Wednesday, June 26, 2013

A Bit of This and A Splash of That


One Time At Band Camp....

I've always wanted to go to camp and it looks like I'll finally get the chance!  While I won't be building teepees or fighting off mosquitos, I will be joining a multitude of other writers who are taking part in Camp Nanowrimo.  Thirty one glorious days of writing in the month of July.  

Okay, so there's actually no physical camp but there is an awesome online community.  Check it out and set your goal of finishing a first draft of your novel by the end of the month.

*beat* Yep, I know what you're thinking.  Really, Jenn?  You?  I admit, that might be a bit of a stretch...so maybe at least a solid quarter draft right?...in time to submit my required homework for Writing The Breakout Novel.  

Sometimes instead of a Camp Councillor, you need a Drill Sergeant...

Which is what I know Donald Maass's weeklong intensive Writing The Breakout Novel will be.  Organized by Free Expressions, BONI (as it's also known as) is a no holds bar workshop where Maass tells you as it is.  While not specific to YA and Children's writers, it provides participants the opportunity to delve deep into their writing and search for the answers to those really hard questions in our stories that we all tend to dance around. 




Speaking of Free Expressions...

I can say from experience that Free Expression's Your Best Book for Writers of Middle Grade and Young Adult Fiction is one of the best workshops for published and yet to be published writers.  Program director Lorin Oberwger is one of the most thoughtful and impressive independent editors out there and she creates a program that is insightful and entertaining. 

Go Martina!
Screw it! I want some warm and fuzzy....

Congratulations to my fellow Your Best Book alumni Martina Boone who's Southern Gothic Trilogy was just picked up by Annette Pollert at Simon Pulse! YBB 2012 is on fire!

Monday, June 24, 2013

Writer's Resource: Handy Mythology Websites

If you're writing a story or novel based on mythology--or one that includes invented mythology of your own--chances are you're doing a lot of research. While you always have the option of checking out dusty stacks of books from the public library, there's a whole host of websites devoted to this very topic that might be helpful.

First up, there's Godchecker.com. This site is a repository of information on the god/goddess mythologies of over two dozen cultures. Some of the entries are a little sketchy, but I've yet to find a better overall view.

Godchecker also has fun stuff like a "Deity of the Day" and the "Holy Hit Parade" (ranking the most popular listings). There's also a place where you can buy mythic mousepads. You know, if that's your thing.


Scholastic's website has an extensive section of teacher-focused myth resources. My favorite is this myth writing workshop with author Jane Yolen, where she takes you through a few simple steps to create your own myth. It would be great fun as a writing prompt for kids, but it's just as good for writers starting the process of inventing their own mythology.

Greek gods

Timeless Myths is another great resource. Don't be fooled by the older website interface--this site has a wealth of information on Classical, Norse, Celtic, and Arthurian myths.

Do you have a favorite mythology resource, online or otherwise? Share it in the comments!

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

The Folly of Revising While Writing First Drafts - Revision Paralysis

It took me less than three months to finish the first draft of WHERE THE STAIRCASE ENDS.  Writing it was almost an obsession.  The words flowed like water, and I didn't stop to think about what I was writing or how it sounded or what I might need to go back and fix later.  I just needed to get the story out of me.

Fast forward to present day.

I started writing my latest WIP in October, yet I'm only 1/4 of the way through my first draft. The old me would have written two first drafts and sent out a handful of premature queries by now. So what changed? The story is still inside of me.  The words are still itching to come out.   But every time I sit down to work I end up reworking what I previously wrote because I can see all the flaws, and I feel compelled to fix them.  Immediately.

Revising STAIRS taught me so much, and there's no doubt that the process of getting it query-ready has made me a better writer.  But I'm starting to think that all my newly acquired knowledge is stunting my creative process.

I now know what my bad habits are, why showing is good and telling is bad, how passive voice slows down my pacing, why voice is key to writing compelling characters, how too much voice can grate, what words I overuse (was, had, that, just, actually), why first chapters are critical and first lines just as important, how pop-culture references can date your story, how chapter endings can be leveraged to created tension, what story cliches I need to watch out for, why back story can be distracting (but sometimes useful if leveraged in the right, non-telling, way), why every character needs clear motivation, why I need to make the reader care about the character before jumping into the action but not delaying the action too much, and OMFG will someone get me off this f*cking hamster wheel because it's starting to make me sick!!!

You get the picture.  It's a lot to have running through your head when you're trying to get your story down on paper (or virtual paper in this case.)

I've gone back and forth on whether this is a bad thing or a good thing.  On the one hand, if my revisions are actually good then I could end up with something closer to the final draft than a first draft when I'm done, and maybe shorten the time spent revising in the long run.  But on the other hand, how will I ever get to that final draft if I'm constantly turning around to revise what's already been written?

So here's my question - Does anyone else out there suffer from this?  And have you found it to be a good thing, or a bad thing?

Any advice for revision paralysis?

Monday, June 17, 2013

Fearbook and The Pit of Insta-Despair

Facebook puzzle head


June was supposed to be that month.  A new beginning.  My contract work was slowing down to a reasonable pace which meant I'd have time to hunker down and do some real, solid writing.  I was going to pump out uber pages a day, in time to have a solid first draft for a heavy duty weeklong workshop I'll be attending in September. 

It's now mid June.  Status update: page count: dismal, hours surfing social media: all time high. Self deprecating sense of unworthiness *ding, ding, ding!* we have a winner!

I have to keep reminding myself that it's not like I'm not doing stuff - work, projects, cleaning my room (seriously, that can be quite the accomplishment)...but one click on Facebook and everything pales in comparison to the adventures of everyone around me.  

Some might think this odd coming from a girl who spends much time traveling, enjoying the fruits of a bicoastal life.  But really, is that any different from your other five hundred online Facebook friend-sonas? How about the mother with the two perfect children who never cry or do bad things like your kid does?  Or the free-spirited single gal who's always dressed to the nines and out dancing the night away? God forbid the super successful entrepreneur who's international speaking engagements make him the most important person IN THE WHOLE WIDE WORLD! And let's not forget those masters of culinary experiences.  How do they eat out every night? More importantly how to they still look so great with that amount of caloric intake!?!.

Grass is always greener It's not like these people aren't awesome, I know and love each and everyone.  But its easy to take a stroll down self pity alley when staying positive and motivated can feel like a ten hour spin class.  I have to keep reminding myself of the old adage (as cliche as it may be) "the grass is always greener on the other side". 

It does help to know that others feel as overwhelmed by the plethora of social happiness and "ra, ra" motivation as I am. Earlier this year, Time wrote about how Facebook makes you feel bad about yourself.

Lauren Lyons took it a step further in her latest article  in the Huffington Post where she admits all her fears and financial woes.

The start of her article is telling:

So many Facebook status updates are about that new job, what a wonderful wedding you had, how great that concert was last night. "Weekend trip with the girls was amazing! Thanks Vegas!" 50 likes. 19 comments. Maybe it's just a function of my friend list, but whenever something not-so positive comes up, it's crickets. "I'm having a really tough time finding a job right now." 0 likes. 2-3 comments, mainly "hang in there!" or " :( " 
By prioritizing engagement with "success posts," we perpetuate this online culture of vast insecurity, and thus, a lack of space for expression of failure.   

I admit, I'm guilty of "liking" other's success but who doesn't want to show their friends they're happy for their great achievement (even if it is winning twelve rounds of beer pong?). 

Author Shauna Niequist also blogs about the issue in Relevant Magazine.  She makes a great point:

...we rarely check Facebook when we’re having our own peak experiences. We check it when we’re bored and when we’re lonely, and it intensifies that boredom and loneliness.

So what to do?  Shauna suggests that instead of using the computer to watch someone else's perfectly crafted life, enter it.  I prefer the afterwork happy hour drink but sometimes a phone call, email, even text message can do the trick. 

That helps with bringing back the "real" people aspect of life, but what about increasing productivity?  

This little gem of an application - Anti-Social - allows you to take yourself off select social media websites for a predetermined period of time.  This has been quite helpful (as long as my iphone and ipad are nowhere in sight). 

All this to say: writing is HARD! Hopefully someday I'll have an FB post that says I'm finally finished my first draft!  Until then, you'll know that I'm spending copious amounts of time pulling my hair out, typing, typing and more typing (and probably an equal amount of time deleting) and in between those long gruelling stretches, I'll maybe take a snapshot or two of a sunny day on the beach or a large piece of red meat.

Babysteps, right?
A big hunk of meat
Mmmmm.....Meat.
Women wearing masks on the beach
Mmmmm....Sunny day on the beach.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

What I Learned From Reading My Old Queries

The other day I read through the early drafts of my queries for WHERE THE STAIRCASE ENDS. I thought it would be good for a few laughs, but what it actually did was show me how much I've learned in the year and half since I first started the publication process.

You can read through some early drafts here if you're curious (my story was originally called The Stairs and the Fly.) The winning version is here.

For those of you out in the query trenches, I thought I'd share some of the lessons my old queries taught me. Hope you find them useful.  :)

Advice From The Trenches:

1. Getting feedback is essential. But the best feedback you'll get is from the query warriors who've been out in the trenches for a while and have had the chance to learn from their successes and failures.  Don't be afraid to ask them for help.

2. Don't be afraid to start over. Sometimes starting from scratch is the best way to fix a broken query.

3.  Be specific.  Generalities won't help sell your story.  Find what makes your story unique, and make sure you call it out clearly.

4.  Don't try to be too cutesy or use gimmicks.  It can be tempting, but if you're relying on gimmicks to get you noticed there's probably a bigger issue at play.

5.  Read the back of similar books within your genre. Back-of-book summaries are great query examples, and reading story summaries from books that have similar themes to your own can give you an idea of how you should think about your own summary.

6. Conflict is they key to it all - every good query needs to clearly showcase the conflict in the story and highlight the stakes for your MC. Period.  If the conflict is missing, your query isn't properly showcasing your story's plot.

7.  Learn what sounds cliche by reading other queries. If you spend a few hours on sites like AgentQuery Connect and Absolute Write, you'll quickly start to notice some recurring themes across many of the queries. If you think they're all starting to sound the same, imagine how agents feel after reading through the several hundred queries sitting in their inbox. Avoid similar pitfalls so you can stand out in the crowd.

8. Critique other queries.  Learning what doesn't work for others can help you learn what not to do in your own query.

9.  Even the best, most perfectly written queries will get rejections. It's a simple reality, because the business is subjective (I know, I know - I hate that word too.) You don't need to rework your query every time you get a form rejection or a no response, but if your overall rate drops below 15-10% you should consider giving it another look.

10. Writing a query is harder than writing a book (at least in my opinion.)  Be patient with yourself. It takes time.

Got any lessons of your own?  Share them here!

Good luck out there!

Monday, June 10, 2013

Curious Lives of Teenagers: I Read...



Subjects were asked to fill in the blank "I read...". Here are their responses:

  • To live a double life. To have that as your secret life. The one you can only imagine.
  • When I get paid to (which never happens).
  • We read to experience.
  • Because it's a wonderful escape. and the closest feeling to actually experiencing something firsthand.
  • When I run out of South Park episodes on my DVR.
  • Cus I'm usually forced.
  • In order to be compatible with the upper echelons of society.
  • When Ms. Monahan tells me to.
  • Because it helps me escape from my own life and live someone else's. It makes me forget about my hurt and enjoy the love and happiness of characters. I'm too busy worrying about their problems instead of my own. It brings me happiness...
  • To expand my vocabulary and when the power is out.
  • Because books are like a box of chocolates. you never know what you're gonna get.
  • To enhance my kindergarten-like vocabulary.
  • So that when I'm done reading everything else seems more exciting.
  • To enhance my brain and gain knowledge and to pass English.
  • To experience things I otherwise wouldn't have, to expand my knowledge, and to distract myself.
  • Because I don't own a TV.
  • Because our imagination can create a setting with no limits.
  • I read to escape my life, even if it's for a little while.
  • It's fun :)
  • To get girls.
  • Because my wifi is broken.
  • Because books let us experience others' goals, dreams, and problems without having to go through their hardships ourselves.
  • Because it's fun and exciting. you get to experience different situations without actually being there.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Book Expo America 2013 in Pictures

Harry Potter Lithograph signed by new artist giveaway. Best. Swag. Ever.
New Chamber of Secrets Cover after the big unveiling. So. Beautiful.
I do read YA! I love YA! Now even strangers will know :)
What? Is that Arthur Levine? Kazu Kibuishi?
Learning what's hot to read. The one I'm most looking forward to? Fangirl!
Some of the lines were so long you had to get tickets. Marie Lu's was one of them -- even though she wasn't even giving out a full ARC. That's just how hot she is. I was engulfed in so much fan girl screaming and giggling in line it was amazing.
Marie Lu is awesome. So sweet!
 
I love this so much I wanted to drive it out of the Javits all the way to California. It makes me start a book fair at the high school where I teach. When I returned, I immediately started planning a great book swap party for my sophomores to kick off summer reading spectaculars. I can't wait to tell them about all of the hot titles coming out.
Hint to authors: If you want people to feel special, pull a Julianne Moore and look this excited to see a random stranger getting a signature.
Rick Riordan not only made us laugh hysterically, but also made anyone getting a book signed feel important. He said that when writing books he tried to make it so that each chapter could hold the attention of all of his middle schoolers through the entire chapter. Even after lunch.
Olivia! (My nieces think I'm so cool -- partying it up with the celebs)

Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus is one of my favorite books. Thank you Mo Willems for consistently delighting us with simplicity, wonder, humor, and now cupcakes. Yum!
Neil Gaiman's words are still haunting me, and not just because of the accent. Why is reading dangerous? Because it makes us empathetic. I've had discussions in all of my classes about this crucial idea about humanity since I've been back and still can't get it out of my head. Thank you Gaiman for so much more than the signed books you gave us.
 
And after it's all over, it's time to enjoy the NYC. Chocolate gelato on the high line. And yes, the Rainbow flip flops were an excellent choice for walking the Javits and the city.

Monday, June 3, 2013

YA Book Pick: ELEANOR & PARK

Once a month, we choose an outstanding YA book to review. We want to spotlight books of interest to aspiring writers, as well as highlight some of our favorite books and authors!

This month's Book Pick is ELEANOR & PARK by Rainbow Rowell.
eleanor and park book cover

Synopsis (from Goodreads): "Bono met his wife in high school," Park says."So did Jerry Lee Lewis," Eleanor answers.
"I’m not kidding," he says.
"You should be," she says, "we’re sixteen."
"What about Romeo and Juliet?"
"Shallow, confused, then dead."
''I love you," Park says.
"Wherefore art thou," Eleanor answers.
"I’m not kidding," he says.
"You should be."

Set over the course of one school year in 1986, ELEANOR AND PARK is the story of two star-crossed misfits – smart enough to know that first love almost never lasts, but brave and desperate enough to try. When Eleanor meets Park, you’ll remember your own first love – and just how hard it pulled you under.


First Line: "He'd stopped trying to bring her back."

The book starts near the end of the story and then goes back to the beginning. This can be tricky to pull off, since it's often just a gimmick to hook the reader with some action so they'll stick around for a slower start. Here, though, it works well. The author keeps the beginning very short and just intriguing enough to make you wonder how this narrator got so attached to the girl he's describing. It also helps that the beginning of the story is immediately compelling and well-written all by itself.

Highlights: The author absolutely nails the feeling of being a sixteen-year-old outsider thrown into a group of unsympathetic peers. Her depiction of the careless cruelty Eleanor experiences at school was realistic and evocative, to the point where I actually had trouble reading it in places because I was so forcibly reminded of some of my own high school experiences.

The romantic relationship is also grounded in reality. The characters don't fall in insta-love--quite the opposite, actually. They forge a bond through shared interests before they start to see each other in a romantic light. When they fall in love, they fall hard... but this makes sense too. They are sixteen, after all.

Although I won't spoil it, I also really liked the ending of the book. It wasn't what I expected, but it felt very narratively satisfying and true to the characters.

Notes for Writers: The story is set in 1986, which makes it historical fiction (believe it or not, that was twenty-seven years ago!). The whole story is peppered with bits of nostalgia, from mix tapes to punk music to comic books. Although there are story reasons for the historical setting, it's also an interesting way to add an extra layer of enjoyment for older readers.

A Good Read For: Writers of YA contemporary (or near-contemporary) fiction or "issues" books.