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!*