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.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Writing lessons from The Hunger Games

I've just finished The Hunger Games (late to the party, I know). Reading as a writer, I noted these techniques by Suzanne Collins that I particularly admired and appreciated:

There were realistic consequences to things. There's violence in this book, but it's not cartoonish. Collins acknowledges that explosions can cause ear damage, wounds can get infected, limbs can't always be saved, and sometimes death is not mercifully quick but painful and lingering. I suspect this is a result of the POV attributed to Collins on the jacket flap: "... she continues to explore the effects of war and violence on those coming of age." The truth is, war and violence ain't pretty. Or neat. Or free of sequelae.

The internet was abuzz for months with the Gale-Katniss-Peeta love triangle, but it didn't strike me as a love triangle. In fact, I like the different spin Collins put on Katniss's relationship with the boys; to her, they are mostly friends. Other feelings stir her on occasion, but the deception and play-acting necessitated by the game thwart her ability to know her own truth. I'm especially glad she didn't fall blindly, inexplicably, or suddenly in love with anyone. It'll be interesting to see how these relationships develop. (I already know something of how the series ends--it was difficult to avoid Mockingjay spoilers--but I know very little of what happens in the middle.)

The main character was, thank goodness, smart. When the reader could tell that a certain situation was a trap, Katniss did not go blundering stupidly into obvious trouble. Her actions made sense. She found plenty of trouble, of course, but it always seemed unavoidable. I didn't find myself smacking my head and saying, "Why didn't she just do such-and-such, it would've been so much easier and safer?!"

Collins allowed the supporting cast to shine. In some books, secondary characters only seem to serve the interests of the main character, and having no motivations or talents of their own results in thin cardboard personalities. Katniss openly admires several of her competitors, especially Rue, Foxface, Thresh, and the boy from District 3. I liked that these characters had their own merits, that sometimes they outshone Katniss, that she wasn't always better at everything than everyone else.

The game in the book ends within the book. I was so glad of that. I know it's a trilogy, and I thought the game might drag into the next book, but it didn't. This book has an ending. There are certainly unanswered questions and reasons to read on, but the reader is not dangled off too big a cliff. More and more, I'm coming to appreciate the skill of a series writer who can give a satisfying ending to a single book, who has the confidence that the book's world itself and the bigger problems seeded within that world will be enough to bring readers back. And for this book, they are.

source of recommended read: library

Thursday, October 6, 2011

That strange creature, the first draft

Every time I start a new writing project, I am struck all over again by how different it is from revision. About 90% (give or take) of my writing is revision, so first drafting is rarer. Which is probably why I have this neverending capacity to be surprised by its weirdness.

When I'm revising, it's easier to slip in and out of the book's world. And I can read the same sentence fifty times in a row, tweaking it a bit each time. And I can revise on a very regular schedule: I can pick a number-of-pages- or number-of-scenes-per-day goal and stick to it fairly closely.

When I'm first-drafting, it takes me a long time to get into a writing session, and often a long time to come out of it. (Like my recent "one-hour" planned writing session that turned into more than four hours.) And I don't like to dwell on any one sentence or tweak it for too long; I feel a forward pressure, a momentum. Except for those moments when I stop dead in my tracks because I don't know what happens next.

First drafting takes a lot of mental energy. I feel things bubbling away beneath the surface, and I wait impatiently for them to bubble up into the front of my brain where I can write them down. In the early stages, I may go a couple of days without adding words to the story, and part of me feels frustrated and as if I'm not advancing the work, but deep down I know the story is weaving together somewhere in my mind. I know I'm ready when scenes start popping into my head while I'm walking or making the bed: suddenly, characters are in there jabbering away, acting on their own.

I don't think I'll ever do NaNoWriMo because my first drafts don't like to come out in regular pieces every day. They like to come in bursts: 3000 new words one day, 20 new words the next, 2000 the next, then a day where I do nothing but delete a sentence that was blocking the way to the next scene, then 1000 words ... Like that.

Does your first-draft process differ from your revision process?

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Guest post: "Second books rule"

The latest episode in my series on writing a second book is by an author with a unique perspective. This honest post challenges us to keep getting better with every book--and says it's okay to play favorites!

Second Books Rule, First Books Drool
by Greg R. Fishbone

I wanted to post something in Jenn's "Second Book" series, but from a slightly different slant. As I was gearing up for the release of my second book, I started hearing rumors that the publisher of my first book was having difficulties. The owner had been suffering from health problems for some time and word on the street was that the press would soon be closing for good. These rumors have turned out to be true. While I certainly hope Miriam feels better soon and that all the other authors at Blooming Tree Press can find new homes for their books, I'm a bit conflicted about seeing The Penguins of Doom go out of print. I'm disappointed, but also strangely relieved.

When The Penguins of Doom came out in 2007, it was the most polished writing I'd ever done, after years of honing my craft and developing my own personal style. I've had nothing but positive feedback from readers. But this past spring, I felt a flush of embarrassment to see Penguins on sale at a conference. I wanted to tell people not to buy it because I could do better, and had done better, and they'd know that if only they could just wait for The Challengers to be released in September. I felt bad about thinking that way about my first book and it puzzled me, because I still loved that book, the characters, and the world I had created for them. Just not as much as I loved the new book.

I don't know whether other authors feel this way, but publishing a second book made me reevaluate the first book in a new light. Since one of my personal goals is to constantly increase my skills, it was important to me that my second book be better than the first. It's also natural that I'd want people to judge me on the better book. Therefore, I shouldn't feel guilty, as if I'd written the second book behind the first book's back. Still, at some level, I did.

How much loyalty do we owe our books? The truth is that books are not children--you can love one more than another. You can believe that one is objectively better, funnier, and fresher, and you shouldn't feel afraid to say so.

I'll always be grateful to Miriam and BTP for publishing Penguins and to everyone who stocked it on a shelf, obtained a copy to read, or posted a review. I'm thrilled to hear from readers who enjoyed the book, and maybe some of them won't like The Challengers nearly as much, but that doesn't change how I feel. My second book is better than my first and I hope my third will be better than my second.

I retained the digital rights to Penguins, and I've been toying with releasing an ebook edition to keep the book in print and available, but somehow I'm not feeling any rush.

Greg R. Fishbone is an author of galactic fiction for young readers, including the Galaxy Games series of humorous middle grade sci-fi novels from the Tu Books imprint at Lee & Low Books. In this hilarious middle-grade romp through space, eleven-year-old Tyler Sato leads a team of kids representing all of Earth in a sports tournament against alien kids from across the galaxy.

This post is also part of Greg Fishbone's Galaxy Games blog tour.  For those of you participating in the blog tour Puzzle Contest, here is today's puzzle piece:

Monday, October 3, 2011

The Secret Writer Clubhouse

I'm about to share a big secret with you. I could get in big trouble for doing this, but here goes.

There is this Clubhouse for Writers. That's right, a Secret Clubhouse. Inside, writers have lots of wine and cheese and chocolate truffles. They compare notes on how many awards they've won, dash off brilliant manuscripts with one hand while the other is being manicured, and dab their brows with advance checks that have lots of zeroes on them. Adoring fans who totally get their work and remember all the minor characters' names buzz around, asking brilliant thought-provoking questions. Oh yeah, and there's a Jacuzzi.

But one writer is not invited to the clubhouse. That writer stands barefoot in the snow, seeing the lights and hearing the laughter from afar. Shivering. Batting off attacking adverbs and slogging through a plot that has developed pointless tentacles. Wondering how those other writers seem to have it so easy. They all know each other, they get the buzz, they never cry over a chapter that goes nowhere. They never get rejection slips.

I think most writers suspect they are that lonely writer out in the snow.

And here's the real secret:

There is no clubhouse.

(Or if there is, I don't know about it so I must be the one out in the snow, and you? You're totally fine. :-) Have some truffles.)

Saturday, October 1, 2011

"The work needs space around it"

Two quotations that struck me, from May Sarton's The House by the Sea:

"He is very shy, a sandy-haired, middle-aged man, who is recovering from winning all the prizes last year ... I was quite amused to hear that he feels silenced at this point."

This captures a situation that sometimes happens to people after great worldly success: all that connection with the external world makes the connection with the inner self harder to find. But it doesn't have to be huge success to be distracting. This can even happen with small triumphs, because it's more about a mindset and an inner compass. A person can remain serene and focused while winning the Nobel Prize, or can lose focus over a single good review. It's a paradox of writing that we must strive to communicate with others, while not worrying overly much about attention or approval from those others!

Then there's this:

"It is not that I work all day; it is that the work needs space around it. Hurry and flurry break into the deep still place where I can remember and sort out what I want to say ..."

I find this, too. An hour of good solid writing may be preceded by two hours of what seems like daydreaming, or a solitary walk. Something is working beneath the surface when this happens; I'm reaching deeper layers of concentration. I don't always have or need the luxury of all this time, however. When I'm revising, I can usually slip right into the imaginary world of the story. It's first drafting that requires this mental heavy lifting.