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!)

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Never Surrender: Donating a Kidney

In honor of Elana Johnson's new book, SURRENDER, I have joined the "Never Surrender" blogfest. Here's my never surrender story.

Six years ago, my older brother's kidneys failed. This wasn't the first time. When Matt was a teenager, my dad donated a kidney to him. But "foreign" kidneys only last so long. Because my brother ultimately rejected my dad's kidney, that meant at least half of my siblings (ten in total) wouldn't be able to donate to him this time around; they had the same antigen as my dad that Matt's body would also reject.

I wanted more than anything to donate my kidney to my brother, and so I got tested and--hallelujah--I was a perfect match! With blood and tissue type, we were like twins. I kept advancing through the succeeding tests (there are a bazillion) to make sure everything was inline to donate. Matt and I started planning possible surgery dates and dreaming of a life for him with no more dialysis. Then one day the nurse coordinator called me and said the surgeons ruled me out for donation. Here's why: I had all these extra forking arteries coming out of my kidneys. They couldn't be spliced into Matt's "plumbing system" because they were too tiny. I tried coming up with any exception (my dad also had extra arteries when he donated years ago), but nothing I said mattered. The answer was no. I couldn't donate to Matt.

I was so confused, so torn-up inside. I knew I was supposed to do this. I've never cried so hard in my life. I locked myself in a room and sobbed and wailed through a whole box of tissues AND my sleeves AND all my children's blankets. All I wanted to do was help my brother and I couldn't.

To make matters worse, my brother turned down a kidney from a girl who died in a car accident just the day before the surgeons told me NO. Matt could have had a kidney, but he was waiting for mine--the "perfect match." I felt horrible.

For the next three years Matt's health declined. While dealing with the continued drudgery of dialysis, he contracted a life-threatening case of West Nile Virus, which gave him seizures that sent him to the emergency room often. Several times he almost died. On top of that, cancer was discovered on his failing kidney, and it had to be completely removed. And there were still no matching donors. The rest of my siblings tried and were ruled out, along with several friends and acquaintances. Some had the antigens he'd reject. Some weren't in good enough health. Matt began to despair. He said he would sit and look outside his living room window. He'd watch the people in his neighborhood walk outside and get the mail from their mailboxes. He wished so badly to have the strength to do that. He wanted to tell them how lucky they were.

One day when Matt had another close call and ended up in the hospital, I'd had enough. I drove up to Salt Lake City and marched into the kidney clinic, where I waited for two hours until someone would talk to me. I demanded that they take my kidney NOW and give it to Matt. I was his perfect match! Why couldn't they use their brilliant surgeon skills and make this work? They told me no. Again.

I decided to forget them and figure out how to donate to Matt somewhere else. My oldest brother and I researched a facility out east that looked promising. When I called the hospital in Salt Lake City and asked them to transfer my x-rays and test results, the nurse coordinator said, "Whoa, now, wait a minute. Let's rethink doing this here." A few days later, the surgeons had a big meeting and one of them--to the dismay of the others--stepped up and said, "I can do this."

With Matt before the transplant
So three years ago--on my wedding anniversary, and when my third child was only nine-months-old, and a week before my husband graduated college--I finally got to donate my kidney to Matt. I was giving something life-saving to someone I loved who couldn't obtain it for himself. I'm not special because I chose to donate (so many people wanted to), or that I did. But I am blessed by that experience a thousand times over. It was the most wonderful and painful and awful and beautiful and defining thing I've done. It's what ultimately inspired me to write The Rowaness of Shalott. Because, in the end, fiction was the best way for me to describe what I felt and what I don't know how to adequately explain in any other way.

I'm grateful Matt is now living a full life. I'm grateful he can run around with his three little girls and work a demanding and fulfilling job. That he can walk to his mailbox and get the mail again. I'm grateful I never surrendered.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Interview with Taryn Albright

I have a house guest! And not just any house guest--it's my critique partner, the one-and-only brilliant Taryn Albright. At nineteen years old, she has an agent, is an intern for another literary agent, runs an editorial service (Teen Eyes) with her best friend, and is an assistant to the much-buzzed-about-debut author, Gennifer Albin. PLUS she's a full-time college student, nationally ranked competitive swimmer, and an all-around awesome gal. I have a complex just being her friend. ;-)

I decided to be a mean hostess and torture Taryn with a slew of agonizing writing-related questions. She decided to be a nice guest and oblige me.

So here we go!

What is your biggest fear as a writer?

I fear losing my love for writing, or being called predictable, like I have formulaic plots. For some reason I don't fear "selling out" or being highly commercial. I write to entertain, not to be profound, though my greatest hope is that I can manage both. Still, first and foremost, entertainment is my priority.

In what area of writing do you feel the most self-confident?

Drafting! Haha :) Revisions=not fun.

What advice would you give yourself as a writer, if you could travel back in time two years?

Ohhh fun question. Hmm, two years ago I had just finished high school. I wasn't very serious about writing. I don't know if I'd tell myself anything . . . my writing journey has been very smooth and organic. I wouldn't want to change the way I did anything.

What is your favorite thing about being a literary agent intern?

Ohh gosh. I love discovering projects that I think are awesome, but that's very rare. There have only been two that I've read and thought I WANT TO SEE THIS AS A BOOK. Honestly, my favorite thing is how my boss-agent is coming to trust me and the way I'm able to get experience in what I want to be my career. This is a lame answer ;)

You are currently on submission with a novel. Tell me a little bit about that book.

BEGGING TO BREATHE is a swimming murder mystery that takes place over the last day of nationals. Tessa Crichton has found her archrival Julia drowned, and due to Tessa's previous near-drowning experience, her memory has holes around the time of Julia's death. Because of their rivalry, Tessa is the top suspect. Commence intrigue, secrets, and kissing.

How you do you handle the ups and downs of being on submission?

I stay super busy. I have a freelance editing service, Teen Eyes, I have my internship, and I have a few awesome critique partners who ask me enough questions to keep my mind off submissions. I'm working on another project right now, but it's actually a reminder of submission, not a respite.

How would you describe your relationship with your agent, Vickie Motter?

Vickie and I are pretty close. We actually live like 15 minutes away from each other, so we meet up often for coffee/to trade books. She's responsive and fun, new but skilled. Her enthusiasm for my projects is tangible :)

What advice would you give writers who are still in the querying trenches?

 It only takes one yes! Also, MAKE SURE you have objective eyes on your manuscript. (Teen Eyes is great for that! *shameless plug*) 

You are only nineteen years old, and yet you have accomplished so much. What advice would you give to aspiring teen writers?

Get involved online. People are way older than you, but in "writer-years," we're pretty similar. A 50-year-old may be writing her first book, whereas a 18-year-old could be Kody Keplinger and published. Don't put it off. I am of the opinion that advice to TEEN WRITERS should be no different than advice to any writers.

You just attended the Book Expo of America in New York City. What was the most surreal moment for you, and what was the biggest disappointment?

 Surreal moments: (there were many) Boss-agent introduced me to a bunch of editorial directors, I met a lot of agents to whom I'm on submission, and a few authors recognized me.

Disappointment: Not much! I didn't snap many pictures? My crit partners weren't there?

Everything was awesome :)

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

Well, my MC of the book on sub is one of those hard-to-like characters...she's obsessive about winning, arrogant, and uber-competitive. She's also extremely talented. I'd say Tessa is a very very accentuated version of me. She's got my talents--except WAY more. She also has my flaws--except WAY worse. Because of these extremes, she was fun to write.

Fast forward five years. If all the stars aligned and you had your way, where would you be and what would you have done in the writing world?

 I would have six books out (two in 2014, two in 2015, two in 2016; I plan to be a 2 book/year person), I'd be under contract for a whole lot more. I'd be a literary agent with a bunch of awesome clients (who all were contracted). I'd be living happily near Seattle, where I was raised. All this at 24 ;) Ohhh, I'd also have graduated college, I guess, with my creative writing degree, and have won nationals for swimming my senior year. Oh, wait, that's not writing related...

You are an incredibly dedicated and ambitious person. How do you keep the fire burning?

I love love love the book world. I love stories, authors, and everything about publishing. So far, that's been enough.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Acting, Writing, Creating Something

College:  Rosalind in As You Like It, my favorite role ever!
Okay, heads up. I'm going to go off about old times and acting for a bit here, but it's all going to come back to writing. I promise. Stick with me.

I was a fairly confident kid in elementary school. Never struggled to make friends. Always felt like I had a "place." Then junior high came. None of my friends were in my classes. They were also gymnasts and became cheerleaders. They didn't ignore me or anything, but it wasn't the same anymore. We weren't moving in similar circles. Suddenly I didn't know where I fit. I didn't know whom I could sit with for lunch, so I'd go eat alone in the library. I started cutting class. A lot.

College:  Katarina Cavalieri in Amadeus
I was enrolled (against my will) in both a speech class and a communications class (the latter was like this conglomeration of acting and social skills). My first assignment was to answer twenty questions I'd written for myself. I had to stand up in front of the class and give all my questions and answers aloud. I was shaking so badly, I couldn't even read my paper! I cried several times after leaving those classes. And it never got easier. To say I had stage fright is an understatement. I'd never made any friends in junior high school. Not. A. Single. One. I was pretty miserable.

In ninth grade, I eventually resorted to hanging out with my neighbor and a group of her friends, who were all a year younger than me. It felt like a desperate attempt to fit in. It was. I won't go into details, but one day they ganged up and did something to me that was incredibly rude and embarrassing. I went home absolutely furious and hurt. And I realized just how stupid I'd been for the past three years. How I'd let my fears eat away at me and make me so worried about what people thought. I'd had enough. Everything clicked together, and I suddenly stopped caring about what people thought. It's not that I became inconsiderate or rebellious, but I just wasn't afraid to be myself, and I didn't become anxious over being accepted anymore. The next day I randomly walked up to a girl in the lunch room and asked if I could eat with her. This was a very brave move for me! In my school, you didn't just casually pop in at someone's table. I didn't know this girl well, but she always seemed nice. She acted pretty shocked when I sat down beside her, but in a minute none of that mattered. We had so much in common! She became my best friend throughout high school. We still keep in touch. I'll always consider her a best friend of mine.

Maggie in The Man Who Came to Dinner
Later, in high school, I purposely signed up for an acting classes. And my stage fright was gone. I could get up in front of people, make myself vulnerable to the emotions my character was feeling, and express myself like I couldn't before. I auditioned for plays and worked up from being in the ensemble to getting lead roles. Even in performing for large audiences, I felt comfortable. I would never want to relive those depressing junior high days, but the lesson I learned from them has been invaluable.

Fast forward several years. I'd acted in college, England, and had many wonderful roles. Then I got married, had a child, and still found time to act now and then. Then I had another child, and another. I couldn't justify acting anymore, not with three young children. Being in a play requires about two-to-three months of rehearsals, six days a week, three hours every night. I didn't feel right about leaving my kids for that long. So about two years went by with no plays, no acting, and I started to feel this emptiness. It ate away at me for a long time. I became depressed again. And then I got the idea to write a novel. I never thought I'd love something as much as acting, but I do. I love writing even more. My favorite part of acting is the rehearsals, the digging into character and "creating." Writing a book is like a super long rehearsal and "discovery" of character. It can be frustrating and is long work, but then, like an acting rehearsal, you suddenly peak and all that struggle weaves together into something wonderful--what you were striving to achieve all along.

Kate in The Taming of the Shrew, first lead in high school!
It's interesting that to rise above any kind of darkness, you have to do something about it. You have to "act." You have to use your mind and heart and body to create something. Although I love my children and love being a mother, I have so much within me that I want to explore. I think everyone does. I've noticed people who are truly happy create. There are thousand different ways to do so. Anything can become "art" to someone. My story, The Rowaness of Shalott, is about this in many ways. That mortality is a means for us to do something and act in a way we couldn't without a body.

I'm grateful for the creative paths I've taken in my life and for what they've given me. I'd love to hear about yours!