Pixar, CREATIVITY, INC., and Learning How to Fail

Failure is not a word I would associate with Pixar.

Over the last couple of decades, the animation pioneer has created some of my family’s favorite movies, including Up, Finding Nemo and Toy Story. Not a bad track record!

But when I read CREATIVITY, INC. by Ed Catmull, one of the founders of Pixar (with Amy Wallace), failure was one of the recurring themes.

Catmull says early on that wrote the book to reflect on Pixar’s success and offer a blueprint for business administrators who manage teams of creative professionals on how to maintain a successful creative company over the long haul.

But I found the book to be so much more than another entry in the business self-help genre. Instead, it was a fascinating peek into a visionary company that put story, creativity and excellence at the center of everything they do…which is what I aspire to do every time I sit down to write.

“To be a truly creative company, you must start things that may fail.”

Catmull believes that one of the things that dooms creative companies (and by extension, creative people) is refusing to risk failure. He spends an entire chapter — and a significant portion of the book — talking about the various failures he and his company faced as they reinvented animation for the computer age.

And even though I’m not an animator, it all really resonated with me. Because in my work as a copywriter and in my second life as a fiction writer, I have found that my very best work walks hand in hand with failure.

When I started out writing, I didn’t feel the same way – at all! I vigorously avoided anything that might lead to failure. I tried to keep plots simple, thinking that being too ambitious was a sure road to failure. I relied on tropes because they had led to success for so many other writers – and success was something I wanted.

Fear of failure can be incredibly debilitating. I know writers who have honed and polished their work for years, never querying for fear that they will be rejected. I know writers who send a few queries, get a few rejections, and abandon their project because they don’t want to know that the project of their heart has failed. And I know writers who refuse to budge from the plans they’ve laid out for their work or their career because they think to do so would mean they have failed.

At one time or another, I’ve been those writers, too.

But over the years I’ve learned that when I try an idea that seems too bold, too big for me to handle — when I risk trying something that might fail — I usually end up creating something more interesting than I ever thought possible.

“While planning is very important…there is only so much you can control in a creative environment.”

For me, one of the scariest things about taking a creative leap is the fear that I might not be able to pull it off, that I might fail.

As writers, we can’t control how our readers respond. Or whether an agent will resonate with our work. Or whether a publisher will choose to add it to their list.

Even once we get agents and publishing contracts and sales, our control is minimal, and failure is inevitable. How we respond can make all the difference between getting stuck and moving on.

In essence, I think welcoming failure into your writing is a letting go of control. And most of us writers – I’d argue most of us people! – don’t enjoy not being in control.

In CREATIVITY, INC. Catmull has a few suggestions on how to deal with the failure and loss of control that are inherent to the creative process:

  • Embrace it. Once you can start to see failure as part of the gig, you’ll have an easier time moving past those moments when you inevitably fail to meet your goals.
  • Share it. Get feedback at every stage of your work. As Catmull says, “I do not believe creative products should be developed in a vacuum.”  And having support on your journey can make those failure moments sting a lot less.
  • Realize that failure helps you. The bolder and fiercer your work, the closer you walk to failure. If you’re failing, it means you’re pushing yourself.

The bottom line: don’t be afraid of failure. It’s there to help you become the best writer you can be.

And if you’re interested in Pixar, animation, or how the creative process works and is nurtured at one of the most enduringly creative and successful companies in the country, definitely check out CREATIVITY, INC.

 

rm-picRICHELLE MORGAN writes, works, plays and drinks too much coffee in Portland, Oregon. When not writing fiction for young adults and children, she pens fundraising letters and other marketing copy for progressive nonprofit organizations. Richelle keeps an occasional blog about nonprofit marketing and communication. She has also written feature articles for The Oregonian, and her short fiction has appeared in Voicecatcher. You can find her on Twitter.

MYC: Letting it Sit

Welcome to this week’s Master Your Craft post! Each Wednesday we’ll discuss prewriting and drafting a new book from the BIG IDEA to QUERYING. Last week, we looked at two Pennies’ thoughts on revising while drafting. This week, we’re talking about the very first step in revising your novel: letting it sit.

Congratulations! You’ve written the first draft of your novel! Yay you!

Now what?

You might have noticed that we actually had very few posts on drafting compared to pre-writing. That’s because at the end of the day, drafting is about putting your bum in the chair (or your feet on the treadmill at your standing desk) and doing the work.

Once you complete a draft, you are on the long (and for a lot of writers the very fun!) road to revision. And we’ve got a LOT of tips and tricks lined up to help you walk that road.

But there’s one crucial step I always take between drafting and revising: letting my novel sit.

It’s amazing what happens when I come at something I’ve written with fresh eyes. Typos I’ve been glossing over for weeks suddenly jump off the page. That place where I accidently switched my MC’s best friend’s name for three chapters is easier to see. Plot holes? Oh yeah, there they are.

I think most authors have their own time period for letting something sit. I need at least a month away from a project that’s in-process, and I’ve even taken a year between drafting and revising when I got busy with another project. Other writers might only need a week. (Writers under contract may not have the luxury of much “letting it sit” time, but even a couple of days out of your story world can help!)

With my current WIP, I gave it a month. During that time, I worked on pre-writing for my Shiny New Idea, wrote more for the Winged Pen, and wrote a picture book for fun. All that playing flexed my writing muscles and refreshed my creative juices so that when I sat down to start revising, I was immediately engaged.

And because I’d taken the time away, I saw so much better what needed to happen with my draft this time around.

I know it can be hard to wait, especially on a story we’re so excited about. But there are a lot of benefits to resting a project:

  • Better problem-solving. Problems always crop up as you’re drafting something. You know this needs to happen to move the characters from Point A to Point B, but how to make this seem natural? Your MC needs a reason to change a lifetime of behavior and finally go after what she wants…but how can you make that reason seems organic? Trying to figure that stuff out can sometimes seem impossible. But when you step away for a week, often the solution becomes completely clear.
  • Better voice. Outsiders can often hear regional dialects much more clearly than locals do, and the same is true for the language of your novel. Stepping out of your characters’ world can help you “hear” how they speak and notice the unique way they see the world even better.
  • Better plotting. It took me stepping away from my WIP to see that an important scene I had placed in the second half of the novel needed to be right up front. Without time away, it’s so easy to get attached to the way we have things happening that we can’t see how to make things better for the reader.
  • Easier editing. Your darlings become a lot less darling when you haven’t looked at them in a month. Which makes it a lot easier to kill them when needed.
  • Perspective. Things that seem brilliant in the moment — from too-similar character names, to that flashback that seemed so crucial when I wrote it, to the same old coffee shop setting that ends up in every book I write — can be seen in a new light when I let it sit.

In essence, time away lets us come at our own work more like the reader will – with fewer preconceptions and less investment in our favorite lines or characters. It gives us the chance to prove to ourselves that our story works, which in the end makes it easier for us to prove it to other readers.

Of course, there is a drawback to letting it sit: Procrastination!

If you find yourself making more and more excuses for why you’re not quite ready to pick that story back up – and those excuses are sounding less legitimate every day – then “letting it sit” time is over. It’s time to open that file back up and get to work!

But despite the risk of procrastination, I am a firm believer in “letting it sit” time. Like a farmer lets a field lie fallow for a season in order to replenish the soil, letting your novel rest can result in a more robust story later on.

Tune in to next week’s #WPMYC post where we look at tension and pacing!

 

rm-picRICHELLE MORGAN writes, works, plays and drinks too much coffee in Portland, Oregon. When not writing fiction for young adults and children, she pens fundraising letters and other marketing copy for progressive nonprofit organizations. Richelle keeps an occasional blog about nonprofit marketing and communication. She has also written feature articles for The Oregonian, and her short fiction has appeared in Voicecatcher. You can find her on Twitter.

NYTimes Author Alan Gratz talks about REFUGEE and BAN THIS BOOK

Three gutsy protagonist, three continents, three different time periods. How’s that work? Well, you won’t have to wait much longer to discover how middle-grade author Alan Gratz weaves these interconnecting stories together in a way that Kirkus Reviews has called a “feat nothing short of brilliant.” REFUGEE hit bookstore shelves in July 2017 and made it to the NYTimes best-sellers list for middle grade fiction twice in August. BAN THIS BOOK released on August 29th!

We are delighted to talk with Alan Gratz about REFUGEE, BAN THIS BOOK, and writing.

 

AmazonBarnes and NobleGoodreadsIndiebound  |  Malaprops (ask for a signed copy!)

Welcome, Alan! Tell us about your inspiration for REFUGEE.

The idea for Refugee came from a number of different places, over the course of many weeks. It began with the story of the Jewish refugees on board the MS St. Louis. I was looking for a way into that story when my family and I took a vacation to the Florida Keys, and we woke one morning to find a raft on the beach that refugees had used to come to America. We had no way of knowing where the raft had originated, or if the people who set out in it had made it to safety, but it got me thinking about how so many people are risking their lives every day to have what I and my family have.

I wanted to tell the story of the MS St. Louis, but now I also wanted to write something about Cuban refugees coming to America by raft! And then—this was in early 2016—we came home every night to reports on the news and the Internet about the Syrian refugee crisis. I wanted to write a book about the MS St. Louis, I wanted to write a book about Cuban refugees coming to America, and now I wanted to write a book about the plight of Syrian refugees! Finally I realized—what if I wrote a single book about all three, linking the families across the ages and across the globe? That’s how Refugee was born.

You often write about young people tacking adversity head on. What do you hope readers will take away from REFUGEE?

I want young readers to see refugees. My family and I knew refugees were risking their lives to come to this country officially and unofficially every single day, but because we don’t live on the front lines of that struggle, we didn’t see it every day. Out of sight was definitely out of mind. I hope that Refugee does for young readers what that raft on the beach in Florida did for me and my family: make the invisible visible again.

I also hope that young American readers understand that, unless their family is Native American, we are ALL immigrants. Whether their families came over on the Mayflower, or came here on a raft last year, we’re all Americans, and it’s that immigrant melting pot that made this country great, and continues to do so.

Whew! In 2015, 2016, and 2017 you’ve released two middle-grade books each of those years? How?? Magic, time turning? You’ve gotta share your secret. Okay, maybe you don’t have to tell us, but you’ve obviously figure out some strategy to getting words on a page. What tips do you have for us on making time to write?

Did I? Oh, wow. I guess so! Pardon me while I go pass out… Seriously though, I’m not happy unless I’m writing. I’ve been doing a lot more school visits of late—I think I did more than a hundred last school year!—which also takes away writing time. So the first thing I had to do was say no travel for six months out of the year: December through February, and June, July, and August. (I still break that rule all the time, but I do TRY to hold to it.)

Then, for those six months, I’m working on new books all the time. For my historical novels, I do about a month of heavy research for each, where I’m doing nothing else during my “writing” time but reading books about my subject and taking notes. Then once I’ve got enough research to build a rough story, I’ll start working up an outline. I’m a big proponent of outlining. It takes me another month to create a detailed outline, where I lay out what happens in every single chapter.

During this time, I’ll also work on character creation and do fill-in research for parts of the story my first round didn’t cover. Then, once all that pre-writing is done, I can usually write a first draft in about a month, at the rate of about two chapters a day. That’s my three month block! I turn the book in, and my terrific editor takes over. She’ll get the book back to me while I’m on the road visiting schools again, and then I’ll begin the revision process when I get back.

All the traveling I’m doing now may knock me down to one book a year, but that’s probably better for my sanity in the long run. But I learned to be a disciplined writer doing non-fiction advertising and marketing work before I was a novelist, so when it’s time to get writing done, I just sit down and do it!

Your other 2017 middle-grade novel, BAN THIS BOOK has a main character, Amy Anne, who is a girl after my heart. Tell us something about the story that will make us want to add BAN THIS BOOK to our Must Order and To Be Read ASAP List.

Well, I’ll give you the elevator pitch first: Ban This Book is the story of a fourth grade girl who goes to a school where a parent start banning and challenging books. As a protest, Amy Anne takes those books and hides them in her locker and starts checking them out to other students in secret as a Banned Books Locker Library. And all the kids’ books that are banned in the story have actually been banned in the last couple of decades in America! It’s (what I hope is) a funny, heartfelt story about the issue of book banning, as well as my love letter to middle grade novels.

What can you tell us about what you’re working on now?

When I visited Japan seven years ago, I met a man who had been a young boy on Okinawa when the Americans invaded in 1945, toward the end of World War II. He told me that the Japanese Army pulled him out of school, lined him up with the other middle school boys, and gave them each a grenade. Their instructions: go off into the forest and don’t come back until you’ve killed an American. That’s the first chapter of the new book I’m writing, which I’m calling Grenade. That will be out in late summer/early fall of 2018.

Buckle up for the…Lightning Round (*hands you a slice of pepperoni pizza for strength)

If you had a superpower, what would it be? Super speed! The Flash is my all-time favorite super hero.

Wooden pencil or mechanical? Always wooden. I never got the hang of mechanicals.

Coffee or tea? Coca-cola!

Sweet or salty? Always salty! If I could live on French fries, torilla chips, and popcorn, I would. Or maybe I already do…?

Dog, cat, or other? I’ve had both, but the answer is dog. Mine’s name is Augie. He’s a rescue mutt.

Plotter or pantser? Plotter! (As you now know!)

Any advice for all those aspiring authors out there?

You’ll hear this from a lot of professional authors, but that’s because it’s true: talent matters, but what really gets you published is persistence. I’ve met so many writers who give up after one or two rejections. You have to keep sending your stuff out, and keep getting rejected until someone says yes. And while you’re sending out one book, start writing the next. And the next. And the next.

I was still subbing (and getting rejection letters for) the first two YA novels I’d written when I wrote Samurai Shortstop, which would ultimately become my first sold and published novel. I’ve never sold those previous two manuscripts—they just weren’t good enough. Write, write, write, submit, submit, submit, and get better at what you’re doing with every attempt. Then, if you stick with it long enough, you’ll break through.

 

Photo credit: Wes Stitt

What an inspiring interview! Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us! And best of luck with both of your new books!

Alan Gratz has been putting kids in fictional danger since 2006. You can find out more about Alan and subscribe to his newsletter by visiting Alan’s website.

 

 

MICHELLE LEONARD is a math and science nerd, a chocolate biscotti baker, and a SCBWI member who writes middle-grade and young adult fiction. Her young adult sci-fi short story IN A WHOLE NEW LIGHT , about a teen girl who uses technology to fight racism, is in the BRAVE NEW GIRLS ANTHOLOGY: STORIES OF GIRLS WHO SCIENCE AND SCHEME. Proceeds from the anthology will fund scholarships for the Society of Women Engineers! Connect with Michelle on Twitter.

Subscribe to The Winged Pen and never miss a post, including our monthly #FourOn400 writing contest for middle grade and young adult. 

 

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8 Tips for Writing Picture Books

Writing picture books is hard. It doesn’t matter if you’ve written one or one hundred, just ask Jane Yolen or Mo Willems or John Klassen. But good news is if you keep writing and reading picture books, you will get better!

  1. Don’t think your way into your story–feel your way in. Instead of seeing your characters as separate, become your character. For example, if you’re writing about a budgie who has escaped out an open window, imagine what it’s like to be outside for the first time and feeling the wind rustle your feathers, or hearing the sound of cars zooming by.
  2. Remember it’s a picture book and pictures tell much of the story. Don’t waste words telling us something already described in the illustrations.
  3. Sweet spot s between 300-700 words. We get into trouble by going too wide. The secret is to focus on one main idea/feeling/theme/goal. Focus on your character’s goals. Does our budgie dream of being free and wild? If so, focus on this, and how what happens perhaps changes his goal.
  4. Picture books are audio books with illustrations! They are supposed to be read aloud so be aware how your words sound, the rhythm and cadence of your sentences. Use repetition, alliteration, onomatopoeia to plop us into your  world!
  5. Any good picture book captures a familiar feeling in a new and unfamiliar way. Twist, turn, and loop the world to find the unexpected and surprising. A talking crayon, a farting dog, a pigeon not allowed to drive the bus, or a budgie who wants to fly south with the geese… You get the idea!
  6. Avoid teaching a lesson. No preaching, no morals. Of course, your picture can and should have a theme but it should be an organic part of your characters and their choices.
  7. It’s all about the page turn. What will make your reader eager to turn the page to see what’s going to happen next? Some writers use the rule of threes or fives to build the page turn. Or you can ask a question, use ellipsis, or make us care so much about the character that we just have to find out what your character decides to do. Finally, creating a picture book dummy  is an excellent way to test your page turn-ability.  See Tara Lazar’s post on creating a dummy here.
  8. What to write about?  Character-driven picture books are wonderful, but don’t forget concept books. They are timeless and funny and mindful and beautiful and sometimes very funny. Some have characters but they don’t have a traditional story arc. Here are just a few:

KARIN LEFRANC is from nowhere and everywhere. She lived in Sweden, Lebanon, South Africa and the UK but now lives in the US in a small Connecticut town which boasts the largest tree in the state. She’s an admitted tree hugger, who has on occasion, even been spotted kissing a tree or two.  Her debut picture book I WANT TO EAT YOUR BOOKS was published in 2015 by Sky Pony Press. When she’s not writing picture books, she’s time traveling to the 6th century in her middle-grade novel. You can find her on Twitter.

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MYC: Setting as a Character

Master Your Craft

Welcome to this week’s Master Your Craft post! Each Wednesday we’ll discuss prewriting and drafting a new book from the BIG IDEA to QUERYING. Last week, we continued our series on research with Notes from a Time Traveler  This week we are talking about setting, but not just as a background for your character. We’re going to look at setting as a character in itself.Master Your CraftWe move through our day going from place to place. The house, the car, the office, we drive down the street, and stop at the grocery store. But as we move through each location, we usually don’t take note of things specific to each, such as the chip bag peeking out from the pile of dirty clothes on the floor of your son’s room, the number of cars versus SUVs on the roads, or the coffee ring stains on your desk. We see places and the objects in them, but, in most cases, they quickly fade from our minds.

As writers, is that what we want for our stories? Places readers hardly notice because every school is the same two-story brick building, and every classroom has four dirty off-white walls and twenty-five desks? Of course that is fine for some settings, especially ones your characters visit once or twice. And because we are still in the early stages of writing our novel, settings may be just that: a house, school, or deserted island called Lain Yu where our characters go, do something then leave. But for more frequented locations, I’m going to give you a different option. And even in the early stages of drafting, it’s not too soon to think about it.

What if settings were like characters with their own smells, tastes, sounds, sights, and textures, all capable of invoking feelings and memories in others? And if you look at settings that way…

How does a setting impact your characters, the decisions they make, and how they interact with other people and places they come in contact with?

Let’s look at some examples from my works-in-progress:

Mel walks into her science classroom. The smell of alcohol from yesterday’s dissecting project lingers in the air. A few kids fan papers in front of their noses, but Mel barely notices because her best friends are two sweaty teenage boys. She glances at the whiteboard, sees the topic “Genes,” her chest tightens and she collapses into her chair. Why? Because Mel is deaf and relies partly on hearing aides, but mostly on lip-reading to get her through class. The topic “Genes” will do doubt include long complicated words like ribonucleic acid and deoxyribonucleic acid. Those words are almost impossible to pronounce and definitely impossible to lip-read.

Here’s another example:

Most kids don’t mind taking the school bus home. It’s like a magic carpet transporting them from boring classrooms to home where video game systems are waiting. But for Troy who has Tourette syndrome and OCD, and a compulsion to count his steps then touch the floor after every ten, there’s no where to hide from laughing and finger-pointing classmates and the slick slime-covered floor that will end up on his own fingers.

Looking at these examples, how are the settings going to effect the character’s thoughts, behaviors, interactions with others, and even dialogue? Would Mel feel differently if she wasn’t deaf or if she walked into a math class instead of science? Another way to look at this is to imagine setting as a friend or foe.

Another reason to look at setting as a character is that it allows you to see it as much more than it’s everyday common function. A graveyard can become home, a tight space under the stairs can be a sanctuary, and a school can be a bully. And as your characters change and grow throughout the story, the setting can too.

Remember, not all places in your story need to be as detailed. Sometimes a house is just a house.

But if you decide settings in your story need a little more detail, the best resources I found are the Rural and Urban Setting Thesauruses from One Stop for Writers. These books describe over two hundred places ranging from a child’s bedroom to a police station to a rodeo. They have notes on all five senses along with tips, resources, and examples.

So how can we incorporate this into our novels? Look at your work-in-progress and use the chart below to capture details about the setting.

The Setting Thesaurus by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi.

You can also check out the Winged Pen’s posts: Urban Thesaurus and Rural Thesaurus.

Now that you have an idea on how and why to make setting a character, I’m going to leave you with an exercise. It’s not homework, I won’t be grading it, but consider giving it a try during free writing time.

Think about your childhood bedroom. Write about it for fifteen minutes and include all five senses. How did it look, sound, smell, taste, and feel(texture)? Now write how it made you feel (emotions).

I would love if you shared your writing in the comments!

Subscribe to The Winged Pen and never miss a post, including our monthly #FourOn400 writing contest for middle grade and young adult. Click to SUBSCRIBE!

HALLI GOMEZ teaches martial arts and writes for children and young adults because those voices flow through her brain. She enjoys family, outdoors, reading, and is addicted to superhero movies. You can find her on Twitter.

 

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