Monday, January 31, 2011

The patient writer

Lately I've been thinking about patience. It's a trait I've never had much luck with.

But it's pretty much a requirement for a novelist. Waiting years, or more, to finish a book. Waiting until it's as good as you can make it to send it out. Waiting for agents, editors. On her blog Pub Rants, agent Kristin Nelson recently blogged about how publishing houses are taking weeks, months (six months!) to negotiate contracts with authors. Another agent, Rachelle Gardner, posted on her blog about how prolific writers can end up several books ahead of their publisher.

In terms of the writing process, a little patience can be a good thing, too. Author Alisa Libby (in a blog interview with author Anna Staniszewski) recently said, "I am incredibly impatient—both with myself and with my writing. Why can’t I write faster? I ask myself. Why do I have to revise a book so many times? Maybe an ounce or more of patience would slow down my writing process and require fewer drafts." After all, slow and steady wins the race, right?

But sometimes patience isn't all it's cracked up to be. Sometimes an author should be actively submitting her manuscript, working hard to find the right agent. Sometimes a story is timely, and needs to get out as soon as possible. And sometimes, I believe, writers need to push themselves, write as quickly as possible, and jump around a bunch, in order to find the heart of their story.

Earlier in January, I blogged about whether or not my first draft HAD to make it to The End. I was eager to start revising Project Demo, filling in various details I had skipped along the way, deepening my story.

So impatience won. I wrote a detailed outline of my book's climax and resolution, and then jumped back to the beginning. I'm currently working on Chapter 2 of Project Demo. Was it the right decision? Or rash?

I have no idea. At the moment, I'm happily revising. But there might be all sorts of problems waiting for me when I attempt to write my climax for the second time.

Perhaps it isn't just about patience. Perhaps it's more about instinct. Sometimes we push, sometimes we hold. Sometimes we just have to guess based on how we're feeling at the moment.

What about you? Do you consider yourself a patient person? A patient writer?

Friday, January 28, 2011

Strangers in a strange land together

My first official day as a student at Bath Spa University was an evening reception before classes started. I was absolutely terrified: Would people like me? Would I like them? Would the other students beat me up and steal my lunch money? Actually, it was a wonderful evening. I met my tutors, my fellow classmates, chatted about books and writing, and even made friends. I was shocked (and blogged about it all here).

Late in the evening, I was introduced to another student, and heard a familiar accent. She was Canadian, and so pleased to meet "another North American." We stuck together from then on and became good friends.

Actually, I think we sometimes drove our British classmates nuts. She would come up to me at the beginning of class and say, "You won't believe what happened in this restaurant last night," and I would tell her about a crazy incident on the bus. We were catty gossips. But it feels so good to talk to someone who understands all the weirdness of being a foreigner living in the UK.

I've never sought out foreigners while living here. I don't go to any secret American clubs (though I do regularly attend the Bristol Badgers baseball games in the summer!). Regardless, many of my closest friends in this country are foreigners. Dutch, Portuguese, Irish, Canadian, etc. Our accents stick out like a sore thumb, friends introduce us, somehow we always find each other.

I was reminded of this with my recent post on Explaining cultural differences. I was pleased so many of you joined in the conversation, British, Irish, American. And many of my online expat friends. Elisabeth (FictionForge) has lived various places in Europe, Mary Witzl, has lived all over, and blogs her fascinating stories about life abroad. I met author Heidi Ayarbe (an American living in Columbia) over Twitter. Author Keren David (a Brit who has lived in the Netherlands) blogs occasionally about her expat experiences. I didn't deliberately search you out, but I've been so happy to find you and share my experiences with you.

That's part of the reason I've given up with these doom and gloom articles about how Twitter or blogs or Facebook are destroying the fabric of our society. I've made so many friends online, fellow writers, fellow expats, fellow readers, and I'm so grateful to you all for "getting it."

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

My love affair with Charles Dickens

Writers aiming for publication are often encouraged to read current books. Books like Stephenie Meyer's TWILIGHT, Lucy Christopher's STOLEN, and Carrie Ryan's THE FOREST OF HANDS AND TEETH can show children's writers what's popular at the moment and how far the boundaries for teen writing can be pushed.

But sometimes in my rush to read all these new, exciting books coming out, I forget that books published ten years ago, let alone hundreds of years ago, can be riveting, too, as well as instructive in the craft of writing.

Lately I've returned to one of my favorite writers since I was a teen: Charles Dickens.

I've been re-watching the BBC's adaptation of LITTLE DORRIT.



Okay, it's not strictly re-reading Dickens, but it's extremely well done and showcases much of what I love about Dickens' writing.

Dickens' novels are filled with memorable characters. He's a master of character names, from Mr. Guppy (which sounds even better with a harsh British accent), to Edmund Sparkler, to Prince Turveydrop (a dance instructor).

And his characters have unique tics and foibles to help them stick in the reader's mind (for me usually long after I finish his books). Remember the frustrated music teacher in BLEAK HOUSE who places his forehead against the wall so often the wall has become dented? Or Miss Flite (another great name!), who has a collection of birds named Hope, Youth, Beauty, Confusion, Jargon, Plunder, Despair, Spinach, and Gammon (etc!), and intends to release them on the day of judgment?

I also love Dickens' plots. They're complex and twisty, raging across London and the countryside, from debtors' prisons, to manor houses, to jails, to lawyers' offices, and they always have these magical moments where you realize two disparate characters were once brother and sister, or lovers, or friends, and society has carried them away from each other.

I find Dickens' novels a bit magical, too. Miss Havisham in her disintegrating wedding dress, Mrs. Flite's birds, the business and home of the Clennam's crashing to the ground at the end of LITTLE DORRIT. It's not Harry Potter type magic, but more magical realism. Even in the midst of despair, all people are inter-connected, wrongs will be punished, lost children found.

When I read (or watch!) Dickens, I become engrossed in his world. And even though he wrote giant tomes for adults hundreds of years ago, and it sounds a bit stuffy to say so, Dickens is an inspiration to me as a writer.

What classic works speak to you?

Monday, January 24, 2011

Signs that your writing is going well

Have you ever been so deeply engrossed in a story that you imagine you're there? When I read Lucy Christopher's STOLEN, I imagined the hot desert sand blowing across my cheeks, the sun beating down on the back of my neck, and the sky that stretched forever. And when I looked up, only to discover I was in England and it was still raining, I was shocked.

Well, yesterday the same thing happened to me. Except it wasn't a story I was reading. I was working on Project Demo. And I thought, "Finally, after all this time and tinkering, I'm truly engaged with this novel."

Other signs Project Demo is going well?

Everything reminds me of Project Demo. I was reading an article on a famous musician and thought, "Wow, she sounds just like my main character." I saw the movie The King's Speech (great movie!), and walked out thinking, "My main character's afraid like that, too."

I find I'm mulling over Project Demo in the shower, over breakfast, as I fall asleep.

It's pretty exciting for a story I once gave up on.

What are some signs that your own writing is going well?

Friday, January 21, 2011

Writing to The End

Think back to high school PE. You're running the mile. You're doing well, you've run the whole way, you're going to make it. You can see the finish line just a few feet ahead of you. So you stop and walk it in.

After all, you proved you could do it. You made it to the finish line. Right?

That's the way I write rough drafts. And I'm not sure if I'm being efficient about it or incredibly lazy.

With Project Sparkle, I wrote up to the last chapter. But I had no idea how to tie everything together, so for that last chapter I just wrote a rough sketch of what might happen. Then, during my revision process, I had to rewrite the last third of the book, as the climax ended up happening in a different place, with a new character. I had suspected the climax would be a problem as I wrote the rough draft, but I pushed myself to keep going almost to the end. Was it worth it? Did I learn anything new? I'm not sure.

Now I'm nearing the end of Project Demo. I'm starting the climax, on track to finish by the end of January.

And I don't want to write anymore.

Yesterday I outlined the whole climax. I know (roughly) what happens, how it ends. So it should be easy to write. Except I really don't want to.

I've finally figured out what Project Demo is about (I didn't quite know before). So I'm excited about going back to the beginning and starting the rewriting process. I don't think my climax will have to be completely rewritten this time. But certainly it will have to be tweaked. And I want to write it right the first time.

So... lazy? Efficient? Intuitive? I'm really not sure.

Do you listen to your gut when you're writing? And do your rough drafts always make it to The End?

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Pitching Project Sparkle

I remember my novel before it had a main character. I remember the idea that started it all, the first chapter I ever wrote. I remember when I was so excited about my new project that I announced on my blog that it was "bright and fun and sparkles in the light." Hence the reason I dubbed it Project Sparkle.

But now it's a whole different ball game. I'm in the midst of the submission process, sending out query letters, trying to entice agents to read Project Sparkle for themselves. So I have to sell it.

And in order to sell Project Sparkle, I need to figure out how to describe it in a couple of sentences. I need to assign it a genre.

Commence the hair pulling.

My query letter had gone through several revisions; I thought it was pretty good. But when I sent it to my tutor, she wrote back that it was "unrepresentative of your novel... too complicated... too detailed..." So I went back to the drawing board. Several times.

Thankfully my tutor is happy with my latest result. She wrote back, "Much better. Start the second paragraph with a more general line, something like 'Part love story, part thriller...' Then I think it's fine."

"Part love story, part thriller?"

One side of me thought, "It is? I've written a thriller? My book is thrilling? Wow."

Another side of me thought, "Well, okay, but it's more of a psychological thriller... or maybe a paranormal thriller. And yes, there's a love story, but that's not the main plot line. There's also a lot about family. Should I add something about the pull of family?"

In the end, I decided to stick with Julia's advice.

Obviously I'm not very good at this whole selling thing. I never have been. When we were kids, my sister and I used to joke that I'd write books and she'd sell them for me (my sister was the queen of Girl Scout cookie sales). But it's even harder to figure out how to sell something I know so intimately.

I hope it gets easier. Because (hopefully!) this is just the beginning.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Writing every day

Do you write every day? I mean, really write, not revise, or plot, or draft query letters?

I don't. Even now, when I'm in the midst of a new draft, I have to spend some days figuring out what happens next. Plus, I like to keep busy with other writing things, blog posts, critiquing friends' writing, studying craft. Recently I've been drafting a lot of query letters.

But I've discovered I'm much happier when I write every day. After all, what I love most about writing is storytelling, visiting new worlds, inhabiting new characters. Revising, plotting, and especially drafting query letters, just isn't the same thing. For me, too much non-writing work sucks the joy out of an activity I truly love.

So lately I've been thinking about daily writing exercises. Am I crazy?

In my mind, writing exercises are like, well, exercise. How many people want to take time out of their day to go to a sweaty gym, lift weights and do sit ups? I've always thought I got plenty of writing practice from my works in progress. I didn't want to waste time in the writing equivalent of the gym.

However, I recently read that Maggie Stiefvater, Tessa Gratton, and Brenna Yovanoff started the short story blog Merry Sisters of Fate to give themselves a writing venue that wasn't high stakes, but was still a regular place to play with stories.

Maybe my writing routine needs a bit more playtime.

Do you write every day? Do you wish you did? How do you feel about writing exercises?

Friday, January 14, 2011

Explaining cultural differences: apples to llamas

Going back to the US for the holidays, it's always striking confronting the differences between it and the UK.

I catch myself saying "moe-byel" instead of cell phone and "toe-ma-toe". At a restaurant in Michigan, the server asked if I wanted chips or fries with my sandwich. It took a while to respond, as my muddled brain was thinking, "But they're the same thing!"

Of course, the big differences are the more intangible ones. Not just what people say, but how they say it, the way they behave, the things that are important and not so important. I'm being vague here for fear of offending both Brits and Americans!

But it's something I get asked about all the time. Why do Americans do X? What do Brits think about Y?

I don't think many people understand what complicated questions these can be. For example, I was chatting with friends about driving on the left side of the road, and someone asked if Brits walk on the left side of the sidewalk. No, they don't. In a busy train station sometimes escalators or stairs will be marked so people stay on the left. Otherwise, Brits tend to walk wherever there's space.

My friend found this bizarre. In his mind, since Americans drive on the right and walk on the right, Brits should systematically be the same, except reversed.

But there is no systematic difference. The US and the UK are just different. Apples to oranges. Or rather, apples to llamas.

It threw me when I first came here, too. But I've come to realize that different cultures develop independently, have been for thousands of years. Driving laws, government, education, all have developed in completely different ways. It's fascinating.

And difficult to understand, let alone explain.

So yes, the Brits walk on both sides of the sidewalk (which isn't called a sidewalk, but rather pavement). And even though the US has much more of a car culture, I've also found the US to be more pedestrian friendly. Why? I don't know.

My British friends ask questions, too. Recently, many have been wondering about Americans' fascination with guns. I can explain about second amendment rights, and frontier life, but at the end of the day, there's no clear cut answer.

But I never stop wondering about these differences. Why does the UK have so many more fair trade products available at major supermarkets? Does it have something to do with their history of imperialism? Why do I have better recycling service in the UK than I've ever encountered in the US? Is it because America has more climate change deniers? More Big Oil money? Why is the US at the forefront of sustainable fishing, well ahead of Europe? I have no idea.

Maybe it's not so much nationwide differences as community differences, individuals leading the way, or politicians devoted to certain causes. Or any number of other variables that are near impossible to quantify.

What would really be a blessing would be if we could learn from each other. Often during the American health care debate, I wished that instead of conservatives ripping apart the NHS, politicians, researchers, and health care providers could learn from the NHS and work to develop more humane and efficient systems for both countries.

That would truly be a global revolution.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Creating independent characters

A classmate in my MA program once told me I was the only student with a central character who wasn't basically me. I believe he meant to compliment my originality, but at the time I thought, "If you only knew me better, you'd see so much of me in Project Sparkle."

His comment got me thinking, and the more I thought, the more I worried. I am not my main character. Project Sparkle is far from memoir. Yet I share an inner core with my character. If I were in her shoes, if I had nothing to lose, I imagine I'd make some of her same mistakes.

Is that poor writing? If I can never escape a specific handful of character traits, will I be destined to write the same book over and over? Imagine dozens of novels, each with dozens of Annes running around their pages.

At least I'm in good company. Author E M Forster once said, rather humbly: "I have only got down on to paper, really, three types of people: the person I think I am, the people who irritate me, and the people I'd like to be."

Perhaps that's what character creation is about. We draw on our hopes and fears, friends, our boss, nosy relatives, the stories around us. Of course we want to mix things up, throw in details that are decidedly not us (in my previous novel, my main character was a math whiz. Hah!). But at the end of the day, I am the creator of my novel. Its world is going to resemble me.

And while that world may be a limited creation, literature can also spawn an incredible universality. Forster may have been writing about himself, but how is it that his characters also speak to me? Good books are magic like that.

Do you ever worry that your characters are basically you? Do you try to change them?

Monday, January 10, 2011

Taking a break

I got back from my Christmas visit to the States Friday morning.

First order of business? I took a hot bath. It'd been a long day. Plus I was reading the newest Courtney Summers book, Fall for Anything, and I couldn't bear to stop.

After my bath, unpacking, visiting the grocery store, and a much needed nap, I settled in for the evening with some Christmas chocolate and a new DVD of Project Runway. And I tried to figure out how in the world I was going to get back into writing mode.

Last year I didn't have this problem. Perhaps the holidays were a bit quieter for some reason. Or I was more dedicated. I had the stress of a January deadline for Bath Spa University to worry about. And a sparkly new novel idea. So I wrote every day, even Christmas, for thirty minutes. Most days I worked for an hour.

This year I did some editing work, some work on my query letter, and a half-hearted journal entry about what would happen next in Project Demo. In total, a couple of hours tops. I didn't write anything new, not a single sentence.

I'm okay with that. If I wasn't, I would have pushed myself harder. This year I figured I needed a break (plus I don't get to spend time with my family and American friends very often).

But what now? I'm a little hazy on my characters' names, let alone the plot. And I'm tired just thinking about how much work diving in again will be. This must be why most writers work every day.

Of course, once I force myself to start writing again, it will all come back. I'll begin to care again, I'll begin to remember my story's driving action. I hope.

Did you take a writing holiday this year? How did you get back to work?