Improv and Creative Writing sitting in a tree…

Last week, I published a post over at Middle Grade Minded about Why I Write Middle Grade. I wrote about how books helped me through a tough time in my life, 6th grade. It’s all so true that my face reddened while remembering the shrinking, diminished, afraid feelings I had during that time. Oh and that hair. That hair. Lord…lord…

Books gave me solace and helped me find my footing at the end of a day. But it was only part of the story, and I want to share the other vitally important thing that happened in middle school to help me become myself – drama class.

Seems simple, but it was profound. I didn’t know the word for it at the time, but a lot of the early exercises we did in class were improvisation warm-ups. Just laughing and making ridiculous noises, or flopping all over the room like a bunch of unencumbered adolescent weirdos. It was awesome.

drama

Why was it so important? I think because improv let me find my voice in an atmosphere of safe risk-taking, acceptance, and creative expansion. The way books gave my inside life power, improv gave my outside life power. Power to get through the day and participate in the world. To raise my hand in class. To look people in the eye. To respond to questions out loud, without doubting myself. Stories and improv go hand-in-hand in my experience. Creation is creation, stories are stories, expression is expression. For me, they were life-savers.

With my book coming out this fall, I feel like I have a unique opportunity to do something cool.  I’m creating curriculum for workshops that blend the worlds of creative writing and improvisation. I’m so excited for the possibilities and can’t wait to learn more about the ways we can help kids feel more power, less alone, and better able to let their unique voices be heard – on paper, or in some honking, hooting, nonsensical, gorgeous growing-and-shrinking machine.

I’ll be looking for both geographical and non-geographical locations in the near future (e.g.,  if you want to beta test with your class, organization, or camp group – get in touch!)

 

 

 

Thoughtful pausing: An attempt.

I read some great things this morning over on a site called Brain Pickings. There’s a great post about Willa Cather and her decision to leave the corporate world in favor of a quiet life. Here’s an excerpt from a letter  from her friend (The writer) Sarah Jewett:
…you must write to the human heart, the great consciousness that all humanity goes to make up. Otherwise what might be strength in a writer is only crudeness, and what might be insight is only observation; sentiment falls to sentimentality — you can write about life, but never write life itself.
Willa was working in journalism and moving fast. Yes, deadlines, but also being a woman in a male-dominated industry must have been pretty exhausting. The bit in Sarah’s letter that reads “what might be insight is only observation” resonates with me. I rush a lot –not a super unique experience, I know. But how much do I miss in living, and in writing, by moving too quickly? I risk not taking time really see things, hear things, and feel things.

It’s a great time of year to think about what we’ve done, and what we want to do. I want to take more time to listen to the world and myself. I want to open up to possibilities and expansion. Live beyond screens, alarms, deadlines, and schedules. Play more. See more trees. Run with my kid more. Run more, in general.
I just finished a draft of my second book, so I have a great pause to explore before I get my first round of edits back. I’m going to do my best to fill it thoughtfully. There is a mile-long list of things that stand staunchly in the way of this endeavor, but trying is something.

willa cather

Willa Cather, from Wikipedia

New Author Website! And a sneak peek…

Hello everyone!

It’s been a while since I’ve updated this blog and there are a few things to report.

  1. This space is now a part of erinpetti.com – my author website! I’m so excited and thrilled with the work that the FABULOUS web developer Mike Robinson has done to get erinpetti.com up and running!
  2. THE PECULIAR HAUNTING OF THELMA BEE has a cover. It’s here!
  3. The generosity of my fellow authors, friends, and even one of my TV icons (!!) has been staggering. We’ve collected some really tremendous testimonials. Fun fact: I cry every time I read a new one.
  4. I visited my mom’s class of 6th graders to talk about writing and had the most fun ever. I’m really looking forward to school visits as we move forward. I have some super fun workshop ideas!!
  5. I’m THISCLOSE to finishing my first draft of book 2. In fact, I’m hoping to be done today. It may contain the following: meatball subs, red witches, and a student run radio station. I’m having fun.

BONUS TRACK! Here’s a little sneak peak of some of one of my characters as illustrated by Kris Aro McLeodizzy button

Super fun book news!

HAPPY HAPPY NEWS TIME!

My novel THELMA BEE has found a home!

Screen Shot 2015-06-09 at 8.44.18 AM

(Much like my idols, Peg + Cat – I’m totally freaking out!)

I’m excited to announce that the lovely people at Mighty Media Press will publish THELMA BEE in September 2016. I’m in super-love with the vision that Lauren Kukla and the rest of the Mighty Media crew have for the book and series to follow. I just feel lucky and happy and OMG IT IS HAPPENING!!!

Approximately one bajillion thanks go to wonder-agent Laura Zats of Red Sofa Literary. Also, my husband Ryan who has put up with my checking email every five minutes for months. He’s incredible.

I’m so excited for this new chapter. Thank you, everyone!

Getting Personal: Laurel Snyder’s Keynote

For my friends and readers who aren’t in the kidlit world, NESCBWI is the New England chapter of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. It’s an incredible organization and they put on a fantastic conference this past weekend. Workshops, speakers, raviolis, and catching up with my writer-friends in person? Pretty amazing.

final-HThis year’s theme was “Create Bravely” 

My favorite part of the weekend was the keynote address by author Laurel Snyder. If you’re like, “That’s a familiar name…but I can’t pinpoint it…” it’s probably because she also contributes to NPR on occasion. Her name may occupy the same cerebral storage pod that keeps words like:  “Lakshmi Singh,” “Kai Ryssdal, ” and “Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson.

The big idea: A writer has to look bravely inside themselves and write from the fear, triumph, friendship, and the love that only they have felt.

But to unpack that, the part that really set bells ringing in my mind was when she put up a slide with three photos. The first was Laurel as a teenager, a little angry looking, with a mushroom haircut and black clothing. The next was Laurel as a grown woman on stage wearing a flowing dress and joyfully playing a ukeleli, the third was Laurel at home being tackled by a beautiful baby boy.

Light bulb.

The specificity of images like those, that is personal. No one in the world has lived her life, had that particular mushroom haircut and that particular angst. Even if she was  just a kid whose parents split – one of many- she’s the only one who lived her own situation, in her city, with her music collection, and with her mom and dad. Same for the moments of joy. That’s where she writes from, and in some ways writes about, and that’s why her voice and her stories are so authentic and important.

Every single author in that room – every author everywhere, has their “list of things”. The true, personal things that make you you. That’s the jackpot. That’s where the writing should live.

This took me back to middle school. I was trying to grow my bangs out and wearing a baggy hoodie every day – just looking forward to the 25 minutes we got for SSR. Reading Brian Jacques and the REDWALL series and having that be a sanctuary in a relentless storm of awkwardness.

Laurel asked us to identify who our reader is. For her, she writes for her younger self – and I think I do that too. I didn’t realize it, necessarily, but it’s a powerful thought. The only good stuff is going to come from a place that is unique to you, and each one of is made of a million authentic moments.

I returned home so ready to create and so inspired by everyone I met. Creating stories for kids – this is important stuff, you guys. I feel really honored to do it.

 

 

 

Writing Toddler-Brave

“A thing is about to happen here that has not happened since the Elder Days. The Ents are going to wake up and find that they are strong” – Gandalf

This quote comes to mind when I see my 11 month old daughter moving around lately. Yeah, I’m comparing my beautiful girl to an anthropomorphized tree. Stay with me for a minute.

She’s always been a go-go kind of girl, but you can tell now that she’s feeling the power. She’s taken a few teeny steps and her confidence is sky high. My father watches her most afternoons and yesterday he created a Les Miserables-like barracade to keep her in the safety of her play area. I watched her grab a heavy wooden stool and pull it out from underneath an exersaucer like the damn hulk. To give you context, that would be like a regular sized person managing a picnic table.

She’s taken one or two little spills but it’s not really slowing her down. She wants to explore, to throw her weight around, to see what her strong little gams can do. She knows no fear.

So, I’m terrified.

If you watch Sherlock, you know how he can look at someone and a lot of white text appears on the screen – all the things he’s able to tell about a character just by looking at her “cat lover, size 10, long term boyfriend, etc.” – That’s kind of what I’m like with worst case scenarios. I can look at a laptop cable and see at least 35 ways that this child could hurt herself with it. All the scenarios swarm like flies and 35 is a low ball figure, obviously.

But I wanted to take a minute and think about what she’s feeling right now and how cool that actually is. Do you remember a time when you felt strong and invincible? It’s hard for me to conjure up that kind of memory. But this kid is moving through the world with the expectation that everything is awesome and she’s discovering new ways to manipulate objects, transport herself, and express herself every day. It’s amazing!

When I’m drafting, I want to try to be a toddler-writer. Just go for it! There’s no REAL staircase for you to fall down, so see what’s happening in that dark room Mom doesn’t want you to go into! Is that a cliff? How far can you hang over it? YOU ARE INVINCIBLE! Eat that dust-bunny, fool!

Revising might be a different story all together. That’s the time for adult thoughts, foam padding, and baby gates. But I’m really trying to un-childproof my brain for getting a first draft on paper again. Little baby bean is quite a source of inspiration.

And constant anxiety about her physical safety. That too. But mostly inspiration.

Faves 2013

Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens and also BOOOOKS!

Here are some of my favorite things I enjoyed in 2013.

Music:

Volcano Choir, Repave: I was filled with sad when I listened to Volcano Choir’s first album last year because I kind of hated it. I really want to love any project that Justin Vernon is involved with. My expectations for their second release, Repave, were low. But, VOILA! Vernon is back in business with sweeping, gorgeous, heart-wrenching soundscapes. It’s cinematic. It’s enveloping. Listen.

Sarah Jarosz, Build Me Up from Bones: When someone born in the 90’s is this talented and accomplished it is a little obnoxious. But that aside, if you enjoy singer/songwriterly brilliance with a relaxed, bluegrass inspired feeling – pick her up.

Books:

Ocean at the End of the Lane I listened to the audiobook read by Gaiman and it hogged a huge amount of space in my mind for weeks after. I asked for the hardcover for Christmas so I can re-read it over and over again. This sometimes terrifying story uses magic to uncover the most truthful depiction of childhood emotion and memory I’ve ever read. I was dumbstruck.

The Expeditioners: – Pubbed in 2012, this book is middle grade adventure done really well. Beautiful art. Exciting world. Yeah!

Movies:

Catching Fire: Catching Fire was not my favorite of the three books by Suzanne Collins, but holy guac, it’s my favorite movie so far. This particular piece of Katniss’ journey was really enhanced by the movie treatment. I think because it happens less in her mind than the first part of the trilogy – so I didn’t miss the first person intimacy the way I did in the first movie. It was big and flashy, but really well acted and adapted. I can’t even wait for Mockingjay.

A Place Beyond the Pines: What a weird movie! I loved it. One of my friends called this film “Shakespearean” and I kind of get that. I love that it followed a non-linear path and maintained all its humanity. It was also the first movie date that my husband and I had after baby was born, full disclosure.
The Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug: Obviously.

Miscellany:

The Hobbit, Special Features (on the extended edition blu-ray. Yeah, we bought the extended edition even though the movie was seven hours long. That’s the kind of household we are.):

The-Hobbit-image-the-hobbit-36116872-1024-576

PETER JACKSON IS A GENIUS AND ALL THOSE KIWIS SOUND SO COOL AND OMG. Seriously though, the creative process that went into the creation of this film is a fascinating study. Artists would routinely spend days creating a costume, or an animation, and then it would be used just for inspiration, or thrown out all together. But they didn’t care, because the only thing that mattered was making the best possible movie. It made me think about the precious, silly way I can be about my words and paragraphs. Going to try to take lessons from the amazing folks at WETA in 2014.

But this year, one release exceeded all expectations. At once gorgeous, hilarious, brilliant, and SQUISHY – the best of the best of 2013 is:

Screen Shot 2013-11-07 at 1.38.54 PM

Emmeline the incredible! Honestly, I’m so grateful for this little bean. She made 2013 a year I will never ever ever forget.

Happy New Year!!

My Agent Love Story: True Grit

In the beginning of 2012 I finished writing my first manuscript, a middle grade story called THELMA BEE. I sent it to some writerly friends and they gave great support and a few suggestions. I put it away for a while and later revised. “Now, I’m ready!” I thought. Wrongly. It was a wrongly thought thought.

I got a few requests. Supportive rejections trickled in. But then a contest called The Writer’s Voice happened.

Brenda Drake is the Khaleesi of writing contests. Once I started following her on Twitter, everything got a lot more exciting (and clear). During The Writers Voice I was chosen for Krista Van Dolzer’s team. Krista was an incredible mentor and helped me whip my query into shape. The contest did two things:

1. Plugged me into an informative, supportive, amazing group of writers/agents/editors on Twitter

2. Got my manuscript some VERY exciting requests.

Now we’ve got some momentum. Go go go go go gooooooPREGNANCY.

So I threw up for months and months and months. And I didn’t write. I didn’t query. I just looked out the window and then I threw up more.

Cut to my baby being old enough for me to think relatively clearly again — this past summer. I connected with some of my old Team Krisa pals and one of them, Michelle, gave THELMA BEE a read. She provided me with some excellent, detailed edits that helped me look at the book in a new light.

Then, one day on Twitter I saw #MSWL. That stands for Manuscript Wishlist. Agent Laura Zats asked for a quest that wasn’t a treasure hunt and if I remember correctly, a creepy swamp. Well, friends, this I can deliver. I queried her. She asked for a partial. Then the full. Then, right before Thanksgiving – she asked for a call.

I screamed. Whatever, it was exciting.

We scheduled the call for A WEEK AND A HALF in the future because of the holiday week. So, I hosted Thanksgiving for 12 people and that was a good distraction.

During the call, I put a slide show of calming forest scenes on my laptop. We chatted and she was awesome and very in tune with the characters and the story. At one point I made mention of Thelma’s town being a little bit Star’s Hollow and she immediately got that and excitedly compared one of my book’s locations to Luke’s Diner. In my mind I thought “YEP, NAILED IT. LET’S DO THIS THING”.

The week that followed “the call” brought two other phone conversations with great agents, each with different situations, each of whom would offer different paths for the manuscript in the next few months. I hounded my Team Krista friends (including Krista herself) with constant emails, and bugged fancy pants Twitter friend Summer Heacock for her expertise. At the end of it, I had to go with my gut and my gut was telling me to go with Laura.

I signed the contract on Christmas Eve. That was very cool.

As writers I think we sometimes try to force life events into a narrative arc to make it neat. This wasn’t a hero’s quest – it was messier. I loved my story, and thought it was good when I finished my first draft. But I learned the true meaning of revision over the months (and months) I worked on THELMA BEE. It was about letting go of my ego and really getting my hands dirty. It was also about not giving up even though it got hard and I saw other people sail past me, getting agents book deals while I was diving back in for the 35th revision.

If you love your story, don’t give up. Make it better and then make it best. I have come to a point in my life when I realize that for a writer (or a mom, for that matter) grit is one of the most important things. This process involved not a lot of luck, but a lot of persistence and willingness to reconsider and rework. It had much more to do with examining my use of gerunds than fairy dust. It actually had a lot to do with gerunds.

true_grit_clips

I’ve got a ton more work to do, but I’m very excited to be embarking on this next stage of my career with Laura.

FIN

I need to love the view

Driving this morning, I had an excellent idea for a book. I got a little chill of excitement because it’s original and it’s rich. At home, I scribbled a few paragraphs outlining the main points. There was already a narrative arc and some complexity. I could really see it coming to life.

But I don’t want to write it. Strange. Kind of like I designed this bikini that’s gorgeous, but no way am I wearing a bikini. It’s not me. Also, I own mirrors. And they work.

I don’t even know if I’d want to read this book that I don’t want to write. Some people would. In fact, if done well, with the right research, it could be an important story to tell, in a unique voice that should be heard.

But it is dark subject matter, and this is a bummer because I know me. I need to actively pursue positive stories at this particular point in my emotional life. I wasn’t always so feelings-flimsy. For example, in high school I wrote two plays: One about homelessness and one about the Holocaust (total life of the party). And I used to listen to Jeff Buckley as getting-ready-to-go-out music. Now it just makes me cry cry cry.

For me, sobering content has been replaced by the fun-scares of ghost stories and Jeff Buckley has been unseated by Justin Timberlake (not that you’re vapid JT – I feel you on Holy Grail).

These days the news I read on the internet is enough to send me hiding under my desk for hours. I’m easily overwhelmed with the bad stuff. I get sad in a deep way when I read about the stuff that’s happening in Russia, for example. I can’t shake it. It’s the world we live in and I’ll sign all the internet petitions, but at the end of the day it’s so easy to feel useless and small and quite, quite down.

So, this book idea. I started doing preliminary research and was immediately plummeting into stomach churning territory. Sad stories about bad things happening to people who don’t deserve them. Can’t do it. I know that is weak, but it’s just true.

As a writer there are a million choices you make in the process of a project, but one important one is – do I love the view from here? Do I want to live here for a while?

If the answer is no, for me, I can’t go ahead and pursue it. Even if it shines a little. No bikinis for me, at least until I drop the baby weight for good.

Flow: Improv, Laundry, Writing and Ditching the R.O.U.S

According to the uncompromising accuracy of Wikipedia, the psychological definition of “Flow” is:

The mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity. In essence, flow is characterized by complete absorption in what one does.

Doesn’t that sound like the best? Ugh, I want to eat that for lunch.

I mean, I’ve felt it before, I think most people have. The times that come to mind have to do with writing, improv, washing the bathroom, folding clothes, and drawing Ariel from The Little Mermaid over and over again in my room growing up.

Writers spend lifetimes trying to create the perfect atmospheric soil for flow to grow and thrive. We have routines, special pens, a white noise machine, maybe some coffee…whatever it takes to coax her out of her shell.

In improv, flow is everything. It’s hard to talk about this without sounding a wee bit new agey, but it’s important. If an improviser is lucky he or she has moments on stage when brain, body, voice, and team come together to create something magical without effort – that’s got to be flow.

For me it feels like a buzzing, taut energy that is off the charts wild, but still laser focused. There are three key factors that are always there when I’ve experienced this incredible feeling: Trust, Risk, and Action.

First though, the obvious: To feel dumb is easy. For me, it’s pretty much a total cake walk. But anyone who’s ever read an inspirational quote-a-day calendar knows that self doubt achieves nothing. It is a staid, boring, lethargic force.

JANUARY 4th

Self doubt is dreaming of making a delicious meal, but first you just have to bury all your pots and pans in the backyard real quick.

I’m drawn to improv because there’s no TIME for that bull. You are on stage with people you enjoy and by doing so you have entered into a sacred agreement with your team to be kind, supportive, and to lift each other up. What results, when done right, is great art. What results when the sacred agreement is undermined? The worst crap you’ve ever seen.  Just really bad, gotta wash it off in a hot shower yuckiness. I’ve been lucky to have great teams.

Writing is harder because you’re on your own. No team. No applause. One woman show. But, I’m positing that it can be done and these are NOTES TO MYSELF.

 

TRUST: Yourself. Don’t delete that thing just keep writing. Get there.

 

RISK: You aren’t working in an ER. No one dies if your idea isn’t perfect. Great things may lie beyond your imperfect idea, but you have to go through them like the Fire Swamps to get to the other side. Don’t deny your maybe-brilliant idea just because you are afraid you’re going to get eaten by an R.O.U.S.

 

ACTION: Literally, write words. A bunch of them. All strung together.

rous

 

Another technique: clean my damn bathroom.

Probably just going to sketch Ariel again.