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.