Dear Larry

I received an envelope thick with cards. letters and notes from students I had recently visited during THIN AIR week. This was not the first time – and hopefully not the last – that such a package has landed in my hands after visiting a school.

As usual, I waited until I had time to digest the contents before opening it.  As usual, I read each entry, sometimes with a smile, often with a chuckle.  And as usual, I packed everything back into the envelope when I finished so that I could read and savour them again another day. 

I though you might enjoy viewing a few samples from two such bundles.  One envelope came from a grade 1 class where I had talked about books and writing, but also took students on a journey 60 million years into the past, to the time when the Western Interior Seaway split the continent in two and Bruce, the mighty mosasaur, ruled the sea.  The other envelope came from a grade 4/5 class who had just finished reading Coop the Great and had dozens of questions for me.  I don’t think you’ll have any problem distinguishing between the two.

I love your book Coop the Great.  I found it funny when you were talking about the little dachshund pup that you met in the backpack. Because I have a chocolate lab but he’s still a puppy. He’s 9 months old. When he was very tiny and we didn’t want to leave him in the kennel, we took him to the hockey area with us and stuffed him in a little bag. Of course, you’re not allowed dogs.  But it was so cute when people came so we would hide him under a blanket. So funny!

I think Coop the Great is one of my favourite books now. I like how you added some sad parts, some happy parts and some funny parts. I think my favourite character in Coop the Great is Emma. I like the way she is almost always happy and cheerful!

Why did you pick dogs and not cats like there are so many other things to choose from?  I learned that to write it’s harder than it sounds or looks. Coop the Great is my favourite that I have ever heard.

The book Coop the Great was an awesome book. I did not like how Zach was hitting the dog and being mean. It was sad how Rick was being mean to the kids and the mom, but I do like everything else in the book.  The book made me feel happy and sad.

 

Can I ask you a question?  Can you come visit us again so then maybe you can read us some more Coop the Great.  By the way my questions are not over yet. I only have a few!! My first question is how hard was it for you to create Coop’s name?  My second question is CAN YOU COME VISIT US!

 

 

 

Writing from the Kid Inside

Not long ago, I visited a number of schools in Winnipeg as one of the authors involved in the school program side of THIN AIR, the Winnipeg International Writers Festival.  I love visiting schools, in part because I had been a teacher for so long and it feels like I am a prodigal son returning home.  But I also love visiting schools because students provide me with a healthy dose of reality. Students are my target audience when I write.  What they say, how they feel about my books, what questions they ask – all of these things matter.

For THIN AIR, I had received an itinerary in advance, but on the first afternoon of my 3-day involvement, there was a slight hitch.  Instead of the grade 1 & 2 classes listed on my itinerary, two grade 6 classes piled into the school library instead. 

One of the teachers pulled me aside to explain. “I’ve been reading Coop the Great to my class. We haven’t finished, but the kids are so excited. When we heard you were coming, we made a deal with the grade 1 & 2 teachers.  We’re here instead.  I hope you don’t mind.”

Mind? Of course, I didn’t, not at all.  To have readers so excited about something I’ve written is the best of all compliments.  For the next hour, the students asked many questions.  Most were about the characters and the story. Why is Coop so sour? Why is Lucinda so mean?  What happened to Zach to make him so angry?  Other questions probed into the choices I had made as a writer. Why did you name the dog Coop?  Why a dachshund and not another breed?  Did you ever have a dog like Coop?

The hour passed quickly.  The students had other questions, but we ran out of time.  I drove home, a little stunned and still high on the experience. Why did this story resonate with these kids? Why did they identify so closely with Coop and the other characters? As a writer, what ingredients had I whipped together to make this possible? 

Probably there are dozens of factors, but for me one stands out. Even though my main character was Coop, a lowly, older dog struggling to find his purpose, kids saw reflections of themselves in his story. They knew what it was like to be bullied like Coop, to struggle and sometimes fail, and to be riddled with doubt, insecurities and larger-than-life questions that didn’t seem to have answers.

When I wrote Coop the Great, It was from that kid place. I think all successful writers of youth material do this. They remember as vividly as yesterday what it was like to be a kid.  They remember the fears, confusion and angst of growing up. Whatever their genres, they write from that place. They draw on childhood emotions and experiences that are universal and touch all kids no matter when or where they live. 

The Futures Box

Many writers, whether of fiction or non-fiction, have ways of nurturing inspiration. Some jot notes and keep an “idea” book set aside for the purpose.  Others use post-its or index cards. Those who are bent on technology record their brainstorms on smartphones and computers.  Some use Flipboard or Pinterest. I use a ‘futures’ box. Initially, this was just a very large box.  Now, it’s a deep drawer devoted to the purpose, but the principle is the same.

Here’s how my system works. Every time I read something in a newspaper or magazine that interests me, I cut out the item. If the article is in a book or a borrowed magazine, I photocopy it.  If it comes from television, radio, or other audio-video source I can usually find the same thing online so I print it. If a gem of an idea, a particularly clever phrase, or something striking pops into my head, I jot a note to myself.  On the top of each item, I write the date and the source.  Then I throw it into the cardboard box and forget about it.

I let the box fill for two or three months – sometimes longer. When I have the time and inclination, I dump the box and sift through the contents. By now, I’ve forgotten what’s in there so it’s a little like opening a gift.  Each item hold surprises. Often entire themes emerge. 

I learn a lot about myself when I do this.  Once, for example, I discovered that I had at least 10 clippings about people who had done valiant things when really, they could have just as easily stepped aside.  I didn’t realize that this was a subject of interest for me.  The end result was At the Edge: Daring Acts in Desperate Times, a book about people and the moral dilemmas they faced in times of crisis.

Who knows what themes emerge?

It’s not just non-fiction themes that emerge from the box.  An item about a recently discovered plane that had gone missing 50 years ago struck a nerve, and eventually became an important element in Missing in Paradise. A clever advertising jingle has become the backbone for a picture book that is simmering on the back-burner.  And then there’s an article about a meteorite the size of a basketball that fired through a Kentucky roof, bounced off a coffee table and ricocheted off a woman sleeping on a couch. Now how can I not write about that?

 

Vertical, Horizontal and Other Writing Habits

Early in my writing career, I discovered Perkins. Life was complicated then. I was a full-time teacher with a young family and hardly a minute to spare. To add writing to the mix meant that I had to squeeze an extra hour or two from an already crowded day, so I started getting up earlier than normal, well before the rest of the family. 

Each day for the first week of my new routine, I woke up at 5:30, brewed a pot of coffee, then slipped into an empty room that I had converted into a makeshift work space. The house was quiet, the air still, and there were many distractions that seemed more compelling than writing. For an hour and a half, I stared bleary-eyed at the computer screen, stalled before even starting.

Wherever I go, my day pretty much begins this way

For a change of venue one morning, I headed to a nearby Perkins restaurant. There the tables were large, the coffee hot and plentiful, and the restaurant was mostly deserted, save for five grizzly men, all retired I assumed, who had gathered to debate politics and life’s sad state. I chose a table near a window far from them, and was soon lost in a caffeine-fueled world of my own.  With the comforting hum of voices in the background and with few distractions to impede my progress, I made headway for the first time.

Since then, I’ve started my mornings in much the same way. The setting changes, but the pattern doesn’t.  Seven days a week, even on vacations, I walk, bike or drive to the first of my daily writing stations – a cozy cafe or inviting restaurant. 

My routine isn’t for everyone, but most productive writers had some habit or other than jump-starts the process or keeps the pages flowing.  For example, American poet Sylvia Plath started her writing day early, up at 4 a.m. and writing feverishly until her children demanded attention. John O’Hara, on the other hand, wrote between midnight and 7 a.m. and then crawled into bed for the rest of the day.

For others, it was water that beckoned the muse. Benjamin Franklin liked to write while immersed in the bathtub. So did Ann Landers, the famous columnist, Edmond Rostand, the French playwright, and Vladimir Nabokov, author of Lolita. I am not sure how they kept their pages dry, but for them it worked.

Truman Capote wrote best in motel rooms and called himself ‘a horizontal writer’. Mark Twain and Robert Louis Stevenson wrote lying down, too. Not so for Lewis Carroll, Thomas Wolfe, and Ernest Hemingway who all wrote standing up.

Virginia Wolfe wrote in a converted basement billiards room, surrounded by old files and stacks of books. J.K.Rowling famously wrote large portions of Harry Potter aboard a train, soothed by clattering wheels and swaying cars. Stephen King, one of the most prolific of writers, works at the same desk every morning, surrounded by familiar writing tools, keeping butt in the chair until he reaches his target of 10 pages.

On the hunt for coffee in Venice, Italy. No matter where I am, I try to find a quiet cafe or coffee shop to begin my writing day.

It seems to me that one secret to a successful writing career is not that we all have the same habit, but that we have habits of some kind that work for us – a place, a time, a favourite pen, a comfortable chair. Habit can induce consistency, offset writer’s block and lead to productivity, be it a paragraph a day or Stephen’s King’s enviable 10 pages.

What’s your writing habit?

 

Where Do You Get Your Ideas?

“Where do you get your ideas?”

Kids are naturally curious and I get this question a lot when I visit schools and libraries.  Usually, I fumble through the answer by giving examples:


Case Files: 40 Murders & Mysteries Solved by Science

A newspaper article in a weekend edition explained how a forensic study of a single strand of Beethoven’s hair provided insights into the cause of the composer’s mysterious death.   What other cases from the past has modern science solved? I wondered.

 

 


Survivors: True Death-Defying Escapes

Years ago, my wife, two young children & I wandered off a mountain trail and spent several panic-filled hours trying to find our way back.  We succeeded but the experience led to questions:  How do others escape life-threatening experiences? What do they do to survive?

 

 


At the Edge: True Death-Defying Escapes

In 2006, Andrew Brash, a Calgary teacher, came to town to talk about his Mount Everest climb, In his presentation, Brash described his team’s rescue of Lincoln Hall, an Australian climber given up for dead by others in Everest’s Death Zone.  To rescue Hall, an act that Brash felt was the morally correct choice, he had to abandon his own climb.   In Brash’s story, I found a theme: With the clock ticking, when faced with death or loss, what choices do you have?  What action would you take?

 


Surviving the Hindenburg

I was looking for a story about a fire to include in Case Files.  The Hindenburg’s tragic end came to mind, but the science behind the fire didn’t fit the theme of the book.  The story of Werner Franz’s remarkable escape stuck, though. I had to know more and his  story became another book.

 


Coop the Great

I had been thinking about writing a non-fiction book about dogs, but the plan changed when I spotted a dachshund and his owner on a hike up a steep mountain.  It seemed like a monumental challenge for such a small dog.  All the way, I thought about the dog and wondered how he was coping.  That encounter gave birth to a story idea of a fictional dachshund who faces his own challenges and rises above them.

 

Usually, after a few examples, my young audience gets the drift of my answer: Ideas are everywhere.  You just have to be open to finding them. Be curious.  Ask questions.

It’s a pretty simple answer.  But really, what is the source of inspiration?  Is there a way to jump start the creative process?   Why do some people have a surplus of ideas while others have difficulty coming up with one?

In his web article, Where Do Ideas Come From? Dustin Wax describes two schools of thought about where ideas originate.  He calls one the “artist as antenna’.  Here ideas free float waiting for someone to pick them up, the same way a radio antenna picks up signals when tuned to the proper frequency. 

The second school of thought maintains that ideas are the product of hard work and concentration.  For writers, it means this:  Throw words on a page, think long and hard, keep your nose to the grindstone, and write, write and behold, ideas will surface.

On a hike down Central Trail in Riding Mountain National Park, I discovered these concrete structures. They were all that remained of a POW camp that once stood on the site. Even though I didn’t know it then, the POW camp would play an essential role in a later novel – Missing in Paradise. Ideas are everywhere.

Looking back at my own experiences, I can see both of these schools of thought at work. Simple as it might seem, the answer I give my young audiences is probably an apt one.  Ideas come to those who are prepared to find them, to those who are curious, who pay attention, and keep plugging away even during dry spells when it seems hopeless. 

My Writing Career Started in a Barbershop

Like many people, I can picture exactly where I was and what I was doing at key moments in my life. Neil Armstrong’s famous step on the moon – sitting in my then girlfriend’s living room, watching the live broadcast on TV with her parents. The Berlin Wall coming down – in my car, hearing about it on a radio broadcast. The collapse of the Twin Towers – in the school library over the lunch hour, horrified as I watched events unfold on TV with other teachers.

I can also tell you exactly when and where I was when my writing career really started. I was in a barbershop waiting for a haircut after a busy day of teaching 6th graders.

There were a handful of other people in the shop all waiting their turn. With time to kill, I browsed through a stack of magazines on a coffee table. I flipped through pages, scanned articles, then stopped when I came to a full-page advertisement headed by this line:  We’re looking for people to write children’s books.

The ad had been placed by The Institute of Children’s Literature in Reading, Connecticut to promote a correspondence course the Institute offered. According to the ad, anyone who qualified and completed the course would be equipped with at least one polished item to publishers by the end of the program.

To this day, I don’t know why I was so intrigued by the ad. Perhaps because I had been such an enthusiastic reader my whole life. Perhaps because I taught children and had two young kids of my own, and figured this would be just an extension of my daily existence. Perhaps because I loved the bond fostered between readers sharing books, and wanted to create something that would have the same results.

I suspect it was all of these.  At any rate, I decided to give it a go.

The course involved a series of mailed-out assignments that covered a range of different writing forms and topics. When I completed an assignment, I mailed it to one of the Institute’s authors to be critiqued, then moved on to the next one.

The first few assignments were heavy on fiction, but three or four assignments into the program, I received a different kind of assignment. Write an article for a children’s magazine.

This was non-fiction, and not the kind of writing I envisioned for myself. But I latched on to a subject that I discovered by chance. It fascinated me so much that I continued to research and write about it even as I worked on the rest of the assignments. By the time, I had finished the course I had an almost complete manuscript and I was fully hooked on writing for youngsters.

I am fond of saying that my writing career began in a barbershop which is not far from the truth, and that a serendipitous discovery of an ad in a magazine lead to my first published book which is not far from the truth either. It seems fitting, too, that the topic for the book was also discovered quite by chance, and that my first book was titled most appropriately The Serendipity Effect.

You can read more about my jump-start into writing and the creation of The Serendipity Effect at About Larry

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