Thursday, November 23, 2017

A PhD in Imagination: Smack Dab in the Imagination by Dia Calhoun

Wouldn’t you love to be a Doctor of Imagination? Sorry, a quick search reveals there are no PhD programs in Imagination. Why not? Imaginative ability is the most precious human resource we have. It should be studied, cultivated, and taught as an end in itself.

At least the University of St Andrews school of divinity, St Mary’s College hosts an Institute for Theology, Imagination, and the Arts. Not quite what I’m thinking. Too connected with Theology.

Closer perhaps is Arizona State University’s new Imaginary College. It’s under the umbrella of the Center for Science and Imagination. (In case you didn’t notice, science still comes first.) Their college members are divided into two categories.

1. Imaginary College Philosophers: “Sages and provocateurs who epitomize imaginative thinking and practice and provide inspiration for our work.” One of these is Margaret Atwood.

2. Imaginary College Fellows: “Rebels, hackers, wizards, inventors, and alchemists driving path breaking research, teaching, and outreach projects.”

As far as I can tell, this is still not a PhD in Imagination. You can get a PhD in mythology, in transformative studies, and there are various programs that connect design with imagination. Many psychology programs have an imagination connection, such as the one at University of Oregon. Their Imagination Research Lab in the Psychology Department focuses on “the development of imagination in children and its relation to social understanding, creativity, inhibitory control, and narrative skills. In particular, we are interested in children’s creation of imaginary companions and the role they play in social and cognitive development.”

Anyone else seeing a gaping hole here? And just what does that say about how much we truly value imagination?

Tuesday, November 21, 2017


We all want our books to be a joy to read. Generally speaking, if our books are a joy to write, that often means our readers will enjoy reading them.

Sometimes, though, that’s easier said than done.

Inevitably, at some point, the book we were so enthused about becomes a slog.

Sometimes, what you need to do is get back into the play or the fun of words.

Again, easier said than done?

Maybe not.

Often, returning to the fun of writing means grabbing on to another project. 

Go ahead. Cheat on your WIP with a shiny new less problematic project. Indulge in a play day.

Doesn’t have to be a work in the same genre or age category. Doesn’t even have to be a piece you’ll seek publication for. Maybe it’s a poem. Maybe it’s a picture book. Maybe it’s a stray scene that you’ve had in your head for a while. Maybe it’s a character you'd like to explore.

If you feel like writing it down, that’s great. If not:

Consider dictating it. Or sketching the new character you might be itching to develop. Go on a photography trek to an area you’d like to put in a story.

This is simply an exercise in total, complete creative fun. Do something you’re totally excited about.
Often, if you can rev that excitement, it will still be with you when you come back to your WIP. You’ll infuse your pages with joy again.

(Another bonus: sometimes, those “fun” days can occasionally lead to breakthroughs in your WIP!)

Monday, November 20, 2017

Play - Fiction's Foundation

Whatever you want to call it - Make Believe, Pretend, or Imaginative Play - it's all the same:  A wonderful expression of one's creative imagination.  My childhood was full of this kind of play.  Creating an imaginative world within the real world came very easy to me.  It didn't matter where I was - the school playground, the unfinished basement in our house, or the backyard - all those places became "different places" when I played.  Sometimes I "made up" these worlds and stories that kept me busy for hours; and other times, I stole the worlds and stories from books I had read, changing them, of course, to fit my fancy.  It has recently occurred to me that now that I'm all grown up, and playing "make believe" is pretty much frowned upon, I have found a different place to play:  my writing.  Being an author gives me the opportunity to enjoy pretend play whenever I write.  I get to create everything - the characters and the world they live in, as well as their problems, their solutions, and their stories.  And just like when I was younger, the imaginative play keeps me busy for hours.  When I created a make believe world as a child, it was nothing but real to me; and now when I create those same kinds of worlds when I write, that realness is the same.  I'm thankful I enjoyed a childhood full of this kind of play because for me it became the foundation for the fiction I write.
My Author Playground

Happy Reading, Writing, & Playing,

Sunday, November 19, 2017

My Favorite Bookstore to Play In

Sometimes I imagine my obituary stating: “Abigail died as she lived: Adding one more novel to her to-read list. She was crushed by the weight when they toppled.”

It would not be the worst way to go.

It’s true I cannot, nor want to stop, adding books to my shelves. I live at an advantage in that this is a large home, with no children, and I have free reign of where I want to put bookshelves. (I’ll be weeping one day if we move and I have to lift all these books out of here, though.) Adding to my collection issue is that I like to have multiple copies of favorites.

While I buy a fair share of new novels from local bookstores (support your local indie!), Kindle novels as well as old books from the library used book sale (support your local library!), the high school scholarship annual sale (support your local youth!), one of my favorite places to go in the entire world is a used bookstore in downtown Washburn, Wisconsin. It’s called Chequamegon Books, and it is housed in one of the historic sandstone buildings, a material well-known known in that area of Lake Superior’s shores.

The shelves tower well over my head, to just below the old tin ceiling. The well-worn hardwood floors are marred and weathered and squeak at odd places as you walk, just like the beloved farmhouse I grew up in. Ladders escalate to the topmost shelves, boxes sometimes sit in the aisles promising buried treasure. There are local author books and classics and mysteries. Culture, religion, foreign lands. Science fiction, children’s and young adult. Music, nature, geology, ships, planes, pets, poetry. Anywhere you want to go, you can find the ticket here.

Everyone is always quiet, and kind. My arms ache by the time I bring my to-buy stack to the front to check out, where they still use pen and paper receipts. Once, a dog was walking through the shelves and sat by me as I read a few paragraphs of The Secret Garden. Had a cat wandered in, that pretty much would have been all my dreams coming true at one moment.

As a child, I used to hold my mother’s hand and she’d take me into bookstores and libraries and I’d stand in awe at all the titles and names on the spines. I wondered: Would that be me someday? Could it?

I suppose I have one more dream: To see my novel one day, having found its way there after being well-read and worn, to the shelves of Chequamegon Books.

Happy reading!

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Parallel Play: Writers Writing Together by Claudia Mills

I used to think of writing as fundamentally a solitary endeavor. Sure, critique partners, writing groups, and insightful editors are an indispensable part of the process, but when it comes to that moment of putting pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard, we're on our own.

That was before I attended my first "write-in."

What's a write-in? It's basically a party of writers, where what we do at the party is: write. Well, also eat, drink, and have heartfelt conversations about writing, life, and everything. But for the most part: we write.

At first I thought: why would I go somewhere to sit with a bunch of other people, all of us silently writing side by side, when I could just write here in my own comfy house? Ahh, but it's just so much FUN to be writing together with other people who are all writing, too. You can feel the creativity in the air. Instead of writing for just an hour, two at most, as do when I'm on my own, I see that others are writing for a whole morning, and then for a whole afternoon, so I keep on writing, too.

At the write-ins I've attended, the host writer provides some kind of basic materials for a mid-day meal (a big pot of savory soup, or sandwich fixings), and the other attendees bring the rest, including all kinds of nibblies, with sweet treats galore. After writing all morning, we linger over lunch, before we return to write some more. Sometimes we go out to dinner at the end of the day, or at least have a happy hour to celebrate all we've accomplished.

One writer friend, who doesn't have a house big enough to welcome a group of writers, invites us to join her at the Denver Botanic Gardens to write there, which I've done twice now. Magical!

So here I am, writing at a write-in at a friend's house:
Here I am, writing at a write-in, in this enchanting spot at the Denver Botanic Gardens:
Work and play - productivity and festivity - pages written and chocolate eaten. What's not to like about a write-in?

Thursday, November 16, 2017


I (Holly Schindler, administrator at SMACK DAB) was thrilled to get my hands on this fun new MG from Mike Rich, the screenwriter of FINDING FORRESTER and THE ROOKIE. I was also delighted to chat with Mike about his book:

HS: Tell us about SKAVENGER’S HUNT—where the idea came from, how it originated.

Mike: I guess the seed was planted by the books I read when I was growing up. I was raised in a small town in northeastern Oregon, a great little place called Enterprise, and there was this terrific bookstore called “The Book Loft.” It’s actually still there! The story was inspired by books like “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” and “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.” Those were the kind of books I loved when I was growing up.

HS: As an author, I find action to be one of the most difficult aspects of writing. It’s tough to strike that perfect balance: providing enough detail to make sure your reader can visualize what’s happening but not giving so many details that the reading gets bogged down and clunky. How did your experience as a screenwriter (heavy on action and dialogue) help writing a book? How is the process of writing a book different or similar to writing a screenplay?

Mike: It’s a night-and-day difference. If I’m writing a screenplay, say it’s a scene with a chase onboard a train, all I have to do is write a scene heading that reads: INT. TRAIN – DAY. The film itself will provide the description by showing the moviegoer the inside of a train at daytime. But in the writing of “Skavenger’s Hunt,” it was my responsibility to make every part of that train come alive in the reader’s mind through pure description. It is a tricky balance, though, especially with action sequences. I always had to be aware of whether I’d written one-too-many sentences, so that the moment itself doesn’t start to hit a lull.

HS: What kind of research did SCAVENGER’S HUNT involve? How do you approach including factual material in a project for young readers?
Mike: Even though “Skavenger’s Hunt” begins in present-day New York, the majority of the story actually takes place in 1885 New York…along with a few other places, but I don’t want to slip and reveal any spoilers. There was a LOT of research involved, starting with finding that one year in the late 1800’s that had an unusually large number of interesting events and personalities. I simply started researching one year to the next, until I stumbled upon 1885. Hopefully, the readers will know what I’m talking about when they read the book and discover the pretty sizeable list of cool things that were going on at that time. As for including factual material in a project for young readers? That’s the part that excites me the most! Interesting characters and compelling events are always going to be interesting and compelling, no matter if they happen now…or then.

HS: Was there a wild scavenger hunt from your own childhood?
Mike: Not this wild! Remember, I grew up in a small town, but I did take part in a lot of scavenger hunts when I was a kid. They were pretty conventional, though. Y’know, knocking on someone’s door and seeing if they had a paper clip.

HS: The middle grade mind is always in motion—leaping into the ability to understand more complex concepts while still being drawn to somewhat childlike attitudes and interests. How did you tap into the middle grade mind in writing SCAVENGER’S HUNT? Did you rely on your own memories? Experiences with children?
Mike: You’re right about the middle grade mind. I actually decided early on that the worst mistake I could make would be to intentionally write “down” to those young readers.  You can’t and you shouldn’t. They’re so smart! So I set out to constantly challenge them with puzzles, and riddles, and clues that were difficult; and I wanted to layer those challenges inside a narrative that they’ll hopefully find entertaining.

HS: One of my favorite lines in the book is “Henry usually found himself on the boring side of the window.” Who was your inspiration for Henry specifically?

Mike: Henry wasn’t inspired by one kid in particular, but by a good many who maybe aren’t seizing the thrill of adventure that’s right there in front of all of us. We live in a time where adults, not just young teens, spend way too much time staring at that tiny screen of our cell phones. So I guess it’s safe to say Henry’s a composite character whose isolation is made worse by the recent loss of his father. It’s also a message to parents that they should never ever hold off on introducing their children to adventure. Don’t wait till they get older. Do it now.

HS: As a kid of the ‘80s, some of my own favorite movies that I might classify as “MG” include THE GOONIES and STAND BY ME. What are your own favorite middle grade books, characters, or movies? How did those favorites play into shaping SCAVENGER’S HUNT?

Mike: Wow, you nailed my own list! I still love those stories that showcase the power of a group of kids with a common goal. So many times, in so many books and movies, the number of kids who become tight…is four. We even see it now in TV series like “Stranger Things.” For me, it was so excited to come up with my own foursome of young characters, each of whom had their own special skill or ability that allowed them to compete against intelligent adults from all over the world. Kids are resilient and creative. Adults usually stumble because they get bogged down by what can go wrong, instead of what can go right.

HS: We all know openings are important—in today’s fast-paced world, maybe more so than ever. I’m fascinated by the fact that so much study is being put into a movie’s opening credits (via, etc.). How important do you feel the “opening” of a book is? (Opening lines, cover art, etc.?)

Mike: I can only speak for myself, but when I’m writing a screenplay, I feel a responsibility to grab the viewer within the first three pages, which usually translates into three minutes on screen. If you wait much longer than that, you’re asking for trouble. Even though books are, by their very nature, longer than scripts, I used the same approach with “Skavenger’s Hunt.” By the end of the prologue, the reader has a good sense of who twelve-year-old Henry Babbitt is and the hurdles he needs to clear. I’ll tell you what our secret weapon is…Will Staehle’s incredible cover art. It’s one of the best book covers I’ve seen in years!

HS: So often, we don’t choose a project; a project chooses us. What called you to book writing after years in the film world? Why MG (rather than adult)?
Mike: It was a creative itch that I just had to scratch. I mentioned the bookstore I used to visit when I was just a kid. I’d look up at the books on those shelves and, every so often, catch myself dreaming of writing a story I’d see on THAT shelf as well. My wife and I are fortunate enough to now have three grandchildren, with a fourth on the way. I wanted to have something I could read to them.

HS: How did you come to work with Inkshares? What was the process like? How was it different (or similar to) screenwriting?
Mike: I liked the approach Inkshares was taking, seeking out new writers and giving them a chance. Even though I’ve had a lot of success writing screenplays, I was new to the process of writing a novel as well, same as a lot of other Inkshares writers. I think I was most surprised at how many layers of editing were involved; and, as it turned out, I was grateful for it. Story editing. Line editing. Copy editing. It was exhausting, but exhilarating at the same time. The other difference was how long it took to proof read my own writing. With a screenplay, which is usually about 110 pages long, I can zip through it in about 90 minutes. With a book, it takes a little longer.

HS: Another favorite line: “Time isn’t about time. Time’s about the moment.” Will we all be able to share more of Henry’s moments in the future? Any sequels planned? What are you working on now?
Mike: I sure hope so. By the way, that was one of my favorite lines as well, so thanks! I’d love for “Skavenger’s Hunt” to find enough of a reading audience that it makes writing a sequel an easy decision. As for what I’m working on now? Brainstorming the next story, which will likely be aimed at that same middle-grader audience.

We all appreciate Mike stopping by to chat. Be sure to grab your own copy of SKAVENGER'S HUNT!

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Let's Talk Jabber-Play!

“This here story is all true, as near as I can recollect. It ain’t a prettified story. Life as a river rat is stomping hard, and don’t I know it. It’s life wild and woolly, a real rough and tumble. But like Da said, life on the river is full of possible imaginations. And we river rats, we aim to see it through in our own way. That’s the honest truth of it.”

So says River Fillian as she begins to tell her story in my first book, Big River’s Daughter. River’s story is an historical American fantasy, a blend of the tall tale tradition that captures so much of the American identity, and a unique form of fantasy. I have long been a student of tall tales, epitomized in the exploits of Annie Christmas and Mike Fink -- two important characters in River’s life. In true rough and tumble fashion, the heroes and heroines of tall tales mocked and defied convention. Their language was as wild and unabashed as the circumstance and landscape that created these characters. And that describes my character, River.

Wordplay is a powerful tool for the writer as well as the young reader. Language-- both the narrative and the dialogue -- was key to River's story. American folklore is unique in the world, and its characters like Mike Fink and Annie Christmas are absolutely engaging. More than this is the language itself. The language defies the tidy and restrictive, even uptight structure of formal grammar. It mocks the formality of grammar, in fact, pushing its boundaries by using pseudo-Latinate prefixes and suffixes to expand on the root. It plays with structure. The result is a teetotaciously, splendiferous reflection of a frontier too expansive for mere words to capture. By creating such a grand language, the frontier storyteller found a means to make an unknown frontier less scary. More than this, the grander language captured the bigger ideas.

To capture the language in River’s story, I  listened to storytellers tell their stories, and the best ones – like Eric Kimmel, Rafe Martin and Ashley Bryan – enrapture the audience. Theirs is the process of storytelling as old as human communication. We are story animals, suggests Kendall Haven (Story Proof: The Science Behind the Startling Power of Story, 2007). We have told our stories for over 100,000 years. Not every culture has developed codified laws or written language, but every culture in the history of the world has created myths, legends, fables, and folk tales.

Language is more than mere words. The rhythms and patterns, the musicality and the poetry of language. Such wordplay is important. Studies suggest that language acquisition is keyed to youth, and we can infer that language appreciation is similarly keyed. Young readers learn to appreciate the emotional and creative power of words. What else is at risk in this age of minimalist language and truncated text talk if the traditional tale fades away? If language reflects what lives inside us, our hopes, our dreams, our history, what does this truncated text talk reveal about us? LOL.

 To capture the dialogue, I studied many readings, like Davy Crockett’s Almanacs (1835 – 1856), which included much of the language used by storytellers of that day. Of course, these were the days before the dictionary and so people spelled words according to how they pronounced the. And different pronouncements produced different spellings. And one cannot write about the Mississippi River without reading Mark Twain. I read most, if not all, of his books, annotating, deciphering, pulling apart words and sentences. Of course, whenever river men, like the western mountain men, gathered, they told their tall tales. They used songs and signals to call to each other. One of my favorites was from Mark Twain, which goes, “Who-op!” It means, “I’m here! Look at me!”

Another strategy I use to learn the musicality of language is the study of poetry. And one of my favorite is the playful, whimsical imagination of Jabberwocky, complete with its galumphing chortle:

   by Lewis Carrol

’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
      Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
     And the mome raths outgrabe.

“Beware the Jabberwock, my son!
     The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun
     The frumious Bandersnatch!”

He took his vorpal sword in hand;
     Long time the manxome foe he sought—
So rested he by the Tumtum tree
     And stood awhile in thought.

And, as in uffish thought he stood,
     The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame,
Came whiffling through the tulgey wood,
     And burbled as it came!"

(For the complete Jabberwocky poem, see Poetry Foundation here.)

Do you have any favorite poems that show jabber-play in action?

-- Bobbi Miller