Tuesday, December 13, 2011
And while he may be adaptable, he’s also extremely claustrophobic.
Muse goes to bed every night in his little room. His bare little room with empty white walls, a white bed, white linens, and even a white night stand. Boring, yes? That’s why he frequently wants to talk to you ALL NIGHT LONG.
When you don’t.... a lock appears on his door. Did I mention that he’s claustrophobic? A lock tends to make him twitchy.
An ignored Muse is a hard-to-revive Muse.
And that, my friends, is why it is good advice to write every day.
Tuesday, November 29, 2011
1) They didn’t want to know the end of the story before they began.
2) They were afraid they would be putting themselves into a box if they planned out the entire
3) They were afraid that writing would lose its fun and excitement.
To plot or not to plot is an age-old debate among writers. I think that some authors who claim NOT to plot, actually have an intrinsic sense of story and may be internally planning out their story without even knowing it. The plot may not appear on paper, but the story is well-formed in the mind of the writer. I think that whether you choose to plot or not boils down to your personal temperament and your strengths and weaknesses as a writer. I have used both approaches and I know my writing tendencies well enough to realize that when I don’t plot, I end up with too many subplots that I then have difficulty weeding out.
If you are wondering whether you are a plotter or a not, here are some questions that might help you decide which approach is best for you:
When you go on a vacation what are you most likely to do?
a. Do you plan out everything in advance? Do you buy your airlines tickets so early that you are
always able to find a cheap rate, type a list of the places you will be staying, and then send a
copy of your itinerary to loved ones so that if you go missing they will be able to establish
your last known whereabouts? Does this structure, which may seem anal to others, actually
gives you the freedom to forget about the details and enjoy the journey?
You may be a plotter.
b. Do you hop in the car and let the road take you where it may. Do you love the adventure of
not knowing what the next stop will be, and relish new and unexpected experiences? Are your
senses and all your powers of observation on high alert when you are in novel situations? If
you end up without a place to stay, are you willing to couch surf with strangers because it’s all
part of the experience?
You may not be a plotter.
c. Do you often forget where you have left the car? Would you like to be going on adventures but
never quite get moving, and if you do you end up going nowhere or running in circles? Do you
claim to be spontaneous, but that’s only because you don’t like to make plans?
You are the least likely to plot, but the most likely to benefit from it if you
gave it a try.
Are you a dog person, a cat person, or a plant person?
Dogs require planning. If you go out of town you’ll need a good kennel or a dog sitter. Even their daily poop excursions require forethought. Most dogs require some degree of training. If you are into this level of commitment with your pet, you may feel the same about your fictional characters. Plotting may be a natural process for you. Unless, of course, your dog is an untamed beast that you don’t mind throwing in the back of the car for a last minute road trip.
Cats come and go as they please. If you are gone all day, they can fend for themselves. A self-cleaning cat box and food/water dispenser are all they need if you are gone for any length of time. If you are a cat person, you may enjoy stories that take on a life of their own.
If you are neither a dog nor a cat person, and are struggling just to keep a few houseplants alive, you may find that starting with a short outline is less of a commitment than tackling an entire book. Though you say you don’t like the structure of an outline, you may actually take comfort in the process when you actually try it. It’s a heck of a lot shorter than writing a novel.
Whether you are a plotter or not, a couch surfer or a dog lover, the important thing is to figure out a process that works for you. Every story is unique, and so is every writer.
Tuesday, November 22, 2011
I’m in the midst of a publicity high, so I hope you’ll indulge my happy dance.
I had a book-signing yesterday at my hometown library, Hawkes Library in West Point, Georgia, and it was the stuff dreams are made of . . . surprise sightings of old friends, reconnections with former teachers, introductions to amazing people . . . the works. The librarian had even taken the time to find books I checked out as a child, showing me check-out cards containing my scrawled signature.
I’m clinging tightly to the memories because, frankly, some of my publicity opportunities have left me feeling like the Jeopardy contestant who finishes the second round in the hole and will not be joining his competitors for Final Jeopardy. (“Ooooohhh, you just couldn’t quite get the hang of that buzzer. . . .”)
Don’t get me wrong; I still have to pinch myself to grasp that my books are getting published, and I’m grateful for every publicity opportunity. But I’m not exactly a born salesman (my Girl Scout pitch was, “You don’t want to buy any of these cookies, do you? No, really, you don’t have to. . . .”) and my inner introvert is sometimes loath to loosen its death grip on my personality. It doesn’t help, of course, that many book-publicity opportunities are awkward under the best of circumstances (“No, I don’t want a copy of your book, but can you watch my purse while I run to the restroom?”) or that the economy is in the tank (“No, I don’t want a copy of your book, but I was wondering if you could chip in toward my utility bill.”)
In the spirit of keeping my ego in check after the chorus of atta-boys I heard yesterday, here are some past experiences that keep me humble:
* The time the bookstore manager suggested I help him set up a Twilight display since I wasn’t exactly contracting writers’ cramp at the book-signing table.
* The time the school media specialist decided my author visit qualified me as a sub while she slipped away for “lunch” and emerged three hours later with a new hair color.
* The time I opened the floor for questions after an elementary-school presentation and was asked, “What’s that thing on your face?”
* The time the snarky senior in the AP English class asked if I wouldn’t mind discussing “real” literature.
* The time the host of a live radio show asked me to read an excerpt from my book which, um, I didn’t exactly, um, have handy. (Okay, that one was my fault entirely.)
* The time the television show host asked if I could minimize the head-bobbing so my chin would stop knocking the microphone.
You get the idea. But I’ve got to say, for everyone who’s ever averted their gaze at a book-signing or asked me to point them toward Snooki Polizzi’s latest tome, there’s that sixth-grade teacher walking in with a huge smile, a big hug and an “I knew you could it!” affirmation that leaves you floating on a cloud. Thanks, Mrs. Scott.
Tuesday, November 15, 2011
I had always wanted to publish a children’s book. Before Storm Wrangler, which came out from Bright Sky Press in October, I had written many, but they were mostly awful. I think part of my difficulty came from the fact that I was trying to write a children’s book, not actually trying to tell a story. When I write YA, I don’t try to write YA; when I write regular old adult fiction, I’m not trying to do that either. It took me until writing Storm Wrangler to realize that I’d been falling into the trap of not giving the reader enough credit. Don’t write a genre; write a story.
Story should come first. Always. Before genre, age group, market, anything. Story always comes first. (Duh, I know. But it’s hard to remember when you have a “goal” in mind.) This post will talk about both the origin of the story and the process of turning that into words on the page.
My son, Dayton, was two years old when Hurricane Ike passed directly over Houston in 2008. The week before the storm hit, our lives were thrown into preparation mode and all he heard was, “There’s a storm coming.”The night of the storm, the wind shook the house so that none of us slept. And the following morning we went outside to find branches strewn everywhere, a massive oak tree blocking access to the street, huge limbs on cars, etc.
In addition to the post-storm destruction, our house (which, aside from a roof leak and the loss of a couple trees, managed to escape relatively unscathed) was without power for two weeks. We spent most of those nights as a family at my in-laws' house, sleeping in my wife's childhood bedroom.
Needless to say, this had a profound impact on little Dayton, and for the next two years, he was not afraid of monsters; he was afraid of storms. He would wake up in the middle of the night saying, “There’s a storm in my bed,” or “There’s a storm in my closet.” He would hide under his covers, waiting for me to get rid of the storm by whatever means I could think of.
Two years later, I finally figured out what to do with the idea of storms and monsters being the same thing. That’s where the Storm Wrangler came from. He’s someone Dayton would have been able to count on during Hurricane Ike: a mythical, Paul Bunyan-esque figure who is unafraid of any weather, who wrestles with hurricanes and tornadoes, who has braved sleet and snow and gale force winds.
But how to put that all on the page? One of the most exciting things about children's books--and in this particular case, one of the most paralyzing--is the writer's complete freedom to tell the story in any way he wants. I thought of my favorite books as a kid, and I went back to my son's bookshelf to try to figure out how his favorite books were written. The visual nature of something like Shark vs. Train (one of Dayton's current favorites) for example, is completely different from the more text-centric Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day (one of my favorites). Dayton and I both love Where the Wild Things Are, how the visuals overtake the text on the page until the point where, during the three pages of wild rumpus, there is no text at all.
Because anything seemed to be on the table, I clearly needed to come up with some sort of plan. One of my favorite parts of writing is doing the pre-writing research, so that’s where I went. Eventually, even though I didn't know the form the story would take, I had a good idea about the language and the basic framework I was going for:
- I wanted to use a lot of storm terminology. There's so much fun to be had with the language itself: drizzle, deluge, sprinkle, etc. just for rain. (I'm a big fan of the anthology Home Ground: Language for an American Landscape.)
- Also, Because Dayton had equated storms with monsters after the hurricane, I wanted to have the storms personified. The storms, therefore, would be beasts and fiends and ogres. A hurricane would be a cyclops with one massive eye, etc.
- An intro into the character of the Storm Wrangler. Who is he? Where is he from? What kinds of storms has he vanquished?
- A section in which the Storm Wrangler shows off his storm wranglin' equipment and arms the reader with his own protective gear so that the reader and the Storm Wrangler will be able to fight together.
- A description of an oncoming storm/monster that the two wranglers will go off to fight together. The idea was that the Storm Wrangler would show us that there's nothing to fear.
So, I was pleased with the form of the story, and I was able to get at all the meteorological terms and use personified monsters. I told the story in three parts the way I had planned, and I thought the book would end with the two wranglers going off to fight the oncoming ogre because, as the Storm Wrangler himself tells us at the end of the first draft, “ropin’ a twister’s one heck of a ride!”
I liked the idea of ending that way, with a nod to the action ahead, but there seemed to be something missing. In subsequent drafts, I tried to add more. I wanted to add something about the calm after the storm, when the air smells crisp and the sun comes out and everyone is safe and dry again, but I couldn't make it work. After the energy of the twister-ropin' line, anything I put afterward felt tacked on, not actually part of the story. Then my fantastic editor, Lucy, suggested we feature some pages with illustrations only. I loved that idea, as Dayton and I had recently spent a few nights with David Wiesner's marvelous Flotsam.
Once we envisioned an illustration-only page after the twister-ropin' line, everything seemed to come together. The images were going to do something that the writing couldn't. We would be allowed to go with the two wranglers as they roped that twister. It turned out to be our own version of the wild rumpus. (And it also increased my appreciation for the role Maurice Sendak's rumpus played in the structure of the story--not just in the content). The after-the-storm stuff came naturally once we actually got to see the storm itself. Even better, because we've already seen them in action, we can end the book with the two wranglers looking forward to an oncoming storm, and we already know they'll be able to handle it.
Plus, this change led to one of my favorite moments in the book, when the Storm Wrangler and the small child are sitting on the porch, sipping tea, watching the sun break through the clouds--the Storm Wrangler in his boots and the child in his footed pajamas.
There was so much more that went into the book, starting with the brilliant illustrations by Houston-based artist Mike Guillory, but I’ll stop there. If there’s anything I took away from this process, it’s that no matter what or for whom I’m writing, I have to respect the reader. Just because it’s a children’s book doesn’t mean I can’t use big and interesting words, or don’t have to do research, or should neglect structure. Little readers don’t deserve to be patronized; they deserve our full attention to every element of craft we can muster.
Monday, November 7, 2011
Tuesday, November 1, 2011
None of those things, they said. He acted like a 17 year-old, but: “He has a job.”
And I didn’t know what to say to that. In 1908, it would have been strange if my 17 year-old protagonist didn’t have a job.
For me, the most challenging aspect of writing historical YA is that the target audience doesn’t exist in my settings. Modern teenagers, whose days revolve around high school and their social lives, evolved only in the last half of the 20th century. Before that, Young Adults were … well, young adults. They had jobs and adult worries. They married young—and girls often married older men. (Not 100 year-old vampires who look like teens, but twenty-something frontiersmen and thirty-something explorers!)
How quickly we forget the way it was! Only one of my grandparents graduated from high school. The others had to work in their family businesses or raise their younger siblings. The one who graduated did so because she was the youngest in her family and her older siblings had already quit school to run the farm. Their sacrifices allowed their little sister the luxury of an education – and that’s what education was in those days, a luxury.
Of course, entering the workforce was often the cusp of a grand adventure. Harry Houdini quit school at 12 to get a job; so did Thomas Edison.
And they weren’t alone. Boys built the transcontinental railroad and the Empire State Building. Girls fought off wild animals with a rifle, defended the homestead, and one really talented gal became the most famous sharpshooter in the world! If you want to go back a little further in time, teenagers led armies (think Joan and Alexander) and ruled empires (Nefertiti and Amenhotep).
I keep hearing that historical fiction is a hard sell with teens. Yet the growing popularity of science fiction and dystopian fiction tells me YA readers are looking to break out of a world defined by school and social cliques. They want to expand their horizons, explore their destinies, lead revolutions -- and save the world.
As a YA historical writer, I hope to prove they can look backward as well as forward for their inspiration.
Tuesday, October 18, 2011
Sept.1 - Release Day! - My wife Gretchen and I head over to the Barnes & Noble in Union Square and quickly find out that there's a company policy against taking pictures of books in the store. Who knew? Things got a little tense with one very rule oriented B&N employee until Julia Sarcone-Roach, picture book author and and B&N bookseller (below picture at left), swooped in and rescued us. She overruled her co-worker, let us take pictures and then had me sign all their stock. Thanks Julia!
Afterwards Gretchen and I hit Craft for dinner. If you're a Top Chef fan, this is Tom Colicchio's flagship restaurant. The dinner was out of this world. One of the best I've had. If you're in the neighborhood don't miss it! Also made for many good posing opportunities.
Sept. 3 - Decatur Book Festival - This was an incredibly well run event in a lovely city. It was in no way diminished by the fact that it was roughly 8 million degrees out when I was here. The highlight was definitely meeting, doing a panel with, and then drinking beer with fellow Crowe's nester Jonathan Maberry. It was quite something for this newbie to see a real pro at work. I definitely made a lot of notes to self while watching him do his thing.
Sept. 17th - Fountain Books in Richmond VA - Headed back to the old hometown for a store visit and my, gulp, 20th High School reunion. The folks at Fountain Books were awesome, very welcoming and super knowledgable. I got to sit around with their also very knowledgable customers and just chat about books. What could be better? I also got to met the delightful Susan from Wastepaper Prose and took what is so far my favorite tour pic yet!
The reunion was good too. Odd, in the way that I imagine any HS reunion is odd, but a good thing to have done. It was pretty amazing looking at all of these adults and seeing the ghosts of the adolescents I knew.
Sept. 24th - Anderson's Book Conference - I was pretty nervous about this one. Not because of the conference itself but because this would be the first time I would do school visits. Guys, I was an assembly. Just me. Turns out I had nothing to be nervous about. The teachers and principals and librarians were amazing and the kids…oh the kids. They were just great. I was lucky enough to talk to a about 150 high schoolers then 200 7th graders and another group of 250 8th graders. They were energetic and interested and super smart. I learned a lot from them about how to do these sorts of things. Mainly, to keep your presentation focused, fast paced and interactive. Also, if the school gives you the option of being up on a stage, behind a podium and talking through a mic? Avoid it if at all possible. I found that it was great to be down on the kid's level and as close up as possible. It seemed to keep it friendly and intimate.
And then at the conference itself I got to do panels with Ilsa Bick and Lisa McCann and meet Michelle Hodkin, Elizabeth Miles and many awesome librarians and book sellers. Also hung out with folks like Patrick Carman, Coe Booth,Sarah Darer Littman and publicist extraordinaire, Lauren Felsenstein.
All in all this has been an amazing month. Couldn't imagine a better way to launch a book! And there's more to come. In the next couple months I'm heading out to Redondo Beach CA, Connecticut, Miami, Chicago and Texas! You can see all upcoming events on my brand spanking new website!
Tuesday, October 11, 2011
When I mention that I finally got to meet my agent, most people react the same way: "That's so awesome! How was it?"
Exciting! Wonderful! Different!
And exactly the same.
Sara and I have been communicating digitally for nearly a year. Between the phone calls, emails, and tweets, we've gotten to know each other fairly well. (Twitter is the best, though. The amount you can learn about someone in 140-character snippets is truly amazing.)
So when Sara and I met up to chat last week, I asked her how her move went (she'd recently tweeted that moving with a 2yo was actually worse than moving preggers), and she asked me how my WIP was coming (I'd been tweeting about being thisclose to done). We sat down, having never seen each other face-to-face, and continued a conversation that had already been started elsewhere. And later, when I packed up my bag and we parted ways, the conversation didn't end. It picked up again on Twitter (I mentioned that my train was delayed and Sara shot back her apologies).
Earlier this summer, I flew to DC to attend a conference with a bunch of writer friends. Similarly, it was the first time I was meeting them in person. There was not a single awkward moment. It was as if we had all been friends our entire life, and in the way that I can spill a million stories to my old high school buddies after having not seen them in years, we were just picking up where we left off.
The internet has done some amazing things for communities, friendships, and communication in general. Digital conversations and in-person conversations have started to blend together, overlap, weave into one. Maybe it's due to the casual, chatter-like vibe of Twitter, or the on-the-go but still accessible nature of smart phone users. It's probably a little of both. Either way, it is fascinating to see how far technology has come in such a short time, how we can be miles apart and still interact with each other every single day. And so intimately, at that. We get to know someone so well that when we sit down to talk for the first time, it feels like (and is) the 500th.
People talk about "online" friends and "real-world" friends. Sometimes the "online" ones are are dismissed as being less than authentic. Weaker. Frivolous. But the truth is, some of the strongest friendships I've made in recent years are ones that have formed digitally. Friends are friends, period. It just so happens that today's technology makes it incredibly easy for many of these friendships to be forged online.
The internet – Twitter especially – has allowed me to connect with so many people in this industry, people I would never have had the chance to meet otherwise: agents, editors, writers, readers, bloggers, critique partners. Some of these people have become my dearest friends. For that, I am truly grateful.
Next time I'm in NYC, or traveling anywhere for that matter, I'll try to meet up with more of my "online" friends. Tweeting and emailing is great and all, but I can't really share a glass of wine with my computer screen. And unlike avatars, I like how a person can smile back at me.
Thursday, October 6, 2011
Rob: That I do.
Dan: And that book is called?
Dan: Variant, that is a very good title. Tell us a little about the book.
Rob: The book is about a kid from the slums of Pittsburgh—a foster kid that always bounced around all his life—and in the first chapter of the book he gets a scholarship to this boarding school in the middle of nowhere. When he gets there he discovers it is actually some sort of prison or experiment where there are no adults and the kids run everything and it is gang-ridden, but someone is controlling it.
Dan: And they are all locked down, and no one can escape.
Rob: No one can escape, no one can communicate with the outside world. But there is someone watching them; there is surveillance all over the place and the kids have to do all the work. They cook the food, they mow the lawns, they take out the garbage, and they can all earn contract points for doing these things. And so what maintains order is that the gangs in the school have kind of made a truce based on these contracts and that is what kind of keeps people from killing each other.
Dan: So, it is basically our life growing up at home?
Dan: Very nice. Now this is modern day, correct?
Rob: Modern day.
Dan: But with some crazy crap thrown in?
Rob: There is crazy crap.
Dan: How much are you saying about the crazy crap?
Rob: I say little about the crazy crap except that it's science fiction. On my website I label it as dystopian-ish.
Rob: Dystopia has become such a marketing term, and I don't think the book is dystopian, though it is science fiction. But it's funny to read the reviews that are coming out about the book because everyone dances around the genre, because the genre itself is a big spoiler. And so I say it's science fiction, but it is modern day and it's very “science fiction light.”
Dan: Up until the point it becomes “science fiction heavy.”
Rob: Well, even then, it’s a paranoia book. Early in the writing process the bad guys were the school. There were guards, there were crazy things, and I purposely shifted it so it is very much a “Lord of the Flies” situation. Yes, there is science fiction, but the conflict is student against student. It’s very personal and very human. And yes there is this ultimate "bad guy", whoever it is that’s running the school, but the danger comes from gang against gang action at the school.
Dan: Ah ha. Now tell me, because as you know, and some of our readers may know, my first book was plagued by weird genre considerations; it seems a lot of people read it thinking it was a real crime novel and then it goes all supernatural halfway through, which freaked a lot of people out, and it was very interesting to read the responses. Different people would say, "I could tell from the first page that it was going to be supernatural" and other people would say, "this came out of nowhere." How concerned are you about those typse of reactions? Because you have a very similar build up: it’s all paranoia and then halfway there’s a big genre twist.
Rob: Yes, I am not too concerned. The blurb on the cover of the book talks about a big twist, and so I think people see that something is coming. Also, most of the reviews have not seemed to have a problem with it. My favorite "bad" review that I have ever gotten—most of the reviews have been quite good, but this one particular blogger tore the book apart and then said: "I will give him one thing, it is an idea that I have never seen before but maybe that’s because it's not a good idea."
Dan: That is awesome! I am glad you were able to tap into that underused but crappy branch of storytelling. And as for the twist, I think the fact that the book is so weird to begin with puts it into speculative territory from the beginning, so the sudden of appearance of science fiction will seem much more natural.
Rob: Yes. And when the science fiction appears, it appears and then it’s gone. The story isn’t about the twist, it’s about characters responding to the twist, and that makes it less of a stumbling block.
Dan: And the big twist of course is that chickens can talk!
Dan: Tell me a little bit about how you became a writer, because I happen to have known you for the past 33 years, and you spent most of that time hating books. I would not have predicted in our childhood that you would have grown up to be a writer.
Rob: I would not have predicted it either. Yeah, I think it was more that you were my brother and you were a year older than me and I wanted to do everything you didn't do.
Dan: Which worked out well, because I also wanted you to do things that I didn't do.
Rob: Yes, and so you liked reading and you liked writing and so therefore I liked the visual arts. I did a lot of painting and drawing in high school and that kind of thing. I enjoyed sports. Whereas you enjoyed...
Dan: Cool things!
Dan: You're going to knock me for enjoying lethargy when you are currently wrapped in a blanket working from home?
Rob: I have a mental illness.
Dan: Oh, don’t worry; we will get to you having a mental illness later. I’m saving all the good questions.
Rob: Sweet. So as you know, I always had a really intense interest in history.
Dan: We have a lot of “maid and butler” dialog in this interview don't we?
Rob: Yeah we do!
Dan: As you are well aware, we are conducting an interview.
Rob: I actually got back into books thanks to an experience in college. Our Mom was sick, and I had to take her to the hospital, and I knew I needed something to read so I grabbed a book at random from a shelf on the way out the door. It was Huckleberry Finn. I was supposed to read it in high school, and I didn’t, and then when I finally read it out of desperation and boredom I loved it. That’s when I decided that “hey, maybe these books that I was supposed to read in high school were probably good,” so I got interested in reading again. Meanwhile, I very interested in history, and one night I was watching a documentary about Stalingrad and the battle of WWII and what they were talking about is the that soldiers were so afraid of snipers that they would not go outside. So they would burrow from basement to basement to get through the city and I thought that was such a cool idea. From a fantasy perspective especially. So I called you up and I said, “here is a cool idea for a book,” kind of expecting to give you this idea, so you would write it, and you said...
Dan: Authors hate it when people do that.
Rob: Yes we do. Anyway, at the time you were at BYU and you were working on your English and Editing degree and you said, "I'm working on something else, so why don't you write a couple chapters and come down to my writing group?" And I wrote a couple chapters...
Dan: Now, before we move on, for the sake of history, do we want to mark my sage advice to you as the seminal point in your writing career?
Dan: Excellent! I just wanted to make sure the credit was placed where it was due.
Rob: Well, actually we can place credit even further, because the specific advice that you gave me at the time—and I don't know who you were quoting—because obviously YOU did not say something intelligent—
Dan: Obviously I must have been quoting somebody. I bet it was Ray Bradbury.
Dan: I bet even if it wasn't Ray Bradbury, I said it was Ray Bradbury.
Rob: Probably. What you said was that "everybody says they will sit down and write a book, that one day they will write the great American novel, and the difference between writers and everybody else is that writers actually do it."
Dan: That sounds like the kind of thing I would attribute to Ray Bradbury.
Rob: Yeah, it probably was. So Ray Bradbury may have influenced me but via you. And so I wrote it and started going to your writing group which was you, and Brandon Sanderson, who at the time was unpublished, and a couple other guys.
Dan: And just to undo all of the karmic credit I just got by pushing you toward writing, that writing group experience was abysmally poor for you.
Rob: It was not ideal. But I learned the basics of writing. I mean things like you can't change point of view in the middle of a paragraph, that kind of thing. I learned a lot of basic grammar, because I did not pay attention in high school, so I learned a lot of the basics of how to write a story. And the main thing that I got out of it was I wrote 80,000 words of a novel. And so it was very motivational: I can get through this, yes!
Dan: And you looked back and said “this is a crappy novel and that writing group was useless to me, but look: I can finish a novel.”
Rob: Yeah, exactly.
Rob: Basically, what happened is that I said "this is not what I want to do." You guys were all writing kind of epic fantasy, or fantasy of some sort, and so that is what I was writing, even though I didn’t read it. I was writing it because it was what you guys were writing. It was that first idea I had about burrowing from basement to basement; I had that in a fantasy sense, but the book that I was writing was essentially a World War I story. It was an allegory, essentially, where the Germans were elves, and…I can't remember all the details.
Dan: And half the people reading this interview are going to say “ooh! I totally want the World War I fantasy novel.” And that is a cool idea, you should back to that some day.
Rob: It is a cool idea.
Dan: The reason that our writing group was so bad for you was that every single week we would go "Ooh! This is cool except you should do it this way." And the next week we would say "Ooh! This is cool except you should do it this other way." And you would do it, and you ended up with the most schizophrenic novel, constantly changing styles and viewpoints and purpose and everything. But the writing itself was always improving. By the time we got to the last chapter we went "Oh hey! Rob knows how to write".
Rob: But the book itself was a disaster! I changed the focus with every chapter, but I never went back to revise the earlier stuff to match it, so each chapter assumes that the previous chapter fit with it.
Dan: It's awesome. Someday we'll publish it as-is, and no one will ever buy a Rob Wells book again.
Rob: So, I kind of stagnated with that group because of that, but I wanted to keep writing.
Dan: And my writing group is much better now. I feel obligated to point that out. We learned from having killed you how to not kill anyone else.
Rob: I decided to take the old writing advice “write what you know," and I wrote a book based on a little town I used to live in New Mexico and it was a romantic comedy and that was kind of when I left your group. I thought "they've taught me a lot of stuff but I have kind of stagnated here. I don't want to write fantasy anymore. I know for a fact that I wont be much help to them in them writing fantasy, and I know they won't be much help to me in writing a very light romantic comedy."
Dan: Now tell me, on a total side note here, do you think that the advice "write what you know" is useful advice? I mean, you've never been in a weird, science fictional boarding school.
Rob: Right. I think that it was useful for me at the time as a motivator to write something different, but in general I think that "write what you know" means "go out and learn some things and then write them." I think that "write what you know" means to write plausible emotion and human nature, but no, I do not think that I am restricted from writing about a welder from Bulgaria.
Dan: You just gave away the ending of Variant!
Rob: No! Darn it.
Dan: Dangit. I think that is one of the strengths of Variant: it's this very unique situation that you know would not happen in the real world, but everyone's responses to it are immediately recognizable, and you go "oh, well yeah, that is how I would react" or "that is how my friend would react" and you can see the real world in it so in that sense yeah, you're right, write what you know, as long as there is also something awesome. Now, let's leave your origin story as a super hero and move into the future. You've got Variant coming out and I know there is one sequel to that coming out...next year I assume
Dan: It is called Feedback?
Rob: It is called Feedback, and it refers to not criticism but to feedback in the other context.
Dan: The sequel to Variant is just reader mail complaining about Variant. "This turned into science fiction halfway through!"
Rob: What's next, what's after Feedback, it hasn't been decided yet. I have a three book deal with Harper, and the new one will be something very new, but still in the Variant genre: modern day with a science fiction twist. I really enjoy the modern day but not so much Urban Fantasy. I don't even know what you would call Variant; it is like Urban Fantasy but science fiction.
Dan: Like Urban Science Fiction. I think that's an under-served demographic, so that is a very good niche for you to be in. Alright, so I said we would come back to you being crazy, so let's talk about that. Tell us very briefly about your mental state
Rob: My mental state? Three years ago I got my first panic attack; it was while I was in graduate school. I was doing an internship. I was working in Minneapolis for ConAgra Foods; I was doing brand management for Orville Reddenbocker popcorn.
Dan: Then it's no wonder you're crazy.
Rob - I know. Well, it was MBA internships, which are different than a lot of your undergrad interships where you are fetching coffee. I was probably working about 70 hours a week, and it was about 9 or 10 at night, I was the only person in the office and I was just completely overwhelmed all of a sudden. In a panic attack your heart races, you get shortness of breath, and you get chest pain and you think you're dying, and it is just this overwhelming sense of doom. And I was very stressed, obviously, because I was working so much. So I left, I thought: "I need to go relax, I'll go see a movie," and I went to see the Dark Knight. It was the most unpleasant experience I have ever had at a movie. I wanted to die. And in the three years since then it has developed into Severe Panic Disorder, and it really became bad about nine months ago and progressed and progressed to the point that....tOt is hard to explain panic disorder to people who don't understand it and I think it is the same with all mental illness. There are all these people that think you just need to go outside or cheer up.
Dan: If you have ever said that, dear reader, you're an idiot and nobody likes you.
Rob: Panic disorder is crippling!
Dan: Now you described this to me once as having your brain's fight or flight reflex just constantly turned on. A chemical imbalance in your brain is making your brain think you are being chased by a leopard like non stop for nine months.
Rob: That is what is going on: the autonomic nervous system is constantly firing and I think that I am constantly in danger, and so my brain is being filled with all the adrenaline and serotonin and it just makes me think I am going to die. Consequently, when I get a panic attack--and here I am a rational adult and I know that I know I am not going to be eaten by a bear--it is not at all uncommon for me to crawl into a corner under a blanket and sit there and try to breathe things out. Like, the number one place my wife will find me, and I know this sounds weird, is either in the closet or in the little crack between the bed and the wall.
Dan: See that makes perfect sense. Bears can't fit in there.
Rob: I know! Anyway, about three months ago I finally went to the doctor. For a long time, I think with all mental illnesses, you think "this is my fault, why can't I handle this, this is just me being overwhelmed by stress and I just need to muscle my way through this." I think it is the same way with depression or anything else. But I finally went to see the doctor and I've been going the rounds with the medicine. Some medicines have been better than others. For the first two months I was worse on the medicine than I was off. The way the medication works is it has to build up in your system and it's kind of a trial and error thing, so they will try something and then they will give it a month and if at the end of the month it does not work they will try something new. So basically you are getting all these side effects with the medicine--and there are plenty--plus you are having the panic and you have no idea if it is going to work.
Dan: That just sounds delightful
Rob: Oh yeah, it's fantastic. I am on the third round of medicine now and I am optimistic that this is the right one. I think that we are going the right direction.
Dan: That is awesome.
Rob: I still have my issues and I live on a Valium-type medicine, and I take heavy tranquilizers. Your brain thinks you're being chased by a bear so your body is not going to let you sleep, and so insomnia is usually a big part of it and I take some pretty heavy duty sedatives. I am also now seeing a therapist for cognitive therapy, which is therapy to help you talk your way out of an attack. So for example in the therapy you would force yourself to hyperventilate and then the therapist would kind of talk you thought the hyperventilation process as you calm down so that you can understand it and work your way out of it.
Dan: Interesting. And I have to thank you for going through this, because I have a book coming out next year called The Hollow City, about a guy with schizophrenia, a very similar mental disorder that deals with a lot of the same brain chemicals, and he goes through the process of treatment that in a lot of ways is mirroring your own. At every step of this process, whenever you tell me some new awful thing that has happened, I think "Oh, that is so sad for Rob...but it means I got it right!" So you have been doing excellent secondhand research for my novel, so I thank you very much.
Rob: If I start seeing the things that your character sees, then we will know how things are working.
Dan: Just let me know, because I want to sell the "my brother is crazy" movie rights. But that is awesome that you are conquering that, so hooray!
Rob: Yeah, so we are getting over it, but one of the biggest problems with it is that it is very strongly associated with agoraphobia.
Dan: Hence us hiding in your basement wrapped in a blanket.
Rob: Yes. My work has been very good about me working from home, but it is very hard for me to go essentially anywhere. My writing group is on hold. People who listen to my podcast know that I am not podcasting right now, essentially because I cannot get together with my podcast people. With more than one other person in the room I am a mess.
Dan: Because the noise gets too loud and the bears can tell where you are.
Dan: So how are you so certain that this a mental illness, and not that you've been bitten by a radioactive brown recluse spider and you now have a driving need to hide in dark holes?
Rob: I can't be certain. I wish other that other powers had developed.
Dan: Well, that is it: you get a preference for crevices. I don't know--have you bit anyone? You may have necrotic poisoning.
Rob: I should try to bite someone. I do have a launch party coming up.
Dan: Yes, the launch party for Variant is at the Kings English Bookstore in Salt Lake City, Utah, on Thursday, October 6. So if you want to see Rob kind of dazed and high on Valium, trying not to get drool on his book as he tries to sign it, then come on down to King's English.
Rob: Let me just tell you guys: I want you to come. I want you to be there. I am going to be high as a frickin' kite, I will be comatose and zombie-like because I can't handle two people, let alone 80 or 100. So I am looking forward to it, it will be fun!
Dan: At any point did you ever considering hiring someone to be you at public appearances?
Rob: Oh, that is a good idea. Maybe I could teleconference.
Dan: You should Skype in from the space station like that dude from Contact.
Dan: Is there anything else you would like us to know about the launch? Will you have a giveaway? Maybe some Valium?
Rob: Not giveaways, but there will be refreshments. There is going to be fun and joy.
Dan: I will make sure that we have a giveaway.
Rob: We'll give away something, and it will be something RAD! I don't know what it is...
Dan: It will be a surprise.
Rob: Yeah, October? It will be a bag of candy corn.
Dan: Awesome! All the sugar-flavored wax you can eat. Well, Robison, it has been a pleasure speaking to you.
Rob: And it has been a pleasure speaking to you.
Dan: Broadcasting live from the crevice in your basement.
Dan: Good luck with VARIANT, it's a fantastic book and I hope it does very well.
Dan: Excellent. Are there any action figures available for your book?
Rob: No there are not.
Dan: Well screw you then.
Rob: Well pardon the hell out of me.
Dan: Goodnight, folks, from the Wells Brothers. We will see you later.
VARIANT by Robison Wells was published on October 4th by HarperTeen. Dan Wells is the author of the I AM NOT A SERIAL KILLER trilogy (Tor), and the forthcoming thriller, THE HOLLOW CITY (Tor, April). His YA debut, PARTIALS, will be published in February by Balzer & Bray/ HarperCollins.
Tuesday, September 27, 2011
Before joining HK in 2006, I was a foreign rights agent at two different agencies, selling UK and translation rights directly for a big group of agency clients. Now, I have my own client list, and also represent the children's list for UK and translation. I attend the Bologna book fair, and like other agents in NY, especially at this pre-fair time of year, I also take many meetings here with co-agents, foreign editors and scouts.
I know that my experience as a foreign rights agent has made me a better agent overall, not only because I have a better understanding of the rights potential for my projects, but because much of what I learned selling books abroad applies to what I do now. What goes into selling a book in Germany is not so different from what goes into selling a book here. For one thing, selling here or there or anywhere requires research, contacts and knowing the market. Before each fair or foreign editor meeting, I prepare with reminders of our last meeting, of what this editor has read from my list, what other editors at their house may have read, what they liked, what they hated, and then I decide on a few books that I will pitch them in those 30 or so minutes. If I am not meeting the editor this time around, I make sure our co-agents have all of this info. Just as I would not send an editor here 25 projects to see what sticks, I do not want to over-pitch- especially at fair time. That editor has a million other meetings; they do not want you to pitch them all of your books. They want you to pitch them what you think they will be interested in.
Much of my book fair prep has stayed the same. I make sure our foreign rights agent has all of the info he needs about my adult titles, and I make sure our kids rights list is up to date: that newly sold projects have been added, that we've updated sales info, review info, film info, and pub dates for projects already on the list, that it reads well and will make foreign editors want to read our books, and that it will help our co-agents sell our books.
At HK, we love it when our co-agents come to town in the weeks before Frankfurt. We get to catch up, and to talk about the books in person, which is incredibly worthwhile. We work with them because they know the market in their country and it is great to hear what is new and different and what has stayed the same, especially in this time of sweeping changes. Of course, we are talking a lot about ebook markets abroad, but also about how adult publishers in France, Germany and other markets are adding YA imprints. We get to find out what books are really working in their markets (in addition to THE HUNGER GAMES), because not all successes here translate to successes there, and what titles from the list they love and what books they think will sell in their market.
From meeting with scouts at fair time we get an overview of what their clients are buying and we hear about the books being talked about as the big fair books.
By meeting one on one with foreign editors and agents we learn what we cannot learn just from what they publish. It is why we have lunches with editors here, and it is why we meet with editors from all over the world. We learn something about them personally, about their market, their publisher, all things that we could not know otherwise. And it is awesome to meet with editors from Spain, France, Germany, Italy, etc. who have bought one of our books and to hear what their publication plans are and how things are going. And to know if the title will change and if they are using the US cover and if not, to see the cover they designed. Agents want to sell books they love so that other people will find them and love them and when they are translated or sold in the UK or Australia it means more people can find them and love them!
Even though fairs are SO much work, before, during and after, they are such an exciting part of our job and I can't wait for March and Bologna!
Tuesday, September 20, 2011
When I was revising the manuscript, I did 97% of what my editor asked me to do. But there was one thing I didn't do. The main character, Isabel, gets to compete in a baking contest, and toward the end of the book, travels to New York City for the contest. My editor suggested maybe I should tell the readers the results of the baking contest. It wasn't a command so much as a suggestion. And I decided I liked leaving it open-ended.
I did have a reason for it. I think sometimes, our society focuses too much on winning and losing. Isabel gets to travel to New York City for the contest, which is a dream come true for her. The contest is really just icing on the cupcake. (See what I did there? Huh? Do you? Pretty clever, right?) So, I left it up to the reader's imagination as to what happened at the baking contest.
It wasn't long after the book came out that I started getting e-mails like this one:
"I loved your book, It's Raining Cupcakes. I love all of the characters in the book and how you kept the story moving along so well. It is hard for me to pick, but I would have to say that Isabel is my favorite character. But I have to say that I was highly disappointed in the ending of the story. I wish you would have told us if Isabel won the baking contest." ~ Grace, 11
Highly disappointed? Noooooo. Oh please, no.
And this one:
"I LOVED It's Raining Cupcakes! But I wonder did Isabel win the baking contest? Are you writing a sequel? I NEED to know!" ~ Victoria, 10
NEED to know? Ack!!!
And so it went. I will spare you more of these sad e-mails, but there are quite a few of them. It didn't take me long to figure out what I didn't know before about this age group (8-12 year olds) - they don't really want things left to their imaginations. In Victoria's words, they NEED to know!
Every time I was asked about a sequel, I thought, should I? Could I?
I wrote a few chapters, we proposed it to my editor, and she came back suggesting a companion novel rather than a sequel. The nice thing about a companion is that the books can stand on their own. It also gives the author a chance to tell a new story about a different character. Sophie, Isabel's best friend, is a fun girl, and my editor suggested maybe I'd want to try writing a book from Sophie's point of view. Because Sophie is close friends with Isabel, of course readers would find out what happened to Isabel at the baking contest.
It's another book about friendship, family and sweet treats. And I am really proud of how it turned out.
I admit, for a few months, I felt like a really bad author. Now, I'm glad I made the mistake I did. How often does that happen?
So, want to write a sequel or companion? Make your readers upset about a loose end, and you may have a shot. Just saying...
Tuesday, September 13, 2011
After a long road, the launch day for my debut novel, Frost, is finally here!
With so many writers chronicling their publishing experiences online, I know perfectly well that while the release of my first novel will be exciting, there will also be disappointments. I figure it will make the whole thing easier if I keep my expectations for launch day firmly grounded in reality. Hence, the following plan.
I don’t think I’ll set an alarm, because I’ll probably be woken up early by the buzzer announcing a delivery -- flowers, champagne, that sort of thing. BUT, I am making it very clear to myself that there might not be as many of these deliveries as I’d like/expect. Maybe… ten or twenty throughout the day. Max. Shouldn’t be hoping for more.
After I’m up, I’ll turn on my laptop and go to the NY Times site. Okay, I admit that I’ll be scanning the front page for a headline like, “40-Year-Old Prodigy Releases Great American Novel.” But, you know, let’s be real -- the article will probably not be on the front page! It will probably be in the Books section. If it is, I need to remember not to be disappointed that only people interested in books will come across it.
(Speaking of the NY Times, I’d like to think that Michiko Kakutani’s review of Frost will be in the paper on launch day. Unfortunately, I don’t think her reviews are published on Tuesdays.)
Deciding what to wear on launch day will be tough. I don’t have any actual plans, which means that people must be planning surprise events. But I don’t know what sort of surprise events, so I’ll have to wear something multi-purpose. Also, I don’t want to wear something TOO noticeable, because I’m not sure I’ll be ready for all of the, “Hey! Isn’t that author Marianna Baer?” attention from random people on the street. (This may seem crazy to you, like I’m not sufficiently managing my expectations, but my neighborhood is home to YA celebrities like Gayle Forman, Libba Bray, and Melissa Walker, so people here are used to keeping their eyes peeled for us.)
I’ll probably go to a couple of bookstores, just to make sure that the display table dedicated to my book is there. If it’s not, if there’s only one of those cardboard display things, I’ll be okay with that. I know Frost is my first book, and the dedicated table might not happen right away. While I’m at the bookstores, I’ll probably have to spend a few hours signing stock. Carpal tunnel on launch day isn’t very glamorous, but I’m not at the point where I can get my “to-be-signed” pages early, like John Green. If I have to sign a few hundred copies at my local B&N, so be it.
The rest of the day will probably be spent much like any other -- here at my computer. Of course, I won’t be able to help checking my Amazon ranking, and that’ll be another challenge. “Be patient, Marianna,” I’ll tell myself. “Your sales rank might not reach single digits for a week or so.”
I’m sure my phone will ring pretty much non-stop; the trick there will be remaining realistic about who will call. The president of HarperCollins, sure – that’s a no-brainer. But even though it’s fun to think that the owner of HC’s biggie parent company, Rupert Murdoch, might give me a ring, he probably has other things on his mind.
Luckily, I don’t have to keep my expectations for launch night low. I have great friends. They know this is an important event. I’m absolutely positive that they’ll do something pretty special in my honor. (I wonder if they’d be allowed to rent the lights on the Empire State Building and light them up to spell Frost?)
I hope that this post is helpful to others of you who will be releasing your debut novels soon. We have to stay humble and realistic, and keep in mind that this is a job (albeit one that will make us rich and famous.) At the end of the day, the writing is the most important thing. (Well, the writing and the vintage of the Dom Perignon I’ll undoubtedly be drinking for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.)
Thursday, September 8, 2011
Monday, August 22, 2011
Do you ever get the notion that once you achieve some particular goal, you’ll finally be cool?
That was how I felt about getting an agent. I’d spent my whole life wanting to be a writer, years working on my manuscript, months querying. I clung to the belief that if I could finally break through, finally get a good agent for my book, I would somehow become a real person—not the stumbling geek I’ve been since birth. I would be cool.
At first, the way Sara became my agent gave me hope that that might actually happen. I moved to New York City on June 1st for a summer internship, and that very day I got my full request from Sara—and a representation offer from another agent. A few days later, Sara made an offer, too. After those months of rejected queries, I was beyond elated. I admit it: I felt pretty cool. Sara and I agreed to meet for lunch in Soho to talk about my book, and writing that lunch down in my planner gave me a “could I be a real writer now?” tingle. I couldn’t quite believe it was happening, but nonetheless, I wanted to be ready.
I woke up the morning of our lunch and pondered over what to wear. Unfortunatel, my clothes all belonged to my previous geek self, not the Super Cool Writer I was about to become. Still, I managed to select an outfit, and carefully elected to eat cereal for breakfast so nothing stain-causing could get on my clothes. (My clumsiness is a family legend.) Between the heat of the subway stations and the dry AC in my office, it was shaping up to be a bad hair day, but nothing was going to get in the way of my fast-approaching coolness.
I showed up at the restaurant way too early—the calling card of the uncool—afraid I would make myself late trying to find the right address. I walked up and down the block a few times, dawdling, trying to look like I had a destination. Finally I trotted inside, asked a hip, bearded waiter about the reservation under “Crowe”—another odd thrill—and followed him to a small table.
I slid into the booth side and sipped a tall, slim glass of ice water, trying not to freak out. I knew my own shyness and awkwardness too well, and I was slightly terrified that Sara would see right through whatever veneer I’d been able to paint in our e-mail correspondence, and would know at first glance that I wasn’t a real writer after all.
But then Sara actually arrived, and right away her presence made me feel better. She was sincere and thoughtful, not like the ultra-slick and aggressive agent image I’d built up in my mind. We talked easily about my writing and books we loved, about publishing and editing, about New England islands and Irish nicknames (relevant to my book, I promise). We ate a lovely lunch, and I’m pretty sure I was using the right fork. I didn’t even get quiche or salad dressing on my shirt.
Basically, I was doing it. I was being a real writer. I was a grown-up! I was cool!
(Can you hear the evil cackling of Fate yet?)
As lunch hour wound to an end, I knew I had to get back to my internship, so Sara and I said goodbye. She fished through her bag and offered me two things: her rights guide and an ARC of Frost by Marianna Baer (a brilliant book, by the way!). I was just sliding my way out of the booth seat, and I leaned over to accept the papers in her hand.
And I knocked over my just-refilled ice water with my boobs and it splintered over the table with a spectacular crash, soaking Sara’s pretty, full-color rights guide and sending death-shards of glass out over the floor.
Cool? Yeah, no. Not in this lifetime.
I stood there frozen for a moment, taking in the fact that this had just happened. Hip, Bearded Waiter rushed over to clean up the table and floor. I laughed my best “they always say to laugh at yourself when these things happen, right?” laugh and tried to control my blushing levels by sheer force of will. Sara took it all in stride, and even hugged me goodbye in spite of my water-spattered skirt.
The next day I wrote to her and accepted her representation offer. I signed the contract, my signature looking pretty much the way it has since I was in sixth grade and I used to practice it all up and down my doodled notebook margins. Swirly and round and a little childish. (I could draw parallels between my signature and myself, but that’s a little too on-the-nose even for me.)
So I had achieved this goal, but I was still the same person. Still as uncool as ever. That’s been a strange realization after almost every milestone in my life—that I still inhabit the same brain and body and self, even if something really important seems to have changed.
I suspect that no matter what other dreams I might reach, I’ll still be clumsy, still awkward, still fighting the terror I feel whenever I force myself to talk to someone new. And that’s really annoying, but in a way it makes me feel better, too. I have no idea what’s going to happen in my writing career—or in the rest of my life, for that matter—but at least I’ll be there, tripping over myself, making awkward conversation, and spilling drinks with my boobs. It’s nice to know I’ll have a friend at this party.
Tuesday, August 9, 2011
In the beginning of my adulthood I wrote lots of stuff. I wrote stories, poems, a play, a screenplay, and a novel. Most of it wasn’t very good, but I clung to the few pieces I thought showed promise. I got a story published in a literary journal and felt encouraged to keep going. As the pressures of adulthood took over, I was having a harder time accessing that creative spark. I got a job as a children’s book editor, did some freelance writing work, published some licensed character children’s books, and wrote book reviews, but I still hadn’t published much of my original writing and never seemed to have time to work on it anymore.
When I had my first child, I decided to leave my publishing job. I’d like to say it was a hard decision, but it wasn’t. I liked my job, but unless we were going to starve and lose our home (we were not) I wasn’t going to put that baby down. I don’t think I did actually put her down until about nine months later. I was that kind of new mom and she was that kind of baby.
It was a very intense time for me, but I remember after years of writing little bits here and there, as soon as my daughter started sleeping through the night and I started thinking somewhat clearly again, I couldn’t stop writing. I wrote during her naps. I wrote in the wee hours. I wrote whenever I could fit it in. I had a burst of creative energy I never experienced before. It was like a part of my brain had expanded in the process. Maybe when I was giving her so much those early months, I was storing away something for myself. Then I finally let it free.
The joke is that you become sort of “brain-dead” as a new mom. Maybe you become “fashion-dead” for a while and there are days (or months!) you’re barely conscious from sleepless nights, but beyond that, I think parenthood forces you to access multi-tasking skills you never knew you had and actually stimulates your brain. Once I started writing seriously again, everything felt fresh and new because I was an entirely new person. I was now a mom. Why do you think there are so many “mompreneurs” out there? I can’t speak for the dads, but something happens to women when they have kids. Maybe it’s because parenting challenges you in so many ways, that you can’t help but see the world differently. Seeing the world differently usually makes us smarter and more creative.
I’ve been writing since college (which is now, inexplicably, a couple of decades ago), and wrote a novel during graduate school, but never fully believed in it. Then, during my years in publishing, I started another novel for middle-grade readers. Only after having my two kids, however, did I finish it, revise it a few hundred times, and finally get an agent (yes, the lovely Sara Crowe) who sold my book, THE WHOLE STORY OF HALF A GIRL, which comes out this January.
Parenting, for me, has been like productivity boot camp and I’ve had to get pretty creative when my husband’s working late, the pasta’s boiling over, my daughter just cut her finger, my son is about dump paint on the floor, the phone rings, and the dog is begging to go out. Yes, parenthood can take over at times and prevent you from doing anything else. I find, though, that when I have time, I’m very aware of what I really want to spend my precious time on, which somehow allows me to access that creative energy faster. But hey, it’s just a theory. Maybe it’s just all that coffee I’ve been drinking.
I’m starting a new teaching job in the fall, my first gig out of the house in a long time, and finding time to write will be more challenging. I’m not that worried though, because I feel like parenting has taught me more about using my time well more than anything else has. It makes me think of the movie Limitless. Bradley Cooper plays a character who discovers a pill that allows you to use a hundred percent of your brain. I had this thought when I saw it: Pill? Just give someone a couple of kids and a cup of strong coffee. And watch what they do.
Tuesday, August 2, 2011
I came across a photography project the other day that was my kind of thing. Judy Starkman, a photographer in Los Angeles, became curious about the various people that frequented her local public pool. As a group they are swimmers, but individually the men and women in Starkman’s project have varied lives and interests. So she created a public art project she calls “The Secret Life of Swimmers.”
The project resonated with me for a couple of reasons: First off, the details for each individual that the photo sets revealed. What writer hasn’t wondered about (and, um, made up elaborate details for) the lives of passing strangers? Imagining what makes others tick is heady stuff, and it lends itself well to making stories. I borrow (and embellish) the traits of people I see out and about to build a character like a sparrow collects grass and fluff to build its nest.
Secondly, I was curious about Starkman’s subjects as an ensemble, and the relationships they might have. I’m trying to be efficient with my current work-in-progress and more conscious of giving characters weight to their bones before I get to the revision phase. It’s slowing down the writing, but I think (hope) it will pay off in the long run. Revision is when most characterization gets polished, but that doesn’t mean I can’t start with a stronger base. So, Starkman’s subjects all swim in the same pool. We can make an analogy of the pool being the story, and those that swim there are our characters. You could say that the swimmers can’t know that they’re in a pool for the analogy to really work, but let’s not get that existential. We could focus on a variety of components; community, diversity, transformation. Why are these people sharing a pool? Unless your protagonist is a particularly hunky lifeguard, they aren’t going to be there for him. They are at that pool for their own self-absorbed reasons, not to help your protagonist swim laps or lend him a warm towel. A couple of them are probably even hogging lanes or peeing in the deep end, if you’re going to be realistic.
The secondary characters should have their own lives. Sure, they are often referred to as supporting characters, but they shouldn’t be particularly interested in helping the protagonist get what he wants or moving the story along. You probably already know your protagonist pretty well—what they think they need, what they really need, how they work things out, and dialogue patterns or habits that give them a distinctive voice. You’ve probably filled out one of the many character worksheets out there (like this one). But, have you given that much thought to all of the characters in your novel? They might offer great one-liners or keep the action going, but are they fully developed? Distinctive characters endear and/or interest the reader and help move the story along. Dull characters don’t. Each of your characters should have their own distinctive voice. Two of my secondary characters were very similar in my last manuscript. I could have worked on making them more distinctive, but I didn’t need to, so I just kept one to work on while cutting the other.
Choices and mannerisms show who people are, in the real world and in fiction. That’s an aspect of that whole -show-don’t-tell thing. Is your hero’s friend Henry clingy? Don’t say it outright; show it through his idiosyncrasies and dialogue. Sometimes when I’m drafting I use a trait as a prompt for a quick exercise that I might use to work on detail.
Example: Henry is clingy.
Great. Not so much for Henry, but for the exercise. Next I’ll write a few sentences to back it up:
Henry is clingy. His dad got pretty aloof after Henry’s mom died. Henry can’t remember ever hugging his dad. Not at the funeral, and not when he broke his ankle on the trampoline last summer. And his dad has never let him get a pet, even after Henry saved his allowance to join the ASPCA. Not even one of those miserable beta fish.
Now, Henry calls his girlfriend at least three times a day, even when he knows she’s in class. When a party is over, he’s usually the last to leave, and he offers to help clean up. More than once.
There are details that show how and why Henry is the way he is. Most of the time this kind of exercise just stays in my notes, but maybe Henry can call and interrupt class a couple of times, or he might mention that his dad won't care if he gets home past curfew. And, for the record, if Henry is just clingy he will also be flat. Maybe he collects ferret figurines and has a wicked sense of humor. He might be able to quote Mark Twain when the occasion arises. Add dimensions. You can invent a whole backstory about each character and what makes them how they are, but 90+% should be left out of a revised draft. You don’t have to spell out everything you know. If you write it well enough, your readers will believe and accept that this is how your characters would be in real life. Trust the reader. If you put in the right details, they'll put some of the pieces together themselves.
The people add the life to the story like the swimmers slosh the water in the pool. Mention who wears goggles or can hold their breath the longest, but get to know who they are outside of the story pool, too.
And if you have any creepers just sitting in the bleachers watching everybody else swim? Kick ‘em out.