Friday, December 31, 2010

Sara: 2010!

Goodbye 2010, you have been great! My daughter started walking and talking and then running and yelling. I got to go to ALA in DC and BEA here and to SCBWI in Seattle and Houston. I got to attend the Vermont College of Fine Arts mini-res. I met many of my authors for the first time, and signed and sold some new authors.

2010 had lots of good news to recap:

SHADOWED SUMMER by Saundra Mitchell and THE MORGUE AND ME by John Ford were both nominated for an Edgar.

THE MORGUE AND ME was also nominated for an Agatha.

HOLD STILL by Nina LaCour and GENTLEMEN by Michael Northrop were both on the ALA's Best Books for Young Adult's List.

HOLD STILL won the Northern California Book Award for Children's Literature and was added to 6 more state lists.

GENTLEMEN was on the NYPL Stuff for the Teen Age 2010 list.

SECRETS OF TRUTH AND BEAUTY by Megan Frazer was on the ALA's Rainbow List.

GENTLEMEN and FAR FROM YOU by Lisa Schroeder were on the TAYSHAS list for 2010; CHASING BROOKLYN by Lisa Schroeder, HOLD STILL, A SWEET DISORDER by Jacqueline Kolosov and THE MORGUE AND ME are all on the TAYSHAS 2011 list.

CHASING BROOKLYN is also an ALA Best Fiction for Young Adults nominee.

OTHER by Karen Kincy is an ALA Popular Paperbacks 2011 nominee.

Starred reviews for Holly Nicole Hoxter's THE SNOWBALL EFFECT (Balzer & Bray), Jonathan Maberry's YA debut, ROT & RUIN(Simon and Schuster Books for Young Readers), and Dan Wells' debut, I AM NOT A SERIAL KILLER (Tor).

And looking ahead to 2011, there is more good news to come and many books, including five debuts:

Troy Howell's middle grade fantasy, THE DRAGON OF CRIPPLE CREEK (Amulet) out in April, Alexa Martin's YA GIRL WONDER (Hyperion) out in the summer, and Robison Wells's VARIANT (HarperTeen), Jeff Hirsch's THE ELEVENTH PLAGUE (Scholastic) and Marianna Baer's FROST (Balzer & Bray), are all coming out in the fall.

Kristen Tracy's second middle grade, THE REINVENTION OF BESSICA LEFTER (Delacorte) will be out in January and her fourth YA, SHARKS AND BOYS (Hyperion) will come out in June.

Michael Northrop's second YA novel TRAPPED will be published by Scholastic in February.

Lisa Schroeder's fourth YA verse novel THE DAY BEFORE (Pulse) will be published in March and her second middle grade, SPRINKLES AND SECRETS (Aladdin) will be published in September.

Brian Meehl's third YA, YOU DON'T KNOW ABOUT ME (Delacorte) is out in March.

Ben Dolnick's second novel, YOU KNOW WHO YOU ARE (Vintage), Dan Wells's final book in the John Cleaver trilogy, I DON'T WANT TO KILL YOU (Tor), Jonathan Maberry's third Joe Ledger novel THE KING OF PLAGUES (SMP) and Leslie Banks's new series begins with SURRENDER THE DARK (Pocket) all in March.

Christine Deriso's YA debut, THEN I MET MY SISTER (Flux) will be out in April.

Jonathan Maberry's stand alone zombie thriller DEAD OF NIGHT (SMP) will be out in the summer AND Jonathan's YA novel, the sequel to ROT & RUIN, DUST & DECAY (Simon & Schuster Books For Young Readers) will be out in the fall. (I am not convinced that Jonathan sleeps)

Brian Sack's second nonfiction book, THE B.S. OF A. : A PRIMER IN POLITICS FOR THE INCREDIBLY DISENCHANTED (Simon & Schuster) will be out in June.

Karen Kincy's BLOODBORN (Flux), the follow up to OTHER, will be out in September.

I will finally make it to the Bologna Book Fair, and meet the other Wells brother in Utah at the Storymakers conference. I look forward to all the surprised of 2011, terrible twos and tantrums and all! Happy New Year!

(Also, I have probably forgotten something! Apologies in advance!)

Monday, December 13, 2010

Elizabeth F.: What to Expect When You're...On Submission

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When your agent tells you the names of the editors on your submission list, it’s a little like learning that you’re pregnant. Male authors should be sure to wallow in the experience, because it’s the closest they’ll come to understanding the personal bouleversement of that other state of “expecting.”

As soon as you hear the exciting news, you do what every expectant mother does: you go online and research the hell out of your condition. You read interviews of each editor, you look at their recent publications, and finally you ditch all decorum and stalk them on facebook.

And then you wait.


Or so it seems. In fact, it’s such a small portion of your life that in Ordinary Time you would have blinked and wondered where those weeks went.

But when you’re pregnant you feel that baby inside you every moment of every day. The expectation weighs so constantly, you start to exhibit early signs of dementia. Where did you put your keys? What was the end of that sentence you just started? Why are nouns suddenly elusive? This causes impatience on the part of your loved ones. They spend approximately no time imagining what the baby looks like, calculating how much it weighs, and wondering whether it will arrive early. The baby amuses them, in small doses. If you talk about it once too often in a given day you will annoy the crap out of them.

Meanwhile, there are internal flips and amniotic hiccups and actual, distinguishable tiny feet pressed against your abdomen that heighten your anticipation to distraction. These are the bits of information that you cajole out of your agent: an editor met her at a cocktail party and loves it so far; another is sharing it with a colleague; it was slated for an editorial meeting, but they didn’t get to it in time. You try hard not to burn the dinner again, and you fail.

Eventually you hear that it has passed its first acquisitions meeting. Panic mixes with joy: this baby is happening to you. But your agent is in charge, and all you can do is work on a different manuscript, eat right, and elevate your legs when they swell.

The sale itself is dizzying: a mystical, euphoric agony that ends like Dorothy’s house thudding in Oz. Your husband pops open the champagne, your writing partners abuse exclamation points, your mother forgives you for ignoring her, and you, who anticipated this the most, are suddenly flummoxed.

In a few weeks the novelty and well-wishers are gone. Your baby is whole and miraculous, but also a little troll-like, you admit. Not to worry; you nurture it until the umbilical stump has fallen off and the facial acne has healed and it’s truly beautiful. This, after all, is your natural sphere: surrendering yourself to your work. You are far better at this than you are at waiting.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Rachel: a self-employed novelist.

Recently, I answered a call on my cell that came from an 800 number. I only did it because I noticed they'd been calling with some regularity and I wanted to basically tell them they could shove it where the sun don't shine. I thought it was a sales call and was going to tell them to take me off their list. But when I answered the girl on the other end said it was a fund drive from my alma mater. Well, I softened then, because I know the girls who work those drives are girls on scholarship like I was, working extra hours for cash.
The girl said, "We've noticed you've contributed generously over the years."
She must have the wrong Rachel, I thought to myself.
She continued, "and we want to know if you'd be willing to donate at the very generous amount of..." I cringed to hear it,"...25 dollars."
"Oh!" I was surprised. "Oh yeah, I think I can do that!"
Then she went through the whole rigamarole, double checking my phone number and address. Then she said, and this is what really got me, "Are you still self-employed as a novelist?"
I laughed and said, "Yeah, I guess." I tried to think back on what moment of largesse (read: grandiosity) had allowed me to write that down. I've been working so many different jobs over the years, why would that be what I chose to write down? Also, the word employed, while it does imply work, which I am doing, also somewhat implies money, which I don't have yet. Maybe my assumption was that if I wrote that on the alumnae page, some wealthy benefactress in her infinite wisdom would see it and call me up and offer me some money. Yes, I still believe in benefactresses. Or maybe I wrote the profile when I was working in retail and didn't want to put that down on my fancy college's alumnae page.

On the phone, I kept giggling, but the fundraising girl asked, "How's that going for you?" I laughed again. "Er, slowly," I said.
"The reason I ask is, I write, too!" A sinking feeling gripped me. I was going to have to encourage her. "Well," I said, sounding a little like someone's southern Grandpappy, "it's a hard road, but it's worth it!" I should have added by cracky or goldurnit for emphasis, but I didn't think to.

It was one of those moments where I wish I had thought of something better to say, where I wish I had explained why I referred to myself that way, how hard won it has been to call myself anything resembling a writer, and how she too, will probably have to fight every step of the way and keep going no matter what. I wish I had told her not to give up.

Writing is what it is. It is worth itself. And sometimes, it is worth knowing you connected with a reader. (er, even if you're as yet unpublished and that reader is just an acquaintance or a friend of a friend, or a cousin you don't know all that well, or a very encouraging agent :)) But mostly, the worth of writing is the act of writing, the act of living in the imagination.

I wish I had thought about it longer, though, and I wish I had said something like, "If you have a story to tell, then don't stop until you tell it. Just KEEP WRITING." That's the best and most worth it part of being a writer. Oh, right, I meant a "self-employed novelist".

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Michael: "What's your book about?"

What’s your book about? If you’re an author, you probably get asked that question a ton. It helps to have a quick, catchy answer. I know because I didn’t for my first book, Gentlemen. I would either give half-answers that I thought might be enough (“It’s a mystery about a missing boy”) or just a description (“It’s a dark mystery”). Neither answer was quite right, but it’s a tough novel to summarize. What I wanted to say was, “I can tell you in approximately 58,000 words,” which is, not coincidentally, the length of the book.

Also no coincidence: The fact that, after being unable to answer the same simple question over and over again, my second novel has a quick, easy summary. It’s about seven kids trapped in their high school during a weeklong blizzard. In fact, the book can be summarized with just the title and the cover art:

I don’t think that makes it a less complicated or serious novel, but a year and a half after my first novel came out, I think I understand the process a little better. Word of mouth matters, and the book is pitched on every level (between very busy people). Publishers pitch booksellers and librarians who (ideally) pitch readers who (double ideally) pitch friends; authors pitch everyone, and a few lines of text has to get the job done online. In every case, the response to “You should check this out” is liable to be “Really, what’s it about?”

I still think it’s the quality of the book that matters most. If it’s not good, no one’s going to spend much energy recommending it. Once they do, though, good hooks and resonant ideas are a definite advantage. The examples are as endless as the number of children who would dearly love to attend a school for wizards. And while ideas (and execution) like that come along very rarely, here’s some incentive for the rest of us: Also endless? The number of people who will ask you “What’s your book about?”

Thursday, November 11, 2010

YALSA Teen Lit Symposium: Diversity

Last weekend, I headed out to Albuquerque for the YALSA Teen Lit Symposium. It was an amazing event that focused on the literature. If you are a writer looking for an ALA conference to attend, I highly recommend it. It's less about the ins and outs of running a library, and more about the books themselves, which was particularly great for me as an author and a librarian. I participated on two panels, one on LGBTQ lit, and one on Body Positivity and Fat Lit (incidentally, if librarian Angie Manfredi ever asks you to participate in a panel, say yes -- she is insightful, organized, and fun).

Here I am, pretending to sign a book at the Author Happy Hour:(Yes, dorkiness, thy name is Megan. Thanks to Ruta Sepetys for taking the picture.)

Anyway, now to the meat of this post. The theme of the Symposium was Diversity. This led to many great conversations both in formal workshops, and over meals between sessions. The general sentiment I picked up from both authors and librarians is that we are looking for books where whatever makes the person diverse or a minority is not the whole subject of the books. We -- and the teens we work with -- want books in which people from all different backgrounds are struggling with the same things teens are struggling with in other books: friends, romance, parents, zombies.

This theme came up most profoundly during the Saturday morning panel Commercial Success and Diversity: Are Both Possible, or Are They a Contradiction in Terms? Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich, Neesha Meminger, Cynthea Liu, Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez, and moderator Malinda Lo talked about the pressures they've faced as authors to make their work more or less "ethnic." It's like as authors we're trying to push past the barriers that are in place, but keep meeting resistance. As one panelist said (and forgive me for not taking better notes), if there isn't already a model for success, they don't know how to sell it, and thus they shy away.

It's a fine line, I think, between moving past the standard boxes that people try to put other people and literature into, and ignoring those boxes. Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez said she was taking a cue from television and working in the "stealth Latinos": characters whose ethnicity is pretty much irrelevant. While I understand where she's going with this, something about it didn't quite sit with me. Yes, I want teens in YA literature to have full lives beyond their gender, race, body type, sexuality, or abilities. But I don't think we should erase those things. They shape our characters and make them who they are.

On the other hand, in our panel on the state of LGBTQ literature for teens Malinda Lo spoke about the reactions she got to Ash in which people questioned her choice to create a fantasy world in which homophobia did not exist. She wanted, she said, to write a fairy tale, to allow lesbian readers to experience the simple pleasure of falling in love without the pressures of a heteronormative society weighing it down. This resonated for me: we all deserve fairy tales, don't we?

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Alexa Martin: Base Work

So I’ve been thinking about running lately. In part I’ve been thinking about running because when I'm not impersonating a writer I work at a running store called Route 16. It's my day job but it is also one of my passions. I love turning non-runners into runners and it’s something that I’m good at, largely because I know without a shadow of a doubt that if I can run, ANYONE can run. I didn’t start running until I was nineteen years old, and I still remember how elated I was when I ran three miles without stopping to die. Over the years I've trained myself to run longer and longer distances. First a 10K, later a half-marathon, and then a marathon. 

In my early thirties, crippled with IT band syndrome, I nodded earnestly while the doctor told me I should never run for more than an hour. But I didn't exactly listen. Instead, I switched to trail running, partly because the impact is so much less on your body, but mostly because nothing makes me feel so much like a kid as pounding through the woods on muddy trails. Six months after the doctor made his dire pronouncement I ran a trail ultra-marathon... pain and injury free. I believe in the benefits of trail running, and if ever we meet in person I will tell you everything you never thought you wanted to know about trail running. And I will be so enthusiastic about it that you will probably forget to be annoyed with me and want to try it yourself. And you will love it. Truly. I promise (and if you are a female I will very likely convince you to join the Dirty Girls, my all-ladies trail running group). 

Sadly, I haven't gotten to run much this past year, at least not until very recently--which is another one of the reasons running has been on my mind. We want what we can't have, right? While rock-climbing last February, I took a huge fall and landed on my back and neck. I was hurt pretty badly, although I didn't find out how badly until late this summer when I started losing all feeling in my left arm and went five weeks without sleeping because of acute pain. An MRI revealed that I'd completely shattered the disc between C4 and C5 in my neck. My only option was surgery. To reach the C-Spine with minimal damage, surgeons go in through "the anterior" for an artificial disc replacement. Which is a nice way of saying that the good docs slit your throat and get paid a nice sum of money for the pleasure. Thankfully surgery is behind me now (though the bills keep rolling in like a tidal surge). The feeling has returned to my arm. The pain in my neck and shoulder is gone. I sleep most nights. When people ask me about my scar I tell them that I got into a knife fight. They don't press for details because who wants to piss off a girl who lived to tell the tale of a knife fight? 

On a different note (one that's relevant, I promise) I finished a book earlier this year. It's a contemporary YA novel called Girl Wonder. On multiple occasions in my life, well-intentioned people have tried to discourage me from writing--just as the doctor tried to discourage me from running long distances five years ago. I believe that one of my fatal flaws is that I don't always listen. I also believe that our fatal flaws are also often our greatest assets. Anyhow, in my final round of revisions my editor pushed me to go to the deepest, darkest most wounded places of my psyche. Kicking and screaming and crying I did what she asked. And I'm very glad I did, because ultimately I want my book to do some good in this world and help teenagers to heal from their hurts. When it comes to writing, if we want to offer our readers some kind of salvation we have to bare our own pain, right? But I won't lie to you... I injured myself finishing Girl Wonder, as badly as I injured myself when I fell off the rock wall (though it's harder to point out to the doctors the specific source of the pain when it comes to book writing). 

I am slowly healing from my neck surgery, and have recently returned to the trails. But I'm tired of being wounded and don't want to take unnecessary chances anymore, so I have a running coach now. 

"This fall is all about base work for you," he keeps saying. 

 "Tell me again what base work means?" I ask for the umpteenth time. I mean, I know there's got to be a reason why he has me doing hill-repeats, weight-lifting, and eating lots of protein. 

"Base work is about teaching your body how to endure so that down the road you can push it to do more without getting hurt. Base work is about developing good habits." 

Good habits? 

"You have to work the inside before you can work the outside. Base work takes time. You have to have patience."

Time? Patience? 

"You have to develop your tendons and ligaments and muscles and cardiovascular system before you can really push them. You have to hold back a little." 

Hold back? 

Base work. It's a concept that's hard for instant-gratification me to wrap my mind around.

The final push of Girl Wonder is fading to a blurry memory now. I've recently started writing again. It's terrifying being back at square one and feeling like a beginner. It's just me and the blank page and all these half-baked ideas in my head that mostly slip away the second I try to retrieve them. I delete more than I write. I wake up in the middle of the night suddenly realizing that major characters are irrelevant. I so desperately want every word and paragraph to sound like polished manuscript material. As I struggle to write I daydream about running. My very favorite runs are the ones in which the brush is so thick that I can't even see my feet but I'm not stumbling because my instincts take over, and my body listens to its surroundings and understands where to go and what to do without me having to guide it. It's primitive and primordial and the most free feeling in all the world. It's going to take some serious base work to get back to this place. But it will be worth it. This I know. 

Returning my attention to the computer screen, I realize that base work applies to writing as well. And so I try to trust that even if I delete today's work tomorrow that these words I am writing now are not wasted, that even if I never see them again, that even if no one ever reads them they are still leading me and my story to where we need to go. When it comes to writing, discarded words are simply a part of laying down the base work miles. Sitting in front of a blank page--seat work, I believe is the term--even though it's scary and uncomfortable and feels unproductive is simply mental strength training. 

It's going to take some time before my subconscious takes over for my new book. It's going to be a while before the ideas really start to flow. But I know something now that I didn't know before: I can't skip this part of the writing process, crazy-making as it may be. It will be worth it. This I believe. It's what keeps me writing these days. 

As my coach says, this fall is all about base work for me.

Happy writing, my friends. Happy Trails. 

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Lisa: What's love got to do with it?

I recently read through a thread on a writer's message board started by a woman (I'll call her Jane) who felt really discouraged by a rejection she had received from an agent. This particular rejection used the phrase "not loving it." She said she can usually brush off rejections and move on, but this one for some reason really hit her hard. Her husband told her, "I don't know why she'd have to love it. Isn't it whether she thinks the manuscript can be sold?"

I'm not an agent or an editor, so I'm not going to tackle the topic as if I am. That wouldn't be right. But I want to talk about this a little bit, because it wasn't that long ago that I was receiving those kinds of rejections. Now that I'm in a different place, and have been through submissions with an agent who usually does love my work, I know I wouldn't *want* anything less than love. And since I'm guessing many people who read this blog are on the agent search, I thought it'd make a good discussion.

First of all, an agent has many clients, and often shops multiple projects to multiple editors at the same time. So, imagine an agent who takes on a paranormal romance YA because she thinks she can probably sell it, even though paranormal romances aren't really her thing. She read the book, and she thinks it's an okay read, but she definitely doesn't love it.

Over on the other side of her desk, though, there's this contemporary story that grabbed her from page one and didn't let go until she closed the book. She couldn't wait to tell the author how much she enjoyed the book, and she has sent it to specific editors who she knows love this kind of book. On top of that, she's halfway through reading a dystopian novel that is unlike anything she's ever seen and is trying to read as fast as she can so she can offer representation.

Personally, I don't want to be the lukewarm book in the bunch! Just imagine the conversation:

Agent: "Hi, this is Annabelle with Just-In-It-For-The-Money Literary Agency, and I have this paranormal romance you might be interested in. It has a girl and two hot boys. Well, I don't find zombies particularly hot, but I'm thinking teen girls in this market might. They're ugly and disgusting and they smell bad, but they want this girl, and they will stop at nothing to get her. She's really torn between the two, because one is nice and the other is mean. You know how girls love that bad boy thing, even though I don't think that means a boy who is out to kill you. But what do I know? I think this kind of thing is selling."

Editor: "You're not really convincing me, sorry. You don't happen to have any good contemporary YA, do you? Or an out-of-this-world dystopian?"

Agent: "Oh, do I ever! I just sent a fantastic contemporary out to eight editors, but I'd be happy to send it to you too. And I may have a dystopian to send you too..."

And suddenly, yours is forgotten and instead, the one the agent really loves is going out to one more editor.

Wouldn't you rather be the one the agent LOVES? Of course you would! And what I think Jane has to remember is that when it comes to books, tastes are subjective! Personally, I'd take a rejection that says, "I just didn't love it" over one that says, "The writing is really weak and the characters fall flat" any day of the week! Because to me, the first one says, "this isn't my thing," while the second one says, "you have some work to do!"

Writers, trust me, you want an agent who loves your work. Look at me. I write weird stuff sometimes. I mean, my book           I HEART YOU, YOU HAUNT ME? It's kind of weird. A few agents I queried were completely lost as to what kind of book I'd written. But Sara, who thankfully does not work for the Just-In-It-For-The-Money Literary Agency, loved it. She felt that the verse created an atmosphere I couldn't have created with regular prose. That's what she said in an e-mail to me setting up an appointment to talk. Do you know I didn't even realize at the time that creating that atmosphere is exactly why I write in verse? It is still, to this day, why I choose to write some stories in verse. She got it. I mean, she really got it!

We went on to get something like nine rejections on this story before it sold. Do you want another reason why an agent has to love your work? Well, here it is. Remember, agents get rejected too. They have to be able to pick themselves up and keep on sending that baby out. I'm guessing some days, it's not an easy thing to do.

Fortunately, I HEART YOU, YOU HAUNT ME found an editor who loved it, after many who didn't. By the time it finally sold, I couldn't believe it. I'd heard "No" so many times, it was hard to believe someone actually wanted to publish it.

In January, it will be three years since the book was released. It's still on the shelves, which is no small feat. It's sold well. BUT, does everyone love it? No! Some people hate it - it's just not their thing. We must *always* remember - tastes are subjective! I try not to focus on the people who don't love it, because I don't write for them. I write for all of the other people who DO love it. And yeah, it all started with an agent who loved it.

I say, don't settle for anything less than love. Keep looking. Keep trying. Keep writing!! And when you finally have the perfect match, between an agent and one of your manuscripts, you'll be glad you kept looking until true love found you.

I'm curious, though... do the rejections that speak of not quite loving it bug you more than the other ones? And if so, why do you think that is?


Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Christine: Authenticity in Characters' $*&%$ Dialogue

Today sucks.

Okay, a couple of disclaimers:

1. No, it doesn’t.
2. Even if it did, I would never say that.

But some of the characters I’ve created for my novels would. Lots of teenagers populate my novels, and teens aren’t necessarily known for the most nuanced of vocabularies.

I’ve had several conversations recently with people who think literature is among the arts contributing to the coarsening of our society. They don’t like vulgar language, or even relatively mild slang, in books—particularly those their kids may be reading.

I totally get that. I’m a mom myself, and I’m the daughter of a mother who grimaced once when I used the word “stink,” admonishing me to replace it with “smell unpleasant.” Her prim New England sensibilities are etched indelibly on my brain. And like my mother, I consider the standard not just a matter of etiquette, but of wordsmithing. Where’s the challenge in settling for language’s lowest common denominators? I’ve tried to set comparable standards for my own kids.

But do I trust that they can hear other people using salty language without following suit? Yes. And time has proved me right. They’re young adults now, and I’ve never heard them say anything that would make their grandmother blush. (Well . . . almost never.)

So how do I feel when they read dialogue coming from my characters’ lips that they could never image their mother saying?

Well . . . fine. First of all, I’m happy the distinction is clear, and second, I consider it my job to create characters who are credible, relatable and relevant. This doesn’t mean all of my characters cuss like sailors (which would be unrepresentative of and disrespectful to my readers), but it means that, by and large, they communicate differently than the middle-aged woman who created them. I think my art demands it.

When I’m writing at my best, my imagination is on cruise control. The characters have taken the wheel, and I’m just along for the ride. But if I start censoring them, the smooth path suddenly seems riddled with speed bumps. That doesn’t mean my characters have carte blanche to act or speak any way they please, but it means I have enough respect for them to be as true to them as possible. And if they are acting and speaking authentically, I think my readers respond to that, without compromising their own values in the process. Indeed, bad behavior in literature tends to cast our own values in sharp relief. It would seem condescending and inartful to give readers any less than a fully realized character, flaws and all.

Consider a scene from my young-adult novel, THEN I MET MY SISTER. The scene involves my protagonist’s frustration that her cold, controlling mother can never let herself be vulnerable, and therefore can never fully connect with her daughter. The mother’s emotional unavailability has no doubt blunted the shattering grief of losing her firstborn in a car wreck 18 years earlier, but this scene suggests the price she is paying:

Mom looks at me squarely. “You saved my life.”

A chill runs up my spine. I’ve heard this all my life, usually from other people: You gave your mother a reason to go on, they’ve said, or, I don’t think she could have made it without you. No pressure there, right?

I squeeze the blade of grass and green moisture stains my fingers. “It freaks me out a little when you say that, Mom.”

Anger flashes across Mom’s face.

“I mean, I’m glad you were happy to get pregnant again,” I clarify, trying to sound casual. “It’s just. . . .” It’s just friggin’ hard to be born with a job.

“You don’t have to explain,” Mom says, her voice steely.

“Don’t get mad, Mom,” I say. “We should be able to talk about things.”

“We’re talking,” she snaps.

I stand up abruptly and put my hands on my hips. “I hate it when you do this—shutting me out every time I try to open up to you.”

Mom turns defiantly, returning to her hands and knees, returning to her weeds.

“By all means, Summer, open up and let me know it annoys you to be told you make me happy,” she mutters to the dirt.

My stomach tightens, and my eyes shimmer with tears. God. I never cry in front of my mother. “I’m not goddamn annoyed!”

Mom turns and stares at me sharply. “Don’t curse at me, young lady.”

I open my mouth to respond, but Mom has resumed digging in the dirt, clawing her fingers into the soil, yanking up weeds and tossing them aside without giving them another glance. Each weed will be purged methodically, systematically, impassively, until her garden is perfect.

And she is finished talking to me.

I think this scene demands the cold-water jolt of harsh language.

And I think my readers can handle it.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Kristen: My Comfort Zone Update (it’s actually getting bigger)

Last we left it, I was a freakishly private person who adored my cat and avoided the Internet and wrote books for teens, tweens, and people who are younger than that. I am still all of those things. Mostly. But I also Twitter. I did not create a wit-busting handle.

You can find me at

I mostly discuss my bus adventures in San Francisco and also offer quirky (sometimes startling) animal facts.

Sample tweet: Researching tween book and found out polar bears are so toxic (PBDEs attack sex and thyroid glands) that 3 out of 100 are hermaphrodites.

In addition to my Twitter birth, since I last reported on my comfort zone, I’ve repeatedly left my house. I even went on tour.

It’s true. This summer I bought some new shirts and went on my first national book tour to promote my teen novel A FIELD GUIDE FOR HEARTBREAKERS. Hyperion-Disney sent me out into the world with Stacey Kade and Brent Crawford and we flipcammed various parts of this experience and posted the footage to Hyperion-Disney’s unRequired Reading Facebook page.

During the San Francisco leg of our travels, I gave them a crazy behind-the-scenes tour of Alcatraz. Seriously. I even took them inside a secret tunnel. (I guess that tunnel is a lot less secret now.)

In addition to the tour, a couple of weeks ago, for San Francisco’s Annual Literary Festival, I performed at the Porchlight Storytelling Series in front of several hundred people. I told a story about my book tour (My story focused on a pigeon that I saw that got run over and killed by two Segways in Washington, D.C. Apparently, pigeons don’t understand what Segways are yet). I was SO SCARED. Somebody told me I made the piano player laugh. I don’t remember any of it.

I also hit the airwaves. Yep. I read a bunch of my poems for KQED Writer’s Block, which meant I got to hear my own voice coming out of the radio and it freaked me out beyond belief. Because I don’t really sound like that, do I?

And I did more radio. I was interviewed by Michael Krasny on his show Forum with a group of women poets. Holy crap! I was scared out of my mind. And before we went live the show’s producer read us a huge list of naughty words we weren’t allowed to say on the air, and after she finished saying the naughty words, I said, “I am very afraid of the direction you think this interview is going to take.” And everybody laughed. But I was serious.

And then, as if I hadn’t done enough, I believe I may have joined a literary movement. I know. I know. It’s been quite a year. I’m part of The Contemps, a group of 21 contemporary authors with books coming out next year. It’s a fantastic group.

I was really nervous about joining them. Because I am afraid to blog. Because I am a carbon-based life form mostly made out of water and fear.

Okay. That’s my comfort zone update. Do I miss my reclusive life? TREMENDOUSLY! Then why am I doing this to myself? Because I am a writer. And I’ve come to realize that this means playing on the Internet (a little bit). I try to play for less than an hour a day. I have no plans to join Facebook or anything else. And I will only blog if I’m part of a large pack of people. Because at the end of the day, I still believe that the Internet is a time suck. Slup. Slup. Slup. (That’s the sound of my writing time getting sucked away while I write this blog post.)

Thanks for reading! And for your viewing pleasure, I have attached my teen shark novel cover. SHARKS & BOYS comes out summer 2011. Chomp!

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Rob: Things Never Work Out As Planned

And sometimes that can be a good thing.

My dad read The Hobbit to me when I was in elementary school, and it got me fascinated with fantasy and quests and epics. So, when my fourth and fifth grade teachers asked me to write stories, I'd always start writing an enormous quest, describing the characters and their cool swords, all the wacky stuff they had in their backpacks, and how they were going to kick the bad guy's butt.

Inevitably, I'd get bored of writing this after a page or two, and I'd find a quick way to end the story. I'd set up the storyline so that the characters were going to have to overcome big obstacles and fight the villian, and I'd end it with "And they did."

It was a lot more fun for me to look at the beginning of the story and imagine the possibilities than to actually bother with writing it out. I just assumed that everything went according to plan: my awesome characters did awesome things, the bad guys were defeated, and everyone was happy.

But stories rarely go according to plan--we'd hate it if they did! We don't want to see a hero easily defeat every foe and waltz into a victory; we want to see him try and fail, and try and fail again, and barely crawl across the finish line against all odds.

One of the great military philosophers, Carl Von Clausewitz, wrote the following about battle:
"In war more than anywhere else things do not turn out as we expect. Nearby they do not appear as they did from a distance."

Clausewitz refers to this as friction: nothing goes according to plan because there are so many variables; the slightest thing could change (ruin) everything.

"...[A] general in time of war is constantly bombarded by reports both true and false; by errors arising from fear or negligence or hastiness; by disobedience born of right or wrong interpretations, of ill will, of a proper or mistaken sense of duty, of laziness, or of exhaustion; and by accidents that nobody could have foreseen. In short, he is exposed to countless impressions, most of them disturbing, few of them encouraging...."

The obvious comparison with all of this--especially in the context of this blog--is to our writing: it's this friction, these try-and-fail cycles, that make our stories interesting. They provide surprises and conflict and drama and suspense.

But that's actually not the point I wanted to make. Yes, things not going to plan can be good for our stories, but they can also be good for our lives.

In the Spring of 2009 I graduated with my MBA. Normally, the program boasts a 97% job placement rate at graduation, but the economy had just fallen apart and most of the graduating class was unemployed. We'd expected jobs approaching or above the six-figure mark, but that salary target dropped and dropped over the following months, as we became desperate for a job--any job.

My wife and I (and our three kids) only lasted for a couple of months before moving back in with my parents. Bills went unpaid. We were uninsured. Things were definitely not going according to plan.

Every day I'd go to my dad's office and work--I'd tweak my resume and call leads and scour job listings. And then I'd write, because I had nothing else to do.

In the fall, my brother, Dan Wells, came to me and told me that if I had something to pitch, he'd pay my way to the World Fantasy convention, and he'd introduce me to agents and editors. There were only two problems with that plan: I didn't have anything sci-fi or fantasy (which is what editors at the con would be interested in) and the con was only two months away.

So, I wrote VARIANT. I pounded through the first draft in a little under two weeks, and then spent the next month and a half revising and polishing. I went to the con and pitched very poorly (and unsuccessfully), but Sara picked me up about a week after that.

VARIANT sold in April to HarperTeen in a fantastic three-book deal.

But here's the thing that just blows my mind: if things had "gone to plan", then I'd have an MBA job (that I'd probably dislike, because business has always been the backup plan), and I'd still write novels in the evenings and and on weekends. But things didn't go to plan--I failed to get a job. And there were dozens and dozens of try-and-fail cycles in those months of unemployment.

If things had gone to plan, I'd have never written the book. I'd have never gotten an agent. I'd have never gotten a book deal.

Sometimes it's great when things don't go to plan.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Troy: Cover Story

When I pulled up the chair to my drawing table, to illustrate the cover for my middle grade novel, there I sat competing with myself, having an artist-writer stare-down.

Problem is, I find it easier to depict a scene or a subject with words than with paint.

I wrote The Dragon of Cripple Creek (Abrams/Amulet, April 2011) with no intention of illustrating it, and hardly knew what I'd do for the cover. I had already painted with words—the images were there, waiting to be enhanced by the reader's own vision. I had said all I'd wanted to say.

But books need covers, and logically, since I'm also an artist ...

I believe a cover should read like a premise. It's the book's visual pitch. You get one shot, usually. Setting, protagonist, antagonist, conflict, genre, theme, even voice—some or all of these can be conveyed on the cover, though the simpler the design the more immediate the message. Above all, audience is the primary consideration. Had this been a book for adults, I would have depicted the little scene of Cripple Creek, Colorado, in early lithographic style, with the dragon hovering skyward in psychic distance. But being an MG, it must appeal to that age group, and also appeal to them through the eyes of parents, grandparents, aunts, booksellers.

The story involves the last dragon on earth who's been holed up in a gold mine for ages. A real gold mine—the Mollie Kathleen in Cripple Creek, Colorado. Kat Graham, the heroine, discovers Ye, the dragon, after an accidental fall down an abandoned chute, and consequently triggers the twenty-first century gold rush. Her mishap also endangers Ye and his glittering subterranean Wonderland. In short, it's Calamity Jane colliding with the Reluctant Dragon, and the dragon in turn colliding with our world.

Illustrating a book cover is not a time to indulge the inner artist, though that may happily occur during the process. It’s a time to submit to the needs of the book.

Here's Kat narrating the moment she meets Ye:

And beyond that, smoldering like a thundercloud at dusk, lay the dragon. He was as tarnished and mythological as prehistory itself. Two gold-leafed wings with silver veins were folded along his back; a scarlet ruffle ran ridge-like between them, into the shadows where his tail was curled; two silver strands hung from his chin; two filaments of smoke rose from his nostrils; two glowing eyes glared into mine. Fire-and-cinnamon eyes. They say that dragons can cast a spell with one look—and I believe it. I was stuck in that stare. If I stepped up and peered into it, I’d see myself trapped like an insect in amber.

My first visuals were simple: a close-up of the girl holding a nugget of gold, and the dragon. (I'm showing one of many here.)

The designer, Chad Beckerman, set a rough layout for type on an altered version of a sketch.

Then I thought of focusing more on one of the main elements (pardon the pun): gold. Gold runs like a vein throughout the book. My editor, Howard Reeves, claims I've created a new mythology about dragons and gold, so I tossed a bigger chunk of gold into the picture. This new idea grew from Chad's version, with a nugget replacing the dragon's head as the central image. Gold represents several aspects of theme within the story, besides being something everyone wants to cling to, so this made sense.

It then became a matter of creating depictions true enough to what I'd already described, though I felt the words still eclipsed any pictures I could conjure up with paint.

The girl was easier than the dragon, and a young friend provided the model.

Wanting to stay true to my original vision for the book, which was that of rolling the American West and an ancient dragon into one tumbleweed tale, I aimed for a similar effect for the art and ended up with a stylized version of realism, the kind you’d see on a Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show poster that features Annie Oakley. And as you delve into the story, my cover decisions become more apparent. Kat’s pose, for example, represents her dilemma: One of her hands is pocket-bound, where she hides not only a stolen chunk of gold but her mother’s heirloom ring, to which Ye has a particular attraction; her other hand reaches out to him in compassion. As for Ye’s looks, he becomes less the stereotypical fierce fire breather after Kat’s first impression, until on further acquaintance you realize he’s a reluctant dragon by choice, becoming the antithesis of greed. A deteriorating nineteenth century wanted poster appears in one of the subplots, so that becomes the cover’s background. I credit the designer for this idea, and an artist friend with the idea of adding faded type. The wanted poster also symbolizes the craze for gold that occurs—everybody wants it—and Kat's world is crumbling; also, the aging dragon's destiny is uncertain. This kind of symbolism is not of course obvious at first glance or even after a studied look, but no matter: It helps convey mood.

In doing the cover for my own novel, the challenge was to successfully perform the task over again in an externally visual way. You’re welcome to read it and conclude for yourself whether this book can be judged by its cover.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Varian: And the moral of this story is...

(Note: Originally posted at

In my latest novel, SAVING MADDIE, preacher’s son Joshua Wynn struggles with himself, his parents and his religion during his quest to “save” his one-time best friend, “bad girl” Madeline Smith. Because of the various themes of the novel, I always try to prepare myself for a wide variety of questions before a book event. But out of all the strange, unusual, and uncomfortable things I’m asked, there’s only one question that really makes me squirm:

What is the moral of your story?

Sometimes parents (and it’s almost always parents who ask this) will pose the question in different ways. What will my child learn from this book? Is this book educational, because that’s all I buy for my children? Of course, it’s never lost on me that the parent usually asking this is carrying the newest romance novel, with a strapping duke and buxom duchess plastered on the cover.

But back to the question about morals --- once the parent asks, I usually hem and haw for a few seconds, trying to come up with a good answer. Then I break down and lay the truth on her:

“I don’t know.”

After the parent picks her jaw up from the floor, I go on to explain. I don’t think it’s my place as a fiction author to force a moral on my readers. And given that I write for teens, that goes double. I believe it’s my job to put the information out there -- to create fully-developed, three-dimensional, slightly-flawed characters, and let my readers decide for themselves what is or isn’t “morally sound judgment.”

Now, notice that I’m not saying that my novels don’t have a moral; I’m just saying that I don’t know what it is. Because truth be told, I want my readers to think about all of these moral questions. In SAVING MADDIE, I want readers to wrestle with the question of whom exactly needs saving in the novel. Of who’s good, and who’s bad. And I want them to make their own decisions; their own conclusions. Just like Joshua, and just like Maddie.

I welcome my readers to be active participants in the author-reader relationship. I want them to feel invested and reach their own conclusions about the work. I want them to form an opinion about the plot, the characters, the theme -- everything. Because at the end of the day, the reader’s opinion is the only opinion that really matters.

Monday, September 20, 2010


Giving your characters names can be:
A cause for writer’s block
An opportunity to say something about them
A chance to make a box of verbal bonbons
An opening in the fabric to weave in a mystery
All of the above


Naming characters is no different than naming a pet, or a car. It’s a matter of trial and error until you finally come up with the one that fits. There’s no point in fretting about it, just keep throwing the name spaghetti against the wall until one sticks. And be damned thankful you write in an era that, should you decide to change the name of your character at the last minute, you have the technology to hit “find” and “replace.” Imagine what Dostoyevsky or Dickens might have faced if they decided to change their protagonist’s names at the last minute?

B: An opportunity to say something about them

Just as you give physical, mental, and emotional qualities to your characters, naming them is giving the reader a clue as to who they are, a little package for them to unwrap as the story proceeds.

For example, in my vampire spoof, SUCK IT UP, my protagonist, the most non-threatening vampire to ever stalk the earth, is named Morning McCobb. Should the reader care to, they can already decipher something about his name as they read/say it: “morning macabre.” He’s a creature of the night and he’s named “Morning?” What gives? He’s a morning kinda person but he’s also macabre? This guy sounds like a bit of a walking contradiction.

Of course, you don’t have to be that upfront about naming. I named a boy in a novel that has much to do with plumbing and toilets (OUT OF PATIENCE) Jake Waters. Waters is the obvious connection but Jake is not. Turns out, “the jakes” used to be English slang for the toilet. No one has to know that, but Jake’s father is so obsessed with toilets that it makes sense that he might have named his son after obscure toilet slang. Luckily, Jake never finds this out in the story.

Of course you can be even more murky and devious by using foreign languages to name characters. I named a Jay Leno-like late night talk show host, Gabby Kissenkauf, because 1) “kissen” in German means “pillow” and I find Leno pillow-like, and 2) I like the association with late night talk show hosts being our electronic pillow talkers. (You can really get carried away with this stuff.)

C: A chance to make a box of verbal bonbons

As the writer, you will have to repeat the names hundreds if not thousands of times. You are not only subjecting yourself to this potential for Chinese water torture, you are subjecting your reader to endless visual, and potentially auditory encounters with the name. That said, like fine wine, a name should have good “mouth feel.”

Think of famous characters that have nice mouth feel. Anna Karenina, Butch Cassidy, Dumbledore. Even Mickey Mouse.

So, name your characters with the same care you would name a child. You’re going to have to live with them for a long time to come.

D: An opening in the fabric to weave in a mystery

This is my favorite aspect of naming characters because 1) I was cursed with the wordplay gene 2) I love history and research and 3) I want my readers to not only wonder what the etymology of the name might be, but maybe even become word detectives and go seeking for a deeper and/or hidden meanings. Oh, and 4) it’s just damn fun!

A couple of examples from SUCK IT UP include the characters Penny Dredful and Ikor DeThanatos.

Penny Dredful is a tough, take-no-prisoners, PR agent who handles the outing of the first vampire to the mortal world. “Penny dreadfuls” were also the cheap and gruesome crime-reporting tabloids sold in late-19th century England (when DRACULA was published). Give a kid a name, maybe he’ll learn a wee bit of trivia. And, in my estimation, the tantalizing term “penny dreadful” just shouldn’t the fate of being tossed on the archaic pile.

Ikor DeThanatos is an old-school vampire, a bad-ass, bloodsucking fiend. Thanatos is a Greek god of death, and “ichor” is the blood of the Olympian gods. Add the “de” and you have “blood of death.”

None of the above obscurities ever get explained in the story, of course; it’s there for the author’s amusement, and potentially a reader’s unraveling.

One last piece of advise when it comes to naming characters. Collect names, real or imagined. Ray Bradbury keeps a list of nouns that he feels might provoke a story someday. Intriguing names should definitely be tucked somewhere in a writer’s pigeon holes. The last name I added to my list was from a New York Times article about one of the first holdouts in the NFL: Pudge Heffelfinger. Not that’s a name! I don’t know if I’ll ever use it, but it’s there, in whole or part, waiting to be called into the game.

Oh and—that damned wordplay gene again—here’s my favorite name from a story in which the villain is a diabolical termite. Dividious Wood.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Sara: On requested manuscripts

This past weekend, I attempted to truly catch up on my requested manuscripts. This was actually my August goal, but, happily, I had many deliveries from my clients, and reading requested manuscripts just did not happen. (It did not quite happen on a large scale this weekend, either--- but I am at least caught up to July).

As I respond to the manuscripts that did not speak to me, I have received some polite responses back, mostly asking-- where did I stop reading and why? Which led me to thinking about how long it takes for me to fall in love with a manuscript. Sometimes it truly is immediate-- a stunningly written first sentence that shows me right away the kind of talent the writer has. More often, though, it's a slower build-- a great hook that makes itself known pretty early, along with strong writing and a voice I am connecting with-- keeping me turning the pages, until the story really gets going and I know I will finish the book. It may still be the wrong book for me, but when I read a requested manuscript to the end, it means it is not going to be an easy no. There will be things about it that I love, but I have to ask myself more questions: Can I sell it? Is it right for my list right now? Can I think of a good group of editors who I think will also respond to it? How much work does it need?

When I was at my first job and evaluating manuscripts for my bosses, I found it so hard not to finish all of them. At that point, right after college, I had pretty much finished every book I had started, whether I loved it or not. It felt like a rule. I loved books, and they had been so good to me that they all deserved that kind of respect. I still hate to give up on a book that is recommended to me, or that a friend loves, or one by an author I have enjoyed so much in the past, but this job and the amount of reading on my plate has made me more ruthless with my outside reading-- I no longer always read till the end. Now that my list is pretty full, and that I am not taking on many more new clients, I've also become more demanding of each requested manuscript. I know that for both the author's sake and mine, I have to fall madly in love with it to be the right agent for it.

For the first time I had an intern this summer reading requested manuscripts with me, and she read many more pages of certain books then I would have done. She read so carefully and reported on them with such enthusiasm that I had to read them, too. She convinced me. In the end my first instincts were right-- at least to the degree that I did not fall more in love with a manuscript by reading more of it. But, I did give feedback on two that I thought had so much potential. The one book I did take on while she was here, we were in immediate agreement on. I read a few pages at my desk- and had forwarded it to her to ask her to put it at the top of her pile as I thought it was going to be great. But then I couldn't stop reading, and by the next morning we had both finished it.

Another book she loved, that I then read and loved, too, we did not get. In the end I think there were seven agents competing for it. I am going to make sure she sees the announcement when the book sells-- as she should be proud that she pulled it out of the pile. She may have read a lot more of most of the manuscripts that came in, but we almost always came to the same conclusions.

And now I must get back to reading...

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Megan: Back to School

As I write this, we have just completed opening day at the school where I work. The first day was just for freshmen, and I watched them wander the halls wide-eyed – or with a swagger that belies self-doubt.

I've been back at school for weeks now getting the library ready for students and staff. Like most people involved in education, I like the beginning of the school year. I like to see the sports teams in their pre-season workouts, reminding me of my own sweltering days on the field hockey field (minus, thankfully, the sweating and shin splints). The marching band rehearsed in the parking lot just outside my library. Students filtered through to pick up their schedules and compare teachers. As the smell of cut grass wafted into the building, I had the feeling that the world was filled with so much promise.

Working at a high school while writing YA Fiction is a terrific opportunity. I am often shot back to my own teenage years. At the high school where I used to work, faculty ate in the cafeteria with students and I was always pained on the first day of school watching freshman paralyzed as they try to figure out where to sit. Having those emotions right at the surface makes it easy for me to draw on them when I write.

As the groups of new ninth graders came through the library for their orientation tour, one of the teacher advisors asked me, “Can you imagine being a ninth grader today?” I replied that no, I wouldn't go back for the world. And it's true that I would not choose to relive my high school years. But imagine it? Yes. I do that every day.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010


My answer

I have a book coming out in about two months, ALIEN INVASION & OTHER INCONVENIENCES. My first two novels were somewhat realistic and I got the usual questions about whether I was my character and if my story was real. I gave the usual answer. Some of the story and characters, in a very changed form, have elements of autobiography but most is made up. In this new novel, aliens invade the world and conquer it in ten seconds and enslave the survivors. This time I have to admit it’s all real. Every word of the story is true. Also, I’m all the characters.

I’m the aliens who come to earth to colonize. Back in our solar system the sun burned out so we had to hit the road, ride the solar winds, find new worlds. Yadda. Yadda. Fortunately for us there are a lot of worlds out there. Unfortunately, for the inhabitants of those worlds we are quite advanced and think that primitive beings really don’t matter so we put most of them “to sleep” in a humane manner and enslave the rest to help our civilization, which is really, really great, move forward.

I’m also, as it turns out, the enslaved who are mostly young (*author’s note—I killed off most of the older people because, hey, most of them don’t read young adult fiction.) and who must find a way to adapt in order to survive. We’re not happy about this. Each one of us is unhappy in his or her own way. It’s never been all that easy to be a human but being enslaved by aliens (basically little green men whose power comes from their mind and telepathic abilities and not brawn and technology which is very confusing and certainly un-civilized by civilized Earthling standards) really sucks. We’ve lost our parents, our brothers and sisters and friends and dogs and cats. We’ve had a very bad time.

My main character is named Jesse and he is me. He’s only seventeen and I am, well, not. He’s a slave and I am, well, not. His father was in the military for twenty years and mine was in for three. Okay, some similarity there. He has a black belt in TaeKwonDo and so do I, but he’s much more advanced in martial arts than I will ever be. His mother was a teacher and mine was not. He grew up in Houston and I did not. But other than these differences we’re alike. Except in the ways we aren’t.

I guess, in the end, my answer to “is your story real and are you your characters?” , whether writing speculative fiction or somewhat realistic fiction, remains the same. I write what I know and what I know is that any story I write will have parts that are taken from real life and put into the Crazy Imagination Blender™ and used in the construction of character and story along with totally made up parts. In the end, they’ll be blended together in such a way that I won’t always be sure where something came from and what % of it happened and what % of it is made up. It’s all real though—to me—in a purely fictitious way. And thanks for giving me the chance to clear that up.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Nina: On Getting Out of the House

Before I published my first novel, Hold Still, in October of last year, I used to look at novels on bookstore shelves and think that it must be easier for published writers to write than it was for me. I thought that writing might be like making my mother’s (delicious!) buttermilk pancakes. The first try would be disastrous (somehow both burnt and undercooked); the second try, a little better (but too lumpy, with little clumps of baking soda); the next few attempts, just okay. But then, after a while: success! And then, each time that followed: more success!

If I hadn’t gotten the delicious novel recipe down by my first book, I certainly should have it down by the second.

So with inevitable ease and success in mind, last summer I wrote the beginning of my second novel and an outline for the rest of it. It’s a road trip story, and I determined where my characters would be on each day and what they would do and, of course, what would be done to them. My first draft deadline was in the winter, so over the fall, I followed the outline I made, checking off scenes as I wrote them. My outline became a giant to-do list.

Which was a problem.

Where did the inspiration go? The creativity? You know that feeling, when you sit down to write a scene and then, suddenly, it becomes almost a living thing, starts moving in unanticipated directions, surprises you in the best way possible? Well, I didn’t get that feeling. All of it felt like work.

But worse than the work itself was the pressure. The pancake theory burned up, was replaced with the realization that writing is, at least for me, going to be an eternal struggle—and even more frightening than that, for the first time, people will be watching. So instead of only worrying about the book itself and whether it’s any good, I’m now also worried about how it will compare to my first novel. Of course, I want it to be better. I want to keep growing.

This summer, as though rebelling against my former stick-to-the-outline self, I began my revision and expansion work as haphazardly as possible, dipping into scenes at random, adding a few lines of dialogue here and there, letting my narrator think more freely. Upon re-acquainting myself with the novel, something good started to happen. In many scenes, moments that seemed unimportant became seeds of larger moments. I thought of a whole side trip that wasn’t there before, with new characters and new events solidifying the older themes that didn’t quite come to the surface in the first draft.

But I kept questioning myself: what if these new ideas weren’t actually that great? Maybe they were just new. So I decided to get on the road.

I brought music, a camera, and a few changes of clothes. I brought my wife, who is, among millions of wonderful things, a swift driver and a gifted exchanger of ideas. We drove where my characters drive, we saw friends, and we met new people, and through it all, I was open to everything. Just as my narrator is. Almost everywhere we went, I discovered something new to add to the novel. The restaurant in Medford with cinnamon buns the size of my face and impossible riddles as reading material. The farm on Vashon Island, where our close friends are living. The friend of a friend in Portland, who told stories about working jobs I never knew existed. Everything we saw out the window as we whizzed past it.

The trip revealed gaps in the story I hadn’t recognized, and then showed me how to fill them. I’m excited, now, about where the book is going and the ways in which it continues to grow. And, though certainly no replacement for the recipe I thought I would master, I learned something that I’ll be able to apply to the next book: in order to breath life into my work, I need to get outside and live a little.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Lisa: On learning how to write

I've been writing seriously for almost ten years, and during that time, I've often wished I could pursue a formal education in creative writing. But it's not something I've been able to do for a lot of different reasons.

So, I've had to learn the old fashioned way.

That is, by writing a lot. And reading a lot.

Oh, and there have been some conferences thrown in to the mix too, and I always make a point to attend more craft-oriented sessions than publishing-oriented ones.

Anyway, when I say writing a lot, what do I mean?

I mean that if I have an idea I like, and a character I want to get to know, I write the story. Sometimes I check with Sara about what I'm writing, but often times, I don't. Because for me, writing isn't simply about publication. Writing is how I learn. And, there's something sort of soothing about writing a story for myself, just because *I* want to find out what happens.

I wrote some books before I had an agent that didn't sell and I've also written books since having Sara in my corner that didn't sell. And although there may have been some disappointment at times about not selling something, I've never thought of those books as a waste of my time. They are my schooling. They are how I learn. With each book I write, I learn things, and I hope that I become a better writer.

Writers write. And so I do, again and again, each time thinking about my weaknesses and trying to improve in those areas.

I believe writers also read to help them become better writers. In fact, I'd argue, one of the best things a writer can do for his/her career is to read. Have fours a day to spend on your writing career? Spend one of those hours reading. And here's why:

Because I have learned about memorable characters from John Green, Gayle Forman, and most recently Matthew Quick.

I have learned about voice from Cheryl Renee Herbsman and Saundra Mitchell.

I've learned about humor from Kristen Tracey and L.K. Madigan.

I've learned about timing and pacing from Suzanne Collins and Neil Shusterman.

I've learned how to make a setting come alive from Heidi R. Kling and Christine Fletcher.

And I've learned about the importance of connections, big and small, that make all the difference in a story, from Sarah Dessen, Nina LaCour, and Cynthia Lord.

I read so much, I have my 14-number library card memorized. I figure over my lifetime, that memorization has saved me hours of time, since I don't have to find my purse to get my library card every time I want to reserve a book on-line. I visit the library weekly, and usually have two books I'm reading at any given time, one downstairs and one upstairs. Well, I mean, who wants to spend precious reading time climbing stairs?

Reading books also gives me something to talk about with other writers and bloggers. And sometimes, a book can be a point of reference when talking to Sara about a project I'm working on or about editors or whatever (and I'm so impressed that often times I'll ask, have you read XYZ, and Sara will say yes, when she is also reading a manuscript a night! Can you say agent extraordinaire!?).

So, I guess all of this is to say, when writers ask me what do they need to do to get published, I say these things, to start with:

Write a helluva lot, always trying to improve and grow. Don't write the same story over and over if it's not getting you anywhere.

Read a helluva lot, taking in what an author does well and how that can help with your writing.

And sleep with a rabbit's foot underneath your pillow, keep a four-leaf clover in your wallet, and wish on every falling star you see. (Okay, so that's just me, but it can't hurt, right?)