Friday, December 31, 2010

Stay Tuned!

Changes coming for the New Year! You see some of them already! Let's hear it for 2011!

Everyone have a safe weekend. Drive safely...and remember to line up your designated drivers now!

Cheers!

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

2010 Wrap Up

First off, thanks to everyone who has commented and dropped by this year. I hope you found something to entertain you!

2010 was a pretty kickin' year for me. The bestest bit was finishing all the classes required for my B.A. Yay for being done with school!

My other biggie-happy was Nathan Bransford's teen writing contest. Aside from participating with a bunch of super-talented writers, it got me going on a short story...I'll let you know how that goes. (And thanks to Rowena for the turn-it-into-a-short idea.)

Let's see...I also got a lot of words down (let's hear it for writing marathons). I read a lot of books--and not all of them for school too! Critiques were finished on time (mostly).

Yep, all in all, I'd call it a successful year.

How's about you? Did you get most of what you wanted done? Did you accomplish something that surprised you? Give me the good dish!

Monday, December 27, 2010

The Animal Angle

I dont' think anyone can talk about Rita Mae Brown's work fairly without discussing the "animal angle."

I've never written a story or a novel from the POV of an animal. Mostly because I, personally, have never been inspired to do so. However, Rita Mae Brown has made quite a lucrative career from writing from the POV of a cat.

This can be seen in the literary realm (as opposed to the genre arena of cozy mysteries, etc.) as well--some of the bestest-best sellers of recent years have had, at least partially, the POV of an animal: The Art of Racing in the Rain, The Dogs of Babel, Dog Gone It, etc.

The challenge presented by this creative style is obvious: we don't know how animals think, so how can we, as humans, possibly narrate convincingly? Brown is surrounded by animals day in and day out. She lives on a farm and is, therefore, familiar with animal behavior. This experience is reflected in her work--with lots of focus on smells, etc.

I think Brown has hit on the answer for this creative dilemma. If you're going to write from the POV of an animal, then you better darn well observe that animal. And not just on Animal Planet. The movement, the engagement, the habits, and (ahem) the smell of the animal is something that should be witnessed in person.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Merry Christmas

Merry Christmas Eve Everyone!

I hope you all have a healthy, safe weekend. Drink lots of cocoa and give and receive lots of hugs.

And try to avoid:

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The Seasonal Series Perk

Throughout the year there are these things called "Holidays." Let's see: the Fourth of July, Valentine's Day, St. Patrick's Day, Halloween, and on and on it goes. Yep, there are holidays all over the place.

A perk to writing any series, not just a cozy mystery series, I would assume, would be the seasonality of stories. For example, the book I'm reading now, Santa Clawed, is set around Christmas. So author Rita Mae Brown can get into the holiday spirit a little more than an author who is writing a stand-alone kinda thing. She can utilize characters that she's already attached to and create a story around them that still lets her celebrate whatever time of year she's writing about.

I know--just because a story is about Christmas doesn't mean it wasn't written in July. (Were there enough double negatives in that last sentence?) It also doesn't mean that, as an author trying to build a 'stable' of novels, that if you're writing around Valentine's Day you should ignore the possibilities of that romantic-al-est time of year. Then whenever the publisher needs something timely--VOILA! You have produced.

And here is Rita Mae Brown her-own-self talking about Santa Clawed:


Monday, December 20, 2010

The Bonus Tracks

Back to cozy-time!

Finished reading Murder Most Frothy, and this is my favorite type of cozy to read, I've decided. Do you want to know why? Let me tell you why:

The Bonus Tracks!

At the back of the book is a list of coffee-making tips and recipes. Awesome. In the spirit of both the holiday season and the idea that cozies also give us extra stuff...see below for Jenny (with Bronwen as her Big Helper) participating in the bonus track of "Flourless Kahlua Chocolate Cake":

The Ingredients:



The Process:


The results? A smashing, yummy-full cake that is now in the fridge cooling off. Judging from the smells...a chocolate lover's delight.


**A side note on the importance of clarity in the bonus tracks:

Nowhere is clear, concise language more necessary than in directions. If a recipe calls for a specific item, or a specific method, it is very important that those directions be understandable. Especially regarding things like food. One typo could potentially poison your reader. So be careful!

Friday, December 17, 2010

Last Day of School

The holiday season begins in earnest now. Shane (teacher) and Owen (student) are both out of school today. There's only one week left!

And a shot of our Christmas tree to help pass the holiday spirit along. Good luck everyone!

**Technical difficulties repaired! Voila, my tree:


How are you guys hanging in there?

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

We Interrupt Our Regularly Scheduled Programming For a Flip-Out and a Resolution

Tabling a work-in-progress is never an easy thing to decide. Most writers' advice I've heard advises that you should push through a tough hump, that you should keep going until the end, because only when you reach the end do you actually know what you have.

Well, I think there are exceptions to this 'rule'. Stephen King talks about a couple different times when he about threw in the towel on a piece, most notably his wife pulling Carrie from the trash can and telling him he had something. So he toughed through it, finished, and voila! we now have one of our bestsellingest authors ever! But King also talks about struggling with The Stand. There's one line in On Writing where he says that if he'd had something like 100 single-spaced lines instead of over 800, he would've quit.

I've been reciting these situations to myself as I, ahem, "shovel shit from a sitting position." Push through, get to the end, find out what you have. And you know what? I already know what I have. It's not a novel.

It's a Super-Blown-Up short story.

There's nothing to push through to. By adding words, I'm diminshing the story. I'm sooo bored with what I add. I called it 'overwriting' so that I would have more to cut. Well, I have a ton to cut, because it should be around 8,000 words, not 60,000.

Yesterday I turned to my husband and asked him what he really, really thought of the novel. I'd told him I was bored, that I was struggling with the characters and adding more complications (because it all felt incredibly forced--I can't even begin to describe the sensation). One of his critiques has always been that the story is lacking magic (it was supposed to have a magical realism element to it). Then he clarified: he meant that both implicitly and explicitly.

Ouch. That one stung, I won't lie. He went on to clarify further about how I could and should be using the magical elements that I've introduced that would fix all the problems, in his mind. But you already know when you're not doing something correctly--and the reason I wasn't using the magic 'correctly' is because it's not supposed to be sustained at the level that it needs to be for a whole novel.

And you know what? All of that would mean very little, I would still push through, if it weren't for something else that I've internalized just recently. As I was prepping for the mentors for the next couple months, a recurring theme popped in: write for yourself.

I've heard that before, and I'm sure you have too. But it's soooooo important, I can't even begin to tell you. With the publishing world in an uproar, spinning all topsy turvy, publication is no guarantee. You cannot please everyone, and you'll never know whether you'll please anyone--except yourself. This is a job where you'll be alone with paper and pen and computer screen for long periods of time...why on earth would you allow yourself to work ad nauseum and be bored? If you're bored, your reader will be too.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Jenny is a Sexist

I admit it.

I just started reading Murder Most Frothy. Upon opening the book I was confronted with *gasp* a brief prologue in which the anonymous killer is shooting the hapless victim. I got through the first couple paragraphs (paragraphs about gun models, bullet calibers, etc.) and had the immediate thought: Cleo Coyle is a pen name and the author is a dude.

I have no problem with dude writers--in fact I read quite a lot of dudes. And, in fact, I immediately liked this book better than the previously-read, obviously-written-by-a-woman Scrub-a-Dub Dead. Am I being sexist? Yes, but the response is important, I think.

Immediately I flipped to the About the Author section in which I learned that "Cleo Coyle" is indeed a pen name--for a husband and wife team. So I was at least half right. A dude was definitely involved in the writing of this book.

Does this mean that women can't write spectacular scenes that also explain gun makes and models? Hell no. (In fact, I don't know that the wife portion of the team didn't write the prologue, I'm just sexistly assuming.) It just means that there is a different sound to the writing in this particular book that reads more masculine. I'm not making any judgement call on it. But, as writers, I think that's something to be aware of because it can affect your audience. There's a chance that the masculine tone is even off-putting to some readers of the cozy mystery genre--which is predominately women.

Ali once posted a test where you inserted a piece of writing and it would tell you whether you were a girl or a boy. I consistently got 'boy'--and I tried not to take it too personally. There are some famous and talented men writing out there somewhere. (Easy fellas! Just teasing.)

How about you? Do you lean toward reading a feminine voice or a masculine voice? How do you think your writing speaks to your readers? Manly Man? Gentlewoman? Troubled Teen?

Friday, December 10, 2010

The Hook Career; or, Why Hookers Don't Star in Cozies

Sure, the titles for a hooker main character could be funny:

The Trick to Murder
Dear Dead John
Hooked on Death

Unfortunately, cozy mysteries, while dealing with loss of life, are not about the dark underbelly of the world. A prostitute's life is inherently more dangerous than the life of a maid/barista/beloved pet. Contrary to what Pretty Woman would have you believe, there is very rarely a happy ending in marriage to a billionaire. The cozy mystery is about fireside reading, not I'm-never-going-outside-in-the-dark-again reading.

The jobs that occur in a cozy mystery are all of the 'everyday' variety. The whole point is that these main characters are intuitive and have some kind of observational advantage because of their job. It's also convenient because it automatically lends a lightness to the work that wouldn't be in there in a traditional P.I. or detective story.

Hopefully, if executed well, the characters are also that much more likeable because they don't have lab techs getting them fingerprints, or gun-toting partners to back them up, or any kind of real authority when it comes to facing down the bad guy. Everything is through logic, observation, and ingenuity. The puzzle pieces should be presented in such a way that the other jes'-folks detective (the reader) can put it together with the main character.

A butcher, a baker, or a candlestick maker should be able to read a cozy mystery and not feel like they are being assaulted with the darkness of the world. So, when choosing who will tell the story, just keep in mind that your fourth grade teacher should be able to relate to the main character.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Let's Talk Titles (Cozy, Comfy Titles of Murder)

Look in the bookstore. Check out the mystery department. You'll see them: the cozies. Murder encased in pastel colors and punny titles.

Since I don't know much about cozies and didn't want to spend money on something that I wasn't sure I'd like to keep, I hit the library and picked out three cozy mysteries that caught my eye, and my punny bone:

1. Scrub-a-Dub Dead: A Charlotte La Rue Mystery by Barbara Colley--part of a series of cozy mystery novels about a woman who runs a maid service in New Orleans. So, cleaning = scrub-a-dub. (Other titles in this series: Maid for Murder, Death Tidies Up, Polished Off, etc.)

2. Murder Most Frothy: A Coffeehouse Mystery by Cleo Coyle--this series is about a barista from New York, the books include coffee recipes and tips. (Other titles included in this series: On What Grounds, Through the Grinder, Latte Trouble, etc.)

3. Santa Clawed: A Mrs. Murphy Mystery by Rita Mae Brown and Sneaky Pie Brown--probably the ulitmate example of coziness, this series is from the POV of the cat. You know Rita Mae Brown and her cat, so I don't feel the need to list all of those titles here. This one caught my fancy because it's also timely. Hello Christmas!

The success of a cozy mystery series, I would presume from the marketing evident in this sampling, is that a writer must have an original take on some kind of job (maid, barista, pet-owner), and that the title should play off of that occupation. Of course, the writer probably shouldn't spend a whole lot of time worrying over the title. This genre, almost more than any other to me, seems to hinge on marketing--and we all know the publisher's marketing department will have a lot more to say about the title in this case anyway.

But it also struck me that this would be a fun game too!

So feel free to come up with your own punny titles for the following occupations that could be in a cozy mystery:

1. a musician
2. a miner
3. a zoologist
4. a history teacher/professor

Monday, December 6, 2010

December, a time to 'cozy' up; or, D.B. made me

After a recent critique session, one of my writers group members, D.B., mentioned that she had difficulty with the group's critiques because none of us really read them: so how can she take what we did say and apply it toward her writing?

My first response, in my head, is that good writing is good writing and a well-written cozy mystery should read like any other well-written story. Period. And I still think so.

However, it would be very negligent of me, as someone who is trying to help my friend write what she wants to write, to not pay attention to the conventions of the genre in which she wants to write. To just sit back and say "Just write a good story" is supremely unfair.

So, to fulfill the hole that exists in my own reading experience, I have decided to dedicate this month to reading some cozy mysteries and seeing what I can figure out about the genre. And you guys get to hear all about that experience!

But first, a question for you: what genre have you never read, or read very little?

Friday, December 3, 2010

Closet Cleaning

Cleaning, you know I hate it.

You know what else I hate? Cats. You know what I really, really, really hate? Cleaning up closets after cats have been there.

Yech.

But there is something postive that comes from cleaning. It's a cathartic measure. Out with old, in the with the new. Like the new tile we're putting into both of our bathrooms/closets. When we're all done this will be One Less Thing To Worry About. Check it off, baby!

We've (by We read: Shane, my delightful husband) already repainted both bathrooms. We've installed our new countertops. We've go the tile lined up and ready to go!

I'm thrilled for a few reasons, not the least of which is that this sh*t just needed to get done and it makes the whole place more pleasant. But my biggest reason is that I truly have a hard time creating around un-creative clutter. Toppling piles of books? You've got it: I can write there. Crazy kid artwork? Yep, I can work there too.

Piles of clothes, toys, more clothes, dishes, and "What the hell is that?" Not so much. I also really despise the "We're almost done but not quite there" clutter of home improvement. Paint brushes, piles of stuff waiting for a new home--these get me to pulling my hair out. (And I have a lot of hair, so that could take a while.)

Since the New Year means that I get to write at home, all this stuff needs to be under control pronto or I will be a flippy mess that Shane will want to brick-up-Poe-style. And trust me, he's got the tools to do it!

More on the glory of the Garage Sale soon!

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Tis the Season

Welcome to December my writing bretheren!

All I can say is good luck to you. I hope that NaNo was prosperous. Make sure your Christmas tree doesn't burn your house down. Don't get run over by the shoppers/freeze your computers ordering online.

Ask for lots of pens.

To get us through this season, here's some writing prompts for those of you who need someone else to come up with things to write about for a while. Check it out: writing prompts.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Conversations with Author-Folk; or, Leave it on the Page

On more than one occasion I have heard the idea that, as a writer, you participate in a conversation with those who have gone before you. (Yep, by writing this right now I'm communing with Charles Dickens.) I've heard that everything written is a response to whatever has gone before, and that it's also a response to the times in which the writer lives.

Which sounds just ducky to me. I like thinking about the writing tradition that I'm a part of. I like the idea that, even though I'm blogging in the living room right now in full view of my children and the television, I am doing the same thing that Jane Austen did in her drawing room...right before she hid it under her sewing whenever someone came in. I like the idea that times have switched up so much but I'm still doing what she did, only differently. (Okay, I know I'm no Jane Austen, but you know what I mean.)

And then I read a little book called Conversations With American Women Writers by Sarah Anne Johnson. The whole book is sets of interviews with, well, contemporary American women writers (no points for creativity on the title, I guess). In the introduction Johnson states that one of the biggest reasons that she interviewed these writers was "In addition to easing a bit of that isolation among readers and writers...these interviews demonstrate that there is always more to understand about a piece of fiction."

That comment caught my attention because, in reality, the only authors with whom we can have conversations--real, responsive conversations--are the living ones. Dickens and Austen are, unfortunately, not with us anymore except through their writing. We can't interview them and understand more about their pieces through them. It's now all the readers and whatever correspondence the writers may have left behind about their work.

The conversation is sadly one-sided, and eventually, will always be. Jane Austen can't respond to the slew of sequel-writing, zombie-adding writers...anymore than they will be able to respond to the writers that follow them in one hundred years.

So my thought-process while facing all these somewhat depressing ideas is this: Leave it on the page. Write clearly. Write a lot. Because in this conversation all you've got is the writing.

...and maybe get rid of those notebooks that posterity might "Eh?" at you for....

Whatchoo think?

Friday, November 26, 2010

Wanna Know What I'm Grateful For?

NOT HAVING TO WORK RETAIL FOR THE FIRST TIME IN A DECADE TODAY!!!!!

Thursday, November 25, 2010

I hope everyone has a fantastic and peaceful Thanksgiving.

I'd also like to give a shout out to all the soldiers who can't be home today and their families. I'm thankful for you.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Moving On, Moving Up

School, school, school’s almost over. Thirteen years after I originally started college, one Associates degree, five majors, a decade of working at Barnes and Noble, and a multitude of personal dramas later, I will finally have my B.A. In creative writing.

That’s a very satisfying accomplishment. Yay me!

Then there’s that nagging little thought: the Now What?

I already have a sort-of plan in place that I’m hoping will work out…trying to think of alternatives in case it doesn’t. Mainly, my goal is to write and write and write. After all, the degree I earned was for writing, yes? Gotta put that stuff to work.

Still, it’s not an unstressful proposition. For so long I’ve worked toward one thing that the social world accepts fairly well: getting an education, a degree. Learning shit. To suddenly (and it does feel sudden) jump from that world into this new one where there’s no garuntee of success, and no real brass ring to grab hold of (after all, how does on define success for writing? Prizes? Getting paid? Finishing a sentence?) I feel groundless. And potentially spoiled, because how many other writers really get a chance to do that? So then there’s the pressure of producing, because all those other obstacles are now presumably removed.

Have you guys ever had that “Now what the hell do I do?” sensation? About what? How did you handle it?

Monday, November 22, 2010

The Process, Again

Everyone's process is different. Everyone's process switches up too.

The original set-up for the CWC (one of my awesome writers' groups) was based on a writers' group somewhere up in New England. I'd read about this group in Writer's Digest and it sounded just intense enough for me and my buddies. The idea was that on alternating months some writers handed in 50-100 pages, the rest of us would critique the pages and then hand in our own 50-100 pages the next month.

You know what was awesome about that set up? Four out of five of us have at least two manuscripts in rough draft form. Deb has a monumental 4. Score us!

You know the difficulty with that set up? There is no time to revise. People have different processes. Like NaNo -- after a while churning out pages is just not enough.

I'm excited by CWC has decided to do: mix it up. Some of us work great with deadlines (Ali and me). Some people just need pressure (Shane). Some of us need to the freedom to write without having other voices in their head (Deb). And some just need some time and space to figure out what they want to do with the stuff they already have (Mary, Deb, and me). And there are various other things that a writer needs.

Basically, we've proven that we can produce. Now the goal is to work on what we need to...and just bring proof that we've done it. If we need things critiqued, then we get them critiqued. If someone has finished a full draft and needs first readers, we do it. If we need to exercise our writerly muscles, we do that.

It's awesome.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

What if Toni Morrison Sucked?

Nathan Bransford recently posted a "You Tell Me" that revolved around writerly fear. This question and the resulting comment posts freaked me out. There was just a lot of fear listed there--some stuff that I hadn't even thought to be afraid of. And, of course, the post made me wonder.

What is my greatest fear?

I'll be straight with you: I'm pretty cocky. Sometimes obnoxiously so (ask any one of my writer's group members...they won't say it out loud, too loud, but they'll tell you). When it comes to writing, there's very little that I don't feel like
A.) I've got fairly figured out, even if it's just theoretical and
B.) I may not know but will learn.

However, underneath all that is the nagging little voice, that tiny tug at the edge of a conscience thought: You Suck. Capital Letters.

Right now, if we were sitting in a coffee shop across the table from each other and you asked me "What's your greatest fear as a writer?" I wouldn't say that I suck. Because I don't. But I'm afraid that I do. Strange isn't it. You know something is not true, but you're afraid that it may be true.

I think it's related to Bransford's other recent post on Greenspan. This man knew he didn't suck, had years of evidence to back up his theories, and BOOM! the economy tanks and he gracefully admits that he was wrong. It was all a bad idea, unsustainable, costly, troublesome.

What would that be like?

I mean let's pretend that Toni Morrison, writer extraordinaire, Nobel Laureate, book after book published, Oprah loves her. By every definition this woman is "powerful beyond measure" as Marianne Williamson would tell us. What happened if she woke up one day and BAM! everything she did was suddenly considered weak, preachy, too much of a stretch? What if Toni Morrison woke up and discovered she sucked? (By whatever definition she considers "sucking" to be?)

Well, that's my greatest fear. And since I don't have a Nobel or even a physical book to my name yet, that fear seems way more justifiable than in Morrison's case.

So, because Bransford has bummed me out (Love you anyway, Nathan!) I want to know what your greatest hope as a writer is. Please perk me up people!

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

1984

I’ve made it a goal to read all of the books that people apparently lie about reading. Currently I’m reading 1984 by George Orwell, and I have to say that Orwell is a difficult author for me. Sure, he comes up with great concepts that we’re still talking about today – name one person who doesn’t understand the concept of Big Brother. Yeah, I can’t think of anyone either.

But I'm getting so bogged down in the concept of the thing that I’m not really invested in the characters at the moment. This could be because I’ve had the concepts shoved down my throat since middle school, which isn’t Orwell’s fault (except that he conceptualized the concepts). It’s difficult to remember that these ideas were new and original and paradigm shifting when they were written.

Animal Farm was equally difficult for me, perhaps because by the time I got to Animal Farm, the Berlin wall had come down, the Soviet Union had effectively lost its looming sense of doom, and Orwell’s passion seemed dated.

So my question to you: When does a story lose you because it’s about ideas instead of people? What stories have done that to you? Do you think this a strength or a weakness?

Monday, November 8, 2010

R.I.P. Ye Pain in the A$!@* Short Story

It is official: I'm tabling a particular short story because I now hate it.

Got critiques last night on a short story that I have revised and revised and looked at again and again and again. I did all this work because as I wrote it I felt that hum of "This is one of the best pieces I've written." And, in some ways it was. The description was solid. The situation tricky. Flannery O'Connor inspired it.

The problem is that there is no friggin' point to it. I don't really have strong motivations for the characters, and when you blow your characters up at the end, you really need to give them some motivation. Ya know? Plus, you should really know what you want to say with a piece. I just wanted to blow stuff up, and sad to say, blowing stuff up does not a good story make.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Yet Another NaNo Commenter

For all you NaNo folks out there – stop reading this and get to writing! And good luck.

But I do want to talk about NaNo for a second, because I think it serves a fantastic purpose: getting people to write. It wakes up those muscles that some writers need to get to it. Then it also drives the writers who are stuck to just get something on paper that can be fixed later.

After doing a few word-writing races this year, and after a few discussions with my writerly fellows, I’ve concluded that getting stuff down is, indeed, incredibly important. It’s satisfying to see paper accumulate. Trees be damned!

But…and you do hear the but, don’t you?...if you are looking to improve your writing and you already write consistently (not necessarily every day, I mean, we do have lives, or some of us do, maybe) then I would consider skipping NaNo.

Why? Because the mindless plopping down of words – which is the definition of NaNo, to get those words down whether or not they are very coherent – only helps you if you’re not putting words down already. So, if you’re not putting words down, stop reading this and get to work. You won’t get that coveted NaNo blog patch otherwise.

For those of us working on a larger project prior to NaNo, and who are moving the words along: Step 1 accomplished.

The next part is considering how those words work. Sure, you want to outrun your inner editor/heckler but throwing words at a page, and hoping they stick, is no way to learn how to write better. The real way to outrun those inner editors/hecklers is to write any-friggin-way, and get better at the writing. Then there’s more confidence, which leads you to work on writing better, which leads to more confidence, which leads to better writing, and so on and so on.

NaNo doesn’t allow you to take that into consideration, that’s not its purpose. If you’re already writing and moving along at a steady clip, then I say keep that clip, don’t sweat the word count, and focus on what you are doing. Changing pace or schedule because it’s a celebratory word-smith month could actually stall you, distract you, and/or make you think you’re working too slow. As long as you’re writing, just keep going.

If you’re not writing, then stop reading this and do the NaNo challenge. 50K(words) to you.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

In the spirit of author-asking question, seeing as how we're all writer-ly types around here, I'm going to pose to you Deb's author question:

What is the best/worst writing advice you've ever received?

Monday, October 25, 2010

Contest, Alexie, and Others

First off, a big ole congrats to Julia -- the Boudreau Birthday Bash Contest winner. It's kind of crushing to know that I was so close to her word count and bathroom construction took over that last day. (I'm sorry, I love writing, but I love my bathroom too...and you don't know what you have until you can't use it anymore, right?)

Next off, I went to hear Sherman Alexie speak as part of the All Pueblo Reads program. And I have a huge author crush on the Mentor. I'm going to go see him again, because he's making one last presentation at the college before heading off to home (or where ever else he may be needed), and I'll give you the overall impression in a little while.

But, before I go off to presentation-land, the question of questions came up as I was hanging out with John, Ali, and Ali's +1 after the Alexie reading. Namely: if you could ask your favorite author one question, what would it be? And, conversely, as an author, what quesiton would you most like to be asked?

Thursday, October 21, 2010

The Typing vs Handwriting Thingy

Normally, I'm a handwriter. But, after my last word count contest bobber where John kicked my tail, I figured something out: For writing contests, one should not handwrite everything and then try to type it in. Turns out, when you try to do that, you just wind up writing twice the words -- but the words are the same because you're writing them twice. Yes, this seems an obvious thing, but like so many other obvious things, I'm learning on the job.

For this go-round of Boudreau's I determined that I would write via typing. I haven't done a first draft like this in a long time. But you know what? I'm enjoying it. I've found that I can type four pages worth of words (read: 1000) in about 45 minutes on the computer vs. handwriting.

This seemed an odd thing to me, because I handwrite a lot faster than I type. But when I write by hand I was only hitting about three pages an hour, and handwritten pages just don't have as many words when they're typed up.

Then I came across an old Prevention article about overeating. There was an experiment conducted where one group was given a tube of Pringles. There was a second group who was also given a tube of Pringles -- only this tube had every 7th Pringle colored red. Turns out, the group with the red Pringles stopped eating much, much earlier than the group with regular Pringles.

Why?

The researchers decided that the colored Pringles caught the eater's attention and therefore drew said attention to the fact that they were eating. Every time a red chip popped up and interrupted their thought process (even subconciously) it made them aware that they were eating.

What does this have to do with handwriting actually being slower in my case?

The page turning.

I was handwriting in a notebook. Notebooks have pages that you have to stop and turn, unlike computers where you can just keep going and going and going without thinking about it. Each time I stopped to turn the page I became aware that I was writing. And I thought I was doing a lot of it...until I flipped back a page or two and realized that I'd only done a couple pages (maybe 400 words). It felt like I was going soooo slow, because the pages distracted me and made me think I was doing enough, when in fact I was doing too little.

Maybe colored Pringles and page turning are good for weightloss, but I don't my book to be lightweight. I want some heft to that sucker. I can trim it down later if I need to.

I've decided for the next few months to do only writing on the computer (hee hee, it helps that I have a new one too) and I'll just see how much paperweight I can gain.

Here's to overeating!

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Words, Words, Words

It's such a shame that the word count contest only counts for one project -- since the profs seemed to have teamed up and assigned terms papers all in this last week.

Blech.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Countdown to Alexie

Oh yeah. The Man-His-Own-Self will be in Pueblo, Colorado, this next weekend. This means nothing to those of you who are not in or around Pueblo, Colorado, but for those of us who are....YIPPEE!

I'm very excited. So far Alexie has been my reading list for the last couple months. Partly because I'm in a class dedicated to contemporary Native American writers--and I have to say that I've never, ever enjoyed the reading for any class as much as I have for this one. Perhaps Native Americans are considered expert oral storytellers...but they sure know how to write one down too.

I know there is something to that. If you are raised with wonderful stories and legends, if you are inundated with tales from a young age, then there is no possible way that you can be a lousy writer if you choose to go that way. Thank heaven Alexie did.

I just finished reading The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian and it was fantastic. I also just finished reading/watching Smoke Signals and The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven. Plus a load of short stories and poems. All amazing.

Yep. This post is just to gush. And to let you know that you'll know more once I've seen the man in person...Soon!

Monday, October 11, 2010

New Contest Stuff!

Foolishly I have decided to participate in another one of Boudreau's hairbrained schemes: namely a word count contest. I haven't done as amazing in the past as the Big B, but I'm totally planning on busting his record (41K+).

You may notice to your right the addition of several blogs. These new guys are my fellow competitors. Feel free to visit their blogs and tell them how badly they will lose to me. Feel free to brag about how badass I am. And how good looking. =)

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Mentor of the Month: Sherman Alexie: Grounders

In the introduction to the anniversary edition of The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, which I do not have in front of me and therefore all 'quote-y' type things are from my questionable memory, Alexie talks about the headiness of being labeled one of the great lyrical voices of his generation. He comments that whenever someone criticized him for months afterward that the thought would float in his head: "Don't you know you're talking to one of the great lyrical voices of my generation?"

Apparently his wife did something like ask him to put the dishes away and he did answer with that. She snorted and told him to put the dishes away anyway.

I wish I had critical acclaim that I could use in conversation like that, but I'm left with my dreams of grandeur. I can't put the dishes away, I'm working on the Great American Novel. Laundry? Nope, gotta write the rough draft of my Nobel acceptance speech.

To which my husband, knee-high in homework grading, snorts and says do it anyway. Not in some Neanderthal way, just in the "You can't ignore real life" kinda way. Plus there's a couple children that will die if I don't feed them, maybe.

It's called being grounded. Stable. Many people assume that great writing/art/whatever comes from being wild and spontaneous and floating high in the clouds. Some of it absolutely does. You have to be able to let your mind wander and go exploring and do all kinds of interesting things, or you won't have anything to create 'about.' You know?

But let's say you go to that mountain top and you float around and you find that brilliant something-or-other that you were looking for. Mountaintops are not good for composing. There's wind. Snow. No where to plug in your laptop.

Eventually, you have to come home. A home that is cluttered, piled high with stinky dishes, and rigged with trip hazards is no more conducive to creation than the mountain top. Where the hell is my laptop, anyway, right?

Am I saying that your place should be spotless? Hell no. Come visit me sometime. But your chaos needs to have some order. If you're lucky, you have someone to help you control that chaos. You have to have a grounded place that works for you and that includes people too. Someone to tell you--"Um, maybe you should straighten XYZ."

But laundry?

Write naked.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Owen's Prompts

At the end of the school year last year, Owen brought home the writing journal that he kept for his second grade class. I didn't know that he kept a writing journal, so I was interested to read his work.

And how pleasantly surprised I was! He totally cut loose as far as story goes. There were no limits. He responded to prompts with verve and attitude. I think this is something that we all should do as writers. He wasn't writing for publication, or even a grade, and his ideas were fun and fascinating (though maybe a little violent....).

A sample or two (with corrections for spelling, etc. from Mom):

1. "If I was a giant I would eat kids alive. I would also destroy buildings I touch. that would be cool. I would actually be green. I also want to step on people."

2. "The rusty key fit in the lock and a dead man fell out. 'This is a mystery' I said to my friends. We went to the next door in the house. It was locked, so we used the rusty key. It fit! We saw a light in there...."

3. "The silly dragon had two dogs that breathe fire. Weird. He also has a rat that flies. He also has lots of stuff."

Not too shabby for a then-seven year old. Mixing up genres. Introducing interesting characters and plotlines. Shifting POVs. All in all, I think a nice start to the writing gig.

Friday, September 10, 2010

300

Whoa. This is post #300. That sounds like a really big number to me. In honor of this momentous occasion (Momentous for me--I'm sure there're many bloggers out there going: "Well, you don't write too much do you?) I think that today I'll talk about a piece of legislation that is 300 years old and very important to writers.

Copyright.

Three hundred-ish years ago, Queen Anne signed The Copyright Act of 1709, which went into effect in 1710, essentially the first copyright stating that a work belonged to the author.

Prior to that, authors sold their works directly to booksellers, who then claimed ownership and publication rights. (Imagine a world where the author is paid only an initial lump sum and that's it.) As a large example of the rules prior to this statute, think of Shakespeare, the Bard His Own Self.

Yeah, he didn't own those plays.

His company did. The plays were written for the King's Men and with the King's Men they stayed. So when the First Folio came out it was put together by Shakespeare's company buddies to honor their friend--but it wasn't necessarily to benefit his heirs, or even themselves, with royalty rights.

Queen Anne's Statute changed how people thought of authorship. It went from the distribution groups to the creator. It's remained that way since, and has gotten larger. Today you get kicked out of college for plagiarism, but Shakespeare could have lifted whatever he wanted and been called Legendary. (Not that I think everyone should go out and plagiarize, it's just an illustration.)

Today the question of authorship has been brought up repeatedly as the medium in which writing and how it's distributed changes. For example, this blog. Do I own the material or does Blogger? If I post someting on Facebook, does that belong to me or Facebook? Is it published since it's available for public consumption?

With the available technology and the level of collaboration that can be accomplished, who owns what and where in a big project? Where do the international laws come into play?

I have no idea what the answers to any of these questions are. I fully welcome any thoughts! In the meantime, I'll just rest on the satisfaction that I've written 300 blog entries so far. Whether I own them or not....

**And somewhat along those lines, courtesy of Nathan Bransford:

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Mentor of the Month: Sherman Alexie: Genre Mix-Ups as a Way to Expand Your Audience

In War Dances, Sherman Alexie won prestige by mixing up poetry and short stories and a whole host of other writerly things. He's written for teens and adults. He's written poetry, short stories, novels, and he's mixed up subject matters in those (an Indian serial killer for one!).

He did follow the advice many agents and editors give and waited before switching it up. He started with poetry and short stories--which is not to difficult a jump, especially since his poetry reads like his fiction: lyrical, brief, and with some really startling comment at the end that makes everything click into place. It was directed toward adults. So, to start, he established his audience and captivated critics. (Most of us will never hit this first step.)

He moved from stories to novels, again not a gigantic leap, except for one of his major novels is Indian Killer. Moving from the sorta-autobiographical fiction of The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven to John the Indian Killer is not only a brilliant artistic move, it's also a brilliant commercial move. After all, James Patterson sells plenty of books about serial killers and there's an audience out there who wouldn't mind mixing it up a little. Add in the elements of race, self-loathing, and the gorgeous writing that Alexie executes (no pun intended) and there's no way Indian Killer wouldn't grab him loads more attention.

Okay, now he's written for adults, gotten their attention. Next? Teens are the wave of the future. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian, now the selection for Pueblo's (Colorado) All Pueblo Reads, was created. It fills one of those gaps for teens: adolescent boys. The books openly displays all the awkwardness boys go through and adds racial and class elements that kids are aware of but don't alway have the vocabulary for. Then it went and won the National Book Award and became required reading.

Now Alexie's audience is not only adult, it's hit that magical below-twenty crowd and their teachers.

Am I saying that by following this formula of mixing up genres that we'll all be bestselling authors? Hell no. We've got to be good at this writing gig first. Like I said, most of us will be lucky if we manage to reach our initial audience, let alone expand it.

And I don't think Alexie himself thought coldly at his desk: Now I have X, I'll go after Y. I think he wrote what he thought would be interesting or necessary to himself first, and the rest just kind of followed.

Do you think that mixing up the genres can expand your audience? Or do you think that if you dance around too much you'll never have a consistant audience? How much do you mix up genres?

Monday, September 6, 2010

Going for something new, nerves

Nervous this morning.

I'll be talking with my school advisor today about what I need to do to go for an MFA in writing. Mostly I'm worried because this last decade has been a crazy one. Children were born, marriages made and dissolved and made again. There was a bout with depression that directly impacted my health. Not to mention the general unfocused-ness that made it difficult for me to pick a major in school and stick with it.

So my transcripts, while the grades are generally good, reveal a certain level of inconsistancy (enrolled, withdrawn, re-enrolled, etc./changed in major) that I don't feel is really indicative of my determination as a writer, or my interest in teaching at the college level. I'm not certain how to combat that in an application package. My advisor, being the sharp cookie that she is, will point that out at some point today. Not looking forward to it.

Anyway, fingers crossed. The biggest part of any MFA application is the writing sample anyway right?

Friday, September 3, 2010

Books on Writing: Yes and No

Writing books are an interesting niche market. Writers, by their nature, are readers and reading about writing seems really close to actually writing itself--after all, we're working on improving our craft, right?

Yes and no.

Yes--books on writing teach us different ways to approach this writing gig. After all, it's easy to say "Just Write." It's like a Nike slogan. "Just Do It." But the actual writing can sometimes be difficult. You run into snags with characters. Sometimes you just don't have the ability to build tension the way that you want to. Then there are those moments where you think that you're the only one who has had these struggles.

For direct problems like these, writing books can show you how other authors have pulled off those pesky character/plot problems. Books on grammar can show you how to construct a sentence if there's something wonky in your structure. Plus, there's loads of encouragement out there for writers who think that they're all alone, and Stephen King's On Writing and Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird are probably two of the top books for that: both grant permission to fuck up and experiment while telling you to learn the basics.

No--There are other books out there that are not as useful, and I would argue can even be damaging. Generally speaking, if there is some sort of graph, plus worksheets, plus a 'plan to get you to write your book in 24 hours', I think that you can safely burn these and not lose anything. Any book that tells you there is just one way to write a book was probably written by someone who has only written 'writing' books.

Good writing does have its rules, but following strict guidlines, with no flexibility, is like trying to follow a diet to the T right off the bat--it generally doesn't happen and all you're left with is a bunch of fat-free, wordless pages and frustration.

I would also make the observation that sometimes writers think reading writing books equals writing. This is just not so. If you're looking for inspiration, fine. If you're looking for a piece to the puzzle of the story you're working on, fine. But all of these writing books should only be read in conjunction with writing. Always, always be working on a piece of writing while you read the books on writing. That's the only way they'll actually be able to help you. It's the way they're designed to work.

What writing books have you read that were useful? Have you come across any that you thought were damaging or just written by writers wanting to write about writing? (Say that three times really fast!)

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Mentor of the Month: Sherman Alexie: From Jenny's Major Writer's Class

Sherman Alexie. I've written about him before, briefly, when War Dances won the PEN/Faulkner Award. His book The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian won the National Book Award. Plus, Ali named her dog, Sherman, after him (even though the dog is a girl).

All of these are wonderful compliments to a writer: awards, acclaim, and dog-name honorariums. But what I consider one of the highest forms of Compliment to a Writer is being taught in a college classroom.

This may sound a little high-brow academic, but I think that if a teacher is so moved by a writer's words that they would choose to teach said writer, it means that they are willing to dedicate an awful lot of time and effort. After all, the teacher will be grading students writing about the writer's writing, listening to presentations on the writer's writing, reading the writer his/herself over again, taking notes on the writer's writing, etc. That's an insane amount of work to put into an author that you just feel lukewarm about.

Now I'm attending a class on the studying the major, contemporary Native American Writers. Alexie is head of the class in that department. I am relieved, as a student, that the class is focused on these works. Alexie is great because he's a Stephen King fan, writes with language that is easily accessible yet still musical, and he has a sense of humor about himself. There's also enough meat in the stories to justify hours of conversation about his characters and settings and ideas.

More on his writing itself a little later, but for now a question:
Would you like your work to be taught in a college classroom? Do you think that your work falls into that academic category at all? (While keeping in mind that Stephen King and JK Rowling are also taught in various classrooms across the country.)

Monday, August 30, 2010

August Wrap Up and Heading into September

Tonight is the CWC meeting--the last one in Colorado Springs. Ali decided to up and move, so that puts us down in Pueblo, since that's the halfway point for most of us. I'll miss Panera....

Anyway, instead of mourning the loss of my favorite sandwich every month (I blame you Ali!), I shall think of all the great things that I accomplished this month. Namely:

1. Made good with the Great Writing Race of 2010 winner-John. (Yummy Old Chicagos--can you tell I like food?)
2. Acquired several bits of knowledge from school, which I started a week ago. I'm already tired from the amount of textbook reading. It's just not the same as getting to read Mockingjay, which you should go out and buy. I'm re-reading the first two books before I jump into that one.
3. Finished CWC 50 pages for tonight. Though I was participating in the Great Writing Race of 2010, I still needed to add some pages.
4. Saw Inception. Go DiCaprio!
5. Finished reading Old Yeller with my son. Say it with me: tear-jerker.
6. Read and critiqued all of the wonderful writing from my two critique groups.

Heading into September, here is what I want to accomplish:
1. Keep up with my school work. Which is a challenge in and of itself at the moment. I do have my big papers' topics in mind already though. Half the battle won!
2. Write, write, write on La Llorona. Plus edit a particularly tricky spot so that I have it correct in my head.
3. Read Suzanne Collins's Hunger Games series--all of it! Did I mention Mockingjay is out and that you should go get it?
4. Critique stuff.

And you?

Friday, August 27, 2010

The Process as a Process

There is a lot of focus on the process of writing as being the important element of writing. That when you're creating, it's all about the process, not the product that's there at the end. You have to enjoy it while you're in the middle of it, as a writer, otherwise: What's the point.

Professional writers must get tired of the constant questioning: What's your typical day like? How many pages do you write a day? Do you outline or free-pants it? Do you revise as you go along? By the end of the day, the professional writer, who has figured out how they like to write and go along, must be really frustrated by this endless repetition of the same bunch of questions.

The beginning/mid-level writers who are asking these questions are really trying to figure out, not what the pro-writer's process is, but how to refine their own process.

The question of process is really a question of trial and error. One author will love outlining because it gives structure and a road map. Another will hate that kind of 'restriction'.

Currently, I am attempting a new piece to my process. Through the writing of my last two books I have had mini-outlines that get me a few chapters/scenes ahead, so that I know the purpose of the scene. I've also waited until the end, finishing the big, hunking rough draft before going back to revise. This process, for me, feels a bit unwieldy.

The other major issue that I've come up against is the issue of leaving things out. So then I have to go back and insert pieces after I'm so tired from writing the whole big monster that I pretty much just want to throw the whole thing away.

The result of these two issues: I'm revising my process.

Here's what I'm going to try out this time. (See? This is why it really takes a few novels under the bed before anything gets published--it takes that long to figure out what the hell you're doing...even when you think you know what you're doing.)

I'm going to put everything into it. I'm going to follow King's advice (who else?) and just put lots of stuff in. Words and words and words. I'm thinking about 120K. Then I can cut, and refine things, rather than having to write them all from scratch again. Though I am sure there will still be some from-scratch writing going into the revising process--which brings me to my second point:

Big problems recognized early enough will be rewritten and edited at time of recognition. No just plowing through, because all that'll happen is me having to write more from scratch again. I'd rather write all of my first draftish stuff in the first draft.

After I've finished the rewriting of the problematic things, and I have a complete and less-rough rough draft, then I'll sit on it for a little while. After the waiting period, I'll go at it again with fresh eyes. And probably cry because there'll be more stuff to work out than I thought.

How's about you guys? While you're writing, to revise your process? What big changes have you had to make because you realized what you were doing wasn't working for you?

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Mentor of the Month: Justin Cronin: The Twelve, and worries on a lengthy series

The excitement continues for Justin Cronin fans. The Twelve is the next book in The Passage trilogy - and the release date is October 16, 2012!!! See the cover and up-to-date info at EW.

I am as big a fan of never leaving a world I enjoy as much as the next dude/dudette. After all, I was thrilled that the Harry Potter series stretched on for seven lengthy volumes. But I feel I must address my concerns over this particular trilogy.

Sure, the first book was a knockout. There's a lot of literary bents in there that slow the pacing down a bit, but all-in-all a fun read. I can even see where the second book would be fantastic. An epic sequel. At the end of the first one, Cronin hints at where he's going.

But a third book?

Right now I'm not seeing it. That makes me nervous.

Partly because I like to be the know-it-all intuitive reader that can tell all my friends where an author is going before any of us read it. (They hate me for that--Harry Potter was a trial, particularly for my husband, until that seventh book came out.)

Partly because I'm scared of a long, drawn-out story with no foreseeable end. From the first sentence of the first book we understand that Amy lives to be 1,000 years old. An ungodly, or rather godly, long time. When you think of it that way, it's a miracle that the series would be only three books long. The length makes me worry that the author doesn't have an end in mind.

In my opinion, if the author does not end a piece strong, then the story--no matter how world-wallowingly-happy we are while we're in it--didn't work. There has to be some pay off. Something to tie it off.

So there's my concern. However, because The Passage was so awesome, and because he's ended his other two novels in a satisfying way (though the literary style may not work as well with The Passage) I'm definitely picking up the next book.

Aside from Harry Potter (which is, of course, a granted and may not be besmirched in my presence), what other lengthy series have had satisfying endings for you?

Monday, August 23, 2010

Weather and Writing

William Wordsworth wrote this wonderful poem called "I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud" (also known as "Daffodils")--and all of the emotions he felt while walking out in nature. He was inspired by the wind and the clouds, and the peace that they produced. Wordsworth is commonly considered one of the early conservationists, concerned with nature and how it was handled right at the beginning of the industrial revolution. As a man who was outside more often than in, it seems natural that the weather should have influenced his writing.

What about writers today? With all of the television and amusement parks and malls, does weather influence us?

I think it does, if in nothing else but mood setting. I'm sure we all have a favorite weather to read in: summertime on the pool, curled up by a fire when it's snowing.

My favorite weather to write in? Thunderstorms. Doesn't matter what I'm writing, whether it's something funny or sad or tumultuous like a thunderstorm. There's just more energy in the air itself. I like the hum of it. Plus, it doesn't happen that often, so the rarity adds a certain appeal.

How about you? Do you like to write on your back porch in summer, floating along on your swing? Do you like to write during clear nights with lots of stars shining into your window? What inspires you about the weather that you write in? And, conversely, what weather can you absolutely not write in?

Friday, August 20, 2010

Office Supplies--The Real Reason We're Writers

As I've gone through August, buying school supplies and whatnot for the kids (and myself!) and after a couple recent-er posts from buddies Deb and Ali, I have figured out the real reason that we're writers.

You would think that it would have something to do with the fact that we were all big readers growing up and, therefore, we fell in love with the written word and stories. You would be correct, that certainly played a part.

You might also think that the bookstore holds a certain magical quality for us. The rows and rows of books written by people alive and dead...the dead still able to speak to us even now. (Though we can't understand a word of what Joyce is saying, he is still talking. Sorry, with one exception: Deb understands him.) Your assumptions would be correct here also.

However, there is a tipping point for all things. That proverbial straw of hay that breaks a camel's back and, in turn, changes mere mortals to writers. That straw was an Office Max/Staples/You Name the Big Office Supply Store for me, and it looks like Ali and Deb too. I suspect that we are not alone.


Imagine it with me now:

  • The reams of paper boxed for my printing pleasure.
  • The rows of ballpoint, inkjet, and gel pens lined up for my hand to pick the perfect fit!
  • Don't forget the file folders to organize my legion of rough drafts.
  • The corner of Post-its just waiting for me to stick the important note regarding the major plot point of my novel next to my computer screen.
  • White boards with multi-colored dry-erase markers waiting for me to write notes and goals, only to erase them again and write more notes and goals.
  • Notebook paper gathered in spirals and three ring binders filled to bursting with my brilliant prose!
  • Paperclips and binder clips in decorative designs to keep my critique submissions in order!
  • Manila folders and manuscript mailing boxes to send my novel to the DREAM AGENT!!!

WHY ON EARTH ISN'T EVERYONE A WRITER?! It's like perpetual Christmas.

August is here--'tis the Back-to-Writing season! Go forth and find that perfect rollerball to make you happy!

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Mentor of the Month: Justin Cronin: The Summer Guest and The Passage, a small critique on repetition

One of the things that writers are warned against is repetitiveness: Don't repeat words too often if you're not going for an effect. Don't be repetitive in how you structure your sentences. Don't start too many sentences or paragraphs with the same word. Don't you see what I did there? (Hee hee. But it doesn't count because I was going for effect. So there.)

Well, I was reading The Summer Guest, Cronin's second novel and the prologue (Oh no! Another don't among writing advice!) covers a family coming to a run-down summer camp that they've purchased. It's been abandoned for years. Running water is questionable. Heat is a luxury. The wife, a character named Amy, stays inside while Joe, the husband, chops wood.

And you ask: What's the big deal?

Nothing really. It's just that I had to put the book down for a second and go: Wait. Didn't I already read this?

MINI SPOILER ALERT IF YOU HAVE NOT READ THE PASSAGE read past this if you dare:

Yep, in The Passage. Wolgast and Amy arrive at the run-down summer camp in order to hide from the glowstick vampire zombies that are hunting down the world. It's been abandoned for years. Running water is questionable. Heat is a luxury. The girl, Amy, waits inside while Wolgast, her guardian, chops wood.

It was a little freaky to read. Had the sections been in the same book, I would have thought that there was some kind of parallel that I should be looking for. As it is, when reading through someone's published body of work, or at least a sample, as I try to do for these Mentor of the Month posts, it just feels like a really awkward mistake. Like the author expected no one to read both books. Or like he forgot about writing the Summer Guest scene when he wrote The Passage scene.

Sure there are differences. But does setting one run-down summer camp in Maine (The Summer Guest) and the other in Oregon (The Passage) really make it that much of a difference? And then you have the issue of the character names...Amy in this case.

Now, a question: When you're writing, going from one story to the next, how concious are you of repeating scenes? Either in character reactions in the scenes or in the building of the scene itself? Do you figure: Hey, no one's gonna read this story, so I may as well use this bit over here and gamble that no one will see the similarities? Is it even that big a deal?

And, as writers, how do we even guage where to put these scenes when the publishing order and writing order are not the same? In this case, the similarities were so striking that it threw me out of the story pretty quick. And Cronin had written this scene before the scene in The Passage, which I'd read first.

Monday, August 16, 2010

The Artist At Work

I've been trying to keep in mind that this year my focus is: "Stuff I Learned From Other People" and who better to learn from than my very own little girl?

She's two and precocious and doesn't care what other people think--not yet anyway. Which can be frustrating in restaurants, but is wonderful in life. She creates things with reckless abandon and that's refreshing. There is no inner editor or heckler or anyone to tell her no (except her mommy when she sticks a finger in a light socket). Here is a small sampling of her art and her method. We should all embrace such reckless delight:










































































Friday, August 13, 2010

Finished vs Completed

In Jack Canfield's (of Chicken Soup fame) The Success Principles he discusses the difference between finishing and completing. *Yes, I read self-help books occasionally. Quiet.

The argument goes something like this: finishing something is not the same as completing it. Basically, you can finish a novel and put all the words on paper and print it out and type The End. But is it complete? Has it been polished? Are all the kinks worked out?

You can have a stack of finished novels, but only one that's complete will do you any kind of good.

I was thinking about stacks of 'finished' work recently. I pored through my computer files and looked at short stories that I considered finished. I debated within myself which ones I should call complete. Only two. Two out of a whole lot--and those were just the ones on my computer. The rest could definitely use some polish, others could use a jackhammer, some we should just ignore forever.

I also have two novels that are 'finished' and my third is in-progress-to-finished. The first one that I wrote is questionable at 'finished' even. The second one I am tired of looking at, though I know the solution for completing that one. The third one will need some close work for it to come off the way I want it to.

So here I am, a writer who is writing (see Progress post). But my work isn't done. I haven't been completing things. There isn't much there over-all. (Trust me when I say it stings to write that...after having written sooooo much, learning that there's not one big project complete is rather a downer.)

In the spirit of completion, I have determined my goals for the rest of 2010 and leading into 2011. First off, 2010: finish what I'm currently working on because that'll get me ahead for CWC submissions. Being ahead of CWC submissions buys me time to complete my not-yet-completed projects. Including heavy revisions of short stories.

2011: Complete the pieces I finished in 2010. Including: FJR, La Llorona, and The Line. In that order.

Is there anything that you need to complete?

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Mentor of the Month: Justin Cronin: Taking Your Time and Character Motivation

I'm currently reading Cronin's Mary and O'Neil, which is his first published collection of stories. The stories are interconnected and revolve around these two characters and their relationship--and that of their family and friends.

One thing that has been going through my mind now that I've been exposed to Cronin's 'know what your characters don't want to tell' mentality is that exact question: What secrets are these characters keeping? It's not all that hard, because Cronin doesn't hide their secrets from the reader. What I've noticed is the way that these secrets/hiding places are revealed.

He takes his time.

I've noticed in my own short stories that I think the word 'short' and that ultimately leads to 'rushed'. Just because a piece has a smaller word count does not mean that I should sacrifice character development, good dialogue, or scene setting.

In the first story in this collection, Cronin introduces O'Neil's parents, who are going to visit O'Neil at college soon. Cronin spends a good deal of time in the kitchen with the couple, establishing their relationship. Pertinent details are revealed. Then, we switch to just O'Neil's dad. Something else is revealed while he spends time in his office and then a restaurant. And so on until the conclusion of events.

Sound slow? Sound boring? Maybe. Noothing moves too quickly, a lot of information is given out, and it's still short. By the end you understand the characters, their motivation, and the why of things. It's satisfying. I think this pacing element ties to the keeping secrets element Cronin discusses.

I recently read a brilliant short story by a friend of mine. There was a fascinating situation involving a boating accident that results in a death. As I was reading it, I fell into the story. When I got to the end, though, I was strangely unsatisfied and I think I figured out why from Cronin.

When I was doing the critique I called the main character's 'arch' into question. She just didn't seem to grow or change or any of the other words that we writers use to describe a character we just don't understand motivationally. But I realized, after reading Cronin, that what I was missing was the main character's secret. What was it she wasn't telling anyone? I need to know why she was acting the way she was--and while there were hints, nothing was stated outright. I think with just the addition of that piece, my friend's short story would work beautifully. (Because it was super close to begin with.)

Between Cronin and the epiphany over my co-writer's story, I'm going back to look over the short stories that I haven't sold yet to see if maybe that's why. Perhaps the reason my short stories aren't working quite right is two-fold: I need to find out what the characters aren't telling anyone, and I need to take the time to reveal that secret once I know it. Gotta remember there's no rush--tell the story how it needs to be told.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Make the Bartender More Interesting; or, Side Character Names

This one should seem pretty obvious:

Character names matter. And they matter the same way that accurate details matter in a piece of writing. They add a level of meaning and depth and interest that otherwise wouldn't be there.

I also argue that it matters more for side characters. Sure, you can have a bartender named Bob. Bob is a good solid name. I have many friends who are named Bob. But is 'Bob' saying what you need the name to say?

So let's imagine that you have a bartender named Bob in your story. He comes in, let's say, two scenes. He gives a key piece of advice to the main character. Not a life-changing event now, he's just making the Main Character think. I imagine that Bob, being a good solid name, would give good solid advice. If that's what you want as a writer, great! Mission accomplished.

Now name the bartender Lacey (he's still a he).
Now name the bartender Chad.
Now name the bartender Alexander Who Calls Himself Great.
Now name the bartender Adolph.
Now name the bartender Michelle (she's a girl).

What happens to the flavor of the piece? Even if they all give the same solid Bob advice, there's another layer at play. Do you listen to surfer Chad the same way you listen to some whacko calling himself Alexander the Great?

A fun exercise is to go into a smaller scene in a novel, and switch around the side characters' names. Or even name a character that wasn't named before. See what happens. See if there's a layer that can be added, what depths there are to be explored.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Progress

After the Great Writing Race of 2010, I felt rather disappointed in my performance. Yes, sometimes life gets in the way, and a great many of the obstacles that presented themselves during the contest (husband's lack of job, my overworking my own job) have resolved themselves at last! Hip, Hip, Hooray!

But still...one of the things that came up during said Writing Race was the question of Progress, and how much Progress is truly Progress. During a dinner where most of the competitors were sitting together, plus a few other non-competitors, there was a comment brought up by one of the non-competitors. We were reviewing word counts, and he noted that my word count is rounding out to about 70 pages over the course of two months.

Now, there was nothing negative said in his tone, but the implication was there nonetheless: In a writing competition, you only managed to churn out 1.2 pages a day? That's slow for regular times.

Obviously I'm being too hard on myself--after all, I have 70 pages that I didn't have at the start of the summer--but instead of being proud of that, I'm beating myself up for not having done more. This is a horrible feeling, this not having done more. It feels slackerish and loserish. Even though the word on the street is that if you write one page a day, by the end of the year you'll have a complete novel...we're all secretly thinking that is a slow pace. That we should be able to Do More! And Progress.

Right now I'm moving along at the pace of 2 pages a day since the contest--and I'm more satisfied at that pace. I'm shooting to work up to four by the end of the year, in spite of school and all the other stuff coming my way at the end of this month, because I want to have more pages--I feel like a greedy Scrooge McDuck: More pages! More! Mwhahahahaha! I just want them.

What makes you think, at the end of the day, that you have done a good writing job?

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Mentor of the Month: Justin Cronin: Knowing what they're not telling

So, I want this guy's career.

He graduated from both Harvard and the Iowa Writer's Workshop. He's won the Pen/Hemingway award and the Stephen Crane Award.

But basically I want his career because it goes something like this: Write a first book (collection of connected short stories) and win prizes and awards. Write a second novel that is critically appreciated, if not a blockbuster. Write a third novel and have a super-mega bestseller that is very, very well written. I am a fan.

In this video, Cronin talks about his inspiration/motivation for writing The Passage, which is interesting enough, but he also talks about his characters. Before he can write them, apparently, he has to know "what they're not telling." It's one of those statements that I know as a writer to be true, but I didn't think about it until someone put it in just the right way.

How I interpret Cronin's message: You have to know your character's secrets, their shames, and dirty little desires. Does this mean that every character has to have killed someone in their past? No, though The Passage is a thriller/horror type novel so don't be surprised if that's the case for a character or two. Rather, the 'what they're not telling' idea adds tension where there might not have been any before.

Take, for example, the nun in The Passage (Sister Lacey). (I'm not really giving anything away, you learn all this the first or second time you meet her.) She's from Sierra Leone and she was raped, almost killed by a group of mercenary/soldier types. She can see the future, but she doesn't talk about it. The reader knows it, understands it, but the other characters do not. There are several scenes that hinge on Sister Lacey's knowledge and what she's willing to do because of her experiences.

Imagine if Sister Lacey was just a nice nun, doing nice nun things. She's charitable and nice and does what she's supposed to without any kind of secret or struggle. Say it with me: Boring!

Note that the reader also knows the secret...it doesn't stay hidden from them forever. If the reader is left in the dark, then there is no tension. All they see is mopey characters, or characters acting in ways that do not make sense. To engage the reader, we need to focus on letting them know enough to cheer the main characters on.



Monday, August 2, 2010

July Accomplishments

Hear, hear!

The Great Writing Race of 2010 is over, and I lost but who cares? Cheers one more time to the winner: John!

But enough about him, here is what I accomplished:
1. 16,000 words toward La Llorona novel which means:
2. CWC submissions for the next month is covered
3. got school paperwork all set up and will start school on August 23 *jumping for excitement and joy*

Goals for August; or Keeping It Loosey Goosey:
1. More work on La Llorona
2. More work on The Line
3. Critiques

Sunday, August 1, 2010

All Right: Here it is for real now!

The winner is:

JOHN!!!

With super-human effort, our winner John completed 50,543 words! He surged past his own 75,000 word goal for his novel and managed to make the other contestents weep in both envy and pride! (Or maybe he ate too many onions, we're not sure!)

The end result is that he will name a restaurant, and we will pay to feed him. A big, hearty congratualtions. You've earned your reward. I hope your hands aren't crampy and arthritic after all that writing. And the even better news is that you're that much closer to finishing the rough draft of your first novel.

And let's take a moment to appreciate all of the efforts made over the last two months. It was stressful, it was grueling, it was looooong. And here is the final ranking...

With Matt coming in a really close second (jumping an insane 10,000 words in three days): 48,166
And Marie not a bad third: 43,640
And Ali an okay fourth: 35,044 words
And Jenny: 16,176

Drrrrrrum Rrrrrroll Please!

And the winner is....



not Jenny....



not Ali...



but....



You'll have to wait a little bit because there was some technical difficulty with one file so we'll announce the winner a little later this afternoon.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Almost there....

As Ali has said: tommorow is the day. And while she was busy moving some new-to-the Springs friends in, here is how everyone but me surged past her:

John: 48, 266
Marie: 42,591
Matt: 38,933
Ali: 34,100
Jenny: 15,176

Let's see who can bring it home by midnight tomorrow!

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

E-xclusivity: The Word on the Bookselling Street

See previous post for current Amazon/Wylie Adventuretime In Books.

At a staff meeting recently at one of the big chain bookstores to which I was privvy, there was a brief but interesting discussion regarding the Amazon/Wylie exclusivity venture. Seems that some booksellers have come to the conclusion that exclusivity for e-book titles is detrimental to the growth of the electronic book model.

Basically, if you can only get these titles at Amazon, why would you purchase an iPad/nook/Kobo/etc. And, if this exclusivity thing gets bigger and say certain authors will only deal with Barnes and Noble, or Google, or Apple, then why on earth would anyone in their right minds by any of these devices? You'd have to buy an iPad to read JK Rowling, or a nook to buy Stephen King, and a Kindle to read Updike.

It gets ridiculous pretty fast. Why buy electronic reader for $100-$600 when, well, there's a perfectly good book already on the shelf?

Sunday, July 25, 2010

A New 'Agency' Model?

There's been some recent hubbub about agent Andrew Wylie's deal with Amazon--to exclusively sell backlist for a list of big-name/legendary authors in e-book form. The exclusivity lasts two years, and while I have my own personal issues with bookselling in any format as exclusive, that's not what I want to talk about.

What struck me as most interesting in this whole debacle is that a major agency took it upon itself to deal directly with a major distributor. That's a paradigm shifting move for the publishing world. Wylie's e-book imprint, Odyssey Editions, is in essence a brand new publisher. The agent and authors (and author's estates) through direct-dealing like this they will garner more revenue because they've cut out 'the middle man'.

And millions of dollars for said middle man. Random House and MacMillan did not take kindly to the slight. Which is completely understandable--this one agency yanked a considerable percentage of their backstock control. Check out Wylie's client list and be in awe!

(Whether or not the exclusiveness to one reader, the Kindle, will pay out gigantically remains to be seen in the next couple years. Predictions of e-book reading say that up to 50% of all reading in the next 5 years will take place on an e-book reader like Kindle, but the price wars on e-books and e-book readers hasn't balanced out yet, so putting all your eggs in one basket might mean that until the exclusivity time is up, there aren't as many readers for those particular e-books. For example: EBook Reader Choices)

But my question is this: After the litigation over rights, and who really controls them, settles, who will be left in the power seat? For over a century, it has been the publishing houses. They've merged and remerged and mergered to become gigantic and powerful industries. Agents and agencies were built to protect author's rights, and have since become the essential 'gatekeepers' for the publishing houses.

Now those lines have been blurred. An agency is acting as a publisher--though right now with only backstock titles for authors and their estates who are already established, and only over this one format. But as e-books and their popularity rise, and as the technology becomes more diseminated, you can't tell me that people who have trained in publishing (an inordinate amount of agents have edited for big houses, or worked for them in some capacity) might not think that this would be the way to go: take your clients and distribute those e-books yourself.

Good, bad, ugly, or Betty? I guess we'll find out!

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Writing Race Update

For all my Facebook smack-talking, I have not caught up with Ali today. She can rest safely for another day.

As I've let myself get smoked, I have decided that while losing definitely sucks (and losing significantly sucks even more) that there is still an advantage to competing. Namely: I wasn't producing this much two month ago. I was so confused as to where to go with the story that I instigated my own butt-kicking because I said 'Hey guys, you wanna race?' hoping that just the idea of competition would get me writing stuff down.

But I didn't get off the start line because competition didn't solve my problem: Where the hell am I going with this? So I took too long figuring that out and now that I'm fairly solid on many more things in the story, I'm way too far behind to catch up...even with this vacation week in here.

Still, I'm going to keep pluggin away because the goal is to finish the novel anyway. And who knows? Maybe all four of them will pull a hammy and I'll be gold!

Current stats:
Marie: 36,849
Matt: 36,578
John: 35,898
Ali: 20,600
Me: 14,173

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Copying Fleur; or, I Write Like...


I write like
Raymond Chandler

I Write Like by Mémoires, Mac journal software. Analyze your writing!




If you need a distraction from writing, this is a fun one!

I Write Like

**The Raymond Chandler result was for the La Llorona novel. I threw in bits from my other novel and got Stephen King, threw in a different short story and got James Joyce. It's fun to see what others come up!

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

I have no time to talk about how badly I'm losing. I'm just losing. Off to hopefully not lose as badly.

Friday, July 2, 2010

The Satisfaction of Filling a Notebook

Sure, you can write on a computer. I hear that many writers do so. In fact, I recently read Lawerence Block's chapter in Spider, Spin Me a Web in which he said that writing on a screen was the best way to write because that way you have control over what the prose looks like. After many poetry classes where form and line structure were discussed, I can even see his point.

But very, very few things beat the satisfaction of taking a notebook that was once filled with nothing but blank lines...and filling it up. Page after page littered with words that didn't exist before I took a hand to paper. It's not as fun as typing 'The End' but there is a definite sense of accomplishment. You can point to that notebook at the end of the day and say "I filled that."

It's a definite motivation when you're in the middle of a long piece to point at the benchmarks. You can guage your length, your accomplishment, and know that something in the midst of all those word count goals became tangible. A computer screen is a computer screen is a computer screen. You can go on forever and not realize how much you've done utnil you hit the print key.

My way is great for those who are interested in immediate gratification.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Sometimes technology just isn't as fast as I need it to be

Ah printing. It's a blessing right? You don't have to hand-copy everything. You don't have to set type. You don't have to deal with that goopy carbon copy crap. It's wonderful...

Except when you're on a deadline and you need to get five copies of a friggin submission printed out in like 5 minutes or you're going to be late and there's your happy little printer, chugging along like the Little Engine-Printer that Could but it's still not quite fast enough and you'll be at your desk staring at it, willing it to PRINT FASTER but it won't listen to you, and you just know (know!) it's doing it on purpose.

And then, because five submissions of 50 pages each is pretty long, you have to keep filling the paper, being reminded of what a horrible, horrible enviornmentalist you are.

Really what you need is a critique group in a bar.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

More Words to Go

John's right. You can get smoked in a marathon.

Here's my focus at the moment: I need 12,500 words by the end of this week at least, because I have to turn in at least 50 pages to the CWC. At the very least, I have to hit that. No exceptions. (Have I said 'at least' enough times?)

So, the bad news: I'm getting smoked.

The good news: The challenge is working like it's supposed to. I'm getting words down after a very difficult block. After a period of "Nothing I'm doing is good enough." "Everything sucks." and "Why doesn't someone please break my fingers so that I have a better excuse for not writing!" I'm moving again.

And I have to say this for my fellow competitors: You people can move words! Damn.

The current word counts (as of this morning at 9:20) stand thus:
Matt: 16077
Marie: 15,756
John: 14,002
Ali: 10,000
Me: 5, 227

So, to put that into 4 words: I am losing badly.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

A Side Note On the Birth of the Rules: Percy Bysshe Shelley

Last night, whilst talking to my writing Pirate buddies, we were discussing agent-y things--query letters, synopsis, and the like. (You know, the stuff only other writers talk to one another about because any other audience would fall asleep at the wheel.) As we were talking I was reminded of a letter from Percy Bysshe Shelley, brilliant Romantic poet and Mr. Mary Shelley of Frankenstein fame.

It's dated January 16, 1816, and is addressed to publisher/editor John Murray.

Here it is, from The Complete Works of Shelley Volume IX: Letters 1812-1818:

Sir,
I take the liberty of sending you a copy of all the sheets, but the last, of a vol. of poems [which will later be required reading for all British Literature students--Alastor; or, the Spirit of Solitude] which it is my intention to publish. I send them for the purpose of enabling you to judge whether you would become the publisher and on what terms.

I should certainly prefer to sell the copyright. But I am aware that an Author cannot expect much encouragement for his first poetical production before the public shall have passed their judgement on its merits. I have therefore printed 250 copies with the view of offering it to publication so as to meet the opinions of the publisher as to its probability of success.

I have written to Mr Hamilton, the printer, to send you the sheet which is deficient, title-page, etc.

I beg to apologize for addressing you as a total stranger.

Your obedient servant,
Percy Bysshe Shelley

Times appear to have changed. A comparable letter today would read something like:

Dear Superagent's Name,

I have enclosed my full manuscript, with the exception of the last chapter or so, with the hope that you will read the whole thing and send it out to people who will pay me. In order to drum up some interest, I've put it up on my blog but haven't gotten any hits yet. You can read it at www.mypoem.com. I haven't published before, this being my first manuscript, and have no one to recommend me.

Sincerely,
Future Legendary Author

The bit I find interesting is that, while volume after volume of agent advice is out there, letters like this--that launched careers two hundred years ago--are roundly discouraged, and rightly so. The world doesn't work like it did two hundred years ago.

Firstly: Poems? Good luck.

Secondly: Shelley mentions nothing, zero, zilch, about the poem itself. Not even the title. There's no salesmanship element here. Just: hey, dude, I got this poem, here it is. While this might work back in the day, I'm willing to bet a substantial amount of someone else's money that Murray did not receive the quantity of letters that agents and editors do today...and Murray was definitely one of the more successful publishers of the early 19th century. Which ties to point #3--

Thirdly: When I first read this letter, I didn't know that it was essentially a query letter. The way the phrasing went, as with all of Shelley's business letters, reads like he already knew Murray and they were negotiating terms based on a previous discussion. But the last line was very surprising to me. Shelley tells Murray nothing about himself (partly because he's such a scandalous little fellow...) nor why the publisher should invest time and money into his work.

Fourthly: If a query letter is about selling your stuff, then Shelley's self-deprecation is not the ringing bell of confidence with all that talk first poetical productions (a sign that he's asking for a pass as a beginner--which he wasn't at this time, several pamphlets and whatnot having already been published, albeit scandalous pamphlets that he never really mentioned elsewhere either) and phrases about expecting no encouragement, referring to the publication as deficient (even though he just referred to the missing title page), and the apologetic introduction of himself.

Fifthly: Shelley is asking the publisher to invest in a piece. He hands over a copy of the poem, says 'if you want it, it's yours'. So something really hasn't changed--it is still about the writing, it's just that how agents/editors get to the writing has changed.

Shelley's letter is the reason that so many filters and hoops now exist for modern writers to work through. Imagine, in a world where email dominates the landscape if the only query letters were short ones like Shelley's and full manuscripts. How on earth would an agent or editor weed the field? Yes, there is no denying that Shelley wrote a very proper letter and his syntax is amazing even in an everyday correspondance like above. But it is so anonymous.

The current climate is difficult for writers--so many 'rules' and 'guidelines'. But those are the very things that will help us out. If we were told to write just a 'hi' and then submit the manuscript, agents working nowadays would still be working on submissions from the 1990's and by the time they got to us, we'd be posthumous hits. And let's not even discuss the piles and piles of amazing that would've been tossed away just because the stack was so incredibly intimidating--or the number of computer crashes because of so many unwieldy attachments....