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.