Wednesday, March 31, 2010


*jump* *cartwheel* *dance*

It's only a first draft. A very rough first draft. And I still need to write one chapter and a few scenes I skipped along the way (I couldn't write them until I knew how the book would end). But what a RELIEF.

A relief to know, with several hours a day devoted to writing, it was possible for me to write a draft in less than 3 months.

A relief to finish at all. I tried a whole new approach with this book. I wrote three scenes, playing around with the characters and the ideas. Then I started at the beginning and wrote. I let the character dictate what would happen next. She carried me through the entire story. I was most worried about he climax. I knew vaguely what would happen, but had no idea about the specifics, how it would play out. But my character figured it all out. And it might be a little cliche, but I think there might be some good writing there, too.

The novel's also a little short. I set out for 40K, since that is the goal for our program (though our tutors admit YA novels can and perhaps should go over this limit). I'm at 40, 247. When I add those few scenes, I might pull it up to 45K. Young adult novels are usually between 50-80K. Perhaps I need a subplot. At the moment, I'm just hoping I'm close enough that revisions take care of it. Or maybe it's so good it doesn't matter?


I'm more terrified of how bad it might be.

But for now, I'm DONE.

*jump* *cartwheel* *dance*

Monday, March 29, 2010

Do you read what you write?

One of my favorite genres, my curl up on the couch on a rainy day and exit the world genre, is fantasy. But I find it incredibly hard to write. Writing a logical real-world scene is hard enough, I can't create a whole new world and magical system. It makes my head hurt. So even though I've fought it, over the course of the year my writing has become more and more realistically-based.

And I've struggled to determine exactly what type of books I want to write.

Last December I made a list of my five favorite books of the year. I found it to be such an interesting exercise, especially as I didn't list a single fantasy. Along with two young adult novels, I included a middle grade novel and two ADULT novels. All were character-based coming of age stories. I'm still wondering if that list provides a clue to the type of books I want to write.

What about you? Do you read what you write? Do you read anything you could never write?

Friday, March 26, 2010

Project Sparkle For the Win!

So Monday was Decision Day: would my sparkly new novel become my manuscript for my MA? Or would I revert back to my original, intended project?

Those of you who are my fellow writers on my MA program know I was hyping the drama for this a bit unnecessarily... you all knew which project I would chose. I think my tutor Julia has been hoping since she saw the first scene I wrote.

So of course...
It's Project Sparkle for the WIN!

The hardest part of this has been leaving behind the novel I had been working on for over a year and a half. I love the characters (as do Phil and my fellow classmates) and I worry about leaving them drifting lifeless through this rough novel without me there to guide them. Perhaps someday I will return to them. Perhaps I already have. I think the main character in Project Sparkle was derived in my subconscious from one of them. I wondered what would happen to Isabel and ended up writing a story about a female character with similar issues, just four years older.

Besides, how could I not choose Project Sparkle? Julia has been its cheerleader since day one. My classmates love it. Of course I love it. I'm a bit obnoxious like that. Most writers hate their creations until they're perfect. I'm more of a honeymoon writer; I love my creations until I've lived with them for a year or so, seen the hairs in the sink and the kleenex scattered around the living room.

And on Monday when I met with Julia to officially make my decision-less decision she gave me the best reason to continue with Project Sparkle: it's the manuscript I started on this course. It incorporates everything I've learned about myself as a writer thus far, developing characters and using them to develop plot, avoiding passive characters, avoiding overwriting...

As of today I'm at 36,000 words. This week I've been writing the climax. As early as Monday I had no idea what was going to happen. Thankfully Tuesday and Wednesday it all started coming together. If nothing else, Project Sparkle has taught me a ton about trusting my characters.

I just hope that someday I'll be able to tell you more about Project Sparkle and even better, that you'll be able to read it all, printed and officially published, for yourself.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

What does an agent want to know about you?

Last week an established and experienced British agent* visited with students at Bath Spa to talk about her work, what she's looking for, the marketplace, and to answer any of our questions about representation.

She said numerous things worth considering. She continues to actively look for good middle-grade (9-12) writers. She believes the young adult (teen) market is growing (good news for me!).

But what really struck me was her discussion of what she wants to know about writers before she agrees to work with them. Most UK agents, once they become interested in a writer, wish to meet with the writer in person (I'm not sure this happens nearly as much in the US; a train ride to London is usually more feasible and reasonable than a plane to New York). This agent listed what she considers in her potential clients when she meets them for the first time.

She wants to know about your book, your inspiration for it, and what it means to you.

She also wants to discuss what she feels isn't working in the book, with an eye to whether or not you are willing to take criticism on board.

She wants a sense of your professionalism and your determination.

She wants to know how well you understand the marketplace. Do you see your book filling a particular niche? Perhaps you even have publishers in mind.

She wants to know what type of writer you think you are. Do you intend to write one book a year? Two? Would you be willing to take on other work, such as commissioned work for publishers or ghostwriting?

She wants to know what aspirations you have for your own career. She stressed that she is not interested in books, but people.

I found it useful to know what an agent might be looking for and what questions a writer should be prepared to answer. Of course, a writer interested in working with an agent should have plenty of questions of her own. Casey McCormick has a great list of these questions on her blog Literary Rambles.

*Sorry, no name, as this was a closed talk

Monday, March 22, 2010

Reading British: David Almond

I'm continuing my series highlighting some well-known British children's writers. Many of these authors I had never heard of until I moved here, and it has been a pleasure and a learning experience to become acquainted with them.

David Almond

David Almond is a children's writer beloved by both children and adults. His books have won numerous awards and are often suggested as part of the UK's National Curriculum. Born and raised in Felling and Newcastle, his stories have distinctly northern accents and characters: working class, Catholic and gritty. However, this backdrop is contrasted by beautiful images of nature and touches of the supernatural. His first novel for children, SKELLIG, has been adapted for the stage, film and even opera.

Genre: Almond writes paranormal or urban fantasy for middle grade children (8-12), though as I said previously, his books are quite popular with older children and adults as well. While he writes about angels and monsters, his books are distinctly set in northern England, with real families with real-world problems. His language is simple and quite readable, but his novels are also quite philosophical. For example, many of his novels play with opposites (life and death, reality and fiction) and explore the way these opposites meet.

What's in his books for writers? Almond is a master of symbolism, repeating numerous images throughout his text until the end, where all the symbols come together to form some greater meaning. His plotting is similarly tight and brilliant. His language is simple yet often breathtakingly gorgeous or creepy.


To show an example of Almond's creepy side, this is the moment in SKELLIG where Michael first finds Skellig in his garage (pg 6-7):

"Something little and black scuttled across the floor. The door creaked and cracked for a moment before it was still. Dust poured through the torch beam. Something scratched and scratched in a corner. I tiptoed further in and felt spider webs breaking on my brow. Everything was packed in tight--ancient furniture, kitchen units, rolled-up carpets, pipes and crates and planks. I kept ducking down under the hosepipes and ropes and kitbags that hung from the roof. More cobwebs snapped on my clothes and skin. The floor was broken and crumbly. I opened a cupboard an inch, shone the torch in and saw a million woodlice scattering away. I peered down into a great stone jar and saw the bones of some little animal that had died in there. Dead bluebottles were everywhere. They were ancient newspapers and magazines. I shone the torch on to one and saw that it came from nearly fifty years ago. I moved so carefully. I was scared every moment that the whole thing was going to collapse. There was dust clogging my throat and nose. I knew they'd be yelling for me soon and I knew I'd better get out. I leaned across a heap of tea chests and shone the torch into the space behind and that's when I saw him.

"I thought he was dead. He was sitting with his legs stretched out, and his head tipped back against the wall. He was covered in dust and webs like everything else and his face was thin and pale. Dead bluebottles were scattered on his hair and shoulders. I shone the torch on his white face and his black suit.

"'What do you want?' he said."

What's the buzz? SKELLIG won the 1998 Whitbread Children's Novel of the Year Award and the Carnegie Medal. THE FIRE EATERS (2003) won the Smarties Gold Award as well as the Whitbread. Almond has been shortlisted for several other literary awards. His books have sold nearly one million copies and been popular internationally. Of all the British authors I've written about, Almond is the one most recognizable to my American readers. KIT'S WILDERNESS won the US's 2001 Printz Award.

David Almond has a reputation as an innovative storyteller. He's not afraid of challenging characters and material (violent boys, bullies, class, death). He's also willing to try different formats. His recent foray into graphic novels, THE SAVAGE, is by far my favorite Almond book. Some complain his novels are basically the same story told over and over again, however no one argues that the stories are beautifully told.

Example of THE SAVAGE, written by David Almond, illustrated by Dave McKean:
US vs. UK cover:
Very different, but I must say I love both of these covers of CLAY (my first Almond read). Do they tell enough about the book, though?



Further info: David Almond's website
Story is a Kind of Redemption (article about Almond's life and writing in the Telegraph)

My previous Reading British posts:
Great literature separated by a common language
Jacqueline Wilson
Meg Rosoff

Other authors you would like me to cover? Please let me know in the comments.

Friday, March 19, 2010

The lovely and amazing Julia Green

Last night was Julia Green's book launch for DRAWING WITH LIGHT.

It was my second book launch (Undiscovered Voices' launch was last month), but in my mind my first REAL book launch. Rather than a networking opportunity, it was a celebration of Julia and her book. Her family was there, her friends, many fellow tutors from Bath Spa University, her agent and publicist, and me and several of my fellow MA classmates. We promised each other that when we had our book launches, we'd invite each other too. Can't help a bit of fantasizing! It was a lovely snapshot of one of the good bits about life as a published author.

I should also mention the launch was held at the lovely Mr B's Emporium of Reading Delights in Bath, one of the coziest and best independent bookstores. Definitely one of the friendliest, too. Though getting everyone in was a tight fit.

Julia gave a brief thank you to everyone for coming and talked a bit about DRAWING WITH LIGHT. While this is her fifth teen book, this is her first to have a real love story as opposed to romantic interests, difficult relationships, etc. Julia said she had visited several schools this past week and tried reading different scenes to them. Their favorite was the first kiss scene, so Julia figured she'd read it to us, too. I love that she read the first 16-year-old kiss to a room full of adults.

As I believe I've mentioned countless times on this blog, I've been lucky enough to have Julia for my workshop tutor for both semesters at Bath Spa. I often can't resist putting the adjectives lovely or amazing in front of her name. Her writing is incredibly beautiful. Her books steal you away to wherever she is describing and you lose your whole sense of place to be part of her world. And her writing is intelligent too. There are no simple answers, no teenage cliches, but real characters in real situations. But beyond all that the reason I feel so lucky to have Julia as a tutor is because she's a good teacher. She pushes us in our writing, but also encourages us to be the best writers we can be.

I just learned this past week that Julia will also be my manuscript tutor. Once classes are done in May, she will continue to oversee my writing on my manuscript until it is due in September. I feel incredibly lucky.

So... DRAWING WITH LIGHT is out now. Buy a copy and several for your friends. Really. It'll be good, even for non-teen readers. And have I mentioned the lovely first kiss?

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Guest Post on Tall Tales and Short Stories

Tall Tales and Short Stories Blog has interviewed me for today's post on Adele, winning Undiscovered Voices, and my writing life.

Please check it out!

Monday, March 15, 2010

I'm doing whatever she tells me to

A week from today is Decision Day. Will my sparkly new novel become my manuscript for my MA? Or will I revert back to my original, intended project?

I'm not sure how I'll decide, but in the meantime I've been writing like a madwoman, trying to get as much of Project Sparkle* written as possible. I imagine comparing two rough drafts, side by side, will make it easier to choose. But the truth is, the more I write of Project Sparkle, the more I can't stop. Has my heart made the decision already? Or maybe I'm just a "love the one you're with" type of girl. At the moment I'm aiming for 40K. I've just passed the 28K mark.

My tutor has encouraged me to let my character build the plot for this novel. I've never worked like this before. Rather than outlining my plot, sorting out key transition moments, points of no return, etc, I'm doing whatever my character wants. I finish a chapter and say, "Okay, what do you do next?" Or to put it another way, I'm in a car with broken headlights, in the middle of the night, without a map, and I've got a 16 year-old with anger-issues behind the wheel with the pedal to the floor.

No wonder I'm having fun. But I do wonder if we're going the right way...

*No need to worry, Project Sparkle has no fairies or pixies or sparkly vampires of any kind. I'm just using the name to replace the descriptor: "sparkly new novel". Actually, the reverse is true, Project Sparkle is pretty grim. Which makes the title even funnier.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Contemporary Children's Publishing course

Ostensibly this blog is supposed to be about completing my MA in Writing for Young People. So I figure I should update you on my course work occasionally.

Along with this semester's writing workshop, I'm taking a course in Contemporary Children's Publishing. Bath Spa brags they are one of the few creative writing programs to offer this type of class and that past graduates have reported it to be quite useful. Of course, the program director, Julia, has also warned us to be careful not to lose our souls. I'm happy to report I have yet to start writing a vampire novel.

So what are we learning? Well, basically the ins and outs of the publishing industry. The syllabus for the semester includes the pros and cons of being represented by an agent, the acquisitions process, publishing contracts, marketing and publicity, how different genres are represented in the business, writing reviews, press releases, blurbs, pitches and author bios. We study The Bookseller's children's bestseller list each week and relevant articles written about the children's publishing industry.

The class is guided by the knowledgeable and entertaining John McLay, whose other job is as an international children's book scout (that means he is employed by various publishers to read advance copies of books written in English and to advise foreign publishers whether or not they should acquire the rights to these books). He's extremely critical of books, but also funny and happy to share all sorts of insider secrets (you should see me and my classmates around the table leaning in to catch every scrap of gossip!).

The best part? BOOKS! Every week John gives us a book and an assignment (write a Guardian-style review, a back cover blurb, a press release, etc). And we get to keep the books! I know I'm paying plenty in tuition, but still, a new book every week is very exciting. Especially since the books are proofs (ARCs), printed up to six months before the books are available to the general public. That's how I had the great privilege of reading THE SKY IS EVERYWHERE by Jandy Nelson (which I adored!) before its publication date.

So far I have no complaints about the loss of my soul... though perhaps that's just because John has given me enough free books to keep me quiet. It's been interesting learning more about the industry and some weeks a welcome break from the writing slog.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

When do you stop reading?

I haven't been finishing a lot of books lately. Oh, I've started numbers of them, I just didn't bother finishing them. Is this a problem? Am I becoming too critical?

I like to think I'm saving my time. If I don't care about a character after 75 pages, if the prose is so purple I'm giggling while reading, will it get any better if I keep going? And by not finishing books, I can dip into hundreds of styles, stories and characters, give a number of books my attention... but perhaps this book-stopping habit is getting a bit obsessive. I feel like an agent, silently telling books: "Give me any reason to stop reading and I'll do it!" I worry I might miss a gem of a ending. Or even a gem of a middle.

It isn't even the bad books I'll stop reading; lately I'm giving up on okay books too. Monday I stopped reading a book with a fascinating plot and imaginative and beautiful world building. But the characters were flat as pancakes and the writing repetitive. I imagined if I continued reading I would get more and more annoyed at the author, whereas by stopping I felt I had an opportunity to enjoy her world, however briefly, and move on to something I could enjoy more. Course, now I'm working my way through another book that has received only rave reviews and I'm not sure I care bear to finish it.

How often do you stop reading? How many pages do you give a bad book? What makes you stop?

Last September, I blogged about what elements make me love a book, if you're interested.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Lessons from Project Runway

I once told an artist friend that every time I visit an art gallery, I'm filled with an irresistible urge to write. I'm surrounded by incredible art and I can't help but want to create my own. My friend told me she feels the exact same way, except that art galleries make her want to paint. "That's how you know you're a writer," she told me.

I feel the same way about Project Runway. People unfamiliar with the TV show are often surprised I watch it avidly. Yes, I am wearing rainbow striped fuzzy socks today--so?? While I might not put it into practice very often, PR has made me much more appreciative of the fashion world. But more so, I love PR because it makes me think about art and creativity in general. PR makes me want to write.

I've blogged before about how my MA could be a reality show--except better because no one is ever kicked off. Today I've been thinking about lessons writers can learn from PR.

1. Try new things.
Do you remember the lingerie designer who sent baby girl dresses down the runway every single episode? The judges wondered if that was all he could do. New things are often a challenge, but can inform and improve my work. Or they may even surprise me and influence and augment new work.

2. Believe in yourself and your work.
Do you remember the hippy designer who spit on her fabric to mark it? She made gorgeous dresses. Other designers have been subsumed by their clients. The clients want zebra prints and pink lace and the designers happily deliver it, losing themselves in the process. What makes my work original is that it's mine and yours is yours. Trust yourself and the beauty within you to make something no one else can.

3. Stand up for your work.
As a rule, the judges don't like it when designers argue with them. Who would? But every so often a judge admits, "At least she stood up for herself." No one wants to support an artist who won't support herself.

4. But don't be an asshole.
Remember Kenley from season 5? 50s style dresses and a nasty attitude? First she alienated her fellow designers. Then she argued with Tim. Then she snapped at Heidi. Uh-oh. She ended up in the top three and was able to show at NY Fashion Week, but barely. The judges wondered if she could ever be a team player and if anyone would ever want to work with her. Standing up for yourself can get you so far, but kindness and generosity will gain you respect and friends, which is important in a business.

5. Listen to criticism, especially when it's coming from Tim Gunn.
Designers (and writers) who ignore, or worse, interrupt people giving feedback amaze me. If someone, especially an expert like the wise and beloved Tim Gunn, is kind enough to give their advice, you should listen and take it seriously, even if you disagree. After all, if they feel they have something to say, there must be a reason.

By the way, due to living in the UK, I have only watched through season five and am missing the current season. I KNOW. But please... don't tell me ANYTHING about this current season, okay? Thanks.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Learning to Underwrite

In January I posted about my struggles with overwriting. My tutor had told me all my character's emotion and reflection were slowing down the pace of my story's action. I spent a horrendous week with little sleep and much stress while cutting EVERYTHING. But I never told you the final outcome: my tutor loved my revision. She thought the cuts made a world of difference to my writing.

Emotion? Reflection? Gone! Well... mostly, except when absolutely necessary.

Now that I've had some time for my own reflection (and sleep), I have to say this new perspective really has improved my writing. It's also made me much more conscious of overwriting or underwriting in other authors. So when I saw this incredible example in my reading today, I had to share.

This is from CHAINS by Laurie Halse Anderson (author of SPEAK, without a doubt one of the ten best books I have ever read). SPOILER ALERT: The main character, Isabel, has just had her sister, Ruth, stolen from her and sold into slavery in the Caribbean. When Isabel tried to fight back against her master, she was horrifically abused and branded. Isabel has now recovered, at least physically.

"I swept the hearth and fetched the fan. I dusted the library without looking at the books on the shelves or the horse on the wall. I preferred the chores that took me out of the kitchen, for it was there the bees tricked me into seeing Ruth's ghost playing on the floor, churning butter, or counting out kernels of corn. When her voice whispered to me, I caught fire again from my toes to my face, and I burned slow, like damp wood.

"Becky watched me careful when I turned inside myself like that. She once tried to apologize for what happened. The instant she stopped talking, I forgot what she said...

"Curzon came around day after day and talked to me through the boards of the fence. I did not answer him." (157-8)

Isn't that interesting? Even though Isabel is speaking in first person, she doesn't tell the reader anything about her emotions, only her physical sensations and actions. Yet, through those, Isabel's feelings are absolutely clear. Halse Anderson has no need to add "I was heartbroken and blamed myself and everyone around me." We already know.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Buy a copy of Undiscovered Voices

UV 2010 is now available to the general public. It can be purchased online via PayPal or by a cheque for £5.

See the Undiscovered Voices website for all details.

£5 fee includes shipping, even to the States, so for all of my American friends interested, you should be able to buy a copy as well. Yay!

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Anne Reads Books By & About People Different From Her: Oscar Wao

I have spent the month of February with Anne Reads Books By & About People Different From Her. This past week I read THE BRIEF AND WONDROUS LIFE OF OSCAR WAO by Junot Díaz.

"Things have never been easy for Oscar. A ghetto nerd living with his Dominican-American family in New Jersey, he's disastrously overweight, keeps falling hopelessly in love and dreams of becoming the next Tolkien. Meanwhile his punk sister Lola wants to run away, and his resolute mother Beli can't seem to let either of them go.

"Moving across generations and continents, from Beli's tragic past in the Dominican Republic to struggles and dreams in suburban America, this is the wondrous story of Oscar, his family and their search for love and belonging." (from the back of the book)

OSCAR WAO won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2008. I found it a unique, gripping novel. I kept joking with Phil while I was reading that I would have to speak Spanish and be a total comic nerd to get most of the references. I've heard some readers complain about this, but to me that was part of the book's charm. I felt completely immersed in Oscar's world. I found myself saying Dios mio! for days after. And isn't that the point of reading? To travel and experience whole other worlds?

I also appreciated Oscar, Beli and especially Lola (she was my favorite) as real characters. They weren't auditioning for sainthood, they weren't figureheads representing racism and the struggles of Dominican Americans. A librarian friend once told me that someday she'd like to write a book about an African American girl, set in modern times, in a middle-class neighborhood. The girl's problems would revolve around friends, boys and her kinky hair. I would happily buy that book.

Now, to quote one of my favorite Dar Williams songs, "And February was so long that it lasted into March". The sun is out, the library yesterday had a vase of daffodils, and I think spring has finally come. I will be sporadically continuing Anne Reads Books By & About People Different From Her, (my goal is 13 or more) and will post on books which I particularly enjoy. Please let me know if you find any you enjoy, too.

Oh, and to read a wrap-up on Jacqui's progress with Jacqui Reads Her Children & Herself Books By & About People People Different From Her, follow this link.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Anne Reads Books By & About People Different From Her: Junk

I'm spending the month of February (and beyond) with Anne Reads Books By & About People Different From Her. I thought I cheated this past week when I read JUNK by Melvin Burgess. White author, white characters, even takes place in my current home of Bristol. But I figured I had to read something by him, since Melvin was coming to the UV launch party. Also, in the short time I've lived in the UK, I've heard a lot about Burgess' controversial books (the title that always makes me laugh is his recent DOING IT), and his memoir which apparently his UK publisher is afraid to touch*. My tutor Julia recommended I read his seminal work, JUNK, which won the Guardian Children's Fiction Award and the Carnegie Medal in 1997.

Upon reading JUNK, I quickly realized I wasn't cheating at all. I'm a little ashamed to admit how goody-goody I am. I've never smoked, inhaled or shot-up anything. Really. Alcohol gives me headaches. And I was one of those kids who got good grades, had nice friends, mostly did what I was supposed to do... I think I'm more rebellious as an adult than I ever was as a kid. So I don't think I'm stretching at all when I say that reading JUNK was definitely an encounter with a world different from my own.

JUNK tells of a boy escaping his abusive parents and the girl who follows him. It deals with issues of homelessness, prostitution and of course drug addiction, specifically heroin. The story is told through the eyes of the boy and girl, but also a plethora of other characters they encounter, including a newstand owner, a fellow squatter, the woman they end up living with, even the abusive father. Each character has her/is own perspective and sense of morality. All these snapshots are so believable and so different. Also the reader is able to read between the lines and see the lies and truth behind assertions.

The novel was published with a lot of controversy, and I must say, it certainly doesn't hide the ins and outs of starting out as a prostitute, the high heroin gives, etc. But it also shows how difficult it is to escape addiction, the abuse and devastation addiction can lead to. It doesn't hold any punches and offers no easy answers.

Interesting Melvin Burgess tidbit: at the launch party he mentioned that each book he writes is quite different and involves a lot of research. He joked he might be a richer man if he just wrote DOING IT 2 and DOING IT 3. But he's afraid he would get bored. I'll have to explore more of his work. My classmates said his fantasy is quite good.

Oh, and just to brag, here is my copy of Undiscovered Voices, complete with Melvin's signature:

By the way, this is my 100th post. Pretty exciting, huh? Thought I would do something celebratory when I got here, but seeing as post 99 was the Undiscovered Voices book launch, I think my blog has had plenty of celebrating lately. Now it's back to work!

*Actually, I still intend to write about Melvin Burgess for my Reading British series.