Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Inspiring words from other people

First, a quote:

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

(Not just song-writing, methinks.)

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

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

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

Monday, November 28, 2011

The Map of My Dead Pilots

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

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

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

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

source of recommended read: bought

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Local library use

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

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

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

Happy reading (or listening, or watching)!

Thursday, November 24, 2011

The Willing Reviser

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

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

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

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

A holiday list

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

Happy Thanksgiving

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Back to the center

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

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

A story.

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

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

This is the part that matters most.

Monday, November 21, 2011

These *should* go to eleven

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, November 19, 2011

New directions

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

If I go random:

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

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

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

Thursday, November 17, 2011


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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Writing Book Two

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

Writing Book Two
by M. Flagg

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Switching projects

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

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

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

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Angst and pizza: a blast from the past

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, November 11, 2011

The glamor, the excitement, the toilets

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

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

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

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

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

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

Go, read and enjoy!

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Role models?

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Finding the way

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 7, 2011

Cover makeover

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Trying flash fiction

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

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

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

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

Friday, November 4, 2011

A light, life-charged

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

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

--from Just Kids, by Patti Smith

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Adult and child perspectives

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

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

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

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