Sunday, October 9, 2011

Excrement My Dad Said

My father had a few memorable phrases. They ranged from the teeth-grating, “You don’t have to want to, you just have to do it,” to the disarming, “My opinion, not to be confused with reality.” My favorite was, “The only nice thing I can say about that couple is that they keep two other people from being miserable.” But today, I’m thinking of another of Dad’s phrases. “Some people have twenty years of experience; some people do the first year twenty times.”

I mention this because I recently attended the SCBWI-Midsouth 2011 Fall Conference in Nashville. Bear with me on this. I’ve got a point and I promise to get back to it. But first...

Road Trips
My wife and I take audiobooks on road trips. Given the distractions of driving, the best books are collections of humorous essays. For the conference trip, we had Howie Mandel’s, “Here’s the Deal, Don’t Touch Me.” He’s not always funny, but from developing stand-up routines at the foot of his parent’s bed, to dramatic acting, to cartoon voice-overs, he is always experimenting, trying to find his next level.

Which Reminds Me
Mandel’s book reminds me of Steve Martin’s memoir, “Born Standing.” Mr. Martin takes his comedy seriously. All that stuff with King tut, balloon animals, and silly hats was well practiced. He worked hard to figure out what made people laugh and why. He tested audiences and changed them as much as they changed his humor. Now he tours as a professional banjo player. His year one was definitely not the same as his year twenty.

Back to Nashville
At the conference I was lucky enough to meet Newbery winner, Linda Sue Park and attend her scene-writing intensive. She shared a lot of good writing techniques, but she taught us something more in her key-note address. She experiments. She educates herself. She finds challenging stories. Her most recent book, “A Long Walk to Water,” is different from her award winning “A Single Shard,” or her entry in the 39 Clues series, “Storm Warning.” Year twenty doesn’t look much like year one.

Excrement I Say
Here’s the point I promised at the start. It’s about us, as writers and readers. We’ve got to experiment. I’m experimenting now. My current work-in-progress—the reason I’m on this blog—is my first YA. I’m writing it to see if I can—and because my critique group came close to saying, “You don’t have to want to, you just have to do it.” Anyway. I shared the opening chapters at the conference, and while the critiquer’s opinion should not be confused with reality, I got a rave review.

The author does research while attending the 2011 SCBWI-Midsouth Fall Conference.

Don’t Turn Me Into My Father
What about you? What have you written, read, made, tried or tasted that’s new for you? Post a comment about your experiments. Otherwise I’ll have to keep saying it. “Some people have twenty years of experience; some people do the first year twenty times.” Don’t turn me into my father.


Katie McGarry said...

Oh, Kurt. What a fabulous blog post! I laughed at your father's comments. And I believe what you are saying is true: as a writer we need to experiment.

Noah and Echo,characters from PUSHING THE LIMITS, were an experiment. I had no idea if I could write from a boys POV. I'm glad I took the chance because the risk is leading to publication.

As a person who has read your YA pages: Yes, it is fantastic. And you will continue with this experiment because I have to know how it ends.

bethany griffin said...

Well, I've never written a sequel before. But I'm trying. And I also love your YA, so you'd better finish it...soon. :D

Kurt Hampe said...

Katie, creating an opposite-gender character is a double challenge. First you have to write it, and then your opposite-gender audience has to identify with it. I guess that's why female superheroes look like they do--guys are writing for guys.

Bethany, thanks for the kind words. Keep writing that sequel--like Katie said, I have to know how it ends.

Vicky Alvear Shecter said...

Ha! Love this post. One of these days, I'm going to make it to a midsouth conference!

Court said...

I'm thinking the picture is from Disney at Epcot.

Great post!

Court said...

Okay that's not in Nashville, but it has that look to it.

Tracy Barrett said...

Adventure Science Center in Nashville?

Great post, Kurt! Throwing challenges at yourself is the way to keep your writing fresh. "Easy reading is damn hard writing," as Nathaniel Hawthorne said. Can't wait to read your YA!

Alison Lyne said...

I guess I fall more into the "you sometimes CAN learn an old woozle new tricks" catagory, but I prefer the "You DO love to do it...... so DO IT already!" spot right now.(grin) I've finally come to the realization that if publishers aren't gonna publish the way I've loved to illustrate from my "first year".....I've gotta develop a new style I luv to do for the next twenty or in other words....find a new style to love AND "love the one you're with". OK.... that's all the bad puns and references I've got for a Monday morning! Great post Kurt, and great giggles for a Monday!

Elana Johnson said...

I need to experiment more. At the conference I went to on Thursday, this became very apparent to me. It's hard, though, I want to write what I've always written. I'm comfortable there, and it feels fun.

But yeah. Gotta think outside the box.

Kurt Hampe said...

Vicky-thanks for the complement, and yes, you need to come to the conference and hang out with the crowd.

Court-only in Epcot would Disney admit to excrement. But as you said, that's not in Nashville. Thanks for commenting, keep coming back.

Tracy-you get the gold star. Tina got some great pictures of me playing on the Low Gravity Simulator, too. And like you, I look forward to reading my YA. Which means I have to finish the frickin thing.

Alison-I can wrap my head around the idea of changing my writing style, but I can't imagine what it's like to change your native drawing style.

Elana-who knows, maybe you'll find a style that's even more "You." Writing my YA allowed me to add adult elements that are part of me but didn't fit in my middle-grade stories.

Colette Ballard said...

Fantastical post, Kurt! Your dad rocks and so do you! I'm so glad you gave writing YA a try--you have an awesome YA voice--just like your trusty crit. group knew you would!!

My YA novel started as an experiment. While i'd been working at PB for awhile, I finally decided to start the YA that had been in my head for several years. I took a chance and submitted 30 pgs. to a critiqued contest and finaled on my very first try. That gave me the courage to give myself permission to write the rest of it and eventually led to me getting an agent.

Hopefully, both our experiments will lead us to publication: )

Kristin Lenz said...

Ah Kurt, I enjoy following your fun digressions which always lead to an important theme for us to muse over. I was thinking of something else about that 20 years thing... I have been working on the same two novels for what feels like 20 years, revising again and again. It's time to start a new one.

And on a different note, I just tried Mulligatawny soup for the first time!

Natalie Aguirre said...

I met Linda Sue Park at my first SCBWI conference. She was very inspiring except for her advice not to clean your house. I had to stop following that piece of advice.

I just read my first novel in verse and found I like it.

Kurt Hampe said...

Colette--Hard to think of Dad as rocking. He had this sort of calm, anti-rocking demeaner that people would project all their best idea onto. He kept his mouth shut, and people gave him credit for being wise. Perhaps he was.

Kristin--Mulligatawny translates as pepper water. You're a braver soul than I, or at least have a more heat resistant mouth.

Natalie--Much as I like writing, vacuuming the baseboards is prefereable to some tasks. Maybe it's thinking time.

Catch My Words said...

I've often heard the one year twenty times in relation to teachers. I certainly am teaching very differently than I did my first year, or even five years ago. I can say the same for my writing, but not to that degree. Your dad sounds like a wise man. Would it be so bad to turn into him? As for the photo, definitely a science museum.


Kurt Hampe said...

Joyce--Would it be so bad to turn into my dad? One word for you. Hairline.

Kurt Hampe said...

Tracy Barrett, who commented this week, has her own blog "Goodbye Day Job!" at

Her guest poster this week, Helen Hemphill, talked about finding your writing process. It reminded me of another of my Dad's phrases. He would say, "I would like to HAVE DONE, as opposed to, I would like TO DO." Usually that was in association with learning some new skill. And wouldn't we all like to have found our writing process, rather than flop around trying to find it.

Lisa Tapp said...

Kurt, what a great post! And what great gems from your Dad. You're so right about our need to experiment and challenge ourselves. It reminds me of books I've liked enough to find and backlists. More times than not, I'm impressed with how much the writer has learned since that first book.

Kurt Hampe said...

Lisa--I couldn't agree more. Much as I enjoy Douglas Adams' early work, the actual writing doesn't hold a candle to his later books. Tina (who also took the blog picture) made the same observation about the Outlander series.