Friday, April 29, 2011

The Stylish Blogger: Me?!

Thanks to author and blogger Kelly Hashway, who awarded me the Stylish Blogger Award. Stylish! Who would’ve thought?
In addition to an acceptance speech, the Stylish Blogger Award requires a list of 7 things you might not know about me. Uhhh… well, okay, here goes!

1. I love blueberries.

2. My favorite place is Australia (I know it’s a big country, but I haven’t been lucky enough to explore it so carefully that I can narrow it down to a single area I love). The landscape is breathtaking, the wildlife so fascinating, and the people so kind. I must’ve been searched for drugs at the airport at least three different times, and each time I was happy to comply. Perhaps that’s why security kept searching my bag: clearly I was high on something.

3. I can’t wait until to own a dog again. My last dog, Connor, wasn’t young or healthy enough to make the trip with me across the Atlantic. He spent the last few years of his life gloriously cared for by my in-law, and passed away two summers ago. As I don’t think it’s fair to bring any dog across an ocean, I’m waiting until I return to the US to find another furry best friend.

4. I love the color orange. It’s weird, and it’s a fairly recent thing in my life. But it’s so bright and bold and fun. I’ve started wearing a lot of orange (see my blog pic for proof!).

Boy this is hard… do I really have to come up with seven things to say about me?

5. I can sing Head-Shoulders-Knees-and-Toes in Visayan (a Filipino language). I lived in the Philippines for a summer when I was in college, working with kids and families in rural and impoverished areas.

6. I was on the diving team (springboard diving) throughout high school and in my first year of college. I was never very good, and it was plenty scary, but it was really fun, too, doing flips and twists into the water.

7. I find baking incredibly peaceful, whether it’s kneading bread or mixing brownies. I’ve got leftover bananas on hand, so tomorrow is banana bread. Come over if you’re in the area!

Wow, that was a lot about me! So… the other part of this award is to pass it on to several other wonderful blogger friends… but I’m going to kind of cheat on this part.

I’m so grateful for Kelly, and for all you amazing readers and friends I’ve found through Critically Yours. Thank you.

However, I had another award fairly recently (here’s a link to all my awards, and all the blogger friends I’ve celebrated in the past). So instead I’d like to share links to some of my favorite blogs.

They don’t need any publicity from me, they’re plenty popular and well known, but they’re places that make me happy, or teach me, or inspire me, and I hope you might enjoy sharing them with me.

The Book Smugglers is the most thoughtful book review blog I’ve found. I’m so appreciative for Ana and Thea for all their honest reviews, and their willingness to tackle issues like homophobia, racism, and misogyny in books.

Rachelle Gardner: Rants and Ramblings on Life as a Literary Agent

Rachelle mentions rants in her title, but I can't remember her ever ranting. Not only have I found her blog full of of useful information about the publishing business, just as importantly, she never comes across as tired or frustrated with writers, but inspiring and encouraging, and she’s made her blog into such a safe place.

Laini Taylor

A friend got me hooked on author Laini Taylor's blog. Laini doesn’t post about her writing much (though those posts are always informative and encouraging!). Her blogging passion is pictures, and whether pictures of her travels, her adorable little girl, interior design, or her latest find in an eclectic Portland store, her blog always has lots of pretty.

What are some of your favorite places on the web?

*As some of you may have seen me bewailing on Twitter, due to work on my front yard my home’s broadband cable was snapped in half on Wednesday (clearly this is Fate playing with me after I bragged about how much I was getting done when I turned off my internet!). I won’t have regular access online for some time. I’m trying to keep on top of things as much as I can, but I apologize for all your lovely emails and blog comments that are going unanswered.

Also, I am going to be away from my blog next week. I had planned to share some favorite old posts, but at this point, I might just let it be. Hopefully I’ll be back, in force in mid May. Until then, I’ll be missing you! *

*Pictures are all mine, Connor, and me feeding the surprisingly pushy rock wallabies in Queensland, Australia*

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Digging deep

At a particularly difficult point while working on Project Sparkle, my tutor asked me, "Why is this story important to you?" I stumbled over my answer. I didn't know where to begin. So many parts were connected to me, my life, who I am, what's important to me. "Good," Julia said. "That's what I wanted to know."

I was reminded of that exchange this weekend, when I finished Sara Zarr's Story of a Girl. Zarr's writing is raw and emotional. At times I found myself getting teary eyed, not even necessarily because of what was happening in the story, but because I got the main character, and found myself remembering what it's like to be a lonely teenage girl. Even though my childhood was different from hers, while reading I understood her and walked in her shoes. And cried for her.

When I returned to work on Project Demo, all these thoughts were still spinning through my head. Did Project Demo have that kind of emotional resonance? Could it? So instead of diving into my revisions, I took some time to again answer Julia's question, why is this story important to me?

I wrote about the first inspirations for Project Demo, the reasons the story scared me, unsettled me, intrigued me. I kept writing, pouring all my thoughts onto the page. And when I finished, I was ready to go back to work on Project Demo, and to dig as deeply as possible to get at some of the raw truths and characters I want to write about.

I've heard authors say that when they get stuck they return to their original inspiration. But even when we're not stuck, returning to that original inspiration can keep us true to the emotional resonance of the story we want to tell.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Am I right? Or just opionated?

You may have heard HBO has a new series based on A Game of Thrones, the first novel in George R. R. Martin's fantasy series. Lots of the bloggers and Twitterers I follow are thrilled with the news.

I'm not. It's one of a string of books made into movies recently that I didn't like and now can't avoid. I'm such a curmudgeon.

I read A Game of Thrones years ago. It was on a camping trip, and I didn't have another book with me, so my husband (then boyfriend) listened to me complain about it for days. I wasn't interested in any of the characters, and parts felt like a middle-aged man's sex fantasy. I honestly don't even remember if I finished the book.

My friend who had recommended it was horrified (as will be many of you, I'm sure. Sorry!). For years since she's been telling me it's the best fantasy series ever and I have to give it another try. Most everyone seems to agree with her. It has almost 29,000 reviews on Goodreads and an average review of 4.42 stars (out of 5).

Perhaps my expectations were too high when I started it (hype can certainly ruin a book). Perhaps I wasn't in the right mindset. I know I can misjudge books (I struggled with the beginning of Little Women the first time I read it). This blog isn't called Critically Yours for nothing!

But with so many other good books out there waiting to be discovered, I can't muster up the energy to re-read Martin. Instead, I'm inclined to believe it's just not an Anne book.

Do you ever give books a second chance? Have you ever changed your mind?

Friday, April 22, 2011

Out of ideas?

I have days where blog ideas are popping up everywhere. It's like walking through an orchard, picking fruit. I could write about this one, or that one, or that one. Last year hubby got me a notepad for the shower (Aqua Notes FTW!) and some mornings it's filled with blog ideas.

Other days (like today) I dread a blog day because I have absolutely nothing to write.

I could skip a day... but I hate to skip days when I could write, have time, and my regular readers (thank you regular readers!) expect a post.

Sure, I always have something to say... I've had a good rant going on in my head lately about people who don't understand capitalization, but that might come across a little harsh. I could talk about all the craziness going on in my real life, except I don't like to talk much about personal stuff on the blog, nor get overly whiny. So... what's left? What do you blog about when you don't have anything to blog about?

Some bloggers post link round-ups. I did read some GREAT posts this past week about following your writing dreams, people who squish those dreams, and plan Bs (so you can buy food and shoes):

Here's Karen at Musings of a Novelista on Plan B's

Here's Sarah Ockler at The Contemps on Dream Squishers, Backup Plans, and Other Things That Ruin Your Life

Isn't it fascinating how sometimes blogs seem to be having a conversation with each other even when each came to their idea independently? Actually, authors do that, too. Sure, there are imitators, but a lot of vampire and werewolf books these past few years sprang up at exactly the same time. That would be an interesting blog post, too.

Or bloggers (or at least those of the writerly/booky persuasion) babble about books. I do that a fair amount. By the way, a shout out to Mary and Girl Friday: I finished Regeneration by Pat Barker (your recommendation) yesterday and was blown away! Really didn't think it was my type of thing, but it was amazing.

Also, last night I started my first Sara Zarr book, Story of A Girl. Wow. What a beginning! I kept going back and rereading it because it was so perfectly written.

Or bloggers start out thinking they don't have anything to say and end up writing a whole post anyway. How embarrassing.

What do you do when you don't have anything to blog about?

And while I'm writing about being out of ideas... anything you'd like me to blog about?

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Breaking my routine, cheating myself

I should start this post by saying that I'm completely and whole-heartedly a morning person. I wake up early, wide awake, usually in a good mood and ready to start my day. Obviously everyone's not like that (I'm married to a night owl!), but I want to talk about what works for me.

When I first moved to the UK, my job didn't start until 9. After years of teaching (and years of early starts), it was luxurious. So I used my extra time in the morning to write.

I'm not working anymore, but I've continued the same routine. Every morning, first thing, I write for an hour. I always do my best and most creative work then; when I'm completely stuck on something I'll even save it for the next morning.

After my hour is up, I'll have breakfast, get dressed, and spend some time checking the news, email, Twitter, etc, before I go back to work for a few more hours.

Except lately my routine hasn't been quite like that. Life's been busy, and I've been waiting on a lot of things, so I've been letting myself check my email before I start writing.

I kept telling myself it was okay. I was impatient, I couldn't focus on my writing until I checked.

Except I wasn't focusing on my writing after I checked email, either. If a message was important, I'd respond right away, and that took time. But sometimes even messages that weren't important would get stuck in my head. Good things, bad things, sad things, all jumbled up, stressing me out, taking away from my best time for writing.

And of course, once I gave myself permission to check email, I started checking Twitter and blog stats, too. And anytime there was a pause in my writing I would check again.

I was getting less and less done in the morning.

So finally this past week I told myself enough. The rule is that I can turn on the internet only after I've written for an hour.

Strangely, I've gotten a LOT done the past few days.

What's your writing routine? What distracts you from it?

*The picture is mine; sunset (unfortunately not a sunrise!) in Cairns, Australia

Monday, April 18, 2011

Why join SCBWI?

In response to my recent post about British SCBWI's Undiscovered Voices 2012, Girl Friday asked me: "I'm not a member of SCBWI yet - what are some other [besides UV!] good reasons for joining?"

I've heard this question, and a multitude of answers, discussed frequently. The Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) is the most well-known, and international organization for children's authors and illustrators. On a basic level, membership shows a commitment to writing and/or illustrating (ie, it's a good thing to put in query letters!), and a commitment to the profession. But at $85 (approximately £52) for your first year, and $7o (£43) for each following year, it's not cheap.

I didn't belong to SCBWI when I lived in Chicago. For some reason the city didn't have an active group with regular events (maybe that's changed since?). I attended one event in the western suburbs (over an hour-long drive) and found it wasn't geared towards my interests or needs.

But when I moved to the UK, I found British SCBWI to be a new, and somewhat small, but thriving group. I joined and haven't looked back. Winning a place in Undiscovered Voices 2010 alone makes it all worth it. But I've found SCBWI has a lot else to offer.

SCBWI offers numerous prestigious grants and awards (like the $2000 Work-in-Progress grants). However, Undiscovered Voices is a British SCBWI thing only (sorry Americans!), and British SCBWI also offers several other, smaller competitions, including regular Slushpile Challenges that are judged by different agents and editors. As opposed to the major SCBWI grants, these competitions have a much smaller pool to draw from. The competitions are also a great (and free!) way to get attention from British publishers and agencies.

British SCBWI also offers a number of events hosted by publishers, agents, and published writers. These can be opportunities to meet publishers and agents, but also chances to learn about the market and improving your craft. The majority of the events are held in the evening in London (not so good for us non-Londoners), but there's also an annual conference, a retreat, sketch crawls (like pub crawls, except with drawing!), and several other opportunities such as regional and online critique groups.

SCBWI has a mailed bulletin, British SCBWI has an online journal, and besides being informative and practical, they offer another market for writers and illustrators to try for (I published my first article ever for British SCBWI's journal). Plus the SCBWI magazine compensates writers and illustrators with a free year's membership!

One of the most exciting things about British SCBWI, in my opinion, is that it's still growing. So if you want to start your own critique group, or organize an event, or become actively involved in your region, there's probably room. British SCBWI also has an active Ning with several discussion groups and an email list for people to post good news, questions, and information.

Obviously my experience is only with British SCBWI, but for anyone considering joining SCBWI, the best thing is to do some research on SCBWI in your area, see if there are events and opportunities you would be interested in, and an active local group. To me, it's been an ideal way to make connections in the industry, improve my craft, and find support from others with the same interests.

Find out more about British SCBWI, and what they have to offer, here.

And I do love this video Candy Gourlay (author of Tall Story, and another previous Undiscovered Voices winner!) put together to celebrate the members of British SCBWI:

For those of you who are also members of SCBWI, what has it offered you?

Friday, April 15, 2011

Update on Project Demo: Operation 50/50 Part II

Today is the last day of Operation 50/50, Karen at Musings of a Novelista's scheme to write 50 scenes in 50 days.

I haven't been a dedicated participant, after taking a week and a half off to go sightseeing around England. However, I've since started back up, and have continued to be thrilled with my progress, day by day, scene by scene.

I'm now on my third go through Project Demo. It still feels rough, but the plot is finally consistent, the characters mostly keep the same names throughout. Yesterday I figured out a major detail that had been eluding me, so I'll start working that in. I'm almost at the stage where I need to stop working linearly and start attacking bits and pieces: character arcs, back story, setting details, the beginning. How I hate beginnings!

Lately, I've been thinking that writing is a bit like playing an instrument. When my orchestra is in season, I practice most days. But I don't play pieces the whole way though, or favorite songs; rather, I slog through the hard bits, playing the same lines over and over. I'm hardly blown away by my talent, or inspired by the music; it's just about learning each note and playing it as well as I can.

And that's what I've liked so much about Operation 50/50. It isn't about creating exquisite writing, but about plowing through, adding words, and working towards the target of finishing a book. And every day I've had the same goal: just write (or revise) one scene.

So I'm going to keep at it for a bit longer. If I really wanted to be scientific about it, I'd count the days I missed and set a new due date... but for now I think I'll just keep going, at least as long as I'm thinking in scenes. Thank you, Karen, for the inspiration!

What about the rest of you? How are your writing projects going?

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

What story is your story?

On Monday, author Anna Staniszewski blogged about "What Story Are You Meant To Tell?" She's always been fascinated by space travel, and has finally figured out how to tell the type of story she wants. She feels it's her story to tell; as she said, "the story is one I would have liked to read when I was young."

I'm thrilled for her, yet I've always found such advice worrying. When I was young, I loved fantasy, and read just about every fantasy novel I could get my hands on. But fantasy is very difficult for me to write; my world-building often becomes immensely complex and confusing, my magic inconsistent. My stories work much better when I'm on firm, real ground.

But am I telling the types of stories I would've wanted to read as a child? That I'm meant to tell?

Lately I've been cleaning out my bookshelf, dividing books into must-keeps, maybes, and give-aways. The must-keeps have been separated onto their own shelf, and have provided a clue about the type of stories I like to read: Adult mysteries, Victorian novels, writing guides, MG cancer stories, YA inner-city violence, fantasy, historical fiction, contemporary mean girls...

In other words, I like a lot of things. And as I've been thinking back over my childhood, I've realized I was the same back then. Even though I read a lot of fantasy, I treasured Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh, Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card, and the Ramona books by Beverly Cleary.

So maybe there isn't one type of story I'm meant to tell, but rather certain characteristics that I love in stories: characters I can relate to, settings that transport me to another place and time, stories that make me laugh, cry, and think. And those types of stories I can write.

And that's what makes an author's career, too, isn't it? If I'm lucky enough to become published, I want to write as much as I can, and tell all sorts of stories.
Maybe, like Anna with her space travel story, someday I'll even figure out how to write a fantasy novel.

Thanks, Anna, and the commenters on her post, for helping me to find perspective on this!

Monday, April 11, 2011

Finding darkness in beauty

We've had several warm, sunny days in Bristol lately. Not only has it been great to get outside, I think my writing, or at least my work ethic, has been better for it, too.

A few weeks ago I wrote about inspiration, finding beauty in art, music, and architecture, and how important it is to feed our souls. So when a writing friend sent me this video, of writers Holly Black (author of White Cat, which I loved), and Cassandra Clare talking about their writing retreat in Mexico, I totally got it.

But this quote from Clare really caught my attention: "I've gotten about half, maybe more of 'City of Lost Souls' done here... It's funny, because it's a really dark book. It's got a lot of darkness, a certain amount of existential angst, and meanwhile I'm writing in these extremely beautiful surroundings, surrounded by all these flowers!"

I had been struggling with Project Demo, my own dark book. Especially with life being a little crazy lately, it's been hard to keep going back to it, and to keep pushing deeper and farther into such despairing places.

But Clare's experiences mirror my own. While I'm not nearly lucky enough to be writing from a retreat in Mexico surrounded by flowers, even just getting some sunshine in plain old Bristol has been so welcome.

Those of you who follow this blog have heard me moan before about how dark my writing often becomes. But I feel I've uncovered a little secret from Black and Clare's experiences. If I take care of myself, and feed my soul, the writing (however dark) will follow.

*The photo is mine from Bristol's annual International Balloon Fiesta*

Friday, April 8, 2011

Holding a novel in your head

One of my biggest struggles as a writer is my inability to reflect on my entire novel at once.

I want a big picture view, so I can decide what genre to classify it as, or how best to pitch it. I want to know what parts are slow, what parts are too fast, and whether my main character is likable.

Instead, I find the novel in my mind is like a jpg that's too big for my computer screen, so I need to scroll sideways and up and down to see the whole picture, mentally switching from character to character, chapter to chapter.

Maybe I should write short stories! Does anyone else have this problem?

Perhaps it's because I'm a visual thinker; I use mind maps, plot charts, images of my characters. So I really wish I could draw a picture of my novel. Then, if I stared at it really closely, I could see all the characters, all the plot points, how everything flows together, the resolution at the end. But there's just no piece of paper big enough.

However, over time I have found some ways of getting close to what I want:

My tutor, author Julia Green, requires all of her students to write a page-long synopsis of their books. Describing an entire novel's plot and characters in such a brief format enables a writer to see where the book's logic might fall apart or questions go unanswered.

I can hold sections of a novel in my brain, so I've taken to dividing my novels into different chunks based on characters' journeys and plot points. Then, when I hold and analyze each section in my head, I can better understand how the whole might work.

Darcy Pattison, in her book Novel Metamorphosis: Uncommon Ways to Revise advocates the Shrunken Manuscript. She has more details on her website, but basically she recommends literally shrinking your manuscript (single space, no chapter breaks, a tiny font) so you can print it and visually consider the entire thing at once (Do all the weak scenes fall in a row? Are any parts description heavy? Unusually long? Equal time for characters?).

How do you analyze your novel as a whole?

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

So you want to sell a novel?

Last night was the launch for Undiscovered Voices 2012.


Really, I can't say Undiscovered Voices without adding a "Yay!" directly afterwards.

For those of you who don't know, Undiscovered Voices is a British SCBWI anthology of previously unagented and unpublished writers. It has been published twice previously (2008 & 2010) and currently 13 out of 24 of its featured writers have since been discovered, and are published or contracted to be published.

Oh, and yeah, I was in the 2010 anthology. Still waiting for my discovery!

But the experience was life-changing. I would encourage ANYONE living in the UK to consider submitting for this year's competition. You have to join SCBWI to participate, but it's worth it (honestly, SCBWI in itself is worth it!). More details here.

The judging panel includes three agents, three editors, and, new for UV 2012, a bookseller and literary scout. Last night at the launch the panel answered questions about the industry, trends, some of their favorite childhood reads, and what specifically they're looking for.

As my fellow UV 2010 winner Nick Cross joked with me, the evening was entirely stress free. We've already won!

But as someone fascinated by the world of publishing and books, it was such an informative evening. I had a truly insightful conversation with Amber Caraveo, Editorial Director at Orion Children's Books, about what makes a great beginning for quieter, or more character-oriented books (thanks to Benjamin Scott for asking such a brilliant, craft-oriented question, and Amber for really answering it!). The bookseller for Foyles, Jo Anne Cocadiz, admitted that a cover can break a book for her. And when the judging panel each listed their favorite book from childhood, there was so much overlap! Lots of mentions of Enid Blyton, but also Goodnight Mister Tom and Tom's Midnight Garden. They also had to each describe a book they had recently acquired and why--so many beautiful books that aren't available yet and already I can't wait to read them!

But for me, the most interesting part of the evening was what the judging panel said they were looking for. It's a bit frustrating, because as a writer you write what's inside you, not what anyone's looking for. And those submitting have probably already begun working on whatever they'll submit. But if you did want to sell a novel, and were just starting out or searching for a new project, they gave some great hints.*
  • Write younger! The judges said 1 out of every 2 submissions they see is YA. Early readers or novels for 9-12 year-olds stand a much better chance and are in higher demand.
  • They want more adventure and survival stories.
  • Humor is a huge plus
  • No traditional fantasy. As a reader, this made my heart sink a little, but when the panel actually defined traditional fantasy, I realized they're happy to look at unique fantasy. They just don't want Tolkien-rehashes, populated with wizards, dwarfs, and quests.
  • A unique premise or hook will help you stand out, especially if you're writing something in a heavily populated genre, like paranormal romance or dystopian.
  • Plot isn't everything. They're willing to work with a writer on plot problems if the writing and characters are good.
Now if only I were sitting on a fully-polished, character-driven adventure story for 9-12 year-olds! But when someone asked about realistic contemporary, every single judge started nodding! Phew!

Thanks to Sara Grant, Sara O'Connor, and everyone else at the event last night. I'm sorry I had to dash out so quickly afterwards to catch my train!

For further information about Undiscovered Voices 2012 (really, ENTER!), check out their website, and follow them on Twitter and Facebook. Good luck!

*Liz De Jager has posted an excellent, and much more thorough, recap of the event, including what specific editors and agents said what!

Monday, April 4, 2011

Believing in story

I've been thinking about stories lately. Often adults will dismiss stories as kids' stuff, Santa Claus, monsters under the bed, fairy tale princesses.

But even though most of us have outgrown monsters and princesses, we still believe in stories, even think in stories. I expect they're inherent in the human condition, our best way of processing our world.

Scientists are encouraged to tell the "story of their research" in their papers and presentations. Historians, journalists, and biographers shape real life into an accessible story. And most of us use stories to frame our lives into tales of hope, overcoming the odds, or destiny. Couples wonder if their boyfriend/girlfriend is "The One," or if after their marriage they'll live Happily Ever After. In the writing world, Chuck Sambuchino, for his blog Guide to Literary Agents, has a regular series of "How I Got My Agent" stories. We want to believe nothing is random, but all part of a larger story, with an understandable plot, leading towards something greater.

When I started searching for an agent, I shared my joy at finishing my novel, and vague details about my submission process. Partly I hoped I was chronicling a story with a happy ending that I could share weeks, if not months, later. I might still be doing just that.

But sometimes life doesn't work out like a story. We spend all our time waiting for our knight in shining armor, or our out-of-the-blue agent call, but nothing happens. Or everything happens when we least expect it. Or our knight in shining armor shows up, but the fact of the matter is that he's a turkey. So we start waiting again. And the in-between times, when life isn't like a story, and happy endings seem in short supply, can be all the more difficult. Sometimes it's easier not to believe in stories at all.

But of course, I'm a writer. I can't escape story! And stories give us hope, something to keep striving for, ideals, and heroes.

How do you deal with the non-story parts of your life, the waiting, the worrying, and the disappointment?