Posted by: jeannineatkins | February 8, 2016

Why I’m Writing Today

Every day, writers need fresh motivation. Every day, what gets us to pick up a pen, or move from checking the Web to facing a blank file, may look a little different. I’m pretty happy with the beginning and the end of my novel in progress. That’s a nudge, as I don’t want those chapters to go the way of other unseen files. I have to straighten out, or probably make wigglier, the middle, as a beginning and end can’t make a book. It’s not like making a nice appetizer and heading straight to dessert. Readers really need a middle.

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I’ve looked forward to colored index cards and pencils, and today I got to use them. After a bit more fiddling on my computer. But I started racing to get my chapters out in time to enjoy the sun while I did some editing yoga. Then I had to keep working, rather than wreck my arrangements, so I could do actual yoga on that mat: more than doing child pose while scribbling notes in margins. But as long as I’m down on my knees, I see a few flaws to chop or dust. Is that the edge of a theme peeking out? I pull the thread. Great. Except that this means cutting and rearranging more scenes to make a place for an expanded theme.

Then I offered myself a nap. And came up with three sentences while waiting for some short sleep. Then another cup of tea and back to work. One sentence led to another. A paragraph got tidier. A scene found a new place. I think the plot is missing. But I’ll keep an eye out for it while shoving trailing ideas into place, arranging sentences one by one, page by page, tomorrow. And plot hunting can happen while reading, daydreaming, or even dreaming. Oh, tomorrow. When the sun will stay out just a bit longer, a pleasure I’ll try to bring into the work.

 

 

Posted by: jeannineatkins | February 1, 2016

Picture Books: Finding Beauty on City Streets

E.B White considered Stuart Little’s search for the lovely bird Margalo a quest that “symbolizes the continuing journey that everybody takes — in search of what is perfect and unattainable. This is perhaps too elusive an idea to put into a book for children, but I put it in anyway.” E.B. White often wrote about finding beauty and wonder where it wasn’t expected. Charlotte’s Web wouldn’t have the same glimmer without the manure piles and we’re reminded that its hero, such a generous and wise writer, is also bloodthirsty. Charlotte can’t help it, but she has a taste for flies.

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Picture books also take on the theme of keeping a clear eye out for beauty. There was a lot of excitement in our children’s book circles when Last Stop on Market Street recently won the Newbery Award, whose shiny stickers are most often placed on novels, deeming the words the most distinguished of the year. The picture book by Matt de la Peña is about a boy learning to see the beauty around him in a rundown neighborhood depicted in collage, acrylics, and “a bit of digital manipulation” by Christian Robinson, who was also honored by the ALA for his art. Buildings look dilapidated. People aren’t dressed in the height of fashion. But the boy’s Nana, whose wisdom might come from the church we see the two leave at the beginning, offers leading questions to prompt him to second or deeper glances. A change comes when CJ hears a man playing music on the bus, with his delight shown in a joyful two-page spread. Still, after passing “Crumbling sidewalks and broken-down doors, graffiti-tagged windows and boarded-up stores,” Nana must point out a rainbow arcing over the soup kitchen, where the child becomes helper and friend.

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In hero’s journey terms, Nana is the guide toward this change, while in another picture book published in 2015, a little girl in a red-hooded cloak walks with her father, who’s often on his cell phone, staying in the center of her own journey. In Sidewalk Flowers, a girl finds flowers in the cracks of sidewalks or where others might see weeds in a city that looks generally bleak, even in the park with its leafless trees. I’ve “read” wordless picture books before, but I believe this is the first one where an author is credited. Apparently Jon Arno Lawson envisioned the story and sequence of images done in graphic novel form by Sydney Smith, often black and white except for the girl’s cloak at the beginning, where we see birds.

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After she leaves flowers to honor a dead bird, the city is shown more often in color, as if to suggest that acknowledging what’s hard can let one see more. The girl also gets closer to home, and her father puts away his cell phone. She bestows flowers to her mother, brother, and sister, and finally herself, looking up at more birds in a big sky.

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One of my favorite books on this theme is Tar Beach, the first book for children written and illustrated by Faith Ringgold, who won a Caldecott Honor in 1992 for this and went on to create more than a dozen more books for children. These acrylic paintings were based on one of her story quilts, and is layered with memoir, history and myth, particularly African American myths of flight.. The eight year old girl at the center of the book set in Harlem in 1939 is both dreamer and agent of change, imagining that she can wear the George Washington Bridge, which she can see from her roof, like a diamond necklace. She touches lightly on discrimination, mentioning that her father helps build a union building that he can’t join. Family problems are suggested when Mommy cries when the father goes to look for work and doesn’t come home.

All these books remind us that finding beauty can take some effort, dreaming, and trusted helpers. And it’s worth it. E.B. White wrote, “All that I hope to say in books, all that I ever hope to say, is that I love the world.”

 

Posted by: jeannineatkins | January 22, 2016

Children’s Literature: On our Way

I’ve got my books lined up for the semester and held two classes. On the first day we sped through the history of children’s books, taking brief note of medieval and Puritan views of childhood, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s favorite book as a boy (apparently, THE TRIUMPHS OF GOD’S REVENGE AGAINST THE CRYING AND EXECRABLE SINS OF MURDER), Philippe Ariès on the cultural definitions of childhood, Blake and Wordsworth on innocence, and John Newbery, who among his accomplishments as a publisher started a trend for selling toys along with books – a ball for boys and a pincushion for girls, creating a sort of pink aisle, too. For the first time, we got to read this year’s Newbery winner right in class and briefly discuss what we’ll discuss more: the strands of entertainment and teaching. One student saw the Nana in The Last Stop on Market Street as the sort of helper we find in a hero’s journey. We touched on that form, versus the circles we’ll find in Charlotte’s Web and City Dog, Country Frog, which we read the second day, and a student pronounced, “Devastating.”

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Also in the second class, we talked about Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, filled with tropes we’ll encounter again — orphans, a magic mirror, enchanted animals, flying, snugness, food, a three-headed dog, wands – and themes of friendship, secrets, death, and good versus evil. How many have read this book before? I asked, and all hands went up. That will never happen again, so I savored. How many have read it ten times? I asked, and it looked like all hands to me, though perhaps one or two arms stayed on desks. Already I love my class.

 

 

Posted by: jeannineatkins | January 20, 2016

The Boston’s Women’s Memorial

After getting back from a fun trip with my daughter, I took her dog for a walk along Commonwealth Avenue. Henry enjoyed meeting a plump corgi-lab mix named Zeus. He put up with me checking out the Boston Women’s Memorial by artist Meredith Bergmann.

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Here is Abigail Adams, wife of the second president, mother of the sixth, with an excerpt from one of her extraordinary letters, which have instructed us about her and the colonial period, written in bronze on the side of the pedestal she leans against.

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Phyllis Wheatley was another woman of letters. Her poems published in 1773 were the first book published by an African writer in America: “Imagination! who can sing thy force?”

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Journalist Lucy Stone was a nineteenth century abolitionist, suffragist, and founder of The Women’s Journal. We think

they make quite a group.

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Posted by: jeannineatkins | January 14, 2016

Copenhagen Sights

Last night my daughter and I got back from a few days in Copenhagen, admiring the canals and bright houses, visiting palaces and winter gardens, eating great food, and ever alert for signs of Hans Christian Andersen or mermaids, tin soldiers, little match girls, the emperor with new clothes, red shoes, and wild swans.

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We took the train to Helsingør one day to walk around Kronberg Castle, built right by the sea in 1420, which is said to have inspired Shakespeare as his setting for Hamlet. We admired the Great Hall, the biggest in northern Europe, and survived ducking through winding underground halls and dungeons.

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We warmed up from the sea winds at a lovely nearby library. This little boy could dip into boxes of books with various royal or medieval themes, while looking out to the water.

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Reminders of Hans Christian Andersen, who lived and wrote around the city. abound. He was reported to have stayed at our hotel. When I asked if his rooms were known, a woman at the desk said she didn’t really know that he stayed there, then was quickly interrupted by another who asserted that he certainly did though his room wasn’t known. She said they dedicated a suite on the second floor, as it was unlikely that he would have slept higher, because of fear of getting trapped by a fire. We read that he traveled with a rope in his trunk for quick escapes.

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The several statues Emily and I saw were of him alone, as he rejected the idea of being shown surrounded by children, as he did not like to be touched and thought of his stories as being as much for adults as for children: he is right there.

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In the oldest part of the city, or Latin Quarter, we climbed the Round Tower, a 17th observatory, the oldest remaining in Europe. In 1716 Tsar Peter of Russia rode his horse up the ramp, and it remains a working observatory with a telescope. Hans Christian Andersen wrote in the library halfway up, where visitors can now get coffee and view art, with an emphasis on children’s book illustration.

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Slips of stories are everywhere.

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Posted by: jeannineatkins | January 7, 2016

Poets & Writers

I’ve read Poets & Writers since I was an undergraduate and aspiring writer, back when it was printed on newsprint and of course entirely black and white. I shared copies with a friend, who years later, when her poetry fell by the way, told me that she kept up her subscription because letting it go would be the final sign that she’d given up on putting writing back into her life.

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Since those days, there seem to be a lot more writers in the world and other ways for us to share our hopes, fears, and publication strategies. But I’ve kept up my subscription. This January/February issue is dedicated to Inspiration, but all the issues hold that necessary force. It also remains a good source of information about the writing business. I am happy to have an article called The Missing Locket: An Invitation to Wonder in this issue, which is available in most bookstores. I discuss ways I’m pulled by the gaps in personal and public histories. Sometimes just a little is what we need to begin. I realized this talking to a friend about how I love the show Call the Midwife, but found the memoirs on which it’s based flat: I could see how the show writers developed rich characters from just a few lines. And a few days ago a friend showed me her mother’s diary which she’d inherited. “It’s not really a diary,” she said, and flipping through I saw what she meant. There were copied quotes, taped-in menus and concert programs, and a wonderful few horsehairs, I believe, from a pew where the diarist noted that she’d sat for some years. It all took my breath away with possibility.

This issue of Poets & Writers includes great articles about taking risks, stepping back from marketing, revision, the power of objects, and introductions to debut poets, including Robin Coste Lewis, whose Voyage of the Sable Venus, full as it is with an exploration of history, is a new favorite of mine. In the Editor’s Note, Kevin Larimer reminds us: “Whether thousands, hundreds, or dozens of people might read what we’ve written, or even if we reach just one single soul, we are being given an opportunity to create something bright in all this darkness. Shine.”

 

Posted by: jeannineatkins | January 5, 2016

Would May Alcott Like Pinterest?

Reproductions of paintings, photos of places where May Alcott lived, and pictures of people who she inspired or who inspired her, and examples of their work, can now be found on Pinterest, if you click on the link here, or go on anywhere and add my name. I’ve enjoyed giving some slide shows at libraries so people can see May’s work, but for those who can’t attend those, now you can glimpse a bit from your desk. (Though not as much. The generous people at Orchard House kindly gave me permission to take pictures from their collection for slide shows, but not to put on-line.) Big thanks go to writer Melodye Shore giving me a gentle push and a Pinterest tutorial. I’m still learning, and would love to hear from others who post there. Tips? Do you have sites for me to check out? Apparently people sometimes comment right on the boards? That could be interesting.

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This was fun, but most of my attention is now moving off May and onto other people from history, though some contemporary characters (often in an attic) are also on my mind. But I remain grateful to all readers of Little Woman in Blue, with special heartfelt thanks to those who pass on word about the novel,which is about to go into a second printing. Exciting, even if the first run was small! Thank you San Francisco Book Review for kind words: “After deep research, Atkins creates a story of a younger sibling living in the shadow of an older, successful sibling many will relate to. … May finds her own way, and it is a fascinating journey.”

 

Posted by: jeannineatkins | December 23, 2015

Layers of Writing

Most of my writing life has been spent at my desk or window seat, and includes long tides of waiting to hear back from editors, and a rare celebratory message that there will be a book. Around a year ago things shifted, so that three of those manuscripts, labored over for years, sent to the desks of many editors, were accepted. Little Woman in Blue was published this fall, with two others coming out next fall and the following spring. This means that I’m working through a lot of layers, moving between promoting one book, seeing another go through the picky process of copy-editing, and doing a revision on another to tighten the pacing and rev up the plot. Those last two tasks were just completed, and I’m stepping away from most of the work of the first.

Recently I opened my computer and whispered, “Hello,” to a girl waiting. Her name in my mouth made me know I was working on the right thing, and I felt so ready to be in her company. I got out old notes and made slashes through some and picked up words and phrases for others, polishing them up. I began to feel back within the rhythm of her life. Someone from history gives me something, and I mean to give her something back. I’ll learn about her life in the same steps forward and steps back that we learn about ourselves. It’s a gentle process that I feel ready for after spending a lot of attention to details such as getting each last word right. I can set down jumbled lines again, even as I arrange clean corners.

But all of the stages include both mess and light. While tightening the plot of Stone Mirrors, I sometimes felt freaked out about the disarray. I’d taken apart poems so they were wildly strewn, back to a different sort of beginning. I knew these parts were on their way to something better, but no one else would, and I had occasional freak-outs that I wouldn’t get a chance to finish and I’d be left with what was worse than where I began. But I made it through this round, and expect more breaking-apart and putting-together and polishing ahead.

Even when a book is finished, the words at last in unalterable place, there’s room for wind to blast through, and that wind is our readers. What will they find there? Little Woman in Blue feels like mine. I can open to pages and remember decisions I made: Why did I begin a chapter where I did, what scenes did I decide to leave out? But it also belongs to readers, and it is gratifying when others care for May Alcott as I do. Not all read her just as I do, or find every sentence or chapters just as it should be. But for many who read, it seems like we have a friend in common. And I’m so grateful.

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And now I’m eager to cook, eat, laugh, sing, and generally spend time with my family. I like knitting and reading by the Christmas tree, at some lucky times with the cat on my feet, but I’ll give the characters in my work-in-progress some attention every day. It works best for us all if we meet up every morning: otherwise, they can be stubborn later on. I’ve got a circle of evergreen and winterberries on the outside door, but just put together a wreath for inside. It’s time to trade in glitter and glue for butter and sugar. Good tidings to all!

 

Posted by: jeannineatkins | December 17, 2015

Pushing Characters Off Cliffs

Most writers I know are gentle people. Many are parents, teachers, or others devoted to the care of people and animals. They send wishes for peace at this time of year. But most novels don’t go far if tranquility is at their core. We need to leave our peace-seeking selves behind at the desk when it’s time to stir up conflict.

And this can hurt. Becky Levine recently posted on Facebook about her wrenched stomach and ragged breathing when pushing a character to do something the good person inside her wished he wouldn’t. But was necessary for the story. I’d just had my own revelation that a character was not as lovely as I’d thought, and related to feeling sort of dizzy with dismay, while feeling bound to persevere, after a making pumpkin bread with cranberries. Becky agreed such a break was good, but suggested chocolate chips instead of cranberries. We writers are not just colleagues but allies, and we empathize when our characters go astray. Even as I urged her to let her character stride unblinking into trouble.

Maybe the key here is “letting.” Trying to get more accepting of drama, I began this blog with the image of pushing a character off a cliff, but it’s probably more true to think of it as not standing in the way of a character bound to jump. Really, things aren’t that harrowing in my work in progress, but any misstep even of a conscience can feel that way to cautious me. I began my novel for middle readers wanting a sweet and ordinary girl at the core, and to explore some magic. That’s in place, but as I told a friend, the magic seems to be turning dark. “Magic often does that,” she replied.

So here I am in a forest dimmer than the one I first imagined with a character who’s angrier and has more secrets than I envisioned. I don’t think I shoved or even nudged here there. Did it happen because I had her read The Secret Garden, (something I’m not sure will stay in the finished draft), but perhaps Mary Lennox’s anger was passed along? Or delving deeper into family relationships, did I find myself deeper inside her? Getting to know the girl and her circumstances better, did rough feelings naturally evolve?

Now I no longer have a sweet book and entirely admirable character. I feel the sort of worry and split we do when someone we love does something that we don’t. Usually we can work our way back to love. It’s time for pumpkin bread and tea, getting comfortable with turning lights on and off. Making room, the way my Grandmère’s ceramic angels and my husband’s dinosaurs find a place together.

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Posted by: jeannineatkins | December 14, 2015

Careful

After years of writing without seeing a book land on shelves, I’m happy to have a new book in the world and two others on their way. But I still have work in earlier stages of progress to tend to. I love the generosity of early drafts, how they offer a place where mistakes are welcome. And I like the word-fixing of final drafts, the excitement of seeing a story head to new readers. I recently sent a book to a copy editor after some dwelling on whether it was okay to write “Ho, gluepots,” instead of “Ho, glue pots.” And making sure that the ten children in a family stuck to their proper ages during the narrative’s course of years. But those drafts in between that are good enough to show someone else, but still mistake-ridden? Well. I was just reminded of how fragile those can be.

Last month I gave some pages to a reader, who was underwhelmed. I shrugged. There are many, many stories, and people have different tastes. I knew some of what I wrote needed fixing, and I was pretty sure I could do that. I put away the notes to tend to other work. But now that’s that done, the manuscript which is not so very far from done was still sitting there. I had another book to work on. But last night when my husband asked, “When am I going to see that book with magic you’re writing?” I said it might not be till summer. I told him I was thinking of working on something else.

But his interest reawakened the interest in me. Only then did I realize the lackluster response hurt more than I showed with my shrugs and qualifications. Our writing is always tender. We have to be careful who we show it to – but still, we need to send it from our desks. Every response can teach us something, and covering our eyes and ears is rarely a good way to learn. We have to seek outside opinions if we want our book to reach others, and it means we have to have a somewhat tough skin. Various forms of rejection are part of this work. Barbs or stumbling blocks can come in many forms, such as ignorance, unkindness, or truth. Sometimes it takes a while to unwind those strands, particularly if they’re tangled.

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Spurred by Peter’s kind question, not to mention his tulips, I realized I’d been circling my own manuscript with fear, and had to ask myself why. Sometimes blocked doesn’t look like blocked. We can call it busy. We may turn to another project and call that choice. Maybe it is. But it can pay to take a closer look at what we’ve left in files or drawers.

I hope all of you have someone in your life who will ask, “What’s happening with that book you told me about?” It’s one reason those writing dates, meeting for coffee and complaints, are important: often someone will remind you that they’re waiting and that there’s more than one opinion on a work. It can be wise to look back and consider what happened when we put aside a story we once loved. I get out the index cards, heat up the coffee, and light a pine scented candle. I’m telling myself what I’d tell friends: You can do this.

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