Monday, December 20, 2010

Walking in a winter wonderland

I have an unabashed love of Christmas carols. I start singing them in November (with occasional digressions in July), continue to sing them through Christmas, and carry on a week or two into January. I listen to them while baking, while wrapping gifts, while walking to the grocery store.

Lately I've had Walking in a Winter Wonderland going through my head. It might be because Bristol had a proper snowstorm this past weekend. We got over two inches (massive accumulation for England). At one point the snow looked so beautiful, chunky flakes streaming from a gray sky, that I had to run outside and dance in it.

And look who else seems to like the snow. Yes, I finally got a picture of Robert!
But there's another reason Winter Wonderland is playing on repeat in my head. It's this stanza:

Later on, we'll conspire,
As we dream by the fire,
To face unafraid,
The plans that we've made,
Walking in a winter wonderland

Phil and I have made lots of plans, and dreamed lots of dreams, this past year. Our British visas run out next October. He's searching for a new job, I'm in the process of submitting Project Sparkle to agents. It's terrifying. We don't know where we'll be next year. We don't know if all of our hopes and hard work will come to fruition. Yet it's also exhilarating, all these amazing dreams the future could hold. For now, in the midst of Christmas, snow, friends, and family, that's the vision I'm going to hold onto.

Happy holidays to all of you. Thanks for reading Critically Yours this past year, and for your comments and encouragement. Best wishes for all of your hopes and dreams for 2011.

I'm taking a short holiday from the blog. I'll see you in the new year!

But in case you still need a bit more holiday cheer, here's the whole of Walking in a Winter Wonderland:

Friday, December 17, 2010

Ten best books of 2010

Last year I could only come up with my top five books of the year. This year I had a number of beloved books, but only three really stood out for me as being THE BEST. So I've narrowed my list down to Seven Goodies and the Top Three.

So now I bring you, in the order I read them, the Critically Yours Seven Goodies of 2010:

1. The Foreshadowing by Marcus Sedgwick (my thoughts here)
2. Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key by Jack Gantos
3. Ways to Live Forever by Sally Nicholls (my Goodreads review)
4. Fingersmith by Sarah Waters (my Goodreads review)
5. Going Bovine by Libba Bray (my Goodreads review)
6. White Cat by Holly Black (my thoughts here)
7. Young Samurai series by Chris Bradford (my thoughts here)

And here are the Critically Yours Best Books for 2010:

1. When I Was Joe by Keren David
I first read this book in January. I read it again, along with its sequel, Almost True, in July.

Excerpt from my blog review:

"WHEN I WAS JOE by Keren David... is a thriller of a teen novel: a child's dream and nightmare rolled into one. Ty goes into the witness protection program to become Joe. He gets a new look, money for stylish clothes, even colored contacts. He's pushed back a grade at his new cushy school, so he's head of the class, tall, muscular, and the boy every girl wants. Except he still carries a knife, sees the blood over and over again in his mind, and quickly discovers "the gangsters will stop at nothing to silence him"... Every chapter ends on a cliffhanger, so I tore my way through the book, stopping only to check how many pages I had left (thankfully JOE's over 300! Thankfully there's a sequel coming out this year!)."

Can you hear my excitement?

Click here for my full blog review.

2. Stolen by Lucy Christopher

My Goodreads review:

Wow. One of the most powerful, complex YA books I have ever read. A chilling and gripping account of a teen girl's kidnapping and the progression of her feelings towards her captor. I will be thinking about this book for years to come. Also a beautiful rendering of the Australian outback, setting as character, making me dream of sand, sun and sky.

For more of my thoughts on Stolen, others thoughts on Stolen, and the trailer, click here.

3. The Sky is Everywhere by Jandy Nelson

Blurb from Goodreads: "Seventeen-year-old Lennie Walker, bookworm and band geek, plays second clarinet and spends her time tucked safely and happily in the shadow of her fiery older sister, Bailey. But when Bailey dies abruptly, Lennie is catapulted to center stage of her own life—and, despite her nonexistent history with boys, suddenly finds herself struggling to balance two. Toby was Bailey's boyfriend; his grief mirrors Lennie's own. Joe is the new boy in town, a transplant from Paris whose nearly magical grin is matched only by his musical talent. For Lennie, they're the sun and the moon; one boy takes her out of her sorrow, the other comforts her in it. But just like their celestial counterparts, they can't collide without the whole wide world exploding."

I didn't write a review of The Sky is Everywhere when I first read it. Partly I was immersed in classwork at the time, but partly there was just so little to say that hasn't been said before. One of my friends on Goodreads summed it up best: "Quite simply the most breathtakingly beautiful book I have read in forever. Inspiring stuff."

I'm re-reading it at the moment and falling in love all over again. It's one of the only books I've ever read where I find myself laughing, then tearing up, all on the same page.

Last year, I had a revelation when I listed my top books. Though I profess to love fantasy, none of my favorites were fantasy. In fact, the novels had numerous things in common, and I wondered if I was getting close to a definition not only of my perfect read, but the type of book I'd most like to write.

So what do my favorites tell me this year?

Again, no fantasy. All three of the books are contemporary, realistic novels. All three are dark, sad stories. They're all young adult novels, they all have an element of romance. Two of the three are filled with danger and violence. Thankfully
The Sky is Everywhere bucks that trend and has a completely soppy, over-the-moon happy love story. All three have memorable, evocative settings. Again, the commonalities (and their similarities to Project Sparkle!) are surprising.

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

1 adult book (Fingersmith)
3 middle grades (Joey Pigza, Ways to Live Forever, Young Samurai--technically probably ya, but it has a very middle grade vibe)
6 young adult
60% British authors (Sedgwick, Nicholls, Waters, David, and Christopher (Australian, but living in Wales).
3 historical fiction--that surprises me, I wouldn't say I read much historical fiction! (Foreshadowing, Fingersmith, Young Samurai).
3 with fantasy elements (Foreshadowing, Going Bovine, and White Cat, though all of them are based in the real world with only small fantasy twists).
6 with children dying--what a depressing genre! (Foreshadowing, Ways to Live Forever, Going Bovine, Young Samurai, Joe, Sky is Everywhere)
2 with children with incurable diseases--??!!! (Ways to Live Forever, Going Bovine).
4 male narrators (Joey Pigza, Ways to Live Forever, Young Samurai, Joe)

I keep saying I want to write a funny, adventurous middle grade book. Except everything I start writing turns dark. It's funny, looking at my list, there isn't a single purely fun middle grade book on it. Hmmm... Perhaps it says something about me, but perhaps I need to start reading more in that area, too. Any recommendations for next year?

And speaking of recommendations (I think I need to stop blathering now!), what are some of your favorites for the year?

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Reading stats for 2010

Several years ago, I was at a B&B in Inverness, Scotland. I don't remember how the conversation started, but the owner (a woman in her sixties) explained she had kept a journal listing every book she'd read since she was in high school. She had a whole shelf of the journals, years of book titles and dates. I was crazy jealous.

I started my own reading log three years ago, the summer before I moved to the UK. It's simple record keeping. I jot down the date I finish a book, the title, and 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. Last year, I learned that only 13% of children's books published every year are written by and/or about people of color. So this year I challenged myself to read at least 13 poc books; I recorded them by writing "poc" in the margins. It's not rocket science by a long shot. I probably forget a few books here and there, but I tend to keep the journal on my dining room table so it's hard to forget for long.

And the best part? All those books!

If someone asks for a fantasy recommendation, I can scroll through the titles, see if I read anything good. If someone asks if I've read the most recent PD James, or if I want to check the last time I read a book, all the information is there. Unlike Goodreads (which I also use and love), it's entirely private. I wish I'd started it earlier!

It tells a lot about me as a reader, but also as a writer. What kinds of stories am I fascinated with at the moment? What kinds of stories am I giving up on? When I first came to the US, I craved American books that were unavailable to me. Now I look at my list and see numbers of British books that most of my American friends have never heard of.

Clearly, I'm 100% reading dork! Here are some of my stats for the year as of today:

Completed: 105
Reread: 7
Adult fiction: 10
Non-fiction: 6
POC: 19
Didn't finish: 27 (21% of books I started)
Some of my reasons for not finishing: "Didn't care," "Flat characters," "Goodie-goodie character," "Poor writing," "Stupid premise," "Sticky library book!"

Some thoughts:
Yes, any book that wasn't non-fiction or adult fiction is a children's book. How do you think I read so many? No shame! I want to write children's books for a living! And I love them!

I blogged some reviews on the POC books I read throughout the year.
I'm shocked I didn't finish only 21% of the books I started. I would've guessed that number was a lot higher. Who knew I was that patient?! Actually, that percentage is probably more attributable to how careful I am about what I choose to read.

Any thing else you want me to count up while I'm thinking about it?

Friday I'll share my top ten books of the year. If you can't wait, here's last year's list!

Monday, December 13, 2010

What better gift than a book?

This week is all about BOOKS!

Wednesday I'll detail my reading stats for the year (how many books started, how many finished, why I didn't finish some, how many books by and about people of color, how many books which are British vs. American, etc).

Friday I'll reveal my top ten books for the year. I can't wait to share them!

But first, what better gift this time of year than a book?

Unlike electronics, books' production involves no conflict minerals or armed militias.

If you buy your books at a locally owned store, out of every $100, $45 remains in the local economy.

And of course, buying books supports writers and publishers, not high-paid celebrities, sports stars, or rich corporations.

For the past few years I've bought all my Christmas book gifts at Schuler's. I practically grew up in Schuler's fantasy section. I used to walk there from home just so I could sit some place quiet, suck in the smell of so much knowledge and so many beautiful stories, and never be harassed by sales people. When my local shop moved into the mall, I worried a piece of my childhood was dying. Luckily, the store has thrived, as have its other locations in mid-Michigan. But I figure, if it's that important to me, I can support it (and my local community and state) with my money. Plus, they're doing free shipping for the holidays.

Don't have some place local and beautiful to shop? If you live in the US, you can order books online and search for local bookstores with Indie Bound.

Need some ideas?

Author Heidi Ayarbe is recommending a different book for every day of December until Christmas Eve. It's only the 13th, and I've already learned about several lovely books I had never heard of, and re-discovered several books I've been meaning to read.

Need a little something for yourself?

To celebrate books, and her reads for the year, author Medeia Sharif is giving books to three of her lucky blog followers.

Any comic readers? Parents of comic readers? Phil is trying to get rid of several floppy series (including The Unwritten!) from the past three years. If you're interested, please leave a comment with your email address and I'll let you know what he has and send them to you FOR FREE (as long as the post office cooperates and it doesn't get too expensive!).

Have a few extra books you need to get rid of?

Author Anna Staniszewski has an opportunity on her website for people to donate books to a very needy Massachusetts school library. Plus, in exchange for your generosity, you could win a gift card for MORE BOOKS!

Friday, December 10, 2010

Weathering the submission process

When I started Project Sparkle, I agonized, sweated, and swore writing rough drafts was the hardest thing ever.

When I revised Project Sparkle the whining started. Revision is so hard, so time consuming, so endless!

Then one miraculous day it was done. After weeks of tearing out my hair, I learned I had done well. I got to move on to the next step. I couldn't wait.

Except... the submission process stinks!

Of course, I play this game at every stage. Whenever the writing isn't going well, I'm convinced the next part will be easier.

But perhaps the submission process really is the worst. Or at least, it has the highest and lowest points. A request for a full from one agent, followed by a form rejection from another.

Since I know my manuscript is ready to send out, I had hoped that would make the process a bit easier. It probably has, but the submission process is still grueling.

On the Blueboard, people were sharing blog posts on the odds of getting published.

Pub Rants: Agent Kristin Nelson's stats for 2009 (yes, she did say she received 38,000 queries!)

Editorial Anonymous talks about finding 3 good manuscripts out of 15,000.

The Temp, The Actress, and the Writer: author Adrienne Kress writes about Kristin's stats, and why they don't matter.

Harold Underdown at The Purple Crayon has a comprehensive post on all of this called: The Odds of Getting Published Stink--and Why You Shouldn't Care.

At least I'm not the only one receiving a form rejection!

Strangely, all these stats make me feel a little better. And they make my work drafting Project Demo much more refreshing!

What stage are you weathering at the moment? Is it the worst?

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Searching out spoilers

Like most people, I usually avoid spoilers like the plague. What's the point in watching a football game if I know who's going to win? A book loses its dramatic tension if I know the main character lives.

But lately I've begun to change my mind on spoilers. I may start seeking them out.

This past summer, everyone seemed to be raving about the movie Inception. But, they warned, it was mind-bogglingly complicated. It was a movie one needed to pay attention to, not just a popcorn flick.

In my typical anti-spoiler fashion, I didn't read any reviews. I skimmed headlines, saw people were enjoying it, but ignored the content of these conversations. I didn't want any surprises.

I regretted that. Because I'm way too serious about these things, I spent the entire movie trying to catch every detail, absorb every fact fully. Those of you who have seen the movie know there's a fair amount of complicated facts and backstory. And for the most part, the details aren't really important. At the end, I had understood every twist. But I was exhausted. Unlike many, I didn't think it was a great movie. But perhaps that's partly because I spent the entire movie fearful I'd miss something.

I was reminded of this when I saw Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows I. I've read the book, I wasn't nervous about spoilers. But I was worried about negative critics spoiling it for me. Before I went, Phil had told me of one negative review, my parents shared another, written by someone who had never read the books nor seen the other films. I was annoyed by the bad press and elitist, adult critics complaining about a phenomenon they'd never even bothered to engage with. So I didn't read any reviews.

I wish I had.

I wish I had known that it would feel like only the first half of a movie, that there would be hardly any character development, or plot arcs. I would've gone anyway. I would have sat back and enjoyed seeing Ron, Harry, and Hermione again, enjoyed the action, the spectacle. Instead, I spent most of the movie thinking, "Wait, why did Ron just do that?" and "That made a lot more sense in the book," and "That was it?"

Of course, reading reviews and spoilers could easily backfire. What if I would've really enjoyed a movie, but reviews made me overly critical? And there's not much reason, in my mind, to watch a football game if I know how it ends, especially if my team loses. The problem is, only hindsight is 20/20.

But in the future, I may be more open to reading reviews and even spoilers ahead of time. After all, it's not usually the dramatic tension that I most enjoy about a movie.

Do you ever seek out spoilers? Do you ever wish you had?

Monday, December 6, 2010

If I skipped the boring bits, I'd skip 3/4s of the novel!

Writers are often admonished to "skip the boring bits." Readers might skim over long descriptive passages, or chunks of seemingly irrelevant backstory, so writers are encouraged to avoid writing anything they wouldn't want to read themselves.

I get this. If I'm spending three pages describing a character's bedroom, I'll stop myself.

However, I've come to realize over the past year that this piece of advice doesn't always work. For me, writing is a grueling, slow process. I'm chronicling thoughts, emotions. Even in an action sequence, I need to think through and write down each movement, much like an animator designing every single cell. At times, it can get boring.

But just because I'm bored, I don't think that means the scene is boring. Some of the most memorable scenes in literature aren't the action sequences, or the moment when everything changes. They're the quiet revelations, the laugh out loud character quirks, the satisfying conclusions.

Stories aren't a collection of exciting scenes with a few connector pieces thrown in. They're stories. They have a beginning, a middle, and an end. They have a character yearning for something, becoming upset, confronting obstacles, journeying... They're about growth and development. If a writer skips a part because it's boring, the story is in danger of losing its logic and heart.

As a writer, I find I'm on much firmer ground when I let a story unfold naturally, take me where it will, and write through all the bits I discover along the way. I can edit anything I need to later.

But perhaps this advice works for other writers. I might just be easily bored! Do you skip the boring bits?

Friday, December 3, 2010

Thanksgiving and Writing updates

Yes, those are T-Rex, Stegosaurus, and shark brownies. What can I say? I'm married to paleontologist. We had a lot of fellow scientists over for Thanksgiving. I thought the brownies were particularly impressive.

Thanks to everyone for your Thanksgiving well wishes. The celebration was fantastic. We had around 25 people squeezed into our apartment, and so much food... well, it really did feel like Thanksgiving. I just wish I had taken more pictures.

As always, our friends rose to the occasion food-wise. Most of them have never celebrated Thanksgiving before, but they bring food that is traditional to their own cultures and families. Along with my jambalaya, we had pumpkin soup, Japanese spicy pork, several plates full of french cheese (brought from Paris that morning!), and frumenty (a traditional Anglo Saxon dish!). We had rolls, cheese muffins, lentil spread, and a shredded carrot dish with walnuts and vinegar that tasted just like something I could imagine my grandmother making. Along with Phil's pumpkin pie, there was an Oreo cheesecake, tiramisu, the brownies, and so many other delicious, lovely things that I didn't even have room to sample!

Aside from eating all that (plus many leftovers!), and dealing with the joys and frustrations of the submission process (more on that next week), I actually have been getting some writing done.

My OctAnNoNaNoWriMowithNoGuilt-o pursuits are over, and officially didn't go so well. But unofficially I'm pretty pleased.

I worked on Project Demo for a few weeks, then gave up and switched to something else. However, for all my gusto and determination, I'm clearly a fickle writer. I got just as frustrated with the something else, and because I couldn't get Project Demo out of my head (and because all my writing friends love it), I switched back a week later.

But I now believe I'm into Project Demo for the long haul. At least, until I finish my rough draft. It could quite possibly be the shortest and roughest rough draft I've ever written. But as of this morning I'm over 16K and surprisingly pleased with it.

How did NaNo (or your other writing commitments) go for you this past month? Any crazy plans for the Christmas holidays (writing, food, or otherwise related)?

As for me, I'm in the holiday mood. I think I'll make some Christmas cookies this afternoon. Happy holidays!

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Titles in first and second person

I've been thinking a lot about first and second person titles recently:

As I Lay Daying by William Faulkner
If You Come Softly by Jacqueline Woodson
What I Saw and How I Lied by Judy Blundell
When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead

At their best, from the first words, before you even open a book's cover, these titles can throw you into the main character's world. They can evoke a feeling, a mystery, and place the reader right into the "I" position.

Take Judy Blume's classic, Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret.

The title has been parodied, turned into academic book titles, and jokes. But what I find interesting is for a title that's two sentences and seven words long, it's so memorable. Perhaps because it describes such a human feeling, searching for God, wondering if God will answer. From the beginning, the reader is right with Margaret.

I also like When I Was Joe by Keren David. It automatically sets up a mystery for the reader: Why was the character someone else? Who is he really? Who is he now? That mystery, and the story of what it means to be someone else, is integral to Keren's story of knife violence and the witness protection program.

However, I frequently worry that first and second person titles sound a bit mushy and forgettable. They're often lacking in concrete nouns and all their pronouns, prepositions, and adverbs can get jumbled together.

For example, what about How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff? I love the book (it's well on its way to being a British classic). But when I studied it at Bath Spa, no one could ever remember its name. It doesn't help that another of Rosoff's books is called What I Was.

But one thing Rosoff does beautifully with both these books is to insert the title phrase into the novel. I believe it's at the end of her book first book that she writes something like, "And this is how I live now." First person titles are easier to work into the text, and there can often be an Aha! moment where a reader thinks, "So that's how the title relates!" Jacqueline Woodson's title, If You Come Softly, is in a poem one of the main characters shares with the other.

Why am I so fixated on first and second person titles at the moment? Well, because I have one.

I've made a few tweaks to the blog recently to prepare for the possibility that agents or editors could end up here. If you look in the right corner, just below my description of the blog, you'll see my pitch for Project Sparkle. The novel is really called A Truth I Don't Know.

Wow, it's a little scary revealing all that... *Anne finds a dark corner to hide in*

While I'm off in my dark corner, what do you think of first and second person titles? Like them? Remember them? Any favorites?

Monday, November 29, 2010

Writing a dry run

When I was a kid, my dad insisted on "dry runs" for everything. Anytime I went to a new place, a new dentist, music teacher, school, whatever, my dad would drive me through the new route, explain everything he thought I'd need to know.

It often seemed unnecessary or time consuming, and I'm sure I frequently rolled my eyes at him. But it did the trick of making new things go more smoothly (except for the time I got completely lost on the way to my music teacher's house, but that's a different story).

Lately I've been struggling with my writing. I started on Project Demo, then stopped, then started again. I think what frustrates me is not having all the answers, not knowing my characters inside and out, how the book starts or ends, or even what tense I want to write in.

But recently I remembered something one of my Bath Spa University tutors, Steve Voake, told me. He said that the first draft is for telling a story to yourself. The second draft is for figuring out how to tell the story to others.

As I plod my way through Project Demo, figuring out all the ins and outs of my characters and plot, that's me trying to tell myself a story. Once I know everything, then I can figure out how best to write that story. It's kind of like writing a dry run. And like a dry run, it feels time consuming and unnecessary. I wish I could just get on to some good writing. But once I finish this dry run, hopefully Project Demo will grow into a real story.

Thanks, Dad.

Friday, November 26, 2010

NOW is the most wonderful time of the year!

There'll be parties for hosting
Marshmallows for toasting
And caroling out in the snow
There'll be scary ghost stories
And tales of the glories of
Christmases long, long ago
It's the most wonderful time of the year!

Oops, got carried away there. *ahem*

There's a lot of debate from writers about when is the best time of the year to submit query letters. In the summer, especially August, the publishing industry is usually very slow, with numerous agents and editors going on vacation. Living in Europe, I've learned that during March (The Bologna Children's Book Fair) and October (The Frankfurt Book Fair), nothing happens (at least, not for newbie writers). Some writers check agents' websites, and time their submissions around whatever conferences the agents may be attending. This time of year is potentially the worst for submissions. First Thanksgiving, then the end of NaNoWriMo, which means numerous crazy NaNo-ers who finished a draft in a month will be sending their precious work off. Then of course Christmas, Hanukkah, winter break, etc. While agents are regaling their families with scary ghost stories, who wants to read query letters?

Because the business is so competitive, I think writers get caught up in rules and superstitions. They agonize about which season to submit, which day of the week to submit, even what time of day.

So why in the world did I chose to submit now?

Well, I was ready to go.

I get all the rules, but at the same time I figure agents get hundreds of letters a week, no matter what time of year it is. And most agents probably read their submissions more or less in the order they receive them. So even if I submit right before Thanksgiving, come Monday morning I'll be first in line.

Besides, I figure my best strength comes not from what time of day it is, or how busy the agent might be, or whether she's hungry or tired or whatever, but whether or not my work is good. So if I'm ready... why not go for it?

However, as Andrea pointed out in my last submission post, that probably does mean a longer wait for me, good news or bad. So I'm settling in for the season, trying not to think about it too much. At least living five hours ahead of the East coast, I can be pretty certain that no agent's going to contact me in the a.m. So I get a worry-free couple of hours of writing every morning!

Given all these seasonal shifts... what time of the year is the best for you to get writing done?

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Happy Thanksgiving!

For the past three years, Phil and I have celebrated Thanksgiving at our home in the UK. After all, when we first moved here in the fall of 2007, so many people were instrumental in helping us get settled and figure out our lives. We were truly grateful, and what better way to show it than a Thanksgiving celebration with all of our new British friends?

This year will be our third Thanksgiving in the UK. I never tire of inviting new friends. "I've never been to a Thanksgiving before!" they always say. This year we're expecting 25 people.

Don't worry, it'll be a potluck. I couldn't dream of cooking for that many people with my teeny-tiny British fridge, oven, and trigger-happy smoke alarm. But we'll carry on a few traditions; Phil will make pumpkin pie, I'll do cranberry applesauce and jambalaya. We discovered a few years ago that many Brits have never heard of jambalaya. So it's fun to share a uniquely American food, even if it's not part of our cultural heritage.

Except, yes, no turkey. I'll probably throw a few chunks in the jambalaya! It's hard to get a whole bird this time of year in the UK, and any turkey I do get will either be frozen or expensive meat from a deli. Plus, have I mentioned my teeny-tiny British fridge, oven, and trigger-happy smoke alarm?

Besides, our British friends are happy to contribute. So far this year we've had offers for cranberry sauce, bread rolls, pumpkin soup, and Mississippi mud pie. Oh, and tempura and Oreo cheesecake. We've got great friends.

For me, the best part of the evening is celebrating with friends, starting new traditions, and remembering how much I have to be thankful for.

Hope you have a wonderful Thanksgiving, too.

Monday, November 22, 2010

So what exactly is the submission process?

On Friday, I said I was starting the submission process. Blogging through the highs and lows of this past year has been such an encouraging and thought-provoking exercise. So even though I've now finished my MA, I'd like to continue blogging, and to describe my submission process (without getting into too many specifics!).

So first I thought I'd explain what I mean by the submission process.

What's being sent?

An email query letter describing Project Sparkle and myself. Some agents want only that, others would also like the first 5-10 pages of my manuscript.

Obviously, that means query letters are really important, especially when you consider agents may get hundreds a week. I originally wrote my letter for my Publishing course. I rewrote it again this summer, with help from the Blueboard. I revised it again this past week.

To whom is it being sent?

A handful of agents. Most publishing houses no longer look at "unsolicited manuscripts." So a writer's best bet to get published is to have her work submitted by an agent. Also, agents can help with further revisions, deal with the business side of things, and support an author throughout her career. I definitely want an agent.

Why those agents?

I chose agents with a good reputation, who work with authors who write books in a similar genre to Project Sparkle. I chose agents who represent children's books (some of them only represent children's books). I chose agents who I think I would want to work with (their clients rave about how kind they are, they do a lot of work on writing with their clients, they come across as really smart and passionate on their blogs).

Why only a handful?

If every single agent rejects me, I'll know my query letter may not be good enough, or my first 5-10 pages aren't of interest. It gives me time to go back to the drawing board before I send out another group of letters.

On the flip side, if several of the agents I write to are interested (what a dream!), it means I'm only deciding between a handful, rather than fifty of the best in the business.

How long do you think it will take?

I don't know. In the past, I've received rejections minutes after I've sent query letters. I've received requests for partials (part of the manuscript) in hours. I've also waited weeks and months. Some agents don't respond if they're not interested. It's a very busy job, and query letters aren't usually a top priority (dealing with clients is!).

I'm hoping I'll have a sense of whether most of the agents are interested or not by Christmas. Then I can plan my next steps, whatever the outcome.

What will happen?

Goodness, I don't know! Who's writing these questions?

Best possible outcome, one or more agents will get back to me and ask to see a partial or a full manuscript. If that happens, the process will be drawn out, as they need time to read the entire novel and consider it.

If no one's interested, I'll do some revisions and submit to another group of agents. If I'm lucky, some of the agents will have sent me a "personalized rejection" explaining why they weren't interested. This will help me to make it better for the next round. Also, sometimes agents ask for a "revise & resbumit" if they're interested in a manuscript, but aren't sure whether or not the writer will be able to revise it sufficiently.

What will I do in the meantime?

Check my email every 3 minutes.

Actually, in an effort to avoid that, I'm hoping to get back to Project Demo, which I'm only about a fourth of the way into. Unfortunately, I also have a cold coming on, so I'll probably spend some time on the couch reading and watching bad TV--with my computer across the room so I have to get up to check email.

Please feel free to ask any questions! For those of you who have submitted, how did it go? Have I covered everything? Did you do anything differently?

Friday, November 19, 2010

Beginning the next step

Originally this blog was created to chronicle the highs and lows of my MA in Writing for Young People. Well, I received my manuscript grade earlier this week (some of you may have seen the *bouncing* on Twitter). I've officially passed. With distinction! *happy dance*

The even bigger surprise? I had been gearing up for another few weeks (or months) of revision on Project Sparkle. I was cautiously optimistic, hoping to start submitting my manuscript to agents in January. Well, my tutor told me she thought it was almost ready to go! As soon as I fixed one small plot point... there is *always* something.

But now I'm hoping to start submitting in the next week or two!

This past summer, I said I'd continue to blog about my submission process. However, more recently I've realized that's not such a good idea.

What if I send Project Sparkle out to six agents and five reject me? And then I post that information on the blog? If the sixth agent is kind of interested and googles me, I can't imagine she would be too impressed to hear five of her colleagues thought I was worth passing on.

Plus I think it might be kind of bad form.

But throughout this year, I've learned so much from sharing my thoughts and process with all of you. And I've been so encouraged by your support and friendship. So I will continue to blog about the submission process generally. I'll talk about why I'm sending Project Sparkle out to agents first instead of editors. I'll talk about what agents do. I'll explain how the submission process works. And how scary and uncertain and competitive the whole thing is.

So I hope you'll stick around. It could be a long ride. But I'm looking forward to sharing it with you.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Movember: Grow a mo, save a bro!

While all my writing friends have been talking about NaNoWriMo for the past month, my husband's been up to something a little different. Because November is also Movember.

Yes, that's right. For the month of November, my husband's growing a moustache to raise money for prostate cancer research. He's participating with several of his colleagues in the University of Bristol's Earth Sciences department.

Usually a rather quiet person, he's spent the past two weeks mortified, convinced that he looks like a 70s TV cop. So I figure, let's make the shame worthwhile, huh?

You can donate through his department's Just Giving page, and all funds will go to The Prostate Cancer Charity.

How's it going so far?

Not bad, huh?

I promise to post more pictures (and maybe even real ones!) at the end of the month. Please donate!

Monday, November 15, 2010

How hard to push?

Writers all have different strategies for completing projects. Ernest Hemingway liked to stop his work for the day in the middle of a sentence. That way, when he returned to it, right away he was immersed in the action and knew exactly where he was going. Graham Greene wrote 500 words a day. Apparently he got so good at identifying 500 words, that he would also stop mid-sentence, knowing he had reached his goal. Stephen King has said he writes 2000 words a day. On Twitter, Melissa Marr (author of the WICKED LOVELY series) said she doesn't write every day, but when she does, she'll write something like 5000 words.

I began my OctAnNoNaNoWriMowithNoGuilt-0 pursuits intending to write a novel in 6 weeks. I wanted to write 1500 words a day. That hasn't happened. I've switched projects, was attacked by plot demons and self doubt. I've finally gotten back to work, but I'm averaging around 500 words a day. It feels terribly slow. No where near even my NoGuilt-o pace, let alone NaNoWriMo pace.

But I feel okay. The story is finally going somewhere. I'm beginning to have fun. My characters and plot are slowly unfolding in front of me. So every morning I've given myself permission to stop as soon as my scene for the day is written. Sometimes it takes 3 hours. Sometimes it takes thirty minutes.

And on those days I wonder if it's enough. Should I push myself harder? Is it okay to be Graham Greene and write 500 words or just one scene? Or if I've got the time, should I push on, make the most of it?

Lately I've been choosing happiness and well-being over pushing myself. Who knows if it will be the right decision, but since it's working for me now, I haven't fought it. How hard do you push yourself to write? Do you always reach your goal? Do you ever aim for more than your goal?

Friday, November 12, 2010

Finding Joy

I usually have a rather annoyingly cheerful personality, but for various reasons these past several weeks have been rough.

A few years ago I bookmarked this article by Jamie Jefferson called "25 Instant Mood Lifters." I'm not really a self-improvement magazine type of person, but I continue to find these suggestions helpful. So I figured I'd share. Maybe someone else could use some help today, too.

Here are some of my favorite tips:

3. Think about how things would look if your life were perfect. Now imagine your life is just that way, and live out the rest of the day with that awareness.

10. Go outside. A few minutes of fresh air can do wonders for your mood.

12. Keep a gratitude journal, in which you write down things that you are thankful for. This is a great way to start and end each day. For a quick "pick-me-up," write as many gratitudes as you can in one minute. Don't think; just write.

19. Pour a cup of hot cocoa or a cup of coffee and read a favorite magazine for a few minutes.

22. Write down what's bothering you, as quickly as you can without stopping to think about it too much as you write. You can achieve a huge amount of clarity from this simple exercise.

What are some of your cures for feeling down?

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Anne continues to Read Books By & About People Different From Her

This past February, I spent the month reading books by and about people different from myself. I promised to continue reading and sharing about books I read which I particularly enjoyed. Well, this past week was a double whammy with WHITE CAT by Holly Black and YOUNG SAMURAI: THE WAY OF THE DRAGON by Chris Bradford.

Here are my mini reviews:

WHITE CAT by Holly Black
Imagine The Godfather as a contemporary YA with curse workers instead of mafia hit men. Add in an authentic teen boy, a plot full of twists, and a dark reflection on politics, family, and love. A slow beginning, but I became absorbed in Black's world and now I am completely hooked. Absolutely INCREDIBLE.

The best way to describe the Young Samurai books is Harry Potter at Samurai School. I can just imagine teen boys (and girls!) salivating over these. Set in Japan in the early 17th century, THE WAY OF THE DRAGON had everything: Ninjas, poison darts, at least twenty different types of weapons, non-stop action, and surprising twists. However, Bradford also managed to throw in characters I really cared about, haiku, Japanese folktales, and all sorts of contemporary school issues, bullying, competitiveness, romance, all in a way that was believable and absorbing. I was a little thrown when the war started, as I had completely forgotten I was in historical times, but the book also has a serious edge about history, violence, and what it means to be a Samurai.

Both books have been stuck in my mind since finishing them. I have to wait breathlessly for Black's sequel, but luckily Chris Bradford's book is the third in the YOUNG SAMURAI series, so I can go back and the read the others before I tackle the final books (up to five are published, and I believe more are coming).

Also, while both books are by white authors, I found they presented an interesting contrast in the way they handled issues of diversity.

Cassel, the main character in WHITE CAT, is a person of color. However the world he lives in is wealthy and intellectual, and other characters are intent to pointedly ignore differences in race and culture. As a result, Cassel rarely mentions race.

In contrast, Jack, the main character in THE WAY OF THE DRAGON, is white and English, though everyone around him is Japanese. Because he is new to Japanese culture and attempting to make the country his home, he asks questions, and seeks to understand as much about the people and history as he can. The book contains a glossary of Japanese terms and a map of 17th century Japan. It's a time period in history I know little about, so I learned a ton, and relished being completely absorbed in this different world.

Also, I have to say, if you ever get a chance to see Chris Bradford at an author's event, go! I had to get his book after he showed at the Bath Kids' Literature Festival in full ninja costume with a sword he clearly knew how to use! Here he is in a trailer for the fourth YOUNG SAMURAI book:

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Writing by hand

I know I'm not alone in the writing community in writing my drafts by hand. When I'm sitting at the computer, watching a blinking cursor, my writing feels stilted, inanimate, much like the computer itself. But when I put pen to paper, magical things happen. I can feel my character join my body, speak in her voice. A story unfolds on the paper in front of me, pen stroke by pen stroke.

This might surprise people who know me. I'm good with technology, I get technology, I use technology. I use it in my writing, too (I've posted about my use of Scrivener and mind map software). I type each chapter into my computer on the same day or the day after I finish it, along with all of my scribbled notes and thoughts in the margins. It gives me the opportunity to do a brief revision and rethink of what I wrote, as well as providing a readable, search-able record of my work.

But once I return to the writing, I have to switch back to my notebook. Simple rewriting and editing I can do on the computer, but anything more complex, I need to write by hand, even if it's just to write down a new phrase, insert a paragraph, or restructure a scene.

I read an article recently (via Twitter!) that seems to support this perspective. Gewndolyn Bounds, for the Wall Street Journal, explains that research shows writing by hands triggers numerous brain functions that pushing a key on a keyboard does not. The articles gets into the debate about whether it's worth teaching today's children to write by hand. It's a complex debate, and one I feel I can't comment on, having not read much of the research or grown up with technology from infancy. But for me, I imagine I will always be one of those dinosaurs writing by hand.

What about you? Do you find the same benefits from writing by hand?

Friday, November 5, 2010

Update 2: OctAnNoNaNoWriMowithNoGuilt-o

Yes, that's OctAnNoNaNoWriMowithNoGuilt-o, October and November National Novel Writing Month with No Guilt. Course, it's now November and I've scrapped all the work I did in October. But I'm keeping the acronym!

Thank you for the comments on my "Getting on the plot train" post. I've found your encouragement and suggestions really helpful. And so far they seem to be working.

Current word count: 3500 (roughly; I haven't typed up this morning's scribblings)

Progress on this new project (which is actually a complete rewrite and rehash of an old project) is going remarkably well. I don't know exactly where I'm going, but I have a general idea, a general plot, and a likeable character. And I'm enjoying it, which is more than I could say about Project Demo.

Hopefully by the end of the week I'll reach 5000 words. Not bad for starting something new this Monday. It's not NaNo pace, but it's perfect NoGuilt-o pace.

How are your projects (NaNo or otherwise) coming along?

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Getting on the plot train

Remember learning to ride a bike? The hardest part was getting started. Once you picked up speed, balance was easier, and as long as you pedaled you'd stay upright. Plot works the same way, at least for me.

Once I'm on the plot train, I stay on. At the end of every scene, I play the "what happens next?" game, and usually I can keep my characters driving the action and tension forward.

But it's getting on, or rather finding a plot, that I struggle with.

I've read books on plot, I've read countless blog posts, I've diagrammed plots, my own and others'. I get that a main character needs to have a problem, or want something. But it's getting from that character's desire to a plot that confuses me. What if their desire is unobtainable? Why can't the character just give up and go back to bed? What needs to happen to constitute a plot?

It reminds me of the underpants gnomes in South Park:
Phase 1: Collect underpants.
Phase 2: ?
Phase 3: Profit

Voice I can do, characters I love, setting is fun, but when it comes to plot, it seems there's a hole in my brain. Even explaining this has been a challenge!

What about you? What writing problems trip you up every time?

Oh, and any plot tips?

Monday, November 1, 2010

Cause breakin' up is hard to do

They say that breaking up is hard to do
Now I know, I know that it's true
Don't say that this is the end
Instead of breaking up I wish that we were making up again...

You know things are bad when I've got Carptenters lyrics stuck in my head.

It's official. Or as official as these things ever are. Project Demo and I are breaking up.

My critique partner loves her. My Chicago writing group says they relate to her. And we went so far: I've got the skeleton of the entire plot in my head, a unique structure, a hysterical minor character. But I can't make this work. I'm just not into her.

And I finally came to the realization this weekend that if I'm not into her, writing a whole novel is going to be a long slog. Plus the voice will never feel right, alive. It's time to move on.

I could be really frustrated. I could dwell on how I've wasted a month of writing time. I am a little. But the sun's out. I've gained an extra hour due to day light savings. And you know that feeling when you make the right decision and all of a sudden you feel happy and free? Yeah.

Also I'm beginning to think about the novel I broke up with to work on Project Sparkle. Maybe that one is worth saving?

So it's not really a break up. We just need some time apart.

Have you ever broken up with a novel? How did it work out for you?

*I've shared author Christine Fletcher's blog post about leaving a novel before, but considering the occasion, it's really worth sharing again. Enjoy!*

Friday, October 29, 2010

Cooking vegetarian

I've never been a big meat eater. When I was little, I used to hide pieces of meat under the rim of my plate. It never occurred to me until I was much older that my parents would find my circle of meat when they cleared the table.

My husband jokes that I would be happy living on bread and water. Add in some fruit and cheese, and I really would be quite content.

However, I've never gone totally vegetarian. I like my steak and bacon. Plus, Phil is much more of a meat eater than me. But as an animal lover, I'm very conscious of what type of meat I consume, and how much of it. As the cook in the family, I usually prepare meat twice a week. The other five days of the week I try to keep our diet vegetarian.

Now, as I already said, I'd be content with a plate of bread and a tall glass of water for dinner. But Phil is shockingly a little more picky. This means I'm always on the look out for filling, flavorful vegetarian recipes. I've found several good ones over the years, but never as many as I would like. How many times a week can I toss veggies with pasta? Or rice? Or make soup?

One of my recent favorites, which I discovered when I returned from Uruguay craving vegetables, is a pasta primavera recipe from Food Network (I substitute the chicken stock for veggie stock to make it vegetarian).

Do you cook vegetarian? Do you ever run out of ideas? Do you have any good recipes to share?

Next Friday I'll update on my progress with OctAnNoNaNoWriMowithNoGuilt-o. I'm still really struggling with it, but thanks to my marvelous critique partner, I may have just figured out what was missing (though I said that last Friday, didn't I?)

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Getting others to read what you write

"Is it normal for writers to have writing partners or would a Crit group serve the same purpose? Which would you recommend?"

This is a question illustrator Wilson Williams, Jr. (aka Mighty Kwan) asked in a comment on my Friday post, where I talked about my progress on my OctAnNoNaNoWriMowithNoGuilt-o pursuits, as well as my writing partner's encouragement.

I tried to answer Wilson's question in a comment, but realized rather quickly that I had a lot to say. So here's my more drawn-out answer:

It's normal for writers to seek out feedback wherever they can get it.

People may imagine a solitary writer, sitting quietly in her bower, scribbling her heart out. Most of us probably started out that way (minus the bower). However, the mind in solitary confinement is a troubling place. Sometimes writers think they're really good, and can't understand why they receive rejection after rejection. Other writers think they're really bad, and can't find the courage to send their writing out to agents and editors. Most writers are both good and bad, depending on the day. Some writers don't care about publication at all, but want to get better. Most of us get lonely.

What kind of feedback we seek out (and what I recommend) depends on our needs and circumstances. Some writers form writing groups, online or in-person, some take writing classes, some have writing partners, or alpha readers, or beta readers.

An in-person writing group can be a regular, supportive, and social gathering. You can get feedback from multiple readers, people can also commiserate about their jobs, celebrate successes, and share baked goods. Because you'll be reading multiple writers' work, usually only small chunks of your work will be discussed (though some groups operate in different ways).

A partner can be more flexible. You can meet whenever you want, and read as much as you have time for. You can encourage each other. However, you'll only receive feedback from one person. People refer to "alpha readers" as partners who read drafts in progress, "beta readers" provide feedback on finished or revised drafts.

Online groups probably fall somewhere in between. Work can be posted on blogs regularly to be shared, so feedback can be more flexible. However, usually there'll be less socializing and friendship, and you'll have to provide your own baked goods.

Nothing stops a writer from joining all sorts of different types of groups and partnerships. I certainly have.

Writers seek out different types of feedback. For example, Stephen King drafts alone, then uses beta readers to get feedback on his completed drafts. Other writers like to get feedback on each chapter or scene they write before they move on. Many writers probably fall somewhere in between. This past summer, I blogged about my ideal critique partner here. In my Chicago writing group, we share everything from poems, to blog posts, to picture books, to short stories, to novel excerpts. Depending on when our meeting falls, I may not be ready to share something from my novel, but I always share something. Our group is so supportive and enthusiastic, that it helps my spirit just as much as my writing. Plus, it encourages all of us to produce something, even if it's only a single a haiku, every month. I've also used individuals from the group as beta readers.

Of course, who is in a critique group is also important. You want writers who are as dedicated as you, who have similar goals to you (writing for fun vs. publication). You may want to consider finding writers in the same genre. I've heard other bloggers recommend that if you want to be published, you should join a critique group with others who are already published. But how many published writers are desperately seeking feedback from non-published writers?

Rather than knocking on Stephen King's door, I think there are other, better ways to form writing groups.

Classes: Writing classes are a great opportunity to meet others who take their writing seriously. Many libraries, community ed programs, and universities offer them.

Friends and work colleagues: My Chicago writing group formed because a woman I worked with knew a few other writers and suggested we all get together.

Online: Members of Verla Kay's Blueboard often post to ask for critiques or partners. Becoming involved with that amazing forum will also put you in contact with numerous writers, and you might find something evolves more organically, too.

Many other online forums provide similar services. Nathan Bransford has a forum with a board solely devoted to finding critique partners (I believe Maggie Stiefvater set up something similar, but the link I have seems to be broken. Anyone know?). Casey at Literary Rambles often posts want ads for writers looking for critique partners or groups. She also suggests writers use their own blogs to advertise that they're looking for someone. Just yesterday I saw that Adventures in Children's Publishing was helping organize alpha and beta readers for writers.

It's kind of like online dating, no? Honestly, I'd rather have my friend introduce me to just the right person. But for those who are still looking, there are a lot of opportunities out there.

Phew! I hope that answers your question, Wilson!

Are there other questions about critique groups or partners? Anything I forgot? Any other tips on finding the perfect feedback?

Monday, October 25, 2010

Bringing characters into our lives

You've heard of method acting? It's a collection of techniques where actors try to become, through their thoughts and actions, the characters they're portraying.

Well, what about method writing? Do you do it? Have you had success with it? What does it even mean?

Children's writer Christina Farley wrote on her blog Chocolate for Inspiration about visiting an archery pavilion in Korea to learn about the Korean Horn Bow. She writes, "I've been doing some research over the past few months... But I really wanted to get a clearer sense of how the bow worked and felt."

I was struck by Christina's dedication to research. It reminded me of Marcus Sedgwick, who researched his book REVOLVER by visiting an armory and learning how to shoot a gun.

Do these examples count as method acting? I wouldn't say the authors are trying to become their characters. But they're definitely trying to get a sense of what it feels like to be their characters.

Project Demo relies heavily on a specific piece of music. I've been listening to the CD for weeks now, and recently discovered my library had sheet music for the piece. So I'm learning to play the piece on my viola, too. Very cool.

Now the song is permanently stuck in my head, and whenever I hum it, or finger its notes, I'm thinking about my novel and my main character.

Perhaps this isn't method acting so much as research. Fun research. But whatever I call it, I do think it's pulling me closer and deeper into my character's head.

What do you do to bring your characters to life?

Friday, October 22, 2010

Writing update 1: OctAnNoNaNoWriMowithNoGuilt-o

I promised I'd keep you updated on my OctAnNoNaNoWriMowithNoGuilt-o pursuits (yes, that's October and November National Novel Writing Month with No Guilt. Don't you love a good acronym?)

Word count as of this morning: uh... 5,062. *sheepish look*

I was aiming for 10K a week. That way, in six or so weeks, I could finish my novel plus have time to think things through as I write. But it's been eleven days since I started this challenge, and I've been averaging under 500 words a day.

It's not for lack of trying or time. I've been working quite hard. It's just that I don't know what I'm doing. The past eleven days have been a struggle.

First, I wrote the beginning two chapters of Project Demo. They were absolute crap and made me doubt everything, my story, my characters, my talent. I was ready to scrap the whole idea. Then, as a last ditch effort, I decided to give up on writing in chronological order and to instead write the one scene I could see vividly, the scene which which had inspired the whole novel. I wrote it in an hour. It was really good. My writing partner thinks so, too. She told me I better not scrap anything.

From there, I was inspired to write another three scenes. Then I outlined my story, tried to figure out where in the novel these disparate scenes would fall, and if there were any other scenes I could write while I was avoiding the beginning. I thought about my character, how she would tell her story, and suddenly her voice was speaking in my head. It was amazing. I knew exactly how she'd start the novel, and generally how she'd structure everything. She's a little uptight like that.

So I went back to the beginning, and rewrote it with the character's voice.

There are still quite a few holes and unknowns. I'm not sure I'm ready to tell the story in chronological order yet. I'm certainly not to a place where I can write 10K a week.

But there's a reason I'm calling this challenge "NoGuilt-o." Hopefully at the end of all this I'll have a novel worth saving. I'll keep you posted.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

The joys of being a foreigner: light bulbs

For me, one of the hardest parts of living in a foreign country is the number of times I end up looking like a complete idiot. I'm forced to ask a sales person a dumb question to understand how something works, or say the wrong thing, or do something that is completely acceptable in the US, but extremely weird in the UK. And as I was reminded this past weekend, light bulbs seem to be my number one nemesis.

Sure, I've managed to navigate the National Health Service with ease, got a job, paid my taxes, joined a community orchestra, figured out that in terms of newspapers, I'm a Guardian reader. But figuring out which light bulbs to buy? Beyond my abilities.

But let me try and justify this... light bulbs in the UK are hard! Not only do I need to chose the correct wattage, regular or energy efficient. Light bulbs are sorted into letters, A-G. The chandelier in my living room takes size E candle bulbs with small bayonets.

Bayonets? Yeah. The first time I heard that, this is what I imagined: [picture of bayonet attached to gun; removed]

My landlord looked at me as if I was an absolute idiot while he explained that bayonets are the little sticks coming out of the base of a light bulb (see the above picture).

So after spending several minutes on my knees in my local grocery store looking at all the light bulbs this past weekend, I still picked out the wrong one. Even though it was a type E candle bulb with small bayonets, the base was too thick. I've got a drawer in my kitchen with several light bulbs which I've been too busy or sheepish to return because they don't fit properly. And even though I'm a fanatic about recycling everything, I don't even attempt to get the energy efficient variety. I've only ever been able to find one that fit once, and that's a more expensive mistake. The only way I manage at the moment is to buy light bulbs in bulk whenever I find the right one, and to save a copy of the box.

But some day I'll figure it out. Some day I'll be able to walk into a store, know exactly where my light bulbs are, and pick up a box, even if it's a different brand. Of course, the week that happens will probably be just about the time my visa expires.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Conquering anxiety one day at a time

When I was in college, I spent a summer in Dumaguete City, Philippines, working for a Christian organization supporting impoverished children and families. Every morning everyone in the organization was expected to meet at sunrise. Together we sang:
This is the day that the Lord has made
We will rejoice and be glad in it
This is the day
This is the day that the Lord has made
To a young, cynical American, awkward in a foreign country, it felt hokey. But I grew to love those morning services. Even for those who aren't religious, I think the song's message is pretty powerful. This is a new day which we have been given. Let's not waste it.

I was going to post this morning about how anxious I've been lately. I've been struggling with my new project (which I'm calling Project Demo). Is it good enough? Is the main character strong enough to carry a story? The writing has been painfully slow and labored. Perhaps I should just scrap the whole thing? Meanwhile, my tutor emailed me and all of my fellow classmates to let us know she was in the midst of grading our final manuscripts. Anxiety city!

But last night I decided I was going to try something new with Project Demo. I began Project Sparkle by writing individual scenes, not starting at the beginning. Instead of agonizing over the beginning, why didn't I do the same thing with Project Demo?

So I woke up early this morning. The sky was dark, though streaked with pink from the rising sun. I figured this was a new day, and I would do the best with it that I could. Without checking my email, without reading any of the news, I sat down and wrote the scene strongest in my mind.

It was like magic. It all came together. The character had a voice. Her antagonist was freaky. The setting was dark and spooky. What a great feeling.

After all my revisions this summer, I had forgotten how agonizing it is creating something out of nothing. But now, at least for today, I feel like can keep going. And tomorrow will be a brand new day.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Truly the land of stories

I went to Dublin to stay with a friend last weekend to celebrate finishing our MA! And as promised, here's pictures!

Of course, being two graduates of an MA in writing, the first place we went was Trinity College Library (well, this was more about avoiding crowds, but still...). The Book of Kells was incredible to see in person, but for me the highlight had to be the library's Long Room:

So many beautiful, old books, with moving ladders to reach them. And you could smell the old book smell from a room away. It was like being in a real life cemetery of lost books.

I saw a lot more of the city, and crammed in much of Irish history in a weekend. This is the infamous Kilmainham Jail, where the British executed the leaders of the 1916 Easter Rising. Also used as a set for numerous movies, which is why I think it looked rather familiar:

We spent Saturday north of Dublin on a tour of mostly ancient Irish history. We visited Monasterboice, a Christian settlement dating back to the late 5th century. It's home to the largest and most well preserved Celtic crosses in Ireland. My friend recognized one of the crosses from a school textbook, but never knew where it was!

We visited the Hill of Tara, the traditional and mythological home of Ireland's kings. This is the Stone of Destiny. Tradition has it that if you're meant to be king and you touch the stone, it will scream with joy:

The absolute highlight of the weekend was visiting Newgrange. It's a mound, covering an acre of land. Here's an overhead shot so you can get the idea:

Inside is a stone hallway which leads to a large room with a domed roof, all human-made with slabs of stone. It's called a Megalithic Passage Tomb, and the one at Newgrange dates back to 3200 BC. And we got to go inside! But we couldn't take pictures, unfortunately. This is the best one I could find. Notice the circular art on the left stone.

Definitely one of the most incredible places I have ever been in my life. And I never even heard of it until this past weekend! There were carvings everywhere I looked, alcoves where human remains had been found, and a light box traveling parallel to the entryway, so on the winter solstice, the room is flooded with light.

Here's the entryway, with a stone with carvings similar to the ones inside. You can see the light box above the doorway, too.

Here's a stone with carvings at the back of the mound:

My friend lives right near the water, so wherever we went during the day, in the evening we got to go back to the sea. This is from the pier at Dun Laoghaire:

Everywhere we went, it seemed there was a story, whether about history, or myth, or dating so far back that no one is sure which. What an amazing place to be a writer.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Tuesday Tip: Checking for character plot holes

On her blog Literary Rambles, Casey has posted a Tuesday Tip I wrote about checking for character plot holes. Check it out!

Also, if you're not already familiar with Casey's blog, just check it out in general! Literary Rambles provides an amazing service to the children's writing community. Besides her Tuesday Tips, she has query and synopsis critiques, writers searching for critique partners, various interviews and tips, and the most well-researched agent spotlights you'll find on the net. Her blog's been invaluable to me as I'm getting ready to query Project Sparkle.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Why I'm not NaNoWriMo-ing

Every fall, my thoughts turn to NaNoWriMo. For those of you unfamiliar with it, NaNoWriMo stands for National Novel Writing Month. The goal is 50,000 words, hopefully a novel or close to it, by the end of November. In the writing community it's hard to avoid it. Every fall, almost every writer I know starts talking NaNo. Many of my online writing friends have completed and loved NaNo (I blogged about it last year, with a round-up of other writers' posts about the experience).

However, my schedule has never permitted me to participate in NaNo. I've been away on trips, or in the middle of another writing project. Last year I was just starting my MA.

But this year I don't yet have a job, I've just finished a writing project, and NaNo falls at the perfect time.

People give numerous reasons for participating in NaNo. It demonstrates that anyone can write an entire novel in a short period of time. It forces a writer to put all negativity on the back burner. It enables a writer to trust their subconscious, and sometimes it can be amazing (in a good way) what emerges. It's a really exciting idea.

But after doing a lot of thinking, I've decided NaNo isn't right for me. At least not this fall. I know some people will say I should try it at least once, but I just don't think it would be beneficial to me or my writing.

The kicker for me was a comment author Candy Gourlay made. She said, "Well it's easier to edit words than to write from scratch." The comment really stuck with me because for me, it's not true at all. This is something I learned about myself in the past year. My writing is much fresher and more original in my first draft. Of course, it gets better and better as I revise, but if an original grain of insight isn't there the first time, I will never find it through revision. I need to scrap the whole bit and write it again.

I'm afraid if I did NaNo, I'd end up with a whole lot of crap writing. Everyone says that. And of course I'd then revise it. But I worry that in my rush, it would be so bad I'd end up having to rethink and rewrite most of it.

I keep coming back to a post author Maggie Stiefvater wrote last year entitled, "My Dear John Letter to NaNoWriMo" (the whole post is worth reading and also hysterically funny). She writes: "You're a bad concept for me, NaNo. This is why: you make me write crap, NaNo. You make me make bad novel decisions. You take away my ability to brainstorm between chapters. You make me rush through characterization. You make me pack filler in that will only get ripped out later, having taught me nothing about my novel. You make me into a bad writer... Basically, if we played the game your way, I'd end up rewriting every single word I wrote."

Yes, that's exactly what I'm afraid of. So this year, I won't be NaNoWriMo-ing. However, I am being ambitious. I'm working on a new novel (the Demolition Derby novel, or Demo, I think I'll call it). Will it work? Will a plot emerge? Will any of the characters be worth sticking with for the long haul? I don't know. But my goal is to finish my planning and write a big solid chunk (maybe all of it?) by the end of November. So a sort of NaNoWriMo, except with a bit of help from October and none of the guilt. One of my former classmates has already joined the challenge with me. Maybe we should call it October and November NaNoWriMonth with no guilt (OctAnNoNaNoWriMowithNoGuilt-o). Or something. I'll keep you posted.

Meanwhile, for those of you thinking, 'Sure, NaNoWriMo sounds great, but I'd like to try something more insane', a few weeks ago I followed a novelist's journey through a Book in a Week. Really interesting, and on on the plus side, it takes much less time than a month! Link here.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Links to share

Ever since my program finished, I've been like a retiree, kvetching about how there's never enough time. I'm hardly doing any writing, yet somehow between brainstorming for my next project, doing regular household chores, and volunteering for the Bath Festival of Children's Literature, I've been crazy busy. How's that work?

Anyway, this weekend is my trip to Dublin. YAY! Hopefully when I come back I'll be able to settle into a routine and and put some serious effort into beginning my new novel. But more about that Monday. For now, a couple of links:

One of my favorite people, Tim Gunn, recorded a heart-breaking and honest video for GLBTQ youth about his own suicide attempt with the message that life gets better.

(Thanks for the link to Lee, of I'm Here. I'm Queer. What the Hell Do I Read?)

Also addressing the topic of bullying and just being human, children's author Jacqui Robbins posted on her blog: "My son loves pink, a rant." I wish everyone in the country could read this post and talk about it.

Please check out and share both.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Now, how do I do this again?

After months of disciplined work on Project Sparkle, I'm feeling rather adrift. I have a new idea. I have some time to play with it. I know I need to be playful to really mine the depth of this story. All good. Except... I'm not sure how to begin.

I looked up beginnings on Verla Kay's Blueboard, but didn't find anything.

I looked up beginnings on my own blog, and found similar worries from when I was first starting Project Sparkle.

No answers.

But this past Saturday I had a weird experience that may answer my question.

I sat down to write, determined to figure out one of my minor characters. I started a character exercise that I usually find helpful, but couldn't get further than "1. Female." Because every time I closed my eyes and imagined my character, she completely wasn't who I expected her to be. Let's say she was a demolition derby lover*, something I know nothing about. So I googled demolition derby. I read up on it a bit, but wasn't sure it worked with my plot. She was supposed to fall madly in love, except now she seems a bit of a tomboy. She reminded me of a classmate I went to high school with. So I googled my former classmate (what did writers do before Google?) and discovered all sorts of interesting, shocking things. Then I started thinking about my classmate's parents, and my parents, and how all this relates to the type of story I want to tell, and my demolition derby character. Good stuff, except I was out of time for the day. I put away my notebook and headed to the Children's Literature Festival where I was volunteering at Zombies vs. Vampires. Charlie Higson said something about an old black and white movie, and suddenly I knew how to make everything work with my character (no, she's not a zombie).

So, what have I learned? I guess the trick to developing a story is to keep playing and hope that my subconscious will work to bring the characters to life. I'm not quite sure how to plan for that. But for now I intend to just enjoy myself and see what happens.

How do you begin a new story?

*By the way, my character is not actually a demolition derby lover, but a lover of something else equally obscure which I know nothing about. Though it is now tempting to refer to this work in progress as the Demolition Derby novel. Or... maybe now I really do need to write a novel about demolition derbies.