Wednesday, September 29, 2010

What's next?

I'm turning in my manuscript today! *happy dance*

So what's next?

Well, I've got a few more days of Bath Festival stuff. Then I'm going to Dublin to celebrate! Can you imagine a more perfect place to celebrate finishing a book? I've never been, but have a good friend who lives there (which is perfect, because I've hardly thought about the trip).

I'll come back with lots of photos and stories to share, I'm sure.

After that? I had fantasies of doing some quickie revisions on my manuscript and sending it out to agents this fall. But that probably isn't going to happen. My tutor told me I'll get my feedback in late November, or early December.

I was so frustrated when I first heard that, but the more I think about it, the better it sounds. It gives me two solid months to work on something else. And November happens to be NaNoWriMo. Hmmm... I'll also have two months to forget Project Sparkle. Hopefully when she comes back, I can look at her with a fresh eye and tackle revisions more easily.*

As for what I'll work on next, I'm currently playing with two projects. I've had an insight into revising my middle grade ghost story, ADELE. However, it's tempting to start something completely different. I've begun brainstorming a new young adult paranormal. I'm playing my multi-tasking game again, waiting to see which manuscript takes me by the throat and won't let go. I'll keep you posted. For now, I'm just enjoying playing with words, brainstorming ideas, and stress-free writing.

Oh yeah, and I also need to sort out the non-writing part of my life. Probably get a job. Definitely need to get out of the house more than I did this summer!

What are you working on at the moment? What are your plans?

* I guess my manuscript's a girl. Like a ship or a land mass. She's certainly not a boy and I'm way too close to her to just call her it.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Highlights from this weekend

I woke up this morning with three things to check in the manuscript. Upon actually looking at it, two of them were irrelevant. But I added a couple of sentences to the last chapter. See, good thing I haven't printed it out yet! But I'm also feeling good that it's mostly standing up to my second guessing.

Otherwise, I almost forgot about the novel this weekend. Friday night I heard Children's Laureate and author and illustrator Anthony Browne open the Bath Festival of Children's Literature. Saturday I heard Cressida Cowell (HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON) and Andy Stanton (MR GUM) and also helped manage their ENORMOUS signing lines and hordes of fans. Sunday I got to play with the little kids, and helped with Where's Spot and the Peter Rabbit Puppet Show, both of which involved 7-foot high plush characters.

It was brilliant fun hanging out with the kids and hearing the talks. I also found myself thinking a lot about writing, being a professional author, and life in general.

Anthony Browne and Cressida Cowell both went to art school. They talked about what an incredible opportunity it was and how lucky they were to have it. Cowell said for a creative person, it was the most fun she could have at school. Browne talked about how most children might be encouraged to do something "with words," but how lucky he was to have a father who appreciated art and wanted him to make a career out of it. After art school, Browne supported himself for years as a medical illustrator. He talked about how much he learned from realistic drawing and how it applies to his books. Both speakers made me think about how privileged and happy I have been to spend a year of my life studying creative writing. I hope some of the parents in the audience heard this message, too.

Cressida Cowell talked about her inspiration for her dragon books. I've only seen the movie, but was entranced by the way she talked about her books. Plus all the children I spoke to, who were teaching themselves dragonese, or writing their own books, or imagining their own stories, were very convincing. So I bought the first book for myself--and got it signed!

Cowell spent large chunks of her childhood on a small, remote island off the coast of Scotland. Her family slept in tents and fished for their food. She spent her childhood thinking about people who used to live like this permanently, like the vikings. She also recalled the amazing fish her dad brought to the surface. If a fanged, five-foot eel could exist, why couldn't a dragon?

That was the "what if" question that prompted Cowell's whole series: what if dragons really did exist? After my post last week on the same topic, it was great to hear an author explain her "what if" thought process.

Andy Stanton and Cressida Cowell both had masses of fans. Cowell's wore dragon t-shirts, brought dragon figurines, and both audiences had stacks of books they were desperately hoping the authors would sign. And sign they did, along with illustrations, chatting, answering questions, and posing for photos. Stanton and Cowell gave so much of themselves to their fans. Stanton started the talk by mentioning he was sick. Perhaps he was apologizing for his low energy level, but had he never said anything, I would have never guessed. He danced, walked throughout the theatre, chatted with kids in the audience, did impersonations, screamed... Cowell had done an event that same morning, yet spent almost two hours signing books after her talk. Whenever she answered a child's question, she then asked the child what he/she thought. Kids did have to stand in line for hours, but I believe every child walked away from the events feeling they really knew the authors personally. It was incredible.

The storyteller for Where's Spot and the Peter Rabbit Puppet Show, though for younger kids, was equally amazing. The toddlers were like putty in her hands. One of my jobs was to keep children from climbing onto the stage (like a toddler mosh pit).

It was a great weekend, but I must say, I'm happy to have a quiet, child-free day today.

Friday, September 24, 2010


I've made sure all my ts are crossed, all my is dotted. Well, more literally, I've run my grammar and spelling check, made sure all my paragraphs are indented, and done a final read through. Along the way I caught some troubling errors, such as one instance where I used the word "mobile" instead of "cell." *cringe*

I've added the words skank, Obama, cami, googled, hoodies, and venti to my spell-check dictionary. I've researched whether or not to add an s to the words forwards, backwards, towards, and afterwards (the added s is a British thing. It comes naturally to me, but perhaps this is because I grew up close to the Canadian border? It can also be used correctly in American English with "ward" if the word is an adverb).

I'm right on schedule. Tonight the Bath Festival of Children's Literature kicks off with Children's Laureate Anthony Browne. I'll spend the next week mostly busy volunteering.

But I haven't yet printed out the final manuscript. This way if something occurs to me in the dead of night, there's still time to fix it. Once I do print it, I'll skim through it once more to look for any formatting errors.

It's due on the 30th. I'll be in Bath on the 29th, so if I'm feeling daring, I may turn it in.

I'll let you know how it feels then. Right now I'm just scared.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Things I'm thinking about...

About a year ago, I started jotting down overheard conversations, quotes, and factoids that stuck with me. They aren't novel ideas. They're just little stories that resonate with me for some reason. Perhaps because they get at something deep inside me that puzzles me or fascinates me. The hope is that if I write them down, I'll remember them. And if I remember them, then maybe they'll simmer in my subconscious, and some day produce the grain of a novel idea.

At least, that's the theory...

I've been revisiting these jottings lately as I think about what my next writing project will be. I'm in the enviable position of having too many ideas, not too few!

So I thought I'd share a few of my favorite jottings. Feel free to borrow any that strike you as well! Please also feel free to share in the comments any things you've heard or seen recently which have struck you.

"In a good play, everyone is right." Friedrich Hebbel

Scientists have said a 16th century French king's mistress died from gold poisoning. She tried to preserve her youth by drinking liquid gold. Apparently her body was so saturated with the mineral, even her hair was tinted gold (here's a link to an article about this, in case you're interested).

"Maybe the hardest part of being a kid is feeling like there's all this stuff happening in the world, and you're not really empowered to do anything about it. You can't vote yet. You don't work yet (at least not full-time) so you don't have a lot of money to donate to help other people's efforts to fix problems. You can't just pick up and fly somewhere to help out in places where people need help. I mean, you're a kid, living at home, going to school. What can you do?" Lee Wind, for his blog I'm Here, I'm Queer, What the Hell Do I Read?, an intro to his post: Back To School: An Interview with Ethan, Who Started the Non-Profit "The AIDS Cure" when he was 11!

"I used to LOVE answering the “What Do You Do” question when I was a Faberge expert at a famous auction house in New York City. Then I left that job and tried to write freelance, which meant that I had to get a job as a receptionist at a hedge fund in Manhattan (making 30% more there, answering phones, than I did when I was inspecting Frank Sinatra’s Russian works of art) and my Working Class Code of Ethics forced me to always grit my teeth and answer the “What Do You Do” question with “Receptionist” — I never tried to excuse myself by adding that I USED to be IMPORTANT. It was hard: I was single and over 40 and trying to find a husband. About the difference between being a Faberge expert and a receptionist, I could write a book." Written by Vivian Swift in response to a question posed by Betsy Lerner on her blog, The Forest for the Trees: "when people ask you what you do, what do you say, do you say: I’m a writer?"

Monday, September 20, 2010

What if...?

All of my previous novels have been inspired by setting. My first was a gritty Chicago novel, my second a lakeside wilderness, my third inspired by the gothic cathedrals of the UK. After deciding on a setting, I would think about characters. Who would people these worlds? Why? What did they want? Then, to make it into a story, I would add a dash of plot.

The result? A mess.

This method might work well for some, but for me it resulted in rich settings, rich characters, and a random, illogical set of events for the characters to stumble through.

One of my absolute favorite books is SPEAK by Laurie Halse Anderson.* It's about a girl who has something so devastating happen to her that she loses her ability to speak. It's such a simple concept. Even the title is simple. I used to ask myself, why can't I write a book like that?

Then one day it happened. I got an idea. I knew instantly it was a brilliant novel idea because it wasn't a setting, it wasn't a character, it was a premise.

What if a person could see the future in her dreams?

That question produced a character, a setting, and a whole new way of writing. By trying to answer the question, I wrote an entire novel with a plot absolutely intrinsic to the story. The result, as you may have guessed, is Project Sparkle (and yes, I am finally giving a hint as to what this mysterious book is about!).

Lots of authors talk about the magical "what if". But it didn't come naturally to me. Perhaps because I grew up on thick, epic fantasies, it's hard to think of a story in such a bare-boned way. Or maybe my mind is just a needlessly complicated place. But now that I get the "what if" concept, I see it as the starting point for so many books.

WHEN I WAS JOE by Keren David: What if a boy witnessed a knife crime and had to enter the witness protection program?

CRACKED UP TO BE by Courtney Summers: What if a perfectionist fell apart?

It's harder to make a simple question for fantasies, but still possible.

A GREAT AND TERRIBLE BEAUTY by Libba Bray: What if girl in a very regulated situation learned she could enter a magical world where anything goes?

As Project Sparkle is nearing its end, I'm beginning to think about my next project. Do I write something new? Do I go back to my ghost story Adele? Whatever I do, I know I first need to whittle it down to a single question: what if?

Do you use "what if" questions in your writing? How do you ensure all the pieces of your story (character, plot, setting) fit together?

*I wrote this post over the weekend and scheduled it for publication Monday morning. Sunday evening Twitter erupted with the news that Wesley Scroggins wrote an article in the News Leader of Springfield, Missouri suggesting schools should reconsider teaching SPEAK by Laurie Halse Anderson. He equated the two rape scenes in SPEAK with "soft pornography." Read Laurie Halse Anderson's blog post about this and what she suggests her readers do in response. You can follow all the Twitter conversation and posts about this through the tag #SpeakLoudly.

For my part, SPEAK is one of my favorite books because of the power of its message. I think it should be read and discussed so that kids can be made aware of rape, molestation, and the importance of speaking out. In fact, I taught it to my students at my previous school. I hope other schools will continue to do so.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Wild Bristol

Sometimes when I come home late in the evenings, I see a fox race across my path. I always stop and watch. I've named him Robert.

I know in the UK foxes are often seen as a nuisance, but growing up in the US, I don't believe I ever saw one in the wild until I moved here. To me, they're magical, mysterious. I've even been thinking about incorporating one into my writing.

Earlier this summer, the fox (sometimes two of them--perhaps Robert's girlfriend?) was often in our back garden at dusk. I would go to close the curtains and stand there watching. He never looks good, with a long, raggedy tail. I haven't seen him in weeks, so I worry he's finally gotten into a scramble he couldn't get out of. But I keep watching for him.

In the meantime, I've discovered a new creature. Right at dusk, bats swoop by our front window, hunting. Obviously they aren't only a British thing; my parents just had a bat infestation in their house! But I don't think I've ever seen them this close. Somehow I think bats, or at least vampires, are a little too popular in children's literature at the moment for me to write about them, though.

It's a little thing, but after years of living in Chicago, it's nice to see more of the outdoors, especially creatures I've never seen before.

Now to see if I can get some of my own photographs.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Constantine's Sword

Last night I watched the documentary "Constantine's Sword", based on the book of the same title by James Carroll. I read the book several years ago, and was quite moved by it, so when I heard a documentary had been filmed, I was eager to get my hands on the DVD. In both the book and the DVD, Carroll combines his personal search for an understanding of his Catholic faith and its traditions with a study of Christianity's relationship with Judaism throughout history.

The history mostly begins with, and focuses a fair amount on, Constantine, who was the first to use the symbol of the cross, but also the first to use martial imagery as a part of Christianity. The cross, made with the shaft of a spear, led his army to victory in Rome.

Carroll then follows this history through the crusades, where whole Jewish communities in Germany were wiped out, to the first ghettos, and through to the Holocaust. But he continues into modern times, with Bush's announcement of the War on Terror as a crusade. The documentary also tells the story of a Jewish student persecuted at the US Air Force Academy at Colorado Springs for not accepting the Christian faith (for more on this, see Wikipedia's entry on Mikey Weinstein, the student's father).

Carroll's documentary isn't just a discussion of Judaism and Christianity, but militarism and Christianity, and power and Christianity. From its humble beginnings of a crucified leader, conceived out of wedlock, Christianity has become one of the most powerful forces in the world. Carroll encourages his viewers to examine their own faith. Where has religion's power led? Where is it still leading? How should this power be used?

He interviews several Jews who watched the Nazis round up their people in Rome's ghetto, on the doorstep of the Vatican in September 1943. They all said if only the Pope had come outside, made some sort of gesture of condemnation, the whole thing might have stopped and all of those lives might have been saved.

Watching survivors, children of survivors, historians, and friends and family of those who did not survive, recount these horrible tragedies made me think of how the church's power is being used today. I thought about those churches and religious leaders who would (and have) burned the Qur'an, and those who object to a Muslim community outreach center in New York in an old Burlington Coat Factory. Where do these things lead?

I highly recommend "Constantine's Sword". Of course, the book is better than the documentary, but it's also a long slog at 768 pages. The documentary is a moving, brief overview of the same and very worthwhile. Here's the trailer:

Monday, September 13, 2010

When will it be good enough?

I've become a perfectionist about my writing.

This will amuse those of you who know me well; I'm not a perfectionist about anything else. I'm one of those people lucky and clever enough that I've been able to skate through school and career without too much effort. I worked hard at school and my various jobs, but I always had a stopping point at which I knew it was good enough. With a few painful exceptions, I was usually right.

Perhaps that's my problem now; I don't have an agent, I've never had any fiction published. So I have no sense of "good enough" in terms of my writing, except that it's never been good enough before.

I think some people around me believe I'm working too hard. In comparison to some of my classmates, I'm putting in a lot more time. But writing is what I've wanted to do since I was a little kid. I'm pursuing my dream.

So it makes sense that I'll push and push until I know Project Sparkle is absolutely right. Or at least the best that I can do in the next 17 days.

Are you a perfectionist about your writing? Other things?

Friday, September 10, 2010

Cover love

Sorry, no real post today. It's the end of a crazy, busy week of writing and life. I'm hoping to finish all my edits by the end of today and to curl up on my couch tomorrow to read through the entirety of Project Sparkle. It's a good place to be--the end is in sight!

But before I head off for the weekend, I want to share a link.

Those of you who have followed this blog regularly, probably know of my love for and fascination with cover art. I wrote a paper on it this past term and shared some of my research on the blog. So imagine my thrill when I learned of a new blog devoted solely to ya cover art: that cover girl.

It's still young, but I'm already deeply in love. Enjoy!

Have a good weekend!

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Setting as character

One of my friends who recently read Project Sparkle told me the setting in my novel is a character. That's good! I'd been hoping it was. But then she told me it needed to be emphasized a lot more.

As a reader and writer, I've heard the phrase "setting as character" numerous times. I've probably used it before. But what exactly does it mean? And how could I emphasize my setting's character?

I started by figuring out what its character was in the first place. I went through my novel and copied all of my descriptions into a new document. I read through these descriptions in order, and then wrote a paragraph describing my setting overall. I included smells and sounds, what people would be doing, how many people would be around, the look of important buildings, homes and shops. I described what a person might see there, people's character, race, and age.

By working through this process, I realized my setting could be considered a character. But it needed some work.

1. My setting needed to be consistent.

Sometimes I emphasized bad parts of the setting, sometimes good, sometimes there were no emotions involved, it was just there. I needed to figure out the key descriptors of my setting, and emphasize those repeatedly, just like I might do with a tall character or a little red-haired girl.

2. I needed to introduce my setting.

My friend was right about emphasis. Especially in the beginning of the story, I hardly mentioned my setting. Just like a character, I needed to introduce my setting. I added several paragraphs, emphasizing important details and really immersing my character in the setting.

3. My setting needed an arc.

Actually, talk about a-ha moments, my setting HAD an arc, much like a character should. Since the story takes place in a period of weeks, the setting doesn't actually change. But my character's feelings about it and what she notices about it changes. I went through my text and emphasized those changes, making sure my descriptions reflected my character's emotional arc.

4. My setting needed to be intrinsic to the plot.

Just like a major character needs to be involved in the climax of a novel, my setting was instrumental to my climax. Depending on your views of pre-destination, cause and effect, and the power of place, my setting may or may not cause the climax. But it's certainly involved.

In the end, I discovered setting as character means exactly what it says. I arranged my setting much as I might any other character in my novel.

Does your writing use setting as character? How have you approached it? What are some of your favorite setting as character novels? I blogged about a few of mine earlier this summer, though I wasn't smart enough then to realize I was talking about setting as character--one of my commenters pointed it out!

Monday, September 6, 2010

Living up to expectations

I have a secret. My tutor thinks I'm a better writer than I actually am.

This used to concern me a lot. I'd come home after workshop and tell Phil, "Julia says I skipped over an important scene. But she was sure I had a reason."

"Did you have a reason?" Phil would ask.

"Yeah," I'd say. "I'm lazy."

I worried Julia thought too highly of me and might not criticize my work.

I needn't have worried. Actually, the opposite is true. Julia is perhaps the harshest critic I've ever encountered. As she's gotten to know me better, she's become more honest, too.

"I expected more..."

"It's good, but I think you should rewrite it, make it better."

At one meeting, I remember her pulling off her reading glasses, looking at me, and saying, "Anne..." in a long, drawn-out sigh.

So I'd rewrite the passage in question. And rewrite it again, always knowing that Julia expected more.

After Julia read my draft this summer, I made a to-do list out of all of her suggestions. Anything I didn't know how to do or didn't understand I threw in a second list entitled "Ask Julia."

But a funny thing has happened in the past month. As I've worked through my to-do list, completing items, adding new ones, I've answered many of my "Ask Julia" questions. I've known what she'd say, I could imagine her pulling off her reading glasses, giving me that look. So I've pushed myself harder.

I'm meeting with Julia tomorrow. I'm expecting more criticism, more pushing. And I still have plenty of questions. But I'm also really proud of what I have to show her. I've met many of her challenges in the last draft. Things I thought I couldn't do, I've done. And in struggling to meet her expectations, I've far exceeded my own.

I've been thinking a lot lately about what will happen when the program is over at the end of September, fantasizing about snagging an agent, maybe making a career out of this. And it's occurred to me that one thing I definitely want is an agent like Julia who believes I'm a better writer than I actually am.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Bath Festival of Children's Literature

The end of September means the Bath Festival of Children's Literature. Yay!

Well... assuming I've finished my book by then. *shiver*

The Festival was founded by John and Gill McLay, and this year they are its Artistic Directors. And yes, that's the SAME John McLay who taught my publishing course. So of course I had to volunteer.

Actually, I really couldn't turn down the opportunity to hang out with kids, support children's literature, and hob nob with (or at least occupy the same room with) some big names.

I'll be there for the opening talk by Children's Laureate Anthony Browne. I'm also going to help out with talks by Andy Stanton (of MR GUM fame), Cressida Cowell (HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON), Dave McKean (the amazing illustrator of CORALINE and THE SAVAGE), Charlie Higson (YOUNG BOND), Horrid Henry (himself!), Cornelia Funke (INKHEART), Maggie Stiefvater (SHIVER) and a Peter Rabbit puppet show. Plus a few others!

Even better, some of my fellow volunteers are names themselves! I was sooo excited to see I'd be volunteering with some former Bath Spa Writing for Young People grads, like Marie-Louise Jensen (I just blogged about her audio book, BETWEEN TWO SEAS).

Oh, and I should also mention the most important talk of the whole Festival. Well, to me. Thursday, 30th September is Writing for Children and Teenagers: The Writing Process with Julia Green (my tutor!) and three recent Writing for Young People graduates (Jim Carrington, Alexandra Diaz, and C J Skuse). Course, my classmates and I will all be there biting our nails because Rosemary Canter of United Agents will also be awarding a prize for our course. So if you want to hear great work and witness social angst in action... highly recommended!

Actually, the whole festival is highly recommended. And for those of you who live nearby, do let me know if you're coming. I'd love to see you there.

Oh, and Julia Green is the Festival's Author in Residence! If you can't attend (or even if you can!) you can follow her blog here.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Weighing my words II: Anne the obscene

Monday I wrote Weighing my words I: Anne the prude about all the words I felt were inappropriate and I tried not to use (at least not casually) in my writing. Today I want to talk about the words I DO use.

Young adult books are tricky. While the teenage world is rife with sex, violence, drinking, drugs, and offensive language, books which include these things may upset parents and may not be chosen for school libraries and or classrooms, shrinking their marketability. They may be outright banned.

My tutor Julia has encouraged her students to use whatever language feels natural to us and our characters. If we're lucky enough to have our books published, editors may ask us to take out certain words. However, Julia believes that by using these words originally in our writing, our language retains the flavor of the words, even if later we have to take them out.

I've taken her at her word and haven't worried about language (beyond the words I mentioned in my last post, which I'm quite cautious about). But now that I'm revising, and combing through Project Sparkle sentence by sentence and word by word, I've realized I use f**k a lot.

Now, I should say that my main character is a very angry girl. Her life is spiraling out of control and in response she's become angry and defiant. She's an in your face, take no prisoners, passionate young woman. So she swears a lot.

Her language has become so much a part of her character that I find myself using swear words to get the beats in a sentence correct. My writing, especially my dialogue, usually has a certain cadence, a rhythm of short and long sentences. If a sentence needs an extra beat or two, I'll throw in a swear word.

But one of the items on my to-do list before I send the novel out to agents and publishers is to see how much of the language I can cut down on my own. I don't want an agent's first thought upon reading my manuscript to be, "There's a lot of editing to do." Plus, it's kind of embarrassing!

After showing what a prude I am about certain words in my previous post, it strikes me as a really funny how many f**ks I have in my young adult novel. While I know many people (including myself!) consider f**k a vulgar word, I think the difference is that it isn't offensive to a specific group of people (such as the word ghetto, which I discussed earlier). Perhaps its generality makes it feel slightly less offensive to me.

Do you swear in your novel? For those of you going through the editorial process, have you been asked to remove words or tone down scenes? Have you?