Author Archives: Carrie Seidel

The Write Way to Retreat


Writing retreats are for writing up a storm, gazing out at lakes, snowy mountainsides, forests … free from the demands of dirty dishes, laundry, and family. Right? For me, the “retreat” part meant sleeping in and healthy snacking. And by “healthy,” I mean my appetite. I started writing first thing in the morning (ok, late morning) and stopped at bedtime, proud of what I’d accomplished.

Then one afternoon, over the crunch of pork rinds, I overheard a critique partner say, “I can write anywhere, but I can’t go to the beach anywhere.”

Lightbulb moment!

Slipping away from my computer and into my swimsuit felt like a writing crime. But exhilaration snuffed out guilt as I ugly-bodysurfed a wave back to shore where a cute lifeguard asked if I needed help. If only I’d been sixteen instead of … older. I imagined how my teen character would have felt: both thrilled and mortified, coughing up saltwater, knees stinging, another wave crashing over her head and destroying her ’do.

My writing senses kicked into high gear. Everything around had life-bringing story potential. The fishy, briny sea air. Gritty sand in my swimsuit. Seagulls squawking over a pork rind (Oops. My bad.).

So this was the retreat part of writing! Experiencing the environment. Time to tune the brain to Radio KIDS.

First experiment—waking up early: 5:15. Yuck. Still, time has an influence on story settings. Not just dark verses light. The sleepy resort town was creepy-quiet, the air fresh—no exhaust. Yesterday’s footprints had washed away, replaced by tiny, bubbling holes where sand crabs hid. Anticipation high, fingers crossed, I hoped the ocean sunrise would crest with a green flash. A blink before the big moment, a one-winged seagull distracted me and I missed it. But self-disgust turned to elation when I spotted a southbound pod of dolphins (porpoises?). All these usable emotions! And what is the difference between dolphins and porpoises anyway? How do those teeny sand crabs survive, unseen beneath tourists’ feet? How often does a green flash happen? This retreat business was adding fodder for picture book and magazine ideas as well!

Next experiment: eat like the locals. First food: scrapple. Forcing a bite into my mouth revived long-buried childhood dread when a chicken liver quivered at the end of my fork. My stomach knotted. My heart swirled with cold. Do I swallow it whole or dare to chew? (I chewed. It tastes a bit like pork rinds.) These reactions would work great in a story! Second food: crab. Holding my breath, I tried not to watch fellow diners pulling white flesh straight from crusty red legs as I popped a piece onto my tongue. I felt my facial muscles contracting into a disgusted grimace. Chugging a glass of water, I wanted nothing more than to wipe the taste away with a napkin. A kid character would do exactly that. A plethora of writing material!

Last experiment: taking it all in. People-watching on the boardwalk. Eagerly waiting in line for a haunted house, squealing when the doors banged just because it felt right. Enacting my writer’s mind. I eyeballed interesting details, sniffed and analyzed everything from waffle cones to B.O., listened to a crowd’s cacophony of voices versus the whooshing ocean below a wave, tasted the salty air, and ran my fingers over puffy plushies and sticky taffy.

And I still got a ton of writing done.

Never underestimate the benefits of a writing retreat. Kayak at sunset. Have a snowball fight. Climb a tree. Writing can be done anywhere. Retreats reignite your senses.

Experience them!

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A Garden of Books

IMG_5190Volunteering at my local middle school library has revolved around un-shelving books. It’s a lot like gardening. According to the librarian, kids stop checking out books when they’re overwhelmed by sheer numbers to select from, so we’ve been carefully weeding out titles, starting with fiction.

Assignment number one: judge books by their covers. Seriously. Kids rarely choose “ugly” ones. To remain impartial-ish, I was given parameters regarding what ugly entailed, but was also allowed to turn a blind eye on uglies that hid good stories. The librarian and her many student assistants had the final say on what titles got axed. Once in the groove, I began to notice stylistic patterns in ugly cover trends as the decades progressed, especially in contemporary works. The breakdown:

 

60’s – 70’s: BIG TITLES, plain backgrounds. Occasional psychedelic illustrations.

80’s: realistic scene illustrations. Perms! Mullets!

90’s: Fewer scene depictions, more photography.

00’s: Anything goes. Cartoon-y illustrations. Inanimate subject matter. Close-ups of body parts (hands/legs/faces). I kept expecting to find a nostril shot.

10’s: Crisp and minimal. Blacks, dark purples, dashes of red. And vampires. LOTS of vampires.

 

If ever I’m in charge of cover design, I’m going to my local school library to study which titles have withstood the winds of time before making a decision. There were well over 500 books I pulled off those shelves, all of them unsuspecting victims of the uglies … and even still, the purge wasn’t complete.

Assignment number two: With ugly covers off the shelf, it was time to roll up my sleeves and dig deeper. Titles published before 2000 that hadn’t been checked out at least once over the last five years were to be added to the doomsday pile. Nearly 400 books are on that list. It’s been depressing clearing off some of my favorite authors and titles—Avi, Judy Blume, Chris Crutcher … I even pulled five Newbery and Newbery Honor books, and this was just through the C’s!

Realizing what limited shelf life most books have—even ones whose check-out cards are filled with date stamps from yesteryear’s adoring fans—has been eye-opening. Libraries sometimes leave me feeling downhearted when I see all the books that aren’t mine cramming their shelves, but now that I understand the truth about a book’s life span, this also means that my stories are still in the seed stage, with time to mature before being born into the world, swaddled in some absolutely fabulous cover. Their clocks haven’t started ticking.

Assignment number three: Cuddle up with an ugly cover, even if the novel is gasping its last breath. During October, the librarian made a graveyard display with doomed books and RIP signs. For November, she had “blind dates with (ugly) books.” In December, uglies were disguised as presents. By January, several compost-bound books had been “re-potted” on the shelves, with brand new checkout dates to keep them rooted for a few more years.

The school library-garden still has weeding to be done (I’m only through the F’s), but if it means more kids are checking out books, I’m willing to dirty my knees. And while I thin out old growth to make room for other books to bloom, I’ll be dreaming up ideas for new novels, hoping that someday they, too, will be planted here, ready to be plucked off the shelf.

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