Sunday, September 30, 2012

The best-laid plans

I'm a planner, a listmaker. I've never been a big fan of spontaneity. In my experience, this is how a planned vacation goes:

Take flight. Get in rental car or public transit or shuttle; go to hotel. Check in. Get up next day and begin planned activities. See what you wanted to see and do what you wanted to do. Plans may be affected by late flights, lost luggage, lost reservations, unexpected weather, injury, or Hurricane Irene (ahem, see my attempted return from California last year), but most of the time they proceed much as expected.

And in my experience, this is how a spontaneous vacation goes:

Jump in car. When hungry, start looking for restaurants. No restaurants. Drive farther. At point when you are ready to chew the plastic off the dashboard, find horrible roadside restaurant with sticky tables and suspicious meat sauce. Get back in car. Realize you forgot umbrella and/or sunblock, but are too far from home to go back now. When tired, start looking for hotels. No hotels with vacancies. Drive farther. Contact lenses start drying on eyeballs. Highway hypnosis begins. At 11:30 PM, stumble into dark parking lot praying for a room, any room, even one near the elevator whose ping you will have to listen to all night. Etc. ...

I know there are exceptions. I've had some wonderful experiences from spur-of-the-moment getaways. But mostly, planning works out better for me.

Sometimes, though, you plan a weekend, and Unexpected Life Incidents interfere. You cling bravely to the plan, but at some point you give up and just take the cat out onto the porch and stare at the foliage for twenty minutes. And by "you," I mean me.

Plans are meant to make our lives easier, not strangle us with our own expectations. So sometimes, it's best to drop the plan.

Here, have a pretty autumn picture, courtesy of Iceland Eyes.

Friday, September 28, 2012

First draft

Reminder to self:

It's only a first draft. It doesn't have to be perfect. It's not time to edit yet. The first draft is not for solving all the world's problems and taking the literary world by storm. It's for getting the words down. It's the clay that will get shaped.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Speaking the language

I was talking with some people today about how many words in the English language are specialized; they're only used by small fractions of the population. Like "odontoblast," "jabiru," and "gallet," from the worlds of dentistry, ornithology, and masonry, respectively. Many occupations have their own special languages. Geologists might talk about chert, gneiss, and the vadose zone, while doctors speak of tachycardia, cyanosis, and the corpus callosum. In fact, that's one of the difficult parts about writing characters who share a profession if you're an outsider to that profession: getting the language right, whether your setting is a hospital, a restaurant kitchen, a military base, a police station, or a dance studio. (The other challenge is to keep it intelligible to those readers who are not insiders.)

Writers of books for children and teens can often skip this problem, because our characters usually don't have these occupational vocabularies. But sometimes our characters do live in specialized worlds--if they're Olympic gymnasts, for example. And of course there are other vocabulary issues, like slang and regionalisms.

Another challenge in getting the vocabulary right is in writing historical novels. I'm always fascinated by novels written in the 1920s, with the characters' references to "flivvers" and "runabouts" and "berries" and "brilliantine," and the frequency with which the phrase, "I'll tell the world!" is uttered. A time traveler from the early 1920s would be puzzled by our references to "surfing the web" or "texting" or "TiVo," not to mention "MRIs," "in vitro fertilization," or even "penicillin."

What "language" do your characters speak?

Monday, September 24, 2012

What I mean by revision

Jane Lebak's post, "The Art of the Complete Rewrite" (which I discovered via Jon Gibbs) made me think about revision, and what I want to say about it.

Often, when I mention revision to beginning writers, they immediately start talking about punctuation and spelling. But that's not what I mean by revision.

We do have to think about punctuation and spelling, but it's the last step. Punctuation and spelling are like the toppings on a pizza.Worrying only about punctuation and spelling at the revision stage is like moving a few slices of pepperoni around on a pizza whose crust may be raw, or burnt, or falling apart, or missing an essential ingredient. Or, to borrow Jane Lebak's house analogy, it's like trying to fix a damaged house with a new coat of paint.

The first things to check before revising are the structural elements, the ones akin to a house's foundation, plumbing, wiring, and roof. These include the plot arc, the theme, the character development. If the story doesn't build to a satisfying conclusion, if the main character doesn't change or doesn't have the most exciting storyline, if the characters are flat and lifeless, if the story doesn't make sense or if it drags on or wraps up too quickly ... then these are targets for revision.

As Jane Lebak notes, this is about more than fixing commas. This is about deleting entire scenes, moving chapters around, writing new scenes. Bringing in new characters, or getting rid of old ones, or merging two characters who have too-similar reasons for being in the story. Changing the plot: changing what happens or when or in what order. Chopping unnecessary pages from the beginning, or the end, or even the middle. Introducing new subplots. Jane Lebak discusses the most thorough kind of revision: the rewrite that starts from a blank page. Sometimes it does come down to that.

After the story is structurally sound, then it's time to focus on the sentence-level issues: word choice, flow and rhythm, repetition, naturalness of vocabulary, awkward phrasing, etc. This is often called "line editing," and it's probably my favorite step.

And then comes the punctuation-and-spelling step, also known as "copy editing." This is when you discover that you've been using "comprise" when you mean "compose" and "pour" when you mean "pore," and that everything you thought you knew about commas is wrong.

This is why I say I spend 10% of my time drafting new material and 90% of my time revising. I want to make sure that the house of my novel stands, that it doesn't have drafts or leaks or catch fire or collapse. It's always easier to repaint or put a new rug down or slide a piece of furniture in front of that hole in the wall. But when readers walk through the rooms and the house shakes or their feet crash through the floors, they notice. They know something's wrong.

This progression, from big-picture overhaul through small-scale changes, is what I think of when I think of "revision."

Saturday, September 22, 2012

FYI and Thanks

Today's a catching-up sort of day here on the blog:

For the 15-18-year-old writers out there, a chance to apply for a Master Class in writing, taught by Beth Kephart. From Beth's blog:
"Those who are selected—in nine disciplines—are eligible for the week-long immersion in the arts (Miami, early January), for U.S. Presidential Scholar in the Arts recognition, and for monetary awards." The deadline to apply is October 19; see Beth's blog post here.

The blog "From the Mixed-Up Files" is hosting a giveaway for libraries that serve middle-grade readers. Follow the link to donate books or nominate a library. (Nominations due October 16.)

I recently blogged at about "Armchair mountaineering."

This is now my favorite quote about finding a title for a story: "Titles are difficult, like wrestling a bear when armed with a pair of pantyhose. Not easy. You are trying to do too many things at once and nothing at all." (from Reif Larsen, in an interview at OneStory) So often I try to find the "perfect title" that encapsulates my whole story, and it takes me forever to find a title. As Larsen puts it, "trying to do too many things at once."

Kelly Fineman, poet and author of At the Boardwalk, will be appearing in Belmar, NJ next weekend for boardwalk-themed fun: follow the link for more details!

Finally, I want to share a pretty picture from last night:
cbw sept 2012
photo courtesy of Children's Book World, Haverford, PA

(Left to right: David Levithan, me, Beth Kephart, Ellen Hopkins, Eliot Schrefer). I was honored to be in such company last night, and energized by the wonderful crowd at Children's Book World--which included A.S. King, K. M. Walton, Tiffany Schmidt, Jessica Dimuzio, and many other book-lovers who helped make our panel discussion a fun and thoughtful exchange about books and writing. If you ever get the chance to hear any of these authors speak, or to go to an event organized by David Levithan, or visit Children's Book World, do so! Beth whisked us to Spain, Ellen discussed the human costs of war, Eliot showed us pictures of bonobos and took us to Africa with his prose, David made us contemplate the connection between our inner and outer lives and what identity means, and I shared a bit from my novel about recovery from a suicide attempt. Children's Book World provided an amazing array of books and refreshments. I can't tell you how exciting it is to be in a roomful of people all devoted to the world of reading, and how much I appreciate those who come to these events, and listen, and ask questions, and share your own stories. Thank you.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Inside the writer's studio

The scene: a writer's office in which a windstorm may or may not have hit. A Muse is stretched out on the carpet, eating bonbons. A Writer sits at the computer, grimacing at the screen.

Writer: I don't know what to do with this book.

Muse: Whattaya looking at me for?

Writer: I appreciate the inspiration you give me, but it would really be better if you could give me a full book's worth of inspiration, not half a book's worth. Nobody buys half a book.

Muse: They could! Wouldn't that be a great idea? We could call them "demi-novels." They would be great beginnings, and then they would suddenly crash to a halt without wrapping up.

Writer: I don't see much of a market for that.

Muse: Too bad, because I could come up with LOADS of them!

Writer: Pass the bonbons.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Books of our youth: The Catcher in the Rye

The latest in this series of guest posts about the books that most affected us while we were growing up is from Mindi Scott.

As a teen, my private high school skipped out on most of the required literature that other people my age were reading. But I remember that during my senior year, several of my favorite young actors cited The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger as an all-time-favorite book, so I decided to check it out on my own.


What happened after is that I fell in love. Holden Caulfield's story surprised, amused, and moved me. I found the narration to be so fresh, real, and unlike anything I'd ever read. To be completely honest, I had a huge crush on Holden because he seemed to me to be so fearless, while at the same time, so very sensitive.

Catcher is one of the few books that I've read repeatedly over the years--once as a teen, at least three times while in my twenties, and once while in my thirties (so far). What I'm finding, the older I get, is that while I still enjoy the voice and the writing, Holden himself holds diminished appeal for me with every read. His instability and superior attitude can really grate on my nerves. There's a scene where he judges someone's cheap luggage and I become irritated every time I read it. (Strangely, I know that deep down, that scene is what has inspired me to always carry nice luggage.)

I have no idea how I'll feel about Holden the next time I read Catcher. I strongly suspect that I will never again crush on him the way I did at age 17, but I will always appreciate that J.D. Salinger gave me this character, who inspires me to look at things differently.


Mindi Scott lives with her drummer husband near Seattle, Washington, and is the author of Live Through This (Pulse/10/02/2012) and Freefall (Pulse/2010). Live Through This just received a starred review from Kirkus.

Monday, September 17, 2012

The SATs

Writing novels with teenage characters, I have occasion to think about the SATs from time to time. I believe the importance of the SATs has become overblown, but even when I took the test mbphbf years ago, there was already a bit of hysteria attached to them.

While I understand the appeal of standardized tests to our number-hungry culture, I question the significance we attach to those numbers. I only took the SATs once, and I received a lot of pressure to take them again. I've always been glad I didn't retake them. There would have gone some money and a few hours of my life that I would never get back again, and it wouldn't have changed the course of my life one bit.

Back then, the PSATs were scored on a scale that we were told would approximate our SAT scores. For example, a 55 on the PSAT was supposed to be equivalent to a 550 on the SATs. (At that time, the SATs had two sections: verbal and math, each scored on a 200-800 scale.) I took the PSAT twice, and as best I recall, my scores were 59 math and 64 verbal, both times. Supposedly, then, I could expect a 590 math and 640 verbal SAT.

I took the SATs at the end of my junior year. I got a 600 math and a 640 verbal, which pleased me because the math score was slightly better than I'd been led to expect by my PSATs. I got into my first and second choice colleges, and got a scholarship to my first choice. And despite this, more than one person urged me to retake the SATs as a senior, because "you almost always score higher when you retake it." Aside from the fact that I didn't believe I would score higher--my PSAT scores being remarkably stable and consistent with the SAT scores--my next question was: Well, so what if I did score higher next time? I had my college acceptance and my scholarship; what on earth would I be retaking this test for?

Once you get into college, SATs don't matter ever again, except when you are writing young-adult novels and remembering that tense feeling, the silence, the annoyance when someone coughed, the hand cramp from writing so long, the smell of freshly sharpened pencils. The test may have changed over the years, but I'll bet that tension is the same, and the pressure has only increased. Study for the SATs! What score did you get? Take it again! Try to raise your score! Yeah, I remember.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Live and in person

Recently, Cynthia Leitich Smith posted an excellent guide to speaking at author events; I've been meaning to link to it, and have finally gotten to it here! Additional strategies were discussed in the comments thread to that post.

Multi-author events have come to be my favorite. In fact, at the launch party for my second book--which was technically a solo event--I invited any authors who were able to attend to display and sign their books, too. I try to participate in group rather than solo events whenever possible. It's more fun for the authors as well as the audience.

At author events where I speak (instead of just signing books or reading an excerpt), I try to give readers some backstage peek they might not get from just reading the book (following advice I read once in a book by Nikki Giovanni--advice she followed herself when I saw her speak at the Philadelphia Free Library).

Most local author events do not have great mobs of people, which means that if your favorite author is appearing near you, you just might have the chance to chat for a little while. I did one signing where a young writer and fan of the author sitting next to me got to talk to that author for a good half hour about writing tips, favorite books, the author's motivation and writing process, etc. I can't promise you that this will happen. It is not likely to happen if, for example, your favorite author has been camped out on the bestseller list, and movies have been made from his/her books, and you have seen him/her interviewed on TV. In that case, you are likely to wait in line for a book signature. But most authors don't fall into that category: many of us have time to answer a few questions and chat a bit.

My favorite events of all are meetings with book clubs who have read either of my books. I am consistently wowed by the insight, enthusiasm, and intelligence that people bring to these discussions.

I'm a little envious of today's young readers, who have online forums, blogs, chats, and videos. I would have loved to have a community of fellow readers at my fingertips when I was growing up. And while I imagine authors were touring back then, I never heard of any author events near me. I didn't attend my first author events until adulthood. But I'm making up for it now!

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Verbs of utterance

There is some debate among writer types about verbs of utterance. Most people agree that you (and therefore, your characters) can shout or whisper your words. You can say them or scream them or roar them or sing them.

It's when an utterance is mixed with other types of oral expression that things get hazy. There are those who maintain you don't laugh or sigh or sob while speaking, only before or afterward. But I maintain that the following are also verbs of utterance: sob, sigh, laugh, chuckle, giggle, gasp, even burp. That while you can do these things before or after you speak, you can also do them as you speak.

Examples, I have them:

"I can't find him," she sobbed. Here, the person is crying while she speaks: the tears are in her voice; she's struggling for breath; her words are unsteady.

"All right," she sighed. In this example, the sigh is part of the words: a sigh is an exhalation, and so are spoken words. A weary person agreeing to do yet another chore is going to huff out those words while sighing.

"Okay," he laughed/chuckled. Again, both laughter and speech involve exhalation; they can occur simultaneously, with the word "okay" bubbling out, each syllable affected (it might sound like, "oh-ho-ho-kaaay"). Similarly, it's my opinion that, "Stop tickling me" is a sentence that can be giggled. In the throes of being tickled, a person does not stop and utter the words, then resume giggling.

"Oh, no," he gasped. I generally associate gasps with indrawn breath, so this case is more difficult to make. Yet I can hear it in my mind; can't you? A gasp as an utterance is a sort of shocked whisper.

Finally, we can hardly deny burping as a verb of utterance when there are people who can burp the alphabet, or names of all the states, or whatever. I seem to recall some burps-as-utterances in the movie Revenge of the Nerds.

I doubt my contributions here will make it into official style manuals anytime soon (especially the burping). Any copy editor who has ever laid hands on my work* can tell you I am no proofreading expert, my Waterloo being the correct use of commas in all situations.**  But the nice thing about having my own blog is that I can natter on, in my word geekery, about any subject I choose. You're welcome!

* I would like to thank all the copy editors who have caught my mistakes and, in doing so, saved my bacon.
** I have a theory, still unproven, that nobody except copy editors understands all the correct ways to use commas. They might have a secret Comma School in an underground bunker or something. Special handshakes might be involved. But it's only a theory so far.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Writer talk

On Friday, September 21, at 7 PM, the following YA authors will be appearing at Children's Book World in Haverford, PA:

DAVID LEVITHAN (author of Every Day)
ELLEN HOPKINS (author of Tilt)
ELIOT SCHREFER (author of Endangered)
BETH KEPHART (author of Small Damages)
JENNIFER R. HUBBARD (author of Try Not to Breathe)

I'm so excited to be a part of this, and I hope that if you're in the area, you'll stop by!

For today's writerly talk, I have a couple of quotes from David Rakoff's book Half Empty:

"Funny thing about words. Regarded individually or encountered in newspapers or books (written by other people), they are as lovely and blameless as talcum-sweet babies. String them together into a sentence of your own, however, and these cooing infants become a savage gang straight out of Lord of the Flies. .... It will take the civilizing influence of repeated revisions to whip them into shape, an exhausting prospect."

"Well into adulthood, writing has never gotten easier. It still only ever begins badly ... And yet, I don't for a moment forget that this is not a life of mining coal ... Each morning begins suffused with this sense of privilege, shell-pink and pulsing with new hope."

Now excuse me while I stride into the shell-pink dawn to wrestle with my savage gang of words!

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Take two

I wasn't sure how to feel when it was announced that Neal Shusterman's Unwind--which I love and have raved about--is now the first book in a trilogy. I've read that Shusterman originally planned Unwind as a stand-alone, and it's only because the book was so well received, and because there is room for more exploration of that world, that it has become a trilogy.

I have mixed feelings, because when a book is as good as Unwind is, you don't want anyone to mess with that world, to take it in directions that might dilute the power of that original book. (I think we've all seen movie sequels that we would like to forget we ever saw.)

On the other hand, Unwind was so good that the follow-ups might be marvelous. Shusterman has shown me with his Everlost and Antsy books that he knows how to write sequels and series.

What's a reader to do?

The second book, UnWholly, is out now. I'm pretty sure I will read it at some point, despite my reservations. Because what if it's as good as the first one?

How do you feel about stand-alone books getting turned into series?

Friday, September 7, 2012


Yesterday Malinda Lo (@malindalo) tweeted about "disparaging remarks about girls' interest in romance" and followed it with, "Love (the point of romance!) is the most important experience any human being will ever have. Girls are right to think it's important."

I've had a note on my desk for a while to blog about the belittling of romance, and Malinda's comments reminded me of it. They also reminded me about the belittling of girls, but that's a topic for another post. One problem at a time. (I do note that I have met guys who are also interested in romance, and I'm sure they've heard belittling remarks about romance, too.)

We human beings are famously afraid of our own vulnerabilities, and we often get squicked out by our own desire to have someone hold us or show us we are cherished or tell us we are loved. Whereas some of our other desires--such as to see our enemies humbled--make us feel powerful, and we give them much freer rein in books and movies. It's no secret that we're far more tolerant of violence than of sex in our artwork. Not only that, we often see love stories as--well, mushy. Or frivolous. Cute but not vital.

But I'm with Malinda on the importance of romance. There are some romance-related questions that are central to most of our lives:
Does this person love me? Do I love him/her? How do I know? How can I be sure? If I am sure, how do I show it?
Is this person right for me?
How quickly should this relationship develop? How do I balance my needs and the other person's? What does a good relationship look like?
If I love someone who doesn't love me (or doesn't anymore), how do I cope?
If my love and I can't be together for externally-imposed reasons, how do we deal with that?

The answers to these questions change the directions of people's lives. And of course novels themselves don't do that, but they enable us to explore these feelings and questions in situations where our own futures are not at stake. Even in the most fun, escapist romance, we're trying on some of these emotions and decisions, toying with what-ifs, using our imagination to help define happiness.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

The elephant in the room

The elephant in the room, the open secret, the thing that everyone sees but nobody talks about, is prime material for a book.

It's a relief to read about, a relief to write about. It's scary to approach, and liberating to touch.

If we try to write around it, we may end up with an elephant-shaped hole in the story. Everyone knows there's something missing, something important we're not mentioning.

I once scribbled this in one of my notebooks: "You must write about the thing you must not write about."

This may be one reason people started writing in the first place: to name the elephants lurking in the corners.

Monday, September 3, 2012

It's okay to stop

I've been meaning to link to this ever since I read it. Dawn Metcalf posted about the value (sometimes the necessity) of slowing down, even stopping.

There are so many wonderful, and true, and sometimes amusing points in that post. Among them:

"It's hard to shoot for the moon and miss. It's doubly-hard to do it publicly, in front of everyone and your mother. And triply-hard to do it while smiling and keep going."

"I felt like I had to keep it up, keep it going, push harder, or I was going to miss my chance to catch the wave and be left behind. I began spending far too much time at the computer and getting less done."

But the story has a happy ending, so click over to see how she got there.

It's okay to step off the treadmill. Sometimes, it's essential.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

What characters really want

Two writers posted recently on making sure to address our characters' deeper needs, not just the external conflict in a story:

Laurel at Laurel's Leaves: "The story-worthy problem adds emotional stakes to your work, so that what happens to your characters and the decisions they make actually changes them deeply."

Laurie Halse Anderson at Madwoman in the Forest: "It’s pretty hard, if not impossible, to complete a novel without knowing what your character wants out of her life."

I encourage you to click over and read the posts. This concept is something I definitely pay attention to. I usually don't know my character's deeper needs or emotional quest early in the drafting process; something is driving him or her, but it takes me a while to recognize it. Once I know that deeper need, it becomes much easier to know where the story should peak, where it should end, which scenes truly belong, and how the subplots can link in to the main plot.

Also, for your amusement, check out Melinda Cordell's "Why I Haven't Written Anything" at The Storyteller's Inkpot. A sample:
"Distraction: Then write a bunch of random Tweets about your chickens!
Me: No, I need to stay off the internet and use my time constructively.
Distraction: Ha ha! Now that's funny!"

I definitely encourage reading the whole thing, because it gets into the critical voices in our heads, and the ways they can sabotage us, but it's funny, too.