldn’t resist teasing me. “Pick up a paintbrush,” they said. “Why aren’t you working?”

And even though I knew they were just teasing, I admit that my blood started to boil, just a teensy bit. Because I was working. Perhaps they are to be forgiven. As the late E.L. Konigsburg said at an SCBWI conference many years ago, “Sometimes writing looks a lot like doing nothing.” But after more than two decades of seeing me pound away at the keyboard in the corner of my living room, you’d think my family would recognize me working when they see it. Yes, I was outside, and yes, I had what may have looked like a toy to them. But the fact is that I was studying a book and making notes to write this review; and I was also researching and brainstorming and drafting not just one but two freelance articles.

Fortunately, the title I was studying at the time was Kristi Holl’s new e-book, Boundaries for Writers. So even though there was a little voice inside me whispering, “Well, maybe you are slacking off. Maybe you should pick up a brush and start helping them with some real work,” I resisted. I remembered what she said about boundaries, about guarding my writer’s heart, and I just smiled and said, “I am working.” And I went back to my notebook with a smile.

Kristi knows her stuff. She is the author of 42 books, both for kids and for adult writers. Though we’ve never met, I came to know her about a dozen years ago when, as a rookie instructor at the Institute of Children’s Literature, she asked me to do a web chat with students about the craft of writing. Since then, I frequently refer my ICL students to Kristi’s books and articles about what she calls “writer’s first aid.” She has some great tips for time management that can really help those of us fighting to squeeze writing time into lives already crowded with a host of obligations, commitments, and responsibilities.

Her latest book is in one sense a sequel to her first aid books, but in a way that plunges deeper into the problem of finding time to write. Sure, you can look at this as an issue of time management. But in this book, Kristi goes far beyond that. Her brilliant insight into the problem of why writers can't write is that it is an issue of faulty boundaries: physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual. This was a revelation to me, a moment of clarity.

In her opening chapter, Kristi talks about how walls—far being divisive or isolating—are the key to “guarding your writer’s heart.” I found myself hearing this line from Robert Frost’s poem as I read: “Good fences make good neighbors.” For writers, they certainly can.

In order to be more creative and productive, Kristi advises that writers repair their broken walls—or boundaries—whether those have to do with protecting your writing space or shielding yourself from the sting of rejection. She gives specific advice about how to deal with people and situations that are sabotaging your writing time. I still can't get over the story of one writer whose wife deliberately gained fifty pounds to punish him for "neglecting" her so he could write.

Resistance from family and friends is usually more subtle than that, to the point where sometimes we don’t recognize it for what it is. Kristi prepares writers for that, and also for the sneakiest of adversaries: ourselves. On page 24 she writes, “Sometimes we are our own worst enemies when it comes to damaged boundaries.” We allow ourselves to get distracted when we’re supposed to be working, or fritter away our writing time with a nonstop barrage of worries. I especially liked Kristi’s solution for dealing with what I call the Panic Bird. Make a fifteen-minute date with yourself during which you are allowed to worry. Then whenever your thoughts drift from your characters to whether any editor on the planet will ever buy the manuscript on which you are working, remind yourself sternly, “Nope, Mr. Panic Bird, you aren’t on my calendar until 5. I’m writing until then.”

She is also sensitive to the fear of many of us have that we are being selfish or neglectful of our families when we set boundaries so that we can write, and she deals with that, too. For Christian writers, she even has an entire chapter devoted to biblical references that support setting such boundaries.

Like so many others, I always seem to be struggling to carve out and safeguard my writing time, but I never before thought of this as being the result of boundary issues. Kristi’s book provided me with fresh insight and resolve that I think will help me, along with many others writers, to spend more fruitful time at our desks.

Note: this book is only available in PDF format as a direct purchase from the author's website. Click through on the book title above to get there.