Tuesday, December 18, 2012

A holiday and lurgy hiatus

For many years on this blog, the last week of posts has included my yearly writing stats (how many books I read, what genres, how many poc authors / main characters, etc) and my favorite books of the year.

I've always vaguely fretted that the stats aren't entirely accurate--after all, I usually have some free time over the holidays, and do a fair amount of reading. Well, this year that weird hang-up will be assuaged, because I'm not going to tackle these posts until January. Unfortunately, I've come down with the dreaded lurgy, and when I'm not blowing my nose, I'm hacking up a lung. I'm hoping if I burrow in bed for the next week and catch up on my reading and Downton Abbey watching, I'll be feeling much better by the time Christmas rolls around and I'm expected to engage with friends and family.

In the meantime, you can whet your appetite for my January post by checking out my reading stats for 2010 and 2011, and my favorite book posts from 2009, 2010, and 2011.

Here's hoping you're feeling much better than me. And a blessed holiday season to you and yours.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Where are the books for 13-year-olds?

Hélène Boudreau's Real Mermaids Don't Wear Toe Rings opens with a girl turning into a mermaid--it's the culmination of a really terrible day. Jade takes the readers back through everything: trying on swimsuits with her best friend, desperately trying to find one that hides her muffin top. Then she gets her first period--yes, ruining the store's swimsuit. She discovers she doesn't have any money on her, so she has to call her dad to come to the pharmacy with her and buy feminine products. And while her dad is price comparing tampons on his Blackberry, of course her crush appears. I couldn't stop laughing. It brought back so many embarrassing pre-teen memories!

But once I wiped the tears of laughter away, and promptly bought the whole book for my Nook, it struck me: what's the last book I read about a girl getting her period?

I couldn't think of anything except Judy Blume's Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret. And yeah, that was published in 1970.

I'm sure there are others. I've probably read a few and forgotten them. But I think it's awfully striking that I read a hundred plus books a year, most of them for children, and I can't think of a single other title.

I suspect much of the blame for this rests with the publishing industry. For those of you who don't know, the American children's book market has two categories that stretch this age range: middle grade, which is books for 9-12 year-olds, and young adult, which is typically defined as 12 and up. Since children usually read about kids slightly older than themselves, kids in upper elementary school are reading middle grade novels (think Percy Jackson, the early Harry Potter books, books about 10, 11, and 12 year-olds). Kids in middle school are frequently already reading young adult books (where the protagonist is at least 15). What's left out? No one's reading books about 13 and 14 year-olds.

I know that sounds like a really minor complaint, but a lot happens when girls are between the ages of 12 and 14. I was lucky enough to grow up with authors like Judy Blume and Paula Danziger, and I read books about girls getting bullied because they were fat, or waiting to see how large their breasts would be. I don't think today's generation has anything like that--even Boudreau's book is mostly about a girl becoming a mermaid.

It's strange. The publishing industry prides itself on being progressive, open to edgy content, swearing, sex. But where's the frank, non-metaphorical discussions about what it means to be 13? And even if such a book did it exist, would it find a home in the market? I've been mulling these questions over lately. Maybe it's not just the publishing industry that's to blame. Maybe after all this time we're still hesitant to talk about the way the female body works. I know I don't have anything on my hard drive resembling these types of books. I'm more of a mermaid author myself. But my subconscious won't let this go. Or maybe it's that I used to be a 7th grade teacher, and I think about my former students, and all their worries and fears. Or my own 7th grade self. Maybe it's my conscience that won't let this go.

I subbed in a 5th grade classroom yesterday. Do you want to know what all the kids were reading? Suzanne Collins' Hunger Games and Stephenie Meyer's Twilight. Really. Doesn't that make you feel a little queasy inside?

Have you noticed this dearth of books? What do you think the cause might be? Have you written one yourself?

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Crafting the perfect beginning

I hate writing beginnings.

The current opening of Project Fun is too slow and expository. I've thought about ditching it entirely and starting with chapter 2. Or possibly ditching the first several chapters and opening when the action really starts, in chapter 9. But one of my beta readers takes the cake. She thought chapter 17 (almost halfway through the book) could be crafted into a really good beginning. I don't think she intends for me to delete chapters 1-16. I hope.

Anyway, I've been thinking about beginnings a lot, so I was quite struck with an interview on NPR's Fresh Aire with Robert Zemeckis, the director of the movie Flight, which is currently showing in theaters.

Flight opens with a drug-addicted, alcoholic pilot (Denzel Washington). His plane experiences a mechanical malfunction which sends it plummeting from the sky. The pilot's daring maneuver and landing saves almost the entire flight--though three passengers are killed.

I heard the interview almost two weeks ago, but I've been unable to get that beginning out of my head. It seems to hit every beat perfectly.

Firstly: action. I'm sure the audience is gripped watching this plane careening out of control, wondering what's going to happen, if the pilot is going to be able to do anything. The stakes could not be any higher.

But even more impressively, Zemeckis' beginning manages to combine action with character development. The audience knows the pilot's weakness and problem. Potentially the pilot might come across as a despicable character, risking the lives of his passengers. But in those opening scenes, the audience is already rooting for him, praying he'll be able to land that plane.

Plus, the beginning sets up the entire rest of the movie. Of course, the pilot will be lauded as a hero, thrust into the spotlight: a worst-case scenario for a man trying to keep his addiction a secret. And the mechanical malfunction and passenger deaths will need to be investigated. Will the pilot rise to the occasion and save himself? Or fall apart under the press and law's scrutiny?

See, I could write the teaser myself! Course, I haven't actually seen the movie. I don't think it's doing that well, and I've heard rumblings that it isn't very good. Perhaps because the entire premise is based around the opening scene? Regardless, I refuse to judge.

The beginning has been an inspiration to me as I tackle Project Fun's opening. What inspiration have you found in crafting beginnings?

Oh, and perhaps now that I've intrigued you, here's the teaser for Flight:

Thursday, December 6, 2012

You know it's time to get feedback on a manuscript when...

1. You think your book is perfect and ready to send out on submission.

2. Your book is like the opposite of perfect: a steaming dung-heap of inane words and trite phrases.

3. If you don't hear something nice about your writing soon, you might stab your eye out with a pen.

Seriously, how do you know?

I've been thinking about this a lot lately. Because I've moved a fair amount in my writing career, I've been in and out of all different types of critique groups. They've all been incredibly useful (except for one, which I quickly abandoned!). It's so hard to see writing with clear eyes, especially when you've spent months (or even years!) on it. And sometimes I really just want a pat on the back, and someone to tell me my story is good--that can be enough of a boost to last for for several weeks.

But I've also found even the wisest and best-intentioned advice can turn my mind into a complete muddle. If my story's plot, setting, world-building, and characters aren't yet solid, advice can take me down a totally different path than my creative mind had intended. And while being open to limitless possibilities might sound like a good thing, I have to stay true to my vision--after all, it's the only vision I have!

So lately I've become much more stingy with my writing. As I'm developing an idea, I try to keep my mouth tightly sealed with my dearest writing friends, even with my husband. As the writing progresses, I'll sometimes share individual chapters with critique groups, and welcome feedback on a scene's pacing, tension, and character development. But while one of my most trusted readers has been bugging me for months about getting a peak at the whole of Project Fun, I only sent it to her last week, when I knew I had a complete, coherent draft I fully believed in. And yet I still worry I sent it out too early!

Maybe I should've waited until I truly thought the manuscript was perfect, until I couldn't imagine anything else I could fix. But then it might be too late for me to take any advice on board; even small things like scenes and dialogue might become so set in stone that they're impossible to change.

Feedback is always a balancing act. Over time, I've learned to trust my process and vision more--but of course that doesn't mean I'm always right! When do you look for feedback on your writing?

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Giving myself a break

Last Friday afternoon, I finished re-reading the current draft of Project Fun, and deemed it "done" right on schedule. Of course, it's a hollow announcement: I know some of my secondary characters need more fleshing out, the beginning is slow, chapter five is a wordy, backstory-ridden mess. But in the past few months I had tackled what I set out to do. I had made Project Fun a coherent story, from beginning to end. While the rest of the work is totally necessary, the hard work, the story development, is mostly done. What a relief!

Saturday morning I sent the novel out to a handful of beta readers. I celebrated with a rare glass of wine at dinner, a chat with my Chicago writing group, and a very lazy weekend. Oh, and my Chicago group told me the chapter I submitted totally worked--a complete surprise to me and icing on the cake!

So now what? I decided a while back that when I finished this draft of Project Fun, I would set it aside for a few weeks. Partly, after all this work, I need to take care of myself. I need to prevent burn-out, keep myself healthy, and remember how much joy I find in the writing. Plus, taking some time away from a piece of work allows me to see it with fresh eyes. The words aren't memorized, every plot twist isn't obvious, and I can look with a more critical gaze on bits I had previously loved.

I've been dreaming of this free time, jotting down notes about what I might do, movies I missed, books I want to read. It's like my body knows my creative well needs to be re-filled. I also have a list of other story ideas, sometimes even single lines, that I want to play with and see where they take me. A slightly bigger project: a few weeks ago I inherited my grandmother's sewing machine. For a long time (in part due to my Project Runway addiction), I've been wanting to learn to sew. After some instruction from my mom, and a collection of recommended books from a friend, I'm looking forward to some time to learn and see what I can create.

So how come, when I got up Sunday morning, all I could think was how much I wanted to work on Project Fun? I guess it's partly habit. For months, I've thought of little else each morning. My brain hasn't yet figured out how to turn that off. But it's more than that. I know there are still problems with Project Fun, and I truly love the story and want it to be perfect. And even worse, I love writing. Even when I need a break, I'm not sure how to live a life without daily writing. Hence the blog on a Tuesday!

But I think it's worth trying to stay away. I think it's worth giving my creative self some space. I hope.

Thursday I'll be back again, blogging about how one knows (or doesn't!) when it's time to let other people see your manuscript.

Until then, do you give yourself breaks from writing? What do you do with the sudden free time? Does it drive you nuts, too?

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Why I hate the phrase "show vs. tell"

Well, Thanksgiving is long over, yet somehow it's still not December, and Christmas is only a distant glimmer on the horizon. So it seems a good time as any to unleash my curmudgeonly side (note: you've been warned!).

I really truly hate it when people invoke "show vs. tell" to justify why a line or a scene should be dramatized rather than merely explained. It's like nails on a chalkboard. Especially, of course, when it's being used to critique my own work!

But I don't think my hatred is all due to pride. I don't have the same reaction to, say, "character development," or "rising tension." No, I think it's because "show vs. tell" is such a trite phrase, in my opinion often meaningless and over-used. In reality, a writer's decision to "show" or "tell" can be meaty and complex, and "show" should not always win out.

Firstly, I think "showing" is often a quick path to cliché writing. How many ways are there to say that my character's heart is racing? And if I instead turn to my thesaurus and say her heart is pounding, or thumping, or galloping out of her chest like a doped thoroughbred, does that make it any less cliché?

Also, a wise editor once taught me that sometimes "telling", at the end of a long, descriptive paragraph, can be an emotional confirmation for a reader, even a perfect kick in the stomach. Take this example from Harry Potter (underlining mine!): "Harry, Ron, and Hermione sniffed interestedly as they passed large, bubbling cauldrons. . . . They chose the [table] nearest a gold-colored cauldron that was emitting one of the most seductive scents Harry had ever inhaled: Somehow it reminded him simultaneously of treacle tart, the woody smell of a broomstick handle, and something flowery he thought he might have smelled at the Burrow. A great contentment stole over him; he grinned across at Ron, who grinned back lazily." Beautiful description, huh? But I think it's the telling in the last sentence that solidifies it all in my mind.

Plus, sometimes, the line between "showing" and "telling" is quite blurred. Take this scene from Please Excuse Vera Dietz, a contemporary YA novel by A. S. King (and one of my favorite reads of the year thus far!):

(warning, one curse word and a pretty insignificant spoiler)

"So, I kiss him and it feels really nice, and I really don't care that James is twenty-three, or a college dropout, or that he smokes. I wonder if this is step two on the baby-steps-to-loserdom trip I seem to be taking tonight, but I simultaneously don't care. I'm eighteen years old and I've never had a real boyfriend. I've never got past first base or gone to the prom or got detention for PDA. All this time I thought that if I avoided all the slutty shit my mother must have done, I would be a good person. I'd be safe. I'd be better than her. But while James is kissing me and holding the back of my head with his strong fingers entwined in my hair, I realize I don't really care about my mother and how she became a shallow loser capable of leaving her husband and kid. I realize that this feels nice and I really want to keep doing it."

Other than the description of James holding her, it's a lot of "telling". So why does this passage kick me in the gut? I think it's because it's so sad; I realized here all Vera had been missing out on, how much she'd been holding herself back and never allowing herself to live, all because she was dealing with the repercussions of her mother's disappearance, and her fear of making some of the same mistakes. And here's where "showing vs. telling" gets confusing. Is King "telling" me Vera's history, or using Vera's history and word choice to "show" me how confused Vera is?

This really gets at the heart of why I think "showing vs. telling" is over-used and meaningless. The best writing is a combination of both. It's using language in whatever unique way is necessary to create gut-wrenching scenes and sympathetic characters. So sure, sometimes even I need a reminder that I should draw a scene out more, "show" what's going on inside a character's head, heart, and lower intestines. But I do wish writer-dom would get over the phrase!

In other writerly, end of November news, my revision is near complete. Yay! It's about to go out to a small group of readers--and on the off chance any of them are reading this, feel free to remind me about "show vs. tell." I'm sure you're right.

How do you feel about the phrase "show vs. tell"? Is there any other writing advice that sets your teeth on edge?

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Giving thanks once again

I've never been a very patriotic person. It's mostly a personality thing. I've always been suspicious of jingoism, empty platitudes, and flag-waving, no matter the cause. So who would've thought five years abroad would make me more patriotic than ever before?

Living in the UK, I discovered that I am through and through American: Of course, I have a loud, nasally voice. I also have no compunction about asking questions. I'm ridiculously polite and chatty with perfect strangers. And I have an undeniable rebellious streak. Oh, and I love Thanksgiving.

Phil and I celebrated our first Thanksgiving in the UK only about a month after we moved there. We wanted to thank everyone who had helped us with the move, and adjusting to a new country, and Thanksgiving seemed the perfect excuse for a feast and a party. Over the years, the tradition continued. We met more people, friends, colleagues, neighbors, and our guest list grew. Some years we had over twenty people squashed in our apartment, writers brushing shoulders with scientists, musicians chatting with teachers. I never tired of inviting people, listening to them reply excitedly: "I've never been to a Thanksgiving before!"

Of course, ours wasn't exactly a traditional Thanksgiving... or maybe it was truly traditional, more in the pilgrim sense than the modern American sense. People brought what they were used to at parties, bags of chips (crisps), boxes of Pocky Sticks, chocolates, beer, wine. But people also brought their own traditions, tempura, macarons, Anglo Saxon frumenty, Yorkshire pudding, and apple strudel.

So as much as I'm currently missing my Bristol friends, I'm very pleased to share that the tradition is continuing this year. The guest list is considerably smaller: we know fewer people, plus most people already have family obligations. But it will be a collection of old friends and new, and a range of traditional (though definitely more American) food. Plus I'm cooking a turkey for the first time.

More than ever, it reminds me how thankful I am for Thanksgiving: for time to celebrate old friendships and start new friendships, to break bread together, and escape the mess of the world for a few hours. A tradition I'm crazy proud of.

How do you celebrate Thanksgiving?

Oh, and before I forget, HAPPY THANKSGIVING to all my readers!

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Walking a novel: An update

Back in August, in the early days of adjusting to my new life in Massachusetts, I mentioned that there was an extensive trail system right near my house. I decided to squeeze a daily walk into my schedule, both to get some much-needed exercise, but also to add some thinking time into my writing life.

Well, it's mid-November now. Some days (like today) it's raining. Or other days, it's cold, or I'm exhausted, or I'm running out of time. Some days I don't make it out. But most days I've kept walking. And I have noticed some positive changes in my writing routine.

I used to be a big time pacer while working. I also did a lot of laundry as I tried to sort out my writing problems. But lately I've gotten into the habit of jotting down all my questions and worries and taking them with me on my walk. And by the time I get home, I almost always have an answer. Sometimes the answer takes three days and several walks to develop. But I've definitely spent less time staring at my screen these past few months.

I also love being out in nature every day. I check up on the Canada Geese, the turtles, the ducks. Every so often I'll see herons or hawks. I've always been a woodsy person, and I feel most myself when I'm outdoors. And it's helped the writing, too. I'm giving myself time to think, so instead of settling for the easiest answers, I hope I'm finding the right answers.

Of course, I've been doing less writing overall. Mostly I attribute that to working part time rather than the walks. But I rarely have days where I write for hours on end. Worse, the walking wears me out! Obviously, that's a good thing. But it's also then tempting to snack and hang out online, rather than getting on with work.

I've been thinking about all this lately as it's getting dark earlier, and colder, and I wonder what my winter schedule is going to look like. But for now, I think it's working, and I hope I'm able to keep hitting the trails.

Have you ever changed your writing schedule? How did it work out?

*The picture is mine, taken this past August. Obviously the trail doesn't look quite so lush anymore. I'll have to bring my camera out again to get some updated shots.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

My love affair with libraries

Clapp Library, Belchertown, MA
I've been reminded lately of my love affair with libraries. I used my library in Bristol, England frequently--I was part of a book group there, and dramatically expanded my British author repertoire. But being back in the US, with an American library card, has been such a treat: all those American books I've missed for the past several years!

But I've always loved libraries. They're safe and comfortable, yet packed with stories and dreams, too. When I was kid, my dad used to bring me to the library almost every Saturday. I remember checking out stacks of books for each week,  always the exact number allowed per person. Maybe that's why I relate to Roald Dahl's Matilda, who discovered life and love and happiness all within her local library. My biggest problem as an adult is lessened reading time, while still fighting the urge to bring home as many books as possible.

Of course, being an adult, I can afford to buy books now. And I do. But I find libraries are a great testing ground for books by new authors, or in unique formats (graphic novels or verse, for example), or even those I can't imagine I'd like, but which everyone's buzzing about. I discovered Holly Black's Curse Workers series at a library, Michelle Cooper's FitzOsborne books, Gail Tsukiyama's The Samurai's Garden (all of which I now own copies of!).

Actually, I discovered The Samurai's Garden (one of my favorite books, which not many people seem to have heard of!) through a Chicago Public Library book group. And that's another thing I love about libraries--some of the most intelligent book discussions I've ever encountered, frequent visiting authors, knowledgable librarians, and all those possibilities to challenge myself, and maybe even discover a new favorite book.

That's why I got annoyed at a recent save the libraries campaign in the UK (the government was even threatening to close the Great Missenden Library, Matilda's local library in Roald Dahl's novel--but thankfully it was saved!). Amongst other planned activities and protests, people were encouraged on a specific day to check tons of books out of their local library. It was a tangible demonstration, and we definitely should be vocal with our politicians about the need for libraries, but to me it felt an empty gesture. In my mind, the best way to support libraries is to use them regularly and to encourage others to do the same.

But then again, it's easy for me. I'm already a fan. Are you a library lover?

*Oh yeah, and that gorgeous picture (taken by my mother-in-law) is of my new local library, the Clapp Library in Belchertown, Mass. Lovely, huh?

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Storm stories

Well, after all sorts of dire predictions (last year's storm knocked out power to our building for 8 days! Halloween was canceled! Thousands didn't even have running water!), I made it through the latest storm without any problems. Gusts of wind whistled past, trees shook, the lights flickered--but that was as bad as it got.

Is it wrong to be a little disappointed? I was all stocked up with dry goods, flashlights, batteries, a radio. And after a morning madly writing, I spent Monday afternoon preparing for the power loss--I positioned flashlights around the house, got caught up on email, called my parents, even cleaned the bathroom (obviously not totally necessary, but it needed a clean, and I figured I'd rather do it with lights and running water). Then, by late Tuesday afternoon, when we still had power, I used the opportunity to watch several back episodes of Once Upon A Time. Then, still with power, I figured I might as well make an early dinner. Then there was Monday Night Football, and finally I went to bed. I woke up a few times during the night, but the clock digits were still glowing red.

Of course I'm completely grateful, and my thoughts and prayers go out to all of those who were much more adversely affected, those who lost loved ones, are injured, struggling with storm damage, and/or without power.

But when I woke Tuesday morning, still with electricity, I couldn't help feeling a little ripped off. I had had visions of reading and writing by candlelight, cuddling up with my husband, being forced to have conversations instead of watching TV. Not to mention, I've been thoroughly glued to Michelle Cooper's final book in her Montmaray Journals trilogy, The FitzOsbornes at War.*

I guess sometimes a little excitement (or free time!) is a good thing. And it got me thinking of past storms weathered, with more excitement and better stories.

When I was growing up, my family lived at the edge of a forest. I don't remember the storm, but I clearly remember the next morning, when I was out with the dog first thing, and saw a giant, old tree had fallen across our driveway. I was thrilled with the novelty and envisioning a day off school. I ran back inside to get my mom, telling her to look out the window.

"I can't see anything, my contacts aren't in yet," my mom grumbled.

"Oh, you'll see this," I told her. And she did.

Unfortunately, my mom wasn't having any of it. She told me and my sister to get ready for school. Then she drove across the front lawn, around the bulk of the tree, down into the ditch surrounding our property, and up over the scraggly branches at the tree's top to get onto the road. Such a disappointment!

My other favorite storm story is one I wasn't alive for, but which took place in the same house. It was right after Christmas, and the area had a severe ice storm. My parents lost power, and couldn't easily get out. And the only food in the house was a Christmas chocolate box. I love thinking of my parents being so young and unprepared--and gorging themselves on candy.

I hope all of you made it through the storm safely. Any good stories? Or, alternately, what storm stories have been passed through your family over the years?

*I should admit that I gave in to my disappointed self, and spent a blissful Tuesday afternoon finishing my book! And loved it! Highly recommended!

Thursday, October 25, 2012

November goals

November is approaching. For me, November means the new routines of the fall are finally sinking in. It also means longer days and colder nights. And legions of writers pushing themselves to write a novel in a month (NaNoWriMo).

I'm not a NaNo-er myself (see Why I'm Not NaNoWriMo-ing), but I have the utmost admiration for those who are, especially those who are attempting it for the first time. I find those writers' enthusiasm and drive truly inspirational. I must--I searched through my archives for this post, and discovered I've blogged about NaNo (setting goals, sharing links, resolving to slow down, etc) every November since the blog started.

This November I find myself wondering if I can use NaNo to push myself just a little bit harder.

Have you you seen this amazing post from author Rachel Aaron about writing 10,000 words a day? It's been around for a while, but it's worth a read. Aaron breaks writing speed into three categories: Knowledge, Time, and Enthusiasm. And while I can't ever imagine writing 5K in a day, let alone 10, her methods are totally approachable and helpful.

Earlier this month, agent Rachelle Gardner blogged about increasing productivity, and then this past week offered a free opportunity to try Rescue Time to increase your productivity.

Unfortunately, at least for this November, I'm not looking to increase my word count. And while Rescue Time sounds incredibly useful, I'm not sure it would work for me. But I would like to harness this NaNo spirit. My goal for November is to finish my first revision of Project Fun. Strangely, my goal last November was to finish a first draft of Project Fun! A lot of other stuff happened in between, but I'm glad to be back to it--and to have the chance to pull it all together this time.

Do you have a goal for November? And have you ever found a way to consistently increase your output / efficiency?

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Once Upon A Time: A revelation

After hearing good rumblings for the past year online, and learning there was a new season about to start up, this past September I finally decided to watch Once Upon A Time. Thanks to Hulu, I saw the first and last episodes of the first season, plus a handful of other episodes, gained a basic understanding of the plot, and was intrigued. Even while on vacation, I hurried home to my hotel on a Sunday night in Washington DC to make sure I caught the first episode of the new season.

But it was after the second episode of season two, when I discovered my sister was a big fan and we were chatting things over, that I truly became hooked. Because my sister had some theory about how this one character was secretly The Queen of Hearts. And I was all, "What? Who's the Queen of Hearts?" I realized I was missing a lot of cool details (and characters).

So now, a few weeks later, I'm ravenously watching all of season one on Netflix, and I am totally and utterly hooked.

For those of you who don't know Once Upon A Time, it stars a woman named Emma, who is invited to Storybrooke, Maine by her biological son, who she gave up for adoption ten years ago. Her son believes everyone in the town is a fairy tale character, cursed to forget their true home and identities, and that only Emma can break the curse.  I'm honestly surprised it's not getting more buzz. It's got these gut-wrenching themes of destiny and identity, and whether or not life can ever really be like a fairy tale. It's also totally over the top, but the cheese is mostly fun, especially when it's tongue in cheek (like the thug in jail who is revealed to be a dwarf, and is mindlessly whistling Whistle While You Work). Plus, not to get too political about it, but the cast and story is unusually female-centric.

But my favorite part about it, especially now that I'm watching every episode, is all the revelations. If you think about it, a plot where every character has a doppelganger with an unknown past life is ripe for revelations. But true gasp-inducing, sit up on the couch, email your sister type revelations are hard to craft. You have to make sure the audience understands enough to get the revelation without anyone needing to explain it, but they don't understand too much and figure out the twist early. And everything needs to be revealed in a single visual moment. Once Upon A Time has me thinking about my own revelations, and how I can parse them back to create the same shocked gasp.

Once Upon A Time is definitely worth a watch. And for those of you who are already hooked--what's been your favorite revelation thus far?

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Having fun revising Project Fun

I'm at that stage in the revision process where I'm actually enjoying myself. The setting feels so real, all the elements of the plot are coming together. I even got emotional alongside one of my characters yesterday.

This is the stage where I believe in the story. I study the calendar to figure out how quickly I can write the rest. I imagine some day Project Fun could be a real book.

It's also the stage where I expect disaster to strike at any moment: a huge, looming plot hole, or the realization that my character isn't the slightest bit sympathetic, or that the story isn't marketable, or... something. I search for it every day, trying to find it before it attacks me unawares.

But maybe, a tiny part of my brain whispers, maybe this time it will all work. Maybe this will be an easy book.

Have you ever written an easy book?

*The picture is mind, from a "spring break" trip to the Grand Canyon*

Thursday, October 4, 2012

The last will be first (or How building a futon is like revising a novel)

In the process of moving, I've been assembling a lot of furniture. And the other day, while putting together a particularly heavy futon, I had a fascinating insight into revising Project Fun.

See (in case you haven't been blessed with putting together a futon recently), futons basically come in two sections: the bendy part the mattress sits on, and a rectangular base. Now, you can't assemble the futon without putting together the base first. However, the bendy bit has these rollers that need to fit into grooves on the base. So it's a catch-22. The base can't support the bendy bit if it isn't tight and secure. But if it's too tight and secure, the bendy bit's rollers can't fit into the base's grooves. The solution (after much bickering and cursing)? Phil and I made the base tight and secure, then placed the bendy bit over it. Then we loosened the base to get the rollers into the grooves, and tightened everything again.  Just how the pros do it! Or something.

Anyway, Phil was sweaty and frustrated, but I was excited. Because it suddenly occurred to me that revising a novel is just like putting a futon together. Without a solid structure (ie an organized plot and a fleshed out magic system) you have nothing to build your revisions on. But revisions also need to be organic, open to new scenes, new characters, new magic. 

See, I'm usually such a linear writer. I'll revise my beginnings ad nauseam, until the words, the dialogue, the setting, everything is perfect. Then I move forward and discover the plot doesn't work with my changes. So I move back to the beginning and revise it again. Then I move forward two more chapters, only to discover again that the plot doesn't quite work. But it occurs to me, if I could get my base tight and secure first, I might be able to cut down on the number of revisions. 

So I decided to start with my climax first. 

I know! Crazy, huh? But all the plot threads and magical elements come to a head in the climax. If I could figure it out first, then that would be one screw, tight and secure. Then I could use that structure and knowledge to move to my next screw, and my next. And once I have all the major plotty chapters down (ie, my base), I can build my character development and setting, and all those elements around it. Of course, I may need to go back later and unscrew my climax to make it all fit. But hopefully that will be a minor tweak, just far enough to get those rollers in. 

Is this making any sense? Thankfully it is to me! Last week I wrote my climax and discovered several plot holes I hadn't anticipated. But I'm working through them, and can already feel the novel tightening itself. 

Have you ever worked backwards, or non-linearly before?

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Chasing dreams

A few weeks back, I caught an interview on NPR with former Olympians. I'd never really thought about it before, but for many athletes, adjusting to life after the Olympics is incredibly difficult. Many of them have finished their careers by their thirties, or even twenties. They've pursued their lives' passion, and reached the highest plateau possible. So what else is left for them?

I was reminded of those Olympians recently. I had been dreaming of announcing some good news on the blog, but last week learned that things hadn't worked out. It's not the first time I've come so close to success in the publishing industry that I could almost touch it. And in struggling with my disappointment, I wondered what you do with your life when the one thing you're passionate about is currently impossible.

Some writer friends commiserated with me, and reminded me not to give up. But I couldn't really imagine giving up. While I've started subbing in schools again, writing is my full time job. And I love it.

Of course, I could self publish, or submit to several small ebook publishers who have sprung up recently. I thought over those options, too, but realized they're not my dream. Others have found happiness on those routes (some few even success), but as someone who's fantasized about writing and publishing since childhood, and still sees the world of books as magical, warts and all, I believe in the industry and want to be part of it.

Obviously, the only option left to me is to keep writing. And maybe that makes me lucky... those former Olympians have lost their muscle and flexibility and endurance, and will never be successful in their sport again--though a gold metal might smooth over a lot of angst!

I make "keep writing" sound like an easy answer, when it isn't really. It means more years of not knowing how to tell people what I do for a living. It means more self-doubt, more frustration, many more hours of work with no pay or affirmation. But it also means I can keep telling stories. And, for now at least, I wouldn't have it any other way.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

A word person or a story person?

Oia, on the island of Santorini, in Greece, is built on the side of a mountain.  While on vacation last spring, I decided to hike uphill into town after a large lunch. I bumped into some tourists coming the other way.

"How bad is the climb?" one asked.

Breathlessly I replied, "It's a bit more arduous than I expected."

The tourists laughed. "Arduous?! It must be really bad!"

I laughed with them. I can't help the vocabulary. I've always been a word person. 

A while back, my critique group was comparing writing methods, and I showed them my notebook, and explained how I write everything long-hand first

"But look at it!" one of them exclaimed. "All those words! You've hardly crossed anything out."

Now that's not entirely true. I do cross things out, add scribbles in the margins, and draw arrows when I want to move whole paragraphs of text. But the words are the easy part. I can always throw out some dialogue, describe a character, create some atmosphere... It's figuring out the story that takes me months, sometimes years of work. 

It occurs to me that most of my writing friends are the same way. We scavenge our minds for the perfect word, and in our reading highlight clever turns of phrase or beautiful descriptive passages. I find real joy in structuring text so it flows logically and rhythmically, and my paragraphs end with a powerful punch. And I'm sure that capacity for language makes me a better writer. But I wish story came more easily. I wish I knew people who understand story like I understand language.

Would you call yourself a word person or a story person? Is it a true dichotomy, never the twain shall meet? Or can some people be a bit of both?

And if you are a story person... will you be my friend?

*The picture is mine. And yes, Santorini really is that beautiful. If you're interested, there are tons more pictures here and here.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Making a place of my own

So I've finally moved into my "office" in the new house. And while I've had to forsake the lovely view and wind chimes tinkling in the breeze, the office gives me much more space. Plus, I've never had a proper office! I've always been a kitchen table writer, so to have a place to store my books, hang reminders and inspirations, and keep all my clutter in one place is really exciting.

This is still very much a work in progress, but I wanted to share a bit of it with you.

I bought my "desk" off Craigslist. Yes, I know it's a table. But like I said, I've always done well on kitchen tables. And I don't need drawers so much as space to spread.

Plus, I found this gorgeous little cabinet / printer stand at the Salvation Army and had to have it. I've installed a shelf inside, so it can hold a number of my books and art supplies (colored pencils, markers, crayons, highlighters--all essential to my writing process!). And once the bulletin board goes up, I'll be able to display inspirations for my writing and works in progress (no close ups, but those two postcards are vital to Project Fun).

Wondering about the art? Here's some close ups:


My grandmother was an artist. When she passed away and we sorted through her studio, I was so touched to find these sketches, which I recognized instantly. The top one is my dad as a boy, the bottom one is me as a little girl. Maybe it's a touch narcissistic, but I like having little me close by. Not only does it remind me of my grandmother, and how important art was to her, but also who I'm writing for. 

A few other important tidbits:

This is from my day care days. I don't know how I still have it, but I love it for some of the same reasons above.

My mom gave me the giraffe for Christmas last year, and I couldn't imagine leaving him behind in Bristol. Technically he's a screen cleaner, but he cuddles with me when the writing's going bad.

There's still a futon waiting to be delivered (perfect for guests! And writerly naps!), which is why I haven't hung the bulletin board yet. I need to make sure everything's properly centered so it doesn't drive me nuts when I try to work. Plus I have another piece of my grandmother's to hang, a stack of books, which will be perfect for the room. I'll show you more pictures in a few weeks, when it's all finished.

In the meantime, what is your writing space like? What treasures and talismans do you surround yourself with?

Thursday, September 6, 2012

"What is the coolest way this plot thing might happen?"

I've always considered myself a word person, a craft person. I don't read many commercial books, I don't tend to enjoy them. I don't chase trends. I love character-driven stories.

But lately I've been thinking about how to push my storytelling farther. Bestselling author Laini Taylor managed to articulate my goal on her blog, and I've been asking myself ever since:

"What's the coolest way this plot thing might happen?"

To steal a page from her book, Daughter of Smoke and Bone, could I set the book in Prague? At an art school? Could there be a shop that sells teeth? A character who designs puppets?

Between you and me, I have a lot of scenes set in school bathrooms and characters' bedrooms. Okay, so Project Demo doesn't really have room for a shop that sells teeth. But then I think about Sara Zarr's How to Save a Life, a contemporary, realistic novel, which has a climactic scene in Casa Bonita, that crazy tourist restaurant in Colorado with waterfalls and cave divers. And you know what? That's a little more interesting than the school bathroom.

And to be 100% honest, sometimes those character-driven, quiet books that I claim to love? They don't have much plot. So then I think about my larger premise, too. How can I make that more exciting? What if instead of a regular school, my characters went to a spy school (Ally Carter's Gallagher Girls)? Or what if my characters weren't just magicians, but crime lords (Holly Black's Curse Workers series)?

Because the truth is, cool premises and intriguing settings aren't just marketing gimmicks. They work. And not only do they make me want to read a story, they make me more likely to lose myself in a story.

So even though this type of storytelling doesn't come naturally to me, and it might mean some research, or getting out of my own head occasionally, I know it's worth it. And even better, it feeds my creativity, encourages my mind to push boundaries. It's exciting.

And that's really the heart of good storytelling.

Have you always thought about writing this way, or is pushing your storytelling a bit of a revelation to you, too?

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Walking a novel

I'm in a funny place at the moment, both physically and mentally.

I'm still settling in to a new home, a new town, a different country (thank you for all of the napping encouragement on my last post--I'm feeling much better rested now!).

I'm also settling into a new writing project. While I'm waiting for feedback on Project Demo, I've decided to return to Project Fun. Remember Project Fun? Probably not, it was a short-lived affair last fall to escape Project Demo. The good news is, I've got a full rough draft to play with, an exciting story, and characters I love. Does it make much sense? No, but my drafts hardly ever do--that's the challenge.

But instead of launching myself full throttle into a new project, especially since I'm not under any pressure or deadlines at the moment, I want to play with a new way of writing, possibly even develop a new routine.

In the midst of exploring the area, I've discovered Amherst has an extensive trail system, including the paved 11-mile Norwottuck Rail Trail, along with several woodsy trail offshoots. Oh, and the whole system is a five-minute drive from my house!

So I've been taking advantage of the summer weather, and more free time than usual, by walking every day. And I've integrated this walking time into my morning writing schedule. I'll work for a bit, then take all my questions and ideas with me on the trail.

I think my writing routine could use a bit more thinking time, more play time, more spontaneity. And in the grand scheme of things, more thinking means less rewriting, right?

Well, maybe. But it definitely means more exercise. And have I mentioned how beautiful it is? This settling in might be going better than expected!

*All pictures are mine, taken on the Amherst trails

Thursday, August 23, 2012

So it's a little different here...

I knew I'd be in for some culture shock, moving from Bristol, one of the UK's larger cities, to Amherst, MA, a town in rural New England. I haven't driven much in the past five years. While I've watched British TV, I haven't watched much American TV or listened to the radio at all, so I'm sure there's some cultural phenomenons I know nothing about. And cultures, even one's own, do change over five years...

I've been keeping a running list of it all in my head.

Walmart and Target make me twitchy. They're so big, rows and rows of things, with so many options. I keep getting lost, probably exacerbated by the fact that I try to stay as briefly as possible. They make even the big Bristol Sainsbury's look quaint!

Cars are huge, including my own, but otherwise driving is fine, and left-hand turns no longer make me nervous. It took me forever to figure out how to park in a lot again, but the Chicagoan never left me--you should've seen the mean parallel parking job I did the other day!

Yesterday, I tried to exchange £50--no need for it to make its home in a drawer, that's a lot of money! First I tried a small, local bank. They told me they didn't do foreign currency exchanges. So I tried my bank, its big central branch, since I was driving right by. No. They suggested Bank of America. So I dutifully went to Bank of America. B of A would only exchange money if I had an account. TD Bank was across the street. They'd happily do it, but only for a $10 charge. Goodness! In the UK you could exchange money at almost any post office, let alone bank or currency exchange shop! But I guess there's a few more currencies floating around the area.

So I'm still in possession of £50, though the B of A teller suggested I find a friend with an account. Anyone have any better ideas?

There's some other, more expected things. The cheese isn't as good. Or, it is, I had some very nice smoked gouda the other day, but the Whole Foods brand cheddar is an orange, rubbery imitation compared to Sainsbury's store brand cheddar. The chocolate is quite nice, but I'm struggling to find my favorite brands. And I knew this would be a problem (and I know it's August!) but I miss my British hot chocolate!

Plus, I was quite nervous the first time I went grocery shopping--everything was so expensive! Then I realized I was thinking in pounds, not dollars.

It's hotter here. Much hotter, which made moving in difficult. It's cooled down a bit now, thanks to a series of storms which flashed through here. A resounding clap of thunder woke me in the middle of the night--and I had no idea where I was. It's been a long time since I lived some place with summer storms.

Actually, I still wake in the middle of the night, unsure where I am, even after three weeks. I think it's partly because our apartment is tucked back in the forest and so dark and quiet. But I'm also getting used to the position of the bed, the furniture, the room, the fact that it's all mine.

And did I mention being tucked back in the forest? And the big bugs? Thank goodness Americans believe in screens. And it's lovely, but I'm directly off a rural highway, so while there is a walking path on the edge of the road, it's not very comfortable, nor are there many places within walking distance to go. The other day I parked at one end of the strip mall and walked to get groceries at the other. I know, craziness. But I miss walking.

Thankfully there's lots of trails and state parks nearby, including one just down the road. I'm driving there this morning!

What else is on my list? I miss Bristol's recycling program, especially their compost pick-up. I miss the BBC, especially the lack of ads.

I have to say, though, I'm glad to get away from the British "reserve." People here are so chatty and friendly, everyone from sales clerks to bank tellers, to waiters... and it's not because I'm unique or because I have a "cute" accent. And unlike one of my European friends maintains, I don't think it's an act. I could barely get a word in edgewise at the post office! Most Americans genuinely seem to like talking with other people. It's a nice change.

As is being in the same country, even the same time zone as family and friends. I'm still a phone call or a plane ride away, but somehow I feel so much closer. And that's nice, too.

Now if only my British friends could be the same distance away...

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Easing into life again

According to Blogger, I'm a day shy of a month since I last posted. According to my notes, it's also been almost a month since I finished my draft of Project Demo. A month since I've written anything.

In the meantime, there was a move out of Bristol, an international flight, a domestic flight, a train journey, a road trip from Chicago to Amherst, Mass, and an (ongoing!) move into the new house (please don't ask me to explain all the moving travel--I hardly understand it all myself!). We've been here for just over two weeks now, though it's hard to imagine it's been that long, when so much is still up in the air.

I'm finding it difficult to ease back into writing. While waiting for feedback on Project Demo, I've been playing with old story ideas, for just 30 minutes to an hour a day. Too much and I'm physically and mentally drained. Yesterday was my longest writing day yet. I cranked out a revised scene for Project Fun for a writing group. It took a little over two hours. But I had to stop halfway through to take a nap, I was so exhausted.

Apparently I'm not alone. Agent Betsy Lerner blogged yesterday about one of her authors who always needs to nap (sometimes multiple times a day) when starting a new project. Betsy suspects it has to do with fear. Nah, I thought, I've been scrubbing an oven for multiple hours a day, moving boxes back and forth to any free space in the apartment, I'm just exhausted.

But my writing narcolepsy, and every day narcolepsy, continues. Now that I think about it, maybe Betsy's on to something. Maybe not only jumping into a new-ish project, but setting up this whole new life, in a different state, a different country, is a little scary. Maybe I combat that by falling into unconsciousness periodically throughout the day, letting myself give up for just a while.

But I keep pushing forward, keep trying to write a little bit each day, clean a little bit each day, and I'm thankful I'm not on any kind of deadline. I'm also thankful for this blog, and all of you, and not having to start from scratch when it comes to my online life and friends.

I'm also thankful for a lovely writing space. I thought I was going to make a spare bedroom into an office. I had grand plans for a beautiful desk, all my books in one place, etc. But in the meantime, I've situated myself at the kitchen table, and I'm not sure I want to leave. I get a cool breeze from the back yard, my wind chimes tinkling, a view of the forest beyond... I think I could be quite happy right here.

I'll leave you with that lovely image (though apologies for the quality! I can't seem to track down my camera's cord). Anyway, the oven still needs some scrubbing, and there's piles of stuff in my "office" to sort through, and...


Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Publishing: Inspirational or horribly depressing?

The other day, I heard a story about an author who had taken 35 years to publish her first book. However, that book has since been an overwhelming success, published in dozens of countries, and it recently secured a film deal.

What an inspirational story, I thought. This poor woman, plugging away for years upon years, never gave up, and was finally appreciated by the market. However, a friend of mine had the opposite reaction. He found this "success story" horribly depressing, and said had he known when he first started writing that the publishing industry was like that, he would've never gotten involved.

I've been thinking about inspiration and the publishing industry recently, as this past Saturday I co-taught a course on writing for children at Bristol's Folk House. Rachel Carter (whose book is coming out from Scholastic in 2013!) and I covered character, setting, voice, tense, plot, all the biggies, but we also spent a bit of time on the market, and how to submit work to agents and publishers (Rachel will be offering the course again--minus me--this autumn if any local people are interested!).

The course was a great success (if I do say so myself!), though I was amused that when it came to talking about the publishing industry, we found ourselves playing good cop, bad cop. Rachel would point out how competitive the market was, and I would chip in and say there's always a place for awesome stories. Rachel would say she recommends agents, and I would add that some publishers accept material directly.

In truth, we didn't know what our class wanted to hear. Different people are inspired by different things. Some people want to know exactly what they're getting into, while others need to hold onto hope and dreams.

What do you wish you knew when you started writing?

In other news, why yes, I am moving across the ocean exactly a week from today! So there definitely won't be a blog post next week, probably not for a few weeks, as I get my bearings in Massachusetts. In the meantime, be good, take care of yourselves, and please send positive moving thoughts my way!

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Writing: what's worth hanging on to?

I'm not very sentimental when it comes to things. It's probably true, as fellow writer and blogger Fiction Forge claims, that international moves will do that to a person. And the past few weeks I really have been intent on that clearance sale mindset, everything must go!

So this past Sunday, I settled myself comfortably on the floor, and began to go through two drawers (and 15 years worth) of writing: drafts, notes, rejections, memorabilia. I knew it would be painful--I would've never dared get rid of it all if it hadn't been for the move, and the premium on space--but I hadn't realized what a lovely trip it would be, too.

I discovered multiple copies of a poster from a reading in I did in college, an encouraging note from a writer friend in Chicago, even a hysterical parody of a high school English teacher. I found a piece I wrote from my dog's perspective, of which I have no memory, but it's surprisingly heartfelt (it may have to be resurrected) and included this beauty of a line: "If you can't kill a bone in one night, it wins." I also discovered a lot of rejections--but some lovely rejections, with handwritten notes, back before I knew what a big deal that was. 

Here's what I piled in the kitchen hallway for recycling:

  • Old Writer and SCBWI magazines
  • Several year's worth of SCBWI membership cards
  • At least seven notebooks, filled with drafts and notes
  • Printed drafts
  • Drafts from workshops with handwritten notes
  • Assignments from my MA, including my ginormous (and, I must say, quite insightful on re-reading!) essay on cover art
  • Plot charts, character maps, exercises galore
  • Two ribbon-tied stacks of notecards, filled with plot points
  • Handouts from classes, workshops, conferences
  • All those old rejections (who saves rejections, even nice ones?!)

Like I said, painful, even scary, but I think it's the right move. It's not like I ever look through that stuff, except for occasionally diving in for a useful handout. It's all for past work, which will either be read and enjoyed as is in the coming years (in which case, I don't need to worry about all the notes and edits), or which will need to be massively rewritten at some point, in which case I really don't want old notes and plot charts to interfere with seeing the work with fresh eyes--though that was some of the hardest bits to toss. All the drafts are saved on my computer, which is frequently backed up--I even dug up the dog story!

Of course, my future biographer may forever look back at this moment with agony, but I'll just have to take that chance.

Here's what I kept:

  • Typed evaluations from each module from my MA (some of those comments are a goldmine!)
  • An envelope of critiques on the piece that won me a placed in the SCBWI anthology, Undiscovered Voices.
  • A stack of agents & editors' business cards--okay, some of them have since rejected me, but still, I have a stack of agents & editors' business cards!
  • Handouts on plot, tension, character building, and synopsis writing to which I still frequently refer
  • That parody of the high school English teacher--goodness, who knew I was such a clever 18 year old! And I bet that's NOT on my hard drive!
  • A personal essay I wrote for my MA in Chicago, including my teacher's encouraging handwritten notes
  • A single copy of that poster from my college reading
  • And, of course, all my notes and current notebooks for Project Demo and Project Fun. Still a full folder of stuff--I'm not totally crazy, really.

What old writing do you hang on to? What do you toss?

In further news, the last day in Bristol is two weeks from today. I'm also hoping to get my latest revision of Project Demo off by then. So yes, life continues to be manic!

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

The tangibles (and intangibles) of an international move

The first time it really hit me that I was moving back to the US, I was in the check-out line at my local grocery store. I was buying meat and ice cream for that night. Then I had this wild, crazy thought: in the US, I'll have a fridge taller than me! With a freezer! I'll no longer have to consume things like meat and ice cream the day of! And I couldn't help this manic grin creeping across my face.

I may not consider myself the most patriotic American, but there are numerous things I love about the US, and not just giant fridge/freezers. It's also my home, where I was born and raised, and without even realizing it, many of my opinions and expectations have been formed by that. How could they not?

Yet this past weekend was a short trip to Paris. Yes, I have been traveling a lot lately! Not so much to do a whistle-stop tour of Europe before I leave (though that's been a nice side-benefit), but to spend some final precious days with friends before I live much farther away.

Anyway, I was in Paris, in the lobby of the Musee d'Orsay, when my friend got an emergency phone call from work. She spoke rapid French into her cell, and I leaned against a front desk and thought about that Renoir painting, Bal du Moulin de la Galette. In person it makes you feel like one of the crowd, like if you fell forward, you would fall inside the painting, find yourself spinning in some suited stranger's arms, dancing through the park. And amongst the incredible art, the rush of French, the Seine in the distance, it occurred to me that there are some things I'll miss about living in Europe.

But not to worry! This morning it's 55 and pouring rain in Bristol. My mini British fridge is empty, so I have to go grocery shopping--and no car, so that means hauling my groceries home, uphill, through the rain. And once again, I'm looking forward to the move. It's the tangibles that make it real for me--whereas it's the intangibles, the atmosphere, the culture, and of course, my friends, that I'm not sure will feel like real losses until they're very far away.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

An exercise in cutting

For my latest revision of Project Demo, I was advised to cut it by a third.

A third! Okay, I always knew it was way too long at almost 90,000 words, but 60K is svelte! Most YA novels are between 55-90,000, so there's nothing inherently wrong with 90K. Except the longer novels tend to be detailed historical fiction, or fantasy epics with complex world-building. Not edgy, contemporary novels with a hint of magic. So I think my beta reader's right. A Courtney Summers' length novel would make much more sense. But that's a serious diet.

I've lost 7500 in the past few months from shifting around my plot. But that was the easy bit--cutting whole scenes! Now it gets tricky. Here's what I think comes next:

1. Cutting scenes, themes, arcs

Yes, I know I already did that. But I think I can do more. I have a lovely scene with the main character's mother that never really gets mentioned again. Cut. I have a party scene I adore, but I think I can take some of the important moments in that scene and weave them into a different scene. Cut. Every scene in the novel has to be carrying its weight in terms of character and story development. I'm after losing 22.5K more, so if there are any duplicate scenes (ie, multiple scenes that show my character's relationship with her mother), they have to go.

I spent this past weekend in Switzerland with my friend and fellow blogger Fiction Forge (well, yes, there ARE advantages to living in Europe, including no jet lag and 1.5 hour plane rides to Switzerland). FF was good enough to read through my entire outline with a metaphorical pair of scissors. And she was ruthless! But that was exactly what I needed.

We sat on her balcony with glasses of wine, a view of the distant mountains in the setting sun, and hacked apart my plot. I've had worse evenings.

2. Delete flashbacks

Does the reader really need to know what happened twelve years ago that shaped my main character into the person she is? If it's not absolutely relevant to the plot, it needs to go. If it is, I need to weave it into a bit of conversation.

3. Delete "time passing" scenes

You know how they do "time passing" scenes in the movies, with some fun music, maybe some dancing, jumping from scene to scene to scene, to show characters falling in love? Or training? Or growing up? Because Project Demo takes place over a year, I've included a number of those scenes in written form. They're just padding, they also have to go.

4. Start scenes later, end them earlier

For example, I don't need to show my character walking to a door before she opens it and begins the scene.

5. Trim verbiage

I know it's there, especially since my character tends to be a reflective, thoughtful sort. I need to make sure her voice is concise as possible. There can't be excessive description, or repetition of any kind (ie, from here on out, my character is reflective, not reflective AND thoughtful!). And every extra "just" and "still" and all those other meaningless words really must go.

Do I sound psychotic yet? Don't worry, I have no intention of gutting my book for an artificial goal. But I do think my reader's right, and the more I can cut without losing Project Demo's soul, the better. Between you and me, I'm aiming for 75K. 

Have you ever gone on a massive cutting spree? Any additional suggestions I haven't thought of? How long is your work in progress?

Oh, and just to brag a bit more (and to prove I'm not making things up here on Critically Yours), here's the Alps in the distance:

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Saying goodbye to Bristol

Well, seeing as I said in my last post that I'd be back at the end of May, you can probably accurately surmise that life has been a little crazy. But (mostly) in a good way. I've been madly revising Project Demo, but I'm hopeful I'm getting somewhere... slowly. And of course I've been planning an international move--as of last week, we officially even have an apartment!

But I have missed life here at Critically Yours. I can't promise this means I'm back to blogging twice a week... the next few months promise much more chaos. But I'm hoping to post more frequently. Just consider any posts in the near future to be a pleasant surprise!

Speaking of planning an international move, last week my stand partner in my community orchestra asked me what special mementoes from Bristol I would be bringing back to the US. The question took me completely off guard, because the past few weeks have been all about slash and burn--making plans to get rid of practically everything in the apartment! I guess I'm not a very sentimental person. I've got great memories of my time in Bristol, hopefully lifelong friends, and a shelf full of author friends' books. That seemed plenty to me--but I've been thinking about my friend's question ever since.

And good thing, too. Saturday was my final rehearsal and concert with the Brunel Sinfonia, and  the viola section had a little presentation to say goodbye. They gave me a framed poster for our last concert, and a Bristol blue glass vase.

Bristol blue glass is a vibrant blue, wholly unique and beautifully crafted. It's expensive, too, which is why I've never bought any for myself--but when I opened the box the section gave me, my friend's question came back to me, and I was totally touched knowing that I now had a very special bit of Bristol to bring back with me.

So ever since then, I've been thinking about the inevitable process of saying goodbye. Yesterday I stopped by the bookstore to pick up goodbye gifts for my Reading Buddies I volunteer with at a local primary school. On the way home, I walked past Nelson Street, which last summer was the site of a massive graffiti project. I've passed it on the bus numerous times, walked by bits and pieces, but I've never actually walked down the street and taken it all in. I figured this time might be my last chance.

Here's some of the photos I took:

Looking down Nelson Street:

A close-up of the whale:

Walking down the street:

This is me turning onto the side street, Bridewell:

And on the main drag, Rupert Street:

I'm sure I'll be posting more in the coming weeks about saying goodbye. In the meantime... welcome back!

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Exciting (albeit not writing related!) news

I try not to get too personal here on Critically Yours, but those of you who have been following the blog a while, or are good at reading between the lines (which you likely are, considering my audience of writers!), probably know the past few years have been rough. There's been a lot of job uncertainty, exacerbated by living outside the US job market, on visas connected to my husband's employment.

So even though I said I was taking a blogging break for the next month, this news is too good not to share: my husband has just accepted a post-doctoral research position at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst! He'll be starting work this August, and he's thrilled to be joining a prestigious lab doing some exciting research (shrimp feeding mechanics FTW!). Plus, obviously we're eager to gain some stability in our lives.

We think Amherst will suit us well. It's an overly-educated town (home to UMass, Amherst College, Hampshire College, and the nearby Mount Holyoke and Smith), apparently crazy liberal, surrounded by state parks, birthplace of Emily Dickinson, and current home to one of my favorite YA novelists (no stalking is planned, I swear!).

The only downside, of course, is leaving all of the friends we've made in the UK. That isn't going to be easy at all.

In the meantime, while I'm not here for the next month, you can imagine me madly planning an international move, securing an apartment, buying a car, and figuring out whatever else needs to be done in the next three months... oh, and hopefully finishing the next draft of Project Demo.

Thanks for letting me share this big news with you. I promise I'll keep you posted as the move happens. Oh, and I KNOW some of you live nearby. I hope you'll give a warm welcome to this starry eyed midwesterner / expat!

Thursday, April 26, 2012

New discoveries: North & South

Sometimes I get so lazy with culture. It's easier to watch favorite movies over again, and reread favorite books and authors, rather than venturing into new territory and risking disappointment and wasted time. But every so often, I find something I absolutely love, and I wonder why it took me so long to discover it.

My latest discovery? North & South by Elizabeth Gaskell.

For those of you unfamiliar with Elizabeth Gaskell (honestly, I majored in English and had only a passing familiarity with her name until this past year), she's the author of several novels, including Mary Barton (1848), North & South (1854-5), and Cranford (1851-3), which most UK residents are familiar with, as it was turned into a beloved BBC drama starring Judi Dench (though I have to say, I don't quite get the appeal...). Gaskell was well-known in Victorian circles, entertaining Dickens and John Ruskin, the American author Harriet Beecher Stowe, and was apparently a good friend to Charlotte Bronte.

North & South reminds me of Austen's Pride and Prejudice, except much darker, and with a strong social justice streak. The pride in this case is an assumption that our way is the best and most moral perspective, and discounting the humanity of those we don't understand. The story revolves around the industrial town of Milton (a fictional stand-in for Manchester), and poverty, class, and the formation of manufacturing unions. And a romance between Margaret Hale, a southerner and minister's daughter, and John Thornton, a northerner and manufacturer.

Margaret's first view of Thornton's mill
One of the things I like best about the story is that there is no moral high ground, and no character who is proved completely right. Every point of view is respected and questioned (not only those of Margaret and John, but the union leader, a strike-breaker, an Oxford academic...). As someone who's traveled frequently, lived abroad, and struggled with my own prejudices, that deeply resonates with me. Plus, North & South must've been very controversial for its time, with its focus on unions, as well as questioning organized religion, law, and social niceties.

Brendan Coyle as Nicholas Higgins 
And then there's the movie version! To be honest, I enjoyed the book, and anxiously flew through the pages, but I didn't love it. At times it felt dense, and I wasn't sure exactly what Gaskell was trying to say. But a friend heartily recommended the movie, so I've spent the past week sneaking in an hour whenever I could (it's a four-hour mini-series).

And it's the movie that made me fall in love with North & South. It elucidated the themes clearly, simplified the dense descriptions, and yet hardly changed any of the plot. Plus, gorgeous cinematography! Who knew a cotton mill could be such a thing of beauty? And the acting! Richard Armitage is indeed both threatening and smoldering. And I recognized at least half the cast from other British dramas (Brendan Coyle, Mr. Bates of Downton Abbey, plays the strike leader). I'm not sure which is better; perhaps I wouldn't have loved the movie so much if I hadn't read the book.

Regardless, all of that is to say, I'm grateful to my friends for suggesting North & South (one suggested the book, another the movie), so I figure I should pass that wisdom on. And as soon as I can find the time, I'll be re-reading the book, and perhaps sneaking in a few more hours of the movie as well.  Or at least, until my next new discovery.

What gems have you discovered lately? Any other North & South fans out there?

Note: Things have been pretty busy lately (no, I haven't just been watching North & South on repeat... really!), so I'm planning to take a break from the blog until at least the end of May. In the meantime, stay well and keep writing!

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

A mess of a process

This seems to be my writing process:

1. Cool Idea.

2. Write a novel around Cool Idea.

3. Get feedback. Discover novel is an illogical mess.

4. Beat illogical mess into somewhat more coherent story that bears faint resemblance to Cool Idea.

5. Question entire premise.

6. Rediscover Cool Idea.

7. Watch all logic problems magically disappear in light of Cool Idea.

8. Revise and complete novel.

Now if I could only figure out how to condense these eight steps into numbers 1 and 8 alone, this whole process would be much more efficient, and I would be much more sane. But of course, the good news is that my subconscious is a lot smarter than I ever give it credit for being. It deserves some trust.

In summary, yes, I'm still working on Project Demo. It's beginning to look startlingly similar to my original vision. I'm very excited. After all, it was a pretty Cool Idea in the first place.

What does your creative process (writing or otherwise!) look like?

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Believing in second chances

I've been thinking about second chances lately (and third chances and fifths and tenths...). In my recent post "Differentiating the US and UK children's book markets," I pointed out how the UK has more established children's authors, whereas the US market is endlessly fascinated with debuts, the next hot things. But I see that as a market driven trend, and it wouldn't surprise me if the UK follows suit in the coming years.

A recent Guardian article about Suzanne Collins trumpeted that The Hunger Games was her debut novel (embarrassingly, a month later, this error is still online). By my count, The Hunger Games is Collins' sixth published novel (my former middle school students loved her Gregor the Overlander series).

It took me a while to figure out why the Guardian's error so enraged me. Admittedly, I'm a bit of a snob, so journalists getting basic facts wrong usually sets me off. But it was more than that. It was the assumption that Collins was an up and coming hot thing that upset me.

We live in a society fixated on the next hot things, the out of no where sensations like Stephenie Meyer, J. K. Rowling, and Mark Zuckerberg. But just as many amazing stories and innovations come from experience--if not more!

A recent blog post by the next hot thing, Robin LaFevers (author of Grave Mercy, which I raved about on Tuesday), also spoke of second chances. You see, Grave Mercy isn't LaFevers' debut novel. It's her, uh... 15th? She mentions a few other recent hot authors like Laini Taylor (Daughter of Smoke and Bone is her fifth novel) and Jennifer Nielsen (The False Prince is her fourth novel). Seriously, check it out, it's a wonderfully smart, inspiring post!

It's encouraging to think this industry may not be as focused on the next hot thing as it seems. Now if only we could figure out how to celebrate experience a bit more.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

My favorite book: in 6 simple steps!

Over the years, I've agonized about what types of books I most love to read (and write). While I'm not a hard science chick, one of my favorite books ever is a space opera. I've been known to roll my eyes and snort at romance novels, but I don't mind the occasional sweet (or steamy!) love story. I read children's and adult fiction, I read literary and genre, I read serious and light.

But after reading a pure Anne-crack book this past week, it occurs to me it's really quite easy to identify a book I'll love. In fact, I've narrowed it down to six simple steps!

1. Give me a complex character. 

Contradictory elements, someone who grows over the course of a story, a character who acts in different ways given the situation, the people they're surrounded with...

Bonus points: I've got an unexplained soft spot for good guys. They may be damaged, or weird, or crazy annoying, but they care more about other people than themselves, and they'll do anything to help. Think Mr. Monk, or Dr. Hawkeye Pierce in MASH (did you notice the picture? Really can't resist!).

Extra bonus points if the main character's a tough woman (ass-kicking tough, stubborn as all get-go, seemingly vulnerable but with an inner strength, I'll take any and all of it!). 

2. A rich setting.

It can be contemporary world. It could be an intergalactic space cruiser or a made-up land. It could be the wild west, ancient Egypt, San Francisco's Chinatown. As long as it's full of detail, and you give me something to smell and taste, streets to explore, cluttered shops and varieties of people, I'm putty in your hands.

3. Magic.

It doesn't matter if it's spiritual, mechanical, or fantastical, if it's got magic, I'm captivated.

Bonus points if it's an ancient magic, something I've never seen before, perhaps immoral, but definitely creepy as hell.

By the way, have you seen the new covers for Holly Black's Curse Workers series?! I'm saving the final book, Black Heart, for a special occasion.

4. A twisty, turn-y plot.

A lonely orphan girl, taken in by a guardian with ulterior motives. She discovers her real mother, a wealthy lady, has abandoned her and regretted it ever since. A missing will, a long lost brother, a dangerous killer on the run with revenge on his mind. Oh, and make sure there's a reveal with every few chapters!

5. A driving goal.

It could be survival, it could be romance, it could be saving the world... as long as the character never stops pushing for it, I'll never stop reading.

6. And good writing. 

So good I don't even notice it, except for the occasional chapter-ending statement that makes me shiver because it's so true and terrifying, or the description that convinces me there's six feet of snow outside in the middle of summer.

So there you have it. The perfect Anne book in six simple steps!

Oh, you want to know what I read that inspired this whole post? Grave Mercy by Robin LaFevers:

Seventeen-year-old Ismae escapes from the brutality of an arranged marriage into the sanctuary of the convent of St. Mortain, where the sisters still serve the gods of old. Here she learns that the god of Death Himself has blessed her with dangerous gifts—and a violent destiny. If she chooses to stay at the convent, she will be trained as an assassin and serve as a handmaiden to Death. To claim her new life, she must destroy the lives of others.

Ismae's most important assignment takes her straight into the high court of Brittany—where she finds herself woefully under prepared—not only for the deadly games of intrigue and treason, but for the impossible choices she must make. For how can she deliver Death’s vengeance upon a target who, against her will, has stolen her heart?

Doesn't that sound wonderful? It was. Actually, to be totally honest, she had me at assassin nuns.

Do you know the recipe for your favorite books? And, given my recipe, got any book recommendations for me?!