Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Taking Stock

It's early evening on December 25. I'm thoroughly stuffed with Christmas dinner. I've opened presents and watched my family open theirs. My son is upstairs, practicing his tempo and finger-thumping on Guitar Hero III (Dad's turn comes later). And I'm sitting downstairs, looking at the lights on the tree and thinking about the day and the year.

I'm not going to say it's been an easy year; it hasn't. It's been a long year of learning (yet again) that nothing moves quickly in the publishing world, that "nays" outnumber "yaes," and that writing is a stressful way to make a living.

But there have been blessings as well.
I've been blessed by the love and patience of my wife— and most especially by her understanding. When well-meaning others have said something on the order of "you just need to write a bestseller like John Grisham," she understands just what a gut-punch a sentence like that is. She shares my frustration when another "no" comes in, and my elation when that rare and beautiful "maybe" arrives as well. And she assures me that the "yes" will indeed one day come. Surely her value is higher than rubies.

I've also been blessed by my critique group. They've offered me support and encouragement, as well as the honest advice necessary for the writer to succeed. As I've written before here, you cannot write alone and be a success. Tolkien and Lewis had the Inklings. I have been blessed to have the Knights of the Library Study Table. (Not really our official name. Our official name seems to be "the writers' group that gets together in Brentwood every Friday, more or less.") (You can visit the websites of two of my fellow writers via the links to the left.)

I've been blessed by the support of my regional chapter of SCBWI (also in the links to the left). Tracy Barrett, Candie Moonshower, Genetta Adair, Patsi Trollinger, and Alan Gratz have all offered encouragement and advice, which I treasure. I also have to extend my thanks to Ben Weiss and Jaramy Connor, from my e-mail critique group. There are undoubtedly others I've neglected to mention, for which I must beg forgiveness. Thanks to you all! (By the way, the links in this paragraph are to their web sites featuring some truly great books. If you want a good read for the holidays, you can't go wrong starting with these authors!)

I've been blessed, as I said, by a few "maybes—" those moments when an editor or agent says, "Yes, this sounds interesting. I'd love to read it." Those maybes are precious. And even on the few occasions when they turn into "nays," the "nays" occasionally turn out to be longer and more helpful than the form letter in the return envelope. (Like all writers, I hate those.)

Other blessings have come from family, from friends, from my church, and all from my God... the God whose Son's birth I sit and contemplate today.

So, on this day I offer thanks for blessings. I offer thanks for hope. And I offer thanks for love.

"And now these three remain: Faith, Hope and Love. But the greatest of these is Love."

May you too know these blessings.

Merry Christmas!

--- Howard Shirley (who's off to try my hand at Guitar Hero.)

Monday, December 10, 2007

Where Do You Get Your Ideas?

My fellow writers recognize this question. It's the one question we're all guaranteed to hear, whether from readers or would be writers. I suspect the answer is the same for all of us: "Everywhere." Perhaps that's a bit general, but it's true, at least for me. My next idea may come from something I see, something I read, or a chance comment I overhear. Sometimes I don't even realize I've had an idea until it bounces around in my head for awhile, collides with a few other randomly bouncing tidbits, and then fuses to create something that makes the writer part of me think, "Hang on, that's interesting." And then I hang on to it, make a few notes about it, and then... then I forget about it for a long time.

You read that right. In fact, that's what happened with The Weaver of Atreia. I had the idea that became the story years ago— over 15 years ago. But that idea wasn't even for The Weaver of Atreia. It was for an entirely different story; a mystery set in a fantasy world. I made the outline for that mystery, and set it aside. Skip ahead to 2002 (give or take a year). That summer, I was approached to ghostwrite a novel for a recording artist. (Sometimes other people bring you their ideas. And then pay you to write them. I like that. ;-) ) I completed the book in about two months (I don't recommend that schedule, by the way). Having finished that project— my first effort at a book-length work*— I realized that I could indeed write a novel. All I needed was the idea.

So I searched through my old notes and found the outline for the mystery story. But it needed a lot of work. For one thing, it needed background. And it needed a stronger, more original setting. And it needed... a protagonist.

As I set to work on the setting and background, I remembered a book I had read as a teenager about the medieval guild system of Western Europe and the Hanseatic League. I decided a culture based on a stronger version of the guild system would be an interesting setting— and from that decision a young apprentice named Devon popped into my head. The story's background then sprung from, among other things, the Norman Conquest of England, the Byzantine Empire, the Persian invasions of ancient Greece, the medieval English wool trade, and the rise of the merchant class which led to the Renaissance. (The great thing about fantasy writing is that you can borrow from all sorts of historical settings and events, mix them up, and create something unexpected.)

So I sat down and wrote the book right away... well, not exactly. I wrote the first few pages, and set it aside to work on something else. A few months later, I picked it up again and wrote three chapters. And then I set it aside again. For three years. (I don't recommend this writing schedule, either.)

That's when my wife stepped in. She asked me if I was serious about writing books. I assured her I was. She then advised me to attend a writers conference and join a writers organization. (Advice to writers: Get married. Motivation sometimes has to come from a kick in the pants.) She discovered the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators . She discovered the local chapter was hosting a writers' conference. She told me to join and told me to go. Being a reasonably wise husband, I did as I was told.

Following the conference, I was charged. I was motivated. I wrote another chapter!

My wife was not impressed. (Advice to writers: One chapter is not a novel. Nor is one more chapter.) Clearly, I needed more than one conference.

So I went for the biggie: the 2005 SCBWI Summer Conference in Los Angeles. Plane tickets, conference fees, and arrangements to bunk with my brother-in-law followed. And I wrote two more chapters! (Advice to writers: Two more chapters aren't a novel either.)

At the conference I had a great critique from writer Q. L. Pearce, met some terrific fellow SCBWI members, heard some eye-opening advice from writers, editors and agents, and realized... I was in need of help. Specifically, I needed a writers critique group. (Advice to writers: Don't work alone. Write alone, yes. Work alone, no. Get to know other writers. Share your work. Hear their opinions. And listen to them.)

In a remarkable turn of events that I can only attribute to Divine intercession, several local writers were interested in starting just such a group. We had our first meeting in a Borders bookstore cafe in Brentwood, Tennessee. After trying to talk over the cappucino machine twice, we moved to the Brentwood Public Library. Two years later, we're still there.(If you hear a noisy bunch of writers in a backroom on Friday mornings, that's us. Forgive us. Writing is indeed a silent occupation, but when writers gather, all that silence explodes.)

Our schedule was (and is) weekly. The critique schedule we set up was an absolutely naïve one calling for one chapter per person every two weeks.

It's amazing how quickly you can critique six chapters.

It's amazing how that, when your critique group has critiqued your fifth chapter, you realize you had better be writing more chapters if you're going to keep up with that two week schedule. And avoid kicks in the pants from both your spouse and the six other writers in your group.

Over the course of a year, I suddenly found I had lots of ideas. And prodded by my wife and my critique group I wound up with lots of chapters. (Advice to writers: Lots of chapters? Now, that could be a book.)

So, where do I get my ideas? I get them from reading. I get them from writing. I get them from remembering. And, yes, I get them from daydreaming.

You can too.

(Just remember to write them down— the difference between an idea and a fleeting thought is often at the point of a pencil.)

--- Howard Shirley

*Yes, the ghostwritten novel was published. Unfortunately, by the terms of my contract I can't identify the book or the person whom I wrote for. I take comfort in that I was well paid. :-)

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Story Starter Challenge #1

I found this old hollow tree a few weeks ago. It has the "look" of story all about it— and I'm offering that story to you. Tell me about this tree. What is its story? Does something live in it— or someone? Is something hidden in it? Where is the tree? When is it (past, present, future)? Give us a story! It can be as long or as short as you like. When you're done, share it with your friends. You can also share it here; just post it in the comments or send me an e-mail. If I like it (and it meets the family-friendly nature of this site), I'll add it to the blog under your by-line.

--- Howard Shirley

(Photo ©2007 by Howard Shirley)

Monday, November 26, 2007

Two Roads Diverged into a Yellow Wood...

Writing, like life, is about making choices. Where will the characters go? What will they say? What will they do? As a writer, you make the choice. Each choice opens up more choices, as each "way leads on to way." Like Robert Frost's poem, it's up to you whether you take the well-traveled route or "the one less traveled—" or crash into the wood of story itself and make your own path, a new path. It won't be easy; trailblazing never is. But at the end you will have created something new, a path that others will want to follow, perhaps to a destination no one has ever seen. So choose your path, and each path after, always striving to find the new way, the way that leads to something fresh, something magical, something unexpected— and that, indeed, will "make all the difference."

--- Howard Shirley

(Photo ©2007 by Howard Shirley)

Monday, November 19, 2007

You Never Know What Will Land in Your Backyard


The sound filtered through my study window and simmered in my brain. Sounds like... gas escaping... my brain finally told me. GAS ESCAPING!!! NOT AGAIN!!! (the last bit because the previous Saturday workers installing a sprinkler system for our neighbor struck the gas line, causing all sorts of excitement). I rushed out the front door to see what new disaster had come.

The sound was indeed of gas rushing (score 1 for my brain), but not from a new leak. The sound came from the propane burner of a hot air balloon. It drifted down our street, just over housetop level, bringing with it excitement of its own. Kids and adults ran down the street chasing it; cars pulled into our neighborhood. One dad hopped out of an SUV with his teenage daughters and said to me, "I'm forty-one, and I'm more excited than they are!"

Hey, I'm forty-two, and I'm with you, buddy!

The balloon passed over a neighbor's house with about ten feet to spare, and then settled gently into the field that backs up to our houses. We were gathered around like villagers in 17th century France, chattering about the visitor from the skies. (Fortunately for the passengers, we opted not to bring pitchforks to slay the monster.) The operators allowed the balloon to deflate, jumping up and down on the bag to force the remaining air out, to the cheers of gathered boys and adults. In a short while it was packed, loaded in the trailer of a chase vehicle, and we were all left with a story to share with each other.

And now I have shared that story with you!

The moral? Keep your ears and eyes open: you never know what story my sail gently down and land in your own backyard.

--- Howard Shirley

STORY CHALLENGE: Imagine a balloon lands in your backyard. Where did it come from? Who is riding in it? Why are they there? And What will happen next?!?

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Fine Young Writers

One purpose of this blog is to share not only my experiences as a writer, but the experiences of other writers I encounter— and to encourage you to be a writer as well. So I'd like to begin by sharing a recent experience I had with a group of gifted young writers who attended one of my workshops.

The workshop was hosted by the Franklin Public Library in my hometown of Franklin, TN (you can find the library here ), at the request of their excellent YA librarian, Phillip McAndrew. As with many writers, there's always the fear that you will enter the library and find yourself on the set of a new movie titled What If They Gave a Workshop and Nobody Came? It's irrational (well, not completely), but it's there.

Fortunately, on this day my fears were completely unfounded. Within minutes of my arrival, the room filled up with fifteen young writers (and one brave adult). The paper and pencils were passed around, I chatted about myself, writing, and other odd bits, and then we got down to business.

I call my workshop "Hidden Treasures," because it's all about discovering that almost anything can hide a hidden treasure— the hidden treasure that we call "story." We began by pulling an object from my Hidden Treasures bag— in this case, a bracelet— and asking questions about that object. What is it? What is its purpose? Is it what it is, or what it represents? (For example, is a toy soldier a toy soldier, or does it represent a real soldier?) Who has the object? How did they get it? Why do they have it? Do they want it?
The questions continue, going into when, where, how and why, but this should give you the idea. The purpose is to discover the story hidden in the object. (And the great thing is, the story can change for the same object, just by changing the answers.)

After brainstorming together, each young writer got the chance to pull their own object out of the bag— and a mixed bag of objects it was— and craft their own story starters by asking questions about their finds.

(As an aside, it was an absolute delight to see fifteen heads bowed down over a table, with the only sound in the room being the scratching of pencils on paper. For a moment, I thought I was giving a standardized test; only it was a lot more fun, and nobody could get a wrong answer.)

Fifteen minutes later we shared a few of our story ideas— and what terrific story ideas there were! An abstract chess piece became a huge pillar in a city built by dragons; an earring became the symbol of a corrupt royal house in a vast empire; a bracelet became the key to a secret code, kept by a girl who must spy on her own husband. I can't share all the stories with you (after all, they're not my stories to tell!), but I think and hope that someday these young writers will do so.

Why not try the experiment yourself? Pick an object, or even an idea, and start asking questions. You may stumble upon a treasure trove you never knew you had.

--- Howard Shirley

P.S. If you'd like for me to bring the Hidden Treasures workshop to your library, school or writing group, just contact me through my web site: www.howardshirleywriter.com

Thursday, November 8, 2007

A Very Good Place to Start.

Mark Twain once said of writing, "Start at the beginning, write until you come to the end, then stop."*
It's hard to argue with anything said by Mark Twain. (About writing at least. What he said about investments in typesetting machines is another issue.) So I'll go with Mr. Twain's advice.

This is the beginning of my blog. Here I will write about my books, my workshops, others' books, others' workshops, writing, things happening in life, a game or two, and whatever strikes my fancy. Here, if you wish, you can read about those things.

Why should you read all this? Because (I hope) you will find it interesting, entertaining, and just maybe helpful.

If you've come here from my website (www.howardshirleywriter.com), then you know a little about me. But if you've come here from somewhere else, I'll start with a brief bio.

I am a writer. I write novels, stories, scripts, articles, book reviews and other assorted items, all of which you can learn about at my website (see the link above). This blog is mostly about my work writing for children and young adults— though, quite honestly, I write my books for everyone. If you like a good story and appreciate a well-told tale, I believe you will like my books, whether you are nine, nineteen, or ninety.

Currently one of my books is available— Acts for God: 38 Dramatic Sketches for Contemporary Services, published in 2005 by Meriwether Publishing. Think "Saturday Night Live" with a family-friendly flair. (If you're old enough to remember Isaac Air Freight, you'll understand what I mean. If you're not, well, you'll just have to read it.)

The Weaver of Atreia is my latest novel, a young adult fantasy about a failed apprentice turned soldier, an assassin's plot and a guild of spies. It's not in print yet, but I am delighted to say that editors have requested it, so cross your fingers, say a prayer, and hope for good news very soon. And if you want to know a little more about The Weaver of Atreia, or any of my books, just visit my website.

So now you know a little about me and why I'm writing this.

It's time to follow the last part of Mr. Twain's advice. I'll do so with another pithy quote. Winston Churchill once said, not of writing, "This is not the end. This is not the beginning of the end. But it may be the end of the beginning."*

And so is this.

--- Howard Shirley

*Both quotes are paraphrased from my memory, so don't expect them to be correct. And yes, the last is about the Battle of Britain, not writing.