Friday, April 30, 2010

Some Random Thoughts on Craft and Writing

When one of my kids was in kindergarten, the school’s director explained to me that in order for a kid to learn new task, they had to repeat it about a thousand times to fully internalize it. She also said there were two kinds of learners; external and internal learners. The external learners were perfectly happy to practice their task a thousand times with other people watching on, while the internal learners preferred to practice their task a thousand times in private before attempting it in public. I think there is a correlation to writing in there. A couple of them, in fact.

One of the reasons it helps to break craft down and study it is that it allows us to begin to internalize the process or skill we are studying. We practice those concepts with our conscious mind until they become second nature and become a part of our subconscious process and in fact become an organic part of our process. I can totally see where this has happened to me with some things. I simply don’t have to consciously think about them anymore.

I also think some writers get published in a greener state than other writers, and their learning process and growth progression is apparent in their published works. Others, practice in private until they produce a stunning manuscript, then they share it with the world. A truly rare breed pops out with a spectacular manuscript the first time (and we work really hard not to loathe them with every ounce of our being).

I know a lot of writers are intuitive; they don’t like to look under the hood or dissect the process for letting all the magic out. However, I think only a very few writers have such a natural level of excellence that they can truly afford to do this. It can be especially hard if you have a lot of natural talent. Your natural talent can take you far, but in order to break through that last bit of distance to Really Good, you need to understand what you’re doing craft-wise. Sometimes, that means going backwards as you dissect your process and relearn things.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Recognizing The One

Lucy asked in yesterday’s comments how one knows if a manuscript is The One, worthy of a lasting relationship and the commitment of the writer. This is such an excellent question, and the answer is so convoluted*, I decided to use it as a blog post.**

One of the simplest but least reliable ways to tell is our passion and interest level for a project. If we wake up every day thinking about it, and can’t wait to work on it, then clearly, it’s The One. If it haunts us, invades our dreams, or seems to write itself, there is really not even a need to ask the question.

But sometimes, especially if we’re still in the process of trying to nail or refine the story concept, it hasn’t tripped our Passion Meter yet, so we aren’t sure.

Or perhaps we took a wrong turn somewhere, so what once was compelling, feels less so, now.

Or perhaps it’s simply gotten to the point where it’s hard, and no longer fun.

But how do you tell between those?

And what are legitimate reasons to put a story down?

If the story does not have enough inherent conflict to sustain an entire book AND you can’t find a way to add some without it feeling pasted on or changing the entire initial concept into something you are no longer interested in, then it makes sense to put it aside.

If it was merely the idea that caught your eye, and now that you’ve played with it, you find you have no interest in doing the hard work necessary to bring that idea to fruition, then it is probably not The One.

However, there are some reasons you shouldn’t use to justify putting a story down:

You are afraid
Someone else has written something similar
It’s gotten hard
You don’t know what to do next
You’re stuck
Someone else’s feedback soured you on the story
You’re just not sure.

Your writing process will also play a role in helping you decide whether or not to put a book down. For example, What part of the book is your favorite part to write? For me it’s beginnings. I LOVE beginnings, so it makes a lot of sense that I will have a lot of false starts. But perhaps your favorite part is the end, or (odd creature!) the middle. If you are having a hard time deciding your story is The One, try jumping to the part you normally like best and seeing if you can write that or you have a clear vision of what will happen during that part of the story. If you can see—and are excited about—the end of the story, chances are you are simply bogged down or sidetracked or stuck in a hard place—none of which is a good reason for putting the story aside.

It IS a good reason to pick up a craft book, take a class, immerse yourself in the work of a master writer you love and admire, and find new ways to approach your story.

But the hard truth is, especially early in your career, you simply won’t always know if a story is The One until you’ve got some writing experience under your belt. You won’t know a story is fatally flawed until you’ve finished it. You won’t know if you like beginnings or middles or ends best, until you’ve written a few of each of them. You won’t know how you react when you hit a hard patch or the sagging middle, until you’ve worked through your fair share.

Unfortunately, experience is sometimes the only way to gain the perspective to know.

Especially with something like writing where everyone’s process is so very different, and even one person’s process can vary from book to book.

Sometimes, we put aside a book because of time constraints or other books/people/circumstances having more urgent needs, and when we go back to it, we find we have lost that nugget of urgency that originally ignited the book. And try hard as we might, we can’t re-ignite that flame of interest. Yes, that is tragic, but it is also true that nothing is ever wasted in writing. Every bad word you write serves some purpose, eliminating wrong turns, narrowing down your plot options, showing what your character is NOT, helping to refine your voice, even just being one of the million sh!tty words Stephen King claims all writers need to wade through before they have access to the good ones.

I have about a dozen manuscripts that were early manuscripts or experiments or attempts at something different (at least for me). I get asked all the time at school visits and workshops, if I will ever try to revive them. The truth is, I have looked at them all carefully and except for two or three, they are all really and truly dead. The original idea was too flawed, too trite, or too dated. Or I have learned how very much time and commitment go into each finished book and the idea simply doesn’t speak to me enough to hold that commitment together until I finish.

Because that’s kind of what it boils down to: writing can be wonderfully, painfully, mind-numbing hard sometimes, and you have to love something enough to be willing to go through all the pain and discomfort of seeing it through to the end. You can’t kind of like your manuscript, or be mildly intrigued by it. Well, actually you can. You can be anything you want with your manuscript, but the chances of you producing a compelling story that way are slim.

However, I will add the caveat that if you aren’t feeling any huge push of passion or commitment to the story, and you’re not willing to call it quits as a writer, push through. Give up on creativity or inspiration or even passion and just go with good hard persistence and elbow grease. A manuscript finished through sheer determination and bloody-minded stubbornness is always better than the one that wasn’t ever finished at all.

* In fact, the answer is SO long and convoluted that poor Lucy is probably never going to ask a question in the comments again!

**And dear gawd, if anyone out there knows how to create a Read More type of cut here on blogger, please email me and tell me how!

Monday, April 26, 2010

Smoke and Mirrors

The frustrating thing about publishing is that so much of publishing buzz is smoke and mirrors; the way to market some books is to make people think that everyone ELSE is loving/buzzing/dying to have it. As Newberry Honor Winner Grace Lin said brilliantly over on Blue Rose Girls, “A lot of good marketing is about making it seem like your book is selling like hotcakes, that your fans are rabid and you are just the hottest thing out there, even if you're not. Many marketing gurus see it as prophetic actions, using overstatement as a blessed commandment.”

A lot of book marketing is making yourself and your books seem more important or popular than they really are.

I kind of hate that about the industry, frankly.

That’s why getting a good hard look at publishing data such as that reported in the PW is so important. (Sorry, I don’t mean to harp, but I’m a Ruminator—I like to mull over things for a long time. A loooong time.)

There is a problem that develops when smoke and mirrors become a critical part of a business—and that is that the people involved in the business quickly lose their perspective or any hope of an anchor of reality as they navigate their careers.

Looking at those sales numbers from PW for 2009, I was struck by a couple of things.

1. Middle grade seemed so very, very underserved on that list. It made me realize that they, more than picture books or YA were bought by people who weren’t their intended audience. There is a huge gatekeeper element to writing for that age group.

2. So many of the highly buzzed books I’d heard about and would have sworn were bestsellers—weren’t. They were nowhere on the list. This proves that internet buzz—while highly beneficial—isn’t the final arbiter of whether or not a book has successful sales.

3. I was also surprised by how many of the authors of some of the bestsellers weren’t huge users of social media or even had a major online presence. Sure, they all had websites of some kind, but their books’ success weren’t fueled by a huge internet presence. That was very reassuring.

4. I was surprised at how very, very many mass market titles were on the list, titles I’d never even heard of. Again, an entirely different path to writing success, one that doesn’t get spoken of too much—writing mass market or movie tie ins or work for hire.

5. There are SO many different paths to a successful writing career. Sure some, the ones we probably hear the most about, involve a big front list push and splash, but that’s not the ONLY way. There is the strong, consistent midlist author, and the slow and steady backlist sales building. Some of those authors had been writing those books and series for years before they appeared on that list. As writers that is SO important to keep in mind.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

In Honor of Poetry Month

I was digging around on my computer files, looking for an old document and stumbled across an entire folder full of poetry.

Truthfully? I had kind of forgotten I ever wrote poetry. However, in reading through them, I am reminded of why it is so important to do, even if you are the only one to ever see it: It forces us to see the world in news ways and distill things down to a sharp, visceral image.

Since I'm feeling kind of devoid of words right now, I'm thinking it might be a good exercise to play with some poetry. This is one I wrote about ten years ago, I think. (I've upgraded computers so many times since then, none of the dates on the documents correspond with when they were actually written.)

Thunder booms,
a great big belly laugh from the heavens,
guffawing with joy,
at the sheer power of its magnificence.

The heavens,
no longer able to restrain themselves,
release their torrents,
a little flex of celestial muscle.

Which is pretty much what happened to me on my walk yesterday, sans the thunder. :-)

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Let’s Talk Numbers, Shall We?

No, no. Don't groan. These are interesting numbers. Besides, I have to admit to being left-brained sometimes and every once in awhile I just have to give in to the urge.

There was a Publisher’s Weekly article talking about the children's best selling titles and numbers making the rounds a week ago. First of all, I have to say how thrilled I am that this information is out there. Knowledge is power and so often these kinds of numbers and data are kept from the working writer, so it pleases me no end to find them here on the web for all to see. I also found it was highly informative.

The list is broken down into Hardback Sales, frontlist and backlist, then Paperback Sales, frontlist and backlist. (For those who don’t know, frontlist titles are the titles that are new that year, and backlist were published in previous years.)

One of the things I found most fascinating was that of the 217 hardback bestsellers listed, only about 26 of them were middle grade! This shocked me because the middle grade years (ages 8-12) are supposed to be the golden years of reading.

Of the nearly 300 paperbacks, only 70 of them were middle grade. Another shocker when you consider that those include the movie tie ins, etc.

Even sadder? Only about four of all the titles were historical; two of the LUXE books by Anna Godberson, one of the Ranger's Apprentice books (more fantasy, really) and Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld. Very sad showing there... ::sniff::

It was also very enlightening for me to see what publishers were putting out the bestsellers. By an overwhelming margin, it was the Big Publishers who produced the Big Sellers. (I did the math, so you won't have to.*)

Random House 116
HarperCollins 70
Disney/Hyperion 62
S&S/Simon 57
Little Brown 37
Scholastic 35
Golden Books 22
St. Martins 14
Candlewick 11
Houghton Mifflin 8
Razorbill 5
Abrams 5
Chronicle 4
Philomel 4
Knopf 4
Puffin 3
Delacorte 3
Holt 3
Dutton 2
Dial 1

And so I thought I would share the information with you. What can I say? My father was an accountant; it must be in my DNA.

*Fuzzy, ballpark kind of math.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Why Fantasy?

I’m going to be speaking on a panel at TLA next week, and the topic will be Fantasy for Young Readers, which has me thinking a lot about fantasy and writing and (duh!) young readers. One of the questions I come back to time and again is, Why fantasy? Why does fantasy speak to some young readers so much more loudly that realistic fiction? And why am I so drawn to that genre?

As a writer, probably the simplest answer to this question is that fantasy is closer to my worldview than realistic fiction. (And how much do I love having a profession where I can say that and not risk getting locked up!) I have always looked for and found small magics and mysteries in my life, which makes the world a much more interesting place.

For me, all the emotions I felt as a kid were so much bigger than the real world seemed to justify, or the adults in my life seemed to think were warranted. What I sensed in the world around me, what I perceived, how I reacted, all of that seemed totally different from others I knew. Of course, being a child, one does not have a whole lot of perspective or context for one’s emotions.

Fantasy is also the story form most closely related to myths and legends, another type of story that I simply could not get enough of as a child, for in those stories, big things happened; beautiful unexpected things or surprising and terrifying things, but in those stories, my emotional responses seemed to fit.

Although of course there is always the chicken/egg aspect as well. Did those stories create a love of fantasy, or merely cement an already strong preference?

Another question I’ve been asking myself a lot lately is why is fantasy important for young readers? What do fantasy stories bring to the body of children’s literature? Here are some of the answers I came up with.

Growing the Imagination

We forget that imagination isn’t simply about being able to escape into a world where fairies and ogres and wizards exist. Imagination is so much, much more. As Einstein said:

When I examine myself and my methods of thought, I come to the conclusion that the gift of fantasy has meant more to me than any talent for abstract, positive thinking. [I know, I promise I'll quit flogging you with this quote after today.]

And I think that we as a modern society forget just how many truly great strides in non-artistic fields are made by leaps of imagination. Science, technology, mathematics, physics, astronomy, all of those have been fueled by people’s imaginations. If, as children, we are only exposed to what actually exists, are only told about the limits of our world, we will never learn to strive beyond those—we will never learn that joy of believing in something improbable, whether it be a new way of looking at string theory or of reaching for a dream that only someone not tethered to reality would dare to reach for.

Think outside the box, innovations, none of that stuff could happen without imagination.

Sure, we’re born hardwired for certain types of thought, but we can also learn to branch out from our natural preferences. Analytical and critical thinking can absolutely be taught, so can imagination. It can be strengthened like any muscle.

I also think that imagination is closely tied to empathy. It is hard to put yourself in someone elses' shoes without using your imagination to try to understand how they might feel.


Many readers read in order to experience catharsis, that emotionally wringing, satisfied yet exhausted feeling of having come through some great physical or emotional ordeal and survived.

Children seem to be drawn to more black and white conflicts than adult readers, they like to see evil defeated, bad guys get their comeuppance. The truth is, in realistic fiction, there are only a handful of behaviors that qualify a person as truly evil, and few of those are suitable for kids books.

By its nature, Fantasy deals with huge stakes and conflicts: good vs evil, triumphing over enormous odds, bone crushing stakes. It is a wonderful theater for kids to observe the impossible odds being beaten. No, that doesn’t always happen in life, but it happens often enough that it warrants codifying that in our values. If a young child has never read a story of someone triumphing over such odds, how will they know it is possible?

Sure, realistic fiction can do some of this. There are reaslistic stories that include good triumphing over evil or a kid exceeding in spite of almost overwhelming odds. But in realistic fiction, those scenarios are filled with the weight of a lot of pain and must go to a lot of dark, dark places that are often more suited to YA than MG. And sometimes, when stories are too close, too dark, they are too disturbing for the reader.

I heard somewhere, and I can’t for the life of me remember where, that for a reader to be able to get comfortable enough to fully enter a dark story, no more than two of the three elements of the story (plot, character, setting) should be too close to home. If you’re writing about hugely disturbing elements, it can be too intense for readers if something horrible happens to a character like them, in their own world. But if there’s a little distance, a historical or fantasy setting say, then that extra bit of space creates a safety buffer that allows them the distance needed to

Fantasy is also great for teaching the concept of subtext to young readers. Fantasy IS subtext, really. Magical power standing in for personal power, strange forces and magicks taking over our bodies, coming to terms with Others.

What about you? If you’re an avid fantasy reader, what draws you to this genre? If you’re a writer, what compels you to write fantasy?

And, because I haz author copies! everyone who responds to one of those questions in the comments will be entered in a drawing for a copy of Theodosia and the Eyes of Horus, hot off the press!

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Out of Words

I had intended to blog more than once this week, but the last three mornings as I sat sipping my first cup of coffee and staring out the window, waiting for words to begin nudging their way into my brain, there was not a scintilla of nudging going on. My brain was surprisingly empty of words.

Or perhaps not so very surprising. In addition to writing like a fiend for the last four months straight, my Eldest Son came home for a ten day visit--celebrating his GRADUATING FROM COLLEGE! Oops. Did I shout that? Sorry. It's just a very big deal and I'm very excited. This was my dyslexic son, who majored in history and read about five hundred pages a week for the last two years. Have I mentioned how proud I am of him??

Anywho, while he was home, we talked about sixteen hours a day, catching up, but also doing a lot of looking forward. It's a scary time to be entering the job market, but I'm confident he will find something. He started working through WHAT COLOR IS YOUR PARACHUTE, a tremendous resource for anyone exploring career options. (However, if anyone has any leads on cool jobs for a history major, do feel free to pass them along! Specific areas of interest include helping people, ancient Japan and the Crusades--an eclectic mix, to be sure.)

So between all that talking and all that writing, I'm thinking my brain needs to go on a word hunt. Or a vacation. Luckily, both of those activities (or would they be non-activities?) require a lot of doing nothing. Which is precisely what I plan to do for the next couple of days.