Monday, December 28, 2009

Phew!

I have spent the morning picking up the last traces of holiday wrapping and ribbons, putting away the last of the gifts, and generally de-bugging my house of all the holiday cheer. Don’t get me wrong, I am a great lover of Christmas—it is my favorite holiday. Just ask my poor husband, who used to endure weeks of holiday frenzy and mania as I celebrated every day of advent with unrelenting enthusiasm.

But this year, this year it came at a spectacularly poor time. It was nigh unto painful, having to break away from The Great Race to the Book Deadline and . . . celebrate. Suffice it to say, I was not in a celebrating mood. It was akin to having to stop in the middle of giving birth to go dancing. I was pretty much just wanting to focus on getting the job done.

However, now that it’s over, Theodosia is coming out to play in a big way. And none too soon, I might add. Trust her to wait to come out until all the guests have finally gone home—just like our cat.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

If You Give A Book A Gremlin . . .

. . . it will acquire a mind of its own to go with it.

Seriously. Once you give in to this organic thing, all hell breaks loose. Mysterious elements show up out of seemingly (key word, that) nowhere, characters take on a mind of their own and refuse, refuse, to do what you’ve told them to. The bad guy decides he’s not the bad guy any longer and strange interpersonal dynamics and heretofore unsuspected relationships that you have given no conscious thought to, begin appearing on the page.

Have I mentioned lately how much I love my job? ☺

The thing is, this is one of the reasons people give for not wanting to outline--a fear of stifling just this phenomenon, and I totally get that; that's their process and choice. For me though, I don't know how to get moving on the page without some sort of outline or plot and it is only when I am actively moving on the page that these sorts of spontaneous things begin happening.

I read somewhere, and I can't for the life of me remember where (Katy, you might know the source of this idea) that the reason music became part of religious ritual was because the monks believed it created a space through which the Divine could enter.

Maybe for some of us outlines are like that. Creating an outline is like playing the music that will allow the Creative Spark to ignite...

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The Plot is NOT the Story

It seems I have to learn this lesson at least once with every book I write:

The plot is not the story. The plot is simply (ha! nothing simple about plotting!) the device or vehicle that gets all the elements together so that the real story can happen.

The real story is the characters and relationships and growth that take place because of the plot.

I swear to god, I'm going to get that tattooed on the back of my hand where I can see it 139 times a day.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Getting My Gremlin On

I can't remember if I talked here about how Greasle came to take such a prominent role in Nathaniel Fludd, Beastologist. It is an important lesson that I have only begun to learn, and have certainly not yet grasped. Not if the last few weeks are any indication, anyway.

The mythology in the Beastolgist books is simply that all the mythical creatures featured in the medieval beastiaries are real. They truly exist in hidden pockets of the world and only the Fludds know the exact locations of those. Simple enough.

However, while I was writing the first book I ran into the problem of Nate and Aunt Phil having to travel all over the world (there's that travel issue again!) and how to make it interesting rather than episodic or a simple tour guide recounting. Drama, I thought! I need to increase the tension! Make Nate proactive!

So I had Aunt Phil send Nate out on the wing to go up to the propeller and see what was gumming up the prop. He'd have to do the aeronautical equivalent of singing for his supper.

And much to everyone's surprise (not the least of which mine) it was a gremlin who was gumming up the works and out she popped into the story.

B-but . . . I didn't want a gremlin in the book! It didn't work! It mucked up the world I was building and mixed mythologies and . . . and . . . No, I wailed!

But try as hard as I might, I simply could not write the book without her. And if you know how life works, it is probably not surprising to learn that for many readers she is one of the most popular parts of the book.

So the lesson was clearly that one has to embrace one's creative wild hairs and just go with them some times. Only apparently I haven't truly internalized that one yet.

I've been plugging along on the new book for weeks, and it hasn't ignited in that way that it usually does--the way that makes it the most fun thing in the world to be doing. And it's because I've been resisting this odd, different angle/approach/thread that keeps wanting to come into the story, and I keep thinking, No. It doesn't work.

Only, I don't know that it doesn't work. I'm just afraid that it won't work. (Yeah. Fear never makes a good critique partner.) But the story is digging in its heels and refusing to come to play unless I do it its way. ::sigh::

So this weekend I gave up and said what the hell, and began incorporating that odd little element, and vavOOM! We're off! I would be banging my head on the desk in frustration at my own obtuseness if I weren't so relieved I've figured it out. I've finally found my gremlin for this book.

For me, this is one of the single hardest lessons in writing--learning to trust that creative vision, that quirky spark that wants to play in the story world I've created. I tend to think things aren't allowed or simply aren't done or that trying to combine too disparate elements creates incoherency rather than something new or fresh.

I wonder how many more times the Universe will have to slap me up side the head with this particular lesson? Should we start a pool?

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

A New Plot Predicament

Remember how I said that each of my manuscripts demands its own, unique plotting method? Well, this book is no exception. ::le sigh::

As I struggle with this current manuscript, I’m discovering that there are a few structural things that are forcing me to look at this book’s plot in a completely different way.

For one, it is the first book in which I’ve changed locations this many times. It starts off in Cairo, then moves to Luxor, then the action moves to An Undisclosed Location, then back to Luxor. Even harder, the travel part is not necessarily part of the dramatic action, so that is dead time story-wise, and better left off screen. The travel sequences also rather neatly bisect the book into four acts.

Normally I write to the turning points; the big moment of dramatic action, the big reveal, or a reversal of some sort. However, the turning points in this book don’t exactly happen at the change of location moments, but since those so firmly feel like act breaks, I’m stuck having to factor those into the plotting momentum somehow.

What I find is that I am writing the acts as individual pieces of a whole, rather than writing to the turning points, which might be a matter of semantics. Or not. I can’t quite tell yet. But the process feels different, and that’s why I’m kind of stumbling around.

Hm. This just occurred to me. (And this is why I blog—just talking about this stuff brings clarity.) The reason it feels different is because normally when I write to a turning point, I leave one act at a moment of high drama which then propels us into the next act.

But by writing each act as individual units, I find that the highest point of drama comes just before the act ends, then there is a minor moment of resolution or transition before proceeding into the next act, which takes place in a new location. It mirrors the structure of the end of the book, with a climax and resolution, rather than a turning point acting as climax and building on that. So it's like four separate little stories (structure wise, not thematically) with their own completion rather than a set of building blocks.

I’m trying to decide if this is good or bad or just different, and how much energy, if any, I should spend fixing it or trying to massage it into a different shape.

Needless to say, this whole structure thing has made me painstakingly aware of the logistical difficulty of traveling during a story, which I will blog about in a separate post since it is a big enough issue to warrant its own topic.

Monday, December 7, 2009

An Altered Book

I've already talked about the collages I do for my books, and the travel journal I'm doing for this particular Theodosia book, but I also wanted to talk about something I started doing a while back. It's similar to a collage in that it helps me access the story world in a much more, loosey-goosey creative way, without the specific writing tasks I expect to accomplish with the travel journal (voice, descriptions, travel logistics). This altered book is really more about helping me stay fully immersed in the world, while giving my mind something else to focus on besides the words on the page.

And here I must insert my disclaimer, that I am a rank amateur in the world of altered books, but I do have fun.

So first, I had to find the right book to alter. How thrilled was I to find the above book at the library's used book store--it's even a translation of an Arabic poem! How perfect.



This first image was my first experiment. It's very simple, but again, I was surprised at how much fun my subconscious had ruminating while my fingers were busy "building" something from the story world. This image is just a mood piece for the first book, touching on picking up Mother from the train station.



This next picture was trying to evoke the sense of showdown I felt when writing Book Two, involving the Dreadnought, the Serpents of Chaos, and a certain prophecy regarding a red sun...




And lastly, a scene in the catacombs, with all those mummies...



While I will confess to being all thumbs when it comes to art, I do love collaging. I love the whole "found" thing aspect of the art form, the junk turned to jewels element of taking used and discarded trash and debris from lives lived, and using that to create something beautiful and evocative.

It reminds me very much of writing, actually.

As a writer, I collect mental junk, a face here, a look there. The snippet of conversation I overheard at the restaurant. The scolding I heard the mother give her son at the grocery store. The surprising sight of a teenage punk driving his 80 year old grandmother around in his hyped up jalopy. A sunset. A birdsong. A remembered feeling from when I was seven years old. This is the sort of detritus I collect in my head, where it rolls around for years, decades sometimes, until it becomes tumbled and smoothed and juxtaposed with other things and becomes something entirely new.

Best of all, the girls in the basement LOVE it a lot, and it gets them all juiced up so I can write and write and write...

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

It's Alive!!

So, last week I ended up having to put aside the Theo Four manuscript and instead pick up my Theodosia Four journal. For the week prior to that, I had been pushing the characters around on the page and it felt just like a four year old pushing peas around the mound of mashed potatoes on his plate. Nothing pretty was happening.

I have to say, I so admire people who can fly into the mist and just write. Not knowing much about their characters or their stories, they simply begin, knowing they will discover these things on the page.

I don’t seem to be able to do that. Instead, I had to regroup and spend the last week journaling all my characters’ histories. I need to know who they are and what life events have shaped them before they will come alive for me on the page. And since so much of that is backstory, it doesn’t seem to emerge in the actual writing of the book. Nor do I seem to be able to make them do anything on the page except walk woodenly across the stage until I know them better.

But all that journaling? I inevitably get frustrated along the way and feel like I’m spinning my wheels or procrastinating or being overindulgent of my process.

Except, as I journal these people, they begin to come alive for me. At first inception, they are mere stick drawings, a few bare lines in black and white, little more than placeholders. Sometimes I know so little about them that I can’t even define what they want within the story, or what their goals might be.

That’s when I begin to root around in their past, digging through their history in an attempt to understand them. For example, I have an elderly gentleman in this book, and I ended up printing out a timeline of British history from 1830 to 1900 so I could see what skirmishes and battles and experiences would have shaped him. After all, the events going on around us shape who we are as people, whether we live through a Great Depression, survive 70’s disco music, or enter the job market at one of the worst times in history—all these things shape our outlook on life. If I’m writing a novel that takes place in a different time, then it makes sense that I need to understand which historical events shaped my characters.

This is where I actually ‘draw’ my characters, only using words instead of lines. The form and shape and texture begins to show up. Once I have all this stuff, the character’s context and worldview, I can then go in and do the detail work, the stuff that will show up on the page. What are this character’s emotional wounds? His motivations? His goals? Why does he want that? What personal events and circumstances have combined with the broad strokes of history to shape him?

When I know that, I know how he will react to the people and events around him. How he will respond to Theodosia, the magic swirling around them, how he holds his head or looks down his nose, or whether he responds with disdain or respect.

And then a really cool thing happens, a bit of magic akin to when the wooden Pinocchio became a real boy. The character begins to take on attributes that I haven’t designed for him. He begins to become a real person in his own right until finally, he becomes so real and fully dimensional that he gets up off the page and walks into the book, finally a real person.

Which is a long way of sheepishly confessing that I guess all that journaling time isn’t wasted after all.

How do your characters become real to you? What tricks do you use to b ring them to life, both for yourself and your readers?

Monday, November 30, 2009

Pass the Alleve, Please

I long for a simple plot. I long for the kind of plot where the protagonist wants this, but can’t have it because [fill in the blank] and so must spend the rest of the book struggling against the antagonist or antagonistic force in order to achieve her goal. And of course she’ll triumph and live joyfully ever after.

But instead, my plots tend more toward: Protagonist wants this, but can’t have it because of a trick within a ploy, hidden in a stratagem, deeply embedded within a subterfuge, sprinkled liberally with deception and a dollop of double cross on top.

The ever tightening concentric circles of my convoluted plot makes my head ache. Although, I suppose that's progress. At least now I have a plot to b!tc# about...

Also, for any of you who are feeling discouraged over not finishing NaNo this year, Maggie Stiefvater has a wonderful post about breaking up with NaNo--a must read if your NaNo experience left you feeling less than satisfied.

Today is also the last day to enter the contest to win an ARC of Theodosia and the Eyes of Horus. Check the contest out here on Hip Writer Mama's blog.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

On Vanities...

Phew, copy edits are in the mail. Now I can let the official Thanksgiving festivities begin!

It has also been frustrating to be up to my elbows in deadlines when a hot discussion is swirling around the internet. At last I can weigh in.

Is it just me or do the recent Harlequin Horizons and Thomas Nelson’s WestBow Press Vanity press ventures strike anyone else as the publishing equivalent of credit default swaps?

Sure, every business wants to make money, and rightly so. But there is a point when the legitimate desire to find revenue streams crosses over into predatory behavior. Not only is this bad for the parties involved, but over time, it threatens to topple the entire business model and crash economies.

Just like Wall Street, publishers are now wanting to hedge their bets. They want to continue to take only professional, agented, submissions, but with these vanity press ventures, they also want to take out credit default swaps on those they’ve rejected just in case they’ve missed their guess. But sometimes, when we hedge our bets, we remove the impetus needed to make the original enterprise a success.

It is also hugely frustrating to have those who oppose this move called Luddites or be told they are standing in the way of progress. No one has managed to convince me that this step is progress. Exploitation is not progress. Nor is what these companies are doing part of a legitimate publishing model. Publishing involves paying a fee to license intellectual content, enhancing it with editorial input and professional book design, marketing it, and distributing it. With this existing model, the publisher definitely adds value to the original content. In this new scenario, they do not. They act as a print broker, hooking up eager writers with a printing service, a service they could just as easily access on their own—and keep more of their profits to boot.

It also strikes me as the very opposite of a sound economic model. When you are looking to increase the value of something, is it really wise to flood the market? Everything I’ve heard has lamented that there are far too many books published every year already. Does it really make sense to add more? And books that, by and large, were not able to cross the bar of existing standards?

I am so proud of RWA for moving so swiftly and decisively to repudiate HQ's move, and am equally pleased that the other writing organizations (MWA, SFW, and NINC)
have their backs.

If the internet is becoming a more and more critical factor in publisher’s book promotional and marketing strategies, are they not now flooding those same channels with even more choices and distractions? They have basically just polluted their own stream. It’s similar to the current phenomenon of how there are 763 available channels these days, but one can never find anything good to watch on TV. It seems to me that when businesses spend so much of their energy trying to capture market share and cover all the bases and hedge their bets by being involved in too many ventures, they end up diluting the initial spark and value that so many got from their product, and consumers give up.

This coupled with the recurring meme out there that information wants to be free worries me. Not simply because I love being a writer and being paid for what I do, but because it is one more step in a long line of steps of devaluing everything except the bottom line. Those who do the actual work or create the content are diminished or expected to find or create other revenue streams to support their art, while the ability to shuffle paper and come up with ways to charge money for nothing are praised. Personally, I think they need to shuffle paper for free and find other revenue streams to support that enterprise.

Yes, the current publishing model is far from perfect. The inefficiency can be staggering and the distribution expensive. But let’s work on improving the current model instead of blowing everything up. We already did that with Wall Street, and look how well that turned out.

Now lest I get accused of elitism, please understand that at one time my books could not cross that bar either. (And as far as some readers are concerned, may still not cross that bar.) But that’s part of what separates published writers from those that don’t get published—that huge drive and commitment to do what it takes to produce a well-crafted, saleable book. The tools to do that are available to anyone—especially here on the web. You can give yourself a master class in novel writing techniques by a judicious visiting of a number of great, informative sites.

Will it be quick? No. Will it be easy? Hell no. But it is part of what is required to produce work of a certain quality.

Another huge downside to this of legitimizing of vanity presses is that budding authors will shift their focus. Once they have that unsaleable manuscript in book form, they will likely spend all their time flogging a new book that has little chance of furthering their career instead of spending that time improving their craft. Why should they? They already have the carrot! But there is a reason a butterfly has to struggle its way out of its cocoon or a chick has to fight its way out of the egg—there are huge lessons and great skill building in the struggle.

Even, I suspect, for publishers.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Jump Starting a Novel

Alas, I keep priming the pump but only dribbles are coming out. Time to bring out the big guns. Er, index cards.

I've talked about index cards before, and how I use them to help me see plot holes. They do, however, have other uses. They can also be a terrific tool to help me build or jump start the novel's plot.

Usually when I begin a book I have some key scene ideas and events that I know will need to be in the story. (This is especially true when working on series and sequels.) That in turn, means I usually have a pretty good idea of how many plot threads or sub plots I'll have.

When I'm trying to take this info and massage it into a plot, here's what I do. I take a fresh stack of colored index cards and assign one color for each plot thread. Then I write down all the key scenes that I know will happen in that thread.


Now some of the scenes ideas might be pretty well formed, and others might be unbelievably vague: Theo's first sighting of Chaos in Egypt. But they work as both a place holder in the overall structure of the plot, as well as a jumping off point for brainstorming. How does Theo become aware of Chaos's presence? And then I begin running through possibilities for those.

Some of the scene notations might not just be vague, but also unbelievably mundane and boring--not the least bit dramatic. Theo and Mum visit Antiquities Service to obtain permission to dig.

But once I know that, then I can begin thinking of how to turn that scene into one with dramatic action. How can that scene become a vital part of the plot? How can I add drama? Tension? Is there the opportunity for a reversal of some sort?

So listing what I do know about the scene, however sketchy it might be, shows me where I need to begin to excavate in order to find the right story bones I'll need.

Once I have those, I can begin to assemble those very raw and sketchy bits into some semblance of structure, because the structure of the novel will also help focus my brainstorming.

So my (very raw, very sketchy) first act looks like this:


In my second act, things really start to happen and I have a lot more cards:



So now I have some raw material to work with. I have an idea of the ebb and flow of the scenes and activities that will need to happen, and where those scenes will fall, and I can now try to beat them into submission breathe some life into them.

(And uh, yeah, I am very well aware the yellow cards petered out in act two. I can't decide if there are two plot threads, yellow and blue, or if they are both really the same thread, but I'm not worrying about that at this stage of the game.)

And yes, this is VERY left brained, and NO, I don't do this for every book. Just the ones that are being stubborn and won't come out to play.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Collaging: A Novel Approach

So you all know I like collaging as a way to help bring my story world to life, and I've shared some of the past collages on the blog. This time, however, a regular collage didn't seem to be working for Theo Four. For one thing, collages are big and tend to evoke a story world rather than represent it, and for this Theo book, I needed factual specifics. It takes place in Cairo and Luxor in 1907, both real places and real times, so I am somewhat constrained by, you know, reality. And in order to write about it, I need to see it. But if I paste the old photos I find on a collage board, they become lost or overwhelmed.

Well this weekend, I stumbled upon a fix to this conundrum. I decided that instead of creating a collage board for this Theodosia book, I'd create a travel journal such as Theo herself might have kept to record her trips.


(Sorry about the glare.)

So now I've been cutting and pasting all the old photos I've found in my research into this book, then making notations and observations in Theo's voice next to each picture.





This is doing two things. It's a great way to accumulate all the research visuals I need in one place and in chronological order, and it's allowing me to focus on seeing them through Theo's eyes. It's really helped me "get into the mood" for writing this book.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Looking for Arcs in All The Wrong Places

Since this blog is basically a big, fat window into my writing and my process, there is a good chance I will begin to repeat myself since I tend to struggle with similar issues with each book I write. However, the solution to those issues shifts slightly with each book, so hopefully there will be something of use to people in seeing those different solutions.

For example, one of the reasons I’m floundering with Theo Four is that I’m having a hard time pinpointing her internal arc. Frankly, it’s one of the challenges when writing a series with the same MC, giving that person an internal growth arc for each subsequent book. However, I think it is a vital part of the story.

I do have a bunch of internal things she learns. For example, she’s now seeing the world with her rational blinders off (due to what happened in book three) and she is hungry to understand WHO she is, how she got to be the way she is, and she begins to see the human cost of political actions, but I don’t have one cohesive umbrella under which to put all those things, such as there is no place like home, or she learns to accept herself. I wish I did, but I don’t.

So then I decided to rummage around looking for a theme, then see if that could lead me to a possible internal arc. Book Four is about Theo’s full initiation into the Other, her wandering in the desert/going into the woods and learning the answers to the mysteries that only she can provide.

It also occurred to me that this is the realization of all that she longed for in Book One. She’s going to Egypt with her parents and being asked to participate on a dig—to bring her talent to the project. Maybe she’s clinging blindly to that old goal, not realizing that she has outgrown that goal. She’s changed too much over the course of the last few books and she will never be in that simple or innocent place again. So while she’s gotten what she wished for, she herself has moved beyond that now.

Hm. I’m going to just keep plodding along and play with what I’ve got for a while. Maybe I’ll find a way to tie all these elements together under one internal arc umbrella. Heck, it could even be staring me right in the face and I’m just being too obtuse to see it.

Or maybe I’ll just pray that the big final scene at the end ties them all together. ☺

Monday, November 9, 2009

Out of Nothing…Something

So there is this concept I am really taken with and I've been rolling it around in my mind, exploring the shape and feel and heft of it for a few weeks now. It was something someone said a couple of months ago in a comment on my FB page (I’m thinking it was Shevi, but I might be misremembering—speak up if it was you!) They said something to the effect that unlike the sculptor who starts with a stone they can turn into something, writers must first make the stone, then use it to build their stories. It has resonated with me ever since. Particularly in the last week or so as I try to jump-start this newest book.

I am struck by the clear delineation between the two parts of writing—creating the material for the story, then building that story. And I think that’s where a number of beginning writers stumble. They think that what they’ve created IS the story, and it’s not—it’s the material from which they will create the story.

I also think this is the key to effective revision—being willing to see the first draft(s) as the base material you will be working with to create the actual story, rather than simply polishing a first draft. (Whether you do this scene by scene or draft by draft is less critical than the fact that you are willing to take things apart and look for clues and breadcrumbs in your first drafts rather than feel they are cast in stone.)

Then because life often loves to be sure I really GET the lesson it’s sending me, someone forwarded me a link to a NaNo pep talk Neil Gaiman had given about writing being like building a stone wall, and again I was struck that as writers we need to create the d@mn stones from which to build our walls, not to mention that we have to shape each piece so that it fits in the whole without huge gaps or worse—threatens to tumble at the first big breeze.

Anyway, it helped me realize that a big part of my writing process, my pre-writing process to be exact, is not about outlining or planning so much as it is about creating the material I will need to tell my story. Collaging, research, reading other books, journaling, note-taking—these are all the tools I use to give birth to the rocks I will need to build my story. And yes, that's a wince-inducing metaphor, but honest to gawd, sometimes that's what it feels like. Not always, by any means, but definitely this week.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Highly Suspicious...

When I got home last Saturday, my son had just contracted the Creeping Crud; either a bad chest cold (his vote) or swine flu (our vote). He was sick, but not deathly ill. So guess who started to come down with it yesterday? Yes, yours truly. I cannot believe I managed to fend off every single germ in the Katy Texas School District only to be felled at home.

The highly suspicious part? I started getting sick the day after my Muse went on strike. See, she thought I was rushing the writing part of the new book; she needed a bit more pre-writing and world-building before she was ready to get on with the show. I rushed it, then boom; I start to get sick.

Probably not a coincidence. So we made a deal, my muse and I. I will spend the next four days drinking hot tea, taking naps, popping Vitamin C & zinc lozenges, and reading research books, and she will be sure this doesn't develop into full-blown swinegitis.

There! I feel better already. Never bet against your muse...

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Pick A Color, Any Color

A couple of months ago someone had asked in the comments to explain how I use color pens. Since I was taking a bunch of pictures for my upcoming school visit presentations, I snapped a few of my color pen graphs.

My primary use of colored pens is to help keep clear different characters or plot line.

This picture is a chart I made for Theodosia and the Eyes of Horus. I divided it up into days, then made a tiny list of what was happening with each character or plot thread on each of those days.


Also, when I'm trying to be sure that I've created enough steps/actions/lessons in any given characters arc, I'll list the major beats down on a piece of graph paper and use a different colored pen for each character. I'm not even sure I can explain how this helps me keep things compartmentalized--it must have something to do with how I absorb information visually--because the different colors really help me.


The the third most common way I use colored pens is when I am writing a hugely complex, mind boggling, confusing action scene that has to be orchestrated with lots of beats and characters. It's kind of like I sketch the scene out with little colored text blocks, like so:


Also, I forgot to mention the lovely PJ Hoover interviewed me over on The Enchanted Inkpot today.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Scooting In Under The Wire

Sorry I didn't get anything posted today. I'm working like a madwoman trying to get ready for my two week long visit to Katy, Texas, where I will be visiting twenty schools in ten days. :-) Yeah. Making packing lists, fine tuning the presentation, practicing, and trying to tie up any household loose ends that might crop up while I'm gone.

I suppose this is a good time to remind anyone in the Houston area that I will be at Barnes and Noble in The Woodlands on October 18 at 2:00.

Also, for those of you who don't follow the Theodosia blog, I've posted the first chapter excerpt (the first of six, one a month until the publication date). If you're dying for your next fix of Theo, pop on over there and check it out!

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Story Eggs

Someone asked me to explain what cracking the story egg means.

For me, each story feels as if it already exists and my job is to discover it and then unearth it, not unlike an archaeologist. But I have also found that each story has its own key for being discovered. For some it might be an particular insight to the main character that cracks the whole thing wide open so that I suddenly see the story. Sometimes it’s tied to the antagonist—that is who is key to understanding the story and “cracking” it open. For Theo Four, it was simply remembering to see the world through her eyes. For the first Beastologist, it was the gremlin Greasle who cracked things wide open for me.

When the story spring to life and begins to spark, then the story egg has been cracked.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

A Couple More Thoughts On Setting

I often think of working on a book’s setting as being similar to an artist prepping a canvas; laying down the foundation that will support and enhance all the future layers to come. Some canvases are prepped with layers and layers of white, trying to create as clean and blemish free foundation as possible. Other canvases are prepped with layers of gesso, building upon each other to create texture and depth that will in turn contribute significantly to the finished texture of the painting.

Setting is the same way. Setting informs character. The type of world we live in, the neighborhoods we haunt, the homes that shelter us all shape us in different ways.

Nearly all cultures and societies are influenced by geography—their creation myths, belief systems, pantheons cultural taboos, their diet, their sources of wealth, all are shaped by their geography.

People too. Even siblings. I’m constantly amazed at the wild differences between siblings. I remember reading somewhere that part of this is because each child is born into a “different” family. The first child is born into an adults only family, the second child is born into a family with another child in which the focus has already shifted from couple to family. And that’s not even taking into consideration the hard-wired personality factors involved.

And even if none of that makes it on the page in an overt way, it will color everything about our characters. Our main characters see the world differently than anybody else. No one has seen Egypt in quite the same way as Theo sees it. That is where the depth and texture, drama and tension will come from.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Painting Oneself Into a Corner

Sometimes, as writers, we paint ourselves into a bit of a corner. I found myself in that position while jotting down notes for Theo Four. As I began my research for the setting—Old Cairo and Luxor—I felt a lot like a bored tourist as I tried to wrap my mind around the layout of the cities (in 1907, no less) and the various societal elements at play. I was uninspired. Nothing was getting my blood running, and I really need that to happen. If it feels boring and flat for me, it most certainly will for the reader.

However, due to the events I had put in play in Book Three, Theo HAS to go to Egypt for this book. But the setting just wasn’t working for me, it wasn’t feeding the story in the way setting needs to. So I’m panicking, stuck in Egypt with no way out, but not loving being there. That’s the corner I’d painted myself into.

A bit of a disaster, really.

So I picked up my pen and notebook and began journaling on the setting. In doing so, I became aware of a couple of things. One, I needed to give myself permission to build my world of 1907 Egypt in a way that served my story rather than historical accuracy. Every writer who writes a story that takes place in New York writes about a slightly different New York—one created or interpreted for their fictional needs. I needed to remember that.

Secondly, and more importantly, I needed to remember to see Egypt through Theo’s eyes—not a dusty 1907 British traveler, but Theo herself. What filters does she have in place as she travels through Egypt?

Well, for one, she’s looking for signs of the Serpents of Chaos everywhere. She is also almost painfully aware of the hum and throb of all the magic in the air, emanating off artifacts large and small. She is also nearly beside herself with excitement at being back in Egypt on a real live dig with her parents. Which is overshadowed by the promise she’s made to someone and the reason she finagled herself along on her trip.

Boom. Remembering that, putting those filters on as I tried to establish the setting for the book, totally made everything come alive again. Ho hum buildings and dusty streets teemed with lurking shadows and haunting magic (and yeah, Theo’s a little melodramatic...) Everyone Theo saw held the possibility of being a Serpent of Chaos, a Chosen Keeper, or an Eye of Horus. (No, you won’t find out what that is until Book Three.) Truly, it was like looking through a pair of binoculars and twisting that little thingey in the middle so that everything came into sharp focus. Very happy moment.

And then, finally, the thing I always wait for began to happen. Bits and snippets of the “movie” of the book began playing in my head and ideas began forming. It became clear to me that I need to spend the majority of the next two weeks building the “set” of this book. Creating the inherent conflicts that the streets of Cairo and Luxor, the nearby temples, the parents’ dig, the various antiquities and consul offices will provide. And I need to all of that with Theo’s filters firmly in place.

Sometimes I think that nearly every problem we run into in writing can be solved through character—we just have to dig deep enough.

Friday, October 2, 2009

When The Muse Won't Come Out To Play

One of the things I miss most about being an unpublished writer is that I could pretty much dance when my muse said to, and sit on the sidelines when she remained silent. I know there are many, many people out there who disdain that, but my muse is pretty active so it was rare for me to not write for more than a couple of days, and I always found that this little mini-break from the story served me well by giving my subconscious time to figure stuff out. In fact, this works so well for me that even still I tend to think in terms of weekly output and set weekly page goals rather than daily.

But now that I'm published, I have, you know, deadlines, and professional expectations I need to meet. Which means that even though story A may be screaming at me, agents and editors might have other plans or publishing needs for story B . Which is very, very thrilling, don't get me wrong, but since my muse is totally right brained, she doesn't see it this way. Very spoiled and demanding, is my muse. I found out just how much so when on a walk this morning I happened to listen to a song on my dark medieval YA's playlist. Oh my god. My muse immediately got all aroused and began pining for this project in the worst way. I imagine it was how Juliet felt about Romeo. Very distracting.

Only problem is, I canNOT work on that right now. Between the presentation for my upcoming two week stint of school visits in Texas and the impending deadline for Theodosia Four, I simply have other projects.

However, I also apparently drained my battery way below critical levels, because I am still not being able to jump start things like I normally can. In fact, I had to laugh yesterday when I got my Daily OM, which said:

Your energy may be low from working too much, and this could leave you feeling tired today. Perhaps you feel that without you your work would not get done, and as a result you have pushed yourself to your physical limits.

I tend to think of exhaustion as a physical thing, so I forget that we can do this mentally and creatively, as well. I also wonder if that's why my wrists gave out. Our bodies are very good at sending us messages, which we then ignore at our own peril.

So I am going to do something a little daring and scary for me: I'm going to give myself permission to not write for the next four weeks (two of which will be an insanely busy school visit trip, so I'm only loosing two weeks working time, but still.) Yep, even though I have a deadline in five months. I'm going to trust my muse here, and listen to her. An old boss of mine used to have a saying about needing to "dance with the one that brought you." Well, my muse has gotten me where I am today, so I need to remember to trust her. So for the next month I am simply going to journal any ideas that occur to me for Theo 4, putter with an outline, do some research every day, and work on my school presentations.

Then I'm going to hope my muse will become so restless from all that down time, that come Nov. 1 she will come out with both barrels blazing. (Am I the only one having fun with the mental picture that brings? A filmy, airy muse sporting two pistols?)

The other thing is that I will be coming off a two week immersion in kids, something that is always energizing, uplifting, and full of revelations. (Okay, and exhausting when done in huge quantities.)

I might even consider signing up for NaNoWriMo, just for the absolute focus it brings. We'll see.

Warning: Do not try this at home unless your muse is a proven producer and has demonstrated a high level of dedication in the past. :-)

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Turning the Page

I spent yesterday afternoon disassembling all my Beastologist materials; putting all my notes and manuscript versions into files, putting the research books back on the shelves, filing away the manuscript journals and the Beastologist Series Bible in the cupboard until it’s time for Book Four. Not only do I desperately need the desk and table space for the next project, but I find this little ritual of packing up all the physical manifestations of the creative process really helpful. It is a way to bring a clean, bracing whoosh of fresh air to clear away all the remaining bits of the old story that might still cling to the recesses of my brain. I’m telling myself that I won’t even have to think of the Beastologist books for another five months. (Yet another good example of what prevaricators we writers are because I KNOW I’ll see both the copy edits and galleys before then, but I’m wanting to pretend I have an absolutely clean slate.)

Not only do I have to clean up the last remaining traces of Beastologist, but I need to simply CLEAN. Vacuum up all the cat hair and foxtails off the carpet, clean the bathroom, mop the floor, scrub and bleach the kitchen sink--just generally live in THIS world a bit before I dive back into the next imaginary one.

I’m toying with a couple of different approaches to the writing of this next book, as well as trying to step back and letting myself consider doing some radically different things with the story in Book Four. Okay, not radical probably, but reminding myself that series does not equal formula or template. I want to approach each book a little differently, give each one slightly different emphasis, and not become stale or predictable. Which is a challenge when you also have readers’ expectations to deal with. What I want to do is exceed reader expectations, but in an unexpected yet hugely satisfying way.

I don’t want much, do I?

Serpents of Chaos I wrote mostly to entertain myself and reconnect with the sheer fun of writing. When I first started it, it was really and truly a “just for me” book. One that I didn’t really intend to show anyone else—after all, it was so different from all my previous stuff. It was my own private sandbox that no one else could play in. I could be as greedy and self-indulgent as I liked. As I think I’ve mentioned before, imagine my surprise when my agent ended up liking it best of all my stuff. Important lesson in there.

In Staff of Osiris I wanted to do a couple of things differently. I wanted sustained and steady pacing throughout, and I wanted to weave a complex, multi-faceted plot that all came together in the end. I think I accomplished that.

For Eyes of Horus, now that I’d established the community and parameters of Theo’s world, I wanted to delve deeper into each of the characters and flesh them out more, allow the reader to get to know them better. I also wanted to flip a couple of assumptions on their head.

And now it’s time for the fourth book and I haven’t quite decided what my next evolutionary step is. I know I’ll be having fewer plot layers in this book, since many of the players won’t be making the trip to Egypt. But I also want some narrative element to keep it all fresh—I just haven’t decided what yet.

As for the actual writing of it, I’m torn between two approaches. I want to either put together a long, solid outline of about twenty five page and then write from that. OR I want to do the preliminary research and brainstorming and just jump in like I did when I started writing the first Theodosia. Not sure which one I’ll try yet—I’m waiting for a signal or input from my muse. This is also complicated by my upcoming two week long school visit that I’ll be doing at the end of October. So for the next three weeks, I’m allowing myself to fill the well, stir the creative stew, throw in anything I can get my hands on, and let it gestate.

I’m also toying with trying to put together a book trailer for Nathaniel Fludd. I know there is no consensus as to whether or not they actually sell books, but they are definitely fun and give one something to talk about. It also seems a shame not to showcase all the terrific artwork in the book. Plus, I like to keep my technical skills current. I have iMovie and wouldn’t mind learning how to use it. It could also end up being a major time and energy sink though. Must think about that some more.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Happy Monday!

It is finally foggy here, so color me happy!

Plus I'm about to get the Beastologist II galleys off my desk this morning, yet another reason to be happy.

And as if all that weren't enough, today is Nathaniel Fludd's official launch day! Go Nate! My co-Violet, Mary Hershey, did a fun launch post over at Shrinking Violet. There may even be a chance to win a copy of Nathaniel.

Lastly, I completely forgot to mention that I did an interview last Friday over on Dee Garretson's blog, complete with another chance to win a copy of Nathaniel Fludd!

Also, if you are looking to acquire a copy of Theodosia and the Staff of Osiris, I am having a contest over on the Theodosia blog.

Phew. Now back to those galleys...

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Getting Started Part II

The other thing that happens once I line out what has to take place in the book is that I am able to pinpoint what exactly I need to research. Note, I try to pinpoint my research to what I will specifically need for the book or else I could get lost in months of pure research, and that way lies total procrastination.

So my research list for this book looks something like this:

Antiquities Service in 1907 Cairo and Luxor
Means of traveling to Luxor
What household arrangements British archaeologists had in Luxor
Logistics of working on dig
Specifics of parents discovery
Luxor itself in 1907
Egyptian Nationalist movement in 1907
And then five or six elements that are far too spoilerish to mention here.

But the thing is, I know, KNOW, that as I research the list, new plot points and actions and events will become clear to me. That's why I love research--it is like the vein of ore from which I mine my stories and plots. There are always answers in research, and new intriguing questions, and things that are just so cool, I will simply have to include them.

And speaking of research, I stumbled on this site by the Art Institute of Chicago, which is a great resource for historical interiors. They have rooms from the 1500s up through the early 1800s.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Quirks and Foibles

It seems to me that the best writers, the ones whose books really stay with me, are connoisseurs of human nature. Being proficient at craft, or excelling at it, is good, but not enough, nor is a crackerjack plot. I relish learning things about the human condition and people.

I also think this is part and parcel of what propels some people to become writers—this desire to wrestle with and better understand the human condition. Do writers become observers of people so they have material? Or, do acute observers of people become writers so they have something to do with all that knowledge they’ve accumulated? Chicken? Egg? For most writers I know, this people watching begins at the earliest of ages.

I’ve also decided that people fall into two groups; those who like and are attracted to perfection, and those who are charmed by and attracted to quirks and foibles. I am willing to bet that a majority of writers fall into that latter category.

The thing about perfection is that it is often boring in its beauty, there is nothing innately interesting or human about it, no place for me in its vista. And I say this as a rank perfectionist—if I am not perfect, I have failed, so as a goal, perfection holds huge appeal for me. And yet, what I love most about people is their quirks and foibles. Their personal behavioral tics and oddities.

~The thirty five year old muscle bound guy who still has a baby animal calendar.
~The precision machinist who can’t get the sugar in the sugar bowl or the coffee grounds in the filter, but can execute the most precise of measurements on a metal lathe.
~The sleek, sexy brand spanking new black dodge charger being driven by an eighty year old lady.
~The woman who feels called to the priesthood, but also has an unholy obsession with Jimmy Choos.
~The guy who drives a gorgeous Porsche, but can’t stand driving in traffic so he rarely gets it out.
~The laid back surfer girl who cannot be in the same room with a change jar without sorting the coins into neat little stacks.

Quirks can also be physical—the kid whose ears turn bright red when he gets embarrassed, the stunning woman who bites her lip or nails, the kid whose twirled his hair so often he has a bald spot…

Quirks and foibles are often a chink in our armor, an indicator at how hard won our mastery of some skill or behavior really is. They are a physical manifestation of our deepest level conflicts.

Take a look at the people around you. What is it that most endears them to you? I’m betting it’s not their straight A report card or excellent punctuality record. No, I’m betting it’s that little something that only they do, it might even be a tad odd or strange…The thing is, a lot of this behavior can cross over into the highly annoying, it’s a matter of degree really.

But I wonder if we use that enough in our writing?

What quirks and foibles do your characters have? Not just pasted on to simply be funny or clever, but one’s you can trace back to their development as a person?

Monday, September 14, 2009

Older Middle Grade

First of all, my profuse apologies that I never made it back here last week. In addition to all my work related tasks, there were a few family dramas and projects that sucked up all the remaining oxygen. So sorry!

Now, where were we? Ah yes. Dave brought up the fuzzy line between the parameters of YA and Middle Grade, especially where longer works of fantasy were involved, pointing out that many of these longer books had complex plots and darker themes than was typically considered MG, so why aren’t they YA?

The truth is, a lot of fantasy falls into this older middle grade category. It can end up in that older category by virtue of length, themes, issues, or the narrative structure/format. And even with all of those being more sophisticated, it still doesn’t quite achieve YA. Why is that?

Kids mature at all different levels, some 11 year olds dying to begin wearing makeup and practice their booty shakes in the mirror, while some 13 year olds are clinging grimly to childhood with both hands. So there is a rather huge gray area that could go either way. But there are a few clues to look for.

One key indicator is the age of the protagonist. It is rare that teens will read books about kids younger than themselves. But even more, I think, at its core, it’s the nature of the issues the protagonist is grappling with. If the protagonist is still moving through their world as a kid, then it falls into an older middle grade category. If the protagonist is struggling with the issues of coming into their adulthood or some darker issues that simply aren’t appropriate for most 8-12 year olds, then it will probably be a YA.

Another factor is that fantasy worlds tend to be more complex than our world, and in a good fantasy, that world intersects intimately with the plot—meaning it cannot be separated out. So most of that world building will need to be there. And when you’ve created an intricate, detailed world for a book, it’s a richer reading experience if the plot connects with several layers of that world. Mythical or magical races, elaborate magical systems, Other societal structures and customs—all of those tend to require a bigger story in order to fully flesh out those elements.

So on one level, that older middle grade designation indicates more sophisticated story telling techniques and structures. A more complex, multi-layered reading experience for those kids who have the skills.

But is also encompasses slightly darker themes as well. Older middle grade can have a lot of things that YA has; violence, horror, complex interpersonal relationships, problems or issues. What it pretty much never has is anything of a sexual nature, except perhaps a very chaste first kiss—but a lust-less one. It can touch on the changes of puberty an 11 or 12 yo might be experiencing, but not the repercussions of those changes—lust, sex, etc. Once you get into those areas, you’re in YA territory.

Another area that I think is saved solely for YA are the deeply damaged, dark psyche issues. Cutting, anorexia, self destructive behaviors, child abuse, etc., are most often dealt with in YA. There will always be exception to every guideline out there, but in general, this seems to be the case.

There is a lot of crossover, however, because not all 12, 13, , and even 14 year olds want to read books that deal with YA-centric issues. They might just want a rich, complex story that doesn’t touch on “coming of age” issues.

The Last Apprentice series by Joseph Delaney that Dave mentions is a great example. It doesn’t deal with any of the issues that immediately cast it as YA. However, it is a scary, dark story, not one that the average 8 or 9 year old reader would be ready for, and one that any number of 13 year olds (or adults!) might enjoy. (Scariest witch EVER!)

Fly by Night, on the other hand, doesn’t have anything too scary (if memory serves) but the world of the story is fairly complex socially and politically, and the reader needs to be old enough to understand those concepts.

And then you have The Graveyard Book, which is very clearly a MG by virtue of the story and the length, and yets open with a serial killer and explodes every preconception we have. :-)

I think Theodosia is pretty firmly older middle grade and doesn’t really have anything that would put her in a YA category, other than length. If she were crushing on Sticky Will, or antsy for her first ball or wondering when she was going to have her coming out or debut, she would be young YA. Or Tween, maybe. I also broke a cardinal rule in the Theodosia books, by having her only be 11. As I said above, you most often want to set the age of the protagonist at the upper end of the age level of your anticipated readers. However, a large part of Theodosia was her precociousness, and what is precocious at 11, is not even remotely so at 13, so she really needed to be younger. Luckily, my saint of an editor let me keep it that way.

I see a lot less of a line between some of the YA and adult fantasy books, especially since the coming of age hero is such a convention in a lot of adult fantasy. Again, what makes that determination is the scope of the story, what issues it focuses on; global, social, or inter-personal. Whether the protagonist is telling the story with the benefit of hindsight or distance, or whether they are fully in the moment. The truth is, a number of books can go either way and someone, the writer, his agent, or the editor, ends up making a call. Sometimes the book will be marketed to both audiences with different covers and shelved in two different places!

But if you are struggling with what your story is, I would look closely at the following:
How old is the protagonist?
Do others in the story treat her/him as an adult or a child?
What are the core issues the protagonist deals with? Do any of those put it automatically into the YA category?

Hope that helps!

Friday, September 4, 2009

Writing YA

I was explaining some of the delineations in writing YA versus MG versus adult books on a list I'm on and thought it might be helpful to post here as well.

Middle grade are emphatically kids books, ones written for kids about kid-like experiences. They can touch on tough things and sad things, but once it touches on anything very dark, it automatically becomes YA. There is a very strong protective bubble around middle grade stories.

Because middle grade books are short 20,000-45,000 words, their scope is much narrower and often the internal and external struggle are very strongly linked or intertwined. Books can be about trying to find a friend or simply objecting to a new move or school. For one, these books are so short, but two, those are the issues kids are dealing with. The range and scope of the actions a kid protagonist can take are greatly limited when compared to those of an adult, and kids need to see themselves reflected in the choices and actions of the main character. Even so, the best of middle grade is still multi-layered, even though subplots are kept to a minimum and interact even more firmly with the main plot than in adult novels.

One way I think that kids books can be different than adult books is that many of middle grade and YA books start with the protagonist NOT wanting something because for this age group, so many of their choices are made for them. Often part of their journey is learning how to make the best to those choices, or learning to live with them, or altering their perspective, or coming to understand how it was actually a good thing.

From a writing mechanics standpoint, MG is almost always told in a single POV.

All the elements of writing good fiction apply to both categories. As I mentioned in the last post, in YA, all literary devices and approaches are available to an author. There really are no limitations.

A lot of the single focus present in MG in terms of plot lines and subplot still exist in YA, but they can be broader if the story demands and supports it.

In YA books, a lot of the protagonists are often still having choices made for them, but they are in the act of claiming some of that power for themselves in a big way. The ways in which a 16 yo can take action are much different and more pronounced than the ways in which a 10 yo can take action, and the books reflect that. They are often about that moment when a teen recognizes they can seize the reins of their own life.

Teens are standing on the cusp of having to make all their own choices, often after years of having choices made for them, so seeing an active—or even a passive—protagonist learn to make choices and then suffer through the consequences of those choices, wherever they might lead, is a key component.

YA books, for many teens, are really safe places to experience a wide variety of things without any actual risk. Kids this age are overwhelmed by their emotions and want to see how others deal with this emotional tsunami that is adolescence, and books are a great place to do that. Which is why it is so ironic and irritating that so many clueless adults are afraid some of these books will give kids “ideas”, when in fact, they act as more of a safety valve. Or serve as a warning.

Teens want to feel emotions in a safe environment, and books allow them to do that.

The funny thing is, while the trappings of being a teen change radically from decade to decade, the core emotions and experiences remain surprisingly constant: friends, fitting in, first love, sexual experiences, defining oneself, coming into personal power, dealing with the mess parents have left behind, the scariness of impending adulthood—all the same stuff we dealt with in our own adolescence. So an ability to access one own’s inner teen is hugely helpful here.

My own opinion is that those core emotions serve as the wide portal for the stories, the big welcome mat that allow teens to connect with so many different types of stories, stories that the adult market considers entirely different genres.

I also think because teens are so fascinated by their own emotional world and sort of define narcissistic, more introspected and inner journey oriented books can do really well for this reader. Readers at this age really want to experience that angst along with the characters; they want to dwell in an emotional landscape.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

It's All About Relationships...

One of the benefits of having worked on this manuscript for so %$@#$ long is that I really know what needs to happen in terms of events and the physical movement of the story; they need to journey to Guerande, they need to stop for dinner at Baron Geffoy’s chateaux, they run into so and so at the tavern. I’ve finally got all that stuff firmly nailed down.

So now with all that out of the way, in this draft I am able to really focus on the relationships between these characters. Their interactions are really sparking and growing, but without my dragging them, kicking and screaming, through the motions. For the first time, these relationships feel absolutely real to me, not part of a story I’m writing. It’s the dictation stage, where I just plop myself down as an observer and watch the characters interact and write down what they do and say. They are their own people now.

Relationships are the heart of story for me. Sure we need a good plot, some event or series of events. But that is mostly so we have a vehicle for getting everyone together, for getting them to interact with each other. The plot is the crucible we use to apply pressure to our characters to see how they act and react and interact when stressed. That's when true character emerges.

I love this stage, it is like watching a fire ignite after puffing and blowing on the kindling for ages.

(And I’d like that metaphor a whole lot better if it weren’t 90 degrees and fires raging in Los Angeles… ☹ )

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Obsessed Now

I'm sorry I've been so quiet the last two days. Did I mention that I am consumed with this new Present Tense Situation?:-)

In other compulsive/obsessive news, I have found the perfect music for this manuscript! I recently discovered DEAD CAN DANCE, and some of their music feels like it was written just for this mss. (The parts where Lisa Gardner sings--the other guy singer not so much.)

Here is the song I've been listening to all morning, fingers flying.


Monday, August 31, 2009

Present Tense? Really?

So, in the shriek heard round the world, this weekend I learned that my YA story is better served by first person present tense. The problem is, I have already written 350 pages in first person PAST tense. Can you spell f-r-u-s-t-r-a-t-i-n-g?

I was doing a journaling exercise to try to get to the emotional core of a scene I needed to rewrite, and lo and behold, using first person present caused the whole thing to LEAP into focus, sharp and bright. I was stunned. For many reasons. Not the least of which is that I have never even considered present tense as a tool in my writerly toolbox. Just never occurred to me. Probably because I’ve heard so much about how many readers don’t like it. Ah well. For that reason alone, I wish I could ignore this revelation I’ve had. But I can’t. Because it makes the story better.

I was also stunned because usually my muse is better about parceling out the hints in a timely fashion. I would be a tad peeved at her for this late breaking development IF I wasn’t so happy that it’s cracked that story egg wide open. Scenes that I was struggling with now write themselves, issues of the heroine getting lost in the milieu have disappeared. Excess words are falling away and the story lens is somehow now permanently set on closeup. Honestly, I am like a 13 year old girl with her first crush—my WIP is all I can think about 24/7. I am well and truly obsessed, cannot stop thinking about it, and pretty much want to schedule frequent makeout sessions with it.

Yes, we writers are odd beasts.

So this is a good lesson to me. I think from now on, whenever I’m beginning a book, I will make myself write the first few scenes in all the possible tenses and POV combinations to see what shapes up.

So that was my weekend. How about yours?

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Juggling a Cast of Characters

So I think I’ve mentioned that I’m juggling a cast of thousands in the Medieval France YA. I need a sense of a full royal court worth of nobles, but I also need for the reader not to get overwhelmed by all the players. I want them to feel real enough that they add texture and richness to the story, but at the same time, I can't allow them to swamp it, either sheer numbers or from being too vivid. And any vividness needs to serve the story overall, not threaten to run away with it.

*I* also need to not get overwhelmed by all the players.

These are more than simply walk ons, but not true secondary characters. And there are a couple of traitors hidden in there, so they need to be on-screen enough that the readers don’t feel cheated when their identities are revealed.

So as I was staring bemusedly at the mss page, trying to decide how to make all these people stand out—for both myself and my readers—I came up with this little system that I thought I’d share.

I took a 3 x 5 index card for each character and put their name on the top: Baron Geffoy
Then I picked three characteristics for that person: jovial, opportunistic, nurses grudges.
Then I added a hidden core to that person, that was the core motivation for both his personality traits and actions: impotent

Next I listed a handful of dominant physical features that would help me key into that character, but that would also act as tags to help anchor the reader in that character: pale read beard hides a weak chin, blue eyes watery from too many evenings spent drinking wine, barrel chested.

Last, I listed two or three mannerisms that this person used: stroking his beard, shifting eyes, rocking back on his heels

I was surprised by how much this helped me get everyone straight in my mind, and helped delineate them on the page. Especially since, at face value, many of them had similar characteristics. For example, many of them were arrogant, as nobles often are. But I learned that one of them was arrogant and dismissive, while another was arrogant and calculating, which totally informed how they interacted with others and helped me nail their speech patterns.
It also helped be sure that all the information I divulged about these characters went to building a cohesive impression.

So anyway, I thought I’d pass that trick along in case anyone else was struggling with a similar problem.

To recap…

Name:

Three Characteristics:

Hidden Core:

Dominant features:

Mannerisms:

Friday, August 21, 2009

Notes From the Conference-Anica Rissi of Simon PULSE

Anica Rissi is an editor with Simon & Schuster's YA imprint, PULSE. She talked about YA, and again, her talk was worth the price of admission for me because she gave me all sorts of permission. Yes, I know that I'm a grown woman, and I really shouldn't need anyone's permission--but there you have it.

In her talk, Anica emphasized that dark books are the perfect place for teens to experience some really dark things. It's a safe place to learn and to become aware.

She really helped convince me that there is absolutely a place for dark books in teens' reading material. Now, of course as a teen, I knew that and gobbled up those kind of books. In fact, in high school I carried around a copy of my mom's Fear of Flying (a very racy book, back in the day) just for the shock value, although I never read it. I think it was too boring for me at the time. So much for racy. :-)

But as an adult, I tend to keep one eye to being responsible--the kiss of death in YA. This talk reminded me how I need to be true to my teen self, and throw my parental self right out the frickin' window. Yep. That splat you heard was my parental self hitting the pavement. Ha!

From Anica Rissi:

YA is always in the moment, often in first person so the reader can feel the immediacy. Never looking back.

Simon Pulse only handles YA, mostly older YA, 14 and up or 16 and up.

She defines commercial as having the broadest audience possible, which I thought was a terrific definition.

Teens live online.

Personally, she loves edgy, she loves dark, and she loves big mistakes. YA is all about figuring out who you are and what you believe.

Mistakes have consequences and working through those consequences make for a great book.

Loves books about girls making wrong choices and going farther and farther down that bleack, heartbreaking road. Needs cathartic release of those kinds of reads.

Likes books with a big ol' honkin' HOOK, something that everyone "gets" upon hearing about it.

Also loves Quirky Humor and Dark Humor, as well as Paranormal.

Looking for emotional truth. Also likes to explore faith as an identity issue.

What does she see on the horizon?
Steampunk
Fallen Angels
Zombies

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Notes From The Conference - Holly Black

I still have tons of SCBWI conference notes I want to share with you guys. One of the speakers I was most looking forward to seeing was Holly Black. I adore her books, both her younger Spiderwick books and her older, YA books such as Tithe, Valiant, and Ironside.

She did not disappoint. She gave a great talk, one that really resonated with me. Again, she did a great job of showing us how her childhood shaped the writer she is, with stories of living in a dilapidated, crumbling Victorian, with a mother who, when Holly asked if vampires or werewolves would get her, answered, "Probably not." I loved that. Holly's mother also warned her not to astral project because it would leave her body empty for too long and who knew who might take possession of it. Seriously, is it any wonder this woman writes fantasy??

Some highlights from her talk:

All writing is in conversation with what came before; we all build on each other.

We don't want to reinvent the wheel, want to build a whole new wheel.

Kid's books are a genre-less genre; we can write about anything we want

Literature lets s put on the mask of being someone else.

Fantasy actualizes metaphor. In fantasy we can talk about human emotions in a different way, blameless

However we do have to watch our metaphors because they do have such power.

Numinous - makes one tremble with awe, and fascinating

Horror = an essential wrongness with the world

"All novels are fantasy; some are just more honest about it." Gene Wolf

"Without the supernatural and divine, something is missing." Gene Wolf

(That last one seems to totally encapsulate my writing experience.)

Closed fantasy - the magic is hidden
Open fantasy - the magic is well-known and an acknowledged part of the world.

Day logic and night logic
Day logic - rules are spelled out, acts almost like science
Night logic - more intuitive and less reliable outcomes

Plots in fantasy have a slightly different structure than realistic fiction. (This is worth it's weight in gold, for anyone who writes fantasy. It's something I've done intuitively, but never had anyone acknowledge in terms of plotting before. Very cool.)

In fantasy, there are two stories in addition to the emotional journey.
There is the fantastical plot (dragons attacking the kingdom)
And there is the human plot (king's wife having an affair with his brother)
It is the interaction between those two plots that drive the story; the way they interact creates the resonance.

Isn't she brilliant?? (And she's also gorgeous!)

Monday, August 17, 2009

Best. Writing. Day. Ever.

Seriously. I have been tearing my hear out on this YA project, working on it off and on for years. First it was going to be an adult book, then my brilliant agent said I should try it as a YA. Back and forth I went for months—years—trying to settle on which it would be. Well, about six months ago I finally decided on YA, and I’ve been plugging away ever since. I’ve been making steady progress, but something was missing from a number of scenes in the middle. They had to be there, and stuff happened, but it didn’t feel like it was clear enough or significant enough. In a word, the scenes were limp.

So I added more words, trying to make it clearer, and then they just got swollen and soggy and bloated. Blerg.

Part of the problem is that in addition to juggling about four old drafts, I’m also juggling the historical plot (which is based on true situations, so I am compelled to get it somewhat right) the political backdrop against which my story takes place, the main historical and political figures and what they are doing within the scope of the story, THEN my heroine and how she moves within that framework. Clearly, it’s pretty easy for her to get lost in all that.

So I did what I always do when I get stuck—pulled out my craft books. This time I picked up Donald Maass’s THE FIRE IN FICTION, which I’ve talked about before. I remembered that he had said something about scene turning points, and I went back to read about those and ended up re-reading half the book this morning.

I ended up finding just what I needed to help focus and shape the scenes. In fact, what I ultimately did was create a personal checklist for my scenes. Now, I say checklist, but what I really mean is more of an exercise that helps me really get into the skin and heart of my character as I write the scene. I thought I’d share it with you here. If you like what you see, you should definitely go buy Maass’s book!

Scene Focus Sheet

What is the purpose of this scene? (Why is it in the book? From an author standpoint, what do I need to happen here?)

What does the POV character want?

What is the exact moment that things change for your character during the scene?

In that moment that the change occurs, how does the POV character change? What does that change feel like to her?

At the moment things change for your character, note two or three visible or audible details that she experiences in that moment.

Reminder: Everything else in the scene either contributes to or leads away from those changes.

Create three hints that the protagonist will get what she wants.

What are three reasons to believe that she won’t?

What are five details of the scene setting? Quality of light, temperature, smells, sounds, texture, prominent objects. Ideally, these should be external, observable details that only your character would find of particular interest or notice.

And that is the key that’s unlocked a number of scenes for me this weekend, to anchor me in that one moment of time that the character was feeling, and feel her internal shifts as well as the play of light against her face and the solid wooden table under her hand.

Color me happy!

Friday, August 14, 2009

Notes From the Conference-Sherman Alexie

So the very first speaker at the SCBWI National Conference was Sherman Alexie, author of The Absolutely True Story of a Part Time Indian. And can I just say, WOW! This guy was an excellent speaker. He had absolutely pitch perfect timing and total comfort up there in front of a thousand people.

He also told the amazing story of his triumph over a whole host of childhood traumas and ill treatment, at the hands of both individuals and The System. Heartbreaking stuff, and an ultimately uplifting illustration of how our writing and stories grow out of the devastation of our childhoods.

He also said something that helped my entire YA manuscript snap into focus. He talked about kids being trapped by circumstance, whether rich or poor, and having choices made for them.

And I went, Yes! Choices being made for them! That's it! And things began to coalesce around that. Frankly, that one session was worth the price of admission.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Re-Entry

Wow, that giant pop you heard Monday was my head exploding. I feel absolutely stuffed to the gills with great information, inspiration, new ideas, and socializing. I managed a fairly convincing imitation of an extrovert, and am now paying the price; my batteries are at the Fully Drained level and my re-entry process into my normal life is going s-l-o-w-l-y.

I do promise to report back in more detail once my brain begins functioning again. In the meantime, Mary Hershey's done a great recap of our trip over on Shrinking Violets. If you're still hungry for something to read, I interviewed Maggie Stiefvater for the Enchanted Inkpot yesterday.

I'll be back soon, with some degree of coherency. I promise...

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Protect The Work - Even the Early Stuff

I’ve talked to two newish writers in the last couple of weeks, and have been strongly reminded of how important it is to protect your early writing efforts from too much feedback and too many rules. Both can be deadly.

Just as you don’t take newborns out too early to expose them to gawd-knows-what kind of germs and contagions in crowded public places, so should you protect your work. Yes, even your early crappy work, because buried deep in there somewhere is the seed of the writer you’ll become. The tiny green shoot of your voice or your unique style. But the thing is, you might not recognize how precious it is yet, and the last thing you want to risk is ruining it before it’s had a chance to flower. (And honest-to-gawd, could I mix any more metaphors in there!)

Protecting means a number of different things. For one, it means being very careful of who you choose to show your work to, and even more importantly, how much to heart you take early feedback.

You always need to ask yourself if these readers/critiquers are really people whose opinion you value. Do your reading tastes align with theirs? Are you impressed by the work they share? Or is there some less tangible hook your hanging your respect on, such as they’re published, or got a personal rejection from a super star editor. Even if those things are true, that doesn’t mean they are the best person to give you feedback that will help your work become the best possible version of itself.

And you know what? The stronger and more unique your voice or artisitc vision, the more this applies to you. I shudder to think of all the critiquers I've personally worked with who would have told Audrey Niffenegger that time travel was dead, or that you 'weren't allowed' to jump around in time like that, or that the age difference was too icky. I've heard numerous editors speak at conferences, saying they can tell when a mss has been so heavily critiqued as to leech all the life out of it.

I do think there is a place for “hard truths” critiquing, but you need to be darn sure of the people handing out the critiques.

But protecting the work also means being mindful of whose advice you listen to, and maybe even more importantly, when you listen to it.

I have known writing teachers who give brutal feedback to their students, arguing that harsh critiques are nothing compared to the realities of rejection in the publishing world. Which is somewhat true, but I would also argue that teachers have a responsibility to encourage, rather than simply discourage, which is what we have market realities for. Other teachers have claimed that if writers are that easily discouraged, then they had too flimsy a dream to begin with.

I cannot fully express how much I disagree with that. No one has the right to stomp on your dreams. Dreams are fragile things, more fragile even that newborns, and to expose them to overly harsh eyes too soon is the creative equivalent of infanticide.

So don’t do it. Protect the work.

Even from me.

Oh sure, all this stuff I talk about here is shared with the best of intentions, but it is only my opinion and my process; it is not (by any means) holy writ. Many, many brilliant writers write their brilliant books without doing a single thing I’ve ever talked about. The stuff I share here is simply what I’ve found helps me write the kind of books I like to read, and nothing else.

If I wrote different kinds of books, adult books, say, or literary books, or memoir, I'd have an entirely different set of guidelines and craft tools that I used. So please take all my advice with a grain of salt.

Better yet, only embrace the stuff that resonates with you; that sparks some faint aha! deep within, or gives you the sensation of a puzzle piece falling into place.

Please, please, please don't clutch all these rules and suggestions in your hot little hand as you try to write your first or even second discovery draft. Hell, I can barely even spell when I'm writing a discovery draft, let alone juggle all the things I talk about here. If the stuff I talk about makes you doubt yourself or your story, or begins to take away some of the pleasure you get from writing, then stop now! This simply means that these are not the lesson your process needs right at the moment.

So be gentle with yourself and the demands you place on your early work, okay? Once you feel you’ve hit the wall of your own limitations, then it’s a good time to seek out other input.

Monday, August 3, 2009

The Art of Revising - Polishing

Ideally, it’s best to read the whole manuscript out loud. You won’t believe how many things you’ll catch that way! However, I don’t always have time to do that, I’ll admit…what I do try to check for is:

Typos and misspellings

Weak words, especially verbs

Awkward phrasing

Wordy sentences (This is my Achilles heel. Bet you couldn't have guessed that...)

Overwriting

Adverbs (Although I must state I have a great fondness for adverbs. But the strong, expressive ones, not weak ones. Although sometimes I think those work for flow and balance.)

Echos (The same word showing up two or more times in rapid sequence. However, sometimes there really is no other word you can use, though, so you're stuck.)

Look for “to be” or was or were, see if stronger verbs could work there. (My rule of thumb is to keep the "to be" (or gerund) form of the verb if the action is continuous or ongoing. So, for example, He was walking across the street, then tripped. Which implies he tripped WHILE crossing the street. As opposed to, He walked across the street. He tripped. Which implies he tripped after he'd crossed the street. If that is the nuance of meaning you're going for, then keep the "was verbing".)

Brass Tacks

I think one of the reasons I work so hard to break down the steps involved in the craft of writing is that it IS mysterious and can feel impenetrable, especially when you’re standing on the outside looking at the process and trying to understand just HOW one goes about making leaps in one’s abilities.

Part of this is fueled by my own experiences. The VERY day my first book came out, it got an absolutely vicious, savage review. One that not only made it clear what they thought of the book, but wanted to ensure I never picked up a pen and tried to write again.

The truth is, they almost succeeded. To say I was crushed is an understatement. Luckily I’d sold two more books before the review came out or it would have been doubly hard.

But of course, we learn more from mistakes, and they force us to grow stronger. So I doubled down in trying to do two things: one, see my own work more objectively and two, improve my craft.

For me, all this analyzing is a vital tool--perhaps the only tool I know of--that allows me to gain some semblance of objectivity over my own work. It doesn’t guarantee that everyone will love it or that it will speak to all readers, but if I go through these checks and balances, then I know that at least in some regards, it is solid.

However, sometimes my gut tells me to ignore one of these questions. Or to do something anyway. And sometimes I'll go with my gut. Or sometimes these very questions that are my lifeblood with one manuscript, will feel constricting with another. Then I toss them aside, write the mss the way I want to, then put it aside to gain some distance. And I mean, I really put it aside. To my saintly agent's dismay, I have at least two or three mss that are finished, but stewing in a drawer waiting for me to decide how to tweak them one last time.

Also, perhaps most importantly, these same things that work for me might not ever work for you. In fact, they might paralyze you. In that case, tiptoe away as fast as you can and ignore everything I say. I'm dead serious about that. That simply means my process is not your process, not that either one of us is wrong.

I do worry a bit because I know blogs are supposed to be entertaining, and I don’t entertain, I inform. But I am sorely lacking in skills with which to entertain you. I’m not intrinsically funny or live a particularly interesting life. I do have a finely honed sense of the absurd, but mostly in regards to politics or personal morals, and those areas are probably best for me to avoid in my public persona. :-) So you’re stuck with inform. But that's okay because I figure anyone who was looking for something different left here a loooong time ago. :-)

Now for the last of the revising posts....

Friday, July 31, 2009

The Art of Revising - Micro Revision

Micro revision is all about the scene. Is the scene—the building block of my novel—working? Is it carrying its weight? Has it earned its place in the story? This is also where I check for dropped plot threads or un-fleshed out characters.

However, you only do this once you've hammered out the story, otherwise the focus of the scene might shift.

The first thing to check is that you have indeed written in scenes and not in one long, every minute accounted for stretch from beginning to end. You only need to show the parts that impact the story. It is okay to have some stuff (the boring stuff) happen off the page and either recap it or relay it in a quick transition or conversation.

MICRO REVISION CHECKLIST

Plot

Every scene should move the plot forward in some way. However, moving the plot forward can be subtle. But there needs to be some reason for the scene to be there. Note: The reason it’s there can often be very, very hidden.

Ideally, each scene should perform a variety of functions. Shoot for three:
Move plot forward
develop characters
reveal backstory (in tiny bits and pieces)
foreshadow upcoming events,
raise dramatic questions the reader wants answer to

Does the scene have some source of conflict or dramatic tension? This doesn’t have to be head to head conflict. It can be in the form of a dramatic question that is raised. Or a ticking clock. Or things left unsaid, swirling about the room. Foreshadowing can also work.

Look for a way to add tension on every single page.

If you can’t heighten the tension, ask yourself if the character is fully reacting to the events around him. Is he fully engaged by the events of the story?

Do I start the scene as late as possible and still make sense? In first books especially there can be a lot of deadwood. Writers feel they must account for every minute of their hero’s time, not realizing they get to pick and choose the dramatic moments they show, and simply account for the rest in transitions.

Consider eliminating the character getting from one place to another unless it has a dramatic rather than logistical reason for being there. For example, in Beastologist, I had to find ways to imbue some of the travel with tension, because it was Nate’s first trip—an exciting milestone in his life and something he should experience “on screen,” yet not necessarily a huge thing in and of itself.

For weak scenes, try listing all the reasons the scene is there. If the list is mostly because the character needs to know something, can you find a way to incorporate that same information in another scene?

Are there any places you start to skim as you’re re-reading the mss? Better look at those closely.

Have you dropped any subplots or plot threads along the way? This is where my handy-dandy spreadsheets come in. (Which I will be talking about next week, as per Laurel’s request.) Sometimes when I juggle as many plot threads as I do it is easy to lose someone.

Check for smooth transitions. If you start a scene with a chunk of action that isn’t dramatic action, or a few days have gone by, you can easily fill that part in with an effective transition.


Characters:

Does the scene address the internal character arc as well as the external action of the story?

Have you gone deep enough into the character’s POV? Are you really living, breathing, feeling things through his filters?

Do the varying POV characters thoughts and actions flow smoothly? Is there a sense of continuity from one scene of theirs to the next?

Have I lost anyone? Dropped any secondary characters or forgotten about them?


Building On Theme

By now you should have a good idea as to what your theme is. Do your scenes explore this theme? Do your scenes wrestle with both sides of the question you raised? If your theme is about gaining forgiveness, do some of your scenes show the promise of forgiveness while others show the threat of eternal penance or punishment? Perhaps you can pull a little of this into your weaker scenes.

Is there an opportunity to build subtext into the scenes in some way, create a layer of something unspoken between the characters, or even something the character is hiding from himself?

Look for physical items that might make good concrete objects.


General

Keep an eye out for backstory or info dump; they can slow down your story. Flashbacks, too, can bring a story to a screeching halt.

Have you established a sense of time and place that the scene is occurring in. Would a change of location make the scene more fraught with meaning?

Look at your descriptions; do they illuminate something about the character as well as what they’re describing? The best descriptions are so deep in the character’s viewpoint that they tell us a lot about their worldview or current emotional state.

Have you pulled the senses into the scene?

What is it you want the reader to know by the end of this scene? What questions do you want her to be asking?

Do you give the same information more than once? If so, be sure to add something each time, some new revelation, some new nuance, otherwise say it only once.

If the book builds on clues or research or revelations, do those happen in an ordered sequence that actually lead to the proper revelation? Often I will cut and paste all the “clue” scenes into a single document and be sure they actually build on each other and don’t leave anything important out.

If you’re using more than one POV character, this can also be a handy trick for being sure the character’s thought build on each other—cutting and pasting all their POV scenes and reading them all at once to check for logistical flow and consistency.

Are there any vestigial tails in your scenes? Bits and pieces left over from something you had originally then removed?

Check for continuity of time.