Monday, January 31, 2011

January Critique Winners! says the winners of this month's critique giveaway are: Emy Shin and Andrea Mack!

Here's the procedure. Email me at marcia at marciahoehne dot com:
  • The first 1000 words of your magazine story, chapter book, mid-grade novel, or YA novel pasted into the body of the email.
  • Be sure to tell me the genre of the material (one of the above four).
  • Put "(Month) critique winner" in the subject line.
  • Deadline to submit is February 16.
  • When I receive your email, I'll acknowledge receipt and let you know when you can expect my response.
Congratulations to Emy and Andrea, thank you all so much for stopping by and entering, and by all means enter again next month! Wishing you all a great day in the world of books...

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Forge, by Laurie Halse Anderson

 Enter to win critique giveaway through January 30! Scroll down one post.

This book for ages 10 and up, like its predecessor Chains, is set during the American Revolution. We leave Isabel, the protagonist of the first book, to follow her friend Curzon as he accidentally ends up in the battle of Saratoga, makes friends and enemies with other soldiers, spends the winter at Valley Forge, and through it all, wonders if Isabel is still alive--and if he, a runaway slave who'd been a Patriot soldier a year prior, can manage to avoid recapture by his master, Bellingham.

Despite a prologue that reminds us how Isabel and Curzon escaped slavery, the book gets off to a fast start. The shooting begins by the third page of chapter 1, and Curzon is drawn inexorably back into the war when he throws a rock at a Redcoat that gives a Patriot soldier a chance to kill him. We see all the horror of the winter at Valley Forge, including months spent in the snow with no shoes or socks, men clad in nothing but literal rags--such soldiers were classified in roll call as "present but unfit for duty"--and no food except "firecake"--flour mixed with water and fried black in the fire.

This book feels a little more like a history lesson than Chains does, and I think that's because Curzon's story follows the war events so closely, whereas Isabel's relationship with her learning-disabled sister Ruth is central to Chains. I loved Chains and wasn't quite as swept away by Forge--but I liked it a lot. A real lot. The history comes alive in the story, the book is painstakingly researched, and in these times of diluted teaching of history, this is history we need to not lose.

Yet it's not all an American history lesson. For instance, when he thinks about Isabel, fifteen-year-old Curzon realizes his thoughts have gone beyond friendship. SPOILERS AHEAD: When he was younger, he'd been taught he shouldn't kiss anyone to whom he couldn't tell the story of how he'd got his name. In a lovely scene, after he's met up with Isabel again (because you know he will, right?) Curzon tells her how his mother, a Brazilian slave, had always whispered to his father in Portuguese, "You are my heart," and that the word for "heart" had been fashioned into his name. And then, Curzon tells us, "Before I could kiss her, Isabel kissed me."

Though the way in which Curzon and Isabel are reunited is a bit of a stretch, I found that only a minor distraction. The story of Isabel and Curzon will be concluded in a third volume, Ashes, which I'll certainly be picking up. Appendix, glossary and acknowledgments included. Forge is definitely recommended.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

January Critique Giveaway

It's 2011, and it's critique time again! Here are the rules and caveats:
  • I will critique TWO manuscripts each month. By "manuscript" I mean the first 1000 words of a children's magazine story, chapter book, mid-grade novel, or YA novel. Please, fiction only. No picture books or easy readers. No poetry.
  • Enter the drawing by commenting on this post AND stating that you wish to enter. This frees you up to comment, ask a question, or just say hey WITHOUT throwing your name in the hat.
  • For an additional entry, become a follower, and tell me so (or that you already are one).
  • For additional entries, post links to this contest and give the URLs.
  • You may enter one ms. per month. No one person can win both critiques in a single month.
  • Include your email in the comment. But if not, be sure to check back to see if you've won!
  • Enter now through Sunday January 30.
  • Any story that you plan to enter in an ICL contest is ineligible. Since I am an ICL instructor, I cannot edit stories that you intend to enter in an Institute contest.
  • My critique is only one opinion. This business is SO subjective. Any suggestions I make that resonate with you are yours for the taking. Compare mine with those from other beta readers, critique partners, writing teachers, etc. Even if specific suggestions vary, when two or more critiquers pinpoint a certain passage or aspect, there's probably a need for revision there. Yet don't feel you must take advice you don't agree with. In the end, it's your story.
  • Winners will be announced Monday, January 31.
So if the above sounds good to you, let the entering begin!

Monday, January 17, 2011

Blocks, Anyone? Part 2

Scroll down one post for Part 1.

Last time, I talked about whether writer's block is real and how it might be defined. Sometimes blocks have to do with certain fears we hold. But sometimes it's more about feeling stymied on our WIP (work in progress). Here are possible definitions of writer's block that I listed in the first post but have yet to discuss. Is writer's block:
  • Inability to come up with a story idea?
  • Inability to figure out what happens next in your story?
  • Inability to concentrate because life pulls you in a million directions?
  • Inability to get your protagonist out of the predicament you got her into?
Story ideas are funny. Lots of writers have way more than they'll ever use. Others feel they've come up with something original, even ground-breaking--yet it's like a million other books. Still others are like Toad, of Frog and Toad fame, who stands on his head, pours water on himself, bangs his head against the wall, and still can't think of a story. Sometimes inability to think of a story happens when we've been giving, giving, giving out, whether in writing or just life, and haven't let the creative well fill. Try doing something you love. Start a new hobby or resurrect an old one. Visit a museum or go outdoors. Walk. Drink tea and let your mind wander. Pray. Get a decent night's sleep for once. Read or look at pictures on any subject that piques your fancy. Remember that ideas can come from the least likely places, at the least likely times. WRITE THEM DOWN. NOW. Don't think the idea is so great you can't possibly forget. You will, and you'll kick yourself. It'll take 30-60 seconds, and unless the house is burning down there's nothing more significant or lasting  you can do with those seconds. If you're behind the wheel, pull over if possible. If you often get ideas while driving, keep a voice recorder handy to record them, or consider dictating them to a passenger.

A lot of the same techniques can help you get past tough spots in the story itself. The two I hear over and over again are WALK and TAKE A SHOWER. In my experience, walking helps both idea generation and stuck plots, and showering helps the latter. BIG TIME. Who knows why it works? It only matters that it does. The only thing you really have to do is be thinking about your story when you turn the water on. One final thought: Studying craft is an obvious help in dealing with plot or other story problems. Studying craft may not get you through a block; but then again it may, if the block has happened because you've hit the wall at your present level of craft.

As for those million directions--in some seasons of life they truly cannot be helped. But it's our job to figure out if we're in one of those seasons or if we're allowing ourselves to be victims in our own lives, not taking charge, not prioritizing, not saying no to the wasteful, or even to the good that's the enemy of the best. A million directions don't only block time to write, but they block our sense of ourselves as writers, to the point where we can feel blocked simply because we haven't picked up the WIP in so long that inertia has set in. It's easier to just not write, because we can no longer tap into the contentment, sense of well-being, or excitement that writing brings. Two or three days of discipline in sitting down and just "pulling teeth" to get back into the story can restart the flow -- and the fun -- again. Most of the time we're in a place where the choice is ours:  We can write, or we can let things we imagine we "have" to do crowd it out. But that's a whole other rant--er, post.

What's your experience with writer's block? Is it real? What do you see as the causes and cures?

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Blocks, Anyone?

Writer's block is something I've never thought much about. I don't really consider myself as having had it. Writers as celebrated as Katherine Paterson have said they don't believe in it. When I was a teen, my rough drafts just spilled out. When I was writing MG novel series on deadline, there was no time to indulge myself with a "block." I guess my attitude toward writer's block has mostly been that it's mythical, a tad self-important, and something many newly serious writers fear they must encounter as a rite of passage. And if one hasn't had it, why bother dissecting it?

Yet others believe it's real, and I've had students ask about it, especially recently. The first thing to do, it seems, is define what we're talking about. What is writer's block?
  • The fear that anything you write will be horrible?
  • Inability to come up with a story idea?
  • Inability to figure out what happens next in your story?
  • Inability to concentrate because life pulls you in a million directions?
  • Inability to get your protagonist out of the predicament you got her into?
  • Self-protection: If your dream remains a dream, it can't crash and burn?
  • The fear of showing your work to people?
It seems writer's block(s) may come in many shapes and colors, and be called different things by different people. Of the above definitions, the first one and the last two seem to be a struggle in getting your writing from inside yourself to outside yourself, a struggle driven mainly by fear. In other words, the block is us!?!? For one thing, in the beginning we can keep our work private. Let your writing come out onto the screen or page and be what it is. If it's horrible, you are normal. Really. Any professional writer has written a first draft worthy to be taken with the Sears catalog out to what my father used to call "the little house out back." A book I recommend often, Writing it Right, by Sandy Asher, shows the progress of a number of short stories, picture books,  and novel beginnings from first draft to published version. Some of the first drafts are cringe-worthy, but the authors didn't let that stop them. They persevered through many rewrites until the results were excellent and publishable. In fact, I'd go so far as to say whether or not a first draft is icky is beside the point. It's meant merely to get the story idea down and serve as a foundation for rewrites. If it does that, it's not horrible at all.

Of course, if you hope to write as something other than just a private outlet, you must show your work to someone eventually. Now this may come across as a shameless plug, but it's one I believe in: One of the best ways for a beginning writer to find compassionate, knowledgeable, individualized, private help is to take an ICL course. (If writing for adults, you want Long Ridge.) This way, you only have to show your work to your instructor, you don't have to do it face to face, and your instructor balances kindness with knowing what he or she is doing. Hey, I have an acronym of sorts here: P(rivate), I(ndividualized), C(ompassionate), K(knowledeable) -- PICK! Uh -- well, okay, it is a word, though. :)

This is getting lengthy, so come back on Monday the 17th for discussion of writer's block definitions 2 through 5.

What do you think? Is writer's block real?  What would you add to or subtract from my list?

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Blessings of the New Year

Book giveaways will resume the first Thursday of next month, February 3!

Until then, though, it gives me great pleasure to present:

Paige Olivia was born December 15, making four generations of women in our family. As if it weren't obvious, we are, left to right, me, my mom, my granddaughter, and my daughter. And here, a shot of the oldest and youngest at our Christmas Eve gathering.

While we're on women, here's a picture of my sister and me, with the reality of kitchen prep behind us (in one sense, at least):
Grandpa, though is a REAL multitasker:
Okay, I know everybody's kids/grandkids are cute, but you gotta love this:
And who has her arms wide open to the possibilities of 2011?
And my favorites among the wonderful pro shots, by a close and talented friend of my daughter --
And if I weren't humbled enough by my blessings -- these are the priceless little people for whom we write. The privilege, the responsibility...God entrusts it to us... Words fail.