Saturday, December 31, 2011

My kind of celebration

I've been leaving New Year's wishes in the comments section on various blogs, but by now I can't remember which ones, so to all of you: Happy New Year!!!

I never really enjoyed going out on New Year's Eve. It always seemed like we were supposed to be having a better time than we actually had, I never felt different at 12:01 from the way I felt at 11:59, and I was always scared to be out on the roads with drunk drivers. And so, years ago, I began the tradition of allowing myself to do what I really like to do, which is: stay in, enjoy the final days of the Christmas tree, maybe watch some TV, maybe write.

May you enjoy your celebration, whether it's quiet like mine, or flashier and full of confetti!

I'm sorry that I can't remember where I initially saw the link to this, but I'm bringing it up because it amuses me to comment on Lake Superior State University's 2012 List of Banished Words, i.e.,words that people think are overused, misused, or otherwise abused. And opinions, I do have them:

"Amazing?" I get why people chose this one, but I don't agree. I realize its overuse has changed its meaning somewhat, but that doesn't bother me. It's a handy all-purpose sign of approval.

"Baby bump:" I do agree with this one. There is something so cutesy-wootsie about the phrase that I get a little sick whenever I hear it.

"Shared sacrifice" and "Win the future:" Oh yes, a thousand times yes. In fact, it would be a safe bet to just put every phrase uttered by politicians on this list.

"Trickeration?" I've never heard this word used by anyone.

"Ginormous:" Sorry, Lake Superior State U., but I LOVE this word. It's the perfect portmanteau.

And so I end 2011 as I began it: full of word geekery. Of which we can never have too much, IMHO.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The dance of avoidance

People often skirt around issues, protect themselves or others, sugarcoat things, fool themselves. Therefore, this is realistic when done by fictional characters, but avoidance can become a bit of a well-worn path. Writers have to be careful about not making characters dance this dance for too long, just for the sake of filling up pages.

Sometimes it's fun to let the characters go ahead and make that declaration, step off that cliff, say the thing we all know they're thinking--but thought they wouldn't dare to say. It can set up subplots and interim conflicts, give us something to do on the way to the main event.

Such moments have to fit the character, of course. There should be a motivation and a reason. But this is one way to break a pattern if the writing begins to feel predictable or formulaic: don't let the character wriggle out of this scene without taking a risk.

Monday, December 26, 2011

A writer's path

One of my former poetry teachers, Deborah Fries, was interviewed at Kelcey Parker's blog, "PhD in Creative Writing & Other Stories," as part of a "How to become a writer" series. It's worth reading if you, like me, enjoy reading about the different paths writers take, or if you're looking for writerly advice.

A sampling:

On finding the right mentor at the right time: " ... if it had not been for Dave [Smith]’s sincere interest in my manuscript at that moment in my life, I might have given up."

On the unflappability of Grace Paley: " ... in the middle of her reading, a tooth – a removable one – came out, and she looked at it, put it aside on the podium and continued reading."

On becoming a writer: "I’d tell [an aspiring writer] rejection is meaningless, and that if you write something you wouldn’t want your mother to read, it will probably get published."

Thursday, December 22, 2011

'Tis the season

Thank you to everyone who commented on my LJ or Blogger posts for the Heifer International challenge. Your comments spurred my donation of $55; I chose the category "give where most needed."

Wishing you joy and comfort this holiday season, whatever you most need. I'll be back to blogging again in a few days.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Practical dreams

I've seen a couple of blog posts lately that talk--brilliantly, sensibly, and with feeling--about some of the issues writers deal with post-publication.

First there's Jody Hedlund on the post-publication "identity crisis." A sample: "But I’ve also realized that the grass isn’t necessarily greener on the published author side. ... The hoopla never lasts very long. And I’m still just an ordinary person."

In her post, Jody refers to one by Elana Johnson on the post-publication reality check. A sample: "POSSESSION is not an important novel that is nominated for multiple--or any--awards, and it is not a Best Book of Anything.
I feel foolish for hoping for such things, or worse, expecting them.
And I feel foolish for allowing any of the above to make me feel anything but grateful and satisfied.
Because ... I wrote and published a novel."

Then there's Michelle Davidson Argyle's approach to handling reviews. "... I have to constantly remind myself that my writing is not up for negotiation from me. I've put it out into the world because I want to share it - and at that point, I have no control over that piece of art anymore."

I don't know about you, but for me, reality checks like these tend to be comforting. The bottom line is that publishing a book is like anything else--it brings new sources of pain along with new sources of joy. The reality is that most of us will write midlist books, and most of us will not win the Nobel Prize for literature, and most of us will not follow in Shakespeare's footsteps and still have people reading our work 400 years after we wrote it. Knowing all that ... would I encourage writers to dream smaller?

No, I would not.

I would encourage writers not to get their identity and self-esteem all bound up in the external success of a book. But I suspect everyone dreams big things for a book--even if only for a teeny tiny moment--and why not? We do our best and put our words out there, and then we have no control over what happens. Some of it will be disappointing. Some of it will be wonderful. Both are true, and even accepting the bitter with the sweet, I would not trade this life for any other.

On a different note of both inspiration and practicality, once again I'm joining the blog challenge to raise money for Heifer International, started by Nathan Bransford. Because of my schedule, my challenge will only run for about a day, so I'll donate $5 to Heifer Intl. for every commenter on this blog post (at either LiveJournal or Blogger) by 6 PM EST on Thursday, December 22. If you want even more money to go to Heifer, you can then hop over to Nathan's blog and comment there.
ETA:  My challenge now closed: 11 comments total on these posts = $55 for Heifer!

Monday, December 19, 2011

When the villain outshines the hero

Ideally, readers will prefer our protagonists to our villains. But I would bet we've all found a book or two where the opposite was true, where we ended up rooting for the villain to beat the hero.

By thinking about the characteristics of books where I prefer the antagonist, I've come up with some possible fixes for this problem:

--Don't let the antagonist have all the best lines, especially the funny ones. If anyone in the book has a sense of humor, let the main character have one.

--Make the protagonist earn his status. Things shouldn't come too easily or seem unmerited. If he's had to sweat or sacrifice to get where he is, we'll usually have more sympathy for him.

--Let the main character be vulnerable. If she's always on top of things, if she always knows what to do, we won't worry much about whether she can succeed, and we won't be nearly as invested in her struggle. It's also good if the main character is nice to others, or nice to at least one other person (or even a pet!). I recall one book where the supposed hero was cold to everyone, and by the end of the book I really didn't care whether he survived.

--Similarly, let the protagonist have flaws. If she's too perfect, too good to be true, she loses believability. Who can relate to a character who never makes a mistake?

--This one may seem counterintuitive, but don't make the villain too bad. When I feel that the author has stacked the deck too unfairly against the villain, piling one negative on top of another, I start to feel some sympathy for the antagonist. "Gee, he's really getting a raw deal--he hasn't had a single break! No wonder he acts the way he does," I end up thinking. People have an inherent sense of fairness, and if an author seems to violate that by over-punishing the villain, it can backfire.

You'll notice that most of these suggestions revolve around shoring up the protagonist rather than tearing down the villain. That's because I believe that a strong, even sympathetic, antagonist is actually a plus. I would rather see a weak protagonist strengthened, so that there are two strong characters.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

11 Reasons to Give Books as Gifts

1. They are easy to wrap!
2. They aren't that expensive. Especially compared to all the diamonds and cars and flat-screen TVs you see advertised as gift ideas.
3. They are awesome!
4. With their purchase you are supporting authors, editors, booksellers, illustrators and designers.
5. If it's that kind of relationship, you can write a treasured handwritten note on the flyleaf, which people who find the book generations from now will wonder about.
6a. You know that wonderful book you love and want the whole world to read? Now you can force it on people!
6b. You can give the person a book you know s/he's always wanted but hasn't gotten around to buying yet.
7. Books are a way to travel without going anywhere, a chance to live many lives in one.
8. There are no commercial breaks.
9. They often have sentimental value.
10. If it's a book you've read, and the recipient reads it, then you get to have a conversation about it.
11. Parents will appreciate this: They require no assembly or batteries, and they don't beep or squawk or whistle.

(I realize some of these items apply only to paper books, but most apply to e-books as well!)

And if you're really stuck for book gift ideas, or you want to pair a book with another gift or give a book-themed gift, check out MotherReader's 150 Ways to Give a Book.

Friday, December 16, 2011

That elusive something special

Shameless plug of the day: The Secret Year is finally available on Kindle. And now for the writing:

I love this post by Cheryl Renee Herbsman (on YA Outside the Lines) about goals. She writes, "After my debut, Breathing, became a book, I got lost in trying to understand which elements led to its publication and in trying to figure out how to reproduce them." And I know that temptation. The interesting thing is, the reason for a book's success can be almost impossible to identify; even the readers who love it may not be able to articulate exactly why. And readers disagree: for example, two readers may adore a book while one of them hates the main character's love interest and the other thinks the love interest is perfectly wonderful.

I don't mean that we can't work on our craft, or address obvious problems in our work (chances are, if we're bored with chapter three, readers will be too). I just mean that formulas for success are elusive, and writing by formula can take the soul out of a project. Sometimes it's a quirk of voice or character development, or it's the unexpected, or the deeply honest vein in a book, that make it soar and sing and resonate with readers. Sometimes what we need to chase is not the hook that we think will bring external validation, but a deeper truth in need of expression. (And incidentally and ironically, those deeper truths often prove to have universal appeal with readers.)

As Cheryl writes: "It's about trusting life more, not fighting windmills, not pushing through closed doors. It's about moving forward in my own way, at my own pace. ... It's about writing what my soul needs to write."

What she said.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Holiday sparks

Holiday times are usually rich in memories, each of which could be the jumping-off point for a story. A thousand remembered details tumble around in the attic of my mind:

The Advent season when I was an acolyte at church and had to light all four candles on the Advent wreath, which was suspended from a chain well above my head (it's not easy to light candles when you can't even see the wicks, and what would possess a church with child acolytes to suspend the Advent wreath eight feet in the air?).
The Christmas morning we woke to a last-minute snowstorm that granted our "white Christmas" wishes.
The Christmas I had scarlet fever.
The heart-shaped tree ornament I embroidered in 4-H.
The year I got a handmade wooden dollhouse (since handed down to my niece).
The year we had a sleetstorm and I played Trivial Pursuit with my mother and grandmother, and we all ended up laughing hysterically at our wild guesses for the answers we didn't know.
The rich spread my great-grandmother always put out on Christmas Eve, and her squeeze-the-life-out-of-you-but-in-a-goo
d-way hugs.
The look of blue light strings reflecting off snow.
The year I had an operation, and my then-boyfriend drove me from Philadelphia to my parents' house in New England in a car with a dead heater, and then drove back to Philadelphia to celebrate the holiday with his son, and then back up to New England again so I wouldn't pop my stitches trying to lug a suitcase home on the train. (Yeah, I ended up marrying him!)

Do you have memories that could serve as writing prompts?

Monday, December 12, 2011

Giving and learning

I'm so glad I asked people to share a holiday wish on my last giveaway. There was something really heartening about reading all those good wishes. People are hoping for a whole host of things, from good books to good times with families. They're looking for acceptance, success, kindness, tolerance, respect. They're wishing for cures for diseases like cancer and mental illness. They wish food, shelter, and safety for all. And, as Kare said, "for people to be able to see the amazing inside them." I wish all that and more for everyone!

And by the way, Chey won that giveaway. But if you still want a copy, there is another giveaway of Try Not to Breathe going on right now at Nathan Bransford's blog.  Nathan, who was my agent at the time I wrote the book, describes a bit of the behind-the-scenes process for this book. And he should know: he had a significant role as the alpha reader and primary critiquer for the project. Try Not to Breathe was not the book that I originally intended to be my second published novel. It was, instead, the project that muscled aside a work-in-progress and told me, "I'm your next book, like it or not."

And as long as I'm doing links, here's a link to the announcement that one of my favorite literary magazines (One Story) is launching a version to feature one of my favorite genres (YA). It's the birth of One Teen Story!

Finally, a writing-craft link: Jeannine Atkins gets all brilliant about how writers can't act like mother hens toward characters: "Our characters should get in trouble. They should stumble all over themselves, collide into bad decisions and traps."

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Good guys and bad guys

In an interview with Meg Storey recorded in Tin House No. 44 (Volume 11, Number 4), Etgar Keret says (p. 41):

"And when there is a system in which there are good guys and bad guys, and the good guys win, this is something that has no moral message at all. Because we all identify with the good guys, we all see ourselves as good guys, which means that when the good guys kill the bad guy we say, 'That's okay because it was a bad guy.' And when we kill our next-door neighbor we say, 'It's okay because he's the bad guy.' .... Nothing moral exists in a simple environment; a moral dilemma can only exist in a place where there is ambiguity."

He was actually using the TV show The Wire as an example of art that successfully uses this ambiguity to make a point. But this quote struck me because I've always preferred to write about characters who are not purely good or purely evil, but a mixture of both. Most people are heroes in their own minds, and even a villainous character will have some redeeming qualities. To me, the most interesting protagonist is not a good guy who must vanquish a bad guy, but someone whose inner good guy is battling with his inner bad guy, and he must decide which to be at every important moment in life. As Keret points out, someone who's good from start to finish never has to make that choice.

The good character/bad character setup has been used in many successful stories for generations, so I'm not going to say that it can't work. But as Keret points out, there's another way to deal with conflict and character.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Yes, Computer, I really want to spell it that way

I'm at an age where I've been able to see great changes in the technology of writing. I wrote first in longhand on paper, and typed my finished manuscripts on a manual typewriter. Then, briefly, I used an electric typewriter. Then a word processor. Then a computer. Then I went from just revising on the computer to composing on it as well. And all this change didn't occur over a huge span of time. We're talking two-three decades, max.

For most of the time, I could put what I wanted on the page wherever I wanted it. I could add things, cut and paste, rearrange, insert, delete. I could write things just as they occurred to me, sticking them wherever I thought they belonged.

But something has happened in recent years. Word-processing software has gotten "smarter." I put "smarter" in quotes because to me it's code for "annoyingly aggressive and overbearing." It drives me crazy when I want to type "(c)" and my computer changes it to a copyright symbol, and I have to spend 20 minutes hunting for a way to undo that. Or when I type "pH" and the computer changes it to "Ph." Or when I put the word "coulda" in a character's mouth, and the computer flags it as not a word. Most of all, I hate it when I'm making a list and the computer puts the bullets or the numbers where it wants instead of where I want. And don't get me started on the crazy changes that happen when I cut and paste from one file to another.

Many of these features can be turned off, but I'm also annoyed that I have to do that, that they're all turned on by default and I have to click through menus and help pages for hours to figure out how to give me the sweet blank canvas that I really want. All of those changes interfere with my writing; they don't enhance it.

My understanding is that for e-publishing, you have to use certain features of word-processing programs in certain ways, or the formatting gets messed up. It makes me wonder if writers will (or maybe if they already do) change the way they write. When you can't write anything you want anywhere on a page any way you want, what does that do to the way you create? With writing, I always put the content on the page first, and format it at the end. But word-processing programs want us to format everything up front, and know exactly where we want to make paragraph breaks in advance, and so forth.

Don't get me wrong--word processing has made revision, especially cutting and pasting, a million times easier than it was when the typewriter was my main tool. But then I think the software hit a peak of maximum usefulness and started sliding down the other side.

What do you think? Does the technology you use affect the way you write?

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

On debut author groups

"Should I join a debut author group?"

Authors gearing up for their first book launch often ask this question, and as an alumnus (alumna?) of four such groups, I sometimes get consulted personally.

And yes, you read that right--four groups, though I didn't intend for that to happen. The situation evolved! When my first book was scheduled for publication in 2009, I joined both the Class of 2k9 and the Debut2009 groups. I bonded with the members, participated in the planning, and then, right before Christmas 2008 ... my book was moved to 2010.

It happens. A lot. In fact, each Class of 2k__ is usually built around a nucleus of people whose books got moved back from the previous year. So I ended up being a member of the Class of 2k10 and The Tenners also.

There are some differences among the groups. The 2k classes generally charge dues, have officers, and are more formally organized with more explicit promotional goals. Debut2009 and the Tenners did some promotional things for fun, but there were no dues and less of a formal structure.

All of the groups, to some degree, functioned as debut author support groups. I found it incredibly valuable to know a group of writers who were going through the same experiences at the same time I was. Yes, some of us got more money or attention, some of us lost our agents or editors suddenly, some of us had personal crises going on while others had smoother sailing, but we had certain things in common. The excitement of getting that first copy ... the sting of the first bad review ... the questions about what kind of information you can expect from your publisher ... the mix of excitement and fear in approaching a second book. Publishing is a world with its own (sometimes crazy) set of rules, and it really helped to have people with whom to compare notes, and share the ups and downs.

As far as promotion: I know that I got certain signings and found out about conference panels and anthology opportunities that I never would have known about otherwise. My fellow class members inspired me to come up with a reader guide for my first book. I joined in on a group book trailer when I never would've attempted a trailer on my own. Although I don't think of my interaction with my fellow authors as "networking," exactly, because the camaraderie is genuine.

If I were a debut author all over again, knowing what I know now, I would definitely join a debut author group. Whether anyone else should depends on that person's inclinations, goals, expectations, and needs. But I thought people might be helped by hearing a bit about my experience, FWIW.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Who are these people?

Note: Those following the Giveaway Hop, click here.

I don't invent characters so much as discover them. Yes, I know they're fictional and live inside my head--and yet, they seem to have lives of their own: independent existences that resist too much forceful, deliberate shaping. I do make conscious, cerebral choices when I write, but much of the material seems to be handed up from somewhere in the dark sea of the subconscious.

I generally don't sit around saying, "This character will have red hair, that one has two brothers, this one likes music." It's more like: "What does she look like? What kind of family does he have? What are her hobbies?" Later, the conscious decisions come into play: "He can't have eight brothers in this scene; there isn't enough for them to do. We haven't heard from that character in a while; time to check on her. This one just cried in the last scene; I can't have her crying here again."

It's a balancing act. But the writing goes best when the characters seem to take on a life of their own, and I'm just recording what they do.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

The right road

Note: Those following the Holiday Giveaway Hop, click here.

If I'm on the right road, it doesn't matter how rocky it is; I know I'll get there. All I have to do is deal with each pothole and hairpin turn as it comes.

But if I'm on the wrong road, it doesn't matter how fast I go; I won't end up in the right place. In fact, I usually can't go very fast at all, because the wrong road feels wrong. It's not interesting. It doesn't seem to be heading where I need to go.

The trick is in telling the difference, following that inner compass.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Holiday Giveaway Hop

This giveaway will run from now until December 6 (midnight EDT), as part of the Book Lovers' Holiday Hop.
If you'd like an advance reader copy of Try Not to Breathe, just leave a comment below stating a simple holiday wish for the world (peace? an end to hunger? books for everyone? happy puppies?), plus a way to reach you. One entry per person.

(The cover as it will appear on the final book is on the left; the cover on the ARC the winner will receive is on the right.)
Synopsis:  In the summer after his suicide attempt, sixteen-year-old Ryan struggles with guilty secrets and befriends a girl who’s visiting psychics to try to reach her dead father. Young adult, contemporary.

You must be at least 13 years old and able to receive mail in the US or Canada.
I reserve the right to pick another winner if the original winner does not claim the book, and to cancel the contest if backup winner fails to claim the prize.
One comment per person. Winner will be selected randomly from the entries received on or before midnight EDT on December 6 (i.e., the minute December 7 starts).
I reserve the right to cancel the contest if technical difficulties (e.g., caused by internet or software failures) interfere with my ability to receive and track the entries.
Other blogs giving away free stuff this week:

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Inspiring words from other people

First, a quote:

"Sometimes I think song-writing is about tightening the heartstrings as much as possible without bringing on a heart attack."--Life, by Keith Richards with James Fox

(Not just song-writing, methinks.)

And now, a link to the bestest blog post I've read in a while, from Janni Lee Simner. A sample:

"And yes, I know that there are writers who manage both fast and awesome. I'm happy for them. But those writers are not all writers, and their way of building a career is not everyone's way of building a career."

Seriously, if you've ever felt as if you can never do enough or be enough in the writing and promotion of your books, read Janni's post.

Monday, November 28, 2011

The Map of My Dead Pilots

The Map of My Dead Pilots is about aviation in Alaska, and it cuts through myths and misconceptions in a most refreshing manner. The pilots in this book are, for the most part, not movie-style heroes defying dangerous weather to rush people to hospitals. They are human beings who come to Alaska for a variety of reasons. They compare themselves to bus drivers; their cargo often consists of potato chips and sodapop and kids' sports teams. Which isn't to say that their work isn't dangerous. Some of them make amazing landings, and some of them make stupid mistakes. The biggest risks they take are often for the money, or because they want to keep their jobs. The author, Colleen Mondor, acknowledges the glamorous myths even as she dispels them; she knows the stories would sound better if the pilots were always rescuing sick babies, rather than delivering the mail or flying passengers who simply could not stand spending one more night where they were.

But a lack of glamor actually makes the book more interesting. It's about how people really work, and why they really go where they go and take the chances they take. It's a series of true stories about flying in Alaska--some funny, some tragic, some incredible. They're the stories these pilots lived through and told and retold among themselves, their own oral tradition: the crashes, the strange cargo, the unbelievable cold.

If you want to be high-brow, you could say that Mondor acts here in the role of an anthropologist, collecting the folk histories of a subculture that most people never get to see firsthand. Or you could just say she's collected a set of stories that show people doing a job in difficult conditions: how they cope with it and how they rationalize it, and how they live and how they (sometimes) die.

The Map of My Dead Pilots, by Colleen Mondor, is nonfiction (adult, but I see no reason why young adults couldn't read it also).

source of recommended read: bought

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Local library use

My local library recently released some interesting statistics for our area:

Our library receives more than 100,000 visits per year.
Our highest population group is school-aged children.
For most of 2011, circulation was 50% higher than in 2010, even though the population was unchanged.
Movie nights and children's activities are the most popular library programs.

Town libraries are still a vital part of our communities. I keep hearing, anecdotally, from librarians around the country, that library use has increased in recent years. Teleworkers, job seekers, and researchers visit regularly to use the resources, in addition to the readers, audiophiles, and movie buffs who take advantage of the lending library's holdings of books, magazines, audiobooks, music, and movies.

Happy reading (or listening, or watching)!

Thursday, November 24, 2011

The Willing Reviser

Most people in the writing world seem to have a story about someone they've known who was unwilling to revise, to be edited, to change a single word. The unwillingness to revise springs from a belief that one's words are precious and valuable, that the writer should not knuckle under to pressure from anyone else, and that an artist must be true to his or her inner vision.

I've always been a willing reviser, and it has nothing to do with selling out, knuckling under, or betraying the inner vision. It's because I think of my words as less precious than the story itself. I start out with something I want to say, a point, and that's the precious part. If I can move a scene around, or cut out a symbol that isn't working, or combine two characters who are doing the job than one could do, it's all going to make the story better. The part I won't change is the heart. If I were writing a story about how it's possible to recover from a break-up and live happily alone, then I would have a problem with a critique suggestion to have the main characters get back together, because that negates the whole story I want to tell. It's not that I have anything against a romantic ending. It's just that that ending for that story would rip the whole rug out from under what I'm trying to do.

That heart is the only part of the story I protect. Everything else is up for grabs, because all of it is designed to serve the heart of the story, and other people may be better than I am at pointing out where some of that other stuff isn't working. And since revision is reversible--anything that doesn't work can be changed back--why not try it?

On another note: If you're anywhere near Haverford, PA this Saturday (Nov. 26), please consider dropping by Children's Book World, where I'll be appearing with Ellen Jensen Abbott, Jacqueline Jules, Alissa Grosso, Amy Holder, Ann Bonwill, Irene Breznak, Nancy Viau, and Alison Formento for a party and book signing (1-3 PM). It's Small Business Saturday, and Children's Book World is a small independent bookstore that's been incredibly supportive of local authors and local readers. Also, I will have an advance review copy of Try Not to Breathe with me for one final live giveaway, and if you're the first person to ask for it, you can have it.

A holiday list

1000 new words
10 hours of sleep
2 hours without power
1 long hike in the woods
boundless gratitude

Happy Thanksgiving

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Back to the center

There's so much to remember and keep track of in writing--and then, if one publishes, there's so much to learn about bringing a book out into the world.

It's gratifying to get positive responses to our work, and it's stimulating to get thoughtful critiques. But amid all the mental checklists, the reflections from others, the details and the concerns, the trends and the pitches, the rules and the exceptions, there's just this:

A story.

If I find myself wandering around and feeling a bit lost, if the latest PublishApocalypse story throws me, if I hear one more time that you can't do this and you must do that, if I worry too much about what so-and-so might think of what I write--

then I come back to the center. To the voice inside that drives everything I write. To the place that's somehow fun, even when the subject matter is difficult and the characters are in trouble.

This is the part that matters most.

Monday, November 21, 2011

These *should* go to eleven

The content in today's post is ganked from Guys Lit Wire.

Guys Lit Wire is sponsoring a Holiday Book Fair for Ballou High School in Washington DC. We hope everyone counting down the days to Black Friday or Small Business Saturday or Cyber Monday will please consider spending some $$ on our Powells wish list so we can get the fine students at Ballou closer to the ALA minimum standard of eleven books per student. (Right now they are up to four books each.)

One thing we want to stress is that this list is put together with [school librarian] Melissa's input and is comprised of books that Ballou wants and needs. Here is the direct link to the wish list at Powells. (And if you want to share it: As you all know, we work with Powells because it is a bricks and mortar independent store ...  This means there are a few more hoops to jump through when it comes to ordering books but we hope you understand how worthy our cause is both for the school and the store.

Once you have made your selections head to “checkout” and you will be prompted to inform Powells if the books were indeed bought from the wishlist. This lets the store know to mark them as “purchased” on the list. After that you need to provide your credit card info and also fill in the shipping address. Here is where the books are going to:

Melissa Jackson, LIBRARIAN
Ballou Senior High School
3401 Fourth Street SE
Washington DC 20032
(202) 645-3400

It’s very important that you get Melissa’s name and title in there - she is not the only Jackson (or Melissa) at the school and we want to make sure the books get to the library.

After all that you buy the books and you’re done! Please head back over here when you get a chance though and leave a comment letting us know who you are, where you’re from and what you bought. The book fair will run through cyber Monday on November 28th and we'll keep you updated on things even after it shuts down. (Hopefully as a sellout.)

Saturday, November 19, 2011

New directions

Have you tried something new with your writing lately--or with your reading? A new genre, a new audience, a new style, a new point of view? Jennifer K. Oliver blogged about a writing exercise that seems like fun, and for me it's new. I've done the "draw random words from a box" exercise before, but I used them in a coherent story, instead of stringing them together randomly.

If I go random:

help struggle could
creamness question
another hurry field thisful
precious figure
glass them
sense mark back
when speed gentle
knew that fright jam

I have a mental picture of one character writing the above poem very earnestly, and another character struggling to understand it. Also, there are fragments in there that spark ideas.

I'm not just doing random word exercises, though; I have a couple of assignments where I will be arranging words very much in the traditional order. Are you trying anything new?

Thursday, November 17, 2011


One of the most powerful kinds of stories to write is a redemption story, where a villainous or selfish or cowardly character makes good, makes amends, changes for the better.

A Tale of Two Cities is a well-known example of this, with Sydney Carton delivering the ultimate lines for such a character: "'It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done ...'" Which sums up the redemption story in a nutshell. But it can be even more powerful when the character doesn't die, but sustains that character growth for the remainder of his life (a la Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol. Hm, more Dickens!)

The challenge in a redemption storyline is to make the transformation believable. Either the character has always shown seeds of salvageability, or the transformative event is sufficiently powerful, that we can buy into the kind of fundamental shift that we rarely see in real life. When it works, this can be a compelling, hard-hitting story. But it's tricky to pull off, because it means aiming very high.

Have you ever wanted to write such a story, or have you read a good redemption story?

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Writing Book Two

The latest guest post in my second-book series is by M. Flagg, who discusses growth and challenge in the sophomore-book process:

Writing Book Two
by M. Flagg

I write paranormal romance, which gets a bit spicy at times. But when I started my first novel, I didn’t know what genre it would fall into. I also didn’t know it’d be the beginning of a trilogy, which meant these characters would have to grow, change, and then grow again. Each book would stand alone, yet the arc of the story had to be told with the same dark tone. Author voice had to be distinct, yet remain cohesive for over a thousand pages.

Every book ever written comes from someplace deep within the author. Although you nourish the creative process, your characters will speak to you. They often have lots to say. Sometimes, like unwrapping a gift, you have no idea what’s really inside each of them, but nevertheless, you can’t help but peel away the layers. For me, writing the second novel was easier than writing the first. It’s also true that when doing something a second time, one tends to avoid many of the pitfalls you muddled through the first time. By the time I started the second novel, I knew much more about fiction writing and storytelling. Formatting, point of view, character development and writing style made more sense— after having been a stubborn novice about all these things when I started Retribution! And although I queried my first novel like a madwoman, it was rejected. Many times. By many big houses.

Those rejections played a huge part in writing Consequences, the follow-up to Retribution! My author voice had grown stronger. I knew, more or less, where I wanted to take my characters, what challenges would string out my hero and force my heroine to fall deeper in love with him. I had already complicated the mystically enhanced vampire’s path with a human teenage son. The troubled child had issues, which in turn gave the main character more reason to seek redemption, but it wouldn’t be easy.

For six months, I wrote furiously. After two months of editing, I sent Consequences out to four small pub houses that offered e-book and print publication. I had a better understanding of the paranormal romance genre, and targeted four reputable houses. Then, I waited for four rejections. I received only two, along with two offers to publish Consequences. I signed with The Wild Rose Press, and then my editor requested Retribution! I signed another contract and promised her a third novel. She gave the series a name: The Champion Chronicles. Book Three, His Soul to Keep, released in July.

The reason to write book two is this: Never give up; never give in. Believe in yourself. Write the second book and then a third! Learn everything you can about writing, your genre, and the publishing industry itself. Join a supportive critique group with published and unpublished authors. Share your work and listen for ways to make it better. Above all, polish that catchy query letter and locate the right market for your work. The way you approach writing a second book is important. Keep your author voice strong and imbed the mood in every sentence. If you write a series, make each book flow like a seamless ribbon. Write as passionately as when you wrote the first book and you’ll achieve success.

M. Flagg’s back-story about how she came to write three paranormal novels is quite possibly more compelling than any fantasy she has written. For more info on her and her books, please visit

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Switching projects

I once heard that Mark Twain worked on multiple projects at once, which comforted me because until then, I thought I'd been doing it wrong. I thought the proper way to write was to work on one project at a time, completing each before moving on to another. Instead, I would work on one for a while, get stuck and switch to something else, get bored and return to the first, submit to the advances of a shiny new project, become disenchanted and go back to the second ... etc.

I wasn't simply a serial abandoner of projects. I was actually getting them written--just not one at a time. And I still work that way. I can focus on one project for long stretches, especially when I'm on deadline. But I always like to have something on the back burner.

It doesn't work for everyone, but it can work.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Angst and pizza: a blast from the past

I just reread some of a diary I kept one summer in my late adolescence. It charted every aspect of my then-romance in excruciating detail. And it's full of names of my fellow students, many of whom I don't remember. (Paul who?) Also, it proves I ate a LOT of pizza back then. It's practically the only food I mention.

But there are a few interesting little details about the chemistry course I was taking at the time: "My fingers are stained orange from the stuff we worked with [in lab]." "Today [our teacher] laughed quite horribly at the comment, 'Boiling NaOH would dissolve your entire body, except for the cholesterol.'" "[A fellow student] went around asking everyone their exam scores so he could figure out the class average."

I tried several times to write a short story about that summer, but it never worked. Part of the reason was that it was such a difficult summer, it was hard to get the kind of distance and perspective that would have helped me. Now I have so much distance that I've forgotten many of the details. I do remember that we only had about two fume hoods for the entire class. And that I loved working with the light-bulb-shaped* separatory funnels, even though our instructor told us how he'd once seen a student get sprayed with acid from an improperly vented sep funnel. And that there was one day where badly-written lab instructions caused all of our experiments to go up in (literal) flames. Little did I know that adult me would be far more interested in remembering these classroom details than in the minute dissection of my romance, but I wrote my diary out of my needs at the time. This journal is further proof--as if I needed any--that the child and teen years are not necessarily the best of our lives.**

There are also a few lines that make me chuckle, like the one where I wondered if I could ever make it as a writer. I don't know what I would have considered "making it," but it's one of the few constants from that time in my life to this: I'm still writing.

*shaped like the light bulbs of the time, of course; not like the curly compact fluorescents we have now
**although I wouldn't mind being able to eat that much pizza again

Friday, November 11, 2011

The glamor, the excitement, the toilets

I recommend this blog post by Victoria Patterson over at Three Guys, One Book. It captures the ups and downs of writing for publication so well. I've never been nominated for a prize as big as the one she's discussing, but most writers have these ups and downs whether they're on a big or small scale. Some of my favorite lines:

"I’d hustled for [my book], never turning down a single promotional opportunity, seeking out more, and I’d finally reconciled myself to my limited power and the book’s small trajectory."

"The good reviews are far more pleasurable than the bad reviews, but both provide a strange emotional kick that has no bearing on the actual lonely years-long production."

"Sometimes (with a little luck) a book can get a new life, and an author can get a much-needed morale boost."

"In retrospect, I probably hugged people too freely, like an overeager Gomer Pyle."

"I remember knowing that the excitement was over when I was asked by my nine-year old son to please unplug our toilet."

Go, read and enjoy!

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Role models?

I was looking back at some of my short stories and realized that, with short forms, I'm more willing to experiment with unlikable main characters. I guess it's because I view an unlikable character as more tolerable over a 5- to 10-page story than s/he would be over the course of a 200-page novel. And I'm not just thinking of the reader's time; I don't necessarily want to spend a year or two (the time it takes to write and edit a book) living with an unlikable main character!

Which isn't to say all the characters in my novels are likable. Even the ones that I like, the ones who are pretty decent overall, do obnoxious or mean or cowardly things from time to time. I'm not trying to create role models here; I'm trying to make these characters real.

It's an oft-discussed issue in children's and YA literature, the extent to which characters are, or should be, role models. I prefer to let readers sort out the heroes and villains--ideally, to recognize the heroic and villainous parts within every character, and the heroic and villainous parts within us all.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Finding the way

There isn't just one path.
There are many paths. Many ways to tell a story, many ways to revise it, many ways to publish it.
Someone else's path may not work for you.

It can be frustrating to follow exactly the same steps used by someone else, and yet fail to produce that killer novel, or get snapped up by an agent, or rake in self-publishing millions, or nab a slot on the evening talk shows.

Writing and publishing aren't recipes or scientific formulas. There are certain basic guidelines that are helpful (be professional, care about your work, do your homework, keep an open mind), but there's no guarantee that following steps A + B will produce outcome C.

There's more than one way to handle this gig we call writing. Your path doesn't have to look like anyone else's--and chances are, it won't.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Cover makeover

The cover image for Try Not to Breathe (my novel coming out in January) that appears in the publisher's catalog and on the advance review copies is this:

It's a beautiful image that captures much of the symbolism of the book (rain, glass, etc.), and I was certainly happy with it. In fact, assured by the catalog copy and the ARC covers that this was the final cover, I had some bookmarks and postcards made.

But publishers are no different from authors in tweaking their work until they achieve the desired effect. In fact, the cover of my previous book changed from the hardcover edition to the paperback. And Try Not to Breathe now has a new cover, which will (I believe) be on the finished copies:

This new cover is bolder, edgier, more modern-looking, I think. And so I will have new bookmarks made, and those of you who have the earlier version can cherish them as "limited edition rare original versions!" ;-)

I'm endlessly fascinated by book covers. Seeing a cover is just about my favorite part of the publishing process--my cover, other authors' covers, it doesn't matter. I love seeing official covers and fans' reimaginings of covers and comparing covers on different editions. I would be both thrilled and scared by the opportunity to design my own cover. As it is, I love seeing how my publisher's designer envisions the book. It's a visual response to a text work, and it acts as both a translation of and an advertisement for the work.

I always hope you like the cover. But at the end of the day, I really hope you like the words inside!

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Trying flash fiction

If you're not one of those hardy souls who is trying to write a novel in November as part of National Novel Writing Month (affectionately known as NaNoWriMo), why not try your hand at a shorter work? More specifically, flash fiction?

Flash fiction is another term for short-short stories. Sources differ on the acceptable maximum length, but I typically think of these stories as 1500 words or less. I've written flash fiction pieces that came in at under 100 words.

Before I got serious about novels, I spent years writing short stories, and I believe they taught me a lot about word choice, economy of language, imagery, symbolism, starting where the action starts, and getting to the story's crisis as soon as possible. Even now that I spend more time on novels, I still write the occasional short story as a breather.

If you need a break from longer work, consider these advantages of short stories: They (usually) don't take as long to write or edit as a novel does. You can focus on one plotline and not worry so much about subplots, although you can have layers and hint at multiple motivations for characters. And you can hold the whole story in your head as you edit, which is my favorite aspect!

Friday, November 4, 2011

A light, life-charged

I love this book I'm reading right now. (I'm hardly alone in that, since it won a National Book Award.) Anyway, here are a few lines for inspiration:

In my low periods, I wondered what was the point of creating art. For whom? Are we animating God? Are we talking to ourselves? And what was the ultimate goal? ...
Why commit to art? For self-realization, or for itself? It seemed indulgent to add to the glut unless one offered illumination. ...
I wondered if anything I did mattered. ...
... I understood that what matters is the work ... To achieve within the work a perfect balance of faith and execution. From this state of mind comes a light, life-charged.

--from Just Kids, by Patti Smith

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Adult and child perspectives

I read some reviews on a children's book that got me thinking about the different ways that adults and kids react to books. The book in question has consistently glowing reviews from professional sources (by which I mean sources such as the Horn Book, SLJ, Kirkus, etc.), but younger readers' reactions were decidedly more mixed. Their comments reminded me of what I hear about some children's books, which can be summed up as: This is not really youth here; it's more like youth seen through adult eyes. The adult filter, the adult writer speaking to the child reader, is palpable.

The reality is that most children's and YA books are written by adults. Yet many of these books manage to channel a young voice, a voice authentic to the age of the main character. And it's not a question of limiting vocabulary or "dumbing down" anything--"dumbing down" being a deadly mistake for just about any audience. It's not about vocabulary at all, so much as it is about perspective and point of view.

To me, the beauty of reading is the disappearance of the barrier between one mind and another. It's the reason I think that text has survived in the era of movies and TV; even in the most gripping and introspective films, I never feel as if I'm inside the character's mind the same way I do when I read. And in books where the adult filter disappears, the narrative distance is quite close, and reading can be an even more intense, relatable, and "in-the-moment" experience.

It's not necessarily wrong to write a book where the adult filter is apparent. The adult filter is present in some children's classics that have lasted generations. To me, the real question is: What purpose is the adult filter serving? Is it to lend experience and dimension to the story? Or is it for the adult to assert how the child, or childhood itself, should be? Does this narrative distance work for the story or against it? Writers can think about which kind of book they want to write, and how the different segments of the audience may respond to the choices they make.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Embracing editing

Last call for the Spooktacular Giveaway Hop (click here)!

I've heard some conversations about the writing and publication process where the discussion of editing revolved around punctuation.

The fact is, I regard punctuation corrections as the least important part of editing. If there's one thing the copy-editing process taught me, it's that nobody seems to understand the proper use of commas except other copy editors. And although I thank my copy editors for correcting the 90% of the cases where I misused and abused Our Friend the Noble Comma*, I'm especially grateful for the times they caught me saying the same thing twice, or contradicting myself.

But there's another whole facet to editing, and it precedes copy editing. It's the kind of editing where someone questions uneven pacing, extraneous characters, pointless subplots, drawn-out endings, abrupt endings, missing character motivations, and so many other aspects of macro-level story-telling. This is the kind of editing that beginning writers may dread, or may think they don't need. But in my experience, this kind of editing is what brings a story to the next level, and it can be an actual pleasure. Because it's all about making the book better in fundamental ways.

I firmly believe that readers will forgive misplaced commas sooner than they will forgive a plot thread that doesn't go anywhere, or a character who has no reason for being in the story, or an inciting event that takes too long to arrive. And it is very difficult for writers to identify these kinds of flaws in our own stories, because we inhabit our imaginary worlds so fully. Editors bring fresh eyes and objectivity to the process. They do much, much more than rearrange punctuation.

*Don't even ask about the carnage I inflicted upon Our Friend the Noble Hyphen.

A few announcements:

I'll be on an authors' panel on Tuesday, November 1, at 7 PM. The topic is "GETTING PUBLISHED." It's at the Cherry Hill (NJ) Library (1100 Kings Highway North, Cherry Hill, New Jersey 08034-1911 ).  My fellow panelists will be Jon Gibbs, Danielle Ackley-McPhail, Kristin Battestella,  Mike McPhail and Jonathan Maberry of the New Jersey Authors Network.

Children's Book World, Haverford, PA is having its annual author/illustrator night on Friday, November 4, 8-9 PM. It's a great chance to meet and talk with authors and illustrators, have some snacks, get some books signed. The atmosphere is always festive and casual.

A YA e-anthology, The First Time, appeared today. It contains stories by several writers I know and love: Cyn Balog, Lauren Bjorkman, Leigh Brescia, Jennifer Brown, Kirstin Cronn-Mills, Janet Gurtler, Teri Hall, Cheryl Renee Herbsman, Stacey Jay, Heidi R. Kling, C. Lee McKenzie, Saundra Mitchell, Jenny Moss, Jackson Pearce, Shani Petroff, Carrie Ryan, Sydney Salter, Kurtis Scaletta, Jon Skovron, Kristina Springer, Rhonda Stapleton, Charity Tahmaseb, Jessica Verday, J. A. Yang, and Lara Zielin. Check it out! Only $2.99 on Amazon.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Write a new formula

Note: Participants in the Spooktacular Giveaway Hop, click here.

I’m tired of watching people get “voted off.”

Every competition show seems to use this format: at the end of every week’s episode, one of the contestants has to leave. It keeps the stakes high and gives people a reason to watch to the end of the show, of course. But it has drawbacks.

On the first episode or two of the season, you’re still just trying to learn the names and keep everyone straight. You don’t really care about the first person or two who leave, because you never really get to know them.

Then when you do sort out the contestants and find a rooting interest, your favorite may not be around for long. One slip, and the person you most like watching ends up leaving—which doesn’t give you much incentive to watch the remaining episodes.

The other drawback is that this one-per-week elimination system is no longer fresh. Every show does it. At this point, I’m just pining for some creativity. For example, instead of weekly eliminations, a competition show could award points for each week’s challenges, and the highest point-scorers at the end of the season would proceed to the finale. If they started with fewer contestants and kept them around longer, there would be more incentive for people to identify with those on the show, and less risk of losing favorites too early.

Similarly, writers can push the boundaries of their own genres and tropes. Reimagine the love triangle; reinvent the murder mystery. Bring a twist to the romantic comedy. Turn the paranormal romance on its head.

Experiments don’t always succeed, but they get us out of our ruts. Sometimes they set whole new trends. Often, as writers, we’re following: following rules, following examples, following precedents. And readers find a certain comfort in knowing what they’re going to get. But every now and then, it’s fun to try leading instead of following, fun to play with the unexpected.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Second books and the unexpected

Note: The Spooktacular Giveaway Hop for an advance copy of my second book, Try Not to Breathe, is still going on here.

And speaking of second books, the latest guest post in my "second-books" series is from Lauren Bjorkman. I described Lauren's debut, My Invented Life, earlier on this blog as "funny and quirky and unexpected; it isn't quite like anything else I've read." Now Lauren talks about navigating the differences between first and second books, and coping with expectations while keeping the love of writing.

The Sophomore Book
by Lauren Bjorkman

When Henry Holt offered on my debut YA novel, they gave me a two-book deal. The changes requested by my editor for book 1 took me five weeks to complete.

When My Invented Life went to copy edits, I had a contract for unnamed book 2. Book 2 existed before my editor knew the premise, characters, plot, or themes. Before I did. This didn’t worry me. I had a ton of ideas.

At the time my debut sold, I had written most of a second YA novel, dark and edgy, very different from my first. Some months later, I finished it, and showed it to my agent and editor. I also sent a proposal for a more light-hearted story called Miss Fortune Cookie. They both felt that book 2 should be closer in style to My Invented Life, so chose the proposal.

Thrilled to have a new project, I wrote at hyper-speed (for me), finishing a draft one year later. My agent loved it, and sent it to my editor right away. My editor didn’t connect with it as much. Thus started the editorial letter and revision phase. Fast-forward another year. We still have not finished book 2.

Why is this time so different?

I took my time on My Invented Life—about two and a half years. Many different writers critiqued it during that period. I could accept the feedback that resonated with me, and ignore the rest. This changed with book 2. No matter what my crit partners thought, or even my agent, my editor had to be enthusiastic. When I revised Miss Fortune Cookie for her the first time, I didn’t understand her point of view. Not wanting to make the same mistake twice, I called her when her second letter came. We talked on the phone for hours. The next revision took me six months.

On the plus side, I have not suffered from post-debut writer’s block. And, despite the setbacks, my love of writing remains undiminished.

While I wait for the next editorial round to begin, I chip away on my third novel—a funny, hopeful, “dystopian” YA—and could not be happier.

Lauren Bjorkman grew up on a sailboat, sharing the tiny forecastle with her sister and the sail bags. Luckily she likes tiny spaces. She and her sister have remained close friends. She lives in New Mexico with her husband, two sons, and two ridiculous felines.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

My favorite costume

Note: There's an ongoing giveaway of an advance copy of my next book at the Spooktacular Giveaway Hop.

Halloween is approaching. It's a holiday that always makes me feel like a bit of an outsider. My parents didn't let me trick-or-treat when I was growing up; the idea of collecting candy from strangers didn't sit well with them. (I certainly helped myself to the bowl we kept for those who visited our house, though!) As for costumes--I never could stand to wear a mask over my face, due to mild claustrophobia. Also, I never seemed to have anything around the house that would make a good costume.

I know what you're thinking. "Come on over to my Halloween fiesta, girl! You sound like the life of the party!" ;-)

But this gets me thinking about my favorite costume-party story ever, which comes from the old Bob Newhart show. There was some kind of costume party on the show--I think it was for the Fourth of July, not Halloween, since everyone came dressed as Uncle Sam. All except for Mr. Carlin, who wore, as I recall, a basic trench coat. After getting over their disappointment that they were not the only ones to think of the Uncle Sam idea, everyone asked Mr. Carlin why he didn't dress up. "I am dressed up. I'm a Revolutionary spy," he said.

So that's always been my "costume:" I'm dressed in everyday clothes because I'm a spy. Yes, I totally stole that from Mr. Carlin.

Is it any wonder I'm a writer--where I can produce any costume, no matter how elaborate, merely with some creative typing--rather than an actress, where the costumes and makeup exist in three dimensions?

Do you like costumes--if so, what's your favorite? Or do you, like Mr. Carlin and me, dress "like a spy?"

Sunday, October 23, 2011


This giveaway will run from now until October 31 (midnight EDT), as part of the Spooktacular Giveaway Hop.

If you'd like an advance reader copy of Try Not to Breathe, just leave a comment below with a way to reach you. One entry per person.

Synopsis:  In the summer after his suicide attempt, sixteen-year-old Ryan struggles with guilty secrets and befriends a girl who’s visiting psychics to try to reach her dead father. Young adult, contemporary.

Rules and links to other stops on the Giveaway Hop are behind the cut.


You must be at least 13 years old and able to receive mail in the US or Canada.
I reserve the right to pick another winner if the original winner does not claim the book, and to cancel the contest if backup winner fails to claim the prize.
One comment per person. Winner will be selected randomly from the entries received on or before midnight EDT on October 31 (i.e., the minute before November 1 starts).
I reserve the right to cancel the contest if technical difficulties (e.g., caused by internet or software failures) interfere with my ability to receive and track the entries.

Other blogs giving away free stuff this week! (many contests may not be active until October 24):

Trying something new

Yesterday, I spent time with some other writers and we got to talking about creative stretching, the kind you have to do in writing classes. One friend who's going for her MFA has to write in third person instead of her usual, and favored, first person. It reminded me of a short-story class I once took where the teacher gave each of us an assignment specific to our own difficulties; for example,  the person who liked to start stories and then keep them going on and on and on without an ending was told to write a very short story and finish it.

We don't have to take classes to do these kinds of exercises. During the years when I wrote mostly short stories, I experimented a lot as a way to teach myself new things. I wrote in first person, third person, second person. I wrote in present tense and past tense. I wrote in typical prose style and in experimental forms. I wrote contemporary, dystopian, and magical realism. I wrote about very young characters and very old ones, about male and female characters. I wrote stories in the form of letters, biographical notes, emails, research notes. When I thought I could use help on making each word do more work, on incorporating better imagery and wordplay, I studied poetry. At writers' conferences, I usually took sessions on plot and pacing, because I knew I was weaker there than in character and dialogue. And then, one year, I sought out classes on character and dialogue just to remind myself I didn't know it all.

Whether in the classroom or out of it, we can keep learning this way, keep growing as writers. There's no need to fall into, or stay in, a rut. We can take classes, work with other writers, or give ourselves assignments. What new skill are you learning or trying with your writing?

Friday, October 21, 2011

Are you having any fun?

Writers can measure success by the numbers: words written, books sold, money earned, awards won. But there's a qualitative aspect to success that's just as important:

Are you feeling the joy?

It may seem strange for the writer of dark contemporary YA to speak of joy. But there's a satisfaction in expressing something that feels true, in finding the vein of hope that runs through our darkest human experiences. Writing can be frustrating and sad and puzzling on occasion, and it's a huge amount of work, but it can also be fun. It isn't fun every minute, but some wellspring has to feed the incredible drive it takes to get from the first page of a book to the last. How do you stay in touch with that joy?

A couple of notes, for those interested:

My short story, "The Stage Manager," appears in the latest version of Hunger Mountain.

I'll be appearing at the Neshaminy Mall (PA) Barnes & Noble this Saturday, Oct. 22, from 1 to 4 PM. I'll be there with several other authors: Ellen Jensen Abbott, Cyn Balog, Alison Formento, Alissa Grosso, Amy Holder, Keri Mikulski, Nancy Viau, and Cynthia Chapman Willis. Once again, I'll have an advance copy of Try Not to Breathe with me, and the first person who asks me for it can have it.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011


Writers on the internet spend a lot of time complaining about how much time they waste on the internet, and while the symmetrical irony of this affords me no end of amusement, that's not why I'm bringing it up right now.

Often the internet is seen as a time suck, an evil force that takes us away from our real writing. Discussions of this often end with, "Unplug it and write."

Which is excellent advice if one has a story burning to be told, waiting there in the brain for the opportunity to pour out onto the screen. If that is the case, by all means, have at it. Write that story and don't let email or blogs or Twitter or Facebook get in the way.

But I've noticed that time I spend online (or in offline non-writing activities) includes an element of essential play. Yes, I use the internet for story-related research, but that is not the only legitimate writerly use for it. There's a value in the socializing I do online, just as there's a value to the face-to-face socializing I do. It's not a value that can be measured in word count. There's a value in my following strange links to bizarre stories I never would have heard of otherwise. The writer part of me picks up on stories everywhere--including the internet. There's not an immediate reward in measurable output; I'm not a computer program. I may see a phrase or item somewhere that doesn't spark a specific story until two years later. But the point is that in roaming through the world, whether IRL or virtual, I'm picking up bits and pieces of future stories.

Something happens in the brain during playtime. Play is messy and unstructured and creative. It cultivates the unexpected. It simultaneously feeds and stimulates our curiosity.

Staring at the empty screen of a word-processing file isn't always the best way for me to unlock a story. Sometimes the best way is through doing anything other than chasing the muse. The muse often acts like the characters in Lewis Carroll's looking-glass, where the way to approach them is to walk in the opposite direction. Part of writing is listening and waiting, giving our neurons time to make connections, getting to know characters, fooling with different plots, trying on voices.

Play doesn't always have to be seen as procrastination. Especially for a creative person, a certain amount of it is necessary.

Monday, October 17, 2011

LGBTQ characters in YA literature: Continuing the conversation

On September 14 and 15, 2011, Malinda Lo blogged about a set of data on LGBTQ characters in recent YA literature in the US. The data confirmed my own anecdotal observations from reading YA:

There are far fewer gay than straight characters; those who are gay tend to be secondary rather than main characters; and they tend to be male rather than female. Bisexual and transgendered characters are the rarest.

As Ms. Lo acknowledges, the data were obtained from multiple sources. The total number of titles for year 2010 was obtained from a different source than the list of titles containing LGBTQ characters, and the compilers of the latter list did not read all 4000 titles published in 2010. In addition, the total of 4000, which affects the percentages, is itself an estimate arrived at by Harold Underdown, who had to use several sources to arrive at this figure. (The website lists about 500 YA titles published in 2010, which is roughly a tenth of Mr. Underdown’s estimate, and points up the uncertainty as to the total number of YA books published overall.) Ms. Lo says, “I can guarantee you that this list of probably not complete,” but adds, “sadly I should note that even if I double the number of titles on the list, the total percentage of LGBTQ YA will still only be approximately 1% of all YA books.”

I suspect that under-reporting will most significantly affect the numbers of books with LGBTQ secondary characters (rather than main characters). From my own observations reading the genre, I was able to think of several additional titles that were not included on these lists, but all featured secondary rather than main characters. LGBTQ characters appear more often in YA literature than they used to, and I believe that this growth has been exponential in the industry, given that I could only name about three YA books from my own youth that featured LGBTQ characters. However, these characters are still far more often members of the supporting cast rather than center stage.

I would love to quantify all of this more exactly. The part of my brain that sat through all those science courses in college and read countless articles in scientific journals could not resist outlining a study, a way to systematically examine the literature. Alas, given the realities of the time-juggling act known as my life, I cannot conduct this study myself. But if anyone is interested in carrying it out, or is already conducting such a study, please let me know.

For this study, the researcher would select a universe of publishers and publication years, and would define what qualifies for a “young adult” title. This would create a master list of the “population” of books under study.

Ideally, the researcher would read every book on that master list. Less ideally and more realistically, the researcher could randomly sample the master list and read a selection (the larger this sample, the better).

For each book read, the researcher would record the book title, publisher, year of publication, and whether the book contained LGBTQ characters, and whether they were main, secondary, or minor. Malinda Lo looked also at whether the characters were girl, boy, transgendered/genderqueer, adult, multiple, or undetermined, and our prospective researcher could collect similar data. If several publication years were studied, the researcher could explore trends over time. In addition, data on subgenre (whether YA contemporary, fantasy, historical, etc.) could be collected. Based on anecdotal observation, I suspect that most LGBTQ characters appear in contemporary novels, but that in recent years the numbers in paranormal/fantasy have grown; it would be interesting to see if the data support that theory.

The master list could be made available so that the universe of titles included in the study would be clear, and the decisions made by the researcher in categorizing books would be identified. The master list would also be helpful in any case where subjectivity enters in: for example, in determining whether a character is secondary (that is, playing an important role but not the main character) or minor (essentially a background or walk-on character).

For a less systematic collection of data, book bloggers could be another source of information. They read a huge number of YA titles,  although I don’t know anyone who reads 4000 in a year. Any blogger could begin to compile a list categorized as described above (on a shared database perhaps. GoogleDocs?). If several bloggers would share their lists, that would further increase the pool of available data. A master list that contained data from several bloggers would also need to indicate the blogger who served as the source of each data point.

My own grad-school days are over, but I would have loved to tackle such a study, and I hope someone does.

Grateful acknowledgment to Malinda Lo for her post and for reading an advance version of this post.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

The future of text

As digital media become more a part of our lives, I wonder how technology will affect the standard written-text story. We have the capacity to tell stories through video and audio, and we've had that for decades, and yet text has persisted. Ebooks will give us the ability to interact with narrative (to choose different endings, perhaps?) and to incorporate multimedia (e.g., click on a song title mentioned in the text and hear the song). But I wonder if that will really enhance the reading experience. It's easy to pile bells and whistles onto a text without really adding anything to the meat of the story. It's like decorating a cake with a zillion icing squiggles just because you have a cool icing tool. Does it make the cake taste better?

I foresee two possible paths. One is that text will remain durable, that people will still want the experience of reading words and generating the story in their heads, and they won't want a lot of adornments distracting from the text. The other is that people will find meaningful ways to incorporate the multimedia experience into a text; ways that are essential to the story and not just whiz-bang decorations. It's also possible that both of these things will happen. A big question is: have we been using words just because they were all we had, or is there something the written word can do that no other medium can do?

Wordsmithing is a special way of telling a story--a way I love, both as a reader and a writer. It may or may not persist. But story-telling has always been with us in one form or another, and I believe it will always be with us, no matter how we tell those stories.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Appearances this weekend, plus a great question

I'm appearing live on two writers' panels with members of the New Jersey Authors Network this weekend, and would love to see those of you who are local:

Saturday, October 15:
11 AM: Panel/Q&A, "GETTING PUBLISHED." Moorestown Library (111 W. 2nd St # 1, NJ 08057-2471 ). Appearing with Jon Gibbs, Kristin Battestella, JB DiNizo, and Keith Smith.
2 PM: Panel/Q&A, "THE NUTS & BOLTS OF WRITING A BOOK." Vogelson branch of Camden Library (203 Laurel Road, Voorhees, NJ08043). Appearing with Jon Gibbs and Kristin Battestella.

I'm also appearing in virtual form at the Printsasia blog, where I discuss whether or not The Secret Year is a love story.

But enough about me. In the writerly food-for-thought department, Amy Butler Greenfield asks a great question: "If you were only allowed [to write] one more book, what would it be?"

Thursday, October 13, 2011


Last week I blogged about The Hunger Games, and this week I finished the trilogy with Mockingjay. As much as I admired The Hunger Games, I thought Mockingjay the best book of the three. If The Hunger Games is a soldier’s-eye view, Mockingjay not only brings us back to the battlefield, but also brings us into the halls of power where presidents and generals make the choices that play out on battlefields.

In this book Collins also sums up the relevance of the series: “Because something is significantly wrong with a creature that sacrifices its children’s lives to settle its differences.”

The rest of this is SPOILER-filled, so I'll use a cut.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

The book I want to write

Although I don't blog about this, I'm very aware of current events in the political and public-policy arena: these are scary, exciting, gripping times. I've carved out this blog as a place where I can talk about writing, which tends to be a stabilizing influence on me, rather than discussing the news, which acts more like caffeine on my nervous system.

But I do follow the news, and I would love to write a novel in which I make Important Political Points. Some writers are very, very good at doing this. Every time I've tried it, I end up producing the kind of didactic soap-box garbage that nobody wants to read. (Not even me.)

I address social issues in both of my novels and many of my short stories. But they're woven in naturally as part of the plot and character development. And I tend to write about only what is, and leave the reader to decide what should be. Instead of using the characters as puppets to make a point, I mention whatever we need to know about these characters' background, their living situation, because it's part of who they are and part of what motivates them. For me, the character comes first.

Sometimes I wish it were otherwise, that I could start with a Grand Idea and build a book from there. So far, I've always had to start with character.

I can only write the books that are in me. I don't mean that we can't try to stretch creatively. But wishing that I were a different writer with different stories leads nowhere but frustration. I can admire other people's work, but I can only write my own.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

On Jo and Professor Bhaer

One of the most controversial pairings in classic children's literature is that of Jo March and Friedrich Bhaer in Louisa May Alcott's Little Women. I often see people lamenting the fact that Jo didn't end up with Laurie, her childhood friend, but instead fell for a much older professor.

I've pondered whether this disappointment on the part of readers is a result of some flaw in the writing, or is it just that women's expectations of marriage have changed over the decades since Little Women was first published? Or was Alcott's idea of a successful marriage just different from that of her readers?

The reasons that Jo accepts Prof. Bhaer and not Laurie are clearly articulated in the text of Little Women. While Jo and Laurie have great fun together, they also fight frequently. Additionally, Laurie is handsome, accomplished and wealthy; he enjoys music and seems to enjoy the social life. Jo is more of an introvert; social obligations bore her and make her feel awkward. When Laurie proposes, Jo answers, "'I'm homely and awkward and odd and old, and you'd be ashamed of me, and we should quarrel,--we can't help it even now, you see,--and I shouldn't like elegant society and you would, and you'd hate my scribbling, and I couldn't get on without it, and we should be unhappy, and wish we hadn't done it, and everything would be horrid!'"

Jo's answer should please the modern reader to this extent: She knows herself. She sees the points of incompatibility between herself and Laurie, how their respective needs would not mesh, and she has no desire to spend her life trying to become what she is not. This view is seconded by her mother, who says, "'You are too much alike and too fond of freedom, not to mention hot tempers and strong wills, to get on happily together, in a relation which needs infinite patience and forbearance, as well as love.'"

This is where I think today's audiences are disappointed: they want passion. "Infinite patience and forbearance" are not nearly as exciting, even if Mrs. March is right about their necessity in a marriage. Jo and Prof. Bhaer have a quiet love. They start as friends; they have a mutual respect and enjoy each other's company. Their affection is more the tender, steady sort. As a reader, I confess that I like the Jo-Bhaer match a lot more than many other Little Women fans do. (In the interests of full disclosure, I'll say that I also married someone several years older than I, but since we both act like teenagers a good deal of the time, it's rather different from Jo's match.) I happen to agree with Jo and Mrs. March that lifetime commitment requires more than just sparks, and I have a hard time seeing Jo and Laurie being happy together beyond the honeymoon.

But one thing this controversy does is to raise an interesting question for readers to ask themselves: Do you like the Jo-Bhaer match? If not, what do you think it lacks? Would Jo-Laurie really have worked? It can lead to fruitful discussions about what we look for in relationships, and what we need in a long-term relationship. And it can lead writers to think about our fictional couples, and what draws them together or breaks them apart.