Thursday, December 30, 2010

Farewell 2010, You Awesome Year, You!

This has been, for the most part, an all around awesome year. In 2010, I:

Wrote three books (220,000 finished words!)
Completed and sold my first YA
Had my first official book tour
Read 68 books
Wrote 152 blog entries (here, Shrinking Violets, Enchanted Inkpot, and GeekMom)
Got into the Twitter groove
Met some amazing people online (yes, that means YOU!)

I realized that, compared to some, I am a bit of a slacker. But I also realize that compared to others, I’m an overachiever. I can live with being somewhere in the middle. The truth is, someone will outperform you no matter the field and the sooner accepted, the sooner gotten over. Plus? This is not a competition. ::she reminds herself::

Also:

One son graduated from college and began building a life he loves
Another son found his passion—which is a huge step in one’s life

All in all, a very good year. Of course, there were several stresses, too. The family juggled a number of health issues early in the year. Honestly—it felt as if we were being hit with the ten plagues of Egypt, but modern style. That was a long few months, happily behind us, with no lingering or lasting effects.

It also makes the victories accomplished just that much sweeter.

As I review the year, I am also forcibly reminded of the old adage Everything in good time. I turned in my revision of DARK MERCY at 4 pm on Dec 23, then had exactly 24 hours to get ready for Christmas, including a Christmas Eve dinner at my house. I got about zero Christmas shopping done (more traumatic for me than anyone else) but it was a brilliant reminder that I could not easily have juggled my career and family much earlier in my life. The conflicting needs would have been too much for me to handle gracefully, or even sanely. So if any of you young’uns out there are feeling frustrated, you might consider that the timing might be working to your advantage in some way you can’t even begin to see yet.

I am giving myself the next week off, which is just as well as ever since I finished DARK MERCY my brain has been flat out empty. Just. Empty. It is eerily quiet in there; no random thoughts, no story snippets swirling around, or random chatter. It would be nice to think I’ve achieved a new level of personal Zen, but honesty compels me to admit it is pretty much just empty. Which is very restful, if a bit unnerving. I am worried that it will stay this way longer than I’d like, especially since I must start DARK JUSTICE soon. Even so, I must need the break so I will try to revel in the quiet of the now and not worry about next week.

Here's wishing you all a festive-but-quiet New Year!

Monday, November 15, 2010

Tropes versus Resonance

I hear a lot of talk about tropes, especially in fantasy, but also in the larger body of books in general. Tropes, for any who don’t know, are basically clichéd plot devices, or at least that’s how I interpret it. I think the actual definition is that they are conventions, which is pretty different than a cliché, but 90% of the time when the word is used it is meant negatively.

But here’s the thing. Me? As a reader? I LOVE tropes. Can’t get enough of them. Because many of the tropes that other writers sneer at provide my reading experience with mythic underpinnings.

I have read books that others consider fresh and trope-free, providing a refreshing breath of fresh air into the genre. But you know what? Even though I know intellectually that I should appreciate these books for their ground-breaking ways, I usually find that I don’t connect with them emotionally, nothing about them resonates with me and I end up putting them down.

Which goes to just how many different kinds of readers there are and how many different things we look for in books. Mitali Perkins had a fabulous discussion a while back theorizing that younger readers read to expand their world while YA readers read to reinforce their world. I think there are similar, if more complex, dynamics at work in what we as adults read.

I remember once reading a quote from Ursula La Guin that stated something to the effect that all those writers who set their books in any sort of medieval or Western European setting were just lazy fantasists. And I was hurt by that—not as a writer, but as a reader. Those stories call to me. I couldn’t tell you why. Maybe because I was raised on fairy tales or because that’s where my ancestors came from or because one of my first great fantasy influences was Tolkien. I don’t know, but I also don’t think it’s something we can help, sort of like we can’t really control who we fall in love with. It strikes me as—yes, I’ll say it—elitist to claim that all these conventions are tropes. Maybe, but maybe they are conventions because they resonate with readers in some way they don’t resonate for whomever is doing the trope-calling?

The things some people call tropes, the MC being the chosen one for example, I see as being as much a part of story as the words once upon a time. They mirror important steps on every person’s journey to maturity and understanding. We all start off believing we are the chosen one, why else would our parents’ worlds revolve around us? It is a critical step in human development to recognize that either we are not “chosen” or, to come to terms with the massive amount of responsibility that comes with being chosen.

The old wise one as mentor is another trope that takes a beating but again, this totally works for me. Some of my closest, most treasured relationships when I was a kid were with my grandmothers. I loved them, and now, seeing that reflected in a book. I also think that fantasy is akin to fairy tales, which codify the behaviors we want to pass down to our young. Reinforcing for them that older people have something to offer too—wisdom—is not a bad thing.

Some people sneer at the HEA found in romance books, but there are certain dark places I simply will not go in fiction, not unless I know I’m in the hands of a writer who can bring me out again and help me land in an even better place than when I went in.

So how do we tell the difference between a tired convention (trope) or time-revered resonance? Is it a matter of execution? Does good writing elevate a trope to something resonant and mediocre writing condemn it to hackneyed cliché?

Monday, November 8, 2010

Adventures in Reflexology

I was very excited when, a few months ago, a reflexology place decided to hang its shingle in our little town. It is a very hip, forward thinking type of establishment for us. It also has to have some of the best deals ever. Only $20 for a 30 min reflexology treatment. About a month ago, I decided to give it a try, and my feet were very, very happy with me.

I went back this Saturday, thinking my feet were due for another treat. It did not disappoint. In fact, it was so divine I decided I should splurge and go for the combo, which is 30 minutes on your feet, and 30 minute on your shoulders, neck, and upper back. For only $35! Such a deal! Plus, my upper back and shoulders are really tired of me mousing and using the keyboard all the time and needed a little work. Sounds perfect, doesn’t it?

But as I sat there trying to decide, I was also aware of how sometimes, just taking one more step is taking things too far and upsetting a delicate balance. Then I decided I was just being Miss Panic Pants. What was the harm in a little more reflexology?

Oh dear reader, there was harm. Lesson number one, always listen to your gut.

Okay, maybe harm is too harsh a word. But there was pummeling. And pounding. And many, many tender spots I did not know I possessed. Pretty much it felt like he was beating me up. And smiling cheerfully the entire time. And charging me for it.

And I am so afraid of hurting someone’s feelings, I couldn’t bring myself to say anything. Maybe that’s how it’s supposed to work. I don’t know.

I have had deep tissue work done before, but it always was more of a slow, deep, hurts-so- good kind of thing. This was more like being put on a high spin cycle.

When we were done, I felt slightly panicky and dizzy and I’m still not sure if it was because reflexology is supposed to release some strange, emotional toxins from one's system or if it was because I just felt like I’d survived a beating. Or maybe it was the knowledge that if I had just listened to my little inner voice, I could have avoided the whole unpleasantness. ☺ Either way, it wasn’t an experience I am eager to repeat. I’m just hoping all that pain and pummeling will have made a difference somehow. I’m hoping for uber-flexible and relaxed shoulders and arms. Once I can move them again.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Too Smart

I was reading an interview with one of my all time favorite authors, Lois McMaster Bujold, and she said something that really made me sit up and think. In the interview, she said:

Jim [Baen] also once told me, when I was whinging about my books not selling as well as someone else's (a favorite pastime among writers, alas — we are a green-eyed bunch) that my books were "too smart" to be bestsellers. To this day, I don't know if he meant that sincerely, or if it was just a very sly way to get himself off the hook. Like I'm going to argue...?

Isn't that an interesting concept? That if books are too smart or too intellectual, they are simply destined to not be bestsellers.

In a sad way, it makes sense. But it is also somewhat freeing, I guess. If you write smart books and you're beating yourself up because you’re not hitting bestseller lists, perhaps it isn’t you, it’s them

Here’s a link to the whole interview in case you’re a fellow fan.

I also found it very interesting that she found the promotional end of things to be such a chore and was looking forward to giving up some of that.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Revisions Ahoy!

Psst! Psst! Hey you. Yeah, you. Have you got a pair of heavy duty shears I can borrow? Because I need to cut a whopping chunk of words out of this manuscript and my normal cuticle scissors just aren’t up to the task.

Remember how I said I knew my manuscript was too long? Well, I was right about that. Also, I am chagrinned to see that it has a couple of flat spots and bald patches. Nothing life threatening, but those parts definitely need some more grooming.

My biggest task is finding a way to simplify the politics. This, after I’ve already simplified and culled them down seventeen time already. But that wasn’t quite enough. They talked a little bit about this in MADE TO STICK, about how what you know gets in the way sometimes, and as a writer, I find that to be so true. Especially when juggling history and politics and what was real and what was cool and what was interesting. But all that history and politics and even the factual stuff have to serve the story. And by serving it, I don’t mean overwhelming it, which is what it teeters on now.

I’m reminding myself that all those things serve as the scaffolding for the story, the basic framework on which to hang the REAL parts of the story—the characters, their actions, and their feelings. It shouldn’t distract FROM the story by being too overwhelming or visible.

The thing is, the politics of this time were fascinating. Everyone was out to get their ducal neighbor and spies and assassins and treachery and treason and betrayal were the name of the game. Seriously, when you read the history of this time, you couldn’t make half this stuff up, it’s so devious and far-fetched.

But I also think, especially in a YA book, you shouldn’t need genealogy charts and personae dramatis lists to keep track of who’s zooming who.

My biggest chore is going to be unraveling a couple of entire threads and removing others altogether.

Then, I’m going to remove half the twists and turns, and spread the remaining ones out more evenly throughout the whole of the book. Even more importantly, I need to plan them for better dramatic effect. They need to provide plot twists and surprises.

I thought I had done that, but instead, with the politics so complicated, it feels more like I just kind of splatted them all out there in the hope of not confusing anybody, and thus not only included too much, but didn’t use them to their best dramatic advantage.

I also need to get the word count down. I would love to get it down to at least 120,000 words. 110,000 words would make me ecstatic, but I’m not sure that’s reasonable as it would be an 18% cut. However, if I cut 10% and make sure every word that remains carries its dramatic weight, I think it will be okay. We’ll see.

Friday, October 22, 2010

And It's Official!

At long last I can share my good news. And just in time, too, because I'm pretty sure I was going to explode with glee!

As per Publisher's Lunch:

THEODOSIA and NATHANIEL FLUDD  author R. L. LaFevers' trio of YA romantic historical fantasies focusing on teen girl assassins in 15th century France--starting with DARK MERCY in spring 2012 and followed by DARK JUSTICE and DARK HOPE in spring 2013 and spring 2014--each focusing on a different assassin trained at a convent serving the god of death himself, to Kate O'Sullivan at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, in a preempt, in a good deal, by Erin Murphy of Erin Murphy Literary Agency (NA). Rights People represents foreign and translation.

A few more story details from the Publisher's Weekly Bookshelf:
In Dark Mercy, scheduled for spring 2012, Ismae learns she was sired by the god of death, is trained as an assassin, and is sent to court as a spy, where she must choose between serving her dark god and opening her heart to love. Companion novels Dark Justice and Dark Hope, each focusing on a different assassin from the convent, will publish in spring 2013 and spring 2014.

For those of you who stop by my blog regularly, THIS is the Secret Project I've been working on in between other books over the last couple of years. No, that's not true. I've been working on it off and on for over four years. It combines all of my favorite things; dark gods, dark choices, yearning, sneaking, epic romance. And how lucky am I to be working with The Best Editor EVER again. It's definitely one of those Pinch Me! moments in my life.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Of Lightning, Medieval Living, and the Zombie Apocolypse

Boy, it's not every day you get to combine all those subjects in one tiny sentence.

Last night we had the Mother of all thunder and lightning storms. I am not exaggerating one bit when I say we sat and watched bolts of lightning from our front window. A couple of them were within a thousand feet. Intense! And the thunder? Rocked. The. House. Fourteen hours later, we’re still without power, but I learned a bunch of cool things in that time.

~ We will survive the zombie apocalypse, thanks to my awesome husband. He had a generator up and running, camping stoves going, and lots of candles and flashlights. I love a man who plans ahead.

~  Living by candlelight (we didn’t run the generator ALL night, just long enough to get dinner and find the candles and flash lights) is an entirely different experience. This was a great perspective check for me since I’m working on something that takes place in the 15th century. I hadn't realized how much darker candlelight is than electric light, or daylight.  Or how strong the smell of that many candles burning (and these weren’t even the much more pungent tallow candles in broad use back then.) And mostly how there isn’t much to do once the sun goes down. Candlelight is really not sufficient for reading or any close work whatsoever.

Also, how hard is it to get up in the dark and not be able to turn on any lights?? To have to fumble and bumble to the flashlights and use those to light the candles and have to boil water on the camp stove. Oy. (Again, we didn’t want to run the generator too early and wake our neighbors up. Although, come to think of it, they might have wandered over and begged for coffee.)

Anyway, it was a very timely glimpse into the realities of living without electricity.

And an even better shakedown for the Zombie Apocalypse.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Different Journeys: The Innocent

Okay, it took me longer than I thought, but I’ve been stewing on it, plus the whole Junkyard Brain syndrome kind of interfered for a day or two.

The archetype of The Innocent strikes me as being particularly well suited to kids books, especially picture books, early chapter books, and middle grade stories. The innocent lives in a perfect world where all his needs are taken care of and no horrible things have happened to convince him that the world is other than that perfect place.

When a character is the Innocent, his developmental task is to step into a new awareness—to recognize that the world isn’t paradise and his needs will not always be met and, perhaps most difficult of all, that everyone in the world does not exist in order to please him or make his life easier.

It is a classic stage in emotional and psychological development, and it comes to all of us at different times and in different ways and we bump into it in all areas of our lives.

It seems to me it could involve:

  • That moment you realize your parents are not all-powerful or infallible
  • The realization that the sun and moon do not rise and set every day just for you
  • The first time a best friend lets you down or betrays you
  • A treasured, admired older sibling does something horribly wrong or flawed
  • That rude awakening when you realize other people are not there to simply make you happy.

In fact, one could make the argument that childhood is a series of falls from that state of innocence.

I am pretty far removed from picture books these days, but one example that springs to mind is Kitten’s First Full Moon, a classic example of this ‘fall’ from innocence. Kitten is certain that the full moon is a bowl of cream, meant just for her. The book is about how she learns that isn’t the case at all. Can any of you think of picture book examples?

In a YA or adult book, it seems as if this type of journey might work for someone who’d led a relatively perfect and charmed life and met their first hardship. Other than that, once Innocents get past about ten, we tend to think of them as narcissistic. ☺ Even so, that journey from self absorption to self awareness is a powerful one. As an adult, however, it also requires a high degree of willful denial and a determination to NOT see in order to maintain that pretense. But lord, we’ve all met adults who were stuck there. I think the big difference, though, in dealing with the Innocent in an older book is that you have to take them farther on the journey moving them into and through other stages (which I’ll talk about in the future.) They can’t end simply with the realization that they are not the center of the universe, whereas a kids’ book could conceivably.

So what then, would the steps be of an innocent’s journey look like?

Act One:
Ordinary World—show the protagonist either using people or being oblivious to their needs.
The Precipice—hint at fall or minor fall, the catalyst provides the initial crack before the entire façade begins to crumble.
The Fall—protagonists eyes are painfully opened to the realities of the world

Act Two:
Coping mechanisms- denial, band aid fixes, attempts and adjusting shallow surface behavior. To learn that we've been fundamentally wrong is painful so there is some denial, as well as guilt, fear, shame, all those horrible feelings. 
Tip of the iceberg—the crack created by the initial fall spreads until the whole world/situation is different. Cannot go back to the way they were at the beginning of the story. (midpoint) 
Regrouping—Now What? Moving through the full chaos of the real world with eyes open.

Act Three:
Evolve or Die (metaphorically, at least) Trying to re-understand the world with this new awareness; attempts to adjust, either through solving the problem or shifting behavior. First couple of attempts fail or, even better, make things worse.
True understanding and acceptance—either of the world the way it is or human frailties
Integration—something that shows he’s truly absorbed all this and moves through the world in a new way.


I think one of the things that makes accepting that fall so difficult is, to accept it, we have to realize our own culpability in what has transpired. Obviously to a much, much smaller degree in kids still developing normally through those stages, but even they have to accept that they were wrong. I think that’s why kids sometimes have such a well developed sense of ‘when I was little” even though the event they’re talking about might have only have happened six months ago. It’s a way to disassociate with the embarrassment one’s younger self brings them.

The kinds of things that motivate the innocent are fear and need. Probably pretty basic needs on Masler’s scale: need for safety, whether emotional or physical, the need for shelter and food and someone to care for them.

What do you guys think? Do you see other steps or ways to move through that journey?
Can you think of any good examples of books or movies in which the hero is an innocent?

Friday, October 1, 2010

The Junk Closet Inside my Brain

You know how every kitchen has a junk drawer? And most houses have an entire junk closet? Well, my brain has one of those. I’d like to think it was small, like a drawer, but the truth is it is much more like one of those giant closets in cartoons. The ones where you open them and forty years worth of odds and ends and collectibles and, well, JUNK, threatens to tumble out.

The sad truth is, I am the mental equivalent of a pack rat.

The thing is, I have no idea why stuff gets stored in there. Stupid, unimportant stuff that should have been tossed out years ago. And I have no clue as to how it’s organized. I don’t understand why all the things I really want to remember, need to remember, aren’t stacked neatly inside that closet like they should be.

Even worse, sometimes that mental junk closet gets so stuffed with my mental detritus that it leeches out to take over my entire brain and I suddenly find I can make no mental headway on anything until I take some time and clean out that mental junk closet.

That’s what I’m going to do for the next three days. Sift through some of this stuff clogging up my gray cells.

Hm. I just realized that would make kind of on interesting characterization/world building exercise. What’s inside your protagonist’s junk drawer or closet? (Does the world they live in even have such a thing? What would their equivalent be?)

::peers cautiously into my own junk closet::

Mine has boxes of Christmas ornaments, old vinyl records we never use any more but can’t quite bring ourselves to throw away, slot cars from a racing set my husband had when he was a kid. Some blank, Styrofoam balls I got for a craft project we never did, vacuum cleaner bags for a vacuum we no longer own, six years worth of Easter baskets, a telescope we can’t quite figure out how to work, end rolls of old wrapping paper, a Brazilian luck/charm/wind chimey thing my mother brought back from her travels.

Junk closets might be a fabulous, concrete way to show a character’s good intentions, failed dreams, and stuff they can’t let go of…

Monday, September 27, 2010

Be It Ever So Humble…

My son and I were talking today about humility. He’s gotten very involved in kickboxing, and he was talking about how important it was for participants to approach the sport and sparring with a humble attitude. When they do that, they learn faster and people respond to them better.

That has a surprising corollary with writing, oddly enough. A humble attitude and a willingness to admit to what you don't know will go a long way toward easing a writer's journey. Conversely, it can be annoying when new writers act as if they will do it differently than all those who came before them (as if all those who came before them did it that way simply because they didn't know any better or enjoyed being inefficient), that they won’t take ten years to get published, or that their manuscript won’t need round after round of revisions. Or whatever. It is highly, highly annoying.

But...

I don’t think you can teach someone else to be humble by telling them about it. They have to run smack into it themselves. We all have to crash headlong into our own humility, not be urged to it by well-meaning outsiders. It’s a lot like democracy; you can’t import it—it has to grow organically from the organism itself—not be transplanted. ☺

Humility is like that. In fact, most of Life’s—not to mention, writing’s—really important lessons are like that. You have to run into them full tilt so that they knock you on your @ss and WAKE YOU UP to the fact that something is not working.

Just like our characters don’t wake up one day and decide, Hey, I need to change who I am or turn my life around, most people don’t wake up one day and realize all our writing is dreck.

That’s where that long string of rejections comes into play. It weeds out those who aren’t willing to adapt and try new things. Because that is what failing repeatedly forces us to do—what all failure and rejection forces us to do—stretch and grow and learn to come at problems from an entirely new angle. Or learn a new skill so we can try again.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Different Journeys

So I’ve been thinking a lot about the differences between male and female journeys, most especially since it was one of the factors that surprised me with my most recent project—the end and resolution stage went on longer than I thought—and not because I couldn’t manage to wrap it up but because the heroine’s journey simply wasn’t finished yet.

It also occurs to me that labeling these different journeys by gender isn’t the most descriptive or accurate distinction, so maybe different labels are in order. Maybe, pulling from The Hero Within, the Warrior journey versus the Wanderer or Martyr’s journey is more apt. Except, of course, martyr is just so laden with negative imagery.

But here’s the big distinction. With the male or warrior journey, the arc ends once the protagonist has faced his internal or external demon and gained the prize, whether it be a hard earned nugget of wisdom or an actual physical thing. He then returns briefly to his ordinary world a changed person; either wiser, gentler, more understanding, whatever. His eyes have been open in some fundamental way and he has achieved a whole new self.

But the feminine journey doesn’t stop there. For women, learning how to wield that newfound wisdom or power once back in their ordinary world is a critical part of their journey. It’s not just about claiming power or wisdom, but facing down others to use it. Because it is hard for women to claim that power, hard for them to speak their truth, discovering those things is only one part of their transformation. Now they must use it and in the process, redefine the relationships in their lives.


The warrior archetype is lacking in wisdom and needs that to temper his warrior tendencies.

Women, on the other hand, need to learn to tap into their warrior tendencies.

I think that’s an interesting distinction. It can also be hugely helpful in trying to determine where the emotional juice of your story is.

I’m also trying to see how that fits in with the increasingly popular woman warrior archetype, such as the kick @ss heroine found so often in paranormal and urban fantasy books. Clearly those entire genres are a means of reclaiming the warrior archetype for women—a much needed balance. I’ll have to go pull some books off my shelf and see, but I’m wondering if part of that journey is forcing others in one’s life to get comfortable with that warrior woman archetype; to show the benefits of that archetype within communities and society since it is something society has not been comfortable with in the past.

I’m also pondering how it works when applied to middle grade fiction rather than YA or adult fiction. It seems to me, that up until middle grade books, the gender based distinctions are much less apparent, which isn’t surprising since adolescence is when those hormones really kick in.

Looking at Theodosia, it seems to me I’ve flipped the archetypes a bit; she is a bit of a warrior, albeit a sneaky, supernatural one. So her journeys tend to be about tempering those tendencies and gaining wisdom.

Nathaniel Fludd, on the other hand, is about as far away from a warrior as you can get. Each book is about him gaining one new step toward becoming a warrior, and then the final books will feature him moving through his world as his new warrior self.

Anyway, I just found it interesting to think about—specifically to be conscious of when plotting or writing the book because whether the wisdom is the end point or learning to use that wisdom is, will greatly alter the shape of the story.

And of course these are gross generalizations; there’s no way to avoid that when talking about archetypal journeys, but I think it’s something worth considering.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Where Stories Come From Part Deux

I was thinking some more about stories and where they come from, and was struck by all the different reasons writers write; some to tell stories, some to communicate, some to wallow in words, some to explore human nature, others to explore intriguing ideas and what ifs. I found myself wondering just how much the WHY we write influences the FORM of what we write. I mean, I already talked about where the emotional juice for our writing comes from, but in addition to that, does the reason we write determine what we write?

For example, are wordsmiths drawn more to poetry and literary vehicles? Do communicators gravitate more to non fiction? Murder mysteries, political thrillers, and police procedurals seem a natural vehicle for exploring human nature. As do romances, albeit a different aspect of human nature. Well, probably all writing explores human nature to some degree, but for some books it is more front and center than others.

Anyway, it just occurred to me that part of the long apprenticeship of writing involves experimenting with a wide variety of forms and seeing which one best fits. Writing in one's strongest voice probably includes the right synthesis of subject matter, purpose, and form.  

Monday, September 13, 2010

Where Stories Come From

A couple of weeks ago on another blog someone wanted to know why people who weren’t young adults would be interested in writing YA. It struck me as a bit of an odd question, because I’ve never had the sense that writers were only propelled by their own demographic for their stories. But it is also a legitimate question in a broader sense, and it got me to thinking about why we write and where our stories come from.

My own theory is that our richest, most authentic stories come out of our own traumas and heartbreaks. Not necessarily in a direct correlation—I was beaten as a child therefore I will write about child abuse. But rather the core emotional issues, the wounds and scars that have shaped us, will also shape our stories. And the nature of those will in turn help determine what age group we write for.

Stories are the psychological equivalent of pearls, if you think about it. At some point in our lives, we receive this grain of sand—some horror or trauma or huge obstacle that becomes a permanent part of who we are. And then the magic begins to happen. Time passes, we move on, we begin to heal, scar tissue forms, we begin to grow again, only this time our growth encompasses those painful experiences. And if you are lucky enough to have a creative outlet, those painful experiences cannot help but shape what you create, much in the same way the shape of your hand determines the way you play the piano or the choice of medium affects what your artwork looks like.

My childhood and teen years were my most emotionally tumultuous, one great big stewing pot of dysfunctionality. It tapered off toward the ends of high school, but it was too late. The scars and wounds I’d received in childhood were so much a part of me that they radically affected every aspect of how I viewed the world and how I interacted with people, thus ensuring high school was hard and not the glowing ‘best time of your life’ that so many adults think of it.

So it is no surprise that when I write, that is where my stories come from. That place. And yes, even though I am well, (WELL!) past being a young adult, Not only was that the most fertile for me story-wise, but the thematic issues I am drawn to explore lend themselves best to that age.

Once I hit adulthood, I got lucky, found unconditional love, got married, and had kids. My life has been pretty great so far. Not exactly smooth sailing, raising kids is never smooth sailing, but there have been far fewer traumas and upheavals, and very little scar tissue and lots of lessons learned.

Which is why I write for kids and young adults.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

The Juggling Act

A week or two ago, back in the throes of finishing up the current WIP and juggling the newly arrived copy edits for Theo Four, Mel asked for details on how I juggled these tasks, so I thought I’d talk about that a little bit.

There really isn’t a secret to it, and I suspect I used to be better at it when I was younger, but it’s pretty much just a matter of compartmentalizing your day and your brain. Luckily, both the left side and the right side of my brain are pretty active. (Random Fact Alert: I was tested on that once for a job. The guy thought I had cheated because I was split so evenly down the middle in terms of brain usage.)

Since early morning when I just get up is my prime writing time, that’s when I do any actual page producing type of writing. So working on the WIP was my priority then, I would sit down and write anywhere from six to ten pages or do a major revision of a scene or two, depending on how much revising they required.

After that, I take my morning walk, have breakfast (obviously a late breakfast!), take a shower, then work on business type things—email, blogs, website stuff—or research for the current project. However, if I have something I absolutely need to work on, like copy edits for a completely different book (and world) that requires I access a completely different mental landscape (and voice) what I do is take a nap.

I know that sounds a bit indulgent, and I guess it is, but it also resets my mental clock, like a brain’s version of the reset button, so that when I get up, I don’t have all the darky moody flotsam and jetsam of medieval France still filling up my brain while I try to work on a funny, Edwardian era caper. However, the key thing here—and the most difficult—is to not let the flotsam and jetsam of the morning’s project get buried too deep or shunted too far off to the side so that you lose that close connection with the work. To help with that, I also try to get my subconscious a story bone to chew on for the afternoon.

I am very lucky in that I rarely have to turn copy edits around in two days like I hear so much about. That would seriously suck for me, because I can only focus on a smallish chunk of copy edits at a time without wanting to pull my hair out.

My usual process is when I first get the package is to glance through them and see just how severe a copy edit it is. (And to my immense pride and satisfaction, they are getting less and less severe. Clearly I am learning to produce cleaner final drafts. Hooray!) Then I set my timeline, trying to give myself enough time at the end that I can send them back UPS 3rd day air and not spend a fortune on shipping. (Paper is heavy!) Then once I know I have five days to work on them, I divvy them up into five chunks and work on one chunk a day. For the Theo books, those chunks are 50 to 60 pages at a time. The Fludd books are much smaller, and I usually do them in only three days or so.

Now here’s the thing about copy edits: I am eternally and hugely grateful for every copy editor that has gone over my work with a finely sharpened colored pencil. BUT, they are not fun because someone is basically catching all your mistakes. I get pissed off when I make mistakes. Obviously I get pissed off at myself, but it is easier to grumble at the poor copy editor because she is not there and I am. Please note: This is a personal failing on my part and is by no means a reflection of how I actually feel about copy editors. I love them!

So I go through and accept or stet all the corrections. However, anything that I am not sure of or any places where I find myself reacting defensively, I simply flag to go back and look at again. That way I am able to move ahead at a good pace and don’t get bogged down. The cool thing about that is that usually when I go back to the flagged places, my defensiveness has cooled off, or I spend a few minutes consulting with grammar guides or reviewing my research materials before making/accepting the change.

Then, feeling virtuous, I put that day’s chunk aside and go do a bit of research or planning for the next morning’s draft pages. I will often try to do some light research reading just before I go to bed, again, trying to fill up my subconscious with raw material it might need for the next day’s work.

And that is probably more than you ever wanted to know about juggling projects, but there you go.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Finished!

Well. I’m back. And what a ride that was! I can hardly describe the sense of elation I feel at having finished this manuscript. It has been four years in the making. I worked on the story for a year, getting my arms around all the elements and sifting through them to see which story path I wanted to take; then it took a year for my editor and agent to convince me this was really a YA at heart, not an adult book, which necessitated looking at the story through an entirely different lens. Then it took another two years to write it as I fit it in between other, contracted projects. And now it is done.

It is 135,000 words, 453 pages. A monster of a masterpiece. And I use that term masterpiece in the old guildish sense--a project that takes your work to a new place. It’s not a statement of objective quality so much as a statement of what I attempted, the way I stretched and challenged myself as a writer. I went places I have never gone before. Whether it works or not is anybody’s guess, but it absolutely worked for me in terms of creative growth. (And I promise, just as soon as my agent gives me the okay, I will blab all about the details here. I really do feel like I’ve been the biggest tease EVER!)

As I said on Facebook, I finished it while surfing on an adrenaline high and humming the theme song to ROCKY. I mean, I was flying high. By the time I went to bed that night, I told my husband that gee, maybe this time I wasn’t going to have my post deadline crash.

Ha.

I woke up in the middle of the night with a migraine and spent the entire next day as a limp noodle. Ah, the writing life.

And now I get to pick up the pieces of my life, yet again. I guess I just have to accept that this isn’t a one time or even first few times phenomenon but actually a part of my natural cycle. I don't know how to actually finish a manuscript without that obsessive scramble to the finish line that pretty much precludes all of Real Life.

Another annoying thing is that all the great ideas I had for blog entries are nowhere to be found. I should have jotted them down, but they all seemed so self evident that I was positive I wouldn’t forget them. I’m really crossing my fingers that I haven’t truly forgotten them as much as mentally misplaced them. ☺ We’ll find out soon enough, won’t we!

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Transformative Change (Briefly!) Revisited

Someone asked me to explain the difference between change and transformative. The thing is, we change every day—in surface ways. We move from happy to sad or annoyed to bitter, patient to suffering. Those movements don’t fundamentally change us; rather they are part of our human spectrum of emotions.

The transformative part comes in when we take that grief or bitterness or suffering and let it be the catalyst that impels us to a new state of being; that instead of experiencing our emotions as random stepping stones, we allow ourselves to see the path that is forming at our feet and take it, follow it to a new awareness.

The transformative part means we change who we are, instead of merely how we feel.

And while this might seem a teensy bit philosophical for a blog mostly about writing, it does relate in a big way to our writing.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Stewing Time

I got an email the other day from someone who had taken one of the workshops I gave at the Santa Barbara Writer’s Conference a couple of years ago. He had a great question that I thought I’d talk about here.

In the workshop, and repeatedly on this blog, I talk about the importance of setting your manuscript down for a couple of months to get the distance needed to be able to see its flaws. His question was, when do you take this break? Especially if, as you’re finishing up your first draft, you are already forming a long list of what you need to do in the revision.

My answer was that if you have a list of things you know would make the manuscript better, go ahead and make those changes before setting it aside. Essentially, you want to make the manuscript as good as you know how to make it before putting it in that drawer.

I think ideas improve from some of that fermenting/rising time, too. In fact, now that I think about it, my last three story ideas (Theodosia, Nathaniel Fludd, and the YA I’m working on right now) have all benefited from some seriously long fermentation time. I think that long slow formation of a story idea can really add to its depth and layers.

I first thought of the Beastologist idea about five or six years ago. The see came to me in a flash; a story about a boy who discovers he is supposed to take care of the world’s mythical creatures. I loved the idea, but it was a pretty small seed of an idea to be sure. And for me, half the fun of writing stories is playing with and examining all the different directions they can take. So I thought about it for a few weeks, jotting a handful of ideas and possibilities down in a notebook, then ignored it for months while I worked on other projects. Every few months I’d pick that notebook up and add a few more ideas or layers. He would come from a long line of explorers and cartographers. Hm, he’d be sent to live with an obscure relative. What nature of mythical creatures existed in that world? What would the setting be? The time the story takes place? All those things were slowly layered in over months and months and years of playing with the idea.

Theodosia was the same way. I worked on that first book and building her world over a two to three year period. This current YA I’ve worked on sporadically for the last four (God, has it really been FOUR?) years.

Which is just a long way of saying that there are many junctures of a story’s life where it will benefit from some stewing time. In fact, that is why I like to have three or four story irons in the fire, so I can move from one to the other, layering a little in at a time, yet always making progress toward completion at some future date.

So if an idea feels green to you, consider allowing yourself to put it away for a few months and see how you hidden mind plays with it. I bet you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Transformative Change

I love it when a number of things swirling about in different areas of my life all converge and make me sit up and pay attention.


And as I mentioned last week, I've been reading The Hero Within and in it the author talks about transformative change as we move through the different stages of our journey.

Transformative change. For some reason that phrase has really stuck with me, always in the back of my mind this week. Probably in no small part because I've reached the point in the manuscript when everything is building to that big moment when my character sheds her old skin and steps into her new self. When she is truly and completely transformed by the events of the novel.


Then a couple of days ago on twitter, @Quotebelly posted this quote:  

"The pessimist complains about the wind; the optimist expects it to change; the realist adjusts the sails." - William Arthur Ward

And it hit me; the act of adjusting the sails is not just about being realistic; it is also about being open to transformative change. A mere realist would batten down the hatches and hold on. But the act of adjusting the sails, of preparing yourself to accommodate what life is about to send your way, is a much more profound act of acceptance.

For some people, those bumps on life's road completely derail them or make them bitter or cause them to feel victimized. And while I hate tragedy and mishap as much as the next person, one of the only ways I can put my head down and get through it, is to try and see the situation as an opportunity for that sort of deep rooted change. To extract the life lesson that the universe is sending me. In doing that, in finding some nugget of wisdom to take from the incident, I feel that no matter what I have lost, I have also won.

The thing is, no one taught me that; not my parents or a church or a therapist. I'm pretty sure I have managed to learn that concept though stories.

Which is why in fiction, as writers, it is so vital that things in our story make sense, that the events in our stories are pushing our characters toward this transformative change. That is one of Story's most important roles in our lives, showing us what that sort of deep change looks like, feels like, how to recognize and respond to the opportunities when they arise.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Vulture Pigeons

No, they are not a new creature in one of my books, unfortunately.

My husband’s ornithological activities have come home to roost in a decidedly creepy way. As I have mentioned before, we have quite a collection of birds who consider us the local dinery; lots of cute little brown birds and black birds whose names I don’t know; mockingbirds (who always make me think of the Hunger Games now) quail (with button size babies!) and charming ring necked doves, even a woodpecker or two. But the last couple of weeks we’ve been having these new birds—Vulture Pigeons we call them, and they are decidedly creepy. They look like they sound, hulking vulture-like pigeons with evil little yellow eyes and very curved, sharp little beaks.

And they are big.

And they move around in packs.

So every morning when I open the front door I hear this huge flapping of a bunch of giant wings as they startle and I cannot help but think of Alfred Hitchcock’s THE BIRDS. If I ever stop posting here altogether, you’ll know what happened to me…

Edited to add a picture, per Vonna's request.




They look scarier in real life. Trust me.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Character Growth and Personal Journeys

For me, one of the most satisfying parts of a book is often the character’s transformative growth. All of my favorite writers strike me as exceptional students of the human condition, and it shows in their writing. However, sometimes stuff that we know intuitively, escapes us when it comes to wrestling with the nitty gritty logistics of arcing out a character’s internal journey. We know a character must change or grow, attain some new level of awareness. But unless we have a child development or psychology degree, the nuts and bolts of that process might be unfamiliar to us or cloaked in mystery. It is probably not surprising then, that half my favorite internal growth references for characterization are actually psychology books.

I am very fond of The Hero’s Journey and think it is particularly well suited to middle grade and YA stories because it so mirrors the coming of age process. Many of you have probably read The Writer’s Journey by Chris Vogler, but if it’s been a while, take the book off your shelf and look at it again. If you have a firm grip on the basics of the journey, try re-reading his section on archetypes and how they can serve as different facets of the hero.

Another book I enjoy browsing through but don’t seem to have used yet is 45 MASTER CHARACTERS. What I like about this book is that it breaks down personality characteristics into mythical archetypes, which can be helpful when you’re trying to navigate your protagonist’s internal landscape. For example, there is Artemis (The Amazon) and Athena (The Father’s Daughter) and Isis (Female Messiah), as well as the Dionysus, the Lady’s Man and the Ares The Protector and Apollo the Businessman. (Okay, now I see why I haven’t used this part yet—a lot of those archetypes only minimally apply to kid protagonists!)

She also discusses the difference between a masculine and feminine archetypal journey. I tend to think of them as either character-centric stories or more externally driven stories, and both work for either male or female characters. The main difference is the focus of the journeys.

The masculine is the one we are familiar with:
Challenge (Ordinary World, Call to Adventure, Mentor)
Obstacles (Tests, Allies, Enemies, Ordeal, Reward)
Transformation (Resurrection, Return with the Elixir.)

The Feminine Journey is:
Containment (Illusion of a Perfect World, Betrayal of Realization, The Awakening) Transformation (The Descent, Eye of the Storm, Death—all is lost)
Emergence (Support, Rebirth/Moment of Truth, Full Circle)

Interesting that the transformation in one comes in the middle and the act of true victory is maintaining that transformation when one returns, rather than having the transformation be the end of the story.

Clarissa Pinkola Estes’s WOMEN WHO RUN WITH WOLVES provides an absolute wealth of internal journey scenarios. Most of her chapters, in fact, are the equivalent of an internal growth arc. For example, the one I’ve been using as I shape the Theodosia series is The Retrieval of Intuition. I think it works really well for character’s who are discovering their inner powers. It breaks down something like this:

Allowing the Too Good Mother to Die
Exposing the Crude Shadow
Navigating in the Dark
Facing the Wild Hag
Serving the Non Rational
Separating This From That
Asking the Mysteries
Standing on all Fours
Recasting the Shadow

She also has a great arc for love relationships (Facing the Life/Death/Life Nature of Love) and Finding One’s Pack, which works really well for stories where someone is trying to find their tribe.

My newest discovery isn’t new at all, but an old classic, it’s only new to me. The Hero Within is being very insightful in helping me see nuance in how different characters need to grow. She has six major archetypes she discusses, Innocent, Orphan, Martyr, Wanderer, Warrior, and Magician. But of course, they’re really stages we all go through on our life’s journeys. What’s particularly helpful with this book is that she breaks down different tasks and points of views that accompany each archetype. For example, what each archetypes greatest fear is, or what they are looking for in relationships, or how they move through the material world. There’s tons of rich material in there for character development.

Do any of you have any books you’ve used for character development? I know some people use the Meyers Briggs typing and other swear by the Enneagram. I’ve never used either of those for characters, although I have had fun taking the tests myself. ☺

Friday, July 9, 2010

Full Steam Ahead

Okay, so on Wednesday I got totally wadded up, slogging through far too many words and scenes that were clearly such vestigial tails of earlier drafts that I had to stop and do some serious trimming.

Over the last two days I've cut away pages and pages of deadwood. I had 340 pages and I cut away about 60 of those and another 60 will have to be rewritten from scratch, but I can use the existing scenes as an outline.

I've finally, finally, FINALLY figures out how the romance turns and more importantly, how the jigsaw pieces of my protagonists tattered souls fit together. 

I've hammered out a working outline for the third act, where I was just stumbling blindly in the dark.

I've also started a project thesaurus. I do this sometimes when I find myself using the same words over and over again, especially when the book deals with something in particular that I need to describe a number of times, like curses or shadows or something sinister. So to keep myself from flailing around more than absolutely necessary (because I do concede that some flailing is right and necessary) I've begun doing these thesauri. When I was working on Theo Four, for example, I put together a list of words to describe curses, and also evil. Or words for describing a desert. Or ancient ruins. Or I jot down bits and pieces of descriptions for the streets of Cairo.  I fill a whole page so I have a huge variety of words to choose from. Plus, being the total word geek that I am, I love pouring through my thesaurus and creating these lists; it reminds me of words I've forgotten about or aren't used enough. I don't know if it's a function of getting older or from having written a fair number of books in a short amount of time, but I am definitely feeling the need to fill my word well.

Anyway, now I have my writing house in order and can dive back into the story and make some serious progress.

Or here hoping, anyway...

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Coming to Terms With Fear

I am not generally one to experience fear when I write. Normally, I am too immersed in the story to hear the Internal Perfectionist or Cranky Editor when they hurl insults or doubts my way. The fact that am working on series probably also helps with that, as the concepts and generalities of what I am writing have some proven acceptance.

But I do find myself struggling with Fear as I write this story, and it is not a comfortable feeling. It does probably mean I’m writing the story I need to be writing right now, but it also means I have to learn to come to terms with Fear, either by ignoring it, succumbing to it, or staring it down.

I am afraid I am writing a fish with feathers (to appropriate a phrase Blythe used over on Shrinking Violets) and it will end up being neither fish nor fowl, a spectacular failure. I am afraid it has too much history for a YA, and focuses too much on the romance relationship. But now that I am writing it in first person, present tense, I also know that if it fails as YA, it will have no home in the historical romance market either, so I have pretty much built myself out over a precipice.

And yes, I know that I just have to write the book, but as a working writer, it is extremely hard to devote so very much time to what I fear may be unsellable.

It is also absolutely necessary so that I can grow creatively.

But it is not a comfortable place to be and as I said, I am having many negotiating sessions with Fear.

Now for a complete segue which, I promise, will come full circle in a minute.

I subscribe to the DailyOm and those puppies come in faster than I can contemplate them. I now have about 247 DailyOms sitting patiently in an email folder waiting for me to read them. (Yes, I am well aware of the irony of that, thankyouverymuch.) But every once in awhile, one of the titles catches my eye as being something extremely pertinent to what I am dealing with in life, and yesterday was one of those. The title of the DailyOm was, Underneath the Noise.

We all know that saying, if you want someone’s attention, just whisper. This DailyOm expounded on that somewhat but the sentence that really zapped me between the eyes was this one:

“It is generally true that the more insistent voices in our heads delivering messages that make us feel panicky or afraid are of questionable authority…Their urgency stems from their disconnectedness from the center of our being, and their urgency is what catches our attention.”

How many different ways do I love that? But of course. Bullies always shout the loudest. And they always shout because they are insecure or full of bluster. They are of questionable authority.

Boys and girls, our Internal Editors and Cranky Perfectionists are so damn loud because they know they’re wrong! That is why they are shouting at us; to make up for in volume what they lack in truth.

As I read that last night, those voices yelling at me to be afraid went silent; they shrugged sheepishly and slunk away.

At least for now. I am sure they will be back, but now that I have their secret, it will be even easier to stare them down the next time...

Monday, July 5, 2010

Spackle

I am moving right along on this major rewrite/revision thing that I’m doing right now and one of the things I find I am using a LOT is the literary equivalent of spackle.

Spackle when writing is just what it sounds like: a flimsy lick and a promise to get back to a spot and create something better. Stronger. Heftier. When I am in the zone and the story is unfolding before me, if I take too long in trying to capture the words, they’ll disappear before I can get them down. For me, always, the race is to get the story down while I’m in the heated flush of that writing zone. I can linger and dally over language all I want later, once the bones of the story are firmly in place.

Spackle often shows up as a set of brackets [like this] when I know I need a better word or simile but I don’t want to stop the writerly flow and search right then.

Something in his face made me [uneasy].
His eyes hardened like [sharp flat stones].

Sometimes though, spackle can be an entire action.

[Nate and Greasle find out figure out a way to catch the basilisk and not get poisoned in the process.]

As you can see, that’s no mere phrase or word choice, but an entire plot point that needs to be worked out. But again, if the big pieces of the story are flowing or the voice is really working or I've got a firm grip on the ending, I don’t let myself grope and flail when there are perfectly good words trying to bubble out.

This weekend, entire scenes and chunks of acts are falling away as I trim and shape this manuscript. I know I will need new scenes in there. Some of them are showing up, right on cue, and others aren’t. But I still need a placeholder in this new draft I’m building, something to help me capture the pacing and the rhythm of the scenes. In that case, I spackle entire scenes, which go something like this:

[They arrive at court. Hero leaves her to talk politics with duchess’s advisors. She pretends she’s bored and wanders away. Uses this as excuse to eavesdrop on other’s conversations. Learns Count Z has returned, sees Lord X and Lady Y in tete a tete, wonders what they’re up to. Protects one of the serving maids against an overbearing baron, accidentally runs into the French ambassador, then Francois finds her and invites her to dance.]

In that bit I list all the things from the various plot threads I’m juggling that I know have to happen then, in that scene. It also helps me capture in really broad strokes what the scene will encompass, while also giving my subconscious time to figure out more of the details and the nuance and even what the scene will actually be about. (Because clearly, from looking at that list, I do not have a clue. Yet.)

Oftentimes, I’ll figure out major epiphanies for that scene in subsequent scenes—scenes I never would have written if I’d let myself get totally stuck and stymied in one spot and not allowed myself to use spackle.

So if you aren’t currently using spackle, you might see if there’s a place for it in your writer’s toolbox.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Some Recent Movies

I enjoyed The Young Victoria much more than I thought I would. I had no idea that the young Victoria had had such a restricted, suffocating childhood, nor been so browbeaten by her mother. That she broke out from under that so young shows a sturdy character.


I also hadn’t realized Prince Albert had died so young. I had known that they had nine children and populated most of the royal houses of Europe. It fascinates me that that was a method for spreading influence, consolidating power, and assuring allies. It didn’t work out so well between Germany and England, with Victoria’s grandson becoming fierce rivals with his own uncle. Which just shows how complex families are and how likely it is that your most bitter antagonist will likely end up being a family member.


I also watched The Duchess, which was a visual feast and Keira Knightly was wonderful, but the whole thing just broke my heart. The poor duchess was hemmed in at every turn by that horrid duke. (And honestly, has Ralph Fiennes ever not played a jerk? Between this and The English Patient, I am NOT impressed. Which I suppose, conversely, makes him quite a good actor.)


I tried to watch The Book of Eli. Dystopic adventure starring Denzel Washington? I’m there. Except, there wasn’t any there there. I actually had a number of problems with the movie, but the one that finally had me turning it off midway was when the mysterious book everyone was after turned out to be the bible. Even though I knew it would be biblical in nature, having it be the actual bible was just too on-the-nose for me. It made it feel like there wasn’t any story involved. Also, the visual aesthetic was so harsh in contrast that it made it hard to watch. That and they were so busy framing the shots they forgot about story. And character. And all the bad guys felt really one-note. I have since heard there was a really intriguing twist at the end that made it all worth while, but that was too late for me. Which translates into a really good lesson: don’t save all the good stuff ‘til the end because people won’t wait that long…

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Re-Decorating

Yes, I've been doing a bit of re-decorating around here. I was tired of all that yellow. And it was way too hot for the summer.

I like the clean, cool look of this current design but it is giving me fits because, on my computer at least, it scrolls in a very laggy way. Being the thorough person that I am, I exported everything to a test blog to see if it was the sheer number of posts or images or something like that, but the test blog that is set up EXACTLY like this one doesn't lag at all. ::le sigh::

I guess it's possible it could just be me. (Yeah, that was optimistic.) I'll keep working on it. If you return in a day or two and it's an entirely new design, it means I couldn't work out the bugs on this one.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Revising

In his book, THE FIRE IN FICTION*, Donald Maass has this to say:

"Scenes that are written in the normal flow of accumulating pages may be fine but often will lack focus."

Truer words have never been spoken. Which is just one of the reasons I love revision. I think of the discovery draft as not only discovering what my story is about, but also about CREATING the material I will use in building the actual story. So the first/discovery draft is never (for me) the story; just the raw ingredients for a story.

The second draft is always about structure, about hammering out the best, most compelling structure of the book and deciding what should happen when for the biggest impact.

And then I look at scenes to be certain they are all doing what they are supposed to do: moving the story forward.

I have recently created a scene revision template which I am finding immensely helpful in this process, so I thought I would share it here. (It's compiled from stuff I've read in Maass's book, which I can't recommend highly enough**)

One of the things I've always stumbled over with scene revision is the question you are always told to ask: What is the goal of this scene. That always seems far too direct to me, too spot on, and, for me, risks pulling all the nuance and obliquity from a scene.

Instead, I ask what is the point of the scene. Why is it there? That way I can determine if it is earning it's place in the book, but not approach the problem too head on. Then the following template helps me shape it so that the point of the scene doesn't get lost. So my template looks like this:

What is the point of the scene?

What changes?

When does it change?

How does it change the POV character? (This is a biggy--the axis of the scene. Because pretty much everything should either contribute to or lead away from that.)

What are three visible or audible details of that moment of change?

Create hints that the protagonist will get what they want. Also build reasons to believe they won't. (This is a great reminder to me to keep supplying the reader with dramatic questions, even at the scene level.)

What are some sensory details of this scene? What are details that only my protagonist would observe or notice? (I am particularly fond of this question because it forces me to go deep inside my character's worldview.)


And that's it. Once I've answered those questions, I have a very distinct shape and structure to the scene and can go in and revise with abandon. Okay, maybe not with abandon, but at least with a much clearer vision of what the scene should be doing...




*I originally mistyped that as THE IRE IN FICTION and it cracked me up so much I was half tempted to leave it.


**I adore his WRITING THE BREAKOUT NOVEL for the initial brainstorming of a book and TFIF for shaping it.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Drilling Down

Okay, maybe not the best title choice considering the current, ongoing BP fiasco...

I've been working on the manuscript and one of the things I'm trying to get a grip around is the all different levels this story is taking place on. The layers of the story, if you will. I know instinctively that they're there, but until I can clearly identify them in my mind, I can't be absolutely certain that I'm building those layers and getting them on the page.

After doing some noodling this morning, this is what I came up with, and it struck me as a good solid template for looking at your characters and their level of motivation.

The inciting incident for the story is that my heroine agrees to pose as someone else.* At first glance, my this premise could seem glib or shallow or facile. Or even a bit tacky. But it's what's underneath that intial action that gives it the necessary juice: my heroine agrees because of her perception of what she owes someone.

Underlying that is her need to prove herself to these people, the very ones that raised her up from the ashes of her former life. She wants to earn their respect. Actually, she wants to earn their love, but she isn't able to admit that, so she calls it respect. She is sure that by doing this thing for them, and doing it beyond reproach, she will earn their respect and they know they did the right thing by giving her this chance.

And underlying that is her scar tissue--her absolute starvation for love or affection of any kind and her very human need for those things.

And lastly, under all of those things is her gaping wound--her belief that she is every bit as flawed and worthless as she has been told since birth. Not worthy of love, in any of its forms.

So that's about four layers going on, which feels about right. Any more and I risk losing my mind...


*I apologize for the coy verbiage, but I am trying to avoid any spoilers.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Victory!

(Or should I say, Victoire!)

I have done it. I have wrestled a series of events during the winter of 1489 in France down to a series of specific actions taken by characters in my novel. W00t!



It is broken down by act, and thank God they make eight different colors of ink or I would never have gotten it all in there. The green and purple ink are two characters I totally made up for this story, while the rest represent actual historical people who were alive and involved in these events. I can't really explain why this makes it all feel more manageable to me, but it does. It reduces big sweeps of history down to an action I could watch a person perform. And by doing that, by making history actions people take, I can weave it into the story so that it doesn't feel like it overshadows the characters.

However, now I have a headache and must go lie down...

Friday, June 18, 2010

Oh Me Aching Head!

Okay, so I know I have to prevent historical events and personages from swamping my main characters, but the knowing is the easy part. It’s the HOW that gets tricky.

Once again, I find I am cutting characters right and left and combining them wherever possible. (Keep in mind I’ve done this twice already.) I’ve eliminated two major secondary characters and about eight extras with speaking parts. And combined two antagonists into one, and taken a role filled by a secondary character and given it to my hero. My new goal is to have all the actions that were being done by those extras performed by existing, more important characters. For the first time in the four years (off and on) that I’ve been working on this book, I finally feel like I have a manageable cast that won’t woefully confuse the reader. Phew.

But now the harder part: the historical events themselves. How to weave them in without letting them take over the story and make it feel as if the characters are being bowled over by history, or worse, leave my characters feeling like human flotsam carried along by history.

One of the first things we learn as writers starting out is that *it really happened* is absolutely meaningless. You have to let go of what really happened and create a cohesive story out of the useable parts of history (or reality, for that matter.) The truth is, history ISN'T satisfying in terms of climax and resolution and catharsis, all the things we look for in a story. History isn’t coherent and doesn’t make sense, or provide closure or any of the things we expect a STORY to do. However, historical events DO rule our lives (just ask anyone who lost their jobs in the last recession!) So the challenge is to pick a portion or thread of history that has the potential to be presented in a way that satisfies the needs of the story, or be willing to alter it a bit.

So what I'm going to do is block out the major historical events in the story, then use them mostly as a backdrop. This will allow me to zero in more closely on how my main characters are reacting to those events and, more importantly, what actions those events cause them to take. Because character is action.

And really, that’s the story. Not the historical events themselves, but how ordinary people react under those extraordinary circumstances. How the crucible that is history, molds them into new, stronger versions of themselves.

But even knowing that, it can still risk feeling like a string of pearls or episodic. How to make it hang together?

And with a resounding duh, I remember, It’s the character, stupid.

It’s the characters goals or motivations that will provide the dramatic throughline for the story, tying the events of history together so that, for this one person whose story it is, they create a cohesive, integral story. They do that through the choices they make, the actions they take, and the way they come to terms with the historical events, either emotionally or intellectually.

So maybe it’s a story about a romance in a war torn country and the historical events are pretty much just one hit after another, the chaos of war, not just the attacks launched by enemy, but the random cruelty that causes among people on the same side trying to survive.

In order to keep it from feeling episodic or string-of-pearls-ish, the character has to provide that cohesion and use the chronology of unfolding events to feed her own motivation, goals, and growth. Each of those unfolding events has to increase the stakes for her in some way, or cause her to try to find a new way to reach her goal, which is the one thing that *does* stay constant throughout the plot. Maybe in each of the disasters that befall her she is able to find some small reason to believe in love rather than give in to despair, or each historical event carries her farther from her love interest, but regardless, she gets up and tries to make her way to him again. Or the unfolding events strip one loved one after another away from her, making the reader all that more invested in seeing the lovers united in the end.


It’s about how those historical events shape their emotional growth.

That's the story. Duh.

This is the painful part about picking up an old project, trying to recollect all the good stuff  you need to know, but not carry forward any of the unnecessary clutter that was mucking up the story.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Picking Up The Pieces

One of the problems I’ve consistently had with this historical YA fantasy is whittling down momentous, national and political events to the personal, then including enough to give the story the needed weight and heft, but not so much that it swamps the characters.

So as I picked up the project again, I thought I’d try a few techniques, and I’m going to talk about them here because I think they apply to most big revisions.

The problems I’ve had with the story are:
A cast of thousands
Historical and political events risk swamping the story and confusing the reader
Working out the logistics of what historical events/characters to include and what to make up (in other words, how fast and loose can I play with history. Quite a lot, I’m thinking, since it takes place in the fifteenth century and there are not a whole lot of records about these people.)
Nailing down geographical places

So I gathered all my materials together but decided not to look at any of them yet. I decided to sort of approach the story without all those details and subplots and backstories in my head, thinking that if I approached it with fresh eyes unencumbered by all that I knew, it would make it easer to clearly see what the story was about and who was absolutely essential to the telling of it.

This sprang in part from what they talked about in the book MADE TO STICK, about how people are encumbered by what they know, so they lose sight of what people who aren’t so immersed in the same subject actually need to know without being overwhelmed.

My initial tasks:

  • Printed out the last draft of the mss in a new color. (Pink, in case anyone is interested.)
  • Re-read two of the research books to get fresh in my mind what was actually historical and to see which of those historical details/personages/events leaped out at me as being integral to the story.
  • Took the time to nail down a couple of research bits I’d been stumbling over—the name of the heroine’s village, for example, and whether or not the hero was a first or second son, (which made a huge difference back in the fifteenth century, let me tell you!)

Next, I typed up a brief, three page synopsis of the major story events from the heroine’s standpoint, then again from the hero’s standpoint. That way I can see their motivation for all the acts, and see where and how it interacts.

Now I really need to decide who the true antagonist is. The thing is, there are so darn many to choose from, so many of the nobles of this time and in this court were horribly duplicitous and taking bribes from other kings. But I really need to decide who my heroine’s antagonist is, which I suspect will be different from the story event/historical antagonist.

In fact, that is what I plan on working on today. Perhaps I will officially declare this “Discover One’s True Antagonist Day.”

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

What A Week!

Goodness, it’s been a full week! There was completion and closure and celebration and all sorts of rich-yet-exhausting things going on.

I made my revision deadline for Theodosia and the Last Pharaoh, a three week turnaround of which I am very proud, then hot off the tail of that, our entire extended family (including all sets of grandparents!) went north for my eldest son’s graduation from UC Santa Cruz. All of the grandparents have been amazingly generous and supportive in getting the boys through school, so it was truly splendid having them all there to witness this big moment.

Or would have been if it hadn’t been ninety-frickin’-five degrees out. Oy! And the entire ceremony was set out in the sun. We were broiling like shrimp on the barbie, let me tell you. Which was helpful in one regard—any tears I shed evaporated on contact, so no one need ever know what a sop I was. Am. Whatever.

It’s funny because college graduation is such a momentous thing—a huge rite of passage into true, independent adulthood, more or less. Oddly though, it wasn’t the graduation that drove home for me what an adult my son had become. It was watching him with his grandparents, seeing how attentively he saw to their needs, helped them across the field, or assisted them onto the shuttle bus. He was there for them in a way that nearly made my heart explode with pride.

Aaaaand that ties into writing because…because it struck me as such a clear turning point, a subtle but powerful one, the sort of quiet moments that show true character growth and development. It reminded me that turning points can be about a new level of being, rather than a big external event.

I also spent a couple of days clearing all the Nate and Theo notebooks and research materials off my desk and whisking them back into the cupboard where they live until their next adventure. Then, with great trepidation, I pulled out all the dark YA fantasy materials and notebooks (of which there are half a dozen—I kid you not) and began trying to work my way back into that story world.

The cool thing was, as I was reading the first scene for the first time in over nine months, (interesting timing—no?) I fell in love with the story and the world and the characters all over again, so I am itching to get started on it.

However, re-entering the story world and reconnecting with all the various threads will not be easy, so I will likely be blogging about that for the next few weeks. Consider yourself warned! ☺

Monday, June 7, 2010

And . . . I Lied

Okay, so I did want to share one other thing I read in MADE TO STICK. It touches on something I talk about a lot—concrete details.

The authors explain that for an idea to stick, it has to be credible. There are all sorts of ways to gain credibility, through bona fides, experts, celebrity endorsements, and true stories. However the one avenue to credibility that he talks about that has the most relevance to writers is concrete details. It turns out putting in solid, specific details in our writing isn’t just good craft, it’s smart psychology.

He talks about a study done where arguments made using concrete examples are more effective in swaying an audience as to a person’s guilt or innocence. People—readers—respond in a dramatic way to vivid details.

In addition to the obvious way in which this applies to writing—suspending disbelief and making our stories credible—it strikes me that we can also use this in other ways.

In characterization—giving characters, especially secondary characters, some specific, concrete detail that will anchor them in the reader’s mind. Not just a pair of glasses that keep sliding down his nose or a braying laugh, but something much more unique and specific to that individual. Something sticky. ☺

In planting clues and foreshadowing—it strikes me that knowing how people respond to concrete details, we can use that to direct our readers’ attention to the subtle things we want them to notice, but not realize they’re noticing.

How about you? Can you think of a way to use this newfound bit of information in your writing? If so, do feel free to share it in the comments. Hmm. Perhaps I feel a contest coming on...

Friday, June 4, 2010

Miscellany

Okay so maybe I won't be reporting on MADE TO STICK. No sooner did I announce that than I stopped reading the book. Felt too much like a book report. :-)  Suffice it to say, it has a lot of good stuff in it. Stuff like: We can't demand attention, we have to attract it, which pretty much sums up how I feel about first scenes.



Last night I was browsing at my local indie and came upon this most excellent book that I simply had to have. Renaissance Secrets: Recipes and Formulas. Just looking at it made my little heart go pitter patter, so now I own it. V&A really puts out some amazing books. I could happily own every one in their collection.

I also spent the morning cleaning up and putting away all the research materials and writing notebooks and general project clutter for the Theo and Nate books I've just finished up. This is such a treasured part of my process, putting away old projects then feeling the amazing whoosh as new ideas come zooming into all that freed up space!

Between my new book and all that free desk space, my muse is very excited.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Writing Sticky Fiction

I’ve been reading a fascinating book called MADE TO STICK by Dan Heath and Chip Heath, and it talks about what makes some ideas stay with us while others barely make a dent in our consciousness. I originally picked it up because I thought some of what it said might pertain to writing, and it does, but it also deals a lot with how our brains process and retain information, but not in a highly technical or scientific way, rather in a practical way. Which actually, come to think of it, also pertains to writing.

So one of the things that fascinated the authors was how vitally important information that had great impact on our lives could be so easily forgotten or ignored, while at the same time demonstrably false stories and urban legends lingered for decades. What made some ideas so darn . . . sticky?

It seems as if some of the six components they talk about apply more to writing than others, and yet I am finding a lot of useful information in all of them. This week as I read the book, I thought I’d talk about these components and how they might apply to writing fiction.

Take the first concept: Simple. Sticky ideas must be simple. So, okay, that doesn’t really work for a one hundred page story, let alone a four hundred page story. However, some of the principles of simplicity do offer some insight into writing fiction.

One of the things the authors talk about regarding simple is that the simple must reflect our core message. They also talk about feature creep—the phenomenon of adding more and more useless features to a device until it becomes so complex it is unusable. As I was reading this chapter, it struck me that this felt like a good description of the downside to overwriting. ☺

When we are close to a project and mired in our own story world and characters—as we must be when we are creating them!—it is easy to lose sight of what is truly relevant to the story we are trying to tell. The instinct is to put it all in, in the hopes that it will make the story feel richly detailed and complex, is nearly overwhelming.

The problem is, though, that the overload of information actually ends up obscuring our core story and we—as well as the reader—lose sight of what the story is supposed to be about. That is why the selective detail is so important, each detail should be chosen to reinforce our core, our theme, and to help reveal the story we’re tying to tell.

The authors also talk about proverbs as being the quintessential sticky ideas—short, pithy, and memorable. Often for centuries. The reason is because in addition to being short, pithy, and memorable, proverbs pack a big wallop in terms of insight or wisdom. And as I read that, I was struck by how much that DID pertain to writing. From the books we remember vs. the ones we quickly forget, to the difference between stereotypes and archetypes, clichés and resonance.

In order to be memorable, a story, character, or theme must contain an essential wallop of human insight or knowledge. But not just any insight, it needs to be an insight unique to the particular author and their worldview. That is what infuses what would otherwise simply be a cliché or stereotype into something memorable.

And lastly, the book holds the best explanation of high concept ideas I’ve ever heard: high concept simply means extracting complexity from a seemingly simple message.

Doing this relies on something called schema, which is basically a word for all of the associations and definitions we assign to a given thing or concept. So instead of listing all the associations and connotations for a new thing or concept, we liken it to something we’re sure everyone knows, and create a short cut to their existing knowledge/schema.

So basically high concept is simply an effective analogy. That’s it. It is simply a complex message that can be conveyed in simple, universal terms. Usually using schema. The trick is to have those simple terms be evocative and able to elicit an emotional response/reaction in nearly everyone who hears it.

Okay, so maybe I was the only one who didn't get that last part about high concept pitches. But now that I know what they are supposed to do, what mechanism they are relying on, I have a much better idea how to put one together.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Life Really Is Full of Little Miracles

And sometimes some not so little ones...

Lisa Yee posted this link on FB and I fell so head over heels in love with it that I had to share it here. It's a you tube video of a baby who has just recieved a cochlear  implant and can, for the first time, hear his mother's voice. The look on his face as he discovers this new sense, this entire new realm of sound, is beyond beautiful.


Friday, May 28, 2010

My Quantum Life or In Which I Confess How Crazy I Truly Am

So here’s one of the reasons I adore traveling, even though I pretty much am not a traveler: It makes it easier for me to imagine my quantum lives.

I have had this belief, this theory, if you will, since I was young enough to remember—long before I’d ever heard of quantum physics or string theory or alternate universes—and it goes something like this: Every time I make a decision, one of the things that comforts me is I have this sense of Other Robins living out a multitude of lives and taking the paths that I did not. So if I ended up marrying the boy next door and staying in my hometown to start my family, that’s okay because there are hundreds of Other Robins out there, living the lives I had considered. One is in Washington DC, as a practicing lawyer, another is an intrepid traveler who has circled the globe numerous times, living elegantly and sparingly out of a single suitcase for months on end, another lives as a partial recluse near Hollywood and designs movie sets, and another . . . well, you get the idea.

So I always have this sense that when I make a decision and choose a path, there are other me’s living the paths I considered, so I haven't really lost anything. I'm not as present in those lives, but they are happening out there somewhere on some level. (Okay, I DID warn you it was crazy.)

But I also thinks this spark of belief  helps me be a better writer because reality feels fluid to me; I don’t feel as if I’m making things up so much as recording a piece of alternate history that nobody has discovered yet.

And when I travel, I get to SEE these places, these neighborhoods and cities and different swarms of people and those parallel lives I’ve always sort of believed in seem much more tangible and real.

Bordering on insanity or a quantum thinker since the cradle? You decide. Just don’t tell me which one you pick. ☺

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Attempting Re-entry

Upon my return from my trip, the revision letter for Theo Four was waiting for me. And due to a number of circumstances, it is due back to my editor SOON. Which gives me approximately seventeen days for the revision.

One of the things I struggle with every. single. time. is how much information to backfill in for readers regarding The Adventure So Far. I definitely tend to err on the side of not enough information, which isn’t good, but I also loathe a great big recap of previous events in order to bring readers up to speed. It’s also deuced difficult to know how much to recap each person in the story and what their role is. It can also be exceptionally clunky.

It’s a little bit easier if each adventure stands on its own, which the Theodosia books almost do, but characters and plot threads do move from one book into the next, and those need some explaining. So this evening I will be combing my shelves, looking for examples of how other writers have done it skillfully and gracefully. If any of you have any suggestions of books that have done this particularly well, please do feel free to pass those titles along!

Monday, May 24, 2010

Wrapping Up

Okay, I’ve been home two days and I should probably have posted this last entry on Saturday, at the latest, but I was exhausted. As I told the kids at all the events, my characters share some traits with me, not the least of which being—like Nathaniel Fludd—I am not an intrepid traveler. It totally wears me out. Add that to being an introvert, and I am pretty much a wet soggy dishrag by the end of the adventure.

That doesn’t mean that I want to stay home all the time. I actually always get a LOT out of my travel experiences and am always grateful for the opportunity. It just means I have to pace myself.

The last leg of the trip was a quiet one, the only moment fraught with peril was me trying to get out of the city of Boston in an unfamiliar rental car, on unfamiliar roads and with very little idea of where I was going. Thank gawd for GPS, is all I can say. That and Google Maps steered me in the right direction. Oh, and there was a slight moment of panic when I thought I was going to have to give the cabbie a $25 tip because he had NO CHANGE on him, PLUS he refused to take a credit card! What is up with that?? Luckily, if rather embarrassingly, he approached every single person at the car rental until he found someone with change for a $50 bill while I stood blushing furiously in the corner.

One of the absolute highlights of the day was Vermont itself. As I’ve mentioned (probably ad nauseum) I’ve never been to New England, and the drive from Boston to Vermont was one continual enchantment of trees and forests and more greenness than I have ever laid eyes on. It was stunning and I longed to turn off the highway and explore one or two of the quaint little towns along the way, but I just didn’t have that much wiggle room in my timing. (They also had the cleanest, prettiest rest stops along the highway that I’ve ever seen.)

The true highlight, however, was finally getting to see possibly the cutest bookstore in America, The Flying Pig. It is in a gorgeous, old building with high stairs and wooden floors and a veritable feast of books. I also got to meet the wonderful Elizabeth Bluemle, and we had an amazing visit. She is warm and charming and effusive and a wonder-hostess. The turnout was a bit on the thin side, but we still had a terrific time.

Then I went back to my hotel and collected myself for the final schlepp home the next day.

I cannot even begin to describe what an amazing experience this has been, to meet so many new readers and talk to so many booksellers and librarians and parents. Truly an abundance of riches! A whopping big thank you to Houghton Mifflin (and Jenn in particular!) for organizing this trip! Honestly? In spite of being a less-than-intrepid traveler, I would have been traveled to the ends of the earth for an experience this rich. Luckily, I didn’t have to. ☺

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Wellesley Booksmith!

Okay, I have just enough time for one more update before I have to head to the airport and begin my trek home.

Houghton Mifflin was kind enough to NOT schedule me to within an inch of my life, so I had some time free on Thursday, which was lovely. I got to explore Boston with one of my favorite people in the entire world, Miss Katy Cooper. We started talking the minute we laid eyes on each other and didn't stop until she had to leave so I could get ready for the signing. We even talked while she gave me a tour of the Boston Public Library, which is actually part library, part museum. (And no librarians shushed us!) I also got to explore the Boston Commons (a teeny bit) and the Boston Public Gardens. And there were baby ducklings! Although, we did not have to make way for them.

Again, an absolutely lovely city. A city I could actually live in, I think. I am an absolute sucker for the oldness of the buildings and the elaborate, detailed architectural details And due to the gardens and the commons, there was a lot of green, for a city.

Then that afternoon a wonderful media escort picked me up to take me to Wellesley Booksmith. She was so thorough and competent that she even managed to color coordinate her outfit to mine.  And Wellesley itself was a DARLING town (it's only drawback being you simply cannot find anything to eat after 7:30 in the evening.) I am really beginning to suspect I must have been a New Englander in a former life, because boy, these adorable little towns sure feed some part of me.

The bookstore was wonderful and I got to meet Alison and Kim (who was originally from Santa Barbara!) and see Margaret again, whom I'd had lunch with on Wednesday. We had a lovely turnout, including some of my favorite online people (Hi Vivian! Hi Anna! Hi Liz!) a Theo blog reader (Hi Debby!) and a video trailer designer extrordinaire (Hi Marianne!) and another one of my Super Agent's Super Clients (Hi Susan!) [Anyone else feel like they're in an episode of Romper Room? No? I'm dating myself, aren't I?]

The talk went really well and I got to sign lots and lots of lovely books and meet all sorts of new readers. Pretty much book signing heaven, if you ask me, so THANK YOU Wellesley Booksmith!