Tuesday, December 30, 2008

And the Winner Is...

Jim Danielson!! My mom drew your name out of a hat, so you can thank her. :)

Send me an email at tabitha at tabithaolson dot com so I can get your address and send along your book!! Congratulations!! :)

Monday, December 29, 2008

A Year in the Life...

This year is about over, and a new one will begin later this week. I don’t believe in new year’s resolutions, but I do believe in looking back over the past year just to see where I was at this time last year – what’s the same and what’s different. Let me tell you, it’s been a busy year. Insanely busy.

I could have started writing everything that had happened, and all the little things that happened as a result of the big things, but then I’d be here for the rest of the week. I don’t have time for that, so, instead, I focus on only the big things. The things that changed either me or my life in some way.

I think this is not unlike writing the synopsis for a novel. I think a synopsis should contain the major plot points, but also the major points that change the character in some way, either internally or externally. Here are the things I do to write a synopsis:

1. Go through each chapter and write down the major plot point, plus my absolute favorite part. If they happen to be the same, even better.
2. Make a list of all of these pieces, then turn them into a narrative (present tense, single spaced).
3. This is always longer than one page, because there are always too many pieces of the story that I love and want to include. So I go through each item and prune out anything that’s not part of the story’s framework, or skeleton. I keep doing this until I’m down to a single page.
4. Tighten up word choice, review spelling and grammar/punctuation, and polish until it shines.

What I have left are the most important pieces of the story, both to me, and to the story. This is also a good exercise in pacing – if I can’t find the major piece in a chapter, then maybe I need to rethink that chapter.

Anyway, that’s what I do to write a synopsis. What do you do?

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Merry Christmas!

For all of you celebrating today, here's wishing you a very Merry Christmas!!

Instead of my usual thursday book discussion, I'll be giving away a fabulous book: the National Book Award winner, WHAT I SAW AND HOW I LIED by Judy Blundell.

Just leave me a comment on this post, and I'll draw a name out of a hat next tuesday.

Until then, enjoy your holidays, and I hope you're not under a mile of snow and ice like I am. :)

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

A Snowflake Cake

I love the holidays. It gives me excuses to do things like bake cakes and give them away.

I made this yesterday as a gift for the staff at my youngest son's school. I've made cakes for them before, but this seemed particularly fitting considering how much snow we've gotten so far. Plus, school was closed due to excessive snow last friday. They got a kick out of it, and I just had fun making it. Everyone's happy. :)

Monday, December 22, 2008

Change in Your Characters

When Cheryl Klein spoke on plot at Prairie Writer’s Day, there was one thing she really hammered home: your main character must change. It’s part of the definition of internal plot.

I’ve heard the same thing from many others, and it’s rare that I enjoy a story where the main character doesn’t change. So this idea of change must be true, but my question is this: what does change mean, and how is it applied?

Webster’s definition of change: to make the form, nature, content, future course, etc., of (something) different from what it is or from what it would be if left alone; to transform or convert; to become different; to become altered or modified; to become transformed or converted (usually fol. by into); to pass gradually into

Hmm. Sounds pretty drastic, especially if your character is a baby-stepper. Some characters are good at altering a particular mindset, eliminating or adding to a huge part of his normal life, or even changing of who he is. Others...not so much.

If your character is resistant to change(like many people in the real world), what do you do? What if his life is not too bad the way it is? Does that automatically mean his story will flop? I don’t think so.

I think that there are varying degrees of change. With a character who’s open to change, his growth must be more drastic than the ones who aren’t open to change. With a character who’s not open to change, he still needs to grow in some way, even if it’s simply taking one tiny step toward the change he needs to make.

I think a lot of writers make a huge mistake in this area. They think their characters need to change, so they change them, regardless of whether it’s the right kind of change for that character. But how do we know what the right kind of change is? It’s all in the character, and writing what’s consistent with what your character would do, given the circumstances he’s under.

For example, I’ve said before that I didn’t think Frankie’s change was consistent with her character in THE DISREPUTABLE HISTORY OF FRANKIE LANDAU-BANKS. Given what we knew of her, and how good she was at getting what she wanted, her initial confession didn’t fit her character. Nor did her actions afterward fit.

Conversely, Connor’s change in UNWIND makes perfect sense. What starts off as self-preservation turns into a desire to help more than just himself. Given the circumstances he’s been in, he’d have to be a horrible person to not take this path. Readers don’t generally like reading about horrible people. : )

Anyway, I guess my point is that, yes, a character must change. But the level of change must be consistent with who your character is.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Honest Scrap

I've been nominated for the Honest Scrap Award by fellow blogger Ann Bryson, a lovely person I met at the Prairie Writer's Day conference. :)

“Scrap means left over, discarded material. Many times truth and honesty are discarded material, considered fragments and left over. This award is for people that tell it like it is, and let the scraps fall where they will. There are 2 guidelines for receiving this award. One, you are to list 10 honest things about yourself. Make them interesting, even if you have to dig deep. Two, present the award to other bloggers.”
Ten honest things about me are:
1. I love to bake. Cakes are my favorites, but really anything will do. Banana bread, cinnamin rolls, cookies, pies, quiche, bread, whatever. Especially around Christmas time. :)
2. I don't like running. Hate it, actually. I only run for the train, and only if I know there won't be another one for an hour.
3. One of my biggest fears is speaking to strangers, especially a group. I guess it's got more to do with being the center of attention, which makes me squirm like no tomorrow. Blech. There's a reason I write. :)
4. I'm addicted to coffee. Love the stuff, love it! But caffeine and I don't always get along, so I have to take a break from it for a month or two, then I vow to stick to decaf. But it never lasts because it doesn't taste as good.
5. I've been crocheting since I was twelve, and can do it with my eyes closed. Literally. I made seventeen baby blankets in one year once, because we knew so many people having babies. I've still got one to make for my future neice/nephew.
6. My favorite board game is Connect 4. Though I guess it's not technically a board game...
7. I read to my kids every day, at least once. I'm looking forward to reading novels to them as they get older.
8. I check on my kids every night before going to bed and always listen to the sound of them breathing. It's such a calming, reassuring sound...something only parents will probably understand.
9. I used to ride motorcycles, avidly. I probably will get another one when my boys are older and I have more time. Which probably means I'll be an old woman and too weak to hold on. :)
10. I'm a very honest person. I used to hold back my opinions or comments for the sake of avoiding conflict, but the past few years I've been saying what I think. Tactfully, of course. Or, at least, I hope.
And now, I tag Carrie, Lee, and Prince B. If you choose to be tagged, that is. :)

Thursday, December 18, 2008

The Underneath by Kathi Appelt

Plot Summary: A calico cat, about to have kittens, finds a hound chained-up hound deep in the backwaters of the bayou. And the hound, Ranger, befriends this creature he is supposed to hate. Ranger urges the cat to hide underneath the porch, to raise her kittens there because Gar-Face, the man living inside the house, will surely use them as alligator bait should he find them. But they are safe in the Underneath...as long as they stay in the Underneath. Kittens, however, are notoriously curious creatures. And one kitten's moment of curiosity sets off a chain of events that changes their lives forever.

This book was nominated for the National Book Award. I’ve heard many people talking about it, recommending it, insisting that it was going to win some kind of award this year. And that was before it was nominated, so I’d already had it on my TBR list. After the nomination, I bumped it up.

I can see why so many people think it will win an award. It’s literary and thoughtful, with loveable characters and horrible villains (who even have a sympathetic side). And yet, I didn’t love it. It took me a long time to figure out why, but I finally did.

As with all my book discussions, there are SPOILERS below.

There is no main character. We delve into one character, then move on to another, then come back, then move on, etc. As a result, we get to know what many of the characters are thinking because they tell us themselves. It allows us to get to know them fairly well so we know why they do the things they do, and even evokes sympathy in the unlikeliest characters.

For example, Gar-Face is a mean man who keeps his dog chained in his yard, feeding him occasionally. We find out that he was harshly abused as a child, and he never faced those demons, evoking sympathy even though he’s still a mean man. Also, the Alligator King is a one hundred foot long alligator. That right there is enough to make the reader say “Yikes! Gar-Face, get rid of him!” He does what all alligators do – eats the young, innocent, wounded, unsuspecting, whoever crosses his path. Yet, he has wisdom that he passes on to other characters that almost makes him likable.

But, there’s still no main character. Hence, I could not figure out who’s story this is. I still can’t. I got to know the characters up to a certain point, but never got to really and truly delve into them. Not the way you get to know a single main character, because you’re spending so much time with him.

As a result, not all of these characters’ actions made sense to me.

The actions of Ranger and the cats were completely understandable. But they’re the good guys. We see them grow, find themselves through loss and grief, then come together stronger in the end.

Grandmother Moccasin, however, doesn’t go through this kind of growth, yet she’s the key figure in the end. Throughout the story, we see how bitter and angry she is, how selfish and unrepentant she is, as well as what she’s capable of (via flashbacks). She’s the one character that didn’t evoke sympathy from me, not even once. In the end, she suddenly casts aside her anger and chooses to help the dog and cats – which left me scratching my head. I suppose you could say that all the anger she showed us throughout the story was anger at herself, but that’s not how it was presented. And, at least to me, that feels contrived, especially since the resolution was pretty predictable.

Throughout the story, we’re shown how powerful Grandmother’s jaws are, the things she could slice through. What else presented in the story could break Ranger’s chain? Nothing. So I felt that her intent to eat the kittens, only to suddenly help them, felt like clumsy sleight of hand.

I think that if one main character had been chosen to tell this story, and if we’d actually seen more of Grandmother’s choice to be selfless instead of selfish, or at least presented in a way that not everyone is a caricature, this would have been an amazingly powerful story. As it is, it’s good. Not great. But maybe that’s just me.

Monday, December 15, 2008

The Character of Plot

The last, but certainly not least, speaker I’m going to cover from this year’s Prairie Writer’s Day conference is editor Cheryl Klein, of Arthur Levine Books. She discussed plot, both from the aspect of the story and characters.

She said story is what happens. Plot is the structure which gives the action shape and meaning. In other words, story is a sequence of events, and plot is the larger change that happens through those events. This happens through both the external and internal plots.

External Plot: change in circumstances via action. These are the challenges that are presented to the main character from the outside. Entertainment comes from this aspect.
Internal Plot: change within the character. These are the challenges that are presented to the main character from the inside. Emotion and meaning come from this aspect.

Or, to simplify it even more...
External Plot: plot. As in, a major problem or situation is thrust upon the main character.
Internal Plot: character. As in, the character’s growth.

Ms. Klein really stressed how important the characters are to the story. She said you might have the best plot idea in the world, but without a sympathetic character to carry it off, she won’t be interested. Neither will most readers. Her fabulous advice is to start writing the book as if that plot didn’t exist, telling us only about the character to whom the plot will happen – after all, the character doesn’t know what’s going to happen, so why should we? This will show us more of the character and what he wants, which will ultimately add to the plot.

She went on to define different types of plot.
Conflict: One character vs. another character, or one character vs. herself
Mystery: a story where the characters need a piece of information
Lack: a story where a character needs something to be complete and live a full life

She said that good plots often have more than one of these types of plot going on at the same time. That you SHOULD have more than one plot in your book, since novel is a window into a real life and nobody has only one thing going on at a time.

As far as pacing goes, she said at least one plot event must happen per chapter. Or, your character must make at least one choice. The Lightening Thief is a good example.

On Frame Stories, where a story happens within another story, i.e. The Princess Bride. A change must happen in both stories, otherwise the one without the change isn’t necessary.

On a similar note, for multiple main characters, each must undergo his own change or internal plot. Otherwise that character isn’t necessary.

She said much, much more, but I’d be here forever if I relayed everything so I will stop here. Often, Ms. Klein puts notes from her talks on her website, cherylklein.com. This one isn’t up yet, but she’s got some other good notes on plot. This is one lady who loves to talk Plot, so I recommend checking them out if you haven’t already.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Princess Ben by Catherine Murdock

Plot Summary: With her parents lost to unknown assassins, Princess Ben ends up under the thumb of the conniving Queen Sophia, who is intent on marrying her off to the first available "specimen of imbecilic manhood." Starved and miserable, locked in the castle's highest tower, Ben stumbles upon a mysterious enchanted room. So begins her secret education in the magical arts: mastering an obstinate flying broomstick, furtively emptying the castle pantries, setting her hair on fire . . . But Ben's private adventures are soon overwhelmed by a mortal threat facing the castle and indeed the entire country. Can Princess Ben save her kingdom from annihilation and herself from permanent enslavement?

This author also wrote DAIRY QUEEN and THE OFF SEASON, both of which I loved. But PRINCESS BEN somehow missed the mark. I think this is largely because the style of all three stories were written the in the same way. I think it worked for DQ because the life of a girl on a dairy farm is pretty quiet and boring. Plus, the main character wasn't a girl of action, so it worked that she told us everything. But Princess Ben is different, so this style didn't work for her.

As with all my book discussions, there are SPOILERS below.

Princess Ben, real name Benevolence, doesn’t seem to have a consistent character. I think the author knows her really well, and could answer any question I might throw at her. But, for some reason, it didn’t come across on the page. Sometimes she appears sedate and accepts abuse by servants. Other times she’s outspoken and undefeatable.

From the beginning, we’re shown that she’s precocious, possibly a little spoiled. In the end, we find out that she was very spoiled and she overcame it. But, in between, there wasn’t much to show us her progression. Her actions were not consistent with a grieving, spoiled girl. Actually, there wasn't much action at all, which means there wasn't much to show me her real character, and I couldn't identify with her. Which makes me kind of sad, because I loved the main character in DQ so much.

My other issue is that the voice was a bit flat. It’s actually consistent with the narrator (Princess Ben as an old woman), but, for me anyway, it didn’t work. I was expecting a fresh and young voice, but got an old one with too much wisdom inserted in convenient places. I think the author should have searched within herself for a voice and style that fit this story, instead of using the same thing that fit DQ.

This was still an enjoyable read, and I think part of why I didn’t like it more is because I had higher expectations after reading DQ. I’ll still read more of Ms. Murdock’s work, but this one isn’t going on my shelf.

Monday, December 08, 2008

Stepping Out of Character?

Martha Mihalick, editor at Greenwillow, was another speaker at this year’s Prairie Writer’s Day conference. Her topic was Character: how to create really good ones, and why it’s so important.

Basically, plot springs from the character. Sure, you could have a chain of events, but without a believable character to carry it out, you’ve got nothing. So how do you create a well-rounded character? Ms. Mihalick tells us all...

Characters are flawed. That’s what makes them real, and that’s how readers identify with them. They are more than character types, such as The Jock, The Nerd, The Quiet Kid, The Queen Bee, etc. They move the story forward through their virtues and flaws, which means they MUST be more than a type. It also means they drive the plot – the plot never drives them.

So how do we create these wonderful characters? Ms. Mihalick had many helpful things to say on this.

On a characters objects and possessions:
What does your character carry around in his/her pockets? And why?
How does he/she dress (i.e. what is his/her sense of style)?
How is his/her bedroom decorated?
What is his/her most prized possession?
What are his/her opinions of the various things in life?

On the people a character interacts with:
Who are your character’s friends? Enemies?
Who lives in his/her town? Neighborhood?
How does he/she treat these people?
What are his/her relationships with parents? Siblings? Other family?

On a character’s actions and reactions:
What makes your character laugh? Cry?
What does he/she do when frightened?
Introvert or extrovert?
Body language.

On a character’s opinions:
Optimist or pessimist?
Liberal or conservative?
What is his/her opinion on certain kinds of music, movies, and books?

Put all of this together, and you’re on your way to creating a very real character.

Now that we’ve created him, how do we reveal him to the reader? Through a combination of action, dialogue, and monologue. But only those things that are relevant to the story. If your character thinks wearing socks with sandals is appalling, but is has nothing to do with the story, there’s no reason to bring it up. The same goes for the people and surroundings. Only bring in the things that have direct relevance to the story, build it, and move it forward. Everything else can stay in your notes.

Now we know how to build a complex main character. How do we build a minor character? According to Ms. Mihalick, use the same things. The minor characters must be as complex as the main character, even though we won’t see as much of it. But if you, the author, know the depth of your characters, then that will come across to the reader. The same thing goes for villains.

She parted with a list of books that contain well-developed characters:
TRACKING DADDY DOWN by Marybeth Kelsey

Thus, adding to my towering TBR pile. :) Hope you enjoyed this as much as I did!!

Saturday, December 06, 2008

A Christmas Present Cake

As promised, here's a picture of the cake I made in the shape of a christmas present.

The picture is horrible quality, and I apologize for that...I really wish I could find the cords needed to download off our other (much better) camera.
*sigh* Maybe Santa will hear my wish... :)
UPDATE: I've uploaded a photo of much better quality. Thanks, Santa!!

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Valiant by Holly Black

Plot Summary: When seventeen-year-old Valerie runs away to New York City, she takes up with a gang of squatters who live in the city's subway system. But there's something strange about Val's new friends. When one of them talks Val into tracking down the lair of a mysterious creature with whom they are all involved, Val finds herself torn between her newfound affection for an honorable monster and her fear of what her friends are becoming.

I read this book some weeks ago, and thoroughly enjoyed it. I didn’t expect to, mostly because this is essentially a story about drug use, and that’s not my cup of tea. But it was the way drug addiction was presented – not exactly softened, but not exactly the whole terrorizing experience either – plus, this kind of drug would tempt anyone into becoming addicted. Ms. Black walked a very fine line here, and pulled it off well.

VALIANT has been criticized for the sex and drugs content, and the general “raw” flavor of the story. But, for me, this is what made it work. Sure, there are some bad situations, lousy choices, and terrifying consequences, but don’t real drug addicts go through that? I think Ms. Black told the story she set out to tell, and intended it for an older YA audience.

As with all my book discussions, there are SPOILERS below.

Valiant. Valerie. The two are not synonymous. Valerie starts out this story as far away from Valiant as possible. But, through a long and dark road, she makes it there.

The drug Val gets addicted to is called Nevermore, and is essentially faerie magic in powder form. Users of this drug are able to perform magic themselves – making people give them money or expensive jewelry, turning garbage into cupcakes, etc. Val gets addicted to this drug, along with two of her new friends. The third friend, however, has the sense to stay away from it. He works for a troll, distributing this Nevermore to the faeries living nearby, and his whole reason for being seems to be to protect his brother from himself.

Val doesn’t get sucked in right away, which I found both believable and refreshing. Some books thrust their characters into situations before they’re ready, and it makes the story jarring. Not enjoyable. But Val got into her addiction gradually, which, I’d guess, is how it happens for many addicts. She spirals out of control, but then does something that not all addicts can do – she gets herself out of it. And she does it on her own (with a small support group), but no one does it for her. I respected her immensely for that.

Val is the kind of character that is deeply flawed, and not entirely likable at first. But if you stick with her, she eventually shines. Bravo to Ms. Black for taking the chance on writing such a character, and succeeding.

Monday, December 01, 2008

A Voice Giving Us Voice

Last week, I told you all the wonderful nuggets Jennifer Rofe shared with us at Prairie Writer’s Day. This week, I’m going to share editor Caroline Meckler’s (of Wendy Lamb Books, an imprint of Random House) insight on Voice. And it’s amazing insight!

Voice is one of the most nebulous aspects of writing, and I haven’t found a satisfying definition for it. I’ve searched websites and blogs, asked at conferences and other get-togethers, and pretty much everything else short of shouting out questions from my rooftop.

Last month, Caroline Meckler changed all that. Her presentation gave me the clearest, most understandable definition of Voice that I’ve ever heard.

She said every piece of writing has Voice – it’s the expression of the content. Some expressions are more compelling than others... Voice is something that must come from within – editors won’t be much help, especially with first time authors. Voice must already be there for most editors to take on the project.

As to what makes up Voice, Ms. Meckler said there are five elements:

This is the choice of words used both to narrate the story, and in the characters’ dialogue. They should be deliberate, concrete, and surprising (i.e. not predictable). The meaning and connotation of each word should be clear and consistent with both the characters and the story.

These are specifics that create a clear image of both the story and the character. It makes the story and characters seem tangible, and pulls the reader directly into the story. The kind of detail revealed will also reveal aspects of both the story and the characters - the characters because we are seeing his/her perception, and the story because we are seeing the author's perception.

This gives the reader a full-on experience of all five senses. Shown, of course, not told. The senses should pertain directly to the story (as should everything else), as well as reveal more about both the story and characters that we couldn't otherwise see without those senses. This adds to the personality of both the story and the characters.

This is the technical side of things, and has to do with grammatical structure: varied sentence length, run-on sentences, incomplete sentences, perfectly balanced and correct sentences, etc. All of these show the reader what kind of story we're reading, with what kind of character(s) - breathless, perfectionist, intellectual, etc.

This sets the relationship between the writer and reader: close, distant, direct, funny, intense, dramatic, etc. Is this a story being told after the fact, in a debriefing kind of situation? Or is it an intimate setting where the story and characters are speaking directly to the reader?

She went on to say Voice is the personality of your writing, meaning it’s the mood or feelings as a product of the author. The authority of the Voice matches the character, which makes the book come alive - evoking emotion from the reader.

She cited some examples of good Voice:
CALVIN COCONUT by Graham Salisbury
HOW I LIVE NOW by Meg Rosoff
ROSIE & SKATE by Beth Ann Bauman

Then, she closed with some brilliant advice: the wrong Voice will weigh down your story, so keep trying on new Voices until you find the right one. If you stay true to your writing style, it will be easier to both find and keep your Voice.

I don't know about you, but I know exactly what I need to do now in order to strengthen my Voice! Thanks, Ms. Meckler!!

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Final NANO Update

Well, I got over 15,000 words written. Considering how much went wrong this month, I'm pretty happy! :)

I hope everyone had a great Thanksgiving! I was supposed to post pictures of the cake my oldest son wanted to bake, except there aren't any. He changed his mind from baking a cake to making his favorite vegetable: okra. Yes, okra. Who am I to argue with that? :) So there are no cake pictures, because there was no cake. But, christmas is coming and I've promised a cake that looks like a present to a good friend of mine. Those pictures will be forthcoming... :)

On a complete different note, we took our boys to the circus for the first time yesterday. Aside from it being a little too long, they loved it! My youngest was dancing and clapping in his seat the whole time - it was really cute. :)

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Austenland by Shannon Hale

Plot Summary: Jane is a young New York woman who can never seem to find the right man—perhaps because of her secret obsession with Mr. Darcy, as played by Colin Firth in the BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. When a wealthy relative bequeaths her a trip to an English resort catering to Austen-obsessed women, however, Jane’s fantasies of meeting the perfect Regency-era gentleman suddenly become more real than she ever could have imagined. Is this total immersion in a fake Austenland enough to make Jane kick the Austen obsession for good, or could all her dreams actually culminate in a Mr. Darcy of her own?

Shannon Hale is also the author of THE PRINCESS ACADEMY, a Newbery Honor, which I loved. It was fun with great characters, and kept me absorbed from page one.

So when I heard about Austenland, I got really excited. I’m a huge Austen fan, especially PRIDE AND PREJUDICE, so I opened these pages with anticipation.

First off, let me say this is an adult novel, though I can see teen crossover appeal. But it definitely has the flavor and forgiveness of an adult novel. I acknowledged this and adjusted, ready and wanting to love this book.

I didn’t. And I’m sad over it.

This book didn’t have Ms. Hale’s usual stellar writing and well developed characters. I guess you could consider this a light, fun read. But it’s also contrived, shallow, and predictable. Anyone who’s familiar with PRIDE AND PREJUDICE will know what’s coming well before it gets there.

As with all my book discussions, there are SPOILERS below.

This was such a fresh, fun idea that I eagerly wanted to get lost in. But so many things just didn’t ring true. Like the banning of electronic devices (like cell phones) when most of the kerosene lamps were electric, plumbing used instead of chamber pots, and 20th century makeup instead of 19th. And smuggling said electronics can result in being kicked out? Seems a bit much. I mean, who cares what a paying customer has in her room with the doors closed?

But no, Jane is nearly thrown out for smuggling in her cell phone, and she does nothing to stop it. That I just didn’t buy, especially since Jane has some serious leverage over the establishment: a drunken actor was a bit too forceful in his proposition for sex. In fact, this bit of info is completely forgotten. I expected it to come up again at least at the end, when Jane finally comes into her own and gives the proprietress a reaming. But she doesn’t. So what was the point of the inappropriate proposition for sex?

There were other inconsistencies, but all of these I could have forgiven. But I couldn’t forgive the characters. They were all flat and predictable, even Jane. It was obvious what role Mr. Nobley was playing. It was even obvious what role Martin-the-gardener was playing. I was expecting a refreshing twist to turn the story on its side, but didn’t one. Ms. Hale, I’m sorry to say it, but I know you’re capable of better. I’ve read it in your other work.

Anyway, if you like PRIDE AND PREJUDICE and want to read the same story in a modern setting, then you might like this. Otherwise, I’d stick to the classic.

Happy Thanksgiving!!!

For those of you living in the US,


We're spending the day as a family, cooking our favorite foods. Even if it doesn't go with the traditional turkey dinner, we'll make it anyway. :)

Aside from a turkey breast, I'm making pumpkin pie. I look forward to a slice of this all year, slather with whipped cream. Yum!

My boys want to make cookies and cupcakes, of course. So we'll make them, but then I have no idea what we're going to do with so much dessert. But there will be pictures, of course. :)

My husband is going to add the flavor of India to our dinner. Which I'm really looking forward to. :)

Happy Thanksgiving everyone! Now, I must go put the turkey in the oven...

Monday, November 24, 2008

Make A List, Check It Twice

I recently attended the 4th Annual SCBWI Prairie Writer’s Day, with an absolutely amazing lineup of speakers. I tried writing up a summary of the day in one post, but just couldn’t do it. So this will come in a series. And out of order. So, for those of you who were there, sorry for the confusion. :)

Jennifer Rofe, an agent with the Andrea Brown Literary Agency, talked about Revision. She showed us examples of submissions that had come to her, the kinds of revisions she asked the author to make, and also the number of revisions editors had requested of the author. One editor asked author Cynthea Liu to cut 20,000 words from her MG novel, PARIS PAN TAKES THE DARE. 20,000 words!! The entire room gasped.

The examples Ms. Rofe gave were really interesting and useful, but they’re just one piece in the puzzle of Revision. There’s no way I could write an entire blog post on that, because it was one of those things where you had to be there...

Then, Gutsywriter asked a great question: is there some sort of Revision Checklist that writers can utilize?

Aha! :)

Using this question, I was able to go back through Ms. Rofe’s examples and pick out her more generalized comments (plus a few of my own).

OPENING HOOK. Does your story start in the right place? Is the main plot apparent on page one? Has the backstory been introduced such that it doesn’t slow down the story? Above all, is this interesting?

CHARACTERS. Do they seem real? Are they flawed? Do they know what they want, and is there something opposing this (i.e. constantly keeping them from getting what they want)? Also, are all of them necessary? That is, do they contribute to the story in such a way that there would be a hole without them?

SETTING. Is this vivid? Can the reader close his eyes and picture exactly where the characters are? Is it realistic? If it’s a fantasy/sci-fi setting, has the world been defined and adhered to, without paragraphs of info-dumping?

PACING. Is there anything that slows down or takes the reader out of the story?

THEME. Have you said what you wanted to say without preaching or being message-y?

PLOT. This is huge, but this is generally asking if you have a beginning, middle, and end. Also, does the reader react sufficiently to the story as a whole?

RESOLUTION. Does it fit the story such that the reader will be satisfied? For example, a story about a war building, with anger and anxiety on both sides, ending with peaceful negotiation – it’s a good ending, but can leave the reader feeling let down. Are all subplots resolved? All necessary questions answered?

VOICE. This is also huge, and generally asks about the voice of the story as well as the characters. Is it obvious who is speaking simply by the dialog (and not the tags)? Does the story have its own Voice (I.E. can the reader see an obvious difference in narration between this story and another)?

STRONG WRITING. This encompasses everything from word choice to evoking emotion from the reader – far more than I can put into this simple checklist. But, basically, are all the words you’ve used necessary? Both to the story and to the characters? Has each word been purposefully chosen?

OBJECTIVITY. This is the single most important thing when revising. Distance and objectivity allow you to see your work for what it is, not what you want it to be. If you don’t have this on your own, then find at least one critique partner who can be both honest and constructive.

It’s hard to put together a checklist for revising, simply because the things involved in writing are so huge. One could easily create checklists for each of these main points, but then we could get mired down in the details and not get any actual work done. :)

Saturday, November 22, 2008

NANO update #2

Another week has gone by, and the flu has still infiltrated my house! My youngest son was down with it all week. Thursday was his first day back to preschool, and I got a little writing done on friday. So I'm up to 13,250 out of 50,000. *sigh* I was hoping to be further along, but oh well. :) With a sick child in the house, what are ya gonna do? :)

On the plus side, I absolutely LOVE my main character! I love writing her story, and right now I'm just writing what she tells me to write. It's such a joy, and her Voice is so strong! I guess you could say I'm in the first draft lovey-dovey stage, but there's more to it. She's a fabulous character to write, and so fun! That right there is going to see me through to the end of this story, and probably a zillion revisions afterwards. :)

On a completely different note, Editorial Anonymous has offered to grade writers on their ability to write a synopsis, based on a well-known novel. You'd think she'd have writers banging her door down, right? Nope. She's only got two, but she's giving everyone the weekend to write up a synopsis and email it to her. So if you want to test your synopsis-writing ability, get out those notepads!

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson

Plot Summary: As the Revolutionary War begins, thirteen-year-old Isabel wages her own fight...for freedom. Promised freedom upon the death of their owner, she and her sister, Ruth, are still sold to a New York City couple, the Locktons, who have no sympathy for the American Revolution and even less for Ruth and Isabel. When Isabel meets Curzon, a slave with ties to the Patriots, he encourages her to spy on her owners, who know details of British plans for invasion. She is reluctant at first, but when the unthinkable happens to Ruth, Isabel realizes her loyalty is available to the bidder who can provide her with freedom.

I’m not a big historical fiction fan, but I’m a fan of Laurie Halse Anderson. So when CHAINS was nominated for the National Book Award, I bumped it up on my TBR pile.

I like history, but it’s usually presented in such a dry fashion that it can’t keep my interest. Not so with CHAINS. From page one, this story had me riveted. It’s an honest account of the time of the Revolution. It doesn’t paint all the Patriots in rosy colors, nor all the Loyalists as evil monsters. They were just people with different preferences and backgrounds.

Same with the slavery. It wasn’t just in the south; it was everywhere. Not all slaves are innocent victims, and not all slave owners are vicious monsters. Anderson has built this world through the most amazing way of Showing that I haven’t seen in a long time. It’s so good that I didn’t even notice how much she was showing me the first time through. I had to go through the book again, and then I was blown away. Fantastic.

This book is amazing, and I highly recommend picking it up right now. But, I warn you, you won’t be able to put it down...

Monday, November 17, 2008

Say Again?

What’s your favorite word? How many times do you actually use it?
On the flip side, what’s your least favorite word? And how many times do you use it?

The answer to both questions is probably “not very often.” But what about the words you don’t have strong feelings for either way? What about the words that come out while you’re trying to think of something to say? Before you address a crowd? When something happens that you don't like? How often do you use those words, and what are they?

Chances are, these words are something mundane, like “okay” or “yeah” or "crap" or something similar. A good friend of my says “I mean” quite often. My husband says “kinda like” all the time. I say “well,” and my oldest son is now picking up that habit. We say these things without thinking about it. Without even realizing it.

But what about when you write? Chances are, you don’t repeat the same kinds of words on paper that you do aloud. Then, what are the words you use over and over again when you write? If you don’t know, how can you find out?

Lucky for us, there’s a great website that creates something called a Wordle. It’s a visual representation of the words most often used in the text. The words largest in size have been used most often. The smallest, least often. So, does it mean that if you've got an enormous word in your Wordle, you're using it too much? Maybe, maybe not. But it’s worth exploring...

I copied in the text of my novels, ROYAL ROSE and BELIEVING IS THE HARDEST PART.

Both stories are in third person, so the word I (obviously) used most was the main character’s name.

In Miranda’s story, “said” is as big as the other characters’ names. But in Rose’s story, it’s much smaller. But in both of them, the word “eyes” is pretty darned big. I examined both manuscripts, and discovered that I use the eyes way too much when describing emotional reactions (with all my characters). It made me take a hard look at other, better ways of getting these emotions across. I also discovered that I use the word "just" too much. That one is definitely a writerly version of "okay." Nine times out of ten, I could delete the word "just" without it affecting my sentence.
This site was probably not intended to be used as a tool for writers, but I've found it invaluable.

What’s in your Wordle?

Saturday, November 15, 2008

NANO update

Two weeks have passed, and I'm sitting at 12,250 words. I'm supposed to be at 25,000 right now...leaving me 37,750 to write before the end of the month. That means I'll need to write 2517 words each day, including weekends. Or, 3775 words per day without the weekends.

Hmm...ain't gonna happen. :)

But hey, considering I only get two hours of writing time a day (not including weekends), and I caught a minor flu bug this week, I think I'm doing pretty good. :) I'll stick to my goal of 2500 words per weekday until I've finished this draft. Nothing bad about that!

On a completely different note, Nathan Bransford had a fantastic post on his blog about how the publishing industry should handle the current economy. The comments section is full of some really great ideas. If you're interested in such things, head on over and add your two cents. :)

Right now, I'm off to the SCBWI IL Prairie Writer's Day conference. There's a great roster of speakers, so this should be fun!! :) I'll do a full write up next week sometime.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Cross My Heart and Hope to Spy by Ally Carter

Plot Summary: After staking out, obtaining, and then being forced to give up her first boyfriend, Josh, all Cammie Morgan wants is a peaceful semester. But that's easier said than done when you're a CIA legacy and go to the premier school in the world...for spies. Despite Cammie's best intentions to be a normal student, danger seems to follow her. She and her best friends learn that their school is going to play host to some mysterious guests--code name: "Blackthorne. Then she's blamed for a security breach that leaves the school's top-secret status at risk. Soon Cammie and her friends are crawling through walls and surveilling the school to learn the truth about Blackthorne and clear Cammie's name. Even though they have confidence in their spy skills, this time the targets are tougher (and hotter), and the stakes for Cammie's heart--and her beloved school--are higher than ever.

When I picked up this book, I was specifically looking for something fun to read. I wasn’t disappointed. This book was just as good as the first one I’D TELL YOU I LOVE YOU, BUT THEN I’D HAVE TO KILL YOU.

Actually, it was better because it had more oompf. The stakes were higher, there was more emotion, and the climax was absolutely gripping. And I absolutely love what the author did with the new girl from the first book: absolutely no cattiness, and she becomes a valuable ally.

As with all my book discussions, there are SPOILERS below.

There was one place that gave me pause, and that was near the beginning. Cammie goes on an assignment of Counter Surveillance, meaning she has to discover who is following her and then lose them. Her teacher stresses that this is much more difficult than Surveillance, which Cammie has a natural inclination for.

Turns out that Cammie isn’t a natural at Counter Surveillance, and she fails her mission by inadvertently giving up info to one of the Blackthorne boys. When she realizes she’s failed, she thinks the boy who beat her is actually better than she is. Except there’s a logic flaw here: her teacher had already told her that Cammie’s mission was much harder than Blackthorne’s mission. Plus, the Blackthorne boy had an advantage over Cammie: he knew about her but she didn’t know about him. I think Cammie is smart enough to be able to look at the situation for what it is, learn from it, and not make the same mistake again. Instead, she accepts that this boy is better than she is when it’s not clear that he really is. As good as, maybe, but not better.

But that was the only place that gave me pause. The rest was just as fun as the first book, only better. So, if you’re looking for fun, go read this book.

Monday, November 10, 2008

The Devil’s in the Details...

Last week, we laid out the overall shape and structure of plot based on the reader’s reaction. This week, I want to look at the details that bring the structure to life. Starting, unsurprisingly, at the beginning.

When should plot begin?
This is a question I’ve heard asked a thousand times over. And the answer? Immediately. In its simplest form, the main plot is introduced on page one via the characters, situation, and setting. If there is anything about the characters, situation, or setting that doesn’t relate to the main plot, then the story has begun too early. On that same note, the story might begin in a manner that relates to the main plot, but then could veer into unrelated territory. I.E. too much backstory, character pondering, irrelevant incidents, etc. If this is the case, then the story might either need a new beginning, or simply be tightened up.

What about subplots? When should they begin?
That, of course, depends on the subplot and how it relates to the main plot. In other words, the best place to begin a subplot is when it makes the greatest impact in the story. Vague, I know. :)

The way I see subplots is this: they’re what round a story out, showing the reader the main plot from as many different angles as possible. For example, the main plot in THE ADORATION OF JENNA FOX is her journey to discover her heart and soul. One of the subplots is the heartless neighbor boy who relishes in violence. When these two plotlines are put together, Jenna’s journey becomes fuller, richer, and more heart-rending. Yet they are separate stories, tied together by a single thread. I think good subplots will enable the reader to make stronger connections to both the story and the characters. Therefore, they must be at least distantly related. If it’s not, then why bother?

Then how about plot twists? How many is too many?
I’m not sure there’s a magic number for plot twists. The best number is whatever works for your story. If it needs a zillion, then give it a zillion. Just make sure the reader isn’t going to get dizzy in the process...

Personally, I love plot twists. But only if they’re well done. I don’t want to see it coming from three chapters away. Not even three pages away. I don’t want to see it until I’m at most one page away, better if I don’t see it at all. But I never want to be asking myself "where did that come from?"

So, what makes a good plot twist?
That’s a good question. And a hard one. It’s hard not to say “it depends on the story,” which I’ve been saying way too much in this post. But, in general, a good plot twist will turn the story’s direction upside down while keeping the characters and situation true to themselves.

Twists are not sudden – often times there’s been subtle clues planted up to the twisting point, but the reader may not have picked up on them until after the fact. Twists don’t shift people out of character, either. If the twist requires a change in one of the characters, then that change has been subtly happening for many pages. I’ve read many a book where the big twist came out of nowhere and I was left scratching my head. I want to be able to see it coming, even if I don’t see it the first time. Especially if I don’t see it the first time, because then I’m guaranteed to go back and read the story again. What author wouldn’t want that?

Finally, what makes a good plot?
That’s a doozy of a question. Because, really, good plot is good structure, good subplots, good twists, good characters, good tension, good situations, etc. all rolled up in one. See? Doozy.

Friday, November 07, 2008

The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks by E. Lockhart

Plot Summary:
Frankie Landau-Banks doesn’t like to take “no” for an answer. Even when it means she can’t join her boyfriend’s all-male secret society – a society that does nothing but sit on the golf course and drink beer. She’s smarter than any of them, and knows she can take their lame pranks to a whole new level...

For me, this story started out a bit slow. I wasn’t so interested in awkward, fourteen year old Frankie. All I needed to know was that she “bloomed” over the summer before her sophomore year, and had heard her father talk about the Loyal Order of the Basset Hounds.

After Frankie settled in to school for her sophomore year, things got very interesting...and I couldn’t put it down.

As with all my book discussions, there are SPOILERS below.

Frankie is unique. She has the unusual gift of objectivity. That is, she is able to set her emotions aside and see things for how they really are. Not how she wants them to be. Not how others want her to see things. Not how her emotions or preconceptions might be skewing the facts. And she is able to act, based upon this objectivity, in order to get, or keep, the things she really wants. That’s partly why she’s such a good debater and strategist (the rest is good, old-fashioned smarts).

This kind of personality is often seen as cold, calculating, and heartless. Clearly, Frankie is none of these things. She truly loves her boyfriend, Matthew. She cares for her friends. And she still found ways to get what she wanted without sacrificing or hurting them. Someone like her would likely end up in a position of power, like the CEO of a successful company. Or a high position in politics. And she wouldn’t get there by stepping on those around her.

In the end, Frankie loses what she’s gained. She loses her boyfriend, she loses her anonymous position as leader of the Order of the Basset Hound, and she nearly loses her best friend. But what does she learn from it? To do things differently next time? Or to be more careful and not make the same mistakes again? Nope. The lesson she comes away with is “I guess I have to hide parts of who I am, or everyone will look at me like I’m a freak.” I find this both frighteningly real, and sad because it’s so real.

Because of who she is, who she’s been established to be throughout the whole novel, I don’t think the ending fits her character. Frankie has consistently shown us that she can think strategically, even when her emotions are rearing and she’s terrified she’s going to lose her boyfriend. It’s clear that she can’t help it – this is just a part of who she is. It’s how she functions, like breathing.

Hence, I just can't believe that she'd tell her boyfriend how she was the real mastermind behind all the brilliant pranks that Alpha had been taking credit for. That's a huge mistake that someone like her could only make if she were caught up in massive emotions. But she isn't. Right before she tells him, she has a logical, even-keeled discussion with herself and realizes that Matthew will never see her for who she is, never accept her as the strategic genius who provided them with so much fun.

If Frankie is who she’s been set up to be, she would never have fessed up in this manner. By telling Matthew, she’s handing him all the power...clearly something she doesn’t do. Instead, she’d have figured out how to retain her power.

So, I think that, instead of telling Matthew, she’d have told the school board on her own. Maybe even written the confession letter before it had been requested. This clears Alpha so he doesn't get expelled, and it puts him in her debt. Also, I could definitely see her stealing back the confiscated Disreputable History book and giving it to Matthew at the most opportune moment. Thus, putting the Order in her debt. Sure, she’d still be kicked out of the “in” crowd. But she’d probably be famous for years after she’d graduated. Not speaking up means she remains anonymous.

That’s what I think the real Frankie would have done. And I’d have cheered her on, because I absolutely loved her.

There are not many heroines written with Frankie’s personality. It’s refreshing to see this explored from all sides, and not shunted into the usual “bad guy” or “sidekick” box. So, thank you, E. Lockhart, for turning objectivity into a superpower. No matter how it may look, it's really not so bad.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

will the real blog post please stand up?

We interrupt your blogging enjoyment for a special announcement.

Due to technical difficulties...erm...okay, due to incompetent forgetfulness, your regularly scheduled thursday book discussion will be postponed to later in the afternoon, possibly friday morning. But absolutely no later than that. And it's going to be all about Frankie Landau-Banks, so stay tuned...

We now return to your regularly scheduled programming.

Monday, November 03, 2008

The Bare Bones

Plot has always been the hardest writing concept for me to grasp. Every time I would try to nail down exactly what Plot is in explainable terms, which is something I’ve been doing for some time now, all kinds of unexpected things emerged: fully developed characters, pacing, conflict, tension, character growth, trusting your reader, evoking emotion, etc.

This left me scratching my head. So I looked at what experts said about plot, and they came up with pretty much the same thing: Plot doesn’t appear as an entity unto itself. It appears as a manifestation of all these other aspects of writing. The ones listed above.

The only thing that seems to belong to Plot alone is the overall shape and structure of a story. The best way I’ve seen to explain this is to do it via the reader’s reaction.

Last year, I took a six-week workshop with Esther Hershenhorn, regional advisor for the Illinois chapter of SCBWI. She laid out a reader’s reaction in five simple, genius, steps:

1) “Oh.”
This is the story’s beginning. The reader is curious about the story, the characters, the setting or situation, etc. Something has caused the reader to pick up the book and begin to read, because he is curious what kind of story this is.

2) “Oh my...”
This is at the transition from the beginning to the middle. By now, the reader is hooked, interested, and has been pulled into the story. If he’s in a bookstore or library, he’d probably tuck it under his arm so he can take it home to finish.

3) “Oh dear!”
This is the story’s middle. The reader has gotten this far because he wants to know what’s going to happen. He likes the characters, and he likes what’s happened so far. If he set the book down for whatever reason, he’d come back to it because he wants to.

4) “OH NO!”
This is the transition from middle to end. At this point, the reader needs to know how this is going to end. If the phone rang or someone knocked at the door, he’d get irritated because it’s pulling him out of the story. And, once that distraction is gone, he’d go right back to it. If he’s being seriously needy, he might simply ignore the phone or the door.

5) “Oh yes!”
This is the ending, or resolution to the story. Your reader is left with a sense of satisfaction. The characters are where they should be, and loose ends have been tied up. If your story has been really effective, the reader may feel inspired, illuminated, or even feel the need to take some action based on what he’s read. Or, he may simply feel the need to open it back up and start it all over again.

Say your story has this structure. Is it enough? Yes...and no. In order for this structure to be truly effective, you also have to have fully developed characters, pacing, conflict, tension, character growth, trusting your reader, evoking emotion, etc. As with all parts of writing, having one good piece isn’t enough. They all must be good.

This is the overall picture of a story’s structure, but there are details within that play vital roles. Things like subplots, twists, subtleties, clues, etc. This post is already too long, so I’ll delve into these next week. In the mean time, happy plotting!

Friday, October 31, 2008

Happy Halloween!!

Halloween has always been my favorite holiday of the year. Costumes, candy, spookiness everywhere, what's not to love? :)

So, to all of you planning to celebrate, have fun, and don't get sick on the candy! Well, not too sick. Oh, what am I thinking? Eat candy until your sides are splitting, then eat some more! :)

Thursday, October 30, 2008

I Am the Messenger by Markus Zusak

Plot Summary: Meet Ed Kennedy—underage cabdriver, pathetic cardplayer, and useless at romance. He lives in a shack with his coffee-addicted dog, the Doorman, and he’s hopelessly in love with his best friend, Audrey. His life is one of peaceful routine and incompetence, until he inadvertently stops a bank robbery. That’s when the first Ace arrives. That’s when Ed becomes the messenger. Chosen to care, he makes his way through town helping and hurting (when necessary), until only one question remains: Who’s behind Ed’s mission?

Some time ago, I picked up THE BOOK THIEF with low expectations. I thought it odd that the main character was a girl, yet the narrator was Death, and didn't think it would come across well in the story. I was pleasantly surprised. :) So, I headed out to pick up other books by the same author, and selected I AM THE MESSENGER.

The story starts out well, piquing my interest and keeping me glued to the pages. Ed’s growth is fantastic. He questions his place in life, steps up to do the things he needs to in order to better his life, as well as the lives of those around him. Each mission he accepts makes him stronger, more sure of himself, and more interesting. He goes from a passive observer to an active member of life, and the writer geek in me was giddy with glee.

Then, we find out who’s behind Ed’s mission...

As with all my book discussions, there are SPOILERS below.

After Ed receives his final mission, a mysterious man appears. It turns out he’s been responsible for the whole thing. The missions, the events, people’s reactions, everything. Absolutely everything.

In fiction, who is the only person that can be responsible for everything that happens in a story? The author. That’s right. The mysterious man who comes to talk to Ed is the author. Markus Zusak. I screamed “are you kidding me?” then nearly threw the book across the room. Nearly, because I can't bring myself to actually throw a book. But this is the closest I've ever come.

If Zusak had simply appeared, said “I did all this to you because I wanted to. Sorry, kid,” and then walked away, I’d have still liked this book. But he didn’t. He sat down, rehashed every single aspect of the story, explaining how it has led to Ed’s growth as a better person. Basically, he told us everything he'd already shown us throughout the entire story.

I haven’t been so insulted as a reader since...well, since never. I am perfectly capable of reading a story and gleaning what the author wants to say, as well as taking away my own meaning. It seemed like Zusak didn’t think that I, or any of his readers, was capable of doing this. So he stuck himself in there just to make sure.

Honestly, I’ve never had such a violently negative reaction to a book before, so I'm unfamiliar with this territory. According to Amazon, this book is classified as YA. I’m wondering what young adults think of this book, and whether they would agree or disagree with me. Anyone know?

Monday, October 27, 2008

National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo

Every November, the National Novel Writing Month website charges writers to write 50,000 words in one month. It starts at 12:01am, November 1st, and ends at 12:00am, November 30th. Once you’ve finished, you upload your novel to their website, where they run a script to check your word count, then issue a PDF winner’s certificate and web badge. They do not check content, just word count.

There are a lot of people on both sides of the spectrum for this exercise. Some people balk at the idea of churning out so much so quickly, because the quality of the writing could suffer. Some people find it exhilarating to turn off their inner editor and crank out whatever pops into their heads. A lot of people ask “is this something I should do?”

My answer? It depends. :) I know, very non-committal.

Personally, this is something I'd never be able to do. At least, not the way everyone else does it. I can write quickly, but my writing doesn’t thrive under these circumstances. I *know* that if I churn out 50,000 words in a month, without editing as I go, it’s going to be terrible. And I’ll likely have to rewrite the majority of it - I'd rather start over then overhaul a manuscript like this. Because I already know this, I’ll have no motivation to finish it. So I'd have to do it differently.

50,000 words in thirty days breaks down to 1667 words per day. Except I can't work weekends, and there are five weekends (totaling ten days) during the month of November. That means I'd have to get all my writing done in twenty days, which is 2500 words per day. I could probably do that...but then, there's my writing process to consider.

When I write, I don’t think about word count. I think about the story, have a “road map” in mind, and let the word count emerge on its own. If I was targeting a specific word count, my story would suffer. And that’s like sticking a knife in my heart and twisting... Also, when I'm writing a new story, I have to have the beginning absolutely perfect before I can move on to the rest. In my head, everything comes out of the beginning. So, if it isn't right, then my story is heading in the wrong direction. So I spend a lot of time on my beginning, rewriting a zillion times. But, once I've got it settled, the rest of the story quickly falls into place.

So, if I participated in NANO, I'd have to set myself a 2500 word count per day, but not be concerned with the cumulative word count. I may or may not finish by the end of the month, but I suspect writing with so many "buddies" would be so much fun that I wouldn't mind not getting the cool web badge to put on my website. :)

There are others who absolutely love NANO just the way it is. Some need this kind of permission to turn off the inner editor. Some just want to see if they can write so much in such a short time span. Some may be exploring their own writing process. And some just find it fun. Originally, I'd decided not do NANO. But now I'm thinking it might be fun, so I signed up. And who cares if I "win?" :)

So, if NANO is something you’re considering but you don’t know whether or not to do it, ask yourself this: what do you want to get out of it? A completed novel? The chance to explore an idea with no rules limiting you? A test to see if you can write 50,000 words in a month? That cool web badge? Whatever the reason, if you think you’ll get something out of it, then go for it! If you don't think you'll get anything out of it, well... :)

A big reason I'm doing this is for the comraderie, and I'd love to be your writing buddy. Drop me a line or look me up if you like. My Nano ID is 'tabwriter.'

Saturday, October 25, 2008

On Respect

I try hard to keep this a writing blog and don't generally inject my own personal stuff...except for these occasional weekend posts. :)

I just gotta say that people seem different lately. Not sure if it's because Election Day is rapidly approaching, and this election has some seriously charged emotions behind it. Which is great, because that means people are getting involved. And I hope this means everyone will get out and vote.

What concerns me is the manner in which some of these people are speaking. I actually got involved in a couple political discussions, and this is something I NEVER do. My political beliefs are very personal, and, hence, very private. I haven't said (and won't say) who I'm voting for, but I have pointed out a few inconsistencies here and there. They were met with some flippant, even insulting, comments. I politely asked one commenter why she was speaking that way to me, and her answer was "It's a free country and I'll say what I want." She went on to say that she can take what she dishes out, which makes it okay.

Huh? When did it become okay to insult people simply because you can handle insults in return?

I believe in free speech. I will most certainly speak up if I believe something needs to be said. That's partly why I want to be a writer, because I've got something to say. And, because I'm a writer, I've got a really thick skin and can take some pretty heavy insults. But does that mean I should dish it out just because I can take it? I don't think so.

I believe in the Golden Rule: Treat others the way you want to be treated. If I went around insulting others, then, according to this rule, that translates into me wanting them to insult me back. Except I don't. Who does? No one I know. I'm sure the snarky woman doesn't want it either. She can take it, sure, but wanting it is very different.

I don't know...maybe I'm just old-fashioned. Even though I'm not old. :)

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Life As We Knew It by Susan Beth Pfeffer

Plot Summary: Miranda’s disbelief turns to fear in a split second when a meteor knocks the moon closer to the earth. How should her family prepare for the future when worldwide tsunamis wipe out the coasts, earthquakes rock the continents, and volcanic ash blocks out the sun? As summer turns to Arctic winter, Miranda, her two brothers, and their mother retreat to the unexpected safe haven of their sunroom, where they subsist on stockpiled food and limited water in the warmth of a wood-burning stove.

The premise of this novel is so powerful that, while I was reading, I had many an urge to fill every nook and cranny of my kitchen with non-perishable foods. Probably because I’m a mom, and just the idea of my family being in that situation makes me want to prepare for it. :)

As for the book itself, I enjoyed it. Most of the characters were interesting, some of the messages were a bit one-sided, but it’s still a very powerful story.

As with all my book discussions, there are SPOILERS below.

After finishing this book, I read several reviews that slammed the author on her lack of research in science, incomplete portrayal of religion, and flat characters. So, here’s my take on things.

First, let’s look at a few characters that, for me, really stood out. The rest of the characters weren’t nearly as interesting. I think they could have been if we’d seen more of them. But, as it is...

Miranda: a typical teen pushed into an atypical situation – natural events on the scale of the apocalypse. Some teens, when put into extreme situations, will grow up quickly and do what they need to do to help out. Especially in matters of survival, which is what this story is all about. Miranda doesn’t. Some may see that as selfishness, others may see it as denial and wanting to hold on to some semblance of normal. I think the second is what the author was going for, but it didn’t always come across that way. Still, I liked her and enjoyed seeing her grow as a person into doing everything she could to help her family survive.

Mom: I read a few reviews that really criticized the author for turning the mom into a snarling hoard-monster. I can completely understand why she kept food and supplies for only immediate family. Mom Instincts kicked in, and she *had* to provide for her family. That meant she would go without, which she did, and so would everyone else. She’s responsible for her family, no one else is. If her family starves, it’s her fault for not preparing better. That’s a huge burden to bear, and not many would handle it well. Mom didn’t, but her heart was certainly in the right place. Because of this, I thought she was very realistic, if not completely likable.

Megan: Initially, she was annoying, but clearly Miranda’s friend. After one particular scene, however, I hated her. It was the scene in the lunchroom, after Miranda has asked Megan to eat instead of giving half of her food away to the other kids. Megan looks right at Miranda, then gives away *all* of her food. That, plus her continuous holier-than-thou attitude made me wonder why Miranda was even friends with her. I can understand friendship loyalty, but this went too far. Megan went too far.

This leads me to the religious aspect of the book. Many reviewers have said this book paints a one-sided view of Christians. And, I have to say that I agree. The only Christians portrayed are Megan, who I’ve already discussed, and her pastor, who is a selfish extremist. There are Christians in this world who are like this. And there are other Christians who are the opposite. In this kind of story, I’d guess there would be many Christians doing good things, as well as the ones like Megan and her pastor. There would probably be atheists and agnostics converting as well, because that can happen in seriously scary times like this. I think a rounder representation of Christianity would have made the story deeper and richer, because I’d think everyone would be considering his immortal soul...even if he hadn’t believed in it before.

The last thing left is the science. This actually gave me great pause. When the meteor first hits the moon, the effects are instantaneous. Now, I’m not a scientist, or an expert, but I do know a little something about how things move in space. If the moon were hit so hard that it shifted orbit, I don’t think we’d see the effect immediately. There’s a lot of space in space, so, even if something is moving along at a good speed, it still takes a long time to get from point A to point B. Also, once something is moving, it doesn’t stop.

In this story, the meteor hitting the moon is described as pushing the moon sideways, and then it got sort of bigger. Essentially, it shifted into a closer orbit over the period of a few minutes. Realistically, we would see these changes take place over a few days, not a few minutes. If the moon was moving so fast that you could see it get closer to Earth in just a few minutes, that means it’s moving at a seriously fast pace. Which means the impact would have been so intense, large chunks of the moon would have come off. Plus, once it got that much momentum going, it’s not going to stop. It would crash into Earth, effectively ending Life As We Know It.

I do think the author should have made this more realistic. It would have made the premise that much more powerful. And, considering how powerful it already is, can you imagine how amazing the story would have been? Off the charts. Just goes to show how important research is.

Still, this is a story that’s tough to put down. I wanted to know how in the world they were going to keep on going with a disaster like this. I’m glad to say that the ending wasn’t fairy-tale-like, yet had a glimmer of hope that left me with a smile on my face. Good book.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Author Interview with PJ Hoover

Welcome to an interview with debut author, PJ Hoover! Her first book, THE EMERALD TABLET, hits shelves next week. I, for one, cannot wait to get my hands on a copy. In fact, let's hear more about it.

Welcome, PJ! Can you tell us about your book?
Hi Tabitha! The Emerald Tablet is a fast-paced middle grade science fiction novel aimed at kids 8-14. It’s the story of five kids who find out not only are they from a world hidden under the Pacific Ocean, they aren’t even human! And if that’s not enough, after only a day on their new sunken continent, they discover they need to save the world.

It sounds exciting! What was the inspiration behind your idea?
Too much TV watching during my youth!
The initial idea came from a show on in the early 80s—The Powers of Matthew Star. As coincidence may have it, Matthew Star was not a human (though he was an alien and my characters are not aliens), he was from another world (once again, he’s from outer space, not under the sea), and he had special powers like telekinesis (OK, this is the same). He lived among the “normal” humans and had to hide his powers, all while working toward a greater purpose.
The Powers of Matthew Star only aired for a few months. Let’s hope The Emerald Tablet is around for much longer!

I'm sure it will be. :) How many drafts did you go through?
Really, I never count drafts. Bad answer, I know, but each read through with anything changed can technically count as a draft, right?
To try to figure it out, my guess is I’ve read The Emerald Tablet close to 50 times by this point.
But yes, I will still read the final, published book! Most probably in a public place where everyone can see the cover and ask what it is. And if/when I find a typo, I won’t even circle it.

Good for you. :) As for the rest of us, 50 read-throughs! Puts things in perspective... How many drafts did your editor go through with you?
Probably four initially before I signed. Then, a year later, before the ARC, I did another revision and submitted it to her which she edited and I revised a final time.

How long did it take to find your editor? And are you agented?
I flew all the way to the SCBWI NY conference where I met my editor who happens to live in Austin, TX, also! I started working with her about five months after I started submitting The Emerald Tablet.
I am agented, though only since this past March. When I started looking for an agent, it took about five months, also.
Hmmm…something about that five month time frame I guess. :)

How do you get to know your characters?
Character motivations seem like the most crucial part of understanding a character. When we look at our own lives, everything we do, we do for a reason. Sometimes it’s nice to step back and ask yourself why you are doing something and be totally honest with the answer. I force myself to ask the questions on character motivations and answer them. I have motivation spreadsheets where I make sure each character has sufficient reason for being.
But I’ve also heard a nice idea recently of taking a character out for tea (or a beer as the case might be). This I plan to try next. Especially for the antagonists!

What was your favorite part of writing this book? Least favorite?
Favorite part of The Emerald Tablet was my first revision with my editor. She gave the most amazing feedback! I needed to cut huge chunks of backstory. Add scenes. Shift scenes around. It was perfect and just the kind of feedback needed to get inspired again for revisions!
Least favorite—rejections. I’m pretty sure I don’t need to say more about that!

How does it feel to have your first book on the shelves?
Weird. Hard to believe. Like normal people can get books published. Who’d have thought?

How did you get in to writing for kids?
I’ve always loved Fantasy and Science Fiction, and after I had kids, MG/YA seemed like the natural choice. Like I could contribute something that they may like to read one day. I don’t like to be too serious, and writing for kids makes this much easier.

What are you working on now?
Revising books 2 and 3 of The Forgotten Worlds Books!
Also I’m working on a MG urban fantasy series with an Egyptian slant and an upper-YA urban fantasy with a hint of Greek mythology.

Do you work on one project at a time, or multiple?
Normally I like to get through a draft or revision without interruption. But once a revision is done and simmering, I’ll pick something else up and work on it. I’ve stopped in the middle of projects to work on others, but find this hurts the momentum big time!

Are you a planner, or do you write by the seat of your pants?
Planner—though I am experimenting with different levels of planning. Once book I spent two months doing nothing but planning before writing a single word. Another book I spent about two days and then wrote the first draft. Much of the planning still needs to be done (like character development worksheets and such), but it’s fun to try different methods.
Plus, sometimes I’m just not patient enough to wait before writing!

Are you a paper person, or the computer-only-type?
Computer only! Always! If I ever dared hand write anything, I’m afraid I wouldn’t be able to read it.

What are your favorite reference books? And why?
There are tons of great ones, but I’ll go with:
Fiction First Aid by Raymond Obstfeld because I can read it over and over unlike many books on craft, and I always get something new out of it. Which reminds me…I really need to read this again!

Don't Know Much About Mythology by Kenneth C. Davis because I’m fascinated with mythologies of the world and how they all tie together and influence us even today.

The Worst Case Scenario Survival Handbook: Extreme Edition by Joshua Piven because they say you should hate your characters and put them in awful situations, and this book gives you some great ideas on how to do exactly that (and get them out of the situations, too)!

Thanks, PJ, for taking the time to answer all these questions!! And good luck with this book, as well as the rest in the trilogy. :)
Thank you so much, Tabitha!

If you'd like to read more about PJ and her first novel, here's a list of interviews and reviews:
August 2008 Book Review Maniac
August 2008 Trainspotting Reads
February 2008 The Edge of The Forest
Jen Robinson, Jen Robinson's Book Page
Five Stars - Recipient of the Gold Star Award for Excellence: Teens Read Too
Daphne Grab at The Longstockings
Balanced Steps
Bookworms' Reviews (Bookworm Number 1)
Bookworms' Reviews (Bookworm Number 2)
Book Review Maniac
Eleanor at Present Lenore
Book Review Maniac Junior
Mrs. V's Reviews
Presenting Lenore
The Book Vault
The Page Flipper
The Book Muncher
In The Booley House
Trainspotting Reads

Last, but not least, the book trailer!

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Spiderweb Cake

Yesterday was a Fall Festival at my oldest son's school. It was huge! They brought in a petting zoo, had pony and camel rides, games to play, even a haunted house. Let me tell you, most haunted houses are on the ridiculous side...not this one! We ended up not going because my youngest took one look inside, and said "I don't want to go in there." Then he turned and walked away. :)

I donated some sweet stuff to their bake sale. I made two dozen cookies, and four layer cakes. Three had this design:

I took a better picture, but it's on a camera that doesn't have a way to download onto my computer. So I snapped this picture right before the cake sold. :) I did three of these on friday, then ran out of decorating supplies so I slathered the last one in plain chocolate frosting. It was fun, just tiring. All four cakes apparently sold quickly, so that's good. :)

Thursday, October 16, 2008

An Abundance of Katherines by John Green

Plot Summary: When it comes to relationships, Colin Singleton’s type happens to be girls named Katherine. And when it comes to girls named Katherine, Colin is always getting dumped. Nineteen times, to be exact. He’s also a washed up child prodigy with ten thousand dollars in his pocket, a passion for anagrams, and an overweight, Judge Judy-obsessed best-friend-Hassan. Colin’s on a mission to prove The Theorem of Underlying Katherine Predictability, which will predict the future of all relationships, transform him from a fading prodigy into a true genius, and finally win him the girl.

As with all my book discussions, there are SPOILERS below.

This book is living proof that YA novels can be fun and light, yet still be gripping. Or, it could simply be that John Green is a genius. Yes, that’s probably it. He took this story and created the best characters for it. Look at the main character, for example: Colin Singleton. Singleton. The one who doesn’t go for a girl unless her name is Katherine. Not Kathy, not Katie, not even Catherine. Katherine. How “single”-minded can you get?

So, to get his mind off the latest Katherine, Colin’s best friend, Hassan, takes him on a road trip. Colin spends all his time trying to create a theorem to predict the future of all relationships, using his past Katherines as data. Again with the single-mindedness.

On this trip, Colin meets a girl that stirs feelings of interest, which he dismisses because her name isn’t Katherine. It’s Lindsey. From this point, we know exactly what’s going to happen. Colin is going to get over his obsession with Katherines, hook up with Lindsey, and move on with a broader view of life. And yet, I was still hooked.


Quite simple, really. I loved these characters. They made me laugh. They seemed so real that I wouldn’t have been surprised to see one of them sitting next to me on the sofa. They did stupid things that anyone in their shoes could have done, then they learned not to do it again and moved on. I didn’t care that I knew what was going to happen. What I cared about was seeing how they got there, because these characters were interesting, funny, and unpredictable. And funny. Did I mention funny? This is an excellent example of fully developed characters that carry an entire story from beginning to end. Highly recommended.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Sequels of Sequels

There are many book sequels and series on the shelves that are doing well: Twilight, Inheritance, Gossip Girls, The Vampire Diaries, Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, The Keys to the Kingdom, Tom Swift, Gemma Doyle, Uglies, etc. A series is a set of stories that has no foreseeable end. Each story is pretty stand-alone, has the same core set of characters, and, when the book ends, the story ends too. If you read them out of order, they still make sense for the most part.

Sequels are different. Each book relies heavily on the previous installments, and it’s difficult to understand what’s going on if you pick up a book at random. Because of this, writing sequels, especially trilogies and such, is really tough. Essentially, you’re writing one HUGE story, and breaking it up into manageable chunks.

This also means that you have multiple storylines to manage: the bigger, overall storyline, plus each of the smaller storylines that create the larger one. If you want to write an effective trilogy, or quartet, or even a septet like Harry Potter, you need to know your overall storyline. And, you need to keep it consistent from beginning to end. If there are inconsistencies, readers will notice.

For example: THE SWEET FAR THING is the final book of the Gemma Doyle trilogy. A few things were revealed in this book that did not mesh with the previous two: Pippa's transformation, and Felicity's secret. Of the two, Felicity’s secret was the biggest shock. SPOILER WARNING: Not once was there anything to hint at the relationship between Pippa and Felicity in the first two books. In fact, they painted the opposite picture. Felicity sneaks around and constantly steals kisses from one of the gypsies. Plus, Pippa creates a gorgeous, fawning young prince when she’s in the realms, and she never grows tired of him. In fact, she chooses to stay with him rather than go back to the real world to be with Felicity. These kinds of things start the reader down a certain path with a certain frame of mind. So, when their relationship was revealed, it was jarring because it didn’t mesh with everything else we’d read.

A similar thing happens with Pippa’s transformation. In the first two books, it’s made clear that any human soul who stays in the realms too long will become corrupted. Then, suddenly, we’re told that they can choose not become corrupted. That Pippa has a choice. Here, the author has broken a rule that she established early on. SPOILER WARNING: In the end, Pippa becomes corrupted. But it’s because she chooses not to try, not because it was inevitable. If this is where the author wanted to take the story, then the souls-will-be-corrupted rule shouldn’t have been so absolute. At the very least, an uncorrupted soul could have been living in the realms, as proof that if Pippa had only tried, she could’ve remained herself.

While you’re keeping track of all these larger story ideas, you still have to keep track of the smaller ones, too. Each of these needs to have its own story arc, while keeping consistent with the larger story. A good example of this is the UGLIES trilogy by Scott Westerfeld. Each book, UGLIES, PRETTIES, and SPECIALS, is a story of its own. UGLIES is all about Tally being ugly. PRETTIES is all about Tally being pretty. SPECIALS is all about Tally being special. Yet it’s clear there’s more to these stories, that there’s a larger picture somewhere, which gets resolved in the final book.

I realize this is a lot of work. But if you let these details slide, you run the risk of alienating your readers. Both with this story, and with future ones. I, for one, don’t want to take that risk.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

The Third Annual Cybils Awards

The Cybils Award is given to children's books that have been nominated by readers.

So, all you readers, do you have a favorite children's book from this year that you simply must nominate? Then go do it! Nominations are accepted in nine categories: Young Adult Fiction, Middle Grade Fiction, Non-Fiction Middle Grade/Young Adult, Easy Readers, Fantasy & Science Fiction, Picture Books, Non-Fiction Picture Books, Graphic Novels, and Poetry.

You can nominate one book per category, through October 15th. Finalists will be announced on January 1st, then winners will be announced on February 14th. So go nominate!! I sure will.
I looked over the previous winners - some I've read and some I haven't. And now my reading list has gotten much longer...

Monday, October 06, 2008

Are You A Writer?

Since my son started kindergarten, I’ve gone from having six hours at the computer each day, to two. He used to be in an all day preschool, but now he’s in a morning only kindergarten class. I have tried to work while he’s home, but it’s just not working. I can read, though, which is something. But now I’m reading a lot more than I’m able to write.

I’m also tired, because keeping an energetic five year old occupied isn’t exactly easy, and I find myself doing things that don’t require much thought. Such as, arranging my bookshelf and workspace, re-organizing my files, checking the stats on my blog, etc. Blog stats are fascinating, by the way (Resident Alien and Carrie Harris did a post on this not long ago, and now I understand the fascination). I’ve had visitors from the UK, Australia, India, even Cyprus. And I don’t even know where Cyprus is. I also get to see what people are searching for when they land on my site. So far, the most common thing I’ve seen is “How do you know if you’re a writer?”

That’s a good question.

Being a writer is a profession, like being a doctor, contractor, or pharmacist. You perform a service that benefits others (entertainment and enjoyment). But how do you know you are one? Because you’re published, i.e. get paid? Because you’ve scribbled a few words on a page? Somewhere in between?

Personally, I think it’s none of those things. To me, calling yourself a writer is a state of mind. Why do you write? To share a story with others? You have nothing better to do? To become rich and famous? If you answer "yes" to that last one, you might want to find a more lucrative field. :) To all others, ask yourself this question:

What would happen if you stopped writing?

My answer is simple: I'd go crazy. Then, I'd slowly drive everyone around me crazy. So, it’s really in everyone’s best interest for me to keep writing.

Because of this, I’ve decided that writing is what I want to do for a living, and I’m willing to put in the insane amount of work required to get my stuff out there on the shelves. Whatever I need to learn, however much I need to write or research, I’ll do it. I won’t quit, ever. And, even though I’m not published (yet!), I recently started calling myself a writer.

I’ve spend the last seven years or so learning as much as I can about writing, and about the publishing industry. I sought it out, asked questions, did writing exercises, analyzed published works, brushed up on grammar and punctuation, etc.

I see this as the equivalent of going to school to be a computer programmer. You can’t write programs if you don’t know the language, so you put in the work to learn. Once you’ve graduated, you go off to find your first job – at this point, even if you haven’t found a job yet, you still call yourself a programmer. If you didn’t, then what was the point of all those years at school? If you’re going to enter a different profession, you’d have to start all over.

So, I don’t believe that you need to be published in order to call yourself a writer. I just think you need to ask yourself two questions:

Is this what you really want to do?
Are you willing to put in the tremendous (i.e. insane) amount of work it requires?

If your answer is “yes” to both, then grab a sword and dub yourself with the title of Writer! :)