Friday, December 3, 2010

Sleep-Deprivation of Minors

I was pondering what gives a writer the feeling of, "Hey, I'm doing all right."  You could make a big-time best-seller list.  You could get a rave review in a major publication, or a bunch of 5-star reviews on Amazon.  Can't say I've experienced any of those (yet), but still, I've thought about it.

My favorite?  Knowing I'm contributing to the sleep-deprivation of minors.

You know that feeling--when you start reading a book and before you know it, it's three in the morning ... then four ... then the sun's coming up.

Well, with a day job and grown-up responsibilities, I can't indulge in that very often anymore.  Maybe on weekends.  And professionally, I can't recommend any teenagers do so on a school night.

Still, finding out a 15-year-old started reading my story and couldn't put it down until six in the morning (during Thanksgiving break, boss!) kind of made my day.

Another one on the self-affirmation list: Having teenagers finish reading it and immediately ask, "Where's the next one?"

That's when I think to myself, "It worked."


Sunday, November 7, 2010

Two Sides to Motivation

No, this is not a post on how to get yourself to meet your NaNoWriMo word count goals.  This isn't about "get your cursor moving" motivation at all.

This is about motivation within the story--motivating the characters as well as the plot.  First, a little background on what prompted this post.

I was reading (and generally enjoying) a pair of books from a particular series.  The first red flag came when a side character was killed and I felt nothing.  Maybe it happened too fast, maybe it was a failure to develop an emotional connection earlier ... or maybe it was because it "just kinda happened."  Moving on, the MC executed an impressive string of "just doing things" for no clear reason other than to conveniently get herself in trouble.  That's when I really started thinking about it and the failings of motivation.

Anyone who's tried to write a query letter has probably explored character motivation related to central conflict.  What does the MC want and what stands in his/her way?  My exploration has taken me from that macro level to the micro level of individual scenes and character actions or decisions.  I've concluded that there are two types of motivation.  I'm sure someone out there has more technical names for them, but this is how it's worked out in my mind.

Front-End Motivation
This is what triggers a character's actions.  Why does she do this?  Why does he react that way?  It stems from preceding events as well as the character's personality and values.  The trick here is to make sure our characters act and react in realistic and consistent ways, keeping them imperfect yet still believably human.  If a character's going to make an obviously poor choice, the reader should be able to buy into the reason.  Show the doubts or the willful rebellion, whatever it is that drives the decision.

Back-End Motivation
This is why an event/decision/development is worth including in the story.  A few random details for flavor are fine, but anything more substantial should have a reason for happening.  It may be the resolution of an earlier mini-conflict or the catalyst for something to happen later.  In essence, it's what keeps individual scenes connected.

Both types are necessary, and different scenes will have a different balance of front- and back-end.  I imagine few could be described as 50/50, but 5/95 (or 95/5) should be likewise rare.  What happens when the balance is weighted too far to one side--or worse, when one side of the motivation is missing?

Back-End with No Front:
This dilemma inspires the "Well, that's convenient" reaction in readers and seems to be at the root of my instigating experience--the MC who "just does stuff."  As authors, we know what we want to happen, so sometimes we force our characters to jump through hoops, just for the sake of making something work in the plot.

Front-End with No Back:
Scenes with this problem may come across as feeling random, tangential, or even indulgent.  I suspect it occurs more when a writer is trying to pad the word count, or perhaps when the plot isn't yet fully formed.  The characters do things that make sense given their personalities and prior events, but it doesn't really go anywhere.  I'd say it's nothing to be too afraid of in a first draft if you're a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pantser rather than a planner, but definitely something to watch out for in editing.

Neither Front Nor Back:
Sound the alarm and get thee a reality check, pronto!  Characters are reacting inconsistently and randomly, and the story is going nowhere.  At its most extreme, this isn't a story--it's words spewed onto a page.  Might be okay for a free-write to play with dialogue or characterization, but once you're in story mode, these things need to be reined in ... at least to a degree.

So, let your characters be human (even if they aren't human, SF/F writers).  People rarely do anything truly random.  At the same time, be judicious in choosing which human moments to include in your story, and be mindful of why you've chosen them.


Sunday, October 31, 2010

Why Writers Should Be Masochists

Want to be a writer?  Prepare for pain.  The pain of sleep-deprivation, the pain of rejection, the pain of carpal tunnel syndrome, the pain of a good face-keyboard smack when things just aren't working ... all of this and more is likely in your future.

That's not entirely why I think a touch of masochism is a prerequisite, though.  Those things all come with the package, and we have to find ways to deal with them--like power naps and ergonomic office furniture.  The masochism comes in with the pain we (should) intentionally seek: the sting of constructive criticism.

Personally, I love getting feedback specifying certain aspects that aren't working for the reader, but that sting still pricks me now and then.  Still, I'd rather endure that minor pain than get a inbox-full of, "This is amazing and should be published right now!"  While the latter is nice for the ego, it doesn't actually help me improve, and even if I got a publishing contract tomorrow, I would always have room to grow.

A parallel:  In my day-job, an administrator observes my class a couple of times a year for evaluation.  I've yet to have an administrator with a math teaching background, so the fact I can teach calculus already impresses them.  More often than not, the feedback is something like, "You're doing great--keep it up!"  Once in a while they remark on a small item they can tell was more because they were in the room than anything else.  (My fingerspelling skill takes a nosedive when other adults are in the room ... definitely gotta work on that.)

I know I'm a good math teacher, but I also know I'm not perfect.  I can identify certain areas for improvement on my own, but for others, I could really use an outside observer to tell me if something works or not, or if I'm doing things I'm not aware of.

Same thing with writing.  If a reader isn't feeling my MC's emotion in a certain scene, I need to know.  If a particular section is boring, I need to know.  When those are areas I've worked on and think are great, finding out they might not work that well can hurt.  The biggest hurt is when someone clearly doesn't understand my intention.  Those are the moments I doubt myself, wondering if I have any idea what I'm doing, assuming my own failings led the reader to misconstrue the concept.  But I will still seek out those opinions, weigh them against each other and against my own instincts, and try to incorporate what I learn into making my writing better.

Turning it around, then, writers should not be sadists.  When we're offering critique, it's important to be honest--as noted above, glossing things over won't help anyone--but not intentionally cruel or derogatory.  Telling someone, "This sucks--you're never going to make it," is no more helpful than gushing why-isn't-this-published-yet praise.

Most importantly, we have to make sure we aren't such masochists that we lock ourselves into the editing/revising phase for eternity.  At some point, you have to decide that it's good enough to get out there and submit ... and ready yourself for those darts of rejection.


Saturday, October 16, 2010

Learning from Fiction

There are lots of ways we learn through the written word.  Textbooks are the most obvious, though not always very effective in and of themselves.  Nonfiction books can be a great way to learn about almost anything you can imagine--cultures, history, technology, or just the lives of interesting people.

We can learn through novels as well.  Hard-working authors who do their research can infuse factual tidbits seamlessly into the plot, and we can learn through a character's choices and their evolution through the story.

It recently occurred to me that there's a key difference between the nonfiction and fiction approaches to learning, though.  Nonfiction generally sets out to teach--that's the whole point, to be informative.  In fiction done right--in my opinion--it's up to the reader to learn, and what they take from the story can vary.  The parallels they draw will depend on their own worldview and experiences, and that's what makes it so fun--that feeling of finding your own meaning.

What happens, however, when someone sets out to write a novel with the nonfiction writer's intention of teaching in mind?  Does it still work?  I'm not sure.  I haven't tried it myself.  Do you get a "moral of the story" or after-school special feel as a result?  If so, that could be a problem.  I can't speak for all teenagers, but my students are master cynics.  If they sense a story's been contrived to teach them something, brace for imminent eye-rolling.

Does it come down to ensuring Story trumps Message?  Is it more a matter of not talking down to your audience?  Or are those two related?  Something to think about as I dig through the latest YA works to find books to recommend to those charming cynics.


A Touch of Good News

A few good things that have happened lately:
  • I made the "Literary Agent Showcase" round on WEbook's PageToFame contest.  (See, here's proof!)
  • While we're talking about PageToFame, "Assumptions" made it out of the Shorts round.  (Still waiting to see what that means.)
  • "Significantly Other" was published by Crossed Genres.  (Not bad for my first "serious" attempt at at a short story.)
  • I survived IEP Intensive.  (Not related to writing, other than being the reason I couldn't do much writing for the past month.)

Otherwise, I'm still in the agent hunt, still working on Book #3, and jotting down some pre-writing notes for a brand-spanking-new idea.

I'm also counting the weeks until Thanksgiving break.  For the record, it's at five.


Saturday, September 18, 2010

YA Work and the Big Bad

One of the basic elements of storytelling is conflict.  Most sources list between four and six main conflict types.

  • Man vs. Self--the identity crisis
  • Man vs. Man--"duke it out" (physically or otherwise)
  • Man vs. Society--the rebellion
  • Man vs. God/Fate--big-time underdog
  • Man vs. Nature--the disaster scenario
  • Man vs. Technology--"Good morning, Dave."

As I look at young adult novels (particularly the sci-fi/fantasy variety I'm so fond of), Man vs. Man is certainly common, as it seems to be across the spectrum of genres.  Harry Potter has Voldemort.  The Mortal Instruments has Valentine.  Twilight has an assortment of "non-vegetarian" vampires.  (What's with everything starting with V?)  Even The Hunger Games, which is more Man vs. Society, personifies society as a whole in a single antagonist, President Snow.

In general, there almost always seems to be a "bad guy."  That probably explains some feedback I got recently, suggesting I introduce a more significant antagonist sooner.  I'm still pondering it.

Does the YA formula require the presence of a Big Bad?  I conceived my story as a combination of Man (or in my case, Girl) vs. Self and vs. Society.  There are a couple of antagonists, but their role (in the first book, at least) is secondary to the main character's struggle with herself and the society she doesn't quite fit into.  Is this type of struggle enough?  I don't know yet.

I like to think that for teens in particular, Character vs. Self is something they can connect with.  After all, they're at that stage where we start to decide who we are--what we want to hold onto from our childhoods and how we want to expand into new things.

It seems to work for the teens I've had test-driving the story so far.  None of them have complained about the balance of internal and external conflict.  Perhaps that's all the answer I need.  Or then again, maybe I should be working to incorporate more external factors without losing the internal struggle.

Anyone have some good examples of YA books (particularly sci-fi or fantasy) with conflict that's less about fighting the embodiment of evil?  I'm sure I've read some, but I'm drawing blanks.  It would be interesting to look at how authors have successfully handled such a thing.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Playing with Covers: Part Two

Because I don't have enough to do (?), I started playing around with Photoshop on Thursday night.  Here's the result:

ETA: Went ahead and made a matching one for Echoes, too.

These just might be my favorites so far.  See the previous versions (fronts only) here.

I still haven't decided to self-publish, but it doesn't hurt to be prepared, right?

That Aristotle Guy

Oops, kind of a long stretch since the last post.  At first, there wasn't much to say.  Then there was, but it was more of the same (four fulls and a partial out at one point = more waiting).  Finally, it was getting back to the day job, where almost everyone on campus had to relocate due to renovations.

The inspiration for today's post comes from the day job, in fact.  We had a professional development day yesterday, most of which wouldn't interest any of you.  During a presentation on critical thinking skills, though, came a moment of epiphany ... and it wasn't while my colleagues and I were trying to build a tower out of marshmallows and toothpicks.

Our presenter includes some quotations on a few of her slides, and one particularly caught my attention:

It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.

In addition to the implications for educating my little rabblerousers, it struck me as a nice summation of my philosophy on accepting critique.  You have to be able to entertain a thought, even unpleasant ones, without (necessarily) accepting it.  Once you entertain it, you can make that decision whether it has merit you should act on or not.

This is especially applicable to me recently, as three of my four fulls came back with rejections.  One was a form rejection, so there's nothing for me to take from it.  Another was a detailed message that felt like the agent just didn't get it--we all view things through our own lens, and hers seems to be polarized at a right angle to mine.  The third was a brief but personal message that raised an interesting question.

It's that last one that has me thinking the most.  Perhaps I'll expound on it in another post.  My book doesn't follow a certain part of the YA sci-fi/fantasy formula.  I know that, and in many ways it was my whole point.  So I'm trying to entertain the thought planted by that agent without accepting it, at the same time looking for what I can take from it.

Meanwhile, I'm forging ahead--working on Book Three, receiving good news on another front (see if you can spot it in my Twitter feed, post forthcoming), and wondering if I'm ever going to hear back from Agent #1.

Oh, and keeping up with the day job.


Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Audience ID

Know your audience.  Sounds simple enough.  It occurs to me that there are two types of audiences, though—the general audience that's likely to enjoy the book, and the narrower audience that's likely to think the book is the best ever.

At its broadest, my general audience is teenagers.  Throw in adults who like smart YA work, too, and there you go.  To get a little more specific, I think my novel appeals especially to girls who like math or science, and/or have a bit of tomboy in them.

While at Best Buy with my sister yesterday, I found a succinct description of the sub-population who would most enjoy my work:

Girls who bought StarCraft II

That's why we were there—for my sister to buy the brand-new game.  The cashier (female) asked if my sister was buying it for herself.  When we confirmed she was, the cashier said, "Finally! Another girl that plays!"

Those girls (or the ones that play their brother's/boyfriend's copy) are exactly the ones I wrote the story for.  It turns out other groups of people enjoy it, too, which thrills me.  But they're the ones I was aiming for.  That's my Audience ID, the quirk that puts them on just the right wavelength.

What's your Audience ID?  Something that on the surface may seem to have nothing to do with who they are as a "reader" but describes who they are in under five words.  Kind of tricky until you run into the right cashier.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

While Waiting: Part 2

A few months ago, I posted a list of things to do while waiting on an agent.  Agent #1 still has the full, and now two more agents have it as well.  (My latest attempt at a query letter actually has legs!)  So, more waiting.  Here's what I have gotten/am getting done, and it's nice to see some of these are progressions from the first list.

  • Finished Book 2 in the series and Book 3 is well underway.
  • Wrote two "real" short stories that I'm working on submitting.
  • Packed up my classroom to be relocated this fall when they renovate half our building.
  • Helped my dad with yard work, woodworking projects, and whatever else he needed a slave for.
  • Got elevated to Round 3 in WEbook's PageToFame system.
  • Worked with my sister to design two covers, seen here (just for fun, and in case I end up self-pubbing).
  • Hung out with my awesomely awesome friend for a weekend (rare treat since she now lives 2000 miles away).
  • Read a lot of books (Darkest Powers trilogy, Mortal Instruments trilogy, first two books in The Hunger Games trilogy ... is Mockingjay out yet?)

A lot of that looks like work.  Here are some additions for the To Do list:

  • Figure out how and when to get together with the inimitable T.L Tyson (in my country, hers, or another one altogether ... doesn't matter)
  • Possibly find time to visit my cousin in Mississippi (though the humidity might scare me off)
  • Plan a trip to Rochester, NY to visit the friend mentioned above, plus anyone else I knew back in grad school that's still there.

Hmm, all of that involves travel and interacting with humans outside of cyberspace.  That might be a clue.

Anyone else have fun ways of keeping your mind off the waiting game?

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Playing with Covers

My siblings are graphically gifted, so when I needed a cover image for Authonomy, I turned to my sister.  After I finished the sequel, she decided to go a different direction for Fingerprints to mesh better with her take on Echoes.  We still have some thoughts about tweaking things.  Enjoy.

Original Fingerprints Cover
New Fingerprints Cover

Echoes Cover

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

The Query Quandary

Mention queries, and writers of all ages sprout a few more gray hairs.  The first rule of #AskAgent chats on Twitter is No Query Questions.  I haven't yet come across a writer who looks forward to writing one or an agent who adores slogging through hundreds of them to find a few gems.  (If you're out there, give a shout.)  [EDIT: Cat likes writing them, just not sending them.  So there's at least one out there.]

No one (or almost) really likes them, but I get why they fall under the "necessary evil" category.  And it's not like there aren't resources out there to help - enough blogs to overload anyone's browser, for starters.

Even with all that help, we struggle.  After doing my best to help critique several queries on AgentQuery Connect and overhauling my own query for the umpteenth time, I thought about what makes it so difficult.  Boiling a novel-length plot down to a couple hundred words isn't easy, obviously.  But what - above all else - stands in the way?

They say the devil's in the details.  I contend that the devil's in determining the depth of the details.  (How's that for alliteration?)

Boil down the plot too much, and you get something like this:

An orphan boy discovers he has unexpected power and is the Chosen One who must battle ultimate Evil.

Could be Harry Potter.  Or Star Wars.  Or possibly dozens of other fantasy works.

More often, though, I think we tend to go to the opposite extreme, thinking every nuance of the story is essential if the agent or editor is to understand the plot.  Try this (exaggerated) example:

Milton Dauntless, a shy thirteen-year-old boy with a faithful Chihuahua-Corgi mix named Gargantuar, discovers his parents, Darwina and Ted, weren't killed in the famous So-So Steakhouse food poisoning scandal of '99 as he'd been told all his life by Grandma Gertie.  In fact, his father was killed by the evil vampire lord Vladindeath, who has secretly ruled the underworld ever since defeating the werewolf clans seven hundred fifty-two years ago.  As the sole survivor of the powerful Dauntless clan, Milton must now learn to harness the power of the Crystal of Purity, find out what happened to his mother when she escaped the bloodbath of her husband's murder with her long-lost brother Sherman, and defeat the vampires once and for all.

(Okay, that was kind of fun.)

That one is obviously bogged down in excess detail, including irrelevant backstory and too many names.  (See my earlier musing on the issue of Name Soup.)

Here are some of my conclusions, and I hope others will add to them.

Get Enough Detail
  • The whole point of the query is to show an agent or editor what makes your story stand out from the others.  Part of this can be through voice.  But these days, if you're writing about vampires or angels, for example, you've got to show your unique twist.
  • Make it memorable and leave them wanting more.  Again, the point of the query: get a request for more material.
  • Include details that are snappy, quirky, or unexpected ... without belaboring the point.

Don't Overdo the Detail
  • R.C.'s Personal Rule of Thumb: Anyone who won't be mentioned by name again in the query shouldn't be named at all.
  • Avoid backstory.  Plenty of time (and more creative ways) to incorporate it into the manuscript itself.
  • Axe details that can leave the reader saying, "Why should I care about that?"  For example, knowing all of that about Milton's dog doesn't really tell us anything substantial about the character (except maybe that he has a silly sense of humor when it comes to naming pets) or the plot.

It's a thin line to walk between too much and too little.  No wonder so many of us find it so difficult.

Do you have any pointers for finding that perfect balance?


Thursday, June 17, 2010

Update: School's Out!

The end of the school year was a little crazy.  I guess that's what happens when you agree to help some deaf kids edit the music for the graduation video and you have to pack up your entire classroom because the front half of the building is being renovated next year.  Oh, yeah, and finals ... I can't forget finals.

That's all in the past now.  Summer's here, and I can focus almost exclusively on writing.  (YES!)  Fingerprints is looking better than ever after I finally rewrote the longstanding opening.  Still waiting on agents.  Echoes (the sequel) has been through some solid rounds of editing and feels a lot better than it did when I drafted it.  The third book in the series is underway and getting some momentum now that I can spend more than an hour at a time on it.

To keep busy, I wrote another short story and submitted it to the Science in My Fiction contest.  Results due July 21st.  Submitting the earlier story to some other places.  A friend pointed out another contest I might consider, if I can write a story under 2500 words in the next month.

All this happens when I'm not getting sunburned helping my parents work in their backyard.

If I need a break from writing, I'll spend some time brainstorming ways to get revenge on the student who dropped a water balloon on me at Field Day.  Cue the supervillain laughter.

Friday, May 21, 2010

English Class #1: Required Reading

A couple days ago I was eavesdropping on the weekly YALitChat on Twitter.  It's too bad I was too busy to pick up more than just the comments from people I already follow, since the topic was how teachers influence what teens read.  Some statements about required reading lists, curriculum, etc. caught my attention.

I thought back to my own experiences as a student.  Honestly, I don't remember most of what I was required to read back then.  I remember reading some Shakespeare (Romeo and Juliet and The Merchant of Venice) and A Tale of Two Cities in ninth grade.  My teacher that year was smart enough to discuss the themes in a modern context so the books weren't just old and dusty to us.  (There was a particularly heated discussion when he insisted that arranged marriages were the only intelligent way to do things.)

The rest of high school, though?  I remember packets of short stories, but I don't remember titles, authors, or the stories themselves.  There were probably worksheets involved.

You know what else I don't remember?  The popular books for teens at the time.  I don't think I read them ... too stuck in sci-fi land back then.  Can anyone help me out?  What was hot in YA back in the mid- to late-90s?  Was there YA as such?  I never considered myself a "normal" teenager, so I have no idea what was considered "normal" to read.

Is it the same story now?  Nothing but classics, no current works?  From the transcript of the chat, it seems to vary widely.  I can only talk about what I know firsthand, at my current school.

We're lucky for a few reasons.  Our classes are tiny (I think eight students is the biggest), so if teachers want to order copies of a current book, it's not a financial hardship.  This year we started giving students two Language Arts classes - one for reading and one for writing.  This means a lot more time for covering more novels.  I know one of my colleagues tends to alternate - a book from the curriculum list, then one the students choose.

How do I influence my students' reading, especially as a math teacher?  We have twenty minutes of required silent reading time after lunch every day.  For that, I'm in the "I don't care what they read as long as they read something" camp, particularly because I have struggling readers that period.  I happily help one girl understand the articles in fashion magazines and explain new words to a boy who reads online graphic novels.

Other than that, I keep a shelf of loaner YA books (which no one seems to expect from the MATH teacher).  They see me reading them, and it's fun to discuss what they did and didn't like after they finish each book.  The kids like series, so I've got Uglies, Hunger Games, Darkest Powers, and Mortal Instruments sitting up there.

And of course, students keep telling me to get mine published and add it to the collection.

I'm working on it. :-)

Friday, May 14, 2010

What (Teen) Readers Want

Since my writing efforts are focused in the Young Adult area, I'm lucky to have ready access to my target audience.  In fact, I think I spend more hours conversing with teens than adults.  Some will read anything you put in front of them.  Others will tell you over and over how much they hate reading, but once in a while a book engrosses them to the "can't-put-it-down-even-for-my-favorite-class" level.

I've had a few conversations with my students lately about books we'd all read, and what they did or didn't like about them.  After that, I asked them to describe what makes a book "good."  Some interesting responses so far, and I'll add more as I collect them.

From a sophomore girl:
DETAILS!  [And after further prompting...] Of characters and settings.
I love that she wants details from authors, but is reluctant to give many herself.

From a junior girl:
I am tired of the dumb chick, the unexplained dude.  I think it should cover all types - romance, action, funny, and scary - in some way.  I also think it should always keep me guessing!
 I had an entire lunchtime conversation with that girl about the "dumb chick" issue - or Stupid-Girl Syndrome.  She could have gone on, and so could I, but I'll refrain for now.

From another sophomore girl, an aspiring writer (can you tell?):
I don't really know how to answer, but in my opinion, a good book must have a conflict, complex characters, and a well organized plot.  Characters can't not have a personality; readers have to be drawn in by their personalities, good or bad.  A well organized plot is necessary - you don't want to confuse people. If you don't have a conflict, it will be a never-ending story, droning on and on.  The idea has to be original, too - who wants to read a story that has already been told before?
I'll be sure to tell her Composition teacher she's been paying attention in class. *grin*

More to come, especially some guy perspectives.  Anyone else out there have info on what teens are looking for in a good read?

Quick Update

I've been meaning to post for a while, but real life + writing has gotten in the way.  (That's a good thing, right?)  Here's the latest:

  • Fingerprints didn't make the semifinal round of ABNA.  That's all right, though.  I'll have a post discussing my Publishers Weekly review soon.
  • The first five pages (with the option to read a little more) are available for rating on WEbook's PageToFame contest.  More for fun and curiosity than anything else.  Rating other people's work is fun, too.
  • "Assumptions" is being rated on WEbook's PageToFame Shorts contest.  Totally just for fun.
  • I "finished" the sequel to Fingerprints, tentatively titled Echoes.  It's been through a few rounds of editing and beta reads, and little sis is working on a cover design (in case I end up going the self-pub route with this whole thing).
  • The third book in the series (as yet untitled) is underway.
  • An agent still has the Fingerprints full.
  • Still working on short story submissions.
  • Several queries out in the ether.
  • Oh, yeah ... final exams and graduation are coming up.
Sounds busy enough to me.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

School Talk: Jess M. Brallier

Students at my school (K-12) had a great experience today, hearing from Jess M. Brallier (author of Tess's Tree and involved in the publishing of Diary of a Wimpy Kid, among many other things).  This was the culmination of our first Author Illustrator Competition, where kids school-wide wrote, illustrated, edited, designed, and produced books.

Very interesting to hear from "someone on the inside" here in our little school.  I loved the beginning, when he introduced the concepts of publisher, author, and reader - especially since our students are deaf and very visually inclined.  As publisher, he wore a smart blazer and coordinating hat, very sophisticated.  As author, he wore a scary-loud plaid jacket with a fur-lined cap.  As reader, he was a regular guy wearing a baseball cap.

After setting up two volunteer students as the author and reader (on opposite sides of the stage), he explained a publisher's role as getting the author's work to the reader.  He did a great job explaining how this could involve getting it physically from the author's cabin in Wyoming to a bookstore in New York, or getting it translated into Chinese, or getting it published online.

The best part was knowing how huge this was for at least a couple students who I know want to become writers.  Thanks to this, they know more about the process than I did at their age.  I think all the students gained some insight into where books come from and how much goes into it.

Interesting note: The student who asked the most (and some of the best) questions was a self-confessed non-reader.  I wonder if she was just curious because she knows I'm in the process of trying to get published. ;-)

Anyone else have interesting experiences with school talks by authors (either giving or seeing one)?  This was more the publishing perspective, but what other information about writing do you think would benefit students?

Sunday, April 11, 2010

ABNA "Vines" Reviews

Here are the full reviews mentioned here.  As with any review, I agree with some points (and made changes to address those a while ago) and not with others.  It's probably a good thing the first reviewer didn't get to see more of the story since ... um, yeah, it's sci-fi/fantasy.  (Gulp!)

Review #1

What is the strongest aspect of this excerpt?

The main characters of this book are well sketched out and intriguing. Not over the top, utterly believable. (I would change the twins' names, though. Tasmin... all I could think of was tasmanian devil. Lareina... how do you pronounce that? It was distracting.) I would think the author has had some experience with the foster care system or with children having disabilities and disorders. 
I like that the author stays with the same set of characters from the first to the second chapter, adding new ones in gradually. Every other excerpt I've read jumps from one set of characters to another. The author is spinning out her story from one chapter to the next, building on the growing foundation. It's likely the narrative will follow a well-thought-out arc, not bounce around in episodic vignettes.

What aspect needs the most work?

Although I like all the many and varied characters, there is the possibility of the author going over the top with quirky and unbelievable characters. He/she will have to show some restraint, given the group home setting with the wide range of disabilities and disorders. While it is refreshing to see that these characters are normalized and treated sensitively, I also would not like the author to start imbuing them with extraordinary abilities or senses... like the deaf Tasmin staring off in her trance-like state or the autistic Ryan: "Sometimes I think you see more than we give you credit for." 
Also, for what it's worth, I did't like the almost-rape scene. It could have been grittier or more detailed, so I'm grateful the author left something to the imagination, but nevertheless, all I can say is that I think it's uncalled for. Perhaps I'm out of touch with the reality of young adult fiction. I know The House on Mango Street is on reading lists for this age group, and I didn't like the rape scene there either, literary or not. I know the world is a hard place, yadda, yadda, yadda, but I don't feel like we need to shove it in a child's face every time she/he opens a book. (If the scene must be left in, I would rethink it. Lareina gets out from under Jonathan far too easily. She must be outweighed. How does she do it? The author implies Jonathan's in some sort of pain, but I wasn't sure why. What was Lareina doing to him?)

What is your overall opinion of this excerpt?

Of the excerpts I've read thus far, this is the book I'd be most likely to continue reading. The school setting resonates with young adults, as well as the varied peer interactions. The dialog sounds genuine for the age group, and the main character doesn't display any preternatural wisdom beyond her years. The author has given Lareina a sly sense of humor and a natural, though not cloying, sensitivity to others. I'd be happy to spend more time in her company in this book.

Review #2

What is the strongest aspect of this excerpt?

What a novel idea: two twin girls, one hearing impaired, growing up in a foster system, going to high school. The author takes this idea and runs with it, immediately drawing the reader into the story with great storytelling, some gentle ape appropriate humor, and immediate tension towards the end of the second chapter. By then, you are drawn to these diverse characters, and the event that ends the excerpt is truly surprising. This story has the potential to explore some interesting topics not frequently explored in youth adult fiction.

What aspect needs the most work?

My only hope that the attack at the end of the second chapter turns out well for these girls. By this time, you know and like them, and to have something so hideous happen concerns me greatly. I don't want this to be yet another female protagonist victim story, but one of empowerment for our girls.

What is your overall opinion of this excerpt?

This is truly unlike much of what I've been reading; two complete, interesting characters, set in an interesting setting, offers so many possibilities of what can happen. I am drawn to the uniqueness and novelty of the story, and feel that it is in great hands!

Saturday, March 27, 2010

ABNA Quarterfinals

Yes, I made the cut.  Look, here's proof.  So far I've only seen a summary of the "overall impressions" bit of the second round reviews (the full reviews should be available on CreateSpace soon, I hear), but those summaries look pretty good:

Review #1  This is truly unlike much of what I've been reading; two complete, interesting characters, set in an interesting setting, offers so many possibilities of what can happen. I am drawn to the uniqueness and novelty of the story, and feel that it is in great hands!

Review #2  Of the excerpts I've read thus far, this is the book I'd be most likely to continue reading. The school setting resonates with young adults, as well as the varied peer interactions. The dialog sounds genuine for the age group, and the main character doesn't display any preternatural wisdom beyond her years. The author has given Lareina a sly sense of humor and a natural, though not cloying, sensitivity to others. I'd be happy to spend more time in her company in this book.

The first day after the quarterfinal excerpts were posted was funny.  Apparently, I have enough tech-savvy friends (especially fellow writers) that my excerpt got downloaded several times right away.  This led to shooting up the Kindle Bestseller chart, topping out at #17.  That, in turn, led to some poor souls downloading the excerpt to their Kindle and wondering where the rest of the book was.  (I take the fact that they wanted to continue reading to be a very good sign.)

So I'm adding another item to my Things to Do While Waiting on an Agent list: reading the other 249 excerpts in the YA category.  I've already done eighteen (took notes, but haven't posted reviews for all of them yet).  Not a bad start.  I should be finished by April 27th, when the semifinalists are announced, right?

I just hope all the reading keeps me from thinking too much about the fact that a reviewer from Publishers Weekly is reading my full manuscript.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Keeping Busy

Progress!  I have written another short story.  I won't be posting it here, because I have hopes of submitting it to a few places.  (Imagine if it got accepted - I'd have a publishing credit.  How snazzy!)  Just under 4000 words, so about four times as long as the first attempt.  The first was just a fun little exercise to see what happened if I tried.  This one I took more seriously.  If anyone's willing to offer some feedback, drop me a line.

I've also gotten back to the sequel for Fingerprints.  Wrote several pages, knowing that I was likely to cut most of one scene.  I had to write it to get things rolling again, but as a scene, it wasn't going anywhere.  SNIP!  I hope I can keep pushing forward on it.  It feels like it's a third of the way (or maybe halfway) through, so I'm curious how long it'll end up.

Meanwhile, the day job has plenty going on as well.  State testing this week, which I have to miss my morning classes to administer every day except Thursday.  Seven of my students (including my entire Pre-Calculus class) will be leaving for Europe Tuesday afternoon and will miss the rest of this week and next.  Oh, and I've been procrastinating a final project for my professional development class.

All this has helped a great deal in keeping my mind off the next round of cuts for ABNA (happening Tuesday) and the full I have out to an agent.  I prefer stressing about things I have some (if little) control over.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

While Waiting

I got my first request for a full on Friday (prompting a weekend-long happy-dance).  While it's not out on an exclusive basis, I have various reasons for waiting a bit before querying further.  Thus, I find it's time to make a list:

Things to Do While Waiting on an Agent

  1. Work on the sequel  (I know, I know ... sell the first one first.)
  2. Try hand at short stories  (First attempt seen here, more "sincere" attempt underway.)
  3. Reorganize a closet or two  (or three ...)
  4. Do stuff for the day job  (Should this be higher on the list?)
  5. Consider learning another language  (ASL? Check. French? Semi-check. Spanish, which would be particularly useful? D'oh!)
  6. Watch episodes of Mythbusters and Dirty Jobs  (Am I the only one waiting for these two shows to collide?)
  7. Back I've Been Deader  (Hey, where'd that come from?!)
  8. Reconsider languages  (I wanna learn Welsh ... but why?)
  9. Ponder what would happen if Roombas became self-aware  (I mean, really, think about it.)
  10. Read "real" books  (Got a stack of seven waiting for me.)
There's my first ten.  What do you do while waiting for an agent's response?

Thursday, February 11, 2010

There Are No Rules

Okay, maybe there are rules of writing.  But not as many as you think, and very few without exceptions.  Everything else could be labeled suggestions, guidelines, or generally good ideas.

If you write a novel completely in Yoda-speak, that probably won't fly.  Can I unilaterally declare a rule against that?

So, let's look at the so-called rules.

  1. Prologues are prohibited.  I've seen many bad prologues - unnecessary, gimmicky, long-winded ... it goes on.  Some prologues, however, are dynamite and serve a particular function.  For a much more qualified opinion on the subject, check out this blog post.
  2. Avoid adverbs/adjectives.  In my cyber-travels, here's what I've learned: It depends.  Awkward and pervasive modifiers are a problem.  Piling as many as four adjectives in front of a single object bugs me.  Audience matters, too.  Middle Grade and Young Adult are likely to have more of these words, and particular genres favor them more than others.  And let's face it - sometimes they're the best way to get the message across.
  3. "Pass" on passive voice.  Constant use of passive voice would annoy me.  Even more annoying, though, is when people misidentify something as passive.  The presence of a "to be" verb form doesn't automatically mean it's passive.  Besides, I've found sometimes I want the passive form to change where the emphasis is placed.
  4. Say only said.  Dialogue tags are a big issue.  Too many kill the flow.  Too few can cause confusion.  Then there's the question of what the tag should be.  Again, I contend audience and genre are something to consider.  I stick to "said" unless I have a reason not to (so I follow the "rule" except when I don't).  I've also found when there are more than two speakers, more tags are naturally needed.  In that situation, "said" starts to feel really repetitive.
 I'm sure there are others, and further comments to make on the ones I've already listed.

Does it have to be this complicated, though?  Rather than obsessing over "rules" and how to follow them/when to break them, I ask myself the following questions:

  • Will the reader spend more time unraveling the sentence than it takes to read it?
  • Is anything distracting or jarring?
  • Is anything ambiguous or confusing?
  • Will the reader look at this section and say, "So what?"
Any questions to add to this list?  What are your self-critiquing tips and tricks?

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Short Story: Assumptions

I think this is the first short story I've ever written.  (Anything I did in English classes has been forgotten.)  Felt like I should try it.  Super-short, may qualify as flash for all I know.  Enjoy!

* * * * *

by R.C. Lewis

Gunfights and car chases, that’s what I needed.  Maybe some gratuitous, reality-defying explosions, too, if I was lucky.  The more action, the better.

I’d like to say it had been a good day until I arrived at the movie theater.  Until the sneering minimum-wage teenager asked if I meant diet when I clearly asked for a regular soda.  I’d like to say the day to that point had been a shining example of why it’s wonderful to be alive.  But that would be a lie.

The implications of the greasy-haired adolescent didn’t help, though.

My usual seat, third row up from center, ensured maximal viewing pleasure, taking in the whole screen at once.  This showing was popular, but not quite sold out.  As the theater filled, the seats to either side of me remained vacant.  Surely someone would be joining me, right?  Or maybe they worried Crazy-Lady-Who-Goes-to-Movies-Alone Syndrome was contagious.

Speaking of which, was that …?  It was.  A blind date from three months ago walked in with two friends, laughing about some recent sporting event.  Big upset in the college rankings.

I instantly thought of those crime dramas, when the cops make the arrest and the guy shouts, “It’s a set-up!”  I knew how that guy felt, because blind dates were the same thing – set-ups.  Friends said they were doing it because they cared, because they were certain the guy was just right for me.

Invariably, the dates ended with me alone in my apartment, resisting the urge to scream, “I’ve been framed!”

I prayed the latest accomplice wouldn’t look my way.  He’d tried to enlist himself among the few repeat offenders by calling a week later.  Since I couldn’t recall his name now, the results of that phone call were obvious.

Not that he wasn’t good-looking.  Far from it.  If I had a type, he was it, but only as far as appearance.  I think he lost me when he spent most of our date detailing how he was God’s gift to the philosophy department at the local university.  I would have enjoyed a nice discussion about any of the topics he mentioned, but he was too busy convincing me everyone else was wrong to hear anything I had to say.

It was still an improvement over the set-up prior, who clearly hadn’t expected me to be educated and reasonably intelligent.  Maybe I could blame my accent for that one, but it had almost disappeared in the past few years.  No great loss, though; the friend who’d done the framing later told me he’d gotten back with his ex.

Mr. Neo-Nietzsche remained too occupied with the failings of basketball referees to notice me, so I relaxed.  The previews started, and I got my promised violence and mayhem.  Plenty of explosions, too.  I particularly enjoyed one involving a propane tank and a mime.  You had to be there.

The credits rolled as everyone filed out around me, but I stayed put.  An odd habit, maybe, but I always stayed until the end of the credits.  I had this image of the poor gaffers and score wranglers and every soul in the second unit who went utterly unknown.  They worked hard and didn’t rake in the obscene paychecks for it, so the least I could do was remain in my seat as their names scrolled across the screen – their singular moment of glory.

A bonus was seeing the song credits near the end.  Yes, that was Incubus.  Thought the voice sounded familiar.

When the lights came up and the cleaning crew rolled in, I was the only one left.  More teenagers, but the aggravating soft drink vendor wasn’t among them.  They were polite as I passed, and I offered a smile, not envying their task of sweeping popcorn and scraping smashed Milk Duds from the floor.

Out in the lobby, I looked at my watch – too late to think about cooking dinner.  My favorite bistro was on the way home, so I stopped there.  Not especially swank, but nice and cozy.

I glanced briefly at the menu before ordering one of my favorites.  The waitress was new – not one of the girls who knew me as a regular – but she was friendly and pleasant.  She brought my raspberry lemonade with a smile and left me in peace.

If any disease was more dreaded than the single woman at the movies, it was the woman sitting at a table for one in a restaurant.  I felt the glances of a few other diners, but it wasn’t my first time.  The way to avoid scrutiny was to look busy, so I pulled my notepad from my purse.

When the waitress brought my food a few minutes later, I noticed something more than a glance.  A few tables away, a male diner – also solo – caught my eye.  Tall, dark hair … my usual suspects for distraction, he had them all.  Before I could feel self-conscious about staring, he winked and went back to reading a novel.  Crime thriller, but one of the better authors in the genre.

Throughout my meal, I compulsively glanced his way.  He caught me looking a few times, but I also caught him.  The little thrill when he smiled at me … how long since I’d last felt that?

Dinner couldn’t last forever, though, and soon the waitress brought me my check.  When she looked at my credit card, though, her eyes widened.

“You’re her, aren’t you?  The romance writer!  I have all your books.  Oh, and wow, today must be your favorite day of the year, huh?”

Under ordinary circumstances, I would have rolled my eyes at such an idea.  Today, though … today I looked toward the mystery man across the way and smiled.

“Sure,” I answered.  “Who doesn’t love Valentines Day?”

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Just for Giggles: Character Transplant Exercise

In a fit of randomness, I started thinking about my characters and how they would fit into the real world.  Maybe other writers (especially of fantasy) do this all the time.  It's kind of fun, and has made me think about my characters in-depth, particularly the more minor characters.

I wonder how much you can tell about my book from reading this silliness cold.  Hmm ...

Raina would front a rock band, drawing comparisons to Paramore's Hayley Williams, except Raina would mouth off to the press more than she should.  There would be a rumor about the paparazzi and electrocution, which sensible people would shrug off.

Taz would make major breakthroughs in computer science and linguistic programming, specifically in the development of signing avatars.  She'd be a guest lecturer all over the world, and her company would be puzzled over why she never asked to be reimbursed for her airline tickets.

Niko would take online courses in philosophy while hanging out with Raina on tour, driving his professors to madness with his ability to beat them in any argument.  He'd turn down the opportunity to go to top medical schools and become a writer instead.

Vota would be a MythBuster.  She loves blowing stuff up, so she'd fit right in.

Genno would be a negotiator, but not in any kind of business sense.  Probably law enforcement, hostage negotiation, that kind of thing.  His co-workers would think of him as the nice guy, kind of quiet, but they'd also know not to mess with him.

Willet would be a contestant on Survivor.  He'd be the guy who tries to win by flirting with all the girls.  There would be nasty fights during and after tribal council, claiming that using his shapeshifting to impersonate other tribe members constituted cheating.

Pashti would be a student at the Art Institute of Chicago (sculpture, mostly).  By all appearances, she'd be sophisticated and avant-garde, but secretly she'd spend her Thursdays watching Survivor, rooting for Willet.  (She'd never tell him, though.)

Anyone else ever tried something like this?  Other favorite character exercises?  Feel free to post links in the comments.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

The Author's Skin: Part 2

I wrote previously about how writers respond to criticism of their work.  There's another reason to make sure our skin is thick enough, though: If you're in the public eye, people might go after more than your work.

Think of all the things about you or your personal life people could make fun of or attack.  Your appearance, social status, ethnicity, religion ... I've got a mental list of "easy targets" ready and waiting.

I could save the late-night talk show hosts some time and money by writing the jokes myself.

Where do we draw the line between standing up for ourselves and ignoring people who just want to get a rise out of us?  How do we keep ourselves from taking it personally when it is personal?

Since I halfway expect it, I think I'd just brush it off as ignorance.  I'd also want to try to educate people, to counteract that ignorance, but it's tricky.  Of course, I won't really know unless I ever get into that situation, though online communities have given plenty of small-scale practice.

Last thing I want is to become known as the author who blew up over a supposed personal affront.

I'd rather be known as the author who wrote great books and conducted herself in a classy manner.  Anyone else?

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Name Soup

How many characters can we absorb at a time?

In working on query letters and pitches, I've become conscious of the "name soup" that can happen when too many characters are crammed into that tiny space.  Like a party in a tiny apartment, there's no elbow room and no way to keep track of who's who.

What about in the novel itself, though?  How many new characters can we introduce before the reader needs time to breathe and process?

I suspect part of the answer lies in how we introduce them.  Don't start a ticker-tape parade for a minor character who serves a limited function for a few pages.  Conversely, if the character is important, they need to stand out.

I wonder how much genre and audience play a role.  Do readers expect a large cast of players in certain books?  Readers of sci-fi and fantasy will be more prepared for strange names than readers of a modern-day crime thriller.  What about the number of names to keep track of?

Speaking of strange names, we can make up the craziest names we want, but let's make them pronounceable.  Even if the reader might assume a different pronunciation than we intend, it needs to be possible to come up with something.  Too many fantasy novels evoke my "Pat, I'd like to buy a vowel" reaction.

Now that I've posed the question, I'm going back to check the first scene at the foster home.  Have I thrown too many names in too small a space?  Hopefully not.

Saturday, January 16, 2010


What is it about our own work that makes it so hard to see problems?

Granted, it's not always the case.  I'll often write a sentence and know immediately that I hate it.  If I can't figure out a better way to word it at that moment, I'll let it stand, knowing I'll be able to hash out something better when I return.

Sometimes I read others' work and wonder, "How could they not spot that doozy?"  Yet I'm sure I overlook similar problems in my own work.

Nothing brings you down to earth like having one of your fifteen-year-old students spot a typo for you.

The scientific part of me wonders exactly what's behind these authorial blinders.  In matters of typos and missing words, I'm sure our familiarity with the material causes us to fill in the gaps.  What about those big gaps in logic, though?  Or glaring inconsistencies?

How do we miss those?  And how can we help ourselves by taking those blinders off?

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Looking for Logic

There is some debate about whether any unpublished writer is qualified to critique the work of another.  When it comes to genre-specific conventions or highly technical aspects, maybe not.  But other areas are fair game.

I know not every writer is also a math teacher.  (Okay, hardly any are.)  Still, any literate person should be able to identify where logic fails -- things that make you go, "Huh?"

If these show up in my writing, I hope someone would point them out for me.  All examples have been made up by me, though I've seen similar in my own writing and others'.

Continuity Errors
With an effort, Grandpappy lowered his aching bones to sit in the comfort of his rocking chair.
[5 lines later, during which Grandpappy does not stand up]
The doting granddaughter supported him by the arm so he could sit in the chair his father had lovingly crafted so many years ago.

Being unemployed was doing a number on Stella's self-esteem.
[a chapter later, during which Stella does not get a new job]
Stella supposed being kidnapped by aliens was a satisfactory reason for missing work.

Contradictory Language
Before he even began considering alternate transportation, Trent developed a variety of jetpacks, maglev skis, and hovercars.
[Pretty sure Trent was considering alternate transportation when he came up with those Jetsons-style contraptions.]

"If you want this done right, I'm your man," Freddie said humbly.
[Do I have a different definition of "humble" lying around?]

Any other examples of things that make you go, "Huh?"