Saturday, July 24, 2010

In the post!

Yes, I've mailed my revision of Project Sparkle to my tutor.

The last few days were a scramble. I ended up really taking apart chapters 1-2, re-analyzing and restructuring them. In the end I was happy with those chapters, but I lost a sense of all the previous work I did. I would have loved another day to read over the entire draft. Oh well. I've got two more months to make the changes I know need to be made.

I'll meet with Julia in September. My hope? She loves it, thinks all the changes work, and I can go into smaller scale revisions, working on character development, voice, setting details, etc. Perhaps revise chapters 1-2 a few more times, just for fun.

But we'll see. For now, I'm giving myself a brief break. The blog might be a bit quiet.

Thanks for all of your advice and support these past several weeks!

Friday, July 23, 2010

Empowering kids

One of my former students was an organized, dedicated child. He struggled with ADHD, but his method of dealing with it was to carry a box of pencils in his backpack, clean out his locker regularly, and arrive to his classes early. The more he could control of his life, the more he felt in control. The problem was his family. His parents had two other children, busy work lives, and they were stereotypical artist, hippy types. They were lovely people, but house was a mess and the family never made it anywhere on time. It drove my student nuts. Even though his mom gave his brothers a ride to school every day, my student started riding his bike. It took 15 minutes along busy city streets. He rode through rain and snow. Even when he came to school sopping wet, he figured at least he was on time.

I think one of the biggest struggles for children, especially in this day and age, is the lack of control they have over their own lives. They have set times for getting up and going to sleep. They are required to go to school, study a number of subjects, even those which they may find impossible or boring. They eat whatever food is prepared for them. They don't even have control over their own bodies, which are growing and changing, and their minds, which are raging with new hormones.

Not that having shelter, education, food, etc, provided for you is a bad thing. But I get how it can feel overwhelming to never have control.

I just finished a young adult book where the main character is constantly making poor decisions. They're understandable decisions: he's frightened and isn't thinking. But the repercussions are horrible. I was incredibly frustrated for this poor child. He didn't have any friends to help him out, any adults to sympathize with him, and he was never given any opportunities to tell his side of the story or to stand up for himself. He never even got a single great zinger of a line.

Some would say that's good storytelling. The boy was certainly challenged. His character was a realistic 15 year-old.

But as a teacher, and a former child myself, I didn't want a realistic child. I wanted an empowered child. I wanted someone to cheer for, someone who could stand up for himself, tell the adults off, and WIN. Children's books don't need to be completely unrealistic, with genius children working for the secret service (*cough* Anthony Horowitz *cough*). But I would argue children's literature is one of the few places left where kids can experience life to its fullest and come out triumphant. Or at least get in a good punch on their way down. Perhaps that's the reason I write for kids.

What about you? Do you let your characters win occasionally?

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

The perfect critique-partner

I'm not a good critic of my own writing, and therefore I've long been obsessed with and grateful for critique partners and writing groups. I work with a brilliant group of teachers/writers in Chicago (I couldn't handle leaving the group, so I now join them via Skype. Yes, that's how brilliant they are). I've worked with a writing group in Bristol as well and a number of individuals.

This past year the number of writers I know has multiplied exponentially, and I've been exposed to a lot of different people and styles of critiques. Some are grammar freaks. Some are plot nuts. Some are big picture people. Some notice staircases that lead to no where and cars parked on the wrong side of the street. I love them all.

Really. I've been told I take criticism remarkably well, but the truth of the matter is, it's so important to my writing. Even when they're WRONG (and sometimes they are =) ) I don't think I've ever lashed out at someone critiquing my writing.

But of course, some critiques are more useful than others.

Once my program is over, I won't have regular workshop sessions, I won't be surrounded by brilliant writers (though perhaps I can convince some of them to keep working with me). I've been thinking a lot about what I want in a reader.

The more critical the better. I mean, I like being told my writing is lovely and you want to date my character, but if my plot has a major hole, I really need to know.

Also, I've found the more critical the reader, the better their praise. One of my BEST critiquers, my tutor Julia, is also one of my harshest. But she puts check marks next to lines she likes. And one check mark from Julia is worth five compliments from anyone else. I trust Julia, and I know that if she likes something, it's working. Sometimes she does double check marks and I'm over the moon. I got a triple one once. I may frame it.

Different readers are better at noticing different things. For me personally, as someone who struggles with plot, the best readers are those who ask lots of questions. Question after question. Why is your character doing x when she wants y? Why does your character like this character? Why does this character lower his gun?

One of my best readers asked me that last question yesterday afternoon. I know the answer, but clearly it wasn't reflected in the text. Back to work!

What qualities do you most desire in a reader? Have you found your perfect critique partner/group?

Monday, July 19, 2010

Back to the beginning

I've now finished my first revision. I'm aware there're still numerous problems in the text, but at this point I've rewritten my entire climax, identified arcs for all of my characters, and I'm ahead of schedule: the revision isn't due to my tutor until Friday.

Unfortunately, my tutor strongly encouraged me to rewrite chapters 1-2 before submitting the revision. So now it's back to the beginning.

I've written and rewritten these opening chapters at least three times, but they still don't work. They set the wrong tone and setting. The inciting incident doesn't coincide with the rest of the novel. This time should be easier. I know all of my characters well, I know the plot, I know how the book ends.

Yet I started writing this morning by journaling about characters and listing possible scenarios. It does feel as if I'm starting over again. Worse, the beginning is the most important part. It has to be right, and I have to have a draft of it ready by Friday. And I'm historically bad at beginnings.

It'll get done. Then, if I have time, I'll re-read the whole manuscript and try to make a few other changes. Whatever I don't finish by Friday, I'll spend the next few weeks working on. Until my tutor gets back to me with her comments and then I'll officially start revision number 2. The fun never stops--which is good because I need to have an entire polished novel done by October!

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Stolen by Lucy Christopher

I've intended for a while to do a post about Bath Spa University graduates. I first learned about the program from an online interview with fellow Bristol resident Elen Caldecott, author of the fun HOW KIRSTY JENKINS STOLE THE ELEPHANT. Elen is not the only Bath Spa graduate who has been published. Actually, in the program's short history (it's only been running a handful of years), there have been a number of successful graduates: Marie-Louise Jensen, C J Skuse, Sally Nichols, Alexandra Diaz, Jim Carrington, etc.

Throughout the year, I've searched out their books to read and have been extraordinarily impressed. It's been so inspirational for me to read really good writing and to know that that could be me in a few years. It's also very cool to read the acknowledgments. Frequently they thank their fellow classmates and Julia (my tutor--and I assume theirs as well!).

I've been meaning to write about several of these books, as they really are that good. But today I want to write about Lucy Christopher. A couple of months ago, I bought a copy of STOLEN by Lucy Christopher. She graduated from Bath Spa's Creative Writing MA (the Writing for Young People program wasn't yet in existence). She's also worked as a tutor on my program and is currently working on a PhD on Australian literature's representation of wild places.

I was blown away by STOLEN. Here's my review on Goodreads:

"Wow. One of the most powerful, complex YA books I have ever read. A chilling and gripping account of a teen girl's kidnapping and the progression of her feelings towards her captor. I will be thinking about this book for years to come. Also a beautiful rendering of the Australian outback, setting as character, making me dream of sand, sun and sky.
"


It's not just me who's been blown away.

Yesterday, Stolen won the Branford Boase prize and it has been shortlisted for the Prime Minister's Literary Awards in Australia.

STOLEN was released in the US in May and the reviews have been astounding:

Maggie Stiefvater (NY Times Bestselling author of SHIVER) said:

"It’s got a great sense of place and the character development is just fantastic (I love me some trauma), but the thing I liked best was that as Gemma, the main character, spends more time in the presence of her kidnapper, the author very, very, very skillfully messes with our brains just like Gemma’s brain is getting messed with. It makes for a very complex read with no easy answers, just like I like ‘em. I loved how all of the motivations were thoroughly grounded in past history; we get a profile of the kidnapper as a human, not just as a stick figure. As a teen, I would have adored this book even more."

For the full review, click here. Even more exciting, Maggie's offered to blurb the paperback version.


Courtney Summers (author of CRACKED UP TO BE, one of my FAVORITES, reviewed here) said in her Goodreads review:

"Absolutely stunning. What a beautifully intense book. Incredibly vivid setting, but not overwritten. A testament to Christopher's talent that I'm as conflicted as Gemma is... " (have to cut off there, as it gets into spoiler territory)

Nova Ren Suma, author of DANI NOIR, has been twittering about it:.

"There goes a productive night of revising. Just picked up STOLEN by Lucy Christopher."

"I had to force myself to leave STOLEN by Lucy Christopher at home today. Nothing would have been accomplished otherwise. So gripping."

"Twitter: STOLEN by Lucy Christopher is by far one of the best YA novels I've read all year. Awe. I am in it."

All of this excitement is completely deserved. I'm so pleased to see a really good book getting exactly the kind of publicity it should. Even better? How exciting to see a fellow student doing so well. And if you haven't read Stolen yet? What are you waiting for?

Well, OK... here's the amazing trailer:



Now go read it!

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Crazy writing and vacation plans

I need to finish my Project Sparkle revision by the 23rd. That's next week Friday. I'm on the climax now, writing my new scenes frantically, feeling some of the same rush as a reader anxious to learn what happens next. I'm hoping to finish this weekend. Then I'll reread and revise some more, write the final two chapters (denouement and epilogue), and, if there's time, rewrite chapters 1-2 (which are a mess, but I have some new ideas I want to incorporate and get my tutor's feedback on).

So I've been eating, sleeping, and dreaming the novel. The other day I told Phil I had finished 26, but still needed to revise 24-25 before I could go on to 27. He looked at me blankly and it took me several minutes to realize he had no idea I was referring to chapter numbers. Course, he was happy to just let me babble away.

All of this has me thinking about October. See, my final revision is due September 30th. That week is also the Bath Festival of Children's Literature, which I'll be attending, as both a volunteer and a visitor (I'll blog more about it in September). That week will be madder than now. So the following weekend, October, I need to go on vacation.

I've got it all planned out. It will be a weekend away with Phil. Some place in the UK, maybe continental Europe. There will be water, maybe some canoeing or kayaking. Hiking trails, lawn chairs. Sunsets, good food. I will not bring a pen. It will be paradise and I'll be dreaming about it for the next three months.

Now I just need to figure out where to go. Ideas? What have you done to celebrate finishing a novel?

Monday, July 12, 2010

Grades: do you want to know where you stand?

My second semester grades came out this past week. It makes for a difficult time for me and my classmates.

Practically, I don't care what grades I get. I don't want to get into the publishing business. I already have numerous credentials and years of experience in teaching. And of course, agents and publishers don't care what grades I get either; they just care how well I write.

Emotionally, it's hard not to get tied up in grades. Especially when people do better than you. Or you're one percentage shy of distinction. Or your grades don't improve. Or you don't do as well as you expected. Or a classmate whom you thought was a way worse writer than you gets the same grade. Or you get the same grade as a classmate you thought much better. All sorts of permutations, combinations, all anxiety-ridden.

Last semester my classmates and I discussed our grades ad nauseam, who got what, who deserved what. This semester we're being quite cagey. I think we've learned our lesson.

I find the whole process frustrating. My tutors and classmates have been critical, but always encouraging and supportive. To come from such a positive atmosphere to being assigned a single number, a perceived rank, is disheartening.

Of course, isn't that the way the writing world is? If all of us wanted to spend the rest of our lives writing as a hobby, grades or rank would never be necessary. But if we want to become published, that's different. The publishing world isn't about group hugs and hobby writing: it's a business, one which becomes more and more challenging to break into every year. A writer's daily life involves rejection, reviews, analysis: a thick skin seems a prerequisite for the job. That and good writing.

But would Twilight have made distinction at Bath Spa University?

Some books steal public interest and run with it. And for all the writing community's kvetching about adverbs or bland writing, readers gobble them up. Other books have thrilling plots, others beautiful description, others intriguing characters. It's rare, near impossible, that any book will succeed in all these areas. Are we expected to as students?

So maybe grades don't matter after all. Maybe the grading isn't entirely objective anyway. I love my tutor, but she is only one person (grades are double checked by an exam board, but I understand marks are rarely changed). Phil thinks Bath Spa grades quite harshly. Course, the UK grading system is weird anyway (but that's a whole other blog post!).

All of this is to say, if I could have it exactly how I want it, would I want to know my grades? I'm not sure. Would you want to know yours?

Friday, July 9, 2010

Bearing others' good news

There's been a lot of good news for my fellow Blueboarders lately. Anna Staniszewski, a regular commenter on this blog, just learned her book has been sold (do click through the link--doesn't her book sound fantastic??). Mike Jung just signed with an agent (actually, the same agent as Anna's! And I love his blog post as well--it took a lot of determination and several rounds of querying to generate any interest. And then he had four agents fighting over him!) Finally, while it isn't news of the get out the champagne and celebrate variety, Nova Ren Suma wrote a quietly happy post about revision and being in a good place as a writer (with an agent, an editor, and working on an already contracted book): "Years ago, I would have killed to be in this moment. I feel so grateful."

Doesn't it make me sick? Well, no. Not at all, actually. It makes me really happy for them.

Years ago I used to get angry over others' success in the writing world. I used to get upset when I thought my writing was better than some in published books. Now I realize just how difficult the publishing world can be. Not only difficult, but unpredictable. Trends come and go, money comes and (more frequently) goes, people change and lose jobs. To succeed in it you have to be a hard worker and a good writer. And it takes years, which is another thing all of the posts above speak to.

Of course, I'm in a good place at the moment. I won a spot in Undiscovered Voices 2010. I'm currently completing an MA in Writing for Young People. I'm revising a book I really believe in (though ask me how I feel later today in the midst of work and I may tell you differently!). It's the lean, hopeless times, where it's hard to believe anything will come of my work when jealousy and competitiveness can strike. And I imagine it's a whole other ball game when an author is published and others' books are selling better, winning prizes, getting starred reviews...

But I hope to always be able to celebrate friends' success. Congrats, all!

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Exxxxtreme Setting

The Philippines is one of the most beautiful places I've ever been. I lived there, in the city of Dumaguete, for a summer when I was in college. The water is aquamarine and crystal clear. The beaches are white and there are coral reefs off seemingly every coast. There are palm trees, thick forest, mountains.

When it was time to return to college for my senior year, I toyed with not coming back. I wanted to stay, I loved the people, I felt I was doing important work. But I knew I could never live in Dumaguete permanently. It's one of the most beautiful places I've ever been, but also one of the most extreme. When swimming I looked out for sting rays, sea urchins, and sharks. I couldn't go outside for five minutes without slathering myself with sunscreen and reapplying every hour. I slept under a mosquito net, and the Filipinos warned me of Dengue fever if I was stung. The Philippines has an intense monsoon season, floods, volcanoes. 60% of the people in Dumaguete lived under the US definition of the poverty line. One of the islands I visited was later visited by terrorists who captured a group of American tourists. For all its beauty, perhaps because of all its beauty, it's an extreme place.

And that makes the Philippines a great setting for a story. Candy Gourlay's debut novel, TALL STORY, tells the stories of two characters, one in the Philippines, the other in London (see my review here). Watch her book trailer (one of the best I've seen) to learn more about it:

TALL STORY Book Trailer from Candy Gourlay on Vimeo.

Another setting recently that has blown me away is in the book STOLEN by Lucy Christopher (a Bath Spa tutor and PhD student! Read my review here). It's the story of a kidnapping in the Australian outback, where there is no where to run, desert for miles, and the only greenery houses poisonous snakes.

Setting is intrinsic to both of these stories. I can't imagine either author started the novel without knowing its setting. It determines plot and characters. And while reading both books, I was shocked to look out my window and see a rainy English field; they had transported me well outside of Bristol.

Of course there are different types of extreme settings. Keren David's WHEN I WAS JOE is set in a diverse, inner-city London (see my review here). It drives her story of gangs and knife violence. Keren has blogged about some of the actual place-inspirations for her setting here.

There are plenty of novels not set in extreme places which tell amazing stories. But part of why I read is to be transported, to see another world. Perhaps that's why I'm a lover of fantasy novels as well.

Is place important to your reading? To your writing? What extreme settings have inspired you?

Monday, July 5, 2010

Writing like a madwoman

I've been writing like a madwoman lately. I've hit a few chapters in Project Sparkle that needed to be completely rewritten, and the farther along I get in the book, the more I'll need to do that. Worse, with every chapter I rewrite, I worry I'm losing precious words and replacing them with mediocre, rushed ones. But at least the plot is beginning to take a much better shape and I'm still on schedule, though barely. I've been spending a fair amount of time looking at the calendar, counting days, counting again, and groaning.

So that's a long way to say that's why I haven't been blogging much lately. All my writing energy has been devoted to Project Sparkle and there's just nothing left to share. Good news in the long run, I hope!

But in the meantime I'll post a few Finland pictures:

This is the harbor in downtown Helsinki (as seen from the courtyard of the Russian Orthodox Church). The orange and white tents are the fruit, vegetable, fish and craft market that is there daily:


This is the harbor as well, this time with the Russian Orthodox Church in the background:


This is Suomenlinna, an old island fortress (now mostly dedicated to picnics and museums):


Doesn't this look like Hobbiton? This is also part of Suomenlinna. Phil and I thought the "houses" were probably air raid shelters. But they look so lovely and quaint!


Phil peeking out of a Hobbit's home (I mean, air raid shelter...):


Helsinki has a first-rate zoo with lots of unique animals. It's also on an island and beautiful to walk around. But I think my favorite part was the peacocks roaming the grounds and begging at the outdoor cafes:


Someday I must own my own island with peacocks...

But first I've got to finish the book!