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!