Thursday, December 22, 2011

Ten best books of 2011 (& two fav writing reads!)

It's a funny business choosing my favorite reads for a year. Much like the Oscars, I find myself skewing towards books I read in the second half of the year. January of 2011 seems like a distant memory. But perhaps that's just as well. The books I read earlier in the year have had longer to percolate, to establish themselves in my head. And the ones that keep returning to mind, which I keep mulling over, questioning, and recommending to friends? They've stood the test of time (at least, the test of months).

Anyway, without further waffling, here they are, in the order I read them, the Critically Yours Best Books of 2011:

1. Deaf Sentence by David Lodge (my thoughts here)
2. Regeneration by Pat Barker (my brief thoughts here)
3. The Story of A Girl by Sara Zarr (my brief thoughts here, again here)
4. Samurai Shortstop by Alan M. Gratz (no previous blog posts, because this book totally crept up on me and now I can't get it out of my head!)
5. The Truth about Forever by Sarah Dessen (my thoughts here)
6. Red Glove by Holly Black (my brief thoughts here)
7. The Tenth Power by Kate Constable (book 3 of the trilogy The Singer of All Songs--no thoughts because this trilogy was kind of a cumulative reading experience of awesomeness as I got deeper and deeper into it).
8. The Help by Kathryn Stockett (audiobook) (my Goodreads review)
9. For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway (my thoughts and apology to Hemingway here)
10. The Sugar Queen by Sarah Addison Allen (I'm a little embarrassed I haven't blogged about discovering Sarah Addison Allen yet, but will need to get on that...)

While compiling this list, two books kept jumping out at me. I kept scratching them off because they weren't fiction, they weren't even narratives, and their inclusion felt incongruous. However, in their own way, each of these books were an inspiration to me and my writing this year. So, in a new category for Critically Yours, here are my Two Favorite Writing Books of 2011:

The Forest for the Trees: An editor's advice to writers by Betsy Lerner (my thoughts here)
The Anatomy of Story by John Truby (reviewed here)

And because I do love my book stats, here's a few for my top ten list:

5 Adult books
5 Young Adult (though I could argue Samurai Shortstop is Middle Grade)
20% British authors (Lodge & Barker)
3 Historical fiction (Regeneration, Samurai Shortstop, The Help)
3 with fantasy elements (Red Glove, Tenth Power, and Sugar Queen, though Tenth Power is the only traditional otherworld fantasy among them)
5 Male narrators (Deaf Sentence, Regeneration, Samurai Shortstop, Red Glove, Bell Tolls)
1 1/2 Light, funny women-centric stories--who knew I liked that sort of thing?! (Sugar Queen, sort of The Help)
1 classic (For Whom the Bell Tolls)
1 bestseller (The Help)
2 movies that I know of (The Help, Bell Tolls, though Hollywood, if you're listening, I would watch a movie of Holly Black's Curse Worker's series in a SECOND!)

In February I posted about reading widely, trying to branch out in my reading habits and find new things. It turns out it's been very much a year for doing that, and I think my top ten list reflects that (50% adult books, 1 classic, 1 bestseller, 1 sports book in Shortstop Samurai). For more of 2011's reading stats, seeing Tuesday's post.

Okay, enough talk from me! What are some of your favorite reads of 2011?

Oh, and happy holidays and happy New Year to all of you. I've so appreciated your reading, commenting, support and friendship over this past year. This is the last post on Critically Yours for 2011, but I'll be back mid-January 2012!, eager to continue the conversation.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Reading stats for 2011

For almost four years now, I've been keeping a list of every book I read. It's basic record keeping: the date I finish a book, the title, the author. If I don't finish a book, or if I'm re-reading the book, I mark it with an asterisk and a short note. Lately, I've also started keeping track of how many books I read with main characters or authors of color. And whether or not I know the author (how cool is that?!).

Last December, for the first time ever on Critically Yours, I shared my reading stats for 2010, along with random speculation about what the numbers meant. It inspired a number of my readers to keep track of their own reading (how's that going?) and was such a popular post, I've decided to make it an annual thing.

So, without further ado, I give you Critically Yours' Reading Stats for 2011!

*the crowd goes wild*

As of Sunday, December 18th:

Books completed: 92

DNF (Did Not Finish): 20 (18% of books I started)
Some of my reasons for DNFs: "Didn't believe story," "Long-winded," "Cliche & poor writing", "Not my book, confusing, arduous," "Just didn't care," "Annoying characters."
Re-read: 9
Graphic Novels / Comics: 3
Audiobooks: 4
Manuscripts (unpublished novels I was asked to critique): 3*
Adult: 30
Non-Fiction: 4
Person of Color (PoC): 11

*I suspect this number for manuscripts is wildly inaccurate. I think I've read a lot more full books, I just forgot to write them down, perhaps because reading them usually feels more like writing work than pleasure reading, no matter how good they are!

And yes, any book not specified as "Adult" or "Non-Fiction" is a children's book.

Some thoughts:

Throughout the year I felt I was reading fewer books, and the numbers do confirm that (last year I completed 105 books). However, the numbers also show I read THREE TIMES as many adult books this year as last year. And those do tend to take longer to read (it took me all of March to read Little Dorrit by Charles Dickens, though it was a very worthwhile read!). Part of this was due to a bit of impatience with angst-y teenage lovers, my monthly participation in an adult reading group, and my attempt to broaden my reading horizons a bit.

Speaking of broadening my reading horizons, I've been spending more time than in the past with different formats, specifically graphic novels and audiobooks; I've never read so many of each. I'm hoping to read a lot more. I'm disappointed, however, with the number of PoC books read. Last year I learned that only 13% of children's books published annually feature PoC, so I challenged myself to read at least 13, and ended up reading 19. So 11 is a disappointment, especially since a few of those 11 were re-reads. As the 13% stat reflects, PoC books really need to be sought out, as they often sadly fall out of the mainstream.

Last year I was surprised at how low my DNF percentage was (21%), but this year it's comparable at 18% ("See," Anne says to her husband, "I don't give up on HALF of the books I read! Only 18%!").

Thursday I'll be sharing my top ten reads AND top two writing books of 2011! Can't wait? Here's 2009's and 2010's lists.

Did you keep any reading stats this year? Any surprises? Trends?

Thursday, December 15, 2011

What does revision look like? (part II)

This week I'm sharing a snapshot of my revision process on Project Demo (see part I here). I'm talking about what precisely my revision looks like, my process, the emotional highs and lows... In short, why it's really hard to sum up revision!

So, last I blogged, I was hovering on the edge of despair. I had made a long list of everything wrong with my ending, and was convinced I would be revising Project Demo for another gazillion years.

Then...

I remembered Anne Lamott's lovely Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. For those of you unfamiliar with her book, here's the quote to which the title refers:

"Thirty years ago my older brother, who was  ten years old at the time, was trying to get a  report on birds written that he'd had three months to  write. It was due the next day. We were out at our  family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen  table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper  and pencils and unopened books on birds,  immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my  father sat down beside him, put his arm around my  brother's shoulder, and said, 'Bird by bird, buddy.  Just take it bird by bird.'"

I told myself to stop hyperventilating, and just work on my ending, step by step, bird by bird, until I worked through my list of everything wrong with it. Maybe it would take a gazillion years. But maybe not. And I wanted to try.

So for the past week and a half I've been working through my list. And slowly but surely I'm beginning to cross things off.

For an in depth look at revision, here's what I did last Sunday:


  • Re-read chapter 32 to make sure Saturday's changes worked.
  • Added one sentence to chapter 34 to remind readers of a sub-plot character.
  • Added another sentence to clarify the main character's emotional motivation.
  • Reworded several paragraphs in chapter 34 so my additions flowed within the text.
  • Asked myself a hard question, paced while I thought about my answer.
  • Needed a break. Went back to the beginning of chapter 34 and added a sentence to clarify the day's date.
  • Other fiddly stuff: I found the appropriate accent mark for the name Jacqueline du Pré (a real life cellist mentioned in Project Demo). I did a project replace to switch all my Pre to Pré.
  • Discovered pressed had become Préssed. Did another project replace.
  • Found a place in the text where I could insert the answer to that hard question I had been pondering.
  • Worked a piece of information into some dialogue. 
  • Highlighted a piece of dialogue I wasn't sure a character would actually say so I could find it and think it through later.
  • Journaled a few more lines of dialogue, to clarify character motivation, then typed them in.
  • Asked myself a few more hard questions about what my character was feeling. I wrote the questions down, also to think about later.

That was 85 minutes. I stopped, closed my computer, and made breakfast.

It was only later that I realized my friend Keren on Twitter had been right to mention the fixing stage. The changes I'm making aren't massive. I'm not rethinking whole plots and characters. I'm just adding text, clarifying motivations... I'm doing the little stuff that makes a novel polished.

Remember that list? As of today I've crossed off about 75% of it. Does it work? I'm not sure, but I imagine it's closer to working. And I've still got to write in the changes to my magic system.

But maybe I will finish revising Project Demo sometime before a gazillion years have passed. Bird by bird. Until the next crisis of confidence.

Where are you at in your writing? Does my revision process look anything like yours?

Next week I'll be closing out the year on Critically Yours by sharing my end of the year reading statistics and announcing 2011's favorite reads. Can't wait until then? Here are 2009 and 2010's posts.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

What does revision look like? (part I)

There's a lot online about the revision process: lists of common first draft errors, frequently over-used words, suggestions on techniques, tools, methods...

Just last week, writer Christina Farley blogged "My Four Stages of Revision." It was so orderly, so efficient, so smart. At the end, she asked readers to share about their own revision processes. And as I started to comment, I realized my process was all over the map.

But just like Christina, people do ask me about revision. How many drafts, how long does it take, etc.

So, since I'm in the midst of slogging through revising Project Demo, I'll devote this week to sharing a snapshot of my revision process. I'll talk about what precisely revision looks like for me, my process, the emotional highs and lows... In short, why it's really hard to sum up revision!

I'd like to start with last week (imagine going-back-in-time music here)...

Last week there was some serious big picture thinking going on. I had been inspired to return to Project Demo because of an idea I had to make the magic system work. So I'd been creating a list of all the magic in the book, pasting the text into my list, and working on making each passage believable and consistent. It was definitely a labor of love, as my list spawned other questions, other concerns. I had a really helpful Skype chat with Elisabeth at Fiction Forge (thank you!), and sent a chunk of text to a crit partner to read through.

By the end of the week, I finally felt like I was getting somewhere. I was beginning to believe in the magic. And I wasn't the only one. I got a  gorgeous email from my crit partner:

"In every way it seems to work for me. Magic isn't usually my thing and I didn't know how you'd do it, but I really do think it's great and feels like it absolutely belongs in the story. Well done!"

Yay! But after weeks of changing one aspect of the magic, and then another, and then a third, I didn't want to move ahead until I was absolutely sure.

So I took some time off from worrying about the magic, and read the last third of the book. I hadn't touched it since this past summer, so I hardly remembered it. I hoped my last revision had left it fairly solid and that everything tied together nicely in the end.

Unfortunately, it wasn't, and it didn't.

After all my progress on the magic system, you'd think I'd have felt confident and ready to tackle anything. But instead it was like another massive problem, a blow.

I took to Twitter to whine:

"Feeling overwhelmed with all I need to do with Project Demo. I think I know what's wrong, but can I fix it? In less than a gazillion years?"

Thank God for Twitter friends and authors Keren David and Jane McLoughlin, who instantly replied.

Kerensd: yes you can!

JBMcLoughlin: You can and you will...the solution is hovering around you somewhere, waiting to be unleashed! Good luck.

We talked back and forth a bit, I whined more. Then Keren responded with this:

Kerensd: I find that fixing stage is my favourite. The relief as everything falls into place!

You're crazy, I thought. I'm not at that "fixing stage" yet. I might end up totally scrapping this ending! Nothing works! It's a mess!

Then, feeling thoroughly embarrassed by all my Twitter whining (and conscious how much time I had just spent procrastinating on Twitter), I signed off. I drafted a blog post on big picture thinking, and then realized, for all my big picture talk, I wasn't practicing what I preached. So I made a list of everything that didn't work in that last third of the book, scene by scene, chapter by chapter.

What happened next? Did I have to ditch the entire ending? Or was Keren right?  Or did I get so distracted by Twitter again that I didn't do any writing at all? You'll have to tune in Thursday to find out!

In the meantime, why do you think writing is such an emotional roller coaster?

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Big picture thinking

The second half of this year has been an experiment in big picture thinking.

It started with my discovery of John Truby's The Anatomy of Story. Then I attempted to plan out Project Fun, going so far as a scene-by-scene outline. Now I'm back to work on Project Demo, and once again employing some big picture thinking.

I've worked this way before, but never systematically. You see, I'm a total writer nerd. When faced with an overwhelming life problem, I tend to journal solutions. And I approach my novels the same way. When something isn't working, I find myself thinking, "What if I just wrote it better?" So I rewrite, and rewrite, and rewrite some more. I try to revise a novel by making each line poetic and concise, streamlining description, conveying characters' motivations and personalities more strongly. But some things can't be fixed by better writing. What if a character is acting out of character? What if some plot point just can't happen the way I've described it? Better writing, though it does make my text pretty, won't save my novel. No matter how hard I try.

So lately I've made a scene by scene outline of Project Demo. I've summarized my main character's changing emotions from scene to scene. I've made a list of all the magical elements, from beginning to end. It's time consuming setting up these outlines, but I can do it while watching football. The time-saving part is then working from the outline to figure out what problems lie in the text. Much easier with a line or two than a whole chapter. Plus, I can use the outlines to check overall story arcs, transitions, plot. Only once I have clarified my text's problem, and developed a solution, do I allow myself to rewrite.

Am I saving time? I'm not sure. But the writing feels more systematic and efficient, and less like fumbling around in the dark. Returning to Project Demo, I've discovered the most complex and lengthy novel I've ever written. I do believe in it again, but I think I need to try some new tricks to pull it all together.

What revision techniques do you employ? Or do you somehow manage to hold everything in your head and just write?

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Taking my show on the road

I had a Christmas anxiety dream the other night. I know. I start with the anxiety dreams early.

My parents were taking me some place fun and wonderful for the holidays, and I had finished packing, but realized I had forgotten to save my novel to bring it with me. Of course, this being a dream, saving was taking forever, then my jump drive wouldn't work, and my computer crashed. And my mom was screaming at me that we were going to miss our flight to some place fun and wonderful.

But anyway, all this anxiety got me thinking: how does your writing travel?

I spent a day in Exeter last week (Hi lovely SW SCBWI people! Hi Candy!). It meant missing my morning writing time, but in exchange I got several hours in a train (for some reason, I always do some of my best writing in trains). But how to bring my revisions on Project Demo? The easiest would've been to haul my laptop along, except then I would've had to haul my laptop along, find places to plug it in when the battery got low, and hope to get a train seat with a table. I thought about printing out a handful of pages I needed to edit, but seeing as it's a macro-edit kind of thing, that would mean a lot of pages. Plus, what if I really got going, and accomplished a lot, but ran out of pages to work on? And I refused to print out my whole book. Again, hauling. In the end, I saved my novel as a pdf, and uploaded it to my ereader on my iPod. I couldn't type my changes directly into the document, but I could reference it and rewrite my changes by hand in my notebook. The following day it was fairly simple to go back through my notes and type everything up.

It's not like I travel every day, so I don't feel the need to run out and get a netbook or an iPad or whatever to make my on-the-go writing easier. But it got me thinking. With the holidays coming up (including a long flight back to the US, and hopefully some spare quiet moments amidst all the holiday and family stuff), I could use some ideas. So, how does your writing travel?

*The picture is mine, a steam engine from the North Yorkshire Moors Railway. Unfortunately I was NOT traveling in one of these lovelies last week!*

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Listening for what they mean, not what they say

I'm about halfway through implementing my new idea into Project Demo. There's plenty more revision to do (it's the writing project that never ends!), and I'm not yet satisfied that my new idea is working, but I'm feeling more confident about it than I have in a while. I feel like I'm finally beginning to realize my original vision for the story.

In fact, I've spent much of the past few weeks pulling text from my first draft to insert in this latest draft. These were elements in my first draft that I loved, but I took them out on the advice of others because they weren't working. My readers were 100% right, but the mistake was mine. Instead of taking out those elements, I should've figured out how to make them work.

That's the trick with critiques. Sometimes a reader has profound, surprising insights that can make a story. Other times it's a balancing act, acknowledging a reader's feelings, without directly taking their advice.

An example: One of my beta readers LOVES my villain. She thinks he's sexy and charming and vulnerable, and she doesn't understand why the main character doesn't date him. Part of me is flattered that my villain is a real three-dimensional character. But the other part of me is screaming: "No, no, no! He's the VILLAIN! She can't date him! He's BAD!" So the solution wasn't to contort my plot to make the main character and the villain date, but rather to address my reader's feelings. She thinks the villain is charming. What if I do more to show that while he's charming, he's not a good person? What if I make him stand too close, push too hard, and violently lose his temper? That way I'm using my reader's input to strengthen my story, but also keeping true to my vision.

It's a difficult balance. Sometimes, as a critiquer, I try not to make any suggestions, only give reactions and questions. But reactions and questions easily bleed into suggestions. How do you make sure you stick to the story you want to tell in the face of criticism?

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Magic words

Once a week I spend an afternoon at a local primary school working with kids who struggle with reading. My Reading Buddies are amazing for all sorts of reasons, and it's been a delight for this former teacher to get back in school and regularly working with children again. Plus, books!

As my Reading Buddies advance, we've been tackling more non-fiction books, with Tables of Contents, and glossaries, and bold-faced words. My kids often struggle with the bold-faced words because they're usually tricky, and not the sorts of words eight-year-olds regularly encounter (sonar, nocturnal, carnivores, etc). But of course there's an art to bold-faced words. A good author uses the word, immediately defines it for the reader, then uses it frequently afterwards. So even though my kids may struggle with "sonar" the first time, and the second, by the fifth time they know exactly how to pronounce it.

I don't exactly regularly encounter bold-faced words in my daily reading. I probably haven't read a text with bold-faced words since college, maybe even high school. But while working with my Reading Buddies, I've been thinking about bold-faced words and how authors use them. And not just in non-fiction ways.

For example, take Sarah Dessen's beautiful young adult novel, The Truth about Forever. No, she doesn't literally have any bold-faced words. But she treats the word "forever" very carefully within her text. The story is about how long forever is, and how decisions we make, even seemingly responsible ones, can affect us for the rest of our lives. Instead of making the forever decisions we're expected to make, we should make the forever decisions we want to make.  So Sarah Dessen doesn't just throw around the word "forever." She introduces it carefully, then uses it judiciously, deliberately, adding layers of meaning to it each time, just as my kids' non-fiction books define and repeat "sonar."

Or take Stephen King's The Tommyknockers. The word Tommyknocker is used to describe the aliens. But at one point, the narrator explains that Tommyknockers is just another word for fear, for others, for outsiders. King uses Tommyknockers as a bold-faced word, introducing it first as a snatch of remembered childhood poetry, then returning to it again and again. It's a neat trick, as King doesn't have to waste time carefully using common words like "fear" and "others," but can use a single, unique word to convey meaning.

Used in this way, bold-faced words are like magic words, sprinkled judiciously, working as metaphors for ideas and emotions. They frequently become titles (as in both of my examples).

When I'm doing final revisions for a novel, I highlight my magic words, and then comb the text to make sure I've used them carefully, precisely. After all, if one of Sarah Dessen's characters in The Truth about Forever happened to say, "OMG, this car trip is lasting FOREVER," the word's effect could be totally ruined. I bet she kept a list of synonyms for "forever" close at hand while writing!

Do you make use of magic words? What's the magic word in your work in progress? Mine is "beautiful." Yes, a totally common word, like forever, but thankfully it has a lot of synonyms!

Thursday, November 24, 2011

More American vs. British book covers

Happy Thanksgiving to my American readers. Enjoy your food and football, friends and family. But since Phil and I (and our British friends!) aren't celebrating until Saturday*, I figured I could blog in the meantime. Nothing too arduous, just some pretty pictures for us to nit-pick.

Since my post on the UK vs US Harry Potter covers was of such interest, I figured I'd work the other way across the pond, and show you some American covers and their British versions which I've been reading lately.

American Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor:


British Daughter of Smoke and Bone:



I haven't seen the American version in person, but I imagine it sticks out on the shelf. The UK version may not look so distinct online, but I LOVE my British hardcover. The feathers glimmer as you tilt the book. So pretty!

American White Cat and Red Glove by Holly Black:




British White Cat and Red Glove:


 I have seen all of these in person, and LOVE the UK versions (so intriguing and arty). But I was surprised when I got an American copy of White Cat how much I liked it. There's no wow factor to it, but it's modeled to look like an adult thriller, and with the raised text and stark colors, it's certainly eye-catching. And perhaps, from a marketing perspective, it does a better job of drawing in its intended readers.

American Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson:



British Wintergirls:



I'm torn on Wintergirls. The American version is the arty one, chilling and memorable. But the British cover, while looking a bit more blah, perhaps does a better job of reflecting what the story's literally about.

What do you think? What covers have you fallen for recently?

*BTW, for those of you who are curious, yes, Phil and I are carrying on our Thanksgiving in the UK tradition for the fourth year. Lots of scientists and writers, lots of traditional food from all sorts of traditions, and lots of fun. See my Thanksgiving tag for more on the party.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Writing easy

Well, it seems to be official. I'm working on Project Demo again.

After paging through some of it on Friday, I couldn't stay away. I knew what I wanted to do. I only put in a few hours over the weekend, but I tore into the opening chapters, reworked them. It's a slight change word-wise, but I hope it's going to fix everything. Or at least, let me enjoy it again (for some of the backstory on this crazy development, see my Dear John letter to Project Demo).

Sunday night I got a phone call from a friend I haven't spoken to in a while. We were playing that catch up game, sharing what's been going on in our lives. "You seem better," my friend said. And I realized it was true. Last year was pretty rough, but I'm in a good place now.

And last night, as I fell asleep, I was thinking about Project Demo. "I love this novel," I said to myself. When did that happen?!

So I'm continuing to work on it. But easy. I refuse to be stressed, to set word count goals, or calendar deadlines. I want to enjoy this stage for a bit. If I start hating it again, I'll stop.

Because meanwhile, Project Fun is still waiting in the wings, bright and gleaming, full of possibility.

It's a good feeling.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Friday Random

No walk this morning, even though there was a glorious sunrise. Instead, I jotted down some ideas, played with some phrases, and paged through some scenes in Project Demo. My week and a half of not writing has been good. I'm beginning to get inspired again.

I suspect tomorrow I'll dive in for real.

But unfortunately, that means not much to say on the blog front. Just a few random tidbits:

1. I'm going to try posting twice a week, Tuesdays and Thursdays, hopefully cutting down my blogging time, upping my writing time, and filling the blog idea well again.

2. For those of you who haven't seen, I'm trying out a new look with Critically Yours. If you're reading this blog somewhere else, like Google Reader, come check it out. And for those who have seen, thanks for all the good feedback. It feels like I've finally cleaned my teenage bedroom after months of dirty clothes piling up! But the new look continues to be a work in progress, so do let me know of any suggestions, ideas, typos, etc.

3. Yesterday Jo Wyton on the blog Notes from the Slushpile shared a thoughtful post on revision and "fixing" a novel based on readers' feedback. One quote really stuck out: "If you had each version of your book in front of you, which one would you want your name on?"

Love how that question cuts through all the fear of failure, and asks what we really want to be writing. That's the point I've reached with Project Demo. Now the challenge is making it work my way.

Have a good weekend!

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Be still and know

Day 7 of not writing.

I hadn't planned to take this much of a break. But every time I think about sitting down with my notebook again, outlining, writing, or breaking down scenes, stress washes over me and I decide to give myself another day or two. Clearly I needed a bit of a break.

I've been thinking about being still as opposed to being active. Sometimes for all the outlining, writing, and breaking down scenes, I can't arrive at any ideas. Other times, when I'm not thinking about anything beyond walking through the forest, or sitting in the bath, or cooking dinner, everything makes itself clear.

Last week I wasn't sure if I was going to continue with Project Fun for a while, or jump back to work on Project Demo. Then Friday I had an idea how to make Project Demo work. I wasn't actively thinking about it. A book I read recently helped, but the idea never occurred to me while I was reading. It occurred to me while I was hanging laundry. Being still (at least, not actively searching for an answer).

So I've spent the past few days letting the idea percolate. I've been poking at it, questioning it, reading some other, similar books. Yesterday I felt I had so many ideas inside me, I finally put pen to paper and made a list of all I had figured out.

Now? It's a misty, chilly morning. I think I'll take another walk, puzzle through some more. One of these mornings I'm going to wake up itching to write. Unafraid. Until then, I'm taking it slowly, and trying to be still.

What do you do when you're not actively writing? Do you have a hard time forcing yourself to be still (mentally or physically)?

*Note: The picture is mine, taken from Bath Spa University's campus. Love a campus with some sheep!*

Monday, November 14, 2011

Writing my world

Not writing makes me twitchy. Especially in the early mornings. I've gotten so into the habit of getting up and getting straight to work, that I'm not sure what else there is to do. But this morning was a lovely, crisp fall morning, so I went for a walk and thought about writing.

I've just finished reading a few somewhat similar books, Holly Black's White Cat and its sequel, Red Glove, and Ally Carter's Heist Society. Both authors must have meticulously researched crime, crime families, and cons.

So on my walk I thought about those books, and what awesome, high-concept premises they had, and how I wished I could write something that fun. And then I thought: Well, why couldn't I?

Obviously not about crime families, Black and Carter seem to have that covered for the moment. But there's nothing to say I couldn't write a fun, high-concept book, nothing to say I couldn't research something really unique and interesting.

Because I'm almost positive Black and Carter do not come from crime families. And look at this bit from Holly Black's acknowledgements: "and [to] my husband, Theo, who not only put up with me during the writing, but also gave me lots of advice about demerits, scams, private school, and how to talk animal shelters out of things."

Isn't that fabulous? That is exactly why I always read books' acknowledgements, all those fascinating little tidbits! Not only is Holly Black probably not from a crime family, it appears she didn't even go to private school. But she knows someone who did.

I think that's the trick. Obviously, we can't only write about what we know forwards and backwards. Otherwise our books would be shallow, one-dimensional. And, just as obviously, we can't write the things we don't know. But I think there's a vast middle ground of things I don't know, but which are part of my world. The things I'm fascinated by, the things my husband knows, my family, my friends, the places I've traveled, the students I've taught. They're things I'd need to research, and I'd need to recruit people to help, but I bet I could pull them off.

And then it occurred to me, I've already done this. A few times. In Project Demo, one of my characters is into car repair. His father is a mechanic. Do I know anything about cars? No. I would be hard pressed to change a tire. But my mother was an engineer for GM until she retired. Plus I listen to Car Talk every week on my walk to get groceries. I used to teach students who studied car repair, and I could get minor jobs done on my car for free (loved that perk!). So even though all those aspects of my life don't add up to being able to change a tire, I imagined a boy who loves and works on cars. I got the sentiment right, and asked my mom (thank you, Mom!) to check the details. And upon reading Project Demo, you might even think I know something about cars. That's the illusion.

And it's those illusions that make books rich and universal.

What have you pretended to know in the course of your writing? Any fun things you'd love to write about?

*The picture is mine, from a walk in Bath*

Friday, November 11, 2011

Project Fun Update: FINISHED!

Thanks to Faux Nano, on Wednesday I managed to finish the first draft of Project Fun.

It's not ready for primetime (not even beta readers). I haven't figured out the tense, I want to rearrange the climax scenes, and of course, the writing in places is a mess. But even after almost six weeks (37 days, to be exact) plodding through, it's still kind of fun. And sweet. In other words, the process of writing the first draft hasn't totally sucked the life out of Project Fun, which is a good thing.

Total count? 33,406 words. 40 chapters.

I managed to write a chapter almost every day (with a handful of exceptions), and some days managed two. The average chapter is 835 words, which seems to be pretty typical of a day's work for me.

Of course, I expected Faux Nano to last through November. I also expected Project Fun to be 50K. But seeing as it is a book for younger kids, and I'm sure it will gain a few thousand as it goes through revisions, I'm not too nervous about the length (or at least, I'm putting on a brave face--I've never written such a short novel!).

So what's next? Well, I'm not sure. Yesterday I spent the day at Birmingham seeing the sights (I so want to set a novel among the canals there: misty, brick tunnels, narrow boats) and getting fingerprinted for my visa. Today I'm getting together with a writing friend. I'll probably spend the weekend enjoying my new-found freedom (and reading a lot). But Monday?

I definitely need to take some time off. My brain and hands are both a little achy. But I'm already thinking about more writing. I've got some ideas for fixing Project Demo. And I'm itching to get back to Project Fun and start mending plot holes. So I'm truly not sure where the next few weeks are going to take me, except I think I should be easy about it, patient and creative, and see what happens. I've done the hard bit. At least, the first hard bit. And it feels good.

How are your projects, Nano or otherwise, coming along? And what do you do to celebrate a completed rough draft (besides wanting to jump right into the next draft because you know how bad it is?).

Oh, and happy 11/11/11!

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Butt in Chair time: good for writing, not so good for butts!

Nearly everyone says the most important part of writing is Butt In Chair time. But how do you juggle Butt In Chair time with keeping your body healthy and fit? Ever since I went from teaching (large portions of every day spent on my feet) to office work, then full-time writing, I've been struggling with maintaining that balance.

Author Helene Boudreau uses a treadmill desk. Genius, right? Walking and writing at the same time. She's got a video, and more information about it, here.

I'm itching to try the same as soon as I live some place more permanent, where the time and money spent setting up a treadmill desk will be worth it. But what to do in the meantime?

I've tried a few different options.

For a few months I sat on an exercise ball instead of my regular chair. It was great for my calf muscles, but my body couldn't adjust to it, and it was hard not having support for my back.

I've also tried being more mobile. Not only do I treat myself with email and snack breaks (essential for good writing!), I have stretch breaks. And whenever I'm stuck, I try to get up, pace my living room, and stare out the window as I puzzle things out. That's helped.

Lately, I've been thinking about doing more audiobooks. I've chanced across a few free audiobook downloads recently (Kathryn Stockett's The Help and Holly Black's White Cat, both of which I loved!) and really enjoyed being able to walk and read.

I see Audible has a monthly or yearly fee where you can download a certain number of audiobooks each month. Has anyone else gone that route?

What do you do to get Butt in Chair time without the Butt in Chair bit?

Monday, November 7, 2011

Present or past?

Project Fun started in present tense. Then I slipped into the past. I've tried to stay in the past, except whenever my scenes get dialogue-heavy, I inadvertently switch back to present, sometimes for multiple pages. So, what will it be, present or past?

When I wrote Project Sparkle, I automatically wrote in present tense. I guess I had been reading a lot of present tense (it was becoming the hot thing in children's fiction). Later, I found it suited my character's impulsive, forthright nature, and the thriller genre. That's the magic of present tense. It's immediate, intense, and the reader doesn't know the future anymore than the main character, even whether or not the main character survives.

Check out this opening from White Cat by Holly Black (which I'm currently listening to as an audiobook and LOVING all over again):

"I wake up barefoot, standing on cold slate tiles. Looking dizzily down. I suck in a breath of icy air."

If you keep reading, you discover Cassel has sleepwalked onto his dorm's roof. But even before you know that, you can feel the tension, the height, the precariousness.

When I drafted Project Demo, I intentionally wanted to distance myself from Project Sparkle, with a quieter, more thought-provoking character and style. So I went with past tense. It suits Project Demo perfectly, as most of the novel involves the character debating whether she made the right decision. Not only is past tense more traditional, and more storyteller-like (Once upon a time...), it allows for more reflection than is usually possible in present tense. But that definitely doesn't mean boring.

Check out this opening for Ally Carter's Heist Society (one of the books on my to-read pile):

"No one knew for certain when the trouble started at the Colgan School. Some members of its alumni association blamed the decision to admit girls. Others cited newfangled liberal ideas and a general decline in the respect for elders worldwide. But whatever the theory, no on could deny that, recently, life at the Colgan School was different."

A great set-up for whatever's about to happen, no?

And that's the heart of the present / past debate. Either, done well, is practically invisible. Most writers seem to prefer one or the other. Others say the project suggests the tense. But what if I really don't know which to use?

How do you decide what tense to write in?

*By the way, I've been playing with the design of Critically Yours. Hopefully it won't look too weird or different over the next few weeks, but you've been warned.*

Friday, November 4, 2011

Project Fun is becoming a slog

Okay, not really a slog. I still love it. But I'm beginning to notice all of its plot holes, and clunky writing, and I keep switching from present tense to past to present again because I can't make up my mind.

The good news is the end is in sight. My Faux Nano plan, commencing in early October, was to write a scene a day, and to produce a novel by the end of November. I had 57 scenes, so it mostly seemed to add up. Except some of those scenes ended up combining. And Project Fun is turning out to be much shorter than I expected. So now here I am, barely starting November, and ramping up to the climax.

If I continue writing a scene a day, I should finish the book by next Thursday.

Craziness! I'm now getting a bit paranoid about word count, thinking about adding scenes, padding out subplots...

But still, finishing early is a good thing because I'm definitely running low on steam. I don't know about the rest of you, but for me, drafting is hard work. I find it mentally, but also physically draining. Nap inducing. Is that just me?

Anyway, current word count (as of Thursday): 27,400
Scenes left: 7

How are your projects, Nano or otherwise, coming along?

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

The wide world of Harry Potter cover art

This past summer I posted about re-reading Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows. I illustrated my post with a picture of Bloomsbury's original children's UK cover (pictured here). Many of my readers commented that they had never seen the British covers before. I was shocked.

Of course, there's no reason for American readers to know the British cover art. But having lived over here, I've discovered a whole other Harry Potter world. Not just the cover art, but reading the non-translated English (all that snogging!), seeing traditional school uniforms and football furor, Harry Potter has become even more real (and British) to me. Plus, I still have the occasional Harry Potter moment when I encounter something that feels straight out of the books (like when I take the train and get offered something from the food trolley!).

As long-time readers of the blog know, I love cover art. I love analyzing it, judging it, laughing at it, and reveling in it, though I'm certainly not an expert (if you love cover art, too, I highly recommend that cover girl for all things relating to YA covers). So I figured I'd give you a taste of the wide world of Harry Potter cover art. For a more comprehensive sample, visit the Harry Potter wiki's article on cover art.

Here's the first Bloomsbury UK children's cover:


And for my British readers, here's the first US Scholastic cover (of course, with the different title, the Sorcerer's Stone):


Harry Potter has actually had several different covers in the UK. Bloomsbury published separate editions for children and for adults (which I think is pretty clever). Here's Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows as Bloomsbury's adult edition:


And I've never seen this on the shelves, but there was apparently another adult edition with different cover art (I suspect it didn't sell as well and was discontinued). Shame, I LOVE this edition of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone:


Bloomsbury has also recently created a Signature edition. Here's that Deathly Hollows:


A few others, just for your enjoyment:

Bloomsbury's children's cover of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban:


Scholastic's US cover of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince:


Scholastic's US cover of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows:


Which do you love most? Which would you have loved as a kid? If you could get a complete set of any, which? I definitely have my eyes on Bloomsbury's early adult edition (the one with the train)! I'm not sure they fit the tone of the books. But they're beautiful!

Monday, October 31, 2011

Hello fear, my old friend

Happy Halloween! A number of bloggers have been posting about what they most fear. I've got plenty of fears to share. But in the midst of drafting Project Fun for Faux Nano, I've been thinking about the fear to write, which manages to catch me out almost every morning, silencing my words, plaguing me with doubt and insecurity. Recently, in an attempt to exorcise my demons of fear, I started singing (to the tune of the first line of Simon & Garfunkel's Sound of Silence), "Hello fear, my old friend." Because of course naming your fear is half the battle. In the spirit of Halloween, I decided to finish rewriting the lyrics to share them with you. Apologies to S&G for bastardizing their words and scansion. But at least now I have a whole song with which to face down my fear.

Hello fear, my old friend
I’ve come to talk with you again
Because a story softly creeping
Left its premise while I was sleeping
And the story that was planted in my brain
Still remains
Within the sound of silence

After restless dreams I tried to write
In the early morning light
Scribbling with pen on paper
I closed my eyes to all my failure
When my eyes were stabbed by Word’s blinking cursor
It split my will
And rallied the sound of silence

In the computer’s white light I saw
Ten thousand emails maybe more
Agents rejecting because there is no market
Editors rejecting because there is no money
Writers dreaming stories that readers never share
I no longer dare
Disturb the sound of silence

“Fool,” said I, “You already know,”
Fear like a cancer grows
I should write my words that I might capture them
Tell my stories that I might reach them
But my words like quiet snowfall melt
And exit my mind in silence

Writers like me bowed and prayed
To the fancy blogs we made
While the New York Times flashed out its warning
Via Facebook and Twittering,
The headline cried, “The book industry is already cold and dead.”
Where has my courage gone?
To whisper in the sound of silence.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Books are this girl's best friends

Earlier this year, when I expected to move back to the US, I got rid of a number of books. I donated them to charity bookstores, gave them away to friends, and brought a stack I couldn't part with to my parents' house. I was down to a single shelf of books, if you can believe it.

Then October happened. And suddenly the number of books in my apartment has doubled. Pretty neat trick, huh?

At the beginning of this month, I treated myself to three new books: Imaginary Girls by Nova Ren Suma, Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor, and The Lighter Side of Life and Death by CK Kelly Martin. I read (and love) all three authors' blogs, and their most recent books have been getting rave reviews, so I figured I could guarantee a good read (plus support authors and blogs I love). By the way, a special shout out to Nova Ren Suma. She's been running a creepy, thoughtful, and FUN blog series for this month called "What Scares You?" which features numerous ya authors. Definitely check it out.

Then, just as I was tearing into my new books, the Bath Kids Lit Fest happened, in all of its mad glory, and as my thank you for volunteering present I got to select several free books from their shelves. Woo-hoo! Free books!

Then a few writing buddies loaned me some must-reads.

Then I had an incredibly lucky run. Author Carmella Van Vleet posted on the MiG blog about her daughter's struggles with her growth disorder (it's a really educational post, and worth reading). In a random drawing for commenting on the post, I won a copy of Nava Atlas' The Literary Ladies' Guide to the Writing Life (thanks so much, MiG ladies!). Author SJ Kincaid had a giveaway on her blog, and I won White Cat by Holly Black (a favorite book from this past year that I've been desperately wanting to reread--thanks, SJ!). And I won CK Kelly Martin's newest book, My Beating Teenage Heart, from author Audrey Vernick's blog (thanks to both Audrey and CK!).

I know. I was a little embarrassed by all my luck, to be honest. My husband told me I should be playing the lotto instead of entering book contests. But I won books! Can't argue with that! In the coming months, I'll be sharing reviews of Nava Atlas' book and CK Kelly Martin's (and Audrey and SJ's books are already on the shopping list). Whenever I catch up on all this reading!

Course, as much as my husband teases me about my book winnings, he knows what I love. He got me the first omnibus volume of the comic Girl Genius (which I've been lusting after ever since The Book Smugglers' fab review) for our anniversary (who knew comics were the appropriate gift for eight years of marriage?!).

So many lovely books. I'm feeling a little overwhelmed. But in a good way. One can never have too many books.

What are you reading at the moment? What books are you lusting after?

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Thinking through our characters

I frequently reach moments in my rough drafts that read something like this:

Clara had no idea what to do. She was lost. Totally, utterly lost. Lost lost lost. "I know," she thought. "I'll make a list. One side of the page will be all the pros for going into the deep, dark forest after Jed (I think I love him, he could be in danger, I'm getting bored...), on the other side will be all the cons (he could be in danger, I've heard there might be rabid beasts in the forest, and there are those strange noises coming from the back yard every evening that haven't yet been explained)." Clara sat down on her bed and drew up her list. But it wasn't enough. She couldn't make up her mind. What if there was a third option she hadn't thought of? "Better journal for a while," she thought.

Of course, this is an exaggeration. And there's nothing wrong with characters sharing their thought process. But when I find my characters totally lost, resorting to making lists, or journaling their way out of problems, or going to the library, it's time to put down my rough draft and do some brainstorming off the page. No one wants to read my thought process.

Anyone else guilty of this?

Note: Clara and Jed are not characters in Project Fun. I just totally made them up. But I have to say, I'm now intrigued by what might happen next...

Monday, October 24, 2011

My Life as a Plotter: Project Fun Update

I'm still going strong with Project Fun. I managed to write a scene every day this week and by Sunday was up to 18K (boy do I love watching those words add up!). Special thanks to Sharon Jones and Deanna Carlyle for all their support on Twitter (we're using the tag #fauxnano, if anyone would like to join in).

Most importantly, of course, I'm still having fun. Though I'm far enough along that I'm plagued with the never-ending novelist questions: Is this any good? Did I dig deep enough? What if my character is too weird? What if this only makes sense in my head? And on and on and on. I try to fix what I can, but otherwise just keep writing. It's all I can do.

However, my biggest fear was that writing a scene-by-scene outline in advance would ruin everything. Tons of novelists swear against outlines; they find joy in the writing, in discovering their story as they go. But strangely, at least so far, that hasn't been a problem.

As I get to know my characters better, they're doing unexpected, even surprising things. So while part of me knows what's coming, another part of me is enjoying the ride, looking ahead to the big loop-de-loop and wondering what that's going to feel like, and what new twist my car might take. Very exciting.

I've also discovered an unexpected benefit to advance-plotting. Obviously there's the benefit of having a sentence jotted down for each scene, so I'm avoiding the dreaded blank page. But that structure also gives me the freedom to skip pointless paragraphs where I try to move my character from point A to point B.

For example, say a scene starts over breakfast, with a young girl arguing with her mom. She slams the door as she heads off to school. The next scene happens that evening, when the girl and her mom confront each other again over dinner.

If I were writing this story as I created it, I'd tell you about school that day, how crummy and boring it was, how noisy, how many kids there were in the halls, pushing and shoving... but you don't care. You want to know what's going to happen with the girl and her mom.

Having an outline in front of me gives me permission to jump to the next scene. It saves me lots of pointless paragraphs that will just be cut later anyway.

Pretty neat, huh? Course, next week I might be bemoaning the evil outline. We'll see.

How are your Nano or Nano Lite or Faux Nano goals coming along?

Friday, October 21, 2011

Where are you from?

The other day I was out grocery shopping, and bumped into a person on the street soliciting for a charity (this is a daily thing in the UK; college-aged students are hired by charities to accost--I mean, sign-up--passersby for regular donations).

I've gotten good at politely avoiding these people: "Sorry, not interested." Every so often they get pushy, and I'll explain to them that I prefer not to conduct business transactions on the street. But I try not to say too much. Because frequently, whenever I so much as open my mouth, they jump on my accent.

"Where you are from?"

I think they're trying to be friendly, to get me talking, perhaps willing to donate (or even entertain them while they stand on the street, probably bored out of their minds). But this question has the exact opposite effect. I'll mumble something hurriedly (the other day it was, "Here, I'm from Bristol.") and leave as quickly as possible.

I HATE being asked where I'm from.

And I should say, this doesn't just happen with charity workers. I get it from the supermarket, from people at the bus stop, from cafes. Everywhere I go, I get asked "Where are you from?"

I don't mind so much when it's part of a conversation. But if it's out of the blue, to me it's the equivalent of saying, "You're not from around here. You don't belong." Because, obviously, they're not asking the people with British accents "Where are you from?" I don't mind the question as a tourist, but as someone who's lived in Bristol for four years, I resent being told I don't belong. I can only imagine how annoying this is after twenty years.

Growing up, I was told never to ask where someone's from. I was taught that even if someone has a different skin color to mine, or a different accent, they can still be American. Maybe that's not so much of a British sensibility.

But perhaps I'm being too sensitive. I truly don't think these people mean to be nasty or exclusive. At best, they're curious. Perhaps I just don't like being asked personal questions on the street.

Because minutes later, I went into my favorite deli (Chandos! Love them!), and the two guys behind the counter were debating whether Matt Damon would run for US President. I placed my order, and then one of the guys, one I've chatted with before, asked, "Hey, where are you from again?" and I didn't resent it at all. He wanted to include me in the conversation, get the American perspective on whether Matt Damon would run (uhhh... no).

The funny thing is, I love talking about where I'm from. I love discussing Chicago, snowy winters, the Great Lakes, US politics, American food...

All of this made me wonder whether maybe I need a new "Where are you from?" policy.

Perhaps I should be less prickly and say, Chicago, or Michigan, or the US.

Or perhaps I should take the opportunity to let them know that I find the question upsetting, and I wish they wouldn't ask it, because it implies that people with different accents can't belong here.

More than likely, I'll just glare, mumble "Here," and hurry away again.

What do you think? Is it a fair question? How would you answer it?

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Dear Mr. Hemingway,

I owe you an apology.

I know you're not around anymore, and I know you probably don't care what I have to write anyway. But I've spent a lot of my life saying hateful things about you, so I feel the need to apologize publicly.

I first read Ernest Hemingway in an American Lit class in high school. I loved the teacher, loved everything we read, except I loathed Hemingway. We read his Nick Adams short stories. Our teacher discussed his terse style, interest in war, bull-fighting, the outdoors. To me his writing felt arrogant, filled with false-bravado. I couldn't see the draw at all.

In college, discovering that most of my classmates had read Old Man and the Sea, I gave that a try. Same style. After just a few pages, I put it down.

Years later, I ended up teaching American Lit. A fellow teacher suggested a Hemingway short story ("A Day's Wait"). I wrinkled my nose, but she promised me it was good. It was. It was a breathtakingly beautiful story, honest and sad. The only good Hemingway I ever read. It didn't inspire me to read anymore, but at least I could say I taught Hemingway. Sort of.

Fast forward to now, and my Bristol book group. The lone man in the group suggested we read For Whom the Bell Tolls. I made a face. I told the group I'd happily give it a try, but in truth I didn't intend to read more than a few pages. Especially when I saw the novel was over 400. I repeated my mantra, said I found Hemingway's writing masculine, arrogant, and dull.

This Thursday when we meet for book group, I'm planning to eat my words.

I LOVED For Whom the Bell Tolls.

Admittedly, it was a slow start. The writing was the same terse style I'd come to hate. But I pressed on, figuring I should at least finish the first chapter. And I was loathe to admit it, but every so often there were some beautiful sentences. Then I pushed on to the second chapter, thinking I should at least say I read 50 pages. By page 50, I stopped making excuses, and finally admitted I was totally absorbed in this story of an American dynamiter fighting in Spain's Civil War, and all the politics, the people who say one thing, but mean another, and everyone in their own way confronting death as they plan to blow up a bridge to stop the Fascist Army.

But not only was the story absorbing, the characters fascinating (though it did take a while to actually get to the bridge...), the best part was that this terse style became like a writing masterclass.

I mean, listen to this! "He knelt by the stream and, pushing his automatic pistol around on his belt to the small of his back so that it would not be wet, he lowered himself with a hand on each of two boulders and drank from the stream. The water was achingly cold."

Achingly cold. It gives me chills (literally, not just figuratively!). Talk about a beautiful use of an adverb (which writers are never supposed to use!).

Most of the language was slow, plodding, yet brief. It was meant to capture Spanish in translation, and I did truly feel like I was reading Spanish and then slowly translating the language into English in my mind. It also forced me to read every word, which took a long time, but is a neat trick.

But better, Hemingway plays with that rhythm, changing it at different points, and he changes the pace of his language to convey dialogue, description, thought, sex. I was mesmerized. I would love to quote one of his sex scenes, but I don't quite dare. Read the book!

I also loved the cursing in the novel (yes, sex, cursing, see what this Hemingway love hath wrought?!). Actually, he didn't curse outwardly, he did everything he could to get around it. As a young adult author, I thought there was a lot to learn here:

"Where the hell are you going? Agustín asked the grave little man as he came up.
“To my duty,” Fernando said with dignity.
“Thy duty,” said Agustín mockingly. “I besmirch the milk of thy duty.” Then turning to the woman, “Where the un-nameable is this vileness that I am to guard?”
“In the cave,” Pilar said. “In two sacks. And I am tired of thy obscenity.”
“I obscenity in the milk of thy tiredness,” Agustín said.
“Then go and befoul thyself,” Pilar said to him without heat.
“Thy mother,” Agustín replied.

Apparently this annoys a lot of people, but it absolutely cracked me up. You know (roughly) all the obscene things the characters are saying, but Hemingway is avoiding all censorship. In a later passage, in the main character's own head, so there is no Spanish translation, the word muck is substituted. But muck becomes just as angry and as effective as anything else.

Finally, and perhaps best of all, I didn't find the novel overly arrogant or masculine, or any of those other hateful things I said before about Mr. Hemingway. Instead, I found it full of questions, about masculinity, bravery, killing, what it means to be a soldier, whether war really accomplishes any purpose, whether democracies can ever be fair.

The love interest, Maria, prior to the novel's opening, has been gang-raped. This isn't handled well (sex and loving the "right man" will make it all better!), but considering it was the early 1940s, I was impressed it was there in the first place, discussed, and that Maria was treated gently and sensitively because of it.

It was a beautiful and truly thought-provoking read. And strangely enough, I'm anxious to read more. Anyone have any Hemingway recommendations? Any writers you hate?

Monday, October 17, 2011

Faux NaNo

Ah, fall. When the air turns crisp, the leaves turn into breathtaking reds, oranges, and golds, and writers' thoughts turn to drafting a novel in a month.

Yep, it's nearly November, which means most of my internet writing friends are agonizing over whether or not to do NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month). Over the years, I've come to realize that NaNo really isn't my thing. I'm a slower writer, and speeding up just means more plot holes and poorly drawn characters. Last year I participated in my own version of NaNo, October and November National Novel Writing Month with No Guilt (shorthand, OctAnNaNoWriMowithNoGuilt-o, of course). It's purpose was met, in that I started fervently drafting my novel Project Demo, and got some serious page accumulation (even if it wasn't quite the official NaNo goal of 50K).

Still, I love the determination and support that NaNo fosters, and I love to be a part of that, in however small a way. I laid Project Demo aside at the end of August, as we both needed a break from each other and something fresh. So I'm in a lucky spot where I can again use some of the NaNo spirit to push through my draft. This year I'm keeping things simple and calling it Faux NaNo.

The goal? Finish a rough draft of Project Fun by the end of November.

What? You haven't heard about Project Fun?

Well, that's probably because I haven't said much about it yet. As you may have gathered from the blog, life has been rather full-on lately. But I spent much of September using John Truby's 22-step method to plot out Project Fun. I started actually writing on October 4th (so really, I'm already two weeks into Faux NaNo!).

How's it going? Well... I'm a total pantser, so this a very new and strange way for me to write. But so far it seems to be going okay. Project Fun is still fun, which was about 80% of the point of writing it. But it's also very much early days. I'm pressing forward, aiming for a chapter a day, roughly 500-1500 words. And we'll see what it looks like when I come out the other end of November.

In the meantime, now that Project Demo isn't giving me nasty looks on a daily basis, and the Bath Kids Lit Fest is over, I should have a bit more time to blog, and share some updates on Project Fun throughout the remaining month and a half of my Faux NaNo.

Total as of yesterday: 11,600

What about you? Have your thoughts turned to NaNo? Anyone else doing a sort of Faux NaNo?

Friday, October 14, 2011

A different kind of visa application

I've been very quiet recently about what the next year might bring, but regular readers will know this past year wasn't particularly easy.

I originally moved to Bristol, in the United Kingdom, because of a research grant my husband received. Then he received another, which finished two weeks ago. He's spent the past year hunting for a more permanent job, but you all know how difficult the market has been. I kept hoping for good news to share here, but even this summer, I honestly didn't know where in the world we'd end up next.

Well, finally, good news: Phil has been offered (and accepted!) a one-year position at the University of Bristol. It was only this week that we submitted our new visa applications (and they still haven't been processed, but we're crossing our fingers!).

It's been an arduous few weeks (not to mention almost a year of uncertainty!). There was a lot of bureaucracy involved, and then the applications themselves can be quite demanding. We had to get photos taken, prove we're native English speakers, assemble proof of bank accounts, our marriage, and academic degrees, along with filling out miles of paperwork. And then there's the fees, many hundreds of pounds just to process the applications.

I do understand, though. The government wants to make sure we're here legally, that we can afford to stay here, and that we'll add value to the country through Phil's work.

But I've spent much of the past few weeks wondering how the application process might look different if perhaps we weren't judged by bank accounts and university degrees, but rather by the life we've led the past four years.

For example, when this position at the University opened up, Phil's colleagues unanimously wanted to offer it to Phil (I'm his wife, I can brag on his behalf!).

And when I told the primary school teacher I volunteer with once a week that I might not be back the following year, she offered to write a letter to the Border Agency herself, letting them know how useful I've been.

Of course, there's more to integrating into a country than work.

The Border Agency would probably want character references. So I think about all the friends we've made here. I think about my writing friends, my library book group, my orchestra, four years of Thanksgiving celebrations in our packed living room.

But perhaps the UK government would also like to know that we're not complete outsiders, that we've absorbed our share of British culture. Well, besides an MA in Writing for Young People, I've mastered a mean scone recipe (the quickest way to my heart, of course, being my stomach). I might be trying out some more baking after the past two months watching The Great British Bake-Off. I'm totally addicted to Downton Abbey, and may or may not (it's unconfirmed) have a thing for Kevin McCloud, the host of Grand Designs.

Of course, there's also the matter of dancing in front of hundreds of kids as the beloved Horrid Henry while volunteering for the Bath Kids Lit Fest. Surely that's got to count for something? I could even send my picture in the Telegraph in as evidence!

The more I thought about what this type of application would look like, the more certain I was that Phil and I would pass it. Over four years, Bristol really has become part of my life, and a home in all senses of the word. I've spent a lot of time looking forward to going back to the US, but I have to admit, now that I'm not going, I'm kind of looking forward to another year here.

As long as those visa applications get approved. Maybe I should send the Border Agency this link?

Thanks, everyone, and especially my British friends. Guess we'll have to put up with each other for another year!

Me & Phil at a Bristol Badgers baseball game

All pictures are mine (except the Great British Bake Off shot): Me "steering" the SS Great Britain, the Clifton Suspension Bridge, and the Balloon Fiesta over Bristol's skyline

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Do you tell people you're a writer?

I try to avoid it if I can. That's why my landlord thinks I live a life of leisure.

If I tell people I'm a writer, then people (understandably) ask, "What have you written?"

Then I have to tell them none of my novels have been published, and they secretly feel bad for me, because I must not be a very good writer. Either that or I just don't understand how to market myself. Sometimes they try to help me with that.

Or they ask "What's your book about?" and if I'm feeling brave I might give a pitch. Or I might not, if I can't bear that empty silence or disinterested gaze one more time.

So I'll them it's for teenagers, and hope they don't ask anymore.

"Is it about vampires?"

"No."

But eventually, I have to tell people. At least, friends, acquaintances. The type of people who ask how your weekend was, and I need to explain how I spend long portions of my life sitting inside, staring into space.

The worst is when I see them again. "Is your book published now?"

"No."

Thankfully the best and closest friends understand. Or they're writers themselves.

Do you tell people you're a writer?

Monday, October 10, 2011

Do characters have to be likable?

At the beginning of the Kids Lit Fest, knowing I was going to be traveling back and forth to Bath frequently, I downloaded from my library the audiobook for a well-respected, literary adult novel. I took it on my walk later that day, and hadn't even made it to the end of my street before I was sick of it. Both main characters were whiny, immature know-it-alls.

Fair? No, probably not. I looked the book up on Goodreads when I got home, and it's gotten numerous good reviews. Several readers point out that while the characters are annoying at the beginning, they mature through the course of the novel.

Maybe I should've given the book another shot, but it happened to be the second literary novel I'd encountered in the past month with this issue. If I'm going to devote hours of my time (11+ in the case of this audiobook), I don't want to spend it with whiny, immature people.

So I've been thinking lately about unsympathetic characters, and when they work and when they don't. I'm happy to root for Scarlett in Gone With the Wind. There's nothing likable about Richard III or Dr. House, yet I watch with interest. So a character doesn't have to be a saint to capture my imagination. But there still has to be something there.

Meg Rosoff in her talk at the Bath Kids Lit Fest said she dealt with an unsympathetic narrator (Bob, the 19-year-old god in There Is No Dog) by giving him flashes of brilliance.

Meg and Melvin Burgess also talked about how in Melvin's book, Kill All Enemies, the characters start out unlikable, but as the reader learns more about them, the reader becomes more sympathetic.

I think the author has to do something to either help the reader engage with her character (make him funny or fascinating, brilliant or sympathetic) or her story (even though the reader can't stand the character, she reads on because she HAS to know what this character's going to do next).

Can you think of any other ways to entice readers with an unsympathetic character? And do you have any favorite unsympathetic characters?

I think ya author Courtney Summers is a master at making readers care about her characters, even though they do terrible things.