Author Archives: Karen McChesney

Still wondering after all these years…

Reading the Sunday Chicago Tribune was an all-day affair in our house. By dinner time, sections of the paper were scattered everywhere – on the kitchen and dining room tables, the living room floor, on beds…

I remember my brothers and me racing out the front door to the bottom of our driveway to get the paper. The first one to get the paper was the first to get to read the comics.

I could never get enough of Andy Capp, Archie, Beetle Bailey, Broom-Hilda, Cathy, Brenda Starr, Blondie, Funky Winkerbean, Peanuts… All week, I quoted the characters and re-told their stories at the dinner table, at school….and wondered, what would happen next. Now, it seems crazy to wait an entire week to find out what’ll happen next. But, I fell in love with all the guessing, predicting, and wondering.

In less than a hundred words, each comic strip provoked me, entertained me, and mystified me. Oh, and the artwork! I was completely fascinated by the colors of the characters clothes, hats, shoes, everything.

My family didn’t discuss what we read in the Sunday paper. We just read and went about our business. It was a rather quiet day. As a teen, I couldn’t wait to read the editorial pages. The letters to the editor were my favorite. I always tried to picture the writers, where they lived, how they dressed… Sometimes, I imagined meeting them.

I don’t remember us reading books, other than occasionally skimming through a set of Encyclopedia Britannica that collected dust on our basement shelf. To me, reading was what I did all day at school, for homework and well, something that I had to do.

My parents didn’t read us bedtime stories. Actually, I never thought of story as being contained in a book. But, looking back, I always knew story. It filled our two-story house.

Story was what my brothers and me passed around the dinner table every night. It was the entrée. My brothers reenacted scenes from The Marx Brothers and Star Wars; I delighted in laughing, making up stories, imitating teachers and telling what happened in school. I clearly knew story was something you make up, can’t wait to tell – and that it gets better every time you tell it, especially when my brothers would chime in, add on, and we’d just keep going, weaving our tales. No one ever said “stop” or “stay focused” or “don’t do that”. We just let it rip. It was a loud feast of one “and then, and then” after another; it was what we did naturally.

On a recent visit with one of my brothers, we told stories for hours. You know, the kind that make you laugh till your stomach hurts. I lost track of time. We let it rip. It felt just right; it was dang fun! I didn’t want our storytelling to end.

I think it’s why I write and keep revising. I don’t want it to end. I’m still in love with all the guessing, wondering, and still mystified by the art of writing.

How about you? Why do you write or do other art?

 

“I never thought Cathy would get married.” –Cathy Guisewite, author of the comic strip, Cathy.

 

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Lessons From My Accordion

Three years. Three teachers. I guess I should be embarrassed that it took this long for me to find an accordion teacher. I’m not. I’m thrilled! My search had nothing to do with the teachers. I knew my needs and was determined to find “the” teacher who was just right for me. Of course, I didn’t plan on it taking three years, but WOW, it was worth it!

Every teacher had a different expertise and passion. Teacher No. 1 filled a wipe board with scales and loved expounding music theory. I was lost; I was bored. Teacher No. 2 devoted a lot of time to practicing scales and reminding me to do so 30 minutes a day. I wanted to quit and sell my accordion. Teacher No. 3 said, “Quit worrying and let’s just play,” within a few minutes after I entered her studio and unpacked my accordion (and after I rambled off way too many questions). I laughed. She laughed. I relaxed. She said my fingers even began to relax on the keys.

I can’t explain why Teacher No. 3 is just right for me. Maybe it’s her hearty laugh or, her authenticity and pragmatic instruction; maybe it’s because time flies and I disappear during our lessons. I have fun and want to go home and practice – and learn more. And, she’s in love with playing the accordion. What could be better?

The day after my first lesson with No. 3, I had a revelation and shared it with a close writer friend: Everything that No. 3 said is exactly what we strive to do as writers. It’s what I want to do more of in my writing practice. My friend commented, “Sounds like an essay on lessons from an accordion.” Great idea!

It also gave me another idea. I committed to practicing my accordion every day for 30 days. My goal was to do what my teacher said, just play. I didn’t set a time for each practice session. After all, No. 3 never said how often or long she wanted me to practice. She just expected it.

Here’s what my accordion taught me about writing over the 30 days:

Quit worrying and just play.

Lesson: Just sit down and write. When I play a wrong note, I usually keep going and make up my own song and just let it rip. Then, I go back and learn the correct note. When I’m stuck on a scene, I go much deeper in my writing if I simply type “STUCK” and move on. Even if I get off track as I keep writing, I always discover something new about a character or what’s off or on in the scene. Yay!

Don’t think so hard when learning to simultaneously play the bellows, chords and keyboard. Take your time.

Lesson: Yes, it takes crazy concentration to play all three parts! But, when I relax my fingers and keep moving on after a mistake, it happens. Suddenly, I’m playing the ENTIRE accordion. When I’m trying to balance a zillion parts of a scene – voice, personalities of characters, tension – I eventually find “it”. Lately, I’m delighting in the tiny pieces that work and smooth out after long revising sessions. Perhaps, I’m finally learning patience with my writing process and finding the fun.

Practice every day.

Lesson: On busy days, I practiced accordion right before going to sleep, even if it was only 10 to 15 minutes. I also started carving out more writing time. For example, I printed pages and started carrying a chapter or entire picture book manuscript in my purse, so I could revise anytime anyplace.

Trust yourself. You’ll figure out how far to open the bellows.

Lesson: I assumed there was a golden rule on how far to open the bellows. Wrong! No. 3 told me that I’ll feel it and slowly find what works for me. Whether writing a first draft or revising, I find not only what works, but what doesn’t work. Lately, I’m finding entire chapters and characters that need to be cut. Oh, it’s painful to say goodbye to a character! But, nothing beats seeing the other characters rise, take off and move the story ahead.

Listen and you’ll hear when a note is off.

Lesson: No. 3 says, “It’s a good sign when you know a note is off; it means you’re listening and learning.” That’s exactly what happens when I read my work out loud! Lately, as I revise my young adult novel, I have to remind myself to stop and read an entire chapter out loud before moving on. Immediately, I hear what’s off. Magic!

After my 30 day commitment ended, I kept practicing every day, except when I had to travel by plane. I need to figure out how take my accordion with me. I miss it!

For now, no time to worry. I’m off to just play my accordion and write. Oompah!

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Embracing the Tortoise Writing Life

6Tp6R4AkcTortoiseAUGusethisConfession: When I started meeting with my critique group and attending writing workshops, I envied how quickly others answered questions, gave on-the-spot feedback, and completed manuscripts. Everyone sounded so clever, eloquent, insightful. I felt like the slow study, as I multitasked between listening, jotting notes and figuring out, “what was the question?” and “what did she say?” My insecurity took me back to grade school days when teachers said, “She’s a daydreamer, always off task, staring off in space…”

Today, I laugh and am incredibly grateful for my attentive graduate school advisor who helped me discover my learning disability, slow logical processing, which makes it difficult to track conversations, follow instructions, and, as my husband and friends will attest, keep track of time. No wonder, I journaled my way through school, never finished books, and loved wandering (and still do)!

I can’t imagine life without journaling and writing. The past year, my writing has been my truth mirror, my reality check. I’ve realized, Okay, so you’re slow…so what if you take much longer (to write, revise, critique) than your peers. Then, “the” truth hit me: my frustration with my slowness is not because of my learning style, it’s because I compare myself to others. It’s my ego. Big sigh. Or, as Natalie Goldberg says, “it’s just resistance…it’s me battling myself.”

When I embrace and sink into my tortoise shell, I’m totally lit. I’m curious and sparked. I sing and dance. I’m me. I just have to trust myself. I have to trust and practice ancient wisdom about the tortoise – they carry all they need on their back and remind us to make good use of our abundance.

Thanks to my critique group and author-teacher-mentors, I’ve found abundant tools that reel me in and stimulate my writing practice. I rely on them. Of course, I still get stuck in the mud, but it’s getting easier to pick up my tools, put them on my back and start again.

Here are the tools that keep my writing and revising on track, slowly and steadily.

  • Set a timer. I put my cell phone in another room and set the timer for 50-60 minutes of writing or revising. Then, I re-set it for a 15-minute break and repeat. When time is limited, I set the timer for a 15-20 minute session (even if that’s all I can do that day).
  • Start anywhere. Who said I have to write and revise in order? One week, I may work on the middle of my YA, the next week, I dive into the last chapter. I follow my gut and lately, my main character.
  • Type your purpose for each chapter. I started doing this in revision #1 of my YA – type a set of questions above each chapter and answer them before digging into the chapter. It’s like holding a magnifying glass to my work; it pushes me (big time!) to hone in and tightly focus on the purpose of each chapter. The first question I answer: What does your main character want or need at the beginning of this scene? I learned this technique in award-winning children’s author Denise Vega’s workshop, “Crafting Compelling Scenes in Your MG/YA Novel”. (Find out more about Denise’s classes at https://lighthousewriters.org & www.denisevega.com.)
  • Leave it and move on. When I’m completely stuck or can’t figure out a word, sentence, or entire paragraph, I just leave it. I insert a parenthetical sentence or question mark in blue. I move on and do not return to the blue lines till my next revision.
  • Go outside. Walking around my yard or eating lunch on my patio clears my head and rekindles creative, positive thoughts. On a long walk this summer, I videotaped birds flying from branch to branch and poof, it hit me: move my main character out of her neighborhood, put her on a bus, get her out of her comfort zone…
  • Switch things up. When my writing feels blah, I switch to longhand and let it rip. Or, I lay out big sheets of paper and markers on the floor and play – mapping out a family tree, drawing my main character’s bedroom, etc.
  • End each session with a question or thought. Regardless of where I end each session, I try to type (in red) a list of questions or thoughts. Usually, it’s a part I can’t figure out or need to research. This one’s tough for me, since I jump around, but wow, it reels me in!
  • Be gentle with yourself.

What reels you in and helps you stay steady and on track with your writing?

The tortoise crawled on
Slow and steady was his pace.
He was determined

–The Hare and the Tortoise Storytime Song by Shauna Tominey

 

 

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Revising On The Wall

Long long ago at one of my first SCBWI conferences, I remember a speaker talking about revision and recommending, “Tape your manuscript on the wall…lay it all out…” It appealed to me because it sounded like a lot of fun, bnotebook-paper-25738068ut, I was no where near revising. For me, it was out there in a land far far away. The thought of revising was so intimidating. After all, I was working on a rough draft and had just learned the meaning of PB, MG, and YA.

Today, if you entered my studio, you would see sheets of paper on the walls. They greet me daily; they challenge big time. I’d like to report that I carefully planned this, but well, it just happened.

Here’s how: I couldn’t find a chapter (an organizational consultant would keel over at the sight of my Word files!) and was feeling overwhelmed and confused about my plot. I resorted to pen and notebook which always clears my cobwebs. I started writing on individual pages, “Chapter Number/POV/Year,” then below that, I wrote a tight one-sentence chapter summary. I ripped out (love that sound!) one sheet at a time and it hit me – Get tape! Put these on the wall! I taped each piece of paper in a horizontal line traveling across a wall. I couldn’t stop. If I was unsure about a summary, I left space on the wall and kept going. After I reached the corner of one wall, I moved to the next and the next, until I taped up the summary of the last chapter.

I stopped. I was a kid in front of a huge drawing board. I glanced over the first wall. Suddenly, I spotted a connection between two chapters (that are some hundred pages apart). I had no idea, had never thought about it. Then, it hit me – Get yarn and thumbtacks. I used the yarn to “draw” and tack a line between the connection. Then, I saw more connections, a possible plot twist, an ah-ha about what motivates a secondary character, a what-if… This went on for days, weeks; it’s still going on.

Putting my YA on the wall gave me a chance to stop (and stare at my walls!), be quiet, and interact with my writing. Ah, a perfect fit for my short attention span and very visual and tactile learning style. There’s only one problem: I may run out of walls! I love moving papers, and even wadding them up. I’m amazed and humbled by how much of my writing doesn’t show up in the words on my computer screen. As Natalie Goldberg says, “Behind writing, behind words, is no words. We need to know about that place. It gives us a larger perspective from which to handle language. Silence can be the door to listening, which is one of the great cornerstones to writing.”

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SCBWI: From Denver to Across The Pond

JanBlogPicI still laugh about my first SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writer’s & Illustrators) experience. It was a workshop in the winter of 2000 and the topic was rejection letters. We sat in a circle and the facilitator had a pile of rejection letters on her lap. Seriously, I thought, you’re going to read “real” rejection letters? Afterward, I met another first-timer, Rondi Frieder, and we laughed about “nothing like getting depressed” as we both begin to write picture books. We exchanged contact information and started meeting monthly to critique each other’s work and eventually, share rejection letters!

Fast-forward to 2016. We’re now The Story Spinners, a SCBWI critique group of seven kidlit writers that meet monthly and support each other way beyond our meetings. It’s hard to explain. They’re always there. We email hope, advice, ideas, frustrations, big news, baby steps, rejections, and the list goes on. Story Spinners amaze me and give me confidence to keep going in this crazy business. We nudge each other and perhaps most important, I think we hold a safe space for everyone to show up and be vulnerable.

In August, I emailed them my big news (no, I didn’t get an agent!): my husband Ken accepted a temporary work assignment in England and “I’m going with him.” I reported that we would be living in Harrogate, a spa town about four hours from London, and that I was trying to connect with members of SCBWI-British Isles. We joked about me Skyping for our Denver meetings. Story Spinners have taught me that being in a critique group is a huge commitment; it’s hard work with an endless learning curve.

I never dreamt that I would tap into the international part of SCBWI. First, I emailed several British Isles board members to inquire if there were members/groups in or near Harrogate. I received an enthusiastic email from Marie Basting, Networks Coordinator for SCBWI-British Isles, in which she explained the critique group “map” and referred me to Maureen Lynas, Networks Organizer for SCBWI-British Isles North East. Next, Marie and Maureen connected me with members, or as they say, “Scoobies,” in Harrogate and York. Marie made it possible for me to join SCBWI-North East closed Facebook group, so I could introduce myself, start meeting Scoobies and find events. Wow! I started FB’ing with Scoobies and had access to a daily stream of articles, thought-provoking discussions, workshops, etc. I felt like I was already there! The best: I connected with authors Rebecca Colby and Morag Caunt (aka Morag Macrae), who invited me to their weekly meeting in Harrogate. Rebecca wrote, “Harrogate is a lovely place to stay…the happiest place in Britain three years running.” Morag mentioned that they like to meet at Baltzersen’s, a café just three blocks from our future apartment.

We conversed via FB about our current writing projects and they connected me to York Scoobies. My hope-goal was to continue revising my YA and immerse myself in all things writing. As I packed for this dream-come-true adventure, I was a kid getting ready for my first day of school. I carefully chose my notebooks and tucked two flash drives in a zipped billfold.

In September, after we moved into our apartment, I checked my email and FB and was overwhelmed by all the messages from Scoobies welcoming me and telling me “what’s on”, offering to pick me up at train stations, asking about my writing projects, and envying our close proximity to Betty’s (a top tourist attraction).

Three days later, I met Rebecca and Morag and they treated me to coffee and a heavenly apricot crunch bar. We gabbed for over two hours, laughing about Brit-English and our time spent on roads less traveled, and of course, we covered the universal topics that writers love to pore over – taking hours to craft just a few sentences, sinking in research quicksand, trying new writing rituals, and rewarding ourselves with chocolate! I felt right at home with these clever, accomplished writers. Like Story Spinners, they were unassuming, curious, and 110% committed to their writing and to supporting other writers.

They taught me Brit coffeehouse etiquette (no refills!) and recommended restaurants and must-see sights for our weekend jaunts to Scotland and around England. I learned of Morag’s self-publishing journey, which resulted in her collection of short stories for youth, titled The Zone. I was inspired by her fierce determination to work with schools and prisons to reach reluctant readers and struggling youth and, give them a chance to perform her stories. I was sparked by Rebecca’s stories of the challenge of writing rhyme and how she landed a publisher for her newest picture book, It’s Raining Bats & Frogs. She put her whole self into school visits and talks, including donning her handmade witch shoes and hat.

I’m SO grateful for Rebecca and Morag. Our time was lovely. THANK YOU!! Your openness and questions kindled the two new projects that I drafted, revised and “carried” home on my flash drives – a draft of a new picture book and a complete redo of the picture book that I was working on when I met Rondi (and filed away after many rejections). Since I’ve returned home, our email exchange across the miles is an incredible gift. However, I muchly miss conversing in person over Baltzersen’s rich coffee and sweets! I have yet to fulfill their request for a photo of Colorado’s snow-capped mountains. I’m proud that my revising (and writing this blog) has taken precedence – and I can picture them grinning right now!

I also send mega thanks to Marie Basting, Maureen Lynas, Deborah Court, Sally Blewett, Clare O’Brien and every Scoobie who took time to welcome me and tell me “what’s on”. Your thoughtfulness (and Ken’s!) motivated me to go for it and attend the Ilkley Literature Festival, writing workshops at the Harrogate History Festival (including one with author Emma Darwin, great-great granddaughter of Charles Darwin, and getting to hear Michael Morpurgo), online classes, Books Are My Bag, The Big Draw…

What more could I ask for? Well, two things: take a moment to meet Rebecca and Morag:

Morag – http://www.wordsandpics.org/2014/02/more-than-words-on-page.html

Rebecca – http://www.wordsandpics.org/2015/02/the-debut-author-series-rebecca-colby.html

And, enjoy these resources:

Rebecca Colby’s Website & Blog:

http://www.rebeccacolbybooks.com/

Morag Caunt: On Self-Publishing

http://completelynovel.com/readers/morag-caunt

Emma Darwin’s Blog:

http://emmadarwin.typepad.com/

An Interview With Michael Morpurgo

https://www.outube.com/watch?v=C9zTeC464

Article: How I Got My Agent and What Nearly Stopped Me

http://spacekidsbooks.com/how-i-got-my-agent-and-what-nearly-stopped-me/

From The Manchester Literature Festival

http://www.writerscentrenorwich.org.uk/awritersmanifestobyjoanneharristhenationalconversation.aspx

An Author and Agent Discuss the Art of Revision

http://www.notesfromtheslushpile.com/2013/05/slushpile-chat-author-and-agent-discuss.html

 

On our last night in Harrogate, we did what we loved: walked up and down the charming hilly streets. “Bittersweet,” we agreed. This happy town had really fired up our creative juices (Ken’s photos are stunning!). I know it sounds trite, but from the moment we arrived in Harrogate, I felt connected to something pretty special. It’s hard to explain. You Scoobies were always there, and always will be. SCBWI at home and across the pond is my rock. So lovely! Well, get ready! I’ll be emailing all of you about my next rejection and you’ll be the first to know about my agent! Till next time, cheerio!

What we need is not the will to believe, but the wish to find out.” —William Wordsworth

 

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