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…


Three Characteristics:

Hidden Core:

Dominant features:


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?
Fallen Angels

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


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...)


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....