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Why writers need to shut down their computers and go away:

Ode to a Book (1) (excerpted)

When I close a book I open life.
I hear
faltering cries
among harbours.

Book, let me go.
I won’t go clothed
in volumes, I don’t come out
of collected works,
my poems
have not eaten poems —
they devour exciting happenings,
feed on rough weather,
and dig their food
out of earth and men

I learned about life
from life itself,
love I learned in a single kiss
and could teach no one anything
except that I have lived
with something in common among men,
when fighting with them,
when saying all their say in my song.

PABLO NERUDA Odas Elementales (1954)

 

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So, as you probably know I’ve been writing these books for the past three years lately at 5:00 a.m. and 11:00 p.m. and sitting in hockey rinks when I can find the time.

The process goes something like this:

Write:

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Query:

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REJECTION:

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repeatrepteatrepeatrepeatrepeatrepeat

Of course there were some other steps. There was endless revision, polishing my words until they were bright and shiny, and the constant, endless, and incredible editorial eyes of my outstanding readers and  critique partners, especially Kate and Alina, and the super sekrit LB writer group.* And there were moments of excitement and encouragement from agents and editors along the way. But all in all, there were a lot of head-meet-wall-moments.

*I could tell you but then I’d have to kill you

Then last week something happened. I heard from a literary agent, one who works with incredible clients, who answered all my questions and politely didn’t remark on the fact I referenced unicorns in my email to her. She once said at a conference, over a year ago, “Your story is your gold. Be true to it.” And I listened to her, and remembered, and queried her.

And she told me she wanted to represent my work.

And there was a lot of this:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

So a few days after my 40th birthday, I am delighted to be working with the amazing Marietta Zacker of the Nancy Gallt Literary Agency.

Happy Birthday to me. Stay tuned for what’s next…

Hello blog!! *dusts off corners* *straightens pictures*

Well. It has been a while, hasn’t it? This summer has been many things, but conducive to blogging has not been one of that. I sort of knew that, of course, which is why I left you all with a farewell (and a picture of a kitten) back in June. But now it’s September, and I’m back. Ish.

Why am I only back-ish? That is a question that is too long and probably boring to answer, involving a Lernaean Hydra of a to-do list and the whole I-have-two-kids-and-I-work-and-I-write-and-I’m-leaving-for-Nepal-for-a-month thing I have going on these days.

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Me: Oh hai, to-do list! How’s about I make you my monkey! List: Um…how ’bout I grow back TWO HEADS for every one you cut off, mkay???

So yeah, there’s that.

Another thing that’s been keeping me off the blog is that rereading it has made me a little sad. You see, per the title of this post, I have new junk that I’ve added to the writerly trunk. (NOTE: This has nothing to do with my bottom and whether it has gotten larger). No, this refers to the common writer’s practice of “trunking” a book that doesn’t go anywhere. And that’s exactly what I’ve done with SWIM.

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SWIM wasn’t the first thing I ever wrote. Or the second. But it was the first one I sent out in the world. It was read and reread by a team of amazing critique partners, then it went out to agentland. And while this story still kind of sings to me, it didn’t find a home. Turns out there are just too many other mermaid books that were hitting the shelves (or editors’ desks) right at the moment I was sending this around. So while I got a few ‘this is lovely but no thanks’ type of responses, no one wanted it.

So into the trunk it goes.

And that’s okay. This is a business, and no-one – NO-ONE – every said it was easy. So I’ve written another book, and actually another as well, and I’m hoping to keep pushing forward.

ImageBut I guess part of this summer, as I was swimming and diving and rolling in the ocean waves, was about saying goodbye to my first try.

I hope you had a wonderful summer. Here’s to a glorious fall.

So, school is out, camps not yet started, end-of-year shenanigans completed (5 teacher gifts, 3 crossing guard gifts, countless end-of-year party donations, 1 full day chaperoning…someone hand me a drink). I have, I confess, dropped every ball I was juggling except for the ones that were either, 1) flaming (and thus required my attention, or 2) were desperately urgent. This means that everything from the electric bill to wordage on the YA Paris book to revisions have all gone untouched. And now, in the quiet that follows the storm, I’m clueless of how to pick back up again. Especially the writing. I can’t seem to figure out what I want.

This is me lately:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Yes, much like this kitten (but far less adorably) I seem to be spending my days chasing my tail around, certain that it’s a valuable pursuit, only to discover that it’s not moving me forward as much as I hoped. So what does the non-feline. writerly version of this look like?

THIS:

 

 

 

 

 

THIS:

 

 

 

 

 

 

Or even THIS: (It’s research, dammit! I swear I’m not just looking at pictures of Paris because…oh fine. Yeah, I’m just looking at pictures of Paris because.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

(This is Rue Mouffetard. My old street and possibly one of the very best marchés in all of Paris. Le sigh.)

Anyway, what I’m not doing ANY of is writing. And I miss it.

I recently had a fascinating conversation with a child psychologist about how video games are serving the purpose that recreational drugs used to serve for disaffected kids. The games provide the same feeling of relief, of a better world, of success (regardless of its lack in real life). She discussed how satisfying these games were to kids, and how difficult it was for them to find life outside the games equally enriching. As I think about the fascinating blogs I follow, the witty conversations on Twitter, the vital relationships I sustain in cyberspace, I have to wonder how much the internet is my drug of choice. That’s not to say there’s no value to online social media. Writing is lonely and can be isolating. I’ve found amazing critique partners, great friends, loads of information about agents and publishers, and an incredible wall of support – all online. But what I haven’t found there? My revisions or my next novel.

So I think I need to try cutting waaaaay back. Facebook can live without me. Twitter (where I mostly stalk others) I’ll just avoid. And even my amazing online friends…well, maybe I’ll check in at the end of the day and report to them how many words I wrote.  As for this blog? I’ll be back sometime soon. Just hopefully after I’ve finished revisions or written a few chapters.

Happy Summer!

 

 

 

I was performing one of my least favorite household chores recently, known as the Seasonal Closet Changeover. (This sounds boring. It is. it is also incredibly awkward and involves a lot of dust and hauling of large boxes. Truly, my life, it is like an opera). Sorry, where was I?

Ah yes. I was in Dante’s fifth ring of hell, surrounded by the enormous bins of summer shoes-hats-purses-gear. And the task is fairly simple: take everything out of said enormous bins, then put all winter boots-shoes-scarves-hats-purses-gear in. Leaving aside the size differential of winter gear to summer, or the fact that my Sorels alone take up the better part of one bin, this job is miserable for one major reason.

We have too. Much. Stuff.

Too much. Just too damn much. As I empty Small Daughter’s winter bin I put in no fewer than six adorable knitted wool hats. There was the strawberry hat, the rainbow hat, the cheetah hat, the flowered hat…I could go on. And then there were the scarves. Many of them knit by her grandmother, and all lovely. But…she doesn’t wear scarves. Pretty much ever. And when she does, she needs ONE. Not nine. But they are all so great, and why would I throw away these wonderful things?

So I shoved all five bazillion scarves-hats-purses-boots into the bins, sitting on them to get them closed, and put the six bazillion pairs of sandals-espadrilles-sunhats-straw-bags in their place. Because I just couldn’t deal. It’s all good stuff, I rationalize. And I hope I can get the closet door shut before it falls back out.

And this brings me to writing. (You knew I was going there, didn’t you?) I have too many words.

(source)

Too much good stuff is a problem, especially at the revision stage. The classic writer advice is to “kill your darlings,” to be able to ruthlessly delete the precious sentences that ring like bells when read but serve no purpose. But this shizz is HARD. I recently went through a round of revision which involved writing high stakes new action scenes that put the main character in serious peril, and had him push to save those he loved. Sounds kind of like the climax, doesn’t it? Well, yeah, except I then had another 20,000 words or so, then ANOTHER climax. My wonderful critique partner Kate wrote me amazing notes and suggestions, then, using the words “crazy” “suggestion” and “maybe” several times in a row, she suggested that maybe possibly kinda-sorta I could cut…ya know…that whole second climax thing.

This is pretty much my reaction.
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(Source)

Actually, and I’m not proud of this, but I whined pretty hard. “But I love that scene!” I whined. “But that’s some really really good writing!” I sniveled. “But it’s so cool with the fire and the hog farm and medic tent and all that!” I moaned. (No, I’m not making this up, there was a fire, and pigs). Then, (and this is even more embarrassing), I said, “Well, here’s the thing. It’s pretty close to the end. If an agent reads that far she’ll probably keep reading. And if she tells me to cut, I will.”

Thank god Kate does not back down easily. They grow ’em tough in Edmonton. Ultimately, she has convinced me that rank laziness and wishful thinking will not endear me to the publishing industry. I cut the scenes. They were good, but they were just too much.

But I’ll be honest. Those scenes? They’re all saved in another document. Kind of like the scarves I can’t seem to bear to give away. You never know when something so pretty might come in handy.

I worked briefly in the world of corporate marketing, and while it didn’t really take I can say this: if you are planning to name an organization and call it by its initials, don’t go with Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. Or even worse, New England Society of Children’s book Writers and Illustrators. Because SCBWI and NESCBWI do not exactly roll off the tongue. However, it is a truly amazing organization that offers all kinds of information and resources to writers around the world. But their name kind of stinks.  So henceforth I will refer to it as NESABCDIENSHSDFIOSDPGHFG and you will all know what I am talking about.

What am I talking about? I’m talking about my first ever writer’s conference, held in sexy downtown Springfield MA, which was indeed the New England regional SCVWSDFDIOIOPI conference.

It rocked.

I was inspired by Sara Zarr, who managed to apply writing theory, psychology, and more to the excellent FROG AND TOAD books. (And she read aloud to us…all of us…in the big hotel ballroom. I absolutely luuuurve being read to).

With truly practical hands-on workshops with Kate Messner, Mitali Perkins, and their kin, I learned stuff that has already helped enormously as I slog (again!) through revisions.

And my one-on-one query letter critique with agent Ammi-Joan Paquette of the Erin Murphy Literary agency was also enlightening, mostly for showing me that my query kind of sucked (Not that Joan said that – she was a paragon of kindness and professionalism). But even that news was good! Because I haven’t sent it out yet, and now I know. *wanders off to lick wounds for a few minutes*

In some ways it was a homogenous group. After all, we were all writers or illustrators for kids, and we mostly live in the New England region (with the notable exception being the incredible, talented, hysterical, and mildly creepy Kate Boorman, who I imported from Edmonton Alberta for the event). But even within the group there was diversity of experience, of age, of interest, of talents. And it was fascinating to meet watercolor artists in their 70’s who wanted to begin illustrating books, or illustrators who have dozens of publishing credits to their name but now want to dip a toe in the oceans of writing, not just illustrating.

Jane Yolen, who is perhaps one of the funniest and most deadpan speakers I’ve ever enjoyed listening to, was the North Star of the conference. She answered questions on the first day (a notable response to one gentleman who asked about constantly having to come up with new ideas: “nobody ever said writing was for sissies!”), and gave a closing speech on the last. And though it all reminded us that this takes discipline, it is not for everyone, it is important, and it never, ever gets easy.

The woman has written over 300 books. She is called the Hans Christian Anderson of America.

And she says it’s still hard work.

Just Call me Sisyphus

So yes, SCWSIAODSDFDKLDSI is an incredible organization. I loved getting my nerd on with the aforementioned and awesome Kate Boorman, and immersing myself into the world of writing for a few days. This is a great place to learn and be inspired. Just…maybe don’t take their advice on titles.

Not blogging much, that’s for sure. But while WordPress has FAILED me miserably by eating the new page I was trying to create, I will share a fun place where I have been wasting a lot of time (and I’m pretty sure I’ve seen some of you over there *sideye*)

PINTEREST: The timesuck of 2012

Why is it so fun? Well, it’s an online bulletin board that I use to pin images and photos that evoke the book I’m working on. As someone who works almost exclusively in words, finding visual representation is both fun and challenging. And yes, I’ll admit it, distracting and a total time suck. But it’s research, so it’s allowed.

Below is the board for swim (you find find it here)

And here‘s the one for THE DANGEROUS SCHOOL, CLASS OF 2030:

What about you? Do you use Pinterest? Recipes? Crafts? Cute fluffy animals? What?

So I’ve finished three books.* One of them is sitting patiently waiting for revisions, one is currently on the operating table, and one is out in the world. Still. (Is the Bermuda Triangle located in lower Manhattan? Because it’s entirely possible my MS has been sucked into the vortex). Anyway, the question, for me, anyway, is now what?*scratches head and stares into the distance*

Do I start another book? Push hard on querying until I have an agent? Not even think about revising book three until I’ve officially finished with book one, one way or another? I have no real clue.

I have no idea.

I have gotten some really great feedback on SWIM, the young adult paranormal about a mer girl and her summer of falling in love with a human. Enough that I figured I was right about here:

On the other hand, I’ve had some pretty soul-crushing feedback as well. Enough so that I’m feeling this is a better option:

And then I’ve been told there’s no way to sell mermaids in this market, they’re done to death (unlike vampires that are done to undeath. Bwahahahhahahaha. Sorry). So then I think I should just move on and try to query the next one.

In short: mull mull mull. I’m mulling over all of this stuff.

It’s kind of easy to get frozen in this mulling stage. And that’s not really helpful, no matter what I decide.

Then I read a blog post by another YA author Natalie Whipple. She wrote a post about “10 Things I Would Have Done Differently” in her publishing journey (her first book Transparent, is coming out in 2013). While I encourage you to click on the link and read the post, some of her wishes were as follows:

1. I wish I didn’t query so soon. While I learned a lot from querying four novels, I also think I caused myself more pain and rejection than necessary. The thing is, deep down I knew my work wasn’t really ready, but I’d hoped to get in anyway. I was being lazy, trying to do as little as possible.
2. I wish I didn’t spend so much time online. I have made great connections and learned a TON from being part of the online community, but at the same time it distracted me from the most important aspect of being a writer—writing. I did it the wrong way. I networked first, focused on my writing second. It should be the other way around.
3. I wish I hadn’t cared so much about getting published. That probably sounds weird, but it’s one of my biggest regrets. I spent more time trying to be a Published Author than trying to be a Good Writer. It was only when I put being a Good Writer first that the whole Published Author part followed.
4. I wish I’d spent more time studying the craft. I used to think my natural talent would get me through the gate. I would write stories without much thought to if the plot worked or not, if the characters were real or not, if the world made sense or not. I feel like I squandered my talent for a long time because I relied solely on talent instead of pushing myself to get better.
5. I wish I took editing seriously. I spent way too long doing edits that did not cut it. Sadly, it wasn’t until my 8th book that I really learned how to revise. Before that, I would do as little as humanly possible to satisfy my crit partners’ concerns. I never made big enough changes, never believed I NEEDED to make bigger changes. It was only when I really dug in, saw my story as malleable, that I truly improved.
6. I wish I didn’t follow publishing news so closely. Learning about major deals and tours and cover reveals and all that only made me antsy and frustrated. I could have used my time obsessing over those things to write a stellar book. Or five. And I would have had more confidence to do it, too.
7. I wish I spent more time living and less time waiting. Sitting around refreshing my inbox got me nowhere. It sounds harsh, but I wasted a lot of time letting The Wait torture me. I could have been living, doing new things, gaining experiences that would create new stories for me to write. Writing, while it is a lot of work, also requires inspiration, and I let myself get low on that.

She continues, but I think the kernel of wisdom is right there for me. Spend less time waiting and more time living. Focus on the craft. And don’t worry about getting published.

So I still don’t know what I’m going to do next. There is a traffic jam of ideas waiting to get out of my head. There are three books I’m really proud of waiting to get edited and polished and cleaned up some more. There are always more stories to be told.

Hopefully, I’ll get to tell them all.

But in the meantime the days are getting longer and there are adventures to have outside with Small Daughter and Large Son. So my plan is to keep writing, keep revising, and not waste too much time waiting. Because no matter what the destination, it’s always worth making the journey as wonderful as possible.

 

 

*by three books I mean three books that are worthy of the MBs they’re stored on, as opposed to whatever brain droppings may have come before.

 

 

This could almost work as Monday Book Love, because I really enjoyed Mike Mullin‘s book ASHFALL. It is a very cool premise: a normal fifteen-year-old boy Alex is home alone when the supervolcano brewing under Yellowstone National Park explodes. The world is covered in ash and Alex begins his journey away from his ruined home to find his family.

It’s pretty awesome. There’s the scary. There’s the really nasty. There’s the kindness. There’s the sexy stuff.

Ah, there’s the rub. There’s some sexy stuff. Not really sexy, mind you. Not like, Harlequin Romance style. More a very sweet, kind, realistic and honest relationship between Alex and Darla, the girl he meets and ultimately travels with.

So here’s the thing. In his blog post, author Mike Mullin talks about how he gets lots of disapproval and general grief for the brief, caring, off-screen “sexual content” of his book, while no one* seems to be particularly concerned by the violence. And by violence I mean VIOLENCE. Not DIE HARD style, exactly, but there are heads blown off by guns, eyes knocked out…yeah. Violence.

Reading Mullin’s post was deeply refreshing. And completely in line with what I believe. So I’ll share his words, and the link so you can read the whole thing.

Well done, M. Mullin. If you need help on that censorship campaign, just let me know. I’m behind you all the way.

I WRITE DIRTY BOOKS AND I’M PROUD OF IT

Here’s one of the questions I’ve been asked frequently about my debut novel, ASHFALL: “Is it clean?” The first time the question came up, I was taken aback—what did he mean? I examined the stack of books on the table beside me—had I spilled my coffee and not noticed? After checking over a couple of the books, I reassured the questioner—yep, they’re clean. 

 The librarian standing next to me was shaking her head. “He’s asking about the content,” she whispered. “Oh,” I replied, “it’s about an apocalypse, realistically depicted. It’s violent.”

 “That’s fine,” said the guy—a pastor—picking up a copy.

 The librarian was still shaking her head. “There are, um, sexual situations in the book,” she said. The guy’s eyes widened, he set down the book, and marched away.

 You’ve got to be kidding me, I thought, any kind of violence is okay but the mere mention of sex is not? ASHFALL has a scene in which Alex, the hero, knocks a man’s eye out of his skull. That’s better than two teens exploring their mutual attraction in a responsible, loving way? What exactly does that say about our culture? (None of the sex in ASHFALL is explicit, by the way—it all happens “off-screen,” during the chapter breaks. But if it were explicit, so what? It’s not an illustrated book.)

thought the pastor might be an aberration, but sadly, he wasn’t.  At one school I visited, the librarian prepared the students by reading the eye-popping scene out loud but scolded me for including fade-to-black “sex” scenes in the book.

I maintained my sense of indignation for months. Perversely, every time I was asked if ASHFALL was clean, I’d say no, it’s violent. I held out hope that eventually I’d find someone who would turn away from my work because of the violence, not because of a responsible teenage romance—gasp—realistically depicted. But if those people are out there—those who value love more highly than war—they’re awfully quiet.

The rest of his post can be found here. I encourage you to read it. And to read ASHFALL…even if you’re only looking for the dirty parts.

*Of  course I did not take a poll of every librarian and bookseller in the world and ask if they were okay with the eye-ball poking scene but freaked out by the loving, hoping to have safe-sex scenes. Consider this my waiver against statements of hyperbole.

I am in the revision cave with THE DANGEROUS SCHOOL, CLASS OF 2030, and oh, a smelly, skanky, nasty cave it is.

This is NOT my cave

Yeah, more like this one

I’ll be honest. I’m not loving writing this right now. I’m distracted, I’m restless, and I really want a co-writer so I can say, “you know what – you take this damn game scene that’s eating me for lunch!” But there is no one to say that to (or at least no one to respond the way I want, which is by saying, “okay, I’ll get right on that while you book yourself a well-deserved vacation. I’ll call you when we have a book deal.”)
But despite the pain, I love this book so hard. I really do. I love the characters, and I love the battles they have to fight, and I just want to do it justice. So to help motivate me, because this revision cave is really lonely and echo-chamber-y, I’m kicking it old school and posting a Tuesday tease. Here we go:

From Chapter One

The Danger Awareness Buzzer at the bus station droned with a steady annoying beep. Hill glanced up at the vidscreen projected above it. There was nothing new in the scrolling list of dangers: eco-terrorists in Nueva York had halted the subway lines but no one was injured, Boston curfew was starting an hour earlier due to shorter daylight hours, contamination at the Protmeat plant had slowed production and moderate food shortages were expected. Nothing unusual. Hill’s aunt Denise frowned at is as though it personally offended her.
“The noise on that stupid DAB…I don’t know if I’ll ever get used to it. Hopefully you’ll have an older bus, Hill, and without one of those miserable things.” She smiled brightly, as though his five hour bus ride into backcountry Maine would be so much better if it didn’t have a DAB installed.
Hill just shrugged.There was a beat of panic rising in his chest. He was leaving. He was actually leaving what was left of his life, what little bit might have still been normal. He had a sudden desperate desire to change his mind; to tell Denise and his uncle Stu to take him back to their house, that he didn’t want to go, that he had no interest in this strange school, even if it was better than the last one. But he didn’t say anything. In five hours and ten minutes he would be in Bathel, home of the Outdoor Academy of Maine.
Stu was off trying to make sure Hill’s pass was loaded up with enough travpoints, and that all his identification scans had gone through. At fourteen Hill wasn’t officially a minor––the cadet corps had a pre-military program that started at fourteen––but he still needed an adult to authorize his travel. Hill hadn’t traveled since his parents––well, they had always taken care of this stuff. Hill didn’t let himself think of it. His massive old pack was digging into his shoulders, but he didn’t want to take it off. There was no point in getting comfortable. The sooner he could get on the bus the sooner this whole miserable goodbye scene would be over. He looked up to see his uncle gesturing them over, a relieved smile on his face. Clearly everything was set.
As he hugged them goodbye, Hill bit down hard on the inside of his lip so he would do anything pathetic like cry. He had cried at his mother’s funeral, plenty. And everyone had cried when they sat shivah, the Jewish week of mourning for the dead. Then, when everyone else left he and his dad had both cried for what felt like months afterwards, all last horrible summer. But when his dad told him he would be returning to Syria, to the war that killed his mom, Hill didn’t cry. He didn’t beg him to stay. And now it was his turn to leave. Hugging his cousin Eli, Hill could see tears in the younger boy’s eyes.
“Will you mail us? Soon?” he asked, his bony arms barely reaching around Hill and the backpack. “Right away? And will you tell me if there are actual animals there? And, like, if there’s farm stuff?”
Hill smiled at him. “Of course, E-man. You’ll get all the news as fast as I can dict it. And you take care of Oscar. Don’t let him barf in my bed again!”
Eli giggled, and Hill let go, stepping back to hug his aunt and uncle. Mercifully, they seemed to know this wasn’t the time for a big emotional goodbye.
“We’ll get the scan when you arrive, but mail us soon and let us know how its going,” Stu said. He looked so much like Hill’s dad that for a minute Hill wanted to stay with him. But it wasn’t his dad. If his dad were here to say goodbye, Hill wouldn’t even be leaving.
“Be careful, Hillel!” Denise said, hugging him fiercely before pushing him towards the waiting bus, which was nearly obscured behind the air-scrubbing tanks. “Have fun, and remember, you can always come home!”
Hill stepped on the bus, away from what was left of his family. It was nice of Denise to say so, but home was long gone.