Thursday, December 22, 2011

Merry Christmas!

I'll be taking a short break from posting and visiting, but I'll see you all again on January 5, 2012. Enjoy your holidays!

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Of File Cabinets and POV

I've been thinking about POV lately, and how I've used it thus far in my writing career. Curious, I turned to my dead manuscript file. (Yes, ordinarily the folders are put away and the drawer is closed. Or the cats would live on it permanently. And I'd trip over it. Fortunately, now that I print out much less, this poor drawer is getting a break.) Recently I tried to count how many novels I've ever completed, meaning how many reached "The End" of at least one draft. (There's no counting how many I've started in my life.)
 As best I can tell, the stats look like this:
  • 15 written
  • published
  • 5 in first person (1 present tense, published)
  • 10 in third person (10 in 3rd close, in multiple POVs, 6 published)
Really, it's not as narrow as I thought. And though I'm glad I haven't really written in 3rd close, with one POV character, All The Time, which is the way it feels, I still want to branch out, sharpen, explore, develop, my use of POV. My shiny, new WIP idea, which I really, really hope I can start in January after I get the current revisions off my desk/mind/screen, calls for 3 third-person POVs, some omniscient "in-between" sections, and a less close feel overall. It's not enough to merely want to experiment with POV, of course. The choice has to be the best one for the story. I believe it is, and I'm eager to dig in.

How about you? Are you drafting, revising, researching, outlining, or "filling the well" these days? Challenging yourself in any particular skill?

Thursday, December 8, 2011

The Big Four (Five?) Elements of Fiction

I read something recently that gave me pause, and it was this: That the four main elements of fiction are character, voice, plot, and theme.

I didn't agree with it. On further reflection, I still don't. For one thing, where is setting? Without a sense of place, you're missing a necessary element, the means of creating mental pictures, that allows the reader to enter into your story. 

I could add it to the list and have the Big Five: character, voice, plot, theme, and setting. But I'm still not satisfied, and I know why. For me, voice comes under the umbrella of character. It's not separable from it, and is subject to it.

Voice is important, of course. Gotta have it. But I've never been on the "voice, voice, voice, voice, it's ALL voice" bandwagon. Recently, I've learned more about voice than ever, through the most thorough critique I've ever had, from the fabulous Kathleen Duey. But the very experience underscored even more, for me, that voice, whether you're in first person or third, is about character (as is POV). Realizing and increasing the close tie between my character and the voice, even in third person, helped me boost my WIP to a higher level.

And proved false to me another notion: That you can receive/give help in fixing plot, but not voice. "The voice is either there or it's not." Well, no. It can be strong in places and falter in places. It can slip up in individual word choice. And you can both receive and give help in fixing it. As a writer and teacher, I've been on both sides of that coin. :)

But here's a fifth element that I would argue could be added to the list: quality of prose. A way with words. An ear. The way one's talent comes through in the writing itself. Which is related to voice, but different from it. It's necessary, and it's the only one of the elements, I'd argue, that has to be somewhat inborn. Because you can't just fit good character, setting, plot, and theme together and out comes a great story. The writing itself, the vehicle, has to be there, and though a writer learns to hone this through reading and writing, it is hard-to-nigh-impossible for someone else to help you with it.

Here's my stab at a list of the basic elements of fiction: character, setting, plot, theme, and prose. (Who, When/Where, What, Why, and How?)

What do you think? Am I nitpicking semantics? Have any "rules" you'd like to smash today? :)

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Do You Write During the Holidays?

I didn't used to keep a calendar or weekly schedule as regularly as I do now, except for the period between Thanksgiving and December 24th. When my kids were young, cleaning up after the Thanksgiving turkey feast was always accompanied by digging out a calendar on which I'd plot out the entire forthcoming four weeks. Those weeks of course contained the kids' school concerts and Christmas pageants and accompanying prep. (One of the more interesting projects involved scribbling on a wicker basket with markers for a costume accessory. Well, at least I didn't have to figure out how to clothe a shepherd.) Those weeks contained what I considered the requisite number of cookie- and candy-making sessions, each assigned a time slot to be sure they'd all fit. And need I mention tree-buying and trimming, decorating, and shopping, none of which could be done in my jammies in front of a screen in those days? And the parties and gatherings held in the workplace, the church, at family members' homes. By the time my calendar was completed, every morning, afternoon, and evening was filled. But were any of them filled with writing? Not so much.

I'm not much for a packed schedule; never have been. I am a writer, a reader, a contemplator, and a pray-er, and you can't do any of that when every minute, or even just every half-day, is jammed with activity. So, one year, I said to myself, "I am no longer willing to give up writing for the month of December. I mean, actual employed people actually work during December, don't they? So shall I."

But I had to make room in the schedule, and I actually found that pretty easy. What went out the window? The cookie-baking! I'm still good for a couple of batches of fudge and some chocolate-covered caramels, but I love making those, and I do it when a desire to putz quietly in the kitchen comes over me. I've also streamlined the shopping and simplified the decorating, but the big difference came with dumping the cookie-baking, which was more a chore than anything else. I guess the bottom line is that I do only the prep I enjoy doing for itself.

And I write during December. Yeah, it probably helped that I was on deadline when I made the "I will write in December" vow. But my new, good habits lasted, and I enjoy the entire holiday season more now.

Of course, it's not only Thanksgiving through New Year's that can derail one's writing. Summer is another time that can speed by with little to show for it, literarily speaking. Do you have periods during the year when your writing gets crowded out? Have you found a solution? Care to share?

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Happy Thanksgiving!

May your life overflow with fruit.
May the blessings you receive,
the blessings you bestow,
and your gratitude for both,
be without end.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

November Book Pick -- Like Pickle Juice on a Cookie, by Julie Sternberg

Eleanor had such a bad August, it was as bad as pickle juice on a cookie. But when she said it was as bad as the black parts of a banana, I laughed and was hooked.

The reason August was so bad was that her beloved babysitter, Bibi, had to move away to take care of an ill family member. So close and loving was their relationship that Bibi knew which of Eleanor's teeth were the loose ones. How would another babysitter ever compare?

Told in verse that makes it a fast read, the story still conveys Eleanor's adjustment to loving a new sitter while fondly remembering the old at a believable, gradual pace.  What I love about this book is that no one is a disappointment; no one lets anyone down. Eleanor's parents are understanding, her new third-grade teacher is a gem, her new sitter Natalie is understanding plus just as competent as Bibi, and when Eleanor writes a letter to Bibi, she gets a warm response. This story is a wonderful example of how loss and change, which no one involved may really want, can not only be survived, but, in an atmosphere of love and support, can lead to growth and a greater wealth of life experiences. Even when the child needs to act out, such as when Eleanor grabs any book at random to read to herself rather than let Natalie read to her, and ends up with a book much too hard for her. (The illustration shows Moby Dick on the cover.)

And, I think, the book gives us at least one gentle caveat. We need to remember that continuity in a child's caregivers is important. Eleanor has had that continuity, and she's starting third grade, but even so, the change is hard for her.  But with humor, patience, and love, these challenges can be overcome, even though life will manage to drizzle pickle juice on our cookies every once in a while. Highly recommended.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Puzzler: Is it MG? Is it YA?

For some time I've been puzzled by libraries' inability to agree on whether a novel is middle grade (MG) or young adult (YA). Maybe I shouldn't be. It does seem sensible that there'd be a flow from one age group to another when one of them is defined as ages 8-12 and the other as 12+. At least, those are the usual definitions. The 10-14 category, sometimes called tween or upper MG, is aimed mainly at middle school and overlaps both traditional MG and YA. Surely, then, assigning a novel to an age group can't always be cut and dried. In fact, Gary Schmidt's novel Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy was both a Newbery Honor (books intended for readers no older than 14) AND a Printz Honor (equivalent YA/teen award) in 2005.
Yet...some observations. Writers can and do get rejected by agents and editors because their novels fall between the age cracks. (I haven't, but it happens.) It seems MG in some respects and YA in others, they're told, which is going to make reader identification and marketing difficult. I can understand this. BUT I could argue that a number of published books already do seem MG in some respects and YA in others, or some librarians -- professionally trained book people -- wouldn't shelve them as child, juvenile, or elementary fiction, while other librarians put them in their YA collections.

Another thing I observe is that YA is hot today. Does this mean YA stickers get applied to the spines of books more liberally these days? Sometimes it seems the general public considers any book that's younger than adult, and prominent enough that they've heard of it, "YA." John Grisham's Theodore Boone, Kid Lawyer might be a case in point. It's been termed YA, and the main character is 13. But really, how "YA" is 13? In plenty of cases, not YA at all. Theodore Boone is MG -- especially since he pretty much announces early on that he's not into romance, thank you very much. Meanwhile, within the industry a romantic angle is considered all but compulsory for most YA fare.

I recently did my own highly unscientific survey of a few random titles in my public library system. Here's what I found:

Flipped, by Wendelin Van Draanen. Six libraries call it YA and three MG. It's a light romance, but begins when the kids are 7 and takes them to 8th grade. In maturity and content, this is light-years from a HS romance. BUT it has a YA-ish cover, and my guess is that's what determined the placement. My verdict: Upper MG.

Shakespeare's Secret, by Elise Broach. Six libraries call it MG and only one YA. This is a mystery starring 6th graders, and like most MG fare is concerned with outward plot and the wider community more than "Who am I?" questions. My verdict: MG. I know there's only the one YA designation here. But...why?

Masterpiece, also by Elise Broach. Here MG wins by a score of 10-0. It's not much different than the above title as far as type of book, BUT one of the main characters is a beetle. And he's on the cover. My guess is that this is why Masterpiece is labeled MG all the way, which it should be.

The Visconti House, by Elsbeth Edgar. MG: 2, YA: 2. Yup, a tie. In this one, a boy and a girl explore the mysterious old house her family just moved into. Does this one fall through the cracks into no-age land? In the end, I don't really think so. My verdict: Upper MG.

Makeovers by Marcia, by Claudia Mills. This is a light story about an 8th grade girl whose concern with appearance seems shallow until she gets into doing makeovers at a nursing home. Here, YA beats MG by a score of 3 to 2. My verdict: MG.

What do you think? How subjective is the MG/YA designation? Does it bug you when MGs are labeled as YA? Have you found any examples of YAs labeled as MG?

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Genres on My Mind

I'm not a trendy person. Got to Twitter a few years late. Never did get on Facebook. Yet, anyway. My computer is still a desktop. This behind-the-times goes all the way back to days of yore, in which I never owned a Barbie (though my grandparents bought me a hula hoop), grew my hair long and center-parted two years after everybody else did, and didn't dream of ironing it because we lived in a small house, my mother's eyes were everywhere, and she'd've had a major cow.

I don't write or read to trends, either. (Digression: Studies show, or so I've read, that people resist jumping on a bandwagon that has been going for a while. Mostly, they either get in at the beginning or pooh-pooh it. I can see truth in that.) Trends in literature, though, seem to have more power now than they used to, and this makes so many of us worry that we are writing The Wrong Thing For the Market.

Let's pretend for a minute that you are the market. What genres, for you as a reader, are over with? What genres will never be over with as far as you're concerned, because you love them? What genres do you want to see make a comeback? What genres (MG or YA) wouldn't you read if they were the last genres on Earth?

My answers:
  • I've just realized, which is really the whole genesis of this post, that I am done with fantasy, animal fantasy excepted. Not for-the-rest-of-my-life done, but done for now. And I'm really, really done with witches. I don't do vampires or zombies, so those don't count for me.
  • What genres will never be over with as far as I'm concerned? Realistic historical and mystery. I don't care who says historical doesn't sell. I'll read it. But alas, I, the trendless, am not market enough. Funny that historicals are the award winners, isn't it? Also, I can read fresh, new dystopian for a good while yet, although I fear it's a genre quite susceptible to trends and could dry up.
  • Realistic historical and mystery are precisely the genres I'd like to see make a comeback.
But, regardless of genre, what I really want is a good story with relatable characters, important themes, and a plot that's got some get-up-and-go to it. Too much of what I'm picking up now seems overly weird and...dare I say it? Possibly over-crafted.


Thursday, October 27, 2011

Processing a Conference -- Or, Unspinning Your Head, Part 2

In which we continue some random thoughts from the SCBWI-WI fall retreat, with the goal of both sharing and organizing them. :) Scroll down one for Part 1 of this post.
  • One of the excellent parts of a conference is traveling back and forth with a friend and talking about writing plus whatever, all the way there and back.
  • Three ways to strengthen a character, according to Cheryl Klein, are by giving her an unusual desire, giving her some sort of expertise, and making that character liked by other people in the story. Make the people who dislike your character people the reader will also dislike.
  • Writers aren't necessarily as quiet as we might think, based on the buzz of conversation during the late-night socials.
  • One of my favorite quotes from the weekend, by Marsha Wilson Chall, is this: "Editors raise questions. Writers answer them." This is why I raise a lot of questions when I edit my ICL book course students' work. :) 
  • Another tidbit from Marsha: In a picture book, text is nouns and verbs, pictures are adjectives, and page turns are transitions.
  • When presenting at a conference, and probably anywhere else, speakers must use Power Point. We've reached that, ahem, Point. Audiences expect visuals. And when you find funny pictures to use with your points, you have a great way to build humor into your talk without having to say funny things.
  • Every single one of our speakers was animated, entertaining, and organized-yet-off-the-cuff, along with having an excellent visual presentation. They were great! Frankly, I've been to conferences where people read their presentations. That didn't happen here.
  • Beach Lane Books wants to publish books that are truly for kids, not their parents. Refreshing, much?
  • According to Andrea Welch, along with having a strong narrative arc, lovely language, and memorable characters, a story will do well to address an emotional or cognitive developmental need in the child.
  • As an agent, Tracey Adams values communication with clients. This is great to hear, as we have all heard stories of communication breakdowns. What a writer needs to be able to do when signing with an agent is to trust that agent to submit to the right editors, negotiate the best possible deal, be knowledgable, and be accessible, and Tracey nailed it -- to me she came across as, above all, trustworthy. 
  • While reading craft books is necessary and helpful, studying published books for technique is just as important. Whether you're going to try a POV you haven't used before (first person, multiple, omniscient), explore using an unreliable narrator, or give wacky humor a shot, you can probably find a published book that has done it. Study it. How does it succeed? Is there any respect in which it could be better?
  • Conferences are a shot in the arm!
  • Conferences couldn't happen without all the dedicated folk who head statewide SCBWI chapters and do all the work of helping us meet, network with, and learn from industry professionals. We are so blessed to have these people, and in Wisconsin they abound. Thank you!

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Processing a Conference -- Or, Unspinning Your Head, Part 1

I spent last weekend at the SCBWI-WI fall retreat, and what an excellent three days! Thank you to the wonderful, dedicated SCBWI leaders and the top-notch faculty, which included agent Tracey Adams of Adams Literary, editors Cheryl Klein of Arthur A. Levine (Scholastic) and Andrea Welch of Beach Lane Books (Simon and Schuster), illustrator LeUyen Pham, and authors Laura Ruby and Marsha Wilson Chall. For reasons that I hope will become apparent, I'm going to dive right into some thoughts that I took away from the weekend:
  • Illustration is cool, but I only halfway get it. LeUyen Pham gave a wonderful visual presentation about how images affect us and how we "read" them -- where the eye goes first, where it goes second, and so on, and how the artist controls the path of viewers' eyes through a picture. But I only agreed with the majority audience opinion of where the gaze falls first, second, third, etc., maybe half to two-thirds of the time. The rest of the time, I saw something else first.
  • Photos don't turn out so hot when the lectern is right in front of a light. :( Of course, I knew this, but the result is still no photos. Oh well.
  • There are three kinds of plots, says Cheryl Klein, but they aren't simply the "man vs. man," "man vs. self," and "man vs. nature" plots we may have learned in HS English. These, she groups into a broader category called the Conflict plot. The other two plots are Mystery, in which the character must gain information or answer a question, and Lack, in which the character feels something is missing and must be gained or attained in order to achieve happiness.
  • The content of a speaker's talks belongs to the speaker; it is her or his intellectual property. Speakers, frankly, plan to give their talks multiple times, and if they want to write and publish that content, that right belongs to them, as Cheryl Klein has done with her book on revision, Second Sight. Therefore, I will not be blogging extensively about any one person's presentation.
  • Conference food is generally awesome, and this weekend was no exception. My jeans are feeling a mite snug, to tell the truth. 
  • I got the opportunity to be part of the critique faculty for the conference, and loved it.
  • Doing your research works! By that I mean that though conferences are wonderful (am I using that word too much?) informative and networking events, for the writer who immerses herself in learning the craft and the industry they are a supplement to and an affirmation of many things she has already learned. Though she will pick up new tidbits, no question, and her head may spin with the best of them trying to contain it all, if she's done her homework she's not drowning in new information. It's more like she's watered by it.
  • I'm going to stop here and post more about the conference next week, and even into a third week if the content -- or my random processing process -- warrants.
Have you been to any good conferences lately? How did you process them?

Thursday, October 13, 2011

October Book Pick -- The Trouble With May Amelia by Jennifer Holm

Twelve-year-old May Amelia Jackson is the daughter of Finnish immigrants and lives on a farm in Washington State in 1900. This makes her only two years younger than my paternal grandmother, who told me stories of growing up on a Wisconsin farm during that time. Though the details are different, the tone of the times in the book matches what Grandma told me, so I was primed to enjoy this book and connect with May Amelia, whom I met earlier in Jennifer Holm's Newbery Honor prequel Our Only May Amelia.

My grandmother's family had been in America for a generation or two more than I suspect May Amelia's has, yet the emphasis on the mother country (in May Amelia's case, Finland) rings true.  So does the emphasis on hard, unrelenting farm work. So, I have to add, does the parents' sternness; in that era, that a child might need self-esteem wasn't even on the radar. MA's pappa proclaims, often, that girls are useless. Truth to tell, he has little regard for the passel of brothers that precede her, either, except for the oldest.

Not all of my book discussions contain spoilers, but this one does.

The book has plenty of funny moments, such as when Friendly the bull knocks over the school outhouse when MA is using it. A subplot in which every eligible bachelor for miles around courts the pretty teacher is sweet and amusing. Yet the author paints a clear picture of how hard life was. A baby sister has died. One brother is nearly deaf from an illness, and apparently cannot be helped. A second brother loses a hand working as a logger.  MA shares not only a room but a bed with one of her brothers. All of this is routine, but life changes for MA when a businessman-type visits area farmers selling stock in the development of a new town. Suddenly Pappa finds MA not quite so useless after all. He uses her as his English/Finn translator, and on that basis buys into the project. But the man is a charlatan and fleeces the Jacksons and several of their neighbors, and Pappa flies into a rage and tells MA that losing their farm is all her fault. "You're the one who read the papers! You are the reason we have lost everything. You useless girl!" He even says that she is not his daughter anymore.

This part of the story angered me on MA's behalf. Her mother says nothing. Not one of her brothers intervenes or will even look her in the eye. No one says a word to the effect that Pappa himself was the one hoodwinked by a scam. And I understand that this fits the era and the supremacy of the husband and father. But I still hate that this could happen, and hate it worse because I believe it. What happens next is that Pappa's brother, a kind man who somehow made the decision not to live like his and Pappa's own mean mother, takes MA into his home. And not a single one of her family members even says goodbye when she leaves.

After several months, one of her brothers shows up and tells her she has to come home. The farm is lost, and Pappa and the able-bodied brothers are all working at the logging camp, which now includes room and board, he says, and Mamma's working in a cannery. MA agrees. I didn't want her to go. I wanted her to stay with her uncle and never return. I started thinking about how she, how anyone, could do this while making sure they weren't falling into the trap of unforgiveness and bitterness.  But, really, the bottom line is that MA had to go back. In 1900, you went back. I was pleased that she asked them whether they just needed a cook, and the answer was no: the brother who lost his hand was doing the cooking with a spoon tied to his stump. You're like a flea, is what they tell her. Annoying, but it wouldn't be home without you.

Based on quite a bit of Holm's family history, The Trouble with May Amelia is hard to forget. Definitely recommended.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

What? Fiction Requires Research?

When I was a child and a teen, I did all my writing at white heat. (I can almost never do this anymore; however, I still create plots on the fly.) I didn't stop to labor over much of anything, such as revision. Or research. I didn't know research was needed. Oh, when I set one of my teenage-era novels in Chicago, it niggled at me that maybe I needed to know something about Chicago. But I figured, Nah. It's a big city. I can make it up. Because with fiction, the belief goes, "you can make it all up." I hear this from students fairly often. Research and facts are important for nonfiction, but fiction sets you free in that you can write whatever you want and nobody can say it's wrong.

Well, no.

Fiction requires research. Big time. Historical fiction may spring to mind as the most obvious example. Here, research is required not only to portray the historical period and events accurately, but to help you with character motivations (what events shaped these people?), the zeitgeist of the time (were people optimistic? pessimistic? religious? freethinkers? altruistic? looking out for #1?), and finding exciting plot events. If you begin your research by reading two or three good general histories of the period, that may be where you find your real story. And fascinating  primary sources such as diaries, newspapers, and letters can give you the voices, everyday details, and priceless anecdotes that breathe life and veracity into your story.

But historical fiction is far from the only genre that requires research. Really, all genres do. From police procedurals to legal thrillers to multicultural books to books set in foreign countries, to stories featuring figure skating, lacrosse, coin collecting, wilderness survival -- any specific pursuit or setting, they all require research if you're to make your story honest, plausible, and worthwhile to those readers who know more about these topics than you do. Writing, even fiction writing, is actually a wonderful way for the writer to remain a lifelong learner.

So...does loving research (call it loving LEARNING) give one a serious leg up in becoming a good writer? Yes, I believe it does.

What about high fantasy? Suppose your story is set in a world wildly different from Earth, and your characters aren't of any recognizable earthly species? Can you make "everything" up in that case? I have two thoughts. One is that even if your characters aren't human, your readers must be able to relate to them. Fiction is an emotional/soulish/spiritual experience, and your protagonist's emotional progression must be comprehensible to your audience. Which means, if your characters are experiencing conflict and loss of certain types, and you need help in understanding the stages people go through in these situations, yes, you need research. Research into humans will help you with your not-human-but-relatable characters. My second thought is yes, you can make up your entire fictional world -- BUT, if you want readers to understand and feel grounded in your story, you have to create a world that has its own facts, organization, society, and ways of life. A world that makes sense and is consistent on its own terms. You may be the creator of the facts in this world. But facts there will be, and you'll need your own record of them so YOU can look them up when necessary!

I'm glad that if I ever need to research contemporary fifth grade, there's an elementary school right down the block. :)

Do you like research? What's the biggest or most unusual thing you've ever researched? The smallest?

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Choosing What to Read

Remember when, to choose a book, you had to browse a library or bookstore? We still can, of course, and we can browse places like Kindle and Smashwords, too. Review magazines, such as The Horn Book, are yet another source of titles. 

But in the last couple of years or so, I, like many of you, have been getting my book recommendations online. Really, "online" is not as accurate as "by word of mouth." People are out there talking about books, on Goodreads, on blogs, on message boards, on sites dedicated to MG or YA novels.

You know what? I'm not so sure it's working for me.

There was a time when I had read a large majority of the MG novels in my small-town library. But seldom do I pick up the physical books and thumb them anymore. I hear about books online. I even add to the online recommendations with my own blog. And at the same time, something's been happening: I now actually like/read/can finish less than 50% of what I'm picking up.

Is there a connection? Is researching books online not enough of a predictor of whether I'll really like a certain story? I'd be interested in hearing opinions/experiences.

Monday, September 26, 2011

September Critique Giveaway Winners! says the winners of the September critique giveaway are: Joyce Moyer Hostetter and Jessica Leake!

Here's the procedure. Email me at marcia at marciahoehne dot com:
  • The first 1000 words of your magazine story, chapter book, mid-grade novel, or YA novel pasted into the body of the email.
  • Be sure to tell me the genre of the material (one of the above four).
  • Put "(Month) Critique winner" in the subject line.
  • Deadline to submit is October 19.
  • When I receive your email, I'll acknowledge receipt and let you know when you can expect my response.
Congratulations to Joyce and Jessica, and thank you all so much for stopping by and entering. Wishing you all a great day in the world of books...

Thursday, September 22, 2011

September Book Pick -- Masterpiece by Elise Broach

Critique giveaway open through Sunday the 25th! Scroll down one post.

I've been a little cranky about books lately, and while casting about for an absorbing middle-grade novel I was delighted to find Masterpiece by Elise Broach. (An earlier book by her, Shakespeare's Secret, is also excellent.) I do not have much of a nose for trends; I tend to like things the crowd doesn't; but if I had to hazard a guess about "the next big thing" in MG/YA, my guess would be mysteries. They're due, are they not? Both books mentioned here are mysteries with an intellectual bent (the identity of Shakespeare figures in one, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in the other). And while Shakespeare's Secret is a bit more traditional in that it features all human characters, Masterpiece is about the friendship between James, a boy, and Marvin -- a beetle, and what happens when it turns out the beetle is an art genius but his drawings are attributed to the boy. I guess you could call the genre a cross between mystery and magical realism.

I love books that hook me from the start, and this did. Marvin and his family live in a damp corner of the cupboard under the Pompadays' kitchen sink. His bed is a cottonball, he swims in a bottlecap filled with water, and his family plays a beetle version of horseshoes by tossing staples at a broken toothpick stuck in a crack in the floor. Mrs. Pompaday, a shrill social climber more interested in her new husband and baby than in eleven-year-old James, the son of her first marriage, is humorously rather than seriously awful. James is mostly unnoticed on his birthday until he receives a visit from his dad, a gentle artist whom one can see right away is completely different from Mrs. P. But even Dad disappoints; he gives James a pen and ink set as a gift. James tries it out, gets bored, goes to bed, and the curious Marvin dips his front legs into the ink pooled in the cap, starts drawing, and finds his passion. The next morning, of course, the incredibly good drawing of the scene outside James's window is attributed to James, and what is he supposed to say? That his new beetle friend drew it? The complications grow when, through his dad's connections, James is approached by a museum curator to duplicate a painting by Albrecht Durer in a scheme to foil an art theft.

The book succeeds as a mystery, as a story about friendship and agape transcending even huge differences, and in its exploration of what to do and where to turn when there are things you just cannot possibly tell people. In both Masterpiece and Shakespeare's Secret, author's notes explain what is factual and what is invented, and I did find a few of these distinctions surprising and in one case, mildly disappointing. But I highly recommend both books.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

September Critique Giveaway

It's critique time. Enter to win!
  • I will critique TWO manuscripts. "Manuscript" means the first 1000 words of your children's magazine story, chapter book, MG novel, or YA novel.
  • No picture books, easy readers, poetry, or nonfiction.
  • Just comment on this post and state that you wish to enter.
  • Extra entries for following, Facebooking, tweeting, blogging, etc.
  • Include your email, OR check back to see if you've won!
  • Enter now through Sunday, September 25.
  • Please, no stories that you intend to enter in an ICL Children's Writer contest.
  • Winners announced Monday, September 26.
Let the entering begin!

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Soapbox Series #5 (or Reading, 'Riting, Ranting) -- "Writing Can/Can't be Taught"

Many of us have heard the argument that you can't teach someone to write -- or that of course you CAN teach someone to write. One thing I've learned is that, no matter the subject, if there are extensive, reasoned arguments plus a lot of people on each side, it's usual (not universal, but usual) that each side has at least a piece of the truth and neither is completely wrong or right. Some kind of harmonizing of the views is in order to get the full picture.

I've long been on the side that says, "Of course you can teach writing. If you couldn't, why attempt to do so in schools? Writing may be art in a sense, but it is also craft, with specific skills in composition, grammar, and story, that can be learned and practiced. Raw talent, in any field, must be trained. If I didn't believe writing could be taught, why on Earth would I be teaching it?"

You know there's a "but" coming, right? BUT...when people say writing can't be taught, I do understand what they mean.

Editors and agents touch on it when they say, "I can help a writer with plot, but I can't help with voice." Teachers can help writers learn to plot, to use POV correctly, to show rather than tell, to use sensory detail, to flesh out characters, and to identify theme. We can teach grammar and sentence structure. But we can't teach a facility with language. Or a lyrical style. We can't help much with a constant tendency to choose almost the right word. There is such a thing as basically competent yet tone-deaf writers. That there comes a time when we can't bring them beyond their innate language talent level is what writers -- it's usually writers -- mean when they say writing can't be taught.

In this way, writing is like any of the arts. To teach any sort of artist, you take a person with a measure of inborn talent and set them a program in which they explore and practice different forms, media, and techniques, helping them improve weaknesses and identify strengths. You can teach writing, because having raw talent is no excuse for eschewing a proper course of training. But, you can't teach the talent, and no matter what we say about desire, hard work, and perseverance going a long way, and they do, the talent's got to be there.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Interview With Author Chris Eboch

Today, I get to interview Chris Eboch, who has written a variety of fiction and nonfiction for middle-graders, including a humorous ghost-story series called Haunted, and a new historical mystery called The Eyes of Pharaoh (are we sensing a mystery theme here? :)) A versatile writer, Chris has also done biographies, adult fiction under the name Kris Bock, and the subject of today's interview, a new writing book titled Advanced Plotting.

Advanced Plotting is designed for the intermediate and advanced writer: you've finished a few manuscripts, read books and articles on writing, taken some classes, attended conferences. But you still struggle with plot, or suspect that your plotting needs work.

This book can help.

Learn to identify and fix plot weaknesses, flesh out an outline, get off to a fast start, prop up a sagging middle, build to a climax, improve pacing, and more. Read the book straight through or dip in and out at random -- however you use this book, you'll find fascinating insights and detailed tips to help you build a stronger plot and become a better writer.

MH: Thanks so much for joining me, Chris. Why did you decide to write Advance Plotting?

CE: Well, like you, Marcia, I'm a writing teacher as well as a writer. I teach through the Institute of Children's Literature and also edit private clients and trade critiques with professional writer friends. I see how even experienced, published writers can struggle with plot, especially when it comes to novel-length work. It's just too hard to keep the entire big picture in mind while you edit page by page. And although I've seen plenty of books and articles covering the basics of plot -- beginning/middle/end structure and so forth -- I didn't see anything that covered many of the techniques I was learning through trial and error.

I developed an exercise called the Plot Arc Exercise to help myself take a step back from the work and see it as a whole, in order to identify flaws such as missing pieces, weak spots, and repetition. I tested this exercise with other people in a novel revision class. I felt it was successful enough that I wanted to make these techniques available to a larger audience.

The book also includes expanded versions of a dozen articles I've written about plotting techniques, covering everything from the promise of the first chapter to cliffhanger chapter endings. I teach a popular workshop called "What I Learned From Nancy Drew," and turned that into a couple of articles for the book as well. 

To make the book even more valuable, I invited other authors to share essays on plotting topics. I even have a long essay from my brother, a professional scriptwriter who wrote Sweet Home Alabama, on plotting like a screenwriter. Sharing these other voices gives readers a broader perspective.

MH: Where can people get the book?

CE: It's available on Amazon in paperback for $9.99, or as an e-book for $2.99 on Amazon or Smashwords. People can also check out excerpts this month on my blog.

MH: Chris, what else have you been up to lately?

CE: My latest book for young people is The Eyes of Pharaoh, a mystery set in ancient Egypt. A temple dancer and an apprentice toymaker get drawn into a world of intrigue when their friend, a young soldier, disappears. I loved ancient Egypt when I was a kid, and still do. My first historical novel, The Well of Sacrifice, is set in 9th-century Mayan Guatemala and is still in print and used in many schools. I can only hope The Eyes of Pharaoh has a similarly long life. 

I've also started writing romantic suspense for adults under the name Kris Bock. Rattled is my first book, a treasure-hunting adventure set in the wilds of New Mexico. 

MH: How do you build a career when you're writing in different genres under different names?

CE: It's a challenge. I have two websites, one for Chris Eboch and one for Kris Bock. I have to promote the work separately, targeting different audiences. But I have an agent who is supportive of my decision to start writing for adults, and I'm starting to network with people in the romance and mystery fields. The decision was really a personal one. I wanted to try something different. If I'm always learning, I don't get bored. And if I'm having fun and making discoveries along the way, I think that fun infuses the work and reaches the reader.

Thanks, Chris, for sharing your time with us. Best wishes in all your endeavors! And thanks for sharing what you've learned about plot with writers everywhere.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Wedding Pictures!

Today is the second wedding month-iversary for our son and his lovely bride, so what better day to post some photos? The entire wedding day couldn't have been more perfect. Blessings abound...
                                                   Is he happy or what?
                                             He's happy, and here's why.


                                   A bit of creative (small town) photography
                                                   The happy couple

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Revision Spreadsheet

Recently, I was blessed to have seven people read my MG novel and give feedback. (You are all awesome!) Then I discovered something. I'd never had more than three betas read a manuscript before. Organizing and managing feedback from seven people is more challenging than processing feedback from just three. Most of the readers agreed on the main points, but each also made comments unique to him- or herself. I knew that going through the ms. seven times from start to finish wouldn't be efficient, and could result in doing rewrites that would only be canceled out later when a suggestion I liked better came along. After a moment's thought, I turned to my spreadsheet program.

I highlighted the points from each beta reader's letter (did I mention these people are awesome?) that were major, that were important-minor, and anything else I agreed with. Then I listed the points in rows on the spreadsheet. This way, everything was mentioned, but mentioned once only. I assigned each reader a column, and put her or his name in the intersecting cell if they had brought up that point. When the spreadsheet was done, I could see at a glance, on one sheet, what needed to be addressed and which points were the most important, i.e., the ones with the most mentions.

I'm sure I'm hardly the first to try this method. Have you used it? Have you discovered/invented any other writing tips lately?

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Interview with Author Bobbie Pyron

Two weeks ago, I talked about Bobbie Pyron's wonderful middle-grade novel, A Dog's Way Home. Today, I have the privilege of interviewing Bobbie on this blog! Read on to hear what she has to say about authors she admires, the freedom to write what you want, the need for research in fiction, and, that big question: Plotter or Pantser?

MH: Bobbie, it's pretty much a given that writers are readers. What kinds of books do you most like to read?

BP: I've always been a voracious reader. I most like to read books that are character-driven and have characters that are complex yet very believable. I also love beautiful writing. I don't tend to read what's popular with everyone else. 

MH: Who are some authors you admire, especially MG/YA, and why?

BP: Being a librarian and a writer, I admit to having very strong opinions about books and writers! Alice Hoffman, Anne Patchett, Kate DiCamillo, Cynthia Rylant, Sharon Creech, Sonya Hartnett, and Julia Glass, just to name a few. I have such admiration for writers who are willing to take a risk, whether that's writing something completely different from what they're "known" for, or choosing a particular subject matter, or not following the latest trend. For instance, I have tremendous respect for Libba Bray because she doesn't allow herself to get pigeonholed. I also greatly respect authors like Chris Crutcher, Sherman Alexie, Cheryl Rainfield, Ellen Hopkins, and Laurie Halse Anderson for writing about tough subjects with grace and humor, and Gary Schmidt, Kate DiCamillo, Barbara O'Connor and many more who write heartfelt, compassionate books that actually show the best in people.

MH: Sometimes new writers are surprised to learn that fiction (other than historical) requires research. What kind of research did you do for A Dog's Way Home?

BP: I did a TON of research! Even though I know dogs, and shelties in particular, it was important to me to check facts such as what colors they can actually see. I also wanted to make sure that, if a coyote kills a porcupine in a particular way, that's actually the way it would happen. I read books about the flora and fauna of the Blue Ridge Parkway. I have a horror of some kid reading my book who lives in that particular place and being disappointed because I "got it wrong." For Tam's route home, I had a map of the Blue Ridge Parkway in front of me at all times. I respect my readers too much to let the facts slide just because it's fiction, and especially because they're "just kids."

MH: Plotter or pantser? Have you ever tried the opposite method?

BP: Oh, totally a pantser! I usually have a pretty good idea of the beginning, middle, end, and core conflict when I start. But I like to leave myself lots of room to be surprised and to see where the characters take me. I don't outline before I start. What my agent taught me to do, however, is outline AFTER the first draft is done. I go through chapter by chapter and write down the main things that happen in each. Outlining that way allows me to see "dead zones" -- places where nothing happens to advance the plot or characterization. I also get a bird's eye view of story arc. I highly recommend this technique to even the most hardcore pantser.

MH: Your "Fido and Friends in Five" blog series is cool! Would you say a few words about it?
BP: I'd love to! My editor for A Dog's Way Home, Molly O' Neill, really wanted me to blog after the release of the book in March. I, however, am not a natural blogger. We were brainstorming ideas on how to focus the blog so I didn't feel like I was just saying "Yay me" in every post. We came up with the idea of interviewing other authors about their dogs. I've been amazed by the authors who've been happy to talk about their dogs on my blog -- folks like Kathi Appelt, Gary Schmidt, Patricia MacLachlan, Lisa Yee, Katherine Erskine, Pete Hautman, Marilyn Singer, just to name a few.

MH: It sounds like you've provided them a great outlet to talk about their dogs, Bobbie! Your first novel, The Ring, is a YA about boxing, and A Dog's Way Home targets a different audience. You've mentioned that you admire authors who don't let themselves become pigeonholed. But so many authors have heard they should be concerned about branding. Can you comment a bit on career strategy?
BP: Ha! You assume I have a career strategy! I think for me (maybe because I'm an old hippie), I have a real fear of being "branded" as a certain kind of writer. I write the stories that insist on being told. My trick has been to find an agent and editor who will let me write these stories and trust me. I have a quote pinned on my bulletin board in my room where I write from Sonya Hartnett, an author I greatly admire. It reads in part, "I write whatever comes to me, and I write whatever the book requires. My first responsibility is to the work."

MH: You have a new book coming in the fall of 2012. What can you tell us about it?

BP: The working title is Mercy's Bone, and my sense is that it's for grades 6 and up. It's a fictionalized account of a true story: After the fall of the Soviet Union, there were tens of thousands of homeless children living on the streets of Moscow and St. Petersburg. This is the story of one of those children. Talk about research! I researched for years before I felt ready to write it. I'm very excited that the book will be published by Arthur A. Levine Books, and edited by Arthur himself!

MH: Can you give us any hints on WIPs?
BP: Oh, I have lots of voices banging around in my head. I have written about half a MG novel set in Florida, about a boy who gets struck by lightning and lives. I was born and raised in the Florida panhandle, so it's been fun to write about a place I know so intimately and fondly. It was really nice to go from writing about the bitter cold of Russia to the warmth of the Gulf of Mexico!

Thanks so much, Bobbie, for allowing us this peek into your life as a writer. You've really shown us how stories can be found in many different aspects of one person's life! Your breadth as a writer, too, is admirable. :)

Thursday, August 4, 2011

E-books: Out of Sight, Out of Mind?

I don't have an e-reader, and I should probably qualify that with the word "yet." I do have several e-books on my PC. I read one of them promptly and quickly because I had agreed to write a review. The others? Haven't read Word One, even though I'm a voracious reader and am interested in these books' topics. Why haven't I even started reading them? Because they're on my computer rather than toppling off my nightstand. Were the latter the case, I'd have finished them months ago. On my computer, they're not calling, "Read me." On my computer, I've got too many other priorities that come first. But the "read me" thing is really the bottom line: Because the books are on my computer, I keep forgetting I have them.

It seems an e-reader would solve this. An e-reader is dedicated for reading, and the device is as much a visual prompt as a physical book is. But here's my question: Can't individual books get lost in this vast e-library? When you pick up an e-reader, you're picking up hundreds or someday thousands of books all at once, if you've owned it awhile and are an avid reader. Surely you can just plain forget some of them, even though they're as present and available as all the others. Yes, physical libraries also contain forgotten or unread books. But a physical book has a chance to call, "Read me!" in a way that an e-book doesn't. For me, so far at least, e-books are "out of sight, out of mind."

As an aside, a couple of weeks ago I read a column by a college-age young man in our local paper. To my surprise, he listed e-books as one of "life's little annoyances." He said he already spends plenty of time with his computer, TV, and smartphone, and doesn't want another screen, thank you very much. Most people's reply to this objection is that an e-reader isn't the same because you can choose a model that doesn't have a backlit screen. But I'm not so sure this is answering people's concerns. Or that we should assume the young won't want physical books. None of my young adult kids or their spouses, five out of six of them readers, are interested in e-books. Not one.

What has your experience been? Do you think e-books are easier to forget or ignore than print books?

Monday, August 1, 2011

July Critique Giveaway Winners! says the winners of this month's critique giveaway are: Erin Liles and Cat!

Here's the procedure. Email me at marcia at marciahoehne dot com:
  • The first 1000 words of your magazine story, chapter book, mid-grade novel, or YA novel pasted into the body of the email.
  • Be sure to tell me the genre of the material (one of the above four).
  • Put "(Month) critique winner" in the subject line.
  • Deadline to submit is August 17.
  • When I receive your email, I'll acknowledge receipt and let you know when you can expect my response.
Congratulations to Erin and Cat, thank you all so much for stopping by and entering, and by all means enter again next month! Wishing you all a great day in the world of books...

Thursday, July 28, 2011

July Book Pick -- A Dog's Way Home by Bobbie Pyron

I love books that are contemporary yet have the feel of "timeless classic," and A Dog's Way Home certainly fills that bill. I also like "Incredible Journey" stories (blubbered over the 3-part, I think, "Lassie's Odyssey" episode on Lassie when I was 10 or 12), and though not a dog-lover per se, think shelties are very cute.

Abby, 11, and her sheltie, Tam, are Dog Agility champions. After another contest win in Virginia, her family is in a serious accident on the way home to small-town North Carolina. Abby ends up in the hospital, and Tam's cage, which was in the back of the truck, flies out and lands in a stream. By the time Tam escapes the cage, he's many miles from the accident scene. Abby, released from the hospital, is determined to find Tam again, and Tam is every bit as single-minded about getting home to "his girl," although he has 400 miles to go. The chapters alternate between Abby, in first person, and Tam, in third. 

As I said, I'm not a dog lover. But I found the sheer loyalty of Tam powerful, and, humbling -- there's really no other word. Yet Tam is an animal, and during his months-long odyssey, through the companionship of a small coyote, he learns to live wild. He forgets his name. He meets people and animals he both can and can't trust. He ends up in a shelter and is almost adopted. Somehow, though, he always remembers himself and resumes his journey, whether it's because his potential new owner names him "Sam" and that rings a bell, or because he's driven off, assumed, in his emaciated state, to be rabid. Reading, I had the distinct feeling that dogs are created for loyalty, and I found that wonderful.

Abby, too, never gives up hope that Tam will return. Of course, everyone in her life tries to help her face that her dog is gone, but she will not give in to such thinking. It's a great compliment to the writing that Tam's story, with its inherent adventure component, doesn't take over the book. Abby's chapters are absorbing, too. Besides efforts to locate Tam, there's an unexpected move to Nashville when her dad's band gets its shot at a recording contract, and a surprise friendship with the weird girl in her new school, who turns out to be the daughter of Nashville's hottest new country star, and whose brother's mapping expertise helps push the search for Tam to a new level. In other words, Abby doesn't waste away pining for her dog, which adds weight and respect to the "never give up" message.

Because some kids will not want to read a story in which the dog dies, a recommendation of a book like this almost requires a spoiler: The dog doesn't die; the pair IS reunited. And the dog doesn't just fight to return to a girl who passively waits; both girl and dog are instrumental in finding each other.

This is a just plain good read. Highly recommended.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

July Critique Giveaway

It's critique time. Enter to win!
  • I will critique TWO manuscripts each month. "Manuscript" means the first 1000 words of your children's magazine story, chapter book, MG novel, or YA novel.
  • No picture books, easy readers, poetry, or nonfiction.
  • Just comment on this post and state that you wish to enter.
  • Extra entries for following, Facebooking, tweeting, blogging, etc.
  • Include your email, OR check back to see if you've won!
  • Enter now through Sunday, July 31.
  • Please, no stories that you intend to enter in an ICL Children's Writer contest.
  • Winners announced Monday, August 1.
Let the entering begin!

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Not as Broad as it Sounds: First Person, Chronology, and Theme :)

I usually write in third person rather than first, although two of my published novels are in first. Here are some things I think/thought I knew about first person that make it different from third:
  • A story in first person must maintain that narrator's voice 100% of the time.
  • The first-person narrator must have a clear, plausible reason for telling the story; we have to believe he'd do it, and telling the story is going to "solve" something for him, which means...
  • The first-person narrator is the MC even if he appears not to be (yes, I'd argue Nick Carraway is the MC in The Great Gatsby). He has a stake in this story's telling that nobody else has, or they'd be telling it.
  • Using a first-person narrator is no excuse for skimping on action and dialogue in order to let the narrator yak, yak, yak. In other words, a weakness of first person is that it tempts one to tell secondhand instead of show firsthand.
  • A striking advantage of first-person narration is ability to maintain POV.
  • Your MC's personality plays a large role in whether you use first or third person. Some characters wouldn't tell their own story to save their lives; others insist on having the floor.
But here are a couple of newer thoughts I'm chewing on, arguments I've come across in my study of the subject: 
  • First person can, and should, open up lots of structural possibilities besides straight chronology.
It's that should that snags me. John Truby, in The Anatomy of Story, argues that the storyteller device (of which first-person narration is probably the most popular form) is superfluous, just a frame, if used for a simple chronological story. That kind can be dramatized without the narrator. But in a first-person tale, you have the narrator's entire memory and agenda to play around with. What does she want you to know first? What does she forget and have to tell you later? Both of my first-person novels are chronological. They are mysteries, which also figures in, but yeah--if and when I tackle another first-person book, I'll definitely think about how that might lead into a more creative structure.
  • The theme in a first-person story is more concerned with artistry, truth, beauty, creativity, and so forth, than with heroic action. 
Whoa. I never thought of it that way. But with a bit of thought I can see it: The storyteller, even if relating a story of war, fights, explosions, and heroism, is primarily creating art in telling the story. He's more concerned at that moment with relating what happened than with even the happenings themselves. The theme lies in what the act of storytelling does for the MC, not in what the story itself did for him. But when the story's in third person, with the MC doing exploits but not himself interested in recounting the events, the theme will relate directly to that action and heroism.

What do you think? Agree? Disagree? What would you add?

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Soapbox Series #4 (or Reading, 'Riting, Ranting) -- "Nonfiction is True, Fiction is False.""

In days of yore, I worked at the public library. One day, an odd young man came in (he had, on a previous visit, used the library phone [small town, long time ago] to cold-call a dude ranch and blurt, "Can I get a job there?" which had caused me to flee the circulation desk and hide in the stacks to laugh), pointed to the A-Z shelves and asked, "Um, fiction...that's fake, right?"

I don't remember exactly what I said. I do remember that laughter, unless maniacal, was not one of the responses I considered. I also remember that, being in my place of employment here, I kept my mouth shut for several beats. No Mount Vesuvius of righteous indignation. I suppose it's possible I said "WHAT?" although not that loudly. Eventually, I did manage to burble that yes, nonfiction was the factual stuff with the Dewey decimal numbers on the spines, and fiction was imaginative story, invented by the writer.

I don't really want to segue into discussing the worth of fiction, as suggested by questions and comments we've all probably heard: "How am I supposed to get anything out of stuff that isn't real?" "Fiction is all lies." (For the record, I can't stand when writers say fiction is lies.) "Fiction is just made up, it's indulgence, not worth my time." I want to stick to the definitions. IS fiction lies, fake, false, untrue? IS nonfiction anything that's 100% factual, or "happened just that way"?

It ain't that simple.

I've seen stories that use characters, conflict, plot, and dialogue, accompanied by a note saying the whole incident happened "just like this," so it's nonfiction. Nope. To any editor or reader seeing it, it's fiction based on a real event, and could probably use some changes (fictionalizing) to make it an even better story. Unless you have clearly signaled that this is a personal experience essay, say, or an anecdote meant to illustrate a point you're going to discuss, this "true story" material wants to be, and is, fiction.

I've seen articles that use characters, conflict, plot, and dialogue to teach history or nature lessons, in which kids ask questions like "So why is the sky blue, Mr. Jones?" and Mr. Jones answers, "Why, Billy, the sky is blue because of the way Earth's atmosphere scatters sunlight," accompanied by a note saying this is fiction. Nope. There's no dramatic or emotional arc. This is a presentation of factual material about how the Earth's atmosphere interacts with light. The goal is to inform. Though it's not written in a style likely to sell today, it's nonfiction.

Is fiction false? Never -- not so long as it puts its finger on the way life and relationships work, the way actions have consequences, the way emotional journeys and character growth come about. Is fiction "made up"? Not all of it. Plenty of events and places occur in fiction that were drawn from real life.

Is nonfiction true? Not if it contains errors. Not if it's simply the best understanding of the day, liable to be proved wrong 10 or 100 years from now. Not if it's solely the opinion of an op-ed writer. Like fiction, nonfiction is filtered through writers who have a particular world view, and that makes a difference. Is nonfiction factual? Yes -- to the best of our knowledge and belief. But if it's found not to be factual, does that make it fiction? No. It makes it bad nonfiction.

One of my favorite quotes on this subject goes like this: "Nonfiction is facts; fiction is truth." But fiction not only has truth in it; fiction has facts in it. Often lots of them. Historical fiction may spring first to mind. But plenty of contemporary fiction, from legal thrillers to police procedurals to books that delve heavily into any pursuit (horse racing, the space program, zookeeping, fashion, whatever) are filled with facts that make the story plausible. Just as you can learn a lot, often painlessly, by simply living and being exposed to this or that, you can learn a lot, often painlessly, by entering a good piece of fiction and being exposed to this or that.

Fiction presents a character with a weakness, a need, and a conflict, and takes him or her through struggles to a decisive battle and an outcome, saying something about life in the process. Nonfiction is (usually) direct writer-to-reader attempt to teach, inform, express, inspire, or persuade.

Good nonfiction, and good fiction, are both true.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

It's Goof-Off Day!

Aim your arrow to shoot each colored ball at groups of at least two of that same color. Shoot all the balls before they reach the bottom! Click here.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Quoth the Writer

There's nothing like a good quote for eliciting those lightbulb moments, or assuring you that somebody gets you, or provoking you to say "I never thought about that," or, "Yes, this exactly!" or maybe even "Nahhh."  Here's what two writers have to say about writing.

Katherine Paterson:
  • And what am I doing while the world is falling apart? I am sitting in my little study in front of my typewriter trying to find words and put them together.
  • I have no more right to tell readers how they should respond to what I have written than they had to tell me how to write it.
  • The best people to talk about a book...are not writers, but readers.
  • To me, writing and reading are both gifts, neither of which has meaning without the other.
  • 'Don't you feel constricted writing for children?' they ask. William, don't you find fourteen tightly rhymed lines an absolute prison? Form is not a bar to free expression...
  • I will not write a book that closes in despair.
  • There are few things, apparently, more helpful to a writer than having once been a weird little kid.
  • The only problem with writing as a job is that it interferes with my reading.
  • Though truth is seldom comfortable, it is, finally, the strongest comfort.
  • Those of us who write for children are called, not to do something to a child, but to be someone for a child.
Annie Dillard:
  • It is the beginning of a work that the writer throws away.
  • The line of words is a fiber optic, flexible as wire; it illumines the path just before its fragile tip.
  • When you...know what comes next, and yet cannot go on...either the logic has developed a hairline fracture that will shortly split it up the middle, or you are approaching a fatal mistake.
  • It takes years to write a book -- between two and ten years. Less is so rare as to be statistically insignificant.
  • Novels written with film contracts in mind have a faint but unmistakable, and ruinous, odor.
  • I cannot imagine a sorrier pursuit than struggling for years to write a book that attempts to appeal to people who do not read in the first place.
  • Appealing workplaces are to be avoided. One wants a room with no view, so imagination can meet memory in the dark.
  • I do not so much write a book as sit up with it, as with a dying friend.
  • Writing every book, the writer must solve two problems: Can it be done? and, "Can I do it?
  • Write as if you were dying....That is, after all, the case.
What do you think? Agree? Disagree?

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Here Comes the Groom!

I must suspend the critique giveaway this month, as our family is, ahem, "otherwise engaged." Our son's June 25 wedding is almost here! He couldn't be marrying a sweeter girl. We're so proud of both of them.

Monday, June 13, 2011

June Book Giveaway Winner! says the winner of Okay for Now by Gary D. Schmidt is: Jeff King!

You have 30 days to claim your prize, Jeff. No later than July 13, email me at marcia at marciahoehne dot com, giving me your postal address, and I'll acknowledge receipt and get that right out to you!

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Critiquing: Questions vs. Comments

Win OKAY FOR NOW by Gary D. Schmidt! Enter through June 12. Scroll down one post.

I went to an excellent revision workshop by author Pat Schmatz a couple weekends ago, and one thing the attendees did was exchange manuscripts for critique -- sort of. In the type of critiquing I'm used to, we jot comments and suggestions in the margins as we read, pointing out spots where we got confused ("Is Lizzie outside the house looking in, or inside the house looking out?"); POV trouble ("You've entered the thoughts and feelings of three people in the space of two paragraphs"); passages that drag; places where dialogue predominates too much over action or setting, giving a "talking heads" effect; emotional reactions that aren't quite convincing; character motivation that seems lacking -- in short, anything we can find that needs a second look. But when we exchanged mss. at the workshop, Pat gave very specific instructions: "ASK QUESTIONS ONLY, about things that pique your curiosity." It's not that I've never asked questions in a critique, or in a student manuscript, because I have and do. But the overall approach in this workshop exercise was to be one of asking questions, not making comments, and the idea of sticking to questions only was new. It made me realize a few things:
  • Asking questions means I can't enter "automatic critique mode" and make any of the comments I would normally make, such as "POV slip" or "His hair was short two pages ago; now it's long." I have to get out of the box, change my mindset. It means I'm primed to see in a fresh way before I even start reading.
  • Asking questions makes me focus on the bigger picture. First, with this method, line edits are out. A comment like "POV slip" becomes a related but more macro question: "Whose story is this?" Next to a passage that I suspect goes into too much detail about a minor character, I might jot, "Will this character be important later?" Or, to use the above example of long/short hair, the question might become, "Do you have a clear mental picture of Wilbert's appearance?"
  • Asking questions leaves ownership of the story with the author. This way, the critiquer isn't suggesting fixes. Instead, she's raising questions and leaving the answers to the writer.
  • Asking questions is freeing for the critiquer when revision is at the macro, big-picture stage. It prevents the critiquer from getting bogged down in trying to point out "everything," and keeps the early revision focus on larger aspects such as voice, conflict, character development, motivation, plot points, and sense of place. 
It occurred to me that if I'm on the receiving end of a question critique, I think I'd like to know this: Does this question mean you're confused at this spot and need the question answered now in order to understand or stick with the story? Or is it something to consider for the chapter or book as a whole, i.e., globally, not locally? As long as I have that distinction, I feel like I've gotten a glimpse into a reader's reaction to the story and can begin to work out answers to any answer-less questions. I'm reminded of John Gardner's statement something to the effect that the really good novelist anticipates and answers any questions the reader can reasonably ask. So this question approach to critiquing, if we've only heretofore dabbled around the edges of it, can raise us to new levels as both writers and critiquers. Thanks, Pat. :)

Thursday, June 2, 2011

June Book Giveaway

In last Thursday's post, here, or scroll down two posts, I blogged about this fantastic book. Well, I can't think of a better book to give away.

To be entered in the drawing:
  • Comment on this post anytime from now through Sunday, June 12.
  • For an additional entry, become or be a follower, and mention that in the comment.
  • For additional entries, link to this contest and give the URLs.
Winner will be announced Monday, June 13.

So, come one, come all--and meanwhile have a great day in the world of books.