Thursday, December 30, 2010

The price of excellence

After reading a bunch of new books and taking a good bite out of my TBR pile, and finding myself deep in a revision, I decided I need a comfort re-read. The book I chose was May Sarton's The Small Room. Today, these excerpts struck me:

"'One always gets a negative reaction after a good class. It's one of the hazards of the profession.'
'Is it?'
'You've given a piece of yourself away, even if it is only a certain amount of nervous energy, don't you know? And you are a bit deflated as a result--diminished, one might say.'"

Those were two teachers talking about their profession, but it seems to me they could as easily have been two authors talking about writing. Now this:

"'... we talk a great deal about excellence, and pride ourselves on demanding it, but when we get what we have asked for, become ... confused and jejune ... We are unwilling, evidently, to pay the price of excellence. ... The price is eccentricity, maladjustment if you will, isolation of one sort or another, strangeness, narrowness. Excellence costs a great deal. It is high time some of us faced the fact.'"

I realize these quotes may sound a little negative. But I think they resonated with me because they acknowledge that writing costs a lot, and striving to write well costs even more. And it makes sense, since writing gives us so much. To me, these quotes are comforting because they give us permission to take breaks, to juggle priorities. The times that seem tough? They are tough; it's not our imagination! Writing is a form of giving, and it requires energy and time and concentration and solitude. And I say this not in a suffering-is-noble way, but in an it's-natural-to-be-tired-when-we've-worked-hard sort of way.


So here's to working hard ... and then resting.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Look around

I'm not going to do a retrospective post of 2010. I've been seeing many such posts, and I'm a little dizzy with everyone's accomplishments, and with all the plans and resolutions for 2011. Looking back over the past two years, all I can say is this:

Nothing makes a year pass more slowly than having your first book scheduled to come out the following year. (So went 2009.)
Nothing makes a year pass more quickly than having your first book come out in January. (So went 2010.)

I swear, 2009 was about a hundred times longer than 2010.

At the moment, I don't want to dwell on the year that was or the new year that soon will be, but on the present. This moment, right now. I have a note on my desk that says, "Look around you," and if I do that, I see:

the rumpled quilt on the bed
the photograph of tulips that hangs on my wall
a December night sky, purpley-black with a single star glowing
snow gleaming on the ground
the blue cap from a bottle of water drunk long ago
the brown scarf I use as a dust cover for my keyboard

What do you see?

Monday, December 27, 2010

A question of names

First up, I must post the December 28 question for the Book Club's 31 Days of Giveaway. If you know the answer to this holiday trivia question, post the answer on Crissi's blog to win the day's prize (a signed hard-cover of The Secret Year). You must post the answer on Crissi's blog and not here because not only is she drawing the winning name, but the security of this quesion is such that I don't even know the answer myself!

The question is:

In the 1968 animated film The Little Drummer Boy, what is the Drummer Boy's name?

Which naturally suggests character names as my blog topic for the day. But I could rant forever about how I search, and change my mind a dozen times, and finally pick a character's name, only to find that a bestselling writer has written a book similar to mine and used the same main character's name, so I change the name, only to get a new boss who has the character's new name, so I change it again, only to have a serial killer make headlines with that name, so I change it again ...

Not that I am bitter. After a few hours with the baby-name book, all is right with the world again. For example, did you know that the name "Riju" means "innocent?" And that Maja was the second most popular name for Swedish girls in 2005? You're welcome!

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Fresh snow

I want to point out one of the Heifer Intl. challenges that's still going on, because it goes through New Year's Day, and the host is giving $10 per comment. I think some of you saw my Twitter post or the link from Nathan Bransford's blog, but if you haven't stopped by Anemone's Assays yet, please do!

In holiday news, it was delightful to return from my Christmas trip and find so many blog posts with pretty pictures and lovely wishes. It was also delightful to beat the snowstorm home, and to watch the white stuff pile up at my leisure, while the Christmas tree glows and my cat naps. Really, Norman Rockwell needs to just paint me right now!

In the writerly realm, I've been reading a lot. I'm thinking about form in YA novels: chapter length, scene length. Letters, emails, diary entries. Newer forms like verse novels and graphic novels. (And who knows what digital novels will morph into?) There's a certain form I've been dying to play with, but it has to wait until I get through my current project.

This is part of what keeps art fresh, I think: trying new things. I may hate this new form, or I may fail at it. But "failure" in the arts is really a relative term. So often, it means "not yet" or "not this one" rather than "not ever."

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

'Tis the Season

Thanks to everyone who participated in the Heifer International blog comment challenge. At the deadline, I had 35 comments on LiveJournal and 19 here at Blogspot, for a total of $54. Then, in the true spirit of social networking, I asked Twitter whether I should increase that to $75, out of holiday jollity and the like. After all, I know this is a tough week to collect comments online, given that people began to disconnect from their computers in favor of real-life merriment last Friday. Twitter replied (in the voice of Kelly Fineman) that yes, I should give $75. So I did, at 4:16 PM Eastern time.

Which doesn't mean one should do everything Kelly says. But she is a smart person, who tends to give good advice--about writing, especially.

Speaking of writing: yes, I have been! I'm in that stage of revision where the work may be good or it may be bad, but the one thing I know is that it's familiar. Very, very familiar. I've ripped out scenes and added new ones and then gone over the new scenes. I've fixed things on the sentence level and on the word level. I have now been over this manuscript more times than I can count. So it's time to step back for a few days, and return later to read it with fresh eyes.

I find that most writing projects reach this point--when they get this far at all.

For my final note of the day: The Secret Year is supposed to be out in paperback tomorrow. I don't know how closely bookstores will follow that release date. Unless you're a mega-bestseller with a household name, release dates tend to be more of a suggestion than a hard-and-fast rule. But this is probably my best gift this year:



I will be online in the coming days, but my schedule will be more sporadic than usual, so I'll take the opportunity now to wish you all wonderful holidays.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Giving


Because you know I love this sort of thing, I'm joining in. I'll donate $1 per comment on my blog for the first 75 unique commenters (no 75 comments from the same person!).
You can comment here or on my LiveJournal page. Anonymous comments are only accepted over at LiveJournal, and are screened until I can review them. During the challenge I will suspend my usual policy of trying to answer every comment, but I will still read every one.

ETA: This challenge is now closed! Thank you, and please comment on the other participants' blogs!

This costs you nothing. If the spirit moves you, please do any or all of the following:
Go to Nathan's blog (I provided the link above); comment there and on the other participating blogs. Make us all donate! You have the power! ;-D If you're still inspired to do more, spread the word about this via Twitter, Facebook, and whatever magical elves you may know who spread information.

If you're looking for something to say in your comment, why not name a friend who means a lot to you? I've been thinking about my friend B. a lot, because a couple of days ago was the anniversary of her passing, and it's especially fitting for me to do this challenge right now. B. was an extremely generous person. So my challenge is in honor of her, and you're welcome to comment in honor of a friend, whether that friend is still with us or not.

Thank you!

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Seasonal thoughts

Wrapping presents affords me the opportunity to collect random thoughts on the season:

1. I have plenty of empty boxes, but none of them fit the presents I'm trying to wrap.

2. The older I get, the less I need to receive.

3. I get all excited about the Winter Solstice, because now the days will start getting longer.

4. Some people complain about holiday letters, but I like them a lot, especially from people I don't hear from often.

5. I keep finding cat hair in the Scotch tape.

6. There's a line in one of the holiday songs about "scary ghost stories," but I've never heard of any family having a tradition of telling ghost
stories at this time of year. Unless maybe that's a reference to A Christmas Carol?

7. I don't care how old I get, I still always want a white Christmas.

8. Candy canes are nicer to look at than to eat.

9. Books make excellent gifts. So do bookstore gift cards. (This message brought to you by a writer.)

10. My favorite holiday songs to listen to are "O Holy Night" and "Carol of the Bells." My favorite one to sing is "Joy to the World." Nobody needs to hear me attempting to sing "O Holy Night."

11. Sometimes it seems like a fun idea to start singing "The 12 Days of Christmas," but along about the 6th day, regret sets in.

12. I like to listen to holiday music while I wrap gifts, but I usually run out of music before I run out of gifts.

13. Sometimes I think I should get Nutcracker tickets, which always makes me think of the last time I saw the Nutcracker ballet. I was recovering from a bad cold, and had an uncontrollable coughing fit during the dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy.

14. I love the lights, tinsel, and decorations at this time of year. I hate when everything gets taken down; it makes January even bleaker. I gave this same viewpoint to a character in my book (Julia); it's one of the few attributes she and I share.

15. At my day-job holiday party, we do one of those gift swap-and-steals that is, for me, a great spectator sport.

16. The older you get, the faster Christmas comes.

17. I have no desire to go out on New Year's Eve. The few times my husband and I do go out, we're home by ten o'clock. PAR-TAY!

18. Peppermint bark is a really good idea.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Final group of 2010 debuts

I can hardly believe it, but this is the last crop of novels in my "Books of 2010" debut feature. I hope you've enjoyed this look at many of the year's new books.



Anna and the French Kiss, by Stephanie Perkins. Young adult. Anna is sent off to boarding school in Paris, where she meets the attractive √Čtienne. Unfortunately, he already has a girlfriend.




The Mockingbirds, by Daisy Whitney. Young adult. A date-raped student turns to a student-led group for justice.



Inconvenient, by Margie Gelbwasser. Fifteen-year-old Alyssa copes with a crush, popularity problems--and an alcoholic mother.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Ten signs you may be revising a book

1. You accidentally call a friend by your main character's name.
2. There are candy wrappers on the floor of your writing office.
3. You ask people questions like, "Which sounds better, 'violet mist' or 'misty violet?'"
4. No matter how people answer the questions in #3, you write things whichever way you were going to write them anyway.
5. You realize how many times you use the word "just." The "find and replace" feature becomes your best friend.
6. You're convinced this is the most wonderful thing you've ever written.
7. You're convinced this is the most terrible thing you've ever written.
8. You're not sure when you last combed your hair, although you're pretty sure it was this week.
9. Checking off an item on your editorial checklist makes you dance.
10. You act out part of a scene to double-check that it really makes sense. You hope none of the neighbors can see you through the window, gesturing elaborately to no one.

If you are experiencing these symptoms, you may be revising a book. Seek help immediately in the form of music, chocolate, comfortable sweatpants, and sympathetic family and friends.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Quirky is in, right?

I have a writer friend who once won a sizable grant. After that, every time she mailed a manuscript, she tried to go to the same postal clerk who had stamped her prize-winning manuscript.

In my submission-tracking spreadsheet, I use slashes to represent works that I've sent out, checkmarks to represent those that are accepted, and X's for rejections. The thing about slashes is that they can be forward slashes (/) or backslashes (\). At times, I have convinced myself that the manuscripts I track with forward slashes have a greater chance of acceptance; at other times, I've decided that manuscripts tracked with backslashes have a better chance of success. (Most sensible people know a well-written, properly targeted manuscript has the best chance of all, but that's not as easy to control as the direction of the slashes.)

Both of the above fall into the category of superstitions, but there are also writerly quirks and habits. Some of mine: my penchant for scribbling notes on receipts and candy wrappers; my need to have a glass of water on my writing desk at all times; and the way pens accumulate on my desk until the very moment I want one, when they all suddenly migrate to other parts of my office.

What are your writing quirks?

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Networking, more on giving up (or not), and an invitation

As soon as I saw this post by R.L. LaFevers of Shrinking Violet Promotions, I knew I wanted to link to it. There are so many good points here about social networking for introverts, for writers--for anyone, really. For example:

"The truth is, while I love measurable metrics as much as the next person ... I’m not sure this is the best way to approach your list of followers & friends. The thing we’re after here is building meaningful connections."

Amen to that. One reason I've kept blogging for three years is not because I've racked up X number of followers, but because I enjoy it. One reason I read a lot of other blogs is because I enjoy that, too. My online community has given me so much, and I hope I've given back, too.

Also from the same post:

"Where do you want to spend your emotional and creative resources? This isn’t a trick question and there isn’t one right answer." (I think this is also related to what I blogged about  yesterday.)

And speaking of good blog posts and online community, Becky Levine remarked on one of my blog posts and ran with it.  I had blogged about how you know whether to give up on a project, and Becky had these thoughts, among others:

"Because, in every project, there will be a moment when you hate it. When you don’t know where you’re going ... . So why (and when) do you keep going."

and

"Well, that need is not just about the moment, about the scene or the character. It’s about me–if I back off and give up on the need, how is that going to make me happy."

(So much of my writing is, deep down, about my own needs. That doesn't mean my manuscripts are literal expressions of my needs--everything, of course, is symbolic and figurative, transformed and distilled.)

I like this bloggy synergy, this exchange of ideas. And I've also been thinking about how I would like to visit a few more corners of the internet, and have a few more people appear on mine. So one of my goals for 2011 is to do just that: to do some guest posts and host some guests here. If you would be interested in this, please email me at jennifer[at]jenniferhubbard[dot]com, and we'll see if we can work something out. I don't want to blog just about my book--I'm looking for a variety of topics. You don't have to be a writer, and your blog doesn't have to be about writing--although if you are and it is, that's perfectly fine, too. I just thought it might be fun to have a "blogger exchange program" of sorts.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Writing and life

Sometimes writing means transforming the stuff of life into art. Distilling experience, crystallizing it so that readers recognize it instantly and say, "Yes, that's what life is like."

Often writing means pausing from life, retiring behind a closed door, to make sense of everything that has happened, to digest it.

Sometimes the stuff of life is so immediate, urgent, and troubling--or so thrilling and absorbing--that we can't write. We're too preoccupied with living.

Sometimes we break away from our writing desks to make sure we don't miss life.

Sometimes we live with a mental keyboard in our heads, recording notes. Sometimes in this way, we capture a part of life that we would otherwise forget. Sometimes we write down those notes to fix them more permanently.

Sometimes the writing desk is a solace, an escape from tedium or pain in daily life.

Sometimes writing is a celebration. Sometimes it's a way to process painful truths.

Writing is a life examined, which is supposed to be a life worth living. But a life can't be spent only writing.

Sometimes we put down writing for a while. Sometimes it refuses to be put down.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Whether to give up on a project

Sometimes the magic leaves a project. We don't get to the ending, or maybe we don't get to turn that early draft into the book it could be.

Of course, maybe it was never meant to be a book in the first place.

My files are full of projects that I took through a few chapters or a few drafts, but then abandoned. "Abandoned" may be a strong word, however. Only when I'm dead will they be truly and permanently abandoned. For now, they're just in suspended animation. Because I frequently do return to older projects when I'm ready--when I've finally figured out how to write them, or when I can stand to be around those characters again, or when I can handle that subject matter.

It's common to hit tough spots with manuscripts. The question is how to tell a tough spot that must be powered through from a tough spot that means the project needs to be set aside.

For me, it's a gut-level decision. I could say that boredom or cluelessness (no idea what happens next) are signs to abandon a work in progress. But I often hit those spots with manuscripts I'm passionate about, and it might just mean I need to backtrack a bit, or delete a bad scene, or do some character sketches to identify the motivations. A more fatal flaw is the lack of a compelling voice--but then, the project might be resurrected with a different main character.

Deep down, it's just a feeling of excitement, of commitment, a sense that this manuscript is worth it. That this story is interesting enough to finish, and revise, and revise again. That my life will be just a little bit less if I don't finish this story.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Top 10 messages writers send one another

Aside from practical critique and information, such as where we've gone overboard with the adjectives and where we've left plot threads dangling, and how to write query letters, etc., what we most need from our writer friends is just their understanding. Our writer friends know what it's like to live with imaginary characters, and how frustrating the road to publication can be. They celebrate our successes and commiserate over the low points, even when the rest of the world doesn't understand why an end-cap is a high point, or why foil on a cover is exciting. I absolutely treasure the writer friends who have been my behind-the-scenes cheering (and cheer-up) section, and here's a big THANK YOU. In that spirit, my Top 10 messages writers love to receive from their writer friends:

1. I know the manuscript is strangling you right now, but you will flip it on its back and teach it some manners. You really will.

2. It takes as long as it takes. You'll get there.

3. Trust yourself.

4. Take a break.

5. You can do it.

6. I'm sorry you're dealing with that! It's not fair.

7. I don't understand the craziness of this business either.

8. Hugs.

9. Here is a link to the most hilarious thing on the internet EVER.

10. Did you see? Your book made the [fill in the blank] list!

They're not necessarily in order, because our needs change constantly. ;-)

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Everything you probably never needed to know about taxes

Writers, like most other self-employed workers, experience the joy of multiple tax forms. The IRS actually explains everything for free—there's a form and/or a publication to answer every question. The trouble is that the explanations often involve exceptions piled on exceptions, and many times you must fill out one form with information obtained by performing a calculation on an entirely different form (or worksheet, or schedule, to use their precise terminology). Often, the instructions send you off to look at several other IRS publications, each explaining a different aspect of the situation.

I’m not at all math-phobic, but after a while it all runs together and begins to look like this:

“Report the income from line 45A on line 77, unless the amount on 45A is less than the amount on line 53, in which case report the lesser of the amount on line 53 or line 61A, unless you are a sole proprietor born on a Wednesday, in which case consult Publication 4574387 to calculate the amount to report on line 77. However, if you are left-handed and own more than one but no fewer than four marmots, consult Publication 56897586 to calculate the amount on line 77, unless you also received mining royalties in a year ending with a 3.”

And this is why accountants were created.

Disclaimer/warning: I am not a tax professional. (As if you couldn't tell.)

If the above discussion of the business side of writing has left you hungry for more craft talk, let me refer you to
Josh Berk's post on how to write a romance novel. Although I'll warn you right now: it is even sillier than my tax talk.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Jacks-of-all-arts

Yesterday I blogged about music. And today I’m thinking about how many of the people I know have some creative outlet, and most writers I know have at least one in addition to writing. On the blogs I read, I find people doing collage, quilting, painting, photography, sewing, etc., etc.

Alyce Wilson even opened up a space on her blog for a “holiday bazaar” where blog readers can put up links to their creative wares, and browse one another’s work.

And speaking of arts, in the fan-art/ekphrastic category, there is this stunning example where L.T. of the Quest:Published blog created, in 3-D miniature, the garden from the Cindy Pon's book SILVER PHOENIX. Any artist would be excited as Cindy was to inspire that kind of creativity in someone else.

In fact, Cindy herself is an example of a writer with another artistic talent: in her case, Chinese brush art.

These other forms of creativity can be a break from writing, or they can nurture it by bringing an additional part of our imagination to the writing desk. What artistic outlets do you have?

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Cross-pollination

I just did a quick project that involved my getting a lot of musical recommendations from people. It's been a long time since I was introduced to so much new music at once, and it reminded me how electrifying it can be to discover a musician you love but have never heard before. I still remember the college friend who got me into REM, and the radio station (WXPN in Philadelphia) that introduced me to Kelly Joe Phelps and so many other blues musicians I wouldn't have found otherwise. Movies and TV commercials have been very powerful in introducing mass audiences to certain tunes.

For me, there's a synergy between music and writing; I almost always have music on while I write. Sometimes people ask me for a playlist for The Secret Year, and I hesitate because the songs I listened to while I wrote the book won't necessarily resonate with anyone else. Also, my musical tastes tend to run heavily toward songs that were written before I was born.

But my recent experience made me think that perhaps I should mention some of the songs I listen to, just because I'm listening to songs that don't exactly get mainstream coverage right now. Maybe someone out there will get to have that joy of discovery. (Or get to feel the joy of superiority if you decide I have crap taste in music.)

So FWIW, here are two songs I listened to over and over while writing The Secret Year, and still associate with that book:
"Temptation," by Tom Waits
"Big Love," by Fleetwood Mac (the 1997 live version, not the earlier version which was totally different)
I didn't listen to "Wicked Game" by Chris Isaak while writing the book, but it's occurred to me since that it would have been perfect.

And here are a few other random songs from my collection, not associated with any particular piece of writing, but which I like:

"Anji," by Simon & Garfunkel
"Fare Thee Well," by Kelly Joe Phelps
"I Just Want to See His Face," by the Rolling Stones
"Get Back," a Beatles tune as done by Daddy Mack Orr
"Flowers Never Bend with the Rainfall," by Simon & Garfunkel
"I Feel So Good," by JB Lenoir

Happy listening, whatever you listen to.

Friday, December 3, 2010

It's a conspiracy, I tell ya

I've noticed with my friends who have dogs that nothing makes the pets crave their attention like getting on the phone with someone else. "I don't understand it," my friend will say after being interrupted for the fourth time. "The dog was just lying there ignoring me, and suddenly she needs to bark and get into things and play!"

It's like cleaning--no sooner do I start to attack one part of a room than I get a great idea for how to organize another part of the room, or I realize that some other cleaning project is really more urgent than the one I've already started.

Similarly, for a writer, nothing makes shiny new story ideas come flying into the brain like committing to a single story idea. Especially if one is working on a long project with a deadline that requires solid focus and commitment. Then the Muse comes dancing around, tossing out exciting new suggestions like confetti. "How about this? Or that? Or this other thing? Ooh, look! Perfect! Brilliant! This one will be the Book of Your Life!"

In vain does the writer respond that yes, those are very nice ideas, but the current project has to take precedence. Fortunately, there are notebooks and little scraps of paper on which to record the shiny new ideas while keeping on course with the work in progress. Those scraps will lurk on top of the writer's desk. Waiting. (And occasionally barking a bit).

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Rocky and milestones

Rocky, the 1976 movie about a small-time boxer who gets his big chance, is part of the Philadelphia experience. The city has a statue of Rocky. There’s a plaque in front of one of the cheese-steak places (Pat's) where Sylvester Stallone stood during the filming.  And even though Philadelphia boasts an impressive art museum, there are plenty of people to whom a run up the museum’s front steps (something Rocky does in the movie), is even more significant than anything inside the building. There’s even a book about people who run up the steps, and why they do it, and what it means to them. (And yes, I ran up the steps myself the first time I visited the museum, as a 17-year-old college freshman.)

All this is to explain why the song “Gonna Fly Now,” the theme from Rocky, occasionally plays in my head. Writing a novel takes a long time; there aren’t many days where you get to type, “The End,” and sit back in satisfaction. And so, as with any endeavor that takes a long time--renovating a house, earning a college degree, growing a garden, training for a marathon--it’s important to recognize milestones along the way.

Rocky does his triumphant step-run and fist-raising not at the end of the movie's climactic fight, but after a good training session. He’s had a good day; he’s doing his best. He’s taking care of that day and letting the big picture take care of itself. I think that’s why people have found this movie so inspiring, and why nobody cares (or perhaps even remembers) that Rocky actually loses the big fight at the end. The official outcome of the fight doesn’t matter. Because everyone who sees the movie realizes that, in a bigger way, Rocky really wins.

Every day, I’m chipping away at a big project. Every day brings its own milestone. What are yours?