Friday, September 30, 2011

Special live giveaway

Tomorrow (Saturday, October 1) I'll be at the Collingswood Book Festival in Collingswood, NJ. And I thought I would do a fun little feature for those wonderful people who come out to live book events. I will have with me an advance copy of my next book, Try Not to Breathe. It doesn't come out until January and won't be on display, but if you find me at the festival and you're the first person to ask for it*, you will get the advance copy. The point of such advance copies is for people to write reviews about them and spread the word, and I hope you will do that--review it on Goodreads or on your blog or Facebook or Google+, pass it on to your local librarian, etc.--but I'm not going to put any specific requirement on that. And if nobody claims the book, it will come back home with me for use in a future giveaway.

Try Not to Breathe: contemporary, YA. 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.

Hope to see you there!

*Must be at least 13 years old. My fellow authors of the Kidlit Authors Club, who will be appearing at the festival, will not be eligible, to give the general reader a chance.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Inspiring posts

I've been saving up all this linky goodness for you. All week people have been saying brilliant things online, and I've been making these notes: "Oooh, I should link to that!"

I love these posts so much that I hope you'll read them in full. But here are a few tastes:

In the motivation department, find your focus with Becky Levine who asks, "What brings you back to your WIP, even when you are tired or doubtful or drifting? What is it about this story that makes you need to write it? What is the call you can’t ignore?"

Tabitha Olson says of soliciting critique: "if you don’t know the heart of your story, you are not ready for feedback." And she explains why.

Susan Taylor Brown gets to the heart of the matter: "I've spent many years measuring my writing worth against too many of the wrong things --- Whether I write like someone else or as often as someone else. Whether I sell to a certain publisher or make a certain amount of money. Whether I get mentioned some place or not. Whether my reviews are good or bad or whether my books are even reviewed. Like I said, all the wrong measurements. ... my writing worth can't be measured by what someone else does or doesn't do ..."
This is one of those posts that's great for printing out and sticking up on the wall of one's writing office.

Victoria Patterson over at ThreeGuysOneBook delves into the line between fact and fiction: "Writers often use real life narratives and personages to build fiction. ... How can we best tell our stories while valuing integrity? What would a writer be without his or her borrowings?" With some fascinating real-life examples of "borrowing," as befits this topic!

Megan Frazer interviews me as part of her "bloggers on blogging" series, and I discuss blog-preparation questions such as, "What has the breadth and depth necessary to sustain a blog?" But the truly great thing about this series is that it includes blogging thoughts and advice from Melissa Walker and Cynthia Leitich Smith!

And in the news department, Bethany Hegedus announces the opening of a "writing barn" for rental as a writing retreat, and issues a call for Hunger Mountain submissions.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

How to have fun with denial

Yesterday I bemoaned the evils of denial, and I am certainly unenthusiastic when denial is embraced by readers or writers. (Which isn't to say I never embrace it myself, on occasion. But I don't view it as a virtue.)

However, denial can be a great feature in a fictional character. It's a defense mechanism that can arouse our sympathy or our contempt, depending on the situation.

Chris Lynch's Keir, the narrator of Inexcusable, is one of my favorite examples of a character in denial. Nabokov's Humbert Humbert, in Lolita, is another.

It takes skill to tip off a reader that a first-person narrator is in denial. Once the reader sees it, she will often become impatient for the character's self-realization, so the pacing of that (and the decision about whether the character ever has that realization) can be tricky. Often we're clued in to denial by a gap between what the character says and what he does, or by a gap between his version of events and the other characters' versions. There's often a period of disorientation, where we wonder which version of the truth to accept, and then there's the point where we become sure of the truth. We break with the narrator's version. (I suppose we don't have to become sure of the truth, though--a book could leave us hanging, wondering which version of events is real.)

If the character comes out of denial, it can be an occasion for growth, but it has to seem natural. In real life, people are able to carry on living with incredible amounts of cognitive dissonance. People don't like to give up their defense mechanisms. And so the motivation for a character to shed denial must be compelling. It could be the result of a long-present vulnerability, or new safety in the character's life, or a consequence of having something very important at stake.

Monday, September 26, 2011


In replying to a comment on my last post, I described censorship as "shoring up the walls of denial." And I realize that's it, that's one of the core elements of censorship that offends me and pains me so much.

Because for me, writing is about puncturing denial. It's about acknowledging truths--beautiful truths, ugly truths. Saying yes, this is real. Yes, this thing you know to be true, this feeling or fact or experience--it exists. Now what do you want to do about it?

It's about opening doors, not closing them.

I have seen denial cause incredible pain. The lie we tell ourselves is that denial keeps us safe. In fact, it does the opposite.

I'm always asking myself: What is the truth about the situation I'm writing about? How does it really feel? I want to dig beyond the cliches that build up around common experiences: red as a beet, happy as a clam, tears of joy, cold sweat--forget all that, that's how we're supposed to feel, but how does it really feel?

I want to measure the gap between how things do go and how they ought to go. I want to use all the crayons in the box. I want to show how my characters act when they think nobody else is looking.

Masks don't interest me much. The real story is usually going on behind the mask, as the authors of The Phantom of the Opera and The Wizard of Oz knew.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

More than banned books

An addition to this year's Banned Books Week is Banned Websites Awareness Day, September 28. The American Association of School Librarians is launching the day "to spotlight the problem of excessive filtering of legitimate educational Internet websites in many K-12 schools."

As an author who has spoken with librarians and teachers, I've heard many complaints about the wholesale filtering of many legitimate and useful sites. According to AASL president Carl Harvey, “Many schools filter far beyond the requirements of the Children’s Internet Protection Act, because they wish to protect students ... Relying solely on filters does not teach young citizens how to be savvy searchers or how to evaluate the accuracy of information.”

In addition to the sheer inefficiency of overly broad filtering, there are other problems with filters. The ACLU has launched a "Don't Filter Me" campaign in partnership with Yale Law School to stop censorship of pro-LGBT (lesbian-gay-bisexual-transgendered)-rel
ated websites on public school computer systems.

Among the sites the ACLU project uses to test whether illegally targeted filters are in place is this one: the "It Gets Better" project, whose mission is described this way: "In response to a number of students taking their own lives after being bullied in school, they wanted to create a personal way for supporters everywhere to tell LGBT youth that, yes, it does indeed get better."

I post the First Amendment to the US Constitution at this time every year, so here it is:

"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."

Friday, September 23, 2011

Authorial intent

I've been thinking about authorial intent, and I haven't come up with any easy answers or absolutes. (But that won't surprise longtime readers of this blog, who know that I rarely find easy answers and I shy away from absolutes.)

Authors are responsible for what they write, but how responsible are they for what readers find?

In thinking about that question, I conclude: Authorial intent matters, and it doesn't. How's that for a fence-straddle?

On one hand, I've long felt that a good review will look at a book in the light of authorial intent. That is, a reviewer should not blast a light romance for not being a murder mystery, especially if it doesn't bill itself as a murder mystery. A reviewer shouldn't criticize an author for failing to write the book the reviewer would have written. And yet--how is a reviewer supposed to know an author's intent? Sometimes reviewers guess at this and get it drastically wrong; is that the author's fault or the reviewer's? At the end of the day, reviewers can only criticize the texts in front of them, not the books the authors were trying to write.

Then there are issues to which readers take offense. Authorial intent alone is not necessarily a defense against bigotry or cultural appropriation. It's like stepping on someone's foot while walking down the street--even if I didn't mean to step on that person's foot, I still apologize, because I caused the person pain, however accidentally. I don't say to the person, "Oh, your foot can't possibly hurt, because I wasn't trying to step on it." And I try to watch my feet.

But there comes a point where a reader can read way, way too much into a text. "The character is wearing an orange shirt in Chapter 4, which is an obvious alignment with the 1987 Weemblelock Movement, whose followers wore the color orange. The Weemblelock Movement recommends the colonization of Mars for military purposes, and the author obviously sympathizes with that objective." How responsible am I for such an interpretation if I've never even heard of the Weemblelock Movement (which, by the way, is totally invented for the hypothetical purposes of this blog post)? I believe in the ownership a reader takes of a text--and yet I also believe wholeheartedly in the author's right to reject interpretations that are along Weemblelockian lines.

I've been alternately dismayed, amused, puzzled, heartened, and delighted by reader reactions to various things I've written. The fact is that a story doesn't exist in isolation; every reader brings a context to it. The writer can guess at some of that context, but can never know the whole story of every reader's life. Some of what a reader brings to the reading experience is unique to that reader.

The more I look at these issues, the more I think we hammer out the answers between ourselves, negotiating the boundaries between human beings. Nobody ever really knows what anyone else means; we make lots of assumptions, we look for clues and evidence, we go back and forth. We ask questions. We bring our own experience and opinions to the table.

And at the end of the day, a reader can get something from a book that the author never even imagined. That can be wonderful or horrible or anywhere in between. A book released into the world never belongs wholly to the author from the first moment that anyone else lays eyes on it.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

One true story

I vaguely recall a comment exchange I once had with April Henry about generalizing: how people assume their own experience is universal. I don't remember the original topic that sparked the exchange, but I do remember that realization hitting like a bolt of lightning: I generalize, too, even though I know how faulty generalizations can be.

Growing up, the generalizations that bothered me usually had to do with my being a girl. I never seemed to fit the stereotypes. Girls were supposed to be bad at math ... uninterested in science ... afraid of snakes and spiders ... adore makeup ... complain about being fat ... love shoe shopping ... None of which applied to me. It's not surprising, given that there are more than three billion girls and women on this planet, that we're not all alike. And what bothers me even more is when people take a single instance from their lives as proof that these generalizations are true. "My son prefers football to dolls, so it's true that boys are more sports-oriented." That kind of thing. 

Here's an example from my own life. I grew up in a heavily Catholic neighborhood, and because of that, I assumed Catholicism was the world's (or at least the country's) dominant religion. Imagine my surprise to hear in history class that some people thought John F. Kennedy might not be able to get elected President because of prejudice against Catholics. I may have been in junior high school before I realized a group I had thought of as a majority was a minority; I'd assumed that because almost everyone around me was Catholic, almost everyone everywhere was. That's just one small example, but I think it makes my point about how we think of our own lives as normal, our own experiences as universal. (But of course, this may be a generalization also! Maybe others are more aware than I was of how specific our lives really are.)

Some experiences are widely shared, of course: I suspect that love and fear and anger and hope feel much the same to people everywhere, although they may come in a variety of packages. For me, part of the joy of reading is discovering that common ground. But when I was reading this post of Brent Hartinger's, I started thinking again about generalizations. He makes a lot of great points in that post, but at the moment I want to focus on the idea that there is no single experience of how it is to be ... [fill in the blank]. There is no single authentic female experience, no single authentic gay experience, etc., etc. Yet every story is individual and tells of an authentic experience.

In my writing, I'm conscious of trying to build a body of work. Although I have overlapping themes and some similar characters from one work to another, I try to cover different worlds and different perspectives in each book. Rich and poor; experienced and innocent; confident and insecure; male and female; etc., etc. And even so, I don't claim to tell the true story of the world I'm writing about; I'm just trying to tell one true story. (And by true I don't mean literally true, since I'm writing fiction, but emotionally true.)

Monday, September 19, 2011

Fear, Loathing and Joy: Writing a Second Book

The latest guest blogger in my "second book" series is Ellen Jensen Abbott. She discusses the special challenges of writing a sequel.

There’s a lot said about fear and loathing and the Second Book. Writers are notoriously insecure, but the Second Book takes all the normal writerly fears and magnifies them. If your first book did well, you may fear that your next one will be a flop, proving that you are indeed the hack you always secretly believed you were. If your first book didn’t do well, you may fear that the Second Book is your final chance at a writing career.

Or, maybe it’s the reviews that keep you up at night. You’ve been through publication once, and you know that everyone gets a least one bad review. You also know that it’s easy to take all your reviews to heart, especially the bad ones.

Like any author, you fear that no one will read your book. Since I was writing a sequel, readership held special terror for me. My audience for my first book, Watersmeet, was every kid in the English speaking world from the ages of 12 to 99—and some much younger, as kids tend to read up. But what about the Second Book, The Centaur’s Daughter? Is my audience only those who read the first? Does that mean that I am selling to thousands now, whereas before I was selling to millions? I wrote The Centaur’s Daughter so that you didn’t have to read Watersmeet to understand it, but Second Book fears are only vaguely rational, and this has been little comfort.

In writing The Centaur’s Daughter, I found that there are plenty of joys with the Second Book, even if they don’t get the attention the loathing does. If nothing else, you got a second contract. You are not a one-shot wonder! (You can start worrying about being a two-shot wonder when you start the Third Book.) In fact, several acquaintances, on hearing that I was publishing a Second Book, have said to me, “Wow! You’re a real author now.” (Which is funny because they said something very similar when I’d announced that I was publishing my first book.)

I also enjoyed launching myself into the Second Book knowing that I was capable of writing a full-length novel. I’d done it before! With the first book, it took a long time for me to even say out loud that I was writing a novel. Loads and loads of people start them, but was I going to be one of those who finished one? Now I know I can.

With the Second Book, I also had the joys of a deadline. Very, very few people sell their first book without writing the whole thing first. At least in the world of fiction. But I sold The Centaur’s Daughter based on a synopsis, sample chapters, and the success of Watersmeet. It was a different experience to write a book knowing that someone was waiting for it. It was no longer just about disappointing myself—and those people I had confessed myself as a writer to. There was money on the line. Nothing like a little cash to light a fire on those days you just can’t bring yourself to turn on your computer. I enjoyed the sense of purpose this gave me.

Probably more important than cash was the knowledge that someone out there wanted the book. My editor and my publisher, yes. More motivating were the e-mails, facebook posts and blog posts from readers telling me that they enjoyed Watersmeet and they were excited to read The Centaur’s Daughter. On days when neither my own motivation nor the contract could get me going, those readers could.

Even the fact that The Centaur’s Daughter was a sequel brought joy. I struggled with how much back-story to include, but I also got to return to characters and a world I knew and loved. Both surprised me. I found new reserves of strength in my main character, Abisina, as well as new stores of empathy. Her best friend, Haret the dwarf, had to face again a demon I had thought he conquered. Findlay, the love interest from Watersmeet, had much more scope for his sense of humor, and two other characters (who will remain nameless!) fell in love. I hadn’t seen that coming!


I got to go places in the world of Seldara that I hadn’t been in before—even though I had created it. The Motherland, home of the fairies, became a three-dimensional place with strange dwellings and wild ritual. Abisina stumbled upon the Chasm of Couldin, a place she had never heard of. Even Haret (and the author of the book) had only heard rumors about it! There were interesting challenges—such as when I wanted to move the entire Obrun Mountain range. There it was on the map for Watersmeet, so I had to invent a new plot twist to get my characters where they needed to go.

All of these discoveries gave me the chance to marvel at the human brain. I had planted seeds in Watersmeet that I didn’t even know were there. And then, just when I needed something good in The Centaur’s Daughter, I would find them and realize those seeds had grown into just what I needed. It boggles the mind.

So back in June, when The Centaur’s Daughter had already gone to the printer, I took the next step, and started … the Third Book. First chapters and synopsis are with my editor right now. What will I discover in this process? What new characters will walk into my pages? What new qualities will my heroine and hero develop? What new frustrations await me?

I sure hope I get the chance to find out….even if it means once again, facing all those fears.

Ellen Jensen Abbott, author of Watersmeet (Marshall Cavendish, 2009) and The Centaur's Daughter (Marshall Cavendish, September, 2011) can be found online at

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Blog salad

Today, a random mix. Kind of a "blog salad."

***One of the joys of reading is coming across striking quotable quotes, like these:

           "My point here is that even under ideal circumstances, public-school teaching is one of the hardest jobs a person can do. Most sensible people know that. Anyone who claims not to know that is either a scoundrel or a nincompoop ... "--Garret Keizer, "Getting Schooled," Harper's, September 2011, page 34.

           "Will there never be an end to the cynical misuse of language by those who rule us?"--Aidan Chambers, Postcards from No Man's Land

           "I marvel at how unexciting it is to be famous, how mundane famous people are. They're confused, uncertain, insecure, and often hate what they do. It's something we always hear--like that old adage that money can't buy happiness--but we never believe it until we see it for ourselves."--Andre Agassi, Open: An Authobiography

***I'm currently the guest on Kitty Keswick's blog. What's special about her blog, "Discover Something Wonderful," is that she is working to open a NEW BOOKSTORE (are there more thrilling words than those?), and the blog is a mix of author features and her adventures in getting the store ready.

***My first book, The Secret Year, is up for grabs at Free Book Friday Teens, while an advance copy of my upcoming novel, Try Not to Breathe, is up for grabs at Goodreads

***If you're anywhere near Doylestown, PA, and you like YA, join Ellen Jensen Abbott, Cyn Balog, Alissa Grosso, Amy Holder and me for Teen Night at the Doylestown Bookshop, Friday September 23, 7 to 9 PM. Or if you can't make it but want a signed book by one of us, call the store (215.230.7610) and order one over the phone to be signed that night.

***I read this book last week and quite enjoyed it. It's a boy-meets-girl story that tackles a couple of issues I haven't seen discussed much in YA, and as a verse novel, it reads very quickly (perfect for reluctant readers). I don't want to get spoilery, so I'll just state the starting premise: a girl has set aside a day to herself right before she is expected to undergo a life-changing event. She meets a boy who is facing his own life-changing event. Together they seize this day, but they can't stave off "tomorrow" forever ...

The Day Before, by Lisa Schroeder.

source of recommended read: bought

Saturday, September 17, 2011

A scene from the glamorous life of a writer

Writer: Will you please leave the bubble wrap alone? I want it to sit on top of that box of books, out of the way.

Cat: You do not understand how delicious this bubble wrap is! How much fun! I must rub my face against it repeatedly, mouth the edges, and then drag it artistically onto the floor. See how beautiful it looks, blocking your way to the door.

Writer: Yes, blocking my way. I would like to leave the room without having to pick up the bubble wrap every time.

Cat: The aesthetic balance of the room requires a chunk of bubble wrap lying there, just so.

Writer: I could put the wrap on a high shelf, out of your way.

Cat: You wouldn't dare!

Writer: I might.

Cat: You're just jealous. You are not the only artist in the family, you know. Between my graceful poses and my skill with bubble-wrap-dragging, I am surpassing you! You are Salieri to my Mozart!

Writer: Don't be such a diva.

Cat: It comes with the territory of genius, my friend.

Writer: Oh, go chase down a rubber band, like you did this morning.

Cat: That rubber band was totally going to attack us if I had not leaped upon it and given it a sound thrashing. You're welcome!

Thursday, September 15, 2011


I see writers asking this question from time to time, most recently tracy_d74: How do you choose your next project, especially if you have more than one nipping at your ankles?

I've seen some writers use a method that amazes me: posting the options online and asking people to vote for the project they'd most like to see. Were I to do that, my stubborn Muse would just laugh and ignore the poll results, whatever they were.

I'm sure there must be sensible authors out there who use rational thought processes to choose their next project. I know there are people writing series who don't even have to worry about this decision (at least, until the series is over). But for me, the decision is not even up to me--or at least it feels that way. I don't choose the project as much as it chooses me.

I get story ideas all the time. Sometimes they grip me quite strongly. I'll write a sentence, or a paragraph, or a page, or ten pages. And then the idea dies. I don't know where to take it next, or I just don't care where it goes. Not enough "there" there. The downside: this happens a lot. The upside: I haven't invested a whole lot of time before I realize the idea won't work. Sometimes an idea goes from "Brilliant!" to "Yawn" in less than an hour.

Short stories don't require nearly as much of a commitment. I can finish a first draft in a matter of hours, and polish it in days or weeks. But novels take months or years. What I'm looking for in a novel idea is an interesting plot, a great voice, and characters that I can stand living with for a couple of years. Most of all, I need a certain energy to seize me--and to have staying power. The story must fascinate me through draft after draft. I must care about the topic passionately; I'll even say it should hurt a little, too. (For me and my stories, that is. I imagine that if you're writing humor, it doesn't have to hurt!)

Starting a new project is like finding a vein of gold, but not being sure how deep or far it goes. At some point, often around page 10 of a draft, I will have a sense of whether this vein is a mother lode, or whether it dies out.

I don't know how to manufacture that energy, the drive that tells me this idea will be my next novel. But I know it when I feel it.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

It's okay to slow down

I've just been on the road for the second time in less than a month, and so once again I am out of touch with the online world. There are hurricane-relief efforts going on, and Book Blogger Appreciation Week, and an effort to support the presence of GLBT characters and story lines in YA, and I don't even have it in me to code a link to any of it, even though I'm in favor of all of these causes.

I've just come through a period of time where I have done a lot. Some days, it feels as if I'm busy every single second. And lately, I've been giving myself permission to do less, and to do more of what I enjoy and less of what just feels like a chore. And to acknowledge that I can't do every single thing that I would like to do. And to accept that when I've been away, catching up is not an instant process.

Writers are famous for having this kind of lifestyle, the juggling-a-hundred-things, busy-all-the-time lifestyle. I believe that is because 1) writing generally pays poorly, and most writers have to have another job to pay the bills; and 2) writers are often interested in many, many things, and we're always trying to experience this and learn more about that and try this and do that.

It's an incredibly rich life. Just one that requires a day off now and then.

Sunday, September 11, 2011


Finishing a project can inspire many feelings: relief, joy, satisfaction, accomplishment. Nervousness about how it will be received, or pride in reaching a goal.

It can also bring about an "empty-nest" feeling, a sense of being lost. When characters occupy one's head for weeks or months or years, it can be startling when, instead of cavorting across the mind's stage, they sit in the wings picking at their fingernails. "Our story has been told," they tell the author. "We're resting now. Go away."

That cup must be emptied in order to be refilled, to make room for a new story. One can fear that temporary emptiness, or embrace it. It's like a rest in music, or white space on a page: blankness with a purpose.

Friday, September 9, 2011


I was reading some online reviews and discussion of a group of books by a certain author. (I'd read and liked one of this author's books, and was trying to decide which one to read next.) An ongoing theme in the discussion gave me pause. Essentially, this person's readers loved the writer's early work, but seemed to feel that success had spoiled the later work. The author's new, more privileged position in life (which had occurred, ironically, as the result of the success of the early books) was now harder for the readers to relate to.

It's a common problem for artists whose work succeeds in a big way. If your early work is about living with roaches and collapsing ceilings and scraping together quarters to buy some ravioli at the corner grocery, plenty of people can relate. But if you become so popular that your art not only supports you but enables you to upgrade your lifestyle, is your audience still going to care when your new problems are which butler to hire and how much caviar to spread on your morning toast?

We should all have such problems, I can just hear the writers in my audience saying. Success, fame and fortune? Bring it on!

I was already thinking about issues of art and fame because I recently rewatched the movie Stardust Memories, which is about all the glop that accumulates around a successful artist. Stardust Memories makes fame look like a constant hassle, and the main character's art (film, in this case) is getting buried beneath a mountain of corporate baloney, criticism (especially from those who want to pigeonhole him, who want his new films to be just like his previous films), and personal problems. And somehow Stardust Memories manages to carry this off without making the main character repellent. Every time he slides into self-indulgence, one of the other characters delivers a snappy, often funny line that lifts the scene. Sometimes the main character even accomplishes this himself, as when he imagines a space alien telling him, in the voice of all his critics, that if he really wants to make a difference in the world, he should stop with all the gloomy pondering about mortality and "'Tell funnier jokes.'"

I doubt I'll ever have the problem of overwhelming fame to deal with myself, but all artists eventually have to deal with the expectations of their audiences, with the ongoing viability of their work in the marketplace. They have to decide whether they want to continue to tell the same kind of story that brought them attention initially, or to take the risk of trying new genres and subject matters and attitudes. Artists also change: the person who writes the fifth book is not the same as the person who wrote the first book.

In Stardust Memories, the redeeming spark in the center of all the pressure and nonsense is the art itself, the very human attempt to capture the fleeting wonder that is at the center of the crazy miracle we call life. Sometimes it's struggle and setback, but then there are those moments: a wet kiss of forgiveness, or a perfect Sunday morning with a loved one.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Letting go

For the past couple of weeks, I've been thinking about the concept of "letting go." It can mean many things, and different things at different times, but I've found it immensely useful in my writing life (as well as the other parts of my life). Some things it can mean:

Saying no to taking on another task.
Deciding not to attend a conference I've attended in the past.
Sitting and reading a book instead of forcing myself through another chore.
Postponing some of my tasks, or switching them from daily to every other day.
Accepting that the least important things in my life will be done imperfectly so that I can spend more time on the things that matter most.
Scheduling travel at a sane hour instead of arranging a trip that requires getting up at 4 AM.
Being willing to forgo something I want if the cost (and not just the monetary cost) is too high.
Stopping a flurry of self-questioning about whether the book I'm writing now is as good as the previous one, or better, or worse, or whether readers will like it as much as my earlier books, or more, or less ...
Remembering to laugh.

Writing takes a lot of time and energy, and that time and energy have to come from somewhere. We don't always have to be adding to our lists. Sometimes we can delete items without even doing them. It's okay.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Marching boldly and erratically into the future

From an actual mailer sent to me this week:

"Beginning in July, we will be activating a new computer system in our physician offices ... During this implementation period, it is possible that you may receive more than one billing statement for physician services ... We are very excited about the new possibilities our integrated system will offer and expect that these changes will enhance your ... experience."

Yeah, I'd be excited too, if I had the chance of getting paid twice for the same service. And I can't wait for the "enhancement" of calling their automated phone system to unravel any double-billing errors!

Today's writing lesson: think about the effect of placing one idea near another idea, and whether that will produce any unintended laughs or groans from your reader ...

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Leading questions

One thing writers often encounter when they start receiving critique is the "more, please" comment. If the piece is discussed in a large workshop, the writer can come away with 20 different requests to explain how the MC's characters met, what color the MC's eyes are, why she bites her nails, how long she's been working at her job, and so on, and so on.

A beginning writer is often tempted to answer every question, and to include all the answers in the story. That can lead to a story bogged down in irrelevant details. I've found that in reality, some of the answers belong in the story; some of the answers belong in the writer's head but not on the page; some of the answers don't matter at all; and some can lead to a wonderful new place, can break open a scene.

I don't like to dismiss any question out of hand, but at least give it a "What if?" chance. I ask myself: Do I know the answer to this question? If so, does it matter to the story? Is it interesting? Does it relate to the plot or the theme? If I don't know the answer--does it matter? Does it lead me somewhere important?

Friday, September 2, 2011

Recovering from an "oops!" moment

I don't remember the exact wording of the question, because it was at least a year ago that I heard it. But it came up once when I was on a writers' panel, and obviously it has stuck with me.

The question was along the lines of, "If you've made a mistake with an editor, can you ever approach her again, or are you blacklisted?"

I can't speak for editors or agents or even for all writers. I can't really speak for anyone but myself. However, this was my answer, and I suspect (and hope) that it applies widely: It depends on what you mean by "mistake," but I think blacklisting is rare.

There are small mistakes, and then there are really huge errors in judgment. Most of our mistakes fall into the first category. Did you misspell her name? Send the wrong version of a manuscript? Did you say, with rookie hubris, that your manuscript was like [fill in latest bestseller title] only better? Write your query in hot pink letters because you thought it would be eye-catching? Ask her, at your very first writers' conference, if she would take your 1000-page manuscript home with her? Don't get me wrong: these are behaviors to avoid if you can. But if you've done anything like this, either through a brain freeze or novice enthusiasm, I frankly doubt anyone will remember. It may make you cringe now, but the editor has seen so many queries since yours that the ones she passed on have probably melted together in her mind. Nobody's perfect, and I think most people have the compassion to see innocent mistakes as just that. The important thing is not whether you've ever stumbled, but whether you've learned. The point is: what does your manuscript look like now? How does your latest query sound? Are you cultivating a professional attitude now?

Of course, there are behaviors that could put off an editor permanently--stalkerish behavior, for example, like calling an editor at home or bombarding her with email or phone calls, or responding with extreme anger to a rejection. But I think those are much, much rarer than the innocent flubs we all make at one time or another. I would hope we can extend some understanding to one another, and not sweat the small stuff.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Observations from my time away

It's good to take a hiking trip when you're in the middle of revising a manuscript about hiking.

For 7 days, I did not watch TV or listen to a radio. For 10 days, I did not touch a computer. I turned on my phone once a day to check messages, then turned it right off again. I didn't always have phone reception.
It was lovely.

The way I found out about the earthquake was through a headline in a day-old San Francisco Chronicle. And may I say, I certainly never expected that by traveling from Pennsylvania to California I would avoid an earthquake.

The way I found out about the hurricane was on a big-screen TV in a cafe where we were having lunch, on our way back to the city from which we were supposed to fly home. We did not actually make it home for another three days. Ultimately, I flew standby on one plane, my husband flew standby on another, and our luggage came home on a third plane.

The cat is now curled up with my suitcase, which is on the living-room floor. I think he believes he can keep me from leaving again, should I be so inconsiderate as to attempt it.

Having a dental crown pop off in the unlit washroom of a High Sierra camp is not the highlight of one's vacation.

Number of people who worried aloud about bears when they heard I was going to Yosemite: about a dozen. Number of bears I saw in Yosemite: zero.
Number of bears I saw in Sequoia National Park: 1. Number of bears that bothered me or gave any evidence they even knew I existed: zero.

Sitting barefoot next to the waterfall at Glen Aulin High Sierra camp, reading a book, I realized it was the first time in ages that I had spent an afternoon doing nothing much. And it was certainly the perfect setting in which to do nothing much. I repeated the sit-by-the-water-and-read experience at May Lake (blue-green water at the base of a mountain, fringed by wildflowers), with the same satisfaction.

Mosquitoes do not learn anything from watching their brethren get smushed: they will still land on your arm.

I love lupines almost as much as Dennis Moore does. (To the youngsters out there, I feel compelled to point out that this is a joke about Monty Python. But I really do love lupines.)

A hot shower is one of the delights of civilization.

It's nice not to have to put on sunscreen every morning.

The National Parks shuttle systems are awesome.

There are still plenty of stars in the sky, as we can see when we don't drown them out with light.

My notebook accidentally spent a night outside at May Lake. Even though it rained a bit, the book has a plastic cover and suffered no lasting damage.

Of course I carried a notebook (a paper one). It contains story notes that are probably illegible to anyone but me.

On our first full day of vacation, before we had our hiking legs under us, my husband and I climbed from Yosemite Valley up to Yosemite Point. We are insane. But in a good way.

It's been one of my lifelong dreams to see the most massive trees in the world, the giant sequoias. It turned out to be one of those dreams that lives up to expectations.