Wednesday, November 30, 2011

RTW: Best Book of November

Road Trip Wednesday is a "Blog Carnival," where YA Highway's contributors post a weekly writing- or reading-related question that begs to be answered. In the comments, you can hop from destination to destination and get everybody's unique take on the topic.

This week's topic: What's the best book you read in November?

I'm a cheating cheater. I'm cheating because I'm still actually reading the best book I've read this month, but, hey, it's still November, and though I'm only halfway through Laini Taylor's Daughter of Smoke and Bone, I bet I will finish it tonight, before the month ends, and I can assure you that it is the best book I've read this month.

(And I read some great books this month.)

My friend Jessica Love sent me a signed copy of Daughter of Smoke and Bone as a surpriseb (because she is awesome). She'd been talking the book up for awhile, and though Jess and I have very similar reading tastes, I hadn't made the move and picked it up yet. My TBR pile is threatening to topple my bookshelves, so I figured I'd get to it when I got to it.

When the book arrived in the mail, I read the first page. And I knew then it was something special.

The writing is fantastic: ethereal, full of voice and punch, and so funny at times. In a genre overrun with first-person voice (not that I'm complaining; I like first-person), Taylor is a master of third-person, dipping in and out of characters' thoughts and actions seamlessly.

This is the kind of book that makes me stop and wonder, "How can I do that?" It's the kind of book that makes me want to be a better writer, a more involved and careful reader, and challenges me to read outside my favorite genres.

In short, it's fantastic. I'm both anxious to find out how it ends and dreading the final page.

What was the best book you read this month?

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

RTW: Required Reading

It's my first Road Trip Wednesday! I've been a long-time reader of this tradition on the YA Highway, and on other blogs (particularly my friend Jessica Love's), but I've never participated...but I'm going to start today! I even moved my book-crush posts to make it happen. THAT's how dedicated I am.

Road Trip Wednesday is a "Blog Carnival," where YA Highway's contributors post a weekly writing--or reading--related question and answer it on their own blogs. Readers get to play along.

This week's question: In high school, teens are made to read the classics - Shakespeare, Hawthorne, Bronte, Dickens - but there are a lot of books out there never taught in schools. So if you had the power to change school curriculums, which books would you be sure high school students were required to read?

Ugh. What a great, impossible question! I would love to say something fun, like Harry Potter or Hunger Games or John Green or something fantastic like that. And while I do think all of those things are wonderful and have literary merit, I also think they are books that many teens will come across on their own.

So I have two thoughts. (And, keep in mind, I've changed books about 12 times while writing this post. But I think this is where I'm settling.)

The first is actually a wordless graphic novel. I KNOW, RIGHT. Kids would be all, Woah. Are you serious?

I've gushed about The Arrival before, but it's simply stunning, and I think it would provoke some interesting discussion about tolerance, immigration, and fitting in. Also, because it's wordless, I think it would provide students an opportunity to exercise a part of their brains that maybe they don't use as much in higher levels of school, and could also lead to some very cool class assignments. 

My other book was harder to choose. I know I'd want to do something from another culture...perhaps a classic, like the Story of Leyla and Majnun, or a more recent book that takes place in another country (like Trent Reedy's Words in the Dust). Honestly, I'd probably want to do a whole unit on foreign literature or books that take place outside the U.S. 

Pretty much, if I were a high school English teacher, kids would be in school until they were 30 because there are so many books I'd need to share with them.

What books would you teach, if you could?

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Book-Crush Tuesday: Before I Die by Jenny Downham

(Yes, I know this should be Book-Crush Wednesday. But I want to start doing Road-Trip Wednesday as part of my blog makeover, so I had to push some things around. Don't judge me.)

Every so often, there's a book that punches you in the gut with its emotional writing. It's so true, so raw, so real, that you can't help but love.

Before I Die by Jenny Downham is undoubtedly one of those books.

Before I Die is the story of 17-year-old Tessa, a terminally ill cancer patient who creates a bucket list, knowing she has months, if that, left to live. Topping her list? Sex. Also on her list? Drugs, shoplifting, typical teenaged rebellion. But as Tessa branches out into her world and experiences life, truly experiences it for the first time, her list evolves and becomes deeper: fall in love. Get married. And as time runs out, she adds small things to her list, things that tear your heart apart.

This book killed me. It was beautiful and difficult to read and powerful. There are sex scenes, but they are so well-written and justified, and the various scenes in the book are very different from each other (when you pick up the book, hopefully you'll understand why).

But the ending is the most amazing part. Downham is able to capture the sheer emotion of what happens to Tessa in this truthful, incredible way. You not only feel that you are there, you feel as if you are experiencing it, too. You feel as if this must be what it feels like to go through what Tessa is going through. It's one of the best examples of strong emotional writing I've ever read.

This book has stuck with me, over a month after I read it. It's one of the best books I've read all year. British author Jenny Downham seems to capture the emotions of this moment perfectly. Though I know she's never been through exactly what Tessa went through, I can't imagine how she could have possibly written with such truth and beauty. (Her second novel, You Against Me, is also fantastic.)

Have your tissues handy. But don't skip this one.

Of course, they've made this into a movie with a semi-lame title, Now Is Good. It stars Dakota Fanning (Obvs.) and comes out next year.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Outlining: In color!

Over the past few months, I've written a bunch of different scenes from all over the timeline of my novel in an attempt to get to know my characters better. I've written from all different POVs, different emotional states, and really let go of the linear way of thinking about drafting a novel.

I grew a ton as a writer, and I know my characters so, so well.

But, at the end of the day, I still have to piece these things together into something that looks like a novel, right?

The thing is, I have a TON of fully formed scenes, ready to go ready to revise. I just need to figure out where they fit together, how they work together in that puzzle we writers call plot.

That's when I pulled out my secret weapon:

Sticky notes.
Yes, sticky notes, my new best friend.

I was explaining my plotting troubles to my VCFA advisor (as I do), and she sent me a few links to some blog posts about plotting novels with sticky notes. I was totally fascinated. The plot of this novel started on multi-colored index cards, all because I was too afraid I was going to forget the key points. I've never really been an outliner, and that really kicked me in the butt during my last WIP. This time around, I wanted a strategy. 

The index card thing worked out, then I started writing and sort of abandoned it. But now that I have actual scenes written with no idea where to put them, the sticky notes work wonders. They allow me to move ideas around, shaping the novel as I try out different configurations of plot and character arcs. And by grouping subplots by color (romantic subplot in pink, friendship subplot in yellow, etc.), I can make sure I'm paying adequate attention to each subplot.
It's working out great, so far. I feel organized. I feel inspired. I feel prepared to move on.

Here's what my whiteboard, covered in sticky notes, currently looks like:

I can haz crappy quality photo? (When it's further along, I'll post something, uhm..not from my camera phone.)

As you can see, I'm making some connections. The beginning is more formed than the end (some of the ones hanging off the bottom really go in that big, scary, open space in the middle...I just don't know in what order yet.) You might also notice that sometimes there's a green sticky note that has a pink sticker on it, or something like that. That's because that's one subplot that's partially tied to another. Sticky notes that are stacked on top of one another in a long train go together in a chapter. Eventually, I hope to have about 30 trains of sticky notes in different colors, denoting my well-rounded chapters.

If manual labor isn't your thing, there is a sticky note computer program that lets you do essentially the same thing, but without the hassle of writing or sticking (though isn't the sticking the most fun part?)

You tell me: How do you outline or plot out your novels?

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Book-crush Wednesday: Milo: Sticky Notes and Brain Freeze

(Just a warning, as I was writing this post got kind of REAL. Also long. Also I wanted to post it sooner, but I thought it was appropriate to wait until this week. So. Yeah.)

Readers, there are some things I do that I am not proud of.

One of those things is my first encounter with the author of Milo: Sticky Notes and Brain Freeze.

In  retrospect, it's a DAMN good thing I didn't know when I first met him that the author of this brilliant middle grade novel is also responsible for THIS, otherwise I think I would have fan-girled even more embarrassingly than I did. 

I mean, seriously. He wrote the lyrics!! And who doesn't LOVE Killer Tofu??? (Unless you weren't a 90s child. Then you probably think this is weird.)

Earlier in the day, I had seen him speak in a panel with his editor, so I knew all about the book and the difficult topic it tackled — one that I related to so much I was crying in the panel. So when I saw him at the party, I knew I had to say something, and ended up kind of rambling a lot about how I couldn't wait to read it and then pretty much spilling my life story in a crowd of 1,300 people.
Our next encounter went better, I think.

Anyway, the good news is that Alan Silberberg, author of the brilliant Milo: Sticky Notes and Brain Freeze, was gracious in both our encounters, and his book is fan-freaking-tastic. He probably survived our meetings because he has a great sense of humor, which served him well in writing Milo, which won SCBWI's Sid Fleischman Award for humor.

And funny it sure is. Milo the character is real and hilariously flawed, and those flaws and that real-ness open him up to the kind of observations that produce fantastic belly laughs. The humor is so real because Milo is so real. It doesn't feel forced. It's the kind of humor writing I wish I could manage, but instead I stick to depressing topics because, well...I'm not so good at humor. Plus there are comics in the book, which are mostly funny (though some of them are so painfully sad and poignant), and Alan's artistic talent at drawing attention to just the right moment was clear. The balance of graphic text to novel text was just right.

Don't let the award or the cartoons fool you. Milo also tackles an incredibly serious subject: mother loss. Liesa Abrams, Milo's editor, said in a panel at SCBWI-LA that a frequent question while the Milo MS was making the rounds at Simon and Schuster was, "Where were you when Milo made you cry?" 

For me, that place was the hotel lobby at SCBWI.

And again in LAX. (Twice.)

As someone who lost my mom as a teenager, I can tell you that this book describes perfectly what losing a mother feels like. The book takes place years after Milo's mother's death, but he is still very much coping with what her death means. He's struggling to move on while at the same time struggling not to forgot. 

God, do I know what that feels like.

There were so many moments in this book that resonated so strongly for me. Things that I had to put the book aside and have a moment because they were so reminiscent of my own experience of my mother's death. In one scene, for example, Milo goes garage sale hopping with his friends and finds items that he is so certain belong to his mother (but realizes they probably just look like things she once owned.) I experience that every time I go to a thrift store in my area. I know we donated a bunch of her belongings, so I always look at an outfit or a dish or a knick-knack and think, "This must have been hers." And now that I'm a semi-fashionable adult and wear scarves, I get angry every day that we donated her scarf collection — I could have had a daily reminder of her.

But that's what Milo does so well. For me, it was therapy. It showed me it was OK to move on, and that it wasn't forgetting. 

My mom died eight years and two days ago. I am an adult, and Milo helped me cope. I can't imagine how wonderful this book must be for children, middle-graders, who are going through something like this.

And even for those who aren't, it's a fantastic, heart-warming, funny book full of belly-laughs and tearful moments.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Fabulous Picture Books!

My friends Jennie and Jacki and I were discussing picture books at the Decatur Book Festival this weekend, and I mentioned to them that I really love a specific type of humor in my picture books; the kind of post-modern, quirky, bizarre humor that Jon Scieszka and Mo Willems so perfectly write. In my quest to find more books like theirs, I have read a LOT of picture books – some which actually have this kind of humor, and some which are just awesome on their own.

As I was talking, Jennie said, "You should blog about that."

So I am.

Here are four fantastic picture books that I've read since January. It's safe to say that, even though I'm not including any Jon Scieszka or Mo Willems on this list, since they are my inspiration for it, I think pretty much everything they write is awesome. (Especially that Scieszka dude. He's pretty much flawless. Also, his last name rhymes with FRESCA. You're welcome.) These books are more in the metafiction/weird humor categories; I've read some traditional ones I've loved, as well. Feel free to ask if you want to know about those.

Book 1: Nothing by Jon Agee

I love this book! This was the first Agee book I read, and it caused me to go on an Agee streak. Though I loved a few others, as well (particularly the alphabet book Z Goes Home, which almost made it onto this list instead), no other book has captured my heart as much as Nothing. 

The concept of this book is so fun and simple. Shop owner Otis has sold the last antique in his shop, and therefore has nothing for sale. But then the richest woman in town comes in, insisting she must have this "nothing." Otis, not wanting to let her down, sells it to her and loads it into her car. Soon, shops all around the town are selling nothing, and the townsfolk throw away all their stuff to make room for more nothing. It's a fantastic satire on mob mentality and consumer culture, but not something that would go over a kid's head. In fact, it's the perfect book to use to bring up that type of discussion, if it's something you're interested in talking to your children about. Otherwise, it's just plain funny.

Book 2: The Book that Eats People by John Perry, Illustrated by Mark Fearing

This picture book is metafiction at its best! It's The Monster at the End of this Book for the 21st century! So, naturally, I love it.

The book is literally about a book that eats people — and that book is the book that readers are holding in their hands. It's a little bit scary, yes, but the concept is so ridiculous and the illustrations so outlandish that I don't think a child could actually be frightened by this book. Especially if they read it with their parent, and the parent got interactive, making the book chomp on their little toes while reading! (I don't know if that makes me a horrible person or an awesome person. Probably both.)

Also, can we talk about that author's last name? Mark FEARING? Yeah. Loves it.

Book 3: Let's Do Nothing! by Tony Fucile

This is a great example of a book where the author/illustrator combo definitely comes in handy. I don't think one person could have written this and then passed it off to another to illustrate, because the text and the illustrations lose themselves in one another.

Let's Do Nothing! is about two kids who try to, well, do nothing for an afternoon. They sort of make it into a contest, but that little dude there on the right (the one with the glasses. Of course.) keeps messing everything up with his big imagination. It's a simple concept, but it stuck with me months after I read it.

Maybe that's because I'm lazy and like to do nothing.

 Book 4: The Pencil by Alan Ahlberg, Illustrated by Bruce Ingman
Oh, how I love this tale of "a pencil, a lonely little pencil" and all the things he draws to keep himself company: a boy, a dog, a kitty, a paintbrush, an entire village, and eventually a sadistic eraser who destroys everything! There is something so simple and beautiful about it, and just a little bit sad, too, but also sweet and fun. The illustrations are just gorgeous, but the story is fantastic, too.

I mean, really, I could go on and on (and on and on and on) about all the fantastic picture books in the world. When one really strikes me, I'll post it for a Book-Crush Wednesday. But this is a good starting place if you're new to picture books.

OK, so you might be asking yourself (or me): "Self/Heather, Why would I want to read picture books? I don't have kids. I don't write picture books. This seems like a giant waste of my time!"

On the contrary, dear reader. Picture books can teach you about rhythm and word choice and language and comedic timing and using the space on a page and a whole host of things that books for older readers are harder to study. Writing a picture book, just one picture book, will give you immense appreciation for how hard the craft is, and will show you the power of choosing your words carefully, which is definitely something that can be carried into novel writing. Plus, if you've never written and revised a piece from start to finish...well, there is definitely something gratifying in doing that exercise and starting small.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Decatur Book Festival Highlights!

Hello readers!

I'm back from the Decatur Book Festival!

OK, I got back yesterday, but we're going to ignore that fact. It was late and I was sleepy. Atlanta is many, many hours from here.

Let's talk highlights!


Do I even need to say more?

That's right. There were copies of LOLA AND THE BOY NEXT DOOR. ON. SALE. Weeks before release! There were only a limited number, though, and I managed to snag one. It was one of the highlights of the festival.

Here's how it went down:

Sunday morning was a late-start day, but I got to the festival grounds around noon. I figured I would goof off and shop, eat a corn dog and a popsicle, and participate in general merriment until 1, when I'd sit in in the panel before the panel with Rachel Hawkins, Jackson Pearce, and Victoria Schwab, which was set for 2. It was a pretty great plan, and it worked out great.

Except the 1pm panel cancelled.

It didn't make sense to go spend more time at the main part of the festival, plus it was raining, plus I'm lazy, so I just tweeted for awhile and then looked bored. Eventually I thought I'd take a look at the books on sale, even though I knew I already owned everything I wanted and basically I didn't need more.

I swear, sometimes the books just call to me, readers.

While I was standing over there, someone asked this little girl (who must have been around 12, and I don't think she knew what she was in for) if they had copies of LOLA. The girl said "Oh, yeah, totally!" and opened a box. It was like freaking Pandora's box. Chaos! I managed to snag two copies, one for myself and one for my friend Jess, and was just about to text the friends I was at the festival with to tell them to head over and grab their own copies when they ran out. I had no idea copies were so limited, but I am overjoyed to have gotten one.

I've already finished it, naturally. It was fantastic. But more on that in another post.

2. The authors! Here's a little list for you:

Rachel Hawkins
Jackson Pearce
Victoria Schwab
Beth Revis
Myra McEntire
Elizabeth Eulberg
Terra Elan McVoy
Stephanie Perkins
Lauren Myracle
Libba Bray

And that's just a few! There were a TON of fantastic authors there, I couldn't even list them all! I got face time with some of my favorites (even though the crowds were seriously intense), and the panels were FANTASTIC. Lauren Myracle talked about SHINE (which you know I loved...have you read it yet???) Libba Bray did a BEAUTY QUEENS MadLibs, which was awesome. She also told the story about how she became a writer, which makes me cry. Rachel Hawkins, Jackson Pearce, and Victoria Schwab were HILarious together. And over all the whole thing was just fantastic.

3. These women:

These women are amazing. They made the festival for me, and I loved seeing some of them again and meeting some of them for the first time. You should get to know all of them.

Top: Tameka, from Imperfection is the New Pink; Jacki from Lovely Little Shelf; Crystal from Life, Love, and Literature; and Ashley from That's Life

Bottom: Julie from Book Hooked; Jennie from Life is Short, Read Fast; and Me!

I can say with confidence that I will make the trip to Atlanta as long as I am in close proximity, because the Decatur Book Festival is a seriously amazing time!! If you're within distance, I definitely suggest adding it to your calendar (and even if you're not...these ladies came from all over)!

I'll be posting more specifics about the panels and more pictures in the coming week!

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Book-crush Wednesday: Shine by Lauren Myracle

I don't even know how to begin talking about this book, you guys.

But I need to tell you about it. I need to tell you about it so much that, when I read it (months in May), I immediately thought, "OMG. I need to start blogging again immediately so that people can know how awesome this book is." (Instead I tweeted about it. Twice. And because she is awesome, Lauren Myracle tweeted me back and made my day.)

And I still don't think my 140-character gush-a-thon did this book justice. It is easily my favorite book I read this year (and I've read some fantastic books this year), and it's working it's way into my all-time top 10 (a hard list to crack).

But I have to tell you about it. Because you need to know.

OK, here we go:

Shine is the story of 16-year-old Cat, who is searching for the truth behind her former best friend Patrick's brutal attack. Myracle throws us right into the midst of a horrific hate crime. It opens with a newspaper clipping describing the crime and giving a strong sense of the characters we will meet in the book. The setting is a small Southern town — tons of tension (much more on that in a bit). The pace is slow in the beginning, but in a good way. Cat is working the mystery out, putting the clues together in a very Veronica Mars way. As the mystery comes together, Cat grows as a character, becoming more sure of herself. The book is emotionally intense and so, so powerful — it's sure to stick with you long after you've put it down.

The last 50 pages of the book are FILLED with suspense — Myracle does such an excellent job developing all the characters that you know what they're each capable of, and by the time the stakes are the highest, you are terrified of what could happen if even the slightest thing goes wrong.

The ending of this book is perfect. It is sad and terrible, but hopeful and beautiful, too. I cried and hugged the book when I was done. I didn't want it to end, but it ended exactly the way it should have. Myracle made bold choices, she wasn't afraid to take risks, and it shows. (She also isn't afraid to talk about sex and drugs, but it's not done to excess. It fits in with the plot, and the way it's layered in, it would be strange if these elements were absent. It's flawless, really.)

But what I admire most about Shine is how fully the characters embody the setting. This book was actually suggested to me by my VCFA advisor last semester (Mary Quattlebaum, who actually reviewed the book for the Washinton Post), who said that it took place in the South and was a great example of a book with a strong sense of setting.

I almost didn't read it. I hate books that take place in the South.

No offense to Southerners (I sort of am one, depending on your definition of Southern), but often what I call "Southern books" are just tiring to read. It's all about people who move slow as molasses and drink sweet tea on their porches and speak in dialect. They just have this quality to them that exhausts me and doesn't interest me in the slightest.

That wasn't the case at all with Shine. The language was absolutely beautiful, but more than that, the setting became so much a part of the characters that it felt natural, not forced. I noticed it and didn't notice it at the same time. My favorite example of this is when Cat brings dinner to her father, who lives in a trailer behind her aunt's house. Dinner is fried chicken, greens, mashed potatoes, a biscuit, and green beans. Her dad is reclining in a La-Z-Boy, and he reaches under the chair to pull out a bottle of Aunt Jemima maple syrup. He doses his entire plate in syrup before resting the plate on his huge belly and digging in.

Obviously, Myracle's description of the scene is written much more beautifully than mine. But I didn't want to grab my copy and look it up for two reasons. First, I wanted to show you that, months later, I still remember the very specific details Myracle uses to set the scene — naming Southern brands, for example. Doesn't that whole act just ooze The South to you?

But mostly I just want you to go out and get the book so you can read the scene (and the rest of the book) for yourself :)

In related news, I'm heading to the Decatur Book Festival this weekend, and Lauren Myracle will be there talking all about Shine! I'm going to try to keep my fan-girl squealing to a minimum, but it will be tough. I'll report back on her panel (and the others!) next week when I get back.

Monday, August 29, 2011

It's all about word choice

So you know when you're writing a scene and it's just not working? And you can't really figure out why? I'm here to tell you:

It's all about word choice.

This is a lesson I'm learning the hard (but fun!) way through my advisors at VCFA, and it's true about so many things it's not even funny. Word choice is why adverbs are evil. Word choice takes a ho-hum scene and turns it into an OMGSCENEOFAWESOME. The difference between "hug" and "caress," between "walk" and "stagger," between "loud" and "explosive" is quite huge. 

But it's not always easy to figure out what the right word or group of words is to set the scene you want to create. Just the other night, for example, I was trying to write a kissing scene. (My favorite!) But not just any kind of kissing scene — a very specific kind. I wanted to write a more romantic kissing scene, the kind where it's clear the two characters are falling in love, where it's not about lust or passion, but about romance and tenderness. 

And I was really struggling. 

So I took a step back. I watched some videos of kissing scenes. (Totally for research. I swear.) Then I did my favorite kind of brainstorming: I created a wordlist for the scene. 

A wordlist can be a great way to set the mood for a scene you're struggling with. Basically, the goal is to create a list of words that remind you of that scene — but they don't all have to be related to that scene or the action taking place in it. For example, on my kissing list, I included words like "hold" "pull" and "lips," but I also included words that simply felt that they belonged in that scene, such as "sheer," "light," "slip," and "warmth." As I was watching the kissing videos, any words that came to mind that reminded me of the scene I was trying to create went on the list, even if they had nothing to do with kissing.

You can do this for any scene. A fight scene might have words like cut, beat, black, hard, and so on. Cut and beat obviously would be involved in fighting, but black? Hard? Those simply feel like they belong in a fight scene, even though the actual words have nothing to do with fighting. (And of course, you can disagree. Your word list will look nothing like mine.)

When you're done with your list, you have a foundation for your scene. You can take your list of words and try to build your scene around it. You don't want to over do it — just a few choice words sprinkled throughout the scene will help set the right tone and mood.

So the next time you're stuck trying to create the right mood for a scene, try a word list, or swap out some of the more dull, drab words in your scene for something with a little more punch. It will make a huge world of difference.

Do you have any tactics for helping you set the mood for a scene? How do you make sure the words you're choosing are right?

Saturday, August 27, 2011

On rejection (Or: I'm a real writer now)

There is something about rejection that makes you feel like a real writer.

I'm not sure what it is, but it's like there's something in that "Thanks, but no thanks" letter that bonds you to all the other thousands of writers out there, struggling to make it, trying to figure out how to get that story published or that article accepted.

(Ok, I can't really talk about articles, because I've had about a bazillion articles published by now. But I don't really care about the articles I've written because they all have boring titles like "HHS announces new ACA initiative" or "Brokers weigh individual mandate." BOR-ING.)

So back in March, when I was being lazy busy and couldn't blog, I submitted a short story to a magazine. I was pretty excited, even though I knew the competition was extremely stiff. I thought my story was pretty freakin' cute, and well-written, and it seemed in line with the other stories in the magazine.

A few days ago, my SASE came back in the mail.

(OK, let me stop here and say the SASE system is torture. First, I spent the six month period they tell you it will take to hear back wondering if my story even GOT there (yes, I realize now I could have bought shipping confirmation/tracking. But who has that kind of money to throw around?) Then, when you do get your SASE back, your rejection letter is addressed in your own handwriting.

It's just kind of depressing, is all.)

Anyway, so the letter came back, and it was fat. And I got really excited, because fat letters are usually good, right? 

Well, in this case, they were kind enough to return my story along with my form rejection.

Let me make this clear: I am totally NOT lamenting this rejection or blaming the magazine. I kind of loved the whole experience, actually: sending it out, waiting (OK, maybe that part I didn't like), hearing back. It was my first real professional writing experience (since I started taking this whole writing thing seriously, anyway), and it was amazing.

Now I just have to think of something creative to do with the letter. Stephen King hung his on a tack. A friend of mine suggested keeping a chart with a gold star for every rejection.

Do you have a creative/fun way to keep track of your rejections? 

(P.S. Thank you all so much for welcoming me back with such lovely open arms! I was kind of paranoid that everyone would be all "Who?" when I posted or not really care. But you didn't and that's awesome and I think you're pretty swell, too.)

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Well, hello there.

I took an accidental 8-month hiatus.

I really didn't mean to.

I honestly had no idea how much time school and freelancing would take, and then some stuff happened personally and basically I just needed a little break. But then tonight I was doing some character research, and I Googled Rachel Vail's character questions, trying to find the list of questions Rachel Vail asks her characters to answer for herself (based on an awesome workshop I attended during SCBWI-LA 2010) and I found a link to MY blog. Which was weird. So I clicked on it and got sucked into the void of reading it and realized something:

My blog was pretty great, and I loved writing it. Further more, I miss writing it.

So, I'm back. I have no idea if any of you have stuck around, but if you have, you'll get a gold star and an Internet hug from me. Actually, you'll get this, which I think is so funny it makes me gigglesnort Orange-flavored San Pellegrino out of my nose when I see it.

(I suppose that's not really considered a present in the Internet world. But I still think it's awesome.)

Here are some bullet points about what I've been up to in the last 8 months. Because I like bullet points:
  • I started a new novel!
  • I stopped working on a project and decided to shelve it for awhile. That was a tough decision, because I love the project, but I don't think the time is right just now.
  • I survived my first semester at VCFA! I'm now a second semester student and loving it even more. 
  • I read a crapload of books, many of which you'll be hearing about in my Book-Crush Wednesday feature!
  • I went to SCBWI-LA 2011! It was amazing! 
I think that pretty much sums it up.'s good to be back :)

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Does that character NEED to be there?

I mentioned before that while I was in Vermont, I had the first 20 pages of my brand-new shiny WIP workshopped. I didn't mention that I also had one of the grad assistants, a published middle-grade author, take a look at it. She offered me some excellent feedback, particularly because I was able to tell her exactly what I was most concerned about in the piece and ask if this or that was working.

There is one character in my new project that I had particular reservations about. The character is sort of an antagonist to my main character, and I was afraid that by her very nature she would offend and alienate an entire group of people, thus making those readers hate me, my book, and any subsequent book I would publish (dream big, readers!). The GA said that was a possibility and offered a few suggestions for how I could fix that. Then, she said something that kind of blew my mind:

"But I you even need this character at all?"

I have stacks of notecards on my end table outlining the plot of this book, giving character descriptions, linking emotional through-lines and explaining how the subplots interconnect. So as I sat in this teacher's lounge, the snow pummeling the ground outside the window, my mind flipped through all those cards, and I could not for the life of me think of one actual reason why I truly needed that character. She had some great one-liners, and she provided a nice thwart to my main character in the first few chapters. But in terms of the big picture, I didn't really need her. I had a few plans for her, but ultimately, the book could stand just fine without her.

Sometimes it's hard to see these things in the first draft. Heck, it's hard to see these things in the second, third, or fourth draft. But it's important to ask yourself, with every single character in your book -- "Does this character NEED to be here? Is he/she essential to the plot?" This is one of the things people are referring to when they say "Kill your darlings." Related to this question, but still just as important: "Could this character's role be fulfilled by another character already on the page?"

We've all read books where there are so many minor characters it's hard to keep them straight. When the author gives each character specific, essential roles and individual character traits, it's not really a problem. Our minds can keep track of these characters because the author has done such an excellent job keeping them apart, giving them their own unique role both in the plot and in the world created within the book (Anna and the French Kiss is a recent example of a book that I think does an excellent job of giving even minor characters important roles and individual characterizations.) But when there are too many unnecessary characters, it's easy for the reader to become frustrated -- particularly if they're having to flip back pages to see who is related to whom (which I've had to do before -- lame!) 

On the flip side, there is the danger that if you only show the part of the characters that is essential to the plot, or if the characters only pop up when they're absolutely necessary, the characters will become, to borrow an (admittedly adult) term I learned at VCFA, your "plot bitches," there to serve you and only you, to move your plot forward and nothing else. Characters need to have lives of their own, and if they're popping up conveniently only to serve your plot and retreating into the shadows, waiting to strike again when the plot thickens...well, that's no good either. 

As always, writing characters that are essential the plot but still have lives outside of it is a delicate balance.

If only this writing thing were easy.

Friday, January 28, 2011

New Stories, Old Stories, And Balancing Life

I've been home from Vermont for a week now, and have read four novels, four picture books, and one non-fiction chapter book. I wrote a critical essay and worked a little on my creative work, which is a BRAND NEW story, which is kind of exciting and sort of scary.

The thing is, I never planned to try to write two novels at once. I thought I'd be totally finished with my old (I don't want to call it old...can we say original? That's nicer.) WIP by the time I started at VCFA, and the faculty and other students encourage you to start with something fresh so your mind is open to changing things around, slashing characters, etc. But my mind if pretty open to that anyway, so when one of my readers made an excellent case for redeeming a character who didn't make it to the end of the book (and, let's face it, who I was pretty much looking for an excuse to save anyway), I decided to go for it. Which left me with a new book to start for VCFA, and another round of revisions on my original WIP.

Since they're totally different stories, with different voices, I'm making it work. It's just very, very slow going. And I'm trying not to neglect my husband or my tiny dogs in the process, because even husbands and tiny dogs need love.

My key for success to working on two stories at once is to take time in between. Generally speaking, I never work on both stories on the same day, and if I do, there will be a work shift or some other long gap if time in between me opening the documents. During that time, I stop thinking about the story I was previously working on, and start getting into the head of my new character. One story is mostly a present tense POV in a contemporary setting, and the other is a past tense in a future setting, so when I switch to the future setting I think about the jargon and slang they use, examine the maps of the area I created, etc.

Before I pull up the documents, I completely shut anything related to the "wrong" story, and pull up all my images from the "right" one, so that I won't be tempted by anything unrelated to my current writing. Another thing that helps is that my original WIP is much further along, so I have to push myself to get better, more polished writing out. My new WIP is still in the drafting stages, so I can be a little messier -- though since it's for VCFA work, I want it to be cleaner than I would normally produce for a first draft. Basically, I think this is working because the two projects are so very different in terms of plot, characters, setting, and even the stage in the writing process -- if they were at all alike, I would be failing miserably.

Also, on an unrelated note, I think I need to finally cave and spend some time converting that weird, empty third bedroom into an actual office space, because right now there are library books consuming my end table, dinning table, dresser, and the bookshelf in our pseudo-office is about to topple because it's so front-loaded. Which is probably a safety hazard.

What about you? Can you balance multiple stories at once? Or do you, like my usual self, tend to have a one-track mind?

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Living with Writers

First of all, today is 1/11/11! Which means it's the debut of the FABULOUS Across the Universe by Beth Revis! I haven't Book-Crush Wednesday-ed this yet because I've been kind of lazy, but the book is awesome so you should BUY IT.

With that totally important announcement out of the way, I'm going to talk about how awesome it is to live surrounded by writers. Don't get me wrong. I love my husband and my pooches (duh.) and living with them is pretty great.

But being here at VCFA, where I can turn to my roommate and say, "Hey Shayda, what did you think about this phrase in the first chapter of my WIP?" And I can get INSTANT FEEDBACK??? Pretty amazing. It's like having a live-in revision assistant! So if any of my CPs or people in my writing group (you know who you are!) or just general awesome writing bloggers want to move in, we do have two spare bedrooms available.

Tonight at residency, after a day full of lectures and a wonderful afternoon workshop where we broke into our small groups and discussed some work by fellow students (my brand-new shiny WIP is being discussed next week), we got a chance to break into our class years and do a little reading of any work we wanted. I read from the first chapter of my WIP, which I've been working on for about a year now. It was SO FUN to read from it, and I really felt good to be sharing my hard work with fellow students. Everyone seemed to enjoy it, and gasped in the appropriate places, and afterwards I got some comments saying that it was "creepy" (that's a good thing) and that people liked it, so I'm really glad I decided to read.

Part of your graduating residency involves an extended reading, so I want to start practicing now. Plus I like to read. A lot.

I'm still having a great time. And I'm still exhausted. But I love this place. Even if it's cold and snowy (maybe because it's cold and snowy? Who knows!)

Monday, January 10, 2011

An Award-Winning Day

I didn't win any awards today - but I did get up close and personal with a few VCFA faculty members and visiting lecturers who have.

This morning, the YA industry was abuzz with the ALA awards, and of course the fabulous Rita Williams-Garcia won a Newbery Honor for One Crazy Summer, as well as the Coretta Scott King Book Award. Since she's on the faculty here at VCFA, she's on campus today, so when she walked into the cafeteria at lunch time, everyone cheered.

Today, the first semester students had lunch with faculty members in assigned seats, and my assigned seat was right across from Rita Williams-Garcia. She was aglow from her wins, but so, so humble about everything. Mostly we talked about books, life, and writing with the other students and faculty members at the table. Later in the evening, the entire children's MFA program cheered for her when she was introduced at the opening remarks. She blushed and waved her hands, and I realized that this is absolutely the perfect place to be when you receive such wonderful news.Who better to understand and appreciate such success than fellow writers?

At night, we had a funny, charming, and touching guest lecture from Katherine Paterson. You might know her name. She's kind of a big deal. She was also totally approachable, and talked about her career and experiences in a way that even I - an unagented, unpublished writer - could relate to.

So I didn't win any awards today. But being surrounded by such prolific authors who have achieved such astounding's pretty inspiring. And learning from them makes me feel like I have won something, after all.

(I know. I'm totally cheesy.)

Sunday, January 9, 2011

I'm here! (Or, Vermont is cold and hilly.)

So I'm sitting inside my dorm room on VCFA's campus (next to my roommate and one of my CPs, Shayda, yay!). We just got back from dinner our introduction and meet-up with the grad assistants (you can tell they keep us busy - I had to stop this post halfway through and come back!), where we met several other VCFA-ers.

I'll get there eventually. But let me start at the beginning.

I almost didn't make it to campus today.

For the last half week or so, I've been in Connecticut, attending the wedding of my college best friend, Lindsay. (I would include a picture here, but the only ones so far uploaded onto the Interwebs are terrible. Sorry, folks. I'm not as photogenic as my avatar would lead you to believe.) It's been snowing like crazy, and visions of the Greyhound bus I was planning to take from CT to VT crashing and burning into a snow-filled bank filled my head as I slept last night.

That didn't happen. But I did set the alarm clock wrong, and woke up 20 minutes late - which could make the difference for a bus rider.

Fortunately, everything worked out in the end, and I'm here in lovely Montpelier, soaking it all in.

Isn't it GORGEOUS?

 Full disclosure: I didn't take this picture. It was kind of gray today. This looks prettier.

I arrived at the Greyhound stop in downtown Montpelier, only a little later than scheduled, then pulled out my phone to call a cab to take me to campus. I'd heard it was a HIKE up the hill, so I thought calling a cab would be easier. 

Problem is, I didn't know the cab numbers I had were all for companies in Burlington. Which doesn't help me. When I'm in Montpelier. 
I called 411 and they connected me to a cab company in my hometown of Clearwater, FL. (How helpful!!!) So I decided to brave it and walk. I almost headed in the wrong direction, but happened to see a person walking by with luggage and asked if she went to VCFA. She didn't, but she pointed me in the right direction. She too warned me about the hill, but I assured her I would be fine.

I definitely was not fine.
I wish I had pictures of the hill. I wish I'd had the energy to stop and take a picture. It was...intense. And it kept. On. Going. In the snow. Dragging two suitcases and a giant purse behind me. Fortunately the kindnesss of strangers prevailed, and someone pulled over to offer their help. (Bonus! That person was originally from Florida - small world!) Apparently all it takes for me to get in a car with a total stranger is total and severe exhaustion. 

So now I'm settled in. I've met Shayda (yay!), and many of the other students - our year and a few other years. We range in age from early twenties to 60 and older. We're talking about our love of reading and writing and it's just wonderful.
There's an energy here already; I can feel it in the air. I can't wait to get started. 

P.S. I know it's Sunday, so I should do a link post. But it's VCFA day! So no links this week. Sorry folks, I am woefully behind on my blog-reading.
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