Saturday, December 31, 2011

My kind of celebration

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The dance of avoidance

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

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

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

Monday, December 26, 2011

A writer's path

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

A sampling:

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

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

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

Thursday, December 22, 2011

'Tis the season

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

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

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Practical dreams

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

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

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

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

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

No, I would not.

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

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

Monday, December 19, 2011

When the villain outshines the hero

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, December 18, 2011

11 Reasons to Give Books as Gifts

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

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

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

Friday, December 16, 2011

That elusive something special

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

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

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

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

What she said.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Holiday sparks

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

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

Do you have memories that could serve as writing prompts?

Monday, December 12, 2011

Giving and learning

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

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

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

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

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Good guys and bad guys

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

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

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

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

Friday, December 9, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

On debut author groups

"Should I join a debut author group?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, December 5, 2011

Who are these people?

Note: Those following the Giveaway Hop, click here.

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

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

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

Sunday, December 4, 2011

The right road

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

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

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

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

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Holiday Giveaway Hop

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

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

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