Tuesday, January 29, 2013

A Movie Trailer for Flying Solo

How do you talk about a book in such way that it makes people want to read it? Well, some 4th graders at Long Branch Elementary (Arlington, VA) certainly did that. Working with their teacher, Michael Evans, they created their own movie trailer for my novel Flying Solo. Here’s what they came up with:

Monday, January 28, 2013

Flying Solo: Correspondence with a teacher

Many 4th and 5th grade teachers read my book Flying Solo with their students. I recently received an interesting letter from Robert Degnan, who teaches 5th grade in Rhode Island. Here's what he wrote to me, in part:

          One of my reading groups is currently devouring your book Flying Solo.  We absolutely love it!  As serendipity would have it, one of my children in that group is an extremely shy talker; certainly not a selective mute like Rachel, but she is timid and barely audible when communicating.  Therefore, I feel at times she is almost empowered by her ability to at least speak compared to Rachel's complete inability (or lack of desire) to communicate verbally.

          During group, we have been using a lot of text dependent questions, trying hard to state why you as the author wrote something in the book to honor your craft and give evidence to prove it.  For instance, I may ask them why you wrote the chapters from varying points of view or why on page 46 did you list out Mr. Fabiano's story list instead of just writing it into a paragraph. These questions help them become better writers, while also respecting your hard work. Too many times, speculation tears away at the heart of a story, leaving the initial meaning or purpose scattered about.  I want my kids to see not only what they can infer, but also what you did and why.

          So, all of this is leading up to a big, overarching question I have for you—what would you consider to be the main theme of this book? Or are there several themes that carry equal weight in your eyes? To be honest I am kind of stumped and I don't want to lead them astray. It seems responsibility is a theme as they are taking responsibility for the classroom, but at the same point in time being irresponsible by not reporting it. Also another theme is change, as many characters seem to be dealing with major life changes. Or is it something along the lines of Independence?  If you could please throw me some kind of a bone here that would be greatly appreciated.  :)

         The questions in the last paragraph fascinated me, and really made me think. Here's how I answered his letter.

         Very nice to hear from you, Robert. And thanks for your thoughtful questions. I'm happy to be part of the conversation but, at the same time, I feel awkward doing so. A book like Flying Solo really takes on it's own life after it's been published. Most of the time I stand back and let it speak for itself.

        I am not really "thinking theme" when I write a novel like Flying Solo. Rather, I'm trying to create a strong, engaging story with believable characters. I put those characters into a situation that tries them almost to the breaking point.

        To me Flying Solo contains many themes including independence, as you say, and also tolerating difference. And responsibility: how are you going to act in this world? What choices will you make, and what will be the implications of those choices?  Most of the time teachers are the ones who make all the important decisions in the classroom. I thought it would be intriguing to see what a bunch of regular kids would do if they suddenly found themselves with no adult in charge of making those choices.

        I hope that helps. 

        Ralph Fletcher

Friday, January 25, 2013

A Quote and a Poem for Poetry Friday

Like a piece of ice on a hot stove, the poem must
ride on its own melting.
                                             Robert Frost

Here’s poem of mine that appears in my book Ordinary Things: Poems From a Walk in Early Spring (Atheneum). 

                   running water

                   dripping off rooftops
                   liquified diamonds
                   lit by clean light

                   babbling snow-melt
                   bringing the gossip
                   spilling off mountains


For more Poetry Friday poems, check out:

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Nina Ignatowicz

A writing teacher will have a definite influence on the work produced by his/her students. In a similar way, editors impact the professional authors they work with.
I just heard the sad news that my original editor, Nina Ignatowicz, passed away a few days ago. It's impossible to overstate the importance of Nina Ignatowicz to me as a writer. I still remember the first time she called me, out of the blue, after my agent had sent the manuscript of Fig Pudding to her. 
        "These stories are hilarious!" she said, laughing. 
         Nina became my editor. Over the next eight years I worked with her on many books including Fig Pudding, Spider Boy, Flying Solo, Twilight Comes Twice, Hello Harvest Moon, Uncle Daddy, and The Circus Surprise.  I can look back on each one of those books and see how they were improved by Nina’s guiding hand.
The dance between an author and editor is both intimate and intricate. When it’s working well it feels as natural as running water. When it’s not, well, it feels like stomping all over each other’s toes.
Good editors don’t impose their own vision on a writer. Rather, they find a way to step inside the writer’s vision and extend it. Nina Ignatowicz really knew how to do that. She could be generous but also tough when the situation demanded it. Many times she’d make a suggestion, adding: “Why don’t you think about it?” I might initially oppose her idea, but more times than not when I reread the manuscript I'd realize that Nina was right. Over time I came to trust her instincts when it came to my books.   
I always felt that Nina really “got” me as a writer. She had my back. And I know many other writers (my friend Louise Borden, for instance) who would agree with me. A skilled editor is a rare and valuable thing. I treasure Nina Ignatowicz and all she taught me about writing.
Rest in peace, Nina.    

Thursday, January 17, 2013

The Importance of Not Writing

I’ve published forty-some books. It’s not unusual for me to publish one or two books in any given year. I’m a prolific writer, a badge that most (though not all) writers would be proud to wear. Years ago I marveled to Jane Yolen about the staggering number of books she had published.   
“I hope to be remembered as an author of quality and not merely quantity,” she replied.
“You certainly will be!” I assured her.    
Most writers put a premium on getting down to work and being productive. In any book about writing you'll find various shorthand slogans to reinforce this notion.
BIC: Butt In Chair.
Never a day without a line.
Writers write, right?
         Right. But there’s another side to this story. I know that beginning to write a book is like starting an intense relationship, one that will last for at least a year, often much longer. I don’t want to enter into that relationship lightly. I want to make sure that this is a project I want to sink my teeth into.
“When I write a book I take a deep breath and go underwater,” says Tom Newkirk, author Misreading Masculinity and The Art of Slow Reading. “And I can hold my breath for a long time.”
I’m proud of being a prolific writer, but I know that once I start on a new project I’ll be underwater for many months. So I’ve come to cherish the all-too-rare times when I’m not writing. This rare in-between time feels luxurious, but I find it quite useful, as well. It's an ideal time for dreaming, gathering ideas, musing, playing in my writer’s notebook, reading, taking long walks, letting my mind wander, napping…and, ultimately, deciding what writing project I want to work on next.
Viewed from the outside, I probably don’t look very productive when I’m in my not-writing phase. And I guess I’m not. But I’ve come to realize that this in-between time constitutes an important part of my process, a time for gathering all the essentials (tangible as well as intangible) I'll need for the long journey ahead.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Swan and Shadow by John Hollander

     Sometimes I find something VERY cool and decide to put it into my writer's notebook. Take this remarkable poem, "Swan and Shadow," by John Hollander. I typed it up using different colors, printed it out, cut out the poem, and taped it into my writer's notebook so I can keep this swan forever.

 I want my writer's notebook to be filled with things like this. More than just the shape of the poem, I'm inspired by the lush language in this poem.

Friday, January 11, 2013

A Poem For Poetry Friday

Beach Baby

She’s one year old. One tooth. A total pudge.
She tries to get out of the water but her
soaked diaper must weigh
ten thousand pounds
so all she can do is

Later she sees me eating Cheez Puffs
and toddles over, towering above me,
a baby so giant she blocks out the sun,
sticks out her hand and yells: “Mine’s!”

Her mother hustles over, apologizes,
and hauls her back to their blanket.
Then the baby starts eating sand, grinning,
grinding the grains with that one tooth.

          from Have You Been To The Beach Lately?

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

The Writer's Notebook: Capturing An Image

A few nights ago I woke at 3 am and went downstairs. It was so bright outside! It had been snowing through the evening, but the skies must have cleared because a large moon had risen over the snow. I could see shadows cast by the bright moon on the untouched white snow. Such a dreamy, magical landscape! I wished I could have somehow captured that with my camera, and I went to fetch it, but it was frustrating because I didn’t know how to adjust the settings to get an image in moonlight. But then I realized I could capture it in my writer’s notebook. 

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

A Quote For Inspiration

       I received some cool gifts over the holidays, including this one from my fabulous daughter-in-law Jess. She created a little tapestry using various pieces of cloth sewn together. I plan to hang it above my desk so I can read the words, and let their wisdom inspire me, whenever I sit down to work. 

       Eliot's quote reminds me of a song by Harry Chapin: "All My Life's A Circle." It's true that many stories and poems bend in a circle. Think of Bilbo Baggins, a hobbit who dearly loves his house in the Shire, heading out on a great adventure in "The Hobbit" (I'm referring to the book, not the movie). Eventually Bilbo will return to the Shire, and when he does he'll understand his home in a new and deeper way.  

       This quote also makes me think of writing, particularly when you write memoir. Memoir allows you to return to a past event and, by writing about it, to gain a deeper understanding of what happened. This can be a powerful but also scary experience because you often end up making new discoveries about yourself and the people/events that have made you who you are. 

Monday, January 7, 2013

Writerly Habit #1: Know The Task When You Sit Down To Write

         Writer Don Murray was an important mentor of mine; I suspect I’ll mention him a lot in this blog. Don lived only a few miles from my house here in New Hampshire, and I was lucky enough to call him friend. Not only was he a great guy with a wicked sense of humor, he was as a famous writer, as well. In his books and during our conversations over lunch, Don shared with me many important suggestions about writing, practical advice I still use today. Today I’ll share the first bit of Murray wisdom. 
         KNOW THE TASK BEFORE YOU SIT DOWN AT THE DESK. Don pointed out that when you first sit down to write you can waste a lot of time, thinking, trying to remember, shuffling papers, searching for the right manuscript page or file on your computer, etc. It saves an enormous amount of time if you know what you want to do before you sit down to write. 
         Take me. During the past few weeks I’ve been rereading and revising a new middle grade novel I’m working on. (It’s titled Step Up To The Plate.) So far I have worked through page 103, so this morning I know I can start with chapter 15, “Hospital Party” on page 104. Since I already know what I need to do, I don't have to waste time fiddling and diddling at my desk, so this morning I should be able to make real progress revising my manuscript. 

Friday, January 4, 2013

A Poem For Poetry Friday

         Poetry Fridays has become a popular feature in blogs and websites. I love poetry, so I’ve decided to join the fun. The following poem appears in my book, Relatively Speaking: Poems About Family. (Alas, this book is out of print.) This poem explores the meaning of my last name. In days of yore the Fletchers crafted arrows. Today the feathered part of the arrow is still known as the fletching. As you'll see, this poem also relates to the act of writing.


             When the leaves turn colors
             Grandpa comes to visit
             and we go hunting arrowheads.

Did you know that your ancestors were archers,
makers of fine bows and arrows?
It’s true, you know.

They fitted feathers onto their arrows
to make them fly straight
and strike true.

             I tell him archery is pretty cool
             but I want to be a writer
             when I grow up.

Well then, he says, what feathers will you use
to make your words fly
straight and strike true?
       for more Poetry Friday links go to:

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Fossils, Relics, & Artifacts

My writing desk is flanked by two windows, though you might be surprised to hear that I don’t look outside very much. Often I close the blinds.

“Appealing workplaces are to be avoided,” says writer Annie Dillard. “One wants a room with no view, so imagination can meet memory in the dark.”   

I like to keep fossils, crystals, or other cool stones nearby when I write. Sometimes when I’m stuck or when I’m pausing to think I pick one up one of these stones and hold it in my hand, feel its substantial weight. Writing involves words and ideas, which are undeniably powerful, but at certain times they seem floaty and insubstantial. Holding rocks and relics in my hand, feeling their dense mass and solid weight, helps to keep me grounded. They remind me of the ancient world, the eternal life spirit, and the unstoppable power of time. 

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Happy New Year!

Since this is a first blog entry (first ever!) seems extra-special, it seems like I should kick things off with a snazzy beginning, something bold and original. But I don’t really want to begin that way. Writing this blog will be no different from how I write anything else. It starts quietly, with me staring at the empty page or the blank screen.

After today the holidays are officially over. I really love having people staying at our house, but there’s a downside, too. I don’t write! For a few days I can live with that, but when I go for a string of days without writing, well, I start getting moody. A few days more and I get downright cranky.

I enjoy writing, but it’s more than that. I need to write.

A few times a week I’ll share my process as a writer on this blog. You’ll see what I’m up to: drafting, revising, dreaming, rereading, talking to one of my editors, or maybe just daydreaming about my next project.

If you ask ten different writers how they work, you’ll likely hear ten different ways of writing. But there are some commonalities. For one thing, most writers keep some kind of notebook to record ideas. And for another, everybody needs a place to write. Here’s my desk, the sacred place where I try to brew up a stew of magical words, stories, poems….