Friday, January 29, 2010

Have problem, will travel

As part of my MA, this past autumn I read a series of ghost stories in order to analyze how they work. One common trope in ghost stories is moving to a new house. Why? Because the main character has to encounter a ghost. And if she doesn't move someplace new, the reader might wonder why she didn't encounter this ghost before. So almost all of the ghost stories I read included a move. BOG CHILD by Siobhan Dowd doesn't (my review of BOG CHILD). Instead, while digging for peat the main character uncovers a body which begins to haunt his dreams. Spooky, huh?.

However, this moving trope creates a unique difficulty for ghost story writers. The main character's problem needs to travel, too. For example, if the main character is a lonely, outcast boy, who's to say he will be lonely and outcast in his new home too? Maybe he'll be happy for the chance to start over? Or if the main character lives with her mother, but they don't get along so she's sent to stay with her grandmother for the summer while her parents sort out their divorce. Maybe she loves her grandmother? The ghost story author needs to create a mechanism whereby the character moves, but none of her problems change.

In Julia Jarman's GHOST WRITER she dealt with this by giving her main character a problem internal to himself: he's dyslexic. In Kathryn Reiss' DREADFUL SORRY (my review) the main character has seen visions all her life; the visions just get worse when spends the summer in her dad's house, the same house in which the ghost lives. Robert Westall's THE WATCH HOUSE follows the grandmother plot outlined above. Except his main character's problem travels via continuous letters from her parents. She's watching her father fall apart from a distance and her mom suddenly barges into her new life, demanding to bring her home.

So, if you've got a haunted house, you need to find a way to make your character's problem portable.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Advice from Marcus Sedgwick

Last Thursday I had the pleasure of meeting Marcus Sedgwick, a British YA fantasy and historical fiction author. Marcus is spending this semester at Bath Spa University as artist-in-residence. So I had the opportunity to hear this brilliant author speak and to meet with him one-on-one about my own writing. Even better? He's a humble, kind author and was incredibly open about his process. He even shared his notebooks with me. I'm not sure *I* would share my notebooks with anyone, let alone a complete stranger!

He's also an experienced author, and I found much of what he said useful. So in the spirit of openness, here are my favorite bits of Marcus' advice and knowledge:

  • A bored or stuck writer should return to her inspiration. What originally excited you about the idea?
  • A writer should rarely be bored. Write the bit that interests you. If you're bored, the reader is bored. So skip the boring parts and only write the fun bits.
  • When Marcus is beginning a new novel, he challenges himself to advance his knowledge in one way every day. This way he can slowly uncover his thoughts, themes, and plot ideas. For his most recent novel, REVOLVER, his knowledge-gathering involved visiting an armory, shooting a gun, and studying historical photos of Alaska.
  • How long did it take him to write REVOLVER? Well... he researched the story for an entire year. He wrote his first draft in six days.
  • Marcus begins with plot, not character or setting.
  • Flat, uninspiring characters? He used to hear that from editors and freak out. But he's learned that it only takes six sentences to make a character round and sympathetic. The trick? Finding the right six sentences and putting them in the right places.
  • Everyone should write a vampire novel. They're great fun.
Oh, and just in case you're curious: No, I did not ask him to sign any books. My only copies were library books, and while I imagined the Bristol library would appreciate the signatures, I didn't quite have that kind of chutzpah.

Monday, January 25, 2010

It's HERE!!!

Undiscovered Voices 2010 is now officially out:

It seems a little surreal. I was so excited when I first learned an excerpt from my novel ADÈLE would be published. Now my excitement has mellowed into stress, fear, and unworthiness.

But my name's on the back cover.

And look at this:

Definitely getting a little excited again.

Plus, I can confirm, along with my fellow recipients, it DOES smell nice.

Friday, January 22, 2010

My mentor book

I was so pleased to hear earlier this week that Libba Bray's GOING BOVINE had won the Printz award for excellence in young adult literature. Not that I've read it (I don't believe it's been published in the UK yet). But Libba Bray's first book, A GREAT AND TERRIBLE BEAUTY has a special place in my writing life.

About a year ago, I heard another writer recommend having a book or two to refer to throughout the writing process. She suggested a writer choose a book similar to the book they were writing (same genre, same gender character, same target age, same style, etc). Then, whenever a writer bumped into problems, she could consult this book. It sounded like a great idea to me at the time. I use the books on my shelves regularly, but the idea of always having one go to book made sense. I went through several names: David Almond, Jerry Spinelli, and Libba Bray, among others. At the time I was working on my ghost story, which had gothic elements, historical elements, and a female character with limited freedom, several elements in common with Libba Bray's A GREAT AND TERRIBLE BEAUTY.

So for the past year, A GREAT AND TERRIBLE BEAUTY has had a regular place on my dining room table. When I was rewriting my beginning, trying to increase its tension, I looked to see how Bray had written her beginning. This past week, when I was making enormous cuts to my writing, I looked to see when and how Bray used character reflection. A GREAT AND TERRIBLE BEAUTY was not my favorite book when I first read it. I enjoyed it (and the books that follow in the trilogy), stayed up late in the night to finish it, but when I rated it on goodreads, I only gave it a 4/5. However, since then, it's become an invaluable book for me, and I'm happy to say it's provided me with a lot of writing wisdom this past year. Thanks, Libba and congratulations.

What books do you keep close by your side to help with your writing?

**UPDATE**: Here is the fabulous Libba Bray describing on her blog the moment she got the call that she had won the Printz.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Getting Books Signed (or My Embarrassing Tom Stoppard Moment)

I rarely pursue authors to sign books. Not after one bad experience with Tom Stoppard.

I was a college student studying for a semester in London and had just seen Stoppard's "The Invention of Love". I loved the play and bought a copy. Later, I was lucky enough to attend a lecture Stoppard gave on writing. Honestly, I can't remember a thing he said, but I remember the end of the afternoon vividly. I was determined to get his autograph. After the talk, I followed a group of people around the back of the theatre. We waited for about twenty minutes, and I was just beginning to think I'd give up when Stoppard appeared.

I had not noticed until that moment that all the people I was standing with were female. And I kid you not, they were also all blonde. They swarmed Stoppard, gushing over him. I felt absolutely ridiculous. I almost left right then, but I still had "The Invention of Love" in my hands, which is a brilliant play, and the author standing right next to me. Turns out, I didn't need to make a decision at all. Stoppard saw the book in my hand and mechanically bent, took it from me, and signed it, without saying a word to me. So much for the amazing moment where I met Tom Stoppard.

I don't hold much value in that signature, though I haven't yet sold the book on ebay. I do still love the play, and it is something to have his autograph. But after that embarrassing encounter, I lost interest in collecting signatures. It isn't the signatures I'm interested in anyway, but rather meeting people who have been influential to me.

So I don't have many other signed books. I have one signed by Margaret Weis (a childhood favorite) that a friend gave me. I had another book signed by Margaret Weis which I gave to a friend. I think signed books make great gifts. They say, "I stood for hours in line in order to get you this special book." Maybe getting the book feels better than actually getting the signature, too. I also have signed copies of THE THINGS THEY CARRIED and IN THE LAKE OF THE WOODS by Tim O'Brien. I know, too incredible. He led a three hour session I took in Chicago for educators on teaching history with literature. He is a humorous, thoughtful and inspirational person. And while I'm sure he doesn't remember me at all, at least I didn't have to feel like a groupie in order to get my books signed.

And then there's the signature that got away... Through various connections, I am one degree of separation away from both Barack and Michelle Obama. They don't know me personally, but I imagine if I were to introduce myself to them, both of them would know who I was. That's what comes of living in the same neighborhood as them in Chicago.

In the fall of 2006, Barack Obama was on a book tour for his second book, THE AUDACITY OF HOPE. I had decided to get a copy for my dad for Christmas. Obama wasn't well known nationally yet, at least not to the general public, but he was a political hero in Chicago already and a US senator. He was signing books at the local independent bookstore one morning, about three blocks from where I worked. I planned to get to work, run my advisory class, and then hurry over to the bookstore.

Of course, it was pouring rain that morning and I was in a foul mood... maybe a parent wanted to talk to me about their kid, maybe I got a grouchy email from a co-worker, maybe my dog wasn't feeling well... I really don't remember, but I do remember consciously deciding: Obama lives in the neighborhood. He knows who I am. I'll get the book another time. It's not like he's going anywhere.

Needless to say, I didn't get the signed book for my dad (sorry Dad!). I expected to have another opportunity that year, but it never came. And then... well, and then he got famous. And now I'm living in the UK. And how much do I regret not meeting him? A lot.

But I console myself by imagining it probably would have gone just like my meeting with Tom Stoppard. There would have been a line, groupies, he wouldn't have had time to catch my name, he would have been tired. So maybe knowing I could have gotten his signature, and didn't, is a better memory than the actual getting.

Course, my feelings on this whole process will probably change if someday, as I hope, I'm on the other side of the table, the author giving signatures... but that's another post.

Do you sign books? Do you get books signed? Any good (or bad) memories?

Monday, January 18, 2010

Overwriting? How could I be overwriting? I don't overwrite.

Last Thursday my tutor told me she had discovered a problematic pattern in my writing: overwriting. So my assignment this week has been to cut enormously and mercilessly in order to gain more clarity and drive.

Sometimes people tell me things about my writing and it's like the light-bulb moment. Everything is clear and obvious. Other times... not so much and I just have to take it on faith that someone is right. Writing this week has been like that, a real struggle.

I started by cutting everything from the first four chapters of my novel that wasn't setting, dialogue or action. Mostly I cut internal thought and reflection, which my teacher thinks are the culprits. And she was right--when I cut all of that out, the writing was much clearer and faster.

Let me show you:

Cut passage:
The blue curtain shakes. I freeze. I hear something... someone. Someone's whispering.

My back goes all tingly. "Hello?" I call out. "Is anyone there? Do you know what smells?"

Original passage:
The blue curtain shakes. I freeze. Is something back there? My ears aren't nearly as good as my nose, but now I think I hear something... someone. Someone's whispering.

My back goes all tingly. I don't know why. What is there to be scared of? It's just a smell, right? Right. I should figure this out. "Hello?" I call out. "Is anyone there? Do you know what smells?"

Do you see the difference? I think it does help.

But I worry about what I'm sacrificing for this increased clarity. Do I give enough background information? My teacher reminds me that I should trust my readers to understand my text without spelling everything out. I also worry about voice. Part of the reason I kept a lot of overwriting in originally was because one of my narrators talks non-stop. I'm scared if I lose sentences, I lose his personality.

So I have spent the past week combing through every sentence of my first four chapters, trying to decide what is essential and what can be cut. A frustrating writing week--but hopefully one that will take me a step closer towards improving my writing.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Cheating on my wip

Still thinking about multi-tasking. Then I stumbled upon this fantastic blog post by novelist Christine Fletcher about breaking up with a work in process (leaving it for a new novel).

Completely cracked me up. Also got me thinking about passion. Commenters on my previous multi-tasking post all admitted to failure at working on multiple things. You said that once you shifted your passion for a project, it was hard to get it back (and the reverse, if you were passionate about a project, you had to see it to the end).

That has been what's scaring me, too. I am passionate about my current work in progress. I believe in it. My tutors and classmates believe in it. I can't afford to abandon it for a shiny new thing. So my goal at the moment is to continue onwards, to finish my wip. And when I get stuck or bored--I'll sneak around a bit and do some casual drafting with my new idea. Just a little cheating on the side--will my current wip even notice?

But I assume, like all of you, I'll hit a point where that's just not possible anymore and I'll have to make a choice. If I still love my wip, and I think I do, it will force me to choose it. I'll let you know how it goes in the meantime.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Let's check the library!

Like Hermione Granger, my answer to every problem seems to be to check the library. So with my sparkly new idea, I've been consulting other books, left and right, to see how authors tackled similar themes, issues, and characters.

Some writers don't like to do this. I know of writers who refuse to even read fiction when they're writing it. More frequently, I hear writers claim they don't want to read anything similar to the genre of book they're writing.

But I have found that reading books similar to the type of book I'm writing helps me to interrogate my own ideas and push them further. It also gives me a sense of what has been done before, what hasn't, and what works. Sometimes I do read something and think, "Wow, I wish I could have a plot like that." But of course I can't because A. someone else already has and B. my head works nothing like that. So I don't find myself copying ideas.

For example, my new idea has an element of romance, a genre I'm quite unfamiliar with. As I've been reading, I have yet to find a single book which starts with the characters already in love. Most romances start with the characters not knowing each other, a few start with the characters as friends. So I've been considering these tropes, the reasons behind them, and how I want to start the relationship in my own book. By the way, I'm a bit like a fish out of water when it comes to romances. Any reading suggestions?

I've also had the pleasure of reading THE FORESHADOWING by Marcus Sedgwick. I knew I had to read something by Sedgwick because he is the Author-in-Residence this semester at Bath Spa University. My classmates were really excited, but I knew nothing about him. I picked up THE FORESHADOWING specifically because it has an element similar to one I am considering for my novel*. And you know what? Not only did it ask a lot of questions of my sparkly new idea, it was a FABULOUS story. So exciting to discover a new author. So I went to the library yesterday to pick another of his books, and found a shelf full of Sedgwick. I restrained myself and only got two.

I get to meet him next week! Now I can't wait.

*I know I'm being cagey about my new idea and it leads to vague writing. Sorry. But I like to keep new ideas secret for various paranoid and artistic reasons.

Monday, January 11, 2010


I once told a co-worker that I couldn't multi-task.

"No," she said, "you are a woman. You can multi-task."

"No, I really can't."

"My husband can't wash dishes and talk at the same time," she said.

OK, that's bad. I can do that. But I'm not GOOD at multi-tasking, in spite of any assumptions of my femininity, child-rearing abilities or previous teaching experience. And I must point out that my husband is much better at multi-tasking than I am, so it isn't always a gender-split.

All that is why I find it so incredibly odd that I am working on two manuscripts at the moment.

At the beginning of September, I perused a book called THE CREATIVE WRITING MFA HANDBOOK by Tom Kealey and found this suggestion:

"Work on a few projects at once. I'm not talking a dozen. I'm talking three or four. They may be in different stages: first draft, editing, final draft, fun. When you get bored with one, or if you're blocked with another, you'll always have something to work on. Sometimes it helps one work when you ignore it consciously to work on another. Often your unconscious mind is still working on the other."

It sounded like good advice at the time. Goodness knows, I get bored when I'm revising. So this summer I started actively looking for another, new sparkly and fun project to begin. What's funny about reading this previous post is that my wish was granted. I have a sparkly new idea, which I'm madly in love with, and for which I have now roughly outlined and written three chapters. My plan is to continue work on my current wip, and once a week write another rough chapter for the new idea.

Problem? Well, I'm not good at multi-tasking. I mean, physically, of course I can make myself stick to this new schedule. But mentally? I'm not so sure. I mean, yes, I do get bored when I'm revising, but at the same time, I find it hard to turn on and off my passions like a faucet. And what if I lose interest in my current wip because I'm gallivanting around with this new idea? What if I miss a trick because my mind isn't in the game?

Do any of you work on multiple projects at once? Do you struggle switching from one to the other? Any words of wisdom?

Friday, January 8, 2010

Oh Chicago

Thought I'd ease myself back into the world of blogging with a picture post. Real hard core, textual analysis and thought-provoking commentary will resume on Monday. Right...

I was back in Chicago, my previous home for six years, for 2 and a half days this past week. It was good to be back. I visited with a long time friend, my old writing group and my old school, and felt like a bit of a celebrity. Though more strangely, it felt like I had never been gone. There were new buildings, even a new skyscraper gracing the skyline (the Trump Tower, which was still in construction when I left. I like it, though, as one of my friends pointed out, it is rather penisy... but then again, aren't most skyscrapers?).

The image is borrowed from the Trump Towers website.

But otherwise, it just felt like... home. I wish I could have stayed.

But what fun it was to be a tourist in Chicago and to feel no compunction at taking pictures. Other than freezing, of course. But then again, that felt like being home too.

Here's a few of my favorites:

The city view from the river:

The Bean:

Michigan Ave. post-Christmas. For those of you in my class, remember that story about Katie and Russell in the bus? Now you can see the setting, minus all the Christmas shoppers and traffic.

The view out from Navy Pier. Yes, we walked to Navy Pier. Yes, it was below O Fahrenheit (-17 Celsius). Yes, it was a bit nippy, but look at this view!

I should take this opportunity to say I also used my vacation back to the US to visit family. I enjoyed seeing you all immensely. I'll let you enjoy your privacy, though, and NOT post those pictures. Especially the ones of me and Phil's cousin as the Babes of the 80s.