I was once asked by a fifth grader about writing a "perfect story." How do you do it, he wondered. How do you make the words sound so ... well ... perfect.
I'm willing to bet a lot of kids think this way about the books they read. They just wonder how on earth an author makes writing seem so easy. The fact is, and I'm paraphrasing Mark Twain here, easy reading makes for hard writing. There is no such thing as a "perfect" story, of course, but we are all entitled to our opinions about which stories or books seem wonderful--and, yes, even perfect--to us.
It starts with a little inspiration, a dash of self-confidence, a smidgen of skill, and a WHOLE LOT of hard work. That's the "secret formula" to creative writing (or any kind of art, come to think of it). No short cuts exist; if they did, I'd like to think I would have found one by now. Writing, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.
Would we want it any other way?
Life is busy for a teacher and an author. Or is that, author and a teacher? I suppose it depends on what point in the year I'm in!
Recently I was looking over my website, checking out the hyperlinks, shifting around content and adding the cover of my new novel Animal Quest 6, when I realized I hadn't blogged in a long, long time. How long? Almost two years! How is that possible? I wondered. Time, it seems, has melted around me like Frosty in a greenhouse.
So here I go. What do I have to say this time around? A lot, actually.
Let me start with what I've been working on lately. For the last, oh, ten years give or take, I've been struggling to finish a novel about witches. It's called Curse of the Witch, and it's probably the scariest fiction I've ever written for young adults. I'm very near the end of the book. I can see the light at the end of the tunnel, but it's still so far, far away.
Writers grapple with many challenges when writing a novel. Think of it like taking a cross-country road trip. Sure, we have this thing called GPS (or Google Maps) when we're driving. In literary terms, that's our outline and notes. But sometimes novels veer off course. A character might decide to meander down a dark path we didn't expect him/her to. Once there they discover things they didn't expect to find, and suddenly ... plot twists develop. New characters enter the story line. Or new questions arise, necessitating creative answers. Ultimately, venturing down these back alleys of our imagination can enrich a novel. But sometimes I feel bogged down and overwhelmed, and that's what's happening to me with this novel.
Still, I press on. This year I will finish this novel. It is a promise I've made with myself. And when it is completed and published we will celebrate together, you and I, Reader and Author, and take the journey together.
In the meantime, wish me luck I won't get lost in the dark again.
Halloween may be over and Christmas might be just around the corner, but what does that mean for ghost stories? Is it time to box them up and wait for next October? I don't think so. In fact, any night is a good night for a ghost story. There might be no genre of fiction more relevant to the human condition.
We are a nation of believers in spirits and haunts. At least one out of three Americans believe in ghosts. Despite all of our science and technology, many of us become as fearful of the dark as our cave-dwelling ancestors at the slightest hint of the paranormal. It takes no more than a footstep on a stair or a knock on a wall for our hearts to skip a beat and our adrenaline to spike. So why do we remain so stubbornly superstitious even now in the twenty-first century? Why are we drawn to ghost stories?
For centuries, tales of supernatural places and phenomena have been a part of American folklore. Most folks nowadays could tell a version of the ghostly hitchhiker story. Or perhaps you’ve sat around a campfire and heard the story of the poor fool who takes a dare and visits the local cemetery at night, only to scare himself to death when he thinks he’s seen a ghost!
And then there are accounts of historical hauntings with eyewitness reports to back them up. For example, the phantom cannon fire and moaning specters of Gettysburg’s battlefields. Or the poor souls of the falsely accused who met their end at the famously haunted Gallows’ Hill in Salem, Massachusetts. Or any one of the hundreds of tales of haunted pubs, hotels, graveyards, and mansions all across the United States.
Ghost stories continue to enthrall us simply because they are, at heart, stories of human suffering, tragedy and redemption. They capture and magnify our passions, jealousies, foolishness and pride. A ghost story, in other words, is a window into the soul. And sometimes the view can be downright ugly. You could say that the greatest horror story is a life lived in service to one’s own selfish desires.
In any case, no matter what century we're in, people are consistent and rarely ever change. Fundamentally, we are a species given to both remarkable acts of compassion and despicable deeds of cruelty. And at the end of the day, ghost stories remind us that our actions have consequences. We can own them or ignore them, but we can never escape them.
For those who don't know it yet, I've written the first two (soon to be 3) books in a new series for young kids called Animal Quest. The books are about two intrepid children, a brother and sister, who follow a wise old owl named Professor Feathers around the world to retrieve their lost stuffed animals. The "stuffies" have come to life as the result of a wish that the girl, Olivia, makes one night when she sees a shooting star. The books have been a blast to write, and wouldn't you know it--my own two kids are the stars!
I had a lot of ideas for what my first blog post would be about. I could have talked about my latest book series for kids, Animal Quest, or my latest picture book, Escape to Cloud Castle: A Three Little Pigs Adventure, illustrated by a brilliant artist named Josh Mull. But instead I just want to talk about why writing, especially for pleasure, is such an important part of my life.