Tuesday, December 18, 2012

A holiday and lurgy hiatus

For many years on this blog, the last week of posts has included my yearly writing stats (how many books I read, what genres, how many poc authors / main characters, etc) and my favorite books of the year.

I've always vaguely fretted that the stats aren't entirely accurate--after all, I usually have some free time over the holidays, and do a fair amount of reading. Well, this year that weird hang-up will be assuaged, because I'm not going to tackle these posts until January. Unfortunately, I've come down with the dreaded lurgy, and when I'm not blowing my nose, I'm hacking up a lung. I'm hoping if I burrow in bed for the next week and catch up on my reading and Downton Abbey watching, I'll be feeling much better by the time Christmas rolls around and I'm expected to engage with friends and family.

In the meantime, you can whet your appetite for my January post by checking out my reading stats for 2010 and 2011, and my favorite book posts from 2009, 2010, and 2011.

Here's hoping you're feeling much better than me. And a blessed holiday season to you and yours.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Where are the books for 13-year-olds?

Hélène Boudreau's Real Mermaids Don't Wear Toe Rings opens with a girl turning into a mermaid--it's the culmination of a really terrible day. Jade takes the readers back through everything: trying on swimsuits with her best friend, desperately trying to find one that hides her muffin top. Then she gets her first period--yes, ruining the store's swimsuit. She discovers she doesn't have any money on her, so she has to call her dad to come to the pharmacy with her and buy feminine products. And while her dad is price comparing tampons on his Blackberry, of course her crush appears. I couldn't stop laughing. It brought back so many embarrassing pre-teen memories!

But once I wiped the tears of laughter away, and promptly bought the whole book for my Nook, it struck me: what's the last book I read about a girl getting her period?

I couldn't think of anything except Judy Blume's Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret. And yeah, that was published in 1970.

I'm sure there are others. I've probably read a few and forgotten them. But I think it's awfully striking that I read a hundred plus books a year, most of them for children, and I can't think of a single other title.

I suspect much of the blame for this rests with the publishing industry. For those of you who don't know, the American children's book market has two categories that stretch this age range: middle grade, which is books for 9-12 year-olds, and young adult, which is typically defined as 12 and up. Since children usually read about kids slightly older than themselves, kids in upper elementary school are reading middle grade novels (think Percy Jackson, the early Harry Potter books, books about 10, 11, and 12 year-olds). Kids in middle school are frequently already reading young adult books (where the protagonist is at least 15). What's left out? No one's reading books about 13 and 14 year-olds.

I know that sounds like a really minor complaint, but a lot happens when girls are between the ages of 12 and 14. I was lucky enough to grow up with authors like Judy Blume and Paula Danziger, and I read books about girls getting bullied because they were fat, or waiting to see how large their breasts would be. I don't think today's generation has anything like that--even Boudreau's book is mostly about a girl becoming a mermaid.

It's strange. The publishing industry prides itself on being progressive, open to edgy content, swearing, sex. But where's the frank, non-metaphorical discussions about what it means to be 13? And even if such a book did it exist, would it find a home in the market? I've been mulling these questions over lately. Maybe it's not just the publishing industry that's to blame. Maybe after all this time we're still hesitant to talk about the way the female body works. I know I don't have anything on my hard drive resembling these types of books. I'm more of a mermaid author myself. But my subconscious won't let this go. Or maybe it's that I used to be a 7th grade teacher, and I think about my former students, and all their worries and fears. Or my own 7th grade self. Maybe it's my conscience that won't let this go.

I subbed in a 5th grade classroom yesterday. Do you want to know what all the kids were reading? Suzanne Collins' Hunger Games and Stephenie Meyer's Twilight. Really. Doesn't that make you feel a little queasy inside?

Have you noticed this dearth of books? What do you think the cause might be? Have you written one yourself?

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Crafting the perfect beginning

I hate writing beginnings.

The current opening of Project Fun is too slow and expository. I've thought about ditching it entirely and starting with chapter 2. Or possibly ditching the first several chapters and opening when the action really starts, in chapter 9. But one of my beta readers takes the cake. She thought chapter 17 (almost halfway through the book) could be crafted into a really good beginning. I don't think she intends for me to delete chapters 1-16. I hope.

Anyway, I've been thinking about beginnings a lot, so I was quite struck with an interview on NPR's Fresh Aire with Robert Zemeckis, the director of the movie Flight, which is currently showing in theaters.

Flight opens with a drug-addicted, alcoholic pilot (Denzel Washington). His plane experiences a mechanical malfunction which sends it plummeting from the sky. The pilot's daring maneuver and landing saves almost the entire flight--though three passengers are killed.

I heard the interview almost two weeks ago, but I've been unable to get that beginning out of my head. It seems to hit every beat perfectly.

Firstly: action. I'm sure the audience is gripped watching this plane careening out of control, wondering what's going to happen, if the pilot is going to be able to do anything. The stakes could not be any higher.

But even more impressively, Zemeckis' beginning manages to combine action with character development. The audience knows the pilot's weakness and problem. Potentially the pilot might come across as a despicable character, risking the lives of his passengers. But in those opening scenes, the audience is already rooting for him, praying he'll be able to land that plane.

Plus, the beginning sets up the entire rest of the movie. Of course, the pilot will be lauded as a hero, thrust into the spotlight: a worst-case scenario for a man trying to keep his addiction a secret. And the mechanical malfunction and passenger deaths will need to be investigated. Will the pilot rise to the occasion and save himself? Or fall apart under the press and law's scrutiny?

See, I could write the teaser myself! Course, I haven't actually seen the movie. I don't think it's doing that well, and I've heard rumblings that it isn't very good. Perhaps because the entire premise is based around the opening scene? Regardless, I refuse to judge.

The beginning has been an inspiration to me as I tackle Project Fun's opening. What inspiration have you found in crafting beginnings?

Oh, and perhaps now that I've intrigued you, here's the teaser for Flight:

Thursday, December 6, 2012

You know it's time to get feedback on a manuscript when...

1. You think your book is perfect and ready to send out on submission.

2. Your book is like the opposite of perfect: a steaming dung-heap of inane words and trite phrases.

3. If you don't hear something nice about your writing soon, you might stab your eye out with a pen.

Seriously, how do you know?

I've been thinking about this a lot lately. Because I've moved a fair amount in my writing career, I've been in and out of all different types of critique groups. They've all been incredibly useful (except for one, which I quickly abandoned!). It's so hard to see writing with clear eyes, especially when you've spent months (or even years!) on it. And sometimes I really just want a pat on the back, and someone to tell me my story is good--that can be enough of a boost to last for for several weeks.

But I've also found even the wisest and best-intentioned advice can turn my mind into a complete muddle. If my story's plot, setting, world-building, and characters aren't yet solid, advice can take me down a totally different path than my creative mind had intended. And while being open to limitless possibilities might sound like a good thing, I have to stay true to my vision--after all, it's the only vision I have!

So lately I've become much more stingy with my writing. As I'm developing an idea, I try to keep my mouth tightly sealed with my dearest writing friends, even with my husband. As the writing progresses, I'll sometimes share individual chapters with critique groups, and welcome feedback on a scene's pacing, tension, and character development. But while one of my most trusted readers has been bugging me for months about getting a peak at the whole of Project Fun, I only sent it to her last week, when I knew I had a complete, coherent draft I fully believed in. And yet I still worry I sent it out too early!

Maybe I should've waited until I truly thought the manuscript was perfect, until I couldn't imagine anything else I could fix. But then it might be too late for me to take any advice on board; even small things like scenes and dialogue might become so set in stone that they're impossible to change.

Feedback is always a balancing act. Over time, I've learned to trust my process and vision more--but of course that doesn't mean I'm always right! When do you look for feedback on your writing?

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Giving myself a break

Last Friday afternoon, I finished re-reading the current draft of Project Fun, and deemed it "done" right on schedule. Of course, it's a hollow announcement: I know some of my secondary characters need more fleshing out, the beginning is slow, chapter five is a wordy, backstory-ridden mess. But in the past few months I had tackled what I set out to do. I had made Project Fun a coherent story, from beginning to end. While the rest of the work is totally necessary, the hard work, the story development, is mostly done. What a relief!

Saturday morning I sent the novel out to a handful of beta readers. I celebrated with a rare glass of wine at dinner, a chat with my Chicago writing group, and a very lazy weekend. Oh, and my Chicago group told me the chapter I submitted totally worked--a complete surprise to me and icing on the cake!

So now what? I decided a while back that when I finished this draft of Project Fun, I would set it aside for a few weeks. Partly, after all this work, I need to take care of myself. I need to prevent burn-out, keep myself healthy, and remember how much joy I find in the writing. Plus, taking some time away from a piece of work allows me to see it with fresh eyes. The words aren't memorized, every plot twist isn't obvious, and I can look with a more critical gaze on bits I had previously loved.

I've been dreaming of this free time, jotting down notes about what I might do, movies I missed, books I want to read. It's like my body knows my creative well needs to be re-filled. I also have a list of other story ideas, sometimes even single lines, that I want to play with and see where they take me. A slightly bigger project: a few weeks ago I inherited my grandmother's sewing machine. For a long time (in part due to my Project Runway addiction), I've been wanting to learn to sew. After some instruction from my mom, and a collection of recommended books from a friend, I'm looking forward to some time to learn and see what I can create.

So how come, when I got up Sunday morning, all I could think was how much I wanted to work on Project Fun? I guess it's partly habit. For months, I've thought of little else each morning. My brain hasn't yet figured out how to turn that off. But it's more than that. I know there are still problems with Project Fun, and I truly love the story and want it to be perfect. And even worse, I love writing. Even when I need a break, I'm not sure how to live a life without daily writing. Hence the blog on a Tuesday!

But I think it's worth trying to stay away. I think it's worth giving my creative self some space. I hope.

Thursday I'll be back again, blogging about how one knows (or doesn't!) when it's time to let other people see your manuscript.

Until then, do you give yourself breaks from writing? What do you do with the sudden free time? Does it drive you nuts, too?