Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Christmas, Weddings, Nano, New Stories

Lots of things have been on my mind this December, and my life has been packed with all brands of wonderful. Here's a sampling of the sweetness.

Winter bride
1. My baby sister got married yesterday. She looked lovely in her beautiful white dress and lacy winter shawl, but much, much more importantly, she was SO HAPPY. She cried. I cried. We all cried. I love you, Emily. I'll make 700 crepes for your reception any day.

2. I won NaNo in November. I realize this news is late and therefore anticlimactic, but I'm still thrilled about it. While doing NaNo again was cool, it was ten times more thrilling that I also finished my novel in November. Now The Lovely Invisible is taking a little rest in prep for a scrutinizing revision, and it always helps to have a little distance so I can get super objective.

3. I have a bright, shiny, and very different (for me, anyway) idea for a new novel! Since I revel in revisions, I'm amazed I want to draft something new already. This story is that special. It's already given me a rash of sleepless nights and all kinds of glorious distractibility. Good signs. But the premise is tricky and needs more research. I want to do this right, so I'm gearing up for major brainstorming and research-a-thons come January.

Trying to rock the 3D glasses
4. I saw The Hobbit in 3D and at an IMAX theater (my first IMAX experience). I'm a harsh film critic, and I have lots of opinions about this film, but I'm willing to forgive many things because the last half of the film was pure awesomeness (Peter Jackson rocks endings), and Thorin (played by a fab actor, Richard Armitage--have you seen North and South? Swoon!) was incredible and totally made the movie for me. So go see The Hobbit (but not in 3D). I can't wait to see it again!

5. I'm spoiling myself for Christmas (yes, I pick out my own presents) by getting a bunch of novels and writing books I selected with a focus on emotion and impactful endings--two aspects of writing I don't feel get enough attention on blogs or books on craft. I'm excited to dig in and continue to learn, learn, learn.

6. I'm most grateful, especially in light of world events, for my sweet family. They are my best gift.

Celebrating my oldest daughter after she performed in A Christmas Carol

I'd like to leave you with a Christmas present (courtesy of Coldplay). This is one of my favorite songs ever (probably tying for first place with Brandi Carlile's "The Story"). Even though this is a Christmas song, it reminds me of summer, which is when I first heard it. But it's definitely a year-round favorite.

Merry Christmas, everyone!


Monday, December 3, 2012

And You Are...?

As part of Emily R. King and Tammy Theriault's blog hop, I'm subjecting myself to David Spade's grueling interview questions. See, he's helping Mrs. Clause, who's helping Santa determine who's been naughty or nice this year. Three special presents will be awarded to those David finds worthy. Pick me, David. Pick me!

1. How many speeding tickets have you gotten?
I haven't gotten a speeding ticket since I was 18, thank you very much. Since I'm almost 36, that's pretty impressive. But I was a nasty, nasty speed demon as a teen. I was good at dodging cops, but I still got two speeding tickets.

2. Can you pitch a tent?
Yes! The basic pop-up kind anyway. And I could write a novel about a tent, and then pitch it to an agent. Does that count? :-)

3. What was your worst vacation ever?
My worst vacation was also my best vacation--FRANCE! I was nineteen and stayed a month with my French pen pal, who had visited me two times in the U.S. before. But we didn't get along this time. (I tried, David!) She ditched me twice. Once in the ginormous Louvre and once on a random street in a little village. This was back in the pre-cell-phone days, and I didn't speak French. I was scared out of my mind!

4. What was the last thing you bought over $100?
My registration for LDStorymakers in May. It's an awesome annual writers' conference in Utah. I just paid the fee this morning!

5. We're handing you the keys to what?
I think you want me to name a car, but I want a house! Not too big, not too small. Good neighborhood. Fenced yard. A place to call my own and raise my kids. *sighs*

6. What was the last meal you cooked that made even you sick?
Cream cheese chicken casserole. Sounds good, but I've made it one too many times recently. Last time was gagorama. I don't want to even think about cream cheese chicken casserole for another decade.

7. Fill in the blank: Oh my gosh! Becky, look at her butt! It is so big. She looks like  ____?
David, I refuse to answer this question! I'm too self-conscious about my own derriere to ever make fun of anyone else's!

8. What was your first car?
I shared a 1977 gold Datsun (oh, yeah, baby!) with my older brother. The paint was peeling and the defrost button didn't work. I had to stick my head out the window during winter to see the road. Also, the passenger door wouldn't open from the inside unless you pulled the lever, lifted it just right, and banged the door with your elbow--all at the same time. It was a sign of true friendship if you could open that door; it meant you spent a lot of time driving with me in my horrible car! I named it "Platypus" because somehow it looked like one. I've never seen a car like it since! Everyone knew it was me driving that beauty around.

9. Your best friend falls and gets hurt. Do you ask if he/she's okay or laugh first?
Oh, no. David, are you trying to put me on the naughty list? Because I'd totally laugh first! I'm such a clumsy person that I find it hilarious when other people trip, stub their toes, and smack their funny bones. But if my best friend REALLY got hurt badly, I wouldn't laugh, I promise! *crosses fingers behind my back*

10. What's the worst song ever?
Anything by Aaron Neville. UGH! That nasty, nasal, overly warbled vibrato. It's fingernails on a chalkboard for me. It's shoving my finger down my throat. Nothing's worse! (Except maybe elevator jazz.)

**************

All right, David. I see where you're going with all this. These questions are all of the damning-me-to-the-naughty-list variety. I really am a good person. Can't you see the halo over my head?

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

The Girl with the Green Pen

My fantastically brilliant critique partner, Taryn Albright, is branching off from Teen Eyes Editorial to launch her own editing service, The Girl with the Green Pen. Taryn has a fantastic reputation and tons of success stories from those who've used her editing services in the past and are now agented or contracted with publishers. She has a quick turnaround, and her critiques are flat-out amazing! Check out her new website (www.tarynalbright.com) and the services she offers--anything from help with queries, synopses, entire manuscripts (big picture or more extensive critiques), and all kinds of combo packages. Her rates are excellent and her services, even more so. Join the ranks of authors made more fabulous by Taryn's help!

Here's some more info from Taryn...

Me 'n' Taryn. This photo is my claim to fame.
My mission is to guide writers through the daunting task of revision. From idea development to editorial feedback to general publishing advice, I love working with stories and those who create them. As a nationally ranked swimer, I know the value of time, so I believe in quick responses from the first email to the last.

I am not just another freelance editor. Beyond providing an experienced and thorough critique, my secondary goal is to establish a relationship with my clients. I want to support you throughout the stressful submission process and celebrate with you upon any and all good news. Writers may put pen to paper alone, but it is through a community that the book gets finished, polished, and submitted.

Why The Girl with the Green Pen? Why green?

Most edits are made with a red pen. If someone critiques your manuscript, s/he will most likely cover it with red ink, right? Not so much here. I make all my notes in green because I like to reflect the idea of moving forward. Green means go, it means new life. These are ways to think of your revisions, and this is how I like to think of the editing process.

But why are you leaving Teen Eyes?

I founded Teen Eyes in August 2011 to critique your YA manuscript from the perspective of a YA. Since then, I've expanded my interest in editing. Plus I'll be 20 soon, so the "teen" part won't work much longer. I still love Teen Eyes, but I wanted to do something bigger.

I'm currently your client / have been your client in the past. What does this mean for me?

I hope nothing! I will continue to give the notes you have come to expect. This is only a change in scenery, really, and I hope you'll be excited as I am about my growth in this area.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Listening to Your Characters

I'm less than 5k away from winning NaNoWriMo, and even better, less than 10k away from finishing my first draft of The Lovely Invisible. Now is the time I can barely eat or sleep because the tension in the story is so high that I need to write, write, write to get it all out of me. Now is the time I see the story coming full circle, even in its messiness, even past the long list of "Things to Fix Later"--which brings me to listening to characters during writing.

As I've mentioned in past posts, I've done a lot of legwork with this novel in outlining, researching, and other preparations. That's great for keeping me on task with the plot and not staring at blank pages, but it makes it a little frightening when I'm in the midst of following my neat plan and--WHAM!--my headstrong main character says, "Um, excuse me, Mother Author, I can't walk down that tidy little path you paved for me. I know myself better than you do, and I would sooooo not do that." (She sounds so much like my thirteen-year-old daughter.)

"Wait, what?" I reply. "You HAVE to! I've spent weeks figuring out the timeline your story, and this needs to happen right now."

My character rolls her eyes. "Do you seriously think I'm that one-dimensional? I'm. Not. Going. To. Do. It. In this situation, here's what I'd do instead--that and nothing else."

"But. But. You're  not supposed to do that for four more chapters! And you're supposed to HATE the villain and kiss your lover boy NOW."

"Listen, Mother Author"--my character pats my tendonitis-stricken hand--"just trust me. Things will be better my way."

I groan. "All right, let's say I do follow your lead..." I feverishly flip through my note card outline. "You realize if you change this here, I'm going to have to go back and fix, like, a bazillion things to streamline the whole manuscript."

"Yeah?"

"Yeah, and that would mean a TON of revising. That's precious time, my dear character."

She folds her arms and gives me a level stare. "Did you really think you'd have a perfect first draft, Mom?"

I shrug sheepishly, and then throw my hands in the air. "Fine! You win! Are you happy?"

She squeals with delight and gives me a bear hug. "Yes! Thank you! You're the best!"

I huff. "Yeah, yeah."

***

Does any of this sound familiar? Am I the only one who has these battles with my characters--and lose most of the time?

But perhaps I'm winning...I just don't know it yet. Perhaps when I read my manuscript from beginning to end, I'll shake my head with wonder. Because then I'll realize, "Dang, my character was sooooo right!"

Monday, November 12, 2012

Update on NaNoWriMo

I'm deep in the trenches of NaNoWriMo again. I did NaNo last year and wrote 60k words. This year I'll be ecstatic if I write under 50k. I'm trying to finish the novel I began at the beginning of summer. Yes, I'm cheating (as I did last year). I'm starting NaNo with words already written (45k, to be exact). I really don't want my book to be 95k, but, overdrafter that I am, it probably will be. That's okay, I tell myself. I sliced 43k off my first novel, and I can do it again if necessary. Maybe next month will be DecCutABunchMo. We'll see.

All in all, NaNo is going swimmingly! I actually outlined this book (I know!), which I didn't do last year. (That novel was semi-outlined in my head, but I was too superstitious to write anything down...long story). I have a handy rubber-banded stack of note cards with all my scenes and important beats. I have a self-drawn map of my heroine's kingdom, the names and telling characteristics for my "cast," a timeline of all the days in my story and what has to happen by each day (my plot revolves around important deadlines). I also wrote the mockup back cover copy for my novel after I'd written about 20k to help keep me on track with the most important aspects. Plus I spent most of my summer buried in research (this novel takes place in ancient Greece). I still hit "research bumps" 2-3 times a week, but that's to be expected with a story like this.

All of these things--the outline, the back cover copy, the research, and other preparations--are making NaNo SO MUCH EASIER this year. It's still difficult. I'm a slow writer, so I wake up two hours earlier than my kids each morning to get a head start. And I don't usually finish my word count (I shoot for 2k a day so I get a day off on Sunday) until 3:00 in the afternoon. But what I'm NOT doing is staring at a blank page wondering what comes next. I know what comes next. And surprisingly there's still lots of room for discovery, which I love and which motivates me to write more. My outline is not so detailed that I don't switch things around or add things. I've already shuffled a few note cards in my "outline stack."

I'm well aware that everyone writes differently. I have some amazing CPs that pants their way through NaNo with brilliant material. And they pretty much started their stories from the beginning. I admire that so much because I could never write a beginning so quickly! The first 45k of my novel took me four months to write. A lot of that involved me stopping, contemplating, rethinking, and double-checking my research. I needed to get to know my characters a little more, let my story simmer in my brain. I'm finding my own groove as I write more novels, and I'm trying not to compare myself with people who write very differently--though just as well or better than me.

What I love about NaNo is that it motivates me to kick my writer butt into high gear, stop poking around with all the details, and shut up my inner editor. That's all good and fine for awhile, but then I've had it! I need to birth my first draft baby already!!!

Have you ever attempted to win NaNoWriMo before? How did you do it? Would you ever do it again?


Monday, November 5, 2012

Pit Stop on the Bonded Blog Tour

I've crawled out of my NaNoWriMo hidey hole to throw a handful of confetti for Michelle Davidson Argyle and the release of Bonded, a collection of three novella-length fairy tale reimagnings.

Michelle just happens to be one of my dearest friends. In fact, I've interviewed her on this blog before. I met Michelle back in January when she and Natalie Whipple walked into a signing for Marissa Meyer and her release of Cinder. Michelle looked so familiar, but I couldn't place how I knew her. We finally realized I'd acted in a play a few years back and played the part of her husband's wife! I had no idea Michelle was an author, and when we both shared what we wrote--fantasy with a literary slant--it felt like the stars had aligned for us to become great friends. And the stars were right!

I had the privilege of reading Bonded in its draft form, and I fell in love with Michelle's poignant and lovely writing, her three-dimensional characters, and her world of elves, fairies, sprites, dragons, and one and three-eyed villains. The most fascinating part of the world in which the three unrelated heroines coexist is their mysterious ability to form lifetime mystical bonds with certain handsome and magical male fairies. Is your interest piqued yet? It should be!

Michelle Davidson Argyle
These are darker fairy stories (the way I like them), but Michelle also manages to weave in light and hope. And the stories stay with you long after you read them, resonating with layer and meaning.

So today I'm sending a virtual squeezy hug to my friend, Michelle, and shouting out from this corner of the interwebs, "Hip, hip hooray for the release of Bonded!"

Read below for more information about the book and how to order it. :-)


Announcing BONDED
by Michelle Davidson Argyle

If you like the darker side of fairy tales, especially ones twisting in ways you wouldn't expect, you won't want to miss out on Bonded. Author Elana Johnson calls it, "Magical storytelling. The only consolation when one story ends is knowing there's another one waiting." Author Chantele Sedgwick says it is, "Romantic and enchanting. Ms. Argyle has a captivating voice and beautiful writing."

BOOK DESCRIPTION: What happened after Cinderella married her prince? How did the evil sorceress in Sleeping Beauty turn evil in the first place? Discover these stories and a world filled with magic and forbidden love. Based on three fairy tales, Bonded contains a fairy tale continuation (Cinderella), a fairy tale retelling (One-Eye, Two-Eyes, Three-Eyes), and a fairy tale prequel (Sleeping Beauty).

Bonded is available now! You can find it on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and other online book retailers, both as an e-book and in print. For links and more information, click here. Or to purchase it at a discounted price on the publisher's website, click here.

To read more blog posts on the Bonded blog tour, click here.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

A Weekend of Shakespeare

Me at the competition years ago. Being dramatic as usual.
This past weekend I attended the Shakespeare Competition at the Utah Shakespeare Festival. This is an acting competition on the secondary education level, and it is a HUGE deal. Even though it's held in southern Utah, acting troupes from California, Arizona, and even as far as Milwaukee, attend and compete. I traveled down with my husband and his advanced acting students and helped coach them on their ensemble scene, monologues, and duo scenes. It was so much fun!! It brought back memories of when I was a senior in high school and won first place in monologues at this competition. It felt like an Oscar. :-)

This year, we also saw the festival repertory company's production of Hamlet, which was beyond amazing! I haven't seen theatre of that caliber since I saw a play at the National Theatre in London over fourteen years ago. They brought so much humor into the production, which made the contrast to the really dramatic moments spectacular.

All of this acting and directing and fabulous Shakespeare once again reaffirmed to me all the qualities good storytelling has in common. Here are some that stand out to me...

  • Conflict and tension. There always has to be a problem, even in the lightest of scenes. And each character should want something and go about getting it in several different ways. The characters should always be getting in the way of each other. And characters should be trying to reach their objective through the other character(s) in their scene. That communication separates a mediocre scene from an excellent one.
  • Clear transitions. Shifts in emotion and why characters choose to change tactics should be apparent and believable.
  • Frame of reference. Plots aren't unique, but characters and settings are. (Shakespeare borrowed all of his plot ideas.) I've seen Richard the Third, and then at this competition, I saw Richard the Third set during the Holocaust with Richard portrayed as Hitler. Same plot, entirely different effect on the audience. Fresh characters and settings make all the difference. This also goes hand in hand with caring about the character and being grounded in the setting before the conflict of the story kicks into high gear. We added a quick and silent addition to the beginning of our ensemble scene from A Comedy of Errors to establish to the audience that there are two sets of twins before we launched into a scene with one of those sets. Then the audience would be in on the joke and possibilities for mayhem from the beginning.
  • Static scenes are boring. It's a snooze to watch a scene where the actors aren't creatively blocked (the "action" in the scene, the way the actors move), just like "talking heads" are not dynamic in a novel. I watched a scene where two actors were having a cell phone conversation with each other, so neither was in the same room as each other in the scene. It was a horrible choice because the actors could never interact with each other (though they could've pulled it off if the actors were creatively blocked to stand near each other or do similar things, even though they weren't in the same "space" in their respective worlds).

The husband, me, and Shakespeare
All in all, it was a fabulous weekend. I saw Shakespeare celebrated through many art forms--acting, music, visual arts, dance. And I felt like I was in a little corner of England with SUU's Globe Theatre replica and everyone walking around in Shakespearean garb. Oh, and my husband's acting troupe won first place with one of their duo scenes and placed fourth as a school in their division. Pretty impressive!

Do you enjoy other art forms, and what connections have you found between them and writing?

Monday, October 1, 2012

The Next Big Thing

My critique partner, Taryn Albright, tagged me for "The Next Big Thing" blog interview hop. Since I've already blogged a lot about The Rowaness of Shalott, I thought I'd answer questions about my work-in-progress instead.

What is your working title of your book? 
The Lovely Invisible

Where did the idea come from for the book?
This is a very loose retelling of the Cupid & Psyche myth, but still set in ancient Greece. I don't like how Psyche is a "wussy" in the myth, however. My Psyche, "Isidora," is much different. Her weakness is her intelligence, which leads to a lack of faith.

What genre does your book fall under?
YA fantasy

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?
Ooh, my favorite question! I can't think of the right actress to play Isidora yet, but she will look something like this...

 
And the PERFECT actor to play Eros (Cupid) is Douglas Booth. If you saw him in the recent TV miniseries, Great Expectations, you'd know he's not only is he swoonworthy, but also an amazing actor!


What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book? (I'm cheating with two.)
To regain her right to rule, eighteen-year-old Queen Isidora must marry one of three preselected suitors; however, the man she is drawn to isn't one of the three--or like them at all. He is invisible.


How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript? May we see an intro?
I started writing it in July, and I'm about halfway through. I'm hoping to finish the draft by November. (This story requires LOTS of research.)

Intro:

I stared at the face of the god of love, not the polished bronze mirror balanced on his wings.

“You will look,” Nuri, said as she tilted up my chin with her small brown fingers.

I kept my eyes fastened on the marble god. His mouth was sculpted in such a way I couldn’t determine whether he was scowling or smirking at me.

Shaking her head, Nuri clucked her tongue. “You shame the patron goddess.”

I wriggled my chin from her grasp. “I thought the virginal white was an appropriate choice.”

“Don’t try and fool me, Isidora. I’ve been in your service since the day you were weaned. You chose the white because it’s plain.” Nuri grabbed a fistful of my long robe as if it were evidence worthy of banishment.

I sighed and glanced at the foot of the mirror, where three rolls of newly delivered papyri lay waiting to be read. I wanted this day to be over. I wanted to curl into a quiet corner of the palace and read about the strange fire and water machine that opened temple doors in Athens, the paved slipway near Corinth, the controversial prose of the female poet, Sappho. “Why should I draw attention to myself on Procession Day?” I asked Nuri. “The glory should go to the goddess.”

The marble god below the mirror was definitely scowling at me now. He heard my lie as well as my maid: I cared nothing for the glory of Aphrodite.

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?
Ha! I have no idea. It's a character-driven fantasy in the vein of Kristin Cashore, Leigh Bardugo, and Cinda Williams Chima.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

My longtime love of Greek mythology, and the themes of faith and doubt in the Cupid & Psyche myth--mixed with falling in love, of course. :-) I also drew from stories of strong historical young queens, especially Elizabeth I, Victoria, and Jane, the nine-days queen of England. And when I visited France, I saw the statue, Psyche Revived by Cupid's Kiss, by the sculptor, Canova. It was my favorite piece of art in the Louvre, and one of the most beautiful things I've ever seen. This picture does not do justice!


What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?
One of my critique partners said my story was like The Bachelorette, but set in ancient Greece. :-)

Monday, September 24, 2012

Commas and Clauses


David Powers King's blog post about commas had me thanking the universe another writer was as crazy about commas as I am. (Crazy in a good way, David.) So I felt inspired to share the number one comma mistake I see in writing and how to correct it.

This mistake I see involves separating a "two part" sentence--the two parts involving either independent or dependent clauses.

What's the difference between the two? On its own, an independent clause can be a complete sentence, whereas a dependent clause cannot.

So let's dissect the following sentence:
  •  Mary had a little lamb and ate him for dinner. (Yes, I had a stroke of genius with this one.)

"Mary had a little lamb" is an independent clause because it has a subject and a verb, therefore making it a complete sentence in its own right.

"ate him for dinner" is a dependent clause because it can't stand alone as its own sentence.

When you have a sentence in "independent clause, dependent clause order," you DON'T NEED A COMMA to separate the clauses. So the example I have above is punctuated correctly. (EDIT: The exception to this rule is in cases where you have extreme contrast between the clauses, like when the dependent clause is preceded by "but," "although," or "except"--then you'd use a comma to separate the clauses.)

However, when you have TWO independent clauses in a sentence, they need separation by a comma.

For example:

  • Mary had a little lamb, and she ate him for dinner.

The addition of "she" gave the second half of the sentence its subject, therefore making it an independent clause and justifying the dividing comma.

HOWEVER, exceptions to "two independent clause comma" rule may be granted for sentences short enough that a comma would muddle their appearance. If I had the above example sentence in my novel (please let that never happen!), I probably wouldn't use the comma because that sentence is so brief.

So now let's flop things around. What if we started a sentence with a dependent clause followed by an independent clause? In all cases, you'd need a comma to separate the clauses. Remember, dependent clauses depend upon the other part of the sentence for complete meaning and can't stand alone. Here are some examples:

  • Eating him for dinner, Mary had a little lamb.
  • If Mary had a little lamb, she would eat him for dinner.
  • When Mary had a little lamb, she ate him for dinner.
  • As Mary had a little lamb, she ate him for dinner. 
  • Because Mary had a little lamb, she ate him for dinner.

There is no exception to this rule. No matter how brief the sentence, you must use a comma.

Hopefully this helps in your quest to conquer the confusing comma. May the grammar gods be with you!

Monday, September 10, 2012

Why I Write

Call me Pandora
I used to act in plays all the time, then as I had each of my three children, I began declining those opportunities. Being in a play usually equates to six weeks of rehearsals, three hours each evening, and (where I live) 4-6 weeks of performances. That's hard on moms and kids. By the time my youngest child was one, I hadn't performed in three years. I was still heavily involved with theatre, helping my drama teacher husband build sets, order costumes, find props--but I wasn't creating something that spoke to me, something that I could give and communicate to the world.

During that time, I stumbled on a box of old journals, poetry and short stories from years past, and I realized how vital writing had been in my life (though I didn't know it at the time). And I got that innocent and explosive idea (you writers know the one I'm talking about)--the one that says, "Hey, I could write a novel." Yes, I opened Pandora's Box. There were definitely demons in there, but there was also this raw, untapped part of myself bursting with ideas and an obsessive and unquenchable thirst to create.

Here's why I started to write back then:

  • As mentioned above, I desperately needed a creative outlet. I am an artist, through and through.
  • I needed to heal, physically, mentally, spiritually. I was in recovery from donating a kidney. And while writing truly did heal the aftereffects of that particular event, it opened up a whole new set of insecurities and challenges.
  • I needed to feel control. We had just moved to the other side of the U.S. My husband had a new and demanding job. Everything was different. And even though things were good, there was so much change, which led to lots of stress. My imagination was a realm I naively thought I could control. Little did I realize what power struggles I'd have with my characters!
  • I wanted a new challenge. I was crazy insane busy back then, but I wanted a struggle of my own choosing. It had to do with being proactive about something I wanted, rather than just doing the million-and-one things I needed to do.

Guess what? I still write for these very same reasons. However, here are some other reasons that have been added to the mix:

  •  I write because I'm supposed to. Because I promised myself I'd get in 1000 words a day. The truth is, sometimes we writers don't feel like writing. But because it's important, we get our butts in the chair. Sometimes the duty sucks pleasure from the desire, but I try to strike a balance.
  • And--uh, oh--the WORST reason: I write because I hope to make money at it. My family and I are POOR. I won't bore you with the details, but let's just say my husband and I have lived at the bottom of the barrel for a looooong time. Making money is a strong reality in our lives. But it wars with my artistic sensibilities that demand I write what's in my heart, and I write to express truth. In the end, the artist in me wins, and I keep writing with that integrity. I just cross my fingers, in the meantime, that my stories will speak to many others as well.

Some days I get bogged down with life, I compare myself to other writers, I feel impatient, I think my writing sucks. Some days the "noise" of the Internet is too loud--the thousands of blog posts, tweets, Facebook updates. Some days it's hard to see where my part is in all of this, or if I'll make a difference. Some days I pull away and go into hiding. And it's then I remember--after lots of quiet reflection--why I started writing in the first place. And above all those initial reasons, the first and foremost is, I need to create. That's it. Simple. But with creation comes division. Separating lightness from darkness. It may be a foggy journey in the twilight, but I'll keep my flame burning. That's enough for me to see one step ahead of myself. And I'll keep striving to find joy in the journey.

Why do you write?

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Meet 'n' Greet

As part of the Gearing Up to Get an Agent (GUTGAA) festivities, here are my answers for the Meet & Greet Q&A. I'm actually one of the first-round judges for the upcoming pitch contest, but I really wanted to join in the preliminary schmoozing! :-) For more info on GUTGAA, or to sign up for the upcoming contests, go to deanabarnhart.blogspot.com.

Where do you write?
At my desktop computer in the family room, right smack in the middle of all the commotion. Occasionally, my husband lets me steal his laptop and write in my bedroom with the door shut for hours. That is divine, and I write so much faster when I'm not interrupted every two seconds!

Quick. Go to your writing space, sit down and look to your left. What is the first thing you see?
A rubber-banded stack of note cards with the major beats and scenes of the novel I'm writing.

Favorite time to write?
I'm a night owl, but I write best first thing in the morning. I've discovered evenings are better for editing.

Drink of choice while writing?

Water. I carry a water bottle everywhere I go. I need me my H2O!

When writing , do you listen to music or do you need complete silence?

Complete silence is best, though I write to music often--but only if it's instrumental. Movie soundtracks are great. I love to sing, and if the music has vocals, I can't help but sing along. Then I'm too distracted to get any writing done!

What was your inspiration for your latest manuscript and where did you find it?

Two things inspired The Rowaness of Shalott. First, my lifetime love of fairies (especially dryads) and mythology (Arthurian myths, in this case). And, second, my feelings revolving around donating a kidney to my brother played a huge role in the themes of this novel.

What's your most valuable writing tip?

Once you've finished your draft, give it some space--at least two weeks (I did two months). Then read it in as little sittings as possible and mark it only for pacing or big picture things. Edit as little as possible so you keep reading quickly like a reader would. This helps me understand, more than anything, how my story is working as a whole.

Mini Bio:
I grew up spouting Shakespeare on the stage and playing folk songs on my guitar, but it wasn’t until I had three children that I discovered my passion for creative writing. Now I channel my artistic energy into the pages of my young adult fantasy novels, where I get to act out all the parts and write swoonworthy love songs for my characters.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Gearing Up to Get an Agent

I will be helping behind-the-scenes as a first-round judge for the Gearing Up to Get an Agent's (GUTGAA) pitch contest. GUTGAA is a huge blogfest, complete with an agent-judged contest (11 agents are participating in the final round--UPDATE: There are now 12 agents slotted to participate, thanks to my wonderful agent, Weronika Janczuk), a small press pitch contest, critique opportunities, prizes for random participants, critique group matchmaking, and more! The fun begins August 31st and runs through mid-October. My friend, Deana Barnhart (one of the sweetest people alive), is the wizard behind the curtain.

Here's an abbreviated version of the schedule. For more info (and what you need to do to sign up), visit deanabarnhart.blogspot.com 

Friday, August 31st:
Prep for the Meet and Greet by completing a questionnaire.

WEEK 1 (Monday, Sept 3rd - Friday, Sept 7th)

OFFICIAL START OF GUTGAA!
Monday:
GUTGAA Meet and Greet - We're starting off with a little get to know you action. 

Wednesday: 
BETA/Critique Group Connect - Deana will act as a matchmaker and help those interested in making some serious writer connections.

Friday:
Call for Pitch Polish Entries - Window opens Friday and closes Saturday at midnight. Deana will take the first 100 entries for next week's public pitch critique.

Giveaway Winner Announced - Every Friday Deana will randomly draw a participant's name and give them a prize just for being cool:)

WEEK 2 (Monday, Sept 10th - Friday, Sept 14th)

PITCH POLISH!
Monday:
Pitches Posted for Pitch Polish - 100 pitches posted anonymously. Participants invited to give constructive criticism.

Friday: 
Entry Window Opens for Agent Pitch Contest - First 200 entries accepted. Participants submit their query and the first 150 words of their manuscript.

Giveaway Winner Announced - Random participant given a prize.

WEEK 3 (Monday, Sept 17th - Friday, Sept 21st)

AGENT PITCH CONTEST: ROUND 1!
Monday:
Get Your Foot in the Door - The 200 entries for the Agent Pitch Contest will be divided into groups of 40 and posted on five different host sites and separated by genre. Each group will be visited by four anonymous judges who will each pick their top ten. The entries with the most votes will go on to Round 2 - The Agent Round. There will be 50 finalists!

Monday - Thursday:
Judge Trolling - The anonymous judges will comment on the entries and vote for you to move on.

Friday:
Finalists Announced
Giveaway Winner Announced 

WEEK 4 (Monday, Sept 24th - Friday, Sept 28th)

AGENT PITCH CONTEST: ROUND 2!
Monday:
The Agent Round - Deana will post the 50 finalist pitches on her blog for the 11 agents to read through.

Monday - Friday:
Agent Trolling - As agents read through the pitches, they can comment on any that they want. If they really like your entry, they can request a partial or full through the comments, as well.

Friday:
Entry Window Opens for Small Press Pitch Contest - First 100 entries accepted. Participants submit their query and the first 150 words of their manuscript.

Giveaway Winner Announced

WEEK 5 (Monday, Oct 1st - Friday, Oct 5th)  

SMALL PRESS PITCH CONTEST: ROUND 1!
Monday:
Get Your Foot in the Door - The 100 entries will be divided into groups of twenty and posted on five different host sites and separated by genre. Each group will be visited by three anonymous judges, who will each pick their top five. The entries with the most votes will go on to Round 2 - The Editor Round. There will be 25 finalists!

Monday - Thursday:
Judge Trolling - The anonymous judges will comment on the entries and vote for you to move on.

Friday:
Finalists Announced
Giveaway Winner Announced

WEEK 6 (Monday, Oct 8th - Friday, Oct 12th)

SMALL PRESS PITCH CONTEST: ROUND 2!
Monday:
The Editor Round - The 25 finalists' pitches will be posted on Deana's blog for the seven small presses to read through.

Monday - Friday:
Editor Trolling - As editors read through the pitches, they can comment on any that they want. If they really like your entry, they can request a partial or full through the comments, as well.

Friday:
Winners Announced For Agent and Small Press Pitch Contest
Final Giveaway Winner Announce

Again, there's still time to sign up to participate. Head over to deanabarnhart.blogspot.com for more information.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

My Favorite Films

I am a huge movie buff. With my acting background, I love to watch films and analyze the characters. And now that I'm entrenched in writing, I have fun breaking down the film story structures and the screenplays. Here are some of my favorite movies, why I adored them, and why they haunted me long after I watched them.

To Kill a Mockingbird

I fell in love with this film first by its film score. My dad played the record when I was a little girl, and I ran around the family room acting out the story as he told it to me, in his own words. I pretended I was Scout and Jem sneaking around, finding treasures from Boo Radley, and being caught in tight corners by Bob Ewell. When I saw the film, it lived up to my imagination, and later the book did, as well. My favorite part of the movie is when Scout discovers Boo behind the bedroom door at the end. Robert Duvall plays Boo brilliantly, and I cry in that moment every time. To Kill a Mockingbird is an amazing story to me because it deals with racial prejudice, rape, incest, suicide, and a mob mentality all in an non-graphic yet unflinchingly honest manner, as it is told through the magical and innocent eyes of a child (and a stellar creator, Harper Lee).

Roman Holiday

This has got to be one of the most charming films ever made. Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck have perfect chemistry together. She is pure enchantment to watch, and he is one of the best actors ever. This movie begins rather lightheartedly and as a kind of wish-fulfillment, fairy tale type story--which makes the serious turn and bittersweet ending all the more poignant. Gregory Peck's facial expression as he's walking away at the end...WOW. Roman Holiday is my curl-up-in-a-blanket-on-a-rainy-day movie.

Edward Scissorhands

This film had a huge impact on me in my teen years. I haven't experienced anything quite like that feeling of sitting in the darkened theater afterward, just stunned and heartbroken and inspired all at once, and not understanding why. Now, looking back, I can see how strongly I identified with Edward at that time in my life. I was in the middle of my horrible junior high school days, when I didn't think I had a true friend in the world, and where I felt everyone acted insincerely and lived to play the popularity game. I retreated into myself, skipped a lot of school, and spent each lunch period by myself in the library. So this lonely, scarred, scissor-handed boy was me in so many ways. Watching this movie changed me, helped me recognize some things about myself and the world, and gave me the courage to step out of my shell and give myself and people a second chance.

The Fellowship of the Rings

I watched this film in the theater seven times. Seven! I hadn't read The Lord of the Rings, but I did right afterwards. This film struck me to the core and made me discover, with firm conviction, that fantasy is my element--it's the way I love to filter themes and relationships the most. For some reason, being removed from the real world at that level helps me explore close-to-my-heart life struggles in a safer and somehow clearer environment. I absolutely adore Frodo. His relationship with Gandalf is simple and impactful; and with Sam, it is beautiful and pure. This is a definite good versus evil story, and I love to see how someone so small and seemingly insignificant, with his little band of friends, triumphs in the end. The Fellowship of the Rings is my favorite film of the trilogy. It has more of the amazing world of the elves with Rivendell and Lothlorien, and the way the Black Riders are depicted is more frightening than any other scare-factor in the next two installments.

Bright Star

When asked what my favorite film is right now, I tell people, Bright Star. This is a true story about the poet, John Keats, and the love of his life, Fanny Brawne. It's a Romeo and Juliet story, an I-will-do-anything-to-be-with-you story. These lovers are desperate for each other, they suffer when they're apart, they punish themselves when they feel thwarted. They cry and throw fits and can't eat or sleep without each other. And somehow all this works for the story. Somehow these are strong characters, and not weak ones. I study this film, again and again, trying to figure out how this is so. I think it's because, in the beginning of the story, both characters are established as capable, unique, independent, and fearless. This makes their transition into becoming "slaves to love" heartwrenching and meaningful. Bright Star is a quiet and breathtaking film (and a fantastic tearjerker). I highly recommend it!

What are some of your favorite films, and why do they resonate with you?

Sunday, August 12, 2012

The Lucky Seven Challenge

I've had two crazy weeks of insanity. My husband's still looking for a job, my teenaged-daughter finished the run of her play, our renter is moving out of the home we own in Florida, and we still haven't been able to sell it. Lots of financial stress, and, to top it all off, I got to experience (for the first time) a spell of nasty vertigo. During the madness, I got a measly 1000 words written. BUT I was able to think through and find solutions for a few plot snags in my WIP. I also made note cards of all the major beats and scenes, and then put them in order. This will help a ton when I finally have significant time to write again (school starts for my three kids in nine days!). Sometimes life can be overwhelming, but during these times beautiful moments arrive, too--like when I got to spend an afternoon with my 13-year-old daughter yesterday to teach her to play the guitar. This reminded me that a full life--with all its ups and downs--is only going to make me be a better writer and make the stories pouring out of me more meaningful.

On another note, thanks to my friend, Michelle Davidson Argyle (whom I incidentally interviewed on my blog last week) for tagging me in The Lucky Seven Challenge. My critique partner, Robin Hall, also tagged me for this a few months ago, but I wasn't brave enough to do it then. I'm feeling equally cowardly this time around, but more reckless. So here we go!

The rules are to go to page seven, line seven of my work-in-progress novel, and post the following seven lines of prose. So here's your challenge: read my excerpt, view my cryptic photos for novel inspiration, and consider my working title--The Lovely Invisible--and see if you can figure out what my story is about. (Don't give it away in the comments if you're one of the few who already know!)

Excerpt:

I stood with my sisters behind a curtain the priestesses strung up outside the main city gate. The air was thick with dust from the mass of people trampling to and fro in last-minute preparations. Over the top of the curtain, I caught glimpses of acrobats somersaulting through the air as they warmed up for the long march to the temple, and my stomach grumbled as the smell of barley and honey cakes wafted over the great city wall.

I hadn’t had time to eat this morning, not with all the primping Nuri subjected me to. The look on her face when I agreed to be made up for the procession was worthy of purchasing her freedom, though, knowing Nuri, she would have remained in my service anyway. She knew she had more power in that position than the finest noblewoman in the city.

As the sun beat down on me, I fought the urge to itch the white powder on my face, neck and arms, and ruin Nuri’s “masterpiece.”


Now, according to the rules of The Lucky Seven Challenge, I am supposed to tag seven friends to participate and post their own excerpts. You are not obliged, of course, but I'd love to read your stuff!

My critique partners:
Robin Hall (Yes, you've already done this, but I want to read an excerpt of your MG!)
Ilima Todd (You've done this, too, but I'd love you to post something from your WIP so everyone can see how awesome it is.)
Emily Prusso (I want to read an excerpt of your awesometacular revision.)
Taryn Albright (Let's let the world see a sneak-peek of your amazing sports mystery, Spot Me.)
And my awesome blog followers who I'd love to get to know better:
Rebecca Barrow
Fiona
Brandon Ax


Monday, August 6, 2012

Meet Michelle Davidson Argyle

Gorgeous Michelle
Michelle Davidson Argyle is the author of several novels, novellas and short stories. Her most recent novel, The Breakaway (YA suspense) was released earlier this year, and Bonded, her omnibus of three fairy-tale retellings, will be released on November 1, 2012. I met Michelle back in January at Marissa Meyer’s author signing for Cinder, and we’ve been fast friends ever since.

Michelle, you write in a wide variety of genres. What drives you to write a particular story, and are you concerned with building a brand for yourself as an author?

I am concerned with building a brand for myself, yes, but it's probably not the type of brand one might expect. I don't necessarily want a brand centered around a specific genre. Instead, I'm interested in building a brand more tightly knit with my name. Fans who love one of my books will most likely find that they enjoy most of the books I write, no matter in which genre they land. I tend to stick with similar themes, a similar voice, and a similar drive for a specific type of character-driven tension. I've always said that I write stories, not genres. In the future, I might stick more closely to one type of genre than another, but I have a feeling I will move in cycles. Publishing, these days, has given freedom for more authors to explore and publish in different genres. I think it's a very exciting time to be writing.

You are married to an actor and have a very cute and active five-year-old daughter. How do you juggle your writing career with being a wife and young mother?

It is very tough, but sometimes I'll look at other stay-at-home mothers who write, and they have many more children than I do. I don't know how they do it. I think everyone functions differently. What has saved me lately is to make sure I meet specific goals every day, and to make those my priority past other basic things like taking care of my family. I have to treat my writing career as just that: a career. That often means telling friends and family I can't do things because I have to work.

Tell me a bit about your process for outlining/structuring a novel, and how often you veer from that as you draft.

I have written seven novels to date and am working on my eighth. I have written every single book differently, including the planning process. Recently, however, I have been sticking with a more streamlined outlining process that seems to suit my style really well. It includes a very loose sort of outlining that is simple to change and does not make me feel like I have put the story in a box. About halfway through the first draft, I almost always end up re-outlining the last half of the book. I don't freak out when this happens. To me, it feels like a natural, more organic process that also gives me direction and structure. Most of my outlines follow a basic three-act structure, but I have veered away from this several times.

You love revising more than drafting (a girl after my own heart). Can you explain your revision process and the things you especially keep an eye out for as you rework your novel?

My revision process includes beta readers (readers who give me feedback on the first drafts). Without them, I'd be a bit lost. I rely heavily on time away from the book, as well, so that I can come back to it with fresh eyes. Revisions always feel a bit stressful, but like a sculptor with clay, I finally have something to work with. That first draft, no matter how much of a mess, is like that piece of clay. It is is something to work with, and that is why I like revising more than drafting. When I rework a novel, I look especially for inconsistencies, plot holes, believability issues, and strengthening my characters as much as possible. I also focus on refining my prose. Getting rid of redundant or confusing phrases, extra descriptions that add nothing to the forward movement of the plot, etc.

What character of your own creation do you most identify with and why?


That is a tough question! I'd have to say I identify with the characters most readers seem to find frustrating. I'm not sure what that says about me, but probably that I put most of my insecurities and issues into my favorite characters because I want to learn something about myself as I write them. One of my favorite characters is Naomi from The Breakaway. She comes off as a very weak character in many ways, but when I step back and view her, I see someone with a more quiet sort of strength than most ... a type of strength that can easily be misunderstood.

You have a large circle of published author friends. How do you strive to not compare yourself to others?


Honestly, it's something I constantly struggle with. It is, however, getting better. As I've watched friends around me succeed, I've realized that success is not getting published. It's not getting an agent, signing a huge deal on a book, or making the NYT bestseller list. Success is me sitting my butt in a chair and writing more books. It's building a fan base impatiently waiting for me to finish my next book. It's selling more and more copies of my work. It's testing myself against myself and writing one better book after another. Anytime I find myself spiraling down too far, I step back and remind myself of what I have, of how far I have come, and that my path is mine and mine alone. Keeping my eyes on my own paper and following my own path is the only way to succeed. And while I'm doing that, I rejoice in others around me doing the same thing.

I love that answer! All right, moving on. If you could travel back in time two years, what advice would you give yourself as a writer?
To never get comfortable with where I am. Good writing always tests the writer, and good writing can only happen with consistent work.

Some of your novels have taken a considerable time to write, while others, such as your latest manuscript, A Curse So Deep, were written in a relatively short period of time. Why have some stories taken longer, and what are you doing to speed up the process?

I think with the more books I write, the more I'm building a sense -- intuition, if you will -- of what will work and won't work. Instead of spending time on a scene that I intuitively know will not work, I simply abandon it and move on. Before, I would have stubbornly written the scene, worked it into the book, ruined several other scenes because of it, and spent at least two weeks in revisions trying to fix it. Another huge factor of writing faster is that I have learned a system of outlining that works best for me. For right now, anyway. The key, I have found, is flexibility. I can't force a book to be written a certain way. I have to listen and allow myself to follow the path it needs, even if that is writing it differently than I have written other books. Listening instead of pushing against my instincts is one of the best things I have learned as a writer.

One more factor in writing more quickly is that I set the goal to write at least 1,000 words a day on the novel, no matter what, until I had a finished first draft. Doing this, I finished the first draft -- including outlining and researching -- in about 14 weeks. It is what worked for that book, but it is far from finished. It still needs some extensive revisions, which are currently on hold for a few reasons.

You self-published a novella, Cinders (which will now be included in a traditionally-published and soon-to-be-released omnibus, Bonded). What drove you to self-publish this story, what did you learn from the experience, and would you do it again?

My publishing story for Cinders is pretty long and involved, but essentially, I wrote the book to self-publish it. It is a novella, and at the time, I did not plan on writing any other novellas to go along with it. It was an experiment of sorts, a way to find out what all this self-publishing hype was about. It was also the first book I had written well enough to put out into the world. At the time, I knew I didn't want to self-publish for my career, but I thought experimenting on a novella was a fun and relatively harmless way to put my foot in the water and see what I could learn. I am a designer, so I designed my own cover. I knew layout from college, and I hired an editor friend of mine to edit it. The entire book cost $1,200 to produce, and I made a total of $1,600 in a 14-month period. So, in all truth, I only made $400. The book sold about 700 copies. It wasn't a huge success compared to many, but it was successful for me at the time. The most successful part is that I found my publisher, Rhemalda Publishing, because of Cinders. You ask if I would do it all over again, and the answer is yes, I would. Through my experience, I learned enough about publishing to say that my knowledge gained through the experience has been absolutely priceless.

What advice would you give to authors seeking publication?

My advice is PATIENCE. So many authors see publication as some coveted brass ring, a sort of prize to be won. In reality, when you reach publication status, you have essentially begun your own business. If you're serious about that business, your journey is only starting, and it's a heck of a lot of work. And yes, it's still starting your own business no matter how you publish (self, small publisher, or large or mid-size publisher). Patience is key because publishing is not the glittering, unicorn-filled, cupcake-eating land so many authors seem to think it is. I think it's important to be properly prepared for the workload publishing can bring on, and not rush into it. The most important thing I have learned -- and not only from my own experience, but friends of mine as well -- is that publishing will not make you happy, even it if makes you rich. Making enough of a living to keep writing is what will make you happy. Notice the phrase "keep writing" in that last part.

Thank you, Michelle! I hope you readers have enjoyed learning more about one of the coolest people I know. To learn even more about Michelle, go to www.michelledavidsonargyle.com or follow her on Twitter via @ladyglamis. Her books may be ordered through any major bookseller or through her publisher's website: www.rhemalda.com

Sunday, July 29, 2012

The Magical Middle


I'm still drafting my new novel and am currently in the throngs of my happy place--the middle of the story. For many (I'd dare to say most) writers I've talked to, the "muddling middle" is the most frustrating part of their novel. The excitement of establishing their premise and their characters has worn off, and they feel overwhelmed with this massive sea they need to travel to reach the end of their story. So as I've been writing, I've paid close attention to why I love this section, and I thought I'd share with you what I've observed. And don't worry, if you're not converted to the Cult of Magical Middles when I'm finished, I'll still be your friend. Perhaps you can help me enjoy beginnings and endings more. :-)


1. It's play time! For me, the beginning of a novel is more technical. So many things need to be established to get the beginning right. I'm constantly playing a game of plunging full-steam into story vs. the exposition necessary before I get too carried away. With middles, the stage it set, the inciting incident has happened, I am now in the full-blown story where anything can happen. I embrace that liberating feeling!

2. The characters take the reigns. Their flaws, conflict and goals have been established. All I have to do is stick them in the same confined space with an initial nudge of direction, and they go at it. For the middle of the story to work for me, ALL of my characters have to have opposing goals--even people in love, even best friends. That conflict drives the story forward, creates complications, weaves in surprising twists and turns. With the story I have on submission right now, The Rowaness of Shalott, all of the plot twists (besides one) came by my giving more control to the characters--letting them tell their stories to me. I didn't "pants" my way through Rowaness. I knew the ending, I knew the big important events along the way, but my favorite parts of that novel are the layers my characters seemed to create on their own.

3. There's still structure to fall back on. The middle isn't just an abyss between the inciting incident and climax of the story. There are landmarks along the way to help you not get lost in the darkness. As dynamic as your characters may be, they still need some focus. They are the actors in your play of a novel, and they need some direction so they don't derail you into the land of indulgent writing. I'd highly recommend studying structure in novels. I think a lot of writers spend their time studying the craft of writing on the line level, but they don't study the art of plotting--of actual storytelling. Two fabulous books I've read in recent months are Plot & Structure by James Scott Bell and Save the Cat! by Blake Snyder.

From Plot & Structure, I've learned if you're middle is muddling (or even if it's not) you should:
  • Raise the stakes (a character should suffer tremendous loss if she doesn't achieve her goal, and you should amp up that up even more in the middle)
  • Strengthen the adhesive (the strong relationship or circumstance that holds opposing people together)
  • Add another level of complication to your plot (usually comes from my #2 above)
  • Add another character (this is about to happen in my WIP)
  • Add another subplot (use this one with care; you want to keep focused on your main plot)
Save the Cat! includes a "beat sheet" (or road map) of important plot events that should happen (and more importantly, when they should happen) in your novel. I tried using this beat sheet (available online) before reading the book, and it didn't work. You need to read the book! I won't go into all the details of the beats, but my favorite by far is the midpoint of the novel. This should literally be smack in the middle, and, to quote from Snyder, it is "either an 'up' where the hero seemingly peaks (though it is a false peak) or a 'down' where the world collapses all around the hero (though it is a false collapse), and it can only get better from here on out." That midpoint is a lighthouse in the darkness between your beginning and end. It helps your story from that derailing I warned you about earlier.

Now before I pop in a DVD, I check it's running time and calculate when the exact middle will be. When that time comes around, I pay close attention to the story. What is happening--false hope or false failure? How does that color the characters and the remaining plot? I do the same thing when I read a book. For example, I recently finished Shadow & Bone by Leigh Bardugo. When something CRAZY happened in the story, I stopped, stuck my finger in the page, and closed the book. Yep, this jaw-dropper happened in the perfect middle of the novel. I love the midpoint beat!

Here's hoping you and your middle become better friends. And if you're already on good terms, I'd love to hear your own tips on how you navigate the great divide between beginning and end.


Monday, July 16, 2012

Spoiler-Free Review: SHADOW & BONE

This is the first book review I've done on this blog. I never intended to do any (I have a strong opinion that writers, for the most part, should not be public reviewers), but Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo was so fabulous, I couldn't resist!

Honestly, like Veronica Roth's blurb says on the cover, I've never read anything quite like this before. A Twitter friend asked me for some recommendations in a similar vein and it took me a long time to think of any--and still they're only kinda-sorta like this book.

Here's why I loved Shadow and Bone:

Leigh Bardugo trusted the reader. She threw a ton at us in the first few chapters: a large cast of characters, an impressive vocabulary of foreign words we needed to understand, a new world, and many factions of the Grisha--the magically elite members of the Second Army and masters of the Small Science. I'll admit I was a little dizzy at times trying to absorb it all, and I questioned more than once the rate the author expected the reader to keep up. But when I really needed to understand the importance of a new term, place, or character, I did. The story kept barreling forward past all the initial setup, and in act two I was able to breathe, dig in, and feel comfortably familiar with the world. After having read the whole novel, I wouldn't change a thing the author did to get this premise-heavy story started. And she did all of this while keeping me grounded in caring about the character. A huge feat!

The prologue worked. One of the most gorgeously written sections of this novel was the prologue. And it wasn't a lazy work of convenience to drop in all the worldbuilding. In fact, the prologue didn't focus on the worldbuilding; it focused on story, character, and setting the mood for this dark and poignant novel. And the prologue tied in perfectly with the last chapter, giving the story a resonant and full-circle resolution that made me sigh with the pleasure of my reading time well spent.

The plot kept me guessing. About halfway through the novel, my jaw dropped on the floor and remained there until the end. I didn't predict any of the plot twists, but when they happened, I could see they were inevitable--which is exactly what an author should strive to do!

I got to take this ride with some awesome characters. Alina Starkhov begins the story as a weak character in many ways, but she could never be brushed off as passive. She's scrawny, but feisty. She speaks her mind, even when it puts her foot in her mouth with higher ranking individuals. She's strong and stubborn, but seeking for a place to belong. And this novel is about that in so many ways--how far someone will go to belong to someone or something, especially when they never had a home to begin with. I made the same choices along the way with Alina, felt just as justified as she did with her actions, and then I was horrified and felt just as stupid and shamed to have made the same mistakes. Reading this novel really was a roller coaster of emotions for me. Other fabulous characters were Mal, Alina's best friend and the orphan she was raised with, and the Darkling--one of my favorite characters of all time. He was subtle and sexy and primal and awe-inspiring and mysterious...and I could go on and on. All I have to say is, the author is brilliant!

This book made me think. Yes, it was page-turning and tense and conflict-ridden and commercial, but the themes behind it all were so interesting and universal and executed in a fresh way. I'm still whirling with the intellectual journey this book took me on.

That's about all I can say without spoiling this read for you. I can't recommend Shadow and Bone highly enough! It's possibly my favorite book ever. Plus, I got to meet Leigh Bardugo on the Fierce Reads tour, and she was such a genuine and kind and down-to-earth person. I loved reading this story and thinking of the author who wrote it, whose imagination stretched so deeply and whose soul lay so bare on the pages.

What are some favorite books you've read lately?



Monday, July 9, 2012

A New Story is Born

I'm thirty-something pages into my brand new non-Rowaness related story. I feel shy of sharing too much about it right now, like it's a delicate bird that hasn't taken flight. But I love the promise of this story, of everything it can be. I feel overwhelmed to be it's "mother" and hope I can do it justice.

Here are some visual hints and inspiration for the story so far...










Sunday, July 1, 2012

Tricks for Writing a Killer Beginning

credit
After weeks of research and letting the idea simmer in my brain, I've officially begun writing a new novel. This is an exciting--and terrifying--time! And it's gotten me thinking a lot about the pesky business of beginning a novel.

Here are some tips I try to follow:

Make me care about the character. It won't matter to me if a character is in life-or-death peril if I don't care about her yet. If I invest my time in a story--if I keep turning pages--it's because I connect with the character, THEN through her the story and the world. Warning: this doesn't mean claustrophobic pages of internal monologue, because you must...

Start with story; start in-scene. Don't write about what has happened. Write about what's happening NOW. Nix those prologues, chunks of backstory, or lengthy interiority. Stick in the now.

Give a little framework before jumping into dialogue. Even a couple sentences will suffice. Give those talking heads some setting or sensory detail to help ground the reader.

Sprinkle in worldbuilding. I don't want to be inundated with the details of your world. I want just enough to ground me and intrigue me, but the story must keep moving forward. Remember when you're writing in-scene, beats must happen in real time. Narrative summary, lengthy descriptions, or lengthy interior reflection shouldn't break up in-scene moments unless there is enough "real time" allotted for it. Save narrative summary for transitions between scenes, if possible. Trust that the reader will catch on, BUT don't be overly coy, thinking that will add suspense. (It won't; it will only add frustration.) Deciding when to write in-scene vs. narrative summary is tricky, but you can do it!

Incite me. There needs to be an inciting incident by the end of chapter one (especially if you're writing YA). This doesn't have to be the doorway between acts one and two, but something BIG needs to happen that's life-changing for your character, that incites her into some kind of action. In other words, get your story wheels turning ASAP and make me NEED to read chapter two!

Begin on the day something different happens. Carol Lynch Williams gave this awesome advice at the WIFYR conference I just attended. Yes, you need to ground the reader in the "normal life" of your main character, but your story should start on the day life changes for her. For example, my story, The Rowaness of Shalott, begins when King Arthur comes to Guinevere's island after a five-year absence.

Conflict. Just because the main plot of your story hasn't kicked into full gear doesn't mean there should be no conflict at the beginning. There has to be conflict! Your main character must want something right from the get-go, and something/someone must be standing in her way; furthermore, there must be stakes if she doesn't succeed. (Hint: conflict/yearning is a key ingredient to making me care about your character.)

Don't forget the details. It's your job as a writer to not only engage me in your character (and his/her story), but also let me know his/her age, gender, physical appearance, and other important details ASAP. Age and gender, especially, must be indicated in some manner on page one.

Make a promise. Your reader should understand the kind of novel they're reading from the first page. If the book is a fantasy, something must strongly hint of that fantasy in the beginning. If you're writing horror, scare me. If your novel is a mystery, give me something to puzzle over--again, on page one!

Shake hands with your ending. Your beginning and ending should be fun house mirror reflections of each other. They need to resonate and come full circle. In order to know where to begin your story, think of where you will end it and let that spark some ideas. This is something that can be finessed with revisions, but I strongly believe you should know how your story will end before you begin it.

That about covers it. Easy, schmeezy, right? (WRONG!) And here comes my final piece of advice for writing story beginnings...

RELAX! Try not to panic over all the rules. Know them. Read and study them. But then turn a blind eye, let go, and have fun! Don't worry, those rules are probably lingering in the back of your brain and keeping you fairly on track. (And they'll be waiting with a vengeance when it's time for revisions!) But while drafting, let yourself fall in love with the seed of a story and the birth of a character. Don't judge them just yet. :-)

What are your favorite tips for writing beginnings?

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Nuggets of Writing Wisdom

Me, my crit partners, and the yellow-badged Carol Lynch Williams
I just got back from a fabulous writers' conference held annually in Utah, Writing and Illustrating for Young Readers (WIFYR). Here are the nuggets of wisdom (or other observations) I came away with. Most of this knowledge wasn't "new," per se, but it struck a deeper chord or reaffirmed something I strongly believe in.

Author, Carol Lynch Williams, said to always stay true to who you are as a writer (and a person). Draw a line in the sand and don't cross it.

Editor, Alexandra Penfold, said great writing illuminates our humanity and struggles. We see ourselves in the characters. She also talked about how we experience new worlds THROUGH character; character must be first and foremost.

Matthew Kirby (a psychologist as well as an author) said our brains are "meaning-making machines;" We automatically try to make sense of our worlds. The reader will catch on; trust the reader.

Matt also said authors should never write action for action's sake. Action needs to ALWAYS say something about the character. He gave the example of Christopher Nolan doing this excellently with THE DARK KNIGHT in the opening action scene, which establishes the character of the Joker.

Matt also said, in regards to world-building, authors should strike a balance between the intimate details and the sweeping scope. World needs to be revealed through the character's eyes--what they would notice as opposed to someone else.

Speaking of story endings, Matt said even if they're inevitable to the reader, they shouldn't be to the main character.

Agent, John Cusick, said "voice" in writing is just another way of saying a unique point of view. John also said he wants to see protagonists motivated by universal AND unique things (not cliche) and not just responding to tragedy.

Almost everyone mentioned the importance of writing something no one else but you could write. (Don't follow trends, stay true to your own vision, etc.)

Author, Mette Ivie Harrison, told me, one-on-one, that she's discovered you don't always have to be writing "in the zone of inspiration" for your novel to be good. Mette never wastes time. For example, if she has ten minutes of waiting at the doctor's office, she will use that time to write.

Mette will end an writing session by writing the first line of the next chapter or segment. This helps her jump right back into writing next time without having to stare at a blank page.

Author, Cynthia Leitich Smith, talked about committing to writing only what you love. Focus on what fascinates your inner self and don't worry if it will sell.

Cynthia also mentioned that the "golden key" of writing is making the reader care enough about the character that they keep turning pages.

Cynthia's best writing advice is "embrace the delete key." (So true!)

Cynthia said it's the way fantasy reflects our world that most speaks to us.

Editor, Ruth Katcher, said publishers don't know what you should write, only you do. Stay in tune to the voice in your head that's been developing your whole life by your life's experience. Find the conviction to tell meaningful stories.

Ruth also said that as a character-development exercise, rather than interviewing your character about his/herself, it's more insightful to interview characters about OTHER characters. (I tried this and it was super cool.)

Author Ann Dee Ellis' biggest advice is to PLAY. Just relax and write. Turn off your inner self-editor (especially during your first draft).

Author, Trent Reedy, said that writing is more than your dream. One day someone will need your words to achieve theirs. He also said it's not enough to simply exist. Literature and art are necessary.

Author, Tim Wynne Jones, said dialogue must either reveal character or further the plot. Beats between dialogue must happen in "real time" (these are reaction moments, moments of silence between speaking), whereas narrative summary (when you're not in-scene) takes place in suspended time.

Tim also said the real collisions in your story should center in the dialogue--the most important element of being "in-scene."

Tim also talked about the importance of the objective correlative in scenes, meaning a detail/object in the scene/environment that correlates to the interior state of the character.

Author, Emily Wing Smith, said to get over impatience with yourself. Give yourself permission to say, "What I write next may even be better."

More than anything, going to WIFYR gave me a needed boost of confidence that what I have written and am writing is worthwhile, and that with continued dedication to the craft of writing, being open to feedback, and perseverance in the face of self-doubt, I can achieve my dream of publication.

What is your favorite tidbit of writing advice--from WIFYR, if you attended, or something you've gleaned from elsewhere or even from yourself? 

(I also want to congratulate my critique partner, Taryn Albright, who won the $1000 fellowship award at WIFYR for her amazing ten-page submission!)