Thursday, April 18, 2013

A welome break

The past few weeks have been slightly manic. I've been combing through final edits on Project Fun, ensuring every T is crossed, and every little detail makes logical sense. It's been unexpectedly time-consuming, and I've probably lost some hair in the process. I've also been searching for a new home in North Carolina, and busy with all the other fun stuff that comes with moving (cleaning my current apartment to show to prospective tenants, researching banks, health insurance, jobs, etc).

Meanwhile, I'm also helping to plan a baby shower for my sister.

Yes, that's right. My sister's expecting a little boy, and I'm SOOOO excited. I'll be a first time aunt!

I queried friends on baby showers, visited a number of stores to look at invitations and decorations, and searched through Pinterest and Etsy to gather ideas. I fell in love with some hand-made invitations, and decided I could create something similar. So I emailed my family with my brilliant idea, and made another trip to the stores, this time to look at card stock, buttons, and sequins. A few family members, very kindly, wrote back to ask if I was crazy (though of course they phrased it more considerately). Did I really have this kind of time?

Well, yes, okay, I am a little busy. And my husband laughed one day when he came home to find me wandering around with a pair of scissors, searching for the perfect little button. But don't you find that some things, even when they add time, subtract from stress?

Being artsy is one of those things for me. And for such a joyful cause? Even better.

On that note, I am going to be away from the blog for the next week, maybe longer, as I try to stay on top of everything.

In the meantime, what are your favorite anti-stress activities? And favorite picture book presents for parents expecting a child?

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

The Babysitter's Here!

In between final edits (hopefully!) on Project Fun, I've been playing with ideas for a new project. As I mentioned last week, I'm a little scattered--I've got a few characters, a vague setting, hardly any plot. But almost from day one, I've known exactly who the narrator will be.

In my enthusiasm, I tried to explain the idea to my husband. You'd think I would've learned by now. Somehow my vague setting and complete lack of plot doesn't translate well. But my husband especially disliked my idea for the narrator.

See, even though I'm absolutely certain of my narrator, he's kind of an odd choice. For starters, he's not the main character. He's not the one who the story's really about, his stakes aren't through the roof. But I can't shake this idea--he has to be the one! I can hear the story in his voice.

So on a walk, I started thinking about other stories where the narrator isn't necessarily the main character. And I remembered a hysterical (yet sweet!) song by one of my favorite singers, Dar Williams.

It's narrated by a young girl, but as you listen (the music actually starts around 40 seconds if you want to skip ahead) you'll discover the bigger story really has to do with someone else.

Here's the lyrics if you'd like to read along:

"Tonight was just great, she taught us the sign for peace
Now she's made us some popcorn, we've turned out the lights
And we're watching movies
I don't understand and she tries to explain
How a spaceship is riding through somebody's brain
And there's blood and guts and oh

She's the best one that we've ever had
She sits on her hair and she's tall as my dad
And she tie-dyed my shirt and she pierced her own ear
And it's peace, man, cool, yeah, the babysitter's here.

Her boyfriend is Tom, but we call him the King of Romance.
He wears an American flag on the butt of his ripped up pants
and will they get married with kids of their own?
He says, "Not if she's going to college we won't"
And he kisses her, oh...
(Someday I'll have a boyfriend just like that.)

She's the best one that we've ever had
She sits on her hair and she's tall as my dad
And she got mad at dinner when Tom drank a beer
But peace, man, cool, hey, the babysitter's here.

And we all went to see her go dance at the high school
We made her a big card
And she told us that she'd be the unicorn wearing the pink
leotard, and
There she was leaping up just like she said
With a sparkling horn coming out of her head
And she's oh, oh, oh, oh
(I can't wait to give her the card, I can't wait to give her the card. She's the best one)

(OK, so the play was called "The Unicorn" and she was the
unicorn so that means that the star was my babysitter.)

But it's Saturday night I can't sleep and we're watching the news.
She says, "Do me a favor don't go with a guy who would make you choose."
And I don't understand and she tries to explain
And all that mascara runs down in her pain
'Cause she's leaving me, oh

You're the best one that we've ever had,
You sit on your hair and you're tall as my dad
And I'll make you a picture for college next year
So hush now, Peace man, the babysitter's here.
The best babysitters here."

I love how Dar conveys all the pathos of a young girl, yet the frustration and heartbreak of an older girl, too. She manages to tell both their stories.

So, at least for now, I'm keeping my narrator.

Can you think of any other stories where the narrator isn't necessarily the main character?

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Beginning again with John Truby's Anatomy of Story

When I start a new project, I'm like a kid in a candy shop. The possibilities are boundless, sugar-filled, and in every color imaginable. My problem is forcing my brain to concentrate and to reign all my options into something resembling a coherent plan. That's where Truby comes in.

I discovered John Truby's The Anatomy of Story a few years back. I blogged about it then, mostly complimentary, but I hadn't yet used his methods to create a story from the ground-up.

I'm ashamed to admit I haven't written about Truby since. But I now keep The Anatomy of Story on a bookshelf next to my printer, within hand's reach of my writing desk. Any time I consider a new idea, I start Truby's book over again.

I think part of the reason Truby's process works so well for me is because it's so organic. Truby begins by challenging a writer to list all the possibilities a story provides. Nothing's too big or too ridiculous to be included. The second step is to list all the challenges inherent in an idea: genre limitations, plausibility, a writer's own fears, making sure to avoid cliches or stereotypes.

Then, with those two lists, Truby helps me corral an idea into a shape. I identify the most interesting character, what her goal is, how that goal might change her, and what her climactic moral choice will be.

Those sound like big questions (and they are), but they're also very basic. Do I know the setting yet? Only as a grainy image. Do I know how the character will achieve her goal? No idea. The goal itself can be as fuzzy and indeterminate as escaping the bad guy. And of course I can always change it later. But as I puzzle through these initial questions, a skeleton story emerges. From there I can move onto key points in the story, character development, themes, setting, and plot (for more about that process, see my initial Truby post).

Working through The Anatomy of Story with Project Fun, from initial idea to solid outline, took a month. Was it time consuming? Yes. Did I ever change my outline as I started writing that first draft? Sure. But even from the very beginning of writing that draft, because of all my previous considerations, I was (fairly!) confident my story could make a proper novel.

I'm currently winding down edits for Project Fun, getting it squeaky clean and ready to send out into the world. So this morning, I gave myself some time to consider my next project (as yet unnamed!). I took Truby off the shelf and started all over again with chapter 1. I can't imagine doing it any differently.

How do you begin again?

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Critique karma

Basic etiquette in the writing world requires that when someone critiques your work, you do the same for them. After all, critiquing is time-consuming. Often, to read a rough manuscript, to think through it, and to offer coherent, positive, and helpful comments throughout can take many, even double-digit hours.

But sometimes this tit-for-tat rule doesn't work out. Maybe the critiquer doesn't have a manuscript ready to read. Or she already has several trusted readers. This is where critique karma comes into play.

Frequently, it takes the form of an IOU. A critiquer offers to read my manuscript now, and I'll read hers as soon as it's ready. Somehow it never fails that when it's ready, I'm in the middle of two thousand other, important things. But that's karma, and I read it anyway, and do a good job on it, because I know she did for me.

Sometimes long-standing writing friends will offer their services, knowing that the debt has been paid and repaid so many times, and will be again in the future, that it's not worth counting.

Recently, I was offered a home-cooked dinner with other readers as a thank you for my critiquing. That wasn't a bad trade-off, either.

Of course, sometimes this karma doesn't seem to work. Someone won't repay the favor. Or they don't even think to offer. Or I get a near worthless critique.

This doesn't bother me as much as it used to. I've been around the block enough that I have a number of trusted readers. Plus, critiquing someone else's writing has its own benefits. I can see what's up and coming in the market, read something I wouldn't ordinarily choose for myself, and hone my own analytic skills. Besides, I want my industry to be made up of gracious and helpful people, so I figure I should do my part. And I really do believe in critique karma.

Because sometimes a wonderful critiquer will offer to read for me, with no strings attached, and I am so completely grateful. So it all evens out.

Do you do this dance, trying out new readers? Or do you have a set group of readers you always use? Do you believe in critique karma?

Thursday, April 4, 2013

On to the next great adventure

I was at a dinner party the other night when everyone got talking about how obnoxious people in Massachusetts are. They're pushy, they're rude, they don't hold doors open for you, they have no time for pleasantries. And they honk their horns at almost any occasion. I listened, took it all in, but didn't say anything. Because my experience has been quite different.

I'm sure it has something to do with moving to Massachusetts from the UK, as opposed to, say, from Minnesota, which is surely the nicest state in the US. Brits aren't known for being chatty or friendly.  It's all a matter of perspective.

But the people on the hiking trails here in Massachusetts always say good morning to me. And more. I first saw an owl because someone pointed it out to me. I returned the favor, showing the turtles sunning themselves to some children on the trail.

The librarians share book recommendations with me. In fact, one of my favorite reads this year, Daniel O'Malley's The Rook, came highly recommended by them.

And the teachers at the school where I sub frequently hold the door for me, especially on cold winter mornings as I'm racing to get inside.

And unlike the UK, where I started feeling at home about the time I left, in Massachusetts I've had friends from almost the first day. I've found a welcoming (and challenging!) writing critique group in Amherst. We meet at the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art (how cool is that?). From that group, I've made individual friends, gone out for coffee, dinner. And I've gotten to know other writer friends I previously only knew online.

I've loved western Massachusetts... I've loved the walking trails, with turtles, owls, and herons. I've also loved the bookish atmosphere, how some of my favorite published authors live around the corner, how I'm constantly stumbling into other writers. I've loved the inspiration of older bookish people, too, like Emily Dickinson and Robert Frost. I love that every time I see a birch tree, I find myself thinking what it means to be a swinger of birches.  

Why am I telling you all this?

You've probably already guessed.

Yes, I'm moving again.

I've known for a while it might be a possibility, but it was only made official a few weeks ago. My husband's job will be migrating to Duke University, so we'll be making a new home in Durham, North Carolina. I hear there are plenty of beautiful places, state parks, beaches, and mountains to explore. I imagine the food will be better. The weather certainly will be, except that I've always loved snowy winters. The Research Triangle area is intellectual, academic. But will it be bookish?

As you can tell, there's some deep reservations. But I'm trying to be hopeful, too. Who knows what's in store with this next adventure? Besides a lot of packing!

And I think a few of my readers live a bit further South. Right? Any future neighbors out there?!

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Why I'm leaving Goodreads

Firstly, the public service announcement: I'm leaving Goodreads and moving all my reviews and book lists to LibraryThing.

The links on my blog have been changed. If you follow my reviews (or I follow yours), you can continue to follow me at I hope I'll find several of you there--do share your pages in the comments.

I try not to get too political on this blog. I don't want to alienate readers. Also, I don't think most of you really care about my politics. And especially when my politics come to books, writing, and reading, they get pretty esoteric.

But this is too important for me not to explain.

For those of you who haven't heard the news, Amazon has bought Goodreads.

Why is this a problem?

Let me tell you a story. Last fall, Phil and I were visiting some friends, and as bookish people, got to talking about e-readers. I made some off-hand comment like, "Well, as a writer, I can't support Amazon, so I've got a Nook." And my friends were truly baffled. One said something like, "But I thought Amazon was good for authors."

"What?" I said.

"They give a bigger percentage of book sales to authors than other companies."

"That's for self-published books," I told him. I think that's what he was talking about--that Amazon (as well as other companies) lets a self-published author take a higher percentage of their profits than traditional publishing allows. I proceeded to explain that whatever a traditionally published author makes on a book is stipulated in her contract. The retailer is irrelevant.

End of conversation, we moved on, probably talked about board games, food, TV, politics.

But this brief exchange has been bugging me ever since. These friends are intelligent, politically active people. They're major readers. They shop locally, they visit their nearby farmer's market. Yet they had no idea why Amazon could be problematic. In fact, they thought exactly the opposite!

So that's why I'm blogging today. Not because I'm hoping to change anyone's mind, or because I had no idea what else to blog about today, and especially not because I think it will change Amazon's behavior. But I think people need to understand, even if they don't agree, why I don't own a Kindle, why I don't buy books from Amazon, and why I even avoid Amazon's webpage.

Amazon has a massive influence in the book world. They own Abebooks (and therefore, a minority portion of LibraryThing, which is also partially owned by Abebooks). They own the Book Depository. They own Shelfari and Goodreads. They own the former children's publishing house Marshall Cavendish (now called Amazon Children's Publishing).

Apparently, Amazon has been on a path for some years to buy out all their competition. This means they are influential enough, and rich enough, to manipulate the market. They can undersell their competitors. They can undervalue books.

They can also mine and use a substantial amount of data to find out what people are buying and loving.

But even more frightening for me, they can control books' distribution, accessibility (see here and here), and even discussion.

But Anne, isn't this just good business?

Well, yeah. And Amazon's really good at business.  They've got great customer service. An excellent, searchable database. Their prices are cheap, they're easy to use. Even I buy things on Amazon (though never books). And I find it hard to begrudge anyone else's use of the site.

But books are knowledge. They're opinions, they're debate, they're history, they're facts, they're stories that can change the world. I don't want one company, however benevolent, to own all of that.

That's why Amazon scares me. And that's why I've left Goodreads. Will it make a difference? I doubt it. Amazon will probably subsume me at some point. And some day (hopefully!) I'll be published, and my publisher will want me to have an author page on Amazon. Maybe at Goodreads, too. That's the way the marketing world works.

But sometimes we personally need to take a stand. This is mine.

For another, similar perspective, check out Rob Spillman's article on Salon.

So... anyone else at Library Thing?