Sunday, October 28, 2018

But It Really Happened!

From 1990 until about 2010, I was part of a weekly critique group, possibly the most valuable thing I ever did to bring quality and focus to my writing. The membership of our small, usually five to seven person group, evolved over the years. People would join us for a few meetings, or a few years, then move on.
One man (I will call him Bill, because that was his name) was part of the group for only a few months. Bill was a good storyteller, a competent writer, a thoughtful critic, and a nice guy. He was working on a young adult novel set in the rural Minnesota community where he had grown up.
One of the key scenes in his book was set on a train trestle running over a ravine. Several characters were involved. When Bill read this scene, we were confused—the complex physical setting with the multiple characters were all but impossible for us to visualize. We had many, many questions.
Bill was frustrated. He didn’t understand how we could be having trouble “seeing” the scene as he did. “It’s a real place,” he said. “I was there.” 
We talked about it for a long time. Bill returned to our next meeting with a complete revision. He read it. We still didn’t get it.
He revised again, and presented his new version at the following meeting. By this time we had heard the scene too many times, along with his lengthy explanations for what he was trying to describe. The scene still didn’t work. That may have been Bill’s last visit to our group. 
After that, we added a new term to our lexicon: The Trestle Problem. We have all run into it in our own writing. Sometimes the problem is solved by endless rewrites; sometimes it never goes away.

The Trestle Problem: A complex physical scene based upon a vivid real-life memory.

You might think that a strong, reality-based memory would form a solid foundation for a scene—and sometimes it does. But often we are sabotaged by our memories. Because they seem to clear and compelling, it can be difficult to step outside our memories and put ourselves behind the eyes of the reader. The more vivid and profound our real-life experiences, the harder they are to communicate through prose.
A common cry heard in writing critique groups throughout the known universe: “But…that’s what really happened!”
In the 1993 movie The Fugitive, when the cop, Gerard (Tommy Lee Jones) has fugitive Richard Kimball (Harrison Ford) cornered, Kimball cries “I didn’t kill my wife!” Gerard says, “I don’t care!”
Because all we care about is our ownstory. And so it is for the reader, who doesn’t care about you, or what you’ve experienced—even though, if you ask them, they thinkthey do. They care about what it means for them. If you don’t make it real for them, they will not care.
The singer and songwriter Johnette Napolitani expresses it as I rage-tinged cry in her song “When I Was a Fool:” Grow up and get real, have a kid in their teens, who won’t care what I’ve done, what I’ve been, what I’ve seen…
And that’s a terrific problem for us writers—to accept the fact that our readers don’t give a shit about us. Because all we really want at bottom is to be loved, to be cared about, to matter. But here’s the thing: Every book you write, every sentence, every word, has to bring your reader back to themselves. Standup comics deal with this every night, every joke. 
If there is a practical technique for dealing with the trestle problem, it is this: Say less. Tell them only enough to trigger access to their own storehouse of memories and emotions, then get the hell out.
Using words to insert specific images and emotions into the readers mind is a tricky business, and one we are often best off avoiding. Tell them you are looking at a…say, a pen, and they will see a different pen than you. Tell them it is a red fountain pen and they will see a different red fountain pen. Tell them it is a dark red Namiki retractable fountain pen with a chipped, chrome-plated ferrule, an extra-fine nib, and an empty ink cartridge…and you will lose all but the fountain pen aficionados.
There are exceptions, of course. When it is done well, the sentence- or paragraph-level infodump can be informative, evocative, and altogether pleasing. Rules must be broken! But when a complex scene is not working, consider stripping it down to its essentials and letting the reader do the heavy lifting.








Monday, October 8, 2018

Cover reveal: ROAD TRIPPED

So, I wrote another YA novel.

This one is about death and grief and depression and fun stuff like that. It's about a boy and a car and Star Wars figurines and Wonder Woman and modern art and wisdom found in peculiar places. It's funny and dark and (I always say this) different from all my other books.

The Road Tripped cover is the sort of cover I usually hate, except I don't hate this one. I love it.

The sort of covers I hate are the ones with a clutter of scenes from the book—as if the designers had no ideas, so they just crammed in whatever they could. Usually such book covers are confusing and ugly

This one is not. This is a very cool design: retro but modern, garish but elegant, noisy but composed. Did I mention I love it?



The wraparound spread is fantastic. Click for bigger.



I can tell the illustrator (Studio Muti / Folio Art) really did read the book, and put a lot of thought into his/her/their choices. I can see the research behind the illustrations. They are true to the real places and fictional events they represent, but also quirky and fun—which I believe represents the book well.

Road Tripped will be coming out next May, just in time for reading while on a summer road trip.



Saturday, September 29, 2018

SMILE

I’ve told this story often. This morning I woke up thinking about it. 

About twenty-five years ago, I was at Cub Foods doing some grocery shopping. It was early morning—there were only a few other shoppers.

I started in the produce section, as I always do, and noticed a woman sniffing the cantaloupes. She was under five feet tall, and probably about sixty years old. A huge mop of grey-streaked black hair corkscrewed out from her head. She was wearing colorful full-length skirt and an equally colorful blouse, with a sort of cape across her rounded shoulders, and at least two long scarves. Her large eyes were rimmed with heavy black mascara, and surmounted by equally black eyebrows. A slash of red lipstick defined her wide mouth.

She looked at me. Her eyes were like black holes. She stared at me fixedly for what might have been two seconds but felt like much longer.

I looked away. There is something wrong about this woman, I thought. I wanted nothing to do with her. I made a U-turn and headed for the dairy aisle.

A few minutes later I saw her again, As I pushed my cart into the cereal aisle, she was at the far end, coming in my direction. She was looking right at me. I turned my cart around, as if I had suddenly remembered an item I had forgotten, and fled. Something about the woman alarmed me deeply.

I killed some time back in produce, picking out the perfect apple, the freshest head of lettuce, the most noble baking potato. When I thought it was safe, I returned to the cereal aisle to get a canister of oatmeal. I turned into the aisle and found myself face to face with the scary woman. The fronts of our carts were almost touching. Close up, she was even scarier than I’d thought. Her lipstick covered not only her lips, but a quarter inch beyond them. Her eyes were mesmeric. I froze. Her black eyebrows came together, her lips parted and I was in that moment certain she was about to deliver a curse, or a dire omen, or that she would reveal a snake in place of her tongue.

She said, in a raspy voice, “You should smile more.”

And without another word, she guided her cart around mine and headed for the checkout lanes.

Monday, August 13, 2018

Snapshot #2


Otherwood is a fantasy, a ghost story, an adventure set in a fictional version of the wooded area where I grew up. None of the events in the book *actually* happened in real life, but the story is constructed from bits and pieces of memory. Here is one such recollection.

At age seventeen I was living in a three bedroom rambler with my parents and six siblings ranging in age from fifteen down to five. Privacy was at a premium, so I spent a lot of time out in the woods behind our house. Sometimes I would climb into the crotch of a big elm tree—up high where there were no mosquitoes—and read a book. Other times I would wander through the woods I knew so well, following the many twisted trails, dreaming of a future when I would have my own apartment.

One day I was tramping through a seldom-visited boggy area, and came upon a heart-stopping scene: several items of apparel laid out on a mossy hillock, carefully arranged to mimic the shape of the person who had worn them. The clothes looked as if they had belonged to a little girl: a T-shirt, a pair of pink shorts, underpants, and socks. No shoes.

I stared at those clothes with a rapidly growing sense of unease. I walked in a circle around them, then a bigger circle, half expecting to find a body, but found nothing. Fearing the worst, I ran home and called the police. 

The officer who arrived an hour later was a large, soft-featured young man who looked as if he had not been a cop long. I sensed that he was excited—this could be his first big case! A possible abduction, maybe even a murder!

I led the cop out into the woods. Several of the little kids in the neighborhood saw us, so of course they followed. It was me in front, the cop a few paces behind me, and about fifty feet behind him a train of curious five-year-olds.

To get to the clothing, we had to navigate a boggy area chest-high with nettles and swarming with mosquitoes. The cop outweighed me by a hundred pounds, and his feet sank into the soft, peaty ground. I could hear the sucking sound as he took each step, and some muttered curses. 

We arrived at the scene. The cop stood staring, waving away the cloud of mosquitoes, no doubt imaging things even more horrific than those I had been imagining. The train of little kids, led by Jimmy, my youngest brother, caught up with us. 

The cop asked them if they knew whose clothes those were.

Jimmy said, “Those are Wendy’s.”*

“Who is Wendy?” the cop and I both asked.

“She lives in the corner house,” Jimmy said.

“Where is this Wendy now?” the cop asked.

“I think she went home,” said one of the other kids.

“Then why are her clothes here?” asked the cop.

“She took them off in Jackie’s yard and went home, so we brought them here.”

“Why?” I asked. I was horribly embarrassed.

“We were playing,” Jimmy said, as if that explained everything.

The cop asked a few more questions, but clarity was never achieved. Some weird five-year-old logic was operating—a game in which the rules changed every two minutes. The policeman gathered up the clothing and we headed back. On the way, the cop sank knee deep into a sinkhole, pitched forward into a stand of nettles, and lost a shoe. He had to reach elbow-deep into the peaty muck to retrieve it, then put his foot back into the muddy shoe.

He was not happy about the way his big case had developed. 

I’m not sure what happened next—I went home. I imagine the cop found out where Wendy lived, returned the clothing to her parents, and ascertained that the girl was okay. 

Later, I quizzed Jimmy on what had happened, but never could quite figure out why Wendy had taken off her clothes, or why the other kids had carried her outfit deep into the boggy part of the woods and laid them out so precisely. The more he told me the less sense it made. I decided it was one more unsolved mystery I would have to live with.

End of story? Not quite. Two months later I was driving down Cedar Lake Road a little too fast, heard the whoop of a siren, and saw flashing red lights in my rearview. I pulled over and rolled down my window. The cop got out of his car and—guess who?

He told me I had been traveling at forty-six miles per hour in a thirty-five zone. I handed him my license. He looked at it, looked at me, and scowled.

He said, “I know you, don’t I?” He peered at me closely. “I’ve had some trouble with you before.”

From his furrowed brow I could tell he didn’t remember our encounter. I reminded him of our walk in the woods.

His expression cleared. I thought for a moment that he would laugh and let me off with a warning, but there was no laughing. He gave me a ticket. Pretty sure he was still mad about the shoe.


*Not her real name.

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Snapshots

I think about my childhood a lot. It’s the curse of the kidlit author, because no matter if we’re writing fantasy, historical fiction, nonfiction, or any other sort of book intended for younger audiences, we are always mining our early years, if not for events and characters, then for perspective.

My memories, of course, are colored by the intervening years. There are the exaggerations I have come to believe, dreams conflated with reality, simplifications and embellishments, and the blatant lies I choose to tell myself. But mostly they are true.

For example, one day in the late sixties (I think I was about fifteen), my father, Tuck, arrived home after a long day at work. As was often the case, one of us seven kids—probably Bob—had left his bike in the middle of the driveway, preventing Tuck from pulling into his usual parking space.

Tuck got out of his pickup truck, picked up the bike, and threw it up on the roof of the garage. He got back in his truck, parked it, and never said a word to any of us about the bike.

Three days later, the bike was still up there.

“Dad,” I asked, “aren’t you going to get the bike off the garage?”

“No,” he said. “It remains as a monument to my stupidity.”

The next morning when I got up the bike was back in the garage.

With Tuck and Elaine, 1972
It was typical that Tuck never said anything to Bob—no yelling, chiding, or extracted promises. There was little scolding in our household. The bike on the garage roof was sufficient. Most of us kids were perfectly capable of climbing up there and bringing the bike down. But we didn’t, for the same reason Tuck left it up there.

Around that same time that I took up cigarette smoking. I kept it from my parents. Although I’m sure they could smell it on me, they never said anything. I would buy a pack of Camels for thirty-five cents from the vending machine at the bowling alley, and hide them on top of a rafter in the garage where no one would ever think to look.

One day Tuck was in the garage looking for something. He came back in the house and tossed me the pack of Camels. “You left these in the garage,” he said.

That was my smoking lecture.

A few years ago, Joel Shoemaker was writing a book about my books, and he interviewed my sister Amy by email, asking her about her memories of our childhood. He asked what our parents had done to “rein (Pete) in, or give him advice.”

Amy replied, “The question made me laugh. I read it to my mom and she laughed too. She said, ‘Advice? I don’t think any of you got advice!’”

Friday, March 16, 2018

Some Personal History, and How It Turned Into a Book

In 1958 our family moved from California to Minnesota. My father had grown up in Minneapolis and met my mother there. They were sad to leave the avocados and artichokes and mild weather behind, but happy to be back amongst “their people.”

They bought a house on the outer edge of St. Louis Park, a suburb of Minneapolis. Back then there were still working farms within walking distance.

The day we moved in, my dad took me for a walk in the woods behind our house. I was five years old. He taught me the names of the trees and the animals. He taught me about poison ivy and wild berries.

We lived on a dead end street with a few hundred acres of woods and fields behind our house—most of it had once been the Westwood Hills Golf Course, a twenty-seven hole public course. My dad and his brothers had golfed there in the 1940s and early 50s. In the mid 1950s, the course was reduced to eighteen holes.

A few years later only nine holes remained playable. Part of the course went to a housing development, the rest of it was left to nature. When my family moved there in 1958, only the last nine holes of the golf course was still being maintained. I golfed those holes when I was eight years old. My handicap must have been about fifty.

During our first walk in the woods, my dad showed me where an old fairway had been—four years after that section of the golf course had closed, the fairway had become a long, narrow field of  knee-high grasses, weeds, and saplings. At the end of the field we discovered a large patch of creeping bent—the tight, low grass variety used for golf greens.

In 1961, the last nine-hole golf course closed. That same year, a water main broke, and sixty acres of the old golf course flooded, forming a marsh that would later would become known as Westwood Lake. My friend and I built a raft out of scavenged construction pallets and poled out onto the newly formed marsh. We could see through the clear water to the bright green turf below. In one place, gas built up beneath the underwater turf, creating a huge bubble that rose up out of the water—a bright green, perfectly circular island about ten feet across. Of course, we jabbed a pole into it. The marsh farted, complete with sulphury reek.

Late that fall we had a hard, early freeze. The water turned to glass. You could see through the ice to the green grassy bottom. The ice was only an inch or so thick—just enough to support a ten-year-old on skates. An infinity of utterly smooth ice to skate on!

Although we were only six miles from downtown Minneapolis, the area still had a rural feeling. In the early 1960s I and several other kids in the neighborhood trapped muskrat and mink in the marsh. We sold the pelts to Berman Buckskin for pocket money. For several years I subscribed to Fur-Fish-Game magazine. I still have my copy of The Trapper’s Companion, the first book I ever bought. My literary hero was Jim Kjelgaard, who wrote about dogs and the outdoors. I wanted to be a trapper, like Danny, the hero of Kjelgaard’s novel Big Red.

What it looks like today.
The woods and the marsh were my playground, my refuge, my universe. Every part of the woods had a name: First Woods, Second Woods, Bone Woods, the Twin Peninsulas, the Swamp, the Field, the Fort, the Hill, the Sand Pit, Gopher Bazaar, the Poplar Woods, and so on. I swung across a ravine on a grapevine swing, and spent many hours playing inside a deadfall fort. I sank to my knees in peat bogs, suffered countless mosquito bites and nettle stings, and built memories that will be with me to the end of my life.

Today, most of that land has been leveled to make room for housing, auto dealerships and office buildings. About 200 acres, including the marsh, has been preserved as a nature center. It’s no longer the wild place I remember—there are fences and woodchip trails, interpretive signage and rules. I still go there a few times a year to search out the old paths and reawaken memories, but it is not the same. The magic is still there, but it has become civilized, lethargic, mundane.
 
My novel Otherwood is my eulogy to the woods that live now only in my memory. I have taken great liberties with the woods—made them bigger, and more recent—but I hope that some of the wonder and mystery and magic has survived.


Otherwood will be published by Candlewick Press on September 11, 2018.


Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Cover Reveal

Otherwood is a middle-grade novel about...well, I haven't yet figured out how to describe it. I guess you could call it a contemporary story about friendship, family, and secrets—with ghosts. I'll let the reviewers sort it out. I've never written anything quite like it before. But I always say that, don't I? Anyway, here's what it's going to look like:



Pub date is September 11. More info to come. 

Friday, February 9, 2018

My Process, FWIW

This week I completed a first draft of a YA road trip novel I started back in 2013. That’s typical.

In 2013 I had an idea for a character and a journey, and wrote a few pages so I wouldn’t forget it. A year later I wrote twelve more pages, then wrote this note in my journal: This is the point where I realize that I have a couple characters, an emotional/intellectual journey, a compelling opening, and an epiphanic ending. But I have no story.

I set the manuscript aside and worked on other things. Six months after that I wrote another twenty pages, got stuck again and didn’t look at it for another seven months, when one day I told a friend, Geoff Herbach, about the book.

Invisible sequel? Not now.
Talking about it with a fellow writer—we discussed his nascent novel too—got me excited. I went home and wrote five more pages, bringing it up to thirty-six pages. It was looking promising, but I was deep into revising a middle-grade novel called Otherwood (coming this September!), and writing a contracted sequel to my 2005 novel Invisible. so the road trip story went back into limbo.

The novel (I was calling it a novel now) reemerged last April, when I had the opportunity to take a solo road trip down the Mississippi River to the state of Mississippi. Hundreds of photos and pages of notes and a couple thousand miles later I was back at my desk. I wrote four pages and, once again, set it aside to work on other things.

Last summer the Invisible sequel died halfway through. I mean, that thing had been dead for months but I kept administering CPR. It finally got to the point where it was stinking up the house so bad I couldn’t stand it. That’s another story I may share on some dark future day.

I returned to the road trip novel in late August, and over the next 157 days I wrote another 244 pages. For those of you who like to count words, that’s an average of 346 words per day. For me, that’s a reasonable pace.

I reread the manuscript, made a bunch of deletions, additions and edits, and yesterday called it a first draft. Now, on to a couple beta readers and what I fear will be an arduous rewrite. That, too, is typical.

I’m still working on a title. Titles are hard, unless they come right away. This one didn’t.

Anyway, that’s how I do it. I’m now starting work on a novel I’ve been thinking about for twenty years, based on a recurring nightmare from early childhood. I think it’s a horror novel but maybe not. I have three characters, a setting, some existential dread, and a bit of dialog. No plot or story yet, but it will come.

I hope your process is cleaner and easier. But I’ll bet it’s not.

Friday, November 24, 2017

Post-Thanksgiving Post

Everything was delicious. Two turkeys—one heritage and one conventional—and a platter of duck breasts. My green bean casserole turned out great, as did my brother’s green beans with garlic and anchovies. (Between the two of we brought five pounds of green beans.) All the sides were fantastic. There were four pies, including Mary Logue’s impeccable pumpkin pie, which disappeared first. Charlie’s broccoli salad made a late appearance, so he’ll be eating it for the next couple days. There was wine, and an exceptional rye whiskey from Iowa of all places.

The GBC
This was our first Thanksgiving without Elaine (my mom), so we talked about her a lot. There was some Roy Moore bashing, but most of us seem willing to grant Al Franken a pass—albeit with finger-wagging. There was no praying—I think the last time we prayed was back in 1969, and that didn’t go so well. Nobody watched football, or so much as turned on a television. Bill and Sherrie’s son Jake got trapped in Milla’s massage chair and as far as I know he’s still there, smiling vacantly.


Today I will be doing something I swore I would never do: visit a shopping mall on Black Friday. From noon to two I’ll be on display at a table at the Barnes & Noble in Minnetonka with a pile of books in front of me. 

If you are in the vicinity please stop by to say hello. If you want a book, I’ll have plenty, and I’ll sign it and inscribe it to anyone you name, along with a pretty illustration on the title page. There will be several Young Adult novels (ages 12 and up) and some Middle Grade novels (ages 9-13). Got any of those on your Christmas list?