Friday, July 22, 2016

Cross Culture Creativity

It was an interesting semester. I taught three classes. One was on lyrical essays. However, I had several students interested in children’s lit. I offered to let students find their own creative voices. For many, this was a surprise.

I teach in Cairo, Egypt, and have observed an interesting phenomenon. Most of the writing, of my students- and much of what I have read in translation- is very must based within the confines of the real. Stories take place in the real world, or something like the real world. The characters are real people, or something like real people. Things that happen are real thing, or something like real thing. There is very little room for fantasy, outside of dreams. Even dreams mimic real life.

This semester, however, I had several student bring brilliantly unique pieces to class that offered unusual perspectives, fantastic and unreal, surreal, unlike the mundane and unlike anything I had encountered from students before. I know that Western work is read and appreciated, but here are kids (OK, not kids. These are rising seniors in their early 20s) writing pieces of science fiction and fantasy that could easily have come out of New York or London. Every stereotype of Egyptian genre I had begun to expect was crushed under the weight of such a creative class.

I suppose what it comes down to is every time we open a book we hope to find something that inspires. Every time w open a book from a different culture we bring expectations of what we are likely to expect. We can often be joyfully surprised.

- Eden Unger Bowditch

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

6 Ways Unicycling Is Like Writing by Jim Hill

My family gave me a unicycle for Father's Day. They might be trying to kill me. Thirty days later, I'm still alive – Ha! – and covered in wisdom. Or maybe those are bruises. Whatever. The point is, I've discovered that learning to ride my one-wheeled-antagonist is a lot like writing a novel. Strap on your helmet and wrist guards, and I'll explain.

A photo posted by @heyjimhill on

1. It Seems Like a Good Idea at First
Unbridled optimism might be the first sign you could be a writer or a unicyclist. You're sure in your heart-of-hearts that this new undertaking is a great idea, and you can definitely get it done if you work hard enough. This feeling is followed by the realization that...

2. You Have No Idea What You're Doing
Whether saddling up for the first time or staring at the blank screen while the cursor pulses in silent judgment, you quickly realize you're clueless about how to begin. Congratulations! You're on your way! To the emergency room. Or maybe the Newbery Award. I'm just saying prepare yourself for anything at this point, is all.

A video posted by @heyjimhill on

3. Research is Key
Write what you know is a cute aphorism, but maybe a bit of a lie. Unicycle what you know is straight up crazy talk. Research is your friend, the Tom to your Huck, the Martin to your Lewis. I wouldn't even have been able to get on that cyclopean-death-steed if I hadn't googled and youtubed beforehand. The same can be said about writing. Do I know which fork to use first at a State Dinner, or the melting point of human flesh? No, no I don't. But the internet does. If that fails, your friendly, neighborhood librarian is just an email away. (Raise your hand if you think the NSA has you flagged for some "necessary" search topics. Yup, me too.)

4. It's Hard to Tell Where You're Headed
Plotter or pantser, sometimes you wander off the main road and end up in the garden. Ask yourself, "is that poison ivy?" and "is anything happening in this scene that moves the plot forward?"

Atop the monohoop-of-shame, you have to activate your core to stay on course. So, what is the core of your writing? The characters. What do the characters want, what do they need, and what's in their way? When you're face down in the hydrangea take a moment to check in with your characters, and they'll pull you out of the weeds. (I may have sprained my metaphorical ankle with this one.)

5. Sometimes You Fall on Your [REDACTED]

A video posted by @heyjimhill on

This is the part of Hero's Journey when the hero faces abject failure and almost quits, but then somehow beats the odds to return with the elixir. The elixir in this instance being a large bottle of Advil.

Writing has similar, less (physically) painful pitfalls. You will hit them. Good crit partners will be there to ask if you're okay, and get you back up and pedaling toward a resolution in no time.

6. Butt In Chair (or Seat)
Yolen's Law gets the job done on the page and on the road. You're not going to get better thinking about writing or riding. You're going to get better by doing them. A novel is a big, intimidating goal. Mastering the single-wheeled-conveyance-of-clowns-and-doom is too. I'm nowhere near joining the circus, but I am better than I was yesterday. So don't sit down to write a novel, sit down to write the next sentence, the next paragraph, and the next scene. You can get a lot accomplished with just two pages a day. Keep track. Celebrate your progress. Jump for joy.

Meanwhile, if you need a unicyclist that's good for about eight to ten feet at a time, I'm available.

A video posted by @heyjimhill on

Monday, July 11, 2016

So Much Smaller Than the Stars, by Anne Nesbet

I know that my task here is to provide a dose of thoughtful writing advice, but this week I find myself at a loss for words.

I have sat here for some hours now, feeling at a loss for words, and while at first I struggled hard against that feeling, because it makes me so anxious and cranky and helpless-in-my-bones, I have decided instead to embrace it for a while.

To embrace (for this moment) the loss of my words.

I am so much smaller than the things the words thought they needed to say.

Instead of running after words, I am sitting in silence, and I find myself remembering other silences I have experienced in the face of other large things, and I remember that sometimes it is a gift to feel so silent and so small.

To look up into a night sky where an ocean of stars wheels above your head! We are adrift in the arms of the galaxy--how rare and wonderful those moments are when we can really feel what that means, how indescribably tiny we are. How huge the world around us. How numerous the stars!

When I am unhappy or sick or despairing about the world, I dream of mountains, because in the mountains I feel so wonderfully small. It is while backpacking in the mountains that I learned to see the stars, for instance. The Summer Triangle spins slowly above our heads. Cygnus flies slowly, slowly across the sky. We are just tiny, sentient crumbs, looking up in awe at it all.

The largeness you turn to may not be mountains--it may be the ocean. It may be an orchestra. It may be a crowd of people marching, hoping to make the world a better place. It may be a bookstore or a library, where thousands and thousands of stories line the shelves, and every single one of those stories is an entire world.

We are so small. The universe is so large.

Sometimes it is all right to sit and listen.

Sometimes it is fine not to know what to say. Or it is not fine, but it is what it is. Sometimes there are no words.

Thursday, July 7, 2016

It Only Takes One Yes...or Does It? By Joy McCullough-Carranza

So there’s a lovely bit of encouragement that gets repeated when people are giving writerly pep talks to those on the road to publication. It goes a little like this: “It only takes one yes!”

Pep talkers will say this to people who’ve sent 290 queries (as I did): “It only takes one agent to connect with your manuscript and LOVE it!!”

They will say this to people who’ve had multiple manuscripts go on submission without selling (as mine have): “It only takes one editor to connect with your manuscript and LOVE it!!”

The implication is that it could happen any moment! Maybe right this very second, while you’re reading this blog post, that elusive agent or editor is reading and loving your manuscript. It’s totally possible!!

It is. I don’t take issue with hope. It’s why I write middle grade.

But the idea that “It only takes one yes” breaks down upon further inspection. It’s not always false when it comes to agents. Often, an agent can read a manuscript, decide they love it, and make an offer. But sometimes an agent has an intern or a reader who goes through their queries first. So in that case, it requires the intern’s yes AND the agent’s yes. Sometimes an agent must get the agency’s approval to offer representation. So there might be someone else (or even a couple other people) who must say yes.

But the real place where this platitude irks me is on the submission level. “It only takes one yes” is almost never true in this situation. I have one friend whose editor made the offer late on a Friday night – she was head of the imprint, and after she read, she called the agent immediately to make her offer. Even then, though, it was to say she would be making an offer. She still had to run the numbers by finance to make the actual offer.

But a far more common situation is the editor who loves a manuscript, and then must get it through both an editorial meeting AND an acquisitions meeting. Often editor colleagues read the manuscript, and it will be discussed at the editorial meeting amongst the editors, with the editorial director or publisher also weighing in. If it gets through that group of people, it goes to acquisitions, where departments like sales, marketing, publicity, and finance must also weigh in. If it’s a middle grade book, the school and library departments will also have input. Different publishing houses may have additional hoops, like Scholastic has a stage at which the book clubs department must weigh in.

I don’t mean to be discouraging. But I don’t think hollow platitudes are super useful along the writing journey, because when a writer invariably discovers these things are false, the disappointment is that much more frustrating.

My agent, who tends toward the positive (and thank goodness, for he balances me out), had this to say about the various stages it take to get to an offer:

In some ways, it feels like a series of obstacles to run through, but in other cases, it can become a series of opportunities—Sales doesn’t think it will do well in trade, but then School and Library will think they have a great shot with it.

So I’m going to do my best to think about it as a series of opportunities. And if you’re playing the waiting game, remember that it may take more than one yes, but there’s every chance your manuscript is currently making its way through the various obstacles (opportunities! sorry!) like a (super slo-mo) pinball on its way to the high score.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Guest Post: Life Lessons from the Tony Awards: What Children Can Learn from Broadway's Winners (and Losers) by Braden Bell

I am very fortunate today to be able to repost a blog post written by Project Mayhem alumnus, Braden Bell (with his permission.) Braden teaches theater and chorus to middle school students in Tennessee, and is also the author of "The Middle School Magic" trilogy.  As you can see from his post below, he is a wonderful writer. You can find his latest novel, ORISON, on sale through KindleScout. (ORISON skews YA, so Braden is using a pen name--Brandon Gray--to publish it.)

During the summer, he tells me, he is "teaching some summer camps, doing a few early rehearsals for The Sound of Music, and working on the prequel and sequel for Orison, and a few other projects in various stages. Oh, and querying a middle grade fantasy-adventure."
Take it away, Braden!

Since watching the 2016 Tony Awards earlier this week, I’ve been thinking of Irving Berlin’s line: “There’s no people like show people…”

Theater has been one of my greatest joys since childhood. James Corden’s opening number — “That could be me” — brought those memories back in a rush: the mounting excitement of sitting in the audience next to my mother as a little boy, wondering what magic awaited us behind the closed curtain; the years I spent as an adolescent playing the smallest possible named roles, a testament to the kindness of my sweet directors, who saw my diligence, dedication, and inability to dance, but still found somewhere to put me. I felt sure then that my calling was to be on Broadway — as a performer, and then later as a director. I believed deeply in the power of that particular dream, convinced in my youth that my biggest problem would be fitting my name in so many places on a single marquee.

Spoiler alert: I did not end up on Broadway. I am a middle-aged middle school theater and chorus teacher, and dad living out a story different from the one I once imagined, but no less joyful. My masterpieces are not plays but students. They have names, not titles. They’re on loan to me during a period of their lives best described as a messy dress rehearsal, and will hopefully have running times close to eighty or ninety years. I am their director, but only for a little while. So I try to make the time count, to teach them as much as I can about not only the theater, but also about life.

I worry about whether they’ll remember their choreography on opening night, but I worry more about whether they’ll remember to be kind to one another. I want them to make authentic choices in the moment onstage, but I care far more about the decisions they make off-stage. I want them to create memorable characters in our plays, but I am infinitely more concerned about the content of their own character.

Because these things are always on my mind (even during summer), I hope my students were watching the Tony Awards or that they’ll find some time to watch the program online (available at this link). That’s right— your teacher wants you to enjoy two hours of screen time. Because in more ways than I can count, all the lessons I strive to teach my students played out in that show, gracious and generous acts shining among the lights and glamour of Broadway.

The importance of persistence? Consider Jayne Houdyshell’s poignant remarks about winning her first Tony at age 62. Or her co-star, Reed Birney, who quipped that the beginning of his forty-year career — the first thirty-two years or so — had been a bit rough.

Prioritizing what matters most? Look at Lin Manuel-Miranda. He had the night every theater kid dreams of, the kind of monumental triumph few people ever experience. But instead of taking a perfectly justified victory lap, this gentle man used his time at the microphone to read a sonnet to his wife about the power of art and love to change the world.

Being part of a team? RenĂ©e Elise Goldsberry gave a stunningly beautiful speech paying tribute to her Hamilton cast-mates: “When one of us wins, we all win, because we are one.” Then in a moving moment, she held her award aloft and expressed her awe and gratitude for the blessings of both career and family: “God gave me Benjamin, he gave me Brielle, and he still gave me this.” She seemed to realize what will remain important long after the final curtain on her last performance.

Losing your ego? How about watching Steve Martin, Lin Manuel-Miranda, and Andrew Loyd-Weber play "Tomorrow" in a spontaneous band with other composers outside the theatre.

Amid the showtunes and glitz, the participants demonstrated a deep, fundamental humanity.

And that brings me to my last thought. In a different year, any of the nominated musicals might have been Tony winners. But these shows all happened to open the same season as an out-of-the-box, hip-hop retelling of an 826-page book about America’s first Treasury Secretary.

As the Hamilton tidal wave swept through the theater, winning well-deserved award after award, the other nominees grinned and clapped with genuine enthusiasm, even as they pushed their own carefully prepared speeches a little deeper into pockets or purses.

Life can be hard. Heaven knows theater can be. You work and practice, you dream and hope, then work some more—and someone else gets the part. You sing your heart out and still, you might not win the award this year. Or even next.

Of all the lessons my students grapple with, dealing with disappointment is among the most difficult. That’s why I hope they watched the Tony awards. Because if they did, they saw people being generous in victory and gracious in disappointment. They saw people sharing in one another’s joy even though life is unfair.

They saw big stars say, “I didn’t do this alone,” and rising stars say, “This is wonderful—but it’s not what’s most important.”

If my students learn these lessons, they have a shot at genuine happiness in adulthood even if their Broadway dreams don’t come true. Or even if they do.

Braden Bell, PhD, is an assistant middle school principal, youth theater director, author of middle-grade and YA fantasy fiction, and lifelong theater geek. He blogs intermittently about teaching adolescents. Follow him on Twitter @bradenbellcom or on Facebook: Braden Bell, Author