Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Good Work: Dovetailing your YA Story

I've been re-reading a collection of essays by C.S. Lewis over breakfast this week--reading intelligent commentary on anything over breakfast ensures that, whatever else might happen in my day, even I spend the rest of my waking hours explaining comma splices to students and chasing a toddler, I've chewed on something intellectually substantial.  My mind masticates while my breakfast digests.  How's that for a stretched metaphor?

In any case, I was reading the essay "Good Work and Good Works" in which Lewis discusses the value in doing work worth doing well, and came across this quote as regards the art of literature:

When an artist is in the strict sense working, he of course takes into account the existing taste, interests, and capacity of his audience. These, no less than the language, the marble, or the paint, are part of his raw material; to be used, tamed, sublimated, not ignored nor defied. Haughty indifference to them is not genius nor integrity; it is laziness and incompetence. You have not learned your job. Hence, real honest-to-God work, so far as the arts are concerned, now appears chiefly in low-brow art; in the film, the detective story, the children's story. These are often sound structures; seasoned wood, accurately dovetailed, the stresses all calculated; skill and labour successfully used to do what is intended. Do not mis-understand. The high-brow productions may, of course, reveal a finer sensibility and profounder thought. But a puddle is not a work, whatever rich wines or oils or medicines have gone into it.

Now, I will not go so far as Lewis does here--at times he does veer toward crusty old curmudgeon ("What these kids are doing nowadays!") though often with quite good reason.  I do think that there is worthy art being produced in the literary sphere, though I also think there is quite a bit of rubbish (what Lewis calls "puddles") that's fawned over as far more "significant" than it really is.

It was, however, the bolded section that struck me as particularly interesting to my field.  I write the kind of fiction that no one will mistake for high-brow, not in where it's stocked, not in how it's discussed.  As much as I might like to believe that I inject my work with the occasional jolt of "literary" thought or artful turn of a phrase, what I write is Young Adult.  And I read quite a bit of it, too. I don't need to rehash the disparaging remarks made upon this particular genre; the criticisms of grown-ups reading "kid stuff" are numerous enough.  You need only Google.

But perhaps Lewis exonerates us.

He is not claiming that we're reading the next great novel, that we should expect earth-shattering illumination from our favorite YA books.  He is, however, telling us that the work itself may be good.  It may be a good story, well-crafted.  Note that I mean craft quite literally--as Lewis says, the writer must "season" and "dovetail" the work he labors on, quite deliberately using the metaphor of a craftsman.   

If I am to be a good writer, a good craftsman, doing good work, I must keep in mind the purpose of my work and its intended user.  For all the jeers of YA being intended "for lovesick teenage girls," there is a quite positive truth there.  Yes, YA is written with a particular audience in mind.  Good YA is written to appeal and speak particularly to that audience.  Writing to a particular group is, in fact, not easy, and does, in fact, require skill. And what of it if that audience is teenagers and those who want, for a bit, to feel a little youth in their books?  Every book is--or should--be written with an audience in mind unless it's one's personal journal.  The writer doesn't write purely for himself--he writes for others.  At least, I know that I do.  

So if you write YA, or another genre pooh-poohed as "not literary enough," take some comfort in Lewis.  If you know your audience, if you craft your work, if you season and dovetail and test your sentences with the same care a carpenter makes a hope chest meant to last generations--you're doing good work.  And if you're reading good work, don't be ashamed of appreciating craftsmanship, even if it's made of the simple pine of a genre novel instead of the mahogany of a literary work.

And if you are using mahogany, don't forget the great responsibility placed on anyone fiddling with such rare and costly material.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Favorite Christmastime Books

I have my favorite fall books, for sure, but it's books for the holiday season that I really do come back to every year.  They're part of the tradition, like decorating the tree or making mincemeat (some of my traditions are a little weird).


A Christmas Carol In Prose.  Confession: I am not a Dickens fan.  I find it somewhat sloggy, and though I have good intentions of attempting a serialized read to mimic how Dickens meant his books to be read, I can't get up the enthusiasm when there are other things to read.  But my Dickens reticence does not extend to A Christmas Carol.  First, the length--it's technically a novella, and the pace is downright sprightly for Dickens.  Moreover, it has a bright wit that most film renditions don't quite capture what with the focus on the saccharine-sweet "God Bless Us Every One" moments.  There are complex family dynamics and a far clearer understanding of a broken man, Ebenezer himself.  Well worth the read.


Nutcracker by E.T.A Hoffmann. Forget the ballet for a moment.  The book is weird, beautiful, and winsome.  The ballet takes some sharp turns from the "kernel of a hard nut" found at the heart of the original book, and though the ballet is lovely, reading the book deepened my appreciation for the story.  It's a love story, a story about growing up, and everything is possible--including a Land of Sweets that (spoiler) *isn't* merely a dream. Do yourself a favor and get the version illustrated by Maurice Sendak--yes, that Maurice Sendak--which captures exquisitely the fabulous, somewhat dangerous, fantasy that is Nutcracker.  (The staging of the ballet that Sendak designed sets and costumes for is on Netflix--it follows the original story more closely than most and is a delight to watch after reading the book.)


The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis.  Not technically a Christmas story, but remember--the enchanted Narnia is always winter and never Christmas, and Father Christmas does make a brief cameo in the story.  It's an old favorite that I love re-reading in the holiday burst of childhood nostalgia.

A Christmas Treasury of Yuletide Stories and Poems.  This anthology is one of many out there, and though many of the works found in it are certainly found elsewhere, it's the one I happen to have.  So I'm listing it.  Ha.  There are lesser-known gems in here--"The Water Bus" by Agatha Christie, "A Kidnapped Santa Claus" by L. Frank Baum (of Wizard of Oz fame--and yes, this is weird and fun, too), "The Sheep-Herd" by Sister Mariella (I cry every time), and "Christmas at Sea" by Robert Louis Stevenson (see previous).  Take the discovery challenge and read something you've never stumbled across before--like unwrapping a gift.


Do you have any holiday stories or books that you come back to every year?

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Favorite Fall Books

I associate books with seasons, especially favorite books that I want to read over and over.  They become tied to times of the year, with some evoking lazing on a porch swing in deep, humid summer and others bundling up with a cup of tea while winter blusters against rattling windows.

A few of my favorite fall books:

Fire in the Blood by Irene Nemirovsky

It's no secret to anyone who's known me a while that I love Irene Nemirovsky, and this is one of my favorites.  The ultimate unreliable narrator delves into his memories and proves--he doesn't know himself as well as he thinks he does.  Cold and gorgeous and fading.  (For what it's worth, I'm already cranky about the movie adaptation of Nemirovsky's Suite Francaise, so don't even ask.)



Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling

Something about a going to school story appeals to me in fall.  Descriptions of old-fashioned trains, classes we'd all love to take, and a fascinating school?  Beats even back to school shopping.



Rilla of Ingleside by L.M. Montgomery

Rilla is my favorite of the Anne books, I think because it takes a more solemn turn than any of the others.  There's a sweet wistfulness hidden in its pages, Anne bidding farewell to her children's childhood and her own all over again, in a way, kind of like the last turning of fall leaves.  Also, Veteran's Day (November 11) will always be a little bit Armistice Day for me, so a World War I story fits fall very well.



I love this new cover, for what it's worth--I may have to treat myself to a duplicate book, because I always hated the cover of my copy. Rilla looks like she's wearing a crappy 1980s nightgown.  



Pretty Much Any History Book

Again, it's that back to school feeling.  My list keeps growing, but a short sampling of what I might pick up and LEARN ALL THE THINGS:






...But I definitely won't have time for all of them before it's time to break out my favorite Christmas season books.  Which I'll share in due time!

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

The Importance of Writing Something New

There's one question that led to me signing with my agent.  I didn't ask it--she did.

"Are you writing anything new?"

I had queried with a project I was really excited about, and was checking in on a full request.  My now-agent Jessica responded promptly and kindly (as is her wont) that she hadn't forgotten about it, and, by the way, was I writing anything new?

Fortunately, I was.  I had two projects going that I was excited about--both departures for me in terms of sub-genre within young adult, but both really fun writes that I was enjoying.  I told her about both, quick pitches that summed up the basics of the plot and what made the stories unique.  (Side lesson--be able to sum up your project effectively at any stage in the writing game.)

"I'm so glad I asked!" she replied.

No, I'm so glad I was writing something new!

This led to a request for material, and then The Call, the paperwork, and the All That Jazz, in an admittedly pretty unorthodox situation (yes, I signed with only about a quarter of the manuscript in anything close to polished completion).  Unusual?  Yes.  But here's the thing--many opportunities are unusual.

Which is why it kills me when I see writers putting all their publication eggs in the same manuscript basket.  Now, I don't knock taking the time you need to create the best book possible.  I don't knock sticking by your project until all avenues have been explored.  That's what determination and perseverance are made of.  However, when you focus on The One project to the exclusion of others, you might be shooting yourself in the foot and crippling your chances in a competitive market.

You come to a place where you have to decide--start writing something new or revise the old project again?  Start writing something new or write a sequel to a book I have yet to place?  Start writing something new or spend my time query-query-querying?  Sometimes it's not an "or" question, but an "and."  (I'm a huge advocate of starting to write something new when you start querying.  Keeps your writing mind in a good place.)

In my case--the project I had queried with was a dystopian.  I started writing it before Hunger Games came out, believe it or not, but by the time it was finished and polished and entered the query derby, the market was gummy with dystopian and post-apocalyptic.  (Cue "Just my luck.")  Agents were wary to take them on, because selling was an uphill battle, if the numerous "I really enjoyed this but I don' think I can sell it" rejections were any indication.  Yes, I could have trained my focus solely on getting the book out there--querying to fatigue, entering contests, pursuing self-publishing.  Nothing wrong with any of these (I admire indie writers incredibly)--but realistically, my goal was and is traditional publication and while bludgeoning my options would serve that One Book, it would not serve my goal. Instead, I started writing something new while maintaining a slow-but-steady query process.

It doesn't really matter why that first book doesn't get picked up--it might be market, it might be timing, it might be that it's (brace yourself) just not as good as your NEXT book will be.  Before deciding to pour heart and soul into that One Book, consider writing Something New.  This doesn't mean giving up on the One Book--but after all, as a published writer, either traditionally or self-published, you don't get to make a career of one book.  Plus there's that whole thing about baskets and eggs.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Lovely Blog

The ever-lovely June tagged me for a blog award, and since I think it's fun to play linkies and and fun to play along (and finally have time after a busy fortnight of revising), here I am ! 

Rules:
  1. Share 7 Lovely Facts about myself
  2. Link to 15 blogs (or as many as possible) that I enjoy reading
  3. Nominate the authors of those 15 blogs to participate and do the samelinking back to the original Lovely blog.  June's original Lovely post was here.

Facts:
  1. My favorite outfit is well over two centuries out of fashion: 
  2. I have a cat named Sophie Biscuit.  She was originally  just "Sophie" but she was--and still is--so cute yet addlepated that called her Biscuit as a nickname, because she's just an adorable little morsel but she's still kind of doughy in the middle.  She once climbed our Christmas tree:
  3. My house was built in 1872, and then renovated in 1890 because clearly it was so out of date.  The resulting mash-up is pretty awesome. 
  4. I love swing dancing (and the music and clothes from the swing era, too), and used to take lessons and go to dance meetups practically religiously.  Unfortunately, there's less time for going to dances with a toddler, but my husband and I have developed our signature "Lindy with a Little" style:
  5. I'm a Navy wife--my husband is an officer in the Naval Reserves.  Downside: I'm home alone a lot.  Upside: I let myself have Chinese takeout when I'm home alone and the place in town makes the best eggrolls.  Also, Navy Ball (years ago!): 
  6. I love being outdoors; hiking is my favorite.  This is from a trip to Seattle and the surrounding area, which is on my list for most gorgeous places I've visited, and is pretty much my face every time I'm in a really beautiful natural place:
  7. I'm on a lifelong mission to perfect my piecrust.  My favorite pie recipes are mincemeat and dried cherry--both very old-fashioned but delicious.

In looking over other blogs I read, it looks like lots of them have already been tagged!  So...if you've been tagged but you haven't posted, consider this encouragement!  And if you haven't been tagged but you want to be, I'll do it!  I'll make you a deal--any of my friends who has done this post, leave me a link to it it the comments and I'll link you up.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Things That Can Ruin a Writer's Day

I try not to be too "precious" with my writerly requests--the things I believe help me get in the zone and write at my best.  I don't need a particular table at the cafe or a certain hot drink or my lucky left shoe.  But there are a few things that really grind my gears.

1) Sticky keyboards.  Nothing annoys me more than a keyboard with really stiff keys--you know, when you type "biscuit" and it comes out "bsut" because half the keys are so futzy that they don't depress fully on a simple, light touch.  Maybe I'm just very particular about my keyboards, because getting a new laptop has taken all kinds of adjustment for me.

2) A workspace that's too dark or too light.  Squinting at the screen that's suddenly bisected by a hyper-ray of sunlight or squinting at my notes in a dark corner take me out of my zone quicker than a cat landing, claws-out, on my lap.  Which happens pretty often in my house, but she's so darn cute I'm ok with it.

3) Headaches.  There is nothing in this world that kills productivity quicker than the common headache.  Except maybe...

4) Skipped naptimes.  Two-year-olds need naps.  Their writer moms need them even more.

Guess which one happened today?  Sigh.

And I had so many sparkly ideas about this revision.  They'll still be shiny tomorrow, I guess.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Does Working Make You a Better Writer?

Latest in the litero-sphere hullabaloo is Nobel judge Horace Engdahl's assertion that literary grants and programs are killing our creative spirit by isolating us from the gritty real world that feeds our imaginations.  He says we'd do better to work, as waiters or taxi drivers if need be, in order to learn the world in which we write.  On the other side of the ring are writers, many who are currently working or formerly working in that "real world," who contest that doing so did nothing for their creative spirit and that Engdahl's claim is pretty darn easy to make from the vantage point of a comfy professorship.

I'm not going to get into what goes into producing "great" literature.  I really  have no idea.  I have no delusions that I'm attempting to produce "great" literature (then again, I imagine many great writers of the past and present weren't trying for "The Great Novel of Our Time," either, and that's part of my problem with the whole labeling system).  I have some issues with the delineation between "literature" and "not literature" in the written word--the dichotomy seems invented rather than natural and I really have no skin in the game of where to draw the line between the two.

But as for writing?  Just writing, like I do?

Working made me a better writer.

It gave me experiences and perspectives that I would never have had coming straight out of university and moving straight into writing full-time.  I wouldn't have replaced those experiences sitting behind my desk, tip-tapping away on the keyboard. Frankly, some of the frustration and difficulty of working a job that didn't fulfill me professionally, that didn't help me achieve my ultimate goal of publication, was great fodder for writing realistic characters in crummy situations.

In fact, difficult working situations prodded me to invest in writing.  My first job out of college wasn't a great one, financially speaking (it was a great work environment with some truly fantastic people and work I enjoyed--it just paid beans).  Worse, it was pretty much a dead end--no ladder to climb, no promotions to work toward.  It wasn't, shall we say, a career-making position.  It was a job.  Much like the work Engdahl discusses for writers. (I do find it fascinating that he doesn't talk about teachers, lawyers, doctors in his discussion--perhaps because these are careers, not placeholder jobs meant to eke out a living until writing pays off.)  The recession hit and my hours were cut.  With the extra time, I decided to invest in something--writing.  I wrote my first novel (that now lives in a file on my external hard drive and will never see the light of publication) that year.

I queried that novel with the agent who ultimately signed me.

But that's another story.

The story I'm telling now is one about working.  I've never stopped working.  I moved from my first job to a job at a university (staff, not to be confused with academia), ultimately landing in recruitment and student services.  I worked over forty  hours a week.  I still wrote.  Prolifically.  I then stayed home with my daughter for a year.  I've never had less time to write than that year.  I now work part-time and stay home part-time.  So I find myself cringing a little at the side of the discussion that argues "working makes it too hard to write.  I couldn't find the time."

Yes, finding the time is hard.  But the time you do have?  It *matters.*  You write like your life depends on it because that hour is it.  And...this will sound harsh...but if you're unable to produce anything and getting depressed and think your work is all crap...that's kind of on you.  Yes, writing for one hour a day instead of eight means writing will take longer.  It will take longer to write the draft, to work toward perfection.  (You will never reach perfection, by the way.)  But if you "can't" I call shenanigans.  That's not because you're working another job.  That's because you've decided you can't.

As for work opening us up to creative possibilities, and academia and grants isolating us from those possibilities?  Tentatively, yes.  Yes, working demands that we *interact* with the world in a way that sitting at a desk writing does not.  Interacting with people, encountering problems, watching how different people react to those problems, how they propose solutions, how they laugh together, how they form bonds.  Still, working isn't the only way to do this.  Living works, too.

In my view, isolation is the enemy, and academic creative writing courses and grants can isolate you.  But so can a job.  

And there's something that smacks of elitism (ironically enough) to claim that one must work a "gritty" job to produce something authentic and worthy.  That's a rather narrow definition of authenticity.  My small-town life with an engineer husband and a job at the local community college is as "authentic" as the life of a bike messenger by day, author by night in a developing country that Engdahl seems to think is capable of producing "real" literature on a level that Westerners are not.

My point?

Living life makes you a better writer.  It's narrow-minded to demand a particular life or lifestyle, however.  And there's no excuse in the world *not* to write--maybe that's the lesson we should be learning from the writers persevering in gritty, difficult jobs.  They're not creatively better-situated because of their work--they're more determined.  And determination can produce writing that is truly something great.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

What Size Pond Are You Swimming In?

I like to sing.  Singing in choir, singing in the shower, singing to my two-year-old...doesn't matter, singing is fun for me.  And, lucky for me, my voice isn't bad.  It's not great--I don't have a huge range, it can get a little breath-y, and my pitch isn't always perfect. Or close.  Or good, at all.

When I was in college and in the years beyond, I lived in a Music Town.  You know, one of those brilliantly over-saturated-with-talent regions where every other person you meet is a near-virtuoso musician?  If you've been lucky enough to live in the vicinity of a top-tier music school, you know what I'm talking about.  Despite being a member of a church, despite plenty of volunteer choirs in town, despite opportunity galore, I didn't sing in public much.

I was a very small fish in that big pond.  There was no way I was measuring up to the fantastic talent I was surrounded by.  And it intimidated me enough to keep my voice to myself.

Then I moved to a little town and joined a little church and discovered that the choir has maybe ten members on a good day.  And so I joined.

Now I'm the only soprano in the group who can consistently (and fairly nicely) hit the full scope of the treble clef, have better pitch than half the group, and a stronger voice than many of the singers there.  I'm not saying this to brag.  Because I don't have much to brag about.

Nothing changed except the size of the pond.

My voice, nothing too exciting in a space rich with talent, is exactly the same as it was before.  My confidence might be a little higher, and that might give me a slight boost, but I'm the same singer I was a few years ago.  I went from "I'll just watch, thanks" to soloist material.

I bring this up in relation to writing because we all start writing in small ponds.  We start writing for ourselves, as kids.  Maybe we start in classrooms, and for most of us, we're the star pupil when it comes to language.  Few writers recall feeling like the little fish up front.  Few writers start out in a big pond.

Eventually, many of us decide to move to the big pond--pursuing publication.  Suddenly you're not the best writer in your family, or the best writer in Springville High School, or the best writer in your group of friends.  You're a good writer...among a lot of other good writers.  The pond is huge, and suddenly what felt like exceptional talent and incredibly hard work is, in comparison, not that exceptional or incredible.

That can feel discouraging.  Imagine if I had gone from being the star soprano of Tiny Town United Methodist to the nobody of Music Town. I would have gone in believing I was "good enough" and then would have realized that I'd need to work, and hard, just to keep up!

But that's the reality of the big pond--it doesn't matter how talented you are, there are others just as naturally talented.  It doesn't matter how good your ideas are, someone else is churning out great ideas, too.  The only thing separating all these amazing fishies?  Work and perseverance.  Once you make it into the big pond, you've proven you have the talent and the passion, so don't be discouraged.  Just finishing a novel, polishing it, working up the gumption to query--that proves you have a place in the big pond.  It's dedication, resilience, and the choice to work, every day, that give some fish a leg up (wait, mixed metaphors...or maybe the fish who make it to publication are actually mudskippers?  We're going down a twisty road on this one...)

And a final thought--maybe you're not ready to move into the big pond yet.  Maybe you're quite happy splashing around your smaller pond, working and writing and improving.  That's fine.  Moving too fast can be discouraging, and the pond will be there when you're ready for it.  The allure of the big pond is strong, but you don't have to dive in until you're ready--or you can decide that the small pond fulfills your writing dreams just fine, thanks.  There's nothing wrong with the small pond.

Friday, October 3, 2014

B-Movie Lessons: The Horrors of Spider Island and What You *Really* Want to Write About

After a long weekend full of football recently, I found myself craving a bad movie.  (Not that football isn't in many ways like a bad movie--except that the Mr. doesn't appreciate my witty quips when the involve the combination of his team and the term "butterfingers.")  So I cued up The Horrors of Spider Island.

First, let's clear one thing up. This is your spider:


Now then.  That's done.

It's not an uncommon phenomenon that crappy B-movies from the 1950s and 60s were thinly veiled covers for showing scintillating (for the time) images and suggestive (for the time) racy scenes.  Horrors is a prime example--the premise is that a troupe of "dancers" (ahem--they didn't cast the ballet dancer in the opening scene, just saying) is stranded on a remote island when their plane crashes en route to Singapore.  Said island is infested with giant spiders whose bite, inexplicably, turns people into were-spiders.


You don't see much of the giant spiders.  But you sure see a lot of scantily clad ladies.

Movies like this were released to dive theaters and drive-ins, where the point was often not watching the movie but sneaking some make-out time with one's significant other.

So, despite the name of the film and the occasional shot of a giant spider (work with me, let's pretend it actually looks like a spider rather than a bat puppet with extraneous legs), the movie is really about....


scantily clad ladies.

So bringing this back around to writing.

There are those times when it becomes abundantly clear that the story being told isn't REALLY what the book is about. This is a danger with any novel--writers have something to say, and sometimes that itch to *say* something comes at the expense of story.  There's a time when saying more than the story is a fine choice, masterful, even--when the sci-fi novel is a projection of current fears about technology, when the historical fiction piece is a commentary on current gender roles.  But this feels organic and natural--the story still takes precedence.  It's through the story that the larger elements take shape.

Sometimes, however, it feels like a pesky plot is intruding on the real reason for writing the story, like a giant spider at an otherwise enjoyable beach party.

Or perhaps the spy story is starting to take a backseat to the romantic subplot. Maybe the historical research in your novel is shaping up to take over the story itself.  Perhaps the romantic storyline is morphing into a family drama.  Sometimes a story starts with one premise but adopts others.  It pays to stop and examine--what is the purpose of this piece of writing?  I started out writing an espionage novel--am I still doing that?  Do I still want to be doing that?  I started out researching 19th century French Canadian mourning dress for a two-page section of my historical novel--I now have half a thesis on this topic.  Do I need to redirect this information into something else?

Every novel has a central theme and a main story arc.  Plenty of variation exists within those rules, but when the central theme is muddied or the main story arc splinters, it's time to re-evaluate.

Unless you like giant spider beach parties.  I won't judge.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Invisible Diversity

Diversity in young adult fiction: There's plenty of great information out there already about that topic. In fact, before I get any further, I'll just leave this here:

Diversity in YA

That's a link to the Diversity in YA blog, founded by fantastic YA authors Malinda Lo and Cindy Pon.  Read it.  Talk about the stuffs on it.  Really.

There, that's done.

Now a little story.

I was driving my daughter to daycare last week and passed a fellow mowing his lawn.  Nothing unusual, except that he was black.  In our predominantly white and Hispanic town, there was only one black family that I knew of, and I had met them a few times and knew where they lived.  This guy was new.  "Yay!" I thought.  "Our town just got a little more diverse."

And it had.  But as I drove on, I thought about that happy-fuzzy feeling that "diversity" gives us (I get it looking around my workplace, for instance--a mix of races and backgrounds and ages all working together) and how, well...

...it's kind of a lie.

Not a complete lie.  Not at all.  The visible diversity that we can see absolutely represents real diversity.  But how much invisible diversity do we encounter?  How often do we dismiss a group as "not diverse" based only on what we can immediately see?

Thinking about it, my little town was pretty darn diverse even before our new neighbor moved in.  A fairly even mix of white and Hispanic families, some who had lived on the same plot of land for generations, some who just moved to town, some who just moved to this country (and not just the non-white folks--we have a decent sized population of newly naturalized Eastern European born citizens).  Farmers who are bound to the land and commuters who jog over to the next big town and live a more urban lifestyle.  People who speak English, Spanish, Polish, and Mandarin.  Gay and straight.  Folks with disabilities and able-bodied folks.  A huge range of educational levels and socio-economic statuses.

Having more people of color in young adult fiction is absolutely a worthy goal, but thinking about the kinds of diversity a small Midwestern town can contain made me consider all the ways that diversity can be invisible--unless we deliberately encounter it.

It also made me the issue of inclusiveness in my own fiction, whether or not it's by including people of color, more present as I worked on a draft yesterday.

A few ways I propose that diversity can be invisible, but no less important:

1) Sexuality.  Unless you're privy to an individual's personal life, their sexual orientation is not necessarily immediately apparent.  And as Malinda Lo mentions in her Guide to LGBT YA, it may not even be important to the story or part of what the audience is "introduced" to about a character.  Still, as writers, we often recognize that every character in our story is  the hero of his or her OWN story. If that's part of his or her story, don't ignore it, even if it's not a "visible" part of the character's self-portrayal.

2) Invisible Physical Disabilities.  We're used to associating physical disability with visual representation--a wheelchair, crutches.  But someone with debilitating arthritis, for instance, might not use a crutch, even though it impacts their daily life.

Let's not forget visual and hearing impairments, either.  Someone can be hearing or vision impaired but not what we think of as "Deaf" (unable to hear completely) or "blind" (again, complete lack of vision).  I have a friend who is severely hearing impaired, but with the use of hearing aids has functional hearing.  Not perfect, and it's still a challenge for him--but he's also not "visibly" Deaf, for example, by using ASL.

3) Other Invisible Disabilities and Variance in Mental Health.  With  more attention paid to the autism spectrum and processing disorders, invisible disabilities are getting more attention than they used to.  Which is a good thing.  Still, an awareness that people might be working through life with invisible disabilities, and that mental health issues are often silent, can help you create a richer cast of characters.

4) Socio-economic Differences.  A group of people might not visibly represent a range from poverty to affluent--but the range might be there.  Recently, we've become more aware that people struggling with poverty don't always look poor, but I haven't noticed this seeping over into how characters are portrayed very often (unless it's a story *about* that issue).  Rich kids are rich and saddled with all the markers as such--new car, expensive clothes, their house has a pool.  Poor kids live in the trailer park and have worn-out sneakers.  Most characters are just kind of comfortably middle class--which seems to be the "default" the way that "white, non-ethnic background" is a sort of default for race.  Diversity means diversity in all kinds of backgrounds--finances included.

5) Language and Culture.  Just because two people share the same race doesn't mean they share the same culture.  Two people might both check "African American" on the census, but my friend from South Africa has a very different cultural background than my friend whose family has lived in Chicago for several generations.  As I mentioned earlier, my area has a decent-sized Polish population, and that makes for cultural differences between people who, though they look very similar, have very different cultures.

And that's not even getting into language.  Speaking a different language, knowing more than one language, speaking one language at home and another at school, learning a language late, or learning a language others in your family don't know--all these can add to diversity.

None of this means that we *shouldn't* continue to include people of color.  But I propose that considering less visually obvious kinds of diversity can make us more sensitive to all ways in which people are diverse.  Being sensitive to this, being aware and inclusive, helps us to write the diverse casts that fully represent the people who make up our world.

It also opens up ways to consider diversity for those times when including people of color doesn't make sense--there are times and places in history and today where it would be out of place, and I'm not prepared to say we shouldn't write about those.  Even in those settings, however, we're still offered plenty of opportunity to engage diversity on other levels.

What are some unique ways you've encountered diversity in books or movies?  What about your own writing?

Friday, September 26, 2014

B-Movies and Writing: The Beginning of the End and Knowing Your Limits


I've blogged before about my love of B movies and the lessons they can impart to the fiction writer. I dissected the plot of Plan Nine from Outer Space to to discover what didn't work (answer? Nothing worked). I examined the effectiveness of the characters in Eegah (conclusion: when a hairy man-beast from a prehistoric era is your most likeable character, you have a problem).

Last night I indulged in The Beginning of the End, in which 1950s hysteria over atomic anything resulted in a movie about a cloud of giant locusts swarming Chicago.

I love a good giant bug movie. ThemThe Deadly MantisHorrors of Spider Island. All good stuff. In a really bad way. But they can illustrate very well the age-old principle of biting off more than you can chew.

Lesson? If you can't swallow an entire swarm of giant locusts, don't bite one. Or something like that.

So the plot is skimpy, the characters are sketches. I'm not going to nitpick this, because in your average movie about giant bugs, let's be honest--you're going for the giant bugs. Yes, the plot could have been better drawn and we could have had real, rounded characters instead of caricatures. But the problem--the real problem--with End were the bugs themselves.

It seems the creators of the film had just discovered that you could superimpose one film on another, and voila! Giant grasshoppers attacking stock footage of soldiers! Perfect!

Except...it doesn't quite work. In fact, it doesn't work at all. You just get random large bugs scuttling across the screen and not actually interacting with anything.

OK, so we can't be one-trick ponies. I know! We'll have the bugs scale a building! How to pull that off...Yes! We'll have a few grasshoppers climb a postcard of a building! That will work!

Except...the bugs are constantly stepping off the "building", which has a slightly odd glare to it.

What does this have to do with writing? After all, writers aren't special-effects artists. We don't have to worry about low budgets or non-existent technology.

But we still have to know our limits.

I might get lambasted for saying this. Still, here's the thing--we're not limited by tech capabilities or dollars in our craft, but we are limited by talent, craft, and know-how. I'm speaking from experience here, not pointing fingers at anyone but myself. Not every idea a writer has is an idea he or she can pull off--at least not yet.

Confession time: one of my drawer novels is a multi-POV project that dealt with a lot of different issues, complicated plotlines, and twists I hoped no one would see coming. There's some good writing in there--I honestly do believe that. But as a whole, it's not there yet. It's not there because I wasn't there when I wrote it. Maybe someday I could revise it and it could be sparkling. Much more likely? I'm going to revise it and pare it down to something I can tackle at the skill level I'm currently at as a writer.

That's the thing about writing--a lot of other creative crafts, too. Unlike athletic prowess or beauty-queen competitiveness, your abilities as a writer will only improve and expand with time, experience and practice. What you're not able to pull off now--maybe it's a deeply nuanced character or a rip-roaring plot--is something you'll grow into.

What I'm not saying, however, is that you don't try the stuff you can't handle. We don't grow if we don't push ourselves. Write the stuff you're not sure you can do. Dive in. Try it. When it's done, and it's a giant grasshopper mess, don't try to peddle it to the world a la The Beginning of the End. One of the greatest skills in any art is to know when you have a haunting, stunning giant bug film--and when you have a reel of celluloid covered in tobacco juice.*

Practically speaking, this is where flash fiction, short stories, and other non-novel length works can be your friend. Devoting the time to write a novel that's over your head--that's commitment to something rather shaky. (Still not saying it's bad to take the risk--but you don't have to if you don't want to.) But a short story? Experiment. Learn. Grow.
*Other people call the nasty, staining brown spit that grasshoppers produce tobacco juice, right? Or am I a hillbilly?

Friday, September 19, 2014

B-Movies and Writing : Eeegah and Character Development

I have a penchant for horrible science fiction movies. Not decent stuff like The Day the Earth Stood Still. No, terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad monstrosities like Plan 9 From Outer Space. Terror from the Year 5000. Phantom Planet. Robot Monster.

As I was enjoying Eegah last week, I couldn't help but notice what lessons a writer could learn from the mistakes made by bad filmmaking. Eegah is the story of a young woman and her father who are, for reasons not entirely explained, kidnapped by Eegah, a prehistoric caveman (who may or may not be a giant, depending on the particular camera angle at any given frame) and their rescue by the young woman's unintentionally icky boyfriend (who looks like a ferret).

So, a few lessons on making your characters likeable and believable from a movie that did the exact opposite.

1) Stop saying "Wheee." No one says "Wheee." In one otherwise useless scene, the leading lady, Roxy, and her ferret-faced boyfriend, Tom, are riding around in the sand of the California desert on his self-made dune buggy. Punctuating this scene (which got dull after the first dune, by the way) is Roxy's high-pitched squealing "Whee!" as she whoops in excitement.

The problem? No one in the real world actually says "Whee." Or does cheesy double takes or any of the various other symbolic writing/acting we see them doing in books and movies. So while you want to convey to your reader that your character is having a great time, you have to show it in ways that seem realistic--and, bonus, show the character's personality.  One person would be death-gripping the seat of that dune buggy, while another would be begging to drive it next. It's almost like cheating to just type out "Wheee!" she cried and move on with it. And the reader feels cheated, too. Give us real reactions that reveal characters...not caricatures.

2) Just because he's the protagonist doesn't mean he's automatically likeable. One of the greatest character mistakes in Eegah was the male lead--Tom the ferret-faced boyfriend. You're supposed to like him. He's supposed to come off as an overeager, good guy who's just trying to make his girlfriend's dad like him. He comes off as icky, annoying, and more than a little creepy. The fact that he insists on pulling out his guitar and singing at odd moments doesn't help. By the time he gets socked in the face by Eegah, the prehistoric cave giant, you're probably rooting for Eegah. I know I was.

The lesson? Just because he's the lead character doesn't mean the audience will automatically engage with him in a positive way. You have to work at it. You have to give us reasons to like the guy, and minimize his annoying ferret-y habits. This doesn't mean he can't be flawed--in fact, Tom doesn't have any deliberate flaws (he's just obnoxious). Show some legitimate weaknesses that let us identify with the character, not someone with nothing negative whatsoever.  Keep in mind that even his good traits can, if misused or relied on too heavily, be annoying to a reader.  Tom, for instance, whips out a guitar at every opportunity.  Instead of "sensitive music lover" this reads as "egocentric weirdo with inability to read social cues." Show background, helping the reader know where the character came from and why he is the way he is.  Flat is boring.  Give characters dimension.

On second thought, this particular character was just too annoying to fix. Scrap him and get someone else who doesn't have a ferret face. (Illustrating the inevitable moments of rewrite trumping revision.)

3) The "info plant" guy. In Eegah, the father, who is abducted first by Eegah, is some sort of scientist/anthropologist/paleontologist/writer. Yeah, that's as clear as it got. But he was super helpful for explainting Eegah's eccentricities and motivations, from discovering that the caveman's name was Eegah to deciphering the reasons he lived so long--all from spending twenty minutes in a cave with him.

The character is useful for only two things--providing a reason for the two sap-happy teens to go out in the desert (find missing Dad) and providing explanation whenever things seem wonky in the cave. Use 1 is legitimate--motivation. Use 2--not legitimate. He's a human infodump. While it can be great to have characters with insight, it has to be done carefully. No one is an expert in everything, and trying to make someone a catch-all is sure to come off as artificial. And even experts rarely get everything right the first time. Allow them some room for error. In situations that no person has ever found him or herself in before (ie, trapped in a cave with a prehistoric cave giant), they should probably suggest explanations rather than write a thesis on the subject within an hour of the first encounter.


So what about the caveman, Eegah? Probably one of the better-drawn characters in the film, despite that ridiculous fake beard. Clearly, that isn't saying much. But in a role that's half King Kong, half the "Hey You Guys" thing from the Goonies, we do get a character with a good side and a bad side (done deliberately, even)--he's lonely (we identify with him), keeps his dead family propped up against the walls of his cave (woah, creepy...and intriguing), wants to take care of his captives (aww...), but is violent when it comes to letting them go (crisis of character). Though not the best illustration, still a good example of why balance is vital to any character--too much mushy niceness and you've got a boring Hostess Snoball, too much annoying or icky and you've got a ferret-faced Twinkie. Aim for the lovely balance of a Hostess Cupcake--chocolate cake hiding the delicious filling. Or was that way too much metaphor after a really, really bad movie?

Thursday, September 18, 2014

On Being a Good Beta Reader

I have a confession.  I've been a shoddy beta reader lately.

I've been very busy with the rest of my life--work picked up, I had a ton to put together for a big reenactment event--and beta reading fell by the wayside.

My brief lapse got me thinking about the ways in which one can be a better beta.  Beta reading is not only a great way to offer help to writer-friends (WFs in my weird shorthand), but it can really help you, too.  Reading other's not-quite-there work helps you learn how to revise your own.  Plus, building relationships is a huge bonus of beta-reading.  It's my view that a beta reader can develop into a true critique partner--someone with whom you have an honest and beneficial writer-friend relationship far greater than the usual community support.  ('Cause writers tend to be pretty supportive people in general, you know!)

1) Be realistic with yourself. Simple in theory, harder in execution.

Be honest--do you have time to read and reply in a relatively prompt manner?  If not, you're not doing your WF any favors.

Do you have the chutzpah to point out negative things about the work?  This can be particularly hard, because you don't want to hurt feelings, but a vague or overly praise-filled response doesn't help your WF improve the MS.

And finally--do you even want to read this piece?  If it's not your preferred genre, if the pitch bores you because the story isn't your cup of tea, if you've read your WF's prose before and it's just not your style, and most especially, if the MS includes a trigger issue that you can't read easily, you may not be the best person to offer a critical eye to the piece.

Be honest with yourself.  And then be honest with your WF.

2) Clear expectations.  Ask your WF up front what s/he's looking for, how you can help, and what kind of timeframe s/he's expecting.

A WF who is looking for a close reading for details and language and really  hopes to hear back in a couple weeks is very different request from a WF who is looking for big-picture reader reaction and doesn't care if it takes you three months.

Consider asking what kind of comments your WF expects, too, or telling him or her what kind you can give.  Does your WF prefer in-text notation? A list of ideas?  A few paragraphs of overarching commentary?  A mix?  Clear expectations will avoid disappointment when your WF gets an email chockablock full of ideas but no in-text comments--and comments were exactly what s/he was expecting.

3) Hold up your end of the bargain.  If you say you'll be done in a month, get done in three weeks.  If you can't finish in time, or can't finish at all, let your WF know right away.  It's common courtesy, but often guilt makes us procrastinate.  Don't.  It's disappointing enough to not hear back in the timeframe you expect or be told that your beta can't finish at all--it's even worse to have this put off for weeks or months longer than is necessary.

4) Give an honest but kind report.  If there are problems, you have an obligation as a good beta reader to talk about them. Talk about them openly, non-judgmentally, and as kindly as possible.  I find that speaking from a reader's perspective, rather than a writer's, helps with this.  Instead of "Your character development with Maria was weak," I might say "I just didn't connect with Maria as a character."  I try to comment on the symptoms rather than offer a diagnosis.  As a beta reader, you're an equal with the writer--not an expert deigning to comment on her work.

And make sure to comment on the good stuff, too!  This is not only a way to buoy a WF in the face of criticism, it's exponentially helpful to hear what *does* work in a draft.

5) Keep the love going.  If you've been honored to be asked by a WF to beta read his or her project, consider asking him or her to take a look at yours.  Build the relationship.

What do you think?  Are beta readers a beneficial relationship to you as a writer?  What are some of  your tips for a good relationship?

Friday, September 12, 2014

Bad Movies and Writing: Ah, Yes. Plan 9.

Ah, yes. Plan 9. If you haven't seen the celluloid abuse that is Plan 9 From Outer Space, get thee to a rental place or Netflix and view immediately. Considered by many to be the worst film ever made, Edward D. Wood Jr.'s Plan 9 has everything wrong with it--crappy acting, terrible writing, laughable sets, wacky editing choices. An example of the absurdity: Star of the film Bela Lugosi died before filming was complete, and a stand-in who looks nothing like him is used for the rest of the film. He holds a cape over his face, so you "can't tell." Another example: The flying saucers are clearly pie plates glued together and suspended by (visible) strings, making the world's wobbliest spacecraft.

But the worst might be the plot. The strings holding the story together are, unfortunately, much more tenuous than those suspending the pie plate saucers. In short, it's not one of those "good story, bad execution" problems--but I managed to glean some lessons for writing while giggling uncontrollably at the chaos.

You Can't Do It All : Cross-genre works are great. It's fun to read a romance with urban fantasy elements, or a historical mystery. But try to do too much and you have a hot mess. That's what happens with Plan 9. Somehow, Ed thought it would be a good idea to combine aliens with zombies with hardboiled cops with a nice newlywed couple with an anti-nuclear-weapons message. Yeah. And I had you thinking "bad idea" at aliens and zombie. Even the plan itself is a bit of a mess: Famously, the titular plan is "a long-range electrode shot to the pituitary gland of the recent dead" bringing them back to life. Sort of. Performed, of course, by the aliens. Lesson learned: Pare it down. Decide what the most important elements of your story are, and develop them into strong storylines, rather than creating plot soup of half-baked ideas (and how's that for mixing metaphors?).

The Character/Plot Balance : It can be debated into the ground whether characters or plot come first in developing a story. A lot may come down to whether it's an action-driven, plot-heavy story or a character-driven literary work, but regardless, there needs to be a balance. Neither the plot nor the characters can drive the story by themselves--at least without it crashing and burning. One of the main problems with Plan 9's plot is that Ed Wood seems to have taken the collection of characters and tried to build a story around them.  Vampira, a late-night movie host who looks like, well, a vampire. Tor Johnson, a gigantic Swedish wrestler whose other film roles include "wrestler" "torturer" and "Lobo." And Bela Lugosi--or, more apt, stock footage of Bela Lugosi salvaged from another film Ed tried to shoot with him before he died. Stock footage that happens to include him bumbling about outside his home and standing in a cemetery. What else do you do with that creepy/kooky cast of characters but make a movie about alien-controlled undead? Ok, probably a lot of other ideas come to mind. But the lesson is, take a balanced approach to what goes into the work, and be flexible. Not every character who pops into your head needs to go in this story. Save some. Work on the plot, and see what characters the story might need. Stretching a story to fit characters that don't quite work is quite likely to produce something pretty warped.


Keep it Straight : Inventing strange new people, places and things is part of the fun of writing. But when you can't keep your newly formed creations straight it just comes across as sloppy. Take the ultimate destructive weapon in Plan 9 : Solarite. Or maybe it was Solarmite. Or Solarmanite. Let's ignore the fact that a chain reaction weapon that "explodes particles of light" is a pretty goofy idea and just go with the problem that it's called at least five different things throughout the course of a rather short movie. Lesson? You're the creator--if you can't keep your creations straight, no one else can, either. One particularly good idea for complicated stories and series is to make your own cheat sheet--more on this found here and also here.

And not exactly Plot-Specific, but...

Dont' Cut Corners : All the elements of writing and editing are hard work. It takes a lot of effort to ensure cohesion and smooth styling. And it's funny--the less attention you pay to the details, the more your audience's attention will be drawn to them. You want to create a flowing, realistic picture, but when something sneaks in that doesn't belong--an odd POV switch, an incongruous character trait, a police officer who gestures and scratches his head with his gun (above right), a scene that goes from daylight to night back to daylight again in the space of two minutes (Ed, come on!), the audience snaps away from the story and stares at that sore thumb jabbing its way into the scene. So, as they say, the devil is in the details, so keep an eye on them. Ed didn't. Learn from Ed.

And, in the meantime...

Do yourself a favor and escape with some popcorn and some Ed Wood awful-ness.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Saving the Best for Last

I have a friend who loves Dickens.  (I don't hold this against her.)  She's read and loved everything old Chuck wrote, from the well-known Great Expectations  and Christmas Carol stock to the lesser known short stories and novellas.

What she hasn't read?  Our Mutual Friend.

And I loved her reason--she's saving it.

Dickens is, in his own colorful terms, "dead as a doornail" so certainly isn't writing any more.  Once you've read the last plot twist, the last unique character, the last ending,  you're done. You can re-read, of course--and I'm a huge proponent of re-reading beloved novels--but the last surprise has been had.

I just bought a new book this weekend--four novels in one volume by one of my absolute favorite writers, Irene Nemirovsky.   Though Nemirovsky died in 1942 (ethnically Jewish, she was sent to a Auschwitz and died there at the age of 39), I have one advantage over my friend and Dickens--not all of her work has been translated or is readily available in English printings.  But the impulse to "save" at least one of her books remains.

When I compare this to fangirling over a living favorite author, the impulse makes a lot of sense.  We eagerly await the publication of the next novel, the start of a new series, the conclusion of a beloved trilogy.  When there will be no more new novels, saving books becomes a way to preserve that excitement.

Sound like something that would appeal to you?  A few ways to save a favorite:

1) Pick a "start" date and read your favorite author in the order he or she was published, with the original wait times in between books.  So, for instance, start with Dickens' The Pickwick Papers in "1837" (ie, today) and read Oliver Twist two years from now (in "1839").  Following his publication history, you have about 28 years (!!!) of reading.

2) Pick milestones to celebrate by reading an unread book by your favorite author.  For instance, read a new book every five years on milestone birthdays.

3) Classic authors are constantly being released in new editions--and some are downright gorgeous.  Wait for a "new release" and buy a beautiful book.

4) Wait to read with someone else.  For instance, parents and grandparents can wait until kids or grandkids are old enough for the author, then read a book you've never read together.

What do you think--does "saving" books make sense?  Or would you rather devour your favorite author's work without leaving a morsel untouched?

Friday, September 5, 2014

Confession: I Love Crappy B-Movies

I love bad old movies.  If it involves a radioactive gigantic bug trying to eat a major American city, or a prehistoric creature birthed from a glacier attacking coastal Japan, or aliens or mad scientists or Creatures from Any Black Body of Water, I'm in.

Proof?  This is the poster decorating my living room wall:


Yes, John Agar's notquiteclassic about a subterranean civilization.  And mole people, of course.

Little known fact: "B" in "B Movie" does not stand for "Bad" or "B-Grade" but for "Budget."  They were movies made with lower budgets and often released directly to dive theaters and drive-ins rather than taking up precious marquee space.  Because who goes to the drive-in to actually watch the movie, right?  But they often were pretty Bad, too.

In any case, what do crappy B movies have to do with writing?

They're excellent examples of what not to do.  

Seriously.  Writers should read, a read widely, and learn from good books and bad, most certainly.  But the storytelling in film can teach some valuable lessons, too--and a 90 minute investment in a bad movie is a quicker route to what not to do than slogging through a poor example in book form.

So--Fridays are now Movie Day here at the blog.  I'll post about one of my favorite (bad) movies, and then break down what goes horribly wrong. 

In the meantime, enjoy these clips from Ed Wood's Plan Nine from Outer Space, considered by many to be the worst film ever made:



Friday, August 29, 2014

Silly Blog! Private Setting is for Journals with Locks

Funny story...Blogger ate my blog.

Well, only kinda.  Somehow the settings got swapped to private (maybe I was sleeptyping again?) and posts I wrote for a couple months there disappeared.

No worries, it's regurgitated now.

Wait, what?

That sounds horrible.

The whole whoopsiedaisy got me thinking a little bit about WHY we blog.  Why not just write our thoughts down in a journal with a nice little lock and key?  Even a digital lock and key.  Why share?

I think it's because we crave some connection.  I can't speak for all bloggers with all purposes, but for a writer?  The work can be pretty lonely.  And we want to reach out to others in similar, small, personal boats (not the same boat, of course, you see? Because it's lonely work.  Consistent metaphor usage, natch) and share what we're experiencing.

The value in that?

1) You're not alone.  All the struggles you experience?  Other people are there, too.  Which means...

2) Struggling is normal.  You can start to feel like a failure when you're the ONLY one wrestling with a tricky revision.  Or floundering in your search for an agent.  Or fighting with your characters.  Or disappointed in a book that didn't sell.  But the only reason you're the ONLY one?  You haven't looked hard enough to find the other writers who are experiencing the exact same things.

3) The people who get those struggles? They're the only ones who can offer the "Oh, you have no idea how much I GET THAT" kind of support.  Parents, friends, spouses--they can all support us with positive words and giving us time to write and applauding our efforts.  But God love 'em, as my Nana used to say, they don't really understand.

What kinds of connections do you seek with social media?  Do you find those connections to be meaningful and helpful?

Thursday, May 8, 2014

The Writing Advice I Won't Give

When you read enough blogs by writers, writing blogs, interviews with writers, and other writing-related web-posted material, some common themes start to emerge.  I agree with most of them.  Writers write.  Butt in chair, get to writing.  Write the book you've always wanted to read. And cut the boring parts.

Still, there are some pieces of advice that I can't, in good conscience, get behind.  Maybe they depend on your individual goals, or your personality, or your genre.  Maybe I'm just an oddball and these ideas really are universal, except for my warped view of things. 

However, I will never tell you to:

1) Write the book of your heart, and don't think about trends.

If you just want to write, write.  Write whatever is begging to be told, and don't think a whit about what's out there in the publishing world.  If your goal is just words on paper (and that, friends, is a worthy goal), just write.  But if you want to be published, write the book of your heart...after making sure it's not a complete wash in the saleability department. Save yourself heartache.  Research a little first.

Please note--I am NOT telling you to chase trends.  Not a bit of it.  What I am suggesting, however, is an informed and aware approach to the marketplace.  If anything, from my personal experience of being told "this is too similar to too much out there" from agents when querying projects, you want to make sure that what you're writing is new, not neatly falling in line with a trend.  (By the time you get that trendy idea written, it will be old news, dollface.)  So if the book of your heart is a love triangle between a mortal girl, a vampire, and a werewolf...well, I won't tell you not to write it.  But I will tell you that something eerily akin to a book--or books--that already exist might be a very hard sell.  And a very big risk.

Same goes for something that completley defies any genre conventions that currently exist out there.  Of course, risky books can pay off big.  But risk--that's the key word here.  If you're willing to take on a big risk, write the genre-defying work.  If your primary goal is publication...maybe the risk isn't worth it to you, and knowing the conventions of your intended genre is a wise idea.

2) Write every day, on a schedule.

Ok, any other working moms out there?  (All moms are working moms--after fifteen months staying at home, that is damn hard work!)  People with families?  With nine-to-five jobs that follow them home?  What about people with jobs that have irregular schedules?  How about students--oh, the student writers!  Bless you, and your complete lack of consistent schedules! (Finals week turning anyone out there upside down right about now?)

Anyone else laugh out loud at the idea of being able to keep a strict schedule?

If it works for you, do it.  Absolutely.  I'll tell you, I *try* to write every day during my daughter's naptime.  I *try* to maintain a weekly afternoon writing "date" with myself. But if a strict schedule is, well, impossible in your life, that's ok.  You are not failing if you can't write from 7-10 a.m. daily.  You are not failing if (GASP) you can't write every day at all.

I do advise taking writing seriously, and setting aside the time for it.  But a strict daily schedule?  That's a privelege not all of us can have.

3) What matters are ideas and creativity

This is an insidious little lie that I see cropping up among a lot of the college students I work with.  Don't get me wrong--ideas and creativity are very important to any kind of writing, from a term paper to a novel.  They do not, however, displace the importance of mechanics--especially if publication is your goal.

I'm going to be mean for a second.

If you can't write a complete sentence, your work is not publishable. 

If you can't write an effective plot, your work is not publishable.

If you can't use proper grammar, your work is not publishable.

It doesn't matter how great your idea is--if it's a mechanical mess, no one is going to fix it for you.  YOU need to fix it.  When you send an agent your work, it needs to be clean (maybe not perfect, but clean).  Ditto a publisher.  And if you plan to self-publish, you need to be even stricter with your mechanics.  Readers are not going to line up behind an author whose work is unreadable from a grammatical standpoint, or whose beautiful prose flounders in a lack of plot. 

It's ok if grammar isn't your strong suit.  You can still be a good writer--you just have to be aware of that shortcoming and address it when you revise and edit.  It's ok if the mechanics of plot and story structure don't come easily--you have to work harder at it.  It's ok if you  make mistakes.  You can be a good writer despite having trouble with any element of writing, because--I promise--everyone has something that comes easier, and something that comes harder.  Ideas and creativity matter--a lot--but don't fool yourself into thinking they are the only things that matter.

So, we've established that I'm a huge grinch, right?  Let's turn the tables--what writing advice do you find very helpful, or supremely unhelpful?

Next week--my favorite writing advice.

Monday, May 5, 2014

Weird Things I Do That Aren't Writing

I think every good writer is, in fact, a weirdo.  At least, every writer I've met is a weirdo.  With weirdo hobbies.

Being a weirdo is good.  It makes you interesting.

It's funny how many of us try to hide our weirdo tendencies and hobbies, thinking that we'll be judged or excluded from some kind of elite club on the basis of our fly fishing or our fencing or our cookie jar collection.

OK, so maybe the cookie jars might be a problem... (30Rock, anyone?)
 
So, I thought I'd own up to some of my weirdo hobbies.  Those of you who have been with me a while might know about some of them (which I wrote about here on my much-neglected personal blog).  But for any new friends, I'm waving my freak flag and admitting that:
 
1) I am a historical reenactor.  Yep, I dress up in historical clothing and hang out in a temporary canvas city equipped with reproduction musekts and cannons and cooking pots and talk with visitors about life during the....REVOLUTIONARY War.  That's right, not the Civil War.  I not only have a hugely dorky hobby, I have an obscure dorky hobby.  But as we often say, there's nothing civil about us.  In fact, we're revolting.  (Badum-ching!)
 
 
Me playing Molly Pitcher.  Well, not really.  We don't play characters.  But in a "Whoops, we don't enough guys for a full cannon crew" moment, I stepped in to run rounds for the cannon.  (Molly stepped in to work the front of the gun, for the record.)
 
 
2) In relation to Point 1, I sew a lot of historical clothing.  By hand, often.  My current projects are a set of stays (women's corset) and buttonholes for a military uniform coat.
 
3) I swing dance.  My husband and I dance together--now that we live in Podunk instead of Awesome University Town, we usually dance in our kitchen.  Accordingly, my iPod is stocked chockablock full of 1920s, 30s, and 40s music.  I know way more Bing Crosby than Robin Thicke.


4) I love vintage clothing.  I don't have the chutzpah to wear it in my normal life, aside from the occasional kicky dress or bow-tie blouse, but I love making up vintage patterns for special occasions, like this 1930s dinner dress for a friend's birthday party.

 
 
OK, so fess up.  Weirdo hobbies?

Thursday, April 24, 2014

On Choices (or, Why I Don't Have a Six Pack)

Recently, a friend posted a "fitspiration" meme that got my hackles up a little. 

This is it:


Now, I don't see anything inherently wrong in that sentiment--a person who trains his or her body is showing dedication, patience, persistence, and a host of other positive traits that have nothing to do with the end result of "attractiveness."

However.

You know what else takes dedication, patience, persistence, and a host of other positive traits?

Writing a book.

Writing several.

Pursuing publication.

And here's the rub--doing so has left me with less time to pursue other ends.  Like working out.  Before I had a child, I did work out multiple times a week, hard.  I did cardio.  I went to a gym.  I had a dedicated schedule and recognized the other people who had the same schedule I did.

Now I have a choice.  I work, have a child, have a house, and writing is important to me.  Here's the truth, in a nutshell--you can't actually do it ALL.  You can do most of the things you decide that you value, if you budget your time and work your tail off.

It's like that old adage about college: You can have a social life, good grades, or sleep--pick two.  But you can't pick all three, all at the same time.  You can't do it all.  Not this week.

Nope, you can't do it ALL.  Just the stuff you decide you value the MOST.

Guess what?  Being as fit as I can be is not, right now, on the top of the list of things that I value the MOST.

I value being healthy.  I value cooking healthy meals and taking walks and doing core strength exercise while my kid stacks blocks on my imperfect plank position.  But I don't value having a six-pack over finishing my latest draft.  I don't value Michele Obama arms over wrapping up revisions with my agent.  And I definitely don't value looking hot in a swimsuit over getting my book on a bookstore shelf someday.

It's ok to value elements of your life differently than other people do.  Everyone's goals and talents and life situations are different.  Mine revolve around writing and my family and a few choice hobbies.  Yours might revolve around music, or your career, or fitness, or restoring your house, or rescuing abandoned ferrets.  Tons of passions out there.  But pursuing one thing over another does not mean that you are any less dedicated, passionate, patient, and driven than someone with rock-hard abs.

So, why do I think authors are amazing?  Not because they have published books or a stack of drawer novels.  Because they're dedicated, disciplined, patient people with more than the usual dose of determination and self-respect.  A finished draft shows me work ethic.  A revision shows me passion.  Keep writing, because an author is so much more than how good his or her stack of drafts looks.