Wednesday, November 26, 2008

One for the Linkspam

It's just one link, but it's a good one: The Ten Mistakes Writers Make and How to Easily Fix Them.

Plot Devices

I am quite enjoying Rick Riordan's The Battle of the Labyrinth. (Side note: Did you know he has a blog? It's true!)

One thing I have noticed, however, is that Percy is relying on a lot of new information in this book from his dreams.

Now, I'm not done with the book yet (got about 75 or so more pages to go), but I have noticed that the dream plot device is quite frequent in this book. Riordan may have a way to cleverly explain this--maybe Morpheus, god of dreams, is going to play a part or something--but in all, I've found this plot device to be rather weak and distracting for me. Every time Percy starts dreaming, I find myself rolling my eyes and saying to myself, "What amazing and otherwise-unknowable thing are we going to find out about now?"

Which isn't very fair. This device was a major plot point in Harry Potter, for example (if you're counting visions as dreams). So why does it bother me now?

I think part of it is that I expect more from Riordan. I expect his plots to be ingeniously clever, and I expect there to be an amazing reason for why things are the way they are. Which does mean that I'm jumping the gun a bit to be critical about this plot device, considering I've not finished the book yet.

But...I don't think there's going to be a way to salvage it for me. Because, you see, even if there is some sort of ingenious plot twist to explain why Percy is receiving such vital information through his dreams, I don't really care: I already dislike the plot device. And the reason why I dislike isn't fair, either: Harry Potter already did it. That was the plot of Book 5, remember--Harry getting all this info from visions and such, and deciding whether or not he can trust it. And there was a twist in there that explained why--the mental connection between Harry and Voldemort.

Nevertheless, even though it worked there, it doesn't work here for me. I absolutely recognize that it's not fair. I absolutely admit that, had I read Labyrinth before HP5, I might not even notice. But now, just because it's been done once before, I find the whole device cliche. Also, I just keep noticing that it's a device, and wondering if there was some other way to have Percy discover that info.

So, word of warning to all of us writers: Beware of using a plot device that's been done before. Just one repeat can make it a cliche.

Sometimes I totally Feel This Way

So it's good to know Jack Handy agrees.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Using Wordle to Revise

Here's how I am planning on using Wordle to focus my revisions.

1. Put the entire chapter in Wordle.
2. Change the settings to show all words (in "language" tab, select "Do not remove common words")

3. Take a look at it. Some words are not going to need to be analyzed. You can right click on these and delete. I deleted she, her, the, and, Belle (the main character's name). These were words that did not need to be changed at all.

4. Now, there shouldn't be too much skewing for one word or another. Analyze what words are left. Look for things that indicate you've overused words. For me it was:

-was: an indication of too many passive sentences/weak verbs
-had: again, weak verbs
-to/at/in: perhaps too many prepositional phrases--I need to look at where and how they are used
-that: I might be leaning towards determinative sentence structure, or overusing that phrase

5. Next, I delete these words, then whatever other small phrases that pop up that aren't really important to structure/repetativeness (such as "a"). Now examine that word cloud. Is the overall thing you want to say in those words? Can you look at this word cloud and tell what the chapter is about (it doesn't matter if others can tell, just that you can)? Is there something there that is obviously not what you're trying to say--and should you delete that?


Christmas is coming, and I WANT THIS!!!! Husband, take note.

Y'all Worry Me

After I posted about Satan in my manuscript, Google Analytics say I had my biggest number of visitors ever.


After the Rewrite

So yeah, I've got the major rewrite done. I'm still not happy with the last chapter, and it still needs a spit polish, but the end is in sight. A lot of changes with this rewrite. Added 9k words--after deleting/changing probably as many (although my word count stands at almost 75k now, which I'm a bit worried is too high). Totally redid the beginning--with a much more distinct voice--so now I've got to make sure that voice is consistent in the rewrite. Totally redid the end. Whew. I'm tied thinking about it.

So, plans for now? Well, first I'm going to pay a pro to look at the first 3 chapters or so and see how that goes. I've wanted to do this for awhile, but I wanted to wait until I made the book as good as I could get it on my own. I'm going to continue sending my pages out to my crit group. I'm going to do one last spit polish--basically attacking passive verbs and injecting a bit more subtle humor into the pages and make sure that the storylines all add up nicely. After some more feedback on the story line and after the pro gets back to me, I'll do one last read-through. Then submissions.

I think I'm going to use Wordle for each of my chapters to make sure I don't repeat too many of the same words and have the right focus in my chapter. I recently found someone in my neighborhood who is also writing for kids, and we swapped pages and met last weekend. She noted that I over used the word "hissed." (As in: "Satan, begone from my manuscript!" she hissed.) I had not realized at all that I did this--I just wanted to use something more graphic than "said" without resorting to an adverb. (As in: "Satan, don't make me tell Jesus on you!" she said contemptuously.)

So I did a search. Of my 75k manuscript, I had 21 uses of the word "hissed" (and much of that, I think, is in the first chapters). So yeah, gotta go change that. Then I thought I'd see where my other overused words were. Here's the list:
  • just: used 286 times (another word I tend to overuse, pointed out by a crit member)
  • asked: used 234 times (not bad, right?)
  • were: used 359 times (umm. That's a lot.)
  • had: used 584 times (oh dear)
  • said: used 748 times (starting to feel a bit panicky at that...that's not good, right?)
And here's the kicker--the point where I really started hyperventalating and wishing I had never thought to seek out my overused words:
  • was: used 1,207 times!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
They say the first step to correcting a problem is to admit you have one. So, um, my name is Beth and I write too many weak-verb sentences. Back to the drawing board...

Monday, November 24, 2008

OMG Y'all

So I just finished my first full rewrite of my novel, and when I saved it, it was 666 kilobytes. So, yeah, I totally finished the rewrite, but now I've gotta go delete the Satan outta it.

*sigh* My work is never done.

My Questions Answered!

So I'm working on a tween novel. That's what I'm officially calling it--my compromise between MG and YA = tween novel. do I query that?

I posted the question off to all those reliable agent blogs, and the first one came in today. So, if you're like me and preparing to query a tween novel, here's how, courtesy of Colleen Lindsay of The Swivet.

Author Interview: Christine Marciniak

Christine Marciniak is more than just the author of two succussful blogs: The Simple and the Ordinary and Simply Put. She's also the author of upcoming book When Mike Kissed Emma. Recently, Christine agreed to do an interview for this blog and tell us all about it.

We can all read about your bio from the back of your book or your FAQ online. So, what's a completely random fact about you that most people don't know?

The book isn’t published yet and I’m still creating a website – so I don’t have a FAQ yet – but a completely random fact? I used to work as at Title Searcher during the summers when I was in high school and college. That is not someone who looks up titles of books or songs – it’s a person who checks records in the county courthouse to make sure that a seller of a piece of property has clear title to it – that they really own it and no one has any other claims to it. It involves looking at deeds, mortgages and sometimes copies of wills to see who owned a piece of property when.

As a child, what was your favorite book?

As a child I totally loved the Bobbsey Twins. I read every one the library had. But a book I loved as a child that really stood up to the test of time was Mandy by Julie Edwards. I was enchanted by that book and when I was an adult and found it again I read it with some trepidation – would I still love it. And you know what? I did.

As far as reading tastes changing over time. I’ve always liked stories with realistic characters that have a certain amount of adventure – but not a lot of horror type situations. And I love a good happy ending. I do read more non-fiction now then I did as a child, that would probably be the one place where my tastes have changed.

As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?

When I was very young I wanted to be a nurse – then I saw something on TV that featured an operation and I saw that blood was involved so that ended that.

Later I wanted to be famous. Starring in Annie on Broadway would have been nice.

In high school I planned on being a lawyer – but all the time I knew I wanted to write.

Is there a character like you? Is a situation in the book derived from real life?

I think there is always a little bit of me in all my characters. But other than the fact that my high school did the musical The Sound of Music when I was a freshman, there really isn’t anything based on reality. I didn’t act in any of my high school musicals – though I would have liked to. I did work backstage on them though – so I have a feel for the backstage workings of a high school show.

What was your timeline for the book? How long did it take to write, revise, submit, and finally, get published? How did you feel at these stages?

There isn’t a really clear timeline for this book. Several years ago I was writing another book entirely and a friend of mine was critiquing it for me and she brought to my attention that there was an entirely separate story within my book – one that could be removed and be a stand alone (turns out she was right).

In order to prove her point she pulled out all the parts of the file that were part of this story line and sent me that file. I took the file, changed the characters names and fleshed out the story line. When I was satisfied with it I submitted it to a few places. No one bit.

I revised it some more – changed third person to first and made some other changes and submitted again. This time there were a few bites. One agent requested I punch up the plot a bit – so I did. But in the end she thought it was too old-fashioned a story. I heard about Wild Rose Press and decided that their Climbing Roses line might be the perfect home for my book. I sent them the punched up version – but they wanted it toned down a bit. That was kind of the head banging stage where I went around mumbling to myself. “It’s too much for these people and not enough for these people.” But I got over it.

After one more revision I had a winner.

If your reader could only take away one emotion, theme, or idea from the book, what would you want that to be?

Don’t be afraid to find love in unlikely places. Look with your heart, not with your eyes.

What are your goals as an author? Where do you want to see yourself as a writer in 5, 10, 15 years?

My goal as an author is simply to have a lot more books published. I have several works in progress that I’d love to see in print. I’d like to find an agent to help facilitate the process.

What's the most surprising thing you've learned since becoming a writer?

This is a hard question to answer. I feel that I’ve always been a writer. And since having a contract to be published is so new I don’t know that I’ve learned anything from that yet.

Beyond the typical—never give up, believe in yourself—what would be the single best advice you'd like to give to an aspiring author?

Write. Write a lot. And don’t be afraid to change things. When Mike Kissed Emma went through three or four distinct revisions (as opposed to simply smoothing out an existing story line.)

What do you consider to be your strongest talent in writing? Your weakest?

I think I do dialog fairly well, but I find that sometimes I leave the description out. Perhaps I would have been good writing radio plays. I have to go back in and make sure my characters aren’t simply talking heads in a blank room.

What's a writing pet peeve that you have?

I’m not sure I have a writing pet peeve – but I do find question marks troublesome. Ask anyone who has read my works in progress – I tend to put question marks where they don’t belong and leave them off of the end of questions. I don’t know why I do this – I’ve been doing it since high school – but I can assure you I do know what a question is. It’s the punctuation that seems to throw me.

Linkspam !

Check out Kristin Cashore's current WIP: wow. Poor notebook.

Tabitha's got a checklist for revisions that's worth checking out.

How did I miss this? Rick Riordan interview on Cynsations from forever ago.
Interesting quote from interview:
I've been an English teacher for years, but I never look at my own books the way an English teacher does -- for themes, messages, symbolism, etc.
And, conveniently enough, Cynthia at Cynsations is giving away a copy of a Riordan reference book.

Zombies vs. Unicorns!!!!

And here's what I know you were really waiting for: Twilight (the movie) in 15 minutes.

Also: are you kidding me?!

POV and Voice

This should tell you how little engrossed I am with the other Ember sequels: I went to the library and got Rick Riordan's The Battle of the Labyrinth and am 100 pages into it instead of finishing off The Prophet of Yonwood first. I plan to finish....just not until I read something more exciting first.

But while I was reading this book, I couldn't help but remember that other book by Riordan I'm reading, The Maze of Bones. And that got me to thinking about how they're different.

The Percy Jackson series is in first person POV, and The Maze of Bones is in third person limited POV, alternating chapters between the brother and sister (and an occasional blip of 3rd omniscient).

I've blogged several times before about how amazing Riordan's voice is in the Percy Jackson series. It was the first thing I noticed in the series, and the thing that kept me hooked. With The Maze of Bones, there is less of a unique voice, and that led me to wonder whether or not it was because of the POV.

How powerful is POV in voice? Certainly some of the best examples of voice are from a first person POV: The Catcher in the Rye, The Adoration of Jenna Fox, Love that Dog. And their voices are unique, which lends that indefinable "voice" to the entire work, making the book stand out. However, some of the best books are also in third person: Harry Potter, The Hero and the Crown, The City of Ember. So how much impact does POV have on voice?

First Person POV and Voice: The voice is clear so long as the narrator is unique. We see the world through the narrator's filter, and therefore the book is made unique by the experience through the narrator. For example, think of The Adoration of Jenna Fox: the world is unique because we see it through Jenna's broken world. The plot, built in part around the mystery of Jenna's past, would be lost in a 3rd person omniscient voice. It would be possible in a 3rd person limited POV, but the angst of Jenna's internal struggle would not be evident.

Third Person POV and Voice: The voice must exist outside of the main character; by necessity, the voice exudes from the narrator who is not the main character. That does not mean, however, that the narrator has no personality. The key here is to imbue personality within the narration--think of the subtle comedy in the asides in the Harry Potter books.

The difference? There isn't one. Either way you go about it, you've got to make the narrator unique. Whether the narrator is the main character or an unnamed narrator, the key is to make that narrator unique.

For further reading:
Nathan Bransford on POV
The Buried Editor on POV

Thursday, November 20, 2008

What Kids Want

Considering my recent post (rant) about the classification of ages of characters, I thought this post by literary agent Kate Schafer to be rather timely. She basically points out that while there is a place for "literary fiction," there's certainly a place for genre fiction, too, and there's a difference.

... I preferred commercial fiction to literary, because in commercial fiction, the primary focus is the STORY, with beginning, middle, and satisfying end, not just a beautiful collection of words on paper without meaningful direction.

I want pace. I want adventure. I want romance. I want a story.

... If you want kids to read it, then you better make sure there's a driving story.

Which sums up my thoughts on this well. Kate's client, Catherine Cheek, added to the discussion with this post on her blog:

Fiction's primary purpose, first and foremost, is to entertain. If it says something fascinating and timeless about the human condition, that's fantastic, but first it should entertain. Stories should be about interesting people. There should be a conflict; the conflict should be resolved.

This does make me re-think my recent post on gimmicks. I got caught up in the idea of whether or not a gimmick reduces the literary quality of the book--but as long as the gimmick isn't the entire book, and as long as the book serves the primary purpose of entertainment--who cares?

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

On the Age of Characters

As you know, I am still a bit obsessed with the YA vs. MG question. Alan Gratz's short answer was simple: MG is for kids aged 8 or 9 to 12 years old, and YA is for 12 and up.

I wonder where Meg Cabot's The Queen of Babble fits in?

Lizzie Nichols, main character of The Queen of Babble is 25 years old, although at times she does sound much younger (she's got a lot of naivete). And she does some stupid things, like casual sex with the wrong person, but she's overall very wholesome (no drugs, only light drinking). In a lot of ways, it felt like an MG book with sex, a PG13 (maybe 17) rated version of The Princess Diaries, minus Genovia (instead, it's a French chateau called Mirac).

The very first book I tried to get published (currently shelved) starred a 25 year old character. Because I was 25 at the time. She's in college, and I needed her to be old enough to live alone. She doesn't do drugs or have rampant sex or cut herself (because I didn't). It's a MG-esque fantasy--girl with magic powers saves the world, etc., etc. I couldn't sell it. I got it as far as on the table of an acquiring editor at Random House, and she wanted the age lowered--to MG.

Where are books for 25 year olds? Where are books for college grads who want to read something about people their age, but not something boring (read: required reading) or sex?

I went to my bookstore: I couldn't find any.

This is one reason why the "age range" of books isn't fair. Not only do the age ranges imply a certain age of the character/reader--it also implies certain themes. You want a book where a girl gets super powers and saves the world? It must be MG--unless they have sex and/or angst, then it can be YA. You want a book that shows a fairy-tale like world where the character ends up at a French chateau? That's not adult, even if there's gratuitous sex. It's YA.

I'd argue that Queen of Babble should be an adult book--I think it's written for that college age girl who doesn't like the boring adult books but is probably too embarrassed to go to the kid section of the bookstore. But. Queen of Babble is in the kid section of the bookstore anyway. Age ranges on books are not just about the ages of characters or even, to an extent, the kinds of things they do. It's about theme. If it's light and fun, it's MG or YA, no matter what.

Just think about your bookstore or library. Walk down the MG section. Here magic lies. Here are stories of adventure and fun and maybe a little romance, but not enough romance to break up the adventure and fun. Walk down the YA section. Usually this is a tad darker--more snarkiness, more sex, some darker themes. Magic has a price (a la Justine Larbalestier's Magic or Madness).

Now go down the adult section. No magic there. Unless you go down the SFF aisle, and then you can bet that the fantasies will be epic, the SF will focus more on science than on fiction, and the tomes could all be cut by 100 pages or more and not lose anything but the boring descritipion and gratuitious sex scenes. You're not going to find much adventure down the adult aisles either--the thrillers will have murderers or terrorists, the romances will have more romance than adventure, and literary fiction will just put you to sleep.

Thank God there's a genre with at least a little ingenuity. And if this means that Queen of Babble gets shelved with YA because it's light and funny and different, or that I've got to age down a character because God forbid something magical happens in college, so be it. At least there's still a section in the library where I can find books that are decent.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

New Publishing Blog

Not only does Bowen Press have a new blog, they posted a brilliant poem that I liked so much I wanted to post it, too:

And I always thought that the simplest words
Must be enough. That when I say how things are
Everyone's heart must be torn to shreds.
That you'll go down if you don't stand up.
Surely you see that.
-Bertolt Brecht

Dr. Seuss was Pretty Cool

Via Bookninja: a few of the stories behind the Dr. Seuss books. Not really new info, but still pretty cool (and some of it was quite new to me). I especially liked the bit about Green Eggs and Ham:
Green Eggs and Ham. Bennett Cerf, Dr. Seuss’ editor, bet him that he couldn’t write a book using 50 words or less. The Cat in the Hat was pretty simple, after all, and it used 225 words. Not one to back down from a challenge, Mr. Geisel started writing and came up with Green Eggs and Ham – which uses exactly 50 words. The 50 words, by the way, are: a, am, and, anywhere, are, be, boat, box, car, could, dark, do, eat, eggs, fox, goat, good, green, ham, here, house, I, if, in, let, like, may, me, mouse, not, on, or, rain, Sam, say, see, so, thank, that, the, them, there, they, train, tree, try, will, with, would, you.
Can you imagine writing a book with only 50 words? Maybe I should make that a contest on here or something....

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Currently Reading

It is impossible for me to read one book at a time. Here's what I'm currently up to:

Evolution, Me, and Other Freaks of Nature: Finished. Will be reviewing soon. Quite liked it, actually.

Ida B.: I'll admit it, I skipped ahead. And I saw the surprise twist. But I looked quickly away before I was too contaminated so I could keep reading. I'm about half done, but have put it down for almost 2 weeks.

Queen of Babble: Two chapters in. Sounds engaging, but the main character may end up being annoying...we'll have to wait and see.

The Astonishing Life of Ocatvian Nothing: Half done. But. Um. All I can think about is that letter by a 13 year old boy about what he wants to see in publishing:
To all writers of books aimed at teenage boys, I beg you: please use only modern language, no matter what time period or universe your book takes place in.
The Reincarnationist: I suspect this book may be all about sex. Time will tell. About 4 chapters in, but may not bother with the rest, despite the high recommendations that came with it.

The People of Sparks
: So far (about 3/4 way through) not as good as Ember. It feels very much like a transition book, and while there have been some good moments, I fluctuate between waiting for something to happen and feeling as if I'm being preached at.

Just an Observation...

...but if I check out a book from the library months after you, and can still smell the cigarette smoke in the pages, maybe you should quit. Or at least maybe smoke less while holding the book. Cause this is gross.

Two Types of Writers

Through absolutely no scientific analysis, I have come to the conclusion that there are two types of writers.

To create a good book, a writer must have two things: an intriguing plot and well-formed characters. Everything else (setting, tone, style) comes naturally when those two things are in place. For example: if you want to have a mystery set in a contained area, and two characters who explore the confines of the area, you could have a book set in a distopic futuristic world that is set in a city underground (such as Ember). Although I don't know Jeanne DuPrau, I'm betting Ember started with Lina and Doon and the premise of the city, and the other details, including the setting, developed from that.

Therefore, since two key elements are most essential to writing, there are two kinds of writers: those whose natural tendancy is for plot, and those who lean towards character development. (I suppose there could be another kind, those who just naturall excel at both, but such a thought makes me gag with jealousy.)

Plot-writers figure out the premise of their book first. Their first question is along the lines of "what if X happened?" and they build characters around that idea. The events are most important, and the book focuses on the progression of the plot (what happens next). Their natural talent is tension.

Character-writers know their characters before their plot. They have an idea of a person, and then develop a situation for that person to explore. How the character changes is more important than the plot itself, and the book focuses on the progression of the character (how does So-and-so deal with X). Their natural talent is emotion and perspective description.

Now, obviously, for a book to be successful it will need elements of both kinds of writing. My only argument is that most writers do one of these things very well, and have to work harder at the other.

Me, I'm a plot girl. That's why now, while I'm revising my current WIP, I'm focusing more on character development and adding in more emotion, but I don't think I have as much of a problem in tension or plot twists.

So, is this true? Are there really two types of writers? And if so, where do you land?

Monday, November 10, 2008

Poetry Monday: In honor of Love that Dog

So, in honor of my review of Sharon Creech's Love that Dog, I got to thinking about what my favorite poem is. Now, I love me some Shakespeare, and I actually have a deep place in my heart for Japanese tanka and haiku. And there's this poem, that always makes me smile because my boyfriend (now husband) tried to convince me that he wrote it about me, even though I was an English major at the time and knew a little something about Lord Byron.

But. My current favorite poem, the one that sings inside my head, is "Tattoo" by Ted Kooser.


What once was meant to be a statement-
a dripping dagger held in the fist
of a shuddering heart-is now just a bruise
on a bony old shoulder, the spot
where vanity once punched him hard
and the ache lingered on. He looks like
someone you had to reckon with,
strong as a stallion, fast and ornery,
but on this chilly morning, as he walks
between the tables at a yard sale
with the sleeves of his tight black T-shirt
rolled up to show us who he was,
he is only another old man, picking up
broken tools and putting them back,
his heart gone soft and blue with stories.

Book Review: Sharon Creech's Love that Dog

First a confession: I read while in the bathroom. I have no excuse. I don't have kids who are distracting me, or a super-busy life, or anything...I just find myself bored and in need of a book at times. And I do tend to judge books by that measure: if a book is so good that I either a) read it in super-long sittings that make my legs go numb or b) walk out of the bathroom with my book still in my nose, then I know I've got a good book.

It's important for me to confess this as I checked Sharon Creech's book out at the library on Saturday, and took it straight into the bathroom with me.

And read the entire thing in one sitting.

While this is probably way too much information--and probably way too gross to talk about in mixed company--this is the best review I can honestly give a book. I could not put it down. I loved it. It is beautiful.

I sobbed on the toilet, y'all.
It was just that good. The writing--the story--the language--and that second-to-last poem where it all ties together--made me cry in that achy, hurting kind of way, where the tears come from that space in the center of your forehead where it hurts to even blink.

Five Sentence Summary: Jack's teacher has assigned him to write poetry. The book, which covers a year-long journal of Jack's poetry, is done entirely in verse. In writing, Jack discovers that he actually likes poetry, especially Walter Dean Myer's poem "Love that Boy." While Jack is discovering poetry, the reader is discovering Jack...and the reason why the speeding blue car has so much importance, and what happened to Jack's dog, Sky. (For more about the book from the author, click here.)

So what do we, as writers, learn from the book?

1. Full Circle/Detail Use: Here's the reason why my husband found me crying on the toilet: something mentioned briefly in the first few pages--a throw-away detail that seemed of no importance--became the crux of the end of the book. A tiny, tiny detail became so important that it shaped the entire ending of the book. (This next bit might be to spoiler-y, so I'm hiding it--just highlight. And if you're tempted to read it without reading the book, DON'T.) It hit me like a speeding, mud-splattered blue car when I realized how it tied together. In one of the first poems, Jack writes about a speeding blue car and it's importance, but says there's nothing to it but words, like William C. Williams's poem on the red wheelbarrow. BUT. Then you find out that that speeding blue car was the car that killed Sky...ah! I'm starting to tear up again!

2. Voice:
Creech uses her word choice to show voice very well. For example, when Jack likes Walter Dean Myer's poem, he doesn't just call it a good poem, he calls it the "best, best, BEST" poem. It's subtle, but it makes the writing real. It gives the narrator personality. Throughout, Jack's voice is very clear, and very unique. And, like I said, it's not very drastic. It's just saying a word three times instead of once, or putting a word in all caps, or using a different word than one would normally think of ("typer person" instead of "typist"). But the devil's in the details there.


Why give away a book when you can give away chainmail?

A thirteen-year-old boy's take on publishing today.

Also good: books with videogame-style plots involving zombie attacks, alien attacks, robot attacks or any excuse to shoot something.

A writer's words of wisdom: what he wishes he could have told his younger self

A writer on how she plots. This one is pretty good.

A Great Weekend

My weekend was awesome, but in that totally forgetable sort of way. Sometimes it's just nice to have nothing to do and nothing to happen. I went to the library and read three books. I canned pears (do you want an awesome recipe for canned pears?). I planted shrubs and weeded the garden. Played with the dog. Played some more.

And, yes, I did go back and look at my book. I think I might have chapter 1 done completely--no more revisions, no more rewriting--just done. And while I started off depressed that it had taken me so long to get chapter 1 right (how long would a book with 20 chapters take if chapter 1 took me months?!), I did something by accident that made it all right. I opened up my files and started looking at where I'd left off last time in rewriting, but accidentally scanned forward too far. My eye latched on to a chapter about three-quarters of the way in, and before I quite realized it, I'd read the whole thing. And it wasn't bad. It reminded me of where I need to get my characters. It reminded me that even though chapter 1 needed a lot of work, it was OK. It sort of gave me a light at the end of the tunnel.

So I had a great weekend.

Friday, November 7, 2008, who'm I kiddin? It's one link.

But a link about something that I am apparently becoming obsessed with: whether or not it is marketable to give away free books.

Here's the link. Read

If everything is free, how is anyone going to make any money?

First, the market and the internet don't care if you make money. That's important to say. You have no right to make money from every development in media, and the humility that comes from approaching the market that way matters. It's not "how can the market make me money" it's "how can I do things for this market." Because generally, when you do something for an audience, they repay you.

The article also points out that it is stupid for a book to cost the same in hard copy as electronic copy (i.e. $15 for a book and $15 for a Kindle download). I have long been against this set up. It isn't fair to charge me the same amount for a hard copy of a book as for an electronic download. (Also: iTunes should listen to that argument, too.)

Timeline of a Work in Progress

I never realized I was so busy. But dang. I just can't seem to get anything completed lately between one thing and another.

Anyway, one of the things that have been slowing me down is revising my first chapter of my work in progress. I think, maybe, I might possibly be done with the first chapter. But that opens me up to more work instead of less. Because as I get my first chapter close to done, I've made changes--in voice, in character attitude--that will effect everything else and means (another) rewrite.

So I wanted to look at how much time I've done with this WIP. I've never thought to do this before--but it was kind of interesting.

  • First idea for novel (original first pages written—during Christmas break): Dec. 30, 2007
  • First started really writing: March 18, 2008 (after completing National Board process)
  • Completed first draft: June (before going on trip to Europe)
  • First read-through/rough revisions: July 10-Aug. 1
  • Second read-through/revisions: Aug. 8-Aug 26 (beginning of new school year)
  • First feedback from someone not related to me: September 7
  • Complete rewrite began: Sept. 22
  • Scrapped first rewrite and started rewriting over: Oct. 13

So, the process has been almost a year--but, as noted, there have been quite a few interruptions (completing National Board process, which is like getting a degree; leading a group of kids to Europe; start of new school year), and most major things started around breaks.

It seems like a long time, and a short time. I had not realized that I first started with the idea in December of last year--but I do remember having written 5 or 10 pages, and then dropping it for months (I do that all the time--if I keep writing after the first chapter or so, then I keep working on the book). More than anything else, this motivates me to work harder and faster, and quit being so complacent about revisions!

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Author Interview: John Claude Bemis

I first met John Claude Bemis at his excellent presentation on developing worlds at the SCBWI-C conference this fall. After forgiving me for misspelling his name (sorry!), John very kindly agreed to do an interview for this humble blog.

John's novel, The Nine Pound Hammer, is due out in August of 2009 from Random House. The first in The Clockwork Dark series, this novel asks the question: What if the legend of John Henry were more than just a story? Building on American legends, a bit of magic, and a new spin on folklore, John's middle grade novel promises to be an exciting read.

We can all read about your bio from your FAQ online. So, what's a completely random fact about you that most people don't know?

I sold a song for a Val Kilmer action movie called Conspiracy. It was a straight-to-DVD release, and I won’t comment further on the movie’s quality since I’d love to sell more songs to Hollywood. But it was really exciting to hear my band Hooverville and my song playing in a movie.

As a child, what was your favorite book? Has your tastes changed since growing up?

Probably The Hobbit was my favorite as a kid since I read it at least on an annual basis from 5th grade on. It’s still one of my favorites, but I think as Tolkein’s fantasy world became the template for so many other authors, his vision for Middle Earth has suffered some in my mind. I feel bad, because it’s not his fault, but what can you do? The books I tend to like today are ones I would have enjoyed as a kid if they’d been around: Rowling, Pullman, Gaiman, the usual suspects. My very favorite series of late is Philip Reeve’s Hungry Cities Chronicles. What an imagination and what a fully (and bizarrely) realized world!

As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?

An artist. I love drawing. I’m not great, but not so bad at it either. As I began to prepare to apply to colleges, my interests began to diversify into music, songwriting, and fiction writing. I decided a broad liberal arts education would be more interesting than going to an art school. I did wind up with an Art History degree, but what good that’s done me remains to be seen.

How much of you is in your book? Is there a character like you? Is a situation in the book derived from real life?

I think all the characters are a little like me in their own ways. My protagonist, Ray, grows to love being in wild places. The pitchman Peg Leg Nel is very nurturing and compassionate and worries about the children in his care, which is not so different than the way I felt especially when I taught elementary school or I feel now as a parent. Conker feels unsure at times about what path he should follow, which I grapple with from time to time. Even some of the villains have aspects I can relate to, although I’ll add as a disclaimer, nothing outright wicked. I’d feel a little too self-conscious to reveal any specifics on this point. I try to give all my characters strengths and flaws, and I often look inward to draw these out. While the situations are purely fictitious, the idea of characters living on a train has always appealed to me. My grandfather wandered around the country on trains during the Depression and his stories were an impetus in many ways for The Nine Pound Hammer.

What was your timeline for the book? How long did it take to write, revise, submit, and finally, get published? How did you feel at these stages?

The Nine Pound Hammer began around 2002-2003 as a very different story. I wrote two complete versions and a couple of partial versions, until I abandoned the idea in frustration around 2005. That spring I met the other writers in my critique group and decided to give the story another chance. With their help, I came upon a satisfying structure for the story and finished it in 2006 (about a year of writing and revising that new and improved version). I feel the false starts and missteps of the earlier versions were enormously helpful in learning my chops as a writer and clarifying the strange world of The Nine Pound Hammer.

In the summer of 2006, I turned my attention to finding an agent. After extensive research, I decided on my top five dream agents. With her interest in Southern voices, Tracey Adams at Adams Literary was at the top of my list. I was fortunate to meet her and her husband Josh at the fall SCBWI-Carolinas conference in Durham, NC. They agreed to represent me in early 2007, and within a month, Josh had secured my book deal with Random House.

It was all enormously exciting, especially as it happened relatively quickly. But at the same time, I had been working very hard for at least five years to get to that point. The revision process with Random House has been extensive and at times exhausting, but my editor, Jim Thomas, is fantastic. He shares my vision for the series, and together we have whipped the story into shape.

I’m excited for next summer when the book will finally come out, but in the meantime, I’m trying to focus on finishing the last two books in The Clockwork Dark series.

If your reader could only take away one emotion, theme, or idea from the book, what would you want that to be?

Our world is an enormously complicated place. Not all that we believe to be good is always good, and not all we assume to be bad is always bad. The villains in The Clockwork Dark series embrace technology, but at the same time, the heroes depend on it as well, to lesser degrees. The heroes revere the wild, but the wild is not always portrayed in the book as a safe and perfect haven from the modern world. My most admirable characters are ones who strike a balance between opposing beliefs and stances, while the characters that are most flawed are obsessively fixated on particular notions.

What are your goals as an author? Where do you want to see yourself as a writer in 5, 10, 15 years?

I have notebooks and Word documents filled with other story ideas. I see myself continuing writing for children and teens for a long time. The beauty of this career path is that there’s no retirement age. I hope to become a better and more creative, polished writer as I grow older.

What's the most surprising thing you've learned since becoming a writer?

There is no one goal that will satisfy you and bring you happiness. Once you finish writing a book, then you need to revise. Once you get an agent, then you hope to have it published. Once it’s published, you still have more work to do regardless of whether the book is received positively or negatively. I think you have to be happy in the moment and find enjoyment at whatever stage you’ve reached. If you’re hoping you’ll be happy once you reach a particular goal, you’re doomed already. Happiness is appreciating what you’ve done and where you are, not looking at the future.

Beyond the typical—never give up, believe in yourself—what would be the single best advice you'd like to give to an aspiring author?

Write something you’ve never read before. Don’t look at other writers and books as a blueprint for you to follow. Do something different and creative and groundbreaking and hope the world shares your vision. If they don’t, they’re idiots anyway, right? Go write the book you’ve always wanted to read but nobody else has written.

What do you consider to be your strongest talent in writing? Your weakest?

My strongest talent is pairing unusual ideas—a dandelion hat that turns its wearer into little seed pods that drift away, a tall tale story like John Henry presented as epic fantasy, etc. My weakest talents are far more apparent. I err on the side of too many adjectives and adverbs, for example. Also I use far too many tags, such as “…he said with a scowl.” Ugg! Thank goodness I have a great critique group and editor to watch out for me.

What's a writing pet peeve that you have?

This is not so much a pet peeve about what other authors do in their fiction, as what they say about “how to write.” Hard and fast rules are often presented to aspiring writers as unbreakable. For example, “show don’t tell.” This often backfires so that some writers show every twitch, cough, and chuckle their characters make. I’ve read many great writers (Ursula Le Guin comes to mind) who can have passages of outright telling that are masterful. Some of the best writing is not showing or telling, but suggesting. Not every rule should be followed all the time. It’s good to learn the rules, but better to understand how to break them. Don’t believe everything you read in those “how to write” books.


OK, seriously, go vote :)

Also: don't forget to vote for that American president thing, either :)

Nathan Bransford did a rare query critique--worth checking out if you're in that boat.

Keri Mikulski is giving away books! Yay! YAY FOR YA!

PJ is on the 2k8 page, and has the neatest desk I've ever seen ever.

Grammbo is on the Bookshelf Muse page, with timely advice for revisions
Final advice for writers: Read the best of the best in your chosen genre. Read what inspires you. Try to best them. Write what you want to read and what you believe in. Write “up” from where you think you are. Reach for that one step higher on the literary ladder. Chances are very, very good you’ll reach it and beyond. Forget the “rules”; you can always go back and tidy things up. Make the reader’s heart stall, re-start, purr and accelerate. Be true to you and you alone. The reader will recognize honesty. And editors want to read fiction that takes risks, breaks rules knowingly, and creates a compelling, real world that the writer (and reader) believe in, experience and are reluctant to leave.
BookEnds posted what they want interns to look for in a reader's report...which is, coincidentally, the same things us writers better be sure we have if we want to stand out in that reader's report.

Go Vote!

Yes, yes, there's this whole election thing going on in America. I'm sure you've heard something about it.


Please go to KT Literary's website and vote for my question to be answered by a NY editor. You guys know how obsessive I've been about the free-book-as-promotion question, and this is my chance for some direct feedback on the question.

And I get a free book if I win. :)

Monday, November 3, 2008

Mini Linkspam!

Over on swivet, there's a good post to how to promote books online. And considering my last post, where half the books I bought were bought because I saw them online, that's some good stuff.

Also, speaking of self promotion, if you scroll down a bit on my blog, there's a "readers" link list. I'd love it if you became my reader. It helps my self-esteem.

And lastly (told you this was a mini-linkspam), Tabitha's got just a brilliant post on plot. Seriously, it's cool.

Oh, How I Love the Library, and Why I Buy Books

...even my limited selection library in a county with an amazingly low literacy rate. (True story: When I got my library card, the librarian started going on and on about the rules of using the library computers and internet. I said: "I don't care about the computer, I'm just here to check out books." She said: "Really?!" Sad. So sad.)

Anyway, my current reading selections are (sorry about the italics, can't seem to make 'em quit):
  • Ida B.
    • Because 1) the cover is awesome, 2) Martha Mihalick used it as an example of good voice at the conference, 3) it just looks adorable, like a puppy, but with words and apples instead.
  • The People of Sparks
    • Because the first one was so good, and the third one looks good, and I want to read the entire series.
  • Elsewhere
    • This one is entirely because I've picked it up and put it back down about 10 times in the book store. I'm finally gonna read it, darn it.
  • The Princess Diaries
    • Because Alyssa Henkin suggested I read this one for comedy and sympathy pointers in my own work.

And I've got on my Amazon Cart (to purchase as soon as I have more cash, and/or request for Christmas presents):
  • Graceling
    • Bookshelves of Doom said it was one of the best fantasies out there, and I've heard a lot of good things. Plus, the cover's cool. Plus, it just sounds neat.
  • The Emerald Tablet
    • Because PJ wrote it! And because it sounds like the exact kind of book that I'd want to read.
  • Love that Dog
    • This one was also used by Martha Mihalick as an example of voice, but it is also one that sounds like a book I'd like to treasure, so I'm investing in a purchase.
  • The Hunger Games
    • Too many people are talking about this one, I must succumb to the peer pressure. Also: I'm a bit afraid my MG fantasy is too dark, so this might be a way to evaluate the current market for that.
  • Into the Wild
    • I'm a sucker for any re-telling of fairy tales, especially ones that include Rapunzel, my personal fav (although Beauty and the Beast are up there, too).
  • Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist
    • The movie looked cute. I'll admit it: that's the whole reason for this one.
  • JK Rowling's Tales of Beedle the Bard
    • Because JK wrote it, and I will own everything she ever writes ever.
So, that's the run down of my library bag and my Amazon cart. It's interesting, to me at least, to see which books I'll "rent" and which I'll buy. Certainly some might be bumped from the rent to the buy category (I'm looking at you, People of Sparks), but only if I love it.

I read once that a book needs to make 5 "touches" with a person before the person buys it. Looking at the list, I think that's true. With Sparks aside (I do plan on buying it, it just happened to be immediately available in the library, too), all of the books I'm buying have only one "touch": one person recommended it, or I saw it in one place. I think I'd need only one other "touch"--one more person recommending it, or one more review, to make me want the book.

Interestingly, many of the books I plan on buying are also the products of blogs. I'll be honest, I'd probably never have heard of Graceling, The Emerald Tablet, or Into the Wild without blogs, and since all these authors blog regularly (and I check their blogs regularly), I am constantly reminded of their books and my intent to buy them.

I've been inundated with advertisements for The Hunger Games, Beedle the Bard, and Nick and Norah, so it was easy for me to remember to buy them. Typically, I want to buy lots of books--I'd rather buy than check out from the library because I like owning books, and I like re-reading books. And I don't like returning them to the library. But often, I forget what books I intend to buy. I rarely go to the bookstore with an agenda. It takes consistent "touches" with me to get me to buy the book.

Also, only one book on the "buy" list is based on language alone--Love that Dog. The snippet that Martha Mihalick read during her presentation sold me--after just a few lines, I knew that the language/style/subject was a book that I'd cherish and love. So, with the exception of the rare book that just grabs me, I generally need constant reminders for me to seek out a book to purchase.

Writing When You're Not Writing

As evidenced by the sudden slowing on posts on here, I've been pretty busy lately. I keep forgetting that when I assign my students essays to write, I've got to sometime grade them all, and I do tend to put boring parts of my job (grading) to the very end.

So, I've been doing a lot of things other than writing, which kinda sucks. I graded most of last week and the week before (stupid essays), and I had to clean the house because the dog fur had carpeted the hardwood floors, and that's just gross. And our pears are finally ready to be picked, and that means next weekend = canning.

All that to say that I have really had no time or opportunity to write. But that doesn't mean I've not been working on writing.

See, some of my best writing happens when I'm not writing at all. I've got a forty minute drive to work (each way), and that leaves me with a lot of time to think. And what I'm thinking about is my writing. I think about things like characterization, about scenes and where I should put them, about the next book I want to write.

Some of the best writing I've ever done was when I was going 70 miles per hour down the road at 6:30am.

So, if you find yourself (like me) with the situation where you want to write and just can't, don't beat yourself up for not having a chance to write. Don't forget that writing is more than sitting at your desk and putting words on paper. Writing is also thinking, plotting, developing in your own mind--and writing every day includes all those mental words and scenes you construct.