Tuesday, July 31, 2012

The comfort of books

Sometimes, there's nothing as comforting as a good book, especially one you've read before. Maybe you curl up on the couch with it, stretch out in a hammock, lie in the grass, or take to your bed with the down comforter. The world of the book is familiar, somehow right. The outer world, with its insoluble problems, its injustices, its unpredictability, stops for a while. In the world of the book, the characters go where they must, and reach their destinies--again. And if reaching the end is too sad a thing to do, we can always turn back and start at page 1 again.

Happy reading.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Summer happenings

I've spent the weekend mostly at real-life events, with real-life friends, enjoying the summer. My current writing project is at the stage where I have to think about it a lot but can't say much about it.

If you'd like to visit a virtual summer camp for readers of YA, Eve's Fan Garden is hosting one this week. It's a week of special features, events, giveaways, etc. You can find the Eve's Fan Garden summer camp here.

If you like live events, next Saturday, August 4, is YA Fest in Easton, PA, featuring 35 authors, panels, a raffle, and a performance of Josh Berk's "MasterBerk Theatre!"

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Give it time

Becky Levine wrote a fantastic post on dealing with feedback. As she says, "Don’t always assume your initial reaction to a critique comment is going to be your final reaction."

It's been my experience, too, that while some critique comments instantly make sense, immediately spark me to revise, others take more time. One of my least favorite experiences as a writer is facing feedback that I don't know how to respond to. Seeing that something isn't working, but not knowing how to fix it. As Becky says, sometimes we just have to give it time.

Part of being a writer is knowing when to back away from a project and let some deep part of our brains work away at the story for a while. Knowing when to wait. Knowing when to open our minds and consider other possibilities, other angles.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012


I love this quotation, from Archibald MacLeish's poem "Speech to a Crowd:"
"The world was always yours: you would not take it."

It has always been a reminder to me not to wait too long, hold back too much, be too afraid of risks. I thought of this line often while writing Try Not to Breathe--especially with respect to the main character, Ryan. I even toyed with the idea of including the quote at the front of my book.

When I finally found the whole poem (it's the last poem on this page), I discovered that the context is rather different from what I'd imagined; it's about casting off what the narrator sees as the delusions of religions and the supernatural. While a person of faith myself, I have not the slightest interest in pushing others either toward or away from religion; decide for yourself and make of it what you will. But in a larger sense, that last line still speaks to me of carpe diem. Those are amazing words.

Elsewhere in the inspiration department, I saw a picture of an intriguing sculpture called "Freedom" on the blog of athgarvan . Commenters on that blog identified the work and the artist, and you can see other views of it at sculptor Zeno Frudakis's website and the blog My Modern Met.

What really amused me was that even though athgarvan blogs from Ireland, the sculpture of "Freedom" is located in Philadelphia, my very own stomping grounds. It's even in an area where I've spent a lot of time (the neighborhood of Magee Hospital). And so, in the past few days, reintroduced to my own backyard by a blogger on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, I visited the sculpture in person. I was fascinated to find that, apart from the big figures you can see in the photos, there are also faces, body parts, and objects peeking out of the backdrop piece, including the artist's hands holding a sculpting tool.

That's one thing I love about Philadelphia: even though I've lived here for years, I'm still finding new things, without having to venture far afield.

The world is yours. Take it.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Wrambling writer

Here's why I find it difficult to plot out books beforehand, or to write from an outline: I need every scene to have some sort of tension. When I write an outline, it's about getting characters from Point A to Point B, and I can write out steps that seem logical, but logic doesn't always have tension. I can decide that two characters need to, say, find a car. Or kiss. Or fight. But that doesn't mean the scene will have tension when I put the characters in that situation and start writing it.

Surprisingly, not even kissing and fighting scenes necessarily have built-in tension. Not even scenes with actual explosions have built-in tension! If something explodes, and it's not clear why, or what has been destroyed, or why it matters, it'll be a ho-hum explosion.

I'm thinking that tension doesn't really come from the plot, i.e., from what happens. It comes from the why. Or it comes from the difference between what is happening and what the characters want to happen. Or something. I'm still thinking this one out.

I find it easier to have a loose idea of where the book goes, write a bunch of scenes that sort of relate to that plot, and then write an outline that figures out what in order the scenes should go. A skilled outliner may be able to tell, while composing an outline, where the tension will come from in every scene. But I never know until I put my characters together and they start interacting before my mind's eye. Sometimes I think I know how a scene will go ("this is where they get back together") and the characters run in another direction ("hmm, they seem to want to part ways permanently!"). In a way, every scene is an experiment. I throw the ingredients together and watch what happens. As long as something happens--as long as the ingredients don't lie there inertly--I'm good to go.

At least for the early drafts. In later drafts, I definitely have an overall plan to follow, but by then I already have a series of tension-filled scenes to work with.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Whatever works

I've heard of writers who use the same process for every book. They do an outline, or they don't. They do the first draft a certain way, then the next draft, etc. They always use critiquers at the same point in their timeline.

Then there are those of us who find our process changing to suit each new book. We find that the process we hammered out for one book doesn't work on the next one; the next book decides to be a diva that demands its own Special Process. And yeah, we can insist, we can throw our muscles around and try to beat the book into submission ... or we can just do what it takes to get the darn book written. Even if it means wearing a beret and listening to Bee Gees music while typing in 14-point Garamond font colored red. Because having a book inside you that wants to come out is like carrying a bowling ball around in your skull. You will do anything to get it out. You will start reading your words aloud or stop reading them aloud. You will write longhand or try new software. You will interview the characters, switch point of view, try it in verse. You will start outlining or stop outlining; you will create a character collage; you will enlist or drop an alpha reader. You will try every tool in the box until one of them works.

Which is why writers like me are always collecting writer tools, and blogging about them, and comparing notes. You never know which one will release the next book.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Mining memories

Childhood memories serve many writers as a gateway to story-telling. Childhood is when we start learning how the world works, for better or worse.

My first day of first grade, I sat at a classroom desk for the first time. These were old wooden desks, with hinged tops so that you could store things inside them. Fascinated by my own personal storage unit, pleased with the sight of my books and pencils and ruler neatly stowed inside, I lifted the top to admire the interior. Then closed it. Then lifted it for another irresistible peek. At which point the teacher yelled at me to leave my desktop alone. (Many of my early school memories involve teachers screaming at me not to do things that I had no idea where wrong. And in retrospect, most of them weren't "wrong" so much as violations of arbitrary rules designed solely to keep order.)

In the middle of that year, my family moved, and I went to another school. At the new school, the desktops were not hinged, which was not one of my life's most crushing moments, but disappointing nonetheless. The desks were only open on the back side, turning the desk into a dark cave that you just shoved things into and then retrieved by feel. At the end of the year, you would always find crumpled papers from the previous September waaay in the farthest reaches of the desk.

Most of the desks I had in elementary school also had holes for inkwells, even though we used ballpoint pens and none of us had inkwells. (There's a reminder that no matter whenever we set a story, we shouldn't require everything in the story to be brand new from that year. People keep old and outdated items around for a long time.)

Were I to write a story set in first grade nowadays, I would look at what kind of classroom furniture they have now, to get those details right. But what I wouldn't change would be that mix of novelty, wonder, and pride (my first desk! look at all my stuff inside it!), mixed with harshness and confusion (why is that woman yelling at me?).

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Quality does matter

There's a quote from John Gardner (The Art of Fiction) that gets thrown around a lot, about a story being a vivid and continuous dream. It comes to mind because I was browsing books this weekend, reading snippets here and there--which really made me notice differences in voice and style. I was reminded how much I like and admire the writing of Courtney Summers. She never falters, never seems to put a word wrong, in creating a believable narrative. Talk about vivid and continuous! Other writers whose work has this effect on me include Melina Marchetta, Peter Cameron, and David Levithan.

When I read less polished writing, it's as if I can see into the machinery, see the gears struggling to mesh. Adverbs stick their feet out to trip the reader. Words that sound alien to the narrator's vocabulary intrude. Extraneous details gum up the works. The rhythm is choppy or, more often, labored, struggling to break through the clutter. Cliches lie, slug-like, in the middle of the path. The author shows us something and then, to make sure we didn't miss it, tells us too. Or the author forgets to tell us where we are, leaving the characters floating in space with our mind's eye trying to land them.

For all the talk about how good writing isn't what sells books, it's still a relief to find good writing. A great concept will make me pick up a book, but if the prose jabs red-hot thumbs in my eyeballs every other sentence, I'll put it down again. I want that vivid and continuous dream. And if a narrator draws me in and serves as good--and believable--company, I will follow him or her anywhere.

Friday, July 13, 2012


I've been part of a series on the Wastepaper Prose blog called "Author Insight." On Tuesdays and Thursdays, Author Insight appears, revealing the brief answers given by several writers to the question of the week. This week's question was about writerly flaws, and Barry Lyga's answer about impatience made me laugh with recognition: "... As soon as I sit down to write a book, I want it finished. As soon as it's finished, I want it published. As soon as it's published, I want everyone in the world to read it immediately ..."

Which reminds me of this post by Jeannine Atkins on how we can keep going, day after day after day, on big writing projects. (I quote: "Sometimes it’s about managing size. I can feel overwhelmed, and its cousin boredom, by the sheer scope of things, so it’s good to divide things into chunks ...") She called it boredom in the blog post, but in the comment thread on the LiveJournal version of the blog, we discussed the "impatience" aspect of it: "Sometimes it's the saying what I do that's boring. Yup, still writing that novel. Yup, still writing."

Then there's this from Nova Ren Suma at Distraction No. 99 on the (seemingly) neverending process of revision: "... I know how all the hard work eking out those first-draft pages can appear so futile when you look ahead and know you’ll only have to make changes later. And make changes after that. And make changes after that. Honestly, in my experience, there have always been multiple rounds of revision. I’m always writing toward what my book is meant to be ..."

The common thread in these blog posts is that eagerness we all have to finish our stories and move on, our frustration that it always takes longer than we think, our impatience when we have to go through a book yet again. Novel-writing is a marathon, and sometimes we look longingly at sprinters, thinking, Why can't it be like that?

But it takes work, and time, to polish something to the point where the story arc rises with the proper tension and the words flow smoothly. It would be nice if finished books poured from our fingertips, but that hasn't been my experience. So it's great to find joy in the process wherever possible.

Thursday, July 12, 2012


I've been reading a lot of good books lately, and here's another:


Purity, by Jackson Pearce. Shelby has to reconcile her parents' expectations with her desires to set her own course in life. Those parental expectations are extra heavy because of promises she made to her dying mother. Now her father wants her to participate in a father-daughter dance at which she'll be expected to promise to lead a "pure" life ... but she's not so sure that the dance organizers' idea of a pure life matches her own ideas for her future.

I loved this book not only for the engaging interplay between the characters (Shelby and her friends, Shelby and her parents, Shelby and her potential hookups), but for its handling of the topic. It delves into how people often seize on virginity for its own sake--especially for girls--in a way that can actually detract from thinking about the very real reasons why people might want to think seriously and soul-searchingly about intimacy with another person. The book raises some great questions, such as: Whose right is it to determine Shelby's future?

Most of all, it explores the nature of promises and vows and rules, and how when we focus on literal, technical interpretations and the "letter of the law," we may miss the whole point: the deeper meanings of promises, and the loving intentions they are meant to express.

All that, and it manages to be funny, too!

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

The mysterious connection

After clearing the major hurdle of publishing a book, the next thing new authors usually ask is: "How do I find readers?" They're encouraged to do online networking, among other promotional activities.

Authors try to compare notes on what kind of online promotion works, and what doesn't. One problem is that outcomes are difficult to measure, because the connection between a promotional activity and a book purchase is usually not something an author can trace. Except at live events, where we talk to readers face to face and we see (or they tell us) what has drawn them to pick up our books and buy them, we just don't know.

The connection between book and reader is based on emotion, taste, mood. The desire to read a book can evolve over time. It's often not an immediate, one-to-one correlation ("Buy this book!" "Okay, I'll buy it!"). Which is why I think tweeting things like, "Buy my book!" or "My book is so great!" at random strangers, or blasting strangers with email, are not likely to succeed. (There are other reasons I wouldn't recommend that approach, but I don't want to go too far afield of my point here.) And if an author does an activity such as a blog tour, the effects of that tour will not necessarily be direct or immediate.

It can be a while between the time a person hears of a book and purchases it. In fact, most of the books I buy are not impulse purchases; they're usually books I've heard about, put on my list, thought about more. I ask myself: Do I have the money for this? The shelf space? Am I in the mood for this? Do I want to wait until next month when I'll meet the author in person? Do I want to wait and buy this at my indie store to support them? Do I want this in paperback or hardcover? Would I rather check this out from the library? Does this book still sound as good as it did when I first heard of it? Is it part of a series and do I want to commit to starting a series? Can I handle the topic?

Mostly what makes me pick up books now is what made me pick them up when I was younger: 1) I've liked the author's other work; and/or 2) the story sounds like it's right up my alley. (As I'm a voracious reader, my "alley" is more like a multi-lane superhighway, but even so, there are some books that interest me more than others.)

I took a random look at some books I've bought in the past few years and the reasons I bought them. Here are the reasons:

--Saw in a bookstore, liked the cover, liked the opening pages. Had never heard of the book before seeing it in the store.

--Saw a synopsis online and made a note of its title; bought it when I saw it in a bookstore months (maybe years) later. (2 books)

--Saw a synopsis online and either ordered it or got it immediately from a bookstore. (4 books)

--Someone online recommended this book to me years after it came out, but I can't remember if it was in a blog comment, forum, tweet, or what. Bought it months after getting the recommendation.

--One of those "I buy it because I love the author's work and there's a 99% chance I will love anything with her name on it" books.

--I was in the bookstore with a friend, and she pointed this out as something she thought I would like. She was right.

--Sequel to a book I'd read and liked. Bought it because I didn't want to wait for the library to get it.

Perhaps I'm not a typical reader, but looking at this list brings home to me how long and twisty and varied are the paths that bring books into readers' hands. As for how many of these books I found out about from the author's own blog, as opposed to someone else's: only one of the above. Which is also why I like recommending other people's books. I love to help readers find good books, even if they're not my books.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

See You at Harry's

I had heard two things before I read this book: that it was excellent; and that one should keep tissues handy. Both were correct.


The book followed an interesting arc. For the first third of it, humor dominates; although there are some serious issues going on, there are plenty of laughs in the family dynamics at the center of this book. I loved hanging around with these characters. I knew a tragedy was coming (or else why would people have recommended tissues?), but I didn't know what, or how it would fit in with this story.

When the tragedy came, it did fit naturally with the storyline, and the characters responded in ways believable to the ways they'd acted on the previous pages. For example, the character who was the first to take practical action was exactly the character I would expect to take practical action. And yet, the characters grew in their grief also: one character who had seemed rather flighty and rebellious really stepped up and took on an almost-parental role.

This tragedy dominates the middle third of the book, and it was such a big, irrevocable event that I wondered how on earth the author was going to bring us out of it. We had seen these characters sparkle; we had seen them devastated. Where could we possibly go from here?

With the hand of a master, author Jo Knowles brings home the final third of the book with hope and heart, yet with believability. The answers aren't cheap or easy, but we are left with beauty rather than despair.

This is a good one for writers to study when they want to see how to bring characters from heights to depths and back again.

source of recommended read: bought

Friday, July 6, 2012

Having it all

This essay by Anne-Marie Slaughter has been linked--oh, everywhere--and I've commented on a few other blogs about the question of whether women can "have it all" (and if not, why not). But I've felt a lingering pressure, a nagging, a suspicion that I still had more to say. So I stopped to figure out what it was, what splinter still stuck in my skin. It's related to these lines:

"I was increasingly aware that the feminist beliefs on which I had built my entire career were shifting under my feet."

"Women of my generation have clung to the feminist credo we were raised with, even as our ranks have been steadily thinned by unresolvable tensions between family and career ..."

Both of these lines seem to equate feminism with having it all, and imply that the unreality of having it all signals an unreality in feminism. That's it, that's the implication that bothers me.

A staunch feminist myself, I have never equated feminism with having it all, nor do I find the failure to "have it all" in the real world to be a failure of feminism. Well, let me rephrase that. I have never equated feminism with having everything all at the same time. I don't believe any human being, male or female, can do that.

I do agree with Ms. Slaughter's points that we could structure our society in a more flexible way, a way that preserves quality of life, a way that doesn't always put workplace success above family. I don't think the answer is to make our overscheduled children's school hours mirror our long office hours; I think the answer is to make workplaces more flexible. After all, does it matter whether most office work, which is increasingly computer-centric, is done from an office computer or a home-office computer? Does it matter whether the employee is sitting in an office wearing a tie or at home in a bathrobe? Does all work have to be done between eight and five?

But I digress. I was talking about the human impossibility of having everything at once. This is not just a problem for women. Traditionally, men bore the burden and benefit of paid work, while women bore the burden and benefit of child care. There were many exceptions, of course, but these were the stereotypical gender roles. Feminism was about asking why both sexes couldn't play different roles: Why couldn't men share in the joys and hardships of child care and household chores? Why couldn't women share in the responsibilities and rewards of the paid workforce? Why couldn't women wield political power; why couldn't men spend more time with their families? We ought not to be shunted into one role or another simply because of gender. In my view, feminism was not about women having to play every single role at every single moment; it was about sharing or shifting traditional roles.

The fact is, it's hard work to cook, and clean, and diaper a child, and help with homework. It's also hard work to be a plumber, a roofer, a surgeon, a judge, a firefighter. And people like me, who feel the call of an avocation like writing, have yet another element to fit in there. Can any one person fulfill all his or her life's roles simultaneously and indefinitely? Or are we sometimes the model employee and sometimes the devoted parent or caregiver, always making choices, always juggling and seeking that elusive balance, sometimes dropping everything just to take some much-needed rest or exercise?

Instead of this workaholic must-do-everything mindset our culture seems to prize, I'd rather see our society being a little mellower, a little more forgiving, a little less burned out. I'd rather see time valued a little more and money valued a little less. I'd like us not to think of ourselves as failures just because we're human rather than superwomen and supermen.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Reporting live

I've now spent many Fourths of July in Philadelphia, and in case you're pining to know what it's like to spend Independence Day here Where It All Started, I will tell you:

It is beastly hot. And humid.

You're welcome! Wasn't that illuminating?

But seriously, when I experience the sauna that is the mid-Atlantic region in July, and think about the good old days before air conditioning and even electric fans, when I remember how much more clothing they wore in those days and how many fewer baths they took, well--I am amazed that a bunch of guys were able to come together in these conditions and craft a joint writing project, especially one so vital to their futures.

Perhaps it's only writers who think about the writing-process side of the Declaration of Independence, but there's more on this topic over at Cynthia Chapman Willis's blog today. And even more here.

And if you want to read about the self-evident truths firsthand, the full text of the Declaration is here.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Little things mean a lot

Consider this scene:

"... [Danny] came forward on the board, muscles swirling, and executed a running forward somersault, knees tucked, toes taut, so perfectly, uncoiling into the water through a soft splash as symmetrical as the handles of a vase, that one of the judges flashed the 10 card. ... a patter of applause from both teams greeted the diver as he surfaced ... But on his next dive Danny, aware that we were all expecting another miracle, tensed up, lost the rhythm of the approach, came out of the one-and-a-half twist a moment too soon, and slapped the water with his back. ... 'Well,' my father said, 'the poor kid gave it all he had.' And when Danny surfaced this time, my father, and only my father, clapped."*

I've always loved that last line: my father, and only my father, clapped. It tells us much about the narrator's father. Throughout the book, the narrator shows us similar scenes: his father damages his own car trying to help a fellow motorist, picks up a hitchhiker (who steals his gloves), and greets a drunken panhandler with the utmost courtesy. These little gestures build a portrait of a character who is kind, who sympathizes with the underdog, who goes out of his way to help others. And the portrait isn't sappily drawn: the narrator is fifteen**, and as exasperated and embarrassed by his father as teenagers often are by their parents. The phrase "only my father" carries frustration and an attempt at sophistication, as well as an undertone of admiration and affection.

When I think of important details, the ones that fit naturally in a story yet reveal much, I often think of this example: the lone man applauding effort despite its failure; the son observing this. When I write, I try to make my small details resonate and reveal in this way.

*source: The Centaur, by John Updike
**Technically, he's older, looking back at things that happened when he was fifteen. But while some of the scenes are definitely written through the narrator's adult viewpoint, others remove that filter and put us right into the teenager's mindset. The dive scene is one of the latter.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Circling the airport

I'm reading a book I won't name in which many of the secondary characters bother me. It's not that they aren't well-drawn. It's that I have no idea what they're doing in the book. I can easily imagine the book without them and their subplots. In fact, I've been getting impatient with them and their subplots, because our spending time there is only delaying the showdown that will be the centerpiece of the main plotline. (I know because I peeked ahead to see whether this book is worth finishing.)

This is a series, and I'm thinking maybe these secondary characters reappear in a future book, and that's why I don't fully understand their function now. And yet--part of me thinks there must have been a better way to do this. So far, these characters feel like filler. I seriously bogged down in this book, and it was only my loyalty to the main characters that made me look ahead to see if we eventually get back to the interesting stuff. And it's only my knowledge that the main characters will eventually retake charge of the storyline that keeps me slogging through this less-interesting stuff.

The secondary characters are linked to the main plotline, but only loosely, and I can easily imagine how the plot could be tweaked to make these characters unnecessary. Also, certain revelations in the story were held back longer than they needed to be, in my opinion. The book is about 400 pages, but I'm thinking it could've done its job in about 275.

I love this author's other work and wish this book matched it. Right now, I feel like I'm in an airplane that's circling the airport: just get us to the gate already. And naturally, I'm trying to take this as a lesson for my own work: the difference between building up suspense and dragging things out.