Exercises in Style

In my continuing research about how to be a writer, I picked up a copy of Exercises in Style written in 1947 by Raymond Queneau.

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I was instantly amazed and amused by the book.  It tells the same simple story 99 times, each in a different style.  The story is:  man gets on a bus, sees an altercation between two passengers, then sees one of those same passengers a couple hours later getting fashion advice.

Short and simple, right?

Like so much in life, the brevity and simplicity is part of the genius.

Queneau’s 99 versions, each stylized in a different way, are priceless.  As I was reading it, I imagined how much fun he had writing it.  Like the best courses, this seminar in writing entertains as it educates.  Not only does it instruct on the different types of styles it is possible to employ in the craft of writing, it also demonstrates the effect of each.

Bird by Bird

I am a big believer in learning about something before I jump in with both feet — or at least while I am jumping in.

I did it when I used to work for a company that made navigation maps, which is why I can sound a whole lot more proficient than you’d imagine while discussing links, nodes and APIs.

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I did it when I learned to surf, which is why I own three books on surfing (my favorite being Surf Diva: A Girls’ Guide to Getting Good Waves) and watched countless hours of Point Break, Endless Summer, Blue Crush, and the like.

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I did it when I decided I wanted to open an import business for my favorite purses from Argentina (which is why I quickly realized I should not open an import business for my favorite purses from Argentina).

So, it should come as no surprise that when I decided I seriously want to be an author (beyond just my junior high wish list of jobs), I started doing my homework.  I researched the industry and the craft.  I joined associations like SCBWI, I took classes (with Mediabistro), I continue to attend numerous workshops and conferences, and I am (go figure if you know me at all by now) reading books.

A book that just blew me away is Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, by Anne Lamott.  It is informative, funny, well-written, enjoyable and inspiring.

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“Bird by Bird” refers to advice Lamott’s father gave to her brother, who was overwhelmed with a report on birds he needed to write for school…

“He was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said. ‘Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.’ ”

Lamott offers this kind of simple advice related in a compelling, emotional, accessible way throughout the book.  She does not get into the nuts and bolts of style the way Strunck & White do in The Elements of Style (another favorite of mine from college that I recently reread).

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Instead, she focuses on how to be a writer, and the actual process of writing.  Her direct honesty is offset by her effusive humor, so I found myself laughing aloud at her stories, even as I was wincing inside at her warnings.

Starting something new, like being an author, is exciting.  But it is also scary.  Having Lamott to look up to as a woman ahead of me on the trail, and not only surviving, but thriving, is reassuring.

Internal Migrations

In February 2013, I attended the annual Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators’ Conference in NYC.  This was my second time participating, and I have also attended their last two annual summer conferences in Los Angeles.

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One of the striking things about these conferences is the caliber of the speakers.  They have giants in the industry, on both the business (publishers and agents) and artistic (writers and illustrators) sides.

The conference in February was no exception: Mallory Kass, Heather Alexander, Tara Weikum, Kate Sullivan, Tina Wexler, Edward Necarsulmer, Ginger Clark, Jenny Bent, Michelle Nagler, Lin Oliver, Stephen Mooser, Meg Rosoff, Mary Brown, Robert Brown, Jon Fine, Peter Glassman, Alexander Penfold, Nancy Siscoe, Shaun Tan, Tomie dePaoloa, Jane Yolen, Margaret Peterson Haddix, Julie Andrews, Emma Walton Hamilton, and Mo Williams.  And these are just the people I heard speak!

I was spoon-fed a wealth of useful information, and inspired to raise the level of my craft, and, all-in-all, reminded why I decided to write to children’s books to begin with.  All these speakers contributed to my bountiful takeaway.

But, Shaun Tan’s talk really stuck with me, which is a little surprising, considering he is more of an illustrator than an author (although he may disagree with that categorization, as he really is clearly both).  But, he is a more visual storyteller than I am, to be sure.

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However, his discussion of “Internal Migrations” and “The Journey Within” resonated incredibly strongly with me.   And it helped me understand how writing fits into my exploration of place.

It is obvious how reading and traveling do.  But, the third leg of my stool, the third thing I am passionate about, is writing (picture books, novels, blog entries) based on my travels and readings.  And, until I heard Shaun speak, I didn’t fully appreciate how closely linked that was to the other two.

Now I get it: writing is the exploration of place INSIDE my head.  It is traveling in my thoughts, without leaving my desk.  It is an internal migration, where take all the material I have gathered, through my travels and readings, and create characters and stories that I can share with others, and enable them to explore those same places.

Writing is a way I explore place, just like reading and traveling are.

So, thank you, Shaun (and SCBWI).  Now I understand what I have been up to!

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