Friday, December 26, 2008

Are You SURE You Don't Like Change?

How often have we heard it, thought it, said it, recognized it: "I don't like change." You can even tell some people that you do like change and they don't believe you, maybe because they don't want to believe you've somehow conquered this bugaboo that they haven't. And while it's true that change for the sake of change isn't always best, that constant overwhelming change can turn practical daily life into chaos, and that routines and tradition-building have their place (especially in the lives of kids and kitty-cats :)), change is good. I like change because: (1) "If you keep doing what you're doing, you'll keep getting what you're getting." How many of us think certain aspects of life couldn't be improved? Without changing what we're doing, that thinking is only wishful thinking. (2) When you stop changing, you start getting old. One of the most concrete (if not necessarily the most important) signs of this is a person's refusal to learn new technology. Not that one has to or should buy every new gadget that comes along, but when a major shift in how a task is handled or a goal reached comes along, and someone in effect says, "That's it, no more, I'm not going there," they've begun the process of opting out and making themselves obsolete. (3) I love to learn, and the essence of learning is change. Think about it. If you truly learn something, the very least you do with it is admit that piece of information into your knowledge base. That's change -- your knowledge base now contains something new. And with most learning, the change is more extensive than that. "I don't like change" = "I don't like to learn." Horrors.

Maybe another reason I like change is because I write fiction and in a successful story characters have to change. But not just any change will do. How do we create meaningful, believable change for our protagonist, as opposed to change that doesn't ring true because it seems to be what the plot needs (never mind if it suits the character), what the particular genre requires (a happy ending for a romance, say), what we've determined from the beginning is the proper moral or religious stand, or what we ourselves want to shoehorn in? I do it by asking myself what the character has learned. Not that you want your story to preach or teach some big lesson, but certainly the character has learned something, made some kind of adjustment, no matter how subtle, to the events of the story. That is the change to bring out in your ending, the change that's true to the character, and the change that will suggest your theme.

Monday, December 22, 2008

A Little Wordplay Today

I have two favorite things about writing. First, by means of making squiggly lines on a surface, one can tell a story or convey information to another. I will never tire of the fascination in that. Second is the words themselves, how they sound, create rhythms, connote and denote, carry greater or lesser power according to their arrangement in a sentence or phrase. Because of this word-love, I love language devices for two reasons: they bring to life a piece of writing, and they are themselves called by such fascinating names, the use of which is fun for the tongue and makes us sound intellectual in the bargain. :)

Most of us learned about metaphor, simile, and personification in junior high. Alliteration, the repetition of initial sounds, is also a pretty familiar concept. But do you know about anaphora (a-NAF-er-a)? This is repetition of initial words in a series of phrases or sentences. A prime example occurs in The Beatitutes in the biblical book of Matthew. Jesus says, "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven; Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted; Blessed are the meek . . ." And so on. With this construction, we can't fail to notice that all of the people mentioned are blessed, blessed, blessed.

Then there's the opposite: epistrophe (ee-PIS-tro-fee). Here the repetition of words is at the end of the phrases or sentences. Again, the Bible gives a well known example: "Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things." The result is that the reader grasps the important concept that love overcomes all things.

Now here's a cool word -- epizeuxis (eh-pi-ZOOK-sis). This is simply the repetition of one word for emphasis, which means it's not that hard to be able to claim, "Look, I've used epizeuxis!" For example: "Alone, alone, all all alone,
Alone on a wide, wide sea."
Samuel Taylor Coleridge, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner

A less highbrow use that comes to mind is the real estate industry's "Location, location, location."

Finally, let's look at antimetabole (an-tee-meh-TAH-bo-lee), which repeats the words in a given phrase in reverse order. "When the going gets tough, the tough get going." "We do not stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing" (Benjamin Franklin). I really like the "food for thought" quality of this device. Antimetabole seeks to show just how often our thinking is the opposite of what is sensible, helpful and true. "Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country" (John F. Kennedy). "You can take the boy out of the city, but you can't take the city out of the boy."

These four devices dealing with the effects of repetition are only the tip of the rhetorical iceberg. For writers, there's such richness in both story-craft and word-craft. The funny thing is, inadvertent repetition can sound clunky and boring, but purposeful, crafted repetition sounds strong, clarifies meaning, and gives our readers that resonance we want them to take away from our work. Do you have any favorite rhetorical devices?

Monday, December 15, 2008

Book of the Semi-Month Club

Paper Towns by John Green has gotten plenty of buzz, as any new novel by John Green will. And it deserves most of it. Brilliant "guy" dialogue and LOL-funny antics abound. Either Green had a very colorful youth, or you can make this stuff up. If you're John Green. Of course, there are spoilers below.

High-school-senior Quentin Jacobsen has known fellow senior Margo Roth Spiegelman since they were two, and loved her almost as long. Margo is adventurous, mysterious, uattainable, curvaceous, a frequent runaway, and in Q's life when she chooses to be. And the night she cooks up eleven jaw-dropping (and hilarious) acts of revenge on her cheating boyfriend, her cheating best friend, and assorted others while she's at it, she chooses to be. She needs Q's help. And his wheels. And to throw out hints all over the place that this night is a grande finale before she says goodbye to this paper town -- this unreal, artificial Orlando. Maybe for good.

Sure enough, Margo isn't in school the next day. Or for many days after. A series of clues leads Q through a number of abandoned new subdivisions to find her. These, too, are "paper towns," in a sense, started and not finished. Fearing that she has killed herself and wants him to find her body, just as the two of them discovered a dead body as children, Q and his sidekicks search through several creepy places, and Green does a good job of making readers fear that Margo may truly be dead. But when they discover the most interesting meaning of "paper towns," the hunt for Margo takes a new turn. That turn leads to a breathtakingly funny and somewhat crude road trip from Florida to New York in 21 hours.

Paper towns are non-existent towns that mapmakers put on maps for the sole purpose of catching copyright infringers. Only the original map will contain the paper town; the infringers won't know to include it because it doesn't exist. Green explains in the author's note that he learned about paper towns when he and a friend found one -- or didn't find it -- on a road trip. This is a great example of using a fresh and different personal experience to inspire a novel.

Now for my misgivings: First, Margo. She isn't only an enigma to Q, she's a bit too much of one to this reader. There's an awful lot of deep conversation between the two when they meet up again at the end of the book and determine who they are, who they aren't, and who they can't be to each other, and I found my eyes glazing over in parts. And I love the introspective and the deep. I found I didn't really care if I understood it all, because I didn't care enough about Margo. I found her a reckless, troubled, self-absorbed girl who needs healing and counseling, too much for Q and their other friends to handle. Second, isn't this story kind of Looking for Alaska meets An Abundance of Katherines? On its own terms, Paper Towns is a memorable book, with funny, likable (other than Margo), totally modern teen characters. And did I say funny? But within Green's body of work -- I hate to say it, but this book seems to me evidence that he may be falling into the trap of writing the same book over and over. I hope his next novel is a definite departure from what he's already done. I'll give this book its due, but An Abundance of Katherines is still the best in my book.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Plot Begins with W

As this blog advertises, we have a smattering of math today in the form of triangles and line segments. And they say writing and math are strange bedfellows! :) Let me explain: In my writer's library is a helpful volume called Writing Fiction, Nonfiction, and How to Publish by Pat Kubis and Bob Howland. (Yes, it's pretty comprehensive, though not that thick a book.) The one piece of advice from this book that I've never forgotten, and have now gone back to revisit, is the section on plot structures, particularly the "classic plot" described by Aristotle, discussed and interpreted by a number of others, and diagrammed like the above. Using several specific examples (such as Hemingway's Old Man and the Sea and Tennessee Williams's Streetcar Named Desire) Kubis and Howland make an excellent case that many strong plots follow a pattern in the shape of a W. Basically, the line segment AG represents the main character's overall goal. AB, a downward line, is the first major obstacle that stands in his way. BC is an upward turn caused by the character's attempt to overcome this barrier. Things are looking up, and CD represents a high point -- it looks as if success is at hand. But in DE, disaster strikes. The trouble gets worse, and EF shows the slide to catastrophe, the black moment. FG is the resolution, in which the protagonist finally achieves his intent, although it may or may not have happened in the way he expected, or even be as worthwhile as he thought.

Multiple characters in a book often have their own W diagrams, and the book itself, separate from any one of its characters, can have a thematic one too. The segments of the W can be different lengths. For example, point F, as the lowest point in the book, might be shown as lower than point B, making the whole DF line segment longer (filled with more action than some of the other parts) and the climb up to success (FG) steeper and more arduous. The endpoints of the line segments are the pivotal events that define each phase and signal the switch to the next. For example, what event, exactly, is your high point (your point D)? What event causes the slide down to E? What scene in your book is your point F? The W diagram can be really helpful in making sure that your plot actually has such moments.

Ever since I first read this, I've been creating W diagrams as part of plot and character development. Since the segment AG represents the character's conflict or goal, and the line segments of the W show what action the protagonist is taking to get there, the W concept really helps show how character and plot develop hand in hand. As it's often been stated (to my great relief, because I prefer character development) "Character is plot."

Monday, December 8, 2008

In the Writer's Library, The Plot Thickens

When I was a newer writer, I belonged to the Writer's Digest Book Club. Most months I'd squeeze at least one book into my modest budget, and after four purchases earn enough points for a freebie that I'd select with great glee. I bought books on nuts-and-bolts basics like plot, POV, and setting; quite a few on novel writing; basic plot patterns and how to use them; most of the offerings specific to children's writing; plotting; creative nonfiction; the writer's life; and did I mention plotting? I read them, marked them up, talked to them in the margins, got a good education and built a decent writer's library this way.

Time passed. And the books aren't as new as they once were. But they're still on my shelves, a library of writerly wisdom. Wouldn't it be exciting to delve into them again? So I picked up the book called -- this will shock you -- Plot by Ansen Dibell. And found a treatment for what ails me in a chapter called "Early Middles."

My novel is begun. It is SO begun, that it's been begun for a year. I have my research (LOVE that research!), my characters, my MC's initial problem and a bang-up complication, and my first 50 pages. I have promise, potential, and critique partners who want to know what happens next. But forging into the middle is hard. It really makes me plot, you see. And it's so much easier to remain in the land of potential and promise than to battle on into the thick of the story and possibly fall on my face. And I've noticed that after really getting that beginning perking, a sort of fatigue sets in.

Guess what: I'm normal! Dibell calls this "fiction fatigue," and has developed the following tenet: "Every plot will try to go wrong after the first big scene." Take a two-day breather, move into your middle, and leave your beginning alone, she says. Because you're tempted to go down a wrong path after the first big scene, if you start fiddling with your beginning right after you finish it, when the wrong path is beckoning, you're likely to make changes based on this wrong-path thinking. Which means most of this second-guessing will be wrong. And I've noticed one thing about my own writing process that corroborates what Dibell is saying: If I feel a slow-down coming on, it's important to stop and listen. What's usually wrong is that I'm about to make a mistake. Stepping back from that portion of the story temporarily to view the whole and to give my mind a rest can keep me from taking a wrong fork in the road.

And then she speaks my words of affirmation for the day: "I think more stories have collapsed from premature tinkering than from any other single cause." Yes! Not only should the writer refrain from revising too soon, but from having the work critiqued too soon. (How you deal with the latter, when you belong to a group and want to remain a member, may be another topic.)

Dibell speaks directly to me when she says, "Fiction fatigue: expect it, and don't let it ruin your story." Now to see what she has to say about "gearing up for the special tasks that middles involve."

Thursday, December 4, 2008

How Can You Write a Children's Book? Let Us Count the Ways . . .

It's something children's writers run into all the time -- the general public equating "children's book" with "picture book." But of course there are many genres, age levels, and types of books. I don't know about you, but I benefit from a review of categories and guidelines every now and then, because these things DO change. I've done some research as a refresher for myself, and found that there are no fewer than eleven children's and YA book categories. Let's take a look.

1. Baby Books -- These are for infants as the name suggests, and may be nursery rhymes, lullabies, books that picture and name common objects, or even wordless. Sometimes these are made of plastic rather than paper or cardboard, are very small in size, and viewed as "toy books" more than "real books."
2. Toddler Books -- Here is the beginning of simple stories of a child's everyday experiences or nonfiction topics such as colors, shapes, and so forth. Format branches out to include board books, pop-ups, or novelty books (those that make sounds, have die-cuts, scratch-and-sniff, etc.) Lengths usually top out around 300 words.
3. Early Picture Books -- For ages roughly 2-6, big sellers in this category may find a double life as board books. For example, Good Night, Moon. These books are shorter than 800 words, sometimes closer to 500.
4. Picture Books -- This the category most people mean when they use the term "picture book." These books are for ages 4-8 and traditionally contain 32 pages, although sometimes they have 40. Word lengths are usually around 1000 words. (The older 48-page format, at least for fiction, is pretty much dead, as is the longer "picture storybook" format that might extend up to 1500 words or so; you can still find the latter at a few publishers.) Topics, types of stories, and writing styles really start to branch out here, yet the pictures still tell at least 50% of the story. Most Caldecott-winning titles fall into this category. Nonfiction picture books can run maybe 2000 words, and may have that 48-p. length.
5. Easy Readers -- These books for about ages 6-9 have a more "grown-up" size and shape, but still generally have fewer than 2000 words and can be a lot shorter than that. They may be divided into "chapters" that are often self-contained episodes. Sentences must be grammatically simple -- simpler than in picture books, perhaps -- and usually written in a "ragged right" style, in which each line ends at a natural pause to aid comprehension. Publishers often subdivide this category into early, middle, and advanced easy readers.
6. Early Chapter Books -- Also aimed at about ages 6-9, these are written like easy readers yet are longer and reduce the illustrations to one every few pages instead of one per page or spread. A typical ms. for a book like this may run 20-30 pp. Plots depend on action and dialogue, not thoughts or psychological content.
7. Chapter Books -- Both age level and ms. length are growing -- about 7-10 and 45-60 pp. for these. Plots gain some complexity, but are still action-based. These books begin to employ cliffhangers at chapter endings. Chapter books are NOT middle-grade novels, which are described next.
8. Middle Grade Books -- These are traditionally for ages 8-12, and ms. lengths suddenly jump much higher. Largely because of Harry Potter, the general 25,000-word and 100-150 pp. in ms. length are now "floor figures" in the opinions of some. Lengths can and do get considerably longer. One or more subplots figure in. This is the age at which kids begin to fall in love with characters rather than just the action, and it's the age most likely to determine whether a child will become a permanent reader. Genres expand to include the gamut: historical, fantasy, especially humor; and nonfiction will cover just about anything a kid can be curious about. Most Newbery winners fall into this category, and a look at those will show you the sudden jump in sophistication level between MG novels and chapter books. Middle grade novels are NOT chapter books, which were described prior.
9. Upper Middle-Grade -- Also informally called "tween," this is a fairly new category aimed at kids ages 10-14. While there've been books designated for this age range for decades, the category is catching fire in the marketplace. Some Newbery contenders definitely straddle this category; think anything by Gary Schmidt, for example. As we might expect, kids who feel they've outgrown mid-grade but aren't quite ready for the "coming of age" and psychological/emotional concerns of YA readers will gravitate here. These readers want a peek into teen life, but from a bit of a distance yet.
10. Young Adult -- These books, usually for ages 12 and up, tend to deal with coming of age and the MC's inner feelings. The MC might be 15 or 16 years old and is likely to speak in first person. Nonfiction for YAs can cover subjects studied in high school or supplement it, typically in the broad areas of science or social studies.
11. Older YA -- For ages approximately 14 and up, older YA often crosses over with adult fiction these days. Some of these plots are grittier and carry the older teen protagonist, who is often 18, out from under the parental roof. Most restraints on adult behavior are lifted, and readers are assumed to understand a story on the same level of comprehension as an adult could.

Now -- I feel positively organized after all that! :) Which category is your favorite?

Monday, December 1, 2008

Book of the Semi-Month Club

In which I discuss A Room on Lorelei Street by Mary E. Pearson and issue a spoiler alert. At seventeen, Zoe's childhood-that-never-was is gone, swallowed up in role reversal as she takes care of her alcoholic mother. From the beginning we learn that "it's always been about Mama," and gradually other details unfold: Mama has never been there with such simple things as a hot meal and a kiss on the cheek, Mama never wanted her to begin with, Dad died in a drunken stupor of his own in a hotel bathtub in what may or may not have been a suicide. Zoe's younger brother has found a home with an aunt and uncle, but "there isn't room" for Zoe there. Outside of being addressed by her mother as "Sugar," especially when Mama wants something, Zoe is an abandoned child, clinging only to her father's story of naming her Zoe when she was still in the womb and her mother didn't want her, because Zoe means "life." And clinging to the tantalizing fact of a room for rent, a room on Lorelei Street.

The house on Lorelei Street is owned by a sweet but eccentric old lady with a "can do" attitude who has long since stopped caring whether anyone thinks she's weird. In this respect, the book falls into the "eccentric old neighbor who just needs a friend" cliche that shows up frequently in children's lit, though mostly in younger stories. Predictably, the two unlikely friends connect and supply each other's needs: increased income and human contact for the landlord, a healthy adult role model and encourager for Zoe. But Zoe's only source of income is her waitress job at a diner, and financial trouble can't be far off.

Quicker trouble erupts in the form of a visit from Grandma, who knocks at her door and hollers about what a horrible girl she is for moving out. Suddenly we learn about a whole family we didn't know Zoe had: Mama is Grandma's youngest and favorite child, and Grandma denies that Mama's alcohol problems are killing her. Zoe almost gives in to Grandma's insistence that she move back home, then refuses. Taunting her that she isn't real family, will not be welcome at her brother's birthday party, and will certainly "come begging and crying" to be taken back, Grandma storms off. And Zoe determines she will never go crawling back. Though this portion of the novel does the very important job of putting Zoe between a rock and a hard place, I found the sudden introduction/acknowledgment of so many new family members jarring. I think some hint of their existence should have been given earlier.

Pearson's greatest success is the compassion for Zoe that she evokes in the reader. Zoe is an understandably and believably tough girl -- she swears, smokes, has looked for love in several wrong places, tends to run afoul of teachers, and yet our hearts go out to her. She represents youth's desperate search for direction, meaning, purpose, love, someone to have a care what happens to them. We understand why she flirts with death, often balance-beaming across an aqueduct with other daredevil kids, although others have fallen in and drowned.

I must say, I was disconcerted to find a 4th-level Accelerated Reader sticker on this book. The seventeen-year-old MC, abundant use of four-letter words, taken-for-granted teen sex, a quick "ewww" snapshot of the drunken mother with a lover, and Zoe's ultimate sex-for-pay with a diner customer when she is desperate for rent make this an upper YA title. The word "prostitute" is never used, but Zoe realizes after only the one episode that she is now too much like Mama and Daddy for comfort -- she who would do anything for the room, the same way her parents would do anything for a drink. In the end, she is off to stay with one of Grandma's other daughters for a while -- the one who distanced herself from the drama early -- "as long as there's room."

Monday, November 24, 2008

Book of the Semi-Month Club

I'd begun to wonder if I should dub myself "The Finicky Reader." So much of what I was picking up lately just wasn't doing it for me. Chains, by Laurie Halse Anderson was a welcome change, or maybe a welcome return to normal. It doesn't hurt that the book is in my favorite genre, historical fiction. Set during the Revolutionary War, Chains follows the story of thirteen-year-old Isabel, a slave whose elderly female owner has written a will freeing her her upon her death. But the funeral has barely ended when we learn just how chained Isabel and her small sister Ruth are: The lawyer who drew up the will is gone, fled to Boston because of a threatened blockade, and the deceased's only living relative sniffs, "The girl is lying, then. She knows the lawyer is absent and her cause cannot be proved." He takes Isabel and Ruth to Newport, where he sells them to an unpleasant couple, the Locktons. With their new owners, they sail to New York City.

The Locktons are Tories, but Anderson doesn't cast all of her Patriots as Good and Loyalists as Bad. Madam Lockton is in fact the only throughly dislikable character, instantly despising the mentally challenged Ruth (who will later prove to be epileptic) and slapping Isabel across the face for the first time while they are still at the docks. Also at the docks are Patriots who suspect Lockton of being a Tory, and a slave boy, Curzon, who belongs to one of them. Quickly sizing up the situation, Curzon wastes little time asking Isabel to spy for the Americans, against her new owners.

But Isabel holds back. "I'm just fighting for me and Ruth," she says. "You can keep your rebellion." Curzon explains that New York has been bouncing back and forth between the British and the Patriots and is currently held by the Patriots. That if people like Lockton can be arrested, that would strengthen the Patriots' hold. That there are people among the Patriots who, if she would spy for them, might see to it that she gets to that lawyer who can prove she is free. When she asks how she could possibly learn anything of value, Curzon speaks bitterly. "You are a small black girl. You are a slave, not a person. They'll say things in front of you they won't say in front of the white servants. 'Cause you don't count to them. It happens all the time to me."
Fearful of retaliation, especially toward Ruth, Isabel resists at first. Of course we know she will eventually spy, that conditions at the Locktons' will disillusion her to the point that she will. And after Madam Lockton mistreats and then sells Ruth, Isabel does spy, passing secrets to Curzon, his Patriot owners, and their associates. Yet nothing is simple. Isabel has begun to wonder if her own chances for freedom are better if she appeals for help to the British. Many of them don't support slavery. Her friendship with Curzon rises to a new level when Madam Lockton, suspicious of her activities, has her branded on the cheek with the letter I, for Insolence. It is he who lends support, care, and food when she needs it. And when the tide turns in the war, and Curzon is among those captured by the British and imprisoned, it's Isabel's visits that literally keep him alive. One of the best scenes in the book occurs when Isabel negotiates, with the toughest prisoner, Curzon's humane treatment in the prison in exchange for her return trips bringing food.

Chains is an absorbing Revolutionary story made more interesting because of the New York setting, the balanced view of both sides, and the focus on a Northern slave. I was pleased to learn at the end that the story of Isabel and Curzon will be continued in another volume -- especially because the conclusion of this story is left so obviously open-ended.

Monday, November 10, 2008

A Book and a Journey

Oohhh, I've found a good book to read. At least it's good so far, and in my favorite genre, historical fiction. I'll review it on -- oh my goodness -- December 1? Nah, I can go off schedule and do it sooner.

Alas, I can't review it on November 15 because I won't have it read we will be gone to our son's house to help with the grandchildren while our daughter-in-law has a medical procedure. (All is expected to be fine.) I won't have convenient Internet access there. We'll be gone the better part of a week, so I shall be cyber-speechless for the duration. Were I a little more together, I'd have scheduled auto-posts to appear the whole time. But something in my mostly-organized little world has got to give. Stay tuned till about a week before Thanksgiving, when I shall endeavor to get my blogging feet under me once again. Hey, maybe I'll even talk about writing one of these days. :)

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Book of the Semi-Month Club

I feel like a kid who hasn't done her homework.

It's book talk time and I don't have my book report done.

I haven't been able to read. Part of the trouble is time. Part of it is I'm in hyper mode and can't sit still. Part of it is I tried three books and couldn't get into any of them. On one of the three I still haven't given up, but I might yet. I'm sorry and frustrated to say every last one of 'em bugged me. Especially a certain one. Voice, voice, "Aren't-I-clever" voice. No defined central conflict. Static title. Slice-of-life. By a past Newbery winner. Bleccch. May I have a plot, please? And if you manage to find one, would you, like, get out of its way and just be the conduit for your story instead of taking center stage yourself?

I'm in a place I've never been in. A place where I'd like to hide in a book and can't. Oh, I've read hide-worthy ones this year, but I don't have one at the moment. And if I do, it's not within the world of children's literature.

I'm being a crabpatch. But things are weird.

Okay, this is weird. I sent someone an email today. He replied to let me know the message was blank.

Less than an hour ago, my printer quit. Specifically, in the middle of a job, it began spitting out blank pages. I've unplugged, replugged, rebooted, changed cartridges, done all the troubleshooting, and finally emailed tech support. We'll see what happens. Color printing works. But I don't USE color. Gimme black. For a project I need to print out this weekend, I NEED black. It's a standard form that I cannot switch to a color.

Can't read. Can't write. Can't print. Can't email. It's all blank.

What in the vast world of literary symbolism does this mean?

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

NaNoWriMo -- Educate Me Today!

I've never tried NaNoWriMo and have never really been tempted. I'm a pretty slow writer, and certain I'll produce absolute dreck if I try this. For those of you who are doing it, what's your goal or motivation? For those of you who've done it in the past, was your goal met? Were there benefits or drawbacks you didn't foresee? Are you sold on it, or is it something you've done once and "never again"? Did/do you consider it mostly an exercise to get the flow going, or do you hope to, or did you, produce something you can revise for submission?

I've left you a few days to respond before the big event actually starts, in case you're all going to disappear from the blogosphere for a month. :) Hope it works great for any of you who are taking the plunge.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Book of the Semi-Month Club

Spoiler alert: Instead of MG or YA fiction, I'm talking adult nonfiction today. After all, it's required reading and in these frantic days even I don't have a novel going. (Feel free to come at me with the thermometer and aspirin.) I'll be back to normal next time, especially since the library now has a few more well-anticipated novels waiting for me. Should I be able to get them read. I was packing up dishes last night at my mother's and realized that between this move and the rest of my life I'm going to be solid busy, morning-noon-and-night busy, for the rest of this month if we're going to pull off this move and still manage to pay the movers for only two hours. But I'll spare you the whining, since who's not busy?

I mentioned a month or so ago that I'm enrolled in a ministry school class on prayer. One of the books I have to read is The Prophetic Intercessor by James W. Goll, published by Chosen Books. I was first introduced to the concept of prophetic intercession around 2003, and if you're anything like me it sounds confusing at first. What does foretelling the future have to do with praying on another's behalf? Well, my two answers are "it's not about foretelling the future" and "a lot."

Remember Jonah and the whale? (Although the Bible calls it a fish, and as we all learned in elementary school science, a whale is not a fish.) Jonah got swallowed because he was running away from God. He was a prophet, and God had told him to go to the city of Ninevah and preach in the streets about its wickedness, warning the people to repent. He wanted so badly to avoid this that he jumped on a ship to elsewhere and was caught in a storm at sea. Anyway, once he got out of the fish, Jonah went to Ninevah and announced, "Forty more days and Ninevah will be destroyed." But the people repented and changed their ways, God had compassion, and canceled the destruction. This very likelihood was what had made Jonah angry in the first place. He said, in effect, "I went out and made a spectacle of myself telling them their city would be destroyed, and it didn't happen! I look like a fool!" So -- does a prophet foretell the future? Not exactly. Not even most of the time. A prophet speaks the word of God, as either revealed to him or her or gleaned from the Bible. People can respond or fail to respond to that word and either bring it to pass or change it.

Now it becomes easier to see what Goll means by prophetic intercession. The intercessor can speak what God is saying (what the Bible has to say on the subject, what the "still small voice" is telling him or her, or both) about the situation in prayer, knowing that this is God's will on the matter. In this way, the intercessor truly becomes a go-between -- not just "an attorney" representing the need before God, but as someone who can pray more accurately because of the two-way communication. And God wants the communication more than we do. Goll writes, "Just think: He lets us ask Him to do what He wants to do for us. What a mystery and a privilege!"

Unlocking more and more keys to answered prayer in this class has been exciting. It's halfway over. In about six weeks I'll post my take on the whole, unless I have more to say before then. :)

Monday, October 13, 2008

Still Breathin' . . .

The writer within is stirring. Yesterday she started a short story and wrote half of it. She wants the fun of it back; she wants the joy of creation back; but she doesn't want to force anything or talk it to death. She's stirring.

Book of the Semi-Month Club will appear on 10/15 as scheduled, although it will be a bit out of the box since it will reflect what I've been reading in the last couple of weeks. Till then, thanks for stopping by . . .

Monday, October 6, 2008

Livin' La Vida Loca

And whose life isn't crazy, right? At least some of the time, and too often a lot of the time? But I've stepped up to a new level of insanity that is "new" for several reasons: (1) I can't opt out of any of this responsibility. A number of family decisions (mainly involving my mother's affairs) are simply on my shoulders and must be made and carried out in mucho detail (as long as there's a Spanish flavor to this post :)). (2) This has gone way beyond multi-tasking. This is multi-layered multi-tasking, in which even those things I'm putting off are things that can't be put off. You know what's scary? I don't even have small children anymore. Although, speaking of my mother, she was right: You don't concern yourself one iota less when they're grown. In fact, once they take on jobs, spouses, mortgages, and children of their own, you experience that much more "walking around with your heart outside your body," as somebody once summed up parenting.

Billy Graham was asked what he found to be the biggest surprise of life. His answer was, "The brevity of life is the biggest surprise." I would agree. But, thus far, I have to add that another big surprise is that the decade of my 50s is the most chaotic I've yet had, much more so than, say, my 30s. (And my 40s was the most fun.)

Okay, not everything I said in point 2 is quite true. I have put off some things that can be put off. Like reading. For a writer, reading isn't optional, of course. So it's not like I'm jettisoning some hobby here. I don't have any mere pastimes; for the most part, as an adult I've not had the luxury of being able to "pass" time. I haven't watched TV since Murder, She Wrote went off the air. :)

But the cheese gets more binding, as my grandma used to say: I'm not writing, either.

The irony that I am blogging but not writing is not lost on me. I think it's that I'm trying to keep my public act together as much as possible -- even though my activity on boards and blogs is sketchier than it was two months ago, aided by the seemingly monthly problems with my Internet connection lately.

People often complain they don't have time to write, and I'm not horribly sympathetic with that view. Most of the time, the truth is that they're simply choosing other things. But not having the psychological space and peace to write is something else, which I've tended to address in the past by writing short stories as opposed to novels, and nonfiction as opposed to fiction. Right now I'm not sure what I'm going to do. But I've had to face that this difficult period has been going on for seven years now, and that's rather scary.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Book of the Semi-Month Club

I guess I'm on a futuristic novel kick lately, although that wasn't planned. Today's book is Rash by Pete Hautman, a National Book Award winner published in 2006. Like The Hunger Games, the novel by Suzanne Collins that I discussed a few days ago, Rash imagines what might happen if certain conditions of today continue unchecked into the future. Unlike The Hunger Games, Rash is funny and satirical. The year is 2076, America is now the USSA, and the pledge has evolved to the following:

I pledge allegiance to the flag
of the Safer States of America
and to the Republic for which it stands
one nation under law
with security and safety for all.

In sixteen-year-old Bo Marsten's United Safer States of America, 24% of all teens and adults are serving time in workcamps, sent away as menaces to society. Drop a piece of fruit while unloading groceries and someone slips on it and gets a concussion? You're sent up for a year of hard labor on a farm. Punch a guy out at a party? For Bo's brother that's two years patching holes on a Nebraska freeway. Road rage? You risk a prison stint shelling shrimp in Louisiana -- like Bo's dad. In fact, legislating higher safety standards than mere humans can bear has resulted in an economy that depends on a sizable prison population to perform its manual labor.

Bo is a talented runner, proud of running 100 meters in under 14 seconds. But his gramps, born way back in 1990, did it in 11. "That was before the Child Safety Act of 2033," says Bo. "Now every high school runner has to wear a full set of protective gear -- AtherSafe shoes with lateral ankle support and four layers of memory gel in the thick soles, knee pads, elbow pads, neck brace, tooth guard, wrist monitor, and an FDHHSS-certified sports helmet. We raced on an Adzorbium trace with its five centimeters of compacted gel-foam topped by a thick sheet of artificial latex. It's like running on a sponge." In Bo's world, it's illegal to walk outdoors without a helmet, own a large dog, possess a chain saw, drive without a safety web, or play football. (Football is still on TV, but broadcast from South American countries like "Columbistan" and Paraguay.) Students who appear ill in the classroom are escorted out by a pair of masked medtechs and taken to quarantine.

Bo has typical high school problems. The girl he likes prefers the guy he hates, fellow runner Karlohs Mink. Bo also has some of the same temper problems that plagued his father and brother, and he's already in trouble for calling Karlohs "dog-anus mouth." It's a "three-strikes-and-you're-out world," and Bo has two strikes. (What was strike one? That was the time his classmate broke a pencil and Bo flipped him a replacement whose graphite tip accidentally punctured the forehead of a third student. Bo got a month's probation, and pencils were banned from the school.) His luck runs out when students start getting a strange facial rash and Karlohs manages to place blame on Bo. He's sentenced to an Arctic camp (the USSA has annexed Canada) that makes assembly-line pizzas (a strictly retro food for old geezers) and is surrounded by the world's few remaining, very hungry polar bears. But the warden at this camp fields an illegal football team. And because he can run, Bo makes the team. Prison isn't so bad -- pizza and football -- but how will he feel when he has to go back to his regimented life? Hint: After high school graduation, South American football is looking pretty good.

One passage in this novel stopped me cold. After relating Gramps's memories of shopping malls in the early 21st century -- you would go to actual stores, try on actual shoes (now banned for fear of the spread of athlete's foot) -- Bo launches into a paragraph that begins, "Everything works different now, of course." He then proceeds to tell us how mall shopping works "now": a vending machine measures you for size, shows you a hologram of how you'd look in the item, etc. But just a minute. Whom is Bo talking to here? Why would Bo, a teen in 2076, think he was speaking to someone who didn't know how to shop at a mall in that day and age? This struck me as a serious misstep in a 6-page chapter, although perhaps smallish in proportion to the whole novel. A lapse of logic in an otherwise entertaining story.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

I'm Just Like This Guy!

In The Artful Edit, Susan Bell gives examples from many writers' processes. I had a lot of fun reading her account of how author Luc Sante works, because I saw myself. According to Bell, Sante himself has interviewed over 100 writers and found hardly any who work the way he does. I am one of these rare birds.

Sante doesn't do drafts, by which he means he doesn't write a fairly quick first draft and then go over it numerous times to fix different aspects each time. Sante edits as he writes, meaning he does a lot of it in his head. His "first draft" takes forever, because he's editing all the way, to the point where the sentences that actually get recorded are pretty polished, and he sides with those who believe that the more an idea perks in the brain, the more mature and better-written it will be when it does hit the page. Sante says: "I write the next paragraph, the next page, painfully slowly, as if I were picking up a transmission from Alpha Centauri on a crystal radio in bad weather. I can't go on to the next sentence until this one feels right . . ."

Sante hardly macro-edits at all, but micro-edits to no end even after writing the high-level "draft." He writes strictly in sequence, rarely changing the order or structure of scenes but picking tirelessly at words. And here's a quote I think is really cool: "Sometimes . . . I get the next sentence dictated to me, which means, generally, that I hear its exact rhythm before I know what the words will be that compose it."

Wow. Me too. All of it. It feels kind of strange, because it seems that everybody writes in drafts and so I speak of drafts too. I mean, it's common language with which to communicate with other writers. But I'm outing myself by identifying with Sante. I do it the way he does.

Anybody else do this?

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Newbery/Printz Watch III

Well, I've just finished one of the heavy-hitters for this season, The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. It's a good book for discussion, because to me there's a lot to love but a few things to question, too. While some have said it's on the line between contending for the Newbery and Printz, I don't agree. I think this futuristic fantasy is YA all the way. I also think that for a potential award winner it's maybe a little more plot-driven than most. Alert: spoilers ahead.

The book is sort of "'The Lottery' meets reality TV." The premise takes some length to explain: The continent formerly known as North America has been battered into a much smaller land area by an assault of storms, droughts, fires, and rising oceans. As square mileage decreased, the battle for resources increased, bringing about a reorganization of the country, now called Panem, to a "shining Capitol" located in the Rockies surrounded by 13 Districts, a few economically okay, the rest scrambling to feed themselves. When the Districts banded together and made war on the Capitol, 12 were defeated and the 13th bombed off the map. The victorious Capitol handed down what was called The Treaty of Treason, giving new laws to keep the people under their thumb, the centerpiece of which is a tournament for ages 12-18 called The Hunger Games. Each district must provide one girl and one boy, chosen by lottery, as contestants. The 24 "tributes" are imprisoned in a huge outdoor arena of brutal terrain where they, very simply, fight to the death until one is left standing. Filled with ceremony, celebration, training and pageantry, the entire Hunger Games is broadcast on live TV, and is required viewing for all citizens of Panem, who are to (and do) consider it great sport.

Katniss, a sixteen-year-old girl from District 12, an area of Appalachia called the Seam, has spent her entire life trying to feed her family after the death of her father in the coal mines and the subsequent emotional crumbling of her mother. An ace with a bow and arrow, risking capture every day by illegal hunting, Katniss knows something about survival. She does not expect to win the Games, but of course we know she will. Trouble is, the boy from District 12, Peeta, is just as likable a character as Katniss, is in love with her, and we know there can only be one winner.

When the rules change to allow two winners, my first reaction was that this was horribly contrived. It isn't until Katniss and Peeta are the only two left standing that the rules change back, and at that point I understood it better. The first rule change, I believe, was faux, not real, done for ultimate audience entertainment: "Let's root for the two lovers to survive!" But the Capitol never had any intention of allowing more than one winner, I believe, and that's why it rescinds the rule change in the end. And Katniss outsmarts the Capitol, and both she and Peeta live.

I didn't know until I reached the end that this is the first of a trilogy. My first question was "What can come next?" My guesses: In Book 2, Katniss and Peeta return to District 12 as celebrities to train new District 12 tributes (the fate of Games winners), Katniss must choose between Peeta and the best guy friend she left behind, Gale, and she must face repercussions for having outsmarted the Capitol. In Book 3, I'll bet on a successful uprising that defeats the Capitol.

A number of grammatical errors surprised me. The first time "I" was used when "me" should have been, I fell completely out of the story and just sat there staring at it for a time, wondering if my eyes were deceiving me. And then it happened again. Still, the characters, world creation, and plot are original and gripping. The Hunger Games is outstanding among the competition, and is a fine bet to win the Printz Games.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Aw, Thanks!

I've received this award from Brenda. Isn't it sweet? Now I'm to tap seven others whose blogs I enjoy. Just like the meme thing below, I apologize if it seems I can't count. I can, actually, since as we'll recall there is sometimes arithmetic in this blog! :) The thing is, I don't want to tap any of the same people Brenda tapped, I do want to tap blogs that stand out to me, and I have no idea if any of the following have already received this award or not. If so, I half apologize, and I half don't, because my picking you again just means more love for your blog. :) Jacqui Robbins (funny and smart), Tabitha Olson (full of good food for thought), The Bookshelf Muse (unique focus!), Anne Spollen (grabber topics, cool white-on-black look), and Angela Cerrito (for cultural focus). I hope I haven't forgotten any I'd really like to have here. But since I've never quite gotten to subscribing in a reader, I don't really have my blogs organized.
The idea is to copy this picture and post it on your blog, link to the person who gave you the award, give it to seven (or apply the fudge factor to arrive at your own number) others, link to them, and let them know what you've done. Well, you all have a great day -- now we should all stop procrastinating and get back to work. :)

Saturday, September 20, 2008

As If We Didn't Already Know Reading was Important . . .

Last time I talked about The Artful Edit by Susan Bell, I mentioned that she divides editing into two main components, the macro- and micro-edit, and that many writers prefer and are stronger in one than the other. I'm a micro-editor, as is Bell, as was F. Scott Fitzgerald, the author she profiles in much of her book. Hey, not bad company to be in. :)

What might be a reason to prefer the micro-edit? Maybe the way Bell chooses to begin that section of her book sheds some light. She quotes novelist John O'Hara as saying, "I read slowly, because when I read . . . I am intently busy."

Can I just stop here and sigh and take that in?

Micro-editing, Bell agrees, thrives on the ability to read slowly. Then she adds something that can't help but make me nod: " . . . reading as slowly as O'Hara did in 1959 was easier then than now . . . . To read slowly today is not just unfashionable but nearly impossible. We are in a permanent hurry . . ."

What do you think? Do you agree? How does your busyness affect your reading and vice-versa?

Under headings such as Language, Repetition, Clarity, Transitions and more, Bell gives specific advice such as cut cliches, watch present participles, recognize and vary pet words and phrases. She talks about how every single a, and, the has an effect, using this example:

Jane walked the dog.
Jane and the dog went for a walk.

Such simple sentences with simple words, yet they give different impressions. In the first sentence, Jane is in charge. In the second, Jane and the dog are equals.

I love this sort of thing. Layers of meaning at the micro level just blow me away. :)

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Still Foggy on the Definition of "Meme" . . .

. . . but I have been tagged by Tabitha Olson to answer these questions. The rules of this game, 95% of which I will conscientiously obey and the other 5% of which I will smash to smithereens, if I follow my typical pattern, are as follows: (1) Those who are tagged and wish to participate should answer the questions on their blogs and may replace any questions they dislike with new questions they make up (see, this is already not quite the way Tabitha stated it :); (2) When you post your Q&A, name the person who tagged you AND tag 8 other people.

And I'm going, "I don't know eight people." (Half the time, this is true.) Especially not eight people who blog, who might want to do this, and who haven't already been tagged. And I don't necessarily know first and last names. But I will tag "some" people now and perhaps add to the list before this post goes up, since I will now spill the beans and say I am postdating it! My tag-ees are: Anne Spollen, Angela Cerrito, Brenda, Angela Ackerman, Becca Puglisi. Remember, taking part is totally optional. No blogosphere sanctions imposed if you decline. :)

I did not change any of the original questions and insert my own. Too lazy. Here goes:

1. What are your nicknames? I don't have any. Although my parents and husband sometimes call me "Marsh," which briefly (VERY briefly) morphed to "Swamp" when I was in about 7th grade. Put an end to that right quick.
2. What do you do before bedtime? In a word, read.
3. What was the first movie you bought in VHS or DVD? How do you know it wasn't Beta? That was the big debate back in the day -- VHS or Beta? I never had Beta; I'm just sayin'. Anyway, the first movie was probably something Disney when the kids were small. We didn't buy anything when we first had a VCR, because my husband got this ancient VCR (it was in two parts, if I recall) they were throwing out at work and rented movies and then used the two VCRs to . . . oops, did I say that? This answer's too long anyway. Moving right along . . .
4. What is your favorite scent? Toss-up between vanilla, roses, and baking bread.
5. If you had a million dollars that you could only spend on yourself, what would you do with it? I'd greatly expand the definition of "on myself" to mean "in a way that makes me feel I've used it well." I'd tithe 10%, do some home repairs (not buy a bigger home), help immediate family, put some away for retirement, and donate generously to ministries and charities I trust.
6. What one place have you visited that you can't forget and want to go back to? I'm not in the least well-traveled. I'd like to see the Rockies again. And if I can stick in a place I haven't been, I'd like to go to England. Basically, though, I don't have wanderlust in my blood.
7. Do you trust easily? Yes and no. I'm not easy to get to know, and I can be reserved and secretive, letting people in pretty slowly. On the other hand, I have a fairly good sense of discernment about character, which can cause me to trust or distrust rather quickly and not be wrong *too* often.
8. Do you generally think before you act, or act before you think? I definitely think first. I think and plan everything out, then decide action should be taken, then mention the topic to my husband. By this point I've already committed to the idea, he's first hearing about the possibility, and he goes, "Huh?"
9. Is there anything that has made you unhappy these days? Small, normal, everyday things that happen to everybody and pass quickly. I feel blessed to say that the periods of my life when I've seriously been down have been few.
10. Do you have a good body image? *Blushes* I absolutely do. For me, this may be the most true-confessions question in this whole list. Of course it isn't perfect, but for an "old girl" who sits at a computer a lot, I'm in dang good shape.
11. What is your favorite fruit? All of them! I LOVE fruit. It's hard to leave anything out, but nothing beats a fresh-from-the-tree McIntosh apple.
12. What websites do you visit daily? I visit so many, but if I take "daily" completely literally, those would be Verla Kay and the Elijah List.
13. What have you been seriously addicted to lately? This! And just after I cured myself of Minesweeper . . .
14. What kind of person do you think the person who tagged you is? A bookworm, serious, gentle, a deep thinker, peaceful.
15. What's the last song that got stuck in your head? "Let it Rain," a worship song by Michael Farren.
16. What's your favorite item of clothing? In-the-house clothing, my flannel bathrobe. If you mean that which can be worn in public, a hoodie cardigan sweater (no buttons) in many shades of blue, a Christmas present from my daughter.
17. Do you think Rice Krispies are yummy? Only if I'm really in the mood for them. I'm a bit of a health nut who wants fiber.
18. What would you do if you saw $100 lying on the ground? I'm assuming this is outside, as opposed to, say, inside a store. I'd pick it up, then glance around to see if anybody in the vicinity looked panicky, or as if they were searching for something. If so, and nothing about the situation was screaming "Don't do this!" I'd approach, ask if the person lost something, and wait for some indication that the lost item was money. Chances are there wouldn't be anybody, though, and chances are I'd donate the money.
19. What items could you not go without during the day? Bible, calendar, journal, computer, cell phone. I could spare the latter, but it's my connection to my kids and husband.
20. What should you be doing right now? LOL. This IS actually time I had set aside for blogging. Alternatively, I should be doing -- what else? Reading and writing.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Book of the Semi-Month Club

Found by Margaret Peterson Haddix is Book 1 of The Missing series, and not only does it have plenty of plot, but it gives tantalizing hints at the many plot directions the rest of the series can take. Before we go any further, I'll definitely have to issue spoiler alerts.

Jonah, thirteen, is adopted and has always known it. His younger sister Katherine is not. Though his parents' constant reading of "how to help your adopted child adjust" books and hyper-sensitivity to how he might feel make his eyes roll, theirs is a normal family. Then an unusual thing happens: Jonah makes a new friend, Chip, who also happens to be adopted. But Chip's uninvolved parents never told him. Chip doesn't have a clue until the weird stuff starts happening.

They both get strange anonymous notes: "You are one of the missing," says the first. The second reads, "Beware, they're coming back to get you." The investigation by Jonah, Chip and Katherine is kicked off by Chip's anger at his parents' deception as well as the notes themselves. Breaking into a safe at Chip's house, the kids find among the official records a jotted name and phone number. Calling it, they reach an FBI agent.

Things get stranger when the FBI agent agrees to meet with Jonah's family but deliberately antagonizes them hoping they will stop asking questions. Katherine, uncharacteristically spooked, insists she saw a man appear and disappear into thin air. Jonah doesn't believe her but can't deny that there's a file on the agent's desk that wasn't there before. He creates a distraction while Katherine snaps pictures of the papers it contains with her cell phone.

Now they have lists of people and phone numbers, some of whom are termed "missing" and the others "survivors." Thirteen years ago, they learn, a myterious plane bearing the insignia "Tachyon Travel" landed unauthorized at an airport -- carrying thirty-six infants and not a soul else. One of the airline clerks who worked that night agrees to meet with them and shares the belief she has arrived at: because tachyon means faster than the speed of light, the infants were probably adults when they boarded the plane, and they arrived in the present as infants to be adopted by 21st-century families. The flight crew, able to step into time warps, simply disappeared. In fact, the thirty-six infants were gathered by time-travelers from prominent but unfortunate lives in the distant past, purportedly to be given a chance at a better life -- or life at all -- with adoptive American families. One among their number, they are told, is Virginia Dare, lost with the rest of the Roanoke Colony. Two are Princes Edward and Richard, vanished from the Tower of London in the 1400s. Others are Anastasia Romanov and Charles Lindbergh III.

Found ends with Jonah, Chip and Katherine on their way to the 15th century, so it definitely doesn't stand alone. With potentially thirty-some countries and historical periods to visit, Haddix has rich setting and plot possibilities to draw on. Her portrayal of the sibling relationship between Jonah and Katherine and the boys' respective feelings about adoption are well handled. It will be interesting to see how Haddix makes use of her material in books to come. And I for one really want to know which unfortunate famous historical person Jonah is.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Why do I Want This Piece of Writing to Live?

In The Artful Edit, Susan Bell talks about two major kinds of editing, macro-editing and micro-editing. I find it interesting that though I usually test as a "big picture" person, I prefer the micro-edit. Bell writes that she also does, and that F. Scott Fitzgerald, whose The Great Gatsby she examines at length in her discussion, was also a natural micro-editor. Be that as it may, we mustn't skip over the macro-edit, which, as long as you have a good chunk of the book done, comes first. :)

The macro-edit isn't an edit-as-you-go thing. You need a substantial number of chapters, if not the whole draft, that you'll reread and note the big stuff that isn't working: characterization, tension, tone, and so forth. One of the more interesting aspects of the macro-view is what Bell calls "intention." Synonyms she uses include "overarching aim," "central idea," "your mind's highway," "a main line for readers to go down," and "a kind of gravitational force" that draws the reader through the story. To discover or refine your intention Bell recommends asking questions such as "What am I trying to do here?" "Where am I going with this?" "Why do I want this piece of writing to live?" Sometimes the intention is quite grand. Fitzgerald wrote that he was trying for a "consciously artistic achievement." But I believe we need a specific intention for the story itself as well. The intention can be unknown at the start, says Bell, it can be discovered through exploration as we write the draft, but when a writer begins to edit "he knows the story he wants to tell and maneuvers his material to tell it . . . Once there is story, there is an intention: a will toward . . . [an] end."

We need to spend some time talking to ourselves about our intention. Our attempts to state it may seem incomplete, a tad mysterious or secretive, something we wouldn't want to try to voice to others yet or even squarely face ourselves. But we can and must tease it out of our hearts; it forms the backbone of our story.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Library Love

Spent yesterday afternoon at the public library. Does it get any better than this?
  • Shelves, shelves and shelves of fiction and nonfiction surrounding you
  • Brand-new magazines to read in comfy chairs
  • Quiet, no-stress atmosphere, punctuated by whispers and chairs sliding on carpet
  • Librarians who love research as much as you do
  • Untold information, contained or accessed within these walls
  • Study carrels like hidey-holes tucked into corners
  • Old newspapers on microfilm that bring history oh so close
  • Getting your hands, finally, on that special tome you've been wanting
  • Browsing books, thrilling to the treasures you find, gathering all you can carry
  • Using the cool self-checkout machine
  • Loading it all in the car, driving home with a smile, stocking your nightstand

How do you love your library? Please do count the ways! :)

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Quotes to Chew On

Need a shot in the writer's arm today? Here are some quotes from The Artful Edit by Susan Bell that I find interesting, thought-provoking or affirming.
  • " . . . editing is commonly taught as an intrinsic part of writing, not an external tool. . . . It is vital to teach editing on its own terms, not as a shadowy aspect of writing."
  • "Most of us who write on computers are facing and continually accessing a global Internet lodged in our writing instrument. . . . In conditions of creativity that are increasingly complex, stringent editing can focus the multitasker's scuttling mind."
  • "A great many authors determine the full shape of their stories as they write, not before."
  • "For most, it is only with an unedited flow of imagination that there is anything worth revising in the end."

I like all of these, but the first one sounds like a key to my editing/writing dilemma: If I don't consider editing an intrinsic part of writing, but something separate, I may be less likely to let Editor Me run wild on Writer Me's turf.

Anything here resonate for you?

Monday, September 1, 2008

Book of the Semi-Month Club

In which I discuss another chapter book, Judy Moody Goes to College, by Megan McDonald. Chapter books are known for humor, and Judy Moody's adventures are no exception. Third-grader Judy goes to school on Monday and finds that she has a new teacher, and "her new teacher was called a sub (not the sandwich)." Her real teacher, Mr. Todd, is in Bologna, Italy, and Judy knows Italy has a dance called the tarantella. She thinks: "Mr. Todd was probably in the Land of Baloney right now, dancing like a tarantula, while they were stuck in the Land of Multiplication." Judy doesn't like math. During math, she'd rather press the buttons on her "robin's-egg-blue, glow-in-the-dark Ask-a-Question Watch 5000."

A note goes home: Judy needs remedial math. Her younger brother Stink, who knows his times tables, is ecstatic. This means a tutor, he says, and tutors have flash cards. Baby flash cards. And make you count jelly beans in a jar. But to Judy's complete surprise her dad takes her for her first tutoring session to the "Math Lab" at Colonial College, where she meets her tutor, uber-funky college student Chloe Canfield. "My friends call me C-squared, since my name has two Cs and I go to CC. You know, C to the second power, 'cause I'm into math?" Judy and Chloe play games, visit the coffee bar, count different colored VW bugs on campus and graph them, and Judy goes from having "Mad-i-tude" to "Math-i-tude" along with developing a very funky sense of style. College life goes to Judy's head, though, and she progresses to "Brat-i-tude," "Cat-i-tude," and even "Flunk-i-tude" before eventually reaching "Glad-i-tude," when, upon the return of her regular teacher, Judy reports to her parents, "Professor Todd gave us a pop quiz in math today, and I owned it."

A glossary of college slang ends the book ("Judy Moody's Not-Webster's New World College Dictionary"). Amid all the fun, readers are left with the message that college can not only teach you what you need to know, but expose you to all kinds of things you never tried and didn't know you were good at. Almost makes this math major want to go back. :)

Saturday, August 30, 2008

"Writer Me," Come Forth!

I'm reading The Artful Edit by Susan Bell, and since I haven't read a book on writing for a while and hope to savor this one slowly, I'd like to discuss it over time rather than cover it just once in a review. I've also heard mixed reviews about this book's originality and helpfulness, so I guess on this blog I'll be forming my opinions about all of that "in public," with the help of feedback from others. I hope you'll enjoy coming along for the ride. I'll try to post questions for your reaction. Please jump in and discuss!

First -- it's quite possible I should now be reading a book called The Artful First Draft, since that's what I'm currently writing. One of my biggest problems with my own process, which I've only partially wrestled into submission, is that Editor Me starts to horn in too early in a book's life, when Writer Me should rule. Editor Me loves to pick at words, and Editor Me realizes that my wordsmith gifts exceed my storytelling gifts. Editor Me also keeps one eye on the calendar, knowing that in X number of days or weeks I'm going to have to submit something coherent to one or the other of my critique groups. Critiquing, of course, brings yet more evaluation to a new work too early. (Yet it also brings me gems of advice that I truly want, even early on, maybe especially early on.) This fact of too-early criticism has at times ground me to a halt, and I feel like that muppet character who kept screaming, "I'll never get it! Never, never, never!" and banging his head on the piano. If I ever get to a point where I'm bringing "seasoned" work to critique while incubating and forming brand-new stuff "in the womb," as it were, and only there, that will be great. But unless I quit subbing chapters to my crit partners for a year, I'm not sure how to get to that place. All of my work is either brand-new or published, there's nothing in between! Anybody else have trouble with this? Have you figured a way to handle it?

Part of the difficulty with Editor Me and Writer Me is that Editor Me works best when the rest of my life feels too busy, when I know I might get pulled out of the work at any time, mentally, physically, or both. For the last seven (seven!) years -- since I became a member of the sandwich generation in earnest -- my heart, soul, mind, spirit, the part of me that writes -- has been skittish about sinking down into my fictional world and letting me really explore and take it slow. So I let Editor Me rule and call it progress. I need to find ways to let Writer Me know it's okay to live my MC's life, delve below the surface, forget the real world for a while, stay so in tune with the small changes in my MC's emotions that I find I know what she will do next and really can plot after all, and that hopefully everything is motivated and true. Or, as Ms. Bell states in The Artful Edit, I'd like to discover "an as yet unmapped route to a particular emotion or thought."

That's my goal for this fall, to allow Writer Me in the driver's seat where she currently belongs and let the cost be what it may. How are your Editor Me and Writer Me getting along or sharing the work these days? Do you have specific goals for fall?

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Always the Idealist

About the quiz below: What's interesting about this quiz is that it shows you images -- really pretty ones! -- and asks how you perceive them. What's even more interesting is how you reveal who you are through everything you do, say, think, select. Oh, that my characters could have this many layers, be this revealing, this consistent, yet leave room for surprise . . . Still, if I had to look at the list below and predict how I'd score, I'd say the Daydreamer, because I feel I respond to color more than shape.

Your result for The Perception Personality Image Test...

NBPS - The Idealist

Nature, Background, Big Picture, and Shape

You perceive the world with particular attention to nature. You focus on the hidden treasures of life (the background) and how that fits into the larger picture. You are also particularly drawn towards the shapes around you. Because of the value you place on nature, you tend to find comfort in more subdued settings and find energy in solitude. You like to ponder ideas and imagine the many possibilities of your life without worrying about the details or specifics. You are in tune with all that is around you and understand your life as part of a larger whole. You prefer a structured environment within which to live and you like things to be predictable.

The Perception Personality Types:


Saturday, August 23, 2008

So -- I Guess I'm a Bot?

Okay, it's Saturday so it's playtime.

I didn't know till recently how much I appreciate the readable, workable word verifications that Blogger uses. Lately I've been running into ones with lines through them and figures crowded together that are really hard to read. Still, most of the time one or two errors is all it takes to let me through. Now, though, the ultimate has happened. "Are you a bot?" asks the site, above the little box of squiggly numbers. So I type them in. Red warnings flash up. Please correct your information! Are you a bot? Um, no. This second string looks pretty bad, but I'll try again . . . Please correct your information! Are you a bot? Okay, I expected that not to work. This new string looks clear, though. Here we go. Please correct your information! Are you a bot? What? No! How come I can read your mishmash and you can't read my typing? *Pounds keys* Please correct your information! Are you a bot? Clearly you're bound and determined I should be. Only a bot COULD read this string. *Types, employing creative guessing* Please correct your information! Are you a bot? Yes! Yes! I surrender, I'm a bot, because only a bot would still sit here typing gibberish. Take that: *Copies a string that looks perfectly clear* Please correct your information! Are you a bot? You know what? You people are paranoid. Just forget it.

I click "contact us" and fill out a complaint. At the bottom of the page, before I can click "submit," is the word verification. ONE time will I try this, before I click out of their lives for good. I type it in. Words flash up: We'll be reading this in no time. ????????? Whatever.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

It's Back-to-School Time, Kids!

My children are grown. The two younger ones are university students, but only the very youngest lives at home, so he is the only one we must pack up and trundle off to campus about a week from now. In that regard, nothing about back-to-school prep has changed in the last three years.

Except -- I am in a sense going back to school this year! No, I'm not quitting anything that I'm currently doing, and I only have to go to class one night a week. So, if you're thinking I'm adding this on to everything I'm already doing -- that'd be about right.

Our church has a school of ministry, and I've decided to enroll. At the end of the two-year program I'll earn a certificate of completion and be eligible to apply for a ministry license (not that that's really in the plans; pulpit preaching is not my aim). Greater church involvement (not necessarily more, but deeper), possibly teaching, may be in my future, and entering the school of ministry is a step I think God is urging me to take. The course I'm starting out with this fall is on prayer. I am eager to begin.

And -- there'll be books to read! :)

Sunday, August 17, 2008

I Blog, Therefore I Write?

I once attended a writer's conference where the food was absolutely scrumptious. Actually, the food at most conferences is scrumptious -- at the snack tables if not at the meals themselves. Anyway, at this particular conference I was part of a group sitting around a table eating juicy, fresh fruit, and one person said, "Y'know, if this writing thing doesn't work out, I think I'll be a writer's groupie just for the food." We all had a great laugh, but that concept of "writer's groupie" has never left me.

Writing has lots of facets, many of which aren't actually writing. Most of them are either extremely helpful or downright necessary -- doing market research, doing topic research, attending conferences, planning and doing author visits, reading how-to books on writing, visiting blogs and message boards, keeping financial records that will square with Uncle Sam, setting up a website, and more. But if we throw ourselves into these things with gusto yet find the writing itself is just kind of piddling along -- are we in danger of becoming mere groupies? We hang around writing, but we don't really do it? "Oh no!" we may cry. "I write! I write every day if I can. Even if I get only a line or two done on my story, I email my friends. I write old-fashioned letters to Great-Aunt Helen who doesn't have a computer. I send cheery notes written on pretty cards to my family. I journal. I blog. I . . ."

Wait a sec. I fully agree that any and all writing improves our writing skills. But those of us who blog and visit blogs know what a time suck blogging is. More so than most other forms of non-WIP* writing.

Not long ago I visited an agent's blog; he had just begun posting again after a long hiatus. His explanation for the gap was along the lines of "I wasn't sure what the point was." Meaning blogging was peripheral, it "hung around" his real purpose. It wasn't the main thing, but it was feeding off the main thing.

So what do you think? Does your blogging play groupie to your writing? Does the sheer time element of blogging make it a gigantic step forward in self-delusion about how much writing you do? And finally, am I making any sense? :)

* WIP = work in progress

Friday, August 15, 2008

Book of the Semi-Month Club

Since I was so impressed with The Adoration of Jenna Fox by Mary Pearson, I recently picked up her Scribbler of Dreams, which was published in 2001. This YA contemporary love story is a little bit Romeo and Juliet, a little bit Hatfield and McCoys. Kaitlin Malone was born and bred to hate the Crutchfields, just as her family before her hated the Crutchfields, and the Crutchfields hate the Malones too. It all stems from a falling out between two Crutchfield sisters a few generations back, the marriage of one of them to a Malone, and a dispute over land. To make things worse for the Malones, the Crutchfields have gotten rich. To make things far worse, Kaitlin's father is just now getting out of prison -- for the manslaughter death of Robert Crutchfield.

Kaitlin's family can no longer afford her private high school, so she must now go to the public one, in a town controlled by the Crutchfields. Enrolled there under an assumed name, Kaitlin, an aspiring writer, meets and falls for a gentle, artistic, gorgeous guy named Bram. And then finds out his whole name. Bram Crutchfield.

Unwilling to give up the bond they share, Kaitlin reveals nothing. As the two fall in love, she starts on several occasions to tell Bram the truth but can't go through with it. To keep him from finding out her true family heritage as they grow closer, she weaves an elaborate web of lies. The book becomes a real page-turner as everything drives toward the inevitable moment when Bram Crutchfield learns his beloved, his soul mate, is Kaitlin Malone -- daughter of the man held responsible for his father's death.

In the end, of course, lies can't promote a good relationship any more than hatred can. But maybe, just maybe, their love can end the hatred rather than multiply it a thousandfold for the generations to come.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

The Scary Stuff

What's the scariest thing about writing?

**I might fail

**I might succeed

**I might starve.

**It might be too unimportant to spend my life on

**I'll never have another good idea

**The next JK Rowling will publish a blockbuster (or Disney will make a movie) about my idea just when I'm wrapping up my final revisions

These are just a few of the common fears that can make us wonder if we should throw in the towel or hang up the computer. But they aren't to me the scariest thing of all. To me, the scariest thing of all is:

This business is so subjective.

We've all read, or tried to read, published books whose characters we don't like. Whose premises we find implausible. Whose plots bore us to tears. Whose writing is too verbose, too spare, breaks every rule we've ever been taught, suffers from "was-itis" or needs a serious adverb-ectomy. "How did this get published?" we cry. It got published because an editor (and maybe before that, an agent) and a publishing house thought enough people would buy it that its gross earnings would exceed the money they stuck into it and result in a certain profit. Which means they saw an audience for the book. And sometimes a great percentage of that audience likes the book. And we think, huh??

We can be on the other side of this fence too, of course. We go around crowing about our latest favorite book and others say, "Oh, that? Didn't grab me." We take our latest story to our critique group, and two like it and three don't. For different reasons. We tear it apart countless times. Three like it and two don't. Well, at least we're getting a little closer.

An entire chain of people makes a book happen: writer, agent, editor, acquisitions committee, marketing department, designer, artist, copyeditor, typesetter, proofreader, printer, binder, salespeople, distributor, reviewer, bookstore or library -- and then you finally get to the reader. And, except for those concentrating on the actual physical production, everybody in the chain is (1) going by personal taste, and (2) guessing. They're making the best-educated guesses they can, and they have commendable skills to be sure, but they're guessing. Writers tend to be a little weird in the first place, and those who feel out of the mainstream can wonder how on Earth they're supposed to get a bead on what will please a sizable audience.

It's one thing to say, "Well, I just wasn't part of the audience for that book I hated." Or, "All I need to do is find that ONE publishing house that thinks my book is the next great thing." Or, "There's a readership for this book, and one for that book, and as long as the right folks find each other, we're good." All of this is true. But as most of us have learned in one endeavor or another, finding THE ONE can be tough at best, and the chance that we may not is real.

So -- what's your scariest thing about writing?

Monday, August 11, 2008

Blogging Blahs

Okay, techie stuff: I thought if I drafted posts ahead of time, when I published them they'd show the date of publication. No, they show the date I wrote the draft, and I can't seem to figure out how to change it. What do I do?

Anyhow, the post immediately below this is new.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Newbery Watch II

My personal list of Newbery contenders so far:

The Underneath -- Kathi Appelt
Waiting for Normal -- Leslie Connor
Trouble -- Gary Schmidt
The Penderwicks on Gardam Street -- Jeanne Birdsall

And now to add to the list:

Savvy -- Ingrid Law

Have anything you want to add?

Busted! -- Five Writing Myths

This seems to be a summer for reconnecting with old friends. I recently ran into someone I hadn't seen in years, and the questions about writing flew thick and fast. This is not an uncommon occurrence, and after a few minutes my heart sank as I wondered, "Will these few fun, precious moments be eaten up by nothing but the same-old, same-old?" Fortunately, we did get to move on to other topics, but I knew the questions, assumptions and misconceptions would live to raise their heads another day. Here are five of the most common myths:

** Publishers are basically printing presses. No, quality publishers are in the business of bookselling. They have their own mission statements, areas of interest, and business plans. They don't publish "anything good" that just happens to land in their mailroom. If you send the next Harry Potter to a house that publishes only plays and nonfiction on theater arts, you're wasting everybody's time. Publishers need writers, but they don't exist for our sake. Writers work long and hard to find their editorial match.

** Editors will fix my work. Actually, when we speak of "editors" at publishing houses we mainly mean acquiring editors, whose job it is to find and purchase top-notch book manuscripts for their employers. If you want a crack at rising above the competition, your book has to be as perfect as you can make it before you try a submission. Many rejections happen because the work simply isn't ready, and grammar and punctuation do count. Editors will work with you on that "perfect" ms. once they buy it. Books do go through copyediting to catch errors before publication. But if you submit work that you know or even suspect can be improved, it'll probably bounce right back to you.

** I need to find an illustrator for my picture book. Alternatively, I (my child) can draw pretty well, so I (she) will do the art. No to both. Publishers hire the illustrator, and that is in your best interest. That way, you'll have a pro (and if you're new, often a fairly big-name artist!), and the publisher (instead of you) will be paying him or her the big bucks. Illustrating is intensive work, art supplies cost a lot, and you probably don't have the resources to hire the quality you want and need. If you are a professional illustrator you can illustrate your own book; publishers often like to sign author/illustrators. Simply being a pretty good hand at drawing, though, isn't enough. Those seriously interested in illustration need to research and qualify themselves in that field just as they do in writing.

** I'd be good at writing for children, since I (have children, am a teacher). Having or teaching children will plunge us back into a kid's world in a hurry, it's true. But viewing those cool little people from an adult's perspective doesn't mean you can get inside the skin of a child and think age-level thoughts and feel age-level emotions. We need to be sure we can step beyond "fond mama" stories, "teach them a lesson," stories, and our own nostalgia for the childhood stories we remember -- or perhaps idealize. More important than having, teaching, or being around children is the ability to tap into the thoughts, emotions, frustrations and dreams of your own childhood.

** Children's writing is easier than adult writing. No way. It's all hard. (Don't judge by celebrity books; the hype and big names will guarantee sales, unfortunately often in spite of weak writing.) Beyond that, writers for adults don't usually have to ask themselves how to connect with adults. They don't (usually) have to tell a complete story in 200-500 words and still make it flow, or write a novel in as few as 25-40,000. They don't have to watch vocabulary and sentence structure, age-appropriate cultural or historical references, age-appropriate pyschology, or be up-to-date on contemporary children's lives. They don't have to work years and years on a ms. that when published looks incredibly easy -- because of all the work! It's all hard.

And, based on the amount of conversation it generates, incredibly interesting. :)

Monday, August 4, 2008

No, I'm Not!

I am a

What Flower
Are You?

Okay, this quiz I don't get. I answered the questions with my usual I'm-reading-writing-doing-something-else-solitary-or-possibly-hanging-out-with-a-FEW CLOSE-people-style, and it says I'm a daffodil -- the first one to the party and perfectly capable of making myself seen and heard! Say what? I didn't really expect to get "shrinking violet," but I thought I might get something delicate and blue, pink, lavender, or creamy white. Not yellow. I don't LIKE yellow. All I can say is -- ???????

Friday, August 1, 2008

Book of the Semi-Month Club

Chapter books are the skinny books second and third graders read before they move up to longer middle grade novels. -- Anastasia Suen

Thank you, Anastasia. Let me explain.

I'm a bit of a purist about language. Not that I never enjoy its evolution. I find it interesting, say, that "include" has morphed to mean not "designate as part of a group" but "designate the group in its entirety." I mean, at one time you could say, "The spectrum includes red, green, and blue," and be completely correct. Now, in order not to be misunderstood, you'd better say the spectrum "includes" the entire ROY G. BIV, well, spectrum (ignoring the fact that as of late poor indigo has been receiving the Pluto treatment). And while I find some verbing of nouns pretty cringe-worthy (I drag my feet about accepting "we partnered together"), I have no compunctions at all about saying I "Google" this or that. And I jump on the buzzword and acronym bandwagons pretty quickly. Efficiency and all that.

But there are at least two definitions in children's literature that are slip-sliding all over the place to the degree that nobody knows what they mean anymore. I may vent about the other one another day, but today's subject is chapter book.

A chapter book is NOT "any children's book with chapters." A chapter book is exactly what Anastasia says it is. It's a bridge book between higher-level readers and true middle-grade novels. It's not that the edges of these categories can't blur; I can deal with that. You know what I think it is? It's condescension. The use of "chapter book" to cover anything with chapters (sometimes even YA novels!) assumes that no book for children could be an actual novel, because aren't novels for adults? Kiddie books are, well, kiddie books. It's the condescension that really gets my goat.

So, with that lengthy introduction I will now turn to today's book, which is a chapter book. I think I'd probably better give a SPOILER alert here, too. Martin Bridge in High Gear by Jessica Scott Kerrin is another installment in the adventures of Martin Bridge, elementary schooler and greatest fan of superhero Zip Rideout, Space Cadet. In the story called "Science Fair" Martin faces all the problems inherent in group projects. Working with Alex is a piece of cake; they're best friends. Adding Laila to the group is iffy but in the end okay; she may be bossy but she's dependable and gets the job done. But then there's Gibson. Gibson the lucky. Gibson the lazy. Or is he? Gibson doesn't always show up when he's supposed to. But when he does, he delivers. Need some research books? Gibson will bring you a whole library -- because he got them off a special display rather than having to hunt for them one by one. Need to print labels in your not-so-neat printing? Gibson gets the job -- and shows up with a label-maker. When the teacher comes along to check on them, Gibson manages to say something that gets him the credit for a great idea. What Martin never quite grasps is that Gibson might be working smarter rather than harder, and Kerrin has captured the irrational anger we often feel toward people who don't work as hard as we do but get better results. It's comforting that the teacher does listen to the group's complaints, and in the end says, "Gibson will get a separate grade" while awarding Martin, Alex and Laila an A++. Readers are left to wonder what mark Gibson might have gotten, but they will enjoy seeing how Gibson's luck runs out at the end. Whether Gibson is truly avoiding work or is a master of efficiency may be a matter of opinion, but nobody sails down the road of life without hitting a few mud puddles.

In the second story, "Bicycle," Martin's family gets a visit from Great-Aunt Laverne, who is always "wagging her knobby finger" and telling everyone they need to "learn a thing or two." Martin's bike is falling apart, and much to the dismay of G-A Laverne, his parents have just now saved enough to buy him a new one -- which is promptly stolen when someone cuts the chain for the lock. Clucking her tongue all the while about how kids today are spoiled, Aunt Laverne puts the family onto Bicycle Recycle, a shop where Martin becomes a volunteer fixing up bikes to give to needy kids with the understanding that he'll receive one on his last Saturday there. The day comes and he gets his bike -- bright blue with flame-orange decals -- but at that moment another boy bursts into the shop, eyes all aglow because he's sure the bike is his. The other boy, though, got his dates mixed up. He's a week early, and devastated by the news. Martin, realizing that Cameron is a boy who doesn't get a lot of things, much like Aunt Laverne when she was a girl, intervenes: "I'm pretty sure this is Cameron's bike." By this point, readers will be cheering loudly. Martin Bridge is one cool kid.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Get Your (Ca)Reer in Gear

I'm pretty mild-mannered when it comes to advice, even when delivering "the bad news." One of my students called me "An iron fist in a velvet glove," which I found first startling, then complimentary, then -- pretty much true. The Keirsey Temperament Sorter, of which I am highly fond, affirms that my strongest category of intelligence is the diplomatic variety. I find myself paying a lot of attention to exactly how to word things to gain a certain impact on a particular listener or reader.

Diplomatic Disclaimer: Writing goals come in all types and stripes, and all of them are valid. You may have taken up writing because you've always wanted to give it a shot, because you just want to learn more about effective writing, because it's an outlet for expressing your feelings and/or creativity, because you want to write stories for the grandkids, because your family is bugging you to record their history and you want to do it as skillfully and entertainingly as possible, or for other reasons that are all your own. Any reason to want to write is legitimate (assuming you're not aiming to destroy the world), and I say dive in and have fun!

But, you say, you want to be a professional, publishing writer. (There's a deliberate order to that. Professionalism almost always precedes publication, unless you are paying a company to print anything you produce, in which case it may or may not.) Since you want to be a pro, and you want to get commercially published, let me offer my three-point overview to Get Your (Ca)Reer in Gear.

1. Get your writing into the middle of your life instead of on the fringe. Let's say your life is a city. Your job, family, home, church, and places you do business, pursue recreation, or serve your community are the downtown and residential areas of that city. Where's writing? On the outskirts? In a suburb? Scrabbling on the edge of a cliff hanging on by three fingernails? Leave it there for much longer, and it just might ker-splat into the gorge, glut itself on brats and beer and take a much-too-long nap, or stick out its thumb and hitch a ride on the Road to Elsewhere. Rescue the poor thing. Give it a home, a job, a time and place to function. You've got to. Even if something else (starting with the TV set) has to get run out of town on a rail to make room.

2. Read in the genre(s) in which you are writing. Yes, begin by reading, period. But move quickly to the specific types of material you want to write. Read them without ceasing. Know that field. You've got to. Even if something else (starting with the TV set) has to be ignored to make room.

3. Do the research. Study successful published books that are a lot like yours and notice everything: overall length; number of chapters; chapter lengths; how many main characters; frequently used ideas; cliches; how many different ways there are to start a story; how the beginning hooks the reader (or does it?); types of conflict (e.g., more outward conflicts for mid-grade, more inward conflicts for young adult); number of subplots; boy vs. girl characters; first-person, third-person, present tense, past tense; and on and on. The idea isn't to find the formula; it's to show you what's been done (and overdone), what's possible to do, what hasn't been tried yet, and what's truly different. Get up-to-date "how to write for kids" books from your library or bookstore. Study the writers' boards on the web. Go to a conference. Take a class. Visit publisher websites. Read their catalogs and guidelines. Do the research on today's school curriculum, sports, hobbies, geographical locations, how stuff works, and anything else you need to authenticate the background, details and action in your story. Don't assume fiction doesn't need research, and don't assume you can fudge because the story "is made up anyway." You can't. Do the research. You've got to.

Do these three things for a week, and you'll already notice a difference. Do them for a month, and your writing will be a vital component of your life. Let them be the iron foot in a velvet boot that gives you a welcome kick in the (ca)reer.