Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Incredible trailers

Last week, author Anna Staniszewski blogged about book trailers. On Monday she posted about different types of trailers, Wednesday how she went about making her own trailer, and on Friday she premiered the trailer for her novel MY VERY UNFAIRY TALE LIFE (it looks great, check it out!).


Book trailers are a funny business. Done right, I think they help spur interest, spread the word about a good book, and give fans something to enjoy. But I think they're incredibly difficult to do well.

We're all so familiar with big-budget movie trailers, with Hollywood actors, special effects, and professional editing. So book trailers tend to suffer in comparison, often feeling poorly edited, uninspiring, and overly long.

But instead of just being a curmudgeon, complaining about book trailers, Anna's posts got me thinking about the book trailers I do like and why.

Like Anna's trailer, I believe the best book trailers don't try to compete with movies. Instead they focus on what a book does best: exciting words.

The trailer for CRASHED by Robin Wasserman is so short and simple. But it doesn't need complicated visuals or editing to pack a punch:


Similarly, I love Lucy Christopher's STOLEN. I believe this one was professionally produced, but it isn't the images that steal the show, it's the words:


Likewise, a holler out to another author friend, Paula Rawsthorne's THE TRUTH ABOUT CELIA FROST has a chilling trailer, not because of the professional editing (though it does look good!), but because of the story it presents:


THE SKY IS EVERYWHERE by Jandy Nelson is one of my favorite books and trailers. The video is much more complicated than the others here, but I don't love it because of the actors (they're totally hokey), but because of the music and again the beautiful words:


Interestingly, as I was putting this post together I discovered that a lot of the UK publishing houses fund professional videos for their big authors. That definitely makes it easier to have a high quality trailer! Would be interesting to know if the publishers have found it worth the investment. Because I know a lot of American authors would love to have such an opportunity!

Monday, June 27, 2011

Life after an MA in Writing

Thursday night I snuck into a reading organized by Bath Spa University's MA in Creative Writing programs. Not only was it a pleasure to hear some great work, but I got to catch up with some old writing friends, including my beloved tutor Julia, and meet some new students fighting to finish their novels by September (oh, do I remember that!). Plus I got to spend a whole evening talking writing!

Though I believe every student I met asked me the same question: "What is it like not having workshop anymore?"

I should have taunted them with how much free time I have, how many books I've read for pleasure lately, how I just signed a six-figure publishing contract... but instead I tried to answer their question honestly! And it got me to thinking, too. What is life after an MA in Writing like?

The hard part, of course, is to keep motivated. Many of my former classmates have struggled to fit writing into their regular lives. I've been lucky enough to not have to work, but the solitude of sitting at home working full-time on writing has been a challenge, too. It's been a struggle to keep believing my characters are sympathetic enough, that Project Demo is anything anyone would want to read, and that I'm a good enough writer to pull it off.

"But haven't you kept in touch with the students you graduated with?" one person asked me.

Yes. But keeping in touch, and critiquing each other's work now and then, isn't the same as two three hour workshops a week, strict deadlines, and dedicated tutors.

The good news is that since finishing the MA program, I feel much more capable of critiquing my own work. I also know I've written one good novel, so intellectually (if not emotionally) the second seems feasible.

And that's the current challenge, isn't it? Figuring out how to write a novel without constant feedback, strict deadlines, and dedicated tutors. Speaking of which, I better get back to work on Project Demo, which I'm determined to finish by the end of this summer!

What are your summer writing goals? And for those of you who have done a course in writing, what has the "after" been like for you?

Friday, June 24, 2011

Santorini: Greece Pics IV

The revision's going a bit better (thanks for all your help Wednesday!), and I'm almost caught up on emails and everything else that got put on hold while I was away. And it's Friday! What better way to celebrate than more Greece pics?

Our second day in Santorini, Phil and I did a bit of exploring. We went to one of the highest points on the island, Pyrgos, to wind through its twisty stone streets, see a ruined castle, and enjoy the view from the top.

Here's me contemplating the view. Or wondering if anyone would notice if I yanked just a few of those bells.


That afternoon we headed down to Perissa to visit the Black Beach.

My geologist husband went nuts. The beach is black because of the volcanic explosion that formed Santorini. Most of the island is made up of volcanic rock, and it all collects on the beach in tiny, granular bits, barely bigger than regular sand.

Plus we got smoothies.

Unfortunately, as you can probably tell from the picture with no one in it, it was a little chilly for swimming.

Then it was our last day in Santorini. Since most everything in Greece closes on Mondays, we couldn't visit any of the museums or cultural sites in the capital city of Fira. Instead we spent another day wandering around Oia, poking our nose in most of the shops, doing some shopping, getting ice cream, and enjoying ourselves. A hard life, huh?

Actually, we looked so relaxed, one of the shop keepers had to stop us and ask what cruise we were on. Apparently most of the cruises that stop in Oia give their passengers about two hours to see the town. They race through, take a few pictures, and rush back to their boat. What a shame.

I've already mentioned the dogs in Athens. Well, they were all over Oia, too, bounding from staircases to roofs down the side of the mountain to get the best view anytime one of their friends barked.


There are two dogs in the below picture, the one taking a nap, and the one standing guard like a soldier. If anything happens, he'll be the first to sound the alarm.

Finally, one more picture of beautiful Oia.

I'll post my final set of Greece pictures (more Athenian ruins) next week.

Have a great weekend!

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Diving into revision

Judging by my recent vacation which unexpectedly doubled in length, apparently Fate decided I needed a break from Project Demo.

Just before I left Bristol, I had finished rewriting my rough draft, and made a six page of list of everything I knew was wrong with it. I took the list with me, and occasionally took it out of my bag and stared at it despondently while I was traveling. But other than that, I left Project Demo alone, didn't even bother to to download the file saved in my email.

I'm hoping all those tropes about absence making the heart grow fonder and seeing more clearly with fresh eyes hold true for me. But in the meantime, after so much time not writing, I'm struggling to figure out how to start writing again, and how to dive into my revision.

Everything in writing is so intricately connected. I thought I could work on streamlining my plot first, so I spent most of yesterday outlining. But it's hard to imagine tackling my plot until all of my characters have clearly defined arcs, which may mean adding, deleting, or changing scenes. Then I decided that all sounded like too much work, and I'd just worry about my setting. Then I realized that any text I added might get revised anyway if my plot and characters changed.

Author Anita Nolan has an excellent article, reprinted on her website, about how to tackle the revision process efficiently, step by step. Even if I'm not sure some of her ideas will work for me, just reading it makes my head feel clearer. It also reminds me that revision is a process. Project Demo won't be thoroughly revised in one day. Or even one month. Bird by bird, as Anne Lamott said.

I think I'll start with one of my major characters and work from there.

Just as soon as I finish blogging, and checking my email, and...

How do you dive into revision?

Monday, June 20, 2011

Unexpected moments

Not much has turned out as I expected this year.

Three weeks after I returned home from Greece, Phil and I flew back to the US to briefly spend some time with family (and to make the most of some frequent flier miles). I didn't know it would turn into such a long trip. Or become such a good vacation.

And goodness knows, after the year I've had, I really needed a few of those!

As I said in my previous post, Phil's grandmother passed away on the morning of our trip back to Bristol. While we were on a layover in Chicago, Phil's dad was able to get a hold of him, and we were able to change our plans (thank you, American Airlines) to stay an extra nine days to be there for the funeral and to spend time with his family.

So instead of rushing home, back to work and meetings and doctor appointments and such, we were there to celebrate her life, and to discover how many other lives she had touched. For once this year, our timing was impeccable, and we were so blessed to spend it with Phil's family, and to really have the time to catch up with everyone.

But it did turn into a long vacation! I plowed my way through several young adult books (my two favorites: Samurai Shortstop by Alan Gratz and The Truth About Forever by Sarah Dessen). I watched a lot of baseball and hockey (two sports I love and can't get much of in the UK). I also saw some fun movies, went shopping, and ate a lot of good food.

I had a few of those "I've been living in the UK for almost four years" moments, like when I stepped in a small grocery store and was blown away by all the different types of Oreos alone.

There were some great memories, too.

I had said I was in one of the most beautiful places in the world when I was in Santorini, but the area around my parents' cottage in northern Michigan could give it a run for its money.

The weather was perfect, so after a beautiful first day out kayaking, I was determined to go out every day of my vacation. I love the peace and quiet of the exercise, seeing all the dragonflies around me, hearing the loons calling in the distance. I even went out on a day that was a little windy, rougher water than I had kayaked before. But I was so proud of myself for taking the risk, instead of sitting inside wishing I had done it. And discovering that I was perfectly capable of it, too. Then the next day the worst possible thing happened: my kayak flipped over. It worked just like it was supposed to. The whole boat tipped over, with me inside it, and I spun around, into the water. Except it wasn't scary. It was fun (it helped that I was in water only up to my mid-thighs). I came up wet and laughing (and somehow my dad managed to snap a picture of me at just this moment). It was a little thing, but it made me less afraid of that worst case scenario.

Then there was the evening I went out for dinner with Phil's family. We went to his grandmother's favorite Chinese restaurant. And the owner mourned for and remembered Grandma along with us. We laughed about how Grandma used to flip over her place mat, decorated with the Chinese Zodiac, so she didn't have to look at all those gross animals, the rats, and snakes and so on. So in a tribute to her, we all flipped over our place mats, and "toasted" her memory with a forkful of her favorite dish, Chicken Chow Mein with extra crispy rice noodles.

I'm happy to finally be back in Bristol. I'm brimming with new story ideas, and eager to dive back into Project Demo and start my revision. But sometimes life gets in the way. I've learned a lot more recently than I expected about life and death, family and risks. And I'm so thankful I could be there for it.

Shirleyanne R. Stone, May 24, 1924 - June 8, 2011

Monday, June 13, 2011

Blogging hiatus

Have you ever been getting off a plane when you heard your name announced by the flight crew to report up front? An anxious dread settles in your stomach. Then when the message to my husband read, "Phone your father immediately," we knew what had happened.

Fortuitously, Phil and I were on our way back to Bristol, on a layover in Chicago, when we learned his grandmother had passed away that morning. We had just spent time with her a week ago, on another layover in Chicago, and though she had been sick for several months, we had a really nice visit, as she made sure to catch us up on all the family gossip, and remind us how much we loved each other.

So yeah... that's why I've hardly been on email, the blog posts stopped, etc. But thanks, as always, for all your support. It's so appreciated. I'm hoping to be back to regular posting in a week or so.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Repost: Using Metaphors

I'm away from the blog this week (be back soon, promise!), so I hope you'll enjoy this older post on using metaphors to encourage us in our writing process. I never got any comments on it, but still find its premise fascinating.

I've got Guys and Dolls music stuck in my head. Two weeks ago I saw Rent, and in order to get the music from that out of my head, I started listening to other musicals on my ipod. Mistake.

Right now it's Luck be a Lady. Which is a fun metaphor. I always wanted to use G&D with my students to teach metaphors and never got around to it. To take another G&D tune (they're all in my head!):
Well sir, all I can say is if I were a gate I'd be swinging!
And if I were a watch I'd start popping my springs!
Or if I were a bell I'd go ding dong, ding dong ding!

Wouldn't that be a fun class?

I've got metaphors on my mind as well lately. I read a great article in Myslexia by Bekki Hill about using metaphors to increase motivation as a writer. She suggests developing a metaphor to describe your writing. If it's a negative metaphor, you can then develop or change your metaphor so you visualise yourself overcoming your writing problems.

I'm not sure if it works or not, but I'm always coming up with metaphors for my writing. Somehow I always feel better if I can describe my state of being. So this morning I decided to play with Hill's theory. My writing was feeling like a box holding a two-thousand piece puzzle had been turned down in front of me. I couldn't figure out how to get anywhere. Should I start with the edge pieces? Collect like colors?

Then I decided it was more like a building without a foundation. Maybe like one of those 3-d puzzles of the Tower of London...

Then I decided it was more like my plot was a fly, swirling through a dark cave, trying to reach the light at the end of the tunnel. Except she keeps getting a leg or a wing stuck on a spider's web. She just can't make her body streamlined enough to all fit.

Okay, not quite ready for a showtune number yet. But I wonder if I visualize myself making progress on the puzzle's border, or saving my foundation or flying really fast I'll start feeling better? I'm not sure, but I'll let you know.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Repost: The Emotional Core of Children

I'm away from the blog this week, so hope you'll enjoy this older post on Where the Wild Things are and creating honest stories.

Read an amazing picture book today called WHEN THEY FIGHT by Kathryn White, illustrated by Cliff Wright. It's about a family of badgers, and when the Mom and Dad fight, tooth and nail, it's overwhelming and scary for their child. But when the Mom and Dad are happy, the child feels safe and begins to realize how strong he is. The book is intended to help people, children and parents, work through and explain their emotions.

A little heavy? Certainly. According to my classmate, who shared the book with me, it couldn't even find a UK publisher until a publisher in the US picked it up. But the book doesn't feel irrelevant for a child. Parents do fight, children do get scared. We've been talking in class about the emotional core in picture books, and how the best stories speak to something inside children that is true and makes them feel accepted. Remember Max in WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE? He's not a good boy; he gets sent to bed without his supper. The subtext in the pictures is even more terrible. Is he nailing his bed sheet to the wall? Has he hung his stuffed toy by the neck?

Because of the recent movie, Maurice Sendak has received a fair amount of publicity lately for his anger over parents saying WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE might be too scary for children (here's an article about it in the Guardian). Sendak says, in referring to an argument about whether or not Max's supper should be "hot" as opposed to "warm": "Just trying to convey how dopey 'warm' sounded. Unemotional. Undramatic. Everything about that book is 'hot'."

Friday, June 3, 2011

Repost: Setting as Character

I'm away from the blog this week, so hope you'll enjoy this older post on how to make your setting as vivid and important as any character.

One of my friends who recently read Project Sparkle told me the setting in my novel is a character. That's good! I'd been hoping it was. But then she told me it needed to be emphasized a lot more.

As a reader and writer, I've heard the phrase "setting as character" numerous times. I've probably used it before. But what exactly does it mean? And how could I emphasize my setting's character?

I started by figuring out what its character was in the first place. I went through my novel and copied all of my descriptions into a new document. I read through these descriptions in order, and then wrote a paragraph describing my setting overall. I included smells and sounds, what people would be doing, how many people would be around, the look of important buildings, homes and shops. I described what a person might see there, people's character, race, and age.

By working through this process, I realized my setting could be considered a character. But it needed some work.

1. My setting needed to be consistent.

Sometimes I emphasized bad parts of the setting, sometimes good, sometimes there were no emotions involved, it was just there. I needed to figure out the key descriptors of my setting, and emphasize those repeatedly, just like I might do with a tall character or a little red-haired girl.

2. I needed to introduce my setting.

My friend was right about emphasis. Especially in the beginning of the story, I hardly mentioned my setting. Just like a character, I needed to introduce my setting. I added several paragraphs, emphasizing important details and really immersing my character in the setting.

3. My setting needed an arc.

Actually, talk about a-ha moments, my setting HAD an arc, much like a character should. Since the story takes place in a period of weeks, the setting doesn't actually change. But my character's feelings about it and what she notices about it changes. I went through my text and emphasized those changes, making sure my descriptions reflected my character's emotional arc.

4. My setting needed to be intrinsic to the plot.

Just like a major character needs to be involved in the climax of a novel, my setting was instrumental to my climax. Depending on your views of pre-destination, cause and effect, and the power of place, my setting may or may not cause the climax. But it's certainly involved.

In the end, I discovered setting as character means exactly what it says. I arranged my setting much as I might any other character in my novel.

Does your writing use setting as character? How have you approached it? What are some of your favorite setting as character novels? I blogged about a few of mine earlier this summer, though I wasn't smart enough then to realize I was talking about setting as character--one of my commenters pointed it out!

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Repost: Revision the Hard Way

I'm away from the blog this week, so hope you enjoy this older post, from when I was in the midst of revising Project Sparkle. Strangely it seems just as relevant now with Project Demo!

I'm in the midst of my first revision of Project Sparkle. As usual, I'm inventing the process as I go, trying to find what works best for me. At the moment, I'm going through the early chapters my classmates' workshopped, making sure characters, setting, and conflicts are set out clearly and consistently. I'm hoping if I can just get the first third or so right, then the rest will straighten itself out more easily.

Tomorrow I'm meeting with my tutor, Julia, to discuss my synopsis and a chapter by chapter outline. Plot is my biggest struggle, so I'm hoping she'll point out the overarching conflicts which are inconsistent with the characters or too complex or whatever, and then I can begin to work on some big picture stuff throughout the novel.

As I'm working, it's occurred to me that I have two revision modes: easy revision and hard revision. Easy revision is my favorite. Obviously.

Easy revision is when I craft individual sentences to make them pretty. Or I check every mention of a character to make sure her appearance is always described the same way. Or perhaps if I was told in class that a character seemed too angry in a scene, I might tone down some of her language. It's busy work and polishing, and therefore not overly taxing. As opposed to hard revision.

Hard revision is when I rethink (revisualize) everything. I think about the scene's purpose, each character's goals, each character's feelings. Sometimes I rewrite an entire scene in a new setting, or with different emotions. Sometimes I cut scenes. Instead of blithely making a character's language less angry, I'll explore her feelings, her motivations. If she's meant to be that angry, I'll show why, if she's not, then I'll tone down the language.

My problem is I'm lazy. Sometimes I'll find myself writing pretty sentences, when really the whole scene doesn't work. I have to remind myself every morning to start with the hard questions first, one after another, until I'm through them. And the worst? Many days I don't even let myself do easy revision because I'm still not sure I've got a scene right. It's a waste of my time to make it perfect if I may be drastically rewriting it. Though some days I can't move on from a scene until every sentence is lovely, even if I'll need to change it later.

It's not the most efficient process in the world.

How do you revise? Do you find yourself fixing the easy things first?