Monday, January 31, 2011

The learning never stops

The bloggers' exchange continues! Today's guest post is by Becky Levine, who visited the blog previously to talk about revising from critique.  I always enjoy Becky's smart, sensible, inspiring posts about the "writing path," and her topic today is:

I’m Pretty Sure the Learning Never Stops
by Becky Levine

Years ago, I submitted some short stories to magazines. Redbook. Cosmopolitan. Good Housekeeping. In return, I received some very simple, standard rejection notes.

I was twelve.

Honestly, I don’t blame the editors.

One thing I know for sure is that I am a (much!) better writer today than I was all those decades ago. I am a better writer than I was one decade ago, five years ago, one year ago. I can list several reasons this fact is true.

• My critique group, all members of which are the height of awesomeness
• Writing books by people like James Scott Bell, Donald Maass & Les Edgerton, who all set off light-bulb moments in my brain
• Various workshops and conferences I’ve gone to, where I’ve learned scattered bits & pieces of the writing craft

But...reason number one that I believe I am a better writer than before is [...drum roll...] I have kept writing.

I know—obvious. Here’s the thing, though. Every time I work through a new stage of a book, or start one of those stages all over again on another project, I can see it happening. The things I learned earlier have stuck, and they’re with me as I write—reminding me, encouraging me, pushing me.

We talk a lot about the evil editor—the one who tells us we can’t do something: we can’t write an interesting setting; we can’t draw a believable antagonist; we can’t create strong dialogue. What we don’t hear as much about is the good editor, the one who sits on our other shoulder. That’s the editor who has stored all our experience, all our understanding, and is offering it to us on a beautiful, silver platter (with chocolate on the side) as we write. It’s this editor who tells us what we can do: we can start this scene further into the action; we can pull the point of view in closer to the hero; we can write dialogue funny enough to make our readers laugh out loud. In public.

This belief that, every day I write, I am adding to my ability—to my toolbox, as Jenn said in her guest post the other day—is one of the things that keeps me going. I may or may not be “good enough” today, but I have a chance to be that tomorrow. Or the next day. And even then, I’m guessing there’ll be plenty more to learn.

As long as I keep writing.

Becky Levine is the author of The Writing & Critique Group Survival Guide, as well as a speaker & freelance editor. Becky writes fiction for children and teens and is currently working on a historical novel set in 1912 Chicago. She blogs at

Sunday, January 30, 2011

The point

In life, things often happen by chance, or for reasons we can't determine. They strike suddenly and unpredictably.

We can write about such things. But overall, a story is not a verbatim record of life. It's a distillation of life. It's edited and organized, arranged to illustrate a particular point or capture a certain idea. The lightning bolt from the blue must, in a story, serve some purpose other than relieving the writer's exhausted imagination.

I suppose one could write an experimental piece in which things happen randomly, to make the point that nothing has a point. But in general, each component of a story has to earn its keep. "Why are you telling me this?" the reader says, or rather, "I assume you have a good reason for telling me this."

Friday, January 28, 2011

Storm of words

Here was the story on Wednesday: We were supposed to have a cloudy day, with a chance of snow flurries or snow showers, or maybe a bit of rain or sleet. This would then taper off. About 5-8 inches' worth of snow would fall later that night.

Here's what really happened.

When I awoke shortly after 5 AM on Wednesday, there were already a couple of inches of snow on the ground. It snowed steadily until noon, then turned to sleet, then freezing rain. By that time, we already had about 5 inches of snow, with the real snowfall still to come. And that night, another 9 or 10 inches fell.

It transformed the land, as snow does, blanketing everything in white, smoothing the landscape, frosting the bushes and buildings.

It makes me think of story-telling. A good book organizes and smooths over life's experiences, transforming them into something startling and unfamiliar. The landscape we've been staring at, day after day, until we no longer see it, is changed and new.

A good story has a couple of surprises. You peek out the window, expecting darkness and cloud, and instead you see a white velvet carpet. The snow intensifies until it's part of a thunderstorm, complete with a cracking and crashing in the sky.

A good story is built one word at a time, the same way that snow--with its power to bring major cities to a halt--falls as one tiny snowflake at a time.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

What characters see

Continuing the bloggers' exchange program, I visited Becky Levine's blog to talk about staying focused, and coping with all the writing advice that one encounters.

In other news, the charming Susan at Wastepaper Prose is hosting a giveaway of The Secret Year paperback, plus a bonus treat (a miniature version of Julia's notebook, as described in the book).

And now, for the topic of the day:

Once upon a time, I wrote a post about description to which CE Dunkley commented: "One thing I have been trying to incorporate when adding description (besides including the 5 senses) is to concentrate on describing what the specific POV character would notice. This allows me to personalize the description or choose even what gets described."

I love that idea. It means that description isn’t just about setting; it’s about characterization, too.

I came across a great illustration of this concept in Sinclair Lewis’s Main Street. On the same day, two different characters get their first look at Main Street in the fictional town of Gopher Prairie. The first character, Carol, is a young bride who has been working as a librarian in the city of St. Paul. On this small-town Main Street, she finds, among other things, some buttons on display in a general store: “steel and red glass buttons upon cards with broken edges.”

The second character, Bea, comes to Gopher Prairie (a town of several thousand) from a farm whose nearest town holds 67 inhabitants. She sees the same general-store display: “a card of dandy buttons, like rubies.”

The characters view the same street on the same day, yet Carol sees smallness, dirt, dinginess. At the meat market: “a reek of blood.” From the saloon: “a stink of stale beer” and “thick voices bellowing.” She notices the sour smells, the noise. The decay of ill-kept properties, the clash in different styles of architecture. Bea sees the town as huge, busy, dazzling. She notices the marble counter at the drugstore and the velvet at the jeweler’s. Carol sees cheap buttons on a broken-edged card; to Bea, the buttons are gem-like.

The difference in these points of view is not due only to their different backgrounds, to Carol's having come from a larger place and Bea from a smaller one. The filters through which they view Main Street are also consistent with their characters' values, vocabulary, emotions, and ambitions. Carol seeks artistry, depth, significance, beauty. She dreams big and is often disappointed. Bea is joyful and optimistic; her dreams are more practical, and much more attainable.

Because of this extreme contrast, Main Street's Chapter Four is a perfect one for writers to use in studying the relationship between description, character, and point of view.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Take a breath

Have you seen this post, in which Kelly Fineman discusses the importance of "fallow hours?"

In talking about the times when writers (temporarily) stop writing: "There was a time when I worried about them. Perhaps I'd lost my mojo. Or my imagination. Or my interest in writing. Invariably, I'd start to worry about what was going on, and what it meant, and whether I'd ever write again. And that actually made the situation worse .... These days, I don't worry so much. I recognize these fallow hours as what they are: a temporary break. Turns out that just as one can only drive so far on a tankful of gas before running out ..."

It reminded me of a post I wrote a couple of years ago called "Do Nothing," in which I described an important day on which I did nothing. Years later, it remains a cherished memory, probably because it was the only day on which I did nothing during my entire time in graduate school. (I was working full time as well. Yes, I was young and ambitious and slightly insane.)

And today Natalie Whipple posted about burning out, in a post called "Overdoing It." An excerpt: "I am fried, guys. I've spent too much time fixing book problems. ... Too much time stressing over getting things right. Friday night my brain essentially exploded."

I'm taking these as messages reinforcing something I've put into practice within the last couple of weeks: carving out a little more breathing space, indulging in some slow moments, long walks and quiet reading times and, most of all, times during which I don't do much of anything. My brain needs time to digest events, to gather itself for the next effort. It's as much a part of writing as the time spent in front of the keyboard. And more importantly, it makes for a happier life.

I've had to say no to some things, and put other things off a bit, and face the fact that I can't do everything all the time. Nobody can. I'm spending more time on things I truly enjoy and less time on things that were really not nourishing me. (As it happens, the things I enjoy do include keyboard time, because I'm excited about my current work in progress. But I'm letting this project flow naturally instead of trying to push it.)

So I invite you to sit back, relax, and put up your feet. And breathe. Unless maybe you happen to be in one of those joyful busy, productive periods ... in which case we'll have a cup of tea and wait for you. No hurry.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

The kissing scene

Today, I worked on a kissing scene first, followed by several other scenes. The other scenes went much faster.

Kissing scenes can be difficult because the characters are extremely vulnerable to each other. (Confession scenes also take me a long time to write, for the same reason.) Even if it's a comedic kissing scene, the characters are still vulnerable (in a way, I would argue, more vulnerable!). Also, in real life we have a natural inclination to look away from people who are kissing, to give them privacy. The writer, on the other hand, must stare at the characters in her head and describe their experience in enough detail to bring it alive. The first few times I ever wrote kissing scenes, I squirmed and blushed my way through. Then I would go back and reread and think, "Wow, I thought this was so intense as I wrote it, but it's really mild--you can hardly tell what's going on." It can take a long time for a writer to drop her defenses and just write about the kiss already!

Every kiss is different, of course--depending on the degrees of interest and experience the two characters bring to the event, and depending on how they feel about themselves and each other at the time. One nice thing about YA is that it often gets to incorporate a first-kiss scene (which is less common in adult literature). And people's reactions to a first kiss can vary so much:
"Oh, so that's what it's like? What's the big deal?"
"I am so glad he finally kissed me!"
"Was I doing that right?"
"So this is what everyone's raving about!"
"I suppose it must get better."
"I wish it had been [insert name] instead."
"When can we do that again?"

I try to capture the experience honestly, whether the characters' reactions are positive or negative: the bumped noses, the insecurities, the surprises, the joy. How characters handle these situations is as telling as how they handle every other experience in their lives: it's part of characterization. And a kiss is an action, a plot point, that can change the whole course of the story.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

What keeps you going?

Over and over, I have heard writers say that the successful writers are, above all, the most persistent. That staying power is even more important than talent. The ability to keep coming back after rejection, after having a writing project fall apart under your very fingers ... where does that stamina come from?

For me, the writing itself has always been rewarding. Before the world gets a chance to pass judgment, I've already made my own judgments; I've already spent quality time with the manuscript. What keeps you writing?

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Guest post: Seeking advice

I spoke recently of a "bloggers' exchange," through which I hope to write and host more guest posts through the year. I have a few people signed up already. Today's guest is Natasha, of the blog "A Great Book is the Cheapest Vacation," who has some questions about getting started as a writer. Feel free to leave your best advice in the comments!

More of a Story-Teller Than Writer
by Natasha Jennex

Since I was young I wrote horror stories for school projects, loving the creativity in making a scary story and feeling as if I'm living the experience while writing it. I can get very creative when it comes to horror. I've always had a soft spot for scary movies and novels, so I tend to write best in that direction. But as a writer, I don’t have much experience. I lack proper grammar and structure when writing, and tend to ramble on when I get excited. Though, as stories go, I can think of very imaginative and spooky themes. I love sitting at my laptop and starting a spooky tale, all the better when writing at night.

I don't only read and write horror. I like read every genre; for instance, paranormal romance, urban fantasy, chick-lit, fantasy, fiction and of course horror. Lately I write toward the urban fantasy and paranormal romance genres. I don't actually finish anything, and I wonder if it's because I feel that I should stick to my roots? Or that I'm not as comfortable writing in those genres as oppose to horror, but either way, I find myself stumped unless I'm writing a horror scene. I don't just mean blood-and-guts horror, I mean pull-the-blankets-over-your-head, squeeze-your-eyes-shut horror, or the horror that makes the hairs at the back of your neck stand on end. I love a good fright.

Now, back to my first thought.. (I told you I ramble when in thought.) I love telling stories, but I need to learn the skill of writing structure. I also tend to write blindly, as opposed to having characters and plots formed already. I may have a character or scene in my head, but I tend to write and let it blossom as I go along.

I know everyone has different techniques for writing, and everyone has their own style, but as an aspiring writer, I am in need of schooling. Can anyone give me any tips? Maybe on what steps to take?

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Critiques: pro and peer

Someone recently asked me how useful peer critique groups are, as opposed to professional critiques (such as the ones people pay for at SCBWI conferences). Did I see one as more valuable than the other, especially if the peers in question have not published yet?

There's no simple answer to this question, since many factors come into play. But my shortest answer would be: It's not necessary to limit oneself to professional critiques.

A professional editor is likely to give an excellent critique, because it's one of the things editors do for a living. And yet, I've still heard of people being disappointed after paying for a professional editor critique. Sometimes it's because the editor didn't click with the manuscript--and it's harder to give constructive criticism for the kind of story you don't read a lot. (This sometimes happen at conferences, when an editor who doesn't handle historical manuscripts might receive a historical novel, or when an editor who favors gritty YA gets a sweet chapter book.) Sometimes the editor's style just doesn't mesh well with the writer's. The writer may want a certain style or category of feedback, and the editor approaches critique from a different angle altogether.

Editors aren't the only source of professional feedback. Some agents help their clients edit manuscripts, while other agents are very hands-off. Similarly, some writers like agent feedback and others prefer their agents to stick to contract-related matters. It's all a question of what works best for the pair involved.

Our fellow writers, whether published or not, have a wide variety of critiquing skills. The best writer in a room isn't necessarily the best critiquer, and isn't necessarily the best fit for every manuscript.

Some writers know they want a brutal dissection of their work; they don't take anything personally and need no pats on the back. They are best off finding critiquers who will dish out such critiques, no holds barred. But for most of us, a mix of different styles can be helpful. Different people pick up on different things. Some focus on plot problems while others notice problems with setting, and still others have an ear for dialogue. Some critiquers are quick to praise and others are hard to please; in such cases, a writer knows that if the "easy" critiquer finds something problematic, it really is a problem. And praise from the tough critic is a sign that the manuscript is ready.

The best thing to look for in a critiquer is a careful reader who can give feedback in a style most suited to the writer. Familiarity with the current literature and the industry are pluses, but that doesn't mean the critiquer has to be an editor, agent, or published writer.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Comic relief

I've been posting lately about tough times, and the various strategies we use to get through them. One of those strategies is humor. Certainly there are times when we're beyond laughter, but there are times when laughter saves our sanity.

For example, in the middle of a bunch of personal challenges, I somehow found myself becoming part of an imaginary band with Mike Jung and Sarah Stevenson. As Mike describes it, the band known as Antfighter! "originated in a very off-hand Twitter conversation about ... ants ..." Aside from providing me with some much-needed laughs, Antfighter! has taken almost zero time and energy, due to its imaginary nature. Yet it's inspired Mike to give away an actual prize, for a good ant-fighting song/album title (entries to date include "God Spray the Queen" and "Borax for Thorax"). So you might want to hop over to Mike's blog and test your song-naming skills, and admire the logo Sarah designed.

I also just finished reading Two Parties, One Tux, and a Very Short Film About THE GRAPES OF WRATH, by Steven Goldman. This YA book features a narrator who is completely clueless about who really likes him and who doesn't (but in a believable, not a roll-your-eyes, kind of way), a deadpan best friend (I love deadpan), various girls who puzzle the narrator, a couple of strange teachers, and a Claymation film that sparks an investigation and an appearance before the school Judicial Board. Oh, and the prom chapter is called, "Prom and Punishment." The book addresses a couple of serious issues, but mostly I found it a fun read.

Even in the darkest, most serious material that I write about, I try to include at least a vein of humor. Because life is so often like that.

source of recommended read: library

Sunday, January 16, 2011

L.K. Madigan's Feast of Awesome Giveaway

In 2008, in one of the smartest moves I've ever made as an author, I joined a group called Debut2009. We all had first novels in the MG or YA category coming out in 2009. Although we ended up doing some promotional activities, the primary focus of the group was--and still is--the sharing of information and mutual support. We've shared our personal and professional ups and downs. We've read one another's books. We've cheered one another's successes, and commiserated over the more challenging moments.

Right before Christmas 2008, my book was bumped to 2010, and I joined the Tenners. But the Debut2009 community said I was still one of them, and I remain a 2009 "Deb" to this day. I feel a special bond with all of the Debs.

But I had another layer of connection with one of the Debs, Lisa (known to the wider world as L.K. Madigan). Like me, she was writing first-person male POV, though she's female. Like me, she had a contemporary realistic novel in a world where paranormal and fantasy books were hot. And I loved the title of her book: Flash Burnout. I couldn't wait for it to come out--and as it turned out, I didn't have to. When she donated an advance copy to a charity auction, I had the winning bid on it. I was surprised by how tickled Lisa was that I bid on her book--she expressed that in the inscription of the book (which is sitting next to me right now) and a couple of times afterward. My attitude was: Of course I want to read this; are you kidding? Awesome story, awesome title, awesome writer! I was vicariously proud and not at all surprised when Flash Burnout won last year's Morris Award for a debut novel.

Like so many of the Debs, Lisa was there for me throughout the crazy publication process. And there are a few things I remember in particular:

--She was able to turn writer angst into gold in the "Tim Gunn in My Head" series on her blog (see Tim Gunn's first visit to Lisa's head, the triumphant return of Tim Gunn, and once more with feeling). She even called in Tim Gunn (and Dr. House) after her surgery last fall.

--One time she and I ran a Debs giveaway together, and I was fretting over one aspect of the giveaway. Lisa sent me a soothing message that boiled down to: Don't sweat the small stuff.

--She ran "Authorial Intrusion" interviews on her blog to celebrate other debut authors. She interviewed me when my book came out. She continued to post interviews with this year's Morris nominees even while her health was suffering.

Now that Lisa has gone public with her cancer diagnosis, so many of us want to help in whatever way we can. If we could restore her to instant physical health, we would. But being writers rather than oncologists, one of the things the Debs have decided to do is help bring Lisa's wonderful voice to as many people as possible. Forty of us are giving away copies of her first book, Flash Burnout, and her second, The Mermaid's Mirror. Details are here, along with a list of other things you can do to spread some love at this difficult time.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Help and Hope

I almost titled this piece, "Helpless and Hopeless," but then I thought:

1) Yeesh, what a turn-off.
2) People might rush over to my house to perform an intervention.
3) Sounds like the headline of the worst personal ad ever!

I wouldn't say I'm helpless and hopeless today, although I've had a fair amount of bad news to digest recently (not involving writing--except in the sense that one piece of the bad news involves a fellow writer who is also a friend, and I'll say more about the wonderful L.K. Madigan when I can be more articulate). What I want to talk about in this post is what you do when you're feeling helpless and hopeless--in any area of your life?

Writers reach this point in a professional sense quite often. Writing has a long apprenticeship and a high rejection rate, and it's easy to feel that we're getting nowhere with it. And then there is the rest of life, with its myriad disappointments and nasty tricks, its accidents and illnesses and upheavals.

Yet Pandora's box of evils had the shining jewel of hope lying at the bottom. Somehow we face the day before us, and the next day. Somehow we find the silver lining or the half-full glass or the blessing among the curses.

For me, having a network of understanding friends and family is key. Also, writing itself helps me identify my feelings, work through them, release them. Walks help, too. And, although I don't discuss it directly or overtly on this blog, my spiritual life is also a source of strength.

What (or whom) do you lean on, when you need to lean?

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Pep talk, and books for libraries

Kitty Keswick posted a New Year's pep talk for writers on her blog. In reply, Swati Avasthi posted an amazing quotation from Martha Graham. This is part of it: "You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep open and aware ... Keep the channel open." But I urge you to follow the link and read the whole thing.

In news for librarians:

To celebrate the end of our debut year, The Tenners will be holding a special giveaway just for librarians. One public or school library will be selected to receive a set of 55 books by 2010 MG and YA debut authors. All you have to do is capture one of our books in the wild.*

Take a photo of yourself, another librarian, a patron, or even an adorable library pet posing with one of our 2010 debut novels. Send it to us at from your institutional email address. Tell us your name, your library's name and mailing address, and who's in the picture. The contest will be open until February 15th and the lucky winning library will be chosen and announced on February 16th. Until then, we'll be periodically posting your pictures.

*No purchase necessary, so posing with a photo or artistic interpretation of a book's cover is just fine too.

The full list of book prizes, which includes The Secret Year and 54 other YA and MG books, is on the Tenners site. 

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Apple Crisp & Rototiller: What it's like to write the second book

As I move from my debut book to a more intense focus on my sophomore effort (more on that soon, I hope), I've become quite interested in the whole "second-book" phenomenon. One advantage of a first book is its freshness, its lack of baggage. With the second book come expectations: the writer's, the publisher's, and the readers'.  For some writers, the second book is smoother than the first, but for many it's a difficult trip. I've been asking writers of second books to guest blog about their efforts, and here is my first such guest: Caragh O'Brien, author of the Birthmarked trilogy.

The Apple Crisp and the Rototiller: Writing Books 1 and 2
by Caragh M. O’Brien
Writing the second book in the Birthmarked Trilogy has been completely different from writing the first. I put together the first draft of Birthmarked in a couple months while I was on a leave from teaching, and I had no real expectation of publishing it.  The twists and intensity made it enormously satisfying to write.  Revisions came along with the surprise of finding an agent and an editor who were excited to have me on board.  There was a creative, analytic process of exchanging ideas with my editor, Nancy Mercado, which I found fascinating, and I loved every bit of the hard work involved.  There were setbacks, of course, but over all, Book 1 was simply wonderful, the writing equivalent of apple crisp.  You know, with the buttery crumbles on top.
The second book, Prized, has been far more grounded in the nitty-gritty of real life.  Roaring Brook offered me a three-book contract, so at least I was spared the anxiety of trying to sell the second book, but I did have a deadline to get something on the table.  My first draft took me five painful months to write while I was teaching full-time, and I knew it was a mess.  I was embarrassed rather than proud to send it in, and though my editor remained encouraging and upbeat during early drafts, I feared the book was destined to be a horrible disappointment to the kind fans who were, by then, starting to write me about how much they liked Gaia’s story.
The revising for Book 2 has involved dogged, savage persistence.  Imagine your rototiller turning gouges in the black earth.  I’ve resigned from teaching to overhaul the novel completely and repeatedly, tossing out fifty-page chunks at a time.  I do not say lightly that I resigned from teaching: that choice was grueling, for I both gave up something I loved to do and cut away my safety net of a tenured job.  Yet it allowed me to devote my days to my obsession and brought me a kind of deep, creative fulfillment I’d never imagined.
The results are promising.  I’ve recently finished my ninth draft of Prized and expect the copy edits back this week for final revisions.  My editor thinks it’s terrific, which means a lot to me.  I’ve explored material for Prized that took considerable soul searching, and it has made me a braver person.  I’m not afraid of risk the way I used to be.  I’m more willing to speak up and say what I think.
It’s fair to say the books have made me more like Gaia.  I’m grateful for them both, apple crisp and rototiller, and I’m heading into Book 3 with an open heart.

Caragh M. O'Brien is the writer of Birthmarked, a young adult dystopian novel released by Roaring Brook Press, 2010.  The sequel, Prized, is due out in November, 2011.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Here, there, and everywhere

In keeping with the idea I raised recently, when I said I wanted to guest post on more blogs and have more guest posters (a "bloggers' exchange program"), today I'm virtually visiting the blog "A Great Book is the Cheapest Vacation." The host, Natasha, suggested bullying as a topic, and I discussed it in the context of a creative-writing class I took while still in high school.

A sample: "... I’d never really understood that [bullying] was happening in other places. And that it was something you could talk about. And write about. It was an electrifying moment ..."

And in the spirit of bloggers' exchange, I will have some guest posts coming soon on this blog.

In other business, I want to congratulate all the winners and honorees of the ALA Youth Media awards, which include the Caldecott, the Newbery, the Printz ... and the Morris Award for debut authors. For the second year running, the Morris was given to a book I read as an ARC (Hint, hint, debut authors! ;-D Lend me your ARCs for good luck!): Freak Observer, by fellow Tenner Blythe Woolston! And I'm proud that two of the Morris shortlisters were also Tenners, Karen Healey (Guardian of the Dead) and Barbara Stuber (Crossing the Tracks). Rounding out the nominees' list were Eishes Chayil (Hush) and Lish McBride (Hold Me Closer, Necromancer). Well done, all! And as usual the Printz list, led by winner Paolo Bacigalupi for Ship Breaker, will add to my TBR pile.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Unreliable narrators

I just finished reading Justine Larbalestier's Liar, and I was impressed with its structure. I'll try not to be too spoiler-y here, but even though I'm not going to discuss the specifics of the plot, I will discuss some of the novel's elements, which some may find to be telling too much. And I will do the same for Chris Lynch's Inexcusable, also discussed below.

Liar's narrator admits to being a liar. Therefore, we're on alert from page 1 that our narrator may be unreliable, although she claims that this time, she's telling the truth. But as the book progresses, she changes her story, admitting to some lies and declaring that what comes next is the real truth.

The plot unfolds in layers, layers that peel back to reveal more and more secrets. Between the peeling layers and the flashbacks, it's a complex story (in her Acknowledgments, the author credits Scrivener for helping her to keep it all straight). The suspense, the interweaving of the layers, and the strong imagery combine to make this an excellent read overall.

Best of all, I like that at the end, we're left with two (at least) possible interpretations of what happened. Either version is supportable by the information included in the text--and though I tend to favor one interpretation, I can't dismiss any reader who would choose the other. It's reminiscent of The Turn of the Screw in that respect.

I found myself comparing this book with Inexcusable (my go-to example for unreliable narrators). In Inexcusable, we don't realize at first that the narrator is unreliable, but we begin to have a hint or two, and then by the end, our view of events is totally different from the narrator's view. In Inexcusable, our confusion comes when the narrator's unreliability is revealed, but we reorient ourselves, and at the end we know what really happened. In Liar, we can't be sure what really happened; we know the narrator has lied at least some of the time, but we don't know exactly when. But we can assemble the clues and build a convincing case. It's not ambiguity just for the sake of being cute or clever; the writer doesn't leave us hanging just because she painted herself into a corner. Rather, we're shown a pattern with a couple of possible interpretations and asked to choose which one we buy into. In that way, it's almost like reading two books at once.

All three of the books mentioned in this post are good examples of how to play with the reliability of narrators and the building of suspense.

Source of Liar and Inexcusable: bought
Source of The Turn of the Screw: school copy, read way back when

Today's signing rescheduled

Just a quick note that if you were planning to come to the signing in Cherry Hill, NJ, today, it's been rescheduled to February 12 (2-5 PM) because of the snow.

I'll be back later with a regular-style writing post!

Friday, January 7, 2011

Thanks for a great year

A year ago today, my first novel came out. It's been quite a year! And now that book is out in paperback, too.

Throughout the year, I haven't linked to every award listing, interview, review, fan letter, and guest post. Not because I don't appreciate them--I absolutely do--but on this blog I try to focus mostly on the craft of writing, and not dwell overly much on my book. On this anniversary, however, I wanted to say a big Thank You for the following honors, among others:

YALSA Quick Picks nominee (books for reluctant readers)
Spring 2010 Indie Next list (Teen Reader category)
2011 Tayshas List (Texas Library Association, books recommended for young adults)
RT Book Reviews Reviewers’ Choice Awards, nominee in Young Adult Novel category

And thank you to everyone who put the book on their personal "best of" list, nominated it for awards (e.g, the Cybils), blogged or tweeted about it. Thank you to those who wrote me--I've tried to answer every one of you. Thank you to those who posted thoughtful reviews of the book, hosted interviews and chats, invited me to speak at your school or conference. Thank you for reading!

In a way, writing is a sort of conversation, and the writer only has control over part of it. It's been a pleasure to see readers respond to themes and ideas that I consciously wove into the book--and a delightful surprise to have them point out aspects I hadn't thought of before.

Thursday, January 6, 2011


When I graduated from high school, classes voted on which of their members were the "Best" this and the "Most" that. The shyest, the nicest, the most changed since freshman year, best looking, most talkative, and of course, Most Likely to Succeed. I don't know if schools still do these "superlatives" anymore, but there's one way in which the concept of superlatives can help us in our writing. And that is: the best stories are often found in such extremes.

When I ask others to tell me a story, I often ask for their best or worst experiences, or their funniest. Or their first or last encounter with something. "The worst trip I ever took" is bound to be an interesting story. As is "the funniest day of my life" or "the last time I saw this person I loved" or "the first time I met the person I ended up marrying."

I'm not saying every one of these stories will be gold--just that these are often the memorable moments, the highs and lows of human experience, the times where we make emotional connections. Sometimes when I'm seeking a new story idea, I think of these extremes: best and worst, first and last, funniest and saddest, highest and lowest.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

The things around us

I quite enjoyed the responses to my recent post that invited people to look around themselves--right at that moment--and see their surroundings. Among the many fascinating things people saw were a "glazed, ceramic cup with a monkey's head" and a "lone fish cracker shaped like a whale that my kid won't let me throw out."

One common writing prompt is to start with a physical object, or a group of objects, and build a story around them. Whose seashell / scarf / perfume bottle is (or was) this? How did it get here? For a group of objects: How do these objects all relate to one another?

More questions to spark a writing exercise: Does this object inspire pride, dread, elation, nostalgia, sorrow, anticipation, regret, or a belly laugh? Is the object worn and battered, moldy or dusty, brand new, or has it been lovingly tended through generations? Is there perhaps something magical about this object, or historically significant, or just personally inspiring? Does this object remind you of a special person, or a special occasion? Or does it remind you of something about yourself that you always want to remember--or that you'd rather forget?

We all have our tools and our talismans, and plenty of stories to go with them.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Random observations from the sickroom

1. When I'm too sick to read, I really will watch anything that happens to be on TV when my eyes happen to be pointed at the screen.

2. It's a relief when I'm no longer too sick to read.

3. Sometimes the Christmas-tree lights blink, and sometimes they don't. Yes, our tree is still up.

4. My husband is one of those angelic caretakers who knows when to hover, and knows when to leave a sick person alone.

5. He also knows more about pumpkin muffins than I do, since I predicted his improvisational substitution in the recipe would lead to disaster, and instead it led to deliciosity.

6. Yes, I just made up the word deliciosity. At least some creative neurons are still operating!

7. When I love a book a third of the way through, I'm holding my breath that it fulfills its promise and still thrills me at the end.

8. All the stuff that usually seems like it can't wait--often can wait, after all.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Breathing room

Again this year, I didn't make big ambitious New Year's resolutions. My plan is to slow down and simplify. I'm reaching the end of a major writing project, and I took some time this past weekend to clear out some of the debris in my writing office. It's amazingly spacious in here! For now. ;-) But I'm appreciating the restfulness of the recent holiday, the dormant trees outside, the extra space around me.

If you need one too, feel free to take a breath.

Blogging agents

This blog focuses much more on the craft of writing than on the business of publishing, but occasionally I delve into the business side, as I’m going to today. I’m doing so because there’s an issue that’s arisen a few places around the internet, and I’ve decided that rather than keep repeating the same comments wherever it arises, I’ll just address it here.

My former agent has a post today called, "In Defense of Blogging Agents," which discusses the question (that until recently I hadn’t realized was a question) of whether agents should blog or engage in social networking, and whether writers should care whether their agents blog or not.

His particular case needs no defense, in my book. As a former client, I know how hard he worked on my behalf. I saw continual evidence of it, although that evidence wasn’t posted on the internet. Not only did his blogging not interfere with my representation, but I saw some benefits from it: I know there are people who found my blog and/or my book through his blog.

My former agent blogged; my current agent does not. I have friends who’ve had happy agent experiences, and friends who’ve had to part ways with their agents. Overall, my conclusion is that blogging is pretty much beside the point. It has nothing to do with the quality of the agent’s representation or the compatibility between agent and client. What writers generally need is an agent who understands and supports their work; understands contracts and pursues the best terms; knows the marketplace for literary rights and where to pitch them; is honest with their clients and responds quickly to questions.

All people (not just agents) have other claims on their time—families, hobbies, etc. If they want to spend their time blogging, or raising triplets, or breeding show dogs, or just staring out the window, it’s their own business. I would suggest that for a writer to pursue only blogging agents, or only non-blogging agents, leaves out a lot of excellent agents either way. I would suggest that other criteria are far more important—although ultimately these questions are up to the individuals involved, of course. Personally, I’ve had excellent representation from an agent who blogs and from one who doesn’t.

Sunday, January 2, 2011


Another quotation from May Sarton's The Small Room:

"... she caught herself wondering whether crisis may be one of the climates where education flourishes--a climate that forces honesty out, breaks down the walls of what ought to be, and reveals what is, instead."

I marked this because I think it applies to writing as well as education. And I'm not thinking about the writer's crises here (although I suppose that could apply), but the characters' crises. At the heart of any story is conflict, the conflict that "forces honesty out" and shifts the worldviews of the characters. It is in crisis that characters confront their weaknesses, and fall prey to them or grow past them. In crisis, they often face things they've been trying to ignore.

At the climax of a story, there is an honesty, a revelation of "what is," and this moment is the reader's payoff. At this moment, we discover whether the hero is stronger (or wiser) than the villain; we learn whether the character belongs with her love interest; we find out the secret the main character's been hiding; we solve the mystery. We see whether the main character is going to put on his big-boy pants and grow up. We see whether he has the internal strength to cope with an external defeat.

Crisis gives life to a plotline; it breaks open characters to reveal the hearts within.