December 14, 2010

Give a Kid a Book – For Free!

With wallets stretched thin these days, it’s harder to find money for charities. But there’s a way to help underprivileged children around the world get free books, and it doesn’t cost a dime.

Go to The Literacy Site (link below) and click on the button. How easy is that? ;-)

As long as you're there, go ahead and click the other tabs to assist agencies working on behalf of rescued animals, the rainforest, breast cancer, children's health, and hunger.

I’ve got the site embedded in my Bookmarks toolbar as a reminder to visit daily. It literally takes only a minute and you'll be helping some worthy causes.

Thanks, and please, spread the word! 

The Literacy Site

December 7, 2010

Books for Writers - Part II


Last week, we looked at a few good books for the general writer. Today, I'm sharing some titles that will enhance any fantasy writer's collection. 


In WRITING MAGIC, Gail Carson Levine, the best-selling author of “Ella Enchanted”, takes you through the process of writing a book and shares some of her secrets. Filled with writing prompts and examples. Easy and fun to read, though I’ll admit to skipping the exercises. ;-)


Jane Yolen has been likened to a modern Hans Christian Andersen. She’s prolific, witty, and credited with the infamous phrase, "Butt in Chair". TOUCH MAGIC is her collection of essays about fantasy, faerie, and folklore in children’s literature. A book as entertaining and provocative as the writer herself.




If you’re looking for mythic structure, Christopher Vogler's your man. He guides you step-by-step through the stages of a hero’s journey. Surprisingly, the journey crosses genres: Westerns, mysteries, sci-fi, thrillers, drama, romance, horror, even comedy. Buy THE WRITER’S JOURNEY and read it with a pack of Post-Its handy. You’ll need them.


For a scholarly look at fairy tales, pick up a copy of FROM THE BEAST TO THE BLONDE. Martina Warner offers intriguing new interpretations of old tales. She’s an academic, so her work isn’t for the faint of heart. But a good teacher expects her students to work hard, doesn’t she? I first learned about FTBTTB at the SurLaLune blogsite. Go visit!


Do you have any recommendations?

November 30, 2010

Books for Writers - Part I

Every writer deserves at least one new book about the craft for the holidays.  This week, I'm offering a few suggestions for books about writing and publishing in general. Next week I'll share books geared toward the fantasy writer.

Editor Betsy Lerner brings an insider's perspective on what makes writers tick and then shows us how a publishing house really works. If you write, you want this book.
PART I deals with the writing psyche. Witty, insightful, and illuminating, sometimes painfully so.  
PART II covers the publication process, from the time you get an agent to the day your book comes into the world. Straightforward and sobering. 

You're probably wondering how this book ended up on a fantasy writer's shelf. Easy. Beinhart's no-nonsense advice crosses genres and covers everything from scene construction to narrative drive to the four methods of creating characters. Filled with examples from well-known mysteries. A must-have if you write whodunits, and an excellent resource for everyone else.



Written in the late '30s and still timely. Brenda Ueland, an author knighted by the king of Norway, believes everyone is talented, original, and has something important to say.  I especially like Chapter X: Why Women who do too much housework should neglect it for their writing. Done!




I bought this book directly from the authors after their lively presentation at a local SCBWI conference.  Literary agent Arielle Eckstut and her co-author/husband, writer David Henry Sterry, have compiled an entertaining, comprehensive overview of how to become a successfully published author. One of the few books I've read that deals with the hard facts of contracts and royalties, as well as the reality of book launches and what it takes to keep a book "alive". Definitely worth adding to your collection.




NOTE: Per Mr. Sterry (see comments), there's a new, updated version of this above book, renamed THE ESSENTIAL GUIDE TO GETTING YOUR BOOK PUBLISHED. Check it out!




And last, but not least, two others I've mentioned in previous posts:
SELF-EDITING FOR FICTION WRITERS
  by Renni Browne & Dave King
THE SCENE BOOK
  by Sandra Scofield

November 16, 2010

The Forest for the Trees

There's so much to like about this book, from editor/agent Betsy Lerner's wit to her generosity in pulling back the curtains on how publishing works. What I like best is her thoughts on what makes a writer.

There's the love-hate relationship with writing itself, the agony of self-doubt, the burning desire to put your story out there, the discipline. The need for solitude in a society that mistrusts loners. An ego big enough to pursue your dreams and strong enough to battle the demons that will rise to thwart you. And they will rise, oh, how they'll rise!

Frankly, the part about ego caught me by surprise. I thought anyone plagued by feelings of notworthiness (is there such a word?) lacked self-esteem. But that's exactly what keeps us going. We're convinced our stories need to be told, that no one else can tell them the way we can.  We brave the blank screen, we never give up. And perseverance, in Lerner's opinion, is the best predictor of success.

Whatever the catalyst (anger, pain, joy, curiosity, payback, obsession) writing is a way we prove ourselves to the world. Remember that mousy girl who hid in the back row at school? The one who blended with the walls in a crowd? Under that shy exterior, a writer lurked, watching and waiting. Now she's ready to share her stories.

So, how's your writing ego these days?

November 9, 2010

What Genre Chose You?

“Most writers have very little choice in what they write about. What is in evidence over and over again is a certain set of obsessions, a certain vocabulary, a way of approaching the page.” 
     Betsy Lerner, THE FOREST FOR THE TREES

I’ve been reading Lerner’s marvelous book, which looks at the makeup of writers before delving into what actually goes on in publishing. Time after time, she astounds me with her insights, particularly when she addresses why writers write.

But it was the above claim that got me thinking about my genre in a new way. Did I really choose to write fantasy, or was it inevitable?

I’ve always been drawn to books that deal with the magical, the fantastic, the supernatural. You might say it’s an escape, but isn’t all literature just that, something that draws us out of the ordinary world into one the author creates?

When I decided to switch from journalism to fiction, it just seemed natural to write fantasy. Lerner puts it this way: “ . . . a writer gravitates toward a certain form or genre because, like a well-made jacket, it suits him.”

I love the analogy to tailoring. We start out with raw words, patch them together into designs best suited to our tale, fiddle around with alterations until we have a custom fit (call it voice, if you will), and –voila!–a book is born.

So, tell me, did you choose the genre or did the genre choose you?

November 2, 2010

Life is Sweet!

THEY DID IT!!
WOO HOO!!
(Good thing I bought an extra bag of throat lozenges!)

October 26, 2010

Little Witch

You’d think someone who awaited Nancy Drew sequels with a fervor matched by Harry Potter fans would have kept them all, but only one childhood book survived my many moves and purges: LITTLE WITCH, the story of Minx, a witch's daughter who learns that love can change your life.

Like Minx, I wondered if I’d been born into the wrong family, although my parents insisted that distinction belonged to a sibling. I didn’t believe there was a beautiful fairy waiting to claim me (sorry for the spoiler), but Minx’s courage and happy ending gave me hope there were better days ahead.

I doubt my torn and taped Scholastic paperback would sell for $59, a price I found online. Then again, it’s one of those keepsakes whose value can’t be measured in dollars and cents.

What childhood books hold special memories for you?

October 19, 2010

What Fools These Writers Be!

Haven't consulted the Tarot in months, so when The Fool appeared you can imagine my dismay, especially since I pulled the card the day after posting my first 250 words online.

As it turns out, the meaning of this card is totally in sync with writing.

How? 

Writers undertake life-changing journeys.

We may be unaware of all the hardships in store, but we accept whatever comes our way (sometimes with grace, sometimes not).

We'll take risks, even if it means venturing into the unknown.

We're on a path to mastery.

If that makes me a fool, then I'll gladly answer to the name.

 ----------------

Mega thanks to everyone who stopped by and commented on my blogfest entry.  I so appreciate your feedback!

I know this post is brief, but the Giants are playing in just a couple of hours and I need to work on my WIP before the couch claims me.

October 12, 2010

Smoke Gets In Your Eyes

You know how it is. Writing transports you to another place, you lose track of what's going on in the real world. Yesterday, there was a fire at the local airport, about a mile away. I'd opened all the windows early in the day, then retreated to my den to write, loaded my CD player, and turned on my essential oil diffuser (rosemary oil sharpens the mind, they say).

When I emerged from the imaginary world of my MG fantasy, the sun was hidden behind a cloud of foul smoke and my house reeked. I closed windows, turned on ceiling and exhaust fans, rubbed mentholatum under my nose, but the damage was done. Had to stay up late to let in fresh air and got up early to rinse off my poor, wind-whipped, dusty plants. Fortunately, there's a fair breeze today so the odor should be completely gone by nightfall.

Lesson learned? Butt-in-chair is well and good, but life needs your attention, too.

In other news: I usually post on Tuesdays only, but this week I'm participating in my first blogfest, hosted by Elle Strauss (scroll down right side for info). I'll be putting up my first 250 words on Friday. Hope you have a chance to stop by and share your thoughts.

September 28, 2010

Somebody-Wants-But-So

There are lots of good posts about goals, motivation, and conflict, including an excellent one on today's Adventures in Children's Publishing blog.

As much as I enjoy discovering these ideas, my fallback is a strategy I used in the classroom during reading instruction:  Somebody-Wanted-But-So (SWBS)*.  In my version, the goal is present tense:
           1.  Somebody (a character)
           2.  Wants (has a goal)
           3.  But  (something stands in the way)
           4.  So (s/he tries to overcome it)

It's simple, succinct, and flexible; you can apply it to an entire book, or break it down by chapter and/or scene. When applied to each character, it helps summarize the overall conflicts within a story.

Take the Big Bad Wolf. He wants to eat the Little Pigs, but they won't let him in, so he blows down their houses and gobbles them up. When he can't level the brick house, he tries to sneak in via the chimney, only to fall into a vat of boiling water.

Why does he fail? Because the smartest of the pigs has his own SWBS: he wants to thrive in a hostile world, so he builds a secure house, but when the wolf finds another way in, the pig figures out a way to thwart him.

THE WIZARD OF OZ is a great example as well. The characters are memorable not just for their personalities, but because each one has a clearly defined SWBS.

For my own story, I used this approach from page one. My MC wants to meet the Mermaid Queen, but her parents refuse to bring her along on their monthly visits, so she devises a plan to sneak aboard their boat with the help of a dazzling jewel, a scheme that backfires in ways she never imagined.

So there you have it: goal, motivation, conflict, and resolution, all in an easy-to-use formula.

Sound good?

*This strategy is attributed to MacOn, Bewell & Vogt, 1991. For a template of SWBS, go to
http://wvde.state.wv.us/strategybank/Somebody-Wanted-But-So.html and click on the chart link.

September 21, 2010

Mea Culpa, Mea Culpa, Mea Maxima Culpa

(All you sinners out there know what that means.)

I’ve been terrible about responding in a timely manner to people who’ve tagged me, so today I begin to make amends.

But first, I want to alert you all to a fabulous 1,000-follower contest over at Angela Ackerman’s blog, The Bookshelf Muse. If you haven’t seen Angela’s wonderful thesauruses, get thee hence! While you’re there, sign up for a chance to win critiques or a three-month mentorship. Good luck!

The most marvelous VR Barkowski tagged me with "5 Questions". My answers:

Question 1 - Where were you five years ago?
1. Teaching second grade.
2. Hiking in Maui (spring).
3. Wondering what possessed me to buy an accordion (summer).
4. Recovering from a car accident caused by a woman talking on her cell phone (fall).
5. Contemplating early retirement so I could focus on writing.

Question 2 - Where would you like to be in five years?
1. Living closer to my hometown, San Francisco.
2. Agented and successfully published.
3. Improving with each book I write.
4. A better musician.
5. Swimming with the manatees.

Question 3 - What's on your to-do list today?
1. Revising my MG fantasy.
2. Blogging.
3. Exercise (balance ball and yoga, most likely).
4. Reading more of Catching Fire.
5. Refilling the bird feeder and birdbath.

Question 4 - What snacks do you enjoy?
1. Nachos.
2. Dark chocolate.
3. Organic apples with white cheddar cheese and Ak Mak crackers.
4. Walnuts.
5. Peanut butter on saltines.

Question 5 - What five things would you do if you were a billionaire?
1. Buy a huge parcel of land, build a good-sized main house and lots of cottages, then invite writers for all-expenses-paid retreats (transportation, bed, board, and stipend included).
2. Hire personal trainers and masseuses for myself and my friends.
3. Employ a driver to shuttle me everywhere.
4. Travel first class or bypass the airlines altogether with my own jet.
5. Start a college scholarship for deserving students.

Now it’s time to pass the tag along on to five bloggers I think you might enjoy:
1.    Catherine A. Winn
2.    Rahma Krambo
3.    Icy Sedgwick
4.    Rachna Chhabria
5.    Gretchen McNeil 

And thanks again to VR, whose blog is always worth a visit.

September 14, 2010

We Are the Message Bearers

I don't usually write about politics, but a recent visit to the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. reminded me how easy it is to manipulate public opinion with carefully chosen words and images.

I was in town when the Museum featured an exhibit dedicated to Nazi propaganda. Hitler owned every media outlet and had a huge bureaucracy devoted solely to communications: publishing, airwaves, and film. He commissioned children's literature to demonize the enemy. Every household was given a radio so no one would miss his speeches. His newsreels flooded movie houses. In other words, he totally controlled the message.

Imagine how he would have used the social media available now. Scary.

Why should we care? Because we are today's message bearers, especially when it comes to writing for children:

- When we create characters and pit them against every imaginable foe, we encourage triumph over adversity.
- When we bring diverse cultures to life, we remind readers how much they have in common with others around the globe.
- When we breathe life into women and men seeking justice, we reveal a world where even the downtrodden have champions.
- When we craft stories that help children and young adults navigate various stages of life, we offer hope.

And in doing so, we take a stand against the small minds that would divide us.

August 24, 2010

A Few Good Books

While I decide which book(s) to bring on vacation, here are some quick reviews of recent reads:

Clare B. Dunkle – THE HOLLOW KINGDOM
I rarely finish a book and then read it again immediately, but Dunkle totally swept me up in her tale of a goblin king and his reluctant human bride. If you never thought a goblin could entice you, then meet Marak, a roguish, manipulative sovereign who rules a richly imagined underground world. I guarantee you’ll be rooting for him long before the book’s end.

Donald Maass – THE FIRE IN FICTION
Literary agent Maass believes every novel can be inspired and his book offers techniques to fire up yours. Maass offers succinct examples from general fiction, followed by exercises that bring a fresh perspective to any WIP. Highly recommended.

Brian Jacques – REDWALL
Normally, I’m a bit ho-hum about stories with talking animals–although I'm definitely looking forward to Hilary Wagner's Nightshade City in October–but this clever tale of mice defending their abbey against a ruthless rat and his army hooked me with lively characters (good and evil) and a grand adventure.

Won't have a chance to post again until I get back. See you in a few weeks!

August 17, 2010

Have Notebook, Will Travel

Many writers take their laptops everywhere, even on vacation, but some of us like to travel light (says she who crams clothes into suitcases, but it's all about layers, isn't it?). In preparation for a wedding back East, I decided against trying to fit my iBook into carryon luggage and opted instead to work on a hard copy.

Normally, I don't print until a draft is finished, but since I'm done revising the first 50-odd pages of my MG fantasy, it seemed like a good time to look at them off-screen. So, I'll be mailing the ms. to my destination–a house with no computer access, by the way–along with red pens, Post-Its, and a notebook for comments and the inevitable rewrites.

How about you? Do you write when you travel?

BTW: If you missed last week's incredible WriteOnCon, check out Marissa's daily roundup over at Adventures in Children's Publishing:
Day 1: http://childrenspublishing.blogspot.com/2010/08/conference-round-up-writeoncon-day-1.html
Day 2: http://childrenspublishing.blogspot.com/2010/08/conference-round-up-writeoncon-day-2.html
Day 3: http://childrenspublishing.blogspot.com/2010/08/conference-round-up-writeoncon-day-3.html

August 3, 2010

Questioning the Author

While teaching, I used a wonderful resource (see below) to help students connect with text. Basically, you ask questions about an author's purpose to increase your understanding of story structure.

And it dawned on me recently: what a great way to look at our own writing! We want readers to actively engage with our stories, don't we? So, I took a few of the book's Queries (interesting choice of words, no?) and modified them for writers. Hope you find them useful.

- What's the basic story you're telling? (Think of your pitch here.)

- Is everything in the text relevant to this story? (Don't create drama just for its own sake; if it doesn't further the narrative, out it goes.)

- Do your scenes present POVs the reader can easily follow? (Zoom in and zoom out, as needed.)

- Does the story flow, or is it bogged down in certain areas? (If you stop, your reader will, too. Guaranteed.)

- Are you using age-appropriate language? (Tricky–you don't want to "dumb down" your story.)

- Is the plot clear? (Confusion and ambiguity can kill a reader's enthusiasm for your story.)

- How have you revealed your characters? (Actions vs. description.)

- If you asked readers to explain the meaning of a scene or chapter, or even the entire work, would their responses match your intent? (One of many reasons to be thankful for critique partners.)

What do you think? Did any of these help?

July 20, 2010

Roget and Me

In my search for the just the right word, I often turn to Roget’s Thesaurus, which is a great resource but has the potential to distract me. For example:

Look up “sat”. See “Satan” at top of page. Find synonyms and antonyms for “the devil”. Notice "Beelzebub".

Am reminded of the Washington Post's Mensa Invitational reworking of the word and search old emails until I find it: Beelzebug (n.): Satan in the form of a mosquito, that gets into your bedroom at three in the morning and cannot be cast out.

Re-read the rest (**see below) and have a good laugh. Return to thesaurus. See Loki under subheading “fallen angels”. Hey, wasn’t that the spirit that possessed Jim Carrey in “The Mask”?

By now, I’ve forgotten why I opened Roget’s in the first place. And I wonder why my word count for the day is so low!

**The Washington Post's Mensa Invitational asks readers to take any word from the dictionary, alter it by adding, subtracting, or changing of one letter, and supply a new definition. The 2005 winners were:
*Cashtration: The act of buying a house, which renders  the subject financially impotent for an indefinite period.
 *Ignoranus: A person who's both stupid and a butthead.
 *Intaxication: Euphoria at getting a tax refund, which lasts until you realize it was your money to start with.
 *Reintarnation: Coming back to life as a hillbilly.
 *Bozone: The substance surrounding stupid people that stops bright ideas from penetrating.
 *Caterpallor: The color you turn after finding half a worm in the fruit you're eating.
 *Giraffiti: Vandalism spray-painted very, very high.
 *Sarchasm: The gulf between the author of sarcastic wit and the person who doesn't get it.
 *Inoculatte: To take coffee intravenously when you are running late.
 *Hipatitis: Terminal coolness.
 *Osteopornosis: A degenerate disease (This one got extra credit.)
 *Karmageddon: It's like, when everybody is sending off all these really bad vibes, right? And then, like, the Earth explodes and it's like, a serious bummer.
 *Decafalon: The grueling event of getting through the day consuming only things that are good for you.
 *Glibido: All talk and no action.
 *Dopeler effect: The tendency of stupid ideas to seem smarter when they come at you rapidly.
 *Arachnoleptic fit: The frantic dance performed just after you've accidentally walked through a spider web.

July 13, 2010

The Pile Diminishes

Hot summer days, perfect for lolling about with cool drinks and catching up on books in my pile. Here's what I've read recently:

Neil Gaiman – The Graveyard Book. One of the creepiest beginnings of any story I've read (that's meant as a compliment, by the way). Rather dark for a kid's book, and I believe Gaiman once said he didn't intend it as one. The tale of a boy raised by ghouls in a graveyard, loosely based on Kipling's "The Jungle Book". Not as terrifying overall as the jacket blurb claims, but certainly worth your time.

Noel Langley – The Land of Green Ginger. I came to this book via a recommendation from Gaiman (one of his interviews, I think). The original story has been around since 1937. This version comes from the man who wrote the screenplay for The Wizard of Oz. You could go crazy counting all the adverbs and dialogue tags, but the writing is witty and engaging. If you like flying carpets, floating gardens, genies, and Asian intrigue, this book is a treasure.

Diana Wynne Jones – Castle in the Air.  A follow-up of sorts to "Howl's Moving Castle", this tale follows a merchant who buys a rug with an attitude, falls in love with a princess, and rescues her from a wicked djinn. A good book to curl up with on a lazy afternoon.

Christopher Vogler – The Writer’s Journey. A book about mythic structure discussed in a previous post (6/15). This fabulous resource belongs in every writer's bookcase.

Robin McKinley – The Hero and the Crown. Often mentioned by Kristin Cashore ("Graceling") as a major influence. The story of a scorned princess thought to be powerless who discovers otherwise and finds herself torn between love and duty. I knew McKinley from a fairy-tale retelling ("Beauty"), and this book definitely lived up to my high expectations.

Kate DiCamillo – The Mysterious Journey of Edward Tulane. I know, I know, I idolize DiCamillo. I held off on this one, though, thinking the story of a haughty china rabbit wouldn't hold my interest. Should have known better. I devoured it in one setting and closed the book with tears in my eyes.

Familiar with any of these?

June 29, 2010

Whatchamacallit

A couple of interesting posts about titles this month (links below) reminded me how important it is to choose the right title for your book, something I learned the hard way.

Although my query indicated the plot involved a quest, I called my book "The Mermaid's Daughter", not realizing it would lead agents to think the story was about mermaids and nothing else. In fact, one agent rejected me in four minutes: "Sorry, I already have a mermaid book. Best of luck!"

Aargh!

So what do I call my new and improved version?  Apparently titles that follow the format "The Somebody's Something" are less well-received than others. Sure, there are dozens of examples that contradict this, such as "The Time Traveler's Wife", but as a debut fiction author, I want my work to stand out from the crowd.

For now, the working title is "Zakret", the tree of power my main character seeks. I think it adds a bit of mystique that goes well with the story's adventure.

How about you? How do you decide on your book's title? Ever started with one and changed it?


Dystel & Goderich Literary Management's post: http://dglm.blogspot.com/2010/06/what-to-title-your-book.html
Pimp My Novel's post: http://pimpmynovel.blogspot.com/2010/06/rose-by-any-other-name.html

June 22, 2010

Synchronicity

Carl Jung described synchronicity as “meaningful coincidence”. Two events occur and you may not see the connection until later. I'm pretty sure that happened to me this past week.

While reading Vogler’s book on mythic structure (see previous post), I kept thinking about my first story, the one shelved after querying about a dozen agents. Too few, you say? Perhaps, but upon close inspection it was clear the writing needed work, lots of work.

Even so, I always believed the tale itself had a solid foundation: a girl on a quest to retrieve an ancient power stolen from the sea.

Quest? Did someone say “quest”? What every hero undertakes?

Fingers crossed, I made a list of Vogler's 12 stages of the Hero's Journey to see if they matched elements from my book.

Eccola!

Not only does my story cover every stage, but there's also a healthy batch of archetypes (a term also coined by Jung). All I need to do is find the proper words to captivate my readers. Easy, right? ;-)

I didn’t know that buying this book would bring me back to a story waiting to be rewritten, but that's what happened. Synchronicity in action!

How about you? Ever realize that two things you thought unconnected were actually linked?

June 15, 2010

Mythic Structure – A Tool for all Writers

Don’t let the title fool you. Mythic structure works for all genres, not just fantasy.

My crit partner recommended this book, which I bought and then set aside, thinking it applied solely to “quest” stories. Was I ever wrong!

I've read Joseph Campbell and know about the Hero's Journey, but Vogler's approach is geared exclusively toward writers. He explores each of the Journey's stages and gives examples from memorable books and movies in a surprising range of genres. It’s truly a format anyone can adopt.

Vogler’s scope can't be addressed in one blog post, but I think you’d be surprised at how easily stories fit this structure. Does your main character have a goal that involves stepping outside a comfort zone, challenging norms, righting wrongs? Bingo! There’s your Call to Adventure.

Having trouble figuring out a character's purpose? Check out the Archetypes and you'll find a wealth of choices, each with its own psychological and dramatic function. How cool is that?

This is a hefty volume (nearly 400 pages) and I’m only a quarter of the way through, but already I’m approaching my work with a new perspective.

I think you will, too.

June 8, 2010

Talismans, anyone?

Webster’s defines talisman as “an object held to act as a charm to avert evil or bring good fortune”.

I grew up with talismans, mostly religious, rosary beads and such. Now that I write fantasy, I have a few around my computer. They serve as potent reminders that supernatural elements are integral to my stories. And if they bring me luck, well, I won’t say no. ;-)

The first two are rattles, good for shaking when my mind is stuck. One comes from Yosemite, brown and round and open-mouthed, ready to whisper words of encouragement. Another was forged from a Gerber baby spoon. How clever is that? Helps me focus on my young audience.

The other three are power stones I bought in Maui. The dragon, my Chinese astrological sign as well, symbolizes wisdom and nobility. The hummingbird stands for joy, miracles, and beauty. The seahorse brings confidence and grace. All qualities I’d like my work to reflect.

How about you? Got any lucky charms?

June 1, 2010

It’s the Writing, My Dears

Literary agent Mary Kole at kidlit.com (link below) recently wrote about the perception that agents aren’t interested in manuscripts from writers who’ve never been published.

I didn’t know such a myth existed, especially one so clearly at odds with reality. Sure, some agents only take referrals, but if you read agent blogs you know they’re always looking for a good story.

Then again, it’s easier to claim agents are biased than to take a hard look at your writing. Because that’s what agents are looking for: great writing. And sometimes we send them a story that isn’t our best.

I’ve done it, though it pains me to say so. Queried with my very first piece of fiction, certain representation was a phone call away. I actually believed that as long as agents and editors were going to ask for revisions no matter what, it was okay to send them work that, while not perfect, was good enough.

*knocks head against wall*

I got a couple of full requests, some positive feedback, but no takers, and finally realized a strong story doesn't trump weak writing. What I've learned since about the craft of fiction is humbling, and only increases my appreciation for the agents who read my earlier work and passed on their best regards.

Don't know how long it will take until I resume querying. One story's in first draft mode, one's in revisions. But I'm determined to never again submit a story before it's ready.

May 25, 2010

Full Moon Madness

In my footloose and fancy-free days, I called many places home. One of my favorites was a rural housing complex of small cottages and four-plexes formerly used for migrant workers. On full moon nights, the ladies would gather libations, tromp up the hill, and dance.

Now I’m in the outer suburban flatlands and my friends are far-flung but the silver orb still beckons. Even if I’ve retired for the evening, when the moonlight reaches my bedroom window I can’t help but rise up and greet it.

In a previous post about The Moon in Tarot decks, I mentioned how it can represent obstacles. But it can also bring inspiration.

Perhaps that’s why I was up last night, before the moon was truly full. I’ve had a case of the blahs these past few days. Maybe it’s just the rain and wind and pollen keeping me inside. Whatever the cause, I found some comfort sitting in my patio room, letting the moonbeams bathe me.

Which makes me wonder. Webster’s Dictionary defines lunacy as “intermittent insanity once believed to be related to the phases of the moon.”

Hmmm. Well, you know what Aristotle said: all writers are a little crazy.

May 18, 2010

Critiques

I didn't have critique partners for my first book (which might explain why it's on the back burner awaiting serious revisions) and wondered if I'd find one for my current WIP. Happily, I've connected with a fellow writer who gets my story and can point out its flaws in a truly helpful manner. Huzzah!

I especially like working with her because she’s read Browne & King (see 4/10 post) and can bring up issues they address in their book on self-editing. So when she says to pay attention to narrative distance, I know just what she means.

One of her comments made me laugh out loud. My protagonist has a powerful voice, and the use and abuse of that power is central to the story. But in a scene that should ripple with tension, where any sane girl would be scared speechless, she calls out a warning. Oh dear, the enemy approaches. Whatever shall I do? I know. I’ll burst into song!

I still want to have this character sound the alarm, but I’ll need to rework the scene so it doesn’t come off like a bad Monty Python skit. Meanwhile, I'm grateful for the feedback only another writer can provide. Funny, isn't it, how you can see the gaps in someone else's story and breeze right over them in your own?

May 4, 2010

Theory/Schmeory

There's no shortage of theories about writing. Take the one that says you need to write a million words before you’re any good. At 1,000 words a day, every day, you'll need almost three uninterrupted years to reach the million-word mark  (2.70 years to be exact).  

Woe to those of us who write less.

I'd like to propose another theory: Ignore everything that suggests you’re not good enough until ________ [fill in the blank].  Just write. You’ll get better.  Stick with it, get honest feedback, and your writing will improve.

Don't believe me? Find something you wrote a year ago and compare it with what you wrote today.

Told you so.

April 22, 2010

A Carbon-Neutral Blog

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I don't usually post more than once a week, but the most marvelous VR Barkowski wrote today about a wonderful program that will help reforest areas decimated by northern California fires.

I've put up the button and hope you'll join me. Just click on the green leaf and you'll be taken to the site of Make It Green (Mach's Grun), which is partnering with the Arbor Day Foundation for this project. Step-by-step instructions make it easy.

What a great way to celebrate Earth Day. Thanks, VR!

April 20, 2010

Self-Editing for Fiction Writers

A member of my local SCBWI group suggested buying this book and I’m glad she did. (Thanks, Rahma!)

There’s a lot to like. I found the chapter on Point of View especially helpful. In my first book (shelved for the time being), I had a tendency to jump around heads during a scene instead of focusing on a single viewpoint and letting other characters reveal themselves through action and dialogue.

Before reading Browne and King, I didn't consider using POV for descriptive passages. Because I write in the third person, I assumed my descriptions would be rather distant and factual, maybe spiced up with some poetic imagery. Now I’m learning the importance of letting readers experience settings and action through the perspective of the characters. Even more significant, these observations will ring most true when they're written in the language the characters themselves would use. Eureka!

I realize this marks me as a novice, but we all have to start somewhere. Wherever you are in your writer’s journey,  I heartily suggest consulting this book. I think you’ll find it immensely rewarding.

April 13, 2010

The Writer's Journey

“Every protagonist embarks on a journey that sends her both externally and internally into, as yet, undiscovered places. A writer does, too." - Martha Alderson

Don't you just love this? It’s almost Zen. When you set pen to paper, you also become the lead character in the ongoing tale of a writer’s life. You're on a voyage of discovery.

Like your characters, you'll run into obstacles. Writing is work, hard work. It's not for the faint of heart. It's a craft, and like any craft it takes practice, practice, practice. You have to keep going, even when you don't feel like it. (Especially when you don't feel like it.) You have to stay with it, even when the words you write are so far removed from the story in your head you suspect major brain damage. Even when you're convinced a roomful of monkeys could produce a story better than yours.

Need a break? Take it.  Go back and look at some of your earlier work and congratulate yourself on how far you've progressed.

But don't stop. Trust that the path you're following will lead you to all the right places.

http://plotwhisperer.blogspot.com/2010/04/stamina-for-writers.html

March 30, 2010

Branded

During last October's Muse Online Conference, I won Karina Fabian's "Marketing Basics" course, but only recently hunkered down for the lessons. Of course, one of the issues she addresses is platform. Ugh.

I've always associated platform with expertise. Since I'm more of a know-it-mostly type, how do I brand myself? According to Fabian, I need to determine what makes my work unique.

Now, I know many writers bemoan the limitations of being relegated to a niche, and I believe their concerns are valid, but these days you have to be willing–at least in the beginning–to let yourself be labeled.

While it's easy enough to say I write fantasy, it's hardly distinctive. So, piggy-backing off Fabian's capsule platforms (e.g., J.A. Konrath writes murder mysteries named after bar drinks), I came up with this blurb: Kathryn Jankowski writes children's fiction based on Slavic folklore.

I'm not sure this is exactly how I want to word it. Perhaps "featuring elements of" rather than "based on"? Or "mythology" instead of "folklore"? "YA and MG fantasy" instead of "children's fiction" (although I think the latter is less restrictive)? In any event, it's a start and gives me news ideas for outreach.

If you had to sum up your platform in one sentence, what would you write?

March 1, 2010

Do You Draw?

Like artists, writers begin with a blank palette. Using black words against a white background, we create colorful visions in our reader’s mind. I’m sure some authors do it all in their heads, but I need visuals. Not just story boards and plot trackers. Real pictures. Which can be a problem when you’re writing a fantasy.

The solution? Draw it myself. Towns, rooms, statues, forests, roads, societies secluded behind stone walls, even characters. I’m not claiming any talent here. My sketch of a Baltic Sea god was declared a cross between Sarah Jessica Parker and Poseidon. Not exactly the effect I’d hope for.

Drawing lets me step back from a blinking screen and view my story from a different perspective. It helps me fine tune scenes and double-check the logic of my imaginings. (Even fantasies need to be based in reality.)

How about you? Do you ever draw during the writing process?

February 17, 2010

Grammar v. Creativity - False Foes?

As a former teacher, I have strong feelings about how writing is taught. I’ve seen the pendulum swing from “free” writing (creativity trumps all) back to strict formalized instruction and I can tell you, extremes don’t work. You can't write anything without the creative urge, but unless you understand how language works, you won’t get far.

Grammar is the foundation of good writing. Knowing the basics of written language frees you to create. Dancers begin with rudimentary steps. Singers begin with scales. Writers begin with grammar. In order to communicate effectively, you need to understand how language works.

Creativity and grammar are not mutually exclusive; they are, in fact, complementary. Together, they build sentences that soar, paragraphs that flow, stories that captivate, create meaning where none existed before.

You can be the most creative writer on earth, but if a reader stumbles through your work, as far as I’m concerned, you need to go back and bone up on the basics.

Thanks to Eileen Astels for beginning the conversation. Nothing like a spirited discussion to keep things lively, I say.

What do you say?

January 11, 2010

Readability

One of the things I love about getting together with other writers is the tips and tricks we share. At a recent SCBWI meeting*, I learned about an application in Microsoft Word that scores the readability of your writing.

How cool is that? And it’s so simple. When you run a Spelling and Grammar check, click on Options> Grammar>Readability Statistics. When the spell-check is done, you’ll see a balloon with word counts, averages, and readability numbers. It even counts passive sentences!

Just for fun, I ran this blog post. Grade level = 6.3; Flesch Reading Ease = 70.1 (higher scores mean easier reading). Next, I put the first chapter of my book through the application and came out with a grade level of 3.6 and reading ease of 84.5. Are those good scores for a fantasy?

Well, the good folks at Amazon have provided the means to compare our works with some of the greats. Just find the book, scroll down to “Inside This Book” and click on Text Stats. Same thing, different format.

I looked up “The Changeling Sea”, one of my favorite books by Patricia McKilip. The results? A 4.5 grade level and 81.4 readability score. “The Arkadians” by Lloyd Alexander checks in with 5.7 and 73.3. So it looks like my book is easier to read and requires less education. Hmmmm. I wonder if that’s because I spent so many years working with struggling readers.

Unfortunately, this feature isn’t available for most new books – and, surprisingly, none of the Harry Potter books has it - but there’s bound to be something in your genre that will work.

Give it a try. What did you learn about your writing?

*Thank you, Rahma!